Tag Archives: Upstream Color

HS’s 2013 Top 10. And a few we could have done without.

As you can see, there is some overlap with Mr. Keough’s list, best and worst. That is a good thing.

1. Nebraska — From the very first shot of an old man shuffling along the side of an urban highway – against the direction of the traffic – you know you’re seeing director Alexander Payne at the very height of his considerable cinematic mastery. The movie makes you want to say something about America, but I won’t.

2. A Touch of Sin ­— Zhangke Jia’s films till now have, broadly speaking, looked at the results of upheaval. Here he gets down to the upheaval itself, violent crime throughout China. Ultimately, it’s motive more than action that matters, but, boy, that action.

3. Welcome to Pine Hill — 2013’s other great movie about America. Keith Miller’s debut feature about a man brought up short just when he’s straightening out his life comes alive through Miller’s attentive technique, manifest in, among other things, editing dictated by emotion.

4. Her – Spike Jonez, traditionalist filmmaker? Certainly not in subject matter, but he has certainly absorbed the great historic lessons of American cinema. Combined with his very contemporary story, he’s come up with not just a fascinating movie, but a nearly unique one.

5. Beyond the Hills – Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mongiu continues to impress as one of the world’s leading filmmakers. Typically, this movie tackles big subjects (how do old and new types of knowledge co-exist in the contemporary world?; what is madness?) but does perfect justice to its story about the reunion of two grown orphan girls. Brilliant.

6. The Act of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer undresses a monster’s psyche simply by offering to direct the creature in a movie about his crimes (during the Indonesian massacres of 1965). It’s as simple and as complex as that.

7. Leviathan — Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel carried some video cameras aboard a North Atlantic trawler, held them or bolted them down, and allowed the images to form themselves before the lens. But then, they also distorted the film’s clarity and color, making us work to really see what’s what. A paradoxical way of freeing an image from excessive authorial control, but it works.

8. Upstream Color — I think I got what Shane Carruth was trying to say here, but I just might have been affected by the same delusions as the movie’s characters. Original, engrossing, ingenious. What else do you need?

9. Byzantium — Neil Jordan’s best Gothic outing in quite some time asks us what are we looking at when we look at female vampires? And it answers.

10. Ernest and Celestine – A warm and charming, but never mawkish and just suspenseful enough tale of a country bear and a town mouse. Directors Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar, and Stéphane Aubier adopt a water-color style complete with imprecise lines, a “mistake” that works wonderfully. This listing is for the French original. The English dubbed edition opens in the U.S. later this year.


I’ve never done a 10 Worst List and, as Ebenezer Scrooge once said, I’m too old to change. But there are movies which drive me crazy for different reasons.

No apparent adult supervision: 47 Ronin

Saying you are smart over and over again does not mean you are smart: Before Midnight

No, this is not a step forward: The Conjuring

No good outcome possible: R.I.P.D.

If you don’t know this by now, you will never, never, never know it: 12 Years a Slave

–Henry Sheehan

PK’s 2013 top 10. And bottom 10

[An earlier version appeared on Artsfuse.org]

Ten Best

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1.Her – Any film that includes the disembodied mind of Alan Watts deserves top billing. Spike Jonze engages in a visually stunning, superbly acted, disturbing and profound exploration of the frightening future of love and identity in a digital universe.

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2. Inside Llewyn Davis – A naysayer asked me why I liked this film so much and, at a loss, I blurted out, “I am Llewyn Davis.” A long, embarrassing silence followed and I added, “And I liked the cat.”

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3. Wadjda – Not only is this the first film made by a woman in Saudi Arabia (or by anyone in that country apparently), but it also rivals the early masterpieces of Abbas Kiarostami in its charming, tragic, achingly authentic depiction of what it means to be a smart kid growing up among dumb adults. Subtly, beautifully shot, with a terrific performance by Waad Mohammed in the title role.

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4. Upstream Color – Still have no idea what Shane Carruth’s ecstatic narrative and visual assault means. Still am staying up nights trying to figure it out. Puts the trance back in transcendental. 

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5. Fill the Void – First-time director Rama Burshtein’s radiant recreation of a subculture – the orthodox Haredi Jewish community of Tel Aviv – and the exquisite performances elevate this tale of loss, loyalty, and independence into a universal tragedy. 

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6. In the House – I like self-reflexive movies that are about movies, and about narrative in general. And I like puzzles and clever dialogue delivered with sparkling grace by attractive actors. François Ozon accomplishes all this and more with wicked wit and panache.

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7. Caesar Must Die – A deceptively simple and deeply moving recreation of a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar put on by inmates of a maximum security prison in Rome. The Taviani Brothers interweave the drama of the production, the interactions of the performers with their troubled histories, and the play itself into a deeply moving, illuminating fugue.

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8. Our Children – Ignored by everyone, Émilie Dequenne put in one of the best performances of the year as a mother pressured slowly, insidiously, and inexorably into a shocking act of rebellion.

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9. Computer Chess – Along with Her and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which didn’t make the cut), Andrew Bujalski’s sui generis absurdist comedy presents the humble origins of our current digital gotterdammerung. It also stars my choice for the year’s Best Supporting Actor, my former Boston Phoenix colleague and friend, Gerald Peary. 

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10. All Is Lost – Just got to love a film where the sole line of dialogue is “fuck!” An allegory about individual and environmental decline that is as upbeat as the title suggests. I’m still scratching my head wondering why no one is noticing that this is Robert Redford’s best performance ever.

Whoops, inexplicably overlooked: Leviathan, The Act of Killing, Berberian Sound Studio. And others that will undoubtedly occur to me long after this year is gone and forgotten.

Ten worst.
There were far, far worse movies released this year – Grown Ups 2, A Madea Christmas, etc. But I’m thinking of movies that had pretensions of artistry, or a potential for greatness, or phony films that have inexplicably been revered by just about everybody but me. What’s wrong with me? Help me.

So with all due respect:

1. 12 Years a Slave
2. Blue is the Warmest Color
3. The Great Beauty
4. Before Midnight
5. Frances Ha
6. The Conjuring
7. The Butler
8. Short Term
And, what the heck, they were so bad they deserve to make the list:
9. A Madea Christmas
10. Grown Ups 2

Horror vacui

Beware of spoilers.

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Recent movies have me musing about a favorite topic, death. That, and horror. In particular, why do we like to watch death and horror on the screen? What does it do for us? Are we seeing more death and horror, and enjoying it less?

Other than the frightening box office success of “Grown Ups 2,” (beating out the extraordinary “Pacific Rim,” $42.7 to $ 38.2 million) Hollywood of late can’t be credited with anything as scary as – well, I think the last time I was really scared at a big studio movie  was at “Alien” (1979), although the eerie indie “Berberian Sound Studio


( which played recently at the Brattle Theatre in an inspired twin-bill  with Dario Argento’s wonderfully nutty, hallucinatory “Suspiria”)

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opened up the doors to an existential horror similar to that of “The Tenant”

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and “Mulholland Drive.”

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As for “Upstream Color

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I sometimes have the feeling I entered that movie and never returned.

Otherwise, perhaps I have become jaded. Except when they go after animals, especially cats, not even the extreme, graphic violence of the “Saw” gets to me any more. “Maniac” and “Aftershock” – eh. But then they didn’t have any menaced cats.

So is horror a dead, so to speak, art? Can it be revived by a return to basics? That seems to be the appeal of “The Conjuring” from “Saw” co-creator (along with Leigh Whannell) James Wan. He has graduated from sadism and graphic mayhem and has been trying to frighten people the old fashioned way, with the classic scare tactics of creaks, false shocks, and the creeping, unseen unknown. His first film taking this approach, “Insidious” (2011)

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drew on a combined haunted-house-plus-possessed-child combo with forays into David Lynch weirdness, but it elicited mostly laughter from the critics at the press screening I attended a couple of years ago. 

But there wasn’t as much laughter at the screening of his new film “The Conjuring,” and indeed some critics confessed it gave them the willies. I can’t say I was one of them. Instead I found it predictable, dithering, and dumb.

Once again Wan returns to the haunted house and that old horror standby of the family who moves into a new residence, all sunshine and optimism,

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and then discovers that they have entered the gates of Hell.. Or if not hell, then maybe a more stimulating-than-average episode of “Most Haunted.”

Based on a true story, one from the case files of Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren, real-life paranormal investigators, or, as Ed puts it modestly, “Demonologists,” “The Conjuring” relates the harrowing experiences of the Perron family, Roger (Ron Livingston), his wife Carolyn (Lili Taylor), and their four – or was it five? – daughters, who in 1971 moved into their dream home in rural Harrisville, Rhode Island. We must forgive the Perron’s their naivété, as they have not yet been able to witness the next four decades of haunted house horror conventions, up to and including the “Scary Movie” franchise. But really, they should have at least paid attention to the poor dog when he refused to step over the threshold (the dog’s fate, as might be expected, affected me more than anything else in the movie).

So six females and one guy – that’s a lot of estrogen, and you know that can’t be good. Soon enough some weird things start happening, like somebody trying to sleep and having her leg pulled by some disembodied joker, unusual bruises appearing on Carolyn’s body, and strange noises mounting to a crescendo along with the soundtrack and then turning out to be nothing at all.

Not yet, at any rate.

To his credit, Wan has talent at putting together a creepy mise-en-scene. The house, toured in part via streadicam from the p.o.v. of family members, first with excited expectations, then with uneasy curiosity, and finally with growing alarm, dread, and panic, is wonderfully beat-up and creepy. I was hoping they would spend more time sorting through the interesting crap piled in the basement, which the Perron’s find boarded up and then, violating the basic rule of how to survive in a horror movie, proceed to unseal, enter, and poke around.

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Big mistake, of course. I won’t disclose what happens, but it will scare the pants off you, especially if you haven’t been to a movie since “The Sound of Music.”

Desperate, her fears initially dismissed by Roger (who really should spend more time at home with the family), Carolyn attends one of the Warrens’ lectures at a local college, and begs them to come by the house and investigate. They agree, Ed reluctantly, because he fears that Lorraine, who is the psychically sensitive one of the duo, might go over the deep end, as apparently once happened before during a previous exorcism that had gone horribly awry.

Using primitive equipment

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— as compared to the spook-hunting equipment on cable TV today or the gizmos in “Ghostbusters” – they find that the place is crawling with spirits and demons. Apparently, a witch who lived in the house a century or so ago, Bathsheba by name, had sacrificed her son to Satan and then hung herself from the creepy tree in the front yard.

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Her baleful influence has spawned a series of suicides and murders over the years, and now she’s stuck to Carolyn’s back like some giant, ectoplasmic tick!

Okay, let’s back up. Maybe I should lighten up, not be so analytical and just have fun because it’s just a movie! Well, I tried, but I just couldn’t get into Wan’s creaky, retro scare tactics. And maybe I”m trying too hard when I point out some seemingly innocuous film’s racist or homophobic or misogynist subtext.

But, come on: a household that includes a mother and five daughters, females who stir up a pandemonium of dormant evil entities, the chief demon being a Satan-worshipping, child-murdering harridan whose malignant spirit possesses a woman who then seeks to kill her own kids?

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Then top it off with a sadistic exorcism sequence,

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performed by Ed


filling in at a pinch for the local priest, who’s tied up getting an official okay from the Vatican.

The Vatican? Not so subtly Wan poses the Church as the last bastion of goodness against a seething netherworld of female and female-possessing malignancies. Now I don’t have any beef against Catholics per se, being born, raised, and baptized one myself. But it is the biggest and most powerful institution of retrogressive patriarchal practices and beliefs on the planet.

Upon reflection, “The Conjuring” reminds me of another recent film in which a similar problem arises in a household of females led by a patriarchal figure, Christian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills.” Here, too, one of the women starts acting wacky, and so the good Father in that film also arranges an exorcism of sorts, with a different outcome. 

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Now that was a scary movie.

— Peter Keough