One aspect that differentiates Ali Abbasi's European produced, Iranian serial killer film Holy Spider and the current crop of American movies based on female violence post Harvey Weinstein (Kitty Green's The Assistant, Maria Schrader's She Said) is the gaze with which the perpetrator or the victims are tracked through the story. The current American style seems to be completely omitting the act or the perpetrator from the view, focusing on the victims and their trauma while the perpetrator is shown as a invisible yet menacing threat within the story line. It does make sense to remove the temptation of male titillation to make a story emotionally relevant but the villains in both the cases are power and chauvinism. In America this patriarchal force has a subdued presence while in Iran it has the backing of the regime.
Holy Spider's political messaging is in stride with the Mahisa Amini protests against the Iranian regime, where women have been targeted for not following the strict dress code imposed by the theocratic authorities. The movie shows how the theological society almost sided with a serial killer who murdered prostitutes, by regarding him as a hero from “purifying” the city of Mashhad's streets. the conflict arises when an investigative journalist (played by arresting Zar Amir Ebrahimi) tries to see through the hypocritical bullshit of the police and takes it upon herself to find the killer. The movie relies on a series of implausible coincidences to drive the story forward but the stylistic cinematic choices alleviate from the conveniences of the plot. It devolves into a standard serial killer orgy towards the end, where we as the audience get to ogle at the Iranian version of the American pop cultural creation of the “interesting” serial killer. The result is a phenomenal religious serial killer archetype that Mehdi Bajestani feasts upon for his portrayal of Saeed, who remains as a lingering characters long after the movie is finished.
C'mon C'mon Reminiscent of Wim Wender’s debut Alice in the Cities, Joaquin Phoenix travels across America in this Mike Mills movie with his strange 10 year old nephew while interviewing kids and teenagers in America about their ideas of the future. A beautiful story about movement, bonding and filled with ideas that make us question our ideas about the world.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent Nicholas Cage kissing Nicholas Cage in a movie about Nicholas Cage played by Nicholas Cage. Fun, reinventing the pop humor imagery of Nic Cage while getting in some meta-film narrative that’s both exhilarating and funny.
Bones and All Or how to make cannibalism sexy. Luca Guadagnino’s makes a better American horror film than his earlier reimagining of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Rural and weird America thrives in this cannibalistic love story with a brilliant performances from Taylor Russell, Mark Rylance and Timothée Chalamet.
Holy Spider This Iranian serial killer film by Ali Abbasi about a real life serial killer Saeed from Mashhad, Iran. Saeed preys on prostitutes as a way becoming a martyr and living cause of God. The narration of the real life events is embellished with the arc of an investigative journalist played by Zar Amir-Ebrahimi who is on the fight against the serial killer. Though having its plot conveniences, the movie brings everything together in a stark serial killer tale wrapped in relevant social commentary about Iranian society post the Mahisa Amini protests.
Moonage Daydream Brett Morgen’s tripping take on David Bowie’s life and music is an out of body experience. Having known very little about Bowie before, I left in awe at the expanse in Bowie’s work and in extension, in Morgen’s work. A psychedelic experience.
Triangle of Sadness I HATE CAPITALISM activism through a movie about the ultra rich on a yacht who later get stranded on an island. Class struggle, the gluttony of the rich, glorious puke projectiles and a drunken Marxist Woody Harrelson are the highlights in Ruben Östlund’s follow-up to the art-house epic The Square.
Top Gun: Maverick A movie with fighter planes and a Tom Cruise who is not afraid to really fly them? One of those large screen spectacles from this year that bring great writing and apex filming techniques blended to a perfect Hollywood blockbuster. Having not watched the original, the sequel still stands tall and Tom Cruise, the Man, balances off the edge of madness while still keeping his head.
Everything Everywhere All at Once The cultural zeitgeist of this era will be defined by this movie, a true successor to the spirit of The Matrix. Bizarre, breathtaking, featuring a bagel and the best dramatic scene between two rocks (not Dwayne Johnson, sorry). Sitting through this time travel tale is the equivalent of forgetting one’s brain in the washing machine, and getting dunked into an absolute creative craziness that lingers long after the movie is finished. An instant classic, this movie has the highest probability for being in the lists of future generations that look back at the 2020s as the heyday for great movies.
The White Lotus: Season 2 Mike White (forever the Ned Schneebly from School of Rock, which he also wrote) ups the stakes at the “uglies of the rich” TV show continuing the success from the first season from 2021. Analyzing the sexual ambiguities of the characters who are all casted to perfection and a whodunit at the core of the story became a favorite past-time in the last months of 2022, bringing up an online fan base just as funny as the series. Funny and sexy at every turn of a frame, a great show to start the New Year with, if you’ve missed it.
The Rehearsal Nathan Fielder’s follow-up to the nerd fun, cringe comedy show Nathan for You is a bizzaro reality TV-show that pays a 6 hour homage to Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Taking the synecdoche trope to the extreme, Nathan Fielder manages to find the boundary between the real self and the actors self when faced with a camera, generating a lot of absurdity in the process. The Rehearsal asks a lot of questions about the philosophy of film and pulls us the audience to meditate on the fakeness of a world that we almost take granted to be real. Nathan Fielder is one of those rare artists who create magic out of nonsense, a true jester-philosopher of our times.
This list is in no particular order. Happy New Year and thank you for reading.
“The cast and crew have to say goodbye for their desire to eat animal products during the course of the entire shoot until the day of release. All animals hurt and slaughtered in this film are 100% computer generated imagery. Slaughterhouse, in your favorite theaters soon”
A vegan film, an appropriate fight of our times. A film set powered by plant power, is this the birth of a new era?
Media consumption is a signifier of power, often the things we watch signal our intellectual refinement, political ideals, and our sophistication within the perceived status of the media being consumed. It's a subliminal caste system that separates the plebs from the connoisseur, the neckbeards from the aged oak barrel scotch sampling elites. Often these divisions have nothing to do with the actual economic status in itself, in essence, the media we watch and enjoy become vehicles for cultural consumerism and secondary tertiary social hierarchies aiding the ones entrenched by identity and monetary status. This cultural capital pays its dividends too, as it often helps in masking one's financial status and being a chameleon sailing in a sea of wealth. Cultural capital also acts as a signifier of privilege and pedigree, giving the possessor of the cultural capital greater access to the centers of power.
This differentiation can be seen in the classification of films into categories such as “low-brow” movies or “art-house” pictures, with each painting a stereotypical idea of the patron who consumes this media. Also, the conventional snobbishness over movies can be seen in how they are referenced: a movie is different from a film different from a picture is different from a flick, though the stickiness of the end product is almost always the same. We forget the movies we watched the moment we're out of the movie theatres, so any positive messaging in movies is lost after a day before our monkey minds latch onto the next piece of media to lose themselves into. This is of course factoring in the serious movie-goers who switch off their phones when in the theaters while discounting at home, doom scrolling while watching some faff, or watching a movie on the phone types. Though this kind of passive viewing is attached to the hypnotic states movies can offer us, a kind of meditation in-and-for capitalism, where burned-out workers soothe their ailing and lonely minds with familiar comforts of human presence.
What we consume also makes us who we are in subliminal ways, our associations and visions of ourselves are inspired by the dreams and visions we imbibe. Movies give us a way to imagine different power possibilities, after all the core tenet of dramatic writing is the hero's journey, oftentimes the hero's ascension to power. This channels our fluid perceptions of ourselves, giving us a worldview to filter and navigate. Each piece of media we consume becomes the foothold for the next, creating a cascade of interdependent interests which in turn become the narrowed field of vision through which we imagine the story of our lives. In a hypothetical space, all streams of consciousness have the same power but in a practical world with entrenched power structures where we know that certain consciousnesses are more powerful than the rest, this lends to media itself. What you see is who you are.
How to write a show where the main antagonists are Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, ISIS, and the vestiges of the KGB without it coming off as a tacky American spy soup? Dripped in style, cogent writing, and a cast that is both suave and vulnerable aided by brilliant production design makes Le Bureau des Légendes a sophisticated espionage thriller that manages to keep you hooked throughout its 50-episode saga.
The initial episodes waste no time in setting up the story and are a bewildering ride but the lead character Guillaume Debailly played by a mesmerizing Mathieu Kassovitz brings together all the confusing story lines to a precipitating point by his screen presence, where he broods and ponders, a humane French 007.
Though in the latter seasons Le Bureau des Légendes falls into the familiar TV trope of the copious intermingling of characters, it does not come across as forced, the show borrows this leeway from the sharp writing and its intensive focus on the key material that moves the story forward. Guillaume Debailly's love for a Syrian dissident Nadia El Mansour forms the central conflict beneath the operations of the French Intelligence Service, the DGSE.
The cinematography and production design of the show are top-notch, almost making many of the settings seem impossible from a logistical viewpoint: The scenes set in Raqqa, Syria, and Tehran make one question how a TV crew pulled off these falsifications. Any espionage thriller should be inviting its audience to invest in its believability through kinetic action pieces and a story full of contradictions, an act Les Bureau des Légendes pulls off without relying on any overt action pieces.
At its core Le Burueau examines the question of a man having multiple identities and his yearning for a love long lost, one that is further befuddled by the intrigues of espionage and geopolitics. Le Bureau treats this as sacrosanct, making way for a pensive finale that spins the show on its head by asking about the legitimacy of victory in politics and extension, espionage. It's a perfect show to accompany grey days and internal turmoil, an accompaniment for contemplation in a media landscape that offers one a few avenues.
What does mean to be alive and what does it mean to be human? This is the focus of great art, as these are the questions that keep one awake at night. Living in “regular” human civilization means robbing oneself of the joy of living in an untamed universe. We live in our mole hills and rat caves distracted by the voice of other occupants of these hills and caves. Why do we humans have the necessity to control over inferior animals, what does it reveal about our nature? Werner Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World asks a series of existential questions camouflaged within a nature documentary set in Antarctica, taking philosophical twists and turns in a breathtaking, alien landscape and bizarre characters. Werner Herzog himself is the main protagonist in the move, the camera follows his view and the people he selects for the film are the ones that are able to dance with his intellect. If Encounters.. was a fiction film, it would be a great adventure drama, the story of a Hero on a journey to seek answers to solve problems of his back home. Here home is the Planet Earth and the life it in encompasses, the vastness of the subject gives the canvas for Herzog's questions and the fact that such vastness can be imagined becomes microscope under which he questions intelligence itself. Here we are thinking about taxes and pay raises, figuring out work schedules and planning for retirements while juggling with news transmissions about war, strife, pandemics and poverty while on the edge of the world, a group of scientists ponder over the origins of the universe and life while making grim predictions about the long term viability of human civilization on the planet.
The movie, conceptualized on the spot follows the script of Slacker and Waking Life in terms of inquiry, while the setting of Antarctica lends itself a special character of its own. The main hero beyond what we see however, is the landscape itself, a part of this planet that we now commandeer, it's the last frontier of that's spared from the human rituals of occupations and settlement (though in retrospect, the scientific community might be the first settlers of the Antarctica, climate change might make the continent our future destination of cozy beach holidays). A day after watching the movie I had a mini-breakdown, with its content stimulating an aching existential crisis, the result of which I paraphrased here.
Rather be a mute, inanimate spectator to the universe than being born in this world, there is nothing wonderful about being human – there's the aspect of being dazzled by the dizzying beauty of the universe and the world we live in but the human constructs like all animal constructs are boring. They have the same structures of pleasure and power, this constant battle for survival in forms both physical and mental. Better being a miscarriage than being misguided by the brief moment of consciousness that robs all the wonder of living. There's no difference between me living and a bacterial predator hanging in the deep seas, in the soup of evolution the mind has peaked and someday this will perish too.. me along with the whole of humanity. Existence as defined by the possessions one owns, born deep into a system one cannot escape, one that promotes misery and loneliness.. there's no love, I have transcended these feelings of being and belonging.. intelligence has taken me and others to the depths of self pleasure and validation that fazes all wonderment. Better be a stone in the sun, reconverted into primary elements than be subjected to the horrors of consciousness, it is no pleasure to be alive, being full of life is escapism from what we are. Intelligence is about discovery, of understanding what is and defining it in depth, narrow foci of science and mathematics, between flashes of eating and living. Possessions are a way of establishing one's presence in life, in reality we have no home, only theories of make-believe.
Encounters.. should come with a warning of having the ability to stir a great deal of existential angst, whether it be from the sounds of the seals under the Antarctic ice shelf or through the penguins wandering from their colony into the icy nothings in the interiors of the desert or the scientist who has studied the penguins for so long that he no longer prefers having conversations with people. Filled to the brim with interesting facets of science of the Antarctic life, the movie serves as a time machine to imagine a world without people and the primordial origins of life on Earth. It's an experience that will leave one speechless for a long time and be the potential fodder for innumerable debates.
The sounds of the seals and the gaze of the suicidal penguins will haunt your dreams, don't tell me that I didn't warn you.
I don't think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away. – Tom Noonan
What happened was.. was playwright, actor Tom Noonan's directorial debut about two co-workers in a law firm in New York having a dinner date together. Tom Noonan, in his directorial debut, plays Michael, a Kaufmanesque bald paralegal (this film also happens to be one of Charlie Kaufman's favorites) who hides beneath a stoic veneer of learnedness hides the bitter insecurity of not having accomplished much in life. His play-act however has an effect on Jackie (Karen Sillas) who is impressed by the artist's aura Michael wears, hiding her insecurities about being a writer and a woman committed to action. The date doesn't go as planned, with the first date's oddity of mismatched communication becoming the dramatic device to introduce the darker folds of the characters. Michael holds sway over Jackie for the first 2/3rds of the movie, building a legend for himself as a Harvard dropout and a novelist 15 years in the making.
Things take a creepier turn when Jackie reads Michael the first chapter of a children's story she has written and offers to read it to him. Michael being the snob he is asks to listen to it, perhaps to brush off Jackie's simple thoughts. Jackie's story, What happened was.. turns phantasmagorical, going beyond the conventions of a regular children's story. Michael, and us as the audience, are then treated to a ten-minute out-of-body experience as Jackie reads her macabre first chapter from the movie, with the lives of people filtering in from the other apartments and the city lights creating an eerie atmosphere. Michael, who has visions throughout the reading offers Jackie a connection with his publisher, only to be rebuffed by Jackie that she already has one and that the book went to print, which takes him aback.
Through the course of the awkward night, Jackie throws several cues at Michael showing her physical interest in him, which he brushes away. This builds a frustration within Jackie who sees her feelings are unrequited which reaches a crescendo when Michael decides to leave the house without a warning setting stage for his final revelation as a broken couch potato who amasses his knowledge from TV programs and passes it on with his bookish demeanor. It's a harrowing portrait of a man who has to accept the defeat of his intellectual sham: He has no publisher and the book he's working on at the law firm is nothing but make-believe, adding to his persona as a Harvard dropout and perpetual paralegal at a law firm where he could've been doing much better. Jackie listens to Michael and delivers her finest line in the movie, ” we are all where we want to be Michael”.
What happened was.. is a horror movie disguised as a drama, where the horrors reflected are the inner workings of the performative act we put up as humans. This is a forgotten movie washed out by the hype of Pulp Fiction released that year. It deserves a revisit and is a film experience that will stay in the mind for a long, for the questions it asks are the ones we never want to confront.
The breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting civil wars and resulting ethnic cleansing left thousands of families in the Balkans without closure. Blerta Basholli's film documents the tragedy of the Kosovan village Krushë e Madhe, where a hundred civilians were separated from the village and are presumed to be shot. The film follows the story of Fahrije, whose husband disappeared during the war and whose remains do not turn up in any of the mass graves excavated around the village. It leaves a lot of questions for her and her two children while facing a simultaneous battle of being a “dishonorable” woman for driving a car and having ideas for sustaining herself. Fahrije understands that she has to move on and that accepting meager handouts from the local women's community will not help her much in the future. She has to fight against the strict conservative norms applied to the women in Kosovan society to work and build a business of her own, a transformation that not only will uplift her but her friends and neighbors who are in the same tragedy together.
An intense character study, Zgjoi paints a picture of a woman finding her place in the backyard of continental Europe. It's a film with deep lows and gentle highs, though the village accuses Fahrije to be a whore for driving to the city and owning a car, the pain for her missing husband is hidden from everyone. This differential wrings hearts whenever she has to visit the mortuary to find out about the remains of her husband, oftentimes all that is left is a pile of bones or some clothes. This in turn becomes the companion piece for last year's haunting Quo Vadis, Aida? which depicts the genocides of Srebrenica, showing the faces of the men whose bodies will be discovered same way as they do around in Krushë e Madhe. _Zgjoi _ is a far more delicate film documenting the tragedy as it focuses on the aftermath for the grieving families and their struggle to find reconciliation in a patriarchal society that stacks all odds against them.
Fahrije is no ordinary hustler, labelled for being deviant she has to find ways to move on and focus on what is still left, her family. A scene that establishes her plight is a women's meeting where Fahrije protests, “we are not looking for donations, we are looking for work”. Though the women around her are slow to change fearing society, Fahrije takes an enterprising step forward making plans to set up an ajvar-making cooperative. The cooperative then becomes a safe space for the women to find collective healing and a path to redeem their past. There are moments in the film where one cannot but cry, but we cry with Fahrije, we cry for her tragedy and wish for her success. That is a win for Blerta Basholli's wonderful film.
Or how to use a camera as a medium of consciousness
A camera is a tool that functions as a buffer between the one who's seeing and the person who sees, making film one of the exacting mediums to record reality with. The camera assumes the personality of the person behind it which is often diluted because of the dramatized domains the art form occupies. Rare exceptions are found when the camera becomes a tool of localizing and meditation, giving the viewer depth and context to the nature of things around them.
The HBO show “How to with John Wilson” tackles this meditative approach to film, setting it the bizarre confined of New York City where the director John Wilson introduces specific thematic elements juxtaposed to the everyday goings in New York. It's a show that eludes a genre-specific identity, it is part comedy, part cringe, part poetry, and documentary. Set to the childlike voice-over of the director, each short episode focuses on the issues that irk us as adults but for which no one has a specific answer. John Wilson brings curiosity to find answers to problems like how to split one's check or how to be spontaneous, juxtaposing B-roll footage to great comic effect. It explores parts of the human psyche that are assumed to be functioning properly but in reality, it puts most of us in a state of anxiety. Splitting a check or choosing a bottle of wine seems like the biggest mystery of modern life, what is appropriate behavior in these circumstances? Does one go for the second cheapest bottle of wine or risk a more expensive to a Portuguese wine shop at the end of the street? Though homo economicus might be a good thought temperament to imbibe, mental accounting hasn't yet reached the inner sanctum of our behavior. John Wilson helps us understand this division through his anxiety-prone view of life, making things awkward by overthinking and exhibiting this overthinking through the multitudes of human life in and around New York, with a couple of episodes exploring the same questions in Las Vegas and New Orleans.
How to with John Wilson is at its heart a passion project funded by HBO, giving wings to ideas that otherwise would remain as thoughts. The show exposes the conundrums between the reality of our experience vs. the reality of our thoughts, not a small feat for a 30 minute TV show.
As I was watching episode four of the Italian series Inspector Montalbano, “The Mystery of the Terracotta Dog”, I had to remind myself that it was a whodunit revolving around an Inspector and his motley crew set in Sicily. The episode was 1 hour 45 minutes long, enough to drain the patience of an average TV watcher but still, it managed to demand my rasp attention as the narratives veered from the mafia, interpersonal relationships, and in the end a terrific love story based around a Quranic legend. Other tracks in the series have involved Montalbano falling in love with a dog, almost adopting a son and his love for croquettes.
It is in this respect that Inspector Montalbano stands apart from Columbo, Poirot, or Beck for the angelic pursuit of his trade. During his many investigations, he lets the small-time thieves, prostitutes, and illegal immigrants free, even protecting them from the nefariousness of Sicilian politics. Given the fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Italian right-wing, Montalbano comes as an agent of the State both just and clinical. Montalbano is the kind of hero we come to believe because his powers are real, we know what he eats and his morning swimming routines to keep him fit. We see his commitment (often on the fringe) to his girlfriend and when a range of women fall in love with him throughout the series, it doesn't come as a surprise. Luca Zingaretti who plays Montalbano makes one fall in love with him within the scope of an episode, from then on we're enchanted with his quirks and choices.
Inspector Montalbano is a rare police drama that does not insult one's intelligence and neither does it thrust the brutality of the world into one's face. Given the subject matter. there are hardly any grisly or risque sequences. This thematic softness is a take on the genre where the why of committing a crime is more important than the how. Given that the range of complex human interactions, the show becomes an enriching drama that probes the Sicilian life in a way that is more satisfying than the backstory of The Godfather. Montalbano has been one of the most satisfying hero stories I have seen on TV, enough to keep one engaged for more than a few months. This one is a 11/10, will recommend.
Happy New Year and see you again the next year. Thank for reading the kinocow this year and will be back with more reports in the next months.