The Year in Documentaries

The Year in Documentaries (photo)

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A documentary cannot withstand the corrosion of time based on compelling subject matter alone. I learned this a few years ago while writing copy for an indie distribution label, whose acquisitions team had a rash tendency to pick up decades-old docs simply because they were Academy Award nominees. Sometimes they were still engaging under all that dust, but more often than not there were traits that dated them worse than the fashions worn within: static talking-head interviews shot practically but uninspiringly against bland or ugly backdrops, a schoolmarm’s discipline for the purist limitations of vérité and an exhausting dryness that underscores how little use films are as strict conveyers of data — of course, Wikipedia wasn’t yet invented, so maybe information was enough back then?

Plenty of documentarians today still rely on the same old creative crutches, but in the year 2008, the docs that rubbed up against the zeitgeist had to be bold, provocative or artful to stand apart. It has little to do with elections or wars or bailouts, and more to do with what’s escalating in our Information Aging: digital technology gets cheaper, which births more neophyte filmmakers, which grows the breadth of watchable content at our fingertips to gluttonous proportions, which prompts the mainstream media to pollute themselves with tabloid sensationalism in their begging for our distracted attentions.

This might explain why “Religulous,” a high-profile doc from the director of “Borat,” has taken in less than $13 million in box office sales as of this week. To me, comedian Bill Maher’s on-camera investigation into why the devout believe what they believe was a smug, only moderately funny character attack that missed a golden opportunity to expose how religion has been co-opted by right-wing politics. Regardless, it’s the most commercially successful nonfiction film of the year, and to think that it still only grossed one-seventh of what Disney’s talking Chihuahua has so far means that maybe Maher was right: there is no God.

12232008_waltzwithbashir.jpgBut really, why do documentaries continue to carry such a stigma? 2008 saw plenty of pop docs, those slickly produced crowd-pleasers that inject potentially unexciting topics into thrilling narratives. Stephen Walker’s “Young @ Heart,” an innocuous heartstring-puller about a chorus of senior citizens who perform Sonic Youth and Ramones songs, uncovered the unlikely eccentrics of the iPod generation. Ari Folman’s wonderful “Waltz With Bashir,” in which the Israeli filmmaker comes to grips with his own relationship to a 1982 Lebanese massacre, might sound like a snooze on paper, but as the first fully animated doc feature, his nightmarish visions and explorations of guilt became affecting enough to get nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Earlier in the year, Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10” utilized animation to reenact the Chicago Seven trials, so perhaps a new doc trend is born.

Chris Bell’s mighty entertaining “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” blamed the overuse of anabolic steroids and other performance enhancers on the distinctly American mentality to win at all costs, a conclusion made all the most unhappily compelling by the death of his subject and brother, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, last week. Bell especially stands out this year for his man-with-a-microphone charisma, a persona inspired by the likes of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, whose own new docs, “Slacker Uprising” and “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”, marked low points in both of their careers. (The former was a glorified DVD featurette that Moore suspiciously gave away for free on the interwebs; the latter was a condescending lump of gimmicky self-aggrandizement that saw Spurlock searching under rocks in the Middle East for terrorists.)

Furthermore, even Oscar winners Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) and nominee Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) were capable of undercutting their own legacies. Gibney’s “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” had a remarkable subject in the late “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” author and influential (under the influence?) journalist, but blew it with cheeseball creative choices that kept Thompson as unknowable as ever — what was he thinking by asking Johnny Depp to read his gonzo writings while holding a pistol in the air? Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure” had the best of intentions in examining the prisoner abuse cases at Abu Ghraib via those notorious photographs, though the film pulls punches, lets culprits off easy and inexplicably beautifies its findings. And not to further rag on the misfires, but Burstein’s “American Teen” gets my vote for the worst doc of the year: as a trumped-up peek into the senior year of five Indiana high school archetypes (the jock, the geek, the queen bee, et al.), the film stages moments, expressions and dramatic pivot points to craft a shallow entertainment à la MTV’s “The Hills.”



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.