Tuesday, March 17, 2009

March Madness 2009

In sports, equality is overrated. Sure, the global economy might be in a crippling recession, but that’s nothing compared to the dwindling talent level in college basketball. By my count, no fewer than 11 teams have a legitimate shot to win the NCAA title this year. Eleven! Are you fucking kidding me? Do you realize John Wooden once won 10 championships in a 12-year span?

Think about this: The 2002 Duke Blue Devils – the best collegiate basketball team I’ve ever seen – won their games by an average margin of 19.5 points. This year’s top overall seed, the Louisville Cardinals, have an average victory margin of 12.3 points. That’s a staggering 37% decrease. Teams just can’t dominate wall-to-wall anymore.

For better or worse, the 2008-09 college basketball season is one of extreme parity, and while that might make for some competitive contests, it also signifies the lack of an Upper Crust – a truly elite group of teams that is all but guaranteed to dominate in the postseason.

I can’t decide if this phenomenon is good or bad. On one hand, it’s exciting in that, in almost every game from the second round on, the winner is far from a sure thing. Sure, North Carolina might win the whole thing, but given how they played against Virginia Tech and Florida State last week, they also might lose to Butler. The second round of the NCAA tournament is always my favorite basketball weekend of the year, and this year it’s going to be more enjoyably chaotic than ever.

On the other hand, I can’t help thinking that the presence of such parity is less a result of the inferior teams catching up than the superior teams getting worse. The NBA’s infuriatingly unfair 19-year age limit is partly to blame – schools are desperately recruiting stud prospects as one-year rentals, obliterating any chance at developing team chemistry over a multi-year span. (The exception is the ’07 Ohio State squad, but that team had multiple freshmen who had been playing together in high school for years.)

But more than that, the level of play in college basketball this year just seems lackluster. Between poor shot selection, weak benches, and high turnover rates, even the most talented teams don’t execute at a consistently high level. And that’s why the tournament field is so wide-open this year – not because anyone can win, but because everyone can lose.

Of course, this is really just convenient camouflage for my main point, namely that I have absolutely zero confidence in my March Madness picks this year. Look, it’s not like I’m a total novice at this: Last year I dominated my office pool, largely because I was smart enough to pick all four #1 seeds to make the Final Four, which happened for the first time in the tournament’s history (Mario Chalmers’ Jimmy Chitwood impersonation didn’t hurt). Some people criticized me for taking straight chalk, which would have been viable if the point of a March Madness pool is to fill out as inventive a bracket as possible instead of just picking the fucking winners. But this year, the top teams aren’t separating the way they have in the past, and the middle-tier teams all have fatal flaws. It’s hopeless.

There’s a great scene in the underrated war movie We Were Soldiers when Mel Gibson is about to begin an invasion, and he asks how many enemies he can expect, and this snotty intelligence officer says, “We appraise their numbers as manageable”. Gibson immediately sees through the bullshit, looks him dead in the eye, and says, “You have no idea”.

So it goes with this year’s NCAA tournament. Experts can analyze as much statistical data as they want – RPI, strength of schedule, performance in the last 10 games, etc. – but when it comes down to it, no one has any idea.

But fuck it, that just makes it more fun. The Manifesto lives to serve, and though publishing my picks may leave me open to ridicule, I am undaunted. Sound off in the Comments with your own thoughts – here’s the Manifesto’s region-by-region breakdown of the 2009 NCAA Tournament (here’s a blank bracket if you need to follow along):


The top seed: With the exception of a healthy North Carolina, Louisville is probably the most complete team in the tournament. They have athletic bigs, they can knock down perimeter shots, and they play tough pressure defense. Earl Clark is one of the most talented players in the country (provided he’s more interested in playing basketball than scanning the crowd for hot chicks), and Terrence Williams combines skill with toughness. In addition to winning the Big East regular season crown outright, the Cardinals cruised through the postseason tournament, winning each game by double digits, and it still felt like they were holding back. If Rick Pitino (say what you want about the asshole, but he can coach) can motivate his squad, they’ll be tough to top.

The fall guy: Not only did Kansas lose to Baylor in the Big 12 Tournament, but they got smoked by a dismal Texas Tech team two weeks ago, meaning they haven’t won a big game since beating Missouri back on March 1. The Jayhawks are talented, but I see them bowing out to a well-coached West Virginia squad in the second round.

The fall guy (pt. 2): I have limited respect for the Big 10, and I have even less respect for a team that lost to Penn State at home. If Al Skinner can just stay out of the way, Boston College can take out Michigan State.

The matchup casualty: Wake Forest is an athletic team with a number of highly skilled players. Sadly, so is Louisville. The Demon Deacons are too young and reckless with the ball to hold up against the Cardinals’ pressure D.

The sleeper: Over the past two weeks, West Virginia played Louisville to within three points, beat Pittsburgh handily, and took Syracuse to overtime. Devin Ebanks is a complete player, and Bob Huggins is getting his players to listen at the right time. Expect to see this underrated #6 seed in the Elite Eight.

The picks

Sweet 16: Louisville over Ohio State, Wake Forest over Utah, West Virginia over Kansas, Boston College over Michigan State.

Regional Final: LOUISVILLE over West Virginia.


The top seed: I’m wary of this Uconn team because they only have one guard who’s worth a damn (A.J. Price), and there’s some bullshit adage about how guard play is essential to win in March. Still, if you throw out an inexplicable early-season defeat at home against Georgetown, their only losses are to Pittsburgh (twice) and Syracuse (in six freaking overtimes). They’re insanely athletic, they play tremendous defense, and they execute on the fast break. That’s a Final Four team.

The fall guy: I just can’t respect Memphis when their last win over a top-25 team came against Gonzaga on February 7. They only played two other games against top 25 teams all year, and they lost both (at Georgetown and at home against Syracuse). I’d look for frisky Maryland to give them some trouble in the second round, but either way, they don’t get past Missouri.

The first-round upset: Jerel McNeal is a terrific player, but Marquette is incomplete without Dominic James. Eleventh-seeded Utah State takes out the Golden Eagles.

The yawner: I’ll be honest: If there’s a choice between watching a second-round matchup between Purdue and Washington and a rerun of “Coed Confidential”, I am absolutely flicking over to Cinemax.

The picks

Sweet 16: Uconn over BYU, Washington over Purdue, Missouri over Utah St., Memphis over Maryland.

Regional Final: UCONN over Missouri.


The top seed: The Panthers of Pitt appear the be the trendy pick to win the championship, which makes sense in a way – they’re dominant inside and can outmuscle any team in the tournament. But with Levance Fields hurt, their perimeter play is a serious question mark; I can see a tough defensive team like Florida State giving them serious problems. With Fields’ injury, if DeJuan Blair gets in foul trouble, Pitt’s toast.

The sleeper: Their football program may be embroiled in another scandal, but Florida State’s roundball team is a legit squad. They can knock down perimeter shots, they’re very tough to score on, and they’re led by one of the most complete players in America in Toney Douglas. If a #1 seed is going to fall prior to the Elite Eight, it’ll be Pitt at the hands of the Seminoles.

The fall guy: Every Duke fan remembers Eric Maynor of VCU, and not in a good way. Well, now he’s a senior, and he’s averaging 22.4 points and 6.2 assists. And that is bad news for UCLA.

The enigma: This Villanova team scares the hell out of me. On the plus side, Dante Cunningham and Scottie Reynolds form a tremendous inside-outside combination. On the down side, I don’t trust Corey Fisher, and as my buddy Mike points out, Reynolds can just as easily shoot them out of a game – he’s always capable of pulling a John Starks in the ’94 Finals and going 2-18 from the field. Villanova beat Syracuse twice and also defeated Pittsburgh, but they also lost to Georgetown at home, barely held off DePaul, and needed a last-second backdoor layup to hold off an undermanned Marquette team. I have no idea what to make of them.

The sad truth: I want to believe in this Duke team. I really do. They have two legit NBA players in Kyle Singler and Gerald Henderson, they play tough defense on the perimeter, they have great perimeter shooting, and they’re even starting to show some depth with the emergence of Elliot Williams and the reemergence of Nolan Smith. When they’re shooting the ball well, they can beat anyone in the country.

The problem is that they can also lose to anyone. In a sense, Duke epitomizes the problem with college basketball this season – they’re a very talented, very flawed team, and you never know whether their angels or demons will emerge during any random five-minute stretch of play. They can bury six three-pointers in a row and build a 25-point lead, and then they can go five straight possessions without getting a quality shot while getting smoked on their offensive glass. It’s exhilarating and maddening.

But here’s the simple truth: Duke can’t rebound, and if they aren’t forcing turnovers or hitting threes, they can’t manufacture easy points. You can’t win six straight games in March with those flaws. I desperately hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see them beating Villanova.

The picks

Sweet 16: Pitt over Oklahoma State, Florida State over Xavier, Villanova over VCU, Duke over Texas.

Regional Final: FLORIDA STATE over Villanova.


The top seed: What … the fuck … is the status of Ty Lawson’s toe?

That’s really the only question worth asking in this tournament. With a healthy Lawson, North Carolina is clearly the best team in the country. They can just score at will. For the most part, they can succeed by pounding the ball inside to Tyler Hansbrough, Deion Thompson, and Ed Davis (provided Danny Green isn’t busy jacking up threes), but when that doesn’t work, they can always just kick the ball out to Lawson, who will either A) Bury an open three (he’s shooting 47% from downtown), B) Drive the lane and score (because no one can stay in front of him), or C) Make the right pass to an open shooter (he’s averaging 6.5 assists to just 2.0 turnovers). He’s the difference-maker.

And his toe is hurt. That might not sound like a big deal, but for a guy like Lawson – whose game is predicated on blazing speed – it’s absolutely critical. If he’s healthy, the Tar Heels are champs. If he’s hurt, Carolina is just another good team (as we saw in the ACC Tournament, where they squeaked out a victory against Virginia Tech before losing to Florida State). It all comes down to Lawson’s toe. Nothing else matters.

The fall guy: They may have the best player in the country, but Oklahoma is 2-4 in their last six games. Assuming a well-coached Michigan team can get past an enigmatic Clemson squad, the Wolverines could give the Sooners serious problems.

The fall guy (pt. 2): I haven’t picked a #12 seed to upset a #5 seed yet, and I hate the Big 10. Sorry Illinois, nothing personal.

The kickass game: A second-round matchup between Syracuse and Arizona State could be absolutely phenomenal. Will James Harden solve Syracuse’s 2-3 zone? Will Jonny Flynn give Derek Glasser nightmares? Will Jeff Pendergraph dunk on Arinze Onuaku’s head? Will Eric Devendorf kill someone? This could easily be the game of the tournament, and I haven’t even mentioned Andy Rautins yet.

The picks

Sweet 16: North Carolina over Butler, Gonzaga over Western Kentucky, Syracuse over Arizona State, Michigan over Oklahoma.

Regional Final: NORTH CAROLINA over Syracuse.


Obviously, I’m giving Ty Lawson the benefit of the doubt. Naturally, we have no idea how healthy he actually is, but he hasn’t played since March 8, so I’m just saying fuck it and assuming the rest has served its purpose. Besides, if I had Syracuse in the Final Four instead, then I’d really have no idea what to do.

Matchup #1: Louisville over Uconn in a revenge game for the Huskies’ thrashing earlier in the year that I couldn’t watch because my damn bowling league assigned our team to the one lane in the fucking alley whose TV wasn’t working. Not that I’m bitter.

Matchup #2: North Carolina over Florida State. And handily.

Championship: NORTH CAROLINA over Louisville, with Jim Nantz verbally fellating Tyler Hansbrough while Earl Clark skips out on the second half to go watch a Pistons game and hang out with role model Rasheed Wallace. Fucking Tar Heels. If I’m wrong about this – and I probably will be – trust me, I won’t be sorry.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why Watchmen is a movie for our time, for better or worse

I like big movies. I always have. Not being a professional film critic, I don’t feel obligated to prioritize small-scale, independent projects over studio-helmed blockbusters. I certainly have no intrinsic problem with low-key indie films – one of my favorite movies of 2008 was Rachel Getting Married, which is about as lo-fi and low-budget as you can get – but in general, my boyish, exuberant sensibilities tend to be partial to grand and even grandiose filmmaking. Cinema as a medium can show us truly remarkable things, and I love movies that tell sweeping stories on an epic scale, movies with an unapologetic sense of adventure and a bold imagination.

Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is, if nothing else, a big movie. With a $130 million budget, an IMAX release, an immensely popular novel that has inspired a rabid fan base, and a storyline of apocalyptic proportions (not to mention a runtime of two and a half hours), Watchmen demands to be recognized as an epic. In this, I suppose it succeeds – after all, making an epic is really all about effort, and no one is going to accuse Snyder of not trying hard enough.

More significantly, Watchmen is undeniably modern. Whereas Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies functioned as beautifully crafted throwbacks to the epics of Cecil B. DeMille, masking their new-fangled techniques with guile and subterfuge, Snyder’s picture proudly proclaims itself as a new-age phenomenon. Perhaps the logical cresting point of a school of cinema that has become increasingly reliant on digital wizardry to achieve its goals, Watchmen makes no attempt to hide its technological flourishes but brazenly flaunts them, almost as though it knowingly embodies what modern movies have become. It is, unapologetically, a movie for its time – our time.

Which is why Watchmen strikes me as both an impressive achievement and a deeply troubling omen. It is impressive not only for its operatic scope but its fluid, often delicate filmmaking. There are moments of breathtaking beauty, certainly, but what is more astonishing is how gracefully the movie flows. It’s not that the integration is seamless – in fact, Snyder’s implementation of digital effects is overwhelmingly obvious – but it is performed with such dexterity that I was in no way put off by the overt manipulation of the film’s images. Instead, I found myself seduced by Watchmen’s bold visual schema, eagerly absorbing each wonder as it appeared before me.

The troubling part is that as a narrative, Watchmen the motion picture is – and I take no joy in writing this – completely meaningless. There is simply no point to it. It moves lithely from one extraordinary sequence to the next, impressing us again and again with its visual splendor and bravura execution, yet on the fundamental level of its story, it is hopelessly inert. Rarely has a film that featured such craftsmanship been so utterly devoid of purpose.

Oh sure, there’s a plot, even a complicated one. Watchmen takes its cautionary tale of nuclear annihilation very seriously, which sadly makes it all the more laughable. I suppose it’s difficult to blame screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse for the picture’s storyline, as their adaptation of the novel (which I haven’t read) is allegedly faithful to the point of being slavish. But whether a result of this rigid screenwriting approach or a mere byproduct of the novel’s grandstanding, the film’s attempts at topical relevance fall painfully flat. Watchmen’s parallel universe features a number of potentially interesting, playful ideas – Nixon was elected five times! The U.S. won in Vietnam! Bob Dylan’s appeal is universal, no matter the universe! – but their execution is so half-hearted that they feel as though they were dreamed up by teenagers during their lunch hour. (It doesn’t help that the movie is by and large humorless.)

The real problem, though, is the chasmic distance between Watchmen’s characters and its audience, and it’s here where I blame director Zack Snyder. The concept of a band of formerly invincible, now-defunct superheroes is legitimately intriguing (and was realized with superior effect in Brad Bird’s The Incredibles), but Snyder just doesn’t seem to care. He’s far more invested in creating mythic images and visually compelling fight sequences than in shaping his protagonists with any depth. The result is a movie of sublime beauty that completely fails to engage at the most fundamental level.

The character in Watchmen that best symbolizes this critical flaw is Dr. Manhattan, undoubtedly the film’s signature persona. There are all-powerful superheroes, and then there’s Manhattan, a gigantic, ethereal blue-skinned figure who can teleport himself and other objects at will, replicate his own DNA, and perform other extraordinary feats of cosmic prowess (he single-handedly won the Vietnam War for the U.S. in a week). As a visual effect, Manhattan is a triumph of computer-generated artistry. His presence on screen is somehow both corporeal and absent – he interacts with his physical environment, yet he also seems beyond it, outside of it. Watching him, we acknowledge he is a digital creation, yet we never question his authenticity. He’s just there, and fantastically so.

Yet while Manhattan may serve as a superlative visual achievement, as a character he is a supreme bore. It’s difficult to develop much sympathy for an omnipotent being who says things like, “In my opinion, the existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon,” and vanishes to Mars when he gets frustrated. I suppose diehard loyalists would argue that Manhattan – who is portrayed, to the extent that a computer-generated character can be portrayed, with near-obscene detachment by Billy Crudup – is locked in a bitter existential struggle, whereby his powers are so great that he is unable to relate with those he once loved. That might have been rewarding, if only he were able to relate to his audience. As is, whenever Manhattan was on-screen (which, unfortunately, comprised a significant amount of time), I found myself far more interested in how he looked than in what he was saying or feeling.

Not that the other characters are much more interesting. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian is a parody of a war-crazed lunatic, Patrick Wilson’s Nite Owl II seems simply dismayed the entire time, and Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias is somnambulant. Unsurprisingly, both primary female heroes – a mother-daughter tandem played by Carla Gugino and Malin Akerman – lack substance. (Lest we forget, Snyder also directed the testosterone-laced, idiotic 300.) Oddly enough, the most intriguing character in Watchmen is Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach, an evident psychopath who nevertheless occasionally flirts with true emotion, although his vitriolic voiceovers seem to serve as a cipher to the screenwriters rather than to provide any insight into his own besieged mental state.

The scary part, though, is to recognize – in spite of its utter failings on the principal planes of plot and character – just how watchable Watchmen is. Snyder may not be much of a humanist, but he gets entertainment, and his movie is resplendent with both beautifully elegant moments and awesomely ass-kicking action sequences. The opening titles montage – a sort of who’s-who superhero retrospective set to Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” – is grandiose to the extreme but magnificent anyway, as is the happily ridiculous homage to Apocalypse Now, with Dr. Manhattan casually storming the beaches of Vietnam to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”.

Watchmen is also very, very bloody, and Snyder’s adherence to extreme violence – parts of the movie are so grotesque that my friend Kerry was nearly reduced to plaintive whimpering on multiple occasions – is disturbing but also oddly refreshing. The blood that gushes throughout the film’s latter half may be excessive, but it’s somehow comforting that there’s a mainstream director out there who refuses to kowtow to the tyranny of the MPAA.

Snyder also proves deft at crafting taut, engaging action scenes. In a cinematic era dominated by camera-shaking and ultra-fast cutting, he maintains poised control throughout, supplying viewers with a sharp perspective and clean sight lines. He may be a bit enamored with slow-motion, but it’s nevertheless energizing to watch a fight scene without having to struggle to determine who’s attacking whom. Despite his hyper-stylized sensibilities, Snyder clearly places a premium not just on gimmickry but on visual coherence.

If only narrative coherence were of equal priority. What truly worries me is not that Snyder has failed in his efforts to imbue his characters with three-dimensionality but that he made no such efforts at all. Can a director so clearly prioritize visual artistry over storytelling elements and still create a compelling motion picture? It seems to be the case, and given the unmistakably contemporaneous nature of Watchmen, won’t other eager modern directors apply similar tactics to their attempts at epic in the not-too-distant future?

Such is my concern, as well as my primary takeaway from Snyder’s gargantuan effort. I’m thus left with the satisfaction of experiencing Watchmen as a visual triumph, and the fear that I’ll be experiencing other movies like it all too soon.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Upcoming Theatrical Releases: March 2009

One of my favorite parts of writing the Manifesto in years past was when I would break from Oscars’ analysis and look ahead to the upcoming summer season (or, as was the case in 2007, the entire year), attempting to forecast the hottest pending theatrical releases. Forgive my leanings toward divination, but there’s something exciting about gazing into the unknown. It’s not really about prognostication – I’m not interested in showcasing my predictive prowess regarding which films will be hits and which will be duds. It’s more about building anticipation. One of the marvelous things about movies is that you never know when you’ll next see a great one, and it’s fun to peer into the future and question just when and what that will be.

Of course, in the past, I could only perform this ritual of cinematic stargazing once a year, as the Manifesto was issued annually to coincide with the Oscars. Now, however, I’m the author of this fancy, ever-evolving blog and am no longer subject to the tyranny of that ceremony; in fact, I can write about whatever the fuck I want, whenever the fuck I want. It’s quite liberating, really.

As such, I’m proudly announcing the Manifesto’s bold new plan to publish a post detailing hot upcoming theatrical releases every month. This may not seem like a particularly ambitious goal, but anyone familiar with this writer’s legendary laziness should recognize it as a fearsome task for me. Still, I aim to follow through, and should I fail, I’m confident I’ll receive an outpouring of emails next month insistent on an April list. Without doubt.

Anyway, regarding the selection process for the following films, please note that I’m by no means using these lists as a platform to predict box office success; Disney’s Race to Witch Mountain may become a smash hit with family audiences, but I’m sure as hell not going to stump for it. Rather, I simply intend to discuss upcoming films that I’m excited to see for whatever reason, and in anticipating those features, I hope to spread some enthusiasm for them. As far as quantity goes, it will be dependent entirely on the month – March isn’t exactly a classical hotbed for cinematic greatness, so even coming up with seven anticipated releases was a bit of a stretch. Once the summer rolls around, however, I expect to have no trouble reaching double digits.

So there you have it. Here’s hoping this catches on and encourages some of my readers to head out to theatres should I mention a movie that catches their eye (don’t worry, I won’t be spoiling any plot details). And of course, if you have any additional thoughts on upcoming films that I might have missed (or any additional remarks on those mentioned), feel free to share them in the Comments. Here are the Manifesto’s most highly anticipated theatrical releases of March 2009:

7. Adventureland (March 27). Sure, it’s possible it’ll just be another moronic, run-of-the-mill “nerdy kid gets a lame job, romantic entanglements and cheeky shenanigans ensue” comedy. But look at the pedigree. The director is Greg Mottola, whose previous film was Superbad, which remains one of the funniest movies of the decade. The cast also has seasoning. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig provide support (somehow both of them have remained comedically fresh in spite of overexposure), and Kristen Stewart is emerging as an actress to watch – she somehow brought an element of pathos to her preposterous character in Twilight, and she isn’t bad-looking either.

More importantly, the lead is played by Jesse Eisenberg, who immediately secured a place on my prestigious Jewish Actors to Watch list seven years ago with his note-perfect portrayal of an insecure teenager in Roger Dodger (a buried treasure if there ever was one). He followed that three years later with a part in The Squid in the Whale, where he played another insecure teenager, only in a completely different manner, replacing innocence and charm with bitterness and anger. He’s been relatively quiet since, so perhaps Adventureland will herald his return to relevance.

6. The Great Buck Howard (March 20, limited). I confess I haven’t heard much about this movie, and it’s received hardly any buzz since premiering at Sundance last year. That said, I’m intrigued by Colin Hanks’ first starring role – he was just terrific in his recurring guest role as a persistent priest on “Mad Men”, and he also essayed a surprisingly complex character in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Also, having Tom Hanks (yes, Colin’s father) and John Malkovich on hand can’t hurt.

5. Monsters vs. Aliens (March 27). Sue me, O.K.? The trailer totally hooked me. “Once again a UFO has landed in America – the only country UFOs ever seem to land in.” That shit is funny. (As for the fact that it’s in 3-D, the less said about that, the better.)

4. I Love You, Man (March 20). I’ve managed to avoid the trailer thus far, which is critical for comedies because morally corrupt producers are always liable to dump all of the funny scenes into the preview. While this means I don’t know anything about the movie’s premise, I do know that director John Hamburg’s previous feature was Along Came Polly. That’s the bad news. The good news is that after experiencing the joys of Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I will absolutely see any movie starring Paul Rudd and Jason Segel. Those two could host a reality show dissecting Kathy Bates’ nude scene in About Schmidt and I’d watch it. Honestly, I think if Ron Howard had cast Rudd and Segel over Langella and Sheen, Frost/Nixon would have won Best Picture. No one in this town takes chances anymore.

3. Watchmen (March 6, IMAX). If any other blogger is compiling a list of the hottest movies in March, Watchmen owns the top spot on his list. It’s by far the biggest event movie thus far in 2009 and will likely remain so until J.J. Abrams’ remake of Star Trek arrives in May (yawn). But personally, I’m worried. First of all, director Zack Snyder’s sole claim to fame is 300. That may be a selling point among most fans these days (the movie somehow made $211 million), but I frankly thought 300 was shallow, uninspiring, and just plain dumb. If the trailer is any indication, Watchmen will feature the same hyper-stylized technique that characterized 300. That isn’t necessarily a problem, but I’m concerned that Snyder, in his rather obvious quest to become the next visionary, might be prioritizing filmmaking flair over more important qualities. Like, you know, plot and character.

But such skepticism may be unfounded, and I must admit that in addition to being wary, I’m also quite excited, as Watchmen has a lot going for it. My friends Dave and Stacy rave about the source material (“The most celebrated graphic novel of all-time!”), the trailer really does look badass, and the buzz from the London premiere has been positive, with critics emphasizing the movie’s darkness and refusal to conform to Hollywood norms. The cast, while not showstopping, appears solid, peopled with strong character actors like Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Patrick Wilson, and the generally (but not always) hot Carla Gugino. Whether it achieves its desired cinematic glory or becomes just another superhero movie remains to be seen, but my eyes are open.

2. Duplicity (March 20). Ah, now this is promising. Granted, the plot doesn’t seem revelatory – two former spies (Clive Owen and Julia Roberts) plot to defraud a corporation of $40 million and have to engage in various forms of subterfuge and, well, duplicity in order to pull it off. I’m also not thrilled about the casting. Owen will be fine, and Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson are never more enjoyable than when they get to chew scenery; however, if I’m a director looking for a super-hot CIA agent who’s supposed to be both intelligent and sexy, Julia Roberts is not at the top of my list. She isn’t even in the Top 10. So that’s frustrating.

(Assuming we’re forced to pick an American – which is rather difficult, because damn if the Brits don’t fucking dominate any Best Actress discussion right now – you know who I would have cast? Mary-Louise Parker. Sure, she isn’t nearly as big a name as Roberts, but she’s considerably more talented and hotter, plus “Weeds” has enough cachet that she’d still help tickets. Oh well, at least Meg Ryan isn’t involved.)

That said, Duplicity immediately burned itself onto my cinematic radar screen once the trailer revealed that its director is Tony Gilroy. For those not in the know, Gilroy is not only the screenwriter of all three Jason Bourne movies but also the director of Michael Clayton, my second-favorite film of 2007 and quite possibly one of the most perfect movies ever made. It’s a bit odd that he’s following his directorial debut with an ostensible comedy, but it’s also encouraging that he’s willing to branch out rather than continue mining the territory that earned him an Oscar nomination. Regardless, the point is that after Michael Clayton, Tony Gilroy’s next movie automatically achieves Must See status. And if Duplicity is half as good as his first movie, we won’t be disappointed.

1. Sunshine Cleaning (March 13, limited). Hell yes. I’ve been anticipating this movie for so long, I gushed about it in the Manifesto of two years ago. It premiered at Sundance in January of 2008, earned excellent buzz, then inexplicably floundered without a release for over a year. Fortunately Overture Films has come to the rescue, meaning I can finally see this quirky indie about … well, I believe it’s about two sisters who struggle for work as maids, so they start running a secret business whereby they use their cleaning services to dispose of dead bodies for a fee, or something. But that’s not the point.

The point is that the two sisters are played by Amy Adams and Emily Blunt. Fucking A! Do you recognize what a terrific pairing that is? Look, I don’t brag about that many things, but I am incredibly skilled when it comes to eyeing young talent (er, among actors, that is). Sure, Amy Adams already had an Oscar nomination for Junebug, but after Enchanted I knew she was headed for stardom and promised as much in the Manifesto. One year later, she nabbed another nomination for Doubt. It won’t be her last.

As for Emily Blunt, everyone raved about Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, but the true breakout performance in that film was Blunt’s. (O.K., technically she broke out two years earlier in My Summer of Love, but nobody in America saw that.). She hasn’t been acknowledged by the Academy yet, but she will, and given that her name has already cropped up surrounding high-profile movies like Iron Man 2, it’s clear that people are gradually recognizing her greatness. To wit, the New York Times just ran a feature on her, proving once again – just like with Emily Mortimer – that the Times routinely steals from the Manifesto and refuses to credit me. But hey, at least Emily Blunt is finally getting some much-deserved press.

So the fact that Amy Adams and Emily Blunt are appearing in a movie together just blows my fucking mind. The only pairing that might top it would be Keira Knightley and Emma Watson, and if that ever happened, I’d just spontaneously burst into flames like Fawkes in Chamber of Secrets. As is, I’m pretty fucking thrilled. As for the movie itself, Overture is trying to channel a Little Miss Sunshine vibe, which is fine, although the movie strikes me as more serious. As for the rest of the cast, cagey vet Alan Arkin is on hand as well, as is the reliably hilarious Steve Zahn, but they’re afterthoughts. Sunshine Cleaning is mandatory viewing because it represents the opportunity to see not one but two of the hottest actresses operating in cinema today continue to enter their prime. Sign me the fuck up.