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The Most Subversive Performances of 2009

The Most Subversive Performances of 2009 (photo)

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In his 1966 essay entitled “The Subverters,” Manny Farber hoped “for a new award at the year’s end: Most Subversive Actor.” His complete film criticism, “Farber On Film,” was published this year, and in his honor I’m submitting a list of five nominees for this wished-for fake trophy. But his definition of “subversive” is a tricky one — at the beginning of the essay, he describes the “subversive nature of the medium: the flash-bomb vitality that one scene, actor, or technician injects across the grain of a film.”

For Farber, movies are complex mechanisms built upon the collision of artistic temperaments, not monoliths that can be encapsulated in a single theme, performance or mood. So he focuses on the small, telling details that exist on the outskirts of the plot, thrilling to actors who “can ply around the edges, trying to budge a huge, flabby movie script”. It’s the marvel of individual expression breaking through a multiplicity of voices — directors, set designers, writers — that he deems subversive, and I hope this list captures the spirit of this thought. [Spoilers ahead for “Zombieland.”]

12182009_Gamer2.jpgMichael C. Hall in “Gamer”

As Ken Castle, a guffawing young Southern tech-tycoon, Michael C. Hall provides the charismatically evil center for Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s deliriously messy “Gamer.” A Mark Cuban-type billionaire, Castle is the inventor of “Society” and “Slayers,” two live-action video games where players control real human beings. “Society” is his porno version of “The Sims,” while “Slayers” is his first-person shooter and PPV smash hit. Hall oozes his way on-screen with an ingratiating tenor that drawls out corporate double-talk with an ease and smirk that makes everything he says sound like a dirty joke. The key to his performance, though, is the whiplash-inducing quality of his movements. He continually starts in a relaxed position, echoing the molasses-slow speed of his voice, until he lands on a point of emphasis, when he curls up his lip or wields his hands like a pen knife, slashing the air like he’s slicing open a patient. These pinprick movements pay off in an astonishing fashion in the final sequence, when he pantomimes the angular, jerky moves of a puppet to the tune of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” mocking the power he has over his human game pieces.

12182009_TheGoods.jpgKathryn Hahn in “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard”

With quiet indignity, Kathryn Hahn is becoming the most fearless comedic actress in Hollywood. After stealing “Step Brothers” out from under Will Ferrell with her raucously violent sexuality, she sketched another dark portrait of the female id in “The Goods, ” a hit-or-miss gag reel that killed every time Hahn appeared on-screen. She plays Babs Merrick, part of a team of traveling used car salespeople who rent out their services to struggling franchises. Hahn aims for a kind of blowsy cynicism with the heavily made-up Merrick, persistently pouting her lips and implanting her hands on her hips to emphasize this loner’s fading sensuality. Hahn has an unerring sense of how to push her self-destructive characters over the edge. She wields a cutting deadpan that escalates quickly into sheer panic – as in her fruitless pursuit of a manly-looking ten-year old (Rob Riggle), which has her flap her lids and bite her lips before exploding into ecstatic vulgarities that would make Lenny Bruce blush.

12182009_GentlemenBroncos.jpgJemaine Clement in “Gentlemen Broncos”

Jemaine Clement and director Jared Hess have created an entrancingly deluded character in Ronald Chevalier, a blithering idiot highlight in this otherwise blandly amiable misfire. A sci-fi writer who dabbles in erotic art and plagiarism, he’s equal parts bombast and insecurity, papering over his manifest failures with feathered helmet hair and an absolute lack of self-awareness (he wears a Bluetooth headset but always talks on a cell). Desperate for inspiration for his next novel, he swipes a story from a teen’s literary contest submission and remains oblivious to the consequences. He’s a human non-sequitur, speaking with an uncannily froggy voice that starts in the back of his throat and then seems to come out through his nose, and parades around in outfits that combine Native American leisure wear with the finest pleather vests. His movements are strangely robotic, looking like an unathletic Frankenstein’s monster as he stumbles back from the righteous blows of the original author.

12182009_Armored.jpgLaurence Fishburne in “Armored”

Nimrod Antal’s taut thriller is motored by the no-frills performances of his unshaven cast, highlighted by the grunting decadence of Laurence Fishburne’s Baines, who leads a group of armored truck drivers to fake a heist and hide the money for themselves. When the plan falls apart, loyalties are divided and expire entirely as they slowly devour each other to the time-keeping clank of steel on steel, attempting to wrench open a reinforced vehicle door. Fishburne seems to revel in his aging body, puffing out his gut and emitting a chorus of groans, mutters and sighs as his flesh battles against him. Antal provides him with a slender backstory — he’s a married drunk — and Fishburne nails the cliché down so hard that it ends up ringing with truth. You can almost smell the alcohol in his sweat as he laughs too hard at bad jokes, simply to pass the time, and one waits for his self-loathing to spread outward into violence.

12182009_Zombieland.jpgBill Murray in “Zombieland” (Spoilers!)

Bill Murray is an oasis of subtlety and absurdity in the otherwise thuddingly conventional “Zombieland.” Essentially a romantic comedy spiced up with the undead, the film is a parade of clichés, product placement and eager overacting. But when the group of human survivors crash at Murray’s place, the rote narrative is suspended for a sequence of pure playfulness anchored by his classic deadpan. Wobbling in with a fake wig and fright makeup to fit in with the brain-eaters, he massages the cutesy pop-culture dialogue into serviceable punchlines. The whole Eddie Van Halen run is saved by his bluntly matter-of-fact delivery of “he’s a zombie,” paired with a nonchalant shoulder shrug to emphasize the banality of the situation. It’s a minor joke, but he makes it work through canny underplaying. His best bit, though, is his slow-burn exhale during his untimely demise, knowing exactly the number of beats it will take for the gag to register. But once he dies, the movie dies with it.

[Additional photos: “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard,” Paramount Vantage, 2009; “Gentlemen Broncos,” Fox Searchlight, 2009; “Armored,” Screen Gems, 2009; “Zombieland,” Columbia Pictures, 2009]

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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.

via GIPHY

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…

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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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