Saturday, January 19, 2013

Zach's Top Ten Films of 2012

I disagree with Todd about 2012.  I think it was the best year in movies since (at least) 2009.  In fact, I can prove this: That year, Inglorious Basterds ranked 5 on my year-end list.  This year, Django Unchained did not even make my top ten list.  And yet, I would consider Django a slightly better film between the two (solid Tarantino, not amazing, but still undeniably entertaining).  It is also the first year in my life where, if given choice between going to a theater and staying at home watching a movie, I would stay at home.  Theater audiences are talking and texting at seeming record-highs.  And it’s not a “generational” thing, as the talking heads love to claim – it’s more often than not 40-50 year olds who can’t shut up.  One of these days, I’ll grow up and tell them what I think . . . or maybe I’ll just trust the opposite of my instinct. OK, I’ll stop being grumpy now.

Films seen: 53
Thumbs up percentage: 56.66%
Best Actor: Jack Black, Bernie
Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Pena, End of Watch
Best Supporting Actress: Cecile de France, The Kid With a Bike
Underrated Films: Prometheus, The Dictator
Overrated Films: Silver Linings Playbook, The Cabin in the Woods, The Avengers
If I was an Oscar voter: Zero Dark Thirty, Michael Haneke (I haven’t seen Amour but it would be cool if he won), Daniel Day-Lewis, Jessica Chastain, Tommy Lee Jones, Helen Hunt. I think the Oscar nominations this year absolutely suck.
Worst Films of 2012: I’ll write this in an article about this later this week.  They deserve to be criticized at length.
Honorable Mention: Django Unchained, The Grey, A Late Quartet, Lincoln, Magic Mike

10. Compliance (Craig Zobel) Let me explain this pick.  First of all, I would not recommend you see this movie.  It is absolutely unbearable to watch.  Like Funny Games, it is not so much a movie or conventional story, but an experiment in illustrating human depravity manifested in its must vulgar forms.  The story (based on real-life events) takes place at a McDonalds restaurant, where a prank caller posing as a police detective orders one of the young female employees to strip, while various men are escorted in to “watch over” her.  It is neither entertaining nor sensational nor even particularly insightful.  It simply portrays the events as they surely must have happened, and it is horrifying.  It is like the 15-minute rape sequence in Irreversible stretched out to 85 minutes.  Some objected to the film’s sympathy for its characters’ unbelievably stupid actions, but the film effectively makes audiences question how blind compliance leads to unforgivable consequences.  The jury may be out on whether this is a “good” film or not, but few films have ever gotten deeper under my skin. 

9. Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki) When this film came out in September, most of the publicity it received was a result of its simultaneous DVD-theater-on demand release (“day-and-date” release).  But refreshingly, it actually turned out to be an outstanding film, starring Richard Gere (in maybe his best performance ever) as a hedge fund magnate who is caught in two serious, coinciding crises: The buyout of his firm, which has been guilty of accounting fraud for years, and the death of his mistress, for which he is squarely responsible.  The ways in which he is able to constantly get himself out of the walls caving in around him is amazing, and really makes you wonder whether the movie is just showing the powerful connections of Wall Street elite or, in a strange morbid way, romanticizing the craftiness of corrupt officials like Bernie Madoff (which Gere’s character appears at least partially inspired by).  Like last year’s brilliant Margin Call, this is a film rich with details about not just the downfall of Wall Street after the 2008 meltdown, but about the people most responsible (and subsequently affected) by the crash.  This is made all the more impressive by the fact that is the first feature screenplay and film by the 33-year-old director.

8. Looper (Rian Johnson)  Think Minority Report-meets-The Terminator with a little bit of Inception on the side.  It’s not just that the story is ingenious, involving elements of time-travel, black market crime syndicates, and vigilante terrorism, but that the particular dramatic situations cannot possibly be described without an intricate knowledge of the sophisticated world the movie creates.  The screenplay is ingenious in its construction of this dystopian future, but also its creation of interesting characters and wonderfully unique encounters (such as when Joseph Gordon-Levitt converses with Bruce Willis, the future version of himself, over a cup of coffee).  Where it lacks Minority Report’s jaw-dropping visual palette, it makes up for in a surprising degree of intimacy, particularly with the characters of Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, who are left with the unenviable task of (yes, just go with me here) deciding how the fate of the world will be impacted through their actions.  And believe it or not, there is not a second of it which is corny.

7. End of Watch (David Ayer)  Technically it is a buddy cop film, but honestly, it is much deeper than that.  Not unlike The Hurt Locker, Ayer’s film explores the undercurrents of men who seek out dangerous situations for a living.  They do it not necessarily because they feel a larger duty to improve the world, but also because they are addicted to the thrill of it.  To them, there is no other worthwhile existence.  Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena play the two LAPD cops at the center of the story, who monitor the streets of South Central Los Angeles. The film charts roughly a year in their lives, as they go through various marriages and childbirths in the midst of ongoing drug busts and homicide investigations.  The film is exciting, funny, cynical, tense, and most of all, real.  These feel like extremely real people, which is the result of a unique handheld visual aesthetic, career-best performances by Gyllenhaal and Pena, and a story which at first seems familiar, but delves into quite unexpected terrain at times. 

6. The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield)  Let me describe this film for you (and hopefully you’re looking at the picture I’ve provided).  This is a documentary about Jaqueline “Jackie” Siegel, a bleached-blonde former model with an impressive boob job.  She is married to David Siegel, 30 years her senior and head of the world’s most profitable time-share corporation.  They are billionaires.  When the film opens in 2008, they are in the process of constructing the world’s most expensive private home (which they dub “Versailles,” pronouncing the “s”).  The first half-hour feels like a Real Wives-esque exploration into the absurd lives of the rich and famous.  But as this film goes along, it turns into something very different: a portrait of aristocratic people struggling to retain not only their economic status, but their dignity.  It does a tremendous job of showing (but not convincing) audiences why anyone ever voted for Mitt Romney.  And maybe the most amazing thing about it is that, in a strange way, the Siegels come off as . . . kind of likable.  Particularly Jackie, who is less bubbly and vapid as she is insightful, candid, and self-deprecating.  And I hate rich people.  I watched this film curious and bored late on a Saturday night.  I have been thinking about it ever since.

5. Bernie (Richard Linklater)  There was no funnier movie in 2012 than Bernie, and there was no performance as dynamic, hilarious, and surprisingly deep as Jack Black.  He plays an East Texas assistant funeral home director who befriends an elderly widow who everyone in town hates.  From there, the story turns into a dark comedy of manners by way of Texas stereotypes (always good fodder for Christopher Guest-inspired mockumentaries like this one).  This is the first collaboration of Black and Richard Linklater since their wonderful School of Rock in 2003, and like that film, Bernie features great music, hilarious one-liners, and a story which at first sounds contrived, but when put in the right hands, is completely unique and fascinating.  Also – the scene introducing the juror members in San Augustine may be the funniest scene I’ve ever seen in a movie.  I’m not being hyperbolic.  When I saw it, I went into compulsive, uncontrollable laugher and missed the next five minutes of the film attempting to be polite to the rest of the audience by controlling myself (unsuccessfully).

4. Argo (Ben Affleck)  Affleck’s three prior features (Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, and The Town) showed competency, even while lacking in sophisticated narrative structures, but Argo is clearly the finest film he’s ever been a part of behind the camera.  The story is compelling because it is constantly shifting between three interesting components: The plight of the hostages in hiding at the Canadian diplomat’s house, the escalating security crisis at the CIA, and the cynical lives of B-list film executives.  Appropriately, the film is full of heart-pulsing action and suspense, tense drama, and biting satire.  Can you think of a more unexpected hybrid of genres?  Not to mention, this film is all based on true declassified events.  There is not a single uninteresting moment in this film as the story is shown with great economy, rising tension, and many surprises.  This is one of many major Hollywood features in the last decade to deal with major crises in the Arab world, but this may be the only one that does it in such a riveting and flat-out entertaining manner.

3. The Kid With a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)  The Dardenne Brothers have never made a bad film (except maybe Lorna’s Silence, which was only OK) and The Kid With a Bike is one of their very best.  The story is, not surprisingly, simple: A 12-year-old boy (with, yes, a bike) is abandoned by his insolvent father, put in an orphanage, and befriended by kindly hairdresser who eventually becomes his guardian of sorts.  He then is tempted into criminal action in spite of his better instincts.  If this sounds like the plot of Oliver Twist, you’re not too far off, since the story also deals with issues of peer pressure, alienation and abandonment, and class divisions.  This is one of those wonderful movies, like last year’s A Separation, which shows straightforward, easily-understood events, but characters whose thoughts and actions are fascinating to read into.  Why does the boy resort to the actions he does?  Why is the woman so deeply drawn to him?  What will happen to these people?  In a lesser film, these might be flaws; in a great film like this, they are blissfully unresolved circumstances left to ponder by engrossed audiences.

2. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow) Let’s tackle the controversy head on.  First, Republicans have vilified this film because it shows how torture tactics were used to gain intelligence from suspected terrorists (which they say had little direct impact on the Seal Team Six raid), while hunches such as the one Maya has in this film were routinely scoffed at by CIA bureaucracy.  Meanwhile, liberals claim that the film shows how the Obama administration’s anti-torture policies were met with resistance by anti-terrorism units.  Roger Ebert attacked the film (unfairly) as jargon-ridden poor storytelling, while the Academy distanced itself from controversy by not nominating it in several obvious categories (Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Sound).  All of this is inexplicable.  First of all, the torture scenes are shown as part of the larger reality of interrogation processes that existed in detention camps in the years following 9/11; as Bigelow herself recently told the Los Angeles Times, no one can deny that waterboarding was common, if not routine.  To exclude portraying it would be irresponsible and would make Bin Laden’s capture oversimplistic.  The Obama administration is tacitly criticized in the film, but by its characters, not its filmmakers, and the intent is to open up a wider discourse about how we treat suspected terrorists and what appropriate methods of gathering intelligence should be.  Not only is this masterful cinema, but like all great movies, it begs a meaningful dialogue afterwards.  I don’t know if this is a better or worse movie than The Hurt Locker, but for what it’s worth, Bigelow and Boal are the best filmmaking team working today.

1. The Hunger Games (Gary Ross) Like two years ago when I walked into a theater showing the bastardized American remake of Let the Right One In, I never in a million years would have guessed this movie would top my list of the year’s best films, let alone be mentioned on the list (except maybe a spot on the year’s worst films list).  But the truth is, from its opening moments and through its entire running length, The Hunger Games was the year’s most entertaining, unpredictable, and captivating motion picture.  It was the only 2012 film that, while watching it in a darkened, packed movie theater, made me completely forget about the real world around me.  Forget the fact, for a moment, that the film was based on a popular teen book series; this was a film that had a surprising amount of depth in its treatment of media, culture, and socio-economic divisions.  In an election year where the Right vilified “47 percent” of listless Americans (read: anyone not male, white, affluent, or straight), The Hunger Games’ portrayal of the lower districts’ triumph over the aristocratic elite was uplifting, powerful, and surprisingly relevant in today’s society.   Yes, Elizabeth Banks and Wes Bentley looked ridiculous, but if you can get past that, the story is quite deep.  But the film also worked as terrific entertainment, with Jennifer Lawrence giving the best “girl kicking ass” performance this side of Beatrix Kiddo.  Looking back at the last few years, the films which tend to be number one on my list share one trait: They take themselves seriously.  The Hunger Games could have been a kitschy, over-the-top action satire for teens, but Gary Ross and screenwriter Billy Ray knew this story was more than that, and they made a movie adaptation of the book far better than it deserved to be. 

Thoughts? Disagreements? As long as its not spoilers about Catching Fire, feel free to post below!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Zach's Fearless Playoff Predictions: Conference Championships

          Doris Kearns Goodwin has been in the news lately, since her Lincoln biography Team of Rivals was adapted into a film starring DanielPlainview and now seems likely to win Best Picture.  She was also in the most recent installment of Ken Burns’ Baseball, where she talked about how, as a Boston Red Sox fan, there came a point in the 2003 ALCS when she simply couldn’t take the pressure of the postseason anymore:

Goodwin: The tension is so great for me that I’m embarrassed to admit that when the other team is up in a close game I cannot even watch the game.  I run out of the house sometimes and I know that’s crazy.  You have this sense that as long as you don’t watch, something bad is not going to happen.  And then you just pray that by the time you come back, your worst fears will not be realized, and you’ll suddenly see them up to bat again.  I mean, it makes no sense at all.

            I agree with Goodwin.  If you’re not watching a game, something good has to happen, right?  Going into this weekend, I had a vision: The Seahawks would stomp over the Falcons, then march into San Francisco and overwhelm the untested Colin Kaepernick, and romp my beloved Patriots in the Super Bowl.  This vision was a nightmare that seemed to close to comfort.  So remembering Goodwin’s insight, I decided I would try my hardest to make the Seahawks lose.  I would not watch Sunday morning’s game.  I would reverse jinx them by picking them to beat the Falcons by 20 in my column last week, and I even put money on them winning in a three team tease along with Baltimore beating Denver and the Patriots winning by 10.  If I won, I’d win a sizeable sum of cash.
            Well of course the Ravens and Patriots covered, and Matt Bryant provided me with the happiest feeling I’ve ever experienced at not winning $500.  Goodwin was right and my reverse jinx worked.  I truly believe that had the Seahawks defense maintained their composure on those final two Matt Ryan passes and not taken advice from the Broncos’ secondary the night before, Seattle would win the Super Bowl XLVII.  So on behalf of nervous Seahawk haters everywhere, I thank you for your continued support.  Keep it the good mojo through next season, when they go through a sophomore slump!
            Now that good has overcome evil once more, let’s continue with this weekend’s predictions.

            San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons (-4)
            Sunday, January 20, 3:00pm EST, FOX

            There are two ways to look at the Falcons’ insane win over the Seahawks.  The first would be to say that Atlanta had a supremely lucky game with a few huge breaks toward the end.  Seattle had two huge errors in the 2nd quarter in their failures to convert on 4th and 1 or score a single point in the last few seconds, with the ball at the Atlanta 6.  As a team, the Falcons ran for 167 yards, by far their highest game total all season; additionally, Michael Turner only had more rushing yards in two other games all year, and Jacquizz Rodgers had a career-best rushing game.  As a result of their successful rushing attack (due undeniably in large part to the absence of Chris Clemons), the pressure was off Matt Ryan, who still threw two interceptions and whose fourth quarter stat line (prior to his final two completions) read 2/5, 3 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT.
             If you’re an Atlanta fan, you have to be concerned about your defense.  Prior to Sunday’s game, Russell Wilson had never passed for more than 300 yards; on Sunday, he had 385 yards through the air. As a team, the Seahawks totaled 491 yards (the only other time Seattle eclipsed this number was their 58-0 victory over the Cardinals).  This was the 7th time this season Atlanta has given up more than 400 yards to an opponent, although their record in those games is somehow 5-2.  Like Seattle, the 49ers have a mobile quarterback, grinding running game, and better linemen.  They played a tougher schedule and have more playoff experience. 
            So, as stated above, that’s one way to look at the game.  But another way is to say that Seattle was playing the best football of any team going into last week, did not seem affected by the air travel as evidenced by the Redskins game two weeks ago, and this was by far the Falcons’ most impressive win (previously they had faced only two playoff teams all year).  I mean, they were up 27-7 in the fourth quarter.  And the Seahawks were the team that beat San Francisco by 29 points four weeks ago, remember?
            Let’s stick with the latter view for a second and consider the relatively few quality arguments for why the Falcons will win Sunday.  Atlanta now moves to 9-1 on the season at home (their one loss being a meaningless Week 17 defeat to the Buccaneers), while San Francisco is 5-3 on the road.  In their last four road games, San Francisco has surrendered an average of 28.3 points, which is just below their average points allowed per game in the playoffs during the Harbaugh regime.  The 49ers have not played a road playoff game since January 2003, and haven’t won a road playoff game since 1989 (when Colin Kaepernick was two years old).  Sunday’s win gave Matt Ryan his seventh game-winning drive this season, tying him for the all-time single season record.  San Francisco hasn’t won in Atlanta since 2001. 
            It’s also still questionable how healthy the 49ers really are at this point.  But most of the serious concerns about Justin Smith, Dashon Goldson, and Vernon Davis were alleviated with Saturday night’s demolishing of the Packers.  To say they were dominant in that game is an understatement; Colin Kaepernick alone had more passing yards and rushing yards than the Packers team combined.  Yes, he had the early interception return, but you could commend Kaepernick for overcoming early adversity.  They didn’t panic, and in spite of putting up 45 points and 579 total yards, they still technically played a rather typical conservative-style 49ers offense.  They rushed the ball 43 times, did not attempt any 4th down conversions, did not turn the ball over after the interception, and dominated time of possession (38:01 to 21:59).  All of this against a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and a team which had only lost twice in their last 12 games.
            The question is how likely it is that we will see a repeat performance of what Kaepernick showed us Saturday.  The answer is that of course it is not likely (remember that 181 rushing yards was the most ever by a quarterback in any game).  But after watching this guy, how can you believe any defense, let alone the Falcons’, can entirely contain him?  Like Russell Wilson, he doesn’t make mistakes and has an uncanny instinct when deciding whether to run or pass.  Unlike the 5”11’, 204-pound Wilson, Kaepernick has the size and build of a wide receiver (6”5’, 233 pounds) and isn’t a rookie.  Last week seemed like an illustration of what he could do every week given a healthy offense.
            Here’s a couple more interesting thoughts.  This weekend, I noticed there is a pattern with eventual NFC Champions and the way they play in the divisional round.

NFC Champion
Margin of victory in Divisional Round
2011 New York Giants
17 (Defeated Green Bay 37-20)
2010 Green Bay Packers
27 (Defeated Atlanta 48-21)
2009 New Orleans Saints
31 (Defeated Arizona 45-14)
2008 Arizona Cardinals
20 (Defeated Carolina 33-13)

Average: 23.75 points

            Notice that these results tend to be a bit one-sided?  Now, let’s look at the team which lost the NFC Championship and how they played in the divisional round:

NFC Runner-Up
Margin of victory in Divisional Round
2011 San Francisco 49ers
4 (Defeated New Orleans 36-32)
2010 Chicago Bears
11 (Defeated Seattle 35-24)
2009 Minnesota Vikings
31 (Defeated Dallas 34-3)
2008 Philadelphia Eagles
12 (Defeated New York 23-11)

Average: 14.5 points

            With the exception of 2009, when both the Saints and the Vikings won their divisional games in 31-point blowouts, the NFC Champion was involved in a blowout the week before.  In the cases of New York, Green Bay, and Arizona, their divisional game was on the road.  Now let’s think for a second – what does a blowout win really mean for a team?  For one thing, it gives you confidence; it makes you believe that if you are beating one playoff team by three touchdowns, then you can reasonably beat any playoff team.  Blowout wins also enable teams to rest their starters and retain their most effective play calls until a future close 4th quarter.  It simultaneously gives you confidence, experience, and momentum.
            On the contrary, the team that wins the close game expounds so much energy in their victory that maybe they are left complacent.  These teams are just happy to have a single playoff win in dramatic fashion, since these particular four playoff teams (along with the Falcons this year) had not won a postseason game in at least four seasons prior to their divisional victory.  This may have been the cases especially with San Francisco (who few people really thought would beat the Saints) and Philadelphia (who were happy to savor in the defeat of their most heated rival; although had the ’08 Eagles reached the Super Bowl, it would have made Bradley Cooper believe his romance with Jennifer Lawrence was blessed by the sports gods).
            The Falcons finally proved to their fans they can win in the playoffs. Good for them.  They won against a team which would have beat them on a neutral field, had an exhilarating game-winning drive and field goal, and somehow overcame what would have been one of the biggest fourth-quarter choke jobs in NFL history.  Atlanta fans are content with miraculously avoiding the labels “team that went 0-4 in the playoffs” and “team with the biggest playoff collapse this side of Frank Reich.”  The 49ers know they can win in the playoffs against quality opponents, and are ready to take it to the next level.  A 49ers win would also continue my favorite factoid, which is that since 2006, every NFC champion played the Patriots during the regular season.  This is an easy call.

            Prediction: San Francisco 27, Atlanta 10

"And he grew up to be Keanu Reeves."
            Playoff doppelganger: 2010 NFC Championship, Green Bay 21, Chicago 14.  Aaron Rodgers came in on an incredible hot streak (4 TDs, 136.8 QB rating the week before at Atlanta), and although he and the offense did not play up to the level of their previous games, the inexperienced home team (led by Jay Cutler and the inimitable Caleb Hanie) was no match.  The Packers were dominant on both sides of the ball, and the more you watched that team, the more you realized that no team could adequately match up against them.

            Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots (-8.5)
            Sunday, January 20, 6:30pm EST, CBS

            Like the Falcons, you can read the Ravens’ dramatic, improbable, double-overtime win as either a case of extreme luck and good fortune, or just a very good team in Denver simply getting beat by a better team in Baltimore.  I tend to take two main, related points from Saturday’s game: Baltimore and Denver were extremely evenly matched, and as a Patriots fan, playing the Ravens in Foxboro is not dramatically different than traveling to Denver to play the Broncos.  You could argue that Denver was fortunate to even be in the game, since 14 of their points somehow came on kickoff returns against the league’s top-ranked special teams unit; but how could you say the Ravens weren’t lucky in the ways they scored game-tying touchdowns in the final seconds of each half?
            It’s difficult to adequately critique the Ravens because, frankly, they’re a little strange and the numbers don’t paint a complete picture.  For example, Ray Rice appeared to have a good game statistically against Denver (30-131 yards, 1 TD).  But doesn’t it seem like the running game got one-dimensional as the game went on, and the Broncos successfully sniffed out those stupid Rice runs up the middle?  On runs up the middle, Rice had 14 attempts for 72 yards.  But take away his game-best 32 yard run, and that number goes to 13-40 (3.0 yards per rush).  Bernard Pierce was ineffective, and only four of the team’s 21 first downs were gained on the ground.
            Fortunately for the Ravens, Joe (Flacco) and the passing game bailed them out.  The deep throws worked in particular, as the Denver secondary fell asleep with Baltimore scoring three touchdowns on passing plays of 32+ yards.  The vaunted Bronco defensive line, which led the NFL in sacks, was unable to supply pressure on Flacco.  The Ravens defense, on the other hand, was blessed with defending a banged up running game sans Knowshon Moreno, and a 36-year-old quarterback who gave his best Brett Favre imitation.  They shouldn’t expect the same when they travel to Foxboro.
            Let’s think back to the last time the Patriots and the Ravens met, week three in Baltimore.  At that point, the Patriots’ secondary looked very different.  They did not have Aqib Talib, and Devin McCourty was playing cornerback alongside Kyle Arrington and Patrick Chung.  That night, they gave up 382 yards on 28 completions and three touchdowns to Joe Flacco, and the Patriots blew a nine-point lead with just over four minutes remaining in the game.  They surrendered 161 of those passing yards in the fourth quarter alone.  Torrey Smith in particular burned the Pats secondary, with 127 yards and two touchdowns.  The Patriots gave up a season-high 503 yards; New England was 7-0 in all other games where they gave up 400+ yards.
            But since that game, Talib joined the team and both him and a rookie named Alfonzo Dennard have stepped up huge, proving that the best antidotes to a horrendous defense are Jayhawks and Cornhuskers, naturally.  Meanwhile, McCourty has transitioned into one of the league’s premier safeties.  Gone are the days of Ras-I Dowling and Sterling Moore; this is a secondary which, since Talib became a Patriot eight games ago, has held opponents to an average of 19 points per game and has forced 11 interceptions.  They gave up 28 points and 343 passing yards to the Texans, but much of that offense came after the Pats opened up a 25-point fourth quarter lead.  Talib did have an interception when he played against the Ravens in 2010 as a Buccaneer.
            On the other side of the ball, Tom hasn’t exactly been spectacular against Baltimore.  In his seven games against the Ravens, he has 7 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.  But he is 5-2 against them, although four of those wins were by six points or less.  Joe Flacco is 2-3 against New England, but his touchdown to interception ratio is 9 to 4.  Every Patriot fan with memories of 2009 still has nightmares of Ray Rice running up the middle for 80 yards and the Ravens taking a 24-0 first quarter lead.  In his five games against New England, Rice has an average of 103.6 yards. 
            So in other words, the Patriots tend to struggle offensive and defensively against the Ravens, but somehow still win games, even if Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff are to blame. So why should we believe that the results will be different against an improved Patriots defense?  Granted, Rob Gronkowski is injured, which is a major blow to the offense.  But the reality is, when Gronkowski is gone and the pace of the game is slowed (with more of an emphasis on the ground game and short out passing patterns), the Patriots’ defense stays off the field, resulting in fewer points given up.  On the other side of the ball, in the last two weeks, the Ravens have given up 272 yards rushing to opponents – and these yards were gained by the likes of Vick Ballard, Ronnie Hillman, and Jacob Hester.  Either those guys are much better than people think, or the Baltimore defensive line is beginning to wear thin.
            Then there is the symbolic factor.  The Ravens want Ray Lewis to go out as a champion.  If you don’t believe this is important for this franchise, think again.  But is that hunger any less intense than Tom Brady’s desire to win his fourth title (tying him for the all-time record) at the stadium where he won his first, against (potentially) the team he idolized as a kid growing up in Northern California?  I guess the answer depends on which team you’re pulling for.  Like the Falcons, Ravens’ fans will have a great story to tell future generations, about the old man going into Denver as a double-digit underdog and beating them in five quarters.  They’ve won their biggest game of the season, and it was exhilarating.  Tom Brady still has miles to go before he sleeps.

            Prediction: New England 30, Baltimore 20

"And he grew up to be Louie Anderson."
            Playoff Doppelganger: 1993 AFC Championship, Buffalo 30, Kansas City 13.  Had to go back deep into the history books for this one, but stay with me a second.  Joe Montana was trying to go out with one more ring on a Chiefs team with Marcus Allen and Dave Krieg (the average age of that team was 56.7 years).  Buffalo was vying for its fourth straight AFC title, and fans were getting sick of them getting to the Super Bowl and laying an egg.  Of course, that exact thing happened a couple weeks later, permanently scarring the emotions of Bills fans like Vincent Gallo and Anjelica Houston in Buffalo ’66.
            (Side note completely unrelated to this game: Do people realize that Silver Linings Playbook is the exact same movie as Buffalo ’66?  It’s beyond uncanny.  Watch the opening scene from Buffalo ’66.  It’s the exact same shit.  I mean, Christina Ricci and Jennifer Lawrence both play dancers for chrissake!  Gallo and David O. Russell are both assholes in real life.  Can someone create a GIF or a picture comparing these two movies like they did with Avatarand Pocahontas and BenjaminButton and Forrest Gump?  A few months ago, the odds of Vincent Gallo significantly affecting the Best Picture race seemed about as likely as Kevin Kolb affecting the Patriots’ and Seahawks’ playoff seedings.  Oh wait.  The Mayans did get their revenge in 2012 somehow.)

Thoughts? Disagreements? Are there Seahawks fans who want to viciously attack me like Nikki Minaj attacks Mariah on American Idol? Let me know below.

(UPDATE: I bit the bullet and made my own Silver Linings Playbook-Buffalo '66 illustration, which I've included below. I'm still thinking of ways to make it funnier.)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Year in Review: Top 10 Films of 2012

Looking back on 2012 in film, I cannot help but notice how average it was. The Best Picture nominees are solid or great films, but not masterpieces. The majority of the films were watchable, but not transcendent. This resulted in a significantly-reduced number of films I watched, since there just weren’t the quality films getting released every week like normal. Check out my breakdown of the year, as well as my personal (and most likely incomplete) top 10 of 2012:

Films seen: 89
Thumbs up percentage: 53.93%
Actor of the year: Matthew McConaughey (Bernie, Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Mud, The Paperboy)
Actress of the year: Emily Blunt (Arthur Newman, The Five-Year Engagement, Looper, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Your Sister’s Sister)
Performances of the year: Joaquin Phoenix – The Master, Jessica Chastain – Zero Dark Thirty, Edward Norton – Moonrise Kingdom, Emma Watson – The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Most underrated film: Bernie
Most overrated film: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
Biggest surprise: Chronicle
Biggest disappointment: The Dark Knight Rises
Best ensemble casts: Django Unchained, The Master, Moonrise Kingdom
Best screenplays: Argo, Looper, Django Unchained
Bottom five of the year (from bad to worst): 360, The Campaign, Men in Black 3, Red Lights, Virginia
Most anticipated unseen films: Amour, Frances Ha, On the Road, Rust and Bone, This Is Not a Film

Honorable mentions: The Do-Deca Pentathlon, Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Moonrise Kingdom, The Raid: Redemption, Wreck-It Ralph

10. Smashed (directed by James Ponsoldt)
After seeing the promise of writer-director James Ponsoldt in 2006’s Off the Black, this film became one of my most anticipated of the year. Being a massive Breaking Bad fan, the fact that Aaron Paul was in it only added to my intrigue. These kinds of tiny budget indies are among my favorite types of films, and this one, while at times very funny, is a devastating and absolutely authentic look at alcoholism and its affect on relationships. It has this real fly-on-the-wall type of feel, giving the audience the perspective of the sober bystander observing the highs and brutal lows of being a drunk. The movie is sad, hilarious, but always genuine and true. It is a rewarding experience for whoever seeks it out. Ponsoldt is a director to watch in the coming years.
9. God Bless America (directed by Bobcat Goldthwait)
Each year there seems to be a movie that gets no attention butt is so off-the-wall and daring that it ends up being one of the best of the year. Two of the last four years, that movie has been directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, of Police Academy “fame”.  This movie follows a recently fired and terminally ill man who joins forces with a teenage girl to go on a killing spree throughout the country, taking out celebrities and other people who most piss them off. Usually a movie like this would be shot in way that makes it seem otherworldly, but this one clearly is in reality. Goldthwait has the balls to push the envelope, and this is certainly his best film yet. It is a painfully funny and perceptive little film. Keep an eye out for Goldthwait’s next directorial efforts. He has a way with dark comedy that is unlike any other working filmmaker right now.
8. Seven Psychopaths (directed by Martin McDonagh)
After In Bruges, I immediately was looking forward to how Martin McDonagh was going to follow up his Oscar nom. With the return of star Colin Farrell, I knew it was going to be terrific. In a lot of ways, this is actually a better and certainly a much funnier film than his last one. Seven Psychopaths is about a screenwriter who gets caught up in a criminal plot, since his friends, who kidnap rich people’s dogs and return them for cash, accidentally do so to a brutal gangster. The actors are clearly tons of fun, which you can tell in certain scenes when they almost break character because the situation is so absurd. The movie hits its climax, and then goes even further until it is so out-there that the audience is just in a constant state of laughter and giggling that will last until the credits are rolling. It is smartly-written, hilariously overcast, and superbly executed. I know it probably isn’t for everyone, but if pitch black comedy is for you, then there have been few better in the last few years than this one.
7. The Master (directed by Paul Thomas Anderson)
As brilliant as everything Paul Thomas Anderson touches is, this one could have been even better. It is magnificently-shot, brilliantly-scored, and hauntingly-acted. It is also overlong, a bit pretentious, and just a little too strange. Don’t get me wrong, the highs of The Master are the best scenes of the year. There are just not as many of them as a normal PTA effort. However, average PTA still ranks among the best of the year. Joaquin Phoenix gives the performance of the year, and should certainly win Oscar gold, but he stands almost no chance against Daniel Day-Lewis. Philip Seymour Hoffman digs his teeth into his role to create one of his best characters. I was blown away and underwhelmed at the same time with this movie. Either way, it lingered around in my mind for quite a while, which is about all you can ask for when you watch as many movies as I do.
6. End of Watch (directed by David Ayer)
This movie absolutely destroyed me. I have an incredible soft spot for cop movies, and this maybe the most realistic I have ever seen. The two lead actors are incredible, with Michael Pena giving one of the standout performances of the year. The movie is the most frenetic and furiously-paced of 2012. David Ayer does his best to make the movie seem like a documentary, some of which is even shot by the leads on a handheld camera. The cast chemistry and brotherhood built by the actors is brilliant and authentic, and the writing is among the year’s finest achievements. This cop film, above all others, just gets it. There is a host of brutal action, but that is just not what it is about. As big of a fan I am of Training Day, I just cannot rank it any higher than this film. You really care about these characters, and it is a movie that will likely never my memory.
5. Skyfall (directed by Sam Mendes)
After the extraordinarily disappointing Quantum of Solace, I was thrilled to find out that Sam Mendes was taking over the next film in the Bond franchise. Somewhat predictably, he created what may very well be the second best of all Bonds. Skyfall is a throwback. It is filled with breathtaking cinematography and a superb score. It pays its homage to the films of the past, but then it finally breaks off from tradition. The filmmakers made it clear that they want to create their own Bond legacy, rather than just adding tired additions to the end of the previously dying franchise. Daniel Craig is Bond, and the future is bright. In all honestly, if we are talking about my favorite movie-going experiences of the year, then seeing this at IMAX at the midnight premiere has got to be at the top. It is thrilling in ways that had been absent from the franchise for decades. Javier Bardem’s villain is brilliant. The performances by Craig and Judi Dench are their finest in the franchise.  Every scene does something to make it memorable and vital. It is movies like Skyfall that remind us why we go to the movies in the first place and why Bond is the coolest character ever.
4. Looper (directed by Rian Johnson)
I was beyond shocked by how good this movie was. The trailers looked very ordinary, but Rian Johnson has always intrigued me. Time travel movies are made so often, most of which are lame and unimaginative (see, I mean do not see: last year’s Men in Black 3). This one, however, creates its own rules and world to make one of the most unique thrills of the year. Johnson’s screenplay is the best of the year, without any real competition. The performances are true, which is rare in a movie like this. The actors clearly bought in and understood that the movie is more than just an exercise in science fiction, but more a brilliantly-conceived drama based around sci-fi elements. It is so in touch with its tone and so committed that I almost want to live in that world for another movie or two. It doesn’t just toy around with the time continuum paradox and try to twist you into loving it. It plays it straight, and the characters are real. It is most likely the most re-watchable movie that 2012 had to offer. There is nothing out there like it.
3. Argo (directed by Ben Affleck)
Suddenly, Ben Affleck has become the go-to guy in Hollywood for marketable, thrilling stories coming to the big screen. Argo is certainly a unique case in the industry. I am not sure I have ever seen a movie that brings out more kinds of emotions than this one. It is almost a comedy. It is certainly a thriller. It is a hard-hitting drama. It is an intriguing character study. It is an engrossing history lesson about the famous 1980 CIA ex-fill from Iran. Needless to say, Ben Affleck’s direction was the most complex of the year. The cast was terrific and committed. The final half hour is among amazing achievements of 2012. There is so much silence, yet so much tension is built. The screenplay is sensational. The technical aspects are all close to flawless. It may be a bit easier to appreciate this movie than to really love, but that is not a bad thing at all. It is Affleck’s best film and one of the elite films of 2012.
2. Django Unchained (directed by Quentin Tarantino)
Go figure, Quentin Tarantino has done it again. In what may be his most indulgent film, he has created what could turn out to be his most widely-appealing hit. If nothing else, this proves that no matter what style it is, the mass public is still desperate to see westerns. Tarantino has created some of his most memorable characters in his brilliant screenplay. It is relentless in its violence yet also playful in ways unlike all previous QT ventures (maybe a bit in Inglourious Basterds). The bounty hunter story is not exactly a step out for QT, but if anyone is making a bounty hunter film, it had better be him. He has made this story of revenge a regular thing with his movies, but never as entertaining as this. Tarantino has created his own genre of film, and that is the mark of a true auteur. He pulls out the most unforgettable and ridiculous performance Leonardo DiCaprio has ever given. The cast clearly had the time of their lives, and Christoph Waltz should be required to be in every Tarantino movie from now on.
1. Zero Dark Thirty (directed by Kathryn Bigelow)
This movie has got to be one of the most astonishing achievements in recent memory. The Kathryn Bigelow-Mark Boal combination reaped unbelievable benefits with 2009’s The Hurt Locker, and making another movie about the Middle East, let alone something so recent, seemed like a project destined to fail. It became, however, perhaps the most enthralling movie of the last few years. The story is complex, fast-moving, and so tight that I can only really compare it to something like All the President’s Men. The main character Maya, played astonishingly by the seemingly everywhere Jessica Chastain, is one of the more unlikable yet relatable characters in years. She is more Clarice Starling than Carrie Mathison. She is obsessed, but not to the point of being a lunatic. She is commanding and committed to her career. Like Starling, she is essentially the only woman in doing that sort of work, but she is the kingpin. The movie clicks along at a pace that will never wear on the patience of anyone, all intelligently leading up to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, which is one of the most breathtaking sequences I have witnessed in a theater. Every moment of this movie seems vital, and every performance rings true. I am not sure I can really relive this movie too many times, but for the 157 minutes I spent watching it on the big screen, I was left spellbound in a way that is not normal for me. It is one of the most meticulously detailed and researched scripts, as well as one of the most involving character studies and technically-sound films in years. It is the movie of 2012, and finally one that I do not feel is a default choice for my top spot.

Thoughts? Omissions? You top 10? Hit me up in the comments.