Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “The Arbor”

Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “The Arbor” (photo)

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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11 is a column with one simple goal: to help you decide what films you need to see before making your end of the year top ten list. Each installment features my thoughts on a critically acclaimed 2011 movie, a sampling of other critics’ reactions, the odds of the film making my own list, and the reasons why it might make yours.

This time we’re covering “The Arbor,” an unusual blend of documentary and fiction techniques. But is it more than the sum of its unique formal parts? Let’s find out.

Movie: “The Arbor”
Director: Clio Barnard
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 95%
Plot Synopsis: A documentary about the life of English playwright Andrea Dunbar, who died at the young age of 29, and the children she left behind.
What the Critics Said: “Ingenious,” Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club
“Tough, worthy stuff,” Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York
“Make[s] us wonder if the art was worth the suffering,” Anthony Lane, The New Yorker
Were They Right? Yes, there is art here. And suffering, too. “The Arbor” may not be the best movie of 2011, but it might the best movie you won’t want to see again anytime soon. It’s in the great tradition of movies like Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” or Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb” — great films that are almost too brutal for their own good, and certainly too brutal to sit through multiple times.

Actually, “Crumb” is a good point of comparison: both films are portraits of artists and their deeply dysfunctional families, along with the coping mechanisms developed by siblings to deal with the abuse or neglect of their booze and drug addicted parents. In this case, the artist is Andrea Dunbar, a kid from the mean streets of Northern England. Her first highly autobiographical play, “The Arbor,” was written when Dunbar was just fifteen years old; it went on to play the Royal Court Theatre in London. Her second play, “Rita Sue and Bob Too,” was turned into a film by Alan Clarke. But success didn’t solve Dunbar’s personal problems; she descended into alcoholism and died of a brain hemorrhage before she reached the age of 30, leaving behind three children fathered by three different men. One of those kids, Lorraine, would grow into an equally troubled woman, with her own addiction and parenting problems. One life that sad would make any film troubling. “The Arbor” has two of them.

What separates “The Arbor” from other effed up family docs like “Crumb” is its use of an unorthodox technique called “verbatim theater:” actors play the subjects of the documentary, lip-synching to audio recordings the real subjects gave during interviews with director Clio Barnard. So instead of seeing Lorraine talk about her heroin abuse, we see an actress (Manjinder Virk) mouthing Lorraine’s words precisely, down to the last breath, pause, and stutter. It sounds potentially distracting because you expect you’ll be focusing all your attention on the accuracy of the lip-synching. But in action the effect is surprisingly immersive: verbatim theater opens up the visual side of the documentary format and allows for a more poetic interpretation of the events. Instead of a series of bland sitdown interviews, the actors, shot on location in Dunbar’s hometown of Bradford, are free to address the camera directly or to look away when they’re embarrassed or contemplative. It makes you feel more like a participant than an observer, and it draws you even deeper into the drama.

Barnard also splices in old documentary footage of the real Dunbar and her family and stages scenes from Dunbar’s “The Arbor” in the open air square in the middle of Bradford, where the town’s current residents and some of the lip-synching actors gather to watch in the background. Dunbar used the form of a fictional play to tell true stories of her life and her community. Barnard uses verbatim theater to do much the same thing on film: the people we’re seeing are actors, the setups and angles are carefully composed, but the stories are 100% real. I would not be surprised if Werner Herzog, who admits to occasionally massaging the facts in his own documentaries in order to achieve a higher “ecstatic truth,” would envy the truths “The Arbor” possesses.

Those stories of abuse — drug, sexual, and child — are so gut-wrenching they can be hard to endure, but there is unexpected beauty in “The Arbor” too, particularly in the sight of the actors as they wander the streets and houses of modern Bradford like spirits haunting the current residents. Though the actors don’t technically speak a word, their performances are outstanding, with Virk especially devastating as the traumatized, world-weary Lorraine. Can a performance in a “documentary” win an Oscar? Probably not, but in this case, maybe it should.

Was the art worth the suffering in the case of Andrea Dunbar? I don’t know. But in the case of “The Arbor,” the suffering is worth it to appreciate the art.

Worthy of an Oscar Nomination For: Best Documentary, Best Supporting Actress (Manjinder Virk)
Chances of Making My Top Ten: Almost as good as the chances of me running into the other room and hugging my wife and telling her I love her after surviving the emotional ringer that is this movie.
It Might Make Your Top Ten List If: you’re interested in documentaries as an art form; you’re not put off by grim tales of bad junkie behavior; you like British accents that are so thick they come with their own subtitles.

Previously in Countdown to Top Ten 2K11
“Cold Weather,” directed by Aaron Katz
“Meek’s Cutoff,” directed by Kelly Reichardt
“Margin Call,” directed by J.C. Chandor
“Bill Cunningham New York,” directed by Richard Press
“Hanna,” directed by Joe Wright

Have a movie you wanted covered in a future installment of Countdown to Top Ten 2K11? Let me know on Twitter.


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…


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. 


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 ’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?”


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).



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.


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


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.