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10 Paranoid Conspiracy Thrillers Worth Investigating

Catch The Bourne Ultimatum this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Mary Evans/Universal Pictures/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

After the Kennedy Assassination and Watergate Scandal, the American public found themselves living with a greater sense of paranoia and cynicism toward the powers that be. Those bleak fears bled into popular culture and especially cinema in the 1970s, which gave us arguably the greatest, most influential decade of American film. In the post-9/11 political landscape, fear-mongering and a higher emphasis on invasive government surveillance have reignited Big Brother paranoia all over again. Before you go on the run with superspy Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum on IFC this month, check out our list of conspiracy thrillers worth investigating. But be careful…You never know who’s watching.

1. All The President’s Men

That demise Richard Nixon’s presidency is in part the result of some ace investigative journalism by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who are the subjects of director Alan J. Pakula’s classic film, the third and final installment in his unofficial “paranoia trilogy” which includes the excellent Klute and The Parallax View.

As Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) begin uncovering proof of wire taps, blackmail, and other forms of clandestinely illegal activities tied to Nixon’s administration, their lives are put into greater danger. William Goldman, who also wrote The Princess Bride, was personally chosen by Robert Redford to pen the script, but Redford didn’t like the first draft and had Bernstein and then-girlfriend Nora Ephron write a draft. Ultimately, Goldman’s taut, tense script won out and netted him an Oscar as well.


2. Three Days of the Condor

Three Days of the Condor  is one of seven films Robert Redford made with director Sydney Pollack before Pollack’s death in 2008. The film centers around Redford’s CIA analyst character, code name “Condor,” who returns from lunch one day to find all six of his co-workers murdered. Turner goes on the run while he tries to uncover who is behind the murders, never knowing whom he can trust, including the CIA.

Three Days of the Condor started shooting about a month or so after Nixon’s resignation in 1974, and is one of the first of a slew of films influenced by the corruption of the Watergate era. Interestingly enough, the film inspired the story structure for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which also, coincidentally, stars Robert Redford.


3. Marathon Man

Depending on when you grew up, Marathon Man may have kept you from visiting the dentist’s office thanks to the sadistic torture techniques used by Sir Laurence Olivier’s terrifying Nazi war criminal Dr. Szell on Ph.D. student, Babe (an intense and neurotic Dustin Hoffman), after he gets mixed up in his older brother Doc’s (Roy Scheider, a smooth operator here in his first post-Jaws role) unfinished government business.

The infamous torture scene involving teeth-pulling, drilling, and needles was actually much longer in the original cut, but was shortened after test screening audience members fled the theater in disgust. Nevertheless, Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, which he filmed while battling cancer and a degenerative muscle disorder.


4. Blow Out

While recording sounds for a slasher film, Jack Terry (John Travolta) overhears an assassination involving a presidential candidate. Terry winds up saving a young woman (Nancy Allen) who also happened to be in the car with the murder victim, and the pair wind up scrambling to assemble proof of the assassination before she can be murdered too.

Based on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-up, which is about a photographer who accidentally captures a murder on film, Blow Out reteamed director Brian De Palma with John Travolta after the pair worked together on Carrie in 1976. Fun fact: Quentin Tarantino was inspired to cast Travolta as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction based on his performance in Blow Out, which is one of Tarantino’s favorite films.


5. Minority Report

Even if you eliminate the sci-fi element,  Minority Report is still a tense, elegantly constructed thriller about corruption, murder, and conspiracy in the nation’s capital. Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film, loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same name, follows pre-crime Chief John Anderton (Tom Cruise) as he and his team set out to solve murders before they happen based on information given to them via PreCogs or “precognitives.” But after discovering the unsolved murder of a young woman who has special ties to one of the PreCogs, Anderton finds himself on the run from the FBI and his own team when he himself is accused of a murder he has yet to commit.

The film was enthusiastically praised for its writing and especially its visuals, including a breathless chase set in a car factory that was based on an idea Hitchcock had for an unfilmed sequence in North by Northwest. Look for a strong performance from Max Von Sydow as Anderton’s superior, who may or may not have something to hide.


6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

While most may think of the second installment in Marvel’s Captain America franchise as a superhero film first, it is highly influenced by many of the 1970s conspiracy films on our list, including Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man, and The Parallax View. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely felt the conspiracy genre was the best match for Captain America’s readjustment to the modern political landscape and his distrust of many of its most prominent players including his own employer, S.H.I.E.L.D.

As Cap (the affable Chris Evans) navigates a web of government lies and cover-ups with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, thankfully getting a lot more to do here than she did in The Avengers), he discovers all is not what it appears to be, and his faith in his country and S.H.I.E.L.D. is tested. Captain America: The Winter Soldier also has ties to All The President’s Men beyond Robert Redford: a copy of the book is visible on a bookshelf is Steve Rogers’ apartment. Cap has good taste!


7. The Bourne Series

Matt Damon saves himself for a change in these fast-paced thrillers about an amnesiac man on the run from the CIA, trying to piece together his memories and uncover a covert conspiracy within the organization. Bourne Identity director Doug Liman originally offered the role of Jason Bourne to Brad Pitt, who turned it down to make a different spy film, Spy Game with Robert Redford. Damon went through three intense months of training for the role, and did many of his own stunts, including several dizzying climbing sequences on the exteriors of buildings.

Though he returned for both The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, Matt Damon chose to skip out on The Bourne Legacy (Jeremy Renner took a starring role), but will be returning for an as-yet-untitled fifth Bourne film due in July 2016. The Bourne Series, loosely-based on Robert Ludlum’s novels of the same name, have been praised for their realism and reliance on practical stunt work versus computer-generated effects, no doubt inspiring the Bond franchise to branch out into similar, brawling, broody territory when Daniel Craig came aboard in 2006 for Casino Royale.


8. The Conversation

The Conversation was released just a few months before Nixon resigned the presidency, so it’s difficult to not see links between Francis Ford Coppola’s film and the current events of the day, especially given the surveillance and wire-tapping equipment used by main character Henry Caul (a fine Gene Hackman) is the same as that used by the Nixon Administration during the Watergate Scandal (a coincidence that visibly shocked Coppola after the film was released).

Coppola, like De Palma, was inspired by Antonioni’s Blow-up, and began writing The Conversation in the mid-60s, focusing on a humble, intensely private surveillance expert in San Francisco who overhears a conversation about a potential murder. Caul is hesitant to hand over the tape to the man who commissioned it (Robert Duvall) and finds himself under pressure from a bullying aide (a pre-Star Wars Harrsion Ford). The film, both Coppola and Hackman’s personal favorite, happened to be released the same year as The Godfather Part II, which wound up overshadowing it at the Academy Awards.


9. No Way Out

No Way Out is one of two great films Kevin Costner made in 1987 (the other is The Untouchables), and it is widely considered the film that launched Costner as a leading man. A remake of 1948’s The Big Clock, No Way Out centers on Lt. Commander Tom Farrell (Costner) who strikes up an affair with a young woman (Sean Young) he meets at an inaugural ball.

Farrell, who works at the Pentagon under Secretary of Defense David Brice (Gene Hackman), is unaware the woman was having an affair with Brice, and when she winds up dead, Farrell is framed by Brice for her murder and accused of being a KGB agent. No Way Out is, in many ways, a solid precursor to many of the big screen adaptations of John Grisham’s novels that dominated the box office during the ’90s.


10. The Parallax View

The opening scene of The Parallax View was purposely shot to mirror Robert Kennedy’s assassination in 1968, heightening the unsettling fear at the heart of the film’s story about a newspaper reporter (Warren Beatty) who gets mixed up in a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of a presidential candidate. Joe Frady’s suspicions are further provoked by his investigation into a mysterious company called The Parallax Corporation, which he discovers is a recruiting front for political assassins.

The film, the third and final of Alan J. Pakula’s Political Paranoia Trilogy, started principal photography without a finished screenplay due to a writer’s strike. Star Warren Beatty took it upon himself to do re-writes with the help of his friend Robert Towne (the screenwriter of Chinatown), and the film was finished on schedule. Though it received mixed reviews at the time (possibly due to its bleak ending), The Parallax View is now considered one of the best films of the conspiracy genre.

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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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 IFC.com 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….

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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.

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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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