Silly Human Nature: Bat Your Best Hitter Second

FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine wrote a great piece on the underutilization of sabermetric data in Major League Baseball lineup construction.

Traditionally, the two-hole was the domain of contact hitters with good bat control, with premiums placed on the ability to hit behind the runner, to sacrifice bunt, and to generally move the leadoff man over (even if it meant making an out). You can see this statistically: During Major League Baseball’s expansion era (1961-present), the No. 2 slot has the highest aggregate contact rate of any batting order position.

But research by Tango and his compatriots suggests teams have been doing it wrong. After examining how important each batting event (single, double, walk, etc.) is to each lineup slot — based on factors such as how many runners are likely to be on base and how many outs they’re likely to hit with — the data says a team ought to bat its three best hitters in the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 4 slots, with the most balanced hitter occupying the two-hole. That’s a far cry from the conventional wisdom of slotting the best hitter either third or fourth, and putting a weak contact specialist at No. 2.

Essentially, given the likelihood of positive outcomes in a given lineup spot, say, Miguel Cabrera should never move from the second spot in the Detroit Tigers’ order.  But since he’s The Guy in Detroit, that doesn’t happen.

Which leads to the question, why does being The Guy matter?  Couldn’t he be just as important — and the data suggests, more potent a threat — batting second in the lineup?

Historically, the numbers three and four hitters are the ones expected to drive in the majority of a team’s runs, and this leads to enlarged egos for those players who earn that distinction.  They’re important.  They matter as the most valuable players of the team and sometimes the entire league.  The guys who bat second have “always” been more slap hitters, bunters, and grinders willing to sacrifice their own statistics in order to help the team move their leadoff men into scoring position.

But the longer data analysts look at hitting production, they learn things.  Bunting over a runner and sacrificing an out actually diminishes the likelihood of the team scoring a run because the more outs you have to work with, the better your chances of getting more hits, walks, and earning a base by getting hit by a pitch.  That data alone suggests putting a bunter in the two hole is a less than productive idea.

Yet teams still do it.

And in doing so, it keeps them from optimizing their run scoring potential.  With people like Paine writing pieces like this, one would expect teams to take notice, especially with their own proprietary data systems that are likely lightyears ahead of what is publicly available via Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs currently.

So, again, why do teams perpetually succumb to history and ego over what has been discovered empirically to help them win?  It could be as simple as human stubbornness.  “This is how it’s always been done,” the managers think, upholding tradition.  And tradition is important in life, because it’s also a form of gained knowledge about what works.

But when new information becomes available, particularly in a competitive business such as professional baseball, shouldn’t everyone do what gives them the greatest chance of winning?  If tradition is shown to be not as effective as what the current data suggests, it would behoove every manager to utilize it to its fullest.

I fully understand the notion that it’s hard to take a guy out of his comfort zone, particularly an MVP like Cabrera.  But if his manager, Brad Ausmus, were to sit down with Cabrera and explain why he should hit second every night, I’d be willing to bet he’d understand.

“See, Miguel, we have evidence that you’d be even better batting second and we’d win more.  You could add another ring to your hand,” Ausmus could say.  Perhaps Cabrera’s personal runs batted in total would diminish slightly, but he would create more runs, which is more valuable to winning, which, again, any professional competitor should strive for at all costs.

Eventually all teams will follow the Los Angeles Angels’ lead — their best player, who also happens to be the best in the game, Mike Trout — by batting their best hitter second.  Right now it’s a silly adherence to the past for adherence to the past’s sake, but sooner or later teams will want to win more than they want to protect ego and tradition.


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More From Me At The TV Addict

Yesterday Daniel Malen at the TV Addict ran my second piece for them.  The idea I pitched was a game for readers and site contributors alike, which we called “Play Fantasy TV: Choose Your Own Adventure.”  Everyone wants to think they’d be able to make great art, no matter the medium, so I wanted to put that to the test.  I pitched a TV show I’d love to see, explained the main influences, wrote an outline for a pilot, and a vaguer direction for the rest of the first season.  I want the TV Addict’s readership to chip in with comments to act as a virtual writers’ room, and I want friends and family to pitch their own ideas using the rules I listed in the piece.

Here’s a quick look at the article, but click here for the whole thing.  And keep coming back for more, because I have other ideas brewing, and Daniel’s regular television coverage is phenomenal.

The Show: P.I.

Reductive Combination Comparison: Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE meets THE THIN MAN film serials of the 1930s.

The Concept: A fun-loving drunk/private detective aims to take on the lower stakes cases (a tier above cheating spouses but not CHINATOWN-level regional power plays) other fictional detectives shy away from, but of course always finds himself embroiled in labyrinthine plots. Each season will focus on one main case and the odd jobs he takes to support his drinking. They’re usually connected in some way.

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Dear Media, We Need to Have a Talk About “Allegedly”

Today’s episode of NPR’s All Things Considered discussed the racism scandal surrounding Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling that erupted after this TMZ report over the weekend.  Repeatedly — seemingly at every turn — All Things Considered hosts and contributors stumbled over themselves in an attempt to appear careful and balanced, and they sound condescending at best and woefully unable to pinpoint blatant racism at worst.  Here are a few examples (emphases mine):

“The NBA is investigating a recording in which the owner of the L.A. Clippers allegedly makes several racist remarks.”  “We hear Donald Sterling allegedly saying, ‘I don’t hate anybody.  I love the black people.  I love everybody.’ … He’s apparently saying to his girlfriend, allegedly, ‘Do whatever you want in private, just don’t put [pictures of her spending time with people of other skin color] on your Instagram.'”

Yes, an NBA investigation into the recording is ongoing to determine whether it is indeed Sterling’s voice.  And, as the NPR report says, California law makes it a dicey issue if Sterling did not know he was being recorded, so it may all be inadmissible in court, if this were to become a legal matter.  NPR wants to cover itself in the astronomically unlikely case the recorded man’s voice is not Donald Sterling’s.  But the way they write their copy is lazy, amateurish, and so fearful of potential lawsuits that they look foolish.

Being careful in methodology, sourcing, and especially word choice are key tenets of journalism, but you don’t have to be stupid about it.  The above quotes, and others in the media — All Things Considered is far from the only culprit here — place the onus of their carefulness on whether these comments were racist, not whether it’s in doubt as to who said them.

And this is a problem.

Of course these comments are racism in its most naked form.  The man saying them is a racist, willfully trying to insulate himself from people with different skin color entirely because of that difference and exclude them from doing something they have every right to do.  Whether it’s Sterling saying these things, we can debate all day until there is confirmation by vocal experts and software — but really, it’s him, and the media is being overly cautious in reporting it — but to play this “maybe, maybe not” game with confirming the comments’ potential immorality is asinine.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  There are simple ways for the people at All Things Considered to properly report on this story, and it only involves moving a couple words around and adding a parenthetical phrase or two.  They need to say, “The NBA is investigating a recording, allegedly of L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, making racist remarks,” or, “the man in the recording tells the woman, ‘Do whatever you want in private, just don’t put it on your Instagram,'” and so on.  The moral quality of the comments is not what is in question, but the man saying them is.  It’s such a simple distinction, but it’s immensely important for anyone who cares about calling out the wrongs of society, which is is ostensibly every journalist’s job.  It takes an extra second or two to write these things in a way that both covers them legally and still makes light of how wrong it is to subjugate other human beings in speech or action.  It’s dismaying to see the media perpetually get this wrong when it’s so easy to fix it.


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Streaming Choices: The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012)

In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: Three and a half stars (out of five)

Our families sometimes make us become people we aren’t proud of.  Lifelong disagreements, misunderstandings, and ideological clashing can have that effect.  When estranged brothers Mark (Steve Zissis) and Jeremy (Mark Kelly) meet each other for the first time in years for Mark’s birthday party at their mother’s house, they succumb to their worst urges.  Mark gets tunnel vision, obsessed over his white whale, defeating his brother at their made-up athletic competition of the film’s title.

Mark is overweight, balding, and dealing with the “burden” of a calm, helpful wife who just wants the best for him at all times and a son who’s less ungrateful than he is desirous of meaningful conversation with his dull father.  Mark’s in therapy for his stress and general malaise of life.  Jeremy is a professional poker player — you can tell this was shot in 2008, as the online and ESPN-hyped poker boom was receding — who doesn’t care about what he does and doesn’t know what else he can do with his life.

So they meet and beat up on each other in feats of strength, athleticism, and underwater breath holding.  The 25 “events” in their Olympic-style tournament are each hilarious, and perfectly designed to bring out the pettiness in grown men who have been at this since the dawn of their existence.  They finish marathon ping pong sessions drenched in sweat, neither willing to give in.  They obsess over keeping a level playing field.  Mark says, “Are you wearing shoes?  I’m not.  Take them off,” during the arm wrestling bit, after they have wrapped their hands together in a bandanna and agreed to not grab the table for leverage.

The movie grows more poignant as it continues, with Mark grappling with his compulsive nature and Jeremy admitting his hip life doesn’t make him happy.  It finishes in a satisfying manner, like a 76-minute stage play.

And therein lies the problem.  Mark and Jay Duplass, the film’s directors, are among the most successful members of the mumblecore filmmaking movement, known for its documentary-style, immediate camerawork and attention to small stakes in the grand scheme of things; no world destroying monsters rampage through their movies.  But for as great as docu-realism and intimate stories are, movies are a visceral, visual medium.  There is no pure cinema on display in The Do-Deca-Pentathlon.

Let’s start with the camerawork.  It’s jittery to a fault.  The movie was shot digitally, with seemingly outdated equipment for even six years ago, which makes a later viewing like mine appear even more dated.  When the camera moves, there’s a faint ghost trail of colors and characters’ faces.  And the camera moves far too much.  There is nary a tripod in use.  Owing to mumblecore’s improvisatory nature, the camera operators are not able to plan specifically what to do.  Actors don’t have exact marks to hit, and the camera operators struggle to keep them in frame, jutting back and forth, sometimes seemingly on the verge of falling over during the quickest pans.

The editing is a little on the eccentric side, too.  This is likely a product of the improv, too.  The Duplasses probably did not get a lot of coverage during shooting because of the different lines for every take.  This leads the editors to piece things together in a hodgepodge of quickly cut moments.  This makes small conversations take on the visual language of modern action scenes, and it does not cohere properly.  These scenes should be more intimate.  The actors and directors do an admirable job of trying to overcome the obstacle, but they don’t quite get there.  The filmmaking does not properly function for the story being told, and this is a problem for the movie’s overall quality.

But that does not mean the movie is not worth discussion.  The acting, particularly the brothers and Mark’s wife, Stephanie (Jennifer Lafleur), do phenomenal work.  Their relationships are lived-in.  Love exists but it’s strained, just like a real family.  The Duplasses overcome a lot of limitations in what is available to them in order to tell a compelling, affecting story, aided by their troupe.  But again, it’s probably best suited to be performed on stage than, as currently constructed, a film.

The Do-Deca-Pentathlon is currently available on Netflix Instant.

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Necco Wafers, Ranked

The internet is overrun by unnecessary rankings of all kinds, usually in an attempt to reveal the greatest, worst, and most overrated or underrated ephemera “of all time!”  They’re easy lies to draw eyeballs, in order to make a quick buck.  I’m an attention-starved wannabe writer, so I need to swallow my pride and join the crowd because I am no better than anyone else.

This week’s rankings are inspired by the ample Easter candy I’ve been munching all week.  Necco Wafers are my favorite confection and I don’t care that they’re essentially flavored chalk.  And now, after eating them and little else in recent days, it’s time to definitively order their quality.

8.  Orange (Orange)

They’re terrible.  If you mashed them up and poured the dust into a solution with viscosity somewhere between yogurt and milk, you would get the exact taste of my childhood’s most hated medicine.  I don’t remember what it’s called, but the fact remains: Orange Necco Wafers taste like medicine.

7.  Chocolate (Brown)

Also fairly maligned by my taste buds, the chocolate flavor does not mix well with the chalky qualities.  If you’re going to eat chocolate, it needs to be at least somewhat chewy.  But when your chocolate is itself crunchy — without, say, rice like in a Crunch bar — it doesn’t work.

6.  Lemon (Yellow)

A huge improvement over the previous two entries, there is nothing wrong with the lemon flavored Neccos.  They’re a little on the bland side, as the lemon flavoring is not particularly overpowering.  But they’re pleasant and I don’t get frustrated when there are an inordinate number of them in a roll.

5.  Licorice (Black)

A flavor that has fallen precipitously in my estimation since my childhood.  It’s still good, but the amount of black licorice — and black licorice-flavored snacks — I’ve had in my life has numbed me to its finer points.  Still tasty, but not the overwhelming deliciousness I remember from my younger days.

4.  Clove (Purple)

One that has risen as I’ve aged, clove is tasty and always a pleasant palette cleanser after the lesser Neccos on the lower end of the list.  This is probably not reflective of the truth, but the clove-flavored wafers are seemingly the rarest of the bunch, and they almost never appear twice in a row.

3.  Lime (Green)

Now we’re talking.  I get genuinely excited when I see a green pop up in the roll.  They have a strange spicy kick to them at the beginning, but the aftertaste is smooth.  As a bonus, they tend to appear packed together several in a row.

2.  Cinnamon (White)

Much like the limes, the whites have the spice one would expect from cinnamon.  They’re overpowering in the best way, especially when chewed after the gross ones.

1.  Wintergreen (Pink)

I save the best for last.  With every roll I get, I unravel the paper wrapping and pick out every pink wafer I see, then pile them together.  Most other wafers disappear rapidly, but the pinks I savor.  The aftertaste sticks around for a while, which is nice, too.

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Slate and I Must Be Neighbors in the Idea Space

“… [A] space in which mental events can be said to occur, an idea space which is perhaps universal. Our individual consciousnesses have access to this vast universal space, just as we have individual houses, but the street outside the front door belongs to everybody. It’s almost as if ideas are pre-existing forms within this space… The landmasses that might exist in this mind space would be composed entirely of ideas, of concepts, that instead of continents and islands you might have large belief systems, philosophies, Marxism might be one, Judeo-Christian religions might make up another.” – Comic book writer Alan Moore on the “Idea Space” from the documentary, The Mindscape of Alan Moore [courtesy of Wikipedia].

Moore’s words are weighing on my mind today as I read Slate’s post about Bob’s Burgers by writer Jon Christian.  Christian takes the same premise, analyzes the same scene, quotes the same lines, and comes to (mostly) the same conclusions I did when writing for the TV Addict last week about Tina Belcher, the show’s eldest daughter.

From Christian’s opening, published yesterday, April 17.

There’s a wonderful scene in Season 3 of Bob’s Burgers, in which the eponymous restaurateur lets his 13-year-old daughter Tina drive the family’s car in a nearly-empty lot. “Let’s make this kitty purr,” Tina monotones, glancing nervously at her dad from the driver’s seat. She pulls out of the parking space at a snail’s pace, and starts to groan with anxiety. Bob talks over the groan, calmly reassuring Tina, his voice rising as she sets them on a glacial collision course with the only other car.

“OK, Tina, you’re kinda headed toward the only other car in the lot,” he says. “You have plenty of time to turn, Tina, so just go ahead, turn one way or the other.” Tina’s groan intensifies. “You’re just swerving back and forth,” Bob says, now alarmed. “Turn one way and stick with it, Tina. Tina for the love of God, turn away or stop! The brakes, Tina, the brakes!”

Needless to say, Tina totals the car.

And now, from mine, published on April 8.

Take, for instance, her driving lesson at the start of the season’s seventh episode, “Tina-rannasaurus Wrecks.” Tina’s father, Bob, gets the bright idea to let her drive his car in a mostly empty parking lot as a treat for helping him run errands. Tina’s unsure and antsy, but she hops in the driver’s seat and says with faux confidence (re: terrified trepidation), “Let’s make this kitty purr.”

What follows is perhaps the greatest slow-burn visual gag in years. Despite Bob’s initially reassuring tone, Tina starts groaning in the way only she can as voiced by Mintz (“Uuuuuuunnnnnnngggggh.”). She knows exactly what needs to be done, but it’s scary. She’s paralyzed. She’s also not moving beyond idle speed, which builds the comedic value exponentially the closer she gets to the only other parked car in the lot. Increasingly frustrated and later panicked, Bob tells her all she needs to do is turn the wheel slightly in either direction, and later to brake, but this goes about as well as you would expect.

The similarities follow with connections made to Tina’s groan being the perfect sonic example of the go-nowhere sense shared by many millennials in my situation.  They differ as Christian goes into a short discussion of Tina’s place in the zeitgeist as a feminist hero.

I joked with a few people this morning about how Slate “basically plagiarized me,” but that is likely a fiction.  My best days on this site get maybe 50 views, most of them from friends, family, and whoever actually reads the stuff on Blog Surfer before the time limit runs out.  I don’t have the readership numbers for my post on the TV Addict, but I can’t imagine some nobody like me would have garnered much attention on my first post there — speaking of which, I pitched some more ideas to them, so I’ll be writing there again, perhaps as soon as later today.

Which is an extended way of saying, I’m not interesting or established enough to plagiarize.  Yet.  I do recognize that Christian’s piece is surprisingly similar to mine, and maybe even suspiciously so, but I’m struck by how much better a writer Christian is than me.  He supports the ideas better than I did, which goes to show that I have a long way to go before I can get paid to do this; if anything, he refined my thoughts.  Besides, like the Moore quote above says, ideas tend to grow from multiple sources.  There’s no such thing as an original thought.  It’s all a matter of organization of those ideas to form something worthwhile.  Christian and I were struck by the same moment, and latched onto the same themes, likely because that was the intent of episode writer Jon Schroeder.  The idea came down our block of the Idea Space, and I said hello to it a week before Christian did.

Or, who knows, maybe he plagiarized me.

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The Elasticity of Early Disney

The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago is running an exhibit called Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives until May 4.  I recently visited it and enjoyed the experience a great deal.  It featured hundreds of trinkets, pictures, costumes, handwritten notes from children and presidents alike, but what interested me most were the early short animations Disney made in the 1920s with and his friend and collaborator, Ub Iwerks.

The exhibit spurred me to seek more early Disney work, much of which is available on YouTube.  A handful of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit — done for Universal before Disney and Iwerks struck out on their own — and Mickey Mouse adventures have struck me with their irreverence, hints of lasciviousness, and general prankishness.  Disney, the consummate wholesome family entertainer, had an anarchic spirit before he had to navigate the Hays Code and the expectations of upholding a family friendly brand.

For instance, see this Oswald short, Sky Scrappers.

Oswald’s world is wholly different from, say, Snow White’s.  This is partially owed to the limitations of animation techniques available to Disney and Iwerks in 1928 — the timing is a bit off, characters move stiffly and unnaturally, etc. — but the goals they sought were also different.  Whereas Disney’s later features tended to endorse a set of chivalric values, Sky Scrappers gets comparatively filthy.  Ortensia, Oswald’s girlfriend, arrives to his construction worksite to share lunch with him.  Oswald’s coworker sees her, operates a crane to lift her skirt, and pulls her up the iron frame of the building to steal her from Oswald.  She falls out of her underwear and scrambles to get back into them.  The rival, who resembles Disney’s later Mickey Mouse antagonist/Goofy Movie lovable crank, Pete the Cat, laughs his head off at the notion that Ortensia would even try to resist him.  There’s a real sense of sexual malice in this exchange, and Oswald’s rival is a threat unlike anything in later works; he is effectively a rapist.

Beyond the sexual elements, the early Disney-Iwerks shorts depict a world that is, for lack of a better word, mushy.  Instead of the features’ aching beauty of the painted backdrops, Oswald’s and early Mickey’s landscapes are malleable.  The Oswald cartoon, Trolley Troubles, from 1927 shows this well.

Animate and inanimate objects alike — trains and railroads here, but also hot dogs, cows, and a number of other things — bend and twist to what Oswald — and by extension, Disney and Iwerks — want them to be.  Unobstructed creativity runs throughout all these shorts, and they are free of the stricter visual rules of many of the features.

Disney and Iwerks shape the world to fit their vision, and play with what it means to tell a visual story, often with darker connotations than perhaps they intended when trying to make people laugh.  By forcing a hot dog to lather itself in mustard as a death ritual, they hint at our world being a place of “compromise” with more powerful entities, much like their dealings with Universal that eventually led to losing the rights to Oswald.  In their animated world, though, they are in charge.  They manipulate objects and creatures to an almost surreal extent, warping their meaning from utilitarian things and beasts of burden to extensions of our drive, creativity, but more often, futility.  Ropes attach to nothing but air and characters realize much too late before falling to injury, annoyed.

Disney and Iwerks’s early shorts are snapshots of artists struggling with freedom, succeeding on a technical level but restricted and frustrated by what their bosses wanted.  Their characters constantly fall into traps set by the world, but through creativity they pull through.  They always pull one over on the world, usually through manipulating it beyond what reality would allow, much like hired artists at the helm often must sneak their true intentions into their work subversively.

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Anthony Rizzo: Meatball Destroyer

Through the early part of the 2014 season, Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo seems to be bouncing back from an unlucky (his BABIP was atrocious and unsustainable) 2013.  This is lucky for me, because he’s one of the few bright spots on the 4-10 team, and one of the only healthy players on my fantasy team.

The MLB Fan Cave has a possible reason for Rizzo’s reemergence as a solid hitter: batting practice with meatballs.

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Streaming Choices: Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (2004)

In Streaming Choices, I take a quick glance at the world of cinema available on Netflix Instant, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, and other streaming services.

Rating: Two and a half stars (out of five)

Leftwing writer, professor, and activist Howard Zinn led an eventful, opinionated life.  He grew up in poverty and never had a book in his house until he found a frayed paperback on the street.  He ran bomber missions in World War II.  He led a group of his students at black college at numerous civil rights protests.  He and a few other activists negotiated with the North Vietnamese to release American pilots when the U.S. government wouldn’t.  And that’s the problem with Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.  It’s all recounting the man’s activities, one after the other, without truly getting to the heart of what they mean, or where they come from.

A few times, Zinn gets a bit introspective about his writings and activism, but these moments are too rare.  Directors Deb Ellis and Dennis Mueller don’t prod him to continue in these times, rather content to fall into hero worship and a pattern of “This happened, then this happened, then this.”  Sometimes Zinn will remark that seeing something (poverty where he grew up, his first activism rally where he was hit by a nightstick, his misgivings about bombing a French town to punish German soldiers after WWII was effectively won) that “affected [him] greatly,” but the film stops there.  How did it affect him?  What specific things pushed him to write about them?  What about the looks on peoples’ faces when police brutality occurs?  But no, it’s just a vague recollection and onto the next bullet point.

Ellis and Mueller fail to negotiate the downsides of activism, too.  They get Zinn to mention how every war is supposed to be the last one, and how it’s like a drug for countries.  But if activism is this enlightened, higher calling to upset people into rethinking their place in the world and changing their behaviors, hasn’t Zinn’s anti-war rhetoric failed on some level?  War still exists, and the latest failed war, Iraq, was in its early days as this documentary was shot.  They don’t ask him about how he’s shifted tactics to convince more people on the need for peace.  It’s all about the so-called world changing, in-your-face attitudes of ’60s-style activism, with no mention of how that movement got jaded and petered out.  Zinn doesn’t say anything about disillusionment with his cause, or the possible boomerang effect of being in everyone’s face can have, but I suspect that’s because he wasn’t asked about it.

Luckily, it’s not entirely dreary.  Zinn himself was a magnetic man (he died in 2010), and one I would like to learn more about from a less hero-worshipping angle (full disclosure: I’ve never read anything by him).  But he was an engaging speaker, charming, and you can tell he genuinely cared about people, the world, and the United States.  He thought they can be better, and that’s an admirable, hopeful quality people respond to.

Unfortunately, this activity checklist of a film fails his messages.  Documentaries do not necessarily need a dramatic structure (“This happens, therefore this happens, but this happens, therefore this happens,” and so on), but they shouldn’t be blander than history books, either.  Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train lacks emotional details about why these issues matter to society, and historical details about each event in Zinn’s life.  At an hour and 17 minutes, the film has plenty of room to explore more.  But it always chooses the easy route of, “Look at this Great Man,” when the Great Man probably would have been plenty willing to discuss the less-than-great parts of his life.

Howard Zinn: You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train is currently available on Netflix Instant.

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2013: The Ever-Evolving Top 10

The media landscape is awash in top 10 lists every December.  Movies, TV episodes, news stories, et al get their due in publications and websites alike.  It’s exhausting, and more than a little too “final” for my taste, and a big part of the reason I don’t usually write them.  This could be wholly due to my bias as a non-professional who is unable to see, hear, read, or generally experience these media in the time they are released.  If I make it to the top of the film criticism mountain, perhaps I’ll one day feel better about choosing what represents the best films of a given year.  But as things stand, I am left every year with a pile of potentially great movies I was unable to see for financial, time, or availability reasons.  It usually takes me until the following summer or later to get a solid understanding of a year’s cinematic slate.  Even then I have plenty of blind spots I wouldn’t if I were, say, Michael Phillips, who sees 400 or more new releases every year.

This is a long way of saying my annual top 10 list is a constant work in progress, even if it ultimately, mostly reflects the general consensus of other lists of its kind released months earlier.  Maybe I’m violating the media rule of timeliness, but I have also had more time to reflect on 2013’s best films than the deadline-focused people I look up to.  I think that reflection has value and gives perspective.

Now, before I get to my constantly shifting, amorphous blob of a top 10 films list, I feel it’s important in the name of full disclosure — as much as I’d like to be, I’m still far from an expert — to list every movie I saw that had some sort of release (theatrical, video on demand, Netflix Instant, film festival, etc.) in 2013, in chronological viewing order.  You’ll note that I am still missing plenty of notable movies, including Short Term 12, Fruitvale StationThe Act of Killing, and many others.

1.  Sun Don’t Shine (dir. Amy Seimetz)

2.  The Playroom (dir. Julia Dyer)

3.  42 (dir. Brian Helgeland)

4.  Oblivion (dir. Joseph Kosinski)

5.  Iron Man 3 (dir. Shane Black)

6.  Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

7.  Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder)

8.  The Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola)

9.  Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth)

10.  Pacific Rim (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

11.  Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher)

12.  Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)

13.  John Dies at the End (dir. Don Coscarelli)

14.  Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

15.  Pain and Gain (dir. Michael Bay)

16.  Drinking Buddies (dir. Joe Swanberg)

17.  Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

18.  Star Trek Into Darkness (dir. J.J. Abrams)

19.  12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

20.  This is the End (dir. Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg)

21.  Aziz Ansari: Buried Alive (dir. Will Lovelace, Dylan Southern)

22.  John Hodgman: Ragnarok (dir. Lance Bangs)

23.  Salinger (dir. Shane Salerno)

24.  Mike Birbiglia: My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend (dir. Seth Barrish)

25.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence)

26.  Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach)

27.  American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell)

28.  The Heat (dir. Paul Feig)

29.  Red 2 (dir. Dean Parisot)

30.  White House Down (dir. Roland Emmerich)

31.  The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)

32.  Stoker (dir. Park Chan-Wook)

33.  The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)

34.  Captain Phillips (dir. Paul Greengrass)

35.  Prince Avalanche (dir. David Gordon Green)

36.  Passion (dir. Brian De Palma)

37.  Her (dir. Spike Jonze)

38.  Thor: The Dark World (dir. Alan Taylor)

39.  Dallas Buyers Club (dir. Jean-Marc Valée)

40.  Sarah Silverman: We Are Miracles (dir. Liam Lynch)

41.  Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne)

42.  Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

43.  All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor)

 I’m unsure 43 is even a statistically significant number of 2013 releases to have seen to determine the year’s best, but based on this sample, I can say 2013 was one of the finest cinematic years of my life.  Very few of these were even mediocre, and I’d say none of them were true disasters.  Even the worst ones, like Oblivion and Passion, had a lot to offer from visual and thematic standpoints.  That’s a tremendous achievement for an industry perpetually on the media chopping block for “always” catering to the lowest common denominator.  It’s difficult to choose just 10 from this list, and I can only imagine the choice will become more difficult as I continue filling in the gaps throughout the year as more DVDs become available.  That said, here is my for now top 10 list of 2013 films.

10.  Mud (dir. Jeff Nichols)

As will become a theme in this list, Nichols is among a group of wildly exciting young filmmakers — with the semi-arbitrary age cutoff of 45 — who have had just as much impact on my psyche as the industry’s elder statesmen and long deceased masters.  His three films, Shotgun StoriesTake Shelter, and now Mud are among their years’ best, with Take Shelter being an all-time classic of paranoia and religious devotion to one’s beliefs.  Mud might not quite reach those heights, but it is a sizable achievement itself.  Nichols internalizes Mark Twain’s greatest works about boys longing for adventure and juxtaposes that desire with Matthew McConaughey’s title character, hiding from both the law and organized crime on a small island near his and the boys’ hometown; he’s the grown-up boy adventurer who never took responsibility.  Regret, disillusion with modern romantic relationships, divorce, and devotion play major parts.  The seemingly anachronistic explosive climax worked for me better than it did most, largely because it is symbolic of Mud’s realization of the reality he lives in.  He takes responsibility and sees his world blow apart in a visceral way.

9.  The World’s End (dir. Edgar Wright)

Wright, another in the under-45 group, has long shown a knack for depicting different stages of friendship onscreen while displaying a kinetic visual style and love of genre conventions.  Shawn of the Dead was about man children finally becoming adults and Hot Fuzz was about men with extremely different (and difficult) personalities coming to appreciate and work well with each other.  His latest with his frequent collaborators, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, grows up without losing the energetic camerawork or genre trappings.  The “robots” these friends fight on their (mostly reluctant) 20-years-in-the-making pub crawl are among the best of the Body Snatcher mold, but the film has more on its mind than simple entertainment.  Pegg’s Gary is a variation on the arrested development character he played in Shawn, but he and Wright take a far darker tack with him.  His alcoholism is a problem for all his lapsed friends, and none want anything to do with him, although he promises a night of fun to escape their equally (though more socially acceptable) dreary adult lives.  The film’s primary choice — forced enlightenment and security versus intellectual, however limited, liberty — is a deep one, and it does not shy away from the downsides of both choices.

8.  All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor)

Director Chandor, on only his second feature, creates something unlike the rest of the current filmic landscape.  All Is Lost is close to being a silent film, but with a modern twist: sound design plays a huge role.  Robert Redford’s sailor may not say more than a couple lines, but the creaking of the boat, the rushing waves, the rubbery stretching of the life raft craft an aural experience which, when paired with the harrowing images, envelopes the audience in the moment.  Small nods to Buster Keaton abound, but Chandor deftly makes these moments horrifying rather than comedic.  He understands how film techniques are elastic and shows a magnificent grasp of how to manipulate them to make them his own.

7.  Only God Forgives (dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Refn might be my favorite director in his prime.  Much like Chandor’s entry on this list, Refn’s film does not place a premium on speaking.  Only God Forgives rather takes stark, archetypal images and pits them against each other in a hyper stylized world that looks rather unlike our own.  Ryan Gosling’s Julian goes on a Freudian quest, at his domineering mother’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) demand, throughout Bangkok’s underground boxing scene to avenge his brother’s (deserved) death.  Psychological horror imagery pervades, hands are lost, karaoke is sung.  It’s a semiotic smorgasbord, one I cannot wait to see again and again.

6.  12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

Although it is perhaps the most important — for America’s grasping its brutal history, for the director’s race — film released in 2013, 12 Years a Slave does not prop itself up on its own importance.  It’s a vibrant work that captures the beauty of the American south — the wind going through the weeping willow trees is pure art — and the brutality inflicted on slaves.  It is not a film concerned with entertainment, so much as discussing, in blunt terms, what it means to keep other human beings as property.  Devin Faraci at Badass Digest wrote that 12 Years a Slave is a horror film, and I’m inclined to agree.  Everything that happens to Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is akin to the terror inflicted in slasher movies, but McQueen takes the judgmental distance out of the equation, which is itself remarkable.  McQueen’s images speak for themselves, and he presents them matter-of-factly so as not to editorialize something that is inherently evil about the world.

5.  Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater)

Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke continue their saga of Jesse and Celine, nine years after we last saw them in Before Sunset and 18 years after they met in Before Sunrise.  They’re now in their 40s, married by common law but not ceremonially, and they have twin daughters.  They’re bored and struggling with what it means to stay monogamous over a lifetime.  The emerging fight throughout the runtime is shattering, with both sides making great points about sacrifices made for each other, and neither being happy about the tradeoffs they’ve made in life.  Gone is the soaring butterflies of the first two films, replaced with hard reality; it’s the difference between an uplifting campaign and the difficulties of actually governing.  Despite the world-ending rhetoric of their fight, the film’s ending suggests this is another in a series of arguments they’ve had, and they remain a couple, maybe not forever, but for now.  That’s more realistically hopeful than the endings of either previous entry in the series, and I look forward to seeing where Jesse and Celine are as they cross 50.

4.  Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Remarkably similar to All Is Lost, Cuarón’s film is even simpler, possibly the simplest story of everything on this list.  It’s a parable of dealing with and moving on from life’s challenges.  He does not need to imbue it with more to chew on, because that’s as powerful a message as any in human existence.  From the opening calamity to the joyous final shot, Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone only has survival and rebirth on her mind.  If she succumbs to self-doubt, she won’t make it.  If she doesn’t succumb to self-doubt, she still might not make it, but she’ll have her pride intact.  So she tries and she overcomes every mounting problem.  It’s beautiful without considering the technological marvel the film is.  The spectacle of sitting by myself, fully enraptured by the screen, is one of my favorite moviegoing experiences, one I hope to replicate in the years ahead when Gravity becomes a staple of repertory houses.

3.  The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Untrammeled, gleeful greed is not something the movies often show onscreen, even if that is the reason behind making most of them.  Usually filmmakers are burdened by trying to give the audience characters to like and root for.  Here, Scorsese is unconcerned, and he weaves a story about the most money-obsessed culture — indeed, that’s their only focus, as they are unconcerned with providing services or products to others — in our society: Wall Street.  Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort builds an empire based on tricking people into thinking they will become rich, and he teaches even the dimmest bulbs in his circle to defraud other human beings.  His system is something anyone who has spent time in sales has experienced, and that bell rings clearly and frighteningly with every immoral transaction Belfort makes.  Scorsese shows how exceedingly fun this lifestyle is, because greed is fundamentally fun, but he never fails to show the emptiness at its heart.  The fact that Belfort and people like him led to the 2008 financial crisis and haven’t received more than a slap on the wrist is unsettling at best, and Scorsese wants us to know that this is not all right.

2.  Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)

This has to be the most serene movie the Coens have made. It’s funny, but not uproarious. It’s unordinary, but not truly absurd. Its protagonist is a misanthrope but not one totally undeserving of sympathy. But despite it not reaching for the extreme, it never fails to be sublime.  Llewyn is a pathologically difficult person, but he comes from a place of uncompromised art, which we of course admire when it’s successful. Orson Welles may have been an unqualified genius, but his dealings with people before the Mercury Theatre must have been insufferable, what with all the eating, drinking, and womanizing. What if he’d stumbled out of the gate instead of lucking into the complete artistic freedom afforded him to make Citizen Kane? I bet he’d have ended up something like Llewyn.  And it’s not like the movie takes place in an ironic universe devoid of hope that one might expect from the Coen brothers. Ulysses the cat finds his way home. Llewyn’s dementia riddled father flashes a moment of recognition that resembles pleasure at hearing his son’s music. The cat he hits on the road might be cut, but it limps away seemingly dazed but otherwise okay. And most of all, the ending should give Llewyn, a man with a morose, but talented, singing voice all the hope in the world: If Bob Dylan’s nasal, wiry voice could make him a superstar, surely the smoother, melancholy Llewyn Davis can scratch out a (somewhat) steady living in the folk environment.

1.  Her (dir. Spike Jonze)

Technology will continue to seamlessly integrate itself into every aspect of human experience.  That’s an important idea to consider, and could be the subject to any number of films going forward.  But it is merely background in Her.  What concerns Spike Jonze, like all great storytellers, is human interaction and possible ways forward when complications arise.  Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is crushed by the baggage of his recent past, and his rut is threatening to derail his life permanently.  Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), his artificially intelligent operating system, is a thinking, learning, growing entity capable of loving him the way he needs.  At least for a time.  What about what she needs?  Is Theodore able, or more importantly, willing, to sacrifice his desires for her?  The give and take between Her‘s principle characters is something every person in a relationship deals with, and the heightened sense of distance between them — they can never truly touch — makes matters worse.  Is physical distance a true killer for a relationship, or can people work through it?  More profound is the way Jonze builds an emotional and psychological distance between the characters, as Samantha’s unique ability to learn creates a zen-like worldview, frustrating to the necessarily more grounded Theodore.  And if things end in a life changing relationship, is that truly a bad thing?  If a lesson is learned and love occurred, Her suggests it’s a rich time in one’s life.

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