Running Late

Running Late (photo)

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As we wind down to year’s end, we find Michael Haneke’s Cannes conqueror fashionably late to the party, while Paramount waited three years to release the Renée Zellweger horror flick “Case 39″ and a mere half-century later, audiences will finally see the fruits of an unproduced Tennessee Williams screenplay. Throw in a pair of modern Korean films and you’ve got yourself an exciting way to start the new year.

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“Case 39″
We can only hope it’s no reflection of quality that this latest volley from the creepy-kid subgenre sat on the shelf for so long that its director, Christian Alvart, had another project (daffy sci-fi chiller “Pandorum”) wrapped, released and mostly ignored before this domestic thriller even made it to our shores. The German helmer’s English-language debut (at least chronologically) has Renée Zellweger playing a kindly social worker who wrestles away the innocuous looking young Lilith (Jodelle Ferland) from seemingly abusive parents, only to discover that the little angel might not be as benevolent as she appears. Ian McShane, who has yet to transfer his small screen authority to movies, co-stars as a creeped-out child therapist.
Opens wide.

“The Chaser”
A huge hit in its native South Korea, Na Hong-jin’s directorial debut centers on a fallen police officer-turned-pimp who must dust off his detective skills when his prostitutes begin to go missing. Kim Yoon-suk stars as the mack daddy who believes he’s stumbled onto the case of a serial killer, but finds little help from his former colleagues. Although it sounds like the kind of film no American studio would touch, Leonardo DiCaprio is said to be eyeing an American remake for Warner Bros.
Opens in New York.

12282009_teardrop1.jpg“The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond”
For a first-time feature filmmaker, actress-turned-helmer Jodie Markell couldn’t make her debut with a sturdier piece of material than this recently unearthed screenplay of societal scandal and sexual jealousy penned by the iconic playwright Tennessee Williams. Bryce Dallas Howard ruffles some feathers as the decidedly unwelcome wannabe socialite Fisher Willow, who takes Memphis society by storm when she recruits the cash-strapped son of the help (Chris Evans) to be her arm candy for the social season and silently seethes when her business arrangement with her escort becomes something more right as he falls for another. Ann-Margaret and Ellen Burstyn lend their support to this Southern Gothic throwback that’s been kicking around the festival circuit since premiering in Toronto in 2008.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles.

“Old Partner”
A poetic portrait of the companionship between a man and his beast of burden, South Korean helmer Chung Ryoul-Lee’s unashamedly simply documentary charts the twilight year in a four-decade long friendship between Choi, an elderly farmer, and his trusty ox, much to the chagrin of his wife, who views the great hulk as something akin to her husband’s idiot college buddy. As Choi spends an inordinate amount of time feeding and grooming his trusty companion, the missus wonders why her 80-year-old husband continues to sweat out a day’s work with an ox when he could easily diminish his workload with a tractor. In Korean with subtitles.
Opens in New York.

“The White Ribbon”
Perhaps a bit narked that his American remake of “Funny Games” went largely unremarked upon, Michael Haneke returned to Germany to cook up this slow-burning exercise in escalating tension and spiraling incident that finally landed the Palme d’Or that had long eluded him. It says much about his brand of moviemaking that this mostly silent, achingly slow study of a rural German village sliding towards the brink — a parable of how ignorance, apathy and base human nature combined to birth the Nazi movement — is one of his more accessible works. In German with subtitles.
Opens in New York and Los Angeles before expanding into limited release on January 22nd.

[Additional photo: “The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond,” Paladin, 2009]

Jackie That 70s Show

Jackie Oh!

15 That ’70s Show Quotes to Help You Unleash Your Inner Jackie

Catch That '70s Show Mondays and Tuesdays from 6-10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Carsey-Werner Company

When life gets you down, just ask yourself: what would Jackie do? (But don’t ask her, because she doesn’t care about your stupid problems.) Before you catch That ’70s Show on IFC, take a look at some quotes that will help you be the best Jackie you can be.

15. She knows her strengths.

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14. She doesn’t let a little thing like emotions get in the way.

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13. She’s her own best friend.

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12. She has big plans for her future.

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11. She keeps her ego in check.

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10. She can really put things in perspective.

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9. She’s a lover…

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8. But she knows not to just throw her love around.

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7. She’s proud of her accomplishments.

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6. She knows her place in the world.

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5. She asks herself the hard questions.

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4. She takes care of herself.

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3. She’s deep.

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2. She’s a problem solver.

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1. And she’s always modest.

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Seven movies that pushed the boundaries of storytelling.

Seven movies that pushed the boundaries of storytelling. (photo)

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Something struck me when reading Cameron’s typical hubristic declarations in his conversation with Peter Jackson over at Slate. He said “Filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change… It’s about those actors somehow saying the words and playing the moment in a way that gets in contact with the audience’s hearts. I don’t think that changes. I don’t think that’s changed in the last century… [The studios have] also lost the courage to make, frankly, a movie like ‘Avatar,’ which is a blockbuster-scaled movie not based on prior arc.”

But just because a film’s not part of a franchise doesn’t mean it’s a radical break with the hero-cycle past. And Cameron is way out there if he really thinks “Avatar” is all that different, when it comes to plot freshness, from the “Transformers” and “Harry Potter”s of the world. Leaving aside the avant-garde, there’ve been plenty of movies that re-orient how we think about narrative. Here are seven of my favorites from our waning decade:

“Borat” (2006)
I don’t need to tell you anything about this movie. Watching it opening weekend with a sold-out crowd was like remembering the shock waves Eminem sent out in 2000 or reading about the affect Richard Pryor used to have. What’s weird about it is the way it indicates what’s “real” and what’s staged: the visual quality goes way down, from near-filmic to sub-consumer-grade. I’m not sure what’s what (IMDb claim it’s all video), but — unintentionally or not — “Borat” indicates clear shifts from its narrative to its provacateur tactics by encouraging the public to pay attention to the quality of the film stock. That’s new.

“Code Unknown” (2000)
On the surface, this movie looks like another son of “Short Cuts”: multiple characters, intersecting and overlapping at odd moments without even realizing it, a trick done by everything from “Pulp Fiction” and “Magnolia” to (rock bottom) “Sin City” and “Crash.” But it isn’t: it’s about the failure of communication, and not all of its characters connect, or even realize the potential ramifications of what’s happening. Which is perfect for a movie about communication breakdown (see: the title), and also unexpected from a movie by Michael “Master of Didacticism” Haneke. It re-orients your expectations: you keep waiting for things to come together and converge on a focal point. And they never do.

“Donnie Darko” (2001)
All of Richard Kelly’s films have the starting assumption that you’ve read as much Stephen Hawking as he has and can fill in the narrative gaps accordingly. The original version of “Donnie Darko” is pretty incomprehensible, David Lynch in the suburbs, but sucked you in stylistically even if you couldn’t put together the pieces. (The director’s cut, ironically, ruined everything, spelling out what was elided — wormholes! alternate universes!) Either it’s something you can piece together with a decent knowledge of dumbed-down quantum physics (something Kelly forced me to investigate) or it’s something else: science as a way of filling in the emotional/plot gaps. Forget the Hot Topic t-shirts; that’s as radical as it gets.

“Irreversible” (2002)
It’s not so much that Gaspar Noé made a movie that goes from ending to beginning; if that was all it took, I’d have “Memento” here. But I’m not a “Memento” fan, and I do (with caveats) like this one. Noé prefers controversy to reasonableness (which has proven his major marketing hook), so many viewers were understandably distracted by, say, the opening, featuring a man getting his head bashed in with a fire hydrant, or the infamous extended rape sequence.

What “Irreversible” is trying to do, though, is go from the end to the beginning to suggest nothing less than the entire arc of “2001” (referenced in a shot of its poster) in a way more literal way, going from corruption and despair to innocence and rebirth (doomed from the outset) in under 100 minutes. It’s both literally and metaphorically a summary of human experience and how “time destroys everything,” as the opening line puts itt. This may or may not be stupid (it’s kind of both), but it is unprecedented, even when triangulated by its own reference points.

“No Rest for the Brave” (2003)
There are plenty of movies that operate on dream logic (the entire “Nightmare on Elm Street” series, for starters), but none quite like Alain Guiraudie’s first feature, a movie that more than earns Buñuel comparisons. This is a movie which opens with a guy rambling about how something called Faftao-Laoupo (which he may or may not have seen in his dreams) will kill him if he ever sleeps again. 20 minutes in, everyone dies. Cut to: sheep, someone talking about how being a shepherd, all things considered, is just fine. I’m not sure this movie makes sense, but I watched it twice within 24 hours, and I can safely say nothing else has even come close to blurring the lines of dream and narrative. Even “Mulholland Drive” is easier to parse.

The clip below doesn’t have subtitles, but there’s only one line, which is “I can’t believe how bored I am.”

“Primer” (2004)
Shane Carruth’s bold opening salvo (his only film to date) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s a movie shot for $7,000, the same budget, inflation-unadjusted, as Robert Rodriguez’s 1993 “El Mariachi,” but used for way more aesthetically impressive results. It’s about Texan engineers inventing a time-travel machine that works — so successfully, in fact, that the movie, without giving a hint of what it’s doing, simply adopts the branching timelines and alternate universes opened up once the engineers step inside “The Box.”

According to this timeline, there may be as many as nine branching universes knocking around in there. What “Primer” does best, though, is suck you in stylistically, then leave you to sort out the scientific (logical, but nearly impenetrable) mess. You don’t need to understand what’s happening to love it, just to know that it works. Black box magic indeed.

“Tropical Malady” (2004)
Splitting a film down the middle isn’t necessarily a radical trick — Korean director Hong Sang-soo does it as regularly as Michael Bay zooms in for the big gas explosion — but Thai visionary Apichatpong Weerasethakul not only attempts it pretty much every time out, he’s made it absolutely unreplicable. Suffice it to say no one else could’ve made a movie that showed a love story twice — once as a straightforward gay romance, again as man vs. jaguar. No one else out there is blending art-school strategy, visceral warmth and Thai folklore — not that I can imagine who else could.

[Photo: “Donnie Darko,” 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001]

The Best Films of 2009

The Best Films of 2009 (photo)

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Matt Singer: We entered 2009 with a new president who promised to bring our country hope. But looking back at the year in film, I don’t see a lot of hope; I see a lot of grief and despair. Oh sure, the box office charts were dominated by your now-typical assortment of franchises, spin-offs, reboots and sequels — a major cause of grief and despair for some — but you also had enough apocalypse movies to fill a book on Biblical prophecy. Even some of the obligatory superheroes got dark: the world (spoiler alert!) doesn’t end in “Watchmen,” but it comes awfully close.

There was an air of doom in certain quarters of the film industry this year too, as the effects of the bad economy rippled through everything from festival attendance to the shriveling ranks of working film critics. Examining my own list of the year’s best, I find that most were stories about people struggling with loss, like the husband in my #4 film, or the trio of siblings in my #2 film (too bad Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” was moved to next year, on the basis of the early reviews, it looks like it would have fit in perfectly). I also see a lot of films on my list about waiting: waiting for success that never comes (my #5 film), or for the end of a tour of duty in Iraq (#6), or for the moment when a demon will come and drags your eternal soul to hell (#3). The bleak mood may have also contributed to it being a fine year for dark comedies, including two outstanding films on my list.

I’ve read lots of complaints that 2009 was a mediocre year for movies, but people who tend to complain about that sort of thing say that every year, no matter how many good movies there are. All I know is trying to pick just ten favorites out of all the worthy films felt tougher this year than it has in the four previous I’ve been at IFC. To me, that feels like a reason to hope. Without further ado:


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