Saturday, January 31, 2015

February Movie Preview!

I cant believe we are already a month into this new year!!!  Now, January isn't known for any great movies.  But some 2014 movies finally got a wider release.  Well lets get into this thing!!!

February 6th, 2015:
The Seventh Son, Jupiter Ascending, SpongeBob: Sponge Out of Water,  Love Rosie, The Voices, Pass the Light, Ballet 422, Lambert & Stamp

Excitement: 1
Reason: This could be really fun or really crappy!  The bright spot is that has Oscar caliber actors in it, but it looks like 47 Ronin all over again.

Excitement: 1
Reason: Lets face it this is an all star cast.  Tatum, Kunis, Bean, and Redmayne start in this interesting sci-fi movie.  Ill admit from the first trailer I thought this could has potential, but every new trailer it slow goes away.

February 13, 2015:
Kingsman: The Secret Service, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Last 5 Years
Excitement: 3.5
Reason: Lets face it, this looks like a fun movie and possible the best movie of the first two months as well.  Samuel L. Jackson looks like he will be playing a really cool villain.

Excitement: 3
Reason: This movie is not made for my enjoyment but for the woman's enjoyment.  I'm interested still in seeing it though!  Valentine date movie!!!

February 20, 2015:
Hot Tub Time Machine 2, The DUFF, McFarland USA, Jane Got a Gun
Excitement: 2.5
Reason:  Prepare for Natalie Portman to get her revenge!  Hopefully, they can capture what True Grit did so well.  Westerns are hit and miss but with the cast that this has it could be one of the best of the month!

Excitement: 1
Reason: I wasnt a huge fan of the first one, though it did make me laugh a little.  Having most of the original cast back, other than Cusick, might make it descent.  

February 27, 2015:
The Lazarus Effect, The Vatican Tapes, Focus, Outcast, Maps to the Stars, Deli Man, Everly
Excitement: 2.5
Reason: Looks like this could be an interesting thriller.  Hopefully Will Smith can rebound from that stinker After Earth.

Top Five Movies I'm looking forward to:
1. Kingsmen: The Secret Service
2. Fifty Shades of Grey
3. Jane Got a Gun
4. Focus
5. Jupiter Ascending

Top Five Performances I'm looking forward to:
1. Samuel L. Jackson - Kingsmen: The Secret Service
2. Natalie Portman - Jane Got a Gun
3. Will Smith - Focus
4. Eddie Redmayne - Jupiter Ascending
5. Clark Duke - Hot Tub Time Machine 2

Summary of the Previous Month:

It was great to see some of the Oscar nominated movies and a my first 2015 movie as well.

Top Films of January
1. Foxcatcher
2. American Sniper
3. The Interview
4. The Boy Next Door

Top Five Performances
1. Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher
2. Steve Carrel - Foxcatcher
3. Bradley Cooper - American Sniper
4. Channing Tatum - Foxcatcher
5. Randall Park - The Interview

So It was a descent month for movies!  Hopefully there is at least one good 2015 movie this next month!

Thank you again for reading 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Zach's Fearless NFL Predictions 2015: Super Bowl XLIX

            If you were in Las Vegas last week and put money on Bill Nye, false fire alarms, and My Cousin Vinny as playing significant roles in the increasingly elaborate storyline leading up to this year’s Super Bowl, then congratulations – your prescience is so amazing that you probably don’t need a Super Bowl 49 preview column like this one to figure out which team will emerge victorious.  But for the rest of us mere mortals who predicted the Super Bowl 49 storylines would principally revolve around Pete Carroll’s rematch with Robert Craft, Brandon Browner’s rematch with the Legion of Boom, and whether the team of the 2010s is better than the team of the 2000s – you know, the normal kind of football storylines going into a championship game – then obviously you don’t understand the NFL, the National Fallacy League.
            It’s been 21 weeks since the opening week of the 2014 season, but it feels like it has been about 21 years.  Back then, in August, the biggest questions being asked by football fans were mostly “When will Johnny Football take over as starter for the Browns?” or “What team, if any, will pick up Michael Sam?” or “Can the league finally adopt a firm policy about concussions/pass interference calls/PATs?” Since then, the league has suffered tremendous public relations fiascos ranging from Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson to Ray McDonald to (yes, somewhat predictably) Johnny Manziel.  None of these situations has shed positive light on the tenure of Roger Goodell, who has come across as much corrupt and incompetent as staggeringly hypocritical.  Meanwhile, we’re stuck with two teams in the title game, one of which got caught illegally deflating footballs which, according to some, isn’t as uncommon an incidence in the NFL as actually getting caught doing it.  And while the other team may not have deflated footballs, they haven’t exactly been immune to bending the rules themselves. 
            It’s a dog-eat-world out there and as Jeremy Irons says in Margin Call, there are only three ways of making a living in the professional football business: Being first, being smarter, or cheating.  Let’s assume that the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks are spectacularly guilty of the last two.  That only leaves being first (as in first place, not the way Irons actually means it in the movie, as in “first to liquidate all the firm’s shares en route to the systematic collapse of Wall Street.”)  As the defending champs, the Seahawks are still technically first.  The Patriots have finished first three times, but the last time they actually hoisted the Lombardi Trophy, George W. Bush had just won reelection, no one had ever heard of Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Mark Zuckerberg or YouTube, and the city of New Orleans was intact and had a quarterback named Aaron Brooks.  Hell, the last time the Patriots won the Super Bowl, the most promising athletic hopes for the city of Seattle lay in the hands of the Rashard Lewis/Ray Allen-led Sonics.
            So we get the point: If the Patriots are old money, the Seahawks are nouveau riche.  If New England is East Egg, then Seattle is West Egg.  If Tom Brady is Cal Hockley in Titanic, then Russell Wilson is Jack Dawson (shout out to bros from Wisconsin!)  Shall we keep going?  In 1964, the New York Yankees, led by 32-year-old Mickey Mantle and 35-year-old Whitey Ford, were vying for their 10th title in the Casey Stengel era, but lost to the upstart St. Louis Cardinals, a team led by 28-year-old Bob Gibson and 25-year-old Lou Brock – a team which would win two of the next four World Series.  The Yankees’ Golden era ended with that defeat.  In 1989, the Los Angeles Lakers were playing for their 6th championship in the 1980s, but after the Bad Boy Pistons stunned them in a 4-0 series sweep, the Kareem/Magic Lakers dynasty collapsed, while Detroit won two straight titles.  From 1981 to 1996, the NFC won 16 straight Super Bowls; since John Elway’s shocking upset of Brett Favre’s Packers in Super Bowl 32, the NFC has gone 7-10.

            The problem with that analogy is that the Yankees, Lakers and the NFC did not experience a ten-year stretch without a title like the 2014 Patriots have.  That would mean that they would no longer be considered dynasties.  Therefore, can we all just agree right now that the Patriots are no longer a dynasty?  They certainly were in the era of Rodney Harrison, Ty Law, and Mike Vrabel.  But outside of Tom Brady, Big Vince, and Coach Belichick’s hoodies, there are no real remnants from those Super Bowl championships (whether we should have won somewhere between two and five Super Bowls since 2004 is another debate entirely.)  But at the same time, are we not being premature by declaring the Seahawks already this decade’s dynasty?  Sure they annihilated Peyton Manning in the playoffs last year, but so did Billy Volek and Jay Fiedler
            This is a long, roundabout way of saying one of two things: Either we’re overestimating the greatness of both of these teams since neither are technically dynasties at this point, or Super Bowl 49 will go a very long way in how the legacies of the Patriots and the Seahawks are remembered.  If the Patriots win, their title of the “Team of the 2000s” holds up to scrutiny (at least for now).  And if the Seahawks win, that signifies that the torch has been officially passed; at this point, they’ve pretty much owned every other NFL franchise/great quarterback since the beginning of the Carroll/DangerRuss era (with the exceptions of Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, and every team they actually have to go on the road to play).  If Tom Brady wins, he will join Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks with four Super Bowl rings.  If Russell Wilson wins, he will join the immortal, illustrious company of such luminaries as Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, and Jim Plunkett.
            (OK, OK.  I told myself I would limit my cheapshots directed at the Seahawks, but I couldn’t resist that one.  But hey, I just wrote three paragraphs essentially outlining why the Patriots are overrated in the public consciousness, so give me a break.)
            But in the midst of DeflateGate, there are other factors too.  If the Patriots win, people will remember the 2014 as one that should have an asterisk next to their name.  If the Pats lose, it will only reaffirm the notion that Belichick cannot win without cheating.  And the repercussions of DeflateGate aren’t too rosy for the Seahawks either; even if Seattle wins, their victory will be somewhat tarnished by the histrionics directed disproportionally at the Patriots in the weeks leading up to the game, inevitably adding an atypical “lack of focus” and “dysfunction” to how the Patriots will have played.  Meanwhile, Seattle fans should be very nervous when they recall the times overwhelming public scrutiny has drawn the ire of Belichick/Brady; after SpyGate in 2007, they were 39 seconds away from a 19-0 season, and after losing 41-14 to Kansas City this season, it was “on to Cincinnati” and a virtual resurrection of the 2007 team’s anger and relentless focus.

            As a Patriots fan and a Seahawks hater, this game represents everything.  If the Pats lose, there will be no worse feeling in the world – except maybe knowing that we’ve now lost three Super Bowls in the Brady/Belichick era, while the Royals and Ducks just recently blew their most realistic shots at a title for the foreseeable future.  Yikes.  If the Patriots win, that’s great and wonderful and validates everything I love about this team.  But that I already know.  It’s like how psychologists say that it takes at least six positive experiences to outweigh the emotional damage of a single negative experience.  Being a sports fan, we all know it really takes more like twenty or thirty.
            I watch these teams a lot and know their strengths and weaknesses.  I am not a football coach, but their wins and losses have affected me in unusually impactful ways.  As someone originally from Oregon, I get real tired of answering the question of why I hate the Seahawks.  The answer?  I don’t really know.  I started hating them in the Holmgren/Kitna era (you can read a more detailed history from my Super Bowl preview from last year).  To me, they’re like the little brother that quietly gets everything he wants because he knows how to manipulate Mom and Dad.  “Oh, playing in the same division as John Elway and Rich Gannon is too tough?  Then let’s move you to the NFC West – at precisely the time the Rams and 49ers enter a dormant period.”  “Oh, you got hazed over in the Super Bowl because of bad officials?  Let’s give you an unbelievable stretch of luck, like this or this or getting a home playoff game with a 7-9 record and doing this.  Oh, we’ll also make sure you don’t get any more bad calls for many years to come, so everyone just turn the other cheek when this or this happens.”  “Don’t like playing on the road?  Let’s give you an endless supply of Microsoft money and make our stadium unreasonably difficult to play in.  Then all you have to do is win against heavyweights like Arizona and St. Louis!  And feel free to be total douchebags while you’re at it.” If you’re a Breaking Bad fan, the Seahawks are like Jesse Pinkman’s little brother in that one episode from the first season.
            Anyway, where was I?  Oh yes, I know these two teams’ strengths and weaknesses. The Patriots’ strengths are: Playing a ridiculously tough schedule (Denver, Baltimore, Indy twice, Green Bay, Detroit, San Diego, Kansas City, Buffalo twice, and Cincinnati – that’s 11 games against teams above .500 for those of you counting at home); playing virtually unstoppable offensive football since the debacle in Kansas City on September 29 (12-2 since then; the two losses being a five-point defeat at Lambeau and a meaningless Week 17 loss to the Bills without Brady, Edelman, or Gronk); the best secondary in the AFC; the best tight end in the history of football; and the best third-down offense I’ve ever seen in person. 
            The Seahawks’ strengths: Playing unreal defense down the stretch (39 points surrendered in their final six games); having the best rushing offense in the league (Beast Mode and Wilson combining for over 2,100 yards on the ground); playing an OK schedule (9 games versus above-.500 opponents, although a few of those games came against Ryan Lindley, Mark Sanchez, and injured Aaron Rodgers); finding ways to remain competitive in games even when their offense chooses to not show up (see the Dallas, San Diego, and Green Bay games); and being unbeatable at home – except, of course, to the one team that beat them at Qwest Field this year.  That’s right, the same team that missed advancing to Seattle by this much. 
            Both teams have similar weaknesses: When the opposing team controls the ball on the ground, converts key third downs, and when the offense is out of rhythm.  The Patriots are 12-0 when scoring 23 or more points; the Seahawks are 1-4 when allowing 24 or more points.  Seattle is 13-0 when allowing under 22 points; New England is 2-4 when they score less than 22. The Patriots’ offensive line has occasionally been a sore point during the season (as evidenced by the pitiful ground performance against the Ravens) while injuries to Brandon Mebane and Jordan Hill have made the Seahawks interior defensive line vulnerable more than one time.  Both teams needed miraculous comeback performances this season that involved trickery and downright luck (the Patriots’ recovered fumbles vs. Baltimore, the Seahawks’ onside kick and two-point conversion vs. Green Bay).  It’s more than fair to say that the Seahawks haven’t seen an offense like the Patriots, while the Patriots haven’t seen a defense like the Seahawks. 

            In terms of player matchups: The key one will be Gronk versus Kam Chancellor, but what interests me more is how Seattle’s lengthy and physical secondary (with the questionable health of Sherman and Earl Thomas) will have to find ways to stop Brady’s near-nondefensible short seam routes to Edelman, Vereen, and Amendola.  This was a secondary engineered to stop Demaryius Thomas and Randall Cobb, not receivers like Edelman.  No, LaGarrette Blount probably won’t tear up Seattle like he did to Indianapolis, but we know that Belichick won’t hesitate from abandoning the run entirely, as he did against Baltimore (and as Mike McCarthy and too many other coaches did not against Seattle).  As for when the Seahawks have the ball, Lynch can certainly emulate the likes of Knowshon Moreno and Eddie Lacy and tear New England apart across the middle (in a game like this, Patriots fans undoubtedly miss Jerod Mayo).  This offense certainly has no problems moving the ball after halftime and when facing double-digit deficits.  But I suspect that Carroll will make no hesitations and be aggressive with Wilson, daring Revis and Browner to play safe in the secondary while he pulls the ball and scrambles downfield for big gains.  The responsibility of stopping Wilson will fall on the hands of Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower, and particularly Jamie Collins, whose speed and agility make him a formidable defensive threat.
            If there is a gameplan for the Patriots to imitate, it should be San Diego from the Chargers’ Week Two win over Seattle.  In that game, the Chargers didn’t overly commit to the run, while Rivers picked up key third downs and Antonio Gates assaulted the secondary for three touchdown receptions.  Lynch only had six carries, and San Diego controlled the ball for over 42 minutes.  I think the Patriots will opt for a more aggressive game plan – especially in light of the Packers’ epic meltdown as a result of being overly conservative – but ball control will be a key for New England, which worries me if the running game won’t be overly emphasized.
            And if there’s a game for the Seahawks to watch closely, the best example would be the Ravens from three weeks ago.  For the first 35 minutes of the game, Baltimore executed practically everything perfectly, with Justin Forsett having little difficulties gaining copious yards on the ground and Joe Flacco finding open receivers on long passes (and pass interference calls on his incompletions). We couldn’t move the ball on the ground, and even our passing game was unstoppable in the second half, we had to resort to trick plays and gimmicks.  We still could have blown that game in the final seconds.  But hey, the Seahawks were dead-to-rights with five minutes left in the NFC Championship.

            Well, let’s just get the obligatory drama out of the way: I’m picking the Patriots.  You know that.  The question is why.  Three central things stick out to me.  First, I genuinely believe the Patriots have played far better competition than the Seahawks this season.  The Seahawks played four good offenses all year –San Diego, Dallas, Denver, and Green Bay.  They lost to San Diego and Dallas, had to go to overtime to beat Denver at home, and we all know what happened against the Packers two weeks ago.  They looked vulnerable in all four the AFC games they played, while New England looked strong in its four NFC games (including its loss at Lambeau – the Packers' closest margin of victory at home all year). The AFC East was better than the NFC West (especially after Carson Palmer’s injury) and overall, the AFC was a stronger conference than the NFC.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the strength of schedule rankings.  The eight toughest schedules in the league all belonged to AFC teams, including New England (Seattle still ranked a respectable 14th).
            Secondly, I think playing on the road is a considerably tougher challenge for Seattle than it is for New England – especially considering that University of Phoenix Stadium should be much more conducive to the offenses.  Sure, Seattle is the only team of the two to have won a game there this year; but once again, Ryan Lindley and Stepfan Taylor will sadly not be on the playing field this Sunday.  Of the 17 receiving touchdowns Seattle gave up during the regular season, 11 of them came to tight ends.  During the five games the Seahawks faced a top-10 tight end (by receiving yardage), that tight end averaged 13.6 yards per reception.  Seahawk fans can make a case that Bobby Wagner’s injury affected coverage in the middle of the field, but simply put, no one in the league has proven to successfully contain a healthy Rob Gronkowski.  If this game was to be played in snowy New York City (like last year’s Super Bowl should have been), there would be fewer concerns about offenses and moving the ball through the air.  Playing indoor football favors New England; however, that does not eradicate the respect this Seattle defense obviously commands.
            Finally, I think the Pats will emerge from the events of the past couple weeks with a renewed discipline, ferocity, and commitment to executing all phases of the game (if I’m sounding like Belichick, sorry).  As for the Seahawks, there is a reason why so few NFL teams have proven capable of repeating as champions.  Sure they’ve played hungry, agitated football for the last six months.  Sure, they have something to prove (and believe me, DangerRuss wants that maxed contract extension).  But for Tom Brady, the anger has lasted ten years, and in 2014, he was given everything he’s been missing the last decade: A spectacular secondary, a healthy Gronkowski, a core of reliable receivers, and a reshuffled offensive line that makes the offense look very 2007-ish at times.  When I saw that Vegas is favoring the Patriots by two points, I immediately felt sick to my stomach – I thought, “we’re giving two points to the defending champions in the very same stadium where we blew our perfect season seven years ago?”  But then I thought about all the adversity this Patriots team has faced all season – from those embarrassing losses to Miami and Kansas City, to losing Stevan Ridley and Jerod Mayo for the season, to that insane five-week stretch where we played the Broncos/Colts/Lions/Packers/Chargers, to being down 14 points at two different times in the Baltimore game.  Then I thought of the adversity of being called cheaters and liars by the media and former players, and everyone doubting our abilities on the field.  But then I remembered how Bill Belichick pulled a Mona Lisa Vito in his press conference, and basically kicked ass in front of all the haters by publicly defending his team.  And then I remembered that in 2014, we always overcame that adversity and ended up playing like the best team in football, which is fully the way I expect this team to play Sunday.  On to Seattle.

Prediction: Just as I predicted back in September... New England 31, Seattle 30. 

Prop Bets:

Covert gambling references made by Al Michaels +4.5

Total musical scales covered by Idina Menzel +6.5

Number of people who will think that Idina Menzel is Johnny Manziel's sister +7 million

Odds that John Travolta will introduce Adele Dahzin Idina Menzel: 1000 to 1 (hey, it is Roger Goodell's league we're talking about)

Odds that Gronk's favorite movie is Frozen: 3 to 1

Odds that Belichick's favorite movie is My Cousin Vinny: 2 to 1
Odds that Roger Goodell's favorite movie is Inglourious Basterds: Even.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Year in Review: Top 10 Films of 2014

2014 was a lot like previous years in that there were an abundance of great films, but truly transcendent ones, not so much (only three 4-star movies). 2012 was absolutely the closest relative to 2014 in that way. The best films of the year were really great, but I still found myself hoping that they would be surpassed by some surprise films that came out of nowhere, but we can’t always be so lucky. In 2012, I had to wait until a mid March 2013 video release of a foreign film to find the best film of 2012 (Holy Motors). In 2011, it was all the way until June 2012 before I saw Margaret. It is frustrating that 95% of cities never get to see them on the big screen, but that is just the way of the industry. of my most anticipated movies such as Child 44, Midnight Special, 99 Homes, the Cameron Crowe movie, and the Terrence Malick movies all got pushed back. While We’re Young, Trash, and Love & Mercy seemingly never surfaced. This just reminds us that even the most talented and successful indie directors do not always get the benefit of the doubt and get distribution, which is really unfortunate. I am sure that their eventual summer video release will give them a nice run on Netflix or wherever, but they are never going to get the audience and attention that they most likely deserve. Oh well… I digress.

I really did enjoy 2014, though. A little teaser: for the 2nd time ever (and 1st time in 62 years), a director has back-to-back #1 films of the year for me [Preston Sturges; Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942)]. Without further ado, here are 2014’s best achievements in film:

Films seen: 99
Thumbs up percentage: 55.56%
Actor of the year: Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again, Infinitely Polar Bear, Foxcatcher, The Normal Heart)
Actress of the year: Julianne Moore (Non-Stop, Maps to the Stars, Still Alice, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1)
Best Actor: Miles Teller – Whiplash, Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler, Brendan Gleeson – Calvary, Macon Blair – Blue Ruin, Joaquin Phoenix – Inherent Vice
Best Actress: Emmanuelle Seigner – Venus in Fur, Kristen Wiig – The Skeleton Twins, Scarlett Johansson – Under the Skin, Lika Babluani – In Bloom, Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons – Whiplash, Edward Norton – Birdman, Robert Pattinson – The Rover, Ethan Hawke – Boyhood, Takamasa Ishihara – Unbroken
Best Supporting Actress: Uma Thurman – Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1, Patricia Arquette – Boyhood, Sienna Miller – American Sniper, Mireille Enos – Sabotage, Carrie Coon – Gone Girl
Best Original Screenplay: Birdman, Nightcrawler, Boyhood, In Bloom, Calvary
Best Adapted Screenplay: Whiplash, Gone Girl, Jersey Boys, Inherent Vice, We Are the Best!
Best ensemble casts: Birdman, Fury, Inherent Vice, Gone Girl, Boyhood
Most underrated film:
Jersey Boys
Most overrated film: Interstellar
Biggest surprise: Chef
Biggest disappointment: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
Best sequel: The Raid 2
Great indie films that no one saw: Blue Ruin, Cold in July, The Guest, In Bloom, Joe
Bottom five of the year (from bad to worst): That Awkward Moment, This Is Where I Leave You, Blended, Draft Day, Gambit
Most anticipated unseen films: Boulevard, Coming Home, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Goodbye to Language, Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, Life Itself, A Most Violent Year, Mr. Turner, Selma, Two Days, One Night, White Bird in a Blizzard, Wild, Winter Sleep

Others receiving votes: Calvary, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Gone Girl, The Raid 2, We Are the Best!

10. Foxcatcher (directed by Bennett Miller)
Kicking off the list is a movie that was among my most anticipated since I first saw the trailer in summer 2013. With every month that went by, my anticipation grew. Somehow, it met my expectations and exceeded them in some ways. The movie is the true story of Jon du Pont (Steve Carell), a millionaire who sponsors the Foxcatcher wrestling team for the Olympics in 1988. The union that he has with Mark Shultz (Channing Tatum) and mentor/brother David (Mark Ruffalo) becomes increasingly complicated and leads to tragedy. Director Bennett Miller has now made three films that were so in touch with their tone and real life characters that they have gotten high praise from all circuits. Watching Foxcatcher is not pleasant, but it is something that the audience will have a hard time forgetting. The performances will get under your skin, and the mood will leave you greatly unsettled and stunned. It is a special film and will only get better with age.
Personal Nominations/Wins: Best Original Screenplay (#5; Birdman), Best Ensemble Cast (#4; Birdman)

9. Big Bad Wolves (directed by Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado)
Thank you Mr. Tarantino for proclaiming that this was the best film he saw in 2013. Like many other movie buffs, when QT recommends something, I see it. I would likely have never come across this movie otherwise. It is a brutal and thrilling little film from Israel about a string of murders that cause a collision course with the father of the latest victim (Tzahi Grad), a vigilante cop (Lior Ashkenazi), and the main suspect in the case (Rotem Keinan). Much of the movie takes place in a basement with just these three characters trying to hash out exactly what is going on along with the audience. The movie is filled with twists and turns, none of which are too far-fetched or artificial. It is the best foreign crime drama of the year, a title that might not seem like much, but for someone who watches them constantly, that is a real achievement. Other than perhaps David Fincher, Hollywood does not have a director who consistently makes great crime dramas like this. They are all overseas.
Personal Nominations/Wins: Best Foreign Language Film (#2; In Bloom)

8. Snowpiercer (directed by Joon-ho Bong)
When Korean director Joon-ho Bong gets a movie made, I pay attention. Each of his last four films have wound up in or approaching my top 10, including my #1 film of 2005 (Memories of Murder). He is a master of suspense and complex characters. With Snowpiercer, we got his first effort in the English language, and not an ounce of his appeal or intensity was lost. The Snowpiercer is a train that represents the last of civilization. A climate experiment left most of the earth frozen over, so the speeding train is all that remains. What makes this different than any other runaway train film is the politics. A class system is developed on the Snowpiercer, and it becomes more and more evident that this is just a small representation of the current earth, just with a more extreme and small-scale scope. A couple Bong regulars (Kang-ho Song, Ah-sung Ko) have parts, but it is the work that Bong is able to get out of Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, among others that is really impressive. I hope that he can become the next Ang Lee and really take over the title of being the best Asian director in the world, but we will see. More people need to be exposed to this, The Host, Memories of Murder, Tokyo, and Mother for that to happen.
Personal Nominations/Wins: Best Cinematography (#4; Under the Skin), Best Sound Effects Editing (#3; The Raid 2)

7. The Guest (directed by Adam Wingard)
At first glance, this movie might not seem like much. As the movie begins, it doesn’t seem like much more. Maybe it really isn’t supposed to be. However, as the movie went along, violent scene after violent scene, twist after twist, I became hooked. The movie is about a soldier named David (Dan Stevens), who shows up at a family’s house claiming to be a friend from the military of their son who recently was killed in action. The more we see, the more clear that there is something sinister about David and his past. Bodies begin to pile up, as does the suspense. This is not a horror movie, although that description might imply that. The story is really in that Labor Day subgenre, but it has the panache of Nicolas Winging Refn and the visual style and queues of John Carpenter. It is absolutely a throwback, and I really had a hard time getting it out of my head. Pulling a movie like this off is really difficult since the audience really has to buy in and care enough to not write it off as unrealistic. It is fairly absurd, but then again, so was Breaking Bad. There are moments when the two are comparable. I could ramble on more, but just trust me. Find a way to see this. You will not regret it…I hope?
Personal Nominations/Wins: Best Sound Mixing (#2; Whiplash), Best Editing (#5; Boyhood), Best Original Score (#1)

6. In Bloom (directed by Nana Ekvtimishvili, Simon Groß)
It always seems like there is one obscure foreign film that I see every year that ends up on my top 10, and for 2014, it was absolutely In Bloom, a coming-of-age film from Georgia. It is the story of Eka (Lika Babluani) and Natia (Mariam Bokeria), two young girls who are constantly trying to break away from society and their overbearing family lives. It has a lot of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in it, as well as the visual style of A Separation. Coming from a couple first time directors and starring two young actresses giving their film debuts, it is really an astonishing feat to make a film this passionate and polished. It portrays coming-of-age and sexual awakening with as much authenticity as possible. For films like this, one of the best compliments you can give is that it feels like a documentary, and that is absolutely true of In Bloom. There is not a false note in it, and it is one of the most rewarding experiences I had watching a film in 2014.
Personal Nominations/Wins: Best Actress – Lika Babluani (#4; Emmanuelle Seigner), Best Original Screenplay (#4; Birdman), Best Foreign Language Film (#1)

5. Nightcrawler (directed by Dan Gilroy)
Nightcrawler represents the biggest surprise hit of the year. Think about it: a movie called “Nightcrawler” being one of the undisputed best movies of the year. It’s crazy, but it’s true. Jake Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his life in the lead role as Louis Bloom, a criminal who stumbles upon his calling, which is being a freelance crime scene photographer. He combines his street smarts with his obsessive and psychotic attitude to become the class of the very defined subculture and constantly shocks the other characters and audience with his behavior. First-time director Dan Gilroy outdoes himself with Nightcrawler. It is the best representation of Los Angeles at night since Crash. The movie blends elements of Dexter, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and Drive to pull out every thrill and thought-provoking aspect imaginable. Throughout the movie, the audience is just spellbound and hoping that it never takes a misstep. It doesn’t. It is a special movie and one that will define 2014 in time.
Personal Nominations/Wins: Best Picture (#5), Best Actor – Jake Gyllenhaal (#2; Miles Teller), Best Director (#5; Richard Linklater), Best Original Screenplay (#2; Birdman), Best Editing (#2; Boyhood)

4. Whiplash (directed by Damien Chazelle)
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash might very well be the best movie of the year. More than any other in 2014, this movie I could not forget. It was stuck in my head for days after first viewing, and with another, I might just have to put it at the top of this list. Miles Teller plays Andrew, an aspiring drummer with all the talent and motivation in the world. J.K. Simmons is Fletcher, the tough-as-nails instructor who pushes his students to the point of breakdown in order to achieve his musical vision. Both actors are at the top of their game and give the two best performances of 2014. Chazelle’s direction is furious, and the editing is as relentless as any movie I have ever seen. The movie has the grit and visual fury of a Darren Aronofsky movie, particularly Black Swan. It gets under your skin and stays there. Teller makes us care about Andrew, even though he is not all that likable. Chazelle hits us over the head and leaves the audience with a feeling similar to the title, and it is hard to recover. It is the best Sundance winner since American Splendor in 2003.
Personal Nominations/Wins: Best Picture (#4), Best Actor – Miles Teller (#1), Best Supporting Actor – J.K. Simmons (#1), Best Director (#4; Richard Linklater), Best Adapted Screenplay (#1), Best Sound Mixing (#1), Best Editing (#4; Boyhood)

3. Jersey Boys (directed by Clint Eastwood)
Go ahead, roll your eyes. I am not even a fan of musicals in general, but something about this movie about the rise of The Four Seasons in the 1960s really got to me. Eastwood directs it with such flair and beauty that you would think that it was a Scorsese picture. It is a mob drama on top of a music biopic. The performances are all top notch, particularly stage performer John Lloyd Young as lead singer Frankie Valli and veteran Christopher Walken in his scene-stealing supporting role. The movie is simply the most entertaining couple hours of the year, which is saying quite a lot. The music is outstanding, but that is not limited to the actual music scenes. It is a soundtrack to die for. It has the token Eastwood winks to Hollywood and other media, and it ends the story correctly and fully, like all of his films. Nobody loved this movie as much as I did, but I stand by it. It is in the argument with Yankee Doodle Dandy, Sid & Nancy, and Control for the title of the greatest music biopic of all time and is easily the best Eastwood movie of 2014, despite what audiences (and Oscar/any voters) may think.
Personal Nominations/Wins: Best Picture (#3), Best Director (#3; Richard Linklater), Best Adapted Screenplay (#3; Whiplash), Best Cinematography (#5; Under the Skin), Best Art Direction (#4; The Grand Budapest Hotel)

2. Birdman (directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu)
I really loved this movie. It was my prediction to win Best Picture back in March, and it is right there in the forefront of the Oscar race still. Upon hearing the premise, it was my most anticipated movie of the year. It sounded so bizarre and cool, but filmed by the most depressing director on the planet. It basically lived up to that as well as the hype. It is about a washed-up actor who once played a superhero and never got out of its typecasting. Riggan Thomson/Michael Keaton is that actor. He is trying to put on a stage play, while trying to balance family issues and conflicts with his costar Mike (Edward Norton). The movie is really funny, but it is also extremely dark and true. Few movies get the backstage life quite like this movie does. The actors are all up to the challenge of a film that is essentially one continuous shot, especially Norton, Keaton, and Emma Stone, all receiving nominations. There is something very Black Swan-ish in this movie as well. It blends the real with the surreal, making the audience really question exactly what they are seeing. Give the writers and editors credit here. To make this movie this way is a remarkable achievement. It burns in the memory. There is nothing like it.
Personal Nominations/Wins: Best Picture (#2), Best Supporting Actor – Edward Norton (#2; J.K. Simmons), Best Director (#2; Richard Linklater), Best Original Screenplay (#1), Best Cinematography (#3; Under the Skin), Best Makeup (#3; Under the Skin), Best Original Score (#4; The Guest), Best Ensemble Cast (#1)

1. Boyhood (directed by Richard Linklater)
Surprise, surprise. The best movie of the year is actually being hailed as such. Richard Linklater is officially a top five director working today. With his “Before” series, he won our hearts over and broke them, never straying from the flawless standard that he set. Here, he had a much larger leap of faith, not simply having nine years to go from film to film, but he had a short amount of time to shape his characters year by year, continuously filming for twelve. The end result is near impossible. It is the most rewarding movie-going experience I can remember. The movie centers on Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who ages on screen and before our eyes. Skipping ahead a year never seems out-of-place or forced. It is just the gradual progression of life, life looking back at a photo album and connecting the dots. The scenes we don’t see are vaguely explained, but for some reason we just know. Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Lorelei Linklater add to the astonishing and daring cast that really make us believe and feel what the characters do. It is hard to not see some of yourself in all of the characters. It is like watching a documentation of an actual family, but only seeing the highlights, the important parts of childhood and parenthood. I cannot fully express what this movie means to me in words, but I can say for certain that it is an experience that I have never had before, and while it is approaching three hours, it does not feel nearly that long, yet if feels like we have known the characters our whole lives. It is a near-flawless motion picture and clearly, almost without debate, the #1 movie of 2014.
Personal Nominations/Wins: Best Picture (#1), Best Supporting Actor – Ethan Hawke (#4; J.K. Simmons), Best Supporting Actress – Patricia Arquette (#2; Uma Thurman), Best Director (#1), Best Original Screenplay (#3; Birdman), Best Editing (#1), Best Ensemble Cast (#5; Birdman)

Thoughts? Your top 10? What are you surprised didn’t make my list? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Zach's Fearless NFL Playoff Predictions 2015: Conference Championships

            It’s championship Sunday!  What better antidote to witnessing the unthinkably catastrophic than six hours of in-your-face, edge-of-your-seat, mildly predictable NFL football?  Here is the only thing we know right now: The four remaining teams in the NFL playoffs unquestionably deserve to be here.  Need some reasons why?  Take a look at the resumes of the final four contenders for this year’s Super Bowl:

A.    The defending Super Bowl champs with the best defense since the 2000 Ravens and maybe the best homefield advantage in league history.
B.     The greatest playoff quarterback/coach combination of all time with arguably its most talented lineup – on both sides of the ball – ever.
C.     This year’s NFL MVP looking for his second title, but this time with a substantially better running game and defensive line.
D.    The most versatile young quarterback in football coming off a career-defining win against his franchise’s most venerated figure (and the only aforementioned team to defeat Team A).

            But of course the very thing that makes the NFL so compelling and decidedly unpredictable is that depending on your outlook, you could also characterize those four teams in the following ways:

A.    A team that just beat a 7-win team with a hobbling QB at home, still struggling to overcome injuries, and is by all accounts facing its first quality quarterback since Week 6.
B.     A team that last week had to overcome two 14-point deficits while rushing for 14 yards.
C.     A team going against a squad it has lost to by margins of 25, 21, and 22 points in its last three games since 2012.
D.    A team traveling into the toughest environment to play in the NFL, having lost four regular-season road games by an average of 15 points.

            Depending on which perspective you agree with, you can look like either a genius or a moron after Sunday’s slate of games.  But as General Eisenhower once said, “Preparation is everything until the battle starts, and then it doesn’t mean anything.”  Thus, without further ado, here are my observations and picks for this weekend that soon won’t mean anything.

Green Bay Packers at Seattle Seahawks (- 7½)
Sunday, January 18, 3:05pm EST, FOX.

            Are the Packers really one of those classic New Orleans Saints/Atlanta Falcons/(dare-I-say) Seattle Seahawks type Jeckyll-and-Hyde teams that look phenomenal at home but lousy on the road?  This is the critical question going into this Sunday’s matchup because if the Packers have any hope of upsetting the Seahawks, they will have to play a virtually perfect game.  This may be a lot to ask, considering that Aaron Rodgers is at roughly 70 percent health, that last week Tony Romo (143.6 QB rating) and company probably should have won,  and that the Packers already lost by 20 points to the Seahawks at Qwest Field earlier this season. 
            Is there any meaningful evidence to suggest that the Packers’ woes on the road are statistical outliers?  For Seahawk haters like myself who are desperate for hope, there is some relief in this category.  Green Bay’s Sunday night loss to the Saints on October 26 has to be thrown out due to Rodgers’ injury midway through the game.  Their loss to the Bills on December 21 came against a stellar Buffalo defense that also beat the Lions and Patriots and nearly beat the Broncos.  That leaves the Pack’s other two losses, both of which occurred in the first three weeks of the season (before Aaron Rodgers to everyone to relaxxxxx).  Yes, Green Bay scored a ton more points at home (316) than they did on the road (168) and Rodgers’ QB rating was comically better at home (109.8 or above in every game) than on the road (109.7 or below in every game but one).  But their takeaway totals were about even (14 at home, 13 on the road), as were Eddie Lacy’s rush totals (601 yards at home, 538 on the road).  Hey those things are important, right?
            If you’re going to believe that Green Bay has a chance to win, you have to invest faith in the theory that the NFC Championship Game has sometime produced fluky results – especially when it involves teams from the old NFC Central.  Remember the infamous Gary Anderson game in 1999 when Minnesota was an 11-point favorite and did the unthinkable by losing to lowly Atlanta?  Or the Bert Emmanuel game in 2000 when the Greatest Show on Turf was held to 11 points – and still won?  Or when the Kerry Collins-led Giants did their best impression of the ’85 Bears and beat the Vikings 41-0?  Even last year was pretty weird; the Seahawks had dominated the 49ers at home in their previous two contests, but found themselves quicky trailing 10-0 and needed three fourth-quarter Kaepernick turnovers and horrendous officiating to eek out a close victory.  Did you know that each of the last seven NFC title games have been decided by 7 points or less?
            If you’re going to believe that Green Bay can win, you have to go back to January 2011 when the Packers won three road games en route to an improbable Super Bowl championship.  In that NFC title game, Rodgers was statistically subpar (17/30 passing, 0 TDs, 2 INTs) and the Packers nearly survived a late rally helmed by the inimitable Caleb Hanie.  You also have to believe that the Packers can line one of their three outstanding receivers (Adams, Cobb, Nelson) against Richard Sherman and still have two dangerous downfield vertical threats.  You have to believe that the Green Bay coaching staff will make considerable adjustments since the two teams’ Week One matchup, in which Rodgers was held under 200 yards, no Green Bay rusher had over 38 yards, the Packers had eight penalties, and the Seattle offensive line was barely challenged.  You have to believe the Seahawks have had fun feasting on the Ryan Lindleys and Shaun Hills of the league and as a result, their defensive statistics have been exaggerated and overlook key injuries to Brandon Mebane, Jordan Hill, and Tony McDaniel.  And you have to believe that if Aaron Rodgers really is the MVP of the NFL, he will play like one in spite of grievous overacting injuries.
            So there you have it: The best case scenario for the Packers.  As you can probably tell, those are not really substantive reasons.  The Seahawks are a not only a significantly better team than the Packers, but the luckier one: Instead of a rematch with the lone team (Dallas) to defeat them in Seattle – the same team that went 8-0 on the road in the regular season, and is a much healthier and worrisome matchup – they get the hobbled team that can’t play on the road and needed a controversial call to cement what should have been a much more authoritative win.  There’s no argument that the Packers are a classic Jeckyll-and-Hyde team, and the most damning evidence that they cannot win on the road is this: Their 2014 road victories came against Chicago (by 21 points), Tampa Bay (17 points), Minnesota (3 points), and Miami (a 3-point win coming on Rodgers’ miraculous last-second touchdown to Andrew Quarless).  You’re telling me that a team whose only impressive road wins came against a 2-win Bucs team and this guy can suddenly march into the most fearsome stadium in pro football and come away with a win?   
            But it’s more than just the Seahawks’ homefield advantage.  The Packers offensive line is mediocre at best, and will have a mighty challenge trying to defend a quarterback whose mobility has been taken away.  News has come out of Green Bay this week that Eddie Lacy is now banged up (maybe suffering from a food hangover after an all-night cheeseburger binge?) and the defensive line gave up over 5 yards per carry last week to the Cowboys.  We all know who the Seahawks are – the team that looks offensively incompetent for two-and-a-half quarters until a big defensive play effectively clinches the game.  They’re also a team which only loses because of insane fake punts or overheating or playing legit quarterbacks away from home.  They don’t lose games they’re expected to win, against teams they’ve already beat, against quarterbacks who are injured, in front of a national TV audience.  This one will be over in the first quarter.

Prediction: Seattle 44, Green Bay 10.

Playoff doppelganger: 2000 NFC Championship, New York 41, Minnesota 0.  This game was over in the first five minutes, when the Giants took a 14-0 lead after two Vikings turnovers and never looked back.  The most memorable thing about this game?  Besides the ridiculous overhype it gave the otherwise mediocre Giants (the 2000 Ravens were only favored by 3 points in Super Bowl 35), the over/under for this game was 41½.  When it was 34-0 at halftime (and 41-0 with 12:13 left in the 3rd Quarter), those who took the over were buying rounds of drinks for everyone at the bar, celebrating the easiest bet in the history of sports gambling.  Whoops.  For those of us who took the under (like me and my dad), it was one of the most nervous, tense, and heart-pounding quarters-and-a-half of 41-0 blowout football anyone’s ever seen.  Long live Kerry Collins!

Indianapolis Colts at New England Patriots (-7)
Sunday, January 18, 6:40pm EST, CBS.

            Can we talk about Tom Brady for a second?  This last weekend was pretty big for him.  For the first 10 years of his career, his biggest foe in the AFC was Peyton Manning and the Colts, but since 2011 the rivalry has sharply shifted to the Baltimore Ravens, a team whose defense always had Brady’s number.  Last week not only did Brady singlehandedly beat the Ravens (and definitively answer the eternal “Brady vs. Manning” debate by the end of the weekend) but tore the Baltimore secondary apart with his throwing arm.  He also had one of the top-five best throws of his career in the first NFL playoff game where a team overcame two different 14-point deficits.  
            Side note: I didn’t see the final ten minutes of last week’s game.  I had to make an airport run (I did listen to the radio broadcast).  I’ve missed a surprising number of fantastic Patriots finishes over the last few years: The Saints in 2013 (on a cross-country road trip), the 24-point comeback against the Broncos (on a plane), and the onside kick game against the Browns (on a jog after I thought a 12-point deficit with two minutes left was too much for Tom and company).  I’ve certainly been there for all the bad finishes – don’t worry about that.  More evidence for why I shouldn’t even bother to watch the inevitable Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl?
            Here’s the question I have about this week’s game: Both of these teams are coming off improbable, once-in-every-three-seasons type wins.   We know about the Patriots, but how often do you go into Peyton Manning’s home stadium in the playoffs with an unproven running game and mediocre secondary, score only 24 points, and come away with a win?  (I’m not even including the two interceptions thrown by Luck, or the ten penalties, or the missed field goal by the greatest kicker of all time).  Sure, there are certain types of unbelievable, improbable, come-from-behind wins that propel a team toward a championship (ask Joe Flaccid).  But what the Patriots and Colts did last week were respective gifts from the gods and frankly it feels weird that one of them will win at least one more game this postseason.
            All signs in this matchup point to New England.  In the Andrew Luck era, the Pats have defeated the Colts by scores of 59-24, 43-22, and 42-20.  In two of those games, New England had rusher slash the Indianapolis defense for over 160 yards and four touchdowns.  Luck has thrown a total of eight interceptions against the Patriots and has never had a lead after the second quarter.  In their most recent matchup two months ago, the Colts’ best rusher (Ahmad Bradshaw) was injured in the first half and Indy mustered a paltry 19 yards on the ground all game (I don’t think it was Belichick’s intention to replicate that game plan versus the Ravens last week).  The Colts were also missing Dwayne Allen and both teams were sorely missing the Jones Brothers, Chandler and Arthur. 
            Luck is obviously a talented quarterback who has stepped up this postseason (and his porous numbers against the Pats scream “small sampling”), but to be honest, the Colts’ success has been mostly due to their defense.  Excluding their Week 16 debacle in Dallas, Indianapolis has only allowed 43 points in its last four games and has been especially stout in defending the pass; they’ve allowed only one 300-yard passer since their bye on November 9 (props for the three of you who correctly guessed that that passer was Colt McCoy).  The brilliant game planning of Belichick Jr. Chuck Pagano has called for superb man coverage by Vontae Davis and LaRon Landry, and with the absence of Patriots OL Bryan Stork, I highly doubt New England will annihilate the Colts on the ground like they’ve done so in the past.  I do question how the Colts plan to defend Rob Gronkowski, but it’s not like any team has successfully done so all season (Gronk had only four catches for 71 yards and a TD on November 16, which wasn’t terrible).
            I watch the Patriots far more than I like to admit (except, naturally, during their clutch wins) and I intimately know the way this team loses games: When they can’t pick up first downs, when they can’t stop the run, when they’re playing from behind, and when they’re held to field goals.  Those are not radical observations, but it was noteworthy how the Ravens were able successfully hold the Patriots to three of those four things (fortunately for New England, Stephen Gostkowski’s leg was a virtual non-factor last week).  The Colts will have to replicate the Ravens’ success in those categories, plus one additional component that Baltimore failed to tap into last Saturday: They can’t settle.  The Ravens looked unstoppable on long passes last week, but chose to go away from that game plan when they had leads of 14-0 and 28-14.  It’s certainly understandable in those situations to opt for more conservative game calling (especially when Forsett was torching the Pats’ defense in the way that he was) but Baltimore lost its aggressive edge until it was too late – and it was precisely that aggression that, perhaps poetically, led to its downfall.
            The Patriots feel like a considerably better team than the Colts – but then again, they felt like a considerably better team against the Ravens in the 2012 AFC Championship game, and also the considerably better team against Mark Sanchez and the Jets in 2010.  Last season’s loss to the Broncos was the first time in a while Patriots fans weren’t necessarily shocked to lose in January.  Would I be shocked if the Patriots lose this Sunday?  Considering how bad they looked at times last week (along with their increasingly long list of post-2004 bad playoff performances), I cannot say I would be shocked.  Preparation or prognostication doesn’t mean anything, to paraphrase our 34th President.  But I would be surprised if they lose, and regardless of the outcome of this game, Seattle fans should be worried (and not just because what 50 Shades of Grey did to the city of Seattle, the new Gronkowski erotic novella will do for Boston). 

Prediction: New England 34, Indianapolis 27.

Playoff doppelganger: Either the 2007 AFC Championship (New England 21, San Diego 12), or the 2012 AFC Championship (Baltimore 28, New England 13).  Either we’re playing an injured team coming off a huge win over Peyton Manning on the road – a team coming off its best game of the season and is just happy to be there – or a team we have an excessive amount of confidence against, gleefully overlooking the fact that the post-2004 Patriots lay more playoff duds than Tom Brady douchebag photo shoots.  

Thoughts? Disagreements? Impressed that in September I predicted a Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl? Let me know below.