For the last month or so, I've been waking up at the crack of dawn. Chugging down raw egg smoothies. Plugging in the earphones with Eye of the Tiger on loop. Running down four floors. And jogging, stretching, galloping across Lokhandwala. Punching. Skipping. Sweating. Training. And ending each morning by sprinting up the stairs of the PVR Icon ticket counter at Infinity Mall, and leaping into the air, one step closer to battle. All this for October 17th – the day that kick-starts the only marathon I know how to run. Across India, the world and back, in seven days.
I may or may not be exaggerating about this routine. But I cannot possibly exaggerate the importance of MAMI 2019 – the 21st edition of the Mumbai Film Festival – for us movie marathoners. 2019 is already being lauded as one of the most fertile years for cinema this decade. As a result, the MAMI line-up looks like the kind of buffet you prepare for by not eating for days in advance. Or maybe that's just my middle-class stomach talking.
As always, let me first list down the biggies – the hotly anticipated movies that have played at Berlin, Cannes, Toronto, Locarno, Venice, Sundance, Busan and other festivals I'm not cool enough to attend. Actually, I did attend Sundance this year. I just needed an excuse to mention that.
James Gray's Brad Pitt starring sci-fi space drama, Ad Astra; Noah Baumbach's global festival hit, Marriage Story; Joanna Hogg's Sundance winner, The Souvenir; Pedro Almodovar's filmmaker tragedy, Pain and Glory; Martin Scorsese's Netflix-produced gangster opera, The Irishman; Robert Eggers' future awards favourite, The Lighthouse; Hirokazu Kore-eda's first non-Japanese family anti-drama, The Truth; Gurvinder Singh's rare personal foray, Khanaur; Alma Har'el's dizzying Shia LeBouf biopic, Honey Boy; Ari Aster's horror headliner, Midsommar; Jim Jarmusch's zombie comedy, The Dead Don't Die; Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman's Palme d'Or contender, It Must Be Heaven; Scott Z. Burns' investigative CIA thriller, The Report; Trey Edward Shults' existential family epic, Waves; Geetu Mohandas' bilingual MAMI opener, Moothon; Werner Herzog's strange Japanese detour, Family Romance, LLC; Gitanjali Rao's animated city ode, Bombay Rose; Ken Loach's latest sociopolitical deepdive, Sorry We Missed You; Hardik Mehta's Busan darling, Kaamyaab; The Dardenne brothers' Young Ahmed; Bhaskar Hazarika's morbid romance, Aamis; Harmony Korine's slacker-writer satire, The Beach Bum; Fernando Meirelles Telluride hit, The Two Popes; Olivier Assayas' Cuban thriller, Wasp Network; Cannes Jury winner, Bacarau; Rupert Goold's Judy Garland biopic, Judy. And last but not least, Mati Diop's supernatural Senegalese romance, Atlantics.
If you don't catch these biggies, you will be banned from cinephile debates/parties/tweet-ups and socially ostracized from society. Just kidding. Or not.
Now that we're done with the FOMO titles, let's look deeper. Every festival has hidden gems – little-known films that catch fire in the week and end up being fan/jury favourites out of nowhere. Last year it was the ingenious Japanese meta comedy, One Cut of the Dead and the Icelandic twosome: And Breathe Normally and Woman at War. The year before that it was Summer 1993.
Here are 8 potential sleeper hits:
PORT AUTHORITY (World Cinema; fiction)
Dir: Danielle Lessovitz
The interracial, interclass and Montague-Capulet divides are reimagined through a heady romance in which a straight white boy belatedly discovers that he is dating a transwoman. Port Authority, a deceptively sensual love story that made ripples in Cannes' Un Certain Regard section this year, locates the star-crossed Shakespearean template in New York's nocturnal and visually dazzling underground drag-ball subculture. Executively produced by Martin Scorsese, the film marks a rare instance where a trans actress (Leyna Bloom) plays a transgendered character, opposite breakout Dunkirk actor Fionn Whitehead.
ABOUT LOVE (India Gold; documentary)
Dir: Archana Phadke
It's funny to see a dramatically dysfunctional Indian family on screen only to remember that this is a documentary – and these are real "characters" (in every sense of the term) closely related to their director. Archana Phadke's award-winning portrait of her Maharashtrian family is more than a sardonic ode to a multigenerational home. It is also a tender – if curiously dispassionate – rumination on a bittersweet, taken-for-granted love that often tends to transcend deep-rooted patriarchy, abusive marriages, quiet feminism and inheritance-versus-living conflicts within four (or eight) walls.
SOLE (International Competition; fiction)
Dir: Carlo Sironi
A Polish-Italian co-production (in more ways than one) from a first-time director, Sole, which premiered at Venice, has been described as a thoughtfully colour-coded, oddly romantic and elegant swipe at ultraconservative Italian surrogacy laws. It tells the unlikely West-meets-East tale of an aimless Italian drifter who comes of age by pretend-coupling with a pregnant Polish girl so that the baby can be adopted by his uncle. The play-acted parenthood turns serious, with the boy dreaming of adulthood in a doomed arrangement – a culturally generous premise that makes Sole an underdog for the Golden Gateway this year.
CARGO (Spotlight; fiction)
Dir: Arati Kadav
If homegrown sci-fi enthusiast Arati Kadav's deceptively introspective short The Time Machine was anything to go by, Cargo – her feature-length debut starring Vikrant Massey and Shweta Tripathi – promises to elevate her scribbly, do-it-yourself Gondry-ness into a distinctly original genre-indie space. The story marries the sentimental minimalism of Duncan Jones with the hyperactive rootedness of Neill Blomkamp: A company called the Post Death Transition Services – a commercial reincarnation agency of sorts (or a cheeky homage to the old-school Bollywood motif) – sends a female astronaut to assist a lonely male astronaut on a spaceship. Now just imagine the gravity of their situation.
MIDNIGHT TRAVELER (World Cinema; documentary)
Dir: Hassan Fazili
Widely hailed as the most Oscar-worthy documentary of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, Midnight Traveler is a daring and drastic film that painstakingly personalizes the global refugee crisis. Shot over three soul-sucking years on half-charged cellphones across half-a-dozen countries by a journalist who shows the stubborn presence of mind to record his own fearful escape from a Taliban death threat, the "home"video-style film – featuring innocent people grappling with homelessness – is a stark reminder that the epidemic of displacement never truly ends. It is ongoing, evidenced in how Fazili and family await their asylum request in Germany to be processed as you read this.
BABYTEETH (International Competition; fiction)
Dir: Shannon Murphy
A head-turner at Venice, Australian director Shannon Murphy's debut feature (mind you, she's slated to direct Killing Eve Season 3) is a vibrant, multifaceted and impassioned subversion of the terminally-ill-teenager tale. More importantly, it also marks the big-screen debut of young firebrand Eliza Scanlen, Amy Adams' memorably sociopathic sister from Sharp Objects. She stars as a dying girl who starts dating a hopeless drug-addict as both her last wish and first love. With the criminally underrated Ben Mendelsohn completing the dream team as her paranoid father, Babyteeth has all the elements to account for a wild tragi-arthouse ride. After all, there's nothing quite as cinematic as a cocktail of love and death.
WHO YOU THINK I AM (Rendezvous with French Cinema; fiction)
Dir: Safy Nebbou
Juliette Binoche – aren't you sold already? – stars in a genre-fluid catfish story as a 50-year-old academic who weaponizes the fake 24-year-old social media persona she creates to spy on her lover…by starting a torrid affair with his roommate. We've all done a bit of perverse cyber stalking, but trust Binoche to become the cautionary face of this otherwise-millennial vice. The film is said to flit between observational rom-com and antique suspense thriller tones, and was quite the surprise package when it premiered at Berlin this year. If the premise isn't alluring enough: Juliette Binoche. Dual Identity. Fatal Attraction. Case closed.
GREENER GRASS (After Dark; fiction)
Dir: Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe
What's a festival list without some crazy? Greener Grass – a psychotropic exercise in suburban surrealism – had everyone at Sundance either cursing or chuckling at its nutty audacity. Partly frenemy comedy and mostly bizarre satire – early reviews rightly described it as Kafka-meets-Stepford-Wives-meets-Lynch-meets-Lobster – Greener Grass (the second word in the title accurately describe what the makers were smoking) makes a pastel language out of pretty pettiness, production design and hellish hilarity. It begins with one wife happily giving away her babygirl to another, and ends as one of the biggest crowd-pleasing cult favourites of the year.
IEWDUH (India Story; fiction)
Eeb Allay Ooo! (India Gold; fiction)
Midnight Family (World Cinema; documentary)
One Child Nation (World Cinema; documentary)