A crash course in Malayalam New Wave cinema, Part 4 – the actors

In the concluding part of my four-part series on Malayalam New Wave cinema, I turn finally to the most obvious contributors, the faces on the screen.

These films are still male-centric and there are a handful of male actors who have appeared repeatedly in the most notable films. While there is no doubt as to the talent and charisma of these actors, it’s interesting that a number of them come with a ‘film family pedigree’:-

  • Fahadh Faasil who seems to be the face of the Malayalam New Wave, is the son of famed writer-director Fazil. I think of him as Kerala’s version of Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the go-to actor to play anti-heroes or off-beat characters. Fahadh is now also producing films under the banner of Fahadh Faasil & Friends, the latest being 2018’s Varathan (an unofficial remake of Straw Dogs) and 2019’s Kumbalangi Nights.
Fahadh Faasil
  • Dulquer Salman (Ustad Hotel, Bangalore Days, Neelakasham…) is the son of superstar Mammotty.
  • Prithviraj Sukumaran (City of God, Mumbai Police) and Indrajith (City of God) are the sons of Sukumaran, a lead actor from the 70s and 80s.
  • Vineeth Sreenivasan is the son of character actor and scriptwriter Sreenivasan.

But there is also a new breed of actors who have emerged on the strength of their screen presence and acting prowess alone. Pretty much all of them started their careers in 2012 at the leading edge of the New Wave movement (I just realized that three of the four listed below made their initial breakthrough in Annayum Rasoolum):-

  • Soubin Shahir had a notable supporting role in 2013’s Annayum Rasoolum, was hilarious as Crispin in Maheshinte Prathikaram, frightening as Sameera’s brother from Dubai in Mayaanadhi and finally graduated to the lead role of the well-meaning but conflicted football team manager in Sudani from Nigeria. Meanwhile, he has also had time to write and direct his first film, Parava.
Soubin Shahir (left) as the hilarious Crispin in Maheshinte Prathikaram
  • Shane Nigam was the nutcase brother in Annayum Rasoolum and has now graduated to headlining movies like Kismath, Eeda and Kumbalangi Nights.
  • Sunny Wayne had an empathetic supporting role as Fahadh Faasil’s friend in Annayum Rasoolum, then moved up to co-lead with Dulquer Salmaan the following year in Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi. Since then, he has appeared in over 20 movies, usually in co-lead or supporting roles.
  • Tovino Thomas has garnered acclaim for his performances in the 2015 biopic Ennu Ninte Moideen, the 2016 drama Guppy and my favourite, the 2017 romance thriller Mayaanadhi (in which he plays an irritatingly childlike but endearing petty criminal).
Tovino Thomas

Among the actresses, there haven’t been one or two dominant actresses as there have been among the male actors. That could be because many of the female characters appear to have been written as ‘foils’ for their male protagonists. There have been of course, some strong characters such as the ones played by:-

  • Rima Kallingal as the nurse Tessa Abraham in Aashiq Abu’s 22 Female Kottayam
  • Shweta Menon as dubbing artiste and foodie Maya Krishnan in Aashiq Abu’s Salt n’ Pepper
  • Manju Warrier as the housewife turned entrepreneur Nirupama in Rosshan Andrrews’ How Old Are You?
  • Nazriya Nazim as Divya in Anjali Menon’s Bangalore Days (now married to her co-star from the film, Fahadh Faasil)
  • Aishwarya Lekshmi as struggling actress Aparna in Aashiq Abu’s Mayaanadhi and as Priya Paul, the wife dealing with a home invasion in Amal Neerad’s Varathan.
Aishwarya Lekshmi, who has acted in Aashiq Abu’s Mayaanadhi (2017) and Amal Neerad’s Varathan (2018)

Others to make an impression have been Ramya Nambeeshan (Chaappa Kurish and Traffic), Aparna Balamurali (Maheshinte Prathikaram) and Padmapriya (who abruptly steals the show in the last act of Ayobinta Pusthakam).

So that’s been my highly enjoyable journey through the past 6-7 years of films from my home state of Kerala.

In the coming year, I am looking forward to Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu, Amal Neerad’s crime thriller Bilal (a sequel to his debut film Big B) starring Mammootty and son Dulquer Salmaan, Salim Ahmed’s drama …And the Oscar Goes To starring Tovino Thomas, Aashiq Abu’s real-life dramatic thriller Virus (an ensemble cast including Fahadh Faasil, Tovino Thomas, Soubin Shahir, Dileesh Pothan, Indrajith Sukumaran, Rahman, etc.)


A crash course in Malayalam New Wave cinema, Part 3 – the movers and shakers

In my two previous posts on Malayalam New Wave cinema, I covered the movies I had watched at the beginning of the wave in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Pretty much all the movers and shakers of the Malayalam New Wave today had their first successes in those three years. So rather than continue a year-wise chronicle of 2014-18, I’ll like to write about about how the filmmakers continued to evolve their stories and narrative styles after those early successes. And we’ll take a look at the people behind the scenes – producers, music composers, writers and cinematographers.

Evolution in themes and narrative styles

By and large, the New Wave films of 2011-13 were urban-centric (with the exception of Adaminte Makan Abu, Ustad Hotel and Manjadikuru). Initially, it was easy to categorize them as rom-coms/dramedies (Salt n’ Pepper, Bangalore Days, North 24 Kaadam), dramatic thrillers (Chaappa Kurish, Traffic, 22 Female Kottayam, Drishyam) or crime dramas (City of God, Mumbai Police). The characters in most of these films were worldly-wise millennials, comfortable with clubs and pubs, pre- and extra-marital sex. By 2014, the films had quickly evolved and were tougher to categorize. A number of films required very specifically created descriptions…

  • Cinematographer turned director Amal Neerad’s ‘biblically-inspired period drama’ Iyobinte Pusthakam (The Book of Job) from 2014.
  • Actor-turned-director Dileesh Pothan’s 2016 ‘revenge comedy’ Maheshinte Prathikaram.
  • Aashiq Abu’s ‘romance/drama/thriller/tragedy’ Mayaanadhi (strongly influenced by Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic Breathless), with an ending that rips your heart out.
  • Lijo Jose Pellissery’s award-winning 2018 ‘funeral drama’ Ee. Ma. Yau., with its intense but semi-comical rain-soaked denouement.
  • Newcomer Zakariya Mohammed’s feel-good ‘football-centric dramedy’ Sudani From Nigeria, also from 2018.

Even among ‘conventional’ crime thrillers, filmmakers have been pushing the envelope:

  • Nowhere is this better demonstrated than by director Lijo Jose Pellissery and cinematographer Gireesh Gangadharan towards the end of their hyper-kinetic 2017 crime drama Angamaly Diaries. The climactic scene is an extraordinary 10-minute-long continuous tracking shot featuring perhaps hundreds of extras; the camera follows a group of local gangsters celebrating a local church festival as the procession winds its way through their neighborhood. I rank this film as one of the best gangster films I’ve ever seen in any language, along with Gangs of Wasseypur.
  • Likewise Tinu Pappachan’s prison drama Swathandriam Ardharathriyil (Freedom at Midnight) features an extraordinary, almost balletic prison fight sequence, shot in the rain and rendered in glorious slow-mo.

Producers and directors-turned-producers

The connective tissue behind these films are of course, the producers. Traffic, Chaappa Kurish, Ustad Hotel and How Old Are You? were produced by Listin Joseph, who was only 25 years old when Traffic and Chaappa Kurish were released! He must therefore be considered the ‘father’ of Malayalam New Wave. In subsequent years, it’s the directors, screenwriters and actors themselves who have taken charge of their destinies, having formed an informal collective, helping each other out, either officially as producers/screenwriters/supporting acting roles, or in some informal capacity, as evidenced by the “Thanks to …” credits that pop up at the start of their movies. This is very similar to the three famous Mexican directors Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu, who frequently produce each other’s films, or those by up-and-coming directors.

One can already see the first batch of New Wave directors creating directing opportunities for actors or second unit directors:

  • Sameer Thahir has frequently been acknowledged for his support in the opening credits of films directed by Aashiq Abu, Rosshan Andrrews and Amal Neerad. He has recently taken the role of producer for the delightful 2018 sports-comedy Sudani From Nigeria for first time director Zakariya Mohammed.
  • Anwar Rasheed, the director of Ustad Hotel co-produced Anjali Menon’s Bangalore Days and was the producer of actor Soubin Shahir’s debut as a director and scriptwriter, Parava (2017).
  • Dileesh Pothan started off as a supporting actor (and continues to act), then cut his teeth doing second unit directing for Aashiq Abu and finally got his big break as director in 2016 when Aashiq Abu produced his debut film, the critically acclaimed Maheshinte Prathikaram.
  • Dileesh Pothan himself is now ‘paying it forward’ by producing this month’s new release Kumbalangi Nights, the debut film for Madhu C. Narayanan (previously the second unit director for Aashiq Abu’s films and Pothan’s own Maheshinte Prathikaram.
  • Chemban Vinod Jose’s career as a character actor started with the New Wave films in 2011. In 2017, he got his big break as scriptwriter when his screenplay for Angamaly Diaries was brought to the big screen by powerhouse director Lijo Jose Pellissery.
  • These two titans of crime dramas – Lijo Jose Pellissery and Chemban Vinod Jose – have then co-produced the 2018 prison-break action film Swathandriam Ardharathriyil for their second unit director Tinu Pappachan, as his debut directorial venture.

The Crew

Cinematographers play a big role in shaping the look and feel of these films. They feature unusual camera angles, extraordinarily long tracking shots and a distinct cinema verite feel that is very different from the classical cinematography styles prevalent in Malayalam films previously. Shyju Khalid (Salt n’ Pepper, Traffic, 22 Female Kottayam, Maheshinte Prathikaram, Ee. Ma. Yau., Sudani From Nigeria and Kumbalangi Nights) and Gireesh Gangadharan (Neelakasham…, Guppy, Angamaly Diaries and Swathandriyam Ardharathriyil) are the two most prolific New Wave cinematographers. Sujith Vasudev’s work is notable in City of God and I loved the wide-angle lenses he used in Drishyam; it almost feels like he used a fisheye in some scenes to try and cram as much as possible of that gorgeous scenery in the frame.

The reason these films are good is because they are well written. Syam Pushkaran is perhaps the best known and most celebrated writer, having collaborated with Dileesh Nair on most of Aashiq Abu’s films from Salt n’ Pepper to Mayaanadhi. He has also written the screenplay for both the outstanding films directed by Dileesh Pothan. Chemban Vinod Jose made quite a splash with the screenplay for Angamaly Diaries. I am not sure if that’s a one-off effort based on his personal experiences growing up in Angamaly; I really hope that won’t be his last. Zakariya Mohammed wrote a wonderful script for his debut directorial effort Sudani from Nigeria, so I am looking forward to see what he comes up with next. Salim Ahmed of course, has written his own scripts for three of his four films released so far, as well as for his upcoming one And The Oscar Goes To….

Another common feature in many of these movies is the music, which is contemporary, usually rock-based. Rex Vijayan, the lead guitarist for Malayali rock band, Avial, has emerged as a leading composer for several Malayalam New Wave films. I love the music created for Ee. Ma. Yau. by Prashant Pillai, who has also composed for Lijo Jose Pellisserry’s other films City of God and Angamaly Diaries.

Ee. Ma. Yau. (2018) directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery, music by Prashant Pillai

In my next (and final) post, I’ll focus on the actors and actresses who have been the faces of this New Wave over the past seven years.

A crash course in Malayalam New Wave cinema, Part 2 – 2012 & 2013, the wave grows stronger

This is a continuation of my previous post where I talked about my discovery of Malayalam New Wave cinema in the past year and my chronological journey through key films which have signposted its emergence since 2011.


One of the breakout directors from 2011 returned and a new talent emerged enjoying success both as a director and as a scriptwriter:-

Aashiq Abu returned a year after Salt N’ Pepper with the revenge-thriller 22 Female Kottayam, starring Rima Kallingal (whom he eventually married). Featuring Fahadh Faasil yet again, this was a rare Indian film where a woman takes matters into her own hands and wreaks deadly revenge on the men who betrayed and raped her. In addition to compelling performances from the actors, the movie featured a killer rock soundtrack, including the opening track Chillane.

Amazingly, Aashiq Abu was back with another film by year end, the offbeat romantic comedy, Da Thadiya (Hey Fatty), the story of an obese young man who decides to lose weight in order to win the affections of his childhood sweetheart. This film was a box office hit as well, his third in a row.

Manjadikuru (Lucky Red Seeds), directed by debutante director Anjali Menon, had been doing the rounds of festivals since 2008. It got its wide release in theatres in 2012 and struck a chord with its nostalgic coming-of-age story of an extended family assembling from around the world to mourn the demise of the family patriarch. Featuring a marvelous ensemble cast of character actors, the true stars of the film were the four child actors.

Dulquer Salmaan (left) and veteran actor Thilakan in Anwar Rasheed’s Ustad Hotel (screenplay by Anjali Menon)

Ustad Hotel brought Anjali Menon into the news again two months later, this time as a script writer for a coming-of-age drama of a different sort. The crowd-pleaser, directed by Anwar Rasheed told the story of a young Switzerland-trained chef (played by Mammootty’s son Dulquer Salmaan) who learns about love, humility and heartland cooking from his estranged grandfather. The movie was a huge box office hit and established Dulquer Salmaan as the next young heartthrob in only his second film. In 2014, Anwar Rasheed acted as producer for Anjali Menon’s second directorial effort, Bangalore Days which became one of the highest grossing Malayalam films of all time, starring Dulquer Salmaan and Fahadh Faasil.


Two established filmmakers Rosshan Andrrews and Jeethu Joseph showed that they could get big stars to act in non-formulaic films too. Sameer Thahir proved that his debut hit in 2011 Chaappa Kurish was no fluke. And two new directors – Rajeev Ravi and Anil Radhakrishnan Menon – made impactful debuts. Let’s look at these films in chronological order of their releases in 2013:-

Rajeev Ravi, who had been Anurag Kashyap’s cinematographer for several years and had just finished his magnum opus Gangs of Wasseypur, came out with his debut directorial effort, the ‘Romeo & Juliet’ type story, Annayum Rasoolum. I liked the movie for its measured pacing and overall storytelling, but I didn’t at all feel comfortable watching the lead character Rasool (Fahadh Faasil – him again!) stalking this young woman Anna (played by model/singer Andrea Jeremiah) every day from home to workplace and back, and pretty much coercing her into a doomed relationship. Nevertheless, it was a powerful film with great acting performances from an ensemble cast including Sunny Wayne and Soubin Shahir as Rasool’s friends and Shane Nigam as Anna’s sociopath brother. However, it didn’t do particularly well at the box office. Rajeev Ravi’s subsequent two films Njan Steve Lopez (2014) and Kammatti Paadam (2016) have also been critically well received.

Rosshan Andrrews had released his first film in 2005 and now was ready with his fifth effort Mumbai Police, starring established young actor Prithviraj Sukumaran. The film was a well-plotted and tightly paced thriller about a cop who loses his memory just after he has solved a murder and now has to solve it all over again. In the process, he discovers that he wasn’t a particularly nice guy when he was ‘normal’. The movie made headlines because it featured a big star playing a gay character for perhaps the first time in Malayalam cinema (or even Indian cinema for that matter) and was a big commercial hit. The following year Rosshan Andrrews was back with another interesting effort, the female empowerment dramedy How Old Are You?, which brought back actress Manju Warrier to the big screen after a 14-year hiatus.

Sunny Wayne (extreme left) and Dulquer Salmaan (extreme right) hit the road in Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi (Blue Skies, Green Waters, Red Earth)

Sameer Thahir who had made such an impactful debut in 2011 with Chaappa Kurish returned in 2013 with the biker movie Neelakasham Pachakadal Chuvanna Bhoomi (Blue Skies, Green Waters, Red Earth), which has achieved cult status since its release. Supposedly influenced by Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries, the film starred the two young heartthrobs of Malayalam cinema – Dulquer Salmaan and Sunny Wayne (and their cool motorbikes). This is a wonderful film about two young men who ride from Kerala all the way to the North-East and meet several interesting people along the way. Bengali acting veteran Dhritiman Chatterjee appears in a small but significant role. The film marked the debut of cinematographer Gireesh Gangadharan who has since gone on to do some astonishing magic with the camera in the last couple of years with the gangster movies Angamaly Diaries and Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil.

Fahadh Faasil was once again on screen by September in director Anil Radhakrishnan Menon’s debut film North 24 Kaadam, one of eleven different films he acted in that year! This time he played Harikrishnan, a software programmer suffering from OCD, who inadvertently ends up on a harrowing road trip with an elderly man and a young woman. This movie is essentially an acting showcase for Fahadh Faasil, supported by the ever-watchable veteran Nedumudi Venu and talented young actress Swathi Reddy, as well as a hilarious performance by character actor Chemban Vinod Jose (more about him later). Realists may point out that Harikrishnan gets ‘cured’ of his OCD a bit too conveniently towards the end of the movie, but it’s easy to forgive such lapses in characterization when one is entertained by such engaging performances.

Drishyam, the Mohanlal blockbuster from director-screenwriter Jeethu Joseph closed off the year and brought in 2014 with a bang. This was Jeethu Joseph’s fifth movie and no one could have predicted what a monster hit it would be. Featuring incredible wide-angle cinematography shot in the picturesque Western Ghats by Sujith Vasudev, taut pacing and fantastic performances from the two child actresses, the movie was unstoppable at the box office. It was subsequently remade into four languages. I am not sure if this can be considered as part of the Malayalam New Wave, because it was very much a mainstream film featuring the biggest star in the industry and from an established director and production team. But coming as it did at the end of a year full of interesting films, it certainly strengthened the growing belief that Malayalam films had shifted into a higher gear.

In the third part of this series, I will write about the community of talented writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, musicians and actors who have created this wave in the past 7-8 years.

A crash course in Malayalam New Wave cinema, Part 1 – 2011, when it all began

In early 2018, I watched Thondimuthalum Driksashiyum (The Stolen Property and the Witness), the Malayalam film with the tongue-twister title that was on many critics’ year-end lists and won the Indian National Award for Best Malayalam Film of 2017. At that time, I wasn’t aware that I was watching the latest entry in what was being called the “New Wave of Malayalam cinema”. I read about this trend only a few months afterwards and since then, I’ve been on the lookout for a definitive list of such non-formulaic, non-glamorous, character-driven films. After off-and-on research over the past few months, I finally embarked on a ‘crash course’ in Malayalam New Wave and have now watched about 20 of these films. I’ve really enjoyed the experience of discovering the movies, watching them and then figuring out the patterns and connections between the movies and the filmmakers! Pretty much all the films I watched were well-paced and entertaining, with solid scripts, depth and consistency of characterization, and in a couple of cases, dazzling cinematic technique (and most importantly for me, no gratuitous song and dance sequences)!

2011 is the year that’s generally considered to be the jump-off point for the “New Wave”, a term which became part of the collective consciousness of film writers only by around 2015, when people realized that the early films were not a flash in the pan. What first appeared to be sporadic efforts by unknown young filmmakers exploring new themes and film-making techniques, has coalesced into a body of work that has been embraced by critics, award juries and most importantly, by the movie-going public.

The Malayalam film landscape was dominated by Mohanlal and Mammootty in the 1980s, both of whom acted in a number of outstanding films that were entertaining, realistic and in some cases, thought-provoking. From the mid-90s through to the 2000s, the two acting giants aged gracefully, appearing in high profile vehicles written for them and directed by equally high profile directors like Fazil and Sibi Malayil. Meanwhile, a new wave of young actors emerged – many from a background of stand-up comedy (referred to colloquially as ‘mimicry’ in Kerala) who mainly featured in low-budget, lightweight comedies. These films were no doubt entertaining, but film fans started to worry that the era of quality cinema characterized by the two M’s was coming to an end.

That year 2011, saw the coincidental release of a set of films by directors whose culture was rooted in the unique urban/millennial milieu of Kerala, but whose cinematic expression was influenced by the gritty realism and innovative techniques of directors from around the world – contemporary filmmakers like Quentin Tarentino, Jose Padilha and Alejandro González Iñárritu, and the masters like Kurosawa and Scorsese.

Many of these movies were either the debut or sophomore efforts – Rajesh Pillai’s road thriller Traffic, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s crime thriller City of God, Aashiq Abu’s rom-com Salt N’ Pepper, Salim Ahmed’s poignant drama Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, Son of Adam) and Sameer Thahir’s thriller Chaappa Kurish (Head or Tails).

Traffic weaves together multiple strands, adopting the hyperlink approach of Tarentino’s and Iñárritu’s early films, while instilling the life or death urgency of Jan de Bont’s Speed. The unlikely and unglamorous protagonist of the film is veteran character actor Sreenivasan, playing a disgraced cop who grabs a chance at redemption by volunteering to drive a car carrying a heart for a transplant patient. The film was a sleeper hit and was remade in multiple languages with the Hindi version being directed by Pillai himself. Tragically, Pillai died of health complications soon after, at the age of 41.

City of God also used the hyperlink or non-linear narrative format to tell the intersecting stories of migrant Tamil workers, a Dubai-based businesswoman and the construction mafia in Kochi. Its ensemble cast featured young actors like Prithviraj Sukumaran, his brother Indrajith and actresses Rima Kallingal and Shweta Menon (who was 4th behind Sushmita Sen, Aishwarya Rai and Francesca Hart in Femina Miss India 1994). While it didn’t make waves at the box office, it was a sign of things to come from director Lijo Jose Pellissery.

Salt N’ Pepper sees director Aashiq Abu applying the New Wave approach to the most popular genre of Malayalam cinema, the rom-com. Instead of the usual “boy-meets-girl in college” story, this film featured two older, and rather eccentric characters (played by veteran character actor-director Lal and Shweta Menon) who come together through a common love for food and cooking. The opening credits could easily rank alongside that of Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman for its celebration of food. The film was an unexpected hit.

Adaminte Makan Abu is the outlier in this pack; neither urban-centric nor a thriller, it’s a poignant drama about the ‘human condition’, in this case the efforts of a poor, ageing attar (perfume) seller Abu and his wife to cobble together the funds to make their first ever Hajj trip. The couple are played by comedian Salim Kumar (cast against type) and veteran Hindi film star Zarina Wahab respectively. It won the National Award for Best Feature Film of 2011. Director Salim Ahmed has directed three more films since then, including Pathemari (2015) starring Mammootty, which chronicles the lives of Malayalees living in the Gulf. It won the National Award for Best Malayalam Film of 2011.

Fahadh Faasil and Vineeth Srinivasan play a cat and mouse game in Sameer Thahir’s Chappa Kurish

Chaappa Kurish is a thriller in which Arjun, a successful young building contractor loses his cellphone on which he had a video of him making love to his office colleague; the phone is accidentally picked up by a poor slum dweller Ansari, who works in a supermarket. The film deals with Arjun’s efforts to retrieve the phone from Ansari and highlights the differences in class and value systems between the two men. Arjun is played by Fahadh Faasil, who has become perhaps the most visible face of Malayalam New Wave. The other character, Ansari is played by Vineeth Sreenivasan, son of veteran character actor (and screenwriter) Sreenivasan, and he has now emerged as a reputed screenwriter and director in his own right, while continuing his career as an actor. This was cinematographer Sameer Thahir’s debut film as director and while the movie was entertaining, it was also criticized for being a rip-off of Korean film Handphone.

I’ll continue this journey through time into 2012 in my next post, where we see the emergence of more New Wave filmmakers.

Fun with numbers: Ranking the 2019 Best Picture Oscar nominees

So, the 2019 Oscar nominations are out and the fun begins. Variety releases its usual list of snubs and surprises. Websites/experts likewise express their opinions on the nominees. Various people get their 15 minutes of fame by expressing anger over inaccuracies or omissions in films which are based on real-life events or people they were related to.

As part of my own build-up of excitement leading up to awards night, I decided to have some fun by looking at each of the Best Picture nominees and applying a bit of superficial analysis to gauge their chances of winning the Oscar.

To begin with, I clustered the nominees into four groups like this:-

  1. Political Intrigue – The Favourite, Vice
  2. Music & musicians – Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star is Born
  3. Race and inequality – BlacKkKlansman, Green Book
  4. Superhero blockbuster – Black Panther
  5. Family drama – Roma

I’m obviously stretching it with that fourth cluster; Black Panther and Roma are polar opposites in terms of pacing, visuals, profile of actors, narrative style and the story itself.

Let’s get some context around each Oscar nominee; I have highlighted acting nominations as these indicate that the movie wasn’t just technically superior, but also delivered on emotional content. I have also highlighted cases where the movie’s director has not been nominated, which is unusual and usually is weakens its chances:-

  • The Favourite, dir. by Yorgos Lanthimos, released by Fox Searchlight (10 nominations, including 3 for acting)
  • Vice, dir. by Adam McKay, released by Annapurna (8 nominations, including 3 for acting)
  • Bohemian Rhapsody, dir. by Bryan Singer (unofficially completed by Dexter Gordon), released by Fox (5 nominations, including 1 for acting, director not nominated)
  • A Star is Born, dir. by Bradley Cooper, released by Warner Bros. (7 nominations, 3 for acting, director not nominated)
  • BlacKkKlansman, dir. by Spike Lee, released by Focus Features/United International Pictures (6 nominations, including 1 for acting)
  • Green Book, dir. by Peter Farrelly, released by Universal (5 nominations, including 2 for acting)
  • Black Panther, dir. by Ryan Coogler, released by Buena Vista (7 nominations, none for acting)
  • Roma, dir. by Alfonso Cuaron, released by Netflix (10 nominations, including 2 for acting)

Based on the above stats, one must assume the two movies which didn’t get Best Director nominations start at a disadvantage. Understandable that Bryan Singer hasn’t got a nomination for Bohemian Rhapsody, since he was sacked due to absenteeism weeks before completion of the movie. Bradley Cooper was nominated for his acting, but sadly not recognized for creating that intense, claustrophobic atmosphere in A Star is Born, that put the audience right in the middle of Ally and Jack’s lives.

With the Academy having a predominantly older white demographic, it’s unlikely that BlacKkKlansman will garner enough votes to get the top spot; we should just be grateful that Spike Lee has finally got a Best Director and Best Picture nomination after all these years.

Black Panther will likewise have to be grateful to be the first superhero pic nominated for Best Picture. It will probably pick up a bunch of technical awards, i.e. Costume Design, Product Design, Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, but the absence of any acting noms make it a difficult bet for Best Picture (the last movie to overcome this barrier was the closing chapter of The Lord of the Rings in 2003).

That leaves us with four real front-runners:-

  • Green Book won ‘Best Picture – Musical or Comedy’ at the Golden Globes and won Best Picture at the Producers Guild awards, so that puts it in a strong position. It ticks pretty much all the boxes as you’ll see with my scorecard later on.
  • Roma won Best Director at the Globes and also Best Foreign Film. It’s pretty much guaranteed that it will win Best Foreign Film at the Oscars as well. Will the Academy feel that is sufficient and deny it the big prize?
  • The Favourite seems certain to pick up a win for one of its three actresses who are nominated, but it hasn’t won any other major awards for best picture and may be just a bit too quirky for the Academy. I admired the movie (there is no doubt that director Lanthimos has a singular and distinctive cinematic vision), but I didn’t love it in the way that I love Green Book or adore Roma. The fishbowl style cinematography and the discordant music together actually made me uncomfortable at times. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s probably a bit too edge for the Academy.
  • Vice is a quintessentially American movie, a story of political intrigue and excess (not dissimilar to The Favourite) that is difficult to appreciate for those unfamiliar with the American political milieu. This comes from the same team behind The Big Short, which took on a similar irreverent tone to explain the Global Financial Crisis (which was of interest around the world). The best one can do is to marvel at Christian Bale’s transformation behind facial prosthetics into a spitting image of ex-Vice President Dick Chaney.

Next, I tried to put some science into this process and scored all eight films based on these criteria: feel-good quotient, emotional intensity, visual beauty, acting star power, social relevance, entertainment value. This is how they stacked up, the top four contenders listed first and the remaining four (some of which scored higher than the top four):-

Nominee Feel-good Emotional Visual Stars Social Entertaining Total
Green Book 10 8 7 10 10 10 55
Roma 10 10 10 2 7 6 45
The Favourite 6 7 9 8 4 6 40
Vice 4 5 5 10 7 8 39
Black Panther 10 6 8 10 4 10 48
BlacKkKlansman 8 7 7 6 10 8 46
A Star is Born 4 10 8 10 6 8 46
9 6 8 7 6 10 46

So, the winner seems to be Green Book going by my pseudo-scientific, subjective calculations. If Roma can pick up Best Foreign Film and Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron, I will be very happy indeed!

Golden Globes hits the spot with awards to Roma and Green Book

I watched Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and Peter Farrelly’s Green Book over the weekend as part of my usual Dec-Jan run through of award contenders. I enjoyed both tremendously and was so thrilled when they scored big wins at the Golden Globes a few hours later!

Roma’s win for Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language was the closest thing to a sure bet in this category, although Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters was an early favourite. But the win for Best Director to Alfonso Cuaron was unexpected, as many people expected that go to Bradley Cooper for A Star is Born.

Green Book on the other hand was a bigger surprise with three wins. The least surprising one was for Mahershala Ali as Best Supporting Actor and indeed, I think he’ll be the favourite to pick up his second Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in a few weeks’ time. The win for Best Screenplay against the likes of Roma, Vice, The Favourite and If Beale Street Could Talk was probably a close-run result, as it could just as easily have been any of the other four films. But I think it’s the win for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy that no one saw coming, as Adam McKay’s Vice was considered the front-runner. In retrospect, this win is a testament to how Green Book struck the perfect balance between being an accessible, entertaining movie, but also shone a light on the significant historical issue of race that continues to be unresolved even today.

Let’s look at each of the films in a bit more detail.

(L to R) Marco Graf as Pepe, Daniela Demesa as Sofi, Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, Marina De Tavira as Sofia, Diego Cortina Autrey as Toño, Carlos Peralta Jacobson as Paco in Roma, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Photo by Carlos Somonte

Roma is the story of one year in the life of an upper middle class Mexican family living in the suburb of Colonia Roma in Mexico City in 1970/71, told from the perspective of their live-in housekeeper Cleo. Roma has the look of a Kurosawa film – it’s shot in B&W in deep focus, which creates a flattened look with foreground and background elements in focus all the time; as a result, even extras in the background have to be ‘in character’, because the viewer can see everything on the screen clearly (think about all those village scenes in Seven Samurai). This movie is filled with memorable shots and sequences which I am sure I will re-watch again and again. Some are quietly humorous (the ongoing challenge of parking the Ford Galaxy in the driveway, the ridiculous martial arts antics of Cleo’s boyfriend Fermin), some are unbearably intense (the Corpus Christi riots and the subsequent hospital scene) and some are incredibly heartwarming (Sofia’s unconditional acceptance of Cleo’s ‘situation’, grandma Teresa’s distress on the way to the hospital, the beach scene at the end). All of this is set up in the first half hour with mundane family scenes that any of us can relate to, which then makes the subsequent events even more impactful. There are wonderful cinematic touches throughout the film that are rewarding for the observant viewer – the airplanes that bookend the movie (and particularly in the opening scene), the human cannonball, the clip from Marooned as an signpost to Cuaron’s previous movie Gravity, Cleo being able to do what none of the other martial arts students can, the fire on New Year’s eve, etc. The power of these images is so compelling that one almost doesn’t realize that the film has no musical score. It’s a real pity that Roma is not available in cinemas because that’s where one could really appreciate the visual beauty of the movie. I am not sure how many people so far bothered to watch this low-key B&W Spanish language film on Netflix, but I do hope audiences will discover and enjoy this gem for years to come.

Viggo Mortensen (left) as Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga and Mahershala Ali as Dr. Don Shirley in Green Book, directed by Peter Farrelly

Green Book tells the real-life story of a 1960’s musical tour of the Deep South by classical and jazz pianist Dr. Don Shirley, accompanied by an Italian-American named Frank Vallelonga, who served as Dr. Shirley’s driver and bodyguard. Green Book is a crowd-pleasing film, which upon premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival got a lot of positive buzz (and inevitable, though superficial comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy). It then quickly spiraled into unnecessary controversy over a well-meaning but racially inappropriate comment made by co-star Viggo Mortensen (for which he immediately apologized) and also criticism that the film wasn’t “woke” enough to be a truly meaningful exploration of race issues in the 1960s. This is something I just don’t understand or agree with; I feel that in recent years, American critics and social commentators have a bias against ‘feel-good’ movies and take a position that meaningful messages can only be delivered via edgy or angsty movies. As I mentioned earlier, I felt that Green Book has done a great job of being a crowd-pleaser as well as a ‘movie with a message’. It draws its energy almost entirely from the chemistry between co-stars Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, both of whose works I’ve really enjoyed watching in the past few years. Mortensen is surely among the most under-rated and versatile leading men in Hollywood, having played King Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, a Spanish musketeer in Captain Alatriste, Austrian psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, a Danish adventurer in Jauja, a Russian mobster in Easter Promises and now an Italian-American night club bouncer in Green Book. How amazing also that Peter Farrelly, one half of the duo that brought us low brow comedies like Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary and The Three Stooges should direct such a genuinely heartwarming and thoughtful film!

In the ultimate analysis, Green Book is a film with a message, but told with a light touch. Roma on the other hand, is about everyday life in an upper middle class family, but tells a universal story about the human condition – particularly how love can help overcome loneliness and pain. Both were deserving winners at the Golden Globes and I hope their run continues through the awards season into Oscars night on 25th February.

A Star Is Born and Cold War both explore tragic tales of artists and their love

Two very different films released this year – A Star Is Born and Cold War – explore very similar themes of two artists trying to protect their love from the emotional maelstrom created by their egos, insecurities, ambitions and ennui.

(left) Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot in Cold War, dir. by Pawel Pawlikowski
(right) Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in A Star Is Born, dir. by Bradley Cooper

A Star is Born is riding a wave of critical acclaim and audience love. It has a very good chance to earn Oscar nominations for actors Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, as well as for Mr. Cooper as a director. If so, he would join the likes of Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson and Kevin Costner who have made the leap from acting super-stardom to distinction in directing. There are many levels on which A Star Is Born excels, considering it’s the fourth time this story has been filmed (1937, 1954 and 1976 previously). Bradley Cooper had to bring something new to the table; he contemporized the setting, but he also created a viewing experience that brings the viewer into the personal space of the protagonists, compared to its predecessors. The first hour in particular, is pure movie magic, taking the audience through Jackson Maine’s post-concert, alcohol-fueled runabout to his (and the audience’s) discovery of Ally’s raw talent singing La Vie en rose at a drag bar, followed by their tentative exploration of a shared love of music while sitting in a car park – I would have been happy if the entire movie had just continued that car park scene. Maine takes Ally under his wing and as her star rises and she creates her own artistic identity, he spirals into depression, anger self-doubt and finally, self-loathing. They try to reconnect, but can their love for each other overcome the external and internal forces that are pulling them apart? Perhaps the bigger question is, how much of their love is genuinely for the other person and how much of it is for the idea of who that other person is?

These are the same questions that crop up while watching the Polish film Cold War. Unlike A Star Is Born, this film is directed by an experienced director Pawel Pawlikowski, who has been winning awards for his work for the past two decades, including Best Director at Cannes for this film. Likewise, lead actors Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot have been around for several years and have won recognition for their acting previously. Kot plays Wiktor, a music director working for the Communist regime, traveling through the Polish countryside in 1949 with his colleagues, looking to recruit raw talent for a folk music and dance show. Among the hundreds of performers they audition is Zula (Joanna Kulig) and you can see that Wiktor is immediately taken up with the young girl, her casual insouciance, her voice and her looks. They start a passionate affair, its turbulence and unpredictability in contrast with the upward trajectory of their professional careers. Unlike A Star Is Born which tracks the relationship of Jackson and Ally in real time in the early part of the movie as well as in other key moments, Cold War follows Zula and Wiktor’s relationship in episodic snapshots over a 15 year period in episodic snapshots. Like billiard balls, they keep crashing into each other every few years, unable to live together and unable to live apart. Unlike the lovers of A Star Is Born, there are no obvious issues of jealousy or ego pulling Zula and Wiktor apart; just personal caprice, impulsive and reckless acts, artistic restlessness and ennui. Which makes their story seem even more tragic.

A Star Is Born is an emotionally traumatic viewing experience, which is an amazing achievement by a first-time director and a first-time actress. Cold War, in the hands of a more experienced director and actors, tells its story using a colder, emotionally distant aesthetic, appropriately shot in crisp black & white. With A Star Is Born, it’s the moments and the emotions – in the car park, singing Shallow for the first time, that disastrous Grammy awards night, Jack begging for forgiveness on his return from rehab – that stay in the viewers memory. With Cold War, it’s the shot composition and visual storytelling – Wiktor and Zula talking in the field, Zula singing while floating in the river, Wiktor in front of a mirror reflecting his troupe celebrating their first show, Wiktor and Zula at the dance club and finally the shot of them looking out onto a barren field – that haunt the viewer.

Wiktor and colleagues look on their troupe with pride after their first successful show
At the end of Cold War, only a bleak future awaits

Both films are well worth watching. A Star Is Born is more accessible and is for the most part, an intensely absorbing viewing experience in spite of its 2 hour 14 minute running time. In contrast, at a brisk 89 minutes, Cold War does not tax the viewer’s patience, but is made for the head rather than for the heart.