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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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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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