We all live in our little self-important worlds with the internet making us feel our world is much bigger than it actually is. IMHO, movies are windows, giving us a unique empathetic view of the outside world. As a movie begins in a darkened cinema hall, we see the world through the eyes of another person, living vicariously through him or her. We can float in space, know how a serial killer thinks, understand why freedom is worth dying for. If a film is good, it is an out-of-body experience like no other and they have the power to make you want to become a better person.
It’s the end of another year and it’s time to look back to come up with a list of best films. “Best Films” you say, I hear you proclaim through gritted teeth. What constitutes “best” vary from person to person, and cinephiles are the most opinionated folks. Before you start to say “what’s this sh*t” because your favourite movie isn’t on the list or it should be higher up on the list, remember this is just a list, my list. My best films of the year may not cater to the tastes of the mainstream and as far as possible I have explained why I like them and why they deserved to be on my top 10.
10. One Cut of the Dead
How much you will enjoy this depends on whether you could sit through the first 37 minutes. This first act is still reasonably entertaining but it isn’t anything you have seen in other better zombie flicks. Pay attention to every madcap shenanigan and pat yourself on the back for thinking you can probably do better if you were the director. You will revisit the bad film and see it in a different light in the final act. The results are rip-roaringly hilarious. I laughed till my tears rolled down. Indie filmmaker Shinichiro Ueda has pulled off an amazing feat here. The movie subverts all my expectations, crosses the finishing line with finesse and lands up in a heartwarming embrace. Above all, One Cut of the Dead works as an ode to the art of genre filmmaking and the passion in making this film lingers in every frame, including the first 37 minutes.
9. Still Human
Anthony Wong plays a paralegic and he is so amazing he chews up the scenes he is in without breaking a sweat. The acting is so organic and authentic, you won’t feel he is reading from a script. It feels like he ad-libbed the scenes. Playing opposite him is a newcomer who plays the Filipino caregiver. She is equally convincing and in her I see the embodiment of all female foreign helpers who are living away from home to ply an honest living. It plays out like a comedy of manners as the two of them struggle to find a common ground. Still Human hits the funny bone and by golly… grab your emotional heart, filling it with so much human warmth that you burst out in tears. The movie shows you that even a paraplegic and a domestic helper have dreams. How they help each other to realise their dream and aspiration is a great life lesson.
Fagara doesn’t rush out of the blocks to tell its heartfelt story. The director allows the newly-acquainted half-sisters to live and breathe, filling the scenes they are in with authenticity and authority. It is a well-crafted story of three half-sisters looking back into their painful pasts in order to venture forward into their futures with revitalised hope. These are not soft and malleable women; they are their own women, owing no explanations for the paths they have chosen in life, giving the movie a wonderful freshness, relevance and clarity. It is filled with many nuances and it allows you the time to tease out its narrative subtleties on your own. Instead of ramming into your solar plexus, it gracefully touches you with its strong flavours and deep reds and browns.
Guang is a semi-autobiographical piece of work and the director’s own high-functioning autistic brother appears during the end-credits. Movies like this can become cloying very fast, but Guang remains steadfast and never goes down the road of syrupy sentimentality for the first two acts. By the third act I already gave it a free pass to do the worst to me, and I have to say every tear was earned. There are many movies out there that thrill, make us laugh, scare us, turn us into softies, but you can count on the fingers of probably one hand the few movies in a year that make you understand the impaired person and make you want to become a better person. Guang is the first movie I have seen this year in this latter category.
6. So Long, My Son
The plot of So Long, My Son does not unfold in chronological order and characters’ motivations are not explained in clarity, but we are in the hands of a great storyteller who lets the scenes breathe and the characters flourish. In the end, the Chinese tight-lipped stoicism melts away, the why is explained and the rendering is cathartic. The themes of guilt, forgiveness and acceptance are prevalent in dramas, but in the hands of Wang Xiaoshuai they come like a tsunami of feels. “Less is more” is an axiom that is never easy to achieve without making a movie feel pretentious, So Long, My Son exemplifies it and makes it look easy.
5. Toy Story 4
If Toy Story 1 – 3 is about Andy’s story, Toy Story 4 is the culmination of Woody’s story. What a fitting ending for a character who lives for his kid. He has come full circle and he truly deserves his walk into the sunset with his love. If Toy Story 1- 3 is about the theme of letting go, then this is about moving on. Sometimes there comes a time you have to think about yourself. Toy Story 4 deeply encapsulates all these human feelings in an authenticity that hits the spot.
4. Marriage Story
Noah Baumbach has crafted a family drama that is masterful, giving us an intimate look at the destruction of a marriage, the legal minefield and the emotional devastation. The principal cast, down to even the supporting cast, lay down a high watermark. It is able to find nuances and dark humour in surprising places. Baumbach’s love for Charlie and Nicole shines like a lighthouse in a perilous stormy night, guiding us to the safety of the shore. Marriage Story is the work of a storyteller at the top of his game.
3. The Irishman
Nobody makes mobster movies like Martin Scorsese. The Irishman is a class reunion of all the noteworthy actors who played gangsters in this century. For a movie that is over 3 hours, it doesn’t feel bloated. There is a lot of talk about trucking, steaks, punctuality, painting houses, fish, guns and f-bombs and the likes thrown around like punctuations. For over 3 hours I entered a nefarious world of wise guys, but it’s a fascinating world that has honour and betrayal. The canvas is huge and Scorsese paints like Michaelangelo.
2. For Sama
For Sama is a love letter “written” by a mother for her baby daughter Sama (it means sky in Arabic). It documents her confessional hope for Syria and the battle-ravaged city of Aleppo. It is a 100-minute documentary of unflinching horror and the senselessness of war, made with the sheer passion of a rebel and the undying love of a mother, wanting her daughter to understand why she continued to live in a city when they could die at any moment. I have seen my fair share of war movies. In my humble opinion, For Sama dwarfs them all in terms of honesty and authenticity. No amount of gloss, sugarcoating and emotional manipulation can reproduce the fervid wallop the film sends to your very core. Sama may be too young to understand the film, but not us. This is essential viewing and a strong contender for Best Documentary of the Year.
The gold standard of any satire is the ability to turn the camera inwards at the audience making them aware they have been essentially laughing at themselves for two hours. Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite ticks all the boxes and it is a biting social satire of lurid lengths and vivid highs. Parasite is one wicked bridge linking two ends of the wealth divide. Bong successfully makes us see the issue from both sides and our sympathies continue to waver from end to end. Most directors will make us choose sides and elicit hate. Not here, Bong makes us pity them. He keeps the darkly comic perversities and desperate acts coming at such a brisk pace that you barely realise it has shifted gears. Bong has crafted a cynical treatise on the moral and ethical decline of a modern Korean society and a cautionary tale of the love for money.
Knives Out, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Ad Astra, The Farewell, Border, Dragged Across Concrete, Midsommar, Pain and Glory, Us, Joker, Dolemite is My Name, Wet Season, Blinded by the Light, Ready or Not
On the TV series front, I have enjoyed these:
Kingdom, Chernobyl, The World Between Us, The Boys, Hotel Del Luna. Out of all these the biggest stand-out is The World Between Us, a Taiwanese series.
The story of The World Between Us is inspired by “The Little Light Bulb” incident in 2016 where a man suffering from schizophrenia beheaded a young girl in broad daylight in Taiwan. The title in Chinese, 我们与恶的距离, literally translates to The Distance Between Us and Evil. A young man shot and killed unsuspecting cinema-goers while a movie is being screened.
The story picks up 2 years later when the man is waiting for the death sentence to be carried out, and the fates of his family, the victims’ families and the family of the defense lawyer intertwine into a perfect storm of catharsis and pathos. Over 10 episodes, the series offers no pat answers, instead it provides incisive observations on love, suffering and societal ills. It is full of subtle fluctuations and evolving graduations between characters caught in dire situations. Its power emanates from the absorbing performances of characters duelling between wanting to punish, wanting to seek redemption and everything in between. Filled with so many life lessons, vagaries of kind acts and the vastitude of love, The World Between Us is a must-see. There are no convenient broad strokes, no pat contrivances and no Hollywood-styled walk into the sunset, but yet all the characters experience their little victories in a heartbreaker of a coda that brought tears to our eyes. The idea that small acts make a difference is touching, especially in today’s irony-soaked global hamlets.
There are many TV series out there vying for your attention, but there are not many that will make you understand life and society more. The point of the game is not to watch all of them, but to watch the great ones. This is a great one. This one will give you new lenses to see the world and its inhabitants with. Don’t. Miss. This.
Written by Daniel Chiam.