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Tim Grierson on the Great Films Already Released This Year

Fran Kranz in "The Cabin in the Woods"

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In a couple weeks, “Marvel’s The Avengers” comes out, which heralds the beginning of the summer movie season. That also means the end of the first portion of the film year — the part that people don’t like all that much. As opposed to the fall (when all the serious Oscar contenders open) and the summer (which is a haven for blockbuster action films), the early part of a new year is normally filled with films that are either being dumped by their studio or aren’t quite big enough to warrant much excitement. Sure, you’ve got your Valentine’s Day date-night movies and your major animated offerings — and, this year, the massive hit “The Hunger Games” — but the pre-summer calendar tends to get overlooked, especially late in the year when people are making their Top-10 lists.

But before “The Avengers,” “Men in Black III” and the rest lay waste to the multiplex, I’d like to point out that there actually were several great movies that have already come out this year. They may not have made it to your town, unfortunately, but they’re definitely worth seeing when they land on DVD.

On the mainstream side, you’ve got “The Cabin in the Woods.” For pure smarts and narrative ingenuity, the horror-comedy directed by Drew Goddard and written by Goddard and Joss Whedon took a potentially one-joke idea — which I won’t reveal in case you don’t know yet — and elevated it into something clever, thoughtful and consistently engaging. But that wasn’t the only superb wide release thus far in 2012: Though a disappointing underperformer commercially, director Steven Soderbergh’s “Haywire” will probably be better than most of the action movies we get this summer. Starring MMA fighter Gina Carano, the thriller was all giddy, kinetic fun as a government operative has to break a lot of skulls to figure out who double-crossed her. Soderbergh has made deeper, more “important” films, but “Haywire” has a level of craft that makes it expert escapism.

Released by Paramount Vantage in a limited number of theaters, “Jeff, Who Lives at Home” demonstrated again why writer-directors Jay and Mark Duplass (“Cyrus”) are such a valuable American filmmaking team. Dismissed by some critics because of its jokey surface, the comedy follows the super-positive loser Jeff (Jason Segel) as he goes through a seemingly normal day, only to discover that there are some cosmic coincidences taking place. Though the Duplass brothers can overdo their indie-cred bona fides — the shaking camera is awfully irritating — this is an unexpectedly graceful and generous look at lives that are out of balance. The whole cast is great, but Susan Sarandon is especially wonderful.

A very different brother tandem, acclaimed Belgian writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, returned with another sterling offering, “The Kid With a Bike.” The Dardennes, who previously made such gems as “L’Enfant” and “La Promesse,” tell the story of an angry, abandoned young boy (Thomas Doret) failing to reconnect with his absent father, which forces him to rely on the sympathy of a local hairdresser (Cecile de France). The Dardennes prefer spare, unsentimental stories about rudderless people trying to find some direction, and even if “The Kid With a Bike” isn’t among their very finest works, it’s a beautiful and moving film that could be a great gateway drug for the uninitiated. If you’ve never seen any of their movies, try this one — and if you like it, by all means explore their earlier output.

Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan isn’t well known in the States, but his latest film, “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia,” is highly recommended to those who love their detective stories as unconventional as possible. In this atmospheric drama, a collection of men — including a prosecutor and a detective — travel by car through the night with some unsavory criminals who have confessed to a murder. The only problem is that the killers can’t remember where they buried the body in the vast countryside, putting in motion a tense and occasionally strangely comic search for the corpse. When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, it was compared to director David Fincher’s meticulous, brilliant “Zodiac,” another procedural about how a crime slowly affects all those who cross its path. I wouldn’t put “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” at that level of masterpiece, but for the adventurous filmgoer, it’s a gorgeously shot, emotionally troubling experience.

As you may have noticed, some of 2012’s best films have been foreign-language offerings, and I’d like to conclude with two more. The first is the terrific documentary “This Is Not a Film,” which chronicles the house arrest of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who in December 2010 was given a six-year jail sentence. (In addition, the government wouldn’t allow him to give interviews or make films for 20 years.) “This Is Not a Film” points its camera at Panahi, who’s stuck in his home coming to terms with the enormity of his sentence. It’s a fascinating slice-of-life portrait of an artist who has been stripped of his ability to communicate with his audience — but who finds a way regardless.

That brings us to my favorite movie so far released this year. It’s “The Turin Horse,” from Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Slowly making its way around the country — it’ll be in Chicago in May — this austere, absolutely absorbing film dramatizes the harsh 19th century existence of an old man (Janos Derzsi) and his daughter (Erika Bok) who live in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. With very little to eat and surrounded by harsh winds and a desolate landscape, the two seem doomed. And so Tarr takes us through an eventful week in their lives — eventful not because a lot happens, but because the filmmaker’s slow, careful examination of these characters hints that something truly and terribly tragic is about to befall them. With its harsh, demanding tone, “The Turin Horse” is probably not the sort of film you’ll be wanting to see with “The Avengers” about to arrive. But the ambition and audacity of Tarr’s film, which reportedly will be the last one the 56-year-old director will ever make, is heroic and momentous in its own way. The first few months of a new film year tend to be filled with the forgettable. Hopefully, my list suggests that a few great movies managed to slip through the cracks.

Do you have a favorite film already released this year? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

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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…


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.


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).


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.


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.


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.



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 and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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