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DID YOU READ

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]

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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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