11. Subramaniapuram (2008)
Sasikumar’s film is set in the 1980s Madurai and revolves around a group of uneducated, jobless friends, idling around a local politician’s house. The first half gradually sets up the action, sprinkling the narrative with typical romance and comedy elements. Director Sasikumar has a great eye for detail. He finely diffuses the feel for the time and place (an accurate vision of the 1980s). Subramaniapuram is essentially a tale of revenge and betrayal. It shifts gears in the second half and the recurring violent episodes have a strong visceral power. The four guys’ predicament realistically depicts how politics and power at grass-root levels work. The cast was full of newcomers and lesser-known actors, all of who delivered excellent performances.
12. Anjathe (2008)
Mysskin’s Anjathe is yet another rare feature in Tamil/Indian mainstream cinema. At over three hours, this crime/thriller, tinged with melodrama, centres around two best friends and the conflict that divides them. It’s a standard police vs criminal story, but what sets it apart is its unique directorial touch. We meet our protagonist in an action sequence, as usual. But the director opens it with a still frame gazing at the expanse of the sky, with characters wandering in and out of the frame. A vile act is just suggested through a sequence entirely filmed a little above ground level. The whole sequence involving the hero trying to save the assaulted man is one of the best scenes in Tamil cinema.
At times, the director’s touches become overly self-indulgent. The climax portions, for instance. Nevertheless, it’s a thoroughly engrossing and uncompromising thriller.
13. Pasanga (2009)
It’s very rare to see an honest, natural depiction of childhood in Tamil cinema. We got some authentic smaller segments in films like Autograph and Azhagi. But full-fledged, less hammy Tamil films involving children are rare. Pandiraj’s Pasanga is one such film. The film revolves around two smart six graders’ rivalries and idiosyncratic behaviors. Director Pandiraj doesn’t approach childhood as a simple period of innocence. He vividly realizes their inner world, capturing everything from desires to fears. Even the parallel track of the grown-ups romance stays true to the emotions. The writing and the character traits of each child are thoroughly enjoyable. The last half an hour becomes a drag, but overall, the film leaves an impact due to its life-affirming content.
14. Aaranya Kaandam (2010)
Thyagarajan Kumararaj’s directorial debut, with its choicest of expletives and gory violence, is a Tarantino-esque tale of criminal gang feud. It’s set in the concrete jungles of North Chennai, controlled by an impotent and bespectacled don (Jackie Shroff).
The gang’s smug existence is cut through by an assortment of rivalries. There’s nothing original about the plot. But Kumararaja’s witty dialogues, quirky characterizations, and unflinching direction render a brilliant experience. Despite Jackie Shroff’s fine performance as the brutal gangster, Guru Somasundaram and the boy Vasanth steal the show.
Aaranya Kaandam won the Grand Jury award at South Asian International Film Festival. Unfortunately, it had to fight an year-long battle with the censor board, eventually turning out a big commercial failure.
15. Aadukalam (2011)
Vetrimaran’s Aadukalam, although revolving around rooster fight rivalry, is actually a wonderful study about the darker side of pride. It showcases how those dark emotions can easily disengage human relationships, leading to deadly consequences. The narrative set in Madurai commences with its focus on the rivalry between Pettaikaran and police inspector Rathinasamy in the local cock-fighting sport. Dhanush plays the protagonist Karrupu, the loyal assistant to Pettaikaran. But series of decisions made by Karuppu create an invisible rivalry with his guru Pettaikaran. The narrative has quite a few regular Tamil cinema elements (forced romance, for example). However, director/writer Vetrimaran excels in flawlessly exploring how people do awful things, in the name of honor. Dhanush and Jayabalan’s performances are nothing short of astounding.
16. Mouna Guru (2011)
Santha Kumar’s directorial debut revolves around a quiet, socially awkward college student named Karunakaran (Arulnidhi). His life falls apart after a chance encounter with corrupted policemen. Mouna Guru stand apart from the standard crime thrillers because of its intricately detailed narrative. Like old French thrillers, Santha Kumar doesn’t employ jump cuts or quirky editing methods to incite tension. He fills the time frame with harrowing details, making us anticipate what’s going to go wrong next. The ‘fake encounter’ scene set in the Andhra Pradesh-Tamil Nadu forest reserves is one of the most well-written scenes in Tamil cinema. Every interaction either propels the narrative or develops the characters. There are no needless diversions. I overlooked some of the clunky tonal changes because of the overall intense experience.
17. Onaayum Aattukuttiyum (2013)
Mysskin, with his unusual camera angels (inspired by East Asian filmmakers) and philosophical musings, is one of the most interesting Tamil filmmakers of our time. With the ludicrous superhero attempt in Mugamoodi, the director returned to his unconventional narrative style.
Onaayum Aatukuttiyum is a character and sequence-driven film, not a regular plot-driven structure. The threadbare story revolves around the chase between contract killer Wolf and his enemies. An innocent medical college student (lamb) is ensnared into the conflict. The predestined roles of hunter and hunted gradually change in the narrative’s course. From the soaring musical score to the intense camerawork, every element of the film affirms the director’s clear-eyed vision. The only flaw is the subpar performances.
18. Soodhu Kavvum (2013)
Nalan Kumarasamy’s debut feature Soodhu Kavvum is a well-written black comedy. Similar to Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and Snatch, the film mixes together off-the-wall characters with darkly comic circumstances. From unemployment to rampant corruption, Soodhu Kavvum touches upon heavy themes, without ever replacing its manic energy for spewing out loud messages. From the amateur criminal Das to the psychotic policeman, Kumarasamy has cooked up idiosyncratic characters and coherently places them in the narrative. The film’s laugh-out-loud sequences largely work due to brilliant performances, led by Vijay Sethupathi. Some of the comic moments and twists in the second half don’t work too well. But the film never fails to entertain.
19. Kaaka Muttai (2015)
Manikandan’s directorial debut is a lesson for filmmakers. In how impactful social issue films can be made without loud, vociferous messages. The film revolves around a pair of mischievous young brothers. They live in Chennai’s shantytown with their hard-working mother and a caring grandmother. When their favorite hangout is taken over by a pizza franchise, the Rs 20-a-day earning boys become obsessed with the Rs 300-pizza. Director Manikandan observes, rather than imposes, when presenting family dynamics. The boy’s simple quest elegantly touches upon themes, from desire and personal identity to globalization and poverty. Despite few pacing problems (in the second half), Kaaka Muttai remains a brilliant portrayal of our nation’s vast class differences.
20. Visaranai (2016)
Vetrimaran’s Visaranai tells the horrible turn of fate for four downtrodden, homeless Tamil laborers. It draws from autodriver-turned-writer Chandrakumar’s memoir Lock Up. The film is a thrilling examination of the predicament of those reduced to pawns by the apathetic bureaucracy.
Its first half explores how authority works on grass-roots level, while the second half looks at the devious nature of authority exercised in the wider arena of politics. The police interrogations effuse a raw realism.
The prestigious Venice Film Festival screened the film in 2015. And Amnesty International, Italy, bestowed it with the ‘Cinema for Human Rights’ award.