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The Year of Apolitical Cinema?

The Year of Apolitical Cinema? (photo)

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In 1989, Spike Lee picked up a trashcan and hurled it into the front window of Sal’s Pizzeria, stirring chaos in Bed-Stuy and sending movie audiences into a tizzy about race relations in America. That same year, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma were reopening heated debates about Vietnam (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “Casualties of War”), while Steven Soderbergh and Peter Greenaway were making us squirm by challenging conventional moral codes (“sex, lies and videotape,” “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover”). Jump ahead 20 years: today’s watercooler cinema holds nary an ounce of subversive content. On the contrary, the most talked-about upscale American films of the year uphold such conservative myths as the sanctity of family and community.

Much has already been written about the reactionary elements of Lee Daniels’ “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which, despite its confrontational scenes of rape, parental abuse and fried pig’s feet, ultimately ends up just another triumphant afterschool story of social uplift and the power of a benevolent society. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently wrote, the conclusion of “Precious,” “fills the audience with a sense of hard-won redemption,” allowing them to ignore “the failures of institutions, programs and collective will that leave so many other Preciouses unrescued.”

Now comes Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air,” entering the conversation with similar buzz, following its rapturous reception at this fall’s Toronto International Film Festival. The “Juno” director manages the same clever ideological reversal as in his previous cinema: Take an edgy character, insert crisis of conscience and watch all that anti-establishment chutzpah fall away into a reification of all-American suburban ideals.

For all its cynical sheen, “Up in the Air” is actually another Capra-esque journey of one man who learns close personal relationships are worth more than frequent flyer miles. The film’s potentially strong political subtext — about the ravages of unemployment, shown in heartbreaking interstitial sequences that feature interviews with real-life folks from Detroit and St. Louis who’ve lost their jobs — is easily swept away so we can feel sorry for George Clooney, an adrift bachelor longing for the permanence of hearth and home.

Even this year’s war films — “The Hurt Locker,” “The Messenger,” “Brothers” — avoid the tainted whiff of politics and instead emphasize the psychological, going out of their way to eschew the wider ramifications of American imperialism. Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” displaces any serious consideration of wartime trauma on U.S. soldiers or their adversaries with testosterone-fueled thrills and one-upmanship masculinity. As critic David Sterritt observed in the online newsletter Counterpunch in July, the movie’s “politics are worrisome — not because they’re wrong, but because there are no politics in a film about the most politically fraught conflict in recent memory.”

12032009_themessenger6.jpgIn comparison, “The Messenger” is far more cognizant of its political context than the others, and may be the best movie of the three because of it. The angry tirades of dead soldiers’ next of kin shatters any sense of complacency in the lives of the film’s lead characters, and the viewing audience. But even so, the movie distinctly plays to the middle in its milieu and filmmaking style — like the others — making sure not to challenge viewers too much or offend the pro-war demographic by more forcefully questioning America’s militaristic escapades. Does this signal a new era of all-embracing nonpartisan cinema? Sophisticated movies for red and blue states, alike? Or has the cinema of mavericks gone soft?

That’s not to suggest the agit-pop screeds of Michael Moore — yes, he was back this year, too, with “Capitalism: A Love Story,” his biggest box office disappointment since 1997’s “The Big One” — are preferable. But it’s a reminder that the forceful, provocative cinema of Spike Lee, John Sayles, Todd Haynes or Gregg Araki has been replaced by the bourgeois niceties of Jason Reitman and Marc Webb — director of this year’s indie sleeper “(500) Days of Summer.” (As for the latter’s tagline, “It’s official, I’m in love with Summer,” Fox Searchlight VP of marketing Stephanie Allen told Variety it was “perfect.” “It’s really inclusive,” she said. “Who’s not in love with summer?”)

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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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

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