If 2020 will be remembered as anything, it's as the worst year in recent movie history. Were there worse years? Debatable! Few people alive now probably remember how things were during WWII, for instance—but the entertainment industry wasn't as well-developed, as all-pervasive back then. The COVID-induced siege changed show business like the arrival of talking pictures did, like the arrival of colour did, like the arrival of television did, like the arrival of torrent sites did: as theatres shut down, OTT platforms flourished and now seem poised to dictate what movies will henceforth be seen as "theatre-worthy", from the POV of the makers as well as the audience.
With the pipeline of releases being stopped in theatres and a handful of films being re-routed to our homes, it didn't make sense to do individual "best-of" lists for each southern industry. There simply weren't enough films to consider per language. So here's a combined list.
I haven't included films released in December 2019 that I saw this year — else, I would have certainly looked at Girmit (Ravi Basrur's "mass" movie with an all-child cast), the Rakshit Shetty-starrer Avane Srimannarayana (directed by Sachin Ravi), and especially Rosshan Andrrews' superb Prathi Poovankozhi (with Manju Warrier). Also out of this list are the excellent films I watched at or through festivals: Arun Karthick's Rotterdam-prize winner Nasir, J Geetha's Run Kalyani, and Rahul Riji Nair's Kalla Nottam, which sees only what a GoPro camera sees.
Plus, every year sees a bunch of movies that don't entirely make the cut but have so much to recommend that you want to at least acknowledge them: Sudha Kongara's Soorarai Pottru (a solid outing for an excellent Suriya), Zakariya Mohammed's Halal Love Story (all hail Grace Antony!), Priya Krishnaswamy's Baaram, Sailesh Kolanu's HIT: The First Case, Priyanandanan's Silencer (with a magnificent Lal), Arvind Kamath's Arishadvarga, the trippy Chennai Palani Mars (written by Vijay Sethupathi and directed by Biju Viswanath), Sandeep Raj's Colour Photo, V Vignarajan's exquisitely mounted Andhaghaaram, Vinod Anantoju''s Middle Class Melodies, RDM's chilling Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban, Muhammad Musthafa's Kappela (all hail Anna Ben!), Ravikanth Perepu's Krishna and his Leela, and Anand Ravichandran's Sethum Aayiram Pon.
And here are my top ten, in the order of release date:
Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo: This Trivikram Srinivas blockbuster, starring Allu Arjun, revolves around a baby swap. A middle-class man jealous of his wealthy employer swaps his son with the latter's. His logic is that at least his son will enjoy the comforts he doesn't have. The "plot" is older than the hills, but what stands out in this all-out masala entertainer is the effort that's gone into writing the outrageous, "illogical", OTT moments. We buy into it all because the makers buy into it all. They whole-heartedly believe in every single moment, even the stretch where hit songs of Telugu heroes are played in a boardroom meeting. This conviction is everything, and you just don't find it outside Telugu cinema.
Psycho: Mysskin's latest is dedicated to Alfred Hitchcock, and the homage extends to the deepest theme in Hitchcock's similarly titled blockbuster: the dysfunctional relationship between a "mother" and a "son", which results in the latter becoming a serial killer. The director strips the genre of its must-haves, and instead of a thriller we get a drama about the redemption of a brutally damaged man, who's treated with as much compassion as his victims. For Mysskin fans, the film is a gift that keeps on giving. The jaw-dropping cave sequence at the end, is so singular in its blend of religious pageantry and gladiatorial spectacle, it could have come from no one else.
Varane Avashyamund: Anoop Sathyan makes a delectable cream puff of a movie from the heaviest ingredients: a soldier (Suresh Gopi) suffering from some sort of PTSD, a single mother (Shobana) and her romance-averse daughter (Kalyani Priyadarshan), and two siblings (Dulquer Salmaan, Sarvajith Santosh Sivan) with a truly ghastly history. The director chooses to discard microscopic detail in favour of broad arcs and happy-making vignettes. The drama-lover in me wished that at least some of the subplots had been angstier. But the film is a total, utter, complete charmer. Social distancing be damned, I wanted to give these people a huge hug.
Ayyappanum Koshiyum: One of the social-media highlights of the year was Prithiviraj's note to Sachy, who died tragically young. (Reading it, I wept.) Based on this clash-of-egos saga (between the characters played by Prithviraj and Biju Menon), the director was destined for great things. The storyline is unremarkable, but Sachy's treatment is epic. The psychological flourishes make it feel as though Syam Pushkaran had written a masala movie. The second half, especially, is a series of ultra-charged high points, each of which could be its own interval block. I wished I'd gotten into the heads of these two headstrong men a little more, but this is the dictionary definition of intelligent entertainment.
Trance: In Anwar Rasheed's ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) drama, Fahadh Faasil is stunning as a small-time motivational coach who becomes a faith healer. Vincent Vadakkan's screenplay is most indicative of the film's ambition. In a typical narrative arc, the protagonist falls and then rises. Trance inverts this trajectory. Its biggest "high" is at the interval point, and thereafter, I had a hell of a time watching the two halves loop in on one another, like a demented pair of twins. The film has its flaws (notably the Nazriya Nazim character), but it's thrillingly original. It screws around with your head like a faith healer brainwashing his flock.
Dharala Prabhu/ Uma Maheswara Ugra Roopasya: AKA the two best remakes of the year. Both films were up against formidable odds, originals with formidable reputations: Shoojit Sircar's Vicky Donor and Dileesh Pothan's Maheshinte Prathikaaram, respectively. But Krishna Marimuthu explores the old premise with a fresh pair of eyes, a fresh sensibility. This Harish Kalyan-starrer is both an homage to the original and a quietly radical reworking of it. Venkatesh Maha, similarly, "mainstreams" a multiplex-y movie, but he's got an eye, a vision, and most importantly, he's got sincerity. To take someone else's property and still show some kind of authorial signature means you're holding on to who you essentially are. These are rare remakes with soul.
Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn: This short film—directed by Gautham Vasudev Menon, starring STR and Trisha—is a lovely reunion, with a pinch of pain. Without the (enormous) baggage of Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya, these 12-odd minutes would just be a short story about a man calling his ex. But how can anyone forget what happened in those 167 minutes, 10 years ago? Especially with the strains of Aaromale playing as Karthik picks up his phone and dials Jessie! Karthik Dial Seytha Yenn—shot on iPhones, with quarantined actors and crew—is now a stopgap epilogue to a never-ending novel. It's also a way forward for filmmakers. The theatrical experience is indeed something, but it isn't everything.
c u soon: aka the year's other big experiment. From the global sprawl of Take Off, Mahesh Narayanan (with his superb cast of Fahadh Faasil, Roshan Mathew, Darshana Rajendran) shrinks his vision to a series of screens that span the globe, enabling worldwide access from the confines of homes. Instead of characters' points of view, we see a story unfold from the screens' point of view. The film is a missing-person mystery. It's also a time capsule of our relationship to (and reliance upon) modern technology, and of our lives in the COVID-19 era. c u soon seems to be asking: Do you really need to step out anymore, even to watch this movie?
Ka Pae Ranasingam: In P Virumaandi's impressive debut, Aishwarya Rajesh acts her heart out as a woman who wants the body of her recently deceased husband flown back from Dubai, where he was employed. At the centre of this drama is an almost dharmic question: What is our duty towards other people, especially those in dire need? The film runs nearly three hours, and it earns that indulgence. Instead of wasting time on songs and laughs to "lighten" its themes, and instead of offering simple-minded solutions and lectures, it submerges us in a quicksand of systemic rot. We feel — almost physically — every step of the protagonist's journey, and the final stretch is a heart-breaker.
Paava Kadhaigal: The year of COVID-19 was also the year of the anthology. OTT platforms seemed to be in a race, scrambling to lasso in big-name directors to make short films, and Paava Kadhaigal is easily the best of the bunch. Sudha Kongara, Vignesh Shivan, Gautham Vasudev Menon and Vetri Maaran give us variations on the theme of maanam (honour) and demonstrate just how much a filmmaker can be liberated by not having to think about "B and C centres" and opening weekends and star power and other such things. Whether in the dark humour or the profanity or the long, sustained stretches of drama or the fact that an up-and-coming male star plays a transgender character, this anthology hints at ways actors and directors can stretch without having to bend over.