Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Best Movies of 2011 (Part III)

And finally, the Manifesto completes its countdown of the Top 25 Movies of 2011. If you missed the earlier installments, here's Part I, and here's Part II.

5. The Adjustment Bureau. The skeleton of The Adjustment Bureau – an adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story about omnipotent beings with the power to shape the course of human history – hardly sounds like the blueprint for a stirring romance. Yet while George Nolfi's movie engages on numerous levels – as crackerjack thriller, as soft-spoken political commentary, as metaphysical mind-bender – it works strongest as a pure love story. As a charismatic politician and his elusive soul mate, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt exhibit a rare chemistry that is both electric and soothing. Nolfi's screenplay toys with a number of legitimately fascinating ideas, particularly the Promethean notion that humanity is destined to destroy itself absent divine intervention, but at its core, it's about two people's desperate efforts to be together, even as otherworldly forces conspire to keep them apart. To that end, the success of The Adjustment Bureau hinges entirely on its ability to illustrate that its two heroes were literally made for one another, and when we see Damon and Blunt on screen together – when we witness the ease of their laughs, the softness of their smiles, the longing in their eyes – there's simply no doubt. Another entry in the canon of cinematic romance might suggest that their problems don't amount to a hill of beans, but The Adjustment Bureau proffers a different theory: that in this dystopian universe of sinister angels and teleporting doors, love is the most powerful force in the world.

4. War Horse. "It's a movie about a horse," a friend of mine derisively scoffed when I implored him to see War Horse. It's a statement that's entirely accurate but also disappointingly narrow. Yes, War Horse's protagonist is equine, but it's as much a movie about a horse as Animal Farm was a book about a pig. Rather, it's the most lyrical film of Steven Spielberg's career, a soaring tribute both to the classical storytelling of yesteryear (the final image could have been lifted directly from a John Ford picture) and, more crucially, to the soldiers who waded deep into the muck. Episodic in form, War Horse follows the stallion Joey through a series of harrowing encounters in World War I, with each installment growing more fraught with peril (and, paradoxically, more suffused with beauty). But the movie is far more than a collection of vignettes; it's no less than a solemn, heartfelt paean to the endurance of the human spirit. The triumph of War Horse is that that spirit just happens to be personified by a horse. Ever since E.T., Spielberg has proven himself an inveterate master in evoking emotion from alien creatures, and Joey – whether through a hitch in his gait or a flicker of his eyes – communicates undeniably human traits of pride, tenacity, sorrow, and (most of all) fear. That is Spielberg's true achievement, for in his hands, a movie camera can peer into the eyes of a stallion and reflect the heroism – and the sacrifice – of a generation.

3. Drive. Given that its core involves little more than a nameless man who drives around Los Angeles, Drive could easily be deemed thematically shallow. It isn't – it's just that its depth is entirely visible, right up there on the screen for us to see and, oddly, touch. Nicolas Winding Refn's heart-stopping thriller is a uniquely tactile experience. The slow-motion camera movements, the gauzy soundtrack, the purring sound design – they all lend the movie a sense of physical presence, an exhilarating immediacy that makes you want to reach out and caress that black Mustang as it thunders past. This is not to suggest that Drive is narratively lean; Hossein Amini's screenplay is taut but hard-charging, and it sketches a number of colorful characters, most memorably Albert Brooks' hypnotically ruthless mobster. But while the hard-boiled story traffics in lurid violence and spasmodic brutality, Refn lovingly renders each detail, creating an atmosphere of purity amidst the decadence. The result is that even as Drive lowers its characters down into the grisliness of the underworld, it elevates its audience to a state of ecstasy. It's an astonishing feat of directorial juxtaposition, as well as a bold illustration of the transportive power of cinema. For all its pulp and playfulness, Drive serves as a bracing reminder of an important point: that the act of watching movies can and should be savored.

2. The Descendants. The story of a grieving, wounded man – a husband coping with the imminent death of his wife, a father flailing to connect with his two unknowable daughters, a lost soul searching for his own identity – The Descendants has all the ingredients of an exceedingly dour affair. And Alexander Payne's intricately textured character study does feature moments of deep, aching sadness. Its predominant hues, however, are those of warmth, humor, and generosity. Rather than descend into miserabilism, The Descendants uses its protagonist's crisis as an opportunity to explore his relationships with his family, and there's an inherent gentleness to Payne's screenplay (co-written with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) that belies the potentially somber plot. That gentleness extends both to the film's gorgeous Hawaiian setting and to its characters, who invariably come off as flawed, confused, and angry, which is another way of saying that they seem honest, sympathetic, and real. The uniformly strong performances (particularly from George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, and Judy Greer) only deepen the characters' abiding sincerity, while simultaneously enhancing the movie's overall spirit of nobility. In the end, The Descendants is decidedly a life-affirming experience, one that wrings laughter and smiles from its audience along with sorrow and tears. In Payne's world, it seems, even death affords the opportunity for joy.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. "It's very impressive, isn't it?" Luna Lovegood asks rhetorically while gazing at the web of spell-work stretching across the night sky outside Hogwarts Castle, her voice full of ethereal, baffled wonderment. She's not wrong. The culmination of more than a decade of rigorous world-building (not to mention several billion dollars' worth of budget), David Yates' stunning, spellbinding picture is a towering, monumental achievement of epic filmmaking. The production design is immaculate, the special effects are flawlessly integrated without ever upstaging the action, and the grave, shadowy cinematography lends visual gravitas to the sheer weight of the characters' plight. Yet for all its blockbuster enormity, the movie is replete with a bevy of whimsical, small-scale pleasures, from the wry humor of the dialogue to the quiet resolve of young wizards steeling themselves for battle to the quavering sadness of Hermione's heartbreaking line, "I'll go with you". It's a film as intimate as it is spectacular.

But more than anything else, the singular triumph of Yates' adaptation is not that it brings J.K. Rowling's novel to rushing, vigorous life but that it can stand entirely on its own. His movie may exceed the imagination of the book's wildest fans, but it's still a movie, and it moves and breathes in the inimitable language of cinema. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is a testament to the unique power of the movies, a crowning example of the medium's ability to sweep audiences from their seats in the theatre and carry them to a faraway world, a world alight with color and shadow, with sadism and heroism, with terror and magic.

So Luna Lovegood is right – it's very impressive. Indeed, it's a historic conclusion to cinema's greatest, grandest franchise. But it's also a lesson to aspiring filmmakers that this is how it's done, and in that respect, it serves as a magnificent final document of an incomparable legacy.

And for those who are especially lazy, here's the full list of the Manifesto's Best Movies of 2011:

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
2. The Descendants
3. Drive
4. War Horse
5. The Adjustment Bureau
6. Martha Marcy May Marlene
7. Hanna
8. Warrior
9. The Ides of March
10. A Separation
11. Contagion
12. Mysteries of Lisbon
13. Midnight in Paris
14. Rango
15. Crazy, Stupid, Love.
16. Love Crime
17. Moneyball
18. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
19. Margin Call
20. The Artist
21. The Muppets
22. The Skin I Live In
23. The Guard
24. Incendies
25. We Need to Talk About Kevin

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Best Movies of 2011 (Part II)

The Manifesto is counting down its Top 25 Movies of 2011. If you missed Part I, check it out here.

15. Crazy, Stupid, Love. A happy mess of a movie, Crazy, Stupid, Love. skates nimbly across the surface of a number of genres, from coming-of-age story to midlife-crisis mania to the lothario with the heart of gold. But underlying all of these stories is a core of genuine sweetness, and it's that sincerity that elevates the film from a disposable pleasure to a singular snapshot of contemporary romance. Dan Fogelman's screenplay, which features its share of legitimate surprises, has a warm regard for its characters, and the inordinately talented cast (Steve Carell and Ryan Gosling co-headline as sap and stud, respectively, with Julianne Moore and Emma Stone providing superlative support as shrew and sex kitten) imbue their parts with undeniable humanity. Directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa put the players through their humiliating paces – most memorably in a hilarious slice of farce – but they also undergird the playfulness with real pathos that only rarely stumbles into sanctimony. In the end, the film is a winning reminder that, while love may indeed be crazy and stupid, movies about it can be smart and true.

14. Rango. With its timeless appeal of hardened heroes, louche lawlessness, and the yawning immensity of the frontier, the western is one of cinema's sturdiest archetypes. And Rango pays tribute to that enduring tradition, concocting a landscape of dusty saloons and oppressive sunlight that evokes past classics such as High Noon and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Of course, the protagonist of Gore Verbinski's sly, sharply funny film is a gangly, garrulous lizard, so it doesn't play entirely straight. But Rango is less concerned with sending up the western than telling its own story of self-discovery with verve and visual wit. Rango himself is a fantastically original creation, with his bulging eyes and jagged limbs aptly complementing his tendency for angular, off-kilter commentary (it helps that Johnny Depp delivers screenwriter John Logan's wacky non sequiturs with his customary gusto). And Verbinski – whose Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy continues to be tragically underrated – remains a maestro of smoothly choreographed mayhem, while Hans Zimmer (a maestro in his own right) supplies the most purely enjoyable score of his illustrious career. Near its end, Rango explicitly references The Man With No Name, and it's an earned comparison; in this green-skinned, silver-tongued reptile, Clint Eastwood's storybook avenger could hardly have found a more worthy successor.

13. Midnight in Paris. Nostalgia isn't a virtue in itself, and in some cases, directors' waxing poetic about the past only serves to highlight their own inadequacies in the present. Woody Allen's delightful fantasy evades that trap, transporting viewers to a bygone era of wistful enchantment while also gently reminding us that contemporary culture isn't half-bad. Guided by a good-natured, easily appealing Owen Wilson (who is in turn fleeing a wonderfully prickly Rachel McAdams), Midnight in Paris takes rapture in eavesdropping on countless legendary artists of the 1920s (and other golden ages), and the experience of simply spending time with such luminaries proves to be durably charming. But Allen is interested in more than just naïve hero-worship, and his surrogate's self-described "minor insight" – namely, that the temptation to aggressively romanticize the past is hardly unique to his own generation – carries major thematic force. It's a point made all the more compelling by canny editing and a cadre of capable actors, most notably Corey Stoll as an appropriately blunt Hemingway and Michael Sheen as a hilariously pretentious oenophile. Taken in conjunction with its maker's inconsistent but storied career, Midnight in Paris documents a crucial truth: that every time period, throughout history, bears witness to the birth of great artists.

12. Mysteries of Lisbon. At four-and-a-half hours long, Mysteries of Lisbon might initially appear to be a chore, one of those self-flattering behemoths that bludgeons its viewers into submission. And watching Raúl Ruiz's sumptuous epic is indeed a bit draining, but that's only because its virtuoso technique stimulates lovers of cinema into a state of perpetual astonishment. There's so much to savor here – the intricate period wardrobe, the startlingly evocative cinematography, the ravishing production design – that continually consuming all of the film's marvels for 270 minutes proves to be somewhat exhausting. There's also the matter of parsing the time-shifting narrative, an operatic tale of headlong love and familial betrayal that spans multiple generations. Yet Ruiz shepherds us through his exquisite labyrinth with a gentle, dreamlike grace, and as the story glides in and out of time, it proves to envelop its audience rather than taunt it. Perhaps such generosity should only be expected from a movie that, with its luxurious imagery and painstaking craftsmanship, never stops giving.

11. Contagion. For someone who's prone to making flabby, self-indulgent movies like Che and The Girlfriend Experience, Steven Soderbergh can be a ruthlessly efficient filmmaker when he wants to be. Contagion is about the rapid spread of disease, so it's only appropriate that it moves with uncompromising speed, hurtling across continents in a desperate attempt to keep pace with its titular pathogen. The body count swiftly rises, and with it an omnipresent sense of dread, but what's truly terrifying about Contagion is its chillingly plausible depiction of community in chaos. With our backs against the wall, it appears, humanity's basest instincts win out, and Soderbergh mercilessly peels back the fabric of society to expose the rot underneath. Yet he also reveals the resolute determination of a species reluctant to yield, and if the movie's dominant worldview is bleak, it nevertheless offers a persuasive portrait of science, a pragmatic discipline in which brawny heroism gives way to keen intelligence and astute decision-making. Those same virtues exemplify Contagion, a film in which clipped editing, sharp screenwriting, and uniformly excellent acting (most memorably from a heartbreaking Kate Winslet and a self-assured Jennifer Ehle) combine into an invigorating concoction. On-screen death has rarely felt this lively.

10. A Separation. From its hypnotic opening scene – a simple static two-shot in which a husband and wife bicker about their pending divorce – A Separation establishes that it isn't playing by ordinary rules. Academically, Asghar Farhadi's drama is a worthy treatise on the culture of contemporary Iran: the clashing of classes, the tension between traditional religion and modern mores, the machinations of a troubled but well-intentioned justice system. Yet evaluating Farhadi's film as a thematic think piece discredits its intimacy. Here is a movie about two people, as deeply flawed as they are empathetic, whose marriage is riven by forces both beyond and within their control. Extraordinary twin performances from Payman Maadi and Leila Hatami demonstrate how even the strongest bonds of matrimony can ultimately break, while Sarina Farhadi (the director's daughter) delivers a devastating turn as a child grappling with a decidedly adult dilemma. As A Separation accelerates toward its crippling finale, it achieves grand emotional stakes, but it never undercuts the nuanced dimensionality of its characters. It's a stirring, exceptionally well-told tale of two parents who love their daughter, and of how that love tears her apart.

9. The Ides of March. It's hardly a newsflash that politics is a blood sport rife with backstabbing, double-crossing, and generally unscrupulous behavior. Given that foreknowledge, George Clooney's riveting political thriller breaks little new thematic ground. What it does do is present one man's harrowing journey from noble idealism into an abyss fraught with moral complications and excruciating choices. As the campaign manager of a charismatic presidential candidate (played by Clooney himself, naturally), Ryan Gosling navigates his character's ethical collapse one minute sacrifice at a time; he never oversells his tumble into oblivion but instead lets small gestures accumulate, right up to the film's final shot, when he practically levels the camera with a thousand-yard stare. Clooney's screenplay (co-written with longtime producing partner Grant Heslov and playwright Beau Willimon) ratchets up the suspense without ever lapsing into melodrama, while the preposterously talented cast essay their roles with intensity and feeling, particularly Evan Rachel Wood as an initially playful intern who suddenly finds herself lost at sea. And so, while the brutality of political warfare may be old hat, The Ides of March stands entirely on its own, a haunting portrait of love, lies, and the insufferable costs of victory.

8. Warrior. It's a cruel irony that Warrior – a moving, magnificent movie that chronicles the improbable ascent of a pair of down-on-their-luck brothers – never stood a chance at the box office. With a talented but relatively unknown cast and a rote marketing campaign that didn't even attempt to distinguish it from The Fighter (its enjoyable but inferior 2010 doppelganger), Gavin O'Connor's beautifully textured tale grossed a measly $13.7 million at the box office. That meant that audiences missed out not just on Tom Hardy's transcendent turn as a perpetually sullen, sporadically ferocious MMA combatant but also on the film itself, a piercing portrait of two men wrestling with the demons of their family's tortured past. In its broad strokes, O'Connor's script (co-written with two others) abides dutifully (if pleasingly) by the sports-movie rulebook, but it also creates characters of legitimate depth and tackles decidedly real-world problems. This is not to deny that Warrior is an earnest crowd-pleaser – the fight scenes are well-orchestrated and energetic, and the predictable final act manages to be inspiring but not maudlin – but the movie's lasting merit is the sensitive manner in which it honors the worthy virtues of perseverance and loyalty. Warrior may have slipped silently from the box-office landscape, but those fortunate few who saw it were able to savor a true taste of triumph.

7. Hanna. With the staggering one-two punch of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement, Joe Wright announced himself as one of the great directors of contemporary cinema. That still didn't prepare me for the sheer audacity of Hanna, a hyper-kinetic, frequently batty thriller that marries the bombastic action of the multiplex with the lyrical formalism that characterized Wright's art-house efforts. And for someone who cut his teeth on a pair of period pieces, Wright has great fun making a distinctly modern movie, with his camera rushing heedlessly as though racing to keep up with the Chemical Brothers' undulating electronic score. Narratively, though, Hanna plays like a pure fairy tale, with a Little Girl Lost (the consistently hypnotic Saorise Ronan, she of the ice-blue eyes and porcelain face) trying to outfox a Big Bad Wolf (a snarling, scenery-gnawing Cate Blanchett). Never one for restraint, Wright makes the fairy-tale metaphor stunningly literal, setting one late scene in a twisted funhouse and another under the wicked watch of an enormous wolf's head. It's a daring, stylistically thrilling gambit, and it's that type of directorial impudence that elevates Hanna from a curiosity to a marvel of playful storytelling and bravura technique. Ronan spends virtually her entire time on the dead run, but for such a relentlessly fast-paced film, there are ample opportunities to stop and see the beauty.

6. Martha Marcy May Marlene. With their unconventional family dynamics and their predatory subtext, cults are a natural subject for an exploitation flick. Yet Martha Marcy May Marlene, writer-director Sean Durkin's gripping debut feature, is less an exploration of cult culture than a measured, often disturbing character study of a troubled young woman grasping for some semblance of identity. In a magnetic, star-making performance of maddening diffidence and agonizing confusion, Elizabeth Olsen stars as the title character(s) with an unexplained but obviously clouded past. Those clouds only darken over the course of the film, as Durkin's screenplay lurches back and forth between two major time periods: the recent past, in which Martha fell under the spell of a charismatic Charles Manson clone (a mesmerizing, terrifying John Hawkes) and became Marcy May, and the present, in which she's fled to the uncertain shelter of her protective, perpetually worried older sister (an achingly sympathetic Sarah Paulson). Durkin utilizes a bold editing scheme so that as each scene begins, we're unsure of its setting. The brilliance of the approach is that, even as we're struggling to untangle Martha's story, we realize that the two strands aren't all that different; no matter where she is, Martha exhibits a clumsy inability to comply with social norms, as well as an escalating paranoia that may or may not be justified. As Martha Marcy May Marlene crescendoes toward its fittingly ambiguous conclusion, that paranoia transfers to the audience, and we're left wondering if people can ever truly escape the murky decisions of their past.

Check back soon for the final five.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Best Movies of 2011 (Part I)

What a year.

Formerly an annual vehicle devoted exclusively to analyzing the Oscars, the Manifesto has now been running in blog format since 2008, meaning this marks the fourth time I've dedicated a specific post to the best films of a particular year. On each prior occasion, my tone in those would-be celebratory posts was vaguely alarmist; even as I trumpeted a handful of great movies and exhorted readers to see them, I lamented that the vast majority of that year's films failed to excite me. Such involuntary pessimism annoyed me, because the last thing I want is to come off as one of those stodgy, the-cinematic-sky-is-falling critics who constantly grouses that movies aren't what they used to be. Still, I couldn't escape the gnawing sensation that, as much as I enjoyed going to the movies and always would, cinema as a whole was settling into a state of pleasant, disposable entertainment rather than reinforcing its stature as a vital medium for energizing the public.

Not in 2011. As of today's date, I've seen 166 movies released during 2011 (77 in theatres, plus another 88 on Netflix and one original HBO production). If you include the honorable-mention selections, the forthcoming three posts will highlight a whopping 34 of these films, good for over 20%. Admittedly, not all of these movies are masterpieces – rather, they've ranged from "flawed but intriguing" to "pretty damn good" to "fucking great" – but they are all worth watching. And that's worth celebrating.

On to the list. Here are the Manifesto's Top 25 Movies of 2011:

Honorable mention: The Adventures of Tintin, Cracks, 50/50, Friends with Benefits, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Source Code, Super 8, Too Big to Fail, Young Adult.

25. We Need to Talk About Kevin. From The Omen to Orphan, demonic children have long been a staple of the horror genre, but Lynne Ramsay's chilling, grotesquely watchable portrait of teenage evil steers far afield from cheap exploitation territory. That's because, although Ramsay refuses to shy away from her eponym's merciless cruelty, her movie is really about Kevin's mother, played by Tilda Swinton with a riveting excellence that has become frighteningly typical. In a devastating performance of mingled revulsion and self-loathing, Swinton portrays a woman simultaneously horrified by her progeny's misdeeds and also anguished by a nauseating sense of complicity. As Kevin's transgressions escalate in severity, Swinton confronts the film's true terror: As the woman who bore Kevin, is she herself not responsible for his sins? In the end, a sliver of optimism invades the grim, grey world of We Need to Talk About Kevin and affords her an answer, but it's an answer achieved at an insufferable cost.

24. Incendies. A generation-spanning melodrama awash in brutality and genocide, Incendies bears the hallmarks of a screeching morality tale, a scolding dissertation whose anger deprives it of pleasure. But Denis Villeneuve's warm regard for his characters transforms his movie from a dour dose of miserabilism into a moving meditation on the role of the family in society. The film's time-jumping structure is necessarily jagged, but its editing is crucially nimble, and its knotted screenplay uncoils itself with meticulous patience and precision. An astonishing sequence on a bus encapsulates the movie's raw power – and also marks Villeneuve as a director to watch – but it's the surprising, earnest tenderness of Incendies that lingers.

23. The Guard. With his burly frame and flinty eyes, the Irish actor Brendan Gleeson has long been defined by his consummate nastiness – if you're casting a villain, there's nary a better choice for stealthy malevolence. So Gleeson's work with the McDonagh Brothers has been downright revelatory. He pilfered Martin's In Bruges from Colin Farrell with his turn as a laid-back hit man; now working with John Michael, he effortlessly dominates The Guard as a casually racist sergeant. Part genius detective, part irascible old coot, Gleeson saunters through the movie with inveterate ease, an ease that only exaggerates the hilarity of his rapport with a perpetually perplexed Don Cheadle. McDonagh's screenplay shines as well – as a storyteller, he's both shifty and economical – and he wrings strong supporting work from Liam Cunningham and Mark Strong, the latter of whom may be Gleeson's heir apparent for sly villainy. Plot-wise, The Guard may be steeped in murder and drug lore, but as a viewing experience, it's pure pleasure.

22. The Skin I Live In. Gender identity has always fascinated Pedro Almodóvar, but that fascination hasn't always bled through to his audience. The magnetically perverse The Skin I Live In, however, playfully toys with the concept of sexual obsession without crumbling under the weight of its auteur's reflexive navel-gazing. It's a spiky, efficient picture whose brisk storytelling and vibrant flourishes help mask its underlying brutality. Besides, in Almodóvar's hands, brutality can be beautiful and bracing, and even as the film's characters sink deeper into depravity, its narrative remains suspenseful and compelling. Buoyed by a restrained, cannily unsympathetic performance from Antonio Banderas, The Skin I Live In – with its kidnappings, throat-slashings, and multiple rapes – relishes peeling off humanity's veneer of civilization to expose the rot underneath, but what's startling is just how much fun watching such filth can be.

21. The Muppets. Call it insubstantial fluff if you must – I haven't found myself smiling this broadly upon leaving the theatre since Wall-E. The Muppets is a movie whose entire reason for existence is to dispense joy. The songs spark with rhythm and ingenuity, the caricatures are playful without being tiresome, the humor finds the perfect blend of broad parody and aw-shucks sincerity, and the winking post-modern gags never fail to induce a chuckle ("That was an expensive-looking explosion!"). And while the film may lack depth, it nevertheless serves as a vital reminder that as cinema continuously evolves, the spirit of childhood never dies.

20. The Artist. Would it be preposterous to suggest that The Muppets and The Artist have a lot in common? O.K., so the latter is a black-and-white Oscar-winning homage to the silent era, whereas the former stars Kermit the Frog, but both are pure crowd-pleasers, and not just because they feature snappy, applause-worthy musical numbers. On a broader level, what makes Michel Hazanavicius' movie so delightful is its unabashed eagerness to entertain. Yes, it's shot in black-and-white, and yes, it's predominantly silent (unless you count Ludovic Bource's spot-on score), but despite its obvious affection for the movies of yesteryear, this isn't one of those reproachful, eat-your-vegetables films. Rather, it's a pleasingly familiar tale that mines age-old cinematic tropes of hubris, loss, love, and ultimate redemption. And the acting elevates the movie to another level – Jean Dujardin's ebullient expressions gradually give way to painful pathos, while Bérénice Bejo charms regardless of her pose. Old-fashioned but not staid, heartfelt but not sappy, The Artist is the best kind of throwback, a winking reminder that the old movies were great, and the new ones can be even better.

19. Margin Call. No matter the magnitude, the mechanics of a financial meltdown – glowering computer screens, reams of data, incomprehensible equations – are virtually antithetical to the accepted notions of cinematic excitement. The marvel of J.C. Chandor's debut is that it suffuses its midnight meetings of Wall Street's aristocracy with dread and despair, spinning its information-laden narrative into a powerful morality tale of corporate hubris. Margin Call takes place almost exclusively within an antiseptic, Lehman-esque office skyscraper, but its story is one of messy, frantic humanity, and it communicates the terrifying real-world consequences of market catastrophe without succumbing to either tiresome exposition or superior scolding. Standout acting from a first-rate cast – most notably Paul Bettany as a cynical underling and Jeremy Irons as a ruthlessly pragmatic bigwig – invigorate the facially talky proceedings; for such a dialogue-heavy film, Margin Call moves with the quicksilver pace of an action thriller. "It's just money, it's made up," Irons says sagely, but the tragedy of Margin Call is real, and it derives its catharsis from the simple, shattering recognition that its victims are its viewers, whether they can afford a movie ticket or not.

18. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Niels Arden Oplev's 2010 adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was such a smashing success on its own terms – if you doubt its virtue, I'll simply point out that it cracked the Manifesto's top 10 last year – that it hardly cried out for a remake. Still, it's easy to see how the possibility appealed to David Fincher, one of American cinema's most established auteurs, as an opportunity to return to the grubby genre thrills that made him a sensation in the '90s with Se7en and Fight Club. Which makes the resultant product here so shocking. True, Fincher pays obligatory tribute to Larsson's pulp excesses – aided by the ice-blue digital photography of Jeff Cronenweth and the eerily ambient score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, he generates an atmosphere of extreme chill – but the movie's lasting impression is one of warmth and intimacy. That's because, as the titular hero, Rooney Mara delivers a stunning performance, equal parts fragility and lethality. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may feature sickening scenes of rape and torture, but it's Mara's bottomless yearning for companionship – an unrequited need that Fincher encapsulates in a devastating final image – that provides a true jolt of pain.

17. Moneyball. Michael Lewis' Moneyball had no right being turned into a movie at all, much less one as engaging as Bennett Miller's sharp, spry adaptation. A dense, information-packed tome of old white men grumbling in board rooms, Lewis' book – revered among geeky statheads (such as this writer) despite its insufferable air of condescension – features none of the characterization or shading inherent to a good motion picture. Yet working from a lightning-quick screenplay from Steven Zaillian and the venerable Aaron Sorkin, Miller fashions a Sisyphean story of a visionary trying desperately to liberate himself from the shackles of institutional convention. In a pair of superb performances, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill fluidly slip into the rapid rhythms of Sorkin's and Zaillian's dialogue, transforming intrinsically banal material into something thrilling; a scene of Pitt effortlessly manipulating fellow general managers during the trade deadline is so invigorating, it's easy to forget that, in substance, it simply involves a man talking on the phone. That scene embodies Moneyball's genius as a whole, namely how elegant writing and accomplished acting combine to turn Lewis' dogmatic prose into compelling drama. At the movies, it seems, even a number-crunching baseball executive can double as a tortured artist.

16. Love Crime. Screenwriters have audiences at their mercy – they can tell us as much or as little about their story as they want. The chief pleasure of Love Crime, Alain Corneau's deliciously twisty tale of sex, scorn, and murder (to the surprise of no one, Brian De Palma swiftly created an English-language doppelganger called Passion, starring Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace), is that it withholds crucial pieces of information before revealing them at precisely the appropriate moment. So as we watch the timid Isabelle (a fantastic Ludivine Sagnier) stealthily plot her revenge against the haughty Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas, cold and steely as ever), we have no real idea what she's doing, resulting in a tantalizing sensation of sheer cluelessness. It's a daring device that requires patience but generates tremendous suspense, and the ultimate payoff is deeply satisfying. Co-written with Natalie Carter, Corneau's screenplay rations its plot points shrewdly, but the real key is Sagnier's note-perfect portrayal of duplicitous cunning. Isabelle may be small and shy, but under Sagnier's direction, she's also a fiercely committed adversary who achieves a towering posture of absolute control, even as her audience is left sitting in the dark.

Check back soon for Part II.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The best scenes of 2011

There's a famous aphorism attributed to the great director Howard Hawks: "A good movie is three good scenes and no bad scenes." Hawks knew quite a bit more about movies than I do, but I respectfully disagree with him on this particular point. One of the pleasures of visiting the theatre is that a brief passage of any given movie can be extraordinary, even if the film itself amounts to utter dreck (see: this scene). Not all great movies have great scenes, and not all great scenes appear in great movies. Yet when a director and his cast and crew collaborate on a truly memorable sequence, that's something worth celebrating, regardless of the quality of the surrounding product.

And so, the Manifesto is unveiling its first ever "Best Scenes of the Year" list. There is, however, one slight caveat: I'm restricting myself to clips that are currently available on YouTube. I'm imposing this rather cumbersome limitation for two reasons. First, I want my readers to be able to actually watch the scene in question. Second, it's difficult for me to evaluate a scene in detail from pure memory. The latter may be a valid excuse, or it may indicate one of my many failings as a critic. Now, in the Manifesto's Utopia, every scene from every movie is instantly accessible via YouTube, but although we're trending in that direction, we aren't quite there yet.

In any event, as a result of this technological travesty, I've been forced to limit myself to eight scenes. That said, the following additional eight sequences are all thoroughly spectacular and would be included in this post were they available online:

The Adjustment Bureau (bathroom meet-cute)
Carancho (final scene post-car crash)
Contagion (Kate Winslet's final scene)
Incendies (bus massacre)
Margaret (the accident)
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (take a freaking guess)
A Separation (opening scene)
Super 8 (train crash)

A challenge to all nerds living in their parents' basements enterprising Internet users: If you can find an unedited, decent-quality YouTube clip for any of the aforementioned scenes (or upload one yourself), point it my way in the comments, and I'll write it up. Also, this may be stating the supreme obvious, but spoilers apply for the forthcoming discussions.

And with that, here are the Manifesto's Best Scenes of 2011 (presented in alphabetical order, though I've saved the best for last):

The Adventures of Tintin – motorcycle chase. Movie-making is about possibility, and no field opens more metaphorical doors than that of animation, a medium in which virtually anything is indeed possible. But just because animators can do anything they want doesn't mean that they should; rather, the key is to ground their feverish imaginations in some semblance of reality. Only if viewers can rationally process the images they see on screen can they subsequently become awestruck.

And that's what makes this scene – an inspired, exhilarating chase sequence that instantly evokes fond memories of Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones franchise – so great. Theoretically, Spielberg could have filmed it in live action; it simply would have required 500 takes and a budget of roughly $10 billion, not to mention a singularly smart falcon. But with animation, he can manufacture a virtuoso, single-shot sequence in which the camera swoops and dives, lingers and sprints, hurtling breathlessly to inform us of the exquisitely choreographed action. Of course, there isn't really a camera at all, but that's the point: Because the animation conforms with the traditional boundaries of live-action shooting, we perceive the scene as a straightforward piece of filmmaking, if a particularly astonishing one. Hell, maybe I'm wrong – maybe the scene actually was filmed. Maybe that falcon is just damn smart.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. – backyard brawl. The irritatingly punctuated Crazy, Stupid, Love. is a gleeful mishmash of tones, ranging from wistful adult drama to tender romance to earnest coming-of-age story. Naturally, some of these elements work better than others in isolation, but when they all coalesce in this scene, the result is a happily preposterous slice of farce. Prior to this segment, Dan Fogelman's shrewd screenplay has withheld several of the characters' connections with each other, and the payoff here – when those connections are revealed – is enormous.

It wouldn't work at all, however, without the precise comic timing of the editing. Over the course of three minutes, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa rapidly intercut between nine different characters, all with speaking parts, and each line is perfectly layered on top of its predecessor, like a verbal Vaudeville act. The actors are entirely game, and the scene's overall zaniness is anchored nicely by Steve Carell's deadpan ("I'm having trouble understanding what's going on right now" is a proxy for everyone except us), Ryan Gosling's bemusement, and Julianne Moore's increasingly hysterical reaction shots. The sequence reaches such a high pitch of hilarious confusion that when the comedy transitions from verbal to physical, it seems fitting; with this much chaos going on, the only rational response is to pick up a miniature windmill and threaten to "beat you until your brains fall out". Out of context, that's just absurd; as the centerpiece of the film, it's absurdly funny.

Hanna – underground fight. Stodge alert: Modern movie fight scenes suck. O.K., that's a gross generalization, but for the most part, contemporary combat sequences are plagued with the disease of frenzy, in which jumpy editing and lurching photography make it virtually impossible for audiences to discern just what the hell is happening. So maybe that explains why it took Joe Wright, a helmer of classical British period pieces (including the upcoming Anna Karenina), to concoct the most ravishing fight scene of the year. The execution is peerless: A single, blessedly steady camera (in all likelihood, Wright sneaks in a few invisible cuts here and there, but everything proceeds as an extended take to our eyes) follows Eric Bana into a subway station, where he fluidly deals death to a quartet of silent, nefarious henchmen. It's a masterful instruction in how to escalate tension, as the slow accumulation of details – the man shadowing Bana consciously avoiding his gaze, Bana quietly unbuttoning his jacket, that electric Chemical Brothers score – yields a palpable sense of sweaty anticipation. But the true marvel of Wright's bravura technique is that, although his actors frantically punch and kick and die, his camera never cuts or hurries. The result is a fight scene that is furiously kinetic but also marvelously lucid. Astonishing that it took the director of Pride & Prejudice to convey human carnage with such perfect clarity.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 – courtyard dash. Structurally, the goal of this scene is simple: Harry, Ron, and Hermione must venture from Hogwarts Castle to one of its outposts. But journeying from Point A to Point B has rarely been so treacherous, nor so magnetically compelling. Eight films' worth of world-building climaxes with this 90-second sequence in which our trio of heroes fends off werewolves, dodges blows from a giant, and stares death in its black-veiled face. It's thrilling stuff, thanks especially to extraordinary work from the special effects team (witness the gasp-worthy moment when Hermione ducks between the giant's legs), but it also feels organic, the well-deserved payoff of the franchise's scrupulous definition of its meticulously detailed universe.

But here's the thing: Absolutely none of what we see is described in the book. Yes, J.K. Rowling wrote a scene in which Harry taps into Voldemort's mind and then sets off to find him, but it's a mere plot point, yet David Yates transforms it into an exhilarating set piece that is wholly cinematic. That's what makes Yates' adaptations so great – they aren't transliterations but movies, replete with their own vigor and verisimilitude and headlong sense of wonder. This scene embodies that filmmaking spirit more than any other in the entire octet. Elevated by Alexandre Desplat's rich, stirring score, it transports you into Yates' fully realized universe, a rush-and-tumble world featuring dark colors, bright lights, and – more than anything – its own singular brand of magic.

Martha Marcy May Marlene – home invasion. How would you respond? That's the harrowing question Sean Durkin poses in this quiet, terrifying scene. In an undertaking that plainly evokes the Manson Family, a handful of youths break into a remote luxury home, intent on pilfering its valuables. Suddenly, the owner (a wonderfully realistic Allen McCullough) emerges, demanding that they leave. He's a big man, apparently in control, and the burglars seem to shrink from him as he steers them toward the door.

Then, John Hawkes' disembodied voice calls out, "Calm down," and at that point, the balance of authority pivots instantly; as Hawkes strides into frame, a sense of profound doom settles over the owner, who reflexively retreats toward the opposite wall. "If you calm down, no one will get hurt," Hawkes says evenly, the aura of the threat emanating from his words like smoke. Physically, Hawkes doesn't cut a particularly imposing figure, but in his rigidly controlled performance here, he establishes absolute dominion without ever raising his voice. How do you respond to a man like that, when he tells you to calm down, when your life is so clearly in his hands? In the end, it likely doesn't matter, and that's the tragedy of Durkin's film: The man was destined to die as soon as he opened his mouth.

(Note: The embed below is the only clip I could find; it stops just before the scene actually concludes. It takes little imagination to determine what happens next.)

Shame – silent seduction. Shame is a movie about a man (Michael Fassbender) in the throes of sexual addiction, and it's a decidedly grim affair. While the majority of the film addresses the unsavory consequences of Fassbender's affliction, this riveting sequence wordlessly maps out his predatory instinct. Fassbender is constantly alert to the slightest possibility of sex, so even when he's surrounded by dreary commuters on the New York subway, he roves the crowd with his blue eyes, eventually alighting on a woman with reddish-blond hair (the obscenely gorgeous Lucy Walters). She at first shyly looks away, but Fassbender never drops his gaze, and she subsequently crosses her legs, suggesting her instantaneous arousal. (It's a credit to Fassbender's acting – as well as his absurd good looks – that her reaction is thoroughly plausible.) In a film laden with simulated sex and even more nudity, this mere exchange of eye contact is the most erotic moment in the entire movie.

But Shame isn't a snuff film, and as Walters shudders and struggles to compose herself, the real-world consequences of her flirtation with temptation become devastatingly clear. As she springs to her feet, the handheld camera centers on her wedding ring, a shot that beautifully crystallizes Shame's thesis: the battle between hedonistic impulse and human compassion. Walters eventually flees the subway as though she believed she were being pursued by an animal. The crux of Shame – to be made abundantly obvious in the passages that follow – is that she may have been right.

(Note: The scene is nicely complemented by the final sequence in the film, in which the weight of Fassbender's experience alters his response to the same situation. Shame, really, that these two silent bookends are by far the most memorable segments in the picture.)

War Horse – Joey's run. Ever since E.T., Steven Spielberg has proven himself a master in articulating the emotions of non-humans, but with War Horse, he sets a new standard. The movie's signature sequence begins with our hero, Joey (yes, the horse has a name), penned in on three sides, while an approaching tank cuts off his lone avenue for escape. The contrast is striking – the free-spirited animal pitted against the malevolent machine – but what really registers is Joey's frenzied emotional state. As the horse frantically bucks and futilely charges up the sides of the embankment, Spielberg plainly illustrates that his protagonist is overwhelmed by a single sensation: pure, primal fear.

What happens next is, in the great tradition of epic filmmaking, both horrifying and majestic. Joey seizes his only option and triumphantly leaps over the tank, then runs and runs and runs. He runs through and atop the various trenches, the camera streaming after him like a desperate tracker. As the sequence proceeded, I found myself mentally exhorting Joey – run! jump! climb! – as though he were a particularly beloved Olympic athlete, a sprinter attempting to flee the depths of Hell. Ultimately, Joey finds himself in no-man's land, stampeding through military impediments again and again until he finally succumbs. And in that image – a magnificent stallion entangled helplessly in unforgiving barbed wire – Spielberg demonstrates the cruelty, and the costs, of war.

And the Manifesto's favorite scene of 2011:

Drive – the elevator. The twin themes of love and death have animated artists for eons, but never have they been juxtaposed with such literal force than in this scene, a moment that is at once luridly violent and deeply romantic. It begins with Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan simply waiting for an elevator. Gosling's character is so enigmatic that he doesn't even have a name, but what he does possess is a purity of will, and he has devoted himself entirely to protecting Mulligan. He is her knight in scorpion-emblazoned armor, and as we've already learned by this point in the film, he takes his task seriously. So when the elevator doors open and a sinister man politely greets Gosling and Mulligan – followed by an agonizingly slow pan from the man's face down to the gun holstered in his jacket – we know that this man is going to die. Gosling knows it too, and he braces Mulligan with his arm, shielding her from the threat. Bloodshed is imminent.

Which makes what happens next all the more transcendent. The music flares, the lights dim, and Gosling slowly turns around, leans forward, and kisses Mulligan with exquisite tenderness. It's a kiss that marks the culmination of a simmering flirtation, and for it to finally take place during a moment quavering with incipient violence only certifies it as a union of two predestined souls. The camera cuts forward, ignoring the other man, focusing entirely on Gosling and Mulligan, and rightly so, for during this moment of romantic bliss, they are the only two people in the world.

But love and death are never far from each other's side. After an eternity, the music stops, the lights come back up, and Gosling snaps into action, first smashing the man's head against the wall, then literally stomping his face into mush. He has fulfilled his duty as Mulligan's savior, but he has also revealed himself to her, and when the elevator doors finally, mercifully open, she retreats in horror, as if she's uncertain of his very humanity. He is her angel; he is also the devil.

And so we bear witness to true love and grisly death, side by side, and we observe the daunting magnitude of both. It's a scene that reminds us of the evocative power of cinema, the medium's ability to convey startlingly pure feeling through the use of mere images. And while it's true that the kiss between Gosling and Mulligan serves as the apex of their fumbling journey into each other's arms, that connection is nothing compared to the real romance to be treasured here: that between us and our movies.

(Note: This embed only includes the first part of the scene; its conclusion can be found here.)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

On Linsanity, stupidity, and the limits of one fan's endurance

There's a compelling scene in The Dark Knight in which Bruce Wayne decides to give up. The Joker has terrorized Gotham City so brutally and efficiently that its citizens have turned on Batman, their once-unassailable protector, demanding that he turn himself in. And Wayne – exhausted, bloodied, beaten – concludes that yielding and revealing himself as the Caped Crusader is the only possible solution against a foe as demented and inexorable as The Joker. But Alfred, his unwavering, loyal butler, disagrees. "People are dying, Alfred," Wayne laments. "What would you have me do?" Alfred's response:


Endurance has been the defining characteristic of New York Knicks fans for more than a decade. Ever since Jeff Van Gundy abruptly resigned in 2001, rooting for the Knicks has been a singularly grueling experience, a twisted Orwellian experiment in which the sports overlords sadistically push a fan base to its limits just to discover how much pain it can tolerate in the name of devotion to a fucking sports team. We've endured Isiah Thomas running the franchise like a nine-year-old hell-bent on acquiring the overpriced green properties in Monopoly (Steve Francis! Jalen Rose! Quentin Richardson!). We've endured Larry Brown browbeating rookies and shelving young talent in favor of "veteran leaders" like Qyntel Woods and Malik Rose. We've endured Jerome James' contract ($29 million, or $130,000 for every point he scored as a Knick). We've endured Renaldo Balkman's draft selection, Stephon Marbury's meltdown, Eddy Curry's Shawn Kemp-esque weight gain, Walt Frazier's insipid commentary, and countless other indignities.

To be fair, it hasn't been uniformly horrid. There were some jewels of varying luster buried amidst the wreckage (David Lee, Danilo Gallinari, Channing Frye), and the roster was usually at least talented, if utterly lacking in chemistry and coherence. The Knicks were never truly terrible, but that was part of the problem. In a salary-capped league, being mediocre is actually worse than being terrible. Even following the twin acquisitions of Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks appeared destined to remain suspended indefinitely in what my friend Brian calls "NBA Purgatory": not good enough to contend for an NBA title, not bad enough to bottom out and acquire blue-chippers through the draft. To wit, the Knicks haven't won a playoff series since 2000, but they also haven't made a top-five draft pick since Kenny Walker in 1986. Given that the Knicks play in hoops-crazed New York City (not to mention Madison Square Garden, basketball's Mecca), actively looting the franchise would never be an option, and once LeBron James spurned the Big Apple for South Beach, it became disturbingly plausible that my favorite team would keep churning out 40-win seasons for the next half-century. There was no hope in sight.

Then Jeremy Lin happened.

You know the story. How Lin had already been cut by two different teams. How he was sleeping on teammate Landry Fields' couch because he assumed he'd need to move to a new city in the immediate future. How an ugly 2-11 stretch for the Knicks – headlined by Toney Douglas' horrific point-guard play (in 17 January games, he shot 32% from the field and 24% from three) – led a desperate Mike D'Antoni to bring Lin off the bench against the Nets, only to see Lin erupt for 25 points, 5 rebounds, and 7 assists as the Garden crowd went berserk. How Lin ripped off six consecutive wins as a starter (mostly by himself, with Anthony nursing a groin injury and Stoudemire mourning the death of his brother), most memorably a 38-point bonanza against the Lakers on national television, not to mention an ice-water-in-his-veins game-winning three in Toronto. How Lin graced two consecutive Sports Illustrated covers, how the term "Linsanity" became irritatingly commonplace, how the media lustily seized upon the phenomenon and transformed Lin into a hybrid of Tim Tebow, Ichiro, and Michael Phelps.

You know all of that, but what you might not know is the precise way in which Jeremy Lin galvanized Knicks fans in a basketball sense. At its best, basketball is a beautiful game to watch; unfortunately, the Knicks' brand of basketball was rarely beautiful. Even in the Van Gundy era (when the team was actually good), the Knicks' philosophy centered more on defense and fortitude than elegance and ball movement. When pick-and-roll maestro D'Antoni took over, I nurtured the hope that he might bring some of the magic that made the Phoenix Suns the most exciting NBA team to watch since the Showtime Lakers, but other than some occasional flourishes (such as Chris Duhon's 22-assist game), the Knicks remained focused on individual ability at the expense of team play. No one epitomized this more so than Anthony, an extraordinarily talented scorer whose pet play – an isolation on the wing that featured him holding the ball for five seconds, then either burying a one-dribble pull-up jumper or driving hard to the rim – just happened to involve his four teammates standing motionless in designated spots on the floor, like extras in a movie.

Lin was different. He was always moving, always creating, always trying to make a play for a teammate. He had an uncanny talent for slithering his way into the lane and either (a) converting reverse layups on impossible angles, or (b) drawing shotblockers, then flipping up a lob to a big man for an uncontested dunk. He had exquisite court vision, especially on the fast break, constantly pushing the ball and getting teammates open shots before the defense could set up. His greatest allies were Steve Novak, a sharpshooting journeyman who morphed into a giant-sized Steve Kerr once Lin arrived, and Tyson Chandler, a defensive stalwart who embraced Lin's élan and became more involved on the offensive end than at any point in his career since he played with Chris Paul in New Orleans. In fact, immediately after Lin's tour-de-force performance against the Nets, I fired off an email to four friends who are fellow NBA diehards, quasi-sarcastically comparing Lin to Paul. He was that exhilarating.

He wasn't perfect, naturally, but even his deficiencies doubled as strengths. Defensively, he gave too much ground to penetrating guards, but he also had canny anticipatory instincts (at one point, he racked up 13 steals in a three-game stretch). His jumper was an absurd, Purvis Short-style rainbow, but it had smooth rotation, and he became a reliable closer at the free-throw line (in a game against Philly, he buried 10 consecutive freebies in the game's final six minutes). And of course, he turned the ball over constantly, including a ridiculous six-game span with at least six giveaways. But those mistakes derived from his relentlessly aggressive playmaking, and if I'm choosing a point guard, I'll always take a slightly reckless visionary who consistently generates opportunities for his teammates over a conservative floor general who makes the safe pass and never penetrates. (Trivia question: You know who finished in the top seven in turnovers each of the past eight years, including five different times in the top three? Steve Nash. Fuck turnovers.)

But truthfully, his weaknesses didn't even matter. Watching Lin was fun. Case in point: Before I wrote that aforementioned email, I'd hardly ever contacted my friends about the Knicks in years except to complain about their ineptitude. Lin changed that, and he changed my engagement with the Knicks' franchise. Rather than merely watching the team out of an inexplicable sense of duty (a concept that only makes sense in the cloistered world of sports fandom), I started eagerly awaiting the games. I was anxious to watch Lin, to see what remarkable, bizarre plays he might make. For the first time in years, I was happy to be a Knicks fan.

And for all Knicks fans, following Lin's ascendancy, one question became paramount: Given the team's precarious salary-cap position, would we be able to re-sign Lin? Mercifully, thanks to an obscure provision in the new collective bargaining agreement dubbed the Arenas Rule, the answer was an unequivocal "yes". So when the Knicks fired D'Antoni after a 2-8 skid that coincided with Anthony's return and replaced him with isolation guru Mike Woodson, I wasn't worried. (Technically, D'Antoni resigned. In reality? He didn't.) When Woodson immediately declared that Lin was "in a learning stage", that rookies should "sit and listen and learn", and that the offense would now run through Anthony and Stoudemire because they're "guys that have done it", I remained sanguine. Even when Lin tore his meniscus in late March and missed the rest of the season (which ended with the Knicks limply losing their first-round series to the Heat in five games), I was at peace. This season didn't matter. I was going to get to watch Lin lead the Knicks for at least the next three years. This was my reward for enduring The Isiah Era: to watch one of the most dynamic players in the NBA run my favorite team. Lin wasn't just a basketball player. He was the future. He was hope.

So when the Knicks ultimately declined to match the offer sheet that Lin signed with the Houston Rockets – instead trading for Raymond Felton, a 28-year-old player who last season shot 41% from the field, ranked 192nd in Player Efficiency Rating, and was widely despised by his own fan base – I wasn't just bewildered and disappointed. I was aghast. This was unfair. This was cruel. I'd been glumly rooting for the Knicks for the past 10 years, they had finally provided me with a blessed sliver of hope, and then, in a decision motivated by either spite or stupidity, they had snuffed that hope out.

I don't want to discuss the financials. If you really want to argue about the backloaded, poison-pill nature of Lin's offer sheet and the potential effect it would have on the Knicks' luxury tax, feel free to do so in the comments. I'll angrily counter with an excruciatingly detailed exegesis of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, including the potential trade value of expiring contracts, the spread provision, Lin's overall impact on the Knicks' organizational market value, and a number of other esoteric points that are terrifically boring and also utterly irrelevant to my main point. Jeremy Lin, as both a basketball player and a mythic savior, transcended typical cost-benefit analysis. Matching the Rockets' offer was a move for the future, for the franchise, for the fans. And that's why the Knicks' decision to let Lin leave was indefensible.

Who's to blame? The obvious target is owner James Dolan, the notoriously free-spending Cablevision CEO who suddenly decided to tighten his purse strings where Lin was concerned because his feelings were hurt. But I'm also willing to level some criticism at Woodson, an avowed believer in an isolation-heavy offense (or as I like to call it, "Barf Ball") that's utterly anathema to Lin's distinctive panache. And I can't let general manager Glen Grunwald off the hook either, given that, you know, he's in charge of all basketball-related decisions. Hell, at this point in Knicks' history, I wouldn't be surprised if ESPN unveiled a headline tomorrow that read, "Source: Isiah secret puppetmaster behind Lin decision, says Lin would be just another good guy if he weren't Asian".

Is Lin himself to blame, given that he voluntarily signed an offer sheet with a different team? Maybe minimally. I suppose it's true that he could have insisted on a sheet with less oppressive luxury-tax ramifications for Dolan, although the notion that a player should actively structure his own contract in order to help his employer save money is rather absurd. My belief is that Lin fully expected the Knicks to match any offer sheet that he signed because, well, that's what everyone in the fucking universe assumed (including Woodson!), so he signed one that paid him a lot of money. But maybe he secretly wanted to leave the pressure of New York. I don't care about his motivations. I just care that the Knicks had the opportunity to match ... and they didn't.

And that, above all, is why I can no longer root for the New York Knicks. In the end, the issue of blame doesn't matter. Jeremy Lin is gone from New York, and I am left feeling betrayed. I recognize that this is not a rational response. I have never met any of the Knicks' executives. They did not let Lin leave as part of an ongoing, vindictive strategy to persecute me. But rooting for a sports team is not about rationality. It's about passion, about enduring perpetual struggle for the slender prospect of victory, about overanalyzing arcane statistics with friends, about devoting countless hours of your time to a group of athletes whose actions have no tangible benefit on your existence. And it's about a perverse sense of loyalty, a willingness to continuously support your team regardless of its boneheaded decisions and lackluster performance.

But there comes a breaking point, and this is mine. Rooting for the Knicks has become a burden I can no longer bear. I just can't imagine spending the next three years watching 82-plus games per season and not seeing Jeremy Lin split the trap off the pick-and-roll, glide into the paint, and deliver a perfect lob pass at the last second for a wide-open dunk. I should have had that tantalizing possibility to look forward to, and I can't forgive the Knicks for robbing me of it.

What will I do? I can't give up on the NBA entirely – I love basketball too much for that. Thankfully, in the era of NBA League Pass, I can watch any team I want. I can tune in to see Lin work his magic with the Rockets, no longer shackled by Woodson's feed-the-hole edict. I can check out the magnificent Spurs, the one team whose execution resembles poetry more than any other. I can follow my various beloved Duke players, be they J.J. Redick on the Magic, Kyrie Irving on the Cavs, or Mike Dunleavy on the Bucks (or, if my father somehow gains control over the team's rotations, Kyle Singler on the Pistons). And yes, I'll probably watch a handful of Knicks' games here and there. But I'll no longer habitually set my DVR for every single MSG telecast. That time is past.

I realize that I could have had it worse. I could have been a fan of the Raptors, or the Kings, or any of the other NBA teams that lack the Knicks' financial resources and large-market ability to seduce marquee talent. As painful and pathetic as this past decade of Knicks' hoops was, I still watched some awfully good basketball players do some awfully impressive things. I just always hoped that the team would eventually overcome its persistent failings from a management standpoint. Now, I'm giving up hope.

And so I've finally found the limits of my endurance. The Orwellian experiment has concluded, and the sadistic overlords have won. If I were a hero like Bruce Wayne, perhaps I could endure this. But my spirit has broken. Jeremy Lin has left the Knicks. And now, so have I.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Manifesto's Guide to March Madness 2012

This year, the NCAA Tournament committee is finally disclosing its "Seed List", in which it ranks every team that made the tourney from 1 through 68. In terms of generating Internet traffic, this won't exactly be the Starr Report or casting news from The Hunger Games, but it's still guaranteed to get thousands of basketball nerds salivating. Yet the mere acknowledgement that such a list even exists reveals a grave problem with postseason collegiate basketball: March Madness is deeply unfair.

Look, I love March Madness – it's unequivocally my favorite sporting event of the year. And in terms of amateur athletics, I probably shouldn't be griping about basketball's system given that college football could have a Planet-of-the-Apes-level uprising on its hands at any moment. But that doesn't change the fact that the current bracketing system, while numerically satisfying and visually sexy, is prone to wildly illogical results.

Consider: On Sunday's selection show, committee chair Jeff Hathaway confirmed that, of the four #2 seeds, Kansas was actually the highest-ranked, meaning the Jayhawks were fifth overall on the master list and just missed out on a #1 seed. Yet the committee placed Kansas in the same region as North Carolina for geographical purposes. Meanwhile, the committee ranked Missouri eighth overall, meaning it was last among the four #2 seeds ... yet the Tigers find themselves opposite Michigan State, which was ranked last among all #1 seeds, meaning Missouri theoretically has the easiest path to the Final Four of all four #2 seeds.

I'm simplifying a little, but the question remains: If you're Kansas coach Bill Self, would you rather play your regional final against North Carolina in St. Louis or against Michigan State in Phoenix? That question isn't necessarily rhetorical – perhaps Kansas would actually prefer to hold a decided home-court advantage even if it meant facing a superior opponent (though I'm fairly certain that if Hathaway called Self and said, "Sorry, the hackers from Anonymous got bored terrorizing the PlayStation Network and wreaked havoc on our computer system instead, you're actually playing in Michigan State's region," Self wouldn't complain). But here's the thing: Because it was ranked three spots higher than Missouri, Kansas shouldn't be at the mercy of the committee's own value judgments regarding location versus competition; rather, Kansas should have the choice.

Which leads to the Manifesto's revolutionary idea that will not only fix the inequities currently inherent in March Madness but also result in one of the greatest television events of the year: turning the selection show into a draft.

The idea is simple. The committee's job should remain the same: to rank every team in the tournament (and to determine which 68 clubs make the cut in the first place). Then, however, rather than the committee placing every team in its specific spot on the bracket, the highest-ranked team can choose its first-round opponent, as well as the pod and region it wants to play in. So, Kentucky would presumably want to remain in the Louisville pod, but perhaps the Wildcats would rather play Vermont than a Western Kentucky team that is going to have ridiculous crowd support playing in Louisville. The choices would then trickle down, and the field would essentially seed itself (meaning Kansas would have the opportunity to select which #1 seed it's paired against).

And here's the kicker: The entire event would be televised. Look, we already televise the NBA Draft Lottery in primetime, and that's just an old white guy opening 14 envelopes. CBS pays a ridiculous amount for exclusive rights to the selection show, and that's just a bunch of computerized brackets appearing on your screen. We're not exactly talking about the Apollo moon landing. American audiences have exhibited an astonishing level of interest in tuning in for events that are intrinsically boring and generally lacking in suspense.

By comparison, the March Madness Draft would be utterly riveting. Are you telling me you wouldn't want to watch John Calipari stride to the podium and sneer, "For our first-round opponent, we select ... Norfolk State!"? Not only would the atmosphere be electric, but the strategy involved would be utterly fascinating (and place a premium on scouting as well). And let's not forget the vendettas. Can you imagine what would happen if Rick Pitino intentionally placed Louisville in the #8 slot just below Kentucky so that he'd have an opportunity to face his former team in the second round? There's a 30% chance that the Internet would explode.

Look, I'm not denying that there aren't a few wrinkles to be ironed out (for instance, I'm currently ignoring the complicating factor of play-in games). But the potential of this idea is Kyrie Irving-level high, and it's hardly infeasible. Christ, if the NCAA can create incomprehensible evaluative metrics that weigh strength of schedule, home-court advantage, opponents' opponents' win percentage, jersey color, and thread count on the netting of each basket, it can find a way to make this work. Just remember that the Manifesto had it first when, in, 2035 you're watching Syracuse choose to play Princeton in the first round in an effort to avenge a century's worth of agonizing lacrosse defeats.

On to the picks. Here's a blank bracket so you can follow along.

SOUTH (aka "The Charade")
Overall thoughts: Media pundits will slurp up this region searching for subplots while ignoring the master plot. The subplots: Can Uconn defend its title even though its best player often looks as though he's filming a hostage video? Can VCU return to the Final Four? Can Indiana leverage Christian Watford's insane December buzzer-beater against Kentucky in a potential Sweet 16 rematch? Will Duke receive an edge with the regional final being played in Atlanta? Will Baylor coach Scott Drew break down crying on the sideline as Perry Jones III watches a rebound sail over his head while thinking to himself, "I wonder if I should play Nike and Adidas against each other when I'm negotiating my shoe deal"? Admittedly, those are all relatively interesting subplots, but they're wholly irrelevant to the master plot, which is ...

The top seed: Kentucky is going to win this region in a walk. Look, as Vanderbilt proved in the SEC final, the Wildcats aren't invincible. They don't shoot that well from the perimeter (with the exception of Doron Lamb), their point guard (Marquis Teague) has all of Brandon Knight's flaws (poor shooter, questionable decision-maker, shaky on the free-throw line) and none of his savvy, and their third-best player (Terrence Jones) is locked in a dead heat with his long-lost brother Perry Jones for the "Most Mercurial Player of the Year" award.

That said, this team is good. They defend like motherfuckers (leading the country in both blocked shots and field-goal-percentage defense), they're very well-disciplined for such a young team (credit has to go to Calipari), and they have a terrifying penchant for ripping off back-breaking 12-0 runs. This is what happens when a collegiate team fields five future NBA players in its starting lineup. And let's not forget Anthony Davis, who's currently somewhere between an in-his-prime Marcus Camby and a past-his-prime Kevin Garnett with the way he can affect a game on both ends. They're not losing a regional game unless Jeremy Lamb or Perry Jones III says to himself, "Fuck it, I'm the most talented player on the court, I'm taking over". And if you've watched either of those players this year, you know that the odds of that happening are roughly equivalent to the odds of Calipari headlining a "Stay in School" charity show.

The pale echo: It's only fair to pay attention to Uconn, given that the Huskies are defending the title. That said, any discussion of how a potential second-round matchup between Kentucky and Uconn must make Kentucky nervous is patently absurd. Have you watched this team play? Shabazz Napier shoots 39% from the floor, and he's second on the team in shot attempts. They are a mess. Of course, last year's team was a mess too, but last year's team had Kemba Walker. This year's team has Jeremy Lamb, a phenomenal talent who has as much chance of becoming the next Tim Thomas as he does the next Rip Hamilton. And I'm supposed to believe that he and Andre Drummond (who shoots a spectacular 29% from the line) are going to beat the best team in the country in Louisville? No thanks.

The fractured fairytale: VCU pulled its Cinderella act last year by doing two things extraordinarily well: playing pressure defense and shooting the three. This year's squad has the first part down pat. The second? Not so much. Not only does the team shoot just 34% from three-point range (which ranks 197th in the country), but three of their regulars shoot below 30% from deep. If you don't have inside scoring – and VCU doesn't – you need to make jumpshots consistently. Sorry, Shaka. On the plus side, you're going to kill it for Illinois next season.

The enigma: Baylor is a scary team. They have impressive size (led by the intermittently ferocious Quincy Acy), reliable shooting (led by absolute marksman Brady Heslip, who could be the next Steve Novak if he were 10 inches taller), a clutch point guard who loves to perform in big spots (Pierre Jackson), and a versatile freshman who could probably make the All-Big 12 Team next year except that he's going to declare for the draft (Quincy Miller). Oh, and they have Perry Jones III, a 6'11" specimen who combines Gerald Green's athleticism, Glenn Robinson's shooting touch, and Eddy Curry's motivation. They scare me.

But not nearly as much as they must scare coach Scott Drew. He just has no idea what to do with them, which is why they're the most unpredictable team in the tournament. They could beat Duke by 25 and then take Kentucky to overtime, or they could fall behind early to South Dakota State and just give up. There's really no floor or ceiling with them. And that's the exact scouting report that's going to be applied to Jones this summer before the Wizards take him third overall and their entire fan base collectively throws up.

The quavering hope: I want to believe in this Duke team. I can even make a halfway-convincing case that they're Final Four-caliber. They won 27 games despite playing a monstrous schedule, including neutral-site wins against Michigan State, Michigan, and Kansas. They shoot the three relatively well (four players at 37% or higher). If stretch power forward Ryan Kelly is healthy, they can cause matchup nightmares for traditional defenses. They have a true talent in Austin Rivers. And they've shown an impossible knack for rallying to win close games (most memorably personified in their preposterous comeback against NC State, when they were down 20 with 11:30 remaining).

But that's all just a smokescreen. Krzyzewski's Duke teams are typically built on twin pillars of defensive pressure (to force turnovers) and offensive penetration (to drive-and-kick to open shooters), and this year's squad is a failure in both. Defensively, they allow opponents to shoot 43.3% (165th in the country) and force just 12.8 turnovers per game (194th). Offensively, they average just 12.5 assists as a team (182nd), meaning their assist/turnover ratio barely exceeds 1.0. Making matters worse, they shoot just 70% from the free-throw line, an atypical weakness that is guaranteed to kill them in close games (and already did in infamous fashion against Miami). They've occasionally shown flashes when they play inside-out through the Plumlees, but the brothers are too turnover-prone to be offensive focal points. Instead, Duke's really at its best when it relies on Rivers' creativity, and that can be fine – the kid can play, and he's the only guy on the team who can create his own shot. But against quality defenses, they suddenly find themselves passing the ball around the perimeter for 30 seconds until Tyler Thornton throws up a three. And that's not going to get it done.

(I will now watch the following video 10 times in a row in an effort to make myself feel better.)

The Picks
Play-in game: Western Kentucky over Mississippi Valley State.

Sweet 16: Kentucky over Uconn, Wichita State over Indiana, Baylor over UNLV, Duke over Xavier.

Regional final: KENTUCKY over Baylor.

WEST (aka "The Afterthought")
Overall thoughts: I'm not particularly numerologically inclined, but I tend to like the even-numbered seeds in this region, whereas I find the odd-numbered seeds completely underwhelming. I doubt that means anything, but it's the only thing I find remotely interesting about a region that is otherwise a gigantic snooze.

The top seed: This year's Michigan State squad is the quintessential Tom Izzo team. They give eight guys significant minutes (although that's been pared down to seven now that Branden Dawson is hurt), they play at a comfortable pace, they rebound (third in the country in rebound rate), they defend (second in field-goal-percentage defense) ... and they don't have a single NBA-caliber talent. Draymond Green is a terrific college player, and he invariably keeps the Spartans in games even when he isn't scoring, but can you really rely on him to manufacture his own shot in crunch-time against a quality defense? Would you rather rely on point guard Keith Appling, who shoots 24% from three and didn't even crack four assists per game? It's a credit to Izzo that the Spartans won as many games as they did. They won't win more than two the rest of the way.

The lurker: I honestly don't know what to make of Louisville. On the one hand, they're ruthless defensively (third in the country in field-goal-percentage defense, seventh in steals), they're absurdly balanced on offense (six different players average at least nine points), and they're led by one of the greatest college coaches ever (don't deny it). On the other hand, they're horrendously undisciplined (175th in assist/turnover ratio), and their best playmaker (Peyton Siva) is historically incapable of making the right pass at the right time. Worse, they're absolutely horrible from the perimeter, making just 31% of their threes (Siva himself shoots a putrid 24%) – that ranks 294th in the nation, good for third-worst among all tournament teams behind Detroit and Western Kentucky (a #15 seed and #16 seed, respectively). Yet if they speed you up and get you into a transition game, you will be outmatched. Which is exactly what I can see happening if they make it to a Sweet 16 matchup against Michigan State. Yikes.

The great mid-major hope: Unless you're a Colorado State fan like my friend Luke, you should be rooting for Murray State to make the Final Four. Not only would it be exciting for college basketball fans to see as much of Isaiah Canaan as possible, but it would also throw it in the committee's face that a 30-win team with victories at Memphis and at home against Dayton and St. Mary's probably deserves better than a freaking six seed. With most of the major conferences currently being realigned like two nine-year-olds swapping properties in a Monopoly game, it would be gratifying to see a team from the Ohio Valley make a stand in the tourney. These are the kinds of stories that we want to see play out during March Madness. But do the Racers have the horses to compete against the firepower of Missouri? I doubt it. But I hope I'm wrong.

The junkyard dog: Marquette plays hard. I'm not denying that. They win through superior hustle, energy, pressure, and pretty much every other adjective that could be applied to Brian Scalabrine. What they don't appear to have is skill or anything resembling "an offense". That style works fine in a scrappy conference like the Big East, but it doesn't work in March.

The rule: I don't deny that three-point shooting is critical in the tournament, but when you rely so extensively on the three that you attempt over 25 per game (third-most in the country), you're just begging for one of those games when four-fifths of your shots rim in-and-out and ultimately Erving Walker starts dribbling around like he's imitating an old Pistol Pete video before heaving 30-footers every possession. Thanks for playing, Florida.

The eye candy: I love watching Missouri play. They feature four guards, all of whom can shoot, especially Kim English (47% from three). Their best player, Marcus Denmon, is a bona fide shot-maker who shoots 90% from the line and loves making back-breaking threes. And their point guard, Phil Pressey, has can't-teach-that court vision and is one of the smoothest guards in the country. (The less said about reserve gunner Michael Dixon, the better.) Here's what they don't do: defend (220th in field-goal-percentage defense) or rebound (149th in rebound rate). They win with speed, ball movement, and sheer offensive firepower, all of which is the perfect recipe against a traditional, well-disciplined team such as Michigan State. But if they wind up stuck in a run-and-gun contest against Louisville in the regional final ...

The Picks
Play-in game: Iona over BYU.

Sweet 16: Michigan State over Memphis, Louisville over Long Beach State, Murray State over Marquette, Missouri over Florida.

Regional final: LOUISVILLE over Missouri.

(Jesus, did I really just pick Peyton Siva to make the Final Four? I hate this region.)

EAST (aka "The Intrigue")
Overall thoughts: Lots of fun stuff to chew on here. Which Syracuse (and which Dion Waiters) will show up? After a 66-year absence, can Harvard cause a stir? Is Gonzaga finally ready to do some damage again? Is Ohio State preening even though it's a #2 seed? Can Florida State manage to win a game without properly executing a single offensive possession? Will Wisconsin-Montana become the lowest-rated game in tournament history? Should be fun.

The top seed: At this point, you know what you're getting from Syracuse: the most disciplined 2-3 zone in the country, a ton of blocked shots and forced turnovers, relentless attack in transition, the occasional spectacular play from Waiters, and – once the game slows down and the pressure rises – no semblance of a half-court offense whatsoever. Force them into a grind-it-out contest in which they can't push the ball, and the Orange can be brutal to watch. Throw in their inability to take care of the glass (they rank a staggering 331st in defensive rebound percentage), and this Syracuse team is exceedingly vulnerable. Which isn't to say that they can't run their opponent out of the gym in the proper environment. But put them up against a well-coached team that can shoot the three, like, say ...

The sleeper: Given that it just gave Kentucky its second loss of the entire year, Vanderbilt isn't exactly a sleeper anymore. But given that they're a five seed – and given that I'd tabbed them as my "Team that can do some damage given the right draw" squad a few weeks ago – I'm sticking with the label. Of course, the Commodores have their share of problems – they don't defend all that well, and their talented players (especially Jeffery Taylor) have the annoying tendency to sleepwalk during big moments. But they are talented, and with Taylor, gritty point guard Brad Tinsley, and sweet-shooting guard John Jenkins (leading the country in threes made) all shooting 40% from three or better, they're precisely the type of roster that can give Syracuse fits. You know, assuming they get past Harvard.

The nightmare: Can you imagine watching a regional final between third-seeded Florida State (fourth in field-goal-percentage defense, 104th in scoring) and fourth-seeded Wisconsin (seventh in defense, 253rd in scoring)? It would make last year's Uconn-Butler final look like an offensive bonanza between the T-Wolves and the Warriors. I would rather watch The Tree of Life and Le Quattro Volte back-to-back than watch two defensively stifling, offensively inept teams face each other with a Final Four berth on the line. Fortunately, the NCAA will never let this happen.

(Wait, the NCAA let Butler face VCU in the Final Four last year? Let's stop thinking about this.)

The shame: I like Gonzaga. I always have, ever since Blake Stepp was there. Hell, I like most teams from the WCC (and I still haven't forgiven the committee for shutting out Mickey McConnell and St. Mary's from the field last year). I like Mark Few, and I really like this Kevin Pangos kid who shot 41% from three and has probably ripped his way through four different sorority houses by now. I want them to do well, and I'm completely confident that they'll throttle an overachieving West Virginia team in the first round. The problem is that they then have to play ...

The gauntlet: O.K., Jared Sullinger, it's time for you to put up or shut up. You passed up being a top-five pick in last year's NBA Draft because you wanted to return to Ohio State in order to win a title. Alongside Kansas' Thomas Robinson, you're the only player in the country who actually features a bevy of low-post scoring moves. You play with one of the smartest point guards in the game in Aaron Craft who is practically begging for you to demand the ball on every possession. Yet you invariably disappear for long stretches and commit stupid fouls, and your team winds up relying on William Buford or Deshaun Thomas to make the big play. Enough. It's time for you to don the cloak of the superstar, take center stage, drop 28 and 15 in the regional final, and show NBA scouts why they shouldn't rank you behind Andre Drummond and Arnett Moultrie. This is your chance. Let's see what you've got. (And if you have to hire Jeff Gillooly to slice Thomas' Achilles' tendon in the locker room before the regional final, so be it.)

The Picks
Sweet 16: Syracuse over Kansas State, Vanderbilt over Wisconsin, Florida State over Cincinnati, Ohio State over Gonzaga.

Regional final: VANDERBILT over Ohio State.

WEST (aka "The Showdown")
Overall thoughts: Including the two play-in contests, this region will host 17 games. One will matter.

The top seed: Strangely, this North Carolina team reminds me of the Tar Heels' squad from 2009 – not in terms of talent level or personnel, but circumstances. That team was poised to win the championship before stud point guard Ty Lawson hurt his foot, resulting in a loss in the ACC Tournament to Florida State and causing the entire country to question whether or not Lawson would return to full health and how it would affect the team's tournament chances. (Answer: They won the title.) This year, John Henson sprained his wrist during the ACC Tournament, in which Carolina lost to (you guessed it) Florida State, and now everyone is all aflutter about how that injury will impair the Heels' title chances.

Obviously I have no idea how Henson's wrist is actually healing, but it hardly matters – he could pull a Von Miller and play with a giant cast on his hand, and he'll still contribute at least 80% of his normal value (I know he's an improved offensive threat this year, but his primary impact remains on the defensive end). And that's a problem, because with an even moderately healthy Henson in the lineup, Carolina is good. Yes, they only have four high-quality players (McAdoo and Hairston aren't there yet, and I'm not sure Bullock ever will be), but those four players are awfully impressive. Kendall Marshall is the best pure point guard in the country, and while Tyler Zeller is a talented player in his own right, playing alongside Marshall is the dream scenario for someone of his skill set. Meanwhile, even if Harrison Barnes has a little too much Jeremy Lamb in him, he remains one of the silkiest scorers in the country who is capable of utterly dominating a game for short stretches. Yet even with a healthy Henson, the Tar Heels' path to the Final Four is hardly assured, as they'll likely have to play ...

The disrespected: If there's one virtue of the current seeding system, it's that it provides coaches with free motivational ammunition. Hell, the bias is even color-coded (the higher seed always wears white). If Kansas coach Bill Self has any sense of how to fire up collegiate athletes – and I think he does – he'll dust off his Norman Dale impression and milk his team's #2 seed for all it's worth. And if the Jayhawks are motivated, look out. Not only do they defend vigorously (fifth in field-goal-percentage defense, anchored by rising star Jeff Withey), but they also have the country's best player in Thomas Robinson ("He's a monster!" my Dad exclaimed once after Robinson ripped down another offensive rebound and possibly sank his teeth into the defender's neck). Unfortunately, they also have Tyshawn Taylor. Now, to be fair, Taylor has shown shocking flashes of common sense this year, and his playmaking ability has always been undeniable. But his assist/turnover ratio remains a putrid 1.4, and after watching him for four years, I've determined that I will never trust him with the ball in his hands and the game on the line. And I'd say the exact opposite about Kendall Marshall. Bad sign for Kansas.

The fraud: Wait, there are other teams in this region? You can forgive me for overlooking Georgetown, if only because there is hardly anything to overlook. The Hoyas have two good players – freshman forward Otto Porter (a scrappy rebounder who has a nose for the ball and shoots 52%) and senior center Henry Sims (a skilled passing big man who's essentially an extremely poor man's Greg Monroe). Their backcourt, however, is atrocious. They win exclusively via their defense, which is problematic given that they face ...

The shocker: Belmont! Admittedly I'm biased in favor of the Bruins because I saw them play Duke tough in the Blue Devils' first game of the season, but Belmont can score. They're fifth in the country in true shooting percentage and seventh in points from three-pointers (led by Drew Hanlen, who made 91 threes this year at a staggering 48% clip). They're also an experienced tournament team with a veteran coach in Rick Byrd. Oh, and they're playing in Ohio, where Georgetown will undoubtedly be haunted by the ghost of losing to fourteenth-seeded Ohio two years ago. Mark it down. (Also, Seth Davis, please stop stealing the Manifesto's sleeper picks. Thanks.)

The Picks
Play-in games: Lamar over Vermont, South Florida over California.

Sweet 16: North Carolina over Creighton, Temple over Michigan, Belmont over NC State, Kansas over St. Mary's.

Regional final: NORTH CAROLINA over Kansas.

Semifinal #1: Kentucky is arguably the best team in the country. Louisville could arguably lose to Davidson in the first round. I'll take Kentucky.

Semifinal #2: If North Carolina can beat Kansas, it means John Henson is healthy, which means the Tar Heels aren't losing to Vanderbilt ...

Championship: ... or to anyone else. Also, if this matchup actually happens, it's possible that I'll elect to undergo laser eye surgery without anesthesia rather than watch this game.

In any event, the Manifesto is officially picking North Carolina as its 2012 NCAA champion. And with that transparent ploy of reverse psychology firmly in place, it's time to officially fill out my bracket. Happy Madness, everyone.