Thursday, March 31, 2011

Best of the Decade - The 2000s

Well it took nearly a year (April 26th was the first list), and you may argue I still wasn’t ready. If I had known just how much damn work I would have put into this “fun little project” I probably would have run screaming before I started it. Had I to do it over again though I actually would have worked harder, I feel my 20s, 30s, and 40s lists were somewhat arbitrary. However it’ll be awhile before I update those. As of now I’m still debating even what my numbering will be but keep in mind after the top 20 or so the numbering becomes less important and it’s more a happy to have you aboard sort of ranking.

Perhaps in a few instances I opted to include a director (or even country) as a representative but even some of my favorite film makers were left out (where’s Spike Lee?). Oh well this list won’t please everyone, in fact I’m not sure it’ll please anyone, can’t even say I’m completely happy with it. Before I get into the list (no cheating and scrolling down) I’d like to talk briefly about the decade itself.

If you’re old enough to surf the internet chances are you lived through the 2000s and remember each of the years, from the major international milestones to two supremely pointless elections and an Olympic games or three no one remembers. As for film the dust is still settling as far as what came out and when. For the sake of the list I chose to limit myself to films released theatrically in 2009. I know that in the year and change after the end of the decade a few films made in 2009 and before have come out, but well it doesn’t seem wholly fair to include films that made my top ten of 2010 on this list. In all honesty I’m just cheating so I can fit more films on, but that’s how I’m justifying it.

Sorting out the film movements and major players may take a long time to figure. Most people familiar with international cinema will recognize the emergence of Romanian cinema as a major movement, and the steady increase of South Korean cinema thanks to directors like Bong Joon-ho, Hong Sang-soo, and Park Chan-wook. Elsewhere internationally Iranian cinema began the decade quite strong with such great films as Baran, The Hidden Half, The Day I Became a Woman, and others before increased censorship made great Iranian cinema a thing of the past by the end of the decade. Damn shame even the output of legends like Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and the imprisoned Jafar Panahi have diminished or completely dropped off.

Jia Zhang-Ke has been leading a one man Chinese renaissance to combat the bloated overdone “sell-out” films of former 5th Generation giants Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. His cinema is far from indicative of the norm for Chinese cinema, which has adopted huge budgets and stars since adopting Hong Kong cinema as it’s own. Wong Kar-Wai started the decade off with one of his most praised films In the Mood for Love but by the end of the decade was having to defend his poorly received English language debut My Blueberry Nights. As globalization continues the very definition of a national cinema is becoming quite blurry.

Many of the best directors of this decade may still be waiting to be discovered. I showed up late to the party with Jia, who I first heard of when The World (his fourth feature) was released here. Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul is another late bloomer for me who I didn’t discover until Tropical Malady (his third feature) was released. Their story is similar and makes me wonder how many great directors are already making gems. Early decade mavericks like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky have become part of the establishment with recent blockbusters Inception and The Black Swan, while still maintaining a large degree of artistic credibility.

Animation grew as a respectable form of cinema throughout the decade. Starting in 2001 the Academy decided to give an Oscar for the best animated feature, and aside from that first year, it has pretty much been the Pixar award. The Disney subsidiary has consistently proven itself the best name in the animation world and seem to produce a masterpiece on an annual basis. Needless to say they’re represented here. Hayao Miyazaki also made inroads on American soil (thanks perhaps to a Disney distribution deal) and made arguably his greatest film with 2001’s Spirited Away.

*After several years I decided to add years,countries, and directors for each film.  I had originally done this but a computer crash lost this info, and I was too damn frustrated to fix it.  So enjoy the amended list, and let it be noted, that although my tastes have slightly changed this list is left in tact.  Feel free to revisit my top 100 list to see which of the top films shuffled, or just take this as a pretty accurate ranking as of 2011.  I know I often blog and write about older films, so perhaps a more contemporary list can give you some suggestions going forward.  Perhaps in another 5 years I'll write about 50-11 on here.

50. Edge of Heaven (2008) - Turkey/Germany Faith Akin
49. Dancer in the Dark (2000) - Denmark/France/Sweden Lars Von Trier
48. Gran Torino (2008) - US Clint Eastwood
47. Memories of Murder (2003) - South Korea Bong Joon-ho
46. La Commune (Paris 1871) (2000) - France Peter Watkins
45. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) - US Wes Anderson
44. Last Days (2005) - US Gus Van Sant
43. Rambo (2008) - US Sylvester Stallone
42. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007) - Romania Cristian Mungiu
41. Regular Lovers (2005) - France Phillipe Garrel

40. Traffic (2000) - US Steven Soderbergh
39. The Saddest Music in the World (2003) - Canada Guy Maddin
38. Moulin Rouge (2001) - US/Australia Baz Luhrmann
37. Eureka (2000) - Japan Shinji Aoyama
36. Zodiac (2007) - US David Fincher
35. Cache (2005) - Austria/France Michael Haneke
34. Million Dollar Baby (2004) - US Clint Eastwood
33. Elephant (2003) - US Gus Van Sant
32. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) - US Larry Charles)
31. Two Lovers (2008) - US James Gray

30. The Death of Mr. Lazerescu (2005) - Romania Cristi Puiu
29. Kings and Queen (2004) - France Arnaud Desplechin
28. Bloody Sunday (2002) - UK/Ireland Paul Greengrass
27. The Day I Became a Woman (2001) - Iran Marzieh Meshkini
26. Angels in America (2003) - US Mike Nichols
25. Syndromes and a Century (2006) - Thailand Apichatpong Weerasethakul
24. Brand Upon the Brain! (2007) - Canada/US Guy Maddin
23. The Departed (2006) - US Martin Scorsese
22. Hero (2002) - China/Hong Kong Zhang Yimou
21. Up (2009) - US Pete Docter

20. Spirited Away (2002) - Japan Hayao Miyazaki
19. The Pianist (2002) - Poland/UK/France/Germany Roman Polanski
18. The Young Victoria (2009) - US/UK Jean-Marc Vallee
17. The World (2004) - Japan/France/China Jia Zhang Ke
16. Yi-Yi (2000) - Taiwan Edward Yang
15. No Country for Old Men (2007) - US Joel and Ethan Coen
14. Dogville (2003) - Denmark Lars Von Trier
13. Pride and Prejudice (2005) - US/UK Joe Wright
12. A History of Violence (2005) - Canada/Germany/US David Cronenberg
11. Sin City (2005) - US Frank Miller/Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino

10. Talk to Her (2001) - Spain Pedro Almodovar

Coming right after All About My Mother it’s hard to say this is Almodovar’s best film, but I’ll make that claim and stick by it. Much more subdued than his more hysteric earlier work but just melodramatic and perverse enough to let you know it couldn’t have come from another director. Along with the previous film it’s a fine place to start with Almodovar whose earlier work might seem too crazy to be taken seriously. Essentially it is the story of two men who form a bond caring for women who happen to be in a coma. That makes it sound like a regular talk fest that will bore you to tears but never with Almodovar, it gets creepy, provocative, brilliant, and somehow throws a miniature (in more ways than one) silent film in the middle of it. It’s rare when a director is so completely in control of his craft as Almodovar is on this, even enough to earn himself a best original screenplay Oscar as well as a best director nomination.

9. Requiem for a Dream (2000) - US Darren Aronofsky

The first great film of the decade took so long to follow up that the cult/legend of Aronofsky grew exponentially to a point that his subsequent films were at a decided disadvantage. One of the bleakest films of the decade this is a classic “everyone loses” sort of melodrama about addiction in myriad forms but one of the most fascinating to watch. Flexing some serious film school muscles Aronofsky has a new trick in store for virtually every shot in the film, recalling the carefree experimental days of the French New Wave, without the humor. The performances are great all around, particularly Ellen Burstyn who makes a welcome return to the screen as the diet pill addicted mother. Seen by very few during it’s initial theatrical run, like Donnie Darko and Memento it became a favorite of nearly every kid entering film school that decade and unlike those two films well it’s a hell of a lot better.

8. The Dark Knight (2008) - US Christopher Nolan

Although Memento put him on the map, it wasn’t until Batman Begins that Nolan made himself a household name in the director’s chair. As great as that first Batman film was, and spawning a whole wave of “gritty reboot” films it was the follow up The Dark Knight which may arguably lay claim to being the best sequel possibly ever made, and on the very short list of the best super hero films. It’s exclusion from the best picture race in 2008 is what many people are citing as the reason for the Academy nominating 10 pictures in the two years since. Heath Ledger delivered a memorable swan song as one of cinema’s greatest villains. Batman the character has never been better in any form than on screen here. Nolan proved that he was far removed from the backwards trickster he seemed to be with his first two films. He also proved that sequels could be better without necessarily having to be bigger. Doesn’t hurt that it was shot in Chicago, and well every movie can use a little more Eric Roberts. All that aside there is no shortage of great moments and juggling Harvey Dent’s descent and Joker’s unequaled mayhem made Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul all but forgotten from the first. Perhaps the only downside was Rachel Dawes whose character was pointless for the most part and inexplicably replaced by Maggie Gyllenhaal. That aside you can scarcely find a comic book movie more perfect.

7. The Incredibles (2004) - US Brad Bird

OK so maybe this is the best super hero film of the decade. Brad Bird’s Pixar debut was made as the company was already riding high on the success of Finding Nemo. Rather than adapt a wellknown super hero group, Bird created his own borrowing on plenty of traditions. In it’s place he made a family comedy that was all about the actual family. It’s humor was universal and didn’t pander to 3 year olds as many earlier Disney features did. This was designed as much for the comic book fan boy as the average first grader. In the process Bird made what is in my opinion the best animated film of the decade and the crowning achievement of the Pixar studio to date. So much of the humor arises from the mundane, Mr. Incredible’s massive weight gain, the weight gain in only one particular area of Mrs. Incredible, Fro-zone searching for his super suit and simultaneously arguing with his wife, and on and on. It’s sound design is also among the best of the decade an art much more felt than seen. Not to detract from other Pixar films of the decade like Finding Nemo, Up, Wall-E, or Ratatouille but well one of them had to be the best.

6. Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) - US/New Zealand Peter Jackson

A massive trilogy planned and executed at once that turned out to be one of the most mammoth undertakings in cinema history forever took Peter Jackson from the quirky disgusting filmmaker of Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive and made him a major Hollywood player. It did more for New Zealand cinema than any film before it, and almost instantaneously joined the discussion as being one of the best science fiction/fantasy franchises of all time. Motion capture became a new cinematic term, and even the most ardent of Tolkien fans had to admit these films got things about as right as they were going to get. Multiple viewings can only hope to reveal how much is going on and truth be told it can be a little tricky following all the various battles and wars going on but it never ceases to be an entertaining ride. The deluxe DVD’s set new standards for special features and behind the scenes access, a nice added bonus. Different people have a different favorite from the franchise, but as a collective whole this is one of the most impressive feats of cinematic storytelling you’re likely to find.

5. Children of Men (2006) US Alfonso Cuarón

As the debate raged amongst which of the Mexican director’s had the best 2006, I was casting my vote for Cuarón. As a fair comparison I went to see Children of Men immediately after Pan’s Labyrinth (I paid a then astonishing $10 for a movie ticket and I was going to turn that into a double feature damnation). You may already know I’m a sucker for long takes, and this film had them in abundance. Free of typical trickery entirely new rigs were built and designed to accommodate the ever elaborate photography. Aside from a mere technical marvel though the film’s political backdrop is enough to fill an entire philosophy and ethics class. Perhaps it is the best films that make us think, and this one does that, perhaps what would it be like to live in a world where no one can have kids anymore? What would we do if after 18 years someone was found pregnant? What would it mean if that person happened to be black? What would be the point at all of maintaining in that environment? 2006’s best film is densely layered indeed and is one of the most impressive works of cinema I have ever seen. The highlight of what was a very productive decade for Cuarón, who broke through with Y Tu Mama Tambien, and even helmed a Harry Potter film, which consequently happened to be the best of that franchise.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) US Michel Gondry

Before Michel Gondry was at the helm of a painfully unnecessary Green Hornet movie, and before Charlie Kauffman took his first turn in the director’s chair the two teamed up for what was one of the most unique and original cinematic tales of the decade. Although un-nominated Jim Carrey was never better and isn’t likely to get any better than he was in this film. Kate Winslet earned another well deserved nomination for her work, but this is really Kauffman’s show. Taking us into an ethical dilemma of what would we do if we could erase painful memories but without lecturing or sounding like a philosophy professor. Juggling a few multiple plot strands and jumping into rapidly fading memories, there is a whole lot going on here. Even a third or fourth viewing won’t reveal all the things going on in the background of the shots. Gondry has a penchant for cluttering up his frames, as was evident in The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind, but it makes some of the images appear almost like a Where’s Waldo drawing. A perfect compliment to Kauffman’s scatological style which never found a better marriage than here. Reminding us that two people who are supposed to be together will find some way, somehow.

3. Kill Bill (2003-2004) - US Quentin Tarantino

After a rather prolonged absence during which he tried to make Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino decided to put all his influences on his sleeve. In the process he made a film that combined all his love of kung-fu, samurai, blaxploitation, spaghetti westerns, and everything else in between to form the most awe-inspiring revenge story in all of cinema. As a collective whole the two films (originally intended to be released together) are an excessive, kinetic, over the top orgy of blood and guts with that wonderfully nuanced sense of character and dialogue that only Tarantino can use. It’s what separates this film from countless Japanese slaughter fests made throughout the decade. The reason why so many bloody films are so easily forgotten. Trimming the majority of the dead space away from the films this was paying homage to, it’s an all-killer no-filler thrill ride for a new generation. Yeah you can quote me on that, but clichéd movie critic speak aside this is a film that was well worth the wait and sadly Tarantino’s next two features didn’t come anywhere near equaling it. Greater than the sum of it’s parts Kill Bill ranks among the decades best just like Pulp Fiction does for the 90s and has already inspired a host of younger people to hunt out films like Shogun Assassin, Lady Snowblood, and The Streetfighter among countless others. Always wearing his influences on his sleeves but finding a way to supersede and improve upon them Tarantino every so often can remind people just why the hell he’s so damn good.

2. City of God (2002) - Brazil Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund

The decades best foreign film drew plenty of controversy for itself. Many people claimed this was exploitation at its finest with small children brandishing guns and quick to shoot anyone. Romanticizing the slums and exploiting intolerable conditions the film did none of that for me. Perhaps a criticism of sensationalism is understandable but it doesn’t detract from the film. There is nothing wrong with finding a way to make a film entertaining, and there is nothing romantic about this film. For most of the characters you can’t get away fast enough and it shows a Brazilian idea of what American films have been showing with countless gangster films for decades. Shown from the eyes of an outsider makes the film that much easier to identify with for us who see just how scary the situation can be and how easily falling into that life could be. There’s a lot going on and there is a quite a bit to take in over the three decade story which doesn’t seem so much a nostalgic recollection of the good old days as a tale of whose who from the eyes of a first hand witness standing just outside of it all. Some of it is brutal and hard to watch, but ultimately redeeming I find and I’ll take this film any day over the whitewashed garbage that Walter Salles has been turning out the last two decades. This has all the excitement of classic cinema novo ala Glauber Rocha with better production values.

1. Mulholland Drive (2001) - US David Lynch

Well before I even started this project I knew Lynch’s film would top my list. In fact not long after I saw it I knew it would top my list. For the past 9 years or so I’ve been wondering if any film would come out that would be better, and well you have your answer to that question. Most of the films in my list I’ve seen more than once, and the upper echelon always benefit from repeated viewings. Not only do repeated viewings reveal more layers that were previously missed, but they also serve as the best judge of a film’s quality to decipher whether or not it can hold up. Mulholland Drive more than holds up. It is in my opinion Lynch’s masterpiece which is saying a whole hell of a lot. It’s disturbing, provocative, enigmatic, mesmerizing, and just damn perfect. Every time I watch it more and more of it makes sense, but there’s always a scene or two that make me scratch my head. Perhaps it’s Lynch’s way of saying “that’ll teach you to try and decipher meaning in my work” or perhaps it’s just another mystery waiting for me to reveal. As a side note this film also contains the best sex scene of the decade and well it made me a Naomi Watts fan for life. As he goes digital it’ll be interesting to see if Lynch will ever come close to topping this, or even bother being this coherent again. As it stands though this is the finest film of the decade and I will stand by that for a long time.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A slight deversion - about baseball

Well I know that it is a film blog, but well those of you who know me are aware that I'm about as obsessed with baseball as a person can be. As against tradition as it might be, baseball is starting on a Thursday with not one but three games, and well a few things I'd like to jot down before opening day.

Last Saturday I watched Major League for what might be the 40th time. It's become something of a tradition, similar to many people watching Christmas Story or It's a Wonderful Life before the holidays. Every time I watch it I seem to catch more. The product placement of Tecate on Jake Taylor's shirt when he arrives at Spring Training. There's the background player with a mullet who walks past Roger Dorn on two different shots (bad continuity Mr. Ward), and other such nitpicking items that only a billion viewings can reveal.

Major League might be my favorite sports film ever (wait it clearly is far and away my favorite sports film ever) but it does fall into a few cliches. For starters virtually every sports film from Rocky to The Fighter it is about an underdog. The Indians are purposely bad and anyone whose gone into opening day with a roster full of ?'s then they can feel the pain of the citizens of Cleveland at the beginning of the film. Perhaps if the film were remade the Pittsburgh Pirates might provide a suitable backdrop considering they're working on 19 straight losing seasons and nothing is letting me think that's going to change this year.

There is also the forced love story between Corbin Bernsen and Rene Russo. Russo made a career for herself in the late 80s and early 90s dragging down nearly any film she was in by being thrown into a half cocked and unconvincing love affair with someone just so that Hollywood could fulfill it's unofficial quota of appealing to women who clearly are only going to the film for that same reason (Kitty Carlisle in A Night at the Opera anyone?). Her role here is much more fleshed out that the supremely clumsy part she plays in Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire with an aged Clint Eastwood who is far too old for such nonsense. I won't blame her presence on the decline of the increasingly silly Lethal Weapon franchise, but let's face it she's no Patsy Kensit.

Not to beat up on the girl too much, but clearly the scenes she shows up in do grind the film down a lot, even with the faux-romantic score changing. The scene at the library provides plenty of comedy thanks to the quick pace and ever ready steadi-cam tracking a rather rapid fire exchange. The scene where he crashes the fiance's party was one I actually used to fast forward when I was a kid, and at the very least we could have gotten some nudity to spice up their "one last time" fling. Unlike the largely reprehensible sequels to this film, the first was at least rated R, which I know is a novelty in Hollywood to think that an R rated film can actually have an audience, make money and spawn a sequel without being a shitty slasher film. There was a time in the 80s when people in Hollywood actually seemed to give their audience some credit, hell even a children's film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? had a little profanity, some sex appeal, and some casualties. But I digress and won't start shouting from my "They don't make 'em like they used to" pedestal quite yet.

For quotable dialogue and arguably the the best representation of life in the big leagues few people will point to a better film than Major League to the point where I'm not even sure what a possible number 2 would be. The vicarious joys of having the Indians defeat the evil Yankees in a one-game playoff would suffice for a few years, but in 1995 and 1997 the Indians would make it all the way to the world series before the unfortunate fate of all Cleveland sports teams befell them. Still game 7 of a world series would be a hell of an improvement for Cubs fans who haven't even appeared in the fall classic since 1945 (which is three years before the last Indians championship). For the record the Indians have the second longest active world series drought, so goes to show you how sad the life of a Cubs fan can be.

On that note let's get to some non-film related baseball predictions. I'm wrapping up my 2000s list and should have it posted tomorrow, perhaps while watching the three televised games on ESPN.

AL East
1. Red Sox
2. Rays
3. Yankees
4. Orioles
5. Blue Jays

Well this may shock you a bit. I despise the Red Sox (and Yankees for that matter) perhaps more than any sports franchise in the country. Yet hard to deny how souped up their lineup is. True I don't have a lot of faith that Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka will have bounce back seasons, and I'm convinced that Bobby Jenks will be an overweight trainwreck setting up Papelbon, but that lineup can easily drive in a billion runs this year. I believe that the Yankees will keep it interesting and although the loss of Pettite is huge, they're the type of team that will make a move if necessary at the deadline. Tampa Bay is a bit of a dark horse and lord only knows how they'll play without Pena, Crawford, Garza, and Soriano. However few teams have deeper farm systems and as the steroid-less Yankees and Red Sox keep getting older the Rays may just sneak past both of them. The Buck Showalter era seems promising in Baltimore, and the addition of Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee should help out their lineup, but I'd be amazed if they won 80 games. Toronto seems like they've finally given into the idea of rebuilding after years of being half-in half-out, so I expect them to be bad, and someone has to be in last place. As always I'm picking the wild card out of this division.

AL Central

1. White Sox
2. Twins
3. Tigers
4. Royals
5. Indians

There are only so many times that the White Sox can lose to the Twins before things change. While the Sox have made another step forward with the addition of Adam Dunn and arguably the best bullpen in the league, the Twins have stood by re-signing Thome and Pavano and failing to make that big acquisition. Granted the Twins find a way to win from mid-July to September, yet comically fail as soon as the playoffs start, I think their run may be ending. They'll give the Sox a ton of problems as they always do, but providing the White Sox can stay healthy they should win this division and make a run in the post season. The Tigers did get Victor Martinez but that team still seems to be missing a few major pieces, but again if healthy (or if the Twins and Sox are facing serious injuries) they might surprise a few people. The Royals are campaigning for the position of the AL Pirates, trading their best pitcher this off season. They may have 8 of the top 50 ranked prospects but I've seen more than my share of highly touted prospects fail miserably so I think the best the Royals can do is not finish dead last. That spot is reserved for the Indians who have awful attendance, an often hurt lineup (even their golden catching prospect Carlos Santana will start the season on the DL), and a questionable rotation. I'm not picking good things for the Indians, and it might be a very dark time for Cleveland sports for the next couple of years, but with a new manager and a new outlook perhaps they can start to make progress.

AL West

1. A's
2. Rangers
3. Angels
4. Mariners

I've been burned by this prediction far too often, and up until today I wouldn't have gone so far as to predict the A's to win the division. The Rangers are the defending champions, but losing Cliff Lee and essentially replacing him with injury plagued Brandon Webb is not a fair trade. Adrian Beltre is a prototypical player who mysteriously is at his best in a contract year. His numbers last year for Boston were significantly better than expected and I expect a drop off. However in a hitter's paradise like Texas he may do just fine. The A's on the other hand have a great rotation, excellent bullpen, play great defense, and should have just enough offense to finally get back to the post season. The Angels are easily as good as these two teams but with the continued saga of Kendry Morales' injury and a few other question marks I'm not sure they can quite make it. I wouldn't be surprised if all three teams finish with a winning record. The Mariners are garbage and I'd be amazed if they lost fewer than 100 games this year.

NL East

1. Braves
2. Phillies
3. Marlins
4. Nationals
5. Mets

Now to the National League. Everyone's eyes are on the Phillies, and I mean everyone. Their supremely touted rotation is getting comparisons to the 90s Braves staff and everyone seems to be penciling them in for a world series appearance or at the very least a division. If this sounds familiar it's because we saw it last summer with the Miami Heat and there was a team that clearly had its problems living up to the hype. With the decline of Rollins, Howard, Ibanez, and the injury to Utley as well as the departure of Werth this lineup isn't nearly as imposing. Their bullpen is suspect and their farm system all but depleted. Yes Roy Halladay will be great, Cliff Lee may win 20 games, but they're far from a lock. The Braves on the other hand have a great rotation, one of the leagues best farm systems, and have made a wonderful addition with Dan Uggla at second base. They might not have the glamor of the Phillies but they're on par with talent and other than Derek Lowe and Chipper Jones far younger. The Marlins are the perennial "wait and see" team. They have some great pieces but have failed to put them together for the last several years. Any given year could be the year for them, but I can't see them passing the Braves or Phillies. The Nationals are definitely on their way up, the addition of Werth should lessen the blow of Adam Dunn's departure, but clearly their eyes are on the future, and their two number one picks who should be helping the team out in the second half. The Mets on the other hand could very well be the most dysfunctional and worst team in baseball right now. Hard to imagine this team was a serious contender just a couple seasons ago. Nearly every one of their one time all stars are hurt including ace pitcher Johan Santana, and their lineup is comprised of a host of triple-A players no one's ever heard of (Cubs fans remember Angel Pagan?). It's a disastrous soap opera and with ownership issues and massive financial trouble this could be a seriously ugly year for the team from Queens. Just go ahead an celebrate the 25 year anniversary of your Miracle Mets and pray next year isn't as bleak, but don't ask me to feel sorry for you.

AL Central
1. Cardinals
2. Cubs
3. Brewers
4. Reds
5. Astros
6. Priates

Yeah that's right I'm picking the Cardinals. Injuries or not, if anyone can weather the storm of losing one of the three best pitchers in the National League it's the Cardinals. Dave Duncan is a wizard whose made a career getting pitchers to over achieve and someone will step up to fill Adam Wainwright's vacancy. The Pujols contract talks will be an issue but probably not for the most consistent power hitter in baseball history. I would have picked the Brewers to win, but the fact that both their off season pitching acquisitions (Marcum and Greinke) are starting the season on the DL has me slightly worried. They can hit the hell out of the ball and with a potential rotation of Greinke, Gillardo, Marcum, and Wolff they could be outstanding, especially with the issues with other teams, but well they're one of those injured teams. The Cubs are a huge question mark but have enough solid pieces to make a decent run if some of their players can rebound from a dismal 2009-2010. It'll take a long time to see just how they'll shape up, but their rotation should be solid (provided Zambrano doesn't self destruct a huge if), their bullpen should be remarkably better with Wood back in their, and after years and years they finally have their power hitting left hander with Pena. I imagine a fun an interesting season on the North Side and if Quade is anything like the Cubs last two managers, then they'll win the division, we'll see. Speaking of former Cubs managers, I have no faith at all in the Reds abilities to repeat. They had good years from nearly everyone, but now that all those young players have gotten paid I wonder if they'll be able to repeat their performances. Dusty Baker has a wonderful capacity to destroy young pitchers and there's already evidence of that this season. They won't be bad, but can't see them winning the division again, the Brewers and Cubs made too many improvements. The Astros are in transition and are probably more concerned with finding out what they have rather than making a serious run. And well poor Pirates, Jesus that streak won't end this year.

NL West
1. Rockies
2. Giants
3. Dodgers
4. Padres
5. Diamondbacks

The Rockies have been jilted the last season and are not quickly to forgive the Giants their recent success. With Gonzalez and Tulowitzki locked up they should be as good if not better than last year, and well someone has to win the division. The Giants may have a bit of a sophomore slump, and it doesn't help that Brian Wilson will be starting the season on the DL. The Dodgers should be interesting with first year manager Don "I thought I told you trim those sideburns" Mattingly, and still have a few great young players. With their ownership situation of recent years I'm not sure how well they can add an impact player when needed. The NL West has been a tough division to win and with the surprising performance of the Padres last year the race has gotten even tighter. The Padres shocked me and most of the baseball world by winning 90 games last year when everyone (myself included) picked them to finish dead last. The departure of Gonzalez is huge, but their rotation and bullpen is still among the league's best, who knows. The D-Backs are that other team in transition, and I honestly don't know a single pitcher in their starting rotation (is Micah Owings still there?). That said I have no idea how this team will play and won't predict much.

So to recap

Rays (wild card)
White Sox

Phillies (Wild Card)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Fear of Cinema

I’ve been thinking a bit about certain prejudices and often irrational fears in the world of cinema. Some are glaring points of contention that have the mark of the uncultured or downright ignorant, some the opposite with distinct odor of film snobbery, but even the most balanced of us regular movie watchers have some fear of cinema and it comes in places you might not expect it.

Let’s discuss some of the types of fear I’m referring to. Type one is rather simple it’s the fear of a genre. Have you ever met someone who absolutely refuses to watch horror films because they’re total wussies and are too scared of their own shadow that even the most mundane Saw film can actually terrify them? Chances are we’ve all met someone like that and usually shook out heads wondering how the hell these people still exist but realize that this is the most pure form of film fear. In a literal and figurative sense it really is a fear of a type of film, much in the way other people are scared of clowns, spiders, or heights.

This genre fear can take a few forms, the straight man who won’t watch any “chick flicks” or sit through some “faggy musical”. These people swear to their masculine allegiance and realize that anything that doesn’t involve gore, titties, and massive casualties better be a Coen brothers film otherwise you’re a total fag for watching it. Now this macho man/repressed homosexual is another type of friend most of us has who is free to dismiss a film like Brokeback Mountain while proudly proclaiming to never see it, and vowing never to see it. Musicals ranging from Singin’ in the Rain to the Sound of Music, and even more recent offerings like Chicago and Moulin Rouge are clearly not “manly films” so therefore have to be disregarded while that manly man spends his time watching Transporter 3 confident that his sexual preference won’t come into debate again.

There are also the nerdy connotations associated with science fiction and fantasy that make other people proud to avoid Star Wars for a lifetime rather than ashamed. The people who might love Lord of the Rings but dismiss Harry Potter as a much weaker franchise. Often the people with this prejudice are actually fans of the genre. Chances are there are more Star Wars fans who hate Star Trek than average people who dislike both. Nerds are a passionate group of people who will defend their champions with their last breath and campaign against everything in opposition. Perhaps like the macho man the fear here might be that they actually like the film(s) they’ve been bashing and have to proceed to apologize to all those friends whose opinions they bashed.

The fear of horror results from direct fear of being scared so I don’t think many people avoid horror films because they secretly worry they might like them, instead I think they avoid them because they don’t feel like having nightmares all night long. However there is a different reason to avoid films in this genre, and that is the lack of quality/waste of time quotient. Every year no matter how much we wish for it several horror films are remade. It seems that every one of these remakes removes nudity, dulls everything interesting about the original, and uses more handheld cameras to give it an “edgy” tone. So most of us might not fear watching the remakes of The Crazies, Last House on the Left, or The Stepfather, but would rather stick to the originals and save ourselves the headache of sitting through an inferior remake of a film that probably could have been improved upon. Call this a fear of wasting time, which certainly can fit into this blog topic.

However the idea of fear isn’t so simple regarding genre prejudices. Have you ever been scared to watch a film a second time because you fear you might not like it as much upon a closer inspection? Some films captivate us so perfectly on a first viewing that sitting through the film again might diminish that original opinion, sour the taste for us, reveal that the film we loved so desperately was in reality somewhat average. Or perhaps that film with a surprise ending won’t seem as extraordinary when you know the ending. The night I saw Pride and Prejudice in the theater was the result of a lot of changed plans and wound up being one of the loveliest evenings I’ve spent in the past decade. I wondered if with the situation and company change would the film hold up as well. After over 5 years I finally decided to give the film another chance and loved it as much as ever, proving that a great film can transcend any conditions, or perhaps the memory of that original night gave me a warm feeling of nostalgia sitting through it.

The last real fear of cinema I want to mention is length. This goes along with the fear of wasting one’s time. Plenty of people have probably noticed that I recommend a lot of ludicrously long films. My number one from 2010 was a solid 5 hours plus, my favorite film of the 80s was a good 15 hours long. Many of the greatest films of all time are long, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Yet very few people feel like spending multiple hours following one story, just like many people who love to read are scared to pick up that 1000 page book and may be more comfortable settling into that 200 pager. After all you can spend 100 minutes watching a film, or 210 chances are you might prefer the shorter because it’ll take up less of your time. This is one fear that seems hardest to overcome for many people, but looking at my numerous lists of favorites, there’s plenty I’d recommend.

There are plenty of happy endings when we conquer our fear of cinema however. What seems like a century ago I had the American Film Institute’s 100 Years 100 Movies list, the first one. It was in late 1999 and I had spent the night at my grandmother’s house the night before. I turned on TCM the next day and found Yankee Doodle Dandy was coming on. This was #100 on that list and a *gasp musical. I couldn’t stand burst into song crap or so I thought and wanted nothing to do with any of the numerous musicals on the list. I recorded it anyways because it was on. As it progressed I started to watch it, and was amazed. Not necessarily because the film was so great, although I enjoyed it immensely, but because the songs were in context. People didn’t spontaneously start singing and dancing, instead the songs were part of the narrative, recreated in stage productions, rehearsals and all serving the narrative. The concept of the old backstage musical was new to me at this point in time and I wondered if this film could surprise me, maybe it was time to get over my bias towards musicals. Later that day on the way home I stopped at a used book/video store and purchased Singin’ in the Rain. When I got home I helped put up Christmas decorations while watching the film and was even more impressed. I realized then that I’d watch all 100 films on this list.

Overcoming my musical fear was just the first step. I realized if this genre could house gems then so could the scary world of silent cinema, foreign movies, even an animated Disney cartoon. The next steps were fairly swift and I realized that if a film was given a good rating I’d watch it free of fear. Now don’t get me wrong there are some films that I approach with great hesitation, make no effort to go out of my way to see, and put at a disadvantage. In 2008 Doubt came out and I couldn’t be less interested. I was growing tired of the annual Meryl Streep Oscar nomination, and a somber film about a priest being accused of molesting a child sounded like a plea for Academy recognition that plagued plenty of previous would be contenders (Cold Mountain anyone?). After two years I finally saw the film and wasn’t impressed much. To say it was a bad film would be misleading, but to say it was worth seeing wouldn’t exactly be true. Perhaps I had unfairly relegated the film to the dungeon before I saw it, but if the film was exceptional it would have overcome that obstacle.

Take another film from 2008 that worked the opposite direction. Ever since Ron Howard inexplicably won a best director Oscar for A Beautiful Mind I’ve had very little if any interest in his work. When Frost/Nixon made a few top ten lists I wasn’t interested, but then it appealed to my weakness, it got nominated for best picture. For those who know me will know that I’ve seen all but 4 films nominated for best picture since the Academy began handing out awards, so there was no chance I would avoid this film for much longer. I took myself to see it and was quite impressed. Perhaps I set the bar so low that this film had to live up to it, or perhaps this just overcame the prejudice I assigned to it. I’m not saying the film was a masterpiece, but it certainly struck me as a better film than the guilt trip known as The Reader.

So perhaps I need to make a final appeal to sum up my argument. It’d be a cliché to say “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”, and well I think it applies. We can avoid films that are scary because we’re big babies, or plenty others because we feel uncomfortably homophobic about its content, maybe another because its too long, but well there’s greatness everywhere. So get over it, and dig in people, there’s nothing to be afraid of.