DID YOU READ

The best movies of 2011

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The Mayans might have predicted the world would come to an end in 2012, but it’s hard to imagine a more apocalyptic year at the movies, both on and off-screen, than 2011.  This was the year that theater attendance dipped to its lowest level since 1995 and critics played the role of coroners, declaring the film camera — and even film itself — officially dead.  2011 was the year that digital became the dominant medium of the movies, both in terms of recording and distribution.  We still sometimes call them films, but we sure don’t watch them that way anymore, thanks to television, Blu-ray, HD digital projectors, and online streaming.

While pundits eulogized the death of film, a few directors celebrated its birth.  Michel Hazanavicius made “The Artist,” about the forgotten magic of early silent cinema; Martin Scorsese made “Hugo,” an impassioned plea about the importance of film preservation masquerading as a children’s film about an orphan who lives in a train station.  Both became critical darlings, maybe because in a time of great technological upheaval it felt appropriate to look back, with awe and admiration.

Looking ahead with anxiety, though, was a far more popular theme.   In 2011, filmmakers envisioned the start of our investment banker-led economic collapse (“Margin Call”) and imagined the start of an ape-led social collapse (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”).  They put big name movie stars up against cataclysmic viruses (“Contagion”) and cataclysmically shitty employers (“Horrible Bosses”).  As more and more movies foretold the end of everything, more and more treated the end like a foregone conclusion rather than a point of suspense; in Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Earth didn’t even survive past the opening credits.  My own list of the best films of 2011 is bracketed by two movies about men haunted by dreams of impending Armageddon.

Ah, top ten lists. So fun to read, so excruciating to make, so contentious to discuss. “These are the greatest movies of the year.” “No, these are the most important movies of the year.” I’ve never been good at drawing those kinds of distinctions. All I can do is tell you honestly which movies affected me the most and try to explain why.  That’s what I’m going to do here. Film may be dead, but cinema is alive and well.  And here is the proof.

10. “Bellflower”
Directed by Evan Glodell

“DIY” doesn’t feel like a strong enough term to describe Evan Glodell’s “Bellflower” so I’m going to call it “DIAY” — do it all yourself. Glodell had a hand in editing, producing, writing, and directing this film; he also played the lead role of Woodrow and actually built all the gadgets and weapons his character uses in movie, including a flamethrowing muscle car called The Medusa. It’s an impressive accomplishment — and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that he also designed the custom camera he shot the movie with yet — but “Bellflower” is a lot more than a hollow technical exercise; it’s also a beautiful and tragic account of what it feels like to fall in and out of love (plus flamethrowers). It’s the best directorial debut of the year and the subject of my favorite movie trailer of the year to boot.


9. “Margaret”
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

Is this movie a mess? Yeah, kind of. But that’s also kind of the point. “Margaret” is about a teenage girl (Anna Paquin) who accidentally causes a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) to run over and kill a woman (Allison Janney, devastating and unforgettable in just one scene). Afterwards she’s left searching for answers; the only one she ever finds is that life is messy and rarely makes any sense. Neither does this film’s tortured backstory, which involves untold numbers of cuts and lawsuits spread out over half a decade. It sounded like a disaster on paper, but it’s actually a magnificent film about people living in the aftermath of a disaster, and scene after scene hit with the impact of an oncoming city bus. Playing “Margaret”‘s spoiled, confused, angry protagonist, Anna Paquin gives the performance of 2011, creating one of the most fully and complexly realized teenagers in movie history.


8. “Win Win”
Directed by Thomas McCarthy

Our perpetually recessed economy has a lot of people asking themselves how far they would go to provide for their family. Thomas McCarthy’s “Win Win” is not only one of the best recent films about the search for the answer to that question, it’s also also one the smartest and most unusual underdog sports movies in ages. New Jersey lawyer and high school wrestling coach Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti, as good as he’s ever been) is in danger of losing his feeble legal practice when he makes a sensible but morally indefensible choice: he has himself declared the guardian of one of his elderly clients, dumps him in a nursing home, and pockets the monthly $1500 stipend that comes with the guardianship. Mike’s decision bears unexpected consequences for his family and his wrestling team, all portrayed wonderfully by a cast that includes Amy Ryan, Bobby Cannavale, and newcomer Alex Shaffer as Mike’s client’s grandson, a troubled teenager and wrestling savant. McCarthy’s film is full of astute, unsentimental observations about life in modern America and features an ending that is just about perfect.


7. “Poetry”
Directed by Lee Chang-dong

An elderly woman named Mija (Yun Jung-hee) learns she is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and tries to keep her memory sharp by taking a poetry class in this heartbreaking film from Korean director Lee Chang-dong.  Inspiration proves elusive, and only comes along eventually at great personal cost, one involving her grandson Wook (Lee David) and his role in the death of a girl at his school. Lee’s “Poetry” is about the connection between pain and beauty, and how the worst experiences sometimes spur the greatest works of art.  Or, as Mija’s poetry teacher puts it, “It’s not difficult to write a poem, but to have the heart to write one.” It’s not hard to make a movie, either. Making one with this much heart is the real challenge.


6. “A Separation”
Directed by Asghar Farhadi

Like “Win Win,” this is another movie set in a universe of fascinating moral complexity. Like “Win Win” it’s a bit of a genre hybrid: part legal thriller, part family drama. It begins when an Iranian couple requests a divorce. The wife (Leila Hatami) wants to leave the country in order to keep their young daughter from growing up in the oppressive atmosphere of Tehran; the husband (Peyman Moaadi) can’t leave behind his father, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s and requires constant care. After the wife moves out, a situation arises that explains her concerns. To watch the father while he’s at work, the husband hires a pregnant woman as a housekeeper, but after a few days on the job, there is an incident in the house, and the father blames the housekeeper. Who is legally at fault? Who is morally at fault? Farhadi’s outstanding film explores how hard — or sometimes impossible — those questions are to answer, with subtle writing and brilliant performances.

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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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