Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Best Songs (and Albums) of 2011

This past summer, I received bona fide praise regarding my year-end music recap from 2010. Did it come from a journalist at the New York Times? A critic from elitist indie snob-rag Pitchfork Media? My friend Cory, who kinda sorta felt obligated to say something nice to me when I asked him point-blank, "Did you like my post?" As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter. The Manifesto has been lauded for its discerning musical taste; as such, I have no choice but to churn out another "Year in Music" recap for 2011. I owe it to my readers.

We're switching things up a bit this year – my past analysis has been a little too song-heavy for my liking, so I'm appending a list of the Best Albums of the Year to the end of this post as well. By the same rationale, for each song, I'll highlight an alternative track from the same album that's worth checking out. I'll also give an overall album grade for each listed song in a woefully deficient effort to provide some broader context about the listed artist's work (e.g., "This song ruled, but the album was mediocre").

Finally, I'll be embedding videos wherever they exist (if they don't, I'll just provide a YouTube link to an audio version of the song so you can listen), and I'll provide some brief commentary on those as well. That said, a plea from your earnest music enthusiast: Please, for the love of Moses, do not judge a song by its video. Some videos are spectacular, while others are spectacularly stupid, but it's important to remember that they were all created after the song was written. They're fun to watch – just don't let them detract from the music.

(Also, remember the Manifesto's rule: no repeat artists allowed. I strive for variety in all phases of life. Well, with the exceptions of sexual partners and M&M flavors.)

Oh, and just to be crazy and to protest the tyranny of round numbers, this year the Manifesto is highlighting the best 33 songs and 12 albums of the year, because that's how we roll. Let's do it.

The Best 33 Songs of 2011
(Honorable mention: AraabMuzik – Golden Touch; Avril Lavigne – What the Hell; Beirut – Goshen; The Mountain Goats – The Autopsy Garland; R.E.M. – Discoverer; The Vaccines – If you wanna; Veronica Falls – Come on Over)

33. Feist – Graveyard. For a song about death, there's something wonderfully optimistic about Feist's mood here, especially on the insistent refrain, "Bring 'em all back to life!". It's as if she can resurrect the dead with her art.

Alternative track from the same album: Bittersweet Melodies.

Album grade (Metals): B. Nothing earth-shattering, but a cohesive, brittle album nevertheless.

32. Death Cab for Cutie – Underneath the Sycamore. This song actually upsets me, because it's so good that it makes the album's overall blandness all the more glaring. Still, it's further proof that Ben Gibbard can make even the simplest narratives resonate with simple majesty.

Alternative track: You Are a Tourist.

Album grade (Codes and Keys): C+. The most disappointing record of the year. I'm still weeping.

31. The Rapture – Come Back to Me. Good luck not bobbing your head to this one.

Alternative track: Miss You.

Album grade (In the Grace of Your Love): B+. Post-punk is definitively not dead.

30. Evanescence – Lost in Paradise. Amy Lee has always been fascinated by death, but here, she actually dies and ascends to Heaven, only to feel confused, misbegotten, and generally, well, lost. It's a hokey concept, but it works because of the utter conviction of Lee's singing. "I have nothing left," she wails despairingly. Probably because she pours her soul into her music.

Alternative track: The Change.

Album grade (Evanescence): B+. I make no apologies whatsoever for liking this band. None.

29. Foster the People – Helena Beat. I'm a sucker for a falsetto chorus, and Mark Foster's affable high-pitched delivery makes lines like "Yeah-yeah, it's O.K./I tie my hands up to a chair so I don't fall that way" sound a lot less stupid than they deserve. Throw in an unrelenting beat with some electronic snap, and I'm hooked.

Alternative track: Pumped Up Kicks.

Album grade (Torches): B+. Lots to like here – strong beats, catchy choruses, and a lead singer whose voice is just distinctive enough to avoid sounding derivative. Keep an eye on these guys.

Video thoughts: Yikes. Did Rob Zombie direct this video? I'm sort of freaking out right now.

28. The Joy Formidable – A Heavy Abacus. These guitars will knock you the fuck out, and if they somehow don't, Ritzy Bryan's no-holds-barred delivery will finish the job.

Alternative track: Whirring.

Album grade (The Big Roar): B. With some tighter production and a bit more lyrical focus, this could have been one of the best albums of the year.

Video thoughts: This video looks as if it's a freshman's final project for his arts & media class, the one where they encourage you to distort and blur imagery in an effort to glam up otherwise banal material. What a waste.

27. The Antlers – I Don't Want Love. The title pretty much says it all. There's an aching sadness to Pete Silberman's voice that seems insurmountable, as though he's some tragic literary figure borne from the pages of Tolstoy or Hemingway. Thankfully, his pain is our considerable gain.

Alternative track: Putting the Dog to Sleep. (Seriously, how's that for a depressing title?)

Album grade (Burst Apart): B. I wish I could love this album, but it's a bit too sleepy for me. And yes, my friend Brian just took out a contract on my life.

26. The Black Keys – Gold on the Ceiling. The electric riff on display here is absolutely bruising. That the chorus stands up to such a massively energetic buildup is almost miraculous.

Alternative track: Money Maker.

Album grade (El Camino): B. This just arrived last week, so I'm still absorbing it, but in all likelihood, the awesomeness of "Gold on the Ceiling" will simply dwarf the remainder of the album, regardless of its quality.

25. Zola Jesus – Collapse. With perhaps one exception (see #20 below), no band is more cheated by the inherent injustices of a best-song list, as Zola Jesus' magnificence can only be appreciated by listening to its album in full. Nevertheless, of all of the colossal, majestically beautiful compositions on Conatus, this closing track is the most resplendent, a shimmering monument to pain and loss.

Alternative track: Shivers.

Album grade (Conatus): A. Just listen, and be amazed.

24. Adele – Set Fire to the Rain. My problem with Adele is that she only knows one speed, and it's all-out passion. That's fine as far as it goes, and it can make songs such as mega-hit "Rolling in the Deep" impressively powerful. But there's no change of pace in her delivery; even on her gentler ballads, her astounding, uncompromising voice is always at full throttle. "Set Fire to the Rain," however, features sufficient buildup such that its eventual climax ("I set fire to the rain/Watched it pour as I touched your face") achieves actual catharsis. With a weapon as overwhelming as that voice, a little restraint can go a long way.

Alternative track: Rolling in the Deep.

Album grade (21): B-. Sorry, I'm just not a believer.

23. Austra – Lose It. For a song whose high point involves its singer yelping "Oh! Ah! Oh! Ah!" repeatedly, there's impressive sonic activity here. I love the juxtaposition between the piercing pitch of Katie Stelmanis' high-key singing and the ruefully staid bass line, while the production is squeaky-clean and perfectly prioritizes the vocals. The result is a twisty, inventive, and thoroughly engaging piece of music.

Alternative track: The Future. (Note: This song actually features the line, "I came so hard in your mouth".)

Album grade (Feel It Break): A-. Frequently unsettling, consistently compelling.

Video thoughts: It certainly scores points for artistry and ambition. I can't recommend it wholeheartedly, given that it's batshit crazy and makes no sense, but it's watchable.

22. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Ketamine and Ecstasy [no audio available]. For a group with as much indie street cred as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, there's nothing fancy about their latest record, which is probably why I like it so much. "Ketamine and Ecstasy" is the clear highlight, with a rip-roaring chorus and guitars that could punch holes in the walls. It's a reminder that great music can be great fun too.

Alternative track: Misspent Youth.

Album grade (Hysterical): A-. Swirling guitars, soaring choruses.

21. Cults – Abducted. Hey, a duet! The nifty thing about "Abducted" is that, whereas most duets place a premium on equality, the song subverts that dynamic – here, the woman is scorned and damaged, while the man is unsympathetic and cruel. Musically, however, it's Madeline Follin's enthusiasm that carries the day; few women have ever made being dumped sound so good.

Alternative track: Go Outside.

Album grade (Cults): B+. Impressively assured debut from a band whose best is clearly yet to come.

Video thoughts: Simply tremendous. This thing plays like a teaser trailer for the next David Fincher movie. It may, however, give you nightmares.

20. Bon Iver – Calgary. Selecting a single song to acclaim from Bon Iver's self-titled album is like choosing between your children, if your children murmured in hushed, hypnotic voices and created a sustained atmosphere of gentle, enveloping grace. So why "Calgary"? Why are you even asking this question? Shouldn't you just be listening to this album right now?

Alternative track: Holocene.

Album grade (Bon Iver): A. Wow.

Video thoughts: I have no idea what to make of this video. It's ethereal, it's sensual, it's beautiful ... and it's completely indecipherable. Terrence Malick would be proud.

19. The Lonely Island – Jack Sparrow (feat. Michael Bolton). So the joke – three wannabe rappers hire Michael Bolton to bolster their track with a "big, sexy hook", only to have him start yowling about the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films – is funny. But the buried treasure here is that the hook really is big and sexy. Intentional inanity of the lyrics aside, you could absolutely find yourself singing "A mystical quest to the isle of Tortuga/Raven locks sway on the ocean's breeze!" in the shower.

Alternative track: I Just Had Sex (feat. Akon). (Hell, the video for that one is pretty amazing too.)

Album grade (Turtleneck & Chain): B. Hit-and-miss doesn't even begin to describe it.

Video thoughts: The image of Michael Bolton impersonating Julia Roberts is so broadly hilarious that it's easy to miss the subtle nuances that make this video truly great. The ever-expanding exasperation on the trio's faces as Bolton grows increasingly unhinged is masterful. There's a reason these guys make money.

18. How to Dress Well – Suicide Dream 2 (Orchestral Version). Tom Krell's voice just keeps going up and up and up, it's astonishing my computer speakers don't shatter. The emotion on display here is palpable, and the string quartet accompaniment is fluid and gorgeous.

Alternative track: Suicide Dream 1 (Orchestral Version).

Album grade (Just Once EP): B+. It's just a four-song EP, but it sure is stunning.

17. Terius Nash – Long Gone. Composing R&B at its most soulful and intimate, Terius Nash (aka The-Dream) delivers lyrics that are startlingly direct and painful. The story of a curdling relationship broken beyond repair, "Long Gone" begins with confusion ("I don't know what I'm supposed to say ... I don't know what I'm supposed to do") before crumbling into anger ("You're gonna say you love me back/But the thing about that, it's so far from the facts"). Nash's silky vocals prevent the song from becoming unbearably depressing, but even they can't prevent the inexorable destruction, so in the end, we're left with the image of a shattered couple with no hope of reconciliation. And then there's this: "I forgot how to touch you, 'cause every time I reach, you pull away/And I've forgotten how to fuck you, and now when you say my name, it don't feel the same." Ouch.

Alternative track: Wake Me When It's Over.

Album grade (1977): B. A lot to like, but some ugly missteps derail it.

Video thoughts: Simply, elegant, poetic. Well-done.

16. The Decemberists – This Is Why We Fight. Colin Meloy's music has always been pleasant, but there's a surprising urgency underlying "This Is Why We Fight", best personified in an insistent, appropriately combative snare. Meanwhile, the supremely simple chorus ("When we die, we will die with our arms unbound!") features one of the best hooks Meloy has ever written.

Alternative track: Calamity Song.

Album grade (The King Is Dead): A-. Few contemporaries make more consistently engaging pop music.

Video thoughts: A smoothly executed morality play about what happens when you steal cans of tuna fish from a fake war camp. Neat-o.

15. EMA – California. Erika M. Anderson is clearly gripped by bitter, snarling rage, but her gift is to channel that rage into expressions of intimacy rather than pure anger. "California" is laden with instances of bilious hatred – my personal favorite is the scorching insult, "What's it like to be small-town and gay?" – but Anderson's tone transforms them into something redemptive. She's dismissive of her targets (she follows the earlier insult with the casual observation, "Fuck it, baby, I know you'll never change"), but she doesn't allow herself to be swallowed in her own scorn. "I'm just 22; I don't mind dying," she insists earnestly, yet you can tell she wants to stick around. Here's hoping.

Alternative track: Anteroom.

Album grade (Past Life Martyred Saints): A-. Seething rage has never sounded so good.

Video thoughts: Great concept, mediocre execution. Still, I love keeping Anderson in the foreground the entire time.

14. Thursday – No Answers. You want a hook, you got a hook.

Alternative track: Sparks Against the Sun.

Album grade (No Devolución): A-. I'm half-convinced that these guys would be superstars if they didn't have such a stupid fucking name.

13. Peter Björn and John – Second Chance. You want a hook, you really got a hook.

Alternative track: Dig a Little Deeper.

Album grade (Gimme Some): B+. Don't let the easy pleasantness of the songs fool you – this is well-crafted, nimble pop music. Just because it's familiar doesn't make it stale.

Video thoughts: Yawn.

12. Hooray for Earth – True Loves. The sonic verve here is unmistakable, but the pinballing dynamics and lively atmosphere never overwhelm the track's narrative drive. Just a loaded piece of music that will burrow its way into your brain.

Alternative track: Sails.

Album grade (True Loves): A. This is a deeply engrossing record that rewards repeated listens. Where the hell did these guys come from?

Video thoughts: It's Kubrickian!

11. The Rosebuds – Go Ahead. From its opening feral shouts, "Go Ahead" is an instant magnetizer, and as Ivan Howard spins his yarn of mundanity and frustration, it only becomes more intoxicating. "Let's plant a forest where we can hide when the city expels us/We can sleep in the branches, our own little outpost in the trees," he enthuses, and by then you know that this is pure fantasy and that his spouse is having none of it. This is the first Rosebuds record following the divorce between Howard and Kelly Crisp, so some melancholy can be expected. But that bittersweet knowledge lends "Go Ahead" a quiet yearning that somehow makes it more hopeful than depressing. Howard and Crisp may have broken up, but they're still making music together – surely that has to mean something.

Alternative track: Without a Focus.

Album grade (Loud Planes Fly Low): B. I desperately wanted to love this album, but I just never got there.

10. TV on the Radio – Second Song. This song has been genetically engineered to make humans sing along to it. Fighting that urge is fighting our own primordial instincts.

Alternative track: New Cannonball Run.

Album grade (Nine Types of Light): B-. A huge step down from Dear Science.

Video thoughts: Now here's an arts & media project of some value. Sure, it's obscure and inscrutable, but at least there's some narrative continuity at work.

9. Cut Copy – Need You Now. In terms of transcendent moments in music this year, it doesn't get much more epic than the final snare roll leading into the last chorus of "Need You Now". But that's just the gravy. Layering an effortless hook on top of an uncompromising beat, Dan Whitford sings with near-mechanical precision, but that shouldn't suggest that Cut Copy's music is in any way monotonous. On the contrary, "Need You Now" represents one of the world's top new wave bands in peak form, twinning soaring melodies with thumping electronics. That snare roll is just the icing, but it tastes damn good.

Alternative track: Take Me Over.

Album grade (Zonoscope): B+. An almost-great album that can't quite get over the hump.

Video thoughts: I'll give it this: I certainly didn't anticipate where this video was going. Puts a whole new spin on the "athletics are blood sport" motif.

8. Wild Flag – Romance. If you thought the opening riff of "Gold on the Ceiling" was electric, check this baby out. That's just the teaser though – Carrie Brownstein's balls-to-the-wall chorus is downright orgasmic. "We got our eyes, our eyes trained on you!" she spitballs, guitars clanging furiously all around her like metallic beasts. Yet for all of the raucous noise on display, there's a clipped discipline to the songwriting that prevents "Romance" from devouring its own tail. Instead, it pushes forward, again and again, consuming every drop of the band's considerable vigor. It's exhilarating and exhausting at the same time, but the exacting attention to details makes it thoroughly exceptional.

Alternative track: Future Crimes.

Album grade (Wild Flag): B. This one is a bit samey overall, but expect big things next time out.

Video thoughts: Think Office Space crossed with Point Break, only with women and not as awesome.

7. The Weeknd – Wicked Games. Does it get any more depressing than "Tell me you love me even though you don't love me"? That stench of hopeless longing pervades Abel Tesfaye's music, never more so than on "Wicked Games", a twisted, often grotesque ballad of sexual wanderlust and drug addiction. "Bring your love, baby, I can bring my shame/Bring the drugs, baby, I can bring my pain," Tesfaye coos, but you have to wonder if he even knows whom he's talking to. It's more the idea of love that's alluring to him, and he's willing to do anything in an effort to savor a brief taste. But what's truly breathtaking about "Wicked Games" are Tesfaye's towering, high-register vocals, which perfectly convey the depths of his desperation. He's tumbling down, even though his music keeps going up.

Alternative track: The Morning.

Album grade (House of Balloons): B+. Dark, despairing, dazzling.

Video thoughts: A highly persuasive thesis arguing that taking a shitload of drugs is probably a bad idea.

6. Florence + the Machine – Shake It Out. Subtlety be damned. Florence Welch's music is all about provocation, exultation, indulgence. And all the better for us, because when Florence gets hold of a note and shakes the hell out of it, we're treated to an otherworldly spectacle of vocal power. "It's hard to dance with a devil on your back, so shake him off," she instructs us, which is easy for her to say; Satan himself wouldn't be able to harness an instrument of such unbridled potency. But the magnificence of "Shake It Out" is that it doesn't simply function as a showcase for Florence's unparalleled talents; rather, it's an expertly composed piece of songcraft on its own terms. That it builds to a breathless conclusion in which Florence blows the roof off the Sistine Chapel can hardly be held against it.

Alternative track: Heartlines.

Album grade (Ceremonials): A. Top-notch songwriting, show-stopping talent.

Video thoughts: I liked Eyes Wide Shut better the first time.

5. Coldplay – Paradise. Coldplay don't really make music, more gigantic anthems that celebrate music itself. Sure, you can gripe about the lack of subtext, the hearts-on-their-sleeves earnestness, the manifest desire to be beloved. But then you hear the chorus of "Para, Para ... Paradise!" and it all just melts away. Here's a group that embraces the challenge of being the biggest band in the world rather than shrinking from it, and their conviction is undeniable. If they sound a bit entitled singing about immortality, it's because they've earned it.

Alternative track: Charlie Brown.

Album grade (Mylo Xyloto): A. They make good music. Just accept it.

Video thoughts: Sure, the metaphor – that one of the world's most popular bands is so free at heart that they're actually just a bunch of juvenile elephants jamming in the desert – is a bit flimsy. But giant stuffed animals are intrinsically adorable, and when that wandering elephant finds his soulmates at long last, it gets a little dusty.

4. Okkervil River – Mermaid. Whenever I hear this song, I just feel this breathless urge for adventure, and I feel compelled to kiss my wife and children goodbye and venture out onto the lost boiling black water surrounded by wild wailing winds so I can get a glimpse of a mythical creature of indescribable beauty. Then I remember that I'm single, like video games, and loathe boats. But for five minutes, I forget all of that. And so will you.

Alternative track: N/A. Inexplicably, Okkervil River declined to include "Mermaid" on their 2011 LP, I Am Very Far, releasing it as a standalone single instead. They need to fire their producer.

Album grade: N/A. (But "B" for I Am Very Far.)

3. Iron & Wine – Walking Far from Home. The concept is simple: Sam Beam is walking, and he's describing what he's seeing. And from that straightforward premise unspools a narrative of striking loveliness. The images Beam describes range from the mundane (blooming fruit trees, flowers on a hillside) to the poetic (sinners making music, sunlight on the water) to the absurd (a bird falling like a hammer from the sky, a millionaire pissing on the lawn), but they coalesce into a deeply moving tribute to the idiosyncratic wonders of small-town Americana.

Alternative track: Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me.

Album grade (Kiss Each Other Clean): B. It's a bit inconsistent, but when Iron & Wine get it right, their potential is limitless.

2. M83 – Midnight City. PERFECTION.

Alternative track: Steve McQueen.

Album grade (Hurry Up, We're Dreaming): A. An affirmation of the transcendent power of music.

Video thoughts: Stupendous. Take the apocalyptic framework from Foster the People's "Helena Beat" video, only replace the ugliness and nihilism with hope, childhood yearning, and euphoria.

1. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Heart in Your Heartbreak. The paradox of music is that it can be so uplifting when it's at its most devastating. Some of history's saddest songs are drenched in power-rock guitars (e.g., Guns N' Roses' "November Rain"), and the driving vitality of the instrumentation is what gives some of the most heart-wrenching music its emotional kick. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart recognize this irony, and they play with it both sonically (the perfectly pitched guitars here are supported by a ruthless rhythm section) and lyrically (see the title). The result is an impeccably crafted pop song that is bouncy, buoyant, and generally delightful. It is also unforgivingly bleak, from its very first line ("Take a look around, you're going down") to its stomach-punching closer ("Even if she'd stay, you know she's gone"). Like all things worth loving, you'll keep crawling back to it again and again, even if it sticks you in the gut every time.

Alternative track: Belong.

Album grade (Belong): A. They said it themselves: Dreams can still come true.

Video thoughts: Plainly skewing toward the "heart" side of the dichotomy, this video is upbeat, invigorating, and generally triumphant. Just don't be fooled.

And, as promised:

The Best 12 Albums of 2011
(Honorable mention: Cut Copy – Zonoscope; Evanescence – Evanescence; Peter Björn and John – Gimme Some; The Rapture – In the Grace of Your Love; The Weeknd – House of Balloons)

12. Thursday – No Devolución
11. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Hysterical
10. Austra – Feel It Break
9. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
8. EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
7. Zola Jesus – Conatus
6. Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto
5. Hooray for Earth – True Loves
4. M83 – Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
3. Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials
2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
1. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong

Till next year.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Top 10 TV Series on Netflix Streaming

Over the past few months, Netflix has served as a paradigmatic case study in hapless corporate mismanagement. Between sudden price hikes, ill-conceived ideas (seriously, Qwikster?), and smarmy emails, no company has done more to alienate its customer base and squander an otherwise highly successful product. (You know, besides the NBA.) This is not, however, a post designed to excoriate Netflix. Rather, I'm extolling the service for its most valuable commodity: streaming TV series.

Look, streaming is the future. I confess that I maintain some elitist qualms regarding Netflix's streaming service – the selection is pitiful, the audio/video quality is weaker compared to DVD (and dramatically pales versus Blu-ray), certain features such as subtitles are unavailable, the in-movie interface is pathetic – but for the most part, streaming gets the job done. That's especially true in the Twitter-based Age of Instantania, where all we care about is doing whatever we want at the exact instant we want to do it. (That Twitter is gradually eroding the hallowed industry of journalism into a disgraceful, speed-obsessed circus is also a post for another day.) When people feel like watching something, whether it's the latest Twilight movie or a classic episode of "Seinfeld", they do not want to wait three days for the fucking disc to arrive in the mail – they want to watch it right away. Streaming is the future, and Netflix (and every other company of its ilk) knows it.

And no product is more ideally suited for streaming than the television series. Watching a movie on streaming saves you a trip to the theatre; watching a TV show on streaming can eliminate weeks, months, or literally (in cases of older shows with multiple seasons) years of waiting time. Streaming can yield a more enjoyable and cohesive viewing experience as well, as viewers are more likely to mentally connect plot threads and characters if they aren't required to wait a week between each episode.

Of course, the ability to demolish multiple seasons of a single show within a week is only valuable if the show is actually good, lest you waste hours of your time watching something like "Heroes". So when my friend Travis asked me to recommend "Netflix instant gems", I felt it my solemn duty to point him and the rest of my readers in the right direction. That's why the Manifesto is compiling a list of the Top 10 TV Shows Available on Netflix streaming. So sit back, fire up your PlayStation 3, and enjoy the following shows without ever having to venture even as far as your mailbox.

[Note: I'm not bothering to include "Arrested Development" or "The Office" because both shows have achieved such massive popularity that I have nothing to add. I'm also ignoring "Weeds" because the sixth season isn't available. Suffice it to say that all three shows are well worth watching.]

10. Party Down (2009-10; two seasons, 20 episodes). Workplace satire has become fairly rote since the one-two-punch success of Office Space and "The Office", but it rarely features the lacerating wit and sharply defined characters that conspire to make "Party Down" so appealing. Anchored by a splendidly simple premise – a catering group works a different gig for each episode, inevitably suffering the inherent humiliations therein – the series is indiscriminate in its comedic appetites, with moments ranging from low-key banter to slapstick to outright farce. The most enduring element is the contrast between the ultra-blasé Adam Scott and the superbly straitlaced Ken Marino, while supporting players Lizzy Caplan (the hot girl), Ryan Hansen (the airhead playboy), and Martin Starr (the nerd) receive ample opportunity to subvert their characters' apparent archetypes. "Party Down" also takes care not to be overly contemptuous of its guest stars (i.e., the party hosts), treating them with a curious combination of disgust and envy. Most of the caterers hate their jobs, and they hate their clients, but partly because they'd rather be enjoying the party from the other side. That's one of the nuanced observations that makes "Party Down" such a rewarding show.

(Favorite episodes: Calif. College Conservative Union Caucus; Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception; Steve Guttenberg's Birthday; Not on Your Wife Opening Night.)

9. Friday Night Lights (2006-11; five seasons, 76 episodes). The paradox of "Friday Night Lights" is that it's ostensibly a show entirely about football, and the football scenes are the weakest part of the show. That's partially an indictment of the constraints of the genre – the proportion of the show's games that come down to the final play is glaringly unrealistic – but it's more a testament to the extraordinary attention the shows pays to its characters off the gridiron. That's because "Friday Night Lights" isn't really about football the game but about the way that the obsession with that game infects an entire town. With football as its backdrop, the show marries soap-opera-sized themes (abortion, steroids, teenage sex, drug use, the works) with fully realized characters, resulting in a wholly convincing portrait of Dillon, Texas. Yet in spite of the show's overall bigness, the real strength of "Friday Night Lights" is its minor pleasures: the playful spousal bickering between Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, the resolute assertions of sexuality of Aimee Teegarden and Adrianne Palicki, the hilarious needling between friends Zach Gilford and Jesse Plemons. It also features a star-making turn from Gilford as Matt Saracen, a historically well-written character of transcendent likability. In the end, "Friday Night Lights" will make you smile and cry, but it will also make you pump your fist and scream "SARACEN!" as a spiral sails through the air in the warm Texas night.

(Favorite episodes: I Think We Should Have Sex; Mud Bowl; Last Days of Summer; Underdogs; The Son; Always.)

8. Battlestar Galactica (2005-09; four seasons, 73 episodes, plus opening three-hour miniseries). That "Battlestar Galactica" ran for as long as it did is somewhat remarkable, given the stigmatized nature of science-fiction in contemporary pop culture. But the reason for the show's enduring popularity, as well as its excellence, is that it focuses not on the science but on the politics of humanity. The series follows a band of survivors of a nuclear-style holocaust – led by the oft-clashing, sometimes-allied duo of a rugged military leader (Edward James Olmos, supremely dignified) and a pragmatic politician (Mary McDonnell, game) – in their twin efforts to establish a new civilization and fend off a revolt from a race of machines called Cylons. That may sound preposterous, but the richness of the show's characters and the sympathetic nature of their plight makes it compelling stuff, and as the scope of the show continually expands, "Battlestar Galactica" proves to be a persuasive thesis on the role of governance in society. It's also phenomenally well-made, with first-rate production values and a "Deadwood"-sized cast of capable actors; my personal favorites are the scientist Baltar (James Callis, sublimely oily) and the tough-as-nails soldier Boomer (Grace Park, hot as hell), each of whom harbors a secret. The show occasionally becomes bogged down in philosophizing (though even a dissertation on the purpose of machinery's existence can be invigorating when it's delivered by Dean Stockwell), but for the most part, "Battlestar Galactica" is strong storytelling on a grand scale.

(Favorite episodes: Kobol's Last Gleaming; Home; Lay Down Your Burdens; Crossroads.)

7. 24 (2001-10; eight seasons, 192 episodes). Of all of the shows on this list, none is more perfectly tailored to Netflix streaming than "24". Watch the show from week to week and you'll inevitably grow weary of the ludicrous twists, the gaping plot holes, the nonsensical double crosses, and all the other absurdities that make "24" so fucking great. Plow through six straight episodes on streaming, however, and you have no time to ponder the show's patent irrationality; you're too caught up in the frenzied thrill-ride of Jack Bauer saving the world over and over again. People who nitpick "24" for occasionally not making sense miss the point. The show was never designed to make sense – it's designed to induce delirium. Watching "24" is a giddy experience, a jingoistic high celebrating a distinctly American brand of heroism. The show is pure kinetic energy, breathlessly racing from one preposterous plot point to the next with unstoppable momentum. Of course, it's impossible to sustain that level of verve over the course of 200 episodes, so it's unsurprising that "24" falters a bit in its latter seasons. (Then again, maybe that's because I watched those seasons as they aired, whereas I annihilated the first 96 episodes in a handful of weeks.) At its best, however, "24" is perhaps the most compelling action show ever made, eternally anchored by Kiefer Sutherland's intense, fiercely committed lead performance. It's a show that venerates the classical elements of pop entertainment: the crackling of gunfire, the sinister scent of suit-clad bureaucrats, the repellant charisma of pure villainy (Dennis Hopper!), and – most of all – the feverish anticipation of wondering what the hell will happen next.

(Favorite episodes: Day 1: 11:00 PM - 12:00 AM; Day 3: 11:00 AM - 12:00 PM; Day 4: 1:00 PM - 2:00 PM; Day 4: 6:00 AM - 7:00 AM; Day 5: 7:00 AM - 8:00 AM.)

6. Dollhouse (2009-10; two seasons, 26 episodes). Fox's tragic (if utterly predictable) mishandling of Joss Whedon's borderline brilliant third show – the studio interference, the wasteland Friday timeslot, the feeble promotion efforts – was unforgivable, but it may actually have worked in the series' favor. The most consistently innovative showrunner in the business (as well as one of the two best pure writers alongside Aaron Sorkin), Whedon knew relatively early that "Dollhouse" was ill-fated, and this foreknowledge allowed him to concoct a closed-end story that actually gave his monumentally ambitious show a proper ending. Regardless, "Dollhouse" stands as an extraordinary assemblage of television talent, with an astonishingly persuasive Eliza Dushku leading the way. The premise – Dushku plays one of a handful of "dolls" who can be imprinted with any set of characteristics and abilities (all according to a high-paying client's needs) – is rife with philosophic possibility, and Whedon mines it greedily, with episodes that touch on everything from sexual exploitation to military intelligence gathering to a wild metaphysical excursion on life after death. If that sounds heavy or dry, it's neither, thanks mostly to Whedon's nimble pen but also to his actors. Dushku, never the most versatile actress, disappears into her character (or rather characters) with aplomb, but the real highlights are Fran Kranz as the super-genius computer programmer and Olivia Williams as the dollhouse's icy, acidic overlord. Just like the characters who populate its title, "Dollhouse" is chameleonic, morphing from action extravaganza to comedic farce to apocalyptic war drama. It's alternately funny, suspenseful, and deeply moving. In essence, it's as if we're one of the dollhouse's customers, only instead of seeking a doll, we're demanding the perfect television show, and just as Whedon promised, "Dollhouse" is everything we want it to be.

(Favorite episodes: Man on the Street; Needs; Spy in the House of Love; Epitaph One; Belonging; A Love Supreme; The Attic; Epitaph Two: The Return.)

5. Sports Night (1998-2000; two seasons, 45 episodes). Aaron Sorkin is smarter than we are. This is his gift and curse. His challenge is not to write a television show involving hyper-intelligent characters engaging in banter so snappy that it borders on musical – he can do that with ease. His challenge is to write such a show without condescending to his audience or parading his intellectual superiority. The chief pleasure of "Sports Night" is that it grants us the opportunity to spend time with smart, articulate people without making us feel as though we're crashing a meeting of Gifted & Talented, Cool Version. Even for his debut show, Sorkin's dialogue is as sharp as ever – his actors don't converse as much as send volleys of silver-spun words back and forth like tennis players. Under a different tone, the dynamic could be alienating, but "Sports Night" bathes its characters with warm compassion, recognizing their foibles even while applauding their wit. As always, Sorkin's actors are remarkably game, most notably Josh Charles and Peter Krause as the two lead anchors, while Joshua Malina occasionally seizes the spotlight with his inimitable sincerity (he perfectly personifies the sports-nerd stereotype only to subsequently obliterate it). In spite of its title, "Sports Night" is even less about sports than Sorkin's "West Wing" was about politics. It's really about people: their passions, their flaws, their laudable desire to do a job and do it well. In that way, they're just like we are. Just much smarter.

(Favorite episodes: Shoe Money Tonight; Rebecca; Dana and the Deep Blue Sea; The Sword of Orion; Eli's Coming; The Cut Man Cometh; Draft Day.)

4. Firefly (2002; one season, 15 episodes, plus post-series movie Serenity). If Fox's mismanagement of "Dollhouse" was unfortunate, its bungling of Joss Whedon's equally magnificent "Firefly" was appalling. When presented with Whedon's stupendous two-hour pilot, the network rejected it as too slow and demanded that he create a more fan-friendly version. It then marketed the show as a jokey action comedy, then aired a number of episodes out of order, then ultimately canceled it before it could complete a full season run. Thankfully, the series can now be seen in its proper sequence, which is a blessing, because "Firefly" is a treasure. A glorious fusion of new-age sci-fi and classic Western, the show exploits Whedon's gift for combining archetypal storylines with richly original characters. As it follows a ragtag group of rebels scrounging for the next day's pay (and a little justice), "Firefly" succeeds as an homage to classic genre tales, but it's no mere imitator, carving out an identity all its own. Nowhere is this more evident than in Whedon's dialogue, in which he creates a lyrical cadence as distinctive as that of Mamet or Tarantino. The acting is also uniformly excellent, most notably Nathan Fillion (oozing Han Solo, only more nonchalant) in a transcendent turn as the crew's captain. (As a special treat, Christina Hendricks smolders in two guest appearances.) An exemplar of the show's guiding spirit is its main set, the spaceship "Serenity", a marvel of both ingenious innovation and rustic charm. Of course, the "Serenity", per the show's mythology, is deemed a Firefly-class. Quite.

(Favorite episodes: Serenity (pilot); Our Mrs. Reynolds; Out of Gas; Objects in Space.)

3. Mad Men (2007-present; four seasons, 52 episodes). "Mad Men" has become so universally praised that it's almost pointless to keep heaping accolades on it. But we've also reached the precarious point where some people are beginning to take the series for granted, and I think it's important to acknowledge the historic achievement the show represents, not just for AMC (now the second must-see network alongside HBO) but for the medium of television as a whole. That may sound hyperbolic, but remember that "Mad Men" is a dialogue-driven period piece set in an advertising agency featuring a morally clouded protagonist and not a single action scene. That's not exactly the formula for commercially successful TV. But what truly sets "Mad Men" apart, aside from its impeccable 1960s setting, is its unceasing devotion to character development. Pivoting on the now-legendary Don Draper (Jon Hamm, peerless) but consistently stretching outward to colorize all edges of its universe, the show adds dimensionality to all of its inhabitants, great and small. It introduces us to the affable executive (John Slattery, wonderfully acerbic), the slutty secretary (Christina Hendricks, dropping jaws left and right), and the timid new girl (Elisabeth Moss, eye-opening), only to expose those classifiers as perfunctory within its first few episodes. Characters morph and grow over time, and "Mad Men" exhibits a fearlessness that belies its status as a smash hit, constantly reinventing itself to stave off the merest possibility of ennui. From a literalist perspective, not all that much happens – the plot unfurls deliberately, and characters often take sojourns seemingly disconnected from the main narrative. But "Mad Men" is nevertheless teeming with activity, and it illustrates that, in conversations within sterile boardrooms and musty suburban houses, the stakes of human drama are high indeed.

(Favorite episodes: Red in the Face; Shoot; The Wheel; Meditations in an Emergency; Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency; The Grown-Ups; Shut the Door. Have a Seat; The Suitcase; Blowing Smoke; Tommorowland.)

2. Breaking Bad (2008-present; four seasons, 46 episodes). I never imagined that I could declare "Mad Men" anything less than the best show currently airing, much less the second-best show on its own network. But the excruciating suspense and formal rigor of "Breaking Bad" simply cannot be denied. This is technically a television series, but no TV show has ever been more abundantly cinematic. The premise is simple: Chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston, forever unpredictable but always compelling) learns he's dying of cancer, so he resolves to bankroll his family by cooking meth, recruiting former student Jesse (Aaron Paul, as magnetic as he is sympathetic) as his business partner. From there, "Breaking Bad" spirals into a series of increasingly nightmarish scenarios, continuously ratcheting up the tension to unbearable heights but never losing its undercurrent of black humor (most memorably personified by Bob Odenkirk as sleazy lawyer "Better Call Saul"). In its implementation, the show pairs the depth of character of "Mad Men" itself with the ruthless craftsmanship of No Country for Old Men; the setpieces in "Breaking Bad" are so immaculately conceived and so breathtaking in execution that they frequently incite a "Rewind that, I need to see that again" response. This is entertainment at its grandest, most relentless level, sucking viewers into its vortex of desperation and feeding off of our energy. Scariest is that the first two seasons, although tremendous in their own right, essentially function as setup for the third and fourth – once the ferocious Giancarlo Esposito takes center stage, every single episode is enthralling. Tragic yet funny, bravura yet restrained, "Breaking Bad" stands as a towering monument to the power of the screen, big or small. It cannot be missed.

(Favorite episodes: Pilot; Crazy Handful of Nothin'; A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal; Grilled; Peekaboo; 4 Days Out; ABQ; No Más; Sunset; One Minute; Half Measures; Full Measure; Box Cutter; Crawl Space; End Times; Face Off.)

1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003; seven seasons, 144 episodes). The primary advantage of television is time. Movies will always be my favorite form of entertainment, but even the greatest films only keep us in our seats for 2-3 hours. A great television series, however, permits us to travel to its uniquely formed universe and spend time with its characters for literally dozens of hours. And I have never felt more gratified at the opportunity to explore a new world with new people than at the chance to journey to Sunnydale, CA and hang out with Buffy Summers and her friends and foes. And sure, one can expect from its title that "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a goofy, childish lark, but the simplistic notion that this is a show about a hot chick who kills vampires is so ludicrously shortsighted that it's barely worth repudiating. But it's also impossible to deconstruct the show to a single theme. It's about maturity. It's about sacrifice. It's about longing and romance, about love found and lost. It's about children and their parents, about rebellion and forgiveness, about grief and the strength it takes to overcome that grief. It's about friendship, family, heroism, pain, resistance, loss, happiness, and death.

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is a television show about all of these things, but most of all, it's about people. People generally, sure, but its people. No show I've ever watched has employed a more caring, empathetic hand when it comes to defining its characters. Joss Whedon's writing has always been sharp and witty, but in "Buffy" its fundamental characteristic is its humanity. He really cares about these people, and as a result, so do we.

For what it's worth, the show is tremendous fun. It strikes the perfect balance between zany imagination and grounded reality, it's fantastically funny, its plot arcs are gracefully envisioned and deftly implemented, its dialogue is consistently fresh and engaging, and its fight sequences have real energy and snap. It's also an extraordinarily rangy series, with specific episodes varying from musical to silent comedy to action thriller to somber drama. It's slam-bang entertainment at its finest.

But it's also so much more. The pleasure – and the brilliance – of the show is its unnerving, silent ability to draw you into its world, to make you feel as if you belong. And in that way, when I watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", I'm not just traveling to a marvelously imaginative universe of vampires and demons, of magic and witchcraft, of pathos and hilarity, of righteousness and truth. I'm also going home.

(Favorite episodes: Prophecy Girl; Innocence; Passion; Becoming; Amends; Doppelgangland; Graduation Day; Hush; The Body; The Gift; Once More, with Feeling; Tabula Rasa; Beneath You; Conversations with Dead People.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Best Movies of 2010 (Part II)

If you missed Part I of this list, you can check it out here. Moving right along, here are the Manifesto's Top 10 Movies of 2010:

10. Fair Game. As befits a film based on books by Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson, Doug Liman's political thriller is overtly partisan, bristling with outrage from its authors and scorn for the Bush White House. Politics aside, however, Fair Game is a canny, invigorating piece of muckraking cinema. Tightly plotted, crisply edited (remember, Liman made the first and best Bourne picture), and laden with verisimilitude, the movie swiftly and efficiently paints a portrait of both a country in turmoil and a marriage in crisis. Naomi Watts is typically sharp as outed CIA operative Plame, but it's Sean Penn who provides the film's real force. Bringing his considerable talent to bear, Penn portrays Wilson as part righteous firebrand, part weary husband, a confident, decent man lashing out at the institutions who have failed him. Fair Game may inspire heated reactions (perhaps if anyone actually saw it), but it's a reminder that hushed conversations and shadowy figures can form the backdrop for a movie as gripping as any blockbuster.

9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Violent, nasty, and borderline sadistic, Niels Arden Oplev's adaptation of Stieg Larsson's wildly popular novel is not to be taken lightly. But the film's descent into such grisly territory is necessary in order to illustrate the utter depravity that forms the backbone of Larsson's story. While it traffics in ugliness, the screenplay also exhibits patience, gradually weaving the plot's disparate threads together and setting us up for an electrifying final half hour. Oplev's sense of atmosphere is impressively foreboding, while the haunting Swedish landscape helps to heighten the gloom and the dread. And as the iconic title character, Noomi Rapace is singularly compelling, with her brash physicality camouflaging hidden vulnerability. David Fincher's American remake is set to hit screens this Christmas, and while I like Rooney Mara, I wish her luck – the intensity and nuance of Rapace's portrayal is not likely to be imitated easily.

8. The Secret in Their Eyes. Another suspense film that appreciates the virtues of patience, Juan José Campanella's slow-burning crime picture flows easily from danger to romance and back, slipping in and out of different time periods but remaining insistently urgent throughout. Though it functions successfully on many levels, The Secret in Their Eyes is most memorable for its thesis on humanity's thirst for revenge, and the price we're willing to pay for it. Ricardo Darín is thoroughly persuasive as a lawyer searching for the truth, while Campanella shows off some directorial chops, most notably in a dazzling, single-take sequence that sweeps through a soccer stadium. But it's the film's finale that packs its most powerful punch, as we meet a character who has achieved his lifelong quest for vengeance, at the mere cost of his soul.

7. Black Swan. The endemic problem with most mind-fuck movies (think Mulholland Drive) is that they don't abide by any set of rational rules, meaning anything can happen at any time, so our capacity to relate to the onscreen proceedings virtually evaporates. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan avoids this trap, partly because it tackles the very notion of perception versus reality as its subject matter, and partly because it's just so damn entertaining. As the story burrows deeper into the fractured mind of Nina Sayers, Natalie Portman's tortured protagonist, it becomes very clear to us that something is not quite right, but Aronofsky tethers Nina's mounting psychosis to real-world elements in her ballet company, only gradually turning up the insanity quotient. The result is that we embrace the film's plummeting descent into mental decay, experiencing Nina's horrors from her own splintered perspective. It helps that Aronofsky treats us to a sensual world of splendorous sights, overwhelming us with visual and aural pleasures, including ravishing cinematography, intricate costumes, Tchaikovsky, and Mila Kunis. Black Swan may be a movie about madness, but madness has rarely looked this beautiful.

6. The Square. Noir pictures are so rife with cinematic possibility – from archetypal heroes to cold-blooded femme fatales to diabolical plot twists – that it's surprising we don't see more of them. Nash Edgerton's The Square takes a standard noir blueprint – an ordinary man hopes to escape his life of drudgery with millions of dollars and a beautiful woman, only to find himself in way the fuck over his head – and laces it with desperation. The genius of The Square is that, as the double-crosses pile up and the brilliant plan starts tumbling down, we continually sympathize with David Roberts' titular hero, even as he commits some truly dastardly deeds. Roberts himself is crucial to the film's success, as he embodies a man of fundamental decency driven to horrific extremes seemingly through no fault of his own. Edgerton, meanwhile, wields his camera with a vigor and dexterity reminiscent of the Coen Brothers, effortlessly snaring his audience with faultless technique and a geometric certainty that suits his title. Buyer beware: The Square's corners are awfully sharp.

5. Toy Story 3. I'll admit that I met the prospect of a third Toy Story movie with limited enthusiasm, as it initially seemed like a purely commercial creation from a studio otherwise renowned for focusing on story rather than profits. But while Toy Story 3 was undeniably a marketing bonanza, it turns out that the folks at Pixar still had plenty of story left for its golden goose of a franchise. The magnificence of the animation – the eye-popping colors, the painstaking detail, the characters' limber and lifelike movements – is expected from Pixar at this point, but what really sparkles is Michael Arndt's screenplay. The dialogue flows effortlessly and is free from artifice, while the story of characters journeying into adulthood is recognizably universal but also vitally new. The result is a picture that's both exhilarating and profoundly touching. Toys may never grow up, but people do, and so do film franchises.

4. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Edgar Wright's freewheeling, frenzied adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel is, I admit, totally bonkers. It's also the trippiest, funniest, most insistently entertaining movie of the year. Approaching the material with a child's zeal but a filmmaker's eye, Wright gleefully transforms Scott Pilgrim's wacked-out zaniness into the cinematic equivalent of a fun-house ride, but he also adroitly ensures that viewers never get thrown from their seats. The movie employs its share of colorful gizmos – thought bubbles form, animations explode, and sound effects splatter – but Wright (ably assisted by his two editors, Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss) consistently propels the story forward rather than reveling in his own creativity. And it's that combination of spirited inventiveness and narrative drive that turns Scott Pilgrim vs. the World into the most furiously paced fantasy adventure since Moulin Rouge!. The film doesn't always make sense, but its universe is a seductive black hole of imagination and ingenuity, and as the loaded cast (most notably Kieran Culkin and Mary Elizabeth Winstead) delivers one knockout one-liner after the next, we can't help but be sucked into the vortex.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Many viewers, even ardent fans, complained that this first installment of the stupendous two-part conclusion to the Harry Potter series dragged, featuring too much scurrying and too little action. I won't deny that the film takes its time, but that's precisely the point. By slowing the pace, director David Yates ultimately heightens the tension, effectively conveying the enormity of the quest that lies before his characters, and the sense of hopelessness that continually gnaws at them. This is not to suggest, however, that the movie is boring. On the contrary, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 hums with excitement and energy, as sporadic bursts of action serve as the perfect ballast to the characters' frantic searching and fraying alliances. Gorgeous art direction and chilling, desaturated cinematography deepen the dread, but it's the three lead actors who carry the film. Led by a heartbreaking Emma Watson (her finest performance yet), they remind us that in a world rich with terrors – snarling snakes, possessed lockets, wizards and witches of blackest evil – it is the discord among compatriots that poses our greatest danger, and the bonds of friendship that forge our greatest strength.

2. The Social Network. It's been three years since I've dared to call a film "perfect", but David Fincher's lacerating character study is just about that. A technical marvel, The Social Network is a production of ruthless efficiency and craftsmanship, from Kirk Baxter's and Angus Wall's precise, whiplash editing to Trent Reznor's and Atticus Ross' eerie, ambient score to Aaron Sorkin's incisive, unapologetically smart screenplay (all three earned Oscars). Yet its story is also compelling and vigorously paced, which is particularly amazing given that it's basically scene after scene of people talking and, well, that's about it. Andrew Garfield's heartfelt decency and Justin Timberlake's shrewd opportunism serve as perfect foils for Jesse Eisenberg's scrupulously unsympathetic lead performance, a singular concoction of confusion, obsession, and loneliness. Meanwhile, behind the camera, Fincher shepherds everything forward with merciless detachment. The Social Network may just be a film about the nerd who invented Facebook, but it's also an astonishing reminder of how so much human feeling can be contained in a movie comprised of – and about – all those zeroes and ones.

1. Inception. I'll be honest: On balance, The Social Network is probably a better movie than Inception. Where The Social Network is taut, streamlined, and visceral, Inception is chaotic, bulky, and fantastical, with a boundlessly inventive screenplay that nevertheless raises more questions than it can possibly answer. Yet it still climbs to the summit of my year-end list for one simple reason: It is transportive. As I watched Christopher Nolan's sublime fusion of James Bond-style action and cyber-punk philosophy on dreams, the walls of the theatre melted away, and I found myself brought headlong into his magnificently detailed universe of hurtling trains, rotating hallways, and bending cities. The movie is absolutely breathtaking. You can move down the checklist if you like, marveling at the seamless special effects, the exquisite production design, Hans Zimmer's electric score, the ridiculously talented cast (with Leonardo DiCaprio leading the way), the labyrinthine screenplay. But the truly transcendent quality of Inception is transcendence itself, the way it yearns to be glorious, to be great, to be new. It's more than just a movie – it's va va voom come to life, right up there on the screen. It's cinema's dream.

Till next year.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Best Movies of 2010 (Part I)

Movie critics are supposed to publish year-end top 10 lists. It's part of our job (and while I receive no income for holding this alleged "job", I'm still labeling myself a critic and that's that). Sure, you can grouse about how it's morally objectionable to rank subjective works of art against one another or how 10 is an arbitrary figure (I particularly enjoyed ever-bitchy New York Times critic Manohla Dargis seething that our habit of composing 10-item lists functions as tacit approval of the Ten Commandments), but readers have a ravenous appetite for easily digestible summaries of the year that was, and it's our duty to oblige them.

Back in 2007, I defied this silent edict and published a list of the top fifteen movies of the year rather than my usual decathlon. My rationale was entirely laudatory – there were simply more stellar films than there was available space on a catalog of 10. And while I couldn't quite label titles such as Charlie Wilson's War or Juno as one 2007's 10 best films, I couldn't in good conscience exclude them from my commemoration of the year's superlative features. I had no choice: I had to expand the list to 15.

For 2010, I'm inflating my year-end "best of" list to an even 20 films, but my reasoning this year is considerably different. My problem isn't that I saw too many great movies in 2010; my problem is that I saw too few. Don't get me wrong, the past year offered plenty of pretty good movies, but they were just that – pretty good. Maybe it's a slate of increasingly indistinguishable films, or maybe it's my increasingly jaded cinematic sensibilities, but for whatever reason, I found it difficult to separate the wheat of 2010's theatrical offerings from their chaff.

That's the bad news. The good news is that as a result, I now have double the number of movies to recommend to readers, and just because I can't endorse all of these pictures with the utmost zeal doesn't mean they aren't all worth adding to your Netflix queue.

So let's get to it. This post will provide the back half of the list, with the remaining 10 arriving shortly. Here are the Manifesto's Top 10 20 movies of 2010:

(Honorable mention: The American, Another Year, The Ghost Writer, Hereafter, I Am Love, Lebanon, Love & Other Drugs, Rabbit Hole.)

20. The Town. Ben Affleck has made some questionable decisions in the past as an actor (not to mention as a celebrity), but he's atoning in style as a director. His first feature, Gone Baby Gone, was a riveting thriller that flirted with masterpiece status; The Town isn't quite as good, but it nevertheless confirms Affleck as a filmmaker of considerable poise and confidence. The movie breaks little new ground, but its set pieces are executed with such speed and precision that they create genuine suspense. The acting is uniformly strong (an achingly vulnerable Rebecca Hall leaves the most lasting impression, as she always does), and the brisk pace never flags, even during the overlong climax. The Town may not be a great movie, but it's a thoroughly solid one that indicates that Affleck's best has likely yet to come.

19. You Don't Know Jack. HBO may be ceding some ground to AMC in terms of airing the best shows on television, but it remains the preeminent network when it comes to producing feature films. A compassionate, often captivating examination of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, Barry Levinson's You Don't Know Jack strikes a delicate balance between professional objectivity and personal outrage. Anchored by a committed Al Pacino – abandoning his late-period bluster and delivering his best performance since Insomnia in the process – Levinson's film is clearly political, but it employs a terse, matter-of-fact style that slyly camouflages its agenda without blunting its impact. Danny Huston turns in superb supporting work as Kevorkian's lawyer, but this is Pacino's movie, as he portrays with perfect clarity a man whose passion in life was his commitment to death.

18. The King's Speech. Depending on my audience, my assessment of 2010's Best Picture victor can vacillate from critical snorting to earnest support. On the one hand, I firmly believe that The King's Speech is the weakest title to take home Oscar's biggest prize since 2005. The visuals are drab, the story is utter cornball, and little about the film feels vital or fresh. On the other hand, the movie dispenses pure pleasure, dodging its underdog-hero clichés by employing a savvy mix of warm humor and heartfelt sincerity. Colin Firth is magnificent as a dignified man fumbling futilely for respect, while Geoffrey Rush is nearly as good as his wry, acid tutor. The King's Speech didn't deserve to win Best Picture, but that doesn't mean it isn't an enjoyable time at the movies.

17. Agora. Alejandro Amenábar's first English-language feature since The Others, Agora grossed a tepid $600 thousand at the domestic box office, as Newmarket showed little interest in promoting it. That's a shame, because American audiences missed out on an odd, often stirring blend of intimate drama and throwback epic. On one level, Agora is a rousing, straightforward tale of old-school religious conflict and barbarism on the scale of The Ten Commandments. Yet it also spends significant screen time on a subplot in which a woman (Rachel Weisz, in fine form) becomes obsessed with discerning Earth's position in the solar system. This latter focus on academic curiosity would seem incongruous with a sword-and-sandal saga, but Amenábar fuses them into a unified story with nimble dexterity. In the end, Agora is a film of true spectacle, whether dealing with a horde of Christian zealots or a diagram drawn in the sand.

16. Shutter Island. As a director, Martin Scorsese has always been playful, even when exploring such sordid subjects as simmering revenge or gangland violence, but in Shutter Island, he abandons any semblance of discipline. The resulting film is nonsensical but never mundane, grotesquely overwrought but furiously watchable. The plot is basically incoherent and essentially has nowhere to go, yet the movie somehow builds and builds, delving ever deeper into its deranged universe. That universe happens to be the mind of its protagonist, Teddy Daniels, and it helps that Daniels is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, turning in yet another jaw-dropper as a desperate man grappling with both the inmates of an asylum and his own inner demons. Hurtling from one bizarre sequence to the next, Shutter Island is a house of cards, threatening to tumble at the slightest breeze, but Scorsese and his star somehow keep us mesmerized, oblivious to the absurdity that surrounds us.

15. Never Let Me Go. The science-fiction label has recently attained a stigma of sorts, as it's usually appended to movies heavy on explosions and light on plot. Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go, based on Kazuo Ishiguro's wildly popular novel, is technically a science-fiction film, but there's nary an action sequence or cyborg to be found. Rather, it's a hushed, hypnotic drama about the tyranny of disease and the fraying bonds of female friendship. Romanek operates at an unhurried pace that will irritate some viewers, but he lends his characters real depth and shading, and the film ultimately achieves a catharsis of surprising potency. Composer Rachel Portman essays the year's finest musical score, while Keira Knightley's acrid, hopeless yearning is a music all its own.

14. Barney's Version. Paul Giamatti is a magician of an actor. With his hangdog face, scruffy facial hair, and gruff voice, he's virtually the antithesis of a movie star, but he invariably transforms his characters from bumbling schlubs into everyman heroes of indefinable but undeniable charm. And Barney's Version is its irascible leading man personified. A sprawling character study that lurches from past to present and from one undercooked subplot to the next, the movie is a mess, but it's a wonderfully appealing mess, leavened with sharp humor and a central romance that is both highly improbable and deeply moving. Heartfelt supporting work from Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, and (against all odds) Scott Speedman help elevate the material, but it's Giamatti's winsome, soulful turn as the title character that redeems a film that first appears, much like its protagonist, to be irredeemable.

13. Dogtooth. "This movie is really weird," wrote a YouTube user posting a clip from Dogtooth. No kidding. Giorgos Lanthimos' demented satire of a family who takes home-schooling to the next level is occasionally depraved, frequently disturbing, and consistently transfixing. Lanthimos' style is one of cool, formal discipline, a rigor that helps undercut a story whose myriad absurdities include three incestuous siblings, two beatings involving home video equipment, and one mutilated cat. But Dogtooth's outright lunacy doubles as its strongest asset, as the film plunges us into its well-manicured wilderness and lets us forage for understanding without any guidance. The great pleasure of Dogtooth is not its madness but the manner in which that madness is gradually revealed, as we ever so slowly come to appreciate the depths of Lanthimos' twisted vision, even as we're horrified by the sight.

12. Let Me In. One of the finest films from 2008 was Let the Right One In, a Swedish concoction of equal parts savagery and tenderness. (Its director, Tomas Alfredson, is helming Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, the long-awaited adaptation of the John le Carré smash due in November.) Depending on one's perspective, the decision to remake it just two years later was either a bald insult to Swedish cinema or a noble attempt to tell its story to subtitle-phobic American audiences (if the latter, it was a catastrophic failure, as it scraped just $12 million). Personally, I felt no need for a new version, but evaluated independently, Let Me In is damn impressive filmmaking, with director Matt Reeves sustaining a sinister mood of coiled suspense. Young actors Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloë Grace Moretz are persuasive, but it's Reeves' patience and restraint – his refusal to rush – that lends the film an exhilarating, exhausting tension. Let Me In may have been unnecessary, but it lingers a long time afterward regardless.

11. True Grit. There probably wasn't any more need for the Coen Brothers to remake True Grit than there was for Matt Reeves to remake Let Me In, but I'm still not complaining, not when the Coens brought their trademark perfectionist craft to the screen. (Admittedly, I've yet to see the prior incarnation that gave John Wayne his lone Oscar.) In the Coen canon, True Grit is neither a diabolically clever tale in the mold of Blood Simple nor a ruthlessly unforgiving thriller à la No Country for Old Men. What it is, however, is the most relaxed picture the brothers have made since The Big Lebowski, an effortlessly told drama that pleases easily, even when it's trafficking in deception and murder. There's minimal subtext beneath True Grit, but there's much to behold on the surface, from Roger Deakins' magnificent cinematography to Jess Gonchor's immaculate production design to the Coens' rhythmic adaptation of Charles Portis' dialogue. The Coens have also done cinema a great service in discovering Hailee Steinfeld, the startlingly self-assured actress whose pitch-perfect performance shall remain in memory long after the spectre of this insubstantial, delightful film has faded.

Check back soon for Part II.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Manifesto's Guide to March Madness 2011

In the 2004 remake of the movie Alfie, Jude Law plays a Manhattan playboy who casually sleeps with dozens of women but resists a real relationship, partly because he's British and good-looking and just can't pass up banging countless hot chicks, but more because he can't be with a woman without seeing her flaws. "Hair on her arms," he grumbles about one former fling, dismissing an otherwise knockout blonde due to an excess of follicles. He even throws away guaranteed happiness with a perfect 10 played by Marisa Tomei (still in her extended and perhaps infinite prime) just so he can maintain some nebulous sense of masculine freedom. It's a classic character study of a commitment-phobe: Every time Alfie sees something good, he winds up running the other way.

Well, that's exactly how I feel about college basketball this year. Every time I think about backing a potential NCAA tournament champion, all I can see are its flaws. The main difference between Alfie and me – well, other than the fact that he got laid six times a week, whereas I spent roughly four hours every day watching basketball for the past three months – is that Alfie was an idiot who couldn't appreciate the beauty of what sat right in from of him. I, however, am not so deluded, as the objects of my affection – namely the 68 teams vying for this year's NCAA title – are all more flawed than the characters in The Social Network.

Let's just take a sampling of the top contenders: Ohio State has no killer instinct. Kansas has character issues. Pitt lacks a creator. North Carolina has no depth. Duke relies too much on perimeter shooting. Notre Dame has no inside scoring. Texas is coached by Rick Barnes. UCLA can't bring John Wooden back from the dead.

Of course, that this year's top-tier teams are all impressively flawed is hardly surprising in the current era of college basketball, in which the dynasties of old have been replaced with an oppressive sense of parity. Take away home-court advantage, and virtually any team can lose on any given night. From a fan's point of view, this makes college hoops tremendous fun these days, as the competition invariably results in games that are both highly unpredictable and closely contested. But from a prognosticator's perspective, it's a nightmare. How are you supposed to pick a team to win six consecutive games in March when every time you look at that team, all you see is how many different ways it can lose?

Here's the rub: I am an obsessive basketball fan, and never have I watched more basketball in my life than I have this year. Yet paradoxically, I have never felt less confident in making my picks. The 2011 NCAA Tournament is that much of a crapshoot.

And let's not forget the inherent randomness of March Madness. I picked fifth-seeded Butler to reach the Final Four last year, which is easily one of the greatest achievements of my entire life, up there with going undefeated in the regular season in high school tennis for three straight years, along with that one time I watched 11 consecutive episodes of "24" without ever leaving my sofa. Everyone thought I was insane for picking Butler, and the Bulldogs came within that shot of winning the championship.

Here's the thing though: Butler almost lost last year ... to Murray State in the second round. That game was tied at 50 with less than a minute left, and if Gordon Hayward hadn't deflected a last-second pass, my purported fortunetelling brilliance might have crumbled into dust faster than Julian Glover at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That's just how the tourney works.

But that's why it's so much fun. The odds of me correctly forecasting this year's Final Four are roughly equivalent to the odds of the NCAA tapping Jim Calhoun to teach an ethics seminar, but that just makes it a more worthwhile challenge. So here we go with the Manifesto's official guide to March Madness, region by region. (Here's a blank bracket so you can follow along.)

The jungle: This region is absolutely loaded. The selection committee is taking plenty of (deserved) flak for some of its questionable inclusions (UAB?) at the expense of more worthy clubs (Colorado?), but its inability to evenly apportion the best teams across the four regions represents its biggest failure. Kentucky is one of the scariest teams in the country – they have an RPI of 7 and just demolished all comers in the SEC Tournament – and they're a four seed? Unacceptable.

The top seed: Ohio State is a good basketball team. They feature one of the only true low-post scorers in the country (freshman Jared Sullinger), a point guard whose play is so poised that his favorite band has to be The Hold Steady (freshman Aaron Kraft), a lights-out three-point shooter (Jon Diebler, who canned a preposterous 17 of 20 threes during a two-game stretch earlier this month), a sturdy swingman who can score in the mid-range (William Buford), and an experienced glue guy who does all the little things and never complains (senior David Lighty). They're well-coached, they defend, and they can score both inside and out.

That said, for such a complete team, the Buckeyes have an alarming tendency to allow opponents to hang around. Six of their wins were by five points or less, not to mention their recent overtime squeaker against Northwestern in the Big Ten Tournament. On the plus side, this means that they've proven they can win close games and won't buckle under pressure. On the minus side, it illustrates that they lack killer instinct, which could bite them against stronger competition. Just keep that in mind when you're considering filling them in as your national champion.

The enigma: Ever since much-maligned point guard Larry Drew "transferred" midseason (assuming his teammates didn't make him an offer he couldn't refuse), North Carolina has looked like one of the best teams in the country. Kendall Marshall is a smart point guard with superb court vision, John Henson and Tyler Zeller are forces in the paint (defensively and offensively, respectively), and alleged phenom Harrison Barnes – perhaps upon glancing at the draft boards on and realizing he was slipping out of the top 10 – suddenly started showcasing the skills that made him the top recruit in this year's class. It's an impressive team, if a thin one (the drop-off in talent from the aforementioned four studs to the team's remaining regulars is precipitous).

Yet the Tar Heels frequently look disinterested and lethargic, turning their talent on in spurts but sleepwalking for long stretches of games. This lackadaisical play came to a head during the ACC Tournament, when Carolina fell behind by 19 points to Miami before storming back, then trailed virtually the entire game against Clemson before Barnes invoked the spirit of Michael Jordan and dropped 40 points to lead another impossible comeback. They tried a similar tactic in the final against Duke, only their second-half run stalled when Barnes missed an open three that would have cut the lead to seven, and the Blue Devils subsequently pulled away. The lesson is simple: If you're as talented as the Tar Heels, you can relax against teams such as Miami and Clemson and get away with it, but you can't do it against high-caliber competition. And that's why they won't be able to beat Ohio State.

The impostor: The Big East landed 11 teams in this year's field, easily a record for a single conference. As a result, you might think a sensible strategy would be to ride as many Big East teams as possible. So why can't I watch Big East basketball without reflexively covering my eyes like I'm watching the scourging scene from The Passion of the Christ? Every Big East game this year seemed to involve two teams that (1) played aggressive defense, (2) were extremely athletic, and (3) executed their half-court offenses as if they were high school JV clubs. With the exception of a composed Notre Dame squad, every team in the Big East is a nightmare to watch on offense. (I remember watching Villanova-Syracuse with my friend Beale, and the quality of play was so bad, Beale kept screaming every five minutes as if he had Tourette's.) West Virginia is no exception. The Mountaineers landed a five seed because of their conference, but it doesn't make them any good.

The headliner: Mark it down: A potential Sweet Sixteen matchup between Ohio State and Kentucky may be the most exciting game of the entire tournament, much less the third round. As I've mentioned, this Kentucky team scares the hell out of me. Terrence Jones is a tremendous talent who can score from anywhere on the court, Josh Harrellson may be the best per-minute rebounder in the country, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller defend and make plays, and Brandon Knight ... well, Brandon Knight is a bit of a wildcard, but he can carry the team when he's on. I was all set to take Kentucky as my sleeper pick for the Final Four until the committee decided the Wildcats should face the top overall seed in the Sweet 16. Damn them.

The snub: Georgia was widely considered a bubble team that lost its chance to make the field of 64 68 when it lost to Alabama for the second time (thanks to an unforgivable timeout from coach Mark Fox that made Chris Webber's gaffe in the '93 championship game look innocuous by comparison). Somehow they landed a freaking 10 seed. Meanwhile, UAB played one ranked team all year (and lost) and somehow squeaked in.

Now, on paper, the two teams with the best case for making the field over the likes of Georgia and UAB are Colorado and Virginia Tech. But the snub that really breaks my heart is Saint Mary's, because I was all set to take the Gaels to the Elite Eight behind the play of Mickey McConnell, possibly the best player in the country no one's ever heard of. Everyone raves about Jimmer Fredette, and rightly so, but McConnell's shooting percentages (51% from the field, 46% from three, and 91% from the line) are reminiscent of Steve Nash. He's a heady player who always makes the right decision and consistently gives his team a chance to win. America deserved to watch him play in March.

The Picks
Play-in games: Texas-San Antonio over Alabama State, Clemson over UAB.

Sweet 16: Ohio State over George Mason, Kentucky over Clemson, Syracuse over Xavier, North Carolina over Washington.

Regional Final: OHIO STATE over North Carolina.

The jumble: At first glance, this region appears weak. Duke was the lowest-ranked #1 seed, San Diego State plays in the Mountain West and played a creampuff nonconference schedule, and Uconn finished 9-9 in regular season play in the Big East. But let's not forget that the regional final takes place in Anaheim, where San Diego State could have a major crowd advantage. Furthermore, as with Kentucky, Texas is a ferocious #4 seed (I'd pegged them as a #2 seed heading into the selection show). Overall, it's probably the second-weakest region, but it's closer in caliber to the strong Southwest than it is to the embarrassingly bad Southeast.

The top seed: This Duke team is not quite an elite ballclub, but neither was last year's, and all that team did was win the title. The Blue Devils have a Player of the Year candidate in Nolan Smith, a triple-threat guard who defends and doesn't shrink from big moments. They have two sharpshooting guards in Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, plus a pair of athletic bigs in the Plumlee brothers, both of whom have come on of late. And they have Mike Krzyzewski, which is usually (though not always – see the St. John's debacle from earlier this year) a good thing.

They also have Kyle Singler, my favorite college player since J.J. Redick and potentially one of the best all-around players in the country. I say "potentially" because, for all of the things Singler does well – he's turned himself into an elite perimeter defender, he's offensively versatile in that he can out-quick bigger defenders and out-muscle smaller players, and he's an absolute iron man (he hasn't played fewer than 36 minutes in a game since mid-February) – he won't be truly complete until he discovers who illicitly sold his jumpshot on eBay (he's shooting a horrendous 10% from three over his last nine games). For Duke to win six straight games, they'll need Singler – one of the best players in the school's history – to produce on both ends of the floor.

But Singler's shooting woes embody Duke's Achilles' heel as a unit: They're a perimeter team. Smith is a capable penetrator, especially when driving to his right, but he's as likely to drive-and-kick as he is to finish at the rim, meaning Curry, Dawkins et al. need to be able to knock down open shots. As with most Duke teams, this one's loaded with players who can shoot (including Ryan Kelly, a steady sophomore who's primed for a big season next year), but they're also liable to go cold, and when that happens, they're in trouble.

The incalculable loss: I don't have too much to say about Kyrie Irving. When your team loses the best player in the entire country eight games into the season due to some mystifying toe injury and still lands a number one seed, it's been an impressive season regardless of how it turns out. Suffice it to say that if Irving were healthy, Duke would win the championship. That is not an opinion.

(And if Irving just happens to pull a Willis Reed in the Final Four ...)

The mirage: Don't get me wrong, Kemba Walker is a talented basketball player, and Uconn's blitzkrieg through the Big East Tournament was an astonishing display of athleticism and determination. But that doesn't change the fact that the team simply isn't that good. They have no inside scoring, their perimeter players are wildly inconsistent (three of their regulars shoot less than 40% from the field), and their halfcourt strategy seems to be, "Let's pass the ball around for 28 seconds, then let Walker create". There's a reason they lost four out of their last five regular season games.

Now, it's tempting to think that a player of Walker's caliber can carry a team that plays solid defense and scores in transition. I can buy that for 3-4 games, but six? What happens if he gets in foul trouble? What if a smart team throws a box-and-one at him and forces Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith to make plays? What happens if he simply has an off night? He can't win the title by himself.

The nightmare matchup: If a duel between Ohio State and Kentucky is a dream matchup for a general basketball, a contest between Duke and Texas is downright terrifying to Blue Devil fans. This Texas team is athletic, they rebound (ranked fifth in the nation), and as my buddy Mike pointed out, they'll have two tough defenders (Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph) to throw at Nolan Smith. That they're the only team to beat Kansas at Kansas in the last two years is not an accident. If Rick Barnes weren't involved, I'd be picking Texas to reach the Final Four.

Of course, such a nightmare might remain a mere spectre that haunts my dreams, because Texas might lose to Oakland in the first round. The Longhorns have lost four of their last eight games, including an epic choke against Colorado in which they blew a 22-point lead and played as if God had turned on the "CPU Assist" button in favor of the Buffaloes. Am I really supposed to pick this team to make the Elite Eight? Are we sure there have to be eight teams in the Elite Eight?

(Seriously, can you believe that a year ago there was talk of expanding the tournament field to ninety-six teams? Given this slate of mediocre clubs, I'd be willing to consider reducing the number of eligible teams to 48.)

The farce: Remember that hilarious SportsCenter commercial in which Kenny Mayne and Stuart Scott play basketball with a bunch of kids and flip out whenever the kids did something wrong? I think of that commercial whenever I watch Derrick Williams play on Arizona. A potential top-three pick in the draft (how many freakishly athletic 6'8" forwards shoot 60% from three?), Williams playing in the Pac-10 is like Peyton Manning playing in a Pee Wee league. By all accounts, he's a good teammate, but I can totally see him snapping the next time Kyle Fogg throws up a brick. "When I pass it to you, give it right back. GIVE IT BACK!"

The Picks
Sweet 16: Duke over Michigan, Texas over Arizona, Uconn over Cincinnati, Temple over San Diego State.

Regional Final: DUKE over Temple.

(For the record, I've flip-flopped roughly 35 times on the outcome of that Duke-Texas game. I'm likely still not done.)

The right stuff: This is a strong, well-balanced region – not as loaded as the East, but not as barren as the Southeast. With the exception of Georgetown landing a #6 seed (because Chris Wright is supposedly coming back completely healthy from a broken hand, sure), I can't say a bad thing about this region. And that's rare for me.

The top seed: Part of me thinks that Kansas is the most complete team in the country; part of me thinks the Jayhawks would rather be playing beer pong than focusing on winning a national championship. But when in doubt, I tend to choose talent over character, and make no mistake – Kansas has talent. Brady Morningstar and Tyrell Reed combine to form a steady backcourt, Thomas Robinson is a load inside, and Marcus Morris might be the most underrated player in the country (and he still won Big 12 Player of the Year). They would probably be my clear favorite if Bill Self weren't constantly jerking freshman stud Josh Selby around like he's trying to emulate Jon Voight in Varsity Blues. Still, as long as they keep their heads in the game, the Jayhawks will make it to Houston.

The quiet ones: Notre Dame is hardly an imposing team on the court and would be an afterthought in the overall tournament picture, if it weren't for the irritating fact that they hardly ever lose a game. In a conference defined by athleticism and toughness, the Irish make their living through patience, execution, and perimeter shooting. Could they get riled against a hard-nosed Florida State squad? Sure. Could they ride Ben Hansbrough's decision-making and court savvy to a Final Four berth? It's entirely possible. Basically, I have no idea what to make of them.

The noisy ones: Purdue features one phenomenal talent (JaJuan Johnson, a high-flying big man with shooting touch), one sturdy senior who's capable of taking over a game (E'Twaun Moore), and a bunch of gritty role players who defend, hustle, and generally make life miserable for the opposing team. That's exactly the kind of roster that can give Notre Dame problems, and it's also a roster that has no chance of beating Kansas. Sometimes, things just shake out that way.

The lucky ones: By all accounts, VCU has no business playing in the tournament. They've lost five of their last eight games, they beat one ranked team all year, and they finished third in the Colonial. So why do I feel like they could parlay their good fortune into a serious run, at least beating an overrated Georgetown squad and possibly making Purdue sweat?

The unlucky ones: I like Louisville. I like Kansas more.

The Picks
Play-in game: VCU over USC.

Sweet 16: Kansas over UNLV, Louisville over Richmond, Purdue over VCU, Notre Dame over Florida State.

Regional Final: KANSAS over Purdue.

The wasteland: What a mess. Are the people who placed the teams in this region the same people who are currently negotiating the NFL's labor dispute? I honestly think that the East and the Southeast engaged in secret trade talks, whereby the Southeast sent Kentucky and North Carolina to the East in exchange for Florida, Wisconsin, and the right to host the top overall seed in 2013. There's no other explanation for this putrid collection of teams.

The top seed: If this year's NCAA Tournament were Super Mario Kart, Pitt would be Luigi. It's a team that does everything reasonably well but nothing extraordinarily well. They play defense, they rebound, they're physical, they have one dead-eye shooter (Ashton Gibbs), and they have a sneakily talented all-around player in Brad Wanamaker. And yet, no one on this Pitt team scares me. It's one thing to have a balanced squad; it's another not to have a go-to-guy in crunch-time. Can a team with no stars really make the Final Four?

The fraud: I've been secretly rooting for Florida to do well in the regular season, just so they could get a high seed and inevitably choke in the tournament. I certainly got the first half of my wish, as the Gators inexplicably landed a two seed. The only problem is that every other team in their half of the region is as bad as they are. Nevertheless, I dislike this team. They're led by two guards (Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker) who don't like to pass, make bad decisions, and are inefficient shooters (Boynton shoots just 38% overall and 33% from three). Their big guys are talented but don't get enough touches because their guards don't share the ball. And their best player, small forward Chandler Parsons, is a liability in close games because he shoots 56% from the free-throw line. And they could feasibly reach the Final Four. The Southeast is that bad.

The scouting report: Alright, here's the Manifesto's take on BYU's Jimmer Fredette: Obviously he's a remarkable collegiate player who deserves to be National Player of the Year. But what's his pro stock? Fredette has two major strengths: unlimited shooting range, and an uncanny ability to wriggle into the lane and get his shot off against bigger players. The first should translate just fine to the NBA, but the second will not – Fredette just won't be able to create his own shot at the next level. But that doesn't mean he won't be a reliable scorer off the bench. He's a willing passer with decent vision, and if he works on his defense (given his size, he'll need to defend shooting guards), he could be a valuable role player on a good team. Just don't expect him to drop 52 points against NBA defenses.

In any case, as good as Fredette is, BYU is obviously toast without Brandon Davies. Ever since Davies – the Cougars' lone athletic big man and leading rebounder – was suspended for engaging in some hanky-panky that violated the university's honor code, the team has been in a tailspin, and there's no reason to expect that to change against a high-energy team such as St. John's. That'll teach Davies to have consensual sex with his girlfriend.

The great unknowns: In case you couldn't tell, the amount of college basketball I've watched over the past few months could charitably be described as "unhealthy". And yet, I never managed to catch either Utah State or Belmont. I did, however, watch plenty of both Kansas State and Wisconsin, and I saw more than enough to know that I'm not backing either team against an opponent who's won 30 games. All hail the second-round matchup between 12 and 13 seeds!

The vendetta: Every year, I predict Michigan State to lose in the first or second round, always citing their poor regular season performance. And every year, they advance further than I predict, reaching the Final Four six times in the past 12 years. Well guess what? I'm picking against them again this year. They lost 14 games this season, and they haven't won three in a row since November. You will have to kill me, Tom Izzo. I'm like Lee J. Cobb in 12 Angry Men – I am the last holdout. I will never vote for you while I am alive.

The sleeper: I recognize that ritual requires me to pick at least one team from this wretched region to reach the Final Four. I've already written off the top five seeds (Pitt, Florida, BYU, Wisconsin, and Kansas State). St. John's is intriguing, but the Red Storm are too inconsistent to win four straight games in March. UCLA hails from that wilderness called the Pac-10. Butler doesn't have Gordon Hayward anymore. I'm tempted to write in "Saint Mary's", but ESPN's bracket interface won't let me. Which means I'm left with ...

... Old Dominion.

Sure, it's a stretch, but it's not unfathomable. Old Dominion is good. They've won 13 of their last 14 games. Their only bad loss all season was to VCU. They play a brutal, suffocating zone. They're seventh in the nation in rebounding. And if they pull off a win against Pitt in the second round (basically a home game for ODU in D.C.), the entire New Orleans crowd will be vigorously behind them in the region's final two games.

Besides, I'm taking three #1 seeds in the other three regions, so I need to shake things up a little. It's that kind of year.

The Picks
Play-in game: UNC-Ashville over Arkansas-Little Rock.

Sweet 16: Old Dominion over Pitt, Utah State over Belmont, St. John's over BYU, UCLA over Florida.

Regional Final: OLD DOMINION over St. John's.

Semifinal #1: The only reason I'm picking Duke to get past Texas is that Mike Krzyzewski might be able to out-coach Rick Barnes. He won't be able to do the same to Thad Motta. Ohio State over Duke.

Semifinal #2: If I have the balls to pick Old Dominion to make the Final Four, doesn't that mean I should ride them all the way and back them to beat Kansas? No.

Championship: In a battle between the two most talented teams in the country, I'll take KANSAS' depth and balance over Ohio State's firepower.

And that's a wrap to the Manifesto's guide to March Madness 2011. I look forward to getting most of this wrong, but no matter what happens, I still have this from last year.