Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oscar Nomination Predictions: Results

I’ll be honest: It could have been a lot worse.

I went into the nominations hoping to achieve an 80% success rate with my predictions, a goal my father accurately labeled “audacious”. I wound up at either 68% or 72% (27 or 28 of 40), depending on how you count (the ambiguity is courtesy of Kate Winslet, who complicated things as promised). Sure, I was hoping to do better, but I landed four out of five correct picks in three big categories (picture, director, and actor), plus I swept the Best Adapted Screenplay nods.

Could I have done better? Sure. I knew Best Original Screenplay would be tough, but I didn’t expect to butcher it the way I did, and I entirely misjudged the critical perception of Revolutionary Road. But if you’re expecting me to beat myself up, frankly I’m still more mad at myself for throwing away that inbounds pass in a corporate league basketball game two years ago. (Although frankly, it wasn’t my fault that nobody on the team knew how to set a cross-screen to break a press, but never mind.)

Anyway, here’s a recap as promised. Stay tuned to the blog over the next month, as the Manifesto picks the predicted Oscar winner of each category, as well as my personal preference and my thoughts on those who missed the cut. In the meantime, though, here’s how I did (incorrect predictions struck out in red and replaced with actual nominations):


BEST PICTURE

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Frost/Nixon

Milk

Slumdog Millionaire

Revolutionary Road The Reader

Comments: By far the top story of the nominations, of course, is the alleged snub (or righteous exclusion, depending on whom you ask) of The Dark Knight for Best Picture. at the hands of The Reader. After the Batman blockbuster nabbed a Producers’ Guild nomination, pundits were confident it would make its way into the Final Five. Frankly, I didn’t think the Academy had the balls to nominate such a commercially successful, bombastic picture. I was right, but I sure was wrong about its replacement. The Reader had performed decently on the awards circuit, but I didn’t think it had enough buzz to make the leap into Oscar contention.

(My official quote on The Reader’s chances: “Tempting, but I don’t see a Holocaust-tinged movie making it this year.” Sharp thinking there, Einstein. That would be like analyzing Mark Teixeira’s chances of going to the Yankees by saying, “Tempting, but I don’t see the Yankees willing to shell out much cash.”)

What happened? Harvey Weinstein bitch-slapped fellow producer Scott Rudin, that’s what happened. I can’t discuss the full extent of the Weinstein-Rudin feud here, but basically, Rudin wanted to push The Reader back till 2009 so he could focus on promoting Doubt and Revolutionary Road; furthermore, Stephen Daldry – only the film’s fucking director – insisted he couldn’t finish the movie properly to accommodate a December release. Weinstein didn’t give a fuck. Citing the deaths of co-producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella as inspiration (“It’s what they would have wanted!”), he pushed the movie through, leading Rudin to withdraw from the picture entirely.

Whoops. Now The Reader is a serious Oscar candidate, while Revolutionary Road was shut out of the major categories. Weinstein, as one might expect, is playing this with his usual degree of subtlety; he said that Pollack and Minghella “were up there looking over this movie somehow”. Classy.

The lesson? Never underestimate Harvey Weinstein. The guy is a fucking animal – he’s like Scott Boras without the Latin clients. Seriously, at this point I think Julio Lugo could get voted into the Hall of Fame if he had Weinstein promoting him. So this year, when he made it his personal mission to gain recognition for The Reader – while simultaneously discrediting Revolutionary Road just to fuck Rudin over – voters paid attention. I didn’t. (To be fair, I’m not a member of the Academy – Harvey Weinstein never came to my house and threatened to kill my family unless I voted for The Reader. If he had, I probably would have given it a better shot.)













BEST DIRECTOR

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight Stephen Daldry, The Reader

Comments: Preposterous. Since when did they repeal the law that exactly four of the five Best Picture nominees also receive acknowledgement for their directors? If you think I’m making it up, check this out: In the past 26 years, the Best Picture and Best Director nominees have aligned perfectly exactly once (2005). Well, this year it happened again, the laziest of possible choices (“Hey, I liked the movie, so I’ll nominate its director too!”). These people have no imagination.

I’m frankly quite surprised that Nolan didn’t make the cut here, and I’m a bit more peeved about this omission than that of The Dark Knight for Best Picture. But for what it’s worth, at least neither made me hyperventilate or anything. Last year, I spent the half hour before the announcement flirting with cardiac arrest, freaking out about whether Atonement would receive a Best Picture nomination. Once it did, I relaxed – actually, I might have screamed triumphantly at the top of my lungs – only to suffer a minor brain hemorrhage moments later when I learned that Keira Knightley had been snubbed for Best Actress. This year, I was much more relaxed. That’s what happens when your favorite movie of the year doesn’t have a chance in Hell of landing a major nomination – you get disappointed in advance so you aren’t bummed when the results come out. Or as Lloyd Dobbler said, if you start out depressed, everything’s kind of a pleasant surprise. He’s the man. Anyway.


BEST ACTOR

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

Sean Penn, Milk

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Comments: I knew that three actors – Eastwood, Jenkins, and Pitt – were competing for two spots. Benjamin Button was the big winner this year (well, other than The Reader), leading the field with 13 nominations (Slumdog Millionaire was second with 10 and remains the Best Picture favorite for the moment). Did its extraordinary technical proficiency lend Pitt support when voters were considering Best Actor? Perhaps, but then why no love for Cate Blanchett? Either way, while I’m not all that surprised by Pitt’s inclusion, I am stunned by Gran Torino, which was completely shut out. I had thought Eastwood walked on water with the Academy, but maybe double-dipping (he released Changeling and Gran Torino two months apart) ruffled some feathers.










BEST ACTRESS

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Meryl Streep, Doubt

Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road The Reader

Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky Angelina Jolie, Changeling

Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy Melissa Leo, Frozen River

Comments: Let the complications begin! O.K., so I had Kate Winslet here, but for the wrong movie. Ordinarily, I’d score that a no-go, but I also nominated Winslet for the right movie (The Reader) … in the wrong category (supporting actress). So how do you score that? Do I get a half-point? Can we bring in Katherine Harris to determine the proper vote-counting procedure?

Anyway, the Hawkins snub really surprises me, especially with Mike Leigh landing a screenplay nomination. I had labeled both Jolie and Leo as “long shots”, but I had thought that if anyone would bump out Michelle Williams, it would have been Kristin Scott-Thomas. The lesson: I know very little about women. Right.










BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Josh Brolin, Milk

Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire Michael Shannon, Revolutionary Road

Comments: Much better. It’s nice to see Revolutionary Road receiving a middle-tier nomination, although Shannon’s nod reeks of “Consolation prize!” status. Of course, it doesn’t really matter, since we all know who’s winning this category anyway.













BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams, Doubt

Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire Viola Davis, Doubt

Kate Winslet, The Reader Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Comments: I called Viola Davis my Dark Horse, so I’m not particularly surprised by her selection, although I certainly think the Academy could have chosen better (for Christ’s sake, she’s in two scenes). On the other hand, I completely missed the buzz on Henson. I will now console myself by staring at pictures of Freida Pinto for the next 10 minutes while listening to “Jai Ho” from the Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack on loop.










BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Milk – Lance Black

Burn After Reading – Joel and Ethan Coen Frozen River – Courtney Hunt

Gran Torino – Nick Schenk Happy-Go-Lucky – Mike Leigh

Synecdoche, New York – Charlie Kaufman In Bruges – Martin McDonagh

Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Woody Allen Wall-E – Andrew Stanton, et. al.

Comments: Ouch. Well, I said going in that this was the toughest category of the bunch, and I wasn’t wrong. Frozen River and Happy-Go-Lucky both had buzz for their lead actresses, so that must have translated here (despite Hawkins getting shut out of Best Actress). Perhaps In Bruges leveraged its surprise Golden Globe win for Colin Farrell, although maybe voters just enjoyed its original, off-kilter storyline.

On the plus side, I did have Wall-E as my Dark Horse and am categorically thrilled to see it land a high-level nomination here. Kudos.













BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Eric Roth

Doubt – John Patrick Shanley

Frost/Nixon – Peter Morgan

The Reader – David Hare

Slumdog Millionaire – Simon Beaufoy

Comments: BOOM. Five-for-five. I rule.


Not to pull a Costanza, but that’s it for me. Stay tuned for more detailed analysis over the next month.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Oscar Nomination Predictions (BOLD)

Every year, I attempt to predict the winner of each category of the Oscars. For all of the Manifesto’s bluster, this is its primary function, and frankly, it is a rather unoriginal one. People all around the country participate in haphazard Oscar pools (my sister even won one once, primarily because she went against my advice), and countless bloggers attempt to impress their readership with their powers of prognostication (though if I may say so, the Manifesto possesses a rather unique élan, but never mind). And in spite of the flamboyant touches I employ in an effort to distinguish the Manifesto from other commentaries of its ilk – the sports analogies, the base humor, the “are you fucking serious dude?” length – it remains at its core a simple handicapping system, much like any other.

As such, I need a challenge, something to put the Manifesto on the map, as it were. To wit: It seems to me that a more difficult undertaking than picking the winners of each category of the Oscars is to predict the nominations themselves. Of the hundreds (thousands?) of movies released in the world every year, only five merit a nomination in each category from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; correctly forecasting these selections is no easy task.

Yet such is my mission. Is it foolhardy of me to publish my predictions so brazenly, risking ridicule from my readers for years to come? Possibly. And yet if I am successful, glory shall be mine forevermore – I expect to be rewarded like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, with naked women feeding me grapes while Beethoven plays in the background. Or I can just brag about it to my Dad before we move on to discuss Mike Dunleavy’s latest exploits. Either way, the nominations will be announced Thursday, January 22, so stay tuned for news of my success or failure. (For the record, if I make four out of five correct picks in a category, I’ll be happy. Also, I’m only doing the top eight categories because after that, people get bored. Or so I’ve been told.)

And so, I now present the Manifesto’s predictions for the 81st Annual Academy Awards Nominations:


BEST PICTURE

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Frost/Nixon

Milk

Revolutionary Road

Slumdog Millionaire

Comments: Slumdog Millionaire is a lock, and I’m fairly confident about Benjamin Button and Frost/Nixon. Milk somehow didn’t land a Golden Globe nomination, but it’s the kind of historically potent biopic that the Academy loves. The big question mark is Revolutionary Road. A sexier candidate would be The Dark Knight, that rare hybrid of powerhouse blockbuster and critical darling. The Batman sequel nabbed a Producers’ Guild nomination, and those nods tend to align closely with Oscar selections (four of five matched last year). Still, I’m not convinced the movie’s noisy extravagance will sit well with the priggish stuffiness of the Academy; Revolutionary Road, with its brutally bleak mood and impeccable period setting, is a more conventional fit. (For the record, I hope I’m wrong – Dark Knight is in my Top Five for the year.)

Dark Horse: The Dark (Horse) Knight.

Longshots: The Reader (tempting, but I don’t see a Holocaust-tinged movie making it this year), Doubt (getting buzz for its cast rather than the film itself), The Wrestler (everyone is focused on Mickey Rourke), Wall-E (I fucking wish – stupid Animated Feature category), Gran Torino, Vicky Cristina Barcelona.


BEST DIRECTOR

Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire

David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon

Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight

Gus Van Sant, Milk

Comments: Best Director voting follows a simple pattern: Four of the five Best Picture selectees snag a nomination for their filmmaker as well. In this case, I’m eliminating Sam Mendes for Revolutionary Road (my lame duck Best Picture choice) and replacing him with Christopher Nolan for The Dark Knight. Interestingly enough, if Dark Knight does receive a Best Picture nod, I’d actually predict the reverse to happen for Best Director, with Mendes bumping Nolan, thus making Dark Knight the lame duck. Trust me, it makes sense, at least in Oscar World. Note that my predictions here mirror those of the Directors Guild of America exactly – I guess that’s a little chickenshit of me, but I only think Dark Knight lands in one of the top two categories, and I get the feeling voters will console themselves by nominating Nolan for his extraordinary technical proficiency, only to leave the movie out in the cold.

Dark Horse: Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road

Longshots: Clint Eastwood for Gran Torino (Eastwood is always a threat with the Academy), Joel & Ethan Coen for Burn After Reading (not after their surly acceptance speech last year for No Country for Old Men), Mike Leigh for Happy-Go-Lucky (Leigh is an Academy favorite), Stephen Daldry for The Reader.


BEST ACTOR

Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino

Richard Jenkins, The Visitor

Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon

Sean Penn, Milk

Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Comments: Penn and Rourke are absolute locks, and Langella is a near-certainty, so we really just have two open slots. I don’t think Gran Torino has generated quite enough buzz to garner a chance at the top prize, but this past weekend’s box-office gross indicates people are seeing it (one of those rare limited-release rollouts that actually works), and Eastwood’s so damn good in it that I think he slides in here. I’m going with Richard Jenkins for his work in the little-seen The Visitor in an upset; Brad Pitt for Benjamin Button is the safer choice, but I think that movie is losing a little steam. Voters tend to include at least one small-scale performance in each of the acting categories, so I think Jenkins, who earned a Screen Actors’ Guild nomination (as did Pitt, though not Eastwood) gets the nod. (Thinking about it, Eastwood is more of the upset pick than Jenkins. No matter.)

Dark Horse: Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man. To quote Lloyd Dobbler, I’m totally and completely serious. I think Iron Man was a perfectly enjoyable movie, but I’m amazed at the critical and commercial reaction it’s received. People fucking love this movie. And Downey Jr. is its soul, plain and simple. Throw in another man-defeats-drugs redemption story, and he has a legitimate chance.

Longshots: Brad Pitt for Benjamin Button (hardly a longshot, but I don’t have a “shortshot” category), Leonardo DiCaprio for Revolutionary Road (should be more of a contender, but Kate Winslet is getting more press), Ben Kingsley for Elegy (like Eastwood, Kingsley is always a threat), Javier Bardem for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (in basketball terms, he’s a ‘tweener, i.e., it’s unclear if he belongs in the lead or supporting category), Dustin Hoffman for Last Chance Harvey.


BEST ACTRESS

Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married

Sally Hawkins, Happy-Go-Lucky

Meryl Streep, Doubt

Michelle Williams, Wendy and Lucy

Kate Winslet, Revolutionary Road

Comments: There are no true locks here, but Hathaway, Hawkins, and Streep are all likely choices. Winslet may be fighting against herself for her work in The Reader, but I think she’ll be up for Best Supporting Actress for that movie (more on that in a bit). Besides, her double-win at the Golden Globes proves she’s a major player. Michelle Williams is my sleeper pick – between the buzz for Wendy and Lucy and the Heath Ledger sympathy vote, I think she can sneak in. But if Kristin Scott-Thomas is there instead, I won’t be remotely surprised. (Oh, and just as a sneak preview for February, I have absolutely no idea who’s going to win this category. None.)

Dark Horse: Kristin Scott-Thomas, I’ve Loved You So Long. It really comes down to exposure between Wendy and Lucy (an American drama from an independent studio) and I’ve Loved You So Long (a French drama). For what it’s worth, I’ve seen neither. Scott-Thomas was all the rage with The English Patient, but that was 12 years ago, so I think Michelle Williams has the bigger name now. Still, the buzz for Scott-Thomas’ performance has been phenomenal, so don’t be surprised if she shows up.

Longshots: Melissa Leo for Frozen River (supposedly a great performance, but no one’s seen the movie, and who the hell is Melissa Leo?), Angelina Jolie for Changeling (much like A Mighty Heart last year, her chances seemed a lot better three months ago), Cate Blanchett for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (no buzz whatsoever for her – why the fuck hasn’t she received any recognition?), Keira Knightley for The Duchess (purely wishful thinking on my part), Nicole Kidman for Australia (wow did that movie die in a hurry), Emma Thompson for Last Chance Harvey.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Josh Brolin, Milk

Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt

Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

Comments: The toughest category on the board to predict this year. Heath Ledger is a mortal lock – in fact, we might as well just give him the statuette now (except we can’t because, well, he’s dead) – and Philip Seymour Hoffman should be there as well. I’m frankly suspicious that the Academy will acknowledge a movie as politically incorrect as Tropic Thunder, but acclaim for Downey Jr.’s work has been practically universal, so they just can’t ignore it. After that things get really fuzzy. Josh Brolin’s performance in Milk was understandably overshadowed by Sean Penn’s, but voters might want to throw another nomination Milk’s way, plus they could be feeling residual guilt from inexplicably excluding Brolin last year for No Country for Old Men. Slumdog Millionaire is more a director’s movie than an actor’s, but given its rapturous overall praise, it follows that the movie should land at least one acting nomination, and Patel is the logical candidate. However, either of them could be replaced by …

Dark Horse: Brad Pitt, Burn After Reading. It’s impossible to resist the charm of Pitt’s happily goofy performance as a Lebowski-flavored fitness freak in Burn After Reading. Still, voters are more likely to concentrate on Benjamin Button when considering Pitt, and they’ve probably reached their quota on nominating actors from comedies by taking Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder. We’ll see.

(Note: I’m essentially predicting that Pitt, who’s obviously a huge star in Hollywood, will get shut out this year, whereas conventional wisdom suggests he’ll receive two nominations – one for Benjamin Button, one for Burn After Reading. So why am I going against him? Because I am a fucking daredevil, that’s why. I’m like the CGI-hamster in Bolt: I eat danger for breakfast.)

Longshots: Tom Cruise for Tropic Thunder (would be sweet, but let’s get serious), Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson for In Bruges (too eccentric and British, plus the movie came out last February), James Franco for Milk (loses votes to Brolin), Viggo Mortensen for Appaloosa (sadly, the buzz there is nonexistent).


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Amy Adams, Doubt

Penélope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire

Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler

Kate Winslet, The Reader

Comments: O.K., so here’s the deal with Kate Winslet. Basically, she was fucking terrific in two different movies this year: Revolutionary Road and The Reader. In Revolutionary Road, she’s unquestionably the lead actress, so voters will consider her in the Best Actress category for that movie. In The Reader, she’s also essentially the lead actress; however, she isn’t the movie’s lead character. The protagonist in The Reader is named Michael Berg, played by (a very good) David Kross as a young man and Ralph Fiennes as an older man. As such, even though Winslet has the most screen time of any actor in the film, it’s feasible that she be considered for Best Supporting Actress.

The Weinstein Company, smart studio that it is (say what you want about Harvey Weinstein, but he’s no fool) is pushing Winslet for Best Supporting Actress for The Reader so she doesn’t split her own vote with Revolutionary Road. However, just because the studio is pushing a supporting nomination for Winslet doesn’t necessarily prevent Academy members from voting her for Best Actress for The Reader as well as (or instead of) Revolutionary Road. As such, Winslet might not only split votes against herself for Best Actress across two different movies, she might split votes against herself for The Reader across two different categories. Yeesh.

So what will happen? There’s a wealth of contradictory information out there. For example, Winslet won at the Golden Globes for both categories (lead actress for Revolutionary Road, supporting actress for The Reader); however, she was just nominated as Best Actress for both movies at the BAFTAs (British awards). Still, when it comes down to it, I think she’s so good in both movies that voters will want to see her nominated twice and will therefore select her in different categories. Make sense?

(Honestly, this shit keeps me awake at night. Think about these three factoids: First, if Winslet does land a Best Supporting Actress nomination for The Reader, she will almost certainly win the category. It’s securing the nomination that’s the question mark. Christ. Also, it’s easy for studios to fuck up this kind of politicking – see: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed (I’m still bitter). Finally, if you think studios don’t consider this stuff, check this out: The sole reason Joe Wright’s The Soloist was delayed until April was that Dreamworks didn’t want to release another movie where Robert Downey Jr. kicked ass precisely because they were scared it would inhibit his Oscar chances for Tropic Thunder. You can’t make this shit up.)

Anyway, the rest of my predictions in this category are totally random. Amy Adams was better in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day than she was in Doubt, but she’s being hyped for the latter. Freida Pinto will be nominated for the same reason as Dev Patel – voters want to choose someone from Slumdog Millionaire. Plus she’s gorgeous. Penélope Cruz proved she can still get people’s blood boiling in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, enough to sustain her despite the August release date. Marisa Tomei is my sleeper pick, mainly because she plays a stripper and looks just as hot as she did in My Cousin Vinny 16 years ago, so you try passing her up.

Dark Horse: Viola Davis, Doubt. It’s difficult to imagine four actors getting nominated for the same movie, but Davis had a ton of steam until recently. Still, she’s in Doubt for less than 10 minutes – I just can’t accept it.

Longshots: Rosemarie DeWitt for Rachel Getting Married (she’d be a lock if the movie had any more buzz), Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton for Burn After Reading, Mila Kunis’ breasts for Forgetting Sarah Marshall.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Burn After Reading – Joel and Ethan Coen

Gran Torino – Nick Schenk

Milk – Lance Black

Synecdoche, New York – Charlie Kaufman

Vicky Cristina Barcelona – Woody Allen

Comments: Remember what I said about Best Supporting Actor being the toughest category to predict? I take it back. With the exception of Milk, all of the Best Picture candidates are adaptations of novels or plays, meaning the Academy really has to dig deep for the original screenplay category. The Coens’ scripts are always noteworthy, even one as bizarre and unfeeling as that of Burn After Reading, and Woody Allen could land his fifteenth screenplay nomination for Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Synecdoche, New York repulsed most of the viewing public, but it’s nothing if not original, and Charlie Kaufman has cachet, so voters might give his script some play. Gran Torino is a pure sleeper pick, but its tale of redemption is so appealing that I’m hopeful voters give it some deserved recognition.

Dark Horse: Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon for Wall-E. Why not?

Longshots: J. Michael Straczynski for Changeling (probably a better bet than Gran Torino, but again, I like to live dangerously), Jenny Lumet for Rachel Getting Married (her father’s name could give her some pull, but still no buzz), Thomas McCarthy for The Visitor (he’ll need to ride Richard Jenkins’ coattails), Robert D. Siegel for The Wrestler (overshadowed by Mickey Rourke).


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Eric Roth

Doubt – John Patrick Shanley

Frost/Nixon – Peter Morgan

The Reader – David Hare

Slumdog Millionaire – Simon Beaufoy

Comments: This is where the heavy hitters show up. Slumdog Millionaire, Benjamin Button, and Frost/Nixon should all receive screenplay nods to accompany their Best Picture and Best Director nominations. I think Doubt is really a showcase for its actors, but it’s also highly dialogue-driven, so Shanley’s adaptation of his play should surface here. For the fifth spot, I debated a coin flip to decide between The Reader and Revolutionary Road, but I think the former’s story is more twisty, thus giving it a leg up in the screenplay category.

Dark Horse: Justin Haythe for Revolutionary Road.

Longshots: Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan for The Dark Knight. Call this one an ultra-longshot. I also don’t understand why it’s considered an adapted screenplay, since it’s hardly based on a specific comic-book installment, but whatever.

So there you have it. Again, we’re shooting for an 80% success rate (i.e., four of five in each category). It’s a lofty goal, but hey, that’s how I roll. Check back in a week to see how I did.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Fantasy Football: Best and Worst Picks of 2008

Fantasy football is by far the most popular fantasy sport around. This saddens me because, of the three major fantasy sports (baseball, basketball, and football), football is by far the worst. Its immense popularity can be attributed for the most part to its head-to-head format. Unlike baseball and basketball leagues, which utilize the Rotisserie format (whereby owners attempt to gain points in different categories, for the most part ignoring performance of other teams), in football two teams match up against each other every week. (Yes, I acknowledge that some baseball and basketball leagues employ a head-to-head system – I won’t get into exactly why this mechanism is flawed for those sports, but trust me that such leagues are reprehensible.) As such, every Sunday you wind up obsessively following not just your own team’s performance on an absolute basis, but how your players are faring compared to your opponent’s. Since you’re actively playing against a friend, sibling, or colleague, this mode of direct competition can be legitimately exciting.

Unfortunately, it is also completely unfair. The randomness inherent in head-to-head matchups often rewards inferior teams at the expense of superior squads, as teams’ schedules can be as crucial a component to their success as the talent of their actual players. By way of example, two years ago my friend Omar squeaked out an 8-6 regular season record and wound up making the playoffs, finished third, and won prize money; meanwhile, five other teams outscored him by greater than 100 points, only to finish 7-7 or 6-8 and watch the postseason from the sidelines (figuratively speaking). Similar inequities arise constantly in fantasy football – weighting matchups on a weekly basis will inevitably result in standings that range from mildly skewed to downright fallacious.

The natural counterargument, then, is to eliminate the head-to-head component and simply reward the teams with the most points. Sadly, this won’t work because nobody would play, and understandably so – when your guys only play once a week for 16 weeks, you damn well better get some enjoyment from watching them, and that enjoyment is derived from the head-to-head competition. This brings to light the other key issue with fantasy football, and that is sample size. The baseball season lasts 162 games, while basketball is 82 games; both are more than sufficient to constitute a statistically significant sample (trust me, I majored in applied math). But the regular season in fantasy football lasts just 14 games (Weeks 15 and 16 are reserved for the playoffs – Week 17 is omitted because many top players are often rested for the actual NFL playoffs). That’s hardly an adequate sample from which one can draw meaningful conclusions.

So, given all this grumbling, why am I writing this post? Popular demand, of course. Everyone loves playing fantasy football, including myself – despite my moral and mathematical objections, I get sucked into my league every year. And after analyzing the best and worst picks of my fantasy baseball draft, it’s only fitting for me to do the same for football. I’m a public servant, really.

(Oh, and if you’re skeptical regarding just how huge fantasy football is America, just walk into a sports bar on Sunday and sit down. If you don’t hear someone discussing their fantasy team within 30 seconds, you’re either deaf or in Pleasantville.)

Conducting the actual analysis, by the way, was less than stimulating for me. In Rotisserie leagues, people can endlessly debate players’ relative value based on how they contribute in different categories. In 2008, would you rather have owned Mark Teixeira (stud in OPS and homers, decent in runs scored, nothing steals), or Grady Sizemore (solid in OPS and homers, stud for runs, ton of steals)? That’s a subjective question, and answering it gave me an excuse to whip up some Z scores and apply some actual, nerd-level decision-making. Fantasy football, however, is point-based. You know how I know that Thomas Jones was more valuable than Michael Turner? Jones scored 287.5 points, while Turner scored 269.2. QED.

(For the record, my league’s scoring system includes a point-per-reception, and all touchdowns are worth seven points, including passing TDs. We start two quarterbacks, two running backs, two wide receivers, a tight end, a WR/TE flex, and a WR/TE flex. You’re probably in a league with a different scoring system and roster setup. I don’t care. Also, I’m ignoring kickers and defenses in this analysis, just because I can.)

So that isn’t all that exciting. Nevertheless, it’s still instructive – and, dare I say, a bit fun – to look back at the draft and see which picks were steals and which were stupid. On that note, remember that I tend to give injured players a pass on the “Worst Pick” label, since owners had the option to snag a replacement off the waiver wire. This is especially critical in football, when playing time means everything, and mere backups can become studs if the player ahead of them on the depth chart gets hurt. (Everyone who had Larry Johnson but not Priest Holmes two years ago is nodding happily.)

So let’s do it. The Manifesto presents the Best and Worst Picks of the 2008 Fantasy Football Draft:


FIRST ROUND

Best pick: Peyton Manning, Colts: The season started ominously for the NFL’s most commercially savvy superstar (and if you disagree with that assessment, try watching this without laughing). Multiple offseason knee surgeries – the first such operations of his career – led to rumors of a season-ending operation, and tossing four interceptions in his first three games did little to quell owners’ anxiety. They needn’t have worried. Peyton bounced back to do what he always does: 3,907 yards and 26 TDs to just 12 INTs (remember, we’re ignoring Week 17), ranking him seventh overall in the league. Apologies to: Brian Westbrook (1,276 combined rushing and receiving yards, 52 catches, 14 total TDs), LaDainian Tomlinson (1,440 total yards, 52 catches, nine TDs), Tony Romo (3,265 passing yards, 26 passing TDs).

Worst pick: Joseph Addai, Colts: Tom Brady is the obvious choice here, but he can’t really be blamed for missing the entire season. To be fair, Addai himself missed a handful of games with a shoulder injury; however, that fails to explain his dismal performance when he was on the field. He cracked 100 rushing yards just once and never topped 50 receiving yards, while finding the end zone just six times. As such, of all players in the league, Addai ranked just thirty-ninth among running backs and one hundred eighteenth overall. Pathetic. Sigh of relief to: Brady (injured).


SECOND ROUND

Best pick: Drew Brees, Chargers: My scoring system tends to favor quarterbacks, but in no way should that diminish Brees’ accomplishments this year. He obliterated the competition with 4,683 passing yards while throwing 30 TDs versus 16 INTs. All in all, he ranked as the second most productive fantasy player in the entire league. Apologies to: Andre Johnson (105 catches, 1,427 yards, six TDs), Maurice Jones-Drew (61 catches, 1,301 yards, 14 TDs).

Worst pick: Willis McGahee, Ravens: Carson Palmer was a complete bust, but his injury removes him from contention for this ignominious honor. Marques Colston ranked slightly lower than McGahee overall, but Colston played in just 10 games. McGahee appeared in 13 but disappeared in many, rushing for fewer than 20 yards four different times. He finished with just 795 total yards and six TDs, ranking him thirty-seventh among RBs and one hundred thirteenth overall. Sigh of relief to: Palmer (injured), Colston (40 catches, 637 yards), Larry Johnson (12 catches, six TDs).


THIRD ROUND

Best pick: Jay Cutler, Broncos: This is the part where the rest of my league gets upset, since both Manning and Cutler were my picks. Don’t blame me, blame the numbers. Cutler threw for 4,210 yards and 24 TDs – the ninth QB taken, he ranked as the fifth-best player in the entire league. Apologies to: Larry Fitzgerald (91 catches, 1,301 yards, 10 TDs), Donovan McNabb (3,741 yards, 21 passing TDs), Brandon Marshall (98 catches, 1,206 yards, six TDs).

Worst pick: Derek Anderson, Browns: Proof that not all quarterbacks are fantasy gold. Anderson’s 2007 season was astonishing, as he threw for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns. A repeat performance, however, was not in the cards, as he threw just nine TDs versus eight interceptions before giving way to Brady Quinn. As a fun anecdote, two picks after I took Cutler, my buddy Brian gleefully took Anderson, then spent the next two weeks ripping me for taking Cutler. Two weeks into the season, Cutler had 650 passing yards, six TDs, and just one interception, while Anderson had 280 yards, one touchdown, and two INTs. Of course, Brian managed to offload Anderson in a trade, since owners refused to give up on him. This became a recurring theme – in fact, Anderson was traded three times in the first six weeks of the season. Fantasy sports are strange. Sigh of relief to: Matt Hasselbeck (five TDs, 10 INTs, injured), Chad Ocho Cinco (53 catches, 540 yards, four TDs), Torry Holt (58 catches, three TDs).


FOURTH ROUND

Best pick: Anquan Boldin, Cardinals: Despite missing three games – two with a broken face – Boldin still piled up 1,105 yards and 11 TDs on 89 catches. He ranked as the third-best receiver in the game and fifteenth overall. Apologies to: Wes Welker (109 catches, 1,165 yards), Steve Smith (73 catches, 1,327 yards, six TDs).

Worst pick: Roy Williams, Lions: The pick before Boldin left the board, I snagged this troubled Detroit wideout. Whoops. Williams caught just 34 passes this year, and only two went for touchdowns. He ranked one hundred seventy-ninth overall, and 69 wide receivers scored more fantasy points. Nice trade, Cowboys. Sigh of relief to: Laurence Maroney (93 total yards, injured), Willie Parker (four catches, 688 yards), Kellen Winslow (43 catches, 428 yards).


FIFTH ROUND

Best pick: Philip Rivers, Chargers: When discussing Drew Brees earlier, I was all set to ridicule the Chargers for trading the QB who wound up as the second-best player in fantasy. Then I realized that Rivers, the guy they made room for, scored the most points in the entire fucking league. Tossing 32 TDs to just 11 interceptions, Rivers also threw for 3,802 yards en route to Fantasy MVP status. Not bad for a fifth-round pick. Apologies to: Thomas Jones (1,495 yards, 15 TDs), Michael Turner (1,532 yards, 16 TDs), Calvin Johnson (69 catches, 1,228 yards, 10 TDs). (Interestingly enough, the fifth round was loaded with talent, as all of these guys ranked among the top 20 players, making this the only round featuring four top-20 selections.)

Worst pick: Edgerrin James, Cardinals: For a guy who seemed to be declining in skills over the years, The Edge remained remarkably productive through the years – he ran for 1,222 yards last season, his fifth straight 1,000-yard campaign. This year? Not so much. With Tim Hightower and J.J. Arrington in the fold, James compiled just 493 total yards and caught only 11 passes (he had caught at least 50 five times in his career with the Colts), ranking him one hundred ninety-seventh overall (fifty-ninth among RBs). He sure looked good in the playoffs, but that’s little consolation to fantasy owners. Sigh of relief to: Jamal Lewis (four TDs), Santonio Holmes (52 catches, five TDs).


SIXTH ROUND

Best pick: Aaron Rodgers, Packers: While Brett Favre was terrorizing Jets fans in New Jersey, Rodgers quietly put up extraordinary numbers on an underachieving Packers team. In addition to throwing for 3,730 yards and 25 TDs, he also ran for four touchdowns while throwing just 13 interceptions. Count them all up, and he ranked as the third-best player in all of fantasy, behind only Rivers and Brees. Favre, taken 16 picks earlier, ranked forty-second. Apologies to: Greg Jennings (75 catches, 1,191 yards, nine TDs).

Worst pick: Selvin Young, Broncos: Every year Mike Shanahan destroys the value of every runner in his backfield (well, maybe not next year), but no one ever seems to learn. Young missed a number of games in 2008, but in those he did play he never topped 100 yards, and he caught just three passes all season. His final totals (319 yards, one touchdown) were abysmal for a sixth-round pick. Sigh of relief to: Vince Young (mentally injured).


SEVENTH ROUND

Best pick: Chris Johnson, Titans: A number of rookies put up stellar numbers in 2008, with this dynamo from East Carolina among the best. Johnson amassed 1,488 total yards and 10 TDs – the latter number is particularly extraordinary given that Johnson yielded the majority of goal-line carries to bruiser LenDale White (15 TDs). Running backs fly off of draft boards in fantasy drafts, but Johnson was the twenty-eighth back taken – he ranked seventh among RBs overall. Apologies to: Roddy White (85 catches, 1,338 yards), Tony Gonzalez (91 catches, 1,005 yards, nine TDs).

Worst pick: Matt Leinart, Cardinals: It’s one thing when a drafted player misses time due to injury; it’s another when he misses time because he’s just terrible. Over the first 14 weeks of the season, Leinart attempted exactly two passes, with the resurrected Kurt Warner leading the way for the Cardinals. (To be fair, the guy who drafted Leinart in my league – my buddy Jay – was somehow able to snag Warner four rounds later.) Sigh of relief to: Jon Kitna (five TDs, five INTs), Julius Jones (14 catches, two TDs).


EIGHTH ROUND

Best pick: DeAngelo Williams, Panthers: No phenomenon in fantasy football is more terrifying than that of the running-back-committee, and that was the modus operandi for the Panthers early in 2008, with Oregon rookie Jonathan Stewart all the rage among pundits. (Stewart went in round seven, 14 picks earlier than Williams.) Throw in the fact that the mercurial Williams had failed to top 750 rushing yards in either of his first two seasons in the league, and the public was generally down on the Memphis product. His stock didn’t improve three weeks into the season, at which point Williams had totaled a meager 159 total yards and had yet to find the end zone (Stewart, meanwhile, had already scored three TDs). So when my friend Frank traded J.T. O’Sullivan – a promising gunslinger operating in Mike Martz’s pass-happy offense – for Williams and JaMarcus Russell, my buddy Brian and I were incredulous, leading to an exchange that, courtesy of Gmail’s merciless archiving system, will be preserved for all time (the spelling and punctuation have been cleaned – the text, sadly, remains the same):

Brian: “I can’t believe Frank gave up O’Sullivan for DeAngelo freaking Williams. I would have given him more, but he just accepted it without checking with me. Why would you want anything to do with Williams?”

Me: “Dude, I know. Sharp thinking Frank.”

The next day I located a report from a Panthers beat writer indicating that Stewart’s role in the offense would be increasing shortly, thus damaging Williams’ questionable fantasy value even further. I immediately emailed the article to Brian, and together we scoffed at Frank’s poor judgment, bathing in the warmth of our intellectual superiority.

Well.

To be fair, Williams didn’t blow the roof off immediately afterwards – in his next game he gained just 63 total yards and again failed to score. And while he busted loose for three TDs his next game against the hapless Chiefs, he crashed and burned the week after against Tampa Bay, rushing for just 27 yards. The problem was that after that game, Williams scored a touchdown. He scored another the next week. In fact, to close out the fantasy season, DeAngelo Williams scored at least one touchdown in nine consecutive games. He scored two in two contests, and in two others he ran for FOUR. For the full season, he totaled an absurd 20 TDs to go with 1,458 total yards, ranking him as the fourth-best player in the entire league and the top overall running back.

And that, my friends, is why you never pass judgment on a fantasy trade too early in the season. Apologies to: Matt Forte (60 catches, 1,640 yards, 12 TDs, ranked second among all RBs behind Williams).

Worst pick: Joey Galloway, Buccaneers: Galloway, a former burner out of Ohio State, resurrected his career in Tampa Bay four years ago when he caught 83 balls for 1,287 yards and 10 TDs despite being 33 years old. Two more 1,000-yard seasons followed. This year, sadly, age caught up with him – he missed a handful of games and was highly unproductive when on the field, held without a catch multiple times. In total, he caught just 13 passes for 138 yards. Close the book on his career. Sigh of relief to: Rudi Johnson (12 catches, 325 yards, two TDs), Vernon Davis (28 catches, 351 yards, two TDs).


NINTH ROUND

Best pick: Hines Ward, Steelers: Proof that not all receivers yield to age, the cagey possession receiver put up another stellar campaign in his age-32 season. The thirty-fourth receiver off the board, Ward caught 75 passes for 977 yards and seven TDs, ranking him fourteenth among wideouts. Apologies to: Matt Ryan (3,280 passing yards, 15 TDs, only nine INTs), Kevin Smith (1,163 total yards, seven TDs).

Worst pick: Reggie Brown, Eagles: Though it pains me to place this dubious distinction on an Eagle, Brown’s uninspired performance this year left me no choice. Billed as Donovan McNabb’s top target heading into the year, he had difficulty staying healthy and was quickly passed on the depth chart, eventually serving as a healthy scratch. He caught just 17 passes for 245 yards. Sigh of relief to: Nate Burleson (injured), Tarvaris Jackson (817 passing yards, benched halfway through the year), J.T. O’Sullivan (eight TDs vs. 11 interceptions).


TENTH ROUND

Best pick: Vincent Jackson, Chargers: No one drafted in the tenth round put up electrifying numbers, but Jackson rewarded owners after he emerged as Philip Rivers’ top target in the second half of the year. He totaled 1,090 yards and seven TDs on 57 catches. Apologies to: Derrick Mason (74 catches, 960 yards).

Worst pick: Chris Perry, Bengals: I was pretty thrilled to snag Perry in the tenth round, especially once Rudi Johnson was released from the Bengals, positioning Perry as the starting tailback. The thrill wore off after it became clear that Perry simply sucked. He topped 50 rushing yards in a game only twice and finished the year with just 340 yards, eventually being passed on the depth chart by Cedric Benson. Sigh of relief to: Rashard Mendenhall (injured), D.J. Hackett (injured), Ahman Green (11 catches, 326 yards).

(That’s it for the “Worst Pick” section, we’re all positive from here on out.)


ELEVENTH ROUND

Best pick: Kurt Warner, Cardinals: After throwing 27 touchdown passes a year ago, Warner really had no business lasting this long, but no one expected him to perform as he did at 37 years old. The Christian with the Crazy Wife threw for an astounding 4,320 yards while firing 26 TDs to just 13 interceptions. Selected one hundred twenty-fifth in the draft, he ranked tenth overall at season’s end. Apologies to: Chad Pennington (3,453 yards, 17 TDs, just seven INTs).


TWELFTH ROUND

Best pick: Owen Daniels, Texans: The talent started thinning fast at this point, and Daniels was the best of a meager crop of twelfth-rounders. Though he found the end zone just twice, he caught 67 passes for 825 yards, solid numbers especially given how poorly tight ends performed this year (Daniels ranked fifth at the position despite being the fourteenth TE drafted). Apologies to: Justin Gage (651 yards, six TDs), Mark Clayton (648 yards, five TDs).


THIRTEENTH ROUND

Best pick: DeSean Jackson, Eagles: The Eagles’ most exciting rookie since Brian Westbrook, Jackson made headlines with his bone-headed play against the Cowboys early in the year, when he dropped the football on the one-yard-line while waltzing into the end zone. (Of course, when Asante Samuel did the same thing months later, no one cared.) He made up for it with steady production throughout the year, catching 60 passes for 962 yards and four TDs. The man-crush is growing. Apologies to: Jerious Norwood (749 yards, four TDs), Devin Hester (45 catches, 641 yards).


FOURTEENTH ROUND

Best pick: Joe Flacco, Ravens: Troy Smith’s early-season illness allowed this big Delaware product to step into the starting role, and he never relinquished it. The Ravens are hardly the ideal fantasy destination for a quarterback, but Flacco nevertheless threw 14 touchdowns and ran for two more while throwing for 2,674 yards. Expect even better numbers in his sophomore season. Apologies to: Isaac Bruce (59 catches, 824 yards, seven TDs).


FIFTEENTH ROUND

Best pick: Eddie Royal, Broncos: With super-stud Brandon Marshall suspended for the first game of the season, Royal showed off his skills right away, catching nine passes for 146 yards and a touchdown on the first Monday of the year. He slowed down little after that, finishing with 80 catches for 1,013 yards, ranking him seventeenth among receivers; in related news, 57 wideouts were selected ahead of him. (For the record, I howled in pain when my friend Laura took Royal one pick ahead of me. There are witnesses.)


SIXTEENTH ROUND

Best pick: Steve Slaton, Texans: The unequivocal steal of the draft, this is proof that focus during the latter rounds can pay huge dividends. After establishing himself as the starter in Houston, the tiny rookie out of West Virginia shredded enemy defenses, en route to 1,531 total yards and nine TDs. Slaton was selected at #181 overall, forty-eighth among running backs; at year’s end he ranked twentieth overall, eighth among RBs. Now that, my friends, is a killer last-round pick.

And as a little bonus:


BEST WAIVER WIRE PICKUPS

Quarterback: Matt Cassel, Patriots: Tom Brady’s season-ending knee surgery understandably sent waves of panic throughout New England, but it’s hard to imagine his backup acquitting himself to the pressure any better. Fitting comfortably into Bill Belichick’s scheme, Cassel passed for 3,615 yards and 21 TDs against just 11 INTs, also running for 251 yards and two scores, emerging as the thirteenth most valuable player in all of fantasy. Apologies to: Tyler Thigpen (2,417 yards, 17 passing TDs, four rushing TDs).

Running back: Pierre Thomas, Saints: Taking advantage of injuries to Reggie Bush and Deuce McAllister, Thomas accumulated 909 total yards and an amazing 12 TDs despite getting just 160 touches. Apologies to: Kevin Faulk (57 catches, 985 yards, six TDs), Dominic Rhodes (45 catches, 840 yards, nine TDs), Derrick Ward (1,318 yards).

Wide receiver: Antonio Bryant, Buccaneers: Unemployed for the entire 2007 season, Bryant showed flashes of brilliance early in 2008 before simply exploding down the stretch: In the final three weeks of the fantasy season, he caught 21 passes for 435 yards and four TDs. For the full year, he finished with 80 receptions, 1,193 yards, and seven TDs. In related news, my buddy Chuck cut him in Week 5. Apologies to: Lance Moore (71 catches, 837 yards, eight TDs).

Tight end: John Carlson, Seahawks: With the exception of Tony Gonzalez, the tight end position was simply putrid in 2008. That said, Carlson managed nicely in his rookie season, catching 53 passes for 613 yards and five TDs. A healthy Matt Hasselbeck should only improve Carlson’s production next season. Apologies to: Visanthe Shiancoe (40 catches, 582 yards, seven TDs).


And that’s a wrap. Put your criticisms and snarky gripes in the Comments. I’ll be back in May with some exciting basketball analysis – till then, it’s Oscar season.