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.

Y’know, watching as many movies as I have lately and finding amusing ways to blab about them on the internet isn’t as easy as I make it look, Olympian god of internet writing that I am. It’s gotten to the point where I feel like maybe my sense of reality is starting to crumble. But Enrique, the largemouth bass I met at the Copacabana last night tells me not to worry, so for now let’s get on with the show.

2013-03-14-rewind_this_poster_artRewind This!

While Fantasia’s policy towards Asian genre movies usually tends toward quantity, they usually go for quality when it comes to quirky documentaries about stuff you didn’t even know was a thing. Last year it was Toy Masters, the one about the history and ongoing legal dispute over the creation of He-Man. This year, the doc to see is Rewind This!, which takes a look at the oft-forgotten world of VHS collecting, the history of the medium, and pretty much anything else VHS-related the film makers could throw in.

In a world where a lot of kids these days (with their new-fangled eye-phones and Netflicks) don’t even know what a VHS tape is, there’s still a passionate and committed community dedicated to collecting and preserving the things, and the first step in the right direction Rewind This! takes is to put that passion front and centre. A good documentary hinges on just how much of a shit the people involved give about the subject, and you’ll be hard pressed to find someone in Rewind This! who doesn’t thoroughly give numerous shits, and their passion is one of the many things that makes the film such a delight to watch.

One of the other things is the surprising number of appearances by the likes of b-movie legends Lloyd Kaufman, Frank Henenlotter (I squee’d, I admit. Scoff if you want, Basket Case was amazing), even Anime demigod Mamoru Oshii and Hobo with a Shotgun director Jason Eisner.

I could really rave about this film. There’s a real love and (I keep using this word, I know) passion on display. It’s evident the film makers put a lot of blood, sweat and toil into the film, which all comes together with the kind of intensity and drive that puts it easily in the top three films I’ve seen at the fest this year.

After School Midnightersafterschoolmidnighters_poster

Unlike here in the west, cell-animated films and TV shows are still very much the top dog in Japan, where fully CGI animation is still something of an oddity, a word that describes After School Midnighters with alarming accuracy.

As I’ve been wont to mention before, Japanese films and TV have a tendency toward the surreal (the same way I have a tendency toward massive understatements) but even I was taken aback by the plot of this one. After drawing all over an anatomy dummy (a dummy which walks around and talks by night and has jet engines in its armpits), three – let’s call them “precocious” – little girls are shanghaied into completing a series of challenges to recover three medals, the uniting of which grant them a single wish. On the way they encounter everything from gun-toting, half-skinned rabbits named after the Corleone brothers, a demonic housefly, a time machine, talking posters of classical composers, digital witches and a bunch of other weirdness that come across like it was written with a bunch of random crap written on cards taped to a dart board.

I mean Jesus wept guys, there’s being a little wacky and then there’s writing your movie like a mad-lib.

But what really comes across as off-putting is that the film feels like it’s aping North American animated films, particularly something like The Nightmare Before Christmas. The character designs, writing, the bombastic chase scene at the end, all feel like someone made an effort to make the film feel like a North American production. But it still has this distinctly Japanese feeling to it, leading to it inhabiting this strange liminal nether-realm, neither anime nor American cartoon.

It’s almost like someone in Japan is trying to get back at North Americans for all those awful early 2000s cartoons like Totally Spies or Teen Titans, like a nerd who went on the Atlas workout and is now kicking sand into the faces of his enemies, weeping openly and screaming “See how it feels now?!?!”

Saving-General-Yang-poster-2Saving General Yang

The story of the Generals of the Yang family is one of the more beloved myths of Chinese folklore, with the Knights of the Round Table probably being the closest English counterpart, and every few years someone drags it out, dusts the old gal off and puts it to film to stir up feelings of patriotism and  hopefully make some cash.

The one doing the dusting this time around is Ronny Yu, celebrated Hong Kong action director, and still trying desperately to get us to forget Warriors of Virtue.

For those uninitiated, the story involves the seven sons of Song Dynasty general Yang Ye, who set out to rescue their father after he’s betrayed and left for dead by a scheming rival, in a series of pitched martial arts battles and dramatic death scenes.

Like most Hong Kong action movies these days, the movie tends toward melodrama the same way I tend towards a bottle of Tums after two or three barbeque chicken sandwiches. Given that the story’s a few hundred years old, I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when let slip that not everyone makes it back alive from the rescue mission, and it seems like each death scene is more prolonged and heroic than the last, which does get grating after a while.

The movie does deliver pretty well on the action front though. Each brother has some unique weapon or skill to show off, and while the movie is playing the action fairly realistically (meaning we don’t get tons of super over-the-top kung-fu awesomeness like in some of the Shaw Brothers versions of the story), there are some pretty awesome fight scenes. The best is probably the archer brother’s last stand, although 2011’s War of the Arrows still managed to do more cool stuff with archery.

While Saving General Yang is fairly fun, it isn’t the best martial arts movie you’ll see at Fantasia this year (that honor is seemingly going to Bushido Man) and probably won’t end up being one of the standouts.