Dodger Thoughts: Film

My favorite films of 2011

January, 23, 2012
The other day, Molly Knight and I were chatting on Twitter when we both realized how much each other loved the films of 2006. That happened to be my first fall working full-time at Variety, and it was a spectacular one for the movies, led by "Little Children," "United 93" and "The Last King of Scotland."

All three of those films would rank ahead of my favorite film of 2011, using the system I designed long ago. It's a system that is decidedly personal, because film is decidedly personal. I don't think there's any such thing as a "best" film, but only a "favorite" film, because what we bring to a film and what we desire from it is so idiosyncratic. Here's how I explained the system back then:
Ambition (1-7): How much the film is taking on, in subject matter and in filming challenges? For example, is it offering both a romantic story and social commentary at once? How difficult was the film to make technically? This allows one to distinguish between two equally well-made films when one is Casablanca and the other is Animal House. Ambition isn't the be-all and end-all, but it allows some extra credit to be given where it is due.

Quality (1-10): This is essentially how most films are graded - simply, how good are they. As objective as I can be, how well do I think the film succeeds in achieving its ambitions?

Emotional resonance (1-13)
: How much did the film affect me personally. This category gets the most weight because it's the most important - I'd rather see a flawed film that touches me than a technically perfect but emotionally stultifying picture.

Just to give you a quick idea of how this works, here are the scores of my favorite films of all time.

The Misfits: Ambition 5, Quality 9.5, Resonance 13, Total 27.5
Casablanca: Ambition 6, Quality 10, Resonance 11.5, Total 27.5

Both are great movies in my mind, with Casablanca being objectively better and The Misfits being the most powerful to me emotionally. Now, there probably aren't 10 people in the world who would consider these films equals, but that's the whole point, isn't it? This system helps us rank our favorites without trying to say that they're definitively the best.

And, for comparison, down near the bottom of the scale ...

The Bad News Bears Go To Japan: Ambition 1.5, Quality 2, Resonance 2, Total 5.5.

During my single days, I rated nearly 600 films using this system before it fell by the wayside. But I decided to hurriedly resurrect it to knock out the films I saw that were released in 2006. You'll see that list below.

Two last quick points: I wouldn't get caught up in single-point distinctions - those don't amount to a significant difference between films. In fact, each time I look at the list, I feel like tinkering with some of the grades.

The other thing is that in the past, an average film totaled about 16 points, which means that I did pretty well in what I saw this year. I honestly didn't feel that I saw a truly awful movie from 2006.

Now while I didn't see a movie in 2011 that I would rank ahead of the best of 2006, I did see plenty of good ones in a year that matched up well with 2010 – along with one truly awful, despicable one. So here, the day before the Oscar nominations are revealed, is my list for the past year ...

1Beginners49.510.524A wonderful grown-up multi-person love-and-loss story, perfect in tone.
2tThe Artist4.591023.5I know some don't get the fascination with it, but I found it simply winning.
2tMoneyball48.51123.5Some unnecessary missteps on the baseball side, but a really affecting story of a man at war with himself.
2t50/504910.523.5Sincere and meaningful, with some genuinely brilliant touches
5Martha Marcy May Marlene491023They should have gotten her treatment sooner, but otherwise, really strong, intense movie.
6tHugo49922An involving, well-executed ride. Got kids interested in origins of film, which was very cool.
6tA Separation49922"Carnage" for grownups. Serious themes and believable stakes.
8tThe Descendants489.521.5Too much voiceover and lag early on, but hits home hard in second half.
8tThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo498.521.5Pretty riveting, and enjoyed Mara and Craig greatly. Didn't like the Villain Explains It All ending much.
10tTake Shelter48921A sincere depiction of the confusion that comes with mental illness, with tremendous work by Michael Shannon
10tWin Win 3.58.5921Good entertainment, fun and unique story.
10tWarrior48921Except for its detour into conventional ESPN sports movie midway, very well-done.
10tThe Guard3.58.5921Sharp and entertaining, a good companion with "In Bruges."
14tTinker Tailor Soldier Spy3.59820.5Well-executed (though as challenging as anything to follow) and Oldman is amazing.
14tA Better Life47.5920.5Earnestness is mostly well-earned. Bechir is great. The gang stuff feels a little staged.
14tThe Help3.58920.5Solid storytelling that mostly feels familiar and not groundbreaking. Liked the performances.
17tA Dolphin's Tale47920After a somewhat rough start, I got swept up in the film despite (okay, maybe because of) its earnestness.
17tMidnight in Paris 48820Rachel McAdams' disaster character harms an otherwise smart ride.
17tRio3.58.5820Fun. This and "Gnomeo" are underrated as far as this year's animated movies.
20tRango3.58819.5Cool in its way but the story didn't completely enthrall me.
20tTyrannosaur38.5819.5Searingly intense with great lead performances.
22tHigher Ground47.57.519Slow-starting but kicks into something kind of unique.
22tCrazy, Stupid, Love37.58.519Fun but not special. Feel-good movie.
22tGnomeo and Juliet38819See "Rio."
22tJane Eyre38819Few complaints of this adaptation.
22tThe Tree of Life47819The ambition, care and commitment are evident, but I couldn't make all the connections the movie wants me to.
22tYoung Adult47.57.519On the edge of too unsympathetic, but overall it succeeded, and performances were great.
28Hanna387.518.5A good exciting ride. Ronan is awesome. Cate Blachett's Texas accent, not so much.
29A Dangerous Method47718Good elements, but didn't come together as an impactful movie.
30tCarnage37.5717.5Only partially successful adaptation of the play, with many of its strengths but more of its artificiality.
30tShame 36.5817.5Didn't dislike it, but we end up basically where we began.
32tThe Muppets36817You know, the plot wasn't much, but I enjoyed it.
32tThe Adventures of Tintin37717A good adventure built around a bland, bland central character.
32tCedar Rapids37717Lightly fun, mostly unassuming comedy.
35tCowboys & Aliens36716Kind of a mess, but I didn't mind all that much.
35tKung Fu Panda 236716Movie didn't hold me.
35tWe Need To Talk About Kevin36716Well-meaning, well-acted, but with serious flaws and lack of insight
35tThe Iron Lady37616More strange than entertaining.
39tJ. Edgar3.56615.5Not bad but not reveletory, kind of dull. Not once did I feel the actors disappeared into their roles.
39tMargaret35.5715.5Promising start derailed by contrived shrillness. Needed much more nuance.
41tAlbert Nobbs45615Well-intentioned but with inexplicable plot and character choices.
41tBridesmaids36615Melissa McCarthy as good as advertised, but otherwise almost as overrated as I thought "The Hangover" was.
41tMy Week With Marilyn36615Other than watching Michelle Williams, who is convincing, not much there. Lead male is two-dimensional.
44The Ides of March35.5513.5Boy falls in love with politics and an hour later is jilted. That's all there is?
45Cars 235513Flat and uninvolving - a big drop from the original.
46Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close3.5339.5As phony and manipulative as anything you'll ever see, to the point of being offensive. Garbage plotting.


Movies, Film

Often when you read TV or film criticism, you see the word "manipulative." I've spent a lot of time thinking about what this word means in the two weeks since I saw a screening of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," which officially opens Christmas Day, because if any film is manipulative, this one is.

What I concluded is that a manipulative film is one crafted to make you feel a certain way in a given moment, with little regard to the film's own internal logic and sometimes any logic at all. A plotline, a character or a scene doesn't have to make sense, because if it generates a strong enough feeling, the audience won't stop and ask questions.

That works except for the audience members who find the whole thing preposterous, as I did with "Extremely Loud." (And I don't appear to be alone.) The way the characters behave in this movie, the way the story unfolds, is so obviously phony that I was gritting my teeth through almost the entire enterprise.

For example — trying to avoid spoilers here — there's a major plot element in the movie that defies belief. And then, in an effort to explain that element, the film introduces an even more insane element. All of this happens so that you can undergo this theoretically cathartic experience, but the minute you question it, the entire film falls apart.

Another word you'll see in TV and film criticism is "forgivable," when a viewer is willing to let some things go because the ride is worth it. Some will feel differently, but for me, what happened in "Extremely Close" was unforgivable. Extremely and incredibly so.

I would say it was calculated, except I don't doubt the filmmakers' sincerity. I don't doubt that it all made sense to director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter Eric Roth, who adapted the novel of the same title. But I think they were suckered by their own emotions. It felt right, so they didn't really examine whether it made sense. They meant well. Not that I don't doubt they want their film to succeed financially, but I'm willing to believe they saw their path to financial success depended chiefly on making the best possible film.

I find myself asking whether the same could be said about Frank McCourt. Did he have the best intentions but severe blind spots, as he now would have you believe? Or was he extremely proud but incredibly lame.

I'm not willing to say that McCourt didn't care at all whether the Dodgers won or lost. His ultimate goal was personal wealth, but that doesn't make him unique — far from it. However, McCourt's priorities did conflict in a harmful, cynical way. He didn't operate as if the Dodgers' success was a path to his own success. The Dodgers were something to exploit. And he's always tried to tell us otherwise.

How phony and manipulative can you get?

If you looked at their past eight seasons as a movie, the McCourt Dodgers are actually worlds better than "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." But as the man behind the camera, the man who has put the franchise at such a disadvantage, Frank McCourt deserves the figurative tomatoes that are thrown his way.

'Moneyball' hits with power

September, 13, 2011

There's a level of sincere humility to the film version of "Moneyball" that might shock those expecting to see it cloaked in arrogance.

Next to the question about whether the material in Michael Lewis' book was viable for a movie in the first place, the most common shot I've seen taken at the idea of the film, which I saw a screening of Monday, is "what's the point?" Because Billy Beane's Oakland A's have never reached the World Series, much less won it, why would they worthy of the big screen?

Putting aside the fact that this criteria would eliminate about a thousand works of art – "Rocky," "The Bad News Bears," "Major League," the entire history of "Peanuts" – note this well: The Billy Beane of "Moneyball" would share the same question. No one is more acutely aware of the A's shortcomings than he.

But "Moneyball" does have a story to tell, a worthwhile and engrossing one. It is not a sermon. "Moneyball" is about faith in a calculated belief, and all the torment that comes when that faith is tested, and the unexpected kind of reward you can get for taking that test, no matter how it comes out. It's a movie about a pursuit, not a coronation. It's anything but a coronation.

It's my belief that, while no movie is universally beloved, this approach opens the door for "Moneyball" to be accepted and enjoyed by those who took the book as a mockery of the game they love, by those who were entertained and embrace what was articulated in Lewis' book, and by those who have no vested interest in the debate, or even the sport. It's such a human movie – with Brad Pitt's Beane a nuanced, multidimensional character, one with many faces – that it's not easily dismissed.

You won't like everything Beane does in this movie – but that's cool, because the character doesn't even like himself completely. Yet you will clearly understand where he is coming from, and I find it hard to believe that most filmgoers won't get on board with his journey. He cares so passionately, and the way he places his faith in a new system doesn't, contrary to what some might think, mean he has no appreciation for what personalities and romance mean in the game.

Sharing credit with Steven Zallian ("Schindler's List"), screenwriter Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing," "The Social Network") famously worked on the long-percolating script, but the film doesn't have what would be considered the classic Sorkin touches – monologues with overflowing words and hyper-articulate speech. Characters in "Moneyball" – most notably Beane himself, who is in nearly every scene – tend to get to the point quickly, often bluntly. Except for some moments, particularly early in the film, when there are talking points disguised as dialogue ("It's an unfair game," a paraphrase of the subtitle of Lewis' book, is spoken), the dialogue is naturalistic.

And yet, as the movie goes on, increasingly electric. There are numerous scenes with very sharp, pointed exchanges – make no mistake, there is a fierce tug o' war going on in Oakland and in the game – and in particular, the depiction of the July 31 trading deadline maneuverings is really cracking good fun.

The storytelling is formulaic in the strictest sense of what the sports film formula is, but the scenes themselves don't really feel that way. This is buoyed by the fact that the film, despite whatever liberties it takes here and there, is grounded in what did happen. But there isn't a dead or cloying scene in the film – there's a purpose to each and every one. "Moneyball" isn't a short movie, coming in at 133 minutes, but its pacing, under the direction of Bennett Miller ("Capote") is excellent. (I'd add that Mychael Danna's music, at times minimalist, at times evoking the loveliness of television's "Friday Night Lights" and at times appropriately grand, is a real boon to the film.)

The film also isn't a comedy, but there's plenty of humor, most of it almost catching you almost by surprise. That being said, the thing that might amuse baseball fans the most is the idea of how much life-and-death importance is placed on names like Jeremy Giambi and Ricardo Rincon. (And pity poor Mike Magnante.)

There are brief sidelights into Beane's personal life – which some might interpret as mere lip service to entice female viewers. I would argue instead that in the best sense, they're economical (given the film's existing length, almost necessarily so). They inform the lead character of the movie, leaving for you to infer what you don't see, while playing a wonderfully unexpected role in the film's climax.

Evan Agostini/APChris Pratt, Jonah Hill, Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and director Bennett Miller at a panel for "Moneyball" during the Toronto International Film Festival last week.

While Pitt anchors the film, Jonah Hill's performance as Peter Brand – the character that takes the place of former A's (and Dodger) executive Paul DePodesta, is the film's second-most pleasant surprise.

Hill's casting was the red flare for fans of DePodesta and/or the book, a vexing warning that the advanced analysis underscored in the book would be played for laughs the same way as, say, Hill's quest for booze and sex in "Superbad." Instead, Hill plays Brand in reserved, endearing fashion. He's the twigs and branches for Beane's fire.

I do think that fans in the know have to let go of the idea that Brand is DePodesta – despite whatever similarities there are, the differences are too obvious to ignore. But whether you think of Brand as Brand or as DePodesta, I think the character works much better than you'd expect, and in ways different than you'd expect. While Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Oakland manager Art Howe, offers an even starker example of what I would call dynamic restraint, it's Hill who carries the most secondary weight to Pitt.

Where are the movie's flaws? There are certainly moments where the conversation feels forced, with thinly disguised talking points. But probably for me, the baseball scenes, which were praised for their authenticity by panelists at the Variety Sports Entertainment Summit in July, don't measure up to that standard. Miller mixes real-life footage with the newly filmed scenes, and it's not so much that the mix doesn't work, but that it really highlights how different the re-creations look. In fact, there's a stylistic approach to some of the baseball scenes that all but removes any pretense of reality. It's probably the one part of the movie that doesn't seem to have been executed with authority.

Elsewhere, the script shortcuts some explanations of Beane's rationale. In general, although the "Moneyball" philosophy is about broader ideas about value in the marketplace – and this is definitely alluded to – some viewers might be left with the impression that it's only about on-base percentage. In particular, I don't think it's a spoiler to say that Beane at one point comes down hard against bunting and the stolen base, and Old School fans might think this is where he's gone mad. The fights that Beane has with Howe over the Oakland starting lineup struck me as more black-and-white than they probably were in real life. There are other small details that rang a bit false, and some fussing with the real-life timeline, but I would venture to call these quibbles.

In the end, I think "Moneyball" is an important film for baseball fans. Whether you bought into the book or ignored it, "Moneyball" was (next to angst over performance-enhancing drugs) the central conflict of baseball in the past decade. The film puts forth this debate in a richly entertaining way, making it clear why it was such a big deal without falsely overstating its legacy.

I honestly don't expect I'll see many better movies than "Moneyball" in 2011, and I think it will get serious consideration for an Oscar nomination – though, appropriate to the team it depicts, it will probably fall short of winning. But the thing is, I've been comparing it to "The Social Network" for a long time now, but I'm not sure "Moneyball" is not a better film. I think most will view "Social Network" as having told a more important, more timely story. But the character at the heart of "Moneyball" and his personal story are more compelling, possibly more universal. I told you that Hill was the second-most pleasant surprise in the film – the most pleasant surprise is how much "Moneyball" rang true to me even after you strip all the baseball away.

Movies, Film

My Variety colleague Peter Debruge reviewed "Moneyball," which premiered today at the Toronto Film Festival. Here are the first and last paragraphs:
Throwing the conventional sports-movie formula for a curve, "Moneyball" defies the logic that auds need a rousing third-act championship game to clinch their interest. Instead, writers Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin resurrect the old adage "It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game" to drive this uncannily sharp, penetrating look at how Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane helped reinvent baseball based on statistics rather than conventional wisdom. Sparing auds the technicalities but not the spirit of financial reporter Michael Lewis' business-of-baseball bestseller, "Moneyball" should appeal beyond -- if not always to -- the game's fans. ...

Another approach might have treated the source material as exposition for a more conventional baseball story, but "Moneyball" is content to draw back the curtain and find drama in the dealings. Miller's low-key style suits that strategy nicely, breaking up shop-talk scenes with artful, quiet moments in which Beane steps away from the action, nicely captured by d.p. Wally Pfister. Though Soderbergh's talking-heads idea fell by the wayside, the end result does employ a fair number of documentary techniques, cutting to MLB footage to illustrate the team's on-field performance and featuring a score by Mychael Danna that echoes Philip Glass' work on several Errol Morris pics.

"Moneyball" officially opens in theaters September 23.


The serpentine journey of "Moneyball" from bookstores to the big screen is given perhaps its most detailed portrayal yet in this piece by writer and Dodger Thoughts amigo Bennett Cohen for San Francisco magazine.
... Starting in 2004, the evolution of the screenplay proceeded in typical Hollywood fashion: One writer after another was brought in to either polish or rewrite it entirely. In the movie business, writers tend to be treated the way the Pony Express treated horses: Ride them until they drop, and then get another, who might make the movie funnier, sexier, more exciting, or just plain better. It’s not clear how many writers or drafts Moneyball had, but four writers, including three of Hollywood’s elite, shaped the project more than any others.

I’ve read one version by each of them, versions I ferreted out online, where some screenplays meant to be confidential end up as PDFs. (Leaking scripts is common in Hollywood, but none of these was slipped to me.) Honestly, I’ve yet to read one that was bad. They’re not even wildly different from one another. But the changes from one to the next make for a fascinating case study of how Hollywood deals with true-life material and will have particular meaning to Bay Area folks, who know this baseball history and have a stake in seeing it represented accurately. Could Hollywood do justice to Billy Beane’s complicated personality and the reality of what has happened to the A’s since 2002, the time of the triumphant story told in the book? ...


Morning briefing ...

Dave McNary of Variety has an in-depth look at the development and prospects of upcoming film "Moneyball," which hits theaters in about two months.

You know about Roger Owens, but Steve Lopez of the Times profiles another longtime Dodger Stadium peanut vendor, Ronnie Nelsen.

This post is dedicated to actor Roberts Blossom, who passed away Friday. Blossom was featured in one of my favorite episodes of television ever, the "Cicely" episode of "Northern Exposure."

Josh Wilker (yes, I do mean Wilker this time) has been doing a lot of retrospection on "The Bad News Bears" in support of his new book (which I read last weekend and quite enjoyed). Today, he writes insightfully about the Toby Whitewood character, and in the process links to a conversation with actor David Stambaugh from last year at The Hollywood Interview. It's all really interesting stuff for fans of the original movie, but here's the big reveal, from my perspective:

"For a long time," Stambaugh says, "we didn’t know how the movie would end, because they actually filmed the last play of the big game both ways. The one they used has Kelly (Jackie Earl Haley) getting tagged out, but they also shot footage of an extra man on base, Kelly making his home run, and the Bears winning the game. Michael Ritchie took some of us out to dinner a few days before the premiere, and that’s when he told us what had been decided. I think we were all pretty happy about it. It seemed like the more authentic ending."

* * *
  • Jamey Carroll gave a lengthy interview to Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors.
  • Dodger minor leaguer Scott Van Slyke was named most valuable player of the Southern League All-Star Game. He drove in the game's first run with a single before stealing second and scoring, and later doubled and scored a second run. This season, Van Slyke has 22 doubles in 225 at-bats, a .408 on-base percentage and .516 slugging percentage.
  • Update: Bryan Stow's condition has been upgraded from critical to serious, reports The Associated Press. "Doctors there said Wednesday that Stow is now breathing without a ventilator and has been able to intermittently follow some basic commands."

'The Misfits' at 50

February, 27, 2011

A combination of nostalgia for Duke Snider and this being the night of the Oscars has made me want to call back this post I wrote in 2005 about my favorite movie, "The Misfits." This month marks the 50th anniversary of its release.
... Time and again in tense physical and emotional struggles, "The Misfits" takes the guileless idealism that we are born with, tears it down, and then rebuilds it. It shows how crushing the disappointment can be when the world does not live up to our expectations, and yet how few of us can resist trying to reinvent the world so it will. It shows how flawed we are and yet how sympathetic, how deserving of rescue, we can be. It shows the battles of our lives.

If it isn't clear how this film relates to Dodger Thoughts and baseball, consider how often the team and game we love seem to let us down, and how often so many of us (though certainly not all of us) return to them, reconfiguring our passion for them in what we hope will be a workable equation. And how often we are rewarded for our pains. ...



Clayton Kershaw
21 1.77 239 198
BAY. Puig .296
HRA. Gonzalez 27
RBIA. Gonzalez 116
RY. Puig 92
OPSY. Puig .863
ERAC. Kershaw 1.77
SOC. Kershaw 239