DID YOU READ

List: The Best Films of 2008

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12192008_wendyandlucy.jpgIt feels completely appropriate in a year of incredible financial turmoil, particularly in the independent film sector, that so many good movies were made about people teetering on the edge of economic extinction. My own list features two such films, without even getting around to “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Frozen River” or the small but immensely powerful “Shotgun Stories.” Movie stars were feeling the pinch, too: in the semiautobiographical “JCVD,” audiences saw faded action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme resorting to begging his agent for money to pay for his divorce.

Stars, and studios too. Even before the bottom fell out of the economy, Hollywood studios were beginning to shutter their indie divisions; Paramount eliminated Vantage, Warner Brothers closed Picturehouse and Warner Independent and absorbed New Line. It wasn’t much better for smaller distributors: David O. Russell’s upcoming “Nailed” was in the news all summer because its production kept getting shut down by unions whose members weren’t getting paid by financier Capitol Films, whose subsidiary ThinkFilm had its own cash problems this year, when they couldn’t afford to purchase newspaper ads the Friday of the opening of their release “Then She Found Me.” Just last week the Yari Film Group filed for bankruptcy. Their big hit from a few years ago? “Crash.” There were weeks when the entire independent film world seemed embodied by Michelle Williams’ penniless drifter in “Wendy and Lucy:” every move they made seemed to draw them inexorably deeper into the financial quicksand.

There wasn’t exactly an artistic crash to match, but you could argue that the movies suffered a very mild creative recession in 2008. Strong as this year’s slate was, few if any equaled the remarkable heights of last year’s “No Country For Old Men” or “Zodiac.” On a personal level, I found myself on the outside looking in at a lot of the consensus critical hits: I thought both “Slumdog” and “WALL-E” started as strongly as any movie this year, but tapered off over the course of extremely disappointing final acts. Critical consensus may be a thing of the past anyway soon, the way newspaper and magazine film critics are losing their jobs.

Despite all of that gloominess, there was still much to celebrate in the movies of 2008. It was a year of impressive comebacks (JCVD himself for one, the magnetic fallen star of my number five film for another), of great dysfunctional onscreen families (my numbers two and ten), and more innovation in the documentary form (numbers one and nine). Some special movies even found ways to ask important questions of audiences, even as they entertained us: how far should the law go to stop a criminal (number three)? What does certainty mean in the absence of proof (number eight)?

In dark times, movies have always provided an escape. Even in an “off year” like this one, these ten films, plus the ones provided by my colleagues Alison Willmore and Michael Atkinson, gave us that and so much more.

12192008_mywinnipeg.jpg1. My Winnipeg
In the four years I’ve made top ten lists here on IFC.com, an IFC Film has never appeared even once, a convenient way to avoid accusations of a conflict of interest. I’ll risk them in this case because no movie I saw in 2008 was as exciting, imaginative, hysterically funny or hysterically sad as “My Winnipeg.” Guy Maddin was hired to direct a documentary to his hometown, a place he describes, with a good deal of pride, as “the strangest city in North America,” but wound up delivering a “docu-fantasia” where dream logic prevails, sleepwalking is a recurring motif and local history blends with myth and even parts of Maddin’s own childhood. In repeatedly returning to the image of a man on a train heading out of Winnipeg that can never quite break free from the city’s gravitational orbit, the film becomes a delightful piece of escapism on its subject’s inability to escape his past or his beloved home.

2. Rachel Getting Married
Jonathan Demme felt Jenny Lumet’s unique screenplay about a very dysfunctional family’s reunion for one of its daughters’ wedding deserved a visual strategy equally unusual. Shooting digitally with a minimum of crew and equipment he not only imbued the film with the feeling that the camera was a fly-on-the-wall videographer capturing the essential moments of this remarkable wedding, but he also brought out the raw, naturalistic beauty of digital photography in the way few filmmakers have.

3. The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan’s superior sequel to his impressive “Batman Begins” was almost as much fun to discuss as it was to watch. In the moment, there were the expansive chase and fight sequences (even more stunning in IMAX) and Heath Ledger’s truly terrifying performance as The Joker. Afterwards, you debated movie’s message about the murky moral waters the film’s hero swims in to achieve his goal (extreme wiretapping, prisoner torture and the like). So many people focused on the question of whether Batman was supposed to represent President Bush that they missed the other possible parallel: that of district attorney Harvey Dent, whose courage under fire unites a frazzled community before checks out of reality completely and starts letting others make his decisions for him.

4. Wendy and Lucy
Watching director Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist masterpiece about a young woman searching for her lost dog is like savoring a fine wine; it’s about appreciating subtle flavors, nuances and clarity. Let those who would dismiss the film as “too small” have their gallons boxes of rubbish; “Wendy and Lucy” is vintage American independent filmmaking.

12192008_thewrestler.jpg5. The Wrestler
This beautifully sad film, simultaneously depressing and uplifting, was shot and set in the decaying suburbs and beach towns of New Jersey, and looks and feels like the movie the Dardennes might have made if they grew up as WWF fans in the 1980s. Mickey Rourke, using his own faded film career as his inspiration, groans and grunts with every step: for his Randy “The Ram” Robinson the very act of living day to day is a struggle greater than any Saturday Night’s Main Event. Real (fake) wrestling could only wish it was this emotionally devastating.

6. Milk
How can we ever explain Josh Brolin’s remarkable mid-career relevance? For so long he was that guy who looked like his dad and made schlocky movies, but now, out of nowhere, he’s the most interesting actor in Hollywood. He’s like the acting equivalent of a baseball player who discovers HGH at age 37 and suddenly hits 60 home runs in a season. In Gus Van Sant’s beautiful and incredibly timely biopic “Milk” he steals scene after scene as troubled San Francisco supervisor Dan White, and he’s stealing from Sean Penn, who’s giving the performance of a career full of career performances.

7. Let the Right One In
The rare horror film that’s many different kinds of scary. It’s creepy scary (as in the relationship between 12-year-old vampire Eli and the man who might be her father, caretaker, or — worst of all — a former boyfriend), it’s gross-out scary (like the scene where Eli bleeds from every pore of her body because she’s entered a house uninvited), it’s shocking scary (like the gorefest finale at the swimming pool).

8. Doubt
It’s common to see a movie with several great performances — most of the movies on this list qualify — but how often do you a movie with nothing but great performances? In “Doubt” all four leads — Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis — were equally outstanding. The film’s titular theme, elucidated in a crisp screenplay from director and source material playwright John Patrick Shanley, couldn’t be more timely, either.

9. Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Kurt Kuenne set out to make a documentary as a tribute to his murdered friend Andrew Bagby, and became a witness to a series of events involving the people he left behind so impossibly tragic that they would seem laughably contrived in a fiction film (the fact that the woman suspected in the Bagby murder turns out to be an ex-girlfriend AND is carrying his unborn son is just the very tip of the iceberg). You could argue that by withholding certain information about where his story is going to heighten its emotional impact, Kuenne isn’t playing fair. But then, as this movie shows so powerfully, life rarely does.

12192008_achristmastale.jpg10. A Christmas Tale
Only a filmmaker as talented and as daring as Arnaud Desplechin could make such a warm comedy out of terminal cancer. “A Christmas Tale”‘s barebones description — an estranged family returns home for the first time in years because the matriarch is dying of cancer and a bone-marrow donor is needed — sounds like a downer. But Despleschin’s technique, including (but not limited to) flashback, narration, split-screen, irises, dissolves, direct address, plays within the film – makes the film one of the liveliest (and alive-est, if we can pretend for a moment that that’s a word) of the year.

Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): The Bank Job, Burn After Reading, Chicago 10, Encounters at the End of the World, The Fall, Pineapple Express, Quid Pro Quo, Shotgun Stories, Snow Angels, Step Brothers.

Alison Willmore

It wasn’t a disappointing year so much as one without surprises — while 2008 had its share of fine films, there was nothing audacious that arrived out of nowhere to knock my socks off, to show me something new. Arnaud Desplechin’s “A Christmas Tale” was one of the few that felt truly electric, the dysfunctional family gathering chestnut filtered through an insanely cinematic prism, a far richer, larger-than-life Gallic one-upping of Demme’s uneven and staunchly naturalistic “Rachel Getting Married.”

Gus Van Sant contributed the headily semi-experimental “Paranoid Park,” but it was “Milk,” his return to not just traditional narrative but the claustrophobic confines of the biopic, that was unexpectedly appealing, a portrait of a martyr to a cause that never lost sight of the flesh and blood humanity of its subjects. “Happy-Go-Lucky” and “Frownland” were combative, with infuriating main characters that challenged your ability to sympathize — initially, for the former, and quite possible ever for the latter. And “Wendy and Lucy” and “The Order of Myths” offered, through their incisive observations of a fictional girl who loses her dog and a very real and still racially segregated southern celebration, deep focus ruminations on where we are as a nation. The majority of the films on the list below I first saw over half a year ago — due to the nature of the festival circuit, sure, but also to the fact that the more recent releases that have been clustered in the current award season have been letdowns.

1. A Christmas Tale
2. Wendy and Lucy
3. Paranoid Park
4. Happy-Go-Lucky
12192008_milk.jpg5. Silent Light
6. The Order of Myths
7. Frownland
8. Milk
9. Momma’s Man
10. Reprise

Honorable mentions, in alphabetical order: Flight of the Red Balloon, Love Songs, My Winnipeg, Snow Angels, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, WALL-E, Waltz with Bashir, Woman on the Beach, The Wrestler

Michael Atkinson

As usual these days (but not, notably, last year), 2008 was rescued by the Asians, even if they didn’t remain in Asia proper. Otherwise, my list looks like a clear vote for the new wave-ist upsurge in minimalist realism/realist minimalism, Asian or American, which always seems all the more remarkable when compared in taste tests with Hollywood parade floats and middle-class-middle-age-courting Euro-dramas, which if anything often resemble the unbearable U.S. studio product of decades past. A cinema of idiosyncratic personal force overshadows the products of the machine, even as the “specialty” venues dwindle.

1. My Winnipeg
2. Ballast
3. Wendy and Lucy
4. Silent Light
5. Still Life
6. Waltz with Bashir
7. Flight of the Red Balloon
8. The Wrestler
9. Synecdoche, New York
10. My Blueberry Nights

Honorable mentions, in order: Times and Winds, The Duchess of Langeais, WALL-E, Appaloosa, Che, Alexandra, Pineapple Express, Jellyfish, Milk, The Edge of Heaven, Boy A, My Father My Lord, Encounters at the End of the World, Snow Angels, Chop Shop, Stuff and Dough, In Bruges

[Photos: “Wendy and Lucy,” Oscilloscope Pictures, 2008; “My Winnipeg,” IFC Films, 2008; “The Wrestler,” Fox Searchlight, 2008; “A Christmas Tale,” IFC Films, 2008; “Milk,” Focus Features, 2008]

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TREMORS [US 1990]  FRED WARD, FINN CARTER     Date: 1990

Better Off Fred

5 Roles That Prove Fred Ward Should Be In Every Movie

Catch a Tremors movie marathon Saturday, April 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Fred Ward has always exuded a tough but likeable on-screen “bad-assitude” that has enabled him to enjoy a career spanning five decades. Before he had a recognizable “that guy” face to movie fans, he was cast alongside Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. Not many actors can play both Henry Miller and David Spade’s dad in Joe Dirt with equal aplomb. Before you catch IFC’s Tremors marathon, check out some roles that prove Fred Ward can hold his own with the Van Dammes and Stallones of the world.

5. Wilkes, Uncommon Valor

Due to his rugged, determined look, Ward was often cast as cops, crooks and military men. It’s no surprise that he appeared in Uncommon Valor, the 1983 film where Gene Hackman puts together a ragtag squad of ex-Vietnam vets to rescue his son who was left behind in Laos. Sure, the movie pretty much set out to make a Vietnam version of The Dirty Dozen, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t entertaining in its own right. Ward fits right in with a cast of ’80s era tough guys, including Patrick Swayze, Randall “Tex” Cobb, and Tim Tomerson. Ward’s character Wilkes was a tough-as-nails Vietnam Vet who was a “tunnel rat” during the war. There’s a funny training session scene that provides a comic relief moment where Wilkes captures every one of the guys in the unit, including Gene Hackman’s Colonel Rhodes, by hiding under water. Eat your heart out, Rambo.


4. Earl Bass, Tremors

Not many actors can pull off lasso-tossing an explosive in order to lure a huge worm creature with snake tongues out of the desert sand, but Ward pulls off moment with zero camp. His Earl Bass, the tough but average Joe ranch hand turned hero, didn’t need Kevin Bacon’s long hair and exaggerated Southern drawl either. Ward and Kevin Bacon made a great team trying to save their town from the Graboids, elevating the humor in this out-of-this-world (or under-this-world) horror comedy.


3. Sgt. Hoke Moseley, Miami Blues

In a movie where Alec Baldwin completely shines as a psychotic (and highly entertaining) criminal using Miami as his own personal joy ride, Fred Ward gives an equally great performance as the grizzled Miami cop who’s seen one too many cases. After being attacked by Baldwin’s character in his own home, Ward’s Sgt. Hank Moseley loses his badge, his gun and his dentures, which really pisses him off. (And nobody plays pissed off better than Ward.) Baldwin’s Junior goes on a crime spree while using Moseley’s identification. Moseley’s wily veteran slowly begins to figure out what Junior is up to through sly conversations with Baldwin and his overly trusting hooker girlfriend, memorably played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. An underrated action comedy that is all the better for giving us a pure shot of uncut Ward awesomeness.


4. Gus Grissom, The Right Stuff

“An astronaut named Gus?” That was the question asked of Virgil Grissom in The Right Stuff by the executive from Life magazine. Who better to play a fearless, rough-around-the-edges astronaut who refused to be called Virgil than Fred Ward? The Mercury Astronauts were the best of the best, and in the film they were played by a group of great actors who were all perfectly cast to portray the brash group of American heroes. In the film, Gus was blunt and to the point and far from loquacious (his character would never use that word) but when he did speak up, it had meaning. In another pivotal scene, in which Deke Slayton was relaying to the other astronauts what Gus was trying to say about beating a monkey into space, it’s Gus’ response that summed up his character perfectly: “F***in’ A, bubba.” Nobody could have delivered that bad-ass line better than Fred Ward. In fact, “F***in’ A bubba” should have been added into the dialogue of every character he played.


5. Remo Williams, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins might have gotten ahead of itself with that title as we never got to see the adventure continue, but it had everything you want in an action movie, starting with Fred Ward. Of course, it also had Joel Grey in heavy makeup portraying Korean martial arts master Chiun, but the less said about that unfortunate bit of dated cultural stereotyping the better. Based on a series of pulp novels, Remo Williams was supposed to be an American alternative to James Bond. In an alternate, much cooler universe, it would have propelled Ward to action movie superstardom. In the film, Ward starts out as a NYC street cop recruited to be a government assassin. His face was altered through plastic surgery (to look less like a generic actor and more like Fred Ward with a clean shave) and then he is given the name Remo Williams. There is a lot of humor in this film, which mostly comes through the interaction between Ward and Grey. Chiun teaches Remo the ways of Sinanju, the ancient Korean marital art which enables you to not only dodge punches but point blank range bullets as well. (Let’s see Mr. Miyagi do that.) Anyone who caught this movie during one of its many TV airings during the ’80s remembers the thrilling fight scenes that takes place on the Statue of Liberty. Only Ward could pull off a turtle neck sweater/leather jacket combo and still look badass.

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Scarface Al Pacino

Nose Dive

10 Crazy Facts You Might Not Know About Scarface

Say hello to Scarface this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection/Universal Studios

We learned a lot from Scarface. Don’t get high on your own supply. Never trust anyone. And definitely don’t bring a gun to a chainsaw fight. So what happened behind the scenes during the making of this cultural sensation? We nosed around and found some things about Scarface you might not know, which you can catch this month on IFC. Say hello to our little facts below.

1. Brian De Palma almost directed Flashdance instead.

Scarface Brian de Palma
Everett Collection/Universal

Producer Martin Bregman offered De Palma a chance to direct Scarface while the director was filming the 1981 cult classic Blow Out.  Initially De Palma said “yes,” but then politely declined as he was too busy. He signed on to direct Flashdance instead in the hopes of getting the producer to greenlight his script on the Yablonski murders. De Palma made it about two weeks into pre-production on the dance flick before quitting.  Bregman offered Scarface to De Palma again, and the rest is history. What a feeling!


2. Michelle Pfeiffer was hangry throughout the shoot.

Scarface Michelle Pfeiffer
Universal

The actress would give a star-making performance as Elvira Hancock, the chic wife of gangster Tony Montana, but her experience behind the scenes wasn’t quite as glamorous. Pfeiffer ate very little on set to maintain Elvira’s slinky, cocaine addict look. When production stretched from the predicted four months to six, Pfeiffer was frequently starving and irritable. Might we suggest a Cubano sandwich?


3. Al Pacino’s performance was inspired by Meryl Streep.

Scarface Little Friend
Universal

It may seem hard to believe vulgar, violent cocaine kingpin Tony Montana has much in common with the reigning Queen of the Silver Screen, but Pacino saw something useful in one of Streep’s most iconic roles. Streep’s Oscar-winning turn as the titular holocaust survivor in Sophie’s Choice made a serious impression on the actor, citing her deep commitment to the tiniest details of playing someone from another country and world as his largest influence on how he played Tony. Who knew Al Pacino is a Meryl Streep fanatic? Stars really are just like the rest of us!


4. Oliver Stone was fighting his own cocaine addiction while penning the script.

Scarface Cocaine
Universal

Hooked for a year or two prior to beginning work on Scarface, Stone realized his work was getting “shallower” and bank account smaller. He and his then-wife moved to Paris as a means of cutting off his access to the drug. Stone wrote the screenplay “cold sober” in a dark room while living in the City of Light.


5. F. Murray Abraham had firsthand experience as a gangster.

Scarface F Murray Abraham
Everett Collection/Universal

As a teen in El Paso, TX, Abraham was a self-described “hoodlum.” Long before he was causing trouble as henchman Omar Suarez, the young Abraham ran around with a local gang stealing cars, getting into fights, and occasionally going to school. All that changed when the speech and drama teacher at his high school gave him March Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to read in front of the class. He was hooked, and his gang days were over.


6. Al Pacino’s hand got stuck to a gun barrel.

Scarface Machine gun
Everett Collection/Universal

In addition to accidentally being cut by a rogue shard from a plate thrown by Michelle Pfeiffer, Pacino suffered another injury on set. During a rehearsal for a gunfight, he mistakenly grabbed the barrel of the prop gun after firing several rounds, and his hand got stuck to the hot barrel. The burns were so bad, Pacino couldn’t work for two weeks.


7. Glenn Close wasn’t “slutty” enough to play Elvira.

Glenn Close
Sony

Al Pacino wanted Close, whom he knew through the New York theatre scene, as Elvira. However, producer Martin Bregman wasn’t convinced she was “slutty enough” to play the coked-out sex symbol. Close wasn’t the only high profile actress turned down for the coveted role; other contenders included Geena Davis, Carrie Fisher, Sharon Stone, Kelly McGillis, Melanie Griffith, and Kim Basinger, all of whom presumably didn’t possess sufficient levels of sluttiness according to Mr. Bregman.


8. Tammy Lynn Leppert disappeared shortly after filming.

Tammy Lynn Leppert
Universal

The 18 year-old actress, model, and former child beauty-queen appeared as Manny’s (Steven Bauer) distraction while he was in the lookout car during the infamous chainsaw scene. Leppert was last seen in Cocoa Beach, Florida on July 6, 1983 just five months before Scarface hit theaters. Authorities speculated Leppert may have been three months pregnant at the time of her mysterious disappearance and that her missing persons status could be tied to several serial killers and drug trafficking networks around the area. Her current whereabouts are still unknown.


9. F. Murray Abraham’s mother didn’t approve of Pacino’s foul mouth.

F Murray Abraham
Universal

Scarface is full of expletives with the F-word being used well over 200 times in the nearly three-hour film (the scorecard feature on the Platinum DVD edition reportedly averages its use at 1.32 f–ks per minute of the film). It’s no surprise many were turned off by the kingpin’s profanity laden mouth including wife Elvira onscreen and F. Murray Abraham’s mother. After a screening of the film in 2011, Abraham’s Italian mother asked the actor to “tell Al not to use that language. It’s not good for the Italian people.” Cuban drug dealers may be tough, but you really don’t want to mess with an Italian mama!


10. The infamous chainsaw scene was based on a real incident.

Scarface Chainsaw
Universal

Screenwriter Oliver Stone spent several months in Miami with local law enforcement and the DEA doing research and was drawn to a particularly gruesome real case. A major drug smuggling ring headed by Mario Tabraue (who became one of the major inspirations for Tony in the film) dismembered Larry Nash with a chainsaw and burned his body in July 1980 after discovering he was an informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Tabraue was eventually arrested in 1987 as part of the FBI’s “Operation Cobra” at his home in Dade County while his wife threw $50,000 cash out the back window, which was caught by a federal agent. By the time Tabraue’s drug ring was busted up, it was worth over $75 million. Say goodnight to the bad guy.

See what Scarface would look like as a sitcom below.

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Breaking-the-girl-web

Iceland Bound

Watch Fred Armisen’s Dreamy Music Video For El Perro Del Mar’s Red Hot Chili Peppers Cover

Fred returns to Iceland in his new music video

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Photo Credit: El Perro Del Mar

Created by two seasoned musicians, Portlandia often uses music as its satirical base. But while the show allows Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein to shine as masterful comedians and occasional singers, Portlandia has yet to offer a dreamy full-length music videos shot in Iceland. Fortunately, Fred was able to make that happen by directing the music video for El Perro del Mar’s down-tempo cover of the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Breaking the Girl.” In the video, a valet in Los Angeles attempts to track down the owner of a lost car key all the way to Iceland. In addition to directing the video, Armisen also stars as the globetrotting valet.

Fred — who is no stranger to music videos, having directed clips for artists like Neil Michael Hagerty & the Howling Hex and The Helio Sequence — recently spoke to Rolling Stone about working with El Perro Del Mar (the musical alias of Sarah Assbring) and his love for the Chili Peppers’ music. Documentary Now! fans also know that this isn’t Fred’s first trip to Iceland. No word on whether he attended an Al Capone Festival on his return visit.

Check out Fred’s sweetly relaxing music video for El Perro del Mar’s “Breaking the Girl” below.

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