Custom photo by Iana Kazakova, with thanks

Another year has come to a quiet close, wafting to sleep on a cloud of tryptophan, and like every other berk writing about movies on the internet, this means it’s time to write up my top ten. There’s no time to waste, but as usual this list should come with the caveat that I didn’t see everything this year, including other popular choices like Frances Ha or Fruitvale Station, but let’s be honest here, a movie about normal people living in the real world probably wouldn’t have wound up on here anyway. I mean, it’s me.

#10: The World’s End

The final installment in Edgar Wright and co’s “Cornetto Trilogy” is, in all honesty, the weakest in the trilogy, but really that’s like coming in third in some demented Olympic sport that combines multi-level chess, nuclear physics and cunnilingus, performed simultaneously (which would probably result in only sligtly more neck injuries than usual, if we’re being honest). While it may not quite match up to Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, World’s End is still incredibly sharply written, fun and surprisingly emotional.

GardenofWords#9: The Garden of Words

And speaking of emotional, Makoto Shinkai’s latest film is in top running for “biggest emotional gut-punch” this year, a beautiful and visually stunning tale of young love and eyeball poppingly animated rainy afternoons. Some may detract it for its occasionally Hallmark-y sentiment and short length, but some people detract me for my staunch refusal to watch “grown up” movies and bathe more than twice a month, and what the hell do they know?

#8: Only God Forgives

Nicolas Winding-Refn’s latest visual love-letter to Ryan Gosling’s stoic features may pale in comparison to his last, but like all of Refn’s work, is still a dazzling display of pacing, framing, nuance and incredibly gory violence. It’s the kind of film that film nerds love, one that defies expectation and forces you to think on and interpret what you’re seeing for yourself if you’ve any hope of figuring out everything, before ending more suddenly than than the bloated, turkey-drunk Christmas coitus that I expect many of you are enjoying as I write this.

#7: Doomsdays

It could be very easy for Eddie Mullins’ Doomsdays to become the next Napoleon Dynamite, a quirky “you get it or you don’t” indie comedy that we’ll all love for a few years then decide to hate when too many people with annoying affectations become rabidly devoted to it. But until the honeymoon ends, Doomsdays is a fantastically charming movie, full of heart and humor, man-on-automobile violence and at least one ex-Wire cast-member in women’s underwear, who thankfully isn’t Wendell Pierce. And for those with the image of Wendell Pierce in women’s underwear now firmly lodged in your brain, I await your pipe bombs.

#6: White House Downwhite-house-down-poster2

Maybe it would be exaggerating to call Jerry Bruckheimer’s White House Down the glorious rebirth of the American action movie, but screw it, White House Down is the glorious rebirth of the American action movie. While other action blockbusters in recent years have been busy being dark and cynical grit-fests, White House Down has the sheer audacity to have some damn fun and wear its adorably naive patriotism and sentiment on its sleeve like the proudest ballerina at the school recital. Its a movie that dares to have a sense of humor about itself in a climate of determinedly un-self-aware, overly serious Expendables and Fast and Furious franchises with increasingly depressing numbers stapled on the end, and God knows we could use a little levity.

#5: Frozen

I’m not a Disney fan, in fact I think it’s safe to say I’m quite anti-Disney most of the time, but Frozen is the movie that convinced me that maybe the House of Mouse can stand with the animation big dogs and deliver a fun, progressive and surprisingly feminist movie that’s still about fairytale princesses, which is like delivering haute-cuisine which is still a lukewarm hamburger made out of a possum. Hell, I even liked the songs! This may not be the turning point for Disney we all hope it to be, the first signs of someone at the company finally realizing it’s the 21st Century and finally making films with a modicum of modern sensibility in terms of things like gender politics and underlying message, but it’s proof that we shouldn’t be picking out that mouse-eared tombstone just yet.

#4: Rewind This

Like most people old enough to get a terrible deal on a home equity loan, I still remember the time when VHS was a thing that existed, and while nostalgia goggles do help my rating of Rewind This!, which chronicles the rise and fall of the VHS tape, the fact that it’s a lovingly and perfectly crafted documentary takes it the rest of the way. The passion and care of the film makers can be felt in every frame, from interviews with legends (legends to me anyway) like Lloyd Kaufman, Frank Henenlotter and Mamoru Oshii, to the 80s-tastic graphics. It educates as well as entertains, which can only really be said about great documentaries and the night classes I take with Professor Bobo.

pacific-rim-poster-image#3: Pacific Rim

Oh don’t look so surprised (your highne..wait, no, did that one before), like you didn’t know the movie about giant robots fighting monsters directed by Guillermo del Toro would make my top ten. But really Pacific Rim’s me-tastic setup can only take it so far. What brings it to number three is how unabashedly, unflinchingly fun it is. Pacific Rim does nothing in half-measures, in fact it regards half-measures with the same disdain with which I regard vegetables and exercise. The movie is exactly what it should have been: a fun, half-insane rollercoaster of over-the-top characters and the kind of action that leaves you with a ruptured eardrum or two if you have the right sound system.

#2: Drug War

It should be no surprise by now that Johnnie To has honed the making of Hong Kong crime thrillers into a fine art, but even I was surprised at how tightly packed his latest film is. Drug War is a Swiss watch of a film, a Swiss watch that occasionally involves ass-kicking deaf guys and the BEST MOVIE COP EVER. Look away or let your attention drift for a second and you’re irrevocably lost in the film’s myriad double, triple and quadruple-crosses and mind-bendingly elaborate sting operations. And even beyond the ornately crafted script, the film’s bloody final shoot-out, which redefines the term “bloody final shoot-out,” proves that even 14 years after The Mission, To still has as tight a grasp on what makes a good action scene as any director alive.

#1: Upstream Color

There aren’t many films I thought back on in amazement at this year as Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, a film as mesmerizing as it is hard to explain to people without having their eyebrow rocket skyward in incredulity like a hairy North Korean missile test. Shot and told in a haze of disconnected, fragmentary images, Upstream Color is a headscratcher, but a headscratcher that will leave you moved and amazed, if the scratching doesn’t bore through your skull to leave jagged marks on your occipital lobe first. It’s weird, it’s high-concept, it’s emotional, it’s magnificently shot and edited, and it will probably have film nerds noisily messing themselves for years to come…..pun intended.

Sometimes when God closes a door, he opens a window. This always struck me as an odd saying, especially with the whole forced entry implication. In my case, the door was the new Bill Murray flick Hyde Park on Hudson, which slammed in my face with such speed that the cartilage of my nose rocketed into my brain and destroyed my frontal lobe. It’s pretty rare for me to not be able to get into a movie, but after 20 minutes of forced romance and blaring soundtracks, I couldn’t take it.

So, I turned to Netflix, which given their selection is like turning to Troma for classy, high-brow film making. But surprisingly, I found something, something really damn good in fact.

Upstream Color PosterUpstream Color, the new film by Primer writer/director/star Shane Carruth, is one of those movies that had to have the most insane pitch session ever. Our protagonist, Kris, is a young woman who’s been dosed with this weird tapeworm type thing that puts its host into an extremely suggestive state, which her attacker uses to drain her of all her financial assets. After getting the tapeworm removed and placed inside a pig by a mysterious sound-sampling sweater enthusiast, Kris tries to piece her life together again, helped by Carruth’s Jeff, who’s undergone the same ordeal. But as time goes on, Kris and Jeff discover their shared experience has more side-effects than they initially thought.

Of course, all of this is something the viewer has to observe and piece together for themselves. Upstream Color is a movie that doesn’t hand-hold at all, and in fact slaps your hand away and yells to stop crowding it whenever you try. It’s incredibly obtuse and vague, meaning that if you can’t figure out what’s going on, you’ll probably be bored to death. But if you can manage to follow everything, it’s like solving a rubik’s cube, and you get this feeling of accomplishment and the desire to show it off to your friends and be all smart and proud of yourself.

The film tries to thwart you in this joy as much as possible. The narrative and editing are both more fractured than a china cup that’s been run through a dryer. Continuity editing? Fuck continuity editing, this movie has an intense disdain for continuity. Conversations will seemingly take place in 3 or more locations, with dialogue often playing over shots of something other than the speaker. Months or more will go by between scenes with little or no indication that time has passed beyond the occasional changed hairstyle. Oftentimes the path between A and B will be either nonexistent or incredibly vague, like how Kris just happens to find the sweater-wearing man who removes her tapeworm in a field. Later on, when the film starts dabbling in expanding consciousness and shared memories, things get even more vague.

The camera work furthers the film’s agenda of keeping you confused as hell too, almost everything is shot in closeups, and where some films would start a scene with a wide establishing shot of the location, Upstream Color scoffs at that kind of conventional crap and more often opens with serene closeups of objects strewn about the location. The impression overall, in the camera work, editing and story, is that we’re never seeing the whole picture, just fragments of it, little pieces we have to connect ourselves to create a whole.

Upstream-color (1)

Of course, this kind of approach really isn’t for everyone, but I’m one of those show-off film nerd types who’s used to reading between the lines and interpreting shit, even if it that usually means reading WAY too much into z-list sci-fi movies and 80s action flicks, but either way I was totally engrossed for most of the way.

The only aspect of the film I’d call really good and not outright great is the acting. The only real characters are Kris, Jeff and the mysterious Sampler, and even calling the Sampler a character is pushing it. Amy Seimetz does a really good job as Kris, playing someone who’s been emotionally and mentally destroyed really convincingly. Carruth himself was a bit less convincing, however, and I only ever partially cared about him as a character. Partially this is because his role is mostly to follow Kris around looking confused when she’s going all loopy. But all the same, he never totally convinced me that there was actually a character to his character, beyond stubble and dress-shirt/sweater combos. Andrew Sensenig has almost nothing to do as the Sampler and as a result he’s barely a blip on the radar.

It should also be noted that Carruth also composed the soundtrack, which would smack vaguely of showing off, but it’s a damn good soundtrack so I can’t really complain. It’s mostly ambient music, really long steady notes and such, and the film probably wouldn’t have half as much atmosphere if not for it.

Upstream Color is probably going to end up on a lot of critics’ top ten lists for the year, myself included. It’s the kind of movie types like us love, vague and cryptic, but once you figure it out, it’s wordlessly gorgeous and touching. To casual movie fans it will probably come off as slow moving, self indulgent and dull, but no matter what camp you’re in, give it a try.