This may seem like a non sequitur but stay with me. Last Friday I watched Iron Man 3 with my little sister, Gianna, who could barely contain her excitement during the car ride. As she made me proud with her encyclopedic knowledge of the finer points of superherodom, I recalled going to watch Raimi’s phenomenal Spiderman 2 and the fevered fanboy adrenaline pumping through every inch of my 14 year old body. The Marvel/DC universe seemed like an ocean of untapped awesomeness and I was there like Phil Sheldon from Marvels, gazing upwards at gods leaping, flying, and swinging through the heavens, tights and all. To my adolescent mind there seemed an honesty about these new superhero movies, like they were an apology to all the nerds who gave up trying to explain to “normals” that there was real value and humanity in those back-of-the-shelf picture books. With all this in the back of my mind, I walked out of Iron Man 3 with a cold detachment that honestly surprised me. It wasn’t until I was home that it hit me that Upstream Color was the culprit. Recently both Danny Boyle and Steven Soderbergh put the hurt on the Hollywood industry, giving first-hand insights into the shameful sterilization of creativity and innovation in today’s films in order to secure the foreign market, which is a far more significant factor than it was 15-20 years ago. They even sighted companies which took screenplays and ran them through an algorithm (of sorts) to search for plot devices which in the past have led to blockbusters. Iron Man 3, which by all accounts was a great superhero movie, felt oddly devoid of importance. There is a family-friendly trend which has slowly but surely homogenized popular entertainment into interchangeable collections of cameos and special effects. I’ve lost track of all the upcoming Marvel reboots and sequels (although I am honestly excited for Doctor Strange, a favorite of mine) and Disney’s announcement to make a Star Wars film every year does nothing to inspire confidence. The Marvel/DC monopoly in on the verge of imploding, making way for what most likely will be a string of video game adaptations. And yet nestled in between all these box-office titans battling it out is a small film called Upstream Color that single handedly undermines them all.
I don’t want to say to much about the actual story, and even if I wanted to I’m not sure I could. There is simply nothing to compare it to. For starters let me just say that on a narrative level it is more comprehensible than Primer, Shane Carruth’s first time-travel film. And just like Primer it works on many levels. What I found most fascinating about Upstream Color is that your understanding of it arrives in layers, first mechanically, then narratively, then thematically, and finally spiritually which springs from expanding the film’s third layer. For all its mystery the film never becomes frustrating, which surprised me the most. No matter how much you “get” from it the film is incredibly watchable, moving as if it had a pulse with complex sounds and images weaving in and out, jarring your senses only to soften the blow. Upstream Color is the antithesis of the aforementioned blockbusters, completely unaware of genre or cliches or expectations, telling a sad, beautiful, and deeply human story with the maturity of any great work of art. As I witnessed the film’s protagonists Kris and Jeff being drawn inexplicably towards each other (yes I’m being vague), my mind became far more concerned with reflecting upon the contradictory forces at work in any relationship than the actual story-based reasons for their unusual connection. And that’s exactly what this film does. It presents its story in such broad strokes that it forces you to generalize the bizarre happenings in the film until they suddenly speak to you on a personal level. Upstream Color will be on everyone’s “Top films of 2013” list come December, and I would be surprised if another film comes out between then and now that manages to break the mold and present such a brilliant and compelling story with such subtlety and mysticism. (A+)