Hypnotic, beautifully filmed, disturbing, and incredibly frustrating, Upstream Color by Shane Carruth is also my favorite movie this year. A number of reviews compared it to Tree of Life by Terrence Malick but I'd say you'd have to throw in Videodrome by David Cronenberg and Scanner Darkly by Richard Linklater as obvious influences as well. This is a movie with less of a plot than an order of events that make a kind of stark, emotional sense when viewed together.
Shane Carruth was the director of 2004's Primer which remains one of my absolute time-travel movies. Part of the problem of describing a movie like Upstream Color is that the film is intent to dissolve such boundaries. Upstream Color is no where coherent enough to describe in terms of a genre but it is the superior film simply by being the more personal artistic statement.
So while I can't really tell you what the film is about, there are certain things I can describe. A woman named Kris (played by Amy Seimetz) is attacked by an identity thief, fed something that appears to be a mescaline worm and falls into a deep, highly susceptible trance for a period of days. During that time, the thief commands her to turn over all of her money and assets. Having taken what he needs, the man abandons her to the increasingly agitated worm and her own attempts at self-surgery to release it. While extremely disturbing, the scenes are also strikingly beautiful, gentle washes of color and ivory follow the woman as she goes through elaborate, mindless rituals of self-destruction.
Once free of the worm, her life in ruins, Kris runs into Jeff (played by Shane Carruth), a similarly damaged individual. They fall in love, attempt to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives and gradually realize that their identities may have fused somehow and that the mystery of what had happened to them may revolve around a pig farm owned by an amateur found-sound musicologist.
In the final section we learn that the worm may be a part of the complicated life cycle of a parasite that progresses from human being, through the guts of pigs, to orchids growing in a stream. We see that all of the miseries of Kris and Jeff are related to an entire cottage industry revolving around the bluish secretions of the parasite infested worms.
But none of this is spelled out exactly, and the ending, in particular, is masterfully ambiguous. There is a way to take this film as simply an elaborate metaphor for the insanity of falling in love with another individual, feeling one's own memories bleed into someone else. However, there are clearly aspects of the film that are happening, that are real. The miniature economy surrounding the cultivation of the plants and their worms is too specific and detailed to be dismissed as fantasy. I was left with a sense that the worm has left the personalities of the characters in the film mutable, intermingled, even as the larger world around them burbled around them in an indifferent stream.
I'm not sure a second viewing would make this any more comprehensible, but that isn't why I'm recommending this movie. You will want to see this for how it bases an entire visual poem on the discarded bits of science fiction.
What I'm reading: Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf
What I'm listening to: The King is Dead by Decemberists
What I'm watching: Kids in the Hall (Season 1)