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.

I once described Hong Kong film maker Johnnie To to a friend as being like John Woo but more subtle. In hindsight, it should really be more like “John Woo, but more subtle, way into male bonding, way less operatic, and possessed of the defiant insanity that motivates one to end an action movie with a game of quarters”. But that sounds less pithy.

To’s new movie, Drug War is hitting Cinema Du Parc today, and if you’re as down with Hong Kong crime films as I am, you should probably already be in your seat with a bag of popcorn and a rapidly growing bulge in your pants, because Drug War is a damn good movie.

Things start off at a toll-booth going into Hong Kong, when a police unit orchestrates a sting on a local drug trafficker, who quickly turns over and agrees to help the police, led by supercop Zhang Lei. What follows is an insanely complicated series of sting operations, staged meetings and then some shootouts when fecal matter inevitably hits the air circulation unit.

Drug War posterAnd when I say complicated I mean twelve-sided Rubick’s Cube complicated. Numerous times I had to rewind the dvd just to get what’s going on totally straight. Some scenes involve Zhang posing as one drug figure to fool another, then posing as the guy he just fooled to fool the guy he was pretending to be. Other times scenes will play out through multiple proxies and front men to the point that you practically need a flow chart to keep it all straight.

The film just doesn’t hold your hand in any way shape or form. “Exposition?” says Drug War “Clarification? What kind of pansy are you? No, here’s what’s gonna happen, we’re just gonna throw you into this like a sack of especially confused potatoes and you’re gonna goddamn like it. Wanna know what Zhang is like outside of work? Maybe a scene with a wife or family? Maybe any kind of mention of who he is besides an incredibly badass cop? Sorry, wrong movie for you, sunshine, and while you were asking, three important scenes took place so now you’re totally lost!”.

But it all -does- make sense when you pay attention and unravel it, and when you do you realize just how insanely tightly packed it is. The movie operates like a Swiss Watch, with no scenes wasted and no lulls or dead spots.

And speaking of dead, the film offers a healthy amount of pow-pow shooty violence for fans of that sort of thing, the highlight being a shoot-out between a police tactical squad and a pair of affable mute brothers who turn out to be massive baddasses. It’s a fantastic action scene, and really the opposite of a John Woo fight scene in a lot of ways. There’s no romance to it, no operatic flourishes or over-dramatization. While they proceed to calmly trounce about twenty trained cops, the mute brothers’ faces are completely blank and emotionless, there’s no music whatsoever. It’s a very clinical gunfight, and clinical really describes a lot of the movie.

And if that isn’t enough, the ending is an insane bloodbath that sees anyone foolish enough to be in this movie get shot about twelve times, which in Johnnie To’s mind apparently doesn’t kill you, or even make you flinch really. Remember that bit in Con Air where Nicolas Cage gets shot but barely reacts except for making a noise like he just dropped one? The last 15 minutes of Drug War is like that but repeated ad infinitum and without the noises. It’s like the movie was written to take place in the Sin City universe, and the people aren’t really humans, but like some human-like species that can survive having every organ in their bodies get turned into strawberry jam.


There’s also a surprising amount of humor going on. Incredibly dark humor, so dark that it swallows light itself and crushes the unwary into single screaming atoms. One dinner scene plays out like a tense ballet, as Zhang has to continually reposition a camera hidden in a cigarette case when it keeps getting obscured, usually by a drug boss who acts like he moonlights as a Shaw Brothers villain on the side. I also got a healthy chuckle when a pair of cops who’ve been tailing a truck for a day or so immediately pull over and take a leak when they’re relieved.

It’s also fantastically shot, with nary a sign of shaky cam. The camera moves with precision and form, and we get lots of long shots and wide angles to keep everything more or less legible, even if the geography of some scenes is kept on the vague side.

I haven’t seen as many To movies as I should have, but Drug War is definitely one of my favorites. It’s a tightly-wound spring of a movie, constantly waiting to be let loose to fly into your face. Fans of To’s more clinical, procedural movies will probably love it, and To neophytes looking for some action and smart, tense crime thriller won’t be disappointed.

Like an elephant hurtling towards the surface of Jupiter, Fantasia Film Fest is bearing down on the city of Montreal with the kind of severity that normally sets off air-raid sirens. Every year for a few weeks, all the best, weirdest and most generally fucked up films the world has to offer can be found playing on Montreal screens, invoking awe and the occasional seizure in the audience.

This year’s fest, which will screen over 120 films, is shaping up to be a good one, one I look forward to spending my every waking hour at, to the detriment of my family and frontal lobe. But in case you’re not like me and mark this on your calender every year like some people mark this year’s estimated Rapture date, you may still be on the fence. As always, I’m here for you, with a look at some of the most interesting looking stuff we’re in for this year.

Shield of Straw (Dir Takashi Miike)

It wouldn’t be Fantasia without Takashi Miike, the Japanese cult filmmaker who churns out films with the same tireless gusto with which Stephen King turns out forgettable novels. His new film, Shield of Straw, looks to open this year’s fest with his usual amounts of violence and shouting, as an elite police unit in modern day Japan transports a violent prisoner across the country.

In terms of content, it looks to be one of Miike’s more “normal” efforts of late, with nary a Samurai or dance number or spikey-haired lawyer in sight. All the same, those familiar with Miike’s work probably should be prepared to anything to happen.

gatchaman_movie_poster_1Gatchaman (Dir Toya Sato)

Gatchaman, a property about a team of bird-themed superheroes strangely referred to as a “science ninja team” (which just puts me in the mind of someone running a particle accelerator veeery quietly) has been on the cusp of its own big-time movie for some time now.

Before it sadly went out of business, American animation studio Imagi was all set to produce an English language CGI Gatchaman movie, teasers for which can still be seen

Now Toya Sato, a mostly unknown director, is posed to bring a sexy, teched-up version of Gatchaman to the big screen, with tons of effects and explosions and broody attractive people to back it up. Most Japanese superhero films, spinoffs of TV franchises like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, are usually killed by feeling too low-budget and tv-ish, but from the trailers Gatchaman doesn’t have seem to have this problem, so this one’s definitely high on my priorities list.

The Conjuring (Dir James Wan)

There’s a lot of huff and noise around The Conjuring, the new haunted house movie from Saw director James Wan.

Based on a true story, the film focuses on a pair of Paranormal Investigators, an interesting twist admittedly, called to help out a family with a ghost problem. So basically it’s like Poltergeist from the perspective of the little woman with the ludicrous accent.

Of course, The Conjuring, and James Wan himself, both have one mark against them already: the fact that contrary to popular opinion, Insidious was about as scary as stale toast and so monstrously overrated I sometimes wonder if I’m the butt of some practical joke. All the same, I’ll probably give it a shot, if only because I’m always open to being proved wrong, even though most of the time I’m still right.

Drug War (Dir. Johnnie To)Drug War 2013 1080p Blu-ray ACV DTS-HD MA TrueHD 7.1-HDWinG - 2.jpg

Hong Kong director Johnnie To has built a pretty impressive name for himself in the world of crime thrillers and shoot-em-ups, boasting such flicks as The Mission, PTU, Exiled, Vengeance and Breaking News on his resume.

This is a man who KNOWS how to direct a gunfight, and if you want evidence, just look at the tense mall shoot-out in The Mission or the single-take opening of Breaking News.

After dabbling in romantic comedies of all damn things, To seems to have returned to his roots of finding new and creative ways to show people shooting the crap out of each other, and Drug War looks like the film to see for Hong Kong action fans.

Vegetarian Cannibal (Dir. Branko Schmidt)

The title alone, and the description “The story of a corrupt gynecologist’s exploits within a toxic medical system” makes this one sound like a screwball farce, but director Branko Schmidt has by all accounts turned out a tense, psychological horror flick aimed at unnerving the audience as much as possible.

Given that this is Fantasia, the fest that purportedly cheered at scenes of shocking brutality in T.F Mou’s Men Behind the Sun, Vegetarian Cannibal has a pretty high order to fill if it wants to get under the skin of this audience.

By all accounts though, if any flick will succeed it’s this one, and gore hounds and fans of transgressive cinema will want to watch it.

worlds-end-posterThe World’s End (Dir. Edgar Wright)

A few years back, Shaun of the Dead had its North American premier at Fantasia, blowing the socks off horror fans and ensuring that director Edgar Wright would never be short of fans lining up to give him blowjobs and script ideas.

Now just shy of ten years later, the last film in the unoffical “Cornetto Trilogy” that began with Shaun and its follow-up Hot Fuzz, is ready to hit screens, and bring Fantasia 2013 to a close.

Reuniting stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, the focus seems to be sci-fi this time, as Pegg and newcomers Martin Freeman and Paddy Considine play a gang of friends brought together after 20 years apart to make one last go at the epic pub crawl they never finished in their misspent youth, while discovering their childhood haunt is infested with Body Snatchers style alien doubles.

To say fans have been waiting for this one for a while is a wee bit of an understatement, and this will probably be one of the first films of the fest to sell out, so I’d advise buying your tickets now. Like NOW.