Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Films (and Books) of the Year

I love reading year-end lists. Helps me identify stuff I might have missed. Or tally my favorites with the list-maker. Or just give a last collective thought to things that made the year great.

I didn't watch as many films or read as many books as I have been doing in the last few years. But, the number might still be higher than most people I know. Since there is still a day to go, and since I don't really have much of a partying plan for tonight, the final number is still not signed and sealed.

But, among the movies and books that I have seen and read till last night, here are the ones I liked the most. The list has 18 movies and 6 books. All of them didn't necessarily come out in 2009. I just saw/read them this year (I know because I have maintained a list of all movies and books I have chatofied since 2004).

In no particular order:

Frost/Nixon - For proving that a film can be thrilling even if most of it is about an old American and a younger Brit talking to each other.

Wilde - For Stephen Fry being an even Wilder Wilde than Wilde could have been.

Dev D - For Kalki Koechlin speaking in Tamil on the phone. For helping forget SRK in the Devdas role. For the horniest Paro ever.

Luck By Chance - For that beautiful opening credits sequence. For Farhan Akhtar doing a typical filmy dance number.

Gulaal - For Ransa. For Piyush Mishra's music and lyrics.

Red Cliff I and II - For showing that there is still a lot of juice in a Far-East war film.

Marley & Me - For Marley, the World's Worst Dog.

The Hangover - For making me laugh more than I have watching any other film this year.

Pontypool - For being a zombie film, and still being interesting.

District 9 - For some of the coolest weapons in films. For some of the ugliest creatures in films.

Chintu Ji - For being that small film, which so many more should have watched, and which I almost did not. For Sophiya Chaudhary dancing to Akira Kurosawa (the song).

Inglourious Basterds - For Col. Hans Landa. And for, well, everything else.

Kurbaan - For being a rare Hindi thriller that actually thrills.

Choke - For Sam Rockwell.

Waltz With Bashir - For showing that even non-Nam/Korean/Desert Storm/Afghan war movies are worth talking about. Or maybe more so.

3 Idiots - For being a rare instance where we can say that the movie was better than the book.

Avatar - For Pandora. For Cameron, the King of the World.

Kaminey - For the music. For the Priyanka Chopra. For the Fahid Kapoor.

And then there were books:

The Strain - Even though it got a little tedious towards the end, I still can't believe how scary I found it in the first hundred pages or so.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - I haven't found the two sequels in the same league as the first book. Maybe because the first one had more than one incestuous, murderous, rich men.

Cujo - Turning a dog into a scary creature is about the most sacrilegious thing Stephen King has done. And one of the most effective.

Cuckold - I had been told it's one of the most under-rated books in Indian Writing in English. I think I agree. It took me a while to figure out who the lady being spoken of in the book is.

Palestine - The graphic novel made me realize how so many people today are paying the price because the world still hasn't been able to forgive itself for the Holocaust, and so lets Israel do anything it wants to.

Moonward - Ugly fat creatures. Very little text. Almost no color. Sometimes difficult to get symbolism. What's not to like?

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sick People

I hadn't realized I am so well-known. I mean, it's happened several times that people recognized me in public, but someone asking me for my autograph! That's quite something!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Aal Izz Well

I was having a chat last evening with a friend about the movies we have seen in recent times. During the conversation, we realized that I seem to like, or at least enjoy, too many movies. Even the kinds, like Singh is Kinng and Chandni Chowk to China, which a lot of people aren't particularly fond of.

This was towards the end of my day in the office, and I thought about it on my way back home. I was also thinking about it as I was walking back from the nearest mall after watching a late night paid-preview show of 3 Idiots.

I still don't have an answer to why I seem to like so many movies, or, for that matter, movies in general. For instance, I really loved 3 Idiots, even though I am pretty sure there would be at least some critics who would talk about issues like old actors playing college kids, done-to-death jokes, a less than credible script, and more. It's not that I don't see these issues, but I somehow don't see them as issues if the movie worked for me as a whole.

So, I really didn't find Aamir Khan, Sharman Joshi or Madhavan out of place, or didn't feel embarrassed laughing whole-heartedly at the jokes I have heard tens of times earlier or didn't bat an eyelid when they delivered a kid using a vacuum cleaner and some other handy gadgets. I loved it all. Because I loved them together.

Maybe that is why I enjoy so many films. I start watching a movie, almost always, with the intention of losing myself into it. I don't like to be made to feel that I am losing myself, I want it to happen on its own. And it does happen in most movies that I see to the end. I don't like thinking too much while watching a film. Which is not the same thing as saying that I only like hare-brained movies. If there's a thought that should come to me, it'll come on its own without my hand being held and pulled in any direction.

Plus, I don't like all the movies that I see to the same extent. I just rarely hate or don't like a movie completely. There are redeeming features in a large number of films, and I don't understand the digital approach (like vs don't like) that people have to films, or to anything else.

I like some degree of honesty in a film, from the director and the actors. I like to want to like a film.

On the other hand, nothing puts me off more than pure artificiality. A very conscious attempt to achieve greatness in every frame. That is why I think Sanjay Leela Bhansali is one of the most over-rated directors in Hindi cinema. A man who has made films as terrible as Khamoshi, Black and Saawariya should never be allowed near a camera.

Which is very interesting because the other well-known director from Vidhu Vinod Chopra's camp, Rajkumar Hirani, is a fair contrast. He also goes very nearly over-the-top, but only very nearly. Almost like Frank Capra. There were points in his earlier films, or even in 3 Idiots, when I thought for a moment - No, he didn't just do that! - but then went on to the next scene because whatever he did seemed right.

So, even though my half-baked theories on film appreciation might sound unconvincing, take this advice: Go and watch 3 Idiots. Maybe take some college-friends along. Don't analyze the film. Believe. And you'll have one of the most fun movie watching experiences in recent times.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Fat, Brown Line

Everytime I travel on a plane in India, I think this: why do we love to line up so much? I don't know if this is common to people from other countries - more well-traveled acquaintances say that it isn't, so it must be some vestige of those times when everything had to be fought for.

You must have noticed, and very strong chances are that you would have done it yourself - people in Indian airports (and I say Indian, because I have been made to believe that this occurrence is limited largely to these shores) line up the moment there is the first call for boarding to begin. They line up and keep standing diligently even if the line extends to 50-100 people. Even if there ends up being some delay in the eventual boarding process.

Even funnier is when the plane lands and stops after taxiing. Despite all pleas by the air-hostess to keep the phone switched off, people start pulling out their Blackberry Storms and Nokia N97s, the moment the plane slows down after landing, and calling people up that they have landed. I am sure their chauffeurs/cab-wallahs/relatives can survive a few more minutes before hearing their loud voices.

Even more curiously, just as they were desperate to get into the plane, now they are rubbing their heels together to dash out of the plane the moment the door opens. At the first possible instance, almost everyone stands up and lines up looking expectantly at the door, breathing in each other's exhaled air even more effectively. I think this might be some sub-conscious remnant of having been used to lining up near the train compartment door with one's luggage near the bathroom to avoid getting caught in the melee of other passengers, hawkers, coolies and general hangers-on who infest all our railway stations. Especially at those stations where the train used to stop for not more than 2-3 minutes.

I have got used to seeing people stand up and start taking out baggage from the overhead cabins the moment the plane halts momentarily during its taxiing, only to be shouted upon by some member of the crew. Watching them lose balance, or their bags, or both, when the plane starts to move again, is priceless.

What is even more priceless is them giving me dirty looks when I choose to keep sitting at my seat, reading my book, and waiting for the crowd around me to pass through. I have cultivated some looks of my own that I hope make them feel how utterly loserly their behavior is.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


I saw Avatar a couple of days back, at the IMAX in Mumbai. I really enjoyed the film, which is more like a joyride than any other film I can remember. This was also the first time I saw a film in 3D, so maybe that added to the fun quotient. But, as almost everyone else has been saying, you should definitely let the Na'vis seduce you. Chances are you'd want an avatar of your own.

This is also another occasion when I am getting annoyed with some of the critics for seeing the film for what it is not. Of course, Roger Ebert and Raja Sen (I know it's probably heresy to take their names together) have both praised the film wholeheartedly, but there are others like Baradwaj Rangan, who seem to get a little too anal about the story. Do they not realize that everyone even with the least bit of sanity can see that the film's script is as cliched as they come, that the characters are made of cardboard so fine many of our own film-makers would be proud of?

Rangan, in his review, also makes a rather patronizing statement, garnishing it with the obligatory references to classics like Apocalypse Now to display his indisputable film-knowledge - If visual wow is all you seek from the movies, Avatar is a truly religious experience...
- well, no, I don't only seek visual wow from movies, but I know when to shut the fuck up and not expect a Fellini from a Cameron.

But, at least, he does acknowledge the good stuff too. There are other two-bit film 'critics' who have jumped at the opportunity to prove that they know about this invisible object called script, and have been crucifying the film for not spending more time and resources on it.

I believe a film like this could not have worked if Cameron had made the story too complicated. As it is, the film jumps headlong into the concept of an Avatar, the reasons for choosing the paraplegic Jake Sully, and everything else about Pandora in the first few minutes. After this, I felt it was only right to let the movie take a predictable route, if only to let the audience settle down in familiar territory and enjoy the visual spectacle playing out on the screen.

For all the hoarse crying about Cameron not giving importance to a story as he did in his earlier opus, Titanic, or the ones before that, I remember very clearly reading reviews, from the time Titanic came out, which decried the loss of a good script to the thrill of breaking down the ship.

There's this well-known aspect of our relationships with the elders in our family where their response to a lot of new experiences is that things were better when they were younger. And in time, we probably will start spouting the same shit to people from our younger generations too. Critics seem to play this same thing out, in much shorter time frames.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Rocket Singh Woodstock

The last two movies I have seen, or the last two before Jackass: The Lost Tapes at least, have been very nice experiences. That does not mean that Jackass wasn't nice in its own way, but men jumping into crocodile-infested ponds in G-strings and making vomelets (ingesting all ingredients and then puking it out and then cooking it, if you had to know) are things meant for more romantic evenings.

I saw Rocket Singh: SOTY today. I had somehow expected a very over-the-top comedy, with several emotional messages rolled in for good measure. The one-minute trailers hadn't been very easy to bear either. Also, the all-too-easy pot-shots at IIT-IIM losers was not very endearing. But, it's probably because I have enjoyed almost all of Ranbir Kapoor's outings, with the exception of his towel-dropping debut, and the fact that I feel Jaideep Sahni and Shimit Amin are two of the more talented chaps around in Hindi films, made me take the chance. And I am glad I did.

The film is more in the league of a Dibakar Banerjee than a Yash Raj Films, a banner whose films lately have been increasingly soporific. A more serious film than the trailers would have us believe, the initial credit sequence made me cringe at the perfect set direction to make the set reflect a typical middle-class family, only to make me realize very soon that it wasn't all made-up.

It's rare to see the entire cast in a Hindi film delight you - including the very delightful, if slightly over-expressive, 'villain' - and it is extremely heartening when that happens. The story is fairly predictable, and maybe that is the greatest strength. A film with a story we see around us a lot, not often enough on the screen though, and still find it interesting enough to stick around - it does not require Rocket Singh to sell it. Our loss if we don't buy it.

The other film I saw, last night, was Taking Woodstock. The film's about a not-so-well-to-do Jewish family and the not-so-prodigal son, who end up playing host to Woodstock. The film hardly dwells on the concert itself - one short look at it from the distance - but still, and probably because of it, is interesting in the depiction of really weird chain of events behind the scenes.

Another ensemble of some very competent actors, including Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing, ex-Marine, security guard with a heart of gold - this was a movie that was supposed to be released in India some time back but I seem to have missed.

The film also made me wish, again, so hard, that I were born in that era in the US. Drugs, music, free sex, no inhibitions - life could only go downhill from there.

What connects both these movies is the presence of these loser 'heroes', who do something quite out of their league, with a fair amount of opposition from everyone around, and end up achieving stuff they probably hadn't thought of when they set out. The 'setting out' was just instinctive.

But then, maybe all stories worth telling actually do revolve around such people only.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Small Pleasures, Really Small

The answer is The Aristocrats. To the question asked in the previous post.

I saw Kurbaan last weekend finally - my sinuses were being raped the earlier weekend when it was released - and quite liked it. Liked Paa as well, which I saw this Friday night after work. India are No.1, even though it's only Test Cricket. And I finally got wi-fi at home. Life's made up of such small pleasures.

That's a load of bull.

I am annoyed right now because I was hoping to go to Kerala for New Year's but I have been told it's not a good idea. Despite being on good behavior for days now. Don't have any plans as of now, and spending New Year's eve alone is sad. Even for me!

Anyway, I suppose I'll manage. I came across two interesting sites recently. One was through the gtalk status of a friend. For some reason I thought the author was a woman. Maybe because, like a nurse, I can't imagine a man being a librarian. Love the site for its twisted-ness.

Got to the other site through the blog-roll of the first one. Haven't gone through the archives, but promises some good fun.

I wish right now I could have one of those suburban houses that we see in US films. Apart from the fact that it would help me have a dog (I have been dreaming about keeping a dog with alarming frequency now), I could have one of those garages where the door opens using a remote control and you can just take your gas-guzzler in without having to get down. And you can take stuff from your vehicle straight into your house through the inside door.

And yes, a basement too. Soundproofed, of course.

And a chainsaw. Or at least a good meat-carving knife. And, well, that hook-chain-pulley thing used to hang meat. And a good garbage disposal system. Without nosy neighbors.

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