Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Zach Fearless NFL Playoff Predictions: Super Bowl XLVIII

            I’ve spent most of my post-adolescent life hating the Broncos and Seahawks, and so it’s appropriate that their first-ever Super Bowl matchup will occur in the cold, bleak snow of winter in the middle of New Jersey.  It’s also appropriate that (at least on paper) both teams have looked less than spectacular during the course of the playoffs.  The Broncos needed a fairly miraculous 3rd-and-17 conversion deep in their own territory to prevent an epic collapse against the Chargers, and put up way too many field goals instead of touchdowns in beating an Aqib Talib-less Patriots team.  The Seahawks – a team that on average outscored home opponents by 15.4 points per game this season – somehow let a timid Saints team on the road hang around all game and needed an end zone interception to beat a 49ers team they had handled by a combined 55 points in their prior two meetings in Seattle.
             But see, that’s my negativity seeping in again.  I hate these two teams, so it’s natural that I see the “glass-half-empty” perspective first.  The truth is, the Broncos just beat two teams that had been playing their best football of the season (while also managing to avenge two of their three regular season losses) and Marshawn Lynch just manhandled the league’s third and fourth ranked defenses.   The other truth is the Broncos had the greatest offensive season in the history of professional football and the Seahawks have allowed a league-low 476 points over the past two seasons (to put that in perspective, the Chicago Bears gave up 478 points in 2013 alone). 
            And the other truth is I really shouldn’t hate these teams any more.  Over the last 15 years, they’ve combined for one Super Bowl loss, many mediocre head coaches and players, and a handful of bad seasons.  In fact, Denver and Seattle parallel each other a surprising amount if you examine the last 15 years more closely:

1998-1999: Denver wins back-to-back Super Bowls and an 11-year-old Zach Saltz first learns what it’s like to hate a professional sports franchise.  After Elway retires and the Broncos collapse, Seattle takes the temporary reins of the AFC West, fielding a particularly annoying team that started 8-2 and finished 1-6, including their home playoff loss to the Dolphins.

2000-2002: Not a lot happens here. The Broncos boast a different leading rusher each year, and the one year where Brian Griese plays well (2000), Denver loses to the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens.  Seattle doesn’t do much either, but does find a star in RB Shaun Alexander.

2003-2007: The bad years.  Jake Plummer is just frustratingly inept enough to win 10 games each year and lay playoff stinkers . . . except in 2006, when the Broncos hand Brady/Belichick their first playoff loss ever in a fluky game.  The Seahawks do pretty much the same thing and make the Super Bowl in 2006, when they lose to the refs a quarterback with a 22.6 QB rating.  It’s this era which resonates the strongest for me.

2008-2009: Both the Broncos and Seahawks disappear from the planet.  Denver gives up a four-game lead with four games to go in 2008 and hires Josh McDaniels the next season. Meanwhile, Seattle fans, already suffering through the loss of their beloved Sonics, are forced to endure the Jim Mora era.

2010-2011: Resurrection in the unlikely forms of Marshawn Lynch and Tim Tebow (actually, I think the Tebow game was the best NFL game of the last five years). Suddenly, these teams would be considered back in perennial Super Bowl contention were it not for subpar quarterback play.  That is, until . . .

2012-2013: Peyton Manning 2.0 and Russell Wilson arrive.  During these seasons, the teams combine for a 51-13 regular season record, but suffer through unbelievably traumatizing playoff losses

            February 2, 2014 is where the Broncos and Seahawks separate: One will win the Super Bowl, the other will see its fan base continue to wonder what they did to make God smite them so. 
            If you are rooting for the Broncos, you make the case that experience and veteran leadership still matter in Super Bowls.  Denver has Peyton Manning, Wes Welker, Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and John Fox – that’s a total of six different Super Bowl appearances represented.  The only player Seattle has with comparable experience is Percy Harvin, who won two NCAA championships at Florida.  In last year’s Super Bowl, Seattle’s doppelganger, the 49ers, looked sluggish throughout the first half and ultimately could not get themselves out of a 22-point second half hole.  Similar stories with other Super Bowl newbies like the ’06 Bears, ’08 Cardinals, and ’09 Saints (who eventually outscored Peyton Manning 31-7 after trailing by ten points early).  If Manning and company are able to move the ball early and often against the Seahawks – maybe take quick 10-0 or 14-0 leads – it may be difficult for the methodical, run-oriented Seattle offense to muster adequate responses. It isn’t impossible to imagine that happening, since essentially that exact thing happened to the Chargers and Patriots the last few weeks.
            If you are rooting for the Seahawks, you make the case that experience isn’t as important has what has been considered the classical hallmark of teams that win Super Bowls – a dominating, bruising, physical defense.  Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, and Joe Flacco all had questionable playoff reputations before their defenses stepped up and made huge plays down the stretch en route to Super Bowl victories.  Another parallel for hopeful Seattle fans: Super Bowl 37, when the more “experienced” Oakland Raiders, led by Jerry Rice, Tim Brown, and 37-year-old league MVP Rich Gannon, got demolished by the unproven but spectacular Tampa Bay Buccaneer secondary.
            And one more good sign for Seattle: The cold weather should be much more conducive to their grind-it-out, physical style of play – a far cry from Denver’s 55 touchdowns through the air.  By now, we’ve heard all the stories about Manning’s inability to play in cold weather (and how the 63 degree weather last week in Denver may have diluted the actual way the Broncos play in January).  If Manning is off target, the Broncos will be forced to rely on a rushing game led by either a guy with bruised ribs who has been held out of practice (Knowshon Moreno), or a rookie (Montee Ball).  Meanwhile, the Denver defense, already missing its best player (Von Miller), will be lining up Rodgers-Cromartie, 35-year-old Champ Bailey and 34-year-old Quentin Jammer against Seattle’s sneaky-good receiving corps.  And in case you forgot, this was a unit that gave up 399 points and 4,360 passing yards to opposing offenses during the regular season; and although they shut Rivers and Brady down, they also haven’t forced a single turnover in their two postseason games.
            Seattle fans like to point out that the Seahawks played in the NFL’s toughest division and have played the league’s most difficult schedule.  In reality, that claim is questionable; according to advanced strength of schedule metrics, they tied with the Panthers for the 9th toughest.  According to those same metrics, the Broncos had the league’s 8th easiest schedule; however, it is worth noting that Denver faced off against more playoff teams in the regular season (7) than Seattle (5; although that number would have jumped to 7 had the 10-6 Cardinals made the playoffs like they should have).  As I have already pointed out in previous columns, the Seahawks owed a good portion of their outrageous 2013 pass defense statistics to the inferior passing games they faced for much of the season (including Cam Newton, Chad Henne, Mike Glennon, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Kellen Clemens twice).  Holding Kaepernick to 153 yards through the air was impressive last week, but not if you consider the 49ers ranked 3rd worst in the NFL in passing.  Three weeks ago, against Drew Brees – a 5,000 yard passer like Manning – Seattle gave up 309 yards (144 of which were to Marques Colston), a touchdown, and did not pick him off.

            What’s funny is how similar the storylines are between this year’s Broncos and Peyton Manning’s first Super Bowl team, the 2006 Indianapolis Colts.  That year, the Colts were criticized during the regular season for their horrific defense (which gave up a whopping 2,768 rushing yards), but played stellar D in their playoff games.  Manning’s credentials in big games were still being questioned (something that has stuck with him his entire career, I suppose) and as gametime approached in Miami, more and more lingering questions were asked about the weather conditions, like this year.  And like the Seahawks, the ’06 Bears possessed a bruising, opportunistic, genuinely scary defense.  But Manning was able to hold off the pressure by deferring to the running game with an unheralded former second stringer (Dominic Rhodes/Knowshown Moreno) and a talented rookie (Joseph Addai/Montee Ball). 
            And if you’re rooting for the Broncos, that is your best case scenario: That the Seattle D spends so much time honing in on Welker, Decker and the Thomases that running lanes are open and seized upon by a healthy Moreno and Ball.  The running game is so much more critical for the Broncos than most people realize; they open up Manning’s playbook for play action, audibles, and screens. But in 30 degree weather – and, to be blunt, with a 37-year-old QB who showed last year that he can’t throw 15 yards downfield in those conditions – many of Denver’s vertical options will be greatly diminished.  With Sherman and Earl Thomas covering Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker downfield, the success of Denver’s passing game will depend largely on short patterns run by Welker, Julius Thomas, and Moreno.
            And if you’re rooting for Seattle, you hope that Bad Peyton shows up – the guy who can’t throw in the cold, can’t win big games, has bad luck, and whose greatest Super Bowl moments have come in luxury boxes.  You hope that even though Russell Wilson has looked jittery at times, the Seahawks don’t abandon their gameplan because you know that at some point in the third or fourth quarter, Beast Mode will show up and completely turn the tide of momentum. You also know that defense win championships. You know that the Seahawks have at least five defensive players (Sherman, Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, Michael Bennett) who are better than the Broncos’ best defensive player (Danny Trevathan).  You know that the three biggest factors in this game – turnovers, running the ball, and playing in cold weather – eventually favor Seattle.  You know that the winner of that epic NFC Championship game is the best team in football.  You know that Russell Wilson is a scoring threat from anywhere on the field.  You know that the previous record-setting offenses that made Super Bowls have all floundered (‘01 Rams, ‘02 Raiders, ‘07 and ’11 Patriots, and Manning’s own ’09 Colts).  You know that playing in cold, nasty weather is what real football is made of.  And you are angered by the fact that everyone is picking Denver to beat you.
            If there’s anything we’ve learned from pro football the last few years, it’s that Nobody-Believes-In-Us is more powerful than Everyone-Believes-In-Us (credit Bill Simmons with that theory).  All the hype this week about Peyton Manning’s record-breaking year overshadows the fact that the best defenses he faced were the Chiefs (who just gave up 35 second-half points to a team) and the Ravens (who gave up 49 points in Week 1).  All the hype this week about Richard Sherman overshadows the fact that, as a team, Seattle ranked first in the league in eight separate defensive categories.  Vegas favoring Denver is a reflection of their trust in Manning’s leadership and experience; but let’s not forget that the three quarterback kings of the AFC (Manning, Brady and Roethlisberger) are a combined 0-4 in Super Bowls since 2007.  Brady and Manning were favorites in their losses. 
            I have to pick the Seahawks here.  I did not think so originally, but after looking at the matchups, it’s pretty clear.  I think even if Denver jumps out to an early lead like the 49ers did, the Seahawks will settle in and dictate the tempo and momentum of the game.  I’m picking Seattle, but I still irrationally hate them – Pete Carroll’s smug smile and stupid ironed khakis, Richard Sherman’s antics which get overlooked by officials, the rampant PED use only scratching the surface, and the helplessly delusional fan base living in isolation from reality like Norma Desmond.  I refuse to like them and I am not alone (although I admit to being equally delusional for disliking them so much).  But they are the best team in football and they will win Sunday.  And I will be happy for Todd, Terry, Paul Allen, Cameron Crowe, Ann Wilson, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Kathy Goertzen, Dave Grohl, Bill Nye, Dave Niehaus, Digital Dave Niehaus, Howard Schultz, the Red Robin restaurant chain, Sir Mix-a-Lot, ferry boats, umbrellas, Skittles, the staff at Seattle Grace Hospital (current and diseased), Josh Brown, traffic on 520 Eastbound across Lake Washington, Sheriff Reichert, Serious Pie pizza, and Kurt Donald Cobain, may he rest in peace. Seattle > Omaha.

Prediction: Seahawks 34, Broncos 28

Playoff Doppelganger: Every Peyton Manning playoff game 1999-2006, 2008-present.  And every Super Bowl not officiated by Bill Leavy.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

SNL 39.11 Review - Drake

It's the first episode of 2014 after Saturday Night Live took their Christmas break, and there are many things of note here.  Coming off what is as close to a perfect episode as you can get, this episode was going to feel slightly anticlimactic no matter what it held.  Some automatic excitement around this episode surrounded the newest cast member Shasheer Zamata who was hired to fill the "minority female" role on the cast.  Drake brought some excitement too, serving as the third host this season to serve double duty as host and musical guest (3.5 if you consider Timberlake's role in the Fallon episode).  I was wondering how well a guy like Drake could do in this setting.  Although the episode turned out to be pretty vanilla, Drake proved that he was worthy of the honor.

Cold Opening

With a month between episodes, they had to do something that allowed for a crash course in current events to start the show.  Enter Piers Morgan via Taran Killam.  They were able to cover Chris Christie's Bridge-Gate scandal, the A-Rod circus (which allowed for the rare appearance of the host in the Cold Open), and Justin Bieber.  It was quite a fun way to start the show immediately allowed for the audience to see some of the things that Drake was going to bring to the table.


This was one of the best monologues of the season so far.  Drake explored the fact that he is a Black Jewish Canadian and flashed back to his Bar-Mitzvah.  All of a sudden, his Bar-Mitzvah recitations turned into a self-deprecating rap.  This was definitely the highlight of the show.  It also showed the first appearance of Zamata who instantly just became part of the gang.

Weekend Update

Seth Meyers only has a couple episodes left, and this episode continued the tour of his favorite Weekend Update guests with Nasim Pedrad's Arianna Huffington (one of her few characters that doesn't annoy me).  She was solid as usual, but the best part of this week's Weekend Update was their commentary on this year's Golden Globes featuring a silly and delirious Jacqueline Bisset brought to us by Vanessa Bayer.  It was a dead on impression of a very awkward moment during the yearly broadcast.

Best Sketch

Drake was great all night.  His monologue was outstanding.  He gave it 100% every time he was out there.  However, the material just wasn't there.  It was hard to pick a best sketch from all the very average sketches there were.  However, the one that had the best moments was probably the sleep over.  Having Zamata in the cast allowed for this sketch to be possible as Drake plays her dorky dad hosting the sleepover.  Every time the dad popped into the room of girls, one of the guests (Aidy Bryant) became more and more attracted to her friend's dad.  What starts as a slightly awkwardly funny sketch goes completely haywire by the end with Bryant showing why she is one of the most naturally funny cast members on the show right now.

Worst Sketch

This decision was easy, however it had nothing to do with the host.  As has been the case for several of my least favorite sketches this season, this sketch revolves around Nasim Pedrad producing yet another quirky Middle Eastern character that is supposed to be funny and really isn't.  This scenario puts her in Disney World experiencing what it was like to be Indiana Jones.  Drake was great trying to hold Rahat's attention and in turn, trying to hold the sketch together, but it ultimately failed.

Dark Horse Sketch

There really wasn't a dark horse sketch this episode.  None of the sketches after the Weekend Update halftime marker were really any good.  So instead I am going to talk about another one of my favorite sketches from earlier in the episode.  One of the interesting bits of trivia surrounding Drake was that he used to star on the TV show Degrassi.  This sketch explores other possibilities of rappers appearing in classic TV shows.  The highlight was Drake impersonating Lil' Wayne impersonating Urkel.  Pretty surreal.  Here is another highlight.  How are you doing on your New Year's Resolutions?  Hopefully better than these people...

This was a successful episode in the sense that it showcased a star in Drake displaying his comedic talent in a very effective way.  He really surprised me here.  I had a lot of fun watching his natural ability for entertaining in more ways than one.  However, it is starting to become a trend that the creative team of Saturday Night Live is not consistently producing material worth the talent the show is showcasing.  With head writer Colin Jost moving into the Update desk to replace Seth Meyers in a couple weeks, hopefully it will jump start the creative juices.  Either way, the show is still so much fun to watch because of the immense talent that is brought every week by the cast and the great run of hosts they have had.


Watch the full episode here:

Year in Review: Zach's Top Ten Films of 2013

            Hollywood boasted that 2013 was its best year for movies ever, but because this claim is almost entirely predicated on higher ticket prices rather than actual attendance figures (as well as the timely overlooking of numerous high-profile box office flops), the issue isn’t really about how much money was made, but rather, why people continue to go to the movies.  The answer depends entirely on the movie.  If you ask why people went to see Gravity (#7 highest grossing movie of 2013), the answer is: “Because audiences were awestruck by its groundbreaking 3D special effects.”  If you ask why people saw Iron Man 3 (#2 highest grossing movie) and Despicable Me 2 (#3), the answer is: “Because audiences loved the first one.”  If you ask why people saw Frozen and Oz: The Great and Powerful (#4 and #10, respectively), the answer is: “They are wholesome movies for the family.”  And if you ask people why they saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the answer is: “Jennifer Lawrence.”
            So special effects, franchises, family appeal, and star power lay at the heart of most of 2013’s most successful films.  But if that was the case, why did The Lone Ranger fail so spectacularly?  By my count, it meets for three of those four aforementioned qualifiers (and whether Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto is a significant departure from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is debatable).  Yes, it got bad reviews . . . but so did Man of Steel (#5 of 2013) and Oz: The Great and Powerful (#10). 
            My theory?  People didn’t see The Lone Ranger (myself included) because there was always a better option.  Why spend two hours and 29 minutes of your life watching a glorified mashup of Pirates of the Caribbean and Wild Wild West?  In that same amount of time, you could watch the Breaking Bad finale, an episode of Girls, every scene of Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, most of Frozen, Bound 3, and the magnificent uninterrupted opening shot from Gravity.  I’m not necessarily suggesting that movies need to be shorter, but with the proliferation of personal electronic devices and social media, audiences simply don’t have the patience to sit through boring, perfunctory movies like The Lone Ranger anymore.  Even in movie theaters, where social decorum once existed and has now grossly eroded, the cell phone has now frequently become the superior entertainment option.  Social media has not only replaced human interaction, but even the process of escaping to the cinema to avoid human interaction (this idea may reappear somewhere on my list).
            All of this is really a roundabout way of saying there were a lot of good movies in 2013, and instead of lambasting the industry for continuing to put out crap and expecting audiences to shell out extra money for tickets and 3D gimmicks, we should laud filmmakers for being able to put out a handful of movies that not only entertain us, but manage to keep us off our cell phones.  We are an ADHD generation, and in order to grab the attention of audiences, movies are forced to revert to two options: (A) Enhanced explosions and mindless special effects, or (B) Screenplays, actors and filmmakers that continually strive for originality, fearlessness and intelligence.  My choice of the top ten films of 2013 -- the first year of many without the sage guidance of Roger the Great -- reflects films which opted for the latter.

Films seen: 51
“Thumbs-up” percentage: 64.7%
Lead Actor Performance: Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Lead Actress Performance: Adèle Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
Supporting Actor Performance: Ryan Gosling, The Place Beyond the Pines
Supporting Actress Performance: June Squibb, Nebraska
Underrated Films: To the Wonder, Pain & Gain, Jack the Giant Slayer, Don Jon
Overrated Films: The Wolf of Wall Street, The Way Way Back, The Spectacular Now, 42
Worst Movies of 2013: Broken City, Movie 43, Elysium
Worst Final 30 Minutes: The Call, Prisoners, Now You See Me
Honorable Mention: Stories We Tell, The Act of Killing, Fruitvale Station, 56 Up, Jack the Giant Slayer

10. The Hunt (Dir: Thomas Vinterberg)

This was a fascinating, unpredictable take on a taboo subject matter that would never be tackled in mainstream American cinema: The (false) accusation of child molestation.  Mads Mikelsen (AKA Le Chiffre from Casino Royale) plays a recently divorced teacher who takes a temporary job at a preschool before allegations are made which result in his dismissal and banishment from the community.  What is interesting about the movie isn’t really the story (which thankfully never moves into hysterical or exploitative territory), but the relationships between the male characters and the scathing portrayal of how close-knit communities (even in “progressive” Scandinavia) respond to rumors, gossip and groupthink.  We are left wondering how the numerous real-life headlines of rape and abuse that ultimately prove unfounded ever originate in the first place (that is, outside of Tallahassee, Florida).

9. Rush (Dir: Ron Howard)

The best sports movie of the last several years.  Like Amadeus, the movie profiles two real-life rivals -- James Hunt (Chris Hemworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) -- who grow to dislike each other so much that it grows to an odd sort of mutual admiration.  It is also a movie of universal truths -- that the guy just above you who you despise keeps you more motivated than almost anything else -- and although Rush profiles the world of Formula One racing in the 1970s, you do no have to be a racing fan to appreciate the movie.  I do not follow racing and I found the events of the film gripping, unpredictable, and fairly unbelievable.  Howard also displays something we haven't really seen from him since Apollo 13: A key understanding of how special effects in movies should work -- not simply to display, but to give impressions, feelings, and manifestations of the innermost anxieties of characters.  And like all great movies, it only gets better as it goes along.

8. To the Wonder (Dir: Terrence Malick)

“Slow-moving,” “inaccessible,” “obtuse,” and “self-indulgent” were some of the most popular words used to describe Malick’s latest foray into the ephemeral nature of human subconsciousness. Of course, all these words could also apply to The Tree of Life and The Thin Red Line, but for some reason, critics found particular disdain in To the Wonder primarily because (A) its main actors were all incalculably attractive, and (B) there was little clear connection between the Olga Kurylenko/Ben Affleck story thread, and Javier Bardem’s tortured Catholic priest.  All true.  But what got overlooked was how affecting the story was, the truths it revealed about the idealism and volatility of romantic relationships, and how Malick is actually a remarkably clear storyteller.  Like the great silent filmmakers of the 1920s, he doesn’t rely on exposition to give us comprehensive portraits of his main characters.  Instead, we are left with fragments, which are frustrating but also infinitely more poetic and even perhaps closer to us in their ambiguity.

7. All is Lost (Dir: J.C. Chandor) 

All right, so it’s basically a remake of Cast Away, but who cares?  There are worse movies to emulate than Cast Away.  And there’s no desert island and there’s no Wilson (although Robert Redford relies heavily on his handy sextant for geographical and mental direction).  And it’s a lot more nihilistic.  But Redford is phenomenal, taking what would appear to be a gimmick (no dialogue and no other characters) into a riveting, exciting movie about gradually accepting near-certain death (hence, the title).  The movie doesn’t have a message and it doesn’t preach; it simply observes, rendering viewers frustratingly powerless but increasingly sympathetic to Redford’s nameless everyman.  As I kept watching it, I was wondering how the Chandor would end the story without complete and total helplessness, and improbably, he manages to do it flawlessly.

6. Blue is the Warmest Color (Dir: Abdellatif Kechiche)

This was the toughest movie of the year.  How do you react to it?  Is it sexist?  Is it a modern-day example of what Laura Mulvey famously identified as “the male gaze?”  I found the sex scenes absolutely guilty of the criticism they received: They are excessive, distracting, tedious and (because there’s no other term for it) pornographic.  See this movie and tell me those scenes are not pornographic.  But unlike right-wing prudes, I also don’t believe pornography is a universal evil, and the sex scenes are necessary in order to show – in a way no other previous movie has ever shown – how integral sex is for young people who have only encountered it through rumors, misinformation and what society tells us are “appropriate” sexual orientations (it’s also a much-needed relief from mainstream films content to show only nonthreatening, sexless homosexual relationships). The sexual bond created by the two protagonists (Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux) provides the backbone for their entire relationship, which spans over the course of several years.  There are good times, there are bad times, there’s jealousy, sadness, sexual awakening, and deep self-questioning.  It’s probably 25 minutes too long.  But because the movie is French, it refreshingly allows its characters to think and have intelligent conversations.  An American movie would have reduced Blue’s narrative structure to a 90-minute rom-com.  But Kechiche and his remarkable leading actresses have eschewed formula and instead offer us a riveting, engrossing, and frequently sad look at human longing.

5.  Lore (Dir: Cate Shortland)

Like Blue is the Warmest Color, Lore profiles a young female protagonist whose sexual awakening crucially coincides with a rise of political consciousness (and yes, needless to say, it’s European).  But this film takes place in the waning days of World War II, when Lore, the daughter of defeated Nazi cadres, must escape Allied capture in order to transport her younger siblings to their grandmother’s house.  Along the way, Lore (played by Saskia Rosendahl in a remarkable debut performance) encounters displaced war victims who gradually make her question her mindless adherence to Third Reich ideology.  The core question of the movie is at what point are children responsible for their own thoughts and actions (and are no longer the unfortunate byproducts of the way their parents raised them).  In that sense, Lore isn’t really about the Holocaust or bad parenting or even about Nazi ideology, but about the process of becoming an adult.  This makes the story universal, and even though Lore is not always likable, she is a reminder that as adults, we are forced to live with the misguided actions of our youth.

4. Nebraska (Dir: Alexander Payne)

It’s black-and-white, has no A-list actors, features an 80-year-old protagonist, and has no sex or explosions.  How did this film get made again?  Like Sideways, this is a movie that captures perfectly the awkwardness and anxieties of human interaction and somehow manages to be as heartfelt as it is cynical.  It also features the best performance of Bruce Dern’s career as a man who may not be completely mentally coherent (although he may be, we never really know).  There are also great supporting performances by Will Forte, June Squibb, and Stacey Keach, and the final moments of the movie are just about perfect, reminding us that triumphant endings don’t always have to involve grand gestures, but instead, everyday acts of selflessness.  It’s the type of movie that intelligent audiences give standing ovations to.

3. Gravity (Dir: Alfonso Cuaron)

Like Avatar, the first question we have to ask is whether it’s a great motion picture or a great motion picture experience.  And unlike Avatar, it actually manages to hold up to both questions (I saw it both in Imax 3D and on a home theater system).  What else can be said about it that hasn’t already been said?  It’s thrilling to watch, features great performances by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and quietly offers a very intelligent screenplay.  And yes, the special effects are amazing, transporting us seamlessly into outer space without making us skeptical of CGI for a single moment.  The camera movement too doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, as Cuaron has been guilty of in the past, and like the great movie epics of the 1950s and 60s, it transports us to a place we never thought we could see so clearly.

2. 12 Years a Slave (Dir: Steve McQueen)

McQueen’s Hunger was #1 on my 2009 list, while Shame was probably the most disappointing film I saw in 2011.  12 Years a Slave is a return to the incredible potential he has as a director, beautifully balancing artistic ingenuity with sophisticated, compelling storytelling.  In an era in which Django Unchained is the most widely-seen cinematic representation of slavery, this film is a much-needed reminder of the true brutality and horror of life in the Antebellum South (and no, Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t get to blow up Michael Fassbender’s house).  Many critics have spoken of the film’s many violent scenes and how difficult they are to watch, but there are also a great deal of more subtly devastating scenes (such as an exchange between Ejiofor and Fassbender involving an unsent letter and every scene with Adepero Oduye in it).  There was no better performance in a 2013 film than Ejiofor here.  He doesn’t have a lot of flashy scenes, but instead, more realistically portrays a quiet, contemplative man who is very nearly depleted to his core during his 12 years of torture and banishment.  The final moments have an emotional power that is rare, and is the only 2013 movie that is virtually guaranteed to be remembered for generations to come.

And the three-way tie for best movie of 2013:

1. The first 53 minutes of The Place Beyond the Pines.

When I saw this movie back in April, I knew I was watching something special, and thought it would unquestionably merit a very high spot on my list.  Unfortunately, the last two-thirds of the movie really don’t hold up to the first third, but that should not prevent you from still seeing it (after all, it was Todd’s #5 movie of 2013).  Ryan Gosling’s performance in the first 53 minutes is absolutely stunning, and the movie offers an experience in a special way which very few other movies can claim: It throttles you.  You have no clue where it is going, and are just thankful to be on board in the backseat.  There are a few images which leave an unforgettable impact (here and here).  It is cinema at its most transcendent.  I know it sounds sort of gimmicky to name your best movie of the year the first 53 minutes of a movie, but you tell me what you think after watching it.

1. The final episode of Breaking Bad.

So OK, it’s not a movie, but taken as a whole, I’d argue that Breaking Bad is better than any movie that has come out the last five years.  The final eight episodes are gripping and feature tremendous performances and marvelous dialogue.  Without giving too much away, there is a scene in a garage that had my heart racing like it did during United 93; there is a gun death in the desert that was equally tragic and inevitable and horrific to watch; and the final episode, which gave resolution and catharsis without being overly preachy or indulgent, contained moments which were painful and true.  The performances were all amazing, but Bryan Cranston was particularly astonishing in the way he balanced being both sympathetic and horrific.  And the choice of the final song to close out the series was perfect, probably leaving David Chase wondering why he couldn’t have done the same.

1. The real best movie of 2013: Disconnect (Dir: Henry-Alex Rubin)

If I haven’t made it clear enough already, I thought 2013 was a very strong year for movies, so putting Disconnect as my real #1 should not be taken lightly – it wasn’t the result of being the most notable film in the midst of a mediocre year (as has possibly been the case in the recent past).  I did not honestly expect much going into it, but I was blown away by how tight, intelligent, and unpredictable it really was.  In weaving a Crash-like narrative involving three intersecting storylines, the movie constantly moves from one interesting character to the other, probing deep questions about the use of social media and technology in modern American life.  Each story uses problems we often hear about on the news as starting points (cyberbullying, online sex trafficking, and identity theft) but brilliantly moves past the veneer of personal electronic devices to examine the human effects of seemingly faceless, humanless actions.  Rubin doesn’t really preach against the bad effects of alienation from face-to-face interaction (in spite of the film’s tagline, “Look Up”) – that would be too easy.  Instead, he accepts the notion that technology can also bring people closer, and in doing so, social media becomes the vehicle for understanding the deeper personal motivations and anxieties of each of the characters.  While watching the movie, you keep waiting for the scene which it will turn stupid or phony or unrealistic – and it simply never happens; even at the end, which could have gone for the conventional “happy” angle, but instead offers something much more realistic and unresolved.  There’s an energy and remarkable clarity that makes Disconnect remind us that movies are still capable of deeply moving us. 

Thoughts?  Disagreements?  Upset that Spring Breakers somehow did not on my list? Let me know below!

Monday, January 20, 2014

6th Annual Oscar Challenge

Predict who you think will win the Oscars.  Click on the link below to enter the 6th annual AlmostSideways.com Oscar Challenge.  All three parts must be completed to be eligible.  All submissions must be in by midnight the day of the Oscars (March 2nd).

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Year in Review: Top 10 Films of 2013

2013 was a year that had very few (if any) masterpieces, but there were many films that I would consider great. I have no issues with the films nominated by the Academy, but they missed out on some of the truly remarkable independent movies that are represented in my top films. Check out my breakdown of the year below, followed by my current top 10 of 2013:

Films seen: 85
Thumbs up percentage: 54.12%
http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2013/04/22/mud-19538-974ae657f2c71be11aa3b4510863ff4d6f59e20d-s6-c30.jpgActor of the year: Matthew McConaughey, 2nd consecutive year (Dallas Buyer’s Club, Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street)
Actress of the year: Rooney Mara (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Her, Side Effects)
Best Actor: Michael Jordan – Fruitvale Station, Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street, Joaquin Phoenix – Her, Ethan Hawke – Before Midnight, Robert Redford – All Is Lost
Best Actress: Elle Fanning – Ginger & Rosa, Julie Delpy – Before Midnight, Brie Larson – Short Term 12, Sandra Bullock – Gravity, Greta Gerwig – Frances Ha
Best Supporting Actor: Casey Affleck – Out of the Furnace, James Franco – Spring Breakers, Jonah Hill – The Wolf of Wall Street, Michael Cera – Magic Magic, Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave
Best Supporting Actress: Annika Wedderkopp – The Hunt, Scarlett Johansson – Her, Rachel Boston – It’s a Disaster, Kristin Scott Thomas – Only God Forgives, Mary Elizabeth Winstead – The Spectacular Now
Best Original Screenplay: Her, Nebraska, The Place Beyond the Pines, Inside Llewyn Davis, Drinking Buddies
Best Adapted Screenplay: Before Midnight, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Spectacular Now, Short Term 12, 12 Years a Slave
Most underrated film:
The Place Beyond the Pines
Most overrated film: Saving Mr. Banks
Biggest surprise: Side Effects
Biggest disappointment: Out of the Furnace
Best ensemble casts: Her, Drinking Buddies, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners
Bottom five of the year (from bad to worst): 42, Quartet, Now You See Me, Man of Steel, A Good Day to Die Hard
Most anticipated unseen films: Blue Is the Warmest Color, Dallas Buyers Club, The Great Beauty, In a World…, Philomena, Snowpiercer, The Wind Rises

Others receiving votes: The Act of Killing, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, All Is Lost, The Hunt, It’s a Disaster

10. Short Term 12 (directed by Destin Cretton)
One of the great under-the-radar movies of the year was Destin Cretton’s expansion of his terrific short film. Short Term 12 follows Grace (breakout star Brie Larson), a worker at a foster care facility that watches and guides troubled underprivileged kids. There is a deep heartache and pain in the story, especially as more of Grace’s past gets revealed and shows why she is such a committed and caring worker. It features some of the truly elite scenes of the year, chief among them the “So You Know What It’s Like” original song by young actor Keith Stanfield, which clearly was the best song of 2013. Short Term 12 is not a movie that will sit well with a lot of audiences since it is so understated and sad, but there is a sense of warmth that we feel following the movie that makes it very rewarding, and in a way, beautiful.

9. The Spectacular Now (directed by James Ponsoldt)
This is a very personal inclusion on this list. I love movies that ooze nostalgia, and this is the best one its kind in several years. James Ponsoldt, who also directed last year’s indie gem Smashed, has become a go-to director for independent comedy-dramas. All of his movies thus far have been in some way about alcoholics, but none of them have been as perceptive and meaningful as this one. It is about Sutter (the excellent Miles Teller) and Aimee (Shailene Woodley). They form the most endearing movie couple of the year. Ponsoldt has a knack for creating characters with flaws that we cannot help but care for. Sutter is the hard-partying high schooler, and Aimee is the outcast. They begin an unlikely friendship and form a bond that no one expected, least of all the two of them. In the end of this little movie, we feel undeniably bittersweet, satisfied, and melancholic. It puts sentimentality away and leaves the audience to view this rich and realistic story in all its nostalgia and ordinary beauty. Ponsoldt could be the next Alexander Payne.

8. Inside Llewyn Davis (directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)
This is the best American music film since 2007’s indie masterwork Once. The Coen brothers have outdone themselves with this brilliantly detailed and darkly hilarious little film. At no point does the movie try to be popular. It features some of the most unlikable characters the Coens have created, yet, we care all too much. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer in the 1961 New York, and he lives for his music. He lives his life in the way described in his lyrics. There is no glamour in this story, no happy ending. It is all realism. We drop in on Llewyn’s life and watch him navigate the folk scene for a period of time, and we could not be more grateful after the movie is over. It is a remarkable movie and one that only gets better as time goes by. You will be humming the extraordinary soundtrack for the foreseeable future. I was aching to see it again in the days following.

7. Gravity (directed by Alfonso Cuaron)
There was no greater movie miracle in 2013 than Gravity. There were basically just two cast members, and one of them is gone for the majority of the film. We are essentially watching Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) floating through space and trying to find any way to survive without any real working communication. It sounds like a short film’s premise, but it is edited in a way that creates the most intense movie-going experience of the year. It is also the best use of 3D maybe ever (if not, then #2 behind Avatar). The creativity and imagination that this movie took, as well as the attention to detail makes a movie that would otherwise seem ridiculous feel absolutely involving and realistic. It is one of the truly magical films of 2013.

6. 12 Years a Slave (directed by Steve McQueen)
This is perhaps the only instant classic 2013 film. While watching the long, inspiring struggle of the human spirit in Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who was drugged and enslaved for 12 years, the audience just feels like they are watching an already polished film classic. Each and every scene is vital to the tone of the story. It is difficult to watch, to be sure. However, there is no more rewarding experience that one can have from a 2013 film. 12 Years a Slave is an important piece of cinema and one that will undoubtedly be looked back on as a crowning achievement of this era.

5. The Place Beyond the Pines (directed by Derek Cianfrance)
This was the biggest surprise masterpiece of 2013. The movie is separated into three segments, and there is a passing of the torch between them. The segments are of course intertwined, but unlike several other movies with this layout, the bridges are not predictable. Each segment sports an astonishing leading performance (Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Dane DeHaan) and by a seemingly different genre (crime drama via Drive, cop drama via Copland, indie drama via In the Bedroom). The further along the story rolls, the more we get into it and become aware of the fate of the characters. When the end credits start, we realize that 140 minutes have gone by and we still want more.

4. Nebraska (directed by Alexander Payne)
I have a fondness for Payne movies that cannot be overstated. His movies are so realistic and different. I felt like after Sideways that I would never be able to truly be blown away by one of his films, but I was wrong. This movie is one of the purest and painfully funny movies I have seen in years. Payne did not write this movie, but it is one of his movies at its core. It is his finest directed job as well. The black-and-white format takes away all outside factors and just lets the characters be. We are essentially just following Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte) on an ill-conceived cross-country trek. Road trip movies are common; this one is not. It is written as a sad, depressing drama, yet its flawlessness in developing relatable quirks in the characters is what causes the laughs and makes the movie tick. It may not have the ambition of other films on this list, but it is just about perfect.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street (directed by Martin Scorsese)
Zach and I clearly disagree on this one, but this movie really is a daring and hilarious piece of work. The story is about Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), the scamming leader of Stratton Oakmont, a firm who sells worthless stocks to unwitting consumers, scheming out millions every week. On paper, yes this movie is unappealing. Who wants a true story comedy (or sorts) about criminals who never really get caught or get what is coming to them? Well, that is exactly what Scorsese thought. He focuses in on Belfort, and lets him tell the story. It is frustrating, and it is only hilarious because we want it to. It doesn’t play for laughs, but the characters and situations are so outrageous that we can’t help but laugh at their expense. It is loaded with drugs, women, and greed. In format and subject, it is nearly identical to Goodfellas. Under normal circumstances, that would bother me. This is not a normal case. It is the most thrilling and unrelenting 3 hour movie I have ever seen.

2. Her (directed by Spike Jonze)
Spike Jonze has made himself an A-list director in just four films. He has a style and subtlety that no one else has. This movie has less Being John Malkovich and Adaptation in its visuals, but there is every bit as much quirkiness and sadness in their stories. Like his most recent masterwork Where the Wild Things Are, this is a passion piece. From the opening shots of the film, we are completely glued to a movie about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) falling in love with his computer operating system (Scarlett Johansson). It sounds strange until you actually see it happen. It could be the next The Truman Show in terms of creating an atmosphere and visionary look at where we are heading as a society. In its comedy, it is equal parts The 40 Year Old Virgin, Punch-Drunk Love, and Eternal Sunshine. There is also a fair amount of Lost in Translation in how the characters and story are treated. It is nothing like any of those, however. It is a complete original, and it just feels like a landmark piece of cinema.

1. Before Midnight (directed by Richard Linklater)
Unless something drastic happens in the next couple months of 2013 video releases, then this will remain my #1 of the year. Like the previous two installments in this series (1995’s Before Sunrise, 2004’s Before Sunset), this film is strictly dialogue. Even more so than its predecessors, Midnight could not exist without the previous ones. Every word of it is drawing from the bank of passion and commitment that we feel for Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), the two disarming main characters of this decades-long romantic saga. This film is not as much about broken hearts and charming romances; this one is relaxed. At least it feels that way right up until our two protagonists are alone. The entire third act is in a hotel room, and it contains the most brilliant, devastating, heated conversation I have ever seen in a movie in recent memory. It has all the makings of a title bout without a single punch thrown. The audience is left on edge and inevitably begging for more after it is over. Please, Mr. Hawke, Mr. Linklater, and Ms. Delpy…give us more in 2022. I am already making arrangements for seeing it on opening night.

Thoughts? Your top 10? Anyone else adore Jesse and Celine like I do? Comment below…