2018 in review: The year that was

The best of world cinema in 2018

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Five films vastly different in pace and temperament – yet bound by the theme of family and sororities – make it to our best of international films list

Cinema can breed a peculiar rapaciousness—the more you feed on images, the more voracious your appetite becomes. In a year where I could feast on a lot more than usual, I still couldn’t savour a bunch — Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, Benedikt Erlingsson's Woman At War, Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life to name just a few.

Of the lot that were seen, many have registered strongly in the mind’s eye. The many separations than the few shared moments between Zula and Viktor in Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski’s haunting dissection of the human repercussions of politics, of individual desires getting smothered in the grim march of time and history. Sergei Loznitsa’s political sledgehammer Donbass that brings alive a depressing, dystopian vision of the site of war between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian government and could well boast of the most brilliant climax at the movies this year. Or Burning, Lee Chang-Dong’s tale of obsessive love that casts a complex glance at contemporary Korean society, youth and the issues of anxieties and rage. 

From the political pugnacity of Spike Lee’s BlacKkklansman to the hypnotic perversity of Lars Von Trier’s The House That Jack Built; from Leave No Trace, Debra Granik’s affecting take on choices and relationships nurtured on the fringes of societal norms to Coen Bros’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the darkly funny anthology Western on the unforeseeable theme of death; from the avant garde Jean-Luc Godard collage The Image Book to “I wanted to get another look at you” moment of Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born all the way to the astonishing success of the low budget, loveable zombie laugh riot--Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut Of The Dead—a lot happened in cinema across the globe.

These five films, however, were singular, and united, in laying bare the human condition and examining individuals and relationships with immense profundity, astuteness and wisdom. They were also, coincidentally, about families and sororities.

A still from Roma showing the character of Cleo.

A still from Roma showing the character of Cleo.   | Photo Credit: TIFF

 

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma

It’s common to fall in love with a film but rare to get swept over by one. Roma has been that exception. Having viewed it thrice in as many months, on the big screen, as Alfonso Cuaron meant it to be seen, my impressions remain scattered, incoherent, grappling to find the right words. There is much that overwhelms. Cuaron’s intensely personal love letter to his nanny, that he has said to have made with memory as a tool, is indeed like a reverie on screen. Like it happens in a dream there is precision and geometry of arrangement to every luminous black and white image; the feeling, however, may not be as easily explicable, if not entirely evasive. It’s for each of us to read our own meaning—be it the aircraft’s reflection in the splashing water, the high jumps and the ginormous amount of poo produced by the family dog Borrus or the funny attempt to park a huge car in a narrow veranda. Be it the foreground or the background, there is persistent activity that fills the seemingly placid frames even as the narrative moves from one caringly mapped-out situation to another.

There’s more to the most beloved film of the year. If Roma were a piece of music then there is a particularly magnificent movement in Cuaron’s composition. Cleo is humming a song that goes, “But I was born poor and you will never love me,” while washing clothes on the terrace. The youngest child of the house pretends being dead after a shootout game. She plays along, comes to lie next to him, refusing to get up when he calls out for her. “I like being dead,” she says as the camera moves away  from them to present a larger view of several maids, like her, washing clothes on the adjacent terraces of the neighbouring upper class homes, with dogs jumping and barking around them, quite like Borrus does, around Cleo. Without getting tetchy, Cuaron takes down the behemoth of class divides, in one lyrical stroke. It all leads on to a dissonant scene much later where Cleo’s lover Fermin disgustingly dismisses her as “fucking servant”.

Cuaron keeps rocking the bourgeoisie boat ever so gently. Here dogs and maids belong to same order in the hierarchy; in fact the dead dogs of the houses are perhaps better remembered with their stuffed heads bizarrely displayed as trophies on walls. The daily chores, the day’s work for Cleo never seem to end; one image flows into the other and even the most banal of shots has a place in the larger human story that Cuaron wants to tell. Like the lady of the house, Sofia, being unwittingly callous and cruel to Cleo—shouting at her for not cleaning the dog poo, using her as an easily available punching bag, asking her to make tea at the end of a tiring day just when Cleo is sharing a moment of rest and togetherness with the children. Then there’s Cleo switching off the lights in the entire profligate home while being ordered to conserve electricity in her own secluded quarters up the steep iron steps. Disparities are bridged yet stay well-defined.

Yet, divisions also make way for strange connects. The seemingly empowered, Sofia shares a destiny akin to that of the hapless Cleo. Both are united in facing similar betrayals at the hands of uncaring men. One is an irresponsible wimp, the other basks in the faux glory of masculinity. “Women, we are always alone,” Sofia tells Cleo. They may both seem feeble, fragile and alone but will find a way. As many women like them eventually do.

There is still more to Roma. It’s not just Cuaron’s critical gaze into male entitlement and his own privileged world but he also casts a wider look at the violent unrest outside in the country. The film is seamless in knitting together personal upheavals and political, social and cultural agitations into a nuanced whole with the personal and political, gender and class atrocities coming together direly in the persona of Fermin.

Roma is a sweeping, all-embracing tale about the intensely tragic turbulences that creep up in life, leave you shaken but also stronger and more resilient. 

There are films that serenade you for a while, Roma is a keeper.

The best of world cinema in 2018
 

Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk

The rush and passion of young love, the rhythm, innocence and intense beauty of a couple’s first brush with intimacy, the delicate dance of the bodies... Barry Jenkins creates glorious romance on screen in a manner reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai. However, the lyrical moments of togetherness, the languid images are grounded in the unfair, ugly reality of racism and concomitant inequities. The tale of a young girl fighting to get her wrongfully confined lover out of jail before the birth of their first child Beale Street is about separation and desperation and yet a perseverance and persistence of devotion. Families can bloom from across the walls of the prison, people can be together in separation, love can heal. Only Jenkins could have looked at the fractious issue of race relations in this characteristic gentle, genteel and abundantly graceful way. Underlined with the hope that, “our children can be free”.

A still from Shoplifters.

A still from Shoplifters.  

 

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters

Are families a biological inheritance or can we cobble them together as we move along in life? It’s a complex thought that lies at the core of a seemingly simple Shoplifters. A family of thieves takes a little girl, who has been hurt and abused in her home, under its wings. Will this love and affection that comes from her new parents and siblings last a lifetime or remain just a short tryst? Often called the true inheritor of the legacy of Yasujirō Ozu, Kore-eda has been candid about putting familial ties persistently under the scanner. In his own quiet, gentle and humane yet devastating way he weighs in on an alternative, surrogate family against the traditional construct but refuses to offer any convenient answers. Only certainty is a deep sense of loneliness and alienation.

The best of world cinema in 2018
 

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s The Wild Pear Tree

Textured and rivetingly shot in long takes, resting heavy on several probing conversations and resounding metaphors (like the persistent digging of a well), Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s ode to fathers and sons is the unheralded masterpiece of 2018. A young man returns home from college only to find it hard to fit back in to the family that has been battling with the debts of his father. He has his own worries about the future—being a writer and a teacher but without a job for the moment. Ceylan questions the family but also sees the futility of entirely negating it. Sons after all inherit from their fathers, a lineage is as much about ruptures as continuities. He also dwells on the centrality of religion and the conservatism lurking underneath the liberal veneer in the young. The young protagonist’s search for direction also becomes a reflection of the larger unrest in Turkey. A densely layered film, The Wild Pear Tree packs a lot in its quiet images.

The best of world cinema in 2018
 

Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite

Three scorching women at its core and men turned perfunctory, the delectable tale of a strange sorority—Queen Anne, her confidant and advisor Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill, and Sarah’s cousin Abigail Hill—is the most refreshingly wicked and irreverent film of the year. The ladies are brutally immoral, ambitious, manipulative and transgressive but not once does the filmmaker, or the audience, turn judgmental. The Anne, Sarah and Abigail triangle is less about love and affection, more about deceit and betrayals because relationships here are not sacred, merely a tool used for political one-upmanship. Lanthimos’ women are not just survivors but have a sharp killer instinct and believe firmly in the adage—self above everyone else.

 

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