January 25, 2012

The magic of the Royal Rumble.

Pro wrestling is for children.

Perhaps not like the cartoonish 1980s and early 1990s were, but the amateurish acting and simplistic storylines should make this clear to anyone over the age of 15. It's a fun bit of entertainment to overanalyze, especially if you're a long-time fan who understands how its backstage politics work, but I find it difficult to sit through even an entire episode of Monday Night Raw without scoffing and reaching for the remote. Perhaps that's why my roommate has perfected the "15-minute Raw," a masterfully navigated fast-forwarding of all the awful-looking segments and matches.

To me, though, the one thing that'll always cut through the treacle is the spectacle. The big, flashy events that, through either hype or history, seem a little more special. Unfortunately, beyond WrestleMania (which offers very little distinction and rarely lives up to the hype anyway) the WWE doesn't do spectacle like they used to.

Once upon a time there was the King of the Ring tournament, which typically featured eight to 16 wrestlers battling it out for a sort of nebulous supremacy. Whoever was dubbed "king" at the end of the night would often adopt some royalty-themed gimmick and occasionally earn a title shot at SummerSlam. It was a great way to turn a mid-carder into a main eventer, memorably perfected by "Stone Cold" Steve Austin. And, as WrestleMania IV and March Madness have proven, everyone loves tournaments.

And then there was the Survivor Series, an event that teamed up wrestlers with similar goals (sometimes "us guys hate those guys," other times "we're good and they're bad, let's fight") in eight-man, four-on-four elimination matches. The apex of the Survivor Series occurred early, in 1990, when the heel and face "survivors" all joined forces against each other in a "grand finale" match. The 1995 Survivor Series also featured a memorable Wild Card Match; the two teams featured a "random" mix of heroes and villains, which meant that tensions (and the inevitable double-crosses) were ample.

But all that magic is gone now. The last King of the Ring pay-per-view was in 2002 (though it occasionally resurfaces as a TV-only event of far less acclaim) and the WWE threatened to drop the Survivor Series name entirely in early 2010. It's still around but hasn't focused on strictly Survivor Series-style matches in years.

The Royal Rumble, however, has stood the test of time.

Every year since 1988, a predetermined number of wrestlers -- usually 30 but occasionally 20 or even 40 -- come down to the ring in two-minute intervals and battle for their shot at a championship belt at WrestleMania. Sometimes the finishes (Lex Luger and Bret Hart tying, Shawn Michaels holding onto the top rope) can be truly inspired; in fact, Michaels' victory is the moment when I became a true wrestling fan.

Watching the Royal Rumble is never boring. The traditional matches leading up to it might be subpar, but the main event is always at least an hour of entertaining spots, carefully plotted storyline tweaks and a few surprise entrants (like Booker T and Diesel last year) that enjoyably invoke nostalgia.

It also remains the most effective way to raise a middling wrestler to the top of the charts (which, from a business standpoint, is probably why Vince McMahon and company have kept it around for so long). There was never any real value or reward associated with being named "king," but the Rumble winner is automatically guaranteed a title shot at the biggest pay-per-view of the year. Not only that, but he can claim to have survived the onslaught of his numerous muscular peers; in the wrestling world, this means something.

More than anything, it's different. Wrestling promotions occasionally do battle royals, but not on the scale or scope of the Royal Rumble. This is all your favorite wrestlers, in the ring at almost the same time, competing in a match that comes with a surprising amount of unpredictability.  If there was ever a time to bet on pro wrestling, it's the Rumble; narrowing the winner down to one of four or five guesses is simple, but then it gets hard to choose. There's really no mystery in pro wrestling these days, but you can argue that this particular night in January is the only time that comes close to recapturing it.

Maybe that's what really sets the Rumble apart. From week to week, Raw and SmackDown tend to run together. Most of the monthly pay-per-views are just extended, expensive replicas of their televised companions. There's just one event left with the potential to provide both the nonstop entertainment and peaked curiosity that used to be the industry's bread and butter. Long live the Royal Rumble.

January 19, 2012

A look at Bruce Springsteen's latest single.

This is the first single off Bruce Springsteen's soon-to-come album, which is unfortunately titled Wrecking Ball. Yes, after that crappy song he used to close down the Meadowlands last year. The one everyone in attendance had to pretend they liked. Not a good start.

It's also not great when the notable musicians your new producer has previously worked with are your wife and Sixpence None the Richer. It's nice to see Bruce mixing it up a little -- Working on a Dream absolutely should've been the end of Brendan O'Brien -- but nothing I'm hearing about this new album inspires much confidence. Especially without the reassuring presence of the Big Man.

They say Wrecking Ball is to be Bruce's "angriest" work to date, but that's not evident on "We Take Care of Our Own." Instead it's another of Springsteen's "listen closer, gang" tunes, where he buries the meaning behind a chant-worthy chorus and arena-rousing beat. The problem is that when he's done this before, in songs like "Born in the U.S.A.," they were fiendishly catchy and fiendishly clever. The lyrics had something to say. This one sounds like a John Mellencamp outtake that should be playing over a truck commercial.

Other than that, it's standard latter-day Springsteen. It'll go over well in packed stadiums -- if only because it's the single and most people will ignore the rest of the album -- but when it comes to crowd-pleasing post-reunion anthems, "We Take Care of Our Own" comes nowhere near "Radio Nowhere," "Livin' in the Future," "My Lucky Day" and pretty much everything rousing on The Rising. If this is the best he's got, most serious fans are gonna be left wanting.

I do not have high hopes for Wrecking Ball, although song titles like "The Depression," "Shackled and Down" and "Death to My Hometown" sound just desperate enough to get everyone hoping for another Darkness on the Edge of Town. But this is 62-year-old billionaire Bruce, not the angry, weary post-litigation Springsteen of 1978. We know "Wrecking Ball" and we've heard "We Take Care of Our Own" and I doubt anyone's pants have been blown off by either.

Best case scenario, we get another Working on a Dream: Three great songs, a few decent ones and a lot of tacked-on crap. At the end of the day, adding a few extra hits to my Bruce playlist and getting another tour should be all that matters. But I really enjoyed Magic and thought Springsteen still had more to say. Another stinker here would be proof that all we've got left is nostalgia.

January 14, 2012

The evolution of pro wrestling entrance themes.

Once upon a time, professional wrestlers entered the ring to simple, instrumental entrance themes. Only real stars like Hulk Hogan and Ted DiBiase were granted theme music with lyrics; even then, the songs were cartoonish and silly. As pro wrestling became flashier, catering to both children and television audiences, these themes added a bit more spectacle to those previously bland few minutes when the wrestler walked down the aisle. If your senses weren't being assaulted at every moment by blaring music or some kind of visual stimulation, whoever was producing this particular wrestling event wasn't doing his or her job.

This continued, relatively unabated, until the Attitude Era of the mid-90s. That was when themes started getting a bit more serious. "Stone Cold" Steve Austin came out to his glass-shattering intro, maybe the most recognizable entrance of all time. The Rock's music helped him become a all-time legend. Themes began to focus on riling up the crowd; a catchphrase or recognizable cue in the first few seconds got fans to their feet, cheering or booing their favorites. It was a kind of Pavlovian response that the WWE became extremely proficient at inducing.

But at the end of the day, these entrance themes were still instrumentals, remarkably appropriate but relatively forgettable tunes put together by legendary WWE composer Jim Johnston for the sole sake of introducing wrestlers. Sweeping changes didn't really occur until the introduction of D-Generation X. WWE hired a real band, The Chris Warren Band, to record their theme; a trend had begun. Vince McMahon adopted "No Chance in Hell," the 1999 Royal Rumble theme, as his own. Triple H's solo efforts received the awful "My Time," also by The Chris Warren Band. The wheels were in motion.

Chris Jericho's debut in August of 1999 was also a watershed moment for wrestling themes; "Break the Walls Down" sounded like a real song that Jericho co-opted as his own. Themes were getting a little more serious, a little more real. WWF The Music, Volume 4 included a few more themes that could've doubled as popular music. Soon there were efforts like WWF Aggression, an album of theme covers featuring Run-DMC, Method Man and other famous rappers.

And then there was Lemmy. I know he doesn't deserve to be lumped together with the other, far crappier rock and rollers that turned entrance themes into what my friends and I like to call "butt rock," but Motörhead's new Triple H theme, "The Game," really changed the course of wrestling themes forever. All of a sudden, real musicians, real purveyors of butt rock, started contributing music to the WWE. Vince McMahon had begun to outsource entrance theme production.

I suppose some people might not use the term "real musicians" to describe bands like Alter Bridge and Downstait, groups that aren't exactly beloved or critically acclaimed. But they are real-life bands with record deals and thousands of fans, and by using them to put together new themes, the WWE was taking advantage of an already-existing market. Somewhere along the way, McMahon and his music team realized something: Pro wrestling and butt rock go together perfectly. Wrestling wasn't a real-life cartoon anymore; its fans had grown up, and the target audiences for the WWE and hard rock clearly had some crossover. Hence, the "legitimization" of wrestling entrance themes.

It proved to be a great economic decision for both the WWE and the bands themselves: Produce a bunch of recognizable themes that could also exist as standalone music, sell the songs on iTunes, keep pumping out theme compilation albums, strengthen the link between hard rock and sports entertainment. And, occasionally, suck in casual fans like myself. Normally I would never listen to the bands WWE brings on for these entrance themes, but I do admit to enjoying some of the songs they've produced. I add them to my running mixes, I listen to them at work. They're legitimately catchy. It might not be good music, but it's certainly butt rock done right.

Now even the shittiest wrestlers have real entrance themes. And on occasion, McMahon and company are willing to take the entrance theme business to a whole other level. Late in 2011, CM Punk debuted a new theme: "Cult of Personality" by Living Colour. Punk had used this as an entrance song in his earlier indie wrestling days, but it fit his current WWE character so perfectly that the music department ponied up the cash to buy the rights. This was the old ECW method: Find an existing song that suits your wrestler perfectly and link the two. And to his credit, McMahon went against his usual entrance theme principles and shelled out.

Pro wrestling is silly in many ways, but the dynamics that go into planning and executing the development of storylines can be surprisingly detailed and complex. Entrance themes have become a big part of how characters are defined; tracking the evolution of those themes, from cheap synthesizers to epic butt-rock anthems, offers real insight into the how the WWE climbed to the top of this billion-dollar industry.

January 11, 2012

Any room left on the Sixers' bandwagon?

From the recap of last night's 27-point thrashing of the Sacramento Kings: "The Sixers are one of the NBA's up-and-coming teams; they've won five games by at least a 20-point margin."

Steve Kerr: The Philadelphia 76ers are "probably the best story in the league to this point."

Dei Lynam: "The Sixers have won six straight for the first time since January of 2009."

My roommate: "Should we get NBA League Pass?"
Me: "....maybe."

What the hell is happening in Philadelphia?

I'm a well-documented basketball frontrunner; when the Sixers aren't competitive, I could care less about the sport. Until last week, the only remotely recent 76ers game I'd seen was the return of Allen Iverson. And even then, I tuned out after the first quarter; they lost to the Nuggets by 10.

But these Sixers appear to be competitive and then some. Third in points per game. Second in rebounds per game. Seventh in assists per game. First in points allowed. MVP chants for Spencer Hawes. Yes, the season is only nine games old, but you can make a legitimate case that the Sixers have been the best team in basketball thus far.

I can state this with relatively certainty because our free preview of NBA League Pass just ended, and I actually sat down to watch a few of these games. Before the season, I read a whole bunch about the Sixers and coach Doug Collins expected continuity to serve them well in this shortened season; so far, that does appear to be the case. They look like an extremely functional unit, playing smart team defense and spreading out the scoring (six players averaging 10 or more points a game, not including Elton Brand at 9.6 PPG).

Yes, the seven teams they've beaten have a combined record of 25-41 (Indiana being the one shining win), but you won't get anywhere if you don't smack around the bad teams. And "smack around" is putting it mildly; they beat Phoenix by 20, Golden State by 28, Toronto by 35. That sends a message to the league, and to fair-weather fans like me: This team could be for real.

Tonight's match-up with the 5-4 New York Knicks will be telling, especially because it's the Sixers' third game in a row. This season is jam-packed into four months, which means that injuries and fatigue will start to play a big role in deciding a team's fate. Will it help that the Sixers are so young (according to Henry Abbott of ESPN.com, they're the third-youngest team in the NBA) or will such a baby-faced squad fall apart under this kind of oddly scheduled grind?

All I know is that, for now, I'm sold. I'll be front and center (albeit in the cheapest possible seats) at the Verizon Center in DC this Saturday night for Sixers vs. Wizards. And if they keep this up, maybe we'll spring for the NBA package after all.

January 8, 2012

My 10 favorite movies of 2011.

A time-honored tradition on King Myno's Court, and one of my favorite posts to write, is this list of the year's top 10 movies. Keep in mind that these aren't the ten best; that word implies some level of objectivity, which I'm not offering here. These are just the ten movies that I enjoyed the most in 2011, for reasons that I'll try to explain in conjunction with each choice.

(Editor's note: I haven't yet seen Carnage, We Need to Talk About Kevin, A Separation, Certified Copy, Attack the Block, Tabloid or Project Nim. And probably a few others. I hear they're all varying levels of good. Please don't verbally bludgeon me for missing them.)

The Artist - I don't quite understand why this movie, so anticipated in the build-up to its release, is now being bombarded by heaping amounts of scorn. Is it just the inevitable post-hype resentment, the "ov-er-rated" chant that follows a lengthy period of being underrated? I sure hope so, because I'm not sure what else is wrong with this charming little callback to the days of the silent era. Especially when you factor in the virtuoso starring performance from Jean Dujardin (my pick for Best Actor) and a few other big Hollywood names (John Goodman! James Cromwell! The coach from Not Another Teen Movie!).

It's funny, it's sweet, it's extremely well-made. It's also the work of a European director and two foreign stars, lending an air of authenticity to what would probably be a clunky mess had it been produced through the Hollywood system. Because of that, and because everyone involved seemed to be having a whole lot of fun while making it, I never took The Artist as anything but an homage, a loving tribute to a genre that only old-time cinema fans and film students appreciate these days.

To me, it's nostalgia done perfectly right -- a simple story that purposely forgoes nuance -- and writer/director Michel Hazanavicius and Dujardin, who I can't praise enough, make it all shine. I have a feeling that when the backlash subsides, critics (professional and otherwise) will see The Artist for what it truly is: a captivating picture that's deserves all this praise. People are really fucking nitpicky sometimes.

Drive - If Drive was a high school student, it would easily win "Most likely to be a cult hit." The funny thing is, this is a movie that shouldn't appeal only to a cult audience. It stars Ryan Gosling, one of America's sexiest stars, and Albert Brooks, one of cinema's most beloved neurotic Jews. It also features Walter White, Hellboy, Joan Holloway and that sexy British girl from Never Let Me Go. What's not to like?

Something, apparently, because Drive only made $35 million at the American box office. But when it comes to movies like this, box office totals aren't everything. I imagine that the dark, drawn-out style of director Nicolas Winding Refn turned a few people off along the way, not to mention the David Cronenberg-esque violence that seems to pop out of nowhere every 20 minutes to shock everyone's pants off. It's a movie that can be remarkably blunt at times, maybe a little too aggressive and realistic for even the staunchest lovers of smashing and crushing of heads and other body parts.

But I haven't been more captivated by a film all year. From the heart-pounding introduction to the pitch-perfect score to the sparse, understated dialogue that adds a bit of mystery to the proceedings, it's shocking, satisfying cinema with real thrills and a smooth twist of art-house sensibility.

Hugo - When I first heard that Martin Scorsese was directing an movie based on a children's novel about movies and robots and train stations, my first thought was "Huh?" I instantly disregarded it as a sort of director-for-hire decision, maybe in order to make Kundun 2 in 2012. Luckily, however, a series of good reviews raised my interest back up to optimal levels. There's already a great Hugo debate up on the hit website The A.V. Club; suffice it to say that I agree with Scott Tobias, who found Hugo to be "enchanting" and a "whimsical vehicle through which [Scorsese] expresses a serious love of the movies."

It's been said a bunch of times already, but Scorsese's use of 3D is nothing short of marvelous. It's immersive without being intrusive; the best thing a good 3D movie can do is make you forget you're wearing the stupid glasses. James Cameron used Avatar to bring a magical world of giant blue creatures to life, and Scorsese uses it to slowly draw you into his fantastical, alternate-universe version of Paris.

It's not a film without flaws: The subplots involving all the regular patrons of the train station are mildly entertaining but largely underwhelming, mostly serving to pass some time in between Hugo's adventures. But the movie looks marvelous and unexpectedly sucked me in; I cared about the relationship between Asa Butterfield's Hugo and Ben Kingsley's Georges Méliès, I loved the casting of Michael Stuhlbarg as the cinematic scholar (more Michael Stuhlbarg in everything, please) and I was impressed to see Christopher Lee still acting at the age of 89. 89! I don't expect to be alive at 89, let alone starring in a Martin Scorsese movie. Get that guy a Lifetime Achievement award.

Meek's Cutoff - It's easy to call Meek's Cutoff a Western -- the entire movie takes place during a quest to move out West -- but I don't think it's accurate at all. Westerns are traditionally about gunfights and blustery heroics, but Meek's Cutoff has no interest in those kind of pandering-to-the-audience moments. Big chunks of this movie are spent watching the party's wagon travel from one side of the screen to the other. Michelle Williams, who continues her quest to become the ultimate indie darling, pulls a gun once. That's it. My dad typically loves Westerns, but this is one I probably wouldn't recommend.

Meek's Cutoff is about what it must've really been like to travel across America in 1845: boring. Really, really boring. Several thousand miles across fields and desert and hills and waves of grain and other repetitive landscapes. Sure, there's the occasional threatening Indian, and sometimes your guide can be a charming rapscallion (in this case, Bruce Greenwood's Stephen Meek, and it's safe to say that Greenwood has never, ever been better), but for the most part, you're going to trudge slowly for months on end. Some of you will get lost. And many will die.

That's what lies under the surface throughout Meek's Cutoff, a contemplative look at the struggles of 19th-century Americans pursuing the unknown. No one in the traveling party really knows what awaits them in Oregon; they don't even know if there's a tribe of savages just over the next hill. It takes a lot of hope, faith and courage just to trek forward day after day, when even the best intentions and most rational bouts of courage don't mean shit and the bland, dry passage of time can end your life just as prematurely as a gun or a tomahawk. Not many films would attempt to convey a series of bleak ideas like that, and few could ever do it as well as Meek's Cutoff.

Moneyball - Bennett Miller and Brad Pitt took one of the world's biggest questions -- "How do you make a nonfiction book about a baseball team that never made it out of the first round into an entertaining movie?" -- and, pardon my shitty pun, knocked it out of the park. It was easy to make fun of Moneyball in the months leading up to its release, especially since it went through years and years of development hell, but the end result was a simple, smart movie that impressed some baseball people (if not Keith Law) and enjoyed a solid amount of mainstream appeal (broke $100 million at the worldwide box office).

Maybe it's Pitt's magnetism as Billy Beane; if Tyler Durden was the part that 35-year-old Pitt was born to play, Beane is picture-perfect for a mellowed Pitt who's now nearing 50. Maybe it was helped along by the unexpected calm, cool and collected work of then-fat Jonah Hill. Or maybe it's the clever, quick-talking Aaron Sorkin touch-up of the screenplay, which isn't as in-your-face as The Social Network but still gives Pitt and Hill some witty banter to work with. Plus, how can you not love a movie that boasts an intense scene where Billy Beane, after months of trying, finally acquires the great Ricardo Rincon?

To make a movie that's at least partly about an ALDS-losing team work, Miller, Pitt and the writers (Steven Zaillian and Sorkin) smartly tone down the baseball-oriented tension and crank up the character-based drama. It's not about whether the Oakland Athletics will win the World Series (which would be considered a pretty lame movie by everyone except Peter True) but whether the intensely competitive Beane will finally prove his doubters wrong. Sure, there are some inaccuracies, but the only people who seem to give a shit are the ones who were extremely biased against the movie version in the first place. As for me, I don't think it matters if you're a baseball fan or a cinema buff; if you go into Moneyball with an open mind, you'll find something to enjoy.

Submarine - I've seen this referred to in several places as "Wes Anderson lite," probably due to its off-beat humor and the Max Fischer-esque qualities of its protagonist, Craig Roberts' Oliver Tate. This isn't a bad thing; in fact, it's what convinced me to rent it in the first place. But Anderson's style is far quirkier, and his dialogue more dramatized and stilted, than writer/director Richard Ayoade's. Wes Anderson never lets you forget that you're watching a movie, but that's not the goal of Submarine, which makes Ayoade's insights into the slightly twisted universe of a 15-year-old boy a bit more poignant.

Submarine takes place in Wales, which is a place I've actually visited while studying abroad in London. Now, I was climbing rocks and going on hikes, not living next to a spiky-haired Paddy Considine and pursuing an awkward childhood romance, but based on how people in London spoke of Wales (and vice versa) I can see its residents being as dreary and filled with yearning as the movie depicts. Young Oliver Tate copes by storing his successes away like completed film scenes, but the piled-up troubles of his immediate family and friends serve as a reminder that life can be more complicated than art.

A terrific score by Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys and a quietly adept performance from Noah Taylor (another Wes connection, I suppose) as Roberts' oft-depressed father give the film more depth than your typical "coming of age" story. And any movie that effectively uses the line "My mum gave a handjob to a mystic" in a key moment is alright by me. Shit, a handjob reference! Maybe Submarine is more Wes-like than I'm willing to admit. Or at least paying lots of homage to Rushmore. Either way, it's an unexpectedly refined and hilarious film debut from first-time director Ayoade.

Take Shelter - I covered my thoughts on Take Shelter in relatively comprehensive detail back in early December, but I'd like to take a moment to say that Michael Shannon really, really deserves an Oscar nomination for this movie. He probably won't get one, not after missing out on a Golden Globe nom (and going up against supremely handsome luminaries like Pitt and Michael Fassbender and George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio), but it's time to give him his due for being far more than just a supporting-cast star and one of Hollywood's premier crazy dudes.

Seeing Shannon put a genuinely human twist on the "devolved psychotic" character he's played over and over was truly a delight, one that raises this movie above being just the study of a delusional man. I don't know if Shannon is right about it taking "a bit of guts to go see our film," as the content isn't as shocking as Shame or as inaccessible as The Tree of Life, but it's certainly a small, haunting picture that I didn't fully appreciate until I started to further evaluate certain themes and scenes.

But, by virtue of being excellent and thought-provoking, the movie remains easy to revisit. It's unfortunate that it couldn't draw a larger audience (only $1,674,839 in domestic box office as of January 2), but it is one of those films that maintains a never-ending sense of dread throughout; I kept waiting for the shit to really hit the fan. That's not the stuff of mainstream film and mass appeal, but the ability to rise above that aura of reserved creepiness is an important part of what makes Take Shelter so special.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - A bit of a letdown, if only because I was hoping it would be the greatest spy movie of all time. Instead, I got a quiet, contemplative look at the harrowing but often nondescript life of a secret agent. Director Tomas Alfredson, who also helmed the tremendous Let the Right One In, paints a dreary picture of a world where treachery lurks around every corner, only the corners are dark and shabby, and your adversaries are often pudgy Brits.

I greatly appreciate a film that requires the audience to keep up, but Tinker Tailor, much like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, tries to pack too much into an already ample runtime. The pace is consistently brisk throughout, which is not something Dragon Tattoo can boast, but such continual progress makes it difficult to process everything that is happening, especially when it comes to eliciting an emotional response. The grand finale, in particular, came about while I was still piecing together just how Gary Oldman's George Smiley (who was terrific, by the way) had gotten from A to B to C and solved the whole damn mystery in the first place.

And then there's the ending itself. The trouble with this kind of movie -- and this applies to any film that relies on a big reveal -- is that audiences these days are very smart. So when Smiley is told that one of four men is the spy nestled high atop British intelligence, and only one of those characters has his backstory developed, it's not hard to guess which one is the culprit. This isn't a knock against the movie; I realized that this was how whodunits always worked around the time I saw The Recruit and fingered Pacino as the bad guy about an half-hour in. It just makes it tough to stick the landing, and Tinker Tailor was a movie that propelled you forward right from the start. Still, this kind of ambitious project, despite some rockiness, ended up being well worth the ride.

The Tree of Life - My long-time associate (and future comedy superstar) Rob Turbovsky and I had a discussion earlier this week about what the Oscars (and other year-end cinematic awards) really mean. I mentioned how I thought Avatar and The Social Network should've won Best Picture; despite what I think about them (loved the latter, was relatively entertained by the former) they were certainly the defining movies of their year. Even cinephiles who loathe big-budget Hollywood claptrap probably gave Avatar a chance in 2009, and I don't know anyone, even uppity jerks, who disliked Social Network. So when it comes to 2011, even though the actual Best Picture winner will be something solid like The Artist or The Descendants, the most memorable movie of the year is The Tree of Life.

It didn't make much money at all, but it got people talking. Even people who aren't bloggers or Internet-based film nerds; I think even my mom knew what it was. It was provocative, it blew minds, it spurred movie theaters to provide odd pre-film warnings for some of their stupider patrons.

I know that, not too long ago, I compared this movie to Thor. In retrospect, perhaps that was a little harsh (even though the goal wasn't to be harsh, just to point out how both movies had no real interest in being overly comprehensible or catering to an audience). I still think The Tree of Life keeps you at arm's length, but it dazzles in the process. It may be difficult to get inside Terrence Malick's films (or his head) but he's a master artist with a specific, precise way of telling his stories. Maybe his work is best examined months after being viewing, when it's had time to simmer in your brain. Either way, when you spend as much time as I did mulling over this movie, it's hard not to include it as one of your ten best.

Win Win - As evident by his Best Original Screenplay nomination from the Writers Guild, writers enjoy and appreciate the work of Tom McCarthy. I fancy myself a writer as well, even though I think McCarthy's greatest contribution to the world of cinema is as Amanda Peet's smarmy boyfriend in 2012. Either way, I think McCarthy is a genius. The Station Agent and The Visitor were both gems, and he struck gold again in 2011 with the thoroughly enjoyable Win Win.

McCarthy makes character dramas about quietly tortured souls. He's not very flashy, which makes it very odd that HBO originally tapped him to direct the eventually scrapped Game of Thrones pilot. But his style is perfect in Win Win, a film about a struggling lawyer who comes to nurture the amateur wrestling career of a client's grandson. When casting a cinematic couple, you can't do much better than Paul Giamatti and Amy Ryan, two inherently likable actors who have an air of "meaning well" about them. This sort of instant credibility allows McCarthy to dig Giamatti's character into a bigger and bigger hole, knowing full well that we'll be rooting for him to come out whole at the end. Add in Jeffrey Tambor as Giamatti's assistant coach and the great Bobby Cannavale, who turns in his best performance since either The Ten or this Louis C.K. Internet video, and you've got it made. There's gotta be a meaty leading role (one that's not a shitty ABC sitcom) in Cannavale's future.

And all the rest: Three of my favorite lead performances of the year came from Brendan Gleeson, George Clooney and Michael Fassbender in The Guard, The Descendants and Shame, respectively, but the movies themselves were all a bit too flawed for the top ten. If you loved the witty banter between Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story like I did, then you'll love The Trip. Our Idiot Brother was a wonderful little comedy, despite the fact that I didn't laugh outloud once. War Horse would be a much better movie without Steven Spielberg constantly implying that horses are people, too! Rooney Mara sure was weirdly sexy in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, even if the movie's pacing wasn't. And Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol was maybe the best action movie I've seen in years. My greatest regret is not getting it onto the top ten. It's tremendous, really. Stop reading this and go see it, preferably in IMAX.

Worst movie of the year: Midnight in Paris. God, this was awful. Woody Allen no longer has any idea how regular people talk, and I imagine he doesn't want to know. If he ever deigns to gaze upon normal folk, he will view us through a powerful telescope. And in between these very occasional viewings, he'll make dangerously terrible movies about rich people being pretentious and then suffering from the kind of lazy malaise that only rich and pretentious people will ever know. Plus, time travel! Just die already, Woody Allen. Your best days are long gone. Stop suckering in morons with your elitist bullshit.

January 4, 2012

Ain't no goalie conundrum in Philly.

Don't buy into all the bullshit; there is no goalie controversy in Philadelphia.

You know why? Ilya Bryzgalov signed a nine year, $51 million contract in June.

Yes, Sergei Bobrovsky has the better numbers this season. But it's foolish to worry about stats (or even quality of play) in the winter when Stanley Cups are won and lost in the spring. The most important part of the regular season is solidifying an invite to the big dance and making sure that, when you do arrive, it's with a hot goaltender.

That means the Flyers have 45 games left to get Bryzgalov back into top form, which won't happen if you're rolling Bobrovsky out there 2-3 times a week. It's not just about a financial investment in Bryz; it's about the skill that earned him all those bucks. He's a top-10 goalie, and with the second-highest scoring offense in the league around him, he has the potential to be so much more.

Now, Bobrovsky is a darn good backup who could certainly become a top-tier starting goaltender in the NHL, and I'm very pleased that general manager Paul Holmgren held onto him in the offseason (for a while there, a trade and Michael Leighton call-up seemed like a reasonable plan). The Flyers wouldn't be 22-11-4, good for fourth in the Eastern Conference, without Bob (8-3-1, 2.56 GAA, .914 save percentage).

But he's a spare part, and a enticing one at that. According to capgeek.com, he's making $1.75 million per year through next season, after which he'll be a restricted free agent. That means he's a reasonably priced asset that a young team without a franchise goalie might consider building around. As Eagles fans who've seen Andy Reid ship off backup quarterbacks for a king's ransom over and over again, we know that the most tantalizing trade chip is a flavor-of-the-month reserve with (presumably) vast hidden potential.

As I said earlier, there's certainly an argument for rostering two top-caliber goaltenders. Especially when you employ an emotionally fragile starter who's struggling, a slightly unexpected turn of events that makes Holmgren's trade restraint look quite prescient. But if Brayden Schenn's goal in the Winter Classic is a sign that he's ready to contribute in the NHL, suddenly you've got a slight logjam at forward and a talented, cheap young goalie who's mostly sitting on the bench. You've got options.

And you've got the lack of Chris Pronger starting to become an issue. I like Marc-Andre Bourdon and I'm looking forward to the return of Erik Gustafsson, but this team isn't a real Cup contender without another veteran, top-four defenseman. If the Flyers want to win this year -- and I think they do -- at some point you need to pull the trigger on a blockbuster, especially if it ends up not really weakening the starting lineup.

I doubt the Flyers have got the goods to pry someone like Shea Weber loose from Nashville, but another going-nowhere team might pay top-dollar for a James van Riemsdyk/Sergei Bobrovsky package. I hate to give up on JVR at age 22, but the Flyers have enough forwards. They've got the offense. And JVR certainly seems to be in Laviolette's doghouse this season, injury or no injury. Preparing in full for life without Pronger might be the smartest move they can make, especially if it means shoring up the defense in front of Bryzgalov.

Bryz's mental state is always going to worry some people, especially since the beat writers monitor him like a hawk and devour every morsel that emerges from his mouth. Even if he's winning games, the silly things he says are going to make headlines. I still find them endearing, but I also think it would have helped his psyche and the fans' if Peter Laviolette had played Bryzgalov in the Winter Classic. I figured the enthusiasm of getting the call for such a high-profile game would have outweighed the kick in the butt provided by a benching. He chose otherwise, however, and now we'll get to see how Bryz responds on Thursday versus Chicago.

No matter what your thoughts are on the first few months of Ilya in Philly, we all know that Bryzgalov is not the train wreck he's appeared to be. John Vanbiesbrouck thinks it's largely mental -- the pressure of living up to a giant contract in a hockey-crazed city -- and I've heard some theories about it being practice-related: Bryz just needs to focus more on the basics with goalie coach Jeff Reese.

Either way, now that 24/7 has wrapped and the hubbub surrounding the Winter Classic is fading away, it's time for Peter Laviolette to throw Bryz in net for 6-7 games and let him tend some goal. For better or worse -- and I remain convinced that it's "for better" -- Ilya Bryzgalov is the starting goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers. Any speculation otherwise is a waste of breath, and the time may be coming for the Flyers to make this inevitable commitment to their goaltender (and this year's team) painstakingly clear.