With no live action, non-documentaries having scored higher than 90 on Metacritic (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days suffers from foreign release date syndrome), 2008 is shaping up to be the worst year for movies of this decade. 2003 was pretty bad as well, weighted down by the portentous Return of the King, and fully marred by the last ten minutes of Mystic River, ten minutes that ruined what was shaping up to be one of the best crime films ever told by twisting its characters into unrecognizable shapes of their former selves; and 2004 wasn’t so great either, thought it’s at least saved by the best love story/weepie of the last decade (Finding Neverland), and The Aviator, an ode to the possibilities of cinematography that transcends into something greater as we watch DiCaprio develop his form; but, as of now, it’s safe to say that 2008 is the worst.

Still, there are a few bright spots. Slumdog Millionaire is over-hyped, over-acclaimed, and frequently under-acted, but it’s still a pretty darn good movie. The shots of the Mumbai slums are legitimately stunning–proof that tight, claustrophobic shot composition can be just as luxurious as the great wide west. Its hyper-kinetic visual style is something to be admired, at times channeling the movement and that made City of God so thrilling. But if City of God was defined by its bloody violence, Slumdog is marked by its total absence of blood. It’s a pretty graphic movie, yet we never see the results of the action. One could say that it’s trying to eat its cake and have it too, that it wants to remain a family fable while also portraying the violence of modern India, but this is just a conceit; if anything, things are often more disconcerting in their total irreality. It’s an inventive style of fimmaking, but one that falls into a thoroughly predictable plot. Overall, a fully enjoyable movie-going experience.

Rachel Getting Married and Milk after the jump

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The State of the Race (pt.2)

December 15, 2008

With the Word of the Year race in full swing, it’s time to turn our gaze on that other great race: what movies will be nominated for best picture?

Let’s start with stating the obvious: this is a weak year. Really weak. As in Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday–weak. Weaker than that pun. One could even say ‘bootylicious,’ as in ‘bootylicious’ adj. ” 1. Of rap lyrics: bad, weak. rare. ”

1992 ‘SNOOP DOGGY DOGG’ Fuck Wit Dre Day (song) in ‘Dr. Dre’ Chronic (album), Them rhymes you were kickin were quite bootylicious.

In 2008, everyone seems to have invested all their energies into electing a democratic president or Ponzi schemes; no-one seems to have wanted to make a great movie. Some movies have been very good (Slumdog Millionare, Rachel Getting Married, and The Dark Knight come to mind) while others have been, “Really? This is supposed to be great?”, a category that includes the vastly overrated Wall*E. (For what it’s worth, I will be offering proper reviews of these movies over the next week, and probably a reappraisal of The Dark Knight, a movie of whose brilliance I’m now certain.)

We finally have enough data to release the first round of our rankings. Here is the top 10. There is a lot of parity.

1. Wall-E, 2.003

2. Slumdog Millionare, 1.729

3. Milk, 1.54

4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 1.389

4. Frost/Nixon, 1.389

6. The Dark Knight, .84

6. The Wrestler, .84

6. Gran Torino, .84

9. Burn After Reading, .62

10. Revolutionary Road, .549

10. The Reader, .549

Even though it’s number one, I think Wall-E is the most likely movie of the top 5 to drop out, simply because it’s animated. I also expect TDK to move up as Guild awards come in. I can’t imagine that SAG and the Producers won’t offer up love to the 2nd highest grossing movie of all time, and an ensemble film at that.

Over the last few years, RottenTomatoes.com has become my main source for movie reviews. Like other sites that aggregate information on the web, such as Slate’s Today’s Papers, Metacritic, and Five-Thirty-Eight (but definitely not Baseball Prospectus), RottenTomatoes is an excellent resource because it provides a concise summary of reviews, in the form of a “percent fresh” rating, as well as links to full reviews.  While resorting to algorithms might dismay film buffs, as a steadfast fan of cinema with limited time, I’ve found that the fresh rating is often a good starting point to avoid the obvious dross.

When the tomato-meter identifies a film as universally panned, it does so with tremendous accuracy.  But accepting a “fresh” rating without much follow-through is more fraught.  After a friend asked me to see Wanted over the summer, I quickly glanced at its rating (in the mid-seventies), and figured that if most of the critics surveyed liked it, I probably wouldn’t mind that it was an action movie.  I was wrong.  Had I read the first sentence of almost any of the positive reviews, I would have learned that “it’s a fun movie… if you can laugh at bullets traveling through people’s foreheads in slow motion,” or “a great film… but remarkably misogynistic.”  Thus a mid-level “fresh” rating should be read as a recommendation with reservations.

One would hope that a fresh rating so high that it qualifies as “universal acclaim,” should be pretty unambiguous.  This isn’t to say that we should ignore criticism of a film like Rear Window (100% fresh), but that even without the preparation of a critical analysis, the average viewer should be confident that they are about to watch a good, consequential film.  So when I sidled up to my local arthouse theater and saw that the Swedish film, Let the Right One In, had an astronomical rating of 98% among the site’s top critics (compared to the paltry 90% awarded to the Shawshank Redemption), I knew I was in for one finely woven tapestry of film*.404px-let_the_right_one_in

Let the Right One In begins hauntingly, with lone, 12 year-old Oskar staring out a window into the dark, dreary courtyard of his apartment complex. Quiet and insular, Oskar is abused by his classmates and neglected by his well-meaning but largely absent parents.  Rather than being melancholy or sad, Oskar is simply quiet, and as he retreats to the courtyard, his placid expression belies his pasttimes of collecting morbid newspaper articles and stabbing a tree as a stand-in for his bullies.

However, Oskar is interrupted by the appearance of Eli, a girl his age who has moved into an apartment across the courtyard.  Oskar is only a little surprised by Eli’s unusual statements and habits; she only appears outside at night, underdressed and barefoot; she lives in a boarded-up apartment with a foreboding, middle-aged caretaker; but he does little to press the issue. In turn, Eli does press Oskar to stand up to the bullies at school.

The next day, Oskar fails to assert himself at school, and Eli’s caretaker packs a bag containing a gas-mask, a knife, and a funnel, and sets out to a secluded neck of the woods, where he approaches a lone hiker.  As the audience squirms in their seats, he shows the mask to the hiker, and in perfect parallel to Anton Chigurh, asks, “do you know what halothane is?”

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Eric ChavezOk, so I’m going to say upfront that I like Nate Silver.  I read Five Thirty Eight.  I definitely would have read Burrito Bracket had I been aware of it.  He seems like a cool guy.  For those of you who were not interested in the future of the country back in October, Nate Silver is the stat-head who launched the poll aggregating website Five Thirty Eight.  Given the infantile way most website and media outlets measured polls (yes, RealClearPolitics, that means you), Five Thirty Eight was a breath of fresh air.  Silver did a solid job analyzing polls and conveying to non-math oriented people (ie just about everyone) what a poll’s data actually means.  So what’s the problem?  Everybody. Loves. Him.  They can’t stop raving about him, like he’s the ayatollah of poll aggregation.

He built an interesting website, give the man his credit.  This has gone way too far, though.  Much like Jack Donaghy, I think it’s hard to call the man a genius based on this work (Burrito Bracket, however, is another matter altogether).  But that’s exactly what’s going on.  Everybody treats his website like it’s gospel, or the latest dailysalad post, as though he can do no wrong.  Really, he’s the Bill Simmons of electoral projections.  Yeah, he’s still cool, but the hype is just too much.  And it’s just getting worse.  The other day, he projected the Minnesota recount down to the individual vote (Franken by 27).  Recently he signed a lucrative two book deal.  He was named one of the sexiest men of the year.  Just last week Rachel Maddow claimed that Silver was the best prognosticator ever, that he exactly nailed the election results, and that everyone in America should buy him a beer (all 300 million of us).  But really?  This should be a pretty easy claim to verify.

Actual Results:

2008 Election Results

Nate Silver’s Projections:

Nate Silver's Projection

So that’s pretty close, right?  I guess Ms. Maddow and I have a different definition of what “exact” means, though.  While I would wholeheartedly endorse ignoring Indiana and Omaha out of general principle (let’s face it, the world would be much better off), the fact is that Silver did not get those electoral votes right.

So what is The Terrible Secret of Nate SilverRead the rest of this entry »

Where the Races Stand

December 1, 2008

When it comes to choosing words of the year, two groups tower over everyone else: The American Dialect Society and the Webster’s New World Dictionary. The first group, a great mix of populism and elitism (how of the people can you really be, Grant Barrett, when you leave comments on Yesterday’s Salad?), always seems to select a word that people actually use yet still has that unmistakable sense of freshness, i.e. subprime (2007), plutoed (2006), truthiness (2005), and metrosexual (2002).

The Webster’s New World Dictionary, on the other hand, caters to a bunch of obscurantist techno-centrists who are determined to govern from the left. Last year’s word of the year, “grass station,” was so memorably bad, I couldn’t resist becoming a kind of threnodist (one who writes a song of lamentation), and challenged their standing in even selecting a word:

After all, what does “New World” college dictionary mean? Whence “New World?” The phrase presupposes at the very least one of, but possibly several, terrible things. One need not be a post-Colonial critic to see that the phrase is overly Eurocentric, the “New World” existing only in opposition to the old. That this continues after Mel Gibson has taught us that there was indeed a world here at the same time there was one there, is simply unconscionable. There can be no “New World” because the phrase can easily be destabilized, fall to the forces of cultural relativism. The other major culprit is the Hegelian system of Dialectics. But with the end of History no more, have we really entered into a New World?

This is, of course, to say nothing of the overtones of fascism and totalitarianism that abound in the name; “New World” being remarkably close to New World Order [On that note, another objection: Joy Division was superior]. Or perhaps it is a question of Messianism, with its new world of a kingdom on Earth. Or the world could refer to economic development, with the “New World” relating somehow to the transition from the 3rd world to the 1st. When all is said and done, the phrase “New World” is so indefinite as to render their very project, their very essence, null and void. more

That said, their choice this year is surprisingly unaweful: overshare. While spellcheck doesn’t think this is a word, we all intuitively understand what it means and understand how to use it. Since their other finalists were preposterously awful (leisure sickness, selective ignorance, cyberchondriac, and youthanasia), it remains to be seen whether this turn to the sensical is a nonce choice or a new editorial guidline.

No, this year the “best” selection was the New Oxford American dictionary’s choice: hypermiling. Like “grass station,” hypermiling is a social policy, and one decidedly outside the mainstream. The announcement mentions the hullabaloo over Obama’s suggestion that we keep our tires at the optimal air level; can you imagine the outcry if he had suggested we hypermile?

That none of this ‘matters’ is true. Then again, consider this list of words of the year from 1904-2004. It’s difficult to imagine a world without these words and concepts–most of the time. For every 4 or 5 “ad-libs” there’s a “hot-desking,” allocating desks on a temporary or revolving basis, a word out of place in a blackberried world.

Right now, the top contender for Word of the Year is Merriam-Webster’s “bailout.” While it appears shockingly conservative, consider that the word “bail-out” was considered rare until this year. Unfortunately for politicians, bailout appears to have two semi-contradictory meanings, and it remains to be seen which one the government will accomplish:

1) From bail, v4, to lade out, throw water out of the boat. So, the process of saving the boat by bailing out the water

2) (of an airman) to make an emergency parachute jump. So, a bailout: jumping out of a plane in an emergency.

Both seem oddly appropriate for our current crisis.