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The seven most influential filmmaking countries of the ’00s.

The seven most influential filmmaking countries of the ’00s. (photo)

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At the Telegraph, critic (and former professor of mine) Sukhdev Sandhu writes about “the sorry decline of American cinema” and comes up with a handful of cultural flashpoints for the future: “The new energy hubs are likely to be found in Mexico; in Romania; in Thailand… in Lagos… in Korea.”

While I don’t agree with his blanket bashing of our domestic film product, It’s true, at least, that world cinema has trend-hopped as exhaustively as the music world in terms of what’s hot in the past ten years. Here’s a tenuous list of seven countries that I saw as most having left their mark this decade in different ways.

12282009_tena.jpgIran (1997-2002)

From the late ’60s on, Iran been on the cinema map: Dariush Mehrjui’s 1969 “Cow” was smuggled out to the Venice Film Festival in 1971, and (current opposition spokesman) Mohsen Makhmalbaf had some prominence in the ’80s. But 1997 is when Makhmalbaf’s “Gabbeh” and Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry” made a (relative) mark in American arthouse theaters; a year earlier Jafar Panahi’s “The White Balloon” had made nearly half a million, and two years later Majid Majidi’s “Children of Heaven” would finally straggle into American theaters and collect nearly a million.

I’m cutting off Iran’s influence at 2002 (with “10,” pictured, when Kiarostami went digital) even though Kiarostami and Panahi have continued to make strong work. A new generation of Iranian filmmakers — especially Makhmalbaf’s daughters Samira and Hana and Bahman Ghobadi — have emerged, but with minimal or zero commercial exposure in the U.S. Iran’s back in the headlines for the obvious tragic reasons, but whether its cinema will re-emerge or not is impossible to tell.

Where to start: Jafar Panahi’s “Crimson Gold,” with a script from Kiarostami that places the usual Socratic dialogues and extremely dry comedy in service of Panahi’s Don Siegel-level eye for urban landscapes and grit.

12282009_tears6.jpgThailand (2000-2004)

Thailand briefly burst out, thanks to three filmmakers: Apichatpong Weerasethakul. whose dreamy jungle-centric films blur into avant-garde boundary-pushing; the whimsical Wisit Sasantieng (whose spaghetti western homage/spoof “Tears of the Black Tiger,” pictured, could’ve been a cult hit if the Weinsteins hadn’t bought and promptly failed to distribute it, and whose “Citizen Dog” earned “Amelie” comparisons); and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, whose “Last Life of the Universe” scored the DP services of Wong Kar-Wai collaborator Christopher Doyle. But the commercial films never got a chance, and the wonderful Weerasethakul has proven too languorous to ever gain more than a scattered arthouse following, which is a shame.

Where to start: Weerasethakul’s “Blissfully Yours,” a slyly funny reverie which has a clip of an amazing-sounding TV movie called “The Dolphin Who Wanted To Die” and whose opening credits don’t come til 45 minutes in. If you don’t want to see people plotlessly frolicking in the sun, this may not be for you, though I find it inexplicably soothing.

12282009_ninequeens2.jpgArgentina (2001-present)

South America’s full of fascinating up-and-comers like Chile’s Pablo Lorrain, whose grotesque “Tony Manero” is a cult classic in the making, but Argentina’s home to the most. The late Fabián Bielinsky’s “Nine Queens” (pictured) got an indiewood remake (as 2004’s “Criminal”), while on the festival circuit the big players are Lucrecia Martel (“The Holy Girl,” “The Headless Woman”) and Celina Murga, whose “Ana and the Others” and “A Week Alone” got exposure but no distribution. The favorite national theme seems to be a heightened fascination with class.

Where to start: Argentina has an unusually large number of prominent female directors. I’m personally most into Lucia Puenzo, whose 2007 “XXY” is as good a hermaphrodite movie as you’ll ever see. Thin praise, I guess, but it’s a satisfyingly chilly, Cronenberg-esque take on the subject filtered through some surprisingly nuanced teen angst.

12282009_everyoneelse.jpgAustria (2001-present)

You could just as easily substitute Germany here — the so-called New Berlin School of Maren Ade, Valeska Grisebach and all. But they’ve barely made a dent in the arthouses as of yet (though the planned 2010 release of Ade’s savagely hilarious “Everyone Else,” pictured, has a small chance of changing that). Austria, meanwhile, has Michael Haneke, who sometimes somehow actually makes money these days (and Ron Howard’s threatening a remake of “Caché”) and whose reputation continues to grow. They also have zeitgeist champ Ulrich Seidl and documentarians Michael Glawogger (whose 2005 “Workingman’s Death” has tracking shots as fearless as Kubrick’s and twice as dangerous) and Nikolaus Geyrhalter, whose “Our Daily Bread” is at least as important as “Fast Food Nation” (book or

Where to start: I’ve already talked up Seidl’s “Import Export” — which finally hits DVD January 26 — but in the meantime John Waters named it his favorite movie of 2009. If that helps. The trailer below is NSFW.

12282009_summerfall.jpgKorea (2002-2006)

Korea had a period of reasonably widespread popularity between “Oldboy” and “The Host” — two slick, wildly commercial movies that did okay at the American arthouses — that also included Kim Ki-Duk’s “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring,” pictured, which somehow grossed more in the US than Bong Joon-ho’s honest-to-goodness monster movie. I’ve placed the cut-off at 2006, not because the films have gotten less interesting — far from it — but because, for some reason, slick Korean blockbusters (some of the best of the world) have for some reason failed to stick here, while the major arthouse filmmakers (like Hong Sang-soo) are struggling as ever for exposure.

Where to start: “The Host” is fun, but Bong Joon-Ho’s previous film “Memories of Murder” is better, a jaunty and vigorous epic about decidedly non-jaunty topics (serial killings, political repression, police corruption and abuse). Bong blends commercial intuition and writerly Big Themes like no one else working today.

12282009_hero4.jpgChina (2002-present)
After previously peaking with the early ’90s so-called “Fifth Generation” of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige (whose “Farewell My Concubine” snapped up over $5 million in 1993 on spectacle alone) and all, China went quiet internationally for a while. In 2002, Yimou re-emerged as a state-sponsored showman with “Hero,” pictured — eventually successfully collecting over $50 million thanks to Quentin Tarantino’s name above the title — and Chinese martial arts reigned supreme again, culminating in Yimou’s staging of the 2008 Beijing Olympics’ opening ceremonies. Meanwhile, a new generation of documentarians have emerged — spearheaded by the shape-shifting Jia Zhangke, who treats narrative and non-fiction the same way — buoying festivals and worthy of a larger audience.

Where to start: Jia’s slyly funny “Still Life” is like a Jim Jarmusch movie incongruously set against the background of 1.5 million people’s displacement, and it’s (at least temporarily) available on YouTube in full.

12282009_4months.jpgRomania (2005-present)
Romanian cinema is really broad, but there’s no denying that the films most stressed upon American release — “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “12:08 East of Bucharest” — all focus on dark humor in the midst of realistically filmed, depressing post-Soviet surroundings and decaying infrastructure. Which — artistic considerations aside — would still place Romania ahead of other post-Soviet republics like the barely (cinematically) present Ukraine and Slovenia, and neck-and-neck with or ahead of Russia, whose biggest hits (like the “Night Watch” series) tend to be unexportable. Bonus point: director Cristi Puiu claims “Lazarescu”‘s main influence is “E.R.,” bringing everything back to America. USA! USA!

Where to start: Honestly, for me all these movies blend into a series of comical scenes of hard-drinking chain-smokers being unnecessarily rude to each other and consistently, disproportionately spiteful. Here’s one of the best of those bits, from the currently in release “Police, Adjective.” If there’s anything more meta than watching a YouTube clip of someone bitching about a YouTube clip, I don’t know what it is.

[Top photo: “Blissfully Yours,” Plexifilm, 2002]

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SO EXCITED!!!

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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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.”

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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. 

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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-Craft

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?”

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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).

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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.

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