Top Movies: 2020

Chhapaak

Ironically, director Meghna Gulzar opened 2020 with a movie that, true to its title made a splash, albeit offscreen for its lead’s politics. Which is a pity because onscreen, actor Deepika Padukone produced a far more important movement that deserved a lot more than a ripple. In one of her best outings thus far, she dons the irreparably incinerated façade of a real-life acid-attack survivor. Even as her act singes, director Gulzar’s lens focuses not on the epidermis but the destruction of identities that such horrific crimes cause. For what are we without our faces? That it takes superhuman courage and ineffable physical and mental trauma-endurance to answer that question is what the movie offers—not as a solution but a burning question to the judiciary and inbuilt, ingrained patriarchy—as it swivels from horror to hope to a devastating end. (Streaming on Disney+Hotstar)

Thappad

In the second of an invisible trilogy-theme of top movies of 2020, this haunting conversation set piece takes a look at what an act of violence—a slap, in this case—does to a woman: it takes away her dignity, her pride, and her identity. And yet, in actor Tapsee Pannu’s simmeringly feisty act do you see that to defy this patriarchal vacuum of a force, a woman—no matter which economic strata she belongs to—must summon all the centrifugal courage she can, even as societal forces act as a hose to this pernicious behavior. Director Anubhav Sinha directs a superb ensemble, especially Kumud Mishra, who, even in glancing away from the newspaper he’s reading, makes his own headline. (Streaming on Prime Video)

Bulbbul

Why is it that most folklore and campfire catechisms tell of horrors that female forms take, usually to slake their bloodthirsty urges? Writer-director Anvita Dutt offers up a gothic canvas of horrifying patriarchal violence as stabbing answer. The movie, the third in this top 2020 trilogy, is red flare of stunning cinematography and story-telling, shocking not because of any twist but its take on fairy tale gone wrong. The acting’s top notch, be it the dark and darker dual roles of Rahul Bose or the hypnotic Tripti Dimri, who brings alive the tension and symphonic horror that composer Amit Trivedi lays over the inverted-feet track. It’s an act that fills up the ironical corridors of justice, burns up the screen, and is inescapable in its tragedy. (Streaming on Netflix)

Raat Akeli Hai

Despite a flagging and contrived third-act, debutant director Honey Trehan creates a gripping, low-simmer beauty that, in its outer shell masquerades as a murder mystery—and its denouement is all Poirot. But what lies beneath is a slimy layer of patriarchal and matriarchal forces cojoined to spin most of the movie’s dank atmosphere. Plus, as the lead who’s aptly named Jatil (Complex), Nawazuddin Siddiqui shines in a finely calibrated act, handling complex scenes with the ease of a cigarette puff. His obsession with skin fairness creams speaks to the deep penetration—and misleading impact—such goods carry on the back of matrimonial pressure and notions. There’s so much going on in terms of messaging beneath the goings-on, you’re glad for the terrific Radhika Apte—playing the prime suspect—as part-plot bearer and boiler, whose act burns on the stove of elusive redemption in a criss-cross of hope and despair. (Streaming on Netflix)

C U Soon

A cinematic offspring midwifed by the throes of the pandemic that took over and overtook all aspects of our complex lives, the movie gestates its social horrors in a seemingly innocuous and innocent online romance between Jimmy Kurian (Roshan Mathew) and a rather mysterious Anu Sebastian (Darshana Rajendran). Love is blind, and in these uncertain times it also buffers, splits, and drops to ratchet up the longing and need between the two (geographically) distant hearts. Writer-editor-director Mahesh Narayan, shooting this ticking thriller on iPhones, creates a dystopian virtual world that we’re already a part of. As this world—and the romance—unravels, Jimmy’s cousin Kevin (a superb Fahad Faasil) hacks out more information about the elusive Anu, revealing yet another dark truth that throws his superbious behavior out of whack. Director Narayan’s world and movie is all virtual and chilling. And yet, he thaws it all in the end with stunning empathy. (Streaming on Prime Video)

Serious Men

Full of smarts and blink-and-you-miss satire, director Sudhir Mishra’s take on Manu Joseph’s novel bristles with dry anger at the exploitative world of parenting and dreams, caste structures and discrimination (Nasser in a fantastic act, donning the gloat of his character’s upper caste tag with sheen). Cloaking his movie in quick-footed dialogues with doses of cynicism, Mishra has the redoubtable Nawazuddin Siddiqui playing Ayyanhis story-teller and spinner who’ll go to any length to secure a bright future for himself and his family (wife Oja played Indira Tiwari in a beautifully raw and uninhibited act) and especially his prodigious son— Aakshath Das as Adi is top-notch, the actor carrying the burden of his character with all the strength of an overloaded, tearing-at-the-seams schoolbag. But it’s when Ayyan’s plans implode is when he realizes the transcendental power of the system that he’d set out to control. (Streaming on Netflix)

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Director Aaron Sorkin helms, in his typical hyper-kinetic style, this zinger of a movie that chronicles the true-life story of a trial that lasted for almost a year; and demonstrated in all its dubious glory, the ball-and-chain grip that subversive and mala fide governing forces exert on institutions, that, ironically, were set up to be free of those very forces. The trial took place in 1968. And yet, even in 2020 and beyond—arguably more so—the actions and reactions seem as relevant and chilling as they over half a century ago. The events that unfolded during the trial were so astounding, they’d have made for a chuckle-filled, for-a-lark sitcom. But the paralytic grip that the system coils around regular folks is a chilling scenario to watch, and Sorkin’s touch is zesty and snappy, as he wastes no time getting his terrific ensemble—Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alex Sharp, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, among others—right into the courtroom scenes. You chuckle and shift uncomfortably as some home truths are thwacked your way: There’s no such thing as a political trial? You can’t be arrested and tried for your thoughts? A denigrating, outdated, inapplicable law can’t be slapped on you for being a dissenting voice? You just may stop mid-way in your guffaw. (Streaming on Netflix)

On The Rocks

In this warm, fuzzy, funny conversational set-piece, director Sofia Coppola says a lot while keeping it a quiet reflection on relationships that evolve and devolve over time. The movie revolves around the forever harried, balancing work-from-home (this was before the pandemic squeezed a major population of laptop gazers into a residential corner) and home-work Laura Keane (Rashida Jones), her entrepreneurial, strangely detached husband Dean played by Marlon Wayans (must be work, what else?: how the ones going out to work step on the ones stuck in the draining routine of managing a hearth!), and her dynamic, flirtatious, fast-talking father Felix Keane (Bill Murray). The dialogues, especially between Jones and Murray are a snapping delight, and plaster a happy smile on your mug for most of the movie’s short and sweet predictable arc and runtime. The movie’s title is a descriptor both for tumultuous relationships and how some prefer to bend the elbow. And Bill Murray’s the show stealer: much like a soothing gin-tonic, he’s your self-appointed rip-roaring saviour to savour a quiet ‘noon. (Streaming on Apple TV)

AK vs AK

Director Vikramaditya Motwane throws in a meta premise to spotlight on a mad power equation between a swag-burst of an actor (Anil Kapoor) and a grouse-y, acidic director (Anurag Kashyap). Operating with thumping energy, layered with references to their real past, the director sharply pivots into a kidnapping drama gone wrong, a countdown ticker that exposes multitudes of prejudices, even as he rips open the sham and the vulnerabilities of the mighty tinsel town poster folks. Both AKs put in their best onscreen acts, which goes to show that there’s no taste better to shake you up than that of your own medicine. (Streaming on Netflix)

Mank

Based on the real-life story of  Herman J. Mankiewicz and that phase of his injured (in body and soul) life where he was then appointed by Orson Welles to come up with a script that eventually became the template for social masterpieces, Citizen Kane, Mank is a terrific accomplishment. Director David Finch, taking up the script his father, Jack Fincher, wrote in the 1990s, takes a searing look at the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s, studio politics, inflated egos, and the infiltration of Dems vs Republican stands from the 1934 gubernatorial into  creative strands. While it’s stunning at how things can stay course over the flip of a century, Fincher uses scathing, acidic-ripostes to hook you with the writer’s story and all the personalities he collides with in the course of his career and life. The ensemble cast is outstanding and leading them in the titular role is the magnificent Gary Oldman—definitely looking at an Academy Award nomination—tippling and tipping over his act, rolling every finely manicured word off his delivery with the finesse and dryness of the best booze out there. (Streaming on Netflix)