Friday, December 27, 2013

The Worst Movies of 2013: Man of Steel, and Other Atrocities

The greatest advantage of being an amateur movie critic rather than a professional is simple: I'm not forced to see movies that I don't actually want to see. True, I dutifully attempt to see every movie nominated for an Oscar, which occasionally induces a sense of obligation (did I really Netflix a French animated film called A Cat in Paris?), but for the most part, I watch movies because I want to, not because I'm paid to. So, until the Mr. Provis of the technology generation bestows the Manifesto with his generosity and turns this wee blog into a for-profit enterprise (note to silent benefactors: I'm still available), I can continue to avoid the truly execrable pictures that litter the multiplex each year.

As a result, I can't possibly pretend to author a list of the actual worst movies of 2013, as I exercised my discretion and passed on such supposed fiascos as The Big Wedding, Grown Ups 2, and Movie 43. I can, however, denigrate the small sampling of this year's films that I actively disliked. Given my selectivity, it's a predictably short list: As of this writing, I've seen 85 theatrical releases in 2013, and I only found the following eight to be genuinely contemptible. There's assuredly more dross out there, but for now, you'll have to settle for me warning you away from these wretched offerings. In no particular order:

Man of Steel. One popular (if anti-populist) narrative concerning the state of contemporary cinema is that movies just aren't as good as they used to be. That's utter rubbish, but Zack Snyder's ponderous Superman reboot will hardly quell the senseless clamor. In empirical terms, Man of Steel isn't all that terrible; the special effects are undeniably impressive, the production design is sleek and well-conceived, and the acting is perfectly adequate. But all of that is drowned out by Snyder's thuddingly tone-deaf sensibility, one that equates noise and explosions with verve and excitement while mistaking turgidity for solemnity. The film's second half—in which Superman hurtles into countless buildings and terrifies a multitude of innocent pedestrians—is an agonizing slog of unrelenting sound and fury. Leaden, humorless, and utterly devoid of character development or thematic nuance, Man of Steel is a toxic exemplar of how a $225 million budget, when attached to a tattered screenplay and a creatively bankrupt director, buys absolutely nothing.

Henry Cavill
















 


A Good Day to Die Hard. What a waste. Man of Steel may have been a monumental failure, but at least it was a failure of ambition. The only ambition of A Good Day to Die Hard—the fifth installment of the now-festering franchise—appears to have been to sell a handful of tickets in Russia, where the film's action predominantly takes place. (The movie racked up 78% of its $305 million worldwide gross at the international box office, the third-highest such share among major U.S. releases, behind only Escape Plan and The Smurfs 2. Apparently, foreign audiences have yet to tire of 1980s action heroes and cartoons.) I'm hardly an obsessive disciple of the Die Hard series, but regardless of your level of affection for John McClane, his latest travails exhibit a weary, wheezing quality that's downright dispiriting. The action scenes are limp and unimaginative, the villains are rote and unmemorable, and the perfunctory attempt at character-building—in which McClane attempts to reconnect with one of his children—feels reheated from the prior episode, Live Free or Die Hard. For his part, Bruce Willis looks both bored and indestructible, perhaps because no one would dare touch him as he strolls his way through the wreckage to collect a paycheck.

A Good Day to Die Hard


















The Company You Keep. Robert Redford's would-be-thriller has the skeleton of an interesting movie, one in which a seemingly decent man faces a reckoning courtesy of his past sins. But after an intriguing first reel, the movie sputters and stalls, failing both as a suspense picture and as a portrait of loss and regret. Part of that is due to Redford's own hubris: He cast himself as the lead, but at 77 years old, he looks as though he can barely climb a flight of stairs, much less outsprint a nationwide manhunt. And while he still holds the cachet to fill out his roster with an exceptionally talented cast (Susan Sarandon, Nick Nolte, Chris Cooper, and Richard Jenkins are just a few of the high-profile names on hand), he gives them precious little to do. Oddly, the movie's lone memorable moment occurs when an intrepid report (a reliably scrappy Shia LaBeouf) attempts to pick up a university student (the up-and-coming Brit Marling). It's a scene of seeming improvisation that infuses The Company You Keep with a spark of energy. But that spark is quickly extinguished, and all that remains is a jumble of aged movie stars, looking confused about why they're here and frustrated that they missed their nap.

Robert Redford


















Only God Forgives. Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive was one of my favorite films of 2011, a virtuosic reimagining of 1980s macho action movies filtered through the new millennium's more refined aesthetic. For his follow-up, Refn borrows a number of Drive's memorable elements—extreme violence, lush photography, Ryan Gosling—and grafts them onto a narrative so stupendously idiotic that it's hard to believe it even exists. Set in Thailand, the purported plot pits Gosling (who sleepwalks through a role that's wholly devoid of personality) against a samurai-wielding detective who moonlights as a karaoke performer. That may sound alluring, but Only God Forgives is really just a loose, incoherent assemblage of grotesque executions, none of which is staged with any particular visual wit or élan. Not only is the movie loudly and profoundly stupid; worse, it's tedious. Kristin Scott Thomas provides a welcome jolt as Gosling's ferocious mother, but even she can't rescue Only God Forgives from Refn's flagrant self-indulgence. Perhaps Refn felt uncomfortable in the wake of Drive's critical acclaim and felt the need to reestablish himself as a maverick rather than a director who connects with mainstream audiences. For my part, I liked him better when he was making good movies rather than terrible ones.

Only God Forgives
















At Any Price. The motivations behind At Any Price—in which Ramin Bahrani attempts to tell a sweeping tale of the plight facing the middle-American farmer in the technology age—may be honorable, but intentions can only get you so far, and Bahrani's ambition outstrips his execution. Whereas his prior feature, Goodbye Solo, was a thoughtful and intimate affair, At Any Price is bulky and sprawling, a character study of desperation that clumsily transitions into flailing melodrama. There's also a struggle between a tradition-minded patriarch (Dennis Quaid, very good) and his Nascar-obsessed son (Zac Efron, pretty bad); as with the rest of the film, this exploration of father-son conflict is far more compelling in theory than reality. (As an indication of the movie's slapdash approach to storytelling, Heather Graham shows up to sleep with both men, for no better reason than that it causes strife between the two.) At Any Price scores points for effort, but it's nonetheless a confused, muddled film that never finds sure footing. Middle America deserved better.

At Any Price














The Grandmaster. There's a certain appeal to a legendary filmmaker like Wong Kar Wai helming a kung-fu picture: the possibility of a fertile crossbreed between high-art cinema and pulpy entertainment. Sadly, The Grandmaster is a dull, sodden film that satisfies as neither art nor pulp. Wong is a supremely elegant stylist, but his fight scenes are strangely lacking in beauty, not to mention energy. He predictably takes a philosophical approach to martial arts, but Zhang Yimou charted similar territory to far superior effect in Hero and House of Flying Daggers, which managed to be cinematically stimulating as well as piously reverent. The story, meanwhile, is completely threadbare, a familiar, languorous tale of unfulfilled love that's populated by stock archetypes rather than actual characters. It's as if Wong couldn't be bothered to invest his movie with any identity, instead simply relying on his visual gifts to elevate a meandering screenplay. In this, Wong disrespects the discipline he attempts to honor.

Tong Leung
















Gangster Squad. Good actors can only take a bad movie so far. No 2013 film exemplified this axiom more than Gangster Squad (though The Company You Keep came close), an ugly, pointless Untouchables wannabe that feels as though it was scripted by a violence-crazed teenager. The crack cast—which includes Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, and Anthony Mackie—is a mighty collection of Hollywood talent, but director Ruben Fleischer seems completely disinterested in utilizing their abilities. (Gosling, by the way, could stand to be a bit more choosy; after appearing in three of 2011's best films, he landed in two of this year's worst.) That's because Gangster Squad is really just a moronic revenge fable, one in which every character is either deeply noble or repulsively rotten. It can't even qualify as dumb fun, as Fleischer's Tommy-gun shootouts are as clunky and monotonous as Snyder's superhero battles in Man of Steel (if blessedly shorter). In fact, the only memorable thing about Gangster Squad is that it serves as a cautionary tale: The next time you consider seeing a movie based on its cast, research the director and screenwriter first.

Gangster Squad

















Prince Avalanche. It's interesting to note that, with the exception of The Grandmaster, the preceding pictures on this list met with scorn from most critics. That's not the case with David Gordon Green's Prince Avalanche, which currently sits at 84% on Rotten Tomatoes (The Grandmaster is at 75%), suggesting that it's legitimately well-liked rather than merely tolerated. I remain baffled by the insistent praise for the film, in which Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch play a couple of nobodies tasked with hammering signage into a stretch of burned-out road. That's it. That's the movie. Green seems content to just let his two leads wander around in the wilderness, drinking and bickering and occasionally bonding, but really doing nothing in particular. Now, I generally don't demand intricate plots from movies, but I do require some sort of hook, whether it's memorable characters, snappy dialogue, evocative imagery—something. There's simply nothing compelling about the experience of watching Prince Avalanche. It's a boring movie about two boring people who do boring things. That it's set amidst the aftermath of a forest fire doesn't transform it into a profound commentary on the mundanity of everyday existence or the cyclical nature of life. It just makes us wish these two losers would hurry up and get on with their lives, so that we can get on with ours.

Prince Avalanche

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Best Movies of 2012 (Part II)

In case you missed it, you can find Part I of the Manifesto's countdown of the 16 best movies of 2012 here. And now, the final octet.

8. Silver Linings Playbook. Until he made The Fighter, David O. Russell was pretty much the last director I could have imagined helming a pure crowd-pleaser. But while that boxing flick was a sturdy enough piece of genre execution elevated by a tremendous performance from Christian Bale, it nevertheless represented a step backward for Russell, sacrificing the angularity and unpredictability of his earlier work in favor of stock characters and easy sentiment. Silver Linings Playbook doesn't shy away from uplift—it's arguably the most thrillingly happy movie of 2012—but it derives its emotional impact through a delightfully haphazard mix of screwball comedy and disturbing family drama, as well as a provocative examination of mental illness. Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence make a pretty pair, but each suggests real sadness; Cooper's constant gesticulation conveys the whirlwind of thoughts assaulting his fraying mind, while Lawrence's flashing eyes and uptilted chin mask quiet vulnerability and heartache. This frenzy of feeling culminates in a landmark scene, which Russell stages with symphonic élan, in which Lawrence goes toe-to-toe with the legendary Robert De Niro (in his best form in years) and shifts her long-simmering passion into overdrive. On one level, it's just a bunch of crazy Philadelphians rehashing the Eagles. On another, it's a madcap marvel, a winning illustration of how movies can take pain and fury and desperation, mix them together, and turn them into joy.





7. Lincoln. A renowned director with a weakness for schmaltz. A legendary actor with two Oscars already on his mantle. A celebrated protagonist heralded for preserving a nation. Consider those elements when approaching Lincoln, and you'd be forgiven for expecting it to be little more than a drippy, overly solemn slice of awards bait. But while Steven Spielberg's latest tour de force bears several hallmarks of classic Academy fare—period costumes, supple camerawork, preachy themes of tolerance and forgiveness—it is also an incisive, invigorating exploration of the political process that makes for a damn good time at the movies. Tony Kushner's screenplay strikes a masterful balance of sobriety and frivolity, darting between acidic commentary and sharp humor ("It's not against the law to bribe Congressmen; they starve otherwise."). For his part, Spielberg uses his unimpeachable craft to maneuver beyond the historical titan at his project's center and reveal the man, bold and brilliant and heroic but nonetheless human. It helps, of course, that he has employed a titan of his own, as Daniel Day-Lewis flawlessly embodies our sixteenth president, conveying both his folksy charisma and his fearsome wrath. In the end, Lincoln is a warm, winning reminder that movies—especially those such as this one that combine scraggly charm with lapidary technique—retain the wondrous power to sketch the scope of history.





6. Moonrise Kingdom. Even those who resist Wes Anderson's movies—and I have often counted myself among their number—cannot deny his prodigious gifts as a filmmaker. The painstaking detail of his production design, the fastidious framing of his camerawork, and the meticulous rhythms of his editing all signify the work of an artist who operates with supreme control of his form. But his sheer mastery of the medium can also suffocate his subjects; his characters are often weird but not especially interesting, and his writing is less clever than mannered and stifling. With Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson doesn't just correct this flaw, he obliterates it. A giddy, achingly heartfelt story of two misfit dreamers finding love, it remains entirely a Wes Anderson film, with immaculate sets and spectacularly precise cinematography (even the establishing shots of a beach house double as sumptuous feats of visual poetry). The difference is that Moonrise Kingdom tethers Anderson's exacting formal rigor to his characters and their stumbling, fantastically awkward journey through adolescence, with all of its attendant confusion, toxicity, and wonder. Newcomers Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward (both terrific) aren't playing broad archetypes but real people, and their director's stylistic flourishes exist not to flaunt his own virtuosity but to heighten the purity and sweetness of their romance. Anderson's movies always delight the eye, but this is his first since 1998's Rushmore that will make your heart soar.





5. The Cabin in the Woods. As much as I enjoyed Joss Whedon's The Avengers, with its frenetic pace and zippy dialogue, I couldn't shake the feeling that Whedon—the maestro behind my favorite television show of all-time—was somehow boxed in, trapped by the commercial obligation to deliver mammoth, easily digestible entertainment to as broad an audience as possible. How else to explain a man who has previously expressed his disdain for action sequences concluding his blockbuster with a lumbering, near-interminable assault on the senses? (Compare this to Whedon's prior theatrical feature, Serenity, which marginalized action sequences in favor of character-building and offhand comedy.) Thankfully, 2012 also offered the perfect antidote to this development with The Cabin in the Woods, which Whedon co-scripted with director Drew Goddard. A sly, fearlessly inventive meta-horror-comedy, the movie is chameleonic in its genius, chastising horror fans for reveling in others' suffering while also partaking in a fair bit of revelry itself. Whedon's and Goddard's screenplay is unapologetically highbrow—it does no less than question the reason for horror movies' existence—but the writing is also immensely satisfying on a micro level, from the incessant bickering between a pair of harried puppeteers (perfectly played by Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) to the escalating bewilderment of Fran Kranz's stoner-hero. The Cabin in the Woods isn't afraid to keep viewers off-balance—its opening scene is one of the all-time great "Wait, did I walk into the wrong movie?" fakeouts—but its real pleasure derives from the knowledge that you're watching the product of men who take true pride in their craft. It's a lovingly wicked satire of movies that demonstrates why we love movies.





4. Ruby Sparks. The motion picture landscape is so crowded with existing love stories—between men and women, between movies and movie fans, between robots—that it's hard to fathom screenwriters locating new terrain. Yet in her script for Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan has created a jubilant love story that also eviscerates the fatigued institution of canned cinematic romance. Kazan plays the title character, an effervescent bundle of joy who's essentially the embodiment of adult male fantasy; she's a looker with a warm sense of humor, she's always in a good mood, and she cooks dinner and performs fellatio with equal enthusiasm. Of course, Ruby actually is a fantasy: She's the creation of struggling novelist Calvin (a very good, admirably unlikable Paul Dano), who somehow manifested her into the world. Not only that, but he can alter her very personality simply by entering a line of text into his typewriter. That's awfully high-concept, and in their follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris bravely mine their novelist's moral dilemma while also exploiting it for some very funny moments. The true brilliance of Ruby Sparks, however, is the gradual manner in which it chisels away at the writerly myth of notional perfection. At first, Ruby is just a construct, and her relationship with Calvin is initially depicted as a fairy tale of perpetual, impossible bliss. But as the movie grows, so too does Ruby, and that bliss corrodes into something complicated, strained, and even scary (a third-act scene in which Calvin wields his power as puppet master is both deeply disturbing and terribly sad). Real people, it turns out, are incompatible with fantasy, and while that may seem like a tautology, it took a movie of considerable audacity to prove it.





3. The Dark Knight Rises. Superhero movies may still serve as reliable studio tentpoles, but in the critical community, they're increasingly met with weary resignation. The Dark Knight Rises, however, is somehow both less and more than a superhero movie. Less, because the Caped Crusader appears in costume relatively rarely, as Bruce Wayne instead spends much of the film questioning the costs and virtues of his own purported heroism. And more, because Christopher Nolan uses the genre as a canvas on which he paints a sprawling, staggeringly ambitious portrait of societal chaos. Only in a superhero movie directed by Nolan could the villain threaten a metropolis with nuclear annihilation while simultaneously describing the nuke as "the instrument of your liberation". Tom Hardy's Bane is a mesmerizing antagonist, partly because of Hardy's spectacular performance—with his imposing stature and impeccable vocal delivery, he cuts a chillingly remorseless figure—but also because Bane's anti-government rhetoric is legitimately seductive. And in chronicling Gotham City's descent into anarchy (the rioting, the kangaroo courts, the miasma of brutality), Nolan has crafted no less than a sweeping epic of Darwinian survival.

If that sounds overly cerebral, fear not, because The Dark Knight Rises remains a Chris Nolan movie; as such, it is resolutely badass. The action sequences are dazzling (Batman's motorcycle now features a nifty did-you-see-that? rolling maneuver), the top-flight cast is fully committed (in addition to Hardy, Anne Hathaway in particular is superb, providing the primary source of pathos), and the whole thing rushes along at that inimitable Nolan pace, where every scene feels charged with electricity. So is The Dark Knight Rises a superhero movie? Not even a bit, and then some.





2. Zero Dark Thirty. Hey, remember this one? Kathryn Bigelow's dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden generated swirling controversy when it was first released—depending on whom you asked, the film's merciless depiction of torture was either factually irresponsible or morally reprehensible—but it seems to have since receded from the public consciousness. Perhaps that's for the best, because it allows future viewers to focus on the movie itself, a hypnotic thriller that pounds your pulse even as it probes at your principles. As she did in The Hurt Locker, Bigelow showcases her uncanny ability to manufacture set pieces of sustained, excruciating suspense, but this time, she extends that atmosphere of ever-escalating tension to the film's overall plot. What results is a breakneck procedural that imbues the seemingly straightforward task of intelligence-gathering with colossal stakes. Yet while Zero Dark Thirty chronicles events forever etched in history, it's also about people, specifically the withering effect that utter commitment to a cause can have on one's soul. A ridiculously talented cast portray those people with absolute conviction; Jason Clarke is magnetic while Jennifer Ehle is sympathetic, to say nothing of a fearless Jessica Chastain, whose agonizing final pose bears an impossible kinship with the devastating final frame of Al Pacino in The Godfather, Part II. But this is Bigelow's vision, and it's one of absolute fidelity to a simple ethos: that victory is achieved through scrupulous technique and dogged determination. Even so, triumph comes at a cost, but Zero Dark Thirty's wrenching illustration of that very axiom—which it exemplifies in an exhausting-but-fleet two-and-a-half hours—is its own form of triumph. [For the Manifesto's full review, click here.]





1. Looper. Time-travel movies basically write themselves. Briefly establish the technology, concoct a dystopian future whose very existence hinges on certain events in the present, introduce a clashing hero and villain with diametrically opposed goals, and voilà, conflict. But the infinite possibilities of time travel can also inspire awe when channeled through a filmmaker of true ambition, and Rian Johnson is certainly that. Undeniably the creation of a profoundly committed artist, Looper is smart, daring, and wildly imaginative. (Who could forget the scene in which a man watches in horror as his own fingers disappear because his prior self is being mutilated?) But it is also compact, brisk, and almost defiantly small-scale. That's because Johnson is not only a bold and gifted writer but also a rigorously disciplined director, one who prevents the vastness of his ideas from overwhelming the intimacy of his story. And for all its mind-bending playfulness, Looper isn't really about time travel at all. (To underscore this, Johnson wryly expresses his disdain for dull, genre-mandated exposition when a character barks, "I don't want to talk about time travel, because if we start talking about it, then we're gonna be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws!") It's really an age-old tale of redemption and self-discovery, albeit one that's filtered through a bracingly contemporary aesthetic. Joseph-Gordon Levitt (whose performance in Brick, Johnson's debut feature, remains the finest of an increasingly distinguished career) proves an intriguingly flawed hero, but it's the deeply soulful performance of Emily Blunt that delivers a stunning emotional wallop.

That wallop—like Johnson's impressive, increasingly self-assured craft—should not be underestimated. Looper takes place in an alternate universe worthy of Blade Runner, one with its own invented slang and distinctive local flavor. It's a brave, challenging, incredibly confident movie. But its greatest achievement is its humility, the way it backgrounds its restless innovation in subservience to its characters and their plight: a husband seeking to avenge his wife, a mother desperate to protect her son, a lost wayfarer striving to do right. The people are what matter most in Looper, and Johnson's unwavering faith in that simple conceit elevates a gimmicky time-travel film to the level of pure tragedy. It's the kind of movie where a boy tripping down the stairs suddenly becomes an effects-driven sequence of astonishing potency, and where a would-be-climactic shootout gives way to a solemn meditation on the terrible notion of destiny. It reminds us that while the movies' greatest strength will always be their singular capacity to transport us—to create new worlds, to show us new sights, to make the impossible possible—they are never more powerful than when they bring us home.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Best Movies of 2012 (Part I)

After the astonishing year at the movies that was 2011, it was perhaps inevitable that 2012 would regress to the mean somewhat. The result is that, whereas last year I felt compelled to extend my annual year-end list to include 25 different films, this year I'm limiting myself to 16. Whether this is because the quality of the cinematic output declined slightly or because the Manifesto has a bizarre preoccupation with perfect squares, it doesn't matter. In the end, 2012 was a year like any other, one that featured plenty of good movies, just as many bad movies, and a handful of spectacular movies. In the Manifesto's eyes, here are the 16 best:

Honorable mention: Cloud Atlas, Compliance, The Flowers of War, Michael, Miss Bala, The Secret World of Arrietty, Sleep Tight, Smashed, Take This Waltz, Your Sister's Sister.

16. Wreck-It Ralph. Animation affords filmmakers the ability to create new worlds, and the vibrant, humming universe of Wreck-It Ralph is thrillingly new. As beloved videogame characters of yesteryear shuffle through "Game Central Station", the movie introduces us to a series of brilliantly realized landscapes – from the nightmarish, apocalyptic "Hero's Duty" to the saccharine, cotton-candy-smelling "Sugar Rush" – each lovingly created in shimmering, tactile detail. The sound design is equally inspired, with distinctive bleeps and beeps accompanying each character's individualized, hopping movements. But Wreck-It Ralph is more than just a visual and auditory wonder – it also features outstanding writing. The dialogue has Pixar-worthy pep, while the seemingly familiar plot of an outcast seeking acceptance houses a number of expertly rationed surprises. "I am bad, and that's good; I will never be good, and that's not bad," John C. Reilly's title character intones nobly as the film approaches its stirring, satisfying conclusion. With its eye-popping color palette and nimble storytelling, Wreck-It Ralph is better than good – it's original and memorable. And that, also, is not bad.




15. Skyfall. James Bond used to be superhuman, a quality that made him a great deal of fun and also somewhat boring. No longer. The specter of death pervades Skyfall, Sam Mendes' exhilarating, haunting film about the personal costs of professional heroism. Straight from the opening scene – in which a fairly ordinary car chase morphs into a fantastically kinetic hand-to-hand combat sequence atop a moving train that concludes with the ominous words, "Agent down" – Mendes swiftly dispenses with the notion that Skyfall will engage in the carefree, frivolous globe-trotting that used to define the franchise. He's more interested in how a lifetime of service to queen and country can batter a man's body and soul, and the result is a stunningly fallible 007, played by Daniel Craig with an invigorating mixture of inveterate lethality and weary vulnerability. He's pitted against one of the scariest Bond baddies ever in Silva, incarnated by Javier Bardem with playful camp but also ghastly menace. Silva's entrance, in which he slithers toward the camera in an unbroken take while relaying a parable about cannibalistic rats, is a breathtaking fusion of sharp screenwriting and visual elegance, and Skyfall, aided by Roger Deakins' exquisite digital photography (most distinctive during a silhouetted fight sequence of flabbergasting beauty), is undoubtedly the best-looking Bond film ever made. For his part, Mendes stages his action scenes with energy but also clarity, articulating his players' movements with precision rather than freneticism. The movie stumbles slightly during its final act, exhibiting a disappointing reliance on detached gunplay that betrays its commitment to sinewy intimacy. That aside, Skyfall stands as a historic achievement, an immaculate, bracing action picture that is unafraid to pause, reflect, and stare death in the face.




14. Anna Karenina. The downfall of most movie adaptations of literary classics is an excess of reverence. Filmmakers, no doubt wary of the scolding they'll receive from high-minded scholars, feel compelled to hew as closely to the text as possible, and the invariable result is a pale imitation of a great work, a mere shadow bereft of its own substance and identity. Thankfully, nothing about Joe Wright's transformation of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina feels dusty or secondhand. It is, rather, entirely its own creature, a wholly cinematic document of rushing vitality. Anchored by an achingly vulnerable Keira Knightley as the title heroine, the movie is a stylistic wonderment. Wright enjoys working in a period setting – witness the startling life he breathed into Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice – yet despite the exquisite costumes and lavish turn-of-the-century trappings, this Anna Karenina is modern and new. The level of craftsmanship on display is simply remarkable; characters are suddenly and repeatedly transported across time and space from one stunning set to another, the camera ravenously tracking them with grace and fluidity. (I cannot help but name-check Seamus McGarvey's extraordinary cinematography and Sarah Greenwood's stupendous production design, not to mention Dario Marianelli's spiky, stirring score.) It is a whirling, vivacious circus act of a film, and as master of ceremonies, Wright refuses to be constrained by the enormous greatness of Tolstoy's novel, preferring to manufacture his own, more anarchic brand of greatness. He makes the author's legendary work his own, and, in so doing, pays him homage.




13. The Hunger Games. With its massive teen following and well-groomed young actors, The Hunger Games has been stigmatized by some as an opportunistic cash-grab, a canny but shallow attempt to exploit moviegoers' current appetite for half-baked fantasy lore. (The Twilight franchise is its most obvious and unfortunate comparator, not least because both sagas feature appealing, well-cast women in leading roles.) Yet Gary Ross' assured adaptation of Suzanne Collins' page-turner should by no means be dismissed as playful, sanitized fluff. It is, rather, a sober, serious, and occasionally terrifying tale of dystopian lawlessness and political tyranny. Yes, Jennifer Lawrence is a pretty young thing, and yes, the de-facto love triangle at the movie's periphery feels a bit forced, a grudging concession to commercialism. But there is nothing trivial about the poised, fearful nature of Lawrence's performance, nor is there anything frivolous about the film's plot, in which two dozen youths are forced to transform into would-be gladiators and fight to the death for their rulers' amusement. Ross finds room for black humor, most notably in sly supporting turns from Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson (Wes Bentley is also excellent in a small but crucial part), but The Hunger Games' overall tone is merciless; once the so-called tributes are assembled in the arena and that glowering digital clock ticks down toward zero, the movie's life-and-death stakes take shape with frightening clarity. That sense of ruthlessness is critical to the film's success and also endemic of its world, one in which the combatants may be mere children, but the blood they spill is no less red.




12. Argo. For the second straight year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences bestowed its highest honor on a movie about making movies. And for the second straight year, even though there were superior competitors in the running, it's hard to blame them. As a historical teaching point, Ben Affleck's thriller is dubious, especially given its finale's unfortunate surrender to melodrama. As a piece of cinema, however, Argo is pure pleasure, as well as a poignant ode to the majesty of the movies. The film's first hour is a masterful blend of well-wrought suspense and wry comedy, as Affleck – eagerly utilizing the bevy of preposterously talented character actors at his disposal – relays his stranger-than-fiction story with verve and conviction. And even when Argo's latter passages traffic in well-worn thriller tropes, Affleck maintains a miasma of suspense, and William Goldenberg's clipped, confident editing (for which he received a well-earned Oscar) only heightens the mounting tension. At one point, Affleck cuts back and forth between a Hollywood table-read and a terrorist's demands to the media, and the symmetry between the two is both troubling and also bleakly funny: It's all just performance art, and success is simply a matter of practiced delivery and well-calibrated execution. Argo may not have been the best movie of 2012, but by that reckoning, it's damn near perfect.




11. Headhunters. It seems that dozens of nominal "thrillers" pass through the multiplex each year, but this Norwegian import – a rip-roaring noir replete with chases, double-crosses, hairpin turns, and all manner of dastardly deeds – actually earns the eponym. It opens as an apparent small-scale crime tale, detailing the exploits of a smarmy office executive (an excellent Aksel Hennie) who moonlights as an art thief. Crime movies can be fun, and for a time Headhunters is content to serve as a didactic story of compromised values, exploring how an obsession with privilege can be corruptive and addictive. But then Nikolaj Coster-Waldau shows up to chase the hero (for reasons both rational and irrelevant), and the film shifts into overdrive. Amplifying the smirking menace he brings to Jaime Lannister on Game of Thrones, Coster-Waldau proves himself a towering adversary, and the pleasure of Headhunters lies in how woefully overmatched its protagonist is in its game of cat-and-mouse. Director Morten Tyldum (currently working on a World War II picture with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley – look out) piles on the predicaments and mortifications – a wonderfully grotesque scene in an outhouse sets a new standard for hide-and-seek maneuvering – and as Hennie's character scrapes and claws at life, viewers find themselves grasping and gasping right along with him. Just as the title of Headhunters is slyly literal – decapitation is its villain's trade – the movie honors the literal meaning of its genre. It's a thriller that really thrills.




10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Demolishing the unwritten rule that teenagers in movies must behave like caricatures, Stephen Chbosky's adaptation of his own novel is a marvel of sensitivity and perception. A coming-of-age story that feels less filmed than wrenched from the memoirs of its hero, it treats its characters as real people, which is to say it shows them as flawed, sometimes ugly creatures. But this willingness to wade into darkness – and in its final act, The Perks of Being a Wallflower grows very dark indeed – is testament to its characters' messy humanity, and to the nobility Chbosky imparts to them. The actors lend the film further gravitas, with Logan Lerman, initially a blank canvas, conveying earnestness on the surface that camouflages the tumult raging beneath, while Ezra Miller (in a sharp reversal from his chilling work in We Need to Talk About Kevin) is all charm, except when he's picking at scabbed wounds. For her part, Emma Watson is equal parts beguiling and heartbreaking, just another fumbling youth who can transform on a whim into the most confidently beautiful girl in the world. That duality is fitting for a movie as complex and challenging as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It is in many ways a small film, with its textured detail and quiet intimacy, but it is also – in its gratifyingly frank portrayal of teenage life – grandly heroic.




9. Rust and Bone. The redemption tale is fraught with peril, as filmmakers invariably sacrifice emotional honesty in service of phony uplift. Rust and Bone, Jacques Audiard's heartfelt, deeply moving love story, isn't above granting audiences a rousing conclusion, but it is also pitiless in probing its characters' weaknesses. The movie's mismatched lovers are fundamentally decent people, but they are at times selfish, neglectful, and even cruel. That may make them sound unsympathetic, and perhaps they would be were they not brought to life with such astonishing vividness and conviction by Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard. The pair's physical disparity is almost amusing – Schoenaerts is a hulking beast of a man (a quality he showcased as a testosterone addict in 2012's Bullhead), with bodybuilder arms and a barrel chest, while Cotillard is a wispy flower with a porcelain face. But actors aren't defined by their attributes, and Audiard's players disappear completely into their respective roles; Schoenaerts' laser temper and sudden bursts of violence mask obvious vulnerability and loneliness, while Cotillard's blazing eyes and decisive gestures convey steely resolve even when she's immobilized. That immobility may be the central plot point of Rust and Bone, but even though the movie is ostensibly focused on physical struggle, that's just one layer of Audiard's story. He's equally interested in how damaged people can nurture each other, locating the light buried within gloom. With Rust and Bone, he examines the significance of the body and emerges with a triumph of the soul.



Check back soon for Part II.

Monday, March 18, 2013

March Madness 2013

There's a moving scene in the first season of "The West Wing" in which Toby convinces President Bartlet to cut from his State of the Union Address a line that reads, "The era of big government is over." Toby admits that it's a catchy slogan that will give Bartlet a bump in the polls, but he's sickened at the thought of disparaging the federal machine solely to score political points. "Government can be a place where people come together and where no one gets left behind," he pleads, and as string music swells to support the truth of his words, Bartlet turns to Josh Lyman and asks him what he thinks. Josh considers briefly, then answers, "I make it a point never to disagree with Toby when he's right."

March Madness, too, is a place where (or at least a time when) people come together. Pools are illegally filled out, Internet traffic booms, productivity stalls, and across the nation the conversation turns to whether Gonzaga really deserved a #1 seed, or whether Bucknell can flip the script on Butler. But while the era of big government may not be over, the era of top-tier dominance in college basketball is assuredly extinct. With the game's most talented players fleeing for the NBA after a single season, collegiate teams struggle to build any sort of chemistry, as frustrated coaches ultimately allow scheme and strategy to yield to on-floor talent. (This also might explain why most close games are invariably decided by either (a) free-throw shooting, or (b) a final possession in which the team's best player dribbles for 25 seconds, then heaves up a step-back, off-balance three-pointer.) Setting aside Gonzaga (a team with its own unique set of question marks), every legitimate contender for the 2013 title has lost at least five games. There's just no such thing as an elite team anymore.

But while that's bad news for prognosticators – the increased element of randomness makes handicapping this year's tourney field even more of a fool's errand than normal – it's great news for fans of suspenseful, unpredictable basketball. Plus it functions as a handy protective mechanism for the Manifesto; in such an anything-can-happen field, what chance does a mere mortal have against the cruel gods of chaos? My only recommendation is to ignore the seeds and just pick based on matchups. Otherwise, all I can promise you is this: There will be many, many terrible charge calls.

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


MIDWEST ("The Warzone")
Overall thoughts: This region is loaded. The three, four, and five seeds all could arguably have been ranked a line higher. Expect carnage.

The top seed: O.K., so Louisville is hot. The Cardinals have won their last 10 games, eight by double digits, and they're coming off an absolute second-half thrashing of Syracuse in the Big East final in which they went on a 27-3 run that came straight out of the boss level of a videogame. They also play ferocious pressure defense, ranking second in the country in both forced turnovers and steals. But they shoot a horrific 33.1% from three (215th in the nation), and they rely heavily on a pair of guards (Peyton Siva and Russ Smith) who are decidedly unreliable. If you get suckered into playing at their tempo, they're unbeatable, but they're vulnerable against well-coached teams that make open shots and take care of the ball. Such as ...

The mid-major: The Billikens of Saint Louis aren't sexy, but they have ball-handlers in Jordair Jett and Kwamain Mitchell, a steady shooter in Mike McCall, a load inside in Dwayne Evans, and a tantalizing stretch four in Cody Ellis. They showed last year against Michigan State that they don't crumble against pressure, and they have the patience to execute and get good shots late in games. You've been warned.

The one-and-done: Freshman Marcus Smart was the Big 12 Player of the Year and is currently #2 on NBAdraft.net's board, so if Oklahoma State is going to make a "Uconn in 2011" type of run, Smart's going to have to be their Kemba Walker. Unfortunately, Smart shoots 29.5% from three and has a ghastly 1.3 assist/turnover ratio. If the Cowboys can get past Saint Louis, Smart might rise to the occasion in a high-profile matchup against Louisville, but expect the Billikens to out-muscle them in the second round.

The yawners: I suppose it's a credit to Tom Izzo that it's difficult to tell his Michigan State teams apart. This one is like all the rest, steady and well-coached but lacking in any real difference-making talent, with the possible exception of Adreian Payne, a freakish 6'10" athlete who has shown astonishing improvement in his shooting touch during his career (after making 49% of his free throws as a freshman, he's up to 83% as a junior, and he's buried 15 of 33 threes as well). Still, the Spartans will likely live and die with Keith Appling, an overconfident point guard who jacks up nearly four threes per game despite shooting just 31% from distance. Izzo's squad fights hard (of their eight losses, seven are by single digits), but it just doesn't have the horses to make an extended run.

The terror: Doug McDermott isn't fucking around. Creighton's well-built superstar is the country's third-leading scorer at 23.2 per game, and he sports Nashian shooting percentages (56% from the field, 86% from the line, 50% from three). And McDermott isn't a lone weapon; as a team, the Blue Jays lead the nation in both field-goal percentage and three-point percentage, and they're third overall in assists. Match them against a vulnerable defensive team such as Duke, and they could do some serious damage. I'd rather not think about this.





The chance: O.K., this Duke team has its flaws. Their interior defense is weak, they have limited depth, and they're absolutely atrocious on the glass (225th and 234th in defensive and offensive rebounding percentage, respectively). But they can score. The return of Ryan Kelly allows them to space the floor around center Mason Plumlee with four elite shooters (assuming Krzyzewski comes to his sense and leaves Tyler Thornton on the bench); Kelly shoots an eye-popping 49% from three, and Seth Curry and Quinn Cook also exceed 42%. If they go cold from the outside (as they did against Maryland in the ACC tournament), they're in trouble, especially since they rarely force turnovers to generate easy baskets. But they actually defend the three well (29% against, 10th in the nation), and between Plumlee, Kelly, Curry (who has the ability to take over a game), and mercurial freshman Rasheed Sulaimon (who has the same ability, provided he doesn't disappear entirely), they have sufficient firepower both to blow teams out and to come back from deficits. It's not a perfect team – remember, there's no such thing anymore in college basketball – but with a healthy Kelly, it's a team with a chance.


The Picks
Play-in games: North Carolina A&T over Liberty, Saint Mary's over Middle Tennessee State.

Sweet 16: Louisville over Colorado State, Saint Louis over Oklahoma State, Michigan State over Saint Mary's, Duke over Creighton.

Regional final: DUKE over Saint Louis.





SOUTH ("The Broken Seesaw")
Overall thoughts: The top half of this region is stacked, with a #8 seed that could challenge for the Final Four if they didn't have a horrible matchup waiting for them in the second round. The bottom half is pathetic, with a #2 seed that could lose in the second round if they didn't have a cakewalk to the Sweet 16.

The top seed: I'll confess that Kansas has been the Manifesto's top-ranked team in the country for most of the season. Yes, they had that bizarre three-game skid in early February, but they've won 10 of 11 games since, and they looked borderline-invincible during the Big 12 tournament. They play defense, leading the country in field goal percentage defense (36% against) and also ranking third in blocks (thanks largely to Jeff Withey's 3.8 per game). They also play offense, led by future #1 pick in freshman Ben McLemore, a silky-smooth swingman who seems to combine Klay Thompson's shooting touch (he shoots 51% from the field and 44% from three) with Paul George's athleticism (witness this). They are very good, and only an Elijah Johnson meltdown will prevent them from reaching the Final Four. (Wait, Johnson shoots 39% from the field and has an assist/turnover ratio of 1.5? Shh.)

The cursed: Poor North Carolina. Last year, they were set up for an Elite Eight showdown against future runner-up Kansas, only star point guard Kendall Marshall got hurt. This year, they turned a dreadful start to the season around thanks to a smaller lineup and a shockingly adept Marcus Paige, so the basketball gods decided to injure shooter P.J. Hairston's hand; when that wasn't enough, they abandoned subtlety altogether and cruelly stuck them in a second-round matchup against the country's best team. It's just unfair. I mean, I feel terrible. I'm really broken up about this.

The enigma: Is there a more perplexing team than Michigan? They have a frighteningly talented backcourt in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., a lights-out shooter in Nik Stauskas, an intriguing leaper in Glenn Robinson, III, and a pair of bruisers in Jordan Morgan and Mitch "I Should Have Gone to Duke" McGary. They shoot the ball well (48%, 12th in the nation), never turn it over (9.2 per game, 1st), and never put other teams on the line (12.9 opponents' free-throw attempts per game, also 1st). So how come every Michigan fan needs to watch their team with a defibrillator nearby? I have no idea what to make of them. They could make Kansas or sweat, or they could lose to ...

The hero: March Madness is made for guys like Nate Wolters. South Dakota State's best player (if you're wondering, it's not close), he's fifth in the country in scoring but also somehow averages 5.8 assists and 1.8 steals. He shoots 39% from three while taking over five per game. He's six-foot-four but gets to the line seven times per night. He's a lot like Creighton's Doug McDermott, only where McDermott has a group of functional teammates at his disposal, Wolters has to do everything himself. Could he drop 35 against a leaky Michigan defense and somehow turn the crowd in Auburn Hills to his side the way Rocky Balboa swung the Russians in Rocky IV? Isn't this why we watch March Madness?





The sequel: Two years ago, VCU beat Kansas in the Elite Eight. This year, it's possible they'll play Kansas in the Sweet 16. I'm not guaranteeing this will happen, but if it does, I promise you this: Kansas will win by 30. At least.

The fraud: I gave the same label to Georgetown last year, and nothing has changed my mind over the past 12 months. This year's Hoya squad has one above-average player (the phenomenal Otto Porter, possibly the most complete player in the Big East since Carmelo Anthony), one decent shooter (Markel Starks), and a bunch of other guys whose job is to rebound, defend, and make layups. They win by playing solid defense (fourth in the nation in opponents' field goal percentage) and by lulling teams to sleep, sometimes literally (or maybe that's just their viewers). One mediocre game from Porter, and they're toast.


The Picks
Sweet 16: Kansas over North Carolina, VCU over South Dakota State, Florida over Minnesota, San Diego State over Georgetown.

Regional final: KANSAS over Florida.





EAST ("The Cakewalk")
Overall thoughts: We should probably just fast-forward to the regional final now and save ourselves time.

The top seed: I've never liked Indiana, but this team is mean. They can score both inside and out (they're second in the country in three-point percentage and third in free-throw attempts per game), they're one of the few teams in the field with two elite talents in Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo (both of whom shoot over 57%), they have two lights-out shooters in Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford (46% and 49% from three, respectively, and yes, I'm as surprised by Watford's number as you are), and they have a speedy point guard in Yogi Ferrell who recognizes the talent surrounding him and doesn't try to do too much. You can't just take away one weapon and neutralize the entire team. They're tough.

The obligation: I have to mention Syracuse here, or my Dad might forbid me from invading his house and monopolizing his quad-tuner DVR for 96 hours straight during the tournament's opening weekend. But there isn't much to say. They play the most effective zone in the country, leading to an impressive defense that ranks fifth in opponents' field goal percentage, fifth in blocks, and 17th in steals. But they just can't score; they shoot a dreadful 33% from three (anchored by their starting backcourt of Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams, both of whom shoot below 29%) and an even worse 68% from the free-throw line. Unless they get out in transition, they're forced to rely on sharpshooter James Southerland (even though they should really be running more plays for C.J. Fair). They can win in a dogfight but not against a disciplined team that can make threes.

The bafflement: Technically, if you're a three seed, it means you're one of the 12 best teams in the country. Let's see, Marquette ranks 117th in the nation in points per game, 61st in victory margin, 62nd in opponents' shooting percentage, 234th in defensive rebound percentage, 207th in turnovers, 149th in steals, 169th in blocks, and 318th in three-point percentage. Call me crazy, but they don't quite seem like a top-12 team to me. They do, however, rank first in "hustle plays", as well as number of times announcers have gushed about how they "play hard". When I was 10, I won the "Best Camper" award at a weeklong basketball camp because I played hard. I didn't make the Sweet 16 either.

The test: I like this Miami team, and not just because they're a bunch of 23-year-olds. It's because they have clearly defined roles for all their players. There's the leader (Shane Larkin, a dual-threat point guard), the slasher (Durand Scott, a questionable decision-maker who's nevertheless capable of taking over a game), the shooter (Trey McKinney Jones, who at 37% from three isn't quite as good a shooter as everyone thinks), the space-eater (292-pound Reggie Johnson, who's been weirdly marginalized this year), the brawler (Julian Gamble, whose job is to set screens and not drop any of Larkin's bullet passes), and the wildcard (Kenny Kadji, who is, well, a bit of a wildcard). The problem is that Larkin is really the only elite player in the group, and if Scott or Kadji get into a funk, then the onus is on Larkin to save the Hurricanes. Still, he's probably good enough to lead Miami into the Elite Eight, assuming they can hold off ...

The sniper: There's beauty, there's poetry, and then there's Butler's Rotnei Clarke shooting a basketball. The guy's slingshot jumper is simply lethal (he shoots 41% from three on a staggering 8.5 attempts per game). Of course, this Butler team isn't all that good and hasn't been playing particularly well over the past month, losing by 32 to VCU before getting thoroughly outplayed by Saint Louis in the A-10 tournament. Then again, this is still the same team that beat Indiana and Gonzaga earlier this year, and Brad Stevens seems to take pleasure in keeping his Bulldogs under the radar, so don't be surprised if Kellen Dunham buries nine threes against Bucknell.


The Picks
Play-in game: Long Island over James Madison.

Sweet 16: Indiana over Temple, UNLV over Syracuse, Butler over Davidson, Miami over Colorado.

Regional final: INDIANA over Miami.





WEST ("The Wasteland")
Overall thoughts: Please. This region isn't worth my time.

The top seed: I acknowledge the complaints that Gonzaga's schedule was weak, though they did play out-of-conference games against five tournament teams (Oklahoma, Illinois, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and Butler). But I'm disinclined to penalize the Bulldogs simply because they don't have a huge number of quality wins – I'd rather judge them by what they have done than what they haven't. And they can play. Kelly Olynyk is a force inside, Kevin Pangos has game-changing ability, and Elias Harris and Gary Bell don't stand out but invariably make big plays at key moments. Would they have lost a few more games had they played in a power conference? Probably, but they're still a bona fide Final Four contender. It's just that they have a potential matchup looming against ...

The question mark: More than any other team (except maybe Michigan), Wisconsin epitomizes the difficulty handicapping March Madness in the new era of mediocrity. They play fundamentally sound defense, they never turn the ball over, and they feature a number of heady players (most notably versatile forward Jared Berggren and freshman Sam Dekker) who pass and cut well so that they seem to convert at least a half-dozen wide-open layups per game. But they play at a glacial pace, and they don't shoot very well (particularly from the foul line, where they make just 64%, 322nd in the country), making it almost impossible for them to make up a large deficit. They could absolutely make the Final Four, and they could absolutely lose to Mississippi in the first round. You know that scene at the end of Men in Black, where the camera pulls back and reveals that the entire solar system is actually just a marble being toyed with by enormous intergalactic beings? That's how I feel trying to predict the success of a team like Wisconsin. They're just a fucking marble. Let's move on.

The unknown: I'll wager that, compared to most adult men, I watch significantly more college basketball. Unfortunately, my first glimpse of New Mexico came yesterday, so I'm not entirely sure what to think of this supposed Final Four contender. I know that Tony Snell is a damn good shooter, but the numbers suggest his usage rate isn't all that high, so I don't think he can be trusted to carry the load. I know that they hold opponents to just 39% shooting. And I know that the Pit (their home arena) is apparently a very tough place to play, which isn't exactly useful information, given that the tournament is played at neutral sites. So that's not much to go on. Then again, while I don't know much about New Mexico, I know plenty about ...

The phony: I acknowledge that Ohio State just won the Big Ten tournament and that they won a bunch of games this year against a bunch of good teams. Whatever. They have one double-figure scorer (DeShaun Thomas, living the dream of hoisting 16 shots per game). To say they lack balance is a severe understatement. Aaron Craft is a great defensive player, but he can't ball-hawk his way to the Final Four.

The rest: Wait, do I really have to pick a team to come out of the bottom half of this region? Let's see, Arizona can't defend the three (36% against, 274th), so they'll probably lose to Belmont (fourth-best shooting team in the nation), who will probably struggle against New Mexico in Salt Lake City, and meanwhile Notre Dame and Iowa State are apparently in this region, so ... oh the hell with it.


The Picks
Play-in game: LaSalle over Boise State.

Sweet 16: Gonzaga over Wichita State, Wisconsin over Kansas State, New Mexico over Belmont, Iowa State over Ohio State.

Regional final: WISCONSIN over New Mexico.





FINAL FOUR
Semifinal #1 (Duke vs. Wisconsin): Honestly, the team I'm most worried about for Duke in the Midwest is Creighton. If they can get past the Blue Jays, no reason they can't power past a team as lacking in firepower as the Badgers.

Semifinal #2 (Kansas vs. Indiana): And this is why it's good to be on the left side of this year's bracket. In the game of the tournament, I'll take Kansas in overtime over the Hoosiers.

Championship (Duke vs. Kansas): A rematch of the 1991 title game, only this time, Duke doesn't have Christian Laettner. Meet your 2013 national champions, the Kansas Jayhawks.


That's the Manifesto's bracket. What's yours?

Monday, February 25, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Show recap

Writing a post-Oscars recap always feels a bit odd, as the Manifesto's area of expertise is not the telecast itself. (Of course, given the success rate of my predictions this year, it's questionable whether the Manifesto has any area of expertise. No matter.) So if you're looking for analysis on just how adorable Quvenzhané Wallis looked, or whether Kristen Stewart was hammered (nope, she just had a broken foot), or the awesomeness of Anne Hathaway's nipples, you'll find plenty of fodder elsewhere on the web.

I do, however, want to comment briefly on Seth MacFarlane's turn as host. From the beginning, MacFarlane made it clear that he knew he was an outsider ("It's an honor that everyone else said no"), and a prolonged skit with William Shatner – partly painful, partly very funny, particularly the "Flight in sock puppets" bit – instantly established his sheepish, near-apologetic demeanor. In the era of instant micro-analysis and trends on Twitter, where a rabid online audience will ravenously seize on the latest mishap or malfunction, the hosting gig at the Oscars is virtually predetermined for failure. MacFarlane seemed amusingly resigned to that fate from the get-go, with Shatner displaying fake screenshots from the future that read, "MacFarlane worst Oscar host ever". It's the sort of self-insulating shtick that can come off as preemptively defensive, but it showcased a cute self-awareness in which MacFarlane acknowledged that he was swimming over his head.

Except that he wasn't. Sure, some of MacFarlane's jokes were clunkers, but many of them landed (his line about the director of Argo being classified was an instant classic), and his convincing musical performances were natural and seamlessly integrated into the show. (It also doesn't hurt that the dapper comedian is much better-looking than anyone thought the voice of Peter Griffin could possibly be.) But more importantly, MacFarlane found the appropriate tone for emceeing such a ludicrously self-important event as the Oscars. Whereas Ricky Gervais famously spun his outsider status at the Golden Globes into spiteful nastiness, MacFarlane struck the appropriate balance of solemn respect and anarchic humor. "There are so many distinguished nominees here tonight. You guys have made some beautiful, inspiring movies," MacFarlane said sincerely, then deadpanned, "I made Ted." And while quips about the respective ages of the nine-year-old Wallis and 86-year-old Emmanuelle Riva were to be expected, MacFarlane's ability to tie those cracks to the telecast's preposterous length – and let's face it, it was way too long – demonstrated a fleet-footed savvy that's critical for such an improvisational assignment (and if they were pre-planned, he sold them well). I for one would welcome him back.

As for the awards themselves, here's my final, extremely brief analysis of each category (in order of presentation):


Best Supporting Actor
Predicted winner: Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln (confidence: 2/5)
Actual winner: Cristoph Waltz – Django Unchained

Well then. I'm happy for Waltz, as any nominee in this category other than Alan Arkin was worthy. Unfortunately, my prediction meant that my father was able to start gloating about his prognosticating supremacy after the show's very first award. Not a good start.


Best Animated Feature
Predicted winner: Wreck-It Ralph (confidence: 3/5)
Actual winner: Brave

Oh dear. At this point in the night, I started wondering if I was in for a "John Starks in Game Seven of the '94 Finals" performance. Also, Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy are two of my favorite comedians – witness Rudd's hilarious Super Bowl commercial with Seth Rogen or McCarthy performance in Bridesmaids – but their interplay in introducing this award was excruciating.


Best Cinematography
Predicted winner: Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda (confidence: 4/5)
Actual winner: Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda

And we're off the schneid! Also, the banter of The Avengers cast, particularly Jeremy Renner pointedly insulting Samuel L. Jackson's age, was natural, sharply timed, and utterly hilarious. In other words, it was the exact opposite of the Rudd/McCarthy pairing.


Best Visual Effects
Predicted winner: Life of Pi (confidence: 5/5)
Actual winner: Life of Pi

No surprise here. And at this point, I would happily co-sign a petition requiring Jackson and Robert Downey, Jr. to co-present every award.


Best Costume Design
Predicted winner: Anna Karenina (confidence: 3/5)
Actual winner: Anna Karenina

That's "Oscar-winning Anna Karenina" to you, thank you very much.


Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Predicted winner: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (confidence: 1/5)
Actual winner: Les Misérables

O.K., so at this point, I was two-for-two in categories where my confidence was a 4 or 5, and one-for-four where my confidence was 3 or lower. Does this mean that I'm bad at predicting the Oscars? Or does it mean that I'm incredibly good at guessing which categories I'm more likely to get wrong? Doesn't it take a special level of talent to predict the success of your own predictions? No?

Also, I should mention that this award was followed by a terrible, hyperactively edited tribute to the James Bond franchise that was then instantly redeemed by a stunning rendition of "Goldfinger" by 76-year-old Shirley Bassey.


Best Documentary Feature
Predicted winner: Searching for Sugar Man (confidence: 4/5)
Actual winner: Searching for Sugar Man

Of the 21 feature categories at this year's Oscars, I watched every nominee in every single category ... except for this one field. And I drilled it. I don't like what this says about how I spent the past month of my life.


Best Foreign Language Film
Predicted winner: Amour (confidence: 5/5)
Actual winner: Amour

Ho hum. Also, was anyone else prepared for Haneke to deliver an absolutely withering speech, then coldly walk off the stage while the camera smoothly tracked his movements and then lingered on a motionless curtain for the next five minutes? Just me?

Also, this award was followed by a very long, entirely unnecessary tribute to recent musicals, including Chicago (featuring a lip-synching Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dreamgirls (featuring a very loud Jennifer Hudson), and Les Misérables (featuring most of the film's cast, including a knockout Samantha Barks, who completely blew away the rest of the field and sadly didn't then shout, "Where's my Supporting Actress nomination, motherfuckers?"). And they wonder why people complain about the show running too long.


Best Sound Mixing
Predicted winner: Les Misérables (confidence: 2/5)
Actual winner: Les Misérables

Kaboom! Don't tell me I don't know my sound categories. Of course, this was followed by ...


Best Sound Editing
Predicted winner: Life of Pi (confidence: 1/5)
Actual winner: Skyfall, Zero Dark Thirty (tie)

Wait, not only did I get this category wrong, but I somehow got it wrong twice? Ouch. Also, kudos to Mark Wahlberg for his visible disgust when announcing that the voting resulted in a tie. Nice work, Academy. Six thousand-plus members, and you still run your ballots like you're electing a fourth-grade class president.


Best Supporting Actress
Predicted winner: Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables (confidence: 5/5)
Actual winner: Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables

Not a shocker. And at this point, Les Misérables had nabbed three Oscars, which was three more than Argo and Lincoln combined. Ang Lee had to be talking himself into an upset right about now.


Best Film Editing
Predicted winner: Argo – William Goldenberg (confidence: 3/5)
Actual winner: Argo – William Goldenberg

Ah, there we go. Any chance of a stunner for Best Picture got quashed right here.


Best Production Design
Predicted winner: Anna Karenina (confidence: 3/5)
Actual winner: Lincoln

God dammit. I was relatively sanguine about this year's Oscars, and as the telecast started, I realized that this category was the only one I really cared about. And they blew it. Lincoln is a better movie than Anna Karenina, but its production design was merely impressive, whereas Sarah Greenwood's design for Joe Wright's film was revolutionary. I hate caring about this stuff sometimes.


Best Original Score
Predicted winner: Life of Pi – Mychael Danna (confidence: 2/5)
Actual winner: Life of Pi – Mychael Danna

Of course, Anna Karenina deserved this one too, but I didn't harbor any delusions this time around.


Best Original Song
Predicted winner: Skyfall – "Skyfall" (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth) (confidence: 4/5)
Actual winner: Skyfall – "Skyfall" (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth)

On the plus side, Adele gave a reasonably heartfelt speech and seemed sincerely delighted that she won. On the minus side, her actual performance of "Skyfall" during the show was nowhere near as memorable as Shirley Bassey's "Goldfinger". Oh well, she'll have to settle for dominating the world music scene for the next decade.


Best Adapted Screenplay
Predicted winner: Argo – Chris Terrio (confidence: 2/5)
Actual winner: Argo – Chris Terrio

Argo may not have had the breadth of Slumdog Millionaire or Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, but it cleaned up where it counted.


Best Original Screenplay
Predicted winner: Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino (confidence: 2/5)
Actual winner: Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino

My best call of the night resulted in the best speech of the night, namely Tarantino's manic, obscenely self-congratulatory paean to the genius that is Quentin Tarantino. Just like with his movies, he may be vulgar and unconventional, but he always has something to say. "If people are, like, knowing about my movies 30 or 50 years from now, it's going to be because of the characters that I created." He's amazing.


Best Director
Predicted winner: Steven Spielberg – Lincoln (confidence: 1/5)
Actual winner: Ang Lee – Life of Pi

Any chance the Manifesto had to salvage its night just went up in smoke. But Lee is a good guy, and he did a damn good job with extremely difficult material, so I can't be too upset.


Best Actress
Predicted winner: Emmanuelle Riva – Amour (confidence: 1/5)
Actual winner: Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook

YES! The nice thing about not actually wagering on the Oscars is that I can root for whom I want to win, even if that desire conflicts with my predictions. So I emitted a roar of approval when Jean Dujardin announced Lawrence's name, even if my record continued to disintegrate. Now here's hoping viewers remember Lawrence for her extraordinary, fearless performance and not for her tumble on the stage's steps.


Best Actor
Predicted winner: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (confidence: 5/5)
Actual winner: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln

Thank Christ. I really wish that after Meryl Streep introduced this category's quintet with the line, "In a normal year, any one of these performances would have stood out," she would have followed it up with, "Except for yours, Hugh Jackman". I also liked that the camera cut the presentation such that Streep appeared not to even open the envelope. Why waste time?


Best Picture
Predicted winner: Argo (confidence: 4/5)
Actual winner: Argo

I'll be honest: When Jack Nicholson appeared on stage, I immediately had flashbacks to his horrifying announcement of Crash seven years ago. Coincidentally, Argo becomes the first Best Picture winner since that wretched film to win just three total Oscars. Something tells me it'll hold up slightly better.


And that's a wrap. Thanks to everyone for tuning in. For the record, I hit on 14 of 21 categories, a relatively middling performance that equaled my success rate from 2011. Fortunately, there's always next year. Until then.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Oscars Analysis 2012: Prediction roundup

For your annotated pleasure, below are the Manifesto's official predictions for the 85th Academy Awards. I strongly recommend printing the list out and following it while watching tonight's telecast – it will allow you to make fun of me that much more quickly when these predictions turn to dust.

One note: I'm changing my prediction for Best Adapted Screenplay from Lincoln to Argo. I made my initial pick way back on January 27, just after Argo had won at the Producers' Guild and before its momentum really got rolling. Since then, the movie has cleaned up everything in sight, including a critical win with the Writers' Guild, which has correctly forecast seven of the past eight Oscar winners for Best Adapted Screenplay. I still think Tony Kushner's more visible screenwriting has a chance to take home the gold, but I'd be foolish not to back Argo at this point.

On to the picks, organized by level of confidence. Remember, I'm omitting the three short categories because I'm as knowledgeable about them as I am about cooking.


Best Actress
Will win: Emmanuelle Riva – Amour (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook
Worst snub: Marion Cotillard – Rust and Bone

Best Director
Will win: Steven Spielberg – Lincoln (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Ang Lee – Life of Pi
Worst snub: Joe Wright – Anna Karenina

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Will win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Worst snub: Cloud Atlas

Best Sound Editing
Will win: Life of Pi (confidence: 1/5)
Should win: Zero Dark Thirty
Worst snub: Wreck-It Ralph

Best Adapted Screenplay
Will win: Argo – Chris Terrio (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Silver Linings Playbook – David O. Russell
Worst snub: The Dark Knight Rises – Christopher Nolan, Jonathan Nolan

Best Original Score
Will win: Life of Pi – Mychael Danna (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Anna Karenina – Dario Marianelli
Worst snub: Beasts of the Southern Wild – Benh Zeitlin, Dan Romer

Best Original Screenplay
Will win: Django Unchained – Quentin Tarantino (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
Worst snub: Looper – Rian Johnson

Best Sound Mixing
Will win: Les Misérables (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Skyfall
Worst snub: Wreck-It Ralph

Best Supporting Actor
Will win: Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln (confidence: 2/5)
Should win: Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook
Worst snub: Leonardo DiCaprio – Django Unchained

Best Animated Feature
Will win: Wreck-It Ralph (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Wreck-It Ralph
Worst snub: The Secret World of Arrietty

Best Costume Design
Will win: Anna Karenina (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Anna Karenina
Worst snub: Farewell, My Queen

Best Film Editing
Will win: Argo – William Goldenberg (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Argo – William Goldenberg
Worst snub: Cloud Atlas – Alexander Berner

Best Production Design
Will win: Anna Karenina (confidence: 3/5)
Should win: Anna Karenina
Worst snub: Cloud Atlas

Best Cinematography
Will win: Life of Pi – Claudio Miranda (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Anna Karenina – Seamus McGarvey
Worst snub: Moonrise Kingdom – Robert D. Yeoman

Best Documentary Feature
Will win: Searching for Sugar Man (confidence: 4/5)
Should win/worst snub: [abstain]

Best Original Song
Will win: Skyfall – "Skyfall" (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth) (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Skyfall – "Skyfall" (Adele Adkins, Paul Epworth)
Worst snub: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – "Misty Mountains" (Howard Shore)

Best Picture
Will win: Argo (confidence: 4/5)
Should win: Zero Dark Thirty
Worst snub: Looper

Best Actor
Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln
Worst snub: Jean-Louis Trintignant – Amour

Best Foreign Language Film
Will win: Amour (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: [abstain]
Worst snub: Headhunters

Best Supporting Actress
Will win: Anne Hathaway – Les Misérables (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Helen Hunt – The Sessions
Worst snub: Emma Watson – The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Best Visual Effects
Will win: Life of Pi (confidence: 5/5)
Should win: Life of Pi
Worst snub: John Carter

Oscars Analysis 2012: Best Picture

And here we are. With such a suspenseful and unpredictable Oscar telecast looming, it's perhaps disappointing that the big prize is already predetermined. But such is life.


NOMINEES
Amour
Argo
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Django Unchained
Life of Pi
Lincoln
Les Misérables
Silver Linings Playbook
Zero Dark Thirty

WILL WIN
Argo.

But seriously, can we just leave it at that and move on? If you're unfamiliar with the narrative surrounding the extraordinary surge in momentum for Ben Affleck's hostage-crisis thriller over the past month, there's no point recounting it here. Attribute it to what you like – compensation for Affleck's Best Director snub, the fluky mechanics of the preferential voting system, Hollywood's love affair with movies about movies – but Argo has had this award sewn up for weeks.

Duty perhaps requires me to make a halfhearted case for a challenger, and I can locate three. Life of Pi is the technical juggernaut, and as voters find themselves ticking off boxes for Ang Lee's adventure film in the cinematography, visual effects, and sound editing areas, perhaps they'll be swayed to consider its overall merits for Best Picture. Silver Linings Playbook is the purest crowd-pleaser of the bunch, and if it somehow picks up steam in the various acting categories – wins in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor fields are entirely plausible – it could leverage that momentum into a run for the top prize. And Lincoln, initially viewed as the frontrunner in this race after receiving 12 total nominations, remains an impeccably crafted film about a hugely important time in American history, meaning socially conscious voters might be inclined to look in its direction.

But there's still that damn preferential ballot to consider. Sure, the aforementioned three films may pick up a smattering of first-place votes each, but how many of those ballots will have Argo ranked #2? It's such an enjoyable, populist movie that even those who don't love it seem to at least really like it. Affleck, of course, is ineligible for that Best Director trophy, so he'll have to settle for his third feature staking its claim on history. Argo is your 2012 Best Picture winner.





SHOULD WIN
Let's see, we have nine nominees to dissect, and the telecast is a mere handful of hours away. Time to break these into tiers.

Tier 5: You're cute, but you don't belong here. I tried my best to like Beasts of the Southern Wild. It's well-intentioned, it has heartfelt regard for its characters, and it features terrific acting from Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry. But its floating structure, in which the camera casually drops in on various residents of a Louisiana community called The Bathtub, is so haphazard that it's ultimately boring. It isn't until the film's second half – when an actual plot emerges – that Beasts of the Southern Wild snaps into focus, but by that point, the movie has already squandered most of the goodwill bought from Wallis' and Henry's natural, lived-in performances. The movie shows enough bursts of filmmaking talent to inspire intrigue as to what could have been, but in its final form, it's a borderline success at best.

Tier 4: Some editing required. The lasting memory of Life of Pi is an exhilarating, sublimely beautiful central passage that is bookended by extraneous fluff. Ang Lee does what he can, but the scenes that take place before and after that remarkable shipwreck and subsequent lifeboat journey feel comparatively lifeless. Les Misérables starts out strong, and once you get past its whipsaw editing and Tom Hooper's hectic camera movements, it's impossible not to get swept up in that magnificent music. But as the movie plunges on, it becomes a wearying experience, and once it transitions from intimate, character-based struggle to half-baked revolutionary politics, what's initially a captivating experience turns into a movie to be regarded from a distance. Your eye might admire the meticulous production design, and your ear may discern the varying quality of the (mostly good) singing, but you're never fully absorbed into its chaotic, screeching vortex. Those bland freedom-fighters may spout off about desire and despair, but Les Misérables ultimately induces exhaustion rather than passion.

Tier 3: Amour. Michael Haneke's unforgiving look at love and death gets its own tier, because it's unlike any other nominee, and any other Haneke film for that matter. It's bruising, unflinching, and generally agonizing. It's also flawlessly executed, marvelously acted, and deeply moving. How can an undeniably good movie be so difficult to watch?

Tier 2: You were glorious, and then you fucked up the endgame. For its first two-thirds, Django Unchained is an electric revisionist fantasy, as well as a delightful showcase in which a number of supremely talented actors are blessed with the opportunity to speak in the music of Quentin Tarantino's inimitable dialogue. Then two main characters die, the gunfights begin in force, the hip-hop starts blasting, and everything basically goes to hell. It's still highly watchable, but it nevertheless represents a severe downgrade from the brooding suspense and tense comedy that precede it. Argo's tumble into last-act melodrama is less drastic, partly because it's so skillfully edited, but it nevertheless feels like a betrayal of the nuance and wit that saturate its first 90 minutes. Still, it's a thoroughly enjoyable film from front to back, by turns scary, funny, and thrilling. It may not be the best movie of the year, but that doesn't mean it isn't a worthy Best Picture.

Tier 1: Varying degrees of excellence. In its own way, Silver Linings Playbook is as manipulative as Argo, but it's so genuinely romantic that I'll happily embrace its sentiment. Crowd-pleasers can easily come off as mawkish, but there's such messy vivacity in Bradley Cooper's and Jennifer Lawrence's lead performances – and such texture in David O. Russell's assured screenwriting – that every on-the-nose moment in Silver Linings Playbook rings completely true. Lincoln rings true as well, but it replaces broad comedy and manic drama with sly wit and quiet introspection. Steven Spielberg's latest opus takes its time, but as its stakes sharpen into focus, and as Daniel Day-Lewis' heroic performance builds in stature, it becomes a breathtaking reimagination of a crucially important slice of history. Yet as noble and grand as Lincoln may be, it's founded on immaculate, delicate craft, from the nimble word-smithing of Tony Kushner's script to the smoky atmosphere of Janusz Kaminski's cinematography to the sneaky scene-stealing of James Spader and David Strathairn. It's a movie about people coming together, so it's only fitting that its success derives from the efforts of a unified, wholly committed ensemble.

My ultimate choice for 2012's Best Picture, however, is Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's riveting account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. The movie has been clouded by controversy, and that's a real shame, because regardless of your viewpoint on the film's historical merits, the enflamed conversation surrounding Zero Dark Thirty's politics has obscured the mastery that is the movie itself. A gripping, searing model of a director applying her craft with absolute authority, Bigelow's film is less about torture or authenticity than it is about dedicated men and women working tirelessly to accomplish their goals. And ironically, the controversy is a boon to future generations, because Zero Dark Thirty will be debated for ages, and that means that viewers will be compelled to investigate it. When they do, they'll find not just a critical document of a landmark historical event, but a bracing exemplar of pure filmmaking. And if the winner of the Best Picture Oscar is destined to be remembered, then by that metric, there is no other choice.





MY IDEAL BALLOT
As usual, you'll have to wait until the Manifesto unveils its annual top 10 list. If nothing else, I promise that it'll go up sooner than last year.