36 Days of Type is an annual art challenge where artists can render the 26 letters of the alphabet and 10 numerals however they like. I used my set of 26 letters (I never made it to the numbers) to celebrate my favourite movies, with each illustration trying to uphold what I liked about the film. Here’s my full list.
This is by no means a ‘list of best movies’ and is definitely an incomplete list. All I did was choose my favourite movie starting with each letter.
I start this list with what remains one of the most visually striking films I have seen. Apocalypse Now strikes me almost as a stage production in some ways: the sculptures, and mainly the all-pervasive ever-present smoke. Sometimes Napalm, sometimes fog, sometimes fire, but it seems to always obscure the characters to heavy dramatic effect. The elements of nature appear to interfere with the viewer as much as they interfere with the soldiers in the film. Brando’s Col. Kurtz appears very late in the film, and even then, spends several of his first minutes on screen as only a surprisingly pitched rasping voice from behind the shadows. Apocalypse Now exhibits mastery of dramatic pacing and taut build-up.
De Sica’s camera comes straight down to the grimy streets of post World War II Rome, centred on an already defeated and diminished man trying to scratch along. Robbed of his bicycle, he can’t hold the one job he can find amidst this crisis: pedalling around a bitterly competitive town and pasting posters on walls. The film is stark and devastatingly simple, with a violently oscillating graph of hope. The final moments of the film show the man trying to protect the innocence of his son by sending him home so that he doesn’t watch his father stoop to an extreme low. Of course the son misses the tram, and watches his father’s weak attempt to steal a bicycle for himself. As he tearfully watches a crowd trying to teach his father a lesson, something changes in him. You know this boy has grown up.
Alfonso Cuarón constructs a very, very bleak Britain (as if Britain weren’t already bleak enough) where the last ‘minor’ has died in a bar brawl (of course he has) and men are incapable of producing viable gametes. So, no children will ever be born again. As humankind awaits its unorthodox extinction, people do what they can to prepare. Some make an Ark of the Arts, cramming Michelangelo’s David and Picasso’s Guernica in the same room to preserve them for a hypothetical posterity. Some, like Clive Owen’s character, discover the first newborn in years and get thrown into the middle of a violent conflict over the implications of this miraculous event. The highlight of the film is a meticulously constructed one-shot of a war-torn street where our protagonists are trying to find a way out, and mercenaries and tanks rip the frame apart.
This is one of the few films I have watched and then made a note to never watch again. Sean Penn plays the most despicable man on earth, a convicted rapist and murderer, with racism and Nazi sympathy thrown into the mix. As he waits for the State to kill him with the cleanest means in the history of justice, the lethal injection, he comes in contact with Susan Sarandon’s Helen Prejean. Helen is vulnerable, confused and frequently quite terrified, but finds herself stuck as the spiritual counsel of the condemned man. Most of the film takes place with the camera squashed against the glass partition of Penn’s cell, as the cold precision (made evident by the overwhelming use of white) of Louisiana justice ticks away unerringly in the background. The film makes a fairly preacher-like case: everyone is worthy of love and can be ‘saved’. But by throwing the scenario into the darkest possible depths, the film changes you and your perceptions on a very fundamental level when Penn’s character, who you thought was vile and beyond redemption, fights back tears and responds to Helen’s prayer and chokes “Ain’t nobody called me a son of God before.” Interestingly, after the murderer finds his peace, the audience too is moved to forgive him. During his inevitable execution, the film cuts back and forth from the crime he committed. It challenges the viewer as if to ask, “So what DO you think of the Death Penalty?”
The efficacy of this film, as a story of finding your purpose and fitting in, lies in its use of colour. Tim Burton builds a nauseatingly pastel world of a manicured, grid-based American suburbia, awash in candyfloss pink and mint green. And in the middle of it arrives Johnny Depp with his sharp-angled hands, face as white as a sheet, wearing black clothes. The visual contrast sets up the conflict that is to be, all while going to show that Edward-with-the-hands-like-scissors is actually much more delicate than the pink-cheeked folk trying to suffocate him.
The second Vietnam War movie on this list, this one feels a lot more personal and rooted. It’s an everyman’s story, without the enigma and scale of Apocalypse Now. This may be because of the structure of the film itself: it’s practically two shorter films barely stitched together. The first half is probably more harrowing than the second. Private Joker and company rough it out in Marine training at the mercy of the worst (or best?) Drill Sergeant hell could have sent their way. This half is replete with unsettling symmetry and an evenly gliding camera—a grammar which almost never repeats itself in the chaos of the second half, as our now-familiar boys are thrown into a convincingly burning Huế in South Vietnam. The film translates the soul-emptying nature of war into film language, giving us an uncomfortably close look at the changing geography of the faces of these men, as they do things humans were never meant to do.
A professor of mine had once argued that Goopi Gyne was India’s first animated feature. I couldn’t agree more. The staggering use of technique and style in this film to achieve ‘magic’ is mind-boggling, and not just for its time. The visual highlights include The Dance of the Ghosts—with techniques such as negative inversion, and using jelly to distort the images contributing to a marvelous supernatural choreography, and the climax (illustrated here) where cauldrons of sweets descend from the sky, pinpointing the true cause of all conflict: hunger.
A scathing satire of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, Satyajit Ray probably never had more fun on set with his graphic design training. He uses sharp angles and staring eyes as a motif in his backdrops for the diamond mining Kingdom of Hirak, under severe financial crisis but determined to project otherwise. Brainwashing as a means of control and education as the most potent form of revolution are used as metaphors, to build up to the immensely satisfying conclusion of the tyrant tearing down his own colossus, which had loomed over the parade ground for a greater part of the picture.
Though the film did, for me at least, simplify the struggle to bring down the Third Reich to the level of a convenient shoot-em-up, it was undeniably stylish and riotously enjoyable (in a fairly guilty sort of way: whoever said scalping and bludgeoning with a baseball bat was fun!). Quentin Tarantino does his thing with long-winding conversations building up to explosive violence, so it’s never really about What happens, it’s more about How they get there. Shosanna Dreyfus, pictured here, is the fiery red Valkyrie of Jewish retribution and her war-face sequence is pure glory. The most memorable part of the film is naturally Christoph Waltz’s horrible, horrible Hans Landa, the Jew Hunter, who gets people to confess their secrets by just staring at them. The perfect example of tension and release comes in the scene where Landa is speaking to Shosanna in a Parisian hotel. He gives her the stare, the “I know all about your past, you Jewish survivor” stare, but then loses his train of thought, stubs his cigarette in a strudel and walks off cheerfully.
The ultimate blockbuster. Jurassic Park comes before CGI spectacle and disintegrating 3D animated cities, and makes the strongest case for practical effects ever. Firstly, the dinosaurs aren’t always there. In an almost Hitchcockian fashion, they are preceded by disappearing lambs and trembling glasses of water. This by default adds all the suspense that is lost in modern-day CGI overkill. The dinosaurs are tactile, heavy and believable. And of course its message should resonate with us more and more with every passing year: you don’t mess with nature.
K: The Kid
Charlie Chaplin was a genius. The Kid is another film in the list set in the midst of stark poverty. It blends slapstick and pathos to elicit a very pure emotional reaction from the audience. Chaplin, fresh from the grief of losing his own son just ten days before shooting began, portrays the adoptive father of The Kid with a breezy ease and a powerful protectiveness. His frantic journey to preserve the one bond that he has moves you to tears. That the movie can do this without a word of dialogue, relying entirely on actions, and the facial expressions of the actors, makes it cinema at its visceral best.
L: Lion King
This is the first movie I ever watched, and there was a time when I could recite the screenplay beginning-to-end. The crucial message for me growing up was: your relatives don’t necessarily love you. Scar, voiced with gravelly glee by Jeremy Irons, was a masterclass in acting for animation, from his scowl to his frequently effeminate sass. The swells of epic music, made even more memorable by the Broadway adaptation, coupled with the sweeping wides of the Serengeti, show you over and over again how to build an epic with an overarching touch of The Circle of Life. Black Panther’s audiovisual similarities seem to use the same effect.
Speaking of epic animated sagas, I don’t think any film manages to reach the scale and scope of Miyazaki’s masterpiece here. Armies of Wild Boar, writhing Demons covered in leeches, minibus-sized wolves, and a forest spirit leaving flowers blooming in its wake: there’s not much one can say about the sheer levels of imagination the film reaches. Rooted deeply in the visual vernaculars of medieval Japan, Mononoke Hime presents a balanced view of the human-wildlife conflict, where nobody is a villain and everyone is at fault.
I had the privilege of working with Mani Ratnam on Kaatru Veliyidai, and his capacity to build character driven stories has always amazed me. He directs Kamal Hassan in Nayagan in an articulate study of a man caught justifying his means across a lifetime, with iron-clad coherence and striking empathy. Kamal Hassan’s Velu Naicker fluctuates between benevolent overlord, raging general, and a sad man increasingly defeated by his principles, in the performance of a lifetime. And truly, nobody films the Tamil household and Bombay like Mani Ratnam.
O: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The tone of this film confuses me frequently. It seems to be a comedy, but it definitely isn’t. The monotony and loss of personal freedom becomes apparent in the lack of contrast, and still-camera use through the film. Again, there’s an overwhelming use of white to put you right in the middle of the ward (too much white in a frame unsettles me, probably because it’s so unnatural?). Chief, shown here, makes for a very interesting character, with multiple twists in his character and an arc that makes a convincing case for him to be the real protagonist.
The first time I saw the film, I was seven, and I thought it to be slow. When I watched it again in my college auditorium, I came out on my hands and knees, completely overwhelmed by the poetry I had just seen. For the first time, I saw human lives tied together with the coming of the rains, the swaying of grass and the overturning of lotus leaves. These lives have no action sequences or any change-the-world bravado. They are small and fragile, as temporary as a raindrop that has fallen on the hot earth, and the film stops being a motion picture about people, but becomes a song sung to birth, death and everything in between.
One of the most fun films on this list, Queen is a film that settles the debate on the benefits of travel. Left at the mandap by her fiance who deems her too plain, Kangana Ranaut’s (she carries the film single-handedly) character sets off to Paris and Amsterdam to make the most of her honeymoon bookings. Along the way, wading through her depression, she meets people, makes friends and has experiences that prove to her and to everyone else: you can’t let a guy decide your self-worth. It also brings to life the sheer bewilderment of an Indian newcomer suddenly flung into these legendary big cities.
Having lived in Paris for a while, I have a soft spot for any film which shows the city. Ratatouille makes the city delicious, with the yellow light a touch yellower and the rain-washed pavements slightly shinier. Ah, the liberties of animation. Remy the rat doesn’t like food, he loves it. So we follow him as he penetrates the ranks of a snooty Parisian kitchen, trying hard to salvage its reputation from a scathing review that sent the owner, Gusteau, into a fatal depression. Gusteau reappears as the guiding spirit for the rat, as he teams up with the most hopeless person in the kitchen to carve his place in the tough environment. The film shows off wonderful character design, with its absurd premise thrown into relief with Brad Bird’s very physical brand of comedy.
What does this film not have! Gangsters, a train robbery, romance, dancing, tragedy, gunfights, comedy, memorable characters… Sholay is the ultimate Indian formula film with such an immense capacity for re-watching, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched it. An important learning from this movie: if one is looking to make a mass-entertainer, the creation of an ensemble of distinctly memorable characters is non-negotiable. The visual design of these characters is important too—from the white, angular Thakur to the cuboidal, wild haired Gabbar Singh. The film favours a theatrical, over-the-top approach to achieve this and it works! It doesn’t try realism, it doesn’t even need it. It manages to grip and thrill, and how!
T: Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro team up to build a dystopia with the most unsettling message of all: the dystopia is already here. Shots fragmented, especially by taxi components, neon lights and steaming streets enhance the bitterness of Travis Bickle’s war on everything that offends his prejudices. In the end, Travis stares past the camera, drenched in blood, and “pew pew pew”s himself in the head with his fingers folded into a gun: a very unsettling visual that shows you how far he’s come.
A grim film that is taken through the lens of Hitler’s personal secretary in the last days of his life. Berlin is a little more than a heap of smoking rubble, rendered in various gloomy greens and greys. All hope is lost and Hitler, fingers trembling from the onset of Parkinson’s, conjures fictional armies out of thin air and violently berates the last fragments of his guard for their colossal failure. The film is designed in such an effectively claustrophobic manner, making you feel at all times that you’re witnessing something you’re not supposed to. As Bruno Ganz’s eerily human (and therefore controversial) Adolf finally withdraws into his room to commit his neat, clean escape, the message of the film sinks in: monsters don’t commit atrocities of such unbelievable scale. Living, breathing people do.
This is Alfred Hitchcock at his most whimsical, especially in terms of visual design. The whole film works to dizzy the viewer with distorted scale, unsettling you much more than jump scares and bangs would. As you follow Stewart’s character (does he look too old to be doing this?) obsessively pursue a mystery woman, you see how long LONG takes. Tinted frames and voyeuristic camera placement can put you right in the middle of all that guilt, frenzy and desire.
Wall·E hits where it hurts as it shows the inevitability of our actions as a civilization. The world populated by towers of garbage instead of people, who are now overweight and in a consumerist coma light years away—it is designed to perfection, and is smelly and bitterly lonely. The crowning achievement of the film is using binoculars (which act as the eyes for the titular character) to emote so much more than the overdone CGI eyes. With a simple shift of focussing rings, or a slight slant, Wall·E has the most personality I’ve ever seen in a CGI character (yes, humans included). A special mention for that magical, magical scene in space: the fire extinguisher waltz. The film’s recurring imagery of couples dancing makes you want to go home and build a safe world to dance in.
X: X-Men Series
There aren’t too many films beginning with X. But the X-Men series, though uneven, is a very good example of continuity building and making a fictional universe. What’s most interesting is Hugh Jackman’s lifelong commitment to the role, aging with his character, unlike James Bond. Logan, the last film in the series, is the finest. Once they’ve established a clawed bad-ass who cannot be killed, how then do they lay the terms of his death?
I absolutely love the work of Kurosawa, and regard Seven Samurai to be the greatest ‘superhero film’ of all time. In Yojimbo, Kurosawa favourite Toshiro Mifune (cast as the ronin Sanjuro) comes into a divided town, scowling and shaking off invisible fleas. He seems to not care, has no allegiances, no master. Billowing clouds of dust, harsh shadows cast by the wickerwork windows and torrential rain set the stage in ways that Westerns would appropriate soon afterwards. Characters run with gruff purpose, forcing the camera to follow them with equal fervour. The graphic delight of the film peaks for me when Sanjuro watches, amused, from a bell tower, as two factions in the town inch towards each other at snail’s pace, swords raised but too scared to strike.
I’m wrapping up this list with a movie that was pure fun. Jesse Eisenberg personifies gawkiness as he pushes himself beyond his severe limitations to survive the Zombie Apocalypse. He is joined by characters known by names of places rather than their own names, each with comically specific missions. The use of typography in the movie was very enjoyable, as was the comic timing in the scenes where our heroes dispatch flesh eating ex-humans.
About the author
Upamanyu is an animation filmmaker. He is a graduate of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and is a partner at the Ghost Animation Collective, Kolkata. He is the co-director of the upcoming animated short film, Wade. He shares some of his art on Instagram.
All illustrations belong to the author. They may not be reproduced without permission.