Great Expectations (1946)

Country: United Kingdom

Books written by Charles Dickens have been translated into the medium of film for years and years. From Oliver Twist to A Christmas Carol, his stories have been made into musicals as well as animated films. Perhaps one of the most famous renditions of Charles Dickens’ immortal story Great Expectations is the 1946 film made by David Lean.

Lean is considered to be one of the most influential filmmakers in the world, and is revered by many famous directors. At the time Great Expectations was made, Lean was just starting to get noticed. He would then go on to make iconic films such as Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Passage to India, which immortalised him as the man with an epic vision. In fact Steven Spielberg had once said that he wanted to be a director after watching Lawrence of Arabia.

Lean’s impact in the world of cinema is therefore undeniable, and any fan of old films, or films based on books, or even David Lean, should never commit the sacrilege of not watching Great Expectations.

Pip, (played by Anthony Wager as a child and John Mills as an adult), is a poor orphan who is threatened by an escaped convict to give him food. Pip steals some and hands it over to the convict. Also during his childhood, an old rich woman, Miss Havisham (who was abandoned on her marriage day), calls Pip to spend time with her, paying her for his company. There he meets a cruel but absolutely beautiful teenager, Estella, with whom he later falls in love.

Many years later, Pip discovers that he has been taken under the wing of a secret benefactor, whose identity he is unsure of. As a result, Pip moves into the city and lives with Herbert Pocket (played by Alec Guinness) and rubs shoulders with high class people. Who exactly is this secret benefactor? Pip thinks it is Miss Havisham, but is he right?

John Mills is brilliant in his role here and though he was around 40 at the time the film was made, he makes the perfect Pip. Jean Simmons is another treat to watch, as the spoiled young Estella.  Not only does she look uncannily like Vivien Leigh, but also to an extent, acts like her in Gone with the Wind. Valerie Hobson plays the older Estella to perfection as well. There will probably be no Miss Havisham as iconic as the one played by Martita Hunt.

The film is an absolute visual treat. Though it is in black and white, its start contrasts and haunting images make for a completely different experience. One only has to see the scene where Pip finds Miss Havisham sitting in her bridal dress in front of a rotting wedding cake just to believe it.

The film is absolutely haunting, and its images will play in your mind after you finish watching it. Surely this has to be the best adaptation of Great Expectations ever.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you are a fan of David Lean. Also watch it if you want to see a great rendition of Dickens’ classic tale. For Alec Guinness fans, here is a sneak preview of him as a young man, before he went on to play Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia and Obi Wan Kenobi in the old Star Wars trilogy.

Avoid it if you cannot bear black and white movies. Any other reason to avoid it? Definitely not.

Osama (2003)

Country: Afghanistan

Looking at the title of the film, one immediately assumes that this film is about Osama Bin Laden – but that would be a completely wrong thought. However, even without a mention of Bin Laden, Osama manages to be just as emotionally scarring.

The film follows the story of a young girl (probably of 11 years of age), who has to become the breadwinner of her family after her father is killed. The only other members of her family are her mother and grandmother, both women.  In this strict Taliban regime, women are not allowed to work – which is what puts her mother out of work in the first place. To make sure that they do not go hungry, her mother chops off the young girl’s hair and disguises her as a boy so that she can work with the local milk vendor. Her true identity is only known to her family and to another male friend, who gives her the name ‘Osama’.

However, fate has its say in another manner, and the Taliban come to enlist all young boys. She is scooped up by them forcibly and is trained in military school. But this becomes a disturbing journey for her as she has to protect her real identity – because she knows that if she is discovered she will be killed.

How long can she hide this truth? And does she ever return to her family? Osama leaves you both shocked and disturbed as you undertake the harrowing road to life in Taliban ruled Afghanistan.

Thankfully this is not a film about how good the Americans are to wage war in Afghanistan, or is not about how evil the Taliban are for their support of Bin Laden and 9/11. This is the story of a young girl, and nothing more.

The acting is top-notch, and Marina Golbahari (Osama) performs completely realistically, making her the ray of light in this otherwise dark and depressing tale directed by Siddiq Barmak.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you would like to watch a film about the effect of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

Avoid it completely if you do not want to be depressed. Though this film is not physically violent or gory, it is emotionally draining and distressing.

Phörpa ~ The Cup (1999)

Country: Bhutan

A couple of youngsters wanting to watch the FIFA World Cup may not sound so unusual. After all, most people do that anyway, don’t they? But, what if these youngsters were Tibetan students living in a religious monastery in India?

Phorpa is far from typical Hollywood fare, relying on its unusual, yet delightful story to catch the attention of its viewers. Interesting questions are raised over the course of the film.

First is the Tibetan question itself. This amazing part of the world has seen so much strife over its history, and so many of its people are still scattered all over the world, not knowing whether they will ever get back to their homeland. In spite of this, Tibetans living abroad in countries like India still continue to follow their culture and their religious duties and this is apparent in Phorpa.

Another question is raised regarding the impact of popular culture and modernity over a very old religious way of life. The Lamas discuss whether it is right for the young ones to be pulled in by the material lure of the world cup. Is material pleasure the ultimate source of evil? Or does religion have to give place to modernity as well?

As the film progresses, the young novices try to find a way to watch the world cup. They are forced to rent a TV from an Indian dealer. However, things don’t go as smoothly as planned and a number of problems cause obstructions. However, these problems only test the solidarity of the young students.

There is no action in this film – no catfights or rat races. The film is realistic and visually beautiful. The music, like the film, is completely fresh and unique.

Bhutanese filmmaker/Lama Khyentse Norbu’s film is definitely worth watching for its wit and humour.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it to see the lifestyle and beliefs of Tibetan monks as they try to accept modernity in an old way of life. Also watch it for a heartwarming story.

Avoid it if you are looking for something big to happen every two minutes. Also miss it if you are easily disappointed with subtle climaxes.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Country: Japan

War is sometimes called inevitable. It is glorified as being necessary in order to eliminate certain evil, to protect one’s country, to defend its people. But what is mostly missed is the story of those caught up in a war that is not theirs.

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru No Haka) is an animated film about World War II and the lives of two orphans at a time when compassion and humanity are seemingly lost. 14-year-old Seita and 4-year-old Setsuko lose their mother during a bombing incident. Seita, who now finds responsibility hanging on his shoulders, has to take the help of his aunt, who slowly grows to resent the children during the difficult times. Unable to bear her selling his mother’s kimonos, Seita takes Setsuko along with him to an isolated bomb shelter where he thinks they can live independently.

However, food grows scarce, and though the children find temporary happiness by catching fireflies and watch them circle the bomb shelter at night, they are faced with despair in the morning, when the short-lived fireflies are all dead. These beautifully executed scenes are very symbolic in nature and help explain the futility and the death of hope in wartime.

If your exposure to animated films has been restricted to the ones made by Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks, this film can come as quite a shock. This is no fairy tale. There are no heroes or villains. Deaths are not implied, they are shown. The film is not gory, but some images may definitely be emotionally disturbing to sensitive viewers.

Isao Takahata, who established Studio Ghibli with Hayao Miyazaki, is no unknown filmmaker. Along with Miyazaki, Takahata has created a number of wonderful animated films. To those who are unacquainted with his work, this is the first film Takahata has made on such a tragic subject. Due to its emotional impact and importance in retelling Japanese history, this film is shown in schools around the country, but is accompanied with Miyazaki’s heartwarming My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari No Totoro) on DVD to lessen its depression quotient.

Considered by Roger Ebert to be ‘the greatest war film ever made’, Grave of the Fireflies does not take sides. Seita and Setsuko’s father is fighting the war on the Japanese side, and the children root for their father, who tells them that the Japanese side will win. Eventually though, the film does not take any side, apart from that of humanity.

Whether war is inevitable or glorious, or whether it is painful and futile is up for the viewer to judge. Without being didactic, Takahata’s masterpiece goes into the heart of war and uncovers the emotionally impactful story of two orphans.

The haunting score by Michio Mamiya is perfectly played with the visuals. It is sure to stay on your mind long after watching the film.

Note that the film is based on a novel by WWII survivor Akiyuki Nosaka, who wrote the semi-autobiographical story as an apology to his younger sister. You might wonder what this apology was for, but for that it is either necessary to read the book or to watch the film.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch what can be called one of the most emotionally affecting films of all time. Watch it to see how realistic animation can be and how animated characters can be more real than actors.

Avoid it if you do not want to be depressed for days. Also avoid it if you expect characters to break out into song every once in a while and if you think animated films are for children and therefore have happy endings.

Vitus (2006)

Country: Switzerland

How many times have you looked at yourself and thought ‘gosh, I wish I’d been smarter in my childhood’? Well apparently that’s not a problem for the charming child prodigy in Vitus. The namesake of the film shuffles through encyclopaedias as a toddler, and is a piano prodigy by age 5. Not only that, he has an unbelievably high IQ of 180 by age 12. Too hard to swallow that? That’s only a part of the story.

Vitus, played by real piano prodigy Teo Gheorghiu is definitely not your normal 12-year-old. He’s too smart for his classmates and also his teachers, which makes him feel less connected to those around him. His parents have envisioned a famous piano-playing life for him, but Vitus has many other plans. Under the wing of his loving grandfather, with whom he feels most comfortable, Vitus launches an invisible rebellion that is going to changes the lives of those around him.

What this ‘invisible rebellion’ is is worth looking out for.

The film has had its share of success, winning the Audience Choice Award for Best Feature at the Chicago Film Festival as well as a Best Film accolade from The Swiss Film Prize. It was also Switzerland’s entry into the Oscars that year. In spite of that, it is not a film most people outside Switzerland would have heard of. Unfortunately so, as the film has its share of special moments, as well as a brilliant soundtrack (one that consists of classical music composed by maestros such as Bach, Mozart, and many others). What makes the soundtrack even more special is that the film is about a piano prodigy and Teo Gheorghiu is one. He plays all the pieces you see him playing in the film. There’s no pretension here.

One memorable scene which uses seemingly simple (but clever) sound editing at its best is where Vitus and another boy are cycling in circles and there is the intelligent cutting of classical music over pop music and vice-versa.

Another memorable (and amusing) scene is where Vitus takes his former babysitter (who is a few years older than he is) to a Cambodian restaurant called ‘Angkor’. He reveals that he really likes her and tells her that they would be a perfect couple because women live longer than men and if he married her, they would both die around the same time.

Fredi M. Murer’s direction is commendable and the story flows in a satisfying manner. The acting is consistently good and Teo Gheorghiu, his on-screen parents Julika Jenkins and Urs Jucker, and his grandfather (on celluloid) Bruno Ganz seem like a real family.

This is a charming family film. Do not expect thrilling twists and turns with heaps and heaps of melodrama. And this isn’t a romance film either in case you’re wondering.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you want to see a film that is engaging and satisfying and really holds up well because of its lead actors. Also watch it for the plot.

Avoid it if you’re done with films about child prodigies and their families. Also avoid it if you’re not a huge fan of classical music (because there’s lots of it here).

4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days (2007)

Country: Romania

Two friends take a harrowing journey in Communist Romania in order to illegally abort a baby. Cristian Mungiu’s ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ is not a happy story at all. Its images are bleak, dark, devoid of happiness, much like the story of the two roommates.

1987, in an unknown town in Romania, two roommates, Otilia and Găbiţa secretly go about making arrangements to travel to another place for a short time. We discover that Găbiţa is pregnant and wants an abortion. However, there is one major problem – abortion is illegal in Communist Romania and getting someone to do it is even more difficult.

But Găbiţa says she has it under control, and has booked a hotel and has arranged a meeting with a certain Mr. Bebe who is supposed to carry out her abortion. However, things spiral out of control. Everything is even more distressing for Otilia, who is genuinely trying to help her roommate. When Mr. Bebe reveals certain ‘strings attached’ to the abortion plan, Otilia finds herself caught up between her sanity and compassion.

Mungiu won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for this film. The story is not a social commentary. It is not a story about mistreatment in Soviet Romania. It is a personal story of a girl.

If you’re looking for a conventional climax and denouement, this is not the right film to watch. The film is instead depressing, not visually, but emotionally. It is a real mirror into the life of people who are in a position that has changed them completely. Anamaria Marinca, who plays Otilia, perfectly brings out her character’s inner turmoil.

There is no music in this film – because music is absent in the bleakest of times.

Mungiu’s intelligent, yet sensitive understanding of women makes this a film worth a try.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you want to see a realistic, yet depressing film about life in Communist Romania. Also keep an eye out for a roughly 10-minute scene where there are no edits and the camera does not even move an inch.

Avoid it if you don’t want to be depressed. Also avoid it if suspense without action makes you disappointed.

A Moment To Remember (2004)

Country: South Korea

The lure of a touching love story is hard to resist. That is perhaps why many people turn to Korean cinema. There is something about Korean romantic films that creates a warm feeling inside, but at the same time, helps in catharsis. If there is one movie that meets these criteria perfectly, and still stands out as a memorable film in its genre, it is ‘A Moment To Remember’.

A Moment To Remember is the story of a couple from different social classes. When they fight the odds to get married, a shocking twist in fate tests their love for each other. This is the story of love’s fight in the face of adversity, and the emotional tale of enduring love.

Son Ye-jin and Jung Woo-sung play the protagonists and make a realistic ‘in-love couple’. Woo-sung’s seeming stoicism and Ye-jin’s cherubic personality clash, but this contrast is what gets this film’s point across. You can be very different in terms of social standing and personalities, but love knows no bounds.

The film, directed by Lee Jae-han, is an engaging one and will keep viewers interested in love stories engrossed. While the first third of the film takes on the form of a romantic comedy, that ‘mood’ soon dies down, and more serious matters come to the forefront.

The acting, by two of South Korea’s famous actors is noteworthy, and they are convincing in their roles. The film is structured well and flows coherently, highlighting apparently unimportant details in the beginning, which end up making sense as the story progresses.

The film does get melodramatic at points, but it does not ruin the overall experience.

A Moment To Remember is shot well and though the cinematography is not brilliant, it works for the film. The music plays out as a companion piece to the film, but is not exceptional as a standalone soundtrack.

FINAL VERDICT: Watch it if you like to ‘indulge in’ emotional love stories every now and then. Also watch it if you’re trying to get yourself to cry.

Avoid it if you think romantic films about enduring love are just not for you. Also avoid it if you would pick action over drama any day.