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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Swimming To Cambodia Spalding Gray

Gray's Anatomy

Everything You Need to Know About the Movie That Inspired “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”

Brand new Documentary Now! airs Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom Pictures

This week Documentary Now! spotlights a master monologist with “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything.” Before you tune in at 10P this Wednesday on IFC, check out our guide to Swimming to Cambodia, the 1987 film that captured writer/performer Spalding Gray’s acclaimed one-person show.

Spalding Gray 101

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures

Actor and renowned monologist Spalding Gray spent two years on stage perfecting his Obie Award-winning “Swimming to Cambodia” monologue. In it, Gray tells the story of his eight weeks in Southeast Asia while shooting the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie The Killing Fields. He had a small role, but the experience gave him several anecdotes about hanging out with the film crew and experiencing the local culture, all while searching for “the perfect moment.”

Directed by the Silence of the Lambs Guy

Hannibal Lecter
Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme took Gray’s two-night, four hour performance and crafted it down to 85 minutes. His use of dramatic lighting, stylish camerawork and a score by performance artist Laurie Anderson was praised by critics and earned the film a cult following. No stranger to groundbreaking docs, Demme also directed the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which Documentary Now! pays tribute to in this season’s episode “Final Transmission.”

All about the Voices

While it may have been a one-man show, Gray created a repertoire of characters all with distinctive accents. (He portrayed conversations between himself and others just by turning his head.) Our favorite impressions are of his demanding girlfriend Renee and Ivan Strasberg, the South African director of photography on The Killing Fields who, as depicted by Gray, sounds a bit like a Jamaican surfer.

The Original Cranky New Yorker

In one memorable scene, Gray rants about how his noisy upstairs artist neighbors are driving him and Renee crazy. Even in the mid-’80s, there were New Yorkers complaining that the city wasn’t what it used to be.

Show and Tell

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures/YouTube

A big fan of visual aids, Gray used pull-down maps to illustrate his travels. This helped to bring Swimming to Cambodia to life, since he’s basically sitting at a desk the entire time.

Inspired One-Person Shows

Gray’s groundbreaking performances in Swimming and other documentaries like Monster in a Box and the Steven Soderbergh-directed Gray’s Anatomy (about Gray’s struggle with a rare eye condition) paved the way for future one-person shows. (We wouldn’t have everything from Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” to Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” without him.) Even Doc Now! star Fred Armisen got into the one-person show act for his recent SNL monologue.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Spalding Gray when “Parker Gail: Location Is Everything” premieres Wednesday, September 28th at 10P on IFC. 

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Rocky IV Stallone Lundgren

Burning Heart

10 Reasons Why Rocky IV Is the Ultimate Rocky Movie

Catch an all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: United Artists/Everett Collection

Sure, most people love the first Rocky for its heart, gripping boxing scenes and the classic training montage. Or, you might love Creed for being both a return-to-form and a new exploration of the Rocky mythology. Maybe the thrill of seeing Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the same movie makes Rocky III your top pick. Well, sorry, you’re wrong: Rocky IV is the greatest of all the “Italian Stallion”‘s movies.

Before you watch the all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC (with Rocky IV airing at 8P as part of Rotten Fridays), check out a few reasons to appreciate the fourth installment as the king of the series.

1. The Greatest Opening Ever

How many openings are able to sum up the entire conflict of the film in less than a minute and without a single line of dialogue? And how many of those movies have exploding boxing gloves? Just try to watch the opening sequence above and not be completely psyched for the pumped-up flick to come.


2. Montages!

We all know that the best part of any sports movie is the montage, and Rocky IV doesn’t give you one measly montage. There’s a recap of the previous films montage, a getting to Russia Montage, two training montages and an ending fight montage. That’s five montages! There’s probably a montage of montages snuck in there, too.


3. There’s a Full James Brown Musical Number

This movie is so packed with memorable moments, it’s easy to forget one of the first things that happens in the film: Apollo comes out to fight Drago dressed as a shirtless Uncle Sam, while James Brown and a full band play “Living in America.” To drive home the number’s patriotism, there are dancers in tuxedos and top hats, weird unitards and bowler caps, and bedazzled showgirls with headpieces for miles. Oh, and don’t forget the giant tentacled dragon statue on the stage. This is how every boxing match should start. Heck, this is how we always want to enter a room.


4. The Soundtrack

The Rocky IV soundtrack doesn’t just feature James Brown — it has rock anthems galore, all of which make you immediately want to hit the gym. From “Heart’s on Fire” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band to “Sweetest Victory” by Touch to multiple Survivor jams, you’ll get pumped and stay pumped. Even the instrumental score rocks! Sure, sometimes it sounds like it was made on a kids Casio, but this soundtrack never quits and — to quote Robert Tepper — never takes the easy way out.


5. Abs!

Rocky IV weights

Every Rocky movie shows off Stallone’s incredible physique, but Rocky IV really ups the game. Not only do we get Dolph Lundgren mostly shirtless looking like a man machine, but we get a wide variety of scenes of Stallone doing impossible tasks. Stallone’s crazy dragon fly crunches, aka a thing no human should be able to do, automatically take this movie to the top.


6. Two words: Ivan Drago

Ivan Drago
United Artists

Not only does Rocky IV explore the global conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, but it encapsulates all of our fears of the Cold War in one perfect villain. Ivan Drago only trains with machines and science and looks like he stepped out of an Aryan Nations recruitment poster. He also only responds in short, cold phrases like “If he dies, he dies,” or “I must break you.” There’s never been a villain who we so clearly want to get the crap beat out of than Ivan Drago.


7. Rocky Makes Chores Look Badass

Rocky saw
United Artists

Rocky doesn’t need to be hooked up to machines to become the perfect fighter. All he needs are huge tires and some outdoor chores to do. No one’s ever looked cooler chopping wood and using tractor parts. Half of his training is lifting an old wagon, probably to fix a broken axle. If anything, this film inspires us to take care of that gardening work we’ve been neglecting.


8. Rocky’s Beard

Rocky IV Beard

Stallone’s beard game is truly on point in Rocky IV. And this isn’t some “I forgot to shave, here’s a little stubble” look. No, we get full out, lumberjack-style beard action. Does any other Rocky movie have our hero looking like an old Russian aristocrat? Another point for Rocky IV.


9. There’s a robot!

Again, there’s so much to Rocky IV, you probably forgot about the robot. Well, Rocky has some money now and he’s not going to spend it on frivolous things for himself. He’s going to buy Paulie a robot! The best part of this scene is how truly disturbed Paulie is by this new technology until he gives it a sexy lady voice.


10. Rocky Ends the Cold War

If you’re still not convinced that Rocky IV is the greatest, answer this question: Does any other Rocky movie bring peace between the US and Russia?

By the end of the film, Rocky rises up to beat the seemingly undefeatable Drago. He fights so well, that even the Russians begin to appreciate his skills. Then, instead of using his victory to prove America’s superiority, he gives a rousing speech of “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!” The whole crowd goes wild, including all of the Russian government, who we assume give up Communism immediately based solely on Rocky’s words. Stallone’s call for international reconciliation through brutal fighting and a variety of montages makes this if not one of the greatest films of all time, certainly the greatest Rocky of them all.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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Optimus Prime in TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, from Paramount Pictures.

Rotten Apples

10 Rotten Movie Franchises That Need to Stop

Catch the "Too Rotten to Miss" movie Scary Movie 2 tonight at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Paramount/courtesy Everett Collection

We live in the age of the blockbuster movie franchise. If you want a green-light, you better have tights, a light saber and decades worth of backstory and fan love to build on. And while we love some of these franchises, some just keep getting new entries despite horrible reviews, audience indifference and an utter lack of care from even the people making them.

With IFC and Rotten Tomatoes celebrating “too rotten to miss” movies like Scary Movie 2 this month, we thought it high time to point out just a few franchises than should be retired to the bottom of your Netflix queue. Here are 10 “rotten” movies franchise that need to just go away, please.

10. Transformers

Transformers
Dreamworks Pictures

Hollywood execs, we get it. You grew up in the ’80s, and now you want to produce everything you loved as a child, only make it a lot worse. Here’s the thing: while a show like Stranger Things took all the tropes and style of ’80s movies, and created something new, lingerie commercial director Michael Bay went the opposite way, taking a title and basic concept, and creating a pile of garbage made out of robot parts.

If poop jokes mixed with racism, misogyny and incoherent fight scenes are your thing, this is the franchise for you. If you have even the slightest respect for character or basic story logic, you have to admit this franchise has been awful from frame one. Yes, we were alive in the ’80s, but some things are best left in the past. Unfortunately, with a sixth movie, a Bumblebee spin-off and a proposed G.I. Joe/Transformers crossover movie in the works, this franchise will probably outlive us all.


9. Scary Movie

Scary Movie
Dimension Films

True, its been a couple of years since we’ve been subjected to one of these, but you know that Jamie Kennedy or the Epic Movie guys are sitting in a writers room somewhere, pitching jokes on how to merge The Purge with a fart joke. This franchise started out in a mediocre place, a Wayans family knockoff of better movies like Airplane, and things went downhill from there. You shouldn’t be able to spin five movies out of a few Scream jokes and a Carmen Electra cameo.


8. Alvin and the Chipmunks

Alvin and the Chipmunks
20th Century Fox

Designed to appeal to kids who love ’50s novelty albums and pun-y titles, the Chipmunk franchise feels like it was made by a prop comic from the Uncanny Valley. Full of rapping CGI rodents, and a paycheck cashing Jason Lee, 20th Century Fox has somehow made over a billion dollars off a series of diminishing “Squeakquels.” We do secretly sort of hope these movies keep getting made, just so David Cross keeps getting forced to star in them.


7. X-Men

X-Men Oscar Isaac
20th Century Fox

If we can all be honest with ourselves, these movies have been a mixed bag for the past decade. (Even the foul-mouthed spin-off Deadpool made fun of how self-serious the franchise has become.) In an ever expanding quest to turn the series into a dumbed-down version of the moody mutants’ ’90s cartoon, the stories have gotten paper-thin, the performances phoned in and the monster makeup just this side of Grimace cosplay. (We’re looking at you, X-Men: Apocalypse.)

Do we really need to see Hugh Jackman’s take on Wolverine for the ninth time? There is only so much steamed chicken and protein powder this man can eat before this franchise legitimately becomes a form of torture. Fox Studios, there are enough superheroes on the big screen right now. Maybe let this one go, and a decade from now Marvel can reclaim it and make some good movies again.


6. Tarzan

Tarzan
Warner Bros.

There have been over 200 projects starring Tarzan since pictures started motioning at the turn of the last century. 200! This vaguely racist story of a white man taming the, ahem, Dark Continent, has been told ad nauseam. We know Hollywood loves to keep beating iconic characters into the ground, and Tarzan probably has near universal name recognition, but that doesn’t mean that anyone wants to, you know, go and watch a movie about the guy, no matter how ripped Alexander Skarsgard’s abs are.


5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Tarzan
Paramount Pictures

These “heroes in a half shell” were a stretch for movie stardom back at the peak of their popularity, but thanks to some ingenious work by The Jim Henson Company, and Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap,” they were able to have a moment during the early ’90s.

Now, decades later, Michael Bay’s desperate desire to ruin all of our childhoods has found its way to these pizza loving turtles with ‘tude. The CGI monstrosities that have resulted can barely be called movies. Like the Transformers franchise, but with more creepy scenes of an anthropomorphic turtle hitting on Megan Fox, these movies are a nail in the coffin of ’80s nostalgia, and need to be put to bed before Bay starts sniffing around the Thundercats.


4. Now You See Me

Now You See Me
Summit Entertainment

Magic tricks are impressive when you see them performed live. The fun is in wondering how they could possibly do that. When you watch a bunch of Christopher Nolan castoffs performing CGI tricks created in post production, the only thing you’re left wondering is what the point even was.

This is perhaps the strangest movie franchise to come along in awhile, a collection of genres tropes quilted together by a cavalcade of filmdom’s best supporting actors. Take a bit of Ocean’s Eleven, and a touch of The Prestige. Add a pinch of Morgan Freeman and James Franco’s brother, and cross your fingers that audiences will be dumb enough to line up for a sequel to that movie they didn’t totally hate when they saw it on an airplane that time.


3. God’s Not Dead

Pure Flix Entertainment
Pure Flix Entertainment

The Christian movie genre has blown-up over the last decade. God’s Not Dead, and its sequel, were beneficiaries of this expanding audience, raking in tens of millions of dollars at the box office. But, despite connecting with an audience, all is not well in God’s Not Dead-land.

These insipid movies, that never met a straw man they didn’t hate, tell laughable stories about the evils of college campuses and the ACLU, full of cartoonish villains whose sole purpose in life is to crush good Christian souls. With a “who’s who” of “Remember Them??” in the cast, including TV’s Superman Dean Cain and TV’s Hercules Kevin Sorbo, these movies are as poorly produced as the message they’re espousing. God may not be dead, but the careers of the filmmakers behind these movies should be.


2. Bridget Jones

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

It’s been more than a decade since the last Bridget Jones movie was foisted on us, and in that time young Bridget has remained the same self-involved, unrealistically clumsy mess. With pacing that makes each movie feel 10 hours long, sub-par slapstick and an unlikeable lead, the Bridget Jones trilogy too often feels like Sex and the City without the sex or the city.

Just because the book series your franchise is based on churns out another entry doesn’t necessarily mean you need to get the gang back together. Well, some of the gang, considering Hugh Grant wisely let Dr. McDreamy himself Patrick Dempsey fill in for him this go around. Remember when Renee Zellweger was an acclaimed, Oscar-winning actress? Yeah, that was a long time ago…


1. Avatar

20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

Seriously, is anyone really excited for the four sequels that James Cameron has promised us to this box office breaking blockbuster from 2009? Yes, at the time the 3D wonderland of CGI planets and tail sex was a revelation, making us overlook the fact that we were watching a hokey Dances With Wolves knockoff starring an actor with the approximate charisma of a broken toaster. But over the last few years, Avatar has slipped from the public consciousness. When’s the last time you popped in your Blu-ray of it, or saw someone cosplaying a Na’vi, or even mentioned it in casual conversation? If Cameron were making one sequel, okay, but four? FOUR? Maybe it’s best to just remember Avatar for what it was — a blue-hued fluke, and move on.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” flick Scary Movie 2 this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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