Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Totting up twelve months”

Putting together year-end best-of movie lists is mostly pointless. Moments from the movie year, on the other hand, can be quite useful, for no two people see the same film.

For the first column of this year, allow me to elaborate on my feelings about what should have been the contents of my last column last year. The general wisdom – or at least, accepted tradition – is that the various critics from the various departments of a publication, at the end of a calendar year, offer lists of what they considered the best of the past twelve months. In other words, I am expected to draw up a top-ten list of films from 2012. This is something I’ve always had a problem with, for a number of reasons. I suppose, by now, we all know and agree that these lists are subjective, and about as valuable as my telling you that blue is better than yellow. Any best-of list is coloured with the implicit caveat: “in my opinion.” And offering my personal and inevitably subjective opinion has always seemed to me a waste of time.

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For one, I have spent the entire year giving you, dear readers, my detailed opinions on various films released. Plus, there are these columns. You already know what I thought about this film and that one. So why bother? But wait, you say. What if you’re not a regular reader? Wouldn’t a list serve as a summation, a recommendation on what to catch up on among the movies you missed? Besides, who remembers in December what I wrote about a film in January? But this problem exists on the critic’s side too. The fact that I saw a film in January and liked it a great deal on the first viewing doesn’t mean I will like it again in December. What I wrote about at that time was based on the gut feeling I walked out of the theatre with, and my review was my way of explaining to you the possible reasons that gave rise to this gut feeling – and when I see the same film in December, on television or on my laptop, long after the hype has died down, long after my initial expectations have been tempered with the knowledge of what the film really is, I will necessarily see a somewhat different movie. Surely I can’t be expected to sit through all these movies all over again.

When my previous employers insisted that I come up with these lists, I settled on a kind of compromise where I talked about moments from various films that affected me. Even a not-so-good film can have a couple of very good moments, and this approach helped me sidestep the clangour of gavel-banging, that sense of arriving at a verdict after much grave pondering over pieces of evidence, pretending that art could be evaluated so coldly, so dispassionately. This way, the treats could be distributed more equitably – and, quite frankly, more interestingly. Even if two critics agreed on the top ten films, it’s very unlikely that they agree on the top ten moments from these films, which work differently on different people. This approach avoids the fatigue we experience from, say, the best-of lists in the American newspapers, where every list consists of Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty and Moonrise Kingdom and The Master.

In 2008, for instance, one of my entries went like this: “AKBAR WIGGLES OUT OF AN EMBARRASSING SITUATION: One of the great comic moments in Jodhaa-Akbar is when Jodhaa fences her husband into a corner, during a swordfight, after which the nascent emperor – the blades mere inches from his exposed neck – proves why he’d go on to be such a renowned diplomat. He could simply command her to back away, but that would only rouse her Rajput contempt. So he manipulates her sentiments instead, gruffly intoning, “Malika-e-Hindustan, yeh mat bhooliye ke hum aapke suhaag hain.” In a trice, a hero is reduced to a mere husband.” In the New Yorker’s culture blog, the critic Anthony Lane summed up this approach beautifully. Writing about snatching moments from movies, he said, “What happens, when illusions fracture, is that we console ourselves, rather too easily, with bits and pieces—the cinematic answer to people who stagger out of a failed relationship and mutter, ‘Well, there was that time in Mexico. Remember that Sunday? At least we were happy then.’ “

But this approach works only in print, or when someone gives you a truckload of time to describe what you want to say. (Moments cannot be listed; they need to be described.) And so, when a popular FM station called me to appear on their programme and talk about the year’s best films, I was forced to come up with a top-ten list. But I refused to call these films the year’s best. I said, instead, that these were some films that I found interesting in the past year, and I insisted on democratising things by talking about these films in alphabetical order, so that there was no “best.” (I know what you’re thinking. “What a bloody diva. These are just films. Just go ahead and make a list already.” I guess it helps that the people around me indulge my eccentricities.) In case you’re interested, this was my list: Amour, Argo, Barfi!, Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2, Kadhalil Sodhappuvadhu Eppadi, Looper, Naan Ee, Neerparavai, Neethane En Ponvasantham, Vicky Donor. Make of it what you will.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2013 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

58 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Totting up twelve months”

  1. Why don’t you list THE MOMENTS any more? apart from not having time, is there any other reason? I was a big fan of those posts, and will still be if you happen to write about them again.

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  2. A very good read, again. However, I don’t think there is any reason to feel any “fatigue” if ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Argo’ and other acclaimed films of the year show up on most of the ‘year’s best’ lists, for this simply means that these films have appealed to a large number of critics, satisfying their very subjective expectations and tastes. Your own list consists of at least four films–’Barfi’, ‘Vicky Donor’, ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ and ‘Makkhi’ (‘Naan Ee’)–that are also found on most other lists, but that certainly didn’t make me feel fatigued in the least. Every year, there are some films that appeal to large numbers, and hence, pop up everywhere when people talk about their best moviegoing experiences at the end of the year. Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.

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  3. been a religious reader of your blog …enjoy it thoroughly
    .,good you gave a list i can go grab the tamil movie dvds with sub titles in english …dont understand tamil so dont watch in theatres:)

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  4. Baddy, listla naduvulla konjam padatha kaanum! :-)

    But seriously, I didn’t realize you thought that highly of Looper. All I can remember from the comments on this blog is KayKay and I debating if there was a veil or not!! Hope that wasn’t the interesting bit you were referring to for this film!! :-) (Just kidding!)

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  5. Errr… Shankar bro…..that discussion was for Total Recall, not Looper, which sadly did not contain scenes of a 3 breasted woman, although I would have been satisfied with glimpses of just one on the luscious Emily Blunt:-)

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  6. Good article! Another reason why you should not put up a list is that you might not have seen some great films made last year, you are making list based on the film you came across. For example 2012 was a wonderful year for cinema, many surprising, refreshing, challenging cinema has been made last year around the world, it was a reassuring year which told us that the power of cinema is still alive. As you have mentioned Amour is one example, but there are many more which pushed the envelope, i assume that you never got a chance to see them if you have seen you word have loved it, i think:

    Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)
    Everybody In Our Family (Radu Jude, Romania)
    Me and You (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy)
    Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)
    Caesar Must Die (Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani, Italy)
    Omar Killed Me (Roschdy Zem, Mexico)
    Le Grand Soir (Gustave de Kervern, Benoît Delépine, France)
    Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)
    and
    Amour (Michael Haneke, France)

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  7. So, that conversation was for Total Recall and not Looper. Evidently, I have no recall of either film, so that pretty much sums it up. Wait, wasn’t Emily Blunt part of Looper? :-)

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  8. Lists are apparently like star ratings. No amount of explaining or clarifying can make people look at anything else. That’s me grumbling about all those people who’ve asked me how come such-and-such movie made it to my “best of” list.

    All I can think of is that the line “But I refused to call these films the year’s best” in the last para wasn’t exactly in Swahili…

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  9. Emily Blunt was one of the 3 best things in Looper. The other being Joseph Gordon Levitt continuing his string of terrific movies, a great Bruce Willis supporting role where it doesn’t look like he’s cashing a paycheck (yeah I’m lookin’ at you, The Cold Light Of Day!) although her story arc is what leads to a pretty draggy second half, IMHO.

    Looper also makes the cut for featuring what was to me, the single most horrifying scene in movies for last year. The real-time effects of physical torture manifesting itself on the future version of a looper was chilling in it’s brutality, and without featuring a single shot of the actual torture itself. That would qualify as one of my MOMENTS from the movie.

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  10. I don’t know why people get so personal about films they like. To many if a film they like someone doesn’t like it is some sort of a reflection on the genital size or something. Just relax, it is only a film your taste could be deferent from others.

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  11. But as someone mentioned when a ‘critic’ put together a list in mass media he/she has to at-least make an effort to see the best films made that year. I had an opportunity to see Like Someone in love by Iranian director Kiarostamy in festival, i haven’t seen such a mastery in film craft in long time. Dear critics please try and see this kind of films it if you can before you make your year end lists.

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  12. ‘Light After Darkness’ by Carlos Reygadas is a super film of the year IMO the best film of the year. This mexican director is making new standards to cinema. No surprise he won best director award in Cannes, when everyone predicted it for Haneke for Amour.

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  13. Nonsense – any list that does not contain Illaya Thalavali’s Thuppaki should be stricken and banished, not to mention Masala Cafe , anything for Anjali..

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  14. Dude, I was just kidding, as made amply evident. That said, do write about the moments you liked. Those posts were a great read…

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  15. With all due respect I think this quite an indulgent article. I understand how even a bad movie can have good moments but I am sure given the state of cinema, you wouldn’t have a hard time coming out with a list. How can you possibly find a good moment in a Housefull or a Jism? Also, because you are implying that you’re doing a kind of overarching list that includes Hollywood, Bollywood and Other movies..youre list is poorer because it simply does not or can not encompass much of other good cinema. Whereas of you had stuck to the good old list you could have included movies like Paan Singh Tomar and surely English Vinglish and other movies too.
    Also I am not so sure about liking or writing about a movie on gut after walking out of a theatre, I would have liked to believe that you got all out of cinema that we didn’t and made a constructive article about the movie. If you’re gut were to change by the end of the year how are we supposed to seriously take anything you write about. And I don’t mean taking what you write religiously like some folks do with some critics but one would like to assume that any writing would come from a solid perception of something….

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  16. Jo, Just got to see this fabulous interview of Abbas Kiarostami, in which he talks about why he think the obligation of telling ‘a story’ is the limitation of cinema. Interview is conducted by Film Society of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña at New York Film Festival. Have a look if you like.

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  17. @ Jo, This was a nice blog for simple people like us to come and read about films which we can understand, please don’t bring your Abbas Kiarostami and strange obscure intellectual fellows and crowd this place. Indian critics should write about Indian films we indians can understand and appreciate. BR is doing a great job of it. We don’t want to read about films made by unpronounceable names which never make to indian screens. You can do this kind of intellectual discussion in Passion for Cinema of something…..oh sorry isn’t that dead? :)

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  18. ” Indian critics should write about Indian films we indians can understand and appreciate.”

    And Indians can only appreciate Indian Films? Kinda selling your own people short there ain’t ya sunshine?

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  19. Nkb: With all due respect, the point is that I do not want to make these lists. The overarching list at the end of this article came about because I refused to do a list and wanted to give the listeners of the radio programme a sampling of films I found interesting. Besides, what makes you think that even if I’d made a rigorous list, I’d have “surely” included “English Vinglish”? That film didn’t work for me as much as it did for everyone else.

    About the gut feeling thing, that’s just the end result of watching a film. And it doesn’t preclude analysis and rigorous writing. It’s not as if I write these reviews on a whim.

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  20. @KayKay, Sorry man, may be i failed to articulate my point, let me try again: I was reacting to these intellectual discussions sprout out on any film discussion forums where people want to show off their ‘knowledge’ of films by bringing in strange names like Carlos Reygadas, Leos Carax, Kiarostami etc. (I am scecptical about these people)These may be great films in their own way but at the same time there are enough blogs discussing them in their own country. Why come to BRs blog and post about these films which we the other readers never see or care less about.

    As BR summed it up beautifully in the last para of his post on Amour: ‘Those of us who like this kind of cinema already get this kind of cinema from these filmmakers outside, and it’s a different kind of greatness – very different in tone and texture – that we look for in our films. To work within the Indian format of song- and sentiment-driven narration and yet make something …..’ Yes we have very different expectation from cinema and we should be proud of it. And critics like BR help us make sense of it better.

    There is enough to talk about our own films why insist that indian critics should write about Azerbaijanian films and educate our public. Stupid isn’t it?

    Also KayKay what make you think that my point is selling our people short? It is a matter of taste not a question of who is is superior.

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  21. “We don’t want to read about films made by unpronounceable names”

    Before you say things like this, you should know that Br used to write so much about such “unpronounceable names” reading which would make it impossible for me not to devour every bit of it a million more times with my mouth agape(yes yes, am thinking part of the picture/between reviews)

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  22. ” Indian critics should write about Indian films we indians can understand and appreciate.” -what crap. Why so much patriotism about it. Film is a film if it is made in india or Azerbaijan. If an Indian critic feels that he want to write about Abbas Kiarostami he should have choice about it. Exposure to world cinema really help the viewer as well as the industry.

    You know who got the largest personal collection of world cinema DVDs in India – it is Anurag Kashyap he watches everyone of them, talk about them to his fellow filmmakers share it with his friends etc. And this exposure shows in his work and the work of filmmakers coming from his gang, they are redefining indian cinema as you know it.

    As BR has mentioned Udaan is a good example of it.

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  23. “In other words, like an editor of a tabloid newspaper, he believes critics should follow public opinion instead of leading it. But, behind this polemic, is the still prevailing assumption that film is a second-class art, good only for taking a date to on Saturday night, and anyone who differs from this is ‘obscurantist’

    The problem is that, unlike music, films are not divided into ‘pop’ and ‘classical’. It is a lamentable situation that reasonably intelligent film critics, in order to please their bank managers, have to review every piece of commercial vomit that Hollywood, though not exclusively, throws up into their laps every week. It is equivalent to asking a book reviewer to write about airport bestsellers rather than literature. And few people would accuse the book critic of being elitist by reviewing, say, a Milan Kundera novel and not a Tom Clancey pot-boiler. Worse still, film critics of most national newspapers are obliged to lead their columns, on the latest blockbuster, no matter how dire, adding in a few lines at the end, ‘but the best film of the week was an Iranian film by…..”

    Brilliant point, it should put Rajeev Krishnan’s argument to rest :) Thanks haridass for sharing this link.

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  24. Another reason why critics write only about familiar stuff (instead of making interesting work familiar) is that they also seek popularity, so they love to write about stuff which people have seen (read Hollywood, Bollywood etc.) so they get readership, more click on the blog etc. In the process they ignore to bring to notice of their reader a great Iranian film or a Romanian film.

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  25. Rajeev Krishnan : ” Indian critics should write about Indian films we indians can understand and appreciate.”

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  26. Girish: “Another reason why critics write only about familiar stuff (instead of making interesting work familiar) is that they also seek popularity…” Actually no. It has more to do with the newspaper and what the higher-ups want or think will be read by the public. My earlier employer encouraged a column about foreign cinema once a week, even though it had a limited readership. There’s no space for that with my current employer.

    Regarding the “popularity” thing, even on the blog these posts weren’t all that popular, but the writings on Hindi/Tamil cinema took care of that. So a critic can always try to find a balance — writing about Iranian cinema doesn’t mean you cannot make up for “lost readers” by reviewing, say, “Dabangg 2.”

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  27. Rangan, I totally understand your position as far as your writing on newspaper is concerned. The higher-ups want you to write about what they think people will read. But what about the blog? blogs are invented to free the writer from all these commercial interests, isn’t it? But there you do self-censorship and behave exactly like your employer, how can you complain about the employer then?

    You said “So a critic can always try to find a balance — writing about Iranian cinema doesn’t mean you cannot make up for “lost readers” by reviewing, say, “Dabangg 2.” – But I have gone through your current blog posts and the archive, i haven’t seen any balance. It is mostly Bollywood and Hollywood and Tamil films. It is in no way a balance with the fabulous/challenging/pathbreaking/ films made by modest filmmakers from other parts of the world.

    What you say?

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  28. With a dedicated TV channel for World Cinema, with 3 brands releasing world cinema DVDs regularly, with separate Film Festivals in all major cities and number of film clubs all over india there is enough world cinema going around in India, and critics are still not bothered to write about them, it is kind of sad. If it is a great film and if it is accessible to us it is the duty of the critic to bring it to the attention of his reader.

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  29. No Grisih my argument is relevant still. Cinema is ordinary man’s art, indian popular cinema captured it better than any one else. But as venkitesh pointed out in some other discussion, the intellectual types are too eager to trash the films made here and worship something made in a foreign country. I myself have fallen for this trap, after hearing so much about it from film scholars i ended up watching Battleship Potamkin, Tokyo Story, Wild strawberries, Nostalgia etc. all supposed to be classics. I am sorry to say that it was a case of – Emperor was naked!

    So all i am saying is there is enough websites and blogs which cloth the emperor, why insist it here?

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  30. The publications do research on their readers, So they know very well what our people want to read. A mass publication should address the needs of the mass, for specialised taste there are enough specialised publications, websites, blogs etc. Art cinema or World cinema is enjoyed by few but the mass doesn’t care is my point.

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  31. How can any critic write in a mass publication about a film which his readers never seen or never get a chance to see?

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  32. I am not anyones PR, I am an IT Professional, I love cinema, our cinema with song and dance and melodrama and i am proud of it. And I love BR s reviews.

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  33. Baradwaj, how come you mention Neerparavai as one of the “interesting” films of the year and yet have not written or blogged anything about it? Would like to know what you felt about it as I think it was one solid film with terrific detailing (though, I must add, the Nandita Das portions ruined it for me) from last year’s crop.

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  34. Rajeev Krishnan’s jingoistic remark on indian films made me think of another point, what really is an indian film? made by an indian? or it resonate with indian contemporary reality?

    Take for example the iranian film ‘A Separation’ it is a truly indian film to me. A man who is in the obligation to take care of his seriously ill father, the trust or lack of it with domestic help, the children caught in between all this, the role of faith, religion, gilt, the chaos when different classes interact….everything about it is more indian that any other indian film made in india these days.

    (And reading all the above don’t expect a boring/depressing film, it is brilliantly made film, gripping, involving, superbly acted etc. highly uplifting experience.)

    Don’t you think our audience deserve to see this beautiful work? Don’t you think indian critics has to expand their world and write about these films?

    Excel has released a DVD of ‘A Separation’ for indian market.

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  35. PVR is hosting a Wong Kar Wai Retrospective in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai from Feb 1st to 7th.

    http://www.facebook.com/DirectorsRare

    See, the industry has woken up, the audience is there, Critic is the only MISSING LINK. He is busy writing about Hollywood and Bollywood trash for getting more readership and popularity for his writing.

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  36. What is wrong with you people? what BR want to write is his choice. You can comment on what he has written, that is constructive criticism, how can you criticise him for his choice of subject? Insisting what he should write is another form of censorship. Girish sounds like Arnab Gowswami here:)

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  37. Girish: The balance is missing because of time considerations. When I was the Express, I was only a writer. Now, the job profile is different, and I have to squeeze out writing time for blog-only posts. And over the past two years, a lot of my spare time went to the book…

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  38. This is great news! thanks PVR for the initiative, i have seen all these films before in Delhi when Osian’s Film fest had a retrospective i think in 2006. It was riot outside to get in for the screening of In the mood for love, I stood in the line for two hours to for Chunking Express. Now it is commercially released, fantastic. Love to see them all agin, six years later with the wisdom i gained in six years, it will be a totally new experience i am sure. That is the beauty of this kind of cinema, it has the space for you to interact depend on who you are, if you change over the years the film will also change for you.

    Barfi will be Barfi even after 200 years.

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  39. It is not just critics are hungry of popularity, they are simply lazy. it is very easy to write these reviews about Hollywood and Bollywood flicks. Because everything is very obvious in those formats. And there will be enough superficial flaws for the critic to laugh at, if there is a slight shift from the usual then the critic he celebrate it, there will be actors giving good and bad performances the critic can mention and a small mention of other departments like music, photography, editing etc…..you have done your job of reviewing. It is all very easy.

    If you read BRs review of Jab Tak Hai Jaan, (http://baradwajrangan.wordpress.com/2012/11/17/jab-tak-hai-jaan-837285-8735/) you will understand what i am talking about, what he has written is very obvious things about the film, which anyone who watch films on regularly will point out. i don’t understand why you need a professional critic waste his time writing this kind of thing. In no way am blaming BR for this this, the material he choose to write doesn’t have any depth, for him to write anything better.

    But in case of a film of Abbas Kiarostami or any contemporary master of world cinema it is a different situation. These films work on multiple layers of meanings, and at many times very open-ended without ‘concluding’ anything for the audience. So writing about those films involve a lot of thinking in critics part and also the risk of sticking your neck out with his interpretation. An average critic will stay away from anything like this and a real critic will write and he will make significant difference to our lives.

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  40. BR : Neerparavai , really ? Strictly average i thought , any reviews of that movie ?

    Jo : “A Separation” – an Indian film , that was my first thought of it as well. Just so so familiar yet different , a brilliant film.

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  41. Rahul : “We need to talk about Kevin” is fantastic – but was it released in 2012 , i thought it was a 2011 movie.

    Killer Joe i am yet to see.

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  42. Venkatesh, Ebert did not put it in his 2011 list saying it released in the beginning of 2012.
    Apart from everything else – the way color has been used in it is terrific.
    Killer Joe makes Django Unchained seem like a romantic comedy.

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  43. Rahul : You are indeed correct, i just sort of remember seeing it a lot time ago. That’s all. Interestingly, in that list i have seen almost all except 3 movies. That’s a good list.

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  44. BR, I’m willing to pay good money to read your review of HOLY MOTORS. It is that kind of a film. Please, please write about it when you watch it.. eventually.

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