DID YOU READ

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:

12202009_crank2.jpg10. “Crank: High Voltage”

Chev Chelios, the protagonist of the “Crank” series, is the perfect action hero. In each film, he’s saddled with a physical impairment that forces him to remain in a constant state of excitement. For Chelios, and for the audience of action films, boredom equals death. This time around, Triad gangsters steal Chelios’ heart and he has to get it back while keeping his artificial ticker pumping by blasting it with jolts of electricity. Subversive genre twists and clever metaphors abound: we follow a hero who is literally heartless on a quest for bigger and bigger electrical shocks while directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor try to jolt the audience with bigger and bigger shocks of their own, provoking viewers with a nonstop barrage of offensive humor, frenetic imagery, outrageous violence, and narrative non-sequiturs. Not all the jokes land, but you have to admire Neveldine/Taylor’s willingness to push the boundaries of bad taste and conventional visual storytelling. (The DIY duo shot much of the film themselves on cameras you can get at Best Buy.) They’re kind of action heroes themselves: blazing a bloody path into uncharted territory.

12202009_whiteribbon2.jpg9. “The White Ribbon”

Speaking of shocking, after films like “Caché,” “Funny Games,” and his latest, “The White Ribbon,” it may be time to anoint Michael Haneke as “The Master of Shock,” in much the same way Hitchcock earned the moniker “The Master of Suspense.” Certainly no other current director is as good as Haneke at blindsiding an audience with an unsuspected jolt of terror. You can tell when it’s one of his movies as much by what’s on the screen as by the noises the people watching them make; just listen for the moments when everyone in the theater collectively gasps for breath. Beyond its beautiful, austere cinematography by Christian Berger and its chilling portrait of a small German town’s self-destruction in the years leading up to World War I, “The White Ribbon” boasts several images so shocking that that they will haunt you for days, and weeks, and beyond.

12202009_intheloop.jpg8. “In the Loop”

“War is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought.” That sentiment, originally expressed by General Jack D. Ripper from Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove,” is illustrated with uproarious and terrifying results in Armando Iannucci’s “In the Loop,” a film worthy of comparison to “Strangelove” and its pitch black political satire. In depressingly believable fashion, “In the Loop” shows how careerism, infighting, and general stupidity, can send the world spiraling into an unnecessary war. The film sounds like a didactic bummer, which is what it would have been Iannucci hadn’t packed it with rapid-fire jokes, many of them highly quotable. (I’d share some, but my word count is making things difficult difficult lemon difficult.) The documentary-style visuals and madcap energy of the film’s screwball finale gave “In the Loop” a sense of immediacy and urgency that most “important” films about the war in Iraq lacked. Clearly, a work of filmmakers with plenty of strategic thought.

12202009_headless3.jpg7. “The Headless Woman”

Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel’s “The Headless Woman” boasted an ingenious visual style, one that put the viewer right inside its lead character’s foggy headspace. Verónica (an appealingly enigmatic María Onetto) runs over something, or maybe someone, on a deserted road and never stops to find out what. For the rest of the movie, Martel evokes Verónica’s emotional disconnection from everyone around her, framing her in the foreground of images that are otherwise blurred by shallow focus. As Verónica stares off into the murky distance, and her friends and loved ones close ranks around her, insisting she’s done nothing wrong while covering up any proof that could implicate her, we come to share her twin drives: curiosity about the full details of the accident and fear about the dark truth of her actions.

12202009_hurtlocker4.jpg6. “The Hurt Locker”

Most of us would not be able to withstand the pressure, much less the technical challenges, of diffusing a single bomb. Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) has done it more than 800 times. The power of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” isn’t that it makes us wish we could do what he does, but that we come to some understanding of why James does. While James Cameron dominated headlines with his latest biggest movie in history, his ex-wife Bigelow beat him at his own game with a smarter, leaner movie about life in wartime against an insurgency. And like Bigelow’s “Point Break,” “The Hurt Locker” is both a well-executed thriller and an insightful character study about men with an uncontrollable compulsion for reckless thrill seeking. The movie opens with a quote from journalist Chris Hedges that reads “War is a drug.” So are movies as good as this one.

12202009_anvil.jpg5. “Anvil! The Story of Anvil”

Life isn’t fair. In a world where celebrities are made overnight for singing poorly on reality television shows, talented guys like Steve “Lips” Kudlow and Robb Reiner of the Canadian metal band Anvil have been toiling in obscurity for 25 years. They inspired a generation of rock bands who appear in the film to sing their virtues, but they still spend their days making ends meet working construction and catering jobs and their nights playing gigs in dive bars. Now middle-aged with families to support, they should have given up their dreams of stardom long ago. Thank God they didn’t because the result of that stubborn, and maybe even borderline stupid, determination was this heartbreaking and heartwarming documentary, a moving story about the power of perseverance and friendship. Director Sacha Gervasi, a screenwriter turned first-time filmmaker was an Anvil roadie in the 1980s, and it shows in the finished product. Only a documentarian with a personal connection to his subjects could have crafted a film this affectionate, candid, and insightful.

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Jurassic Park Cast

Park Rules

5 Lessons Modern Blockbusters Could Learn From Jurassic Park

Catch the Jurassic Park movies this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Jurassic Park wasn’t the first blockbuster that set out to appeal to everyone, but it is arguably the most successful of its kind. Adults, kids, boys, girls, nerds, jocks, and lawyers love it. (Okay, maybe not lawyers). With a script from David Koepp, direction by Steven Spielberg (who also had the Oscar winning Schindler’s List the same year) and groundbreaking special effects that still thrill modern CGI-addled viewers, Jurassic Park was the most ambitious film project of its time. And as we see with dreadful early-’90s megaflops like Waterworld and Showgirls, the bigger they were, the harder they were apt to fall.

Jurassic Park faced the impossible scenario of having to appeal to everyone, and the end result is one of the very few examples that actually succeeded. So what lessons can we take from the shining beacon of both mass appeal and being smarter than the competition?

1. Don’t Be Afraid to Change Your Source Material

Nedry

An adaptation of Michael Crichton’s hit novel, Jurassic Park changes a lot from page to screen, but the most significant changes are in the characters, in that they actually exist. Crichton’s primary interests were scientific morals and philosophy, not character and story, so the characters end up more as vessels for the action and ideas rather than, well, characters. Adding dimension to the characters changed a great deal of the material, since the material flowed more organically not just from ideas and philosophy, but character action.

Hammond (Richard Attenborough), the well-meaning, impassioned lover of science and possibilities, is a much more compelling character in the film than the corporate, grandchild-hating jerk who is poetically eaten by dinos in the book. Nedry (Wayne Knight) isn’t just in the story for some corporate espionage — there’s a genuine “daddy issue” undercurrent in his relationship with Hammond, and his desire to subvert his father figure goes horribly awry.

Tim and Lex (played by Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards) aren’t just whiny nuisances who are kids for kids’ sake, but are given interests and agencies that pay off later in the film — Lex with her computer skills, and Tim with his basic dinosaur knowledge. The movie gives Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) a character arc by getting him to connect with children, whom initially make him uncomfortable, which helps solidify his relationship to Ellie Satler (Laura Dern).


2. Avoid useless characters.

Jurassic World

Often in movies we see half-baked young characters (kids, teenagers) who get jammed into the film for no other reason than to appeal to a wider demographic. For example, the child characters in Independence Day are borderline comical both in their narrative non-purpose and how much they don’t act like children.

Last summer’s mega-blockbuster/franchise extender Jurassic World was guilty of this, too. Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) have no skill, except for (apparently) some world experience from That One Time They Fixed A Car, a skill which was not set up nor ever referred to again. After the kids are rescued, they’re basically fleshy backpacks for Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard to foist around for the rest of the movie.

Lex and Tim not only aid in Grant’s growth, but also use their skills to further the plot. Sure, it’s a little goofy how Lex uses her knowledge to save the day, but this was 1993. Nowadays people know a bit more about UNIX systems (and, let’s face it, most people learned about UNIX systems from other people joking about how Jurassic Park got it oh-so-wrong).


3. You can include complex concepts…but keep it simple.

Jurassic Park Jeff Goldblum

Part of the brilliance of Jurassic Park isn’t that it involves complex philosophical concepts, but all of the different ways it disseminates complex information. It’s like a sampler platter of ways to both world-build and sew in theme.

Jurassic Park grazes over complex concepts like Chaos Theory, but that is not to say that it only pays them lip service, and moreover, the characters don’t just stop the action to explain things to the audience in an inorganic way. As a writer of prose, Crichton is guilty of this. These ideas are present in the original novel, but in the film, they are distilled, focused and sharpened to a fine point. The theme of chaos in an unpredictable environment is shown both implicitly (after Nedry’s meddling throws the trip into chaos) and explicitly, where Malcolm exposits repeatedly, betwixt a uniquely suave mix of “ums” and “uhs” and other Goldblum-isms.

The overarching theme of the movie is not so much that man should not play God (as Malcolm argues), but that man cannot, with perfect accuracy, predict all outcomes. That is a much more complex and satisfying conclusion to come to than simply “man play God, man go too far!”. The “don’t play God” aspect is certainly there, but it doesn’t end there. There is a genius simplicity in Jurassic Park‘s complexity.


4. Exposition should be actually motivated!

Jurassic Park Chaos

Since all of our main characters are experts in different fields, talking to each other about their respective fields is a great and easy way to let the audience in on things the characters already know in a natural way. Some of the scientific concepts are imparted by way of a cartoon in the Jurassic Park visitor center, because it is a theme park, and it is an educational “ride,” as Hammond says.

My favorite example of this is the scene where Malcolm gives Ellie a primer on Chaos Theory in a discussion which could’ve be really pretentious and boring. He gives the elevator pitch in the form of trying to describe the Butterfly Effect, but she doesn’t get it, leading to a more practical (and flirtatious) lesson that she can actually follow. Whereas in old sci-fi B-movies of yore it would have been just a bunch of guys standing in labs, explaining things to each other, here it is motivated.

Ellie and Malcolm didn’t have any kind of a “thing” in the book, but adding this now famous moment to the film not only gives us a little philosophical discussion, it allows for integral character development as well — Ellie egging on Alan by being receptive to Ian’s flirting, and Alan showing his difficulty committing to her by not engaging. It’s subtle, but all of these character traits come in and are built upon later.

Finally, if you learn nothing else from Jurassic Park, remember:


5. Dinosaurs Eat Man, Woman Inherits the Earth.

Jurassic Park Women Inherit

Just sayin’.

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Weird Al Hidden America

Keep America Weird

Watch “Weird Al” in the Trailer for Hidden America With Jonah Ray

Weird Al comes to Comedy Bang! Bang! starting June 3rd at 11P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: SeeSo

Jonah Ray, Nerdist podcaster and future resident of the Satellite of Love on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 reboot, is motoring across the country as part of a new travel parody show on SeeSo. And “Weird Al” is coming along for the journey.

Hidden America with Jonah Ray takes a tongue-in-cheek approach to tourism travel logs as the comedian visits and fumbles through cities like Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Denver, and Austin. Along the way, Ray will meet up with Comedy Bang! Bang! bandleader “Weird Al” Yankovic, Randall Park, David Koechner, and more.

Check out the trailer below. For more “Weird Al,” be sure to catch the premiere of Comedy Bang! Bang! season five on June 3rd at 11P.

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Back to the Future Jaws Parody

Swimming with Sharks

10 Hilarious Jaws Spoofs

Catch the Jaws movies during IFC's Memorial Day Shark Half-A-Day Marathon.

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Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

How much is Jaws a part of our culture? Over 40 years after its release, it’s still prompting parodies that get laughs. To get you ready for IFC’s Memorial Day Shark Half-A-Day Marathon, check out our favorite spoofs of Jaws from across pop culture. Want more? You’re gonna need a bigger list…

1. “Mr. Jaws,” Dickie Goodman

Released just a few months after the movie’s debut on June 20th, 1975, this novelty record spent ten weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at #4. In one of the earliest examples of sampling, comedian Dickie Goodman spliced in snippets of pop songs to answer interview questions with the Great White himself.


2. Jaws II (Land Shark), Saturday Night Live

It took only the fourth episode ever of SNL to establish one of its iconic recurring bits and play into the hysterical fear of sharks that Jaws prompted. A big punchline of this sketch: A sequel to Jaws! Who in 1975 could imagine such a thing??


3. “Jowls,” The Carol Burnett Show

Exactly one week after SNL spoofed Jaws, Carol Burnett and company did their take. Looking back now, what’s most amazing is that network TV allowed a sketch to go on for eleven minutes.


4. Mad Magazine

Mad Magazine Jaws
Mad Magazine/DC Comics

Even Jaws wouldn’t want to take a bite of Alfred E. Neuman in this issue from 1976. The comic inside spoofed the movie with a musical version -– an idea that took off over 30 years later.


5. 1941

How many times has this happened to you? You make a legendary movie, you see people parody it, and you want in! That’s the unlikely scenario that led to Jaws director Steven Spielberg making his own spoof as part of his 1979 war comedy 1941. How authentic did Spielberg get? Yes, that’s Susan Backlinie, the original lady in the water from Jaws, meeting up with trouble in the moonlight yet again.


6. Airplane!

One of the greatest disaster comedies of all time sets the tone for hilarity with its opening sequence. Even before the title appears, you know you’re in for a movie that winks at its place in film history.


7. Back to the Future Part II

1989 brought us this blockbuster sequel making fun of blockbuster sequels, as Marty McFly finds himself in a futuristic 2015 showing Jaws 19. While the actual 2015 came and went with Jaws only having three sequels, Universal treated fans of both movies to a trailer for the film that might have been…


8. Clerks

Kevin Smith was one of a generation of filmmakers influenced by Jaws. Many of his films contain references to his love of the original film, but only Clerks has the salsa shark.


9. Giant Killer Shark: The Musical

Mad Magazine Jaws

Why should live theater be without a spoof of Jaws? Just because of the risk of a massive lawsuit over intellectual property infringement? That may help explain the please-don’t-sue-us title of Giant Killer Shark: The Musical, which debuted in 2006. Just to drive the point home: the action takes place on and around Copyright-Protected Island. Scary!


10. Bill Murray’s Jaws Love Theme, SNL 40

The star-studded SNL 40th anniversary special marked four decades since the debut of SNL and of Jaws. It featured not one but two references to the movie, with Bill Murray as lounge singer Nick Ocean singing the love theme from Jaws we never knew we were missing. (He reprised the song at the event above.) Later, the Land Shark himself appeared on “Weekend Update.” Jaws: The gift that keeps on giving laughs.

Spend Memorial Day with IFC’s Shark Half-A-Day Marathon featuring “fin facts” from “sharks-pert” Jason Alexander!

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