(Updated: May 16, 2019) Tamil film industry is in dire straits. Producers’ council infighting, theatre allocation problems, excessive production of films and several other factors are all afflicting the industry. Nevertheless, the production problems haven’t exhausted the quality of its cinema. There has been the usual share of insipid star vehicles and cringe-worthy didactic dramas. Yet Tamil film-goers of 2018 have savored quite a variety of quality entertainment cinema. Here’s my pick of the best Tamil films this year:
Shankar’s sequel to Rajinikanth-starrer Enthiran (2010) is big on special effects but lacks a soul. It’s an amazing visual spectacle as the face-off between thousands of Rajinikanths and charismatic Akshay Kumar is superbly staged. A lot of the CGI effects are whimsical and deliciously twisted. Yet despite the largeness of VFX effects, the narrative suffers from a morally messy scenario. Rajinikanth’s swagger and snappy dialogue delivery, nevertheless, adds to the film’s crazy fun quotient.
9. Irumbu Thirai (Iron Curtain)
Vishal-starrer Irumbu Thirai is a fascinating commercial pot-boiler which shines light into the darkest corners of the digital realm. The initial plot set-up and characterizations are inane and annoying. However, first-time director Mithran through a complicated storyline saves the narrative from becoming regular masala cinema. In terms of social commitment, Irumbu Thirai resembles Mohan Raja’s Thani Oruvan and Velaikkaran. But Mithran delivers his cautionary message with less didactic elements. Moreover, the film’s biggest plus is the no-frills construction of the antagonist character (a suavely charming Arjun). Despite the tedious climax, the film deserves a pat on the back for focusing on a relevant social issue.
Balaji Tharaneetharan’s refreshing offbeat drama revolves around a versatile septuagenarian drama actor Ayya Aadhimoolam (a very restrained Sethupathi). Although Sethupathi appears for roughly 40 minutes, he is the narrative’s heart and soul. The supporting cast, particularly debutante Sunil, is also quite brilliant. Similar to Balaji’s debut-feature Naduvula Konjam Pakatha Kaanom, Seethakaathi possesses wonderfully quirky and inventive humor. The fantastical elements in the narrative add depth to Balaji’s quasi-satirical look at the Tamil film industry. At 173 minutes, the film is definitely overlong. Nevertheless, this is one of the rare, reflexive commentaries in Tamil cinema on art and the artist.
Where to Watch: Amazon
7. Sila Samayangalil (Sometimes)
Priyadarshan’s Netflix release benefits from hearty characters and precise observation of human condition. The storyline is pretty simple: various frustrated strangers are waiting for the results of an HIV test. Priyadarshan uses such an aggravating atmosphere to reflect on the ultra-sensitive social environment. Prakash Raj plays one of the prominent characters, a distressed middle-aged man. The strong cast also includes Ashok Selvan, Sriya Reddy, MS Bhaskar, Shanmugarajan, and Anjali Rao. Unlike many Tamil films hellbent on passing a social message, Sila Samayangalil doesn’t over-dramatize the situation. The narrative has some pacing issues. Overall though, it’s an engaging character-driven social drama.
Where to Watch: Netflix
6. Ratsasan (Demon)
Ram Kumar’s edgy thriller enjoyed commercial and critical success because it focused on a novel subject for Tamil cinema: serial-killer. The film revolves around Arun Kumar (Vishnu Vishal), an aspiring director with a script for a serial-killer film. Vexed by his failures, Arun opts for a career change and becomes a police inspector. By chance, he stumbles upon a kidnapping and brutal killing of a school-girl which he deems is the work of a serial-killer. The gory murders continue as Arun follows the trail of the madman.
Ratsasan makes up for its writing flaws through its exemplary display of craft. Besides the over-stretched climax portions, Ram Kumar maintains a sense of profound unease.
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Ranjith’s second collaboration with actor Rajinikanth was definitely more coherent and compelling than Kabali. Despite pre-release misgivings, Kaala sees Ranjith effectively using Rajini’s star power to deliver a politically-charged tale of the oppressed. The film, set in the slums of Mumbai’s Dharavi, chronicles the intense conflict between a local Tamil chieftain (Rajini) and a crafty white-clad politician (Nana Patekar).
Director Ranjith is not-so-subtle with his message on land ownership and caste discrimination. Nevertheless, Kaala is a gutsy movie in the current political climate, championing anti-saffron colors and cleverly reinterpreting Ram-Raavan politics. Moreover, Kaala provides ample space for Rajinikanth, the actor and downplays his overly hyped star persona. Altogether, it’s an uneven, loud yet empowering tale about the underprivileged communities.
Prem Kumar’s evocative drama tells the tale of separated lovers tentatively re-establishing their connection over a school reunion. Vijay Sethupathi excels in yet another low-key performance playing Ram, a lonely travel photographer. Trisha, in one of her career-best roles, plays the female lead Jaanu.
Even though the narrative travels down the memory lane that’s tinged with nostalgia, 96 largely remains pragmatic and avoids melodrama. What I particularly liked about the film is the way it hints at buried emotions through poignantly detailed scenarios. Be it the scene Jaanu presents a dream as the reality or when Ram exhibits his memory-filled suitcase, Prem Kumar elegantly accentuates the characters’ emotions.
3. Pariyerum Perumal (Horse-laden Deity)
Mari Selvaraj in his ambitious debut feature has attempted to tackle brutal social realities, in particular the caste-based hegemony and identity politics. The film’s titular character (Pariyan) is a lower-caste law student. His friendship with a dominant caste girl leads to a series of troubles and humiliations. The narrative, however, rises above the usual display of caste-based victimization and focuses on Pariyan’s awakening and realizations.
There are definitely some problems with the film, emerging particularly from the director’s obligation to appease mainstream audiences. Specifically, the passive and one-dimensional characterization of the lead female character (Jyothi). Moreover, Selvraj’s effort to humanize the oppressor is deemed problematic by some. Yet, Pariyerum Perumal serves a rare glimpse into the dark cultural and social practices.
Where to Watch: Amazon
2. Vada Chennai (North Chennai)
Vetri Maran’s sprawling gangster drama deftly lays out the director’s pet themes: greed, betrayal and subjugation of the poor. Vada Chennai follows nearly two decades of gang and politics-related conflicts which control protagonist Anbu’s (Dhanush) fate. The script unfolds in a non-linear fashion meticulously tracks Anbu’s transformation from a foolhardy carom player to a man fighting for a cause.
The writing also fascinatingly observes the devastation caused by sudden political and social changes on the voiceless communities. Furthermore, Vetri Maran’s wonderful staging techniques maintain an intense tone throughout. Despite few pacing problems, the film succeeds due to assured direction and phenomenal ensemble performance. Altogether, it’s an intriguing opening chapter in the trilogy of films set in North Chennai.
Where to Watch: Hotstar
1. Merku Thodarchi Malai (Western Ghats)
Lenin Bharathi’s stirring docu-drama is an important work among the new wave of Tamil films that focus on the state’s cultural, economic, and political reality. Unlike many didactic Tamil social dramas, Merku Thodarchi Malai is less concerned about (contrived) plot mechanics. In fact, it serves as an anthropological record, subtly documenting the rituals, livelihood and dreams of the landless laborers.
The film’s highlight is its first 40 minutes which unfolds from a hamlet near the beautiful Western Ghats. We witness the villagers’ daily chores, which involve carrying heavy sacks of cardamom through rough, craggy terrain. Accordingly, the thin plot revolves around how one of these worker’s personal dream is uprooted by the invisible and inhumane capitalist forces. Easwar and Bharathi’s ethereal shots hold a sense of poignancy that convey something lot powerful than words. Overall, it’s one of the best Tamil films of the decade, not just this year.
Where to Watch: Netflix
Notable Omissions: Savarakathi, Aasuravadham, Mercury, and Oru Kuppai Kadhai
What do you think were the best Tamil films this year? Do you agree with our rankings? Let’s talk in the comments below.
By Arun Kumar