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The Year in Documentaries

The Year in Documentaries (photo)

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A documentary cannot withstand the corrosion of time based on compelling subject matter alone. I learned this a few years ago while writing copy for an indie distribution label, whose acquisitions team had a rash tendency to pick up decades-old docs simply because they were Academy Award nominees. Sometimes they were still engaging under all that dust, but more often than not there were traits that dated them worse than the fashions worn within: static talking-head interviews shot practically but uninspiringly against bland or ugly backdrops, a schoolmarm’s discipline for the purist limitations of vérité and an exhausting dryness that underscores how little use films are as strict conveyers of data — of course, Wikipedia wasn’t yet invented, so maybe information was enough back then?

Plenty of documentarians today still rely on the same old creative crutches, but in the year 2008, the docs that rubbed up against the zeitgeist had to be bold, provocative or artful to stand apart. It has little to do with elections or wars or bailouts, and more to do with what’s escalating in our Information Aging: digital technology gets cheaper, which births more neophyte filmmakers, which grows the breadth of watchable content at our fingertips to gluttonous proportions, which prompts the mainstream media to pollute themselves with tabloid sensationalism in their begging for our distracted attentions.

This might explain why “Religulous,” a high-profile doc from the director of “Borat,” has taken in less than $13 million in box office sales as of this week. To me, comedian Bill Maher’s on-camera investigation into why the devout believe what they believe was a smug, only moderately funny character attack that missed a golden opportunity to expose how religion has been co-opted by right-wing politics. Regardless, it’s the most commercially successful nonfiction film of the year, and to think that it still only grossed one-seventh of what Disney’s talking Chihuahua has so far means that maybe Maher was right: there is no God.

12232008_waltzwithbashir.jpgBut really, why do documentaries continue to carry such a stigma? 2008 saw plenty of pop docs, those slickly produced crowd-pleasers that inject potentially unexciting topics into thrilling narratives. Stephen Walker’s “Young @ Heart,” an innocuous heartstring-puller about a chorus of senior citizens who perform Sonic Youth and Ramones songs, uncovered the unlikely eccentrics of the iPod generation. Ari Folman’s wonderful “Waltz With Bashir,” in which the Israeli filmmaker comes to grips with his own relationship to a 1982 Lebanese massacre, might sound like a snooze on paper, but as the first fully animated doc feature, his nightmarish visions and explorations of guilt became affecting enough to get nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Earlier in the year, Brett Morgen’s “Chicago 10” utilized animation to reenact the Chicago Seven trials, so perhaps a new doc trend is born.

Chris Bell’s mighty entertaining “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” blamed the overuse of anabolic steroids and other performance enhancers on the distinctly American mentality to win at all costs, a conclusion made all the most unhappily compelling by the death of his subject and brother, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, last week. Bell especially stands out this year for his man-with-a-microphone charisma, a persona inspired by the likes of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, whose own new docs, “Slacker Uprising” and “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?”, marked low points in both of their careers. (The former was a glorified DVD featurette that Moore suspiciously gave away for free on the interwebs; the latter was a condescending lump of gimmicky self-aggrandizement that saw Spurlock searching under rocks in the Middle East for terrorists.)

Furthermore, even Oscar winners Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”), Errol Morris (“The Fog of War”) and nominee Nanette Burstein (“The Kid Stays in the Picture”) were capable of undercutting their own legacies. Gibney’s “Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” had a remarkable subject in the late “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” author and influential (under the influence?) journalist, but blew it with cheeseball creative choices that kept Thompson as unknowable as ever — what was he thinking by asking Johnny Depp to read his gonzo writings while holding a pistol in the air? Morris’ “Standard Operating Procedure” had the best of intentions in examining the prisoner abuse cases at Abu Ghraib via those notorious photographs, though the film pulls punches, lets culprits off easy and inexplicably beautifies its findings. And not to further rag on the misfires, but Burstein’s “American Teen” gets my vote for the worst doc of the year: as a trumped-up peek into the senior year of five Indiana high school archetypes (the jock, the geek, the queen bee, et al.), the film stages moments, expressions and dramatic pivot points to craft a shallow entertainment à la MTV’s “The Hills.”

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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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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