Rookie

IMAG0131

Rookie was my dog, and my dog once almost hung himself from a 20-foot loft, so I shouldn’t be surprised that we ended up here eventually.

But still.  Damn.  To borrow a closing thought from Stand by Me: I’ve never had a friend like my 18-year-old dog.  Jesus, does anyone?

I have euthanized a dog before.  Or put him down.  Put him to sleep.  Whatever flowery language is supposed to best massage the fact.  I was too scared to be with him for that one, but then, he wasn’t my dog.

Rookie was my dog.

He made it to 18.  I know I should be thankful for that.  That’s long.  That’s damn long for a little dog.  That’s damn long for a little dog who did so many impossibly stupid things throughout his life, who was afraid of so many things, who would have lasted all of five seconds in the wild.

Still, I feel cheated.  Don’t we all?

When you put your dog to sleep, it’s one of those things people get but they don’t really get.  And I’m glad they don’t try to, because, I mean, I’m rambling here, but you didn’t know Rookie, so you couldn’t.  Rookie wasn’t a story, or anecdote.  Rookie was an 18-year-experience, beginning the same time I started the fourth grade.

Rookie was the dog who woke me up if I slept in too long.  He was the dog who ate my Pop Tart crumbs while I scrambled to start the homework I never did the night before.  He was the dog that was always so unfailingly there, and happy, and curious, and loving.

Rookie was the dog I brought in to show-and-tell in elementary school, winning major style points with the rest of the class because he was just so…damn…cute.

Rookie was the dog who was there when I moved in seventh grade, and didn’t know anyone in my new city and school.  No matter how anxious I felt that first semester, how much I worried about finding a seat at a lunch table or not walking cool enough or whatever dumbass things a 13-year-old boy worries about, he was always there when I got home in the afternoon, waiting to be walked, wanting to play, genuinely thrilled I existed even if it took a few months for anyone else to warm up to the fact.

Rookie was the dog who barked at all my friends as we started up Halo sessions whose duration only seemed governed by the soda and pizza fueling them, but never bit one of them.  Unlike my other dog.  Who bit everyone.

Rookie was the dog I probably ignored too often in high school, as I (d?)evolved from the 13-year-old struggling to enter some new orbit, to the teenage philosophy that the world did, indeed, revolve around me.

Rookie was the dog who was there when that philosophy was disproven by the astrophysics of junior year.  He was unfailingly loyal when so many of those people once considered friends were anything but.  Dogs have a funny way of avoiding high school drama, and being your best friend when your best friend won’t be your best friend.

Rookie was the dog who was happy to see me when I came home from college, who remembered me no matter how long I was away for.  Made no difference to him.  He still jumped onto the chair next to my bed, then onto my bed, and curled up next to me all the same.

Rookie was the dog who didn’t understand anything about the world I dreaded entering every day when I was post-grad and had a meaningless, soul-sucking call center job while I was looking for something more in line with my degree (or ambition to, you know, want to get out of bed every morning).  I loved him for that.

Rookie was the dog who spent my first day of work at Bleacher Report with me, waking up at the foot of my bed, following me in the office and to the kitchen for every break punctuating the day.

Rookie was the dog who a vet once told us, stone-cold serious as cold be, was probably retarded.  Not in the offensive, caustically-used derivative of the word, but the medical sense.  He was the dog who would get his head stuck in things, or find himself cornered by a paper bag, or completely surprised by an oak tree in his path.

Rookie was the dog who licked everyone and everything, the latter part probably making that reality quite unfortunate for the former.  It may have been out of fear, or anxiety, or a desire to “friend” everyone in existence so as to render them an ally.  I choose to believe he really just operated with a purity that reads totally foreign to human counterparts.

Rookie was the dog that could never be house-trained, so wild in his ways.  But everything that made him so frustrating, so destined to ruin carpet or tip over trash cans, also made him beautiful in that same way.  The way he was just an ever-present life force, a simple energy announcing himself every day, no matter if that was the best or worst day of my life.

Rookie was the dog who eventually got a cough.  One that could be managed at first, with enough medication and veterinary bills.  But eventually, one that wouldn’t go away, and kept both of us awake at night.

Rookie was my dog.

God, I miss my dog.

IMAG0157

20130516_154748 20130702_134841 20130917_152757 20140523_151318 20140622_202141 20140813_124049 20140822_142932

B9rcB0FCAAAS_3w

Advertisements

Collin’s 2014 Film Year in Review

Hey, it’s the blog I write in, like, twice a year!  Neat!  Let’s have some fun with that.

Usually, I do my year-in-review film awards ahead of the Oscars.  But going through each category seems like a lot of work, so this year, I’m just going to provide some random lists, numbers and thoughts.  Because focus and organization is for the people actually making these movies.

1.  2014 was one of the more remarkable years for directing than I can remember in some time.  While I didn’t think the overall quality of all films was stunningly great, the direction was consistently awesome.  I mean, where to start?  Richard Linklater’s work on Boyhood, which is a work of once-in-a-generation-of-filmmakers genius.  James Marsh’s transition from “guy who made breathtaking documentary film” (Man on Wire) to “guy who made breathtaking biographical film (The Theory of Everything).  Jean-Marc Valee making a “find yourself through triumph over nature” film I actually found myself invested in (Wild).  Bennett Miller’s superbly-realized Foxcatcher, or a story about the drive to be a great musician (Whiplash) which somehow managed to be the most riveting and suspenseful film of the year, or the only post-Life Aquatic Wes Anderson film yet to be released (The Grand Budapest Hotel) which brought a consistent smile to my face.  I mean, damn, one of the throwaway films of 2014, the Keanu Reeves shoot-em-up John Wick, had one of the most gorgeously-directed action sequences I’ve seen since The Raid: Redemption (and this to say nothing of Joo-hoo Bong’s work with the overrated but gorgeously-realized Snowpiercer).

2.  Choosing a Best Picture, this year, is like choosing a NFL MVP this year.  There is probably a winner, but it entirely depends on what you look for from this award.  If you want the most impressive overall film, in terms of construction and execution, it has to be Boyhood.  If you want the most moving, art-inspiring-reaction film, it has to be The Theory of Everything.  If you want the film that inspired the most personal recommendations from me, in a “damn, you gotta see this” sense, it has to be Nightcrawler.  I wouldn’t know where to start unraveling the riddle of what “Best Picture” means this year, so my advice: just see all of these films, and you will be better off no matter your opinion.  There is something wonderful to appreciate in all of them.

3.  Though the film itself is entirely unspectacular and has a woefully-rushed final act, you have to catch Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins.  It was a top 10 performance for me this year.  Incredible range.  Memorable, in a film that’s anything but.

4.  I went in to Foxcatcher not wanting to buy the hype on Steve Carell, but after seeing it, how can you not?  It’s a truly remarkable performance, in that it’s not just about delivery or defying standard genre expectations of Carell or liberal use of makeup and prosthetics.  It’s a physical performance for the ages.  The odd parallel I’ll draw is to David Cross as Tobias Funke in Arrested Development.  Tobias is an incredible character because of the physical comedy performed by Cross in that role, just the slight mannerisms that so uniquely define who he is as a man (or the man inside him, rather).  Carell’s performance is similar, but replace “comedy” with “horror”.  Carell’s portrayal of John du Pont is legitimately one of the most consistently unsettling performances I have ever seen.  Maybe there is a Ralph Fiennes performance somewhere in there, or Willem Dafoe.  But just the way Carell moves, and so painfully tries to blend in to normalcy; it’s something to truly appreciate from an actor with more talent than most ever realized.

5.  As great as Carell was, as great as Eddie Redmayne was in The Theory of Everything, as much as I appreciated Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game … my best actor performance still has to go to Jake Gyllenhaal for Nightcrawler.  That was one of the rare performances that made me want to immediately re-watch the film just to see it on display again.  It’s freaking absurd that he isn’t nominated for this one.  It was flawless.  It helps that Nightcrawler easily had one of the best scripts of the year; too bad it apparently went over most folks’ heads.

6.  Seriously, like I said above, this gun-fu scene from John Wick … simply gorgeous.

7.  I will never understand what anyone expected from The Interview, for it to be met with the dismayed reviews that surrounded its release.  It’s a freaking Evan Goldberg comedy, starring Rogen and Franco.  What did you expect?  I went in expecting a Goldberg comedy—not some genius political statement—and saw one of the funniest films of the year.  Finding that this film lacked the satirical bite you expected is such a Boromir opinion to have.

8.  Speaking of comedies you guys expected too much from: 22 Jump Street.  It was funny, self-aware and still directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who can do no wrong.  It also featured the best credit roll you will ever see.

9.  I know it’s cool to swing the pendulum the other way and lament about the unspectularness of Boyhood, but I’ll just go off my first reaction, which was to come out of the theater speechless at the execution of the art piece I had just seen.  “I just thought there’d be more” (paraphrase Patricia Arquette’s character) is the point.  I don’t even really think you have to appreciate what went in to making this film to appreciate this film.  It’s the best of Linklater, in my opinion—philosophical but not masturbatory, a keen eye for the finer details of the moment, and always open to greater possibilities.  I was fascinated, and despite everyone telling me the film was overlong, I didn’t want it to end.

10.  Film that most surprised me this year—Wild.  I thought it would be a patronizing tale of “young woman no one expects to be tough defying the odds and finding her inner strength”.  Instead, it was a layered, intelligent exploration of the human reset button.  Though she was entirely too glamorous for what the character was ostensibly doing, I loved Reese Witherspoon’s betrayal in that her realization of the character was the embodiment of a complete, flesh-and-bone character.  It wasn’t some unnecessary statement on femininity which would take away from the greater realism, but at the same time, it was a genuinely strong female character whose femininity was clearly part of the identity (just not all-assuming in aforementioned patronizing way, as tends to be the case in 99 percent of female roles written by men).  She was a troubled but brave, strong-willed woman doing what she had to do.  I respected the hell out of how much the filmmakers really seemed to get this character right, instead of make this character a statement that detracted from the overall film.

11.  Film that most underwhelmed me this year—A Most Violent Year.  Sure, Oscar Isaac was very strong in it.  I don’t understand the hype for Jessica Chastain at all; what a completely average, marginally-involved performance that was!  This felt like a film aiming for Coen Brothers subtext, but lacking any of the interesting elements of a Coen Brothers film. What was left: an extremely boring portrait of the marriage of violence and capitalism at a specific point in time, and characters you were strained to give a damn about.

12.  J.K. Simmons needs to play more bad guys.  If you ever saw HBO’s Oz, you were not at all surprised that he managed to be such a bastard in Whiplash.  There are a dozen or so “character actor” performances each year that make me think wow, we’re really lucky to have this guy in the industry.  This was one of those performances.  (Related to HBO and an above item, W. Earl Brown’s very small role in Wild was another one of those performances; just obligated to relate that!)

13.  Snowpiercer was incredibly stupid in too many ways to dissect, but you can’t deny the genius of the choreography and cinematography that went into so much of the second act in particular.

14.  Film I most hated that you probably most loved—Birdman.  Look, I’m a huge fan of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.  Biutiful is one of my favorite films ever made, and I was that artsy kid in middle school who rented Amores Perros on VHS from the local library.  But damn, I hated this film.  One of the more pretentious films you’ll see, and what bothered me most was how clever I thought Inarritu thought he was being with the STATEMENTS he was making about ART and EXISTENTIAL QUANDARIES and THE INDUSTRY FORCES THAT DRIVE VALUATION, when this was a film and message that’s been made so many times before, so much better before, in so many more palatable iterations.  This industry is markedly better for Inarritu’s presence in it, but this was a really weak effort, and I’m shocked so many find it so brilliant.

15.  This year’s indie film to come out of nowhere and kick ass is almost certainly Predestination.  Well-scripted, well-thought-out, and tremendously well-acted, especially considering the film basically hinges around just two performances—those of Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook.  Major credit due for Snook; I’d never seen her prior to this role, but she absolutely made this movie work.  Very difficult role to pull off (explaining why would spoil too much of the movie), but it was in a similar light to what I’ve seen Tatiana Maslany ace in recent years.  My biggest takeaway: if we haven’t already been keeping an eye on the Spierig Brothers, after the far-better-than-it-should-have-been-in-theory Daybreakers, we absolutely should be now.

16.  I’ll admit, I couldn’t make it through the first 20 minutes of Mr. Turner.  Just couldn’t.  I love British film.  I love that entire cast (note: hire Nina Gold to cast your everything).  But nothing can get me into this film, and I’ve tried a couple of times.  Sorry.

17.  Speaking of Brits, look out for Jack O’Connell (also in Unbroken, which I haven’t yet seen, honestly).  He’s been brilliant in a few things, including one of the only interesting performances in the Skins (UK) series we don’t like to talk about.  But his performance in Starred Up was next-level.  It was Tom Hardy in Bronson good.  That’s a weird comparison, but I’m going to stick with it.

18.  This is the first year I really agree with all of The Hobbit criticisms.  In past years, I just thought Tolkien worshippers were expecting too much in terms of loyalty to parent text.  It’s the same thing we went through with Rowling fans and the Harry Potter series, or the continual struggle to get George R.R. Martin fans to stop bitching about Targaryen eye color.  I thought the first two Hobbit films were exactly what they should have been: fun to watch, fun to look at, entertaining and not afraid to try their hand at a few clumsy-but-exciting action sequences.  The third Hobbit film, though?  Everything about it just felt so obligatory.  Here’s the obligatory exit from this love triangle.  Okay, here’s the obligatory stubborn protagonist.  Okay, here’s the obligatory speech or action that changes the heart of the stubborn protagonist.  Here’s the obligatory battle.  Here’s the obligatory hero scene.  This was one of the most by-the-numbers films I have ever seen.  I never thought I’d see a Middle Earth film where I was bored to tears, but alas, we got The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

19.  American Sniper was just OK, if you ask me.  It felt oddly-paced and the last 15-20 minutes were just baffling in the greater context of the film.  I do like what Bradley Cooper brought to the role, even if I don’t consider it a top 10 performance.  It would have been easy to basically be Jeremy Renner 2.0 and copy the same blueprint as The Hurt Locker.  Cooper went a different route, and I thought the film was much better off for it.

20.  I really, really liked The Imitation Game.  It sounds like I’m ignoring it so far, I’m sure, but it falls in a weird place of “just” being the second or third best in most categories for me.  It was probably the third-best film released in 2014, probably featured the second or third best male and female performances, etc.  Fascinating story, though.  I knew the ending going in, courtesy late-night random history reading, which actually made it all the more riveting.

21.  It was really nice to enjoy a Wes Anderson film again.  I’ve long maintained Rushmore is in my Top 10 ever, but I’ve felt most of his films have been on a downward trajectory since (though I’m a bit back-and-forth on The Fantastic Mr. Fox), hitting bottom with Moonrise Kingdom, which was one of maybe two or three films I have ever considered walking out on in theaters.  But clearly, The Grand Budapest Hotel was a (big) step back in the right direction for Anderson.  It wasn’t twee for the sake of twee.  It was outrageously funny, and M. Gustave is by far one of Anderson’s best characters.  Of course, Ralph Fiennes’ impeccable performance really made that possible.  I’m not-so-secretly hoping for an Anderson film that’s nothing but Ralph Fiennes and Bill Murray playing off each others’ comic timing.

22.  I have an unpopular view of Selma, I suppose: I thought it was too unfocused to be considered a snub in this year’s awards chase.  I mean, great writing, great performances, an actual freaking human representation of an imperfect man who is (rightly) regarded as a hero, and it brought something new to the biopic table in that it didn’t just paint a life by numbers but rather showed the difficult choices that could have branched off in different directions at every point.  That said, I never really felt like this film had a handle on who or what it wanted to spend time on.  As a result, I felt like the movie was basically MLK and a bunch of characters you would be hard-pressed to remember outside of how often they interacted with MLK.

23.  I usually get geek hype, but Guardians for the Galaxy didn’t do much for me.  Maybe it was just overhyped by the time I saw it, but…I don’t know.  I didn’t think it was really all that fun, or funny, or memorable.  It was a really standard, predictable Marvel plot.  I don’t really even evaluate superhero movies by that metric, even if it’s my least favorite part about superhero movies (seriously: watch every hero vs. villain fight in a superhero movie; they all play out exactly the same, which is why something like The Dark Knight gets applauded for upsetting the formula).  Just felt like, for the budget and cast, it could have been a lot more entertaining.  This coming from a guy who thought Serenity was tremendously entertaining, mind you.

24.  Did anyone actually see The Equalizer?  Did anyone actually realize that someone made a movie in which Denzel Washington was an ex-assassin working at Home Depot, in which he used Home Depot tools in an elaborate Home Alone trap to maim and kill the bad guys in the climactic final battle, which took place in Home Depot?  Really?  Did anyone else know that this was a thing that happened, and a script that really netted a profit?

25.  My genre-lovers only pick of the year: The Guest.  You have to have a soft spot for 80s slasher flicks to really tolerate the insanely dumb twist and ending, but damn, this movie was just a blast, and Dan Stevens was tremendous in something that probably should have just been pure camp.

26.  My go-to activity on cross-country flights is watching movies, because 1.5 movies will get me from Indianapolis to San Francisco without my brain eroding.  I, then, almost have to applaud This Is Where I Leave You for being so incredibly dull and lifeless—with such a spectacular cast, nonetheless—for actually making me pine for the sound of a jet engine hum.

27.  It won’t win any writing or acting awards, but from a pure visual/technology perspective, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the first film to make my jaw drop since the Avatar IMAX 3D experience.  Just incredible, what that film managed to do.

28.  I’m glad everyone else loved The Babadook.  I didn’t.  No, you don’t have to explain the allegory to me.  I get it.  It was just a grating watch.

29.  The award for Most Condescending Film Ever has to go to Men, Women and Children.  Even if you’re not a fan of Jason Reitman, I think you’d agree that compared to his earlier work, he absolutely fell off a cliff with this one.  It was like Ed Wood setting out to direct an episode of Black Mirror or something.

30.  You could do a lot worse than watching Chef for an easy, light watch.  But add this to my list of movies this year that completely botched the last 20 minutes (or in this case, felt like the studio demanded the film cut 20 minutes off its run time, and the script condense accordingly).  I almost wonder if there’s a director’s cut of this anywhere, because that version could legitimately be a top 10 of 2014 candidate for me.

31.  Brad Anderson’s directing career will always baffle me—you began with Session 9 and The Machinist, for God’s sake!—but Stonehearst Asylum was batty (if entirely clumsy) enough to make me smile.

32.  By far, my weirdest viewing experience had to be They Came Together.  As anyone who knows me is already aware, I am a huge David Wain fan.  Wanderlust did nothing for me, but I love everything else in his filmography: every film, every series.  I don’t quite know how to describe TCT.  It was almost the closest thing I’ve seen to Wet Hot American Summer humor since, well, WHAS.  But since it wasn’t quite there, and wasn’t quite the same, it mostly just had an uncanny valley effect in which I felt like I should be laughing my ass off, but wasn’t quite there in terms of peak hilarity.  This is entirely my fault, as a viewer, for expecting a certain brand of comedy when, clearly, Wain has continued to evolve.  But every time it came close, I waited for a certain payoff that never quite happened.

33.  Movies I still haven’t seen as of publish, but intend to as time allows:  Inherent Vice, Unbroken, Still Alice, Kill the Messenger, Pride, It Follows

Gun to head, you’re gonna make me rank my top 10 films of 2014?  OK.  Loaded question.  I’m just going to rank on what I felt were the films that delivered the best overall experiences.  Not chasing awards.  Not standing the test of history.  Just my overall satisfaction at the end credit.  Here goes.

  1. Boyhood
  2. Whiplash
  3. The Imitation Game
  4. Nightcrawler
  5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
  6. The Interview
  7. Predestination
  8. The Theory of Everything
  9. 22 Jump Street
  10. Wild

Gun to head, top 10 performances of the year?  Fine.

  1. Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
  2. Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
  3. J.K. Simmons, Whiplash
  4. Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
  5. Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  6. Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything
  7. Sarah Snook, Predestination
  8. Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins
  9. Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  10. Reese Witherspoon, Wild

This Place Where I Grew Up.

Today, for no reason other than the fact it struck me as a place to go, I decided to venture back to the neighborhood where I grew up.

This wasn’t really an entirely planned thing, a symbolic journey, or anything of that nature. I just happen to walk for a few hours on Sundays, to give my knees a break from running so they’re good to go the other six days of the week. And I’d walked through so many areas around here—neighborhoods, parks, woods, the reservoir—that I decided I needed a change of scenery.

So, childhood it was. Back to the place where I grew up.

It’s weird driving somewhere you haven’t been in a very long time—almost 15 years, in this case—by memory alone. You begin by navigating the past, and you happen upon some alien landscape in the process. What used to be a thicket is now a Walgreen’s, and you’re no longer so sure where the creekbed may call home.

As I drove south on 79th Street and prepared to make my right turn onto Sunnyside Road, I wasn’t fully confident I was indeed headed in the correct direction. There were some familiar signs, but there was also life—business, traffic, asphalt—where it never used to be.

My memory proved correct, though, as I wound my back toward 75th Street (beat-up stretch it is) and toward the entrance of my old neighborhood.

I easily found my way toward the cul-de-sac where our home was, and decided to park there, as it is a fairly central location for walking the neighborhood.

20140810_151010

I don’t know exactly what I expected, and I’m not sure exactly how you go about painting the scene of what time does to this very specific, defined notion of the past. It’s not a novel idea—many of you have already experienced it—but getting out of my car, and looking around, everything just looked off.

Normally, when you see a house, and you have no attachment to that house, your reaction is: that house is blue, that house has white shutters, that house has plastic siding, a bay window, etc. When you return somewhere decades later, though, your reaction to these details is different. That house is wrong. That house should be blue. That house shouldn’t have those cracks in its siding.

You don’t account for the fact, I suppose, that time doesn’t pause when you pack up your bags and put the front door in your rear view. Different lives occupy those houses. Things change.

This house I once knew so well just looked so different. So empty. Thirsting for my dogs in the back yard and the clatter of my roller blades catching the edges of the driveway.

20140810_140805

 

20140810_140817

Of course, my old place fared better than most.

20140810_140944 20140810_141006

I spent as much time in that house as my own. And somebody went and effectively turned it into an old, splintering barn.

I sent these photos to my friend who grew up in this house. He said he wouldn’t have even recognized it had it not been for the mailbox next door.

Time, a few coats of paint and some regrettable exterior design choices. It’s funny what the years can mask.

I found the neighborhood particularly peculiar now, though, because of its stunning variance, not just street-to-street, but house-to-house. This wasn’t one of these new developments where you pick your choice from five models and kiss creativity goodbye. No, there was a great variety in home design, albeit most neglected through the years.

So, visiting now, there were both surprisingly gorgeous homes, well-rooted into mature lots…

20140810_142707 20140810_143357

And there were homes with batting cages in the backyard.

20140810_142712

Really, there was a distinct negligent vibe in general. If I’m being honest about it: a white trash affair. And I feel that’s not entirely assumptive on my part, based on one foray through my old stomping grounds, because I did happen upon a game of lawn darts, featuring in no certain order: shirtless man with Confederate flag tattoo on back, shirtless man drunkenly swaying in street and painting gromwells with his chew-spit, more OCC gear than I have ever before seen in one place clinging to those who chose to wear clothes that day, and a sixth-grader with a cigarette tucked behind his ear.

(I was too much of a wimp to take pictures of any of those things. Those of you who have encountered rednecks know the difference between fun-loving and salt-of-the-earth rednecks, and these guys might actually shoot me rednecks. This contingent appeared to be the latter sort.)

But perhaps most notably—and I waver on whether this is the most or least surprising element of this trip—there was the same house with the same flood of angel-themed lawn decor, occupied by the same batshit crazy lady who appeared to be north of 90 all those years ago.

20140810_144153 20140810_144154 20140810_144216 20140810_144821 20140810_144831

(She was working in her lawn, and at whatever improbable age she occupies, she still scares me just as much as she did when I was 8, so stealth photography mode activated!)

In terms of aging, the neighborhood’s transition from its adolescence into the reality of the rest of its days, I found the mailboxes and street signs largely said it all.

20140810_145024 20140810_145046 20140810_145721

 

And, of course, nature’s reclamation—a return to some vegetative state. Undone by some curious combination of negligence and shotgun landscaping.

20140810_145806 20140810_145808 20140810_150219 20140810_150747 20140810_150801 20140810_150815

And of course, there are the ghosts. Those little memories that still haunt the sensory, visible on to you. The intangible, phantom landscaping that can never be cut down, painted over or buried in the climbing ivy.

Because when I look at this house, I don’t see the house itself.

20140810_142702

I see one of those ridiculous, bulky home movie camcorders, a tube of stage blood, a fake butcher knife and my grade school insistence on directing a new slasher movie every weekend. My greatest accomplishment, of course, was Weekend for Eight, which we only had five to cast with, and ended when one of our young stars ran into a wall, said “shit” on camera, and insisted we record over it so he wouldn’t get in trouble.

(Side note: I haven’t kept a ton of things from my childhood, but of all things I have kept, my screenplays are by far my most treasured. They are equally obviously-10-year-old-boy-minded, and stunningly predictive of so many Hollywood trends to follow…)

Similarly, when I look at this house…

20140810_150219 20140810_150246

I see a bully, some older kid who was much bigger than me and just an absolute dick. I actually ended up seeing him at a high school party, well after I moved away, where he was the awkward senior hanging out with sophomores. He spent a good half-hour bragging to all the girls about how he used to beat me up (I don’t even remember that happening, but whatever) all those years ago, and the extent of their unimpression was actually painfully tangible.

He died, I guess, a few years back. I don’t know how. I wonder if those people you eternalize as assholes ever really redeemed themselves along the way, and if it will have ever really mattered in your individual timeline if they did anyway.

In the end, I guess, there’s no way to really talk about time without sounding like some try-hard philosophy student, looking for some logic to measure the distance between moments so we can better understand being or having been.

So, I just have photos. Which, similarly, offer no professional standards or anything beyond personal significance.

Unloading some bonus photos…

20140810_145916 20140810_145930

Amazing how many sights I saw exactly like this. Some sort of nice-looking Mustang or Corvette in the driveway, and “realtor’s worst nightmare” smack dab in the middle of the front yard. In this case, a Corvette in the driveway, and some sort of makeshift sand pit, tire swing and hammock area welcoming you in to the humble abode.

20140810_150044

“We’ll drive you to drink.” — Indy Joy Rides

20140810_140956

House was falling apart, but damn if that mailbox wasn’t spiffy.

20140810_152231

My old elementary school, just a couple blocks away.

20140810_151748 20140810_151806

A lot really hadn’t changed at this elementary school through the years. Same basketball goals, as far as I can tell. Same US and Indiana maps painted in the parking lots, which were probably used for some activity I can’t quite remember.

20140810_152002

But the playground had changed (read: they must have demolished the old one to create this), and that honestly made me sad.

As a kid, you remember so many things about the playground. It was your escape from long division. It was where you cleared, like, a million feet from the swing at the top of your jump. It was where Matt lost his grip on the glider and fractured his head on the opposite platform. It was where the neighborhood teenagers would sneak over to smoke, and kids would do weird kid things like pick up all the butts from the woodchips and stack them in the playhouse underneath the slide so they could pretend to sell them later.

Now, it’s just so…reduced. Some minimalist, by-the-numbers, unimaginative steel construction clearly designed to keep all kids visible at all times.

(But then, I guess, it’s more the lack of digital transparency that should worry the adults these days…)

Overall, it’s not as if I had some epiphanous moment or gleaned some greater truth to share, so no real poetic ending to offer here. Just some picture, some moments, and the weeds climbing through the cracks in the sidewalk that tell a story between now and then.

 

Minus 50.

I suppose, for most people trying to lose weight, there is some moment of epiphany.  Maybe I’ve seen too many episodes of The Biggest Loser (editor’s note: I have seen zero episodes of The Biggest Loser), but I have to imagine, for most people, the decision to lose a lot of weight is kind of a big deal, yo.

I can’t really say the same.  Honestly.  I can’t.

So how I’m sitting here, 50 pounds lighter than I was 98 days ago, is somewhat of its own epiphanous moment.

Trippy, huh?

As far as I can remember, it really was as simple as this: I didn’t feel like I had as much stamina as I could once claim.  So, one day in April, I decided to dust off the ol’ bathroom scale and hop on.  I was expecting—well, dreading—to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 pounds.  I mean, my driver’s license may still say 120 pounds (shout out to learner’s permit stats), but we all know the truth.

I stood there, preparing myself for 200.  Or 205.  Or Nelson Muntz to improbably appear in the scale’s digital face, mocking my man boobs.

Finally, the scale offered its own opinion.  It wasn’t a very flattering one.

222.2.

It didn’t even have the courtesy to be coldly scientific about the revelation.  It had to be cute.  You know what’s even more obnoxious than realizing you’re obese for the first time in your life?  Having your obesity measured to the perfect numerical flush of four 2s.

I tried to process that, 222.2.  That was a number for fat people, at my size anyway.  I wasn’t a fat people.  Was I a fat people?  Oh God, I thought, maybe I was a fat people!

Still, I felt no urge to curl up in bed and cry my way through the night.  I didn’t really feel anything about it at all, except the shockingly dumb understatement of “oh man, I’m 20 pounds fatter than the fat I already thought I may have been!”

And fat is a sneaky thing.  It really does sneak up on you.  I mean, you know you’re not skinny, you know you jiggle a bit more than you’d like, but some part of you still convinces yourself you’re average.  You like food.  So what?  A lot of people like food.  If food wasn’t meant to be liked, Culver’s would not exist.  And Culver’s is an American treasure, so disliking food is entirely unpatriotic!

But all of that justification kind of just sneaks around to kick your ass when you go up the stairs one day and realize you’re trying not to let company know you’re actually a little winded.  From going up stairs.  One flight of them.

So, in the most anticlimactic matter possible, thus began my journey.  I wish I could say it was a cool, classic journey, complete with sword, shield, steed and ancient artifact in need of retrieval.  But this one mostly just started with me attempting to run a mile at the onset and puking up a lot of Chef Boyardee in the process.

(Dinosaurs & ABCs, if you were wondering.  Yes, I’m an adult.  Technically.)

****

50 pounds later, I do ask myself where the journey started.

It’s not like I drew up a gameplan, so there is no legible proof of my plan.  It just kind of fell in place, the same way welp, I guess I need to clean out this closet turns into spring cleaning.

As with all things weight loss-related, it started with diet & exercise.

The diet, surprisingly, was very easy.  I didn’t read up on any diet tips, because that would require committing to something, and I’ve always been deathly afraid of committing to a plan only to fail and feel really bad about it.  So I suppose my strategy throughout has just been “make your own plan, and make it work”.

For my diet, then, I started by cutting out soda entirely.  Switched to water.  That’s an easy 10 pounds.  Good, what’s next?  Salads?  Sure, those can replace mayo-ejaculating sandwiches.  Ben & Jerry’s?  More like I Don’t Care-ys!  Right?  Right?  Okay, I’ll sit down.

(And admit that my reward for 165 will be a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Peach Cobbler.  Lawdamercy, do I miss that sweet, sweet Deadhead nectar!)

One of my co-workers and main sources of support throughout my journey—I won’t name names just in case, but thanks, dude, it’s meant a lot—told me, if he were to write a book about losing weight, he would title it Don’t Eat Like An Asshole.

And you know what?  It’s surprisingly easy to not eat like an asshole.  Which isn’t to say everyone’s journey isn’t different, and some folks have different obstacles, realities and barriers than others.  But, when you break it down, when you really look at the basic concept of eating—it’s not very difficult to eat right, and still eat enough.

Personally, I found it pretty simple.  I don’t eat breakfast; I never have.  So it was a matter of not eating stupid things at lunch, and not snacking after.  Boom.  Cut that out, and you get to dinner with a goodly amount of calories to spare.  Learn not to interpret that as “make up for all of your dieting by eating a huge, obnoxious dinner”, and you’ve figured out how to eat healthy and responsibly.

(Obligatory reminder that I am not a dietician or nutritionist—you should consult those if serious.  I also cut out a ton, like, almost all, carbs from my diet.  That’s not necessarily the best approach, because there are good carbs and good carbs = much-needed energy for the Part II of this plan.  But, yeah, that’s what I did, for full disclosure.  Learn to love chicken.)

Soon enough, I found that I could get by with 1,200 calories, I often didn’t need more than 1,500 calories worth, and even my worst “cheats” were around or slightly below 2,000 calories.

Obviously, you don’t want to reach the point of hunger pains, ever.  And I believe too much calorie-counting obsessiveness can lead to eating disorders.  But as long as you have a healthy and realistic understanding of how calories work (bolded: you always consume more calories than you realize, and you always burn less calories than you realize), you should be able to set yourself up for a nice ballpark approach to calorie management.

*****

The other part, then, was exercise.  Still is exercise.  Oh, the exercise.

Now, yes, technically, you can lose weight on diet alone, provided you maintain the proper caloric differential.  But there is no realistic way that is a winning long-term strategy.

So, get used to exercising.  I did.

Frankly, I knew it was going to suck getting to that level of serious exercise again, so I started simple.  I went down to the park to kick some soccer balls around.  I mean, I could at least do that, right?  If you do something you enjoy anyway, and exercise in the process, it’s just a bonus.

Next up was cycling.  60 minutes, high resistance, every morning.  Just pop on some Netflix in front of the bike and, boom, world’s quickest hour of exercise.

All of this worked, and worked well, but served to underscore my biggest hesitation: running.

I knew, eventually, I would have to start running if I was going to get really serious.  And I hate running.  Always have, even when I was skinny and athletic.  Always will.  Those endorphins that serve as the testimony of everyone you know who has a pair of running shoes?  Yeah…I’ve been running for a while now, and I still don’t get those.

Running is hard.  Running is not fun.  But running is how I was able to establish such an insane caloric deficit.

I started with some light running at the soccer park—chasing the ball if it went over the goal, some full-field sprints here and there.  That evolved into trying to run a mile (which resulted in aforementioned Chef Boyardee purge in my first encounter).  Then a mile really became a mile, which became two, until I figured out I had the stamina for five.  And that’s been my mark ever since—at least five miles a day, six days a week.

And I will say this: running sucks.  But I’ll be damned if I’m not practically operating on jet fuel when I start working every morning now.

I try to run different routes, around different places.  And I’ve kept a two-a-day regimen too, which has recently transitioned into a ~6-mile hike/walk with a heavy backpack and medicine ball.  Sometimes I just take trails into the wood, get lost and hope I can navigate my way back before sunset.  It’s great.

*****

I’m not done yet.  I don’t really have a goal weight, but I know I’m not there yet.  My soccer fighting weight was always around 160, so another 10 pounds would make sense.  We’ll see.

My main goal from here is to tone up a bit.  Not looking to get omgswolebro, but just respectably toned.  I started an ab workout over the weekend.  It’s by far the worst 10-15 minutes of my day, but then no one said hanging upside down from an inversion table, holding a medicine ball toward the ceiling and keeping your back straight was ever going to be fun.

But I can look back and say I’ve done the following things, which I didn’t think were possible before I began:

  • I lost 50 pounds in less than 100 days.  That rate of loss is kind of impressive.
  • I went from a waist size somewhere between 38-40, to a waist size between 30-32.  Yup.
  • I can consistently run 5-6 miles.  I never ran more than 2 consecutive miles before.
  • I have notched myself out of my favorite belt.  That’s bittersweet.
  • I bought a medium size shirt online.  It fit.  Well kind of; I have broad shoulders which stretch it tight on top, but that’s not really weight-related.

Since 50 is a milestone, I will take a moment to gloat about those.

But just for a moment.  Because I’ve got at least 10 more, and starting sometime around September, I get to begin my journey of learning to lift and realizing how embarrassingly weak I really am.

Collin’s 2013 Film Review

QUALIFIERS

I’m a busy guy, especially during football season, so while I love film and TV, I have limitations on what I’m able to see.  At least until I’m paid for my opinion to matter more, right?

So with that said, I still have not yet seen the following films:  Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, All is Lost, Blue Jasmine, Filth, Inside Llewyn Davis, Philomena.

(Thus, don’t expect mentions of them below, obviously.)

BEST OF FILM

1. Mud

As far as I’m concerned, the only flaw with Mud was that it ended.

Mud, to me, is a lot of things, so it’s incredibly hard to describe why the film resonated so deeply with me.  It’s a deconstruction of love as we know it, or rather, as we’re supposed to know it when we’re kids and we think something like love operates by some scripted logic—they’re married, so they should love each other, and if they don’t, they can fix it by just trying harder…she’s a damsel in distress, I saved her, she kissed me, so I’ve won a special place in her heart.  It’s an ode to life on the Mississippi, evoking memories of Tom Sawyer and the world as seen from a raft, grounding hardship and poverty in a very real sense of identity and place, and less so the glorification of something along the lines of Beasts of the Southern Wild.  It’s a celebration of friendship, of what we might sacrifice in holding on to those bonds that keep us from drifting away entirely.  It’s a sobering coming-of-age tale prone to flirtations with the mythical, the transcendent fiction we construct around those we hold as quantifiably different than others, better than others, more worthy of our rose-colored idolization.

It’s a slow burn.  In my view, it’s the best kind of slow burn, one that transports us into a very real, fascinating place with very real, fascinating and flawed characters.  I can see where some might not buy into the world Mud creates, and if that’s the case, no, you’re probably not going to hold this film in high esteem.

But if you do allow yourself the journey, the rewards are plentiful.  It’s difficult to tell such a rich, meaningful story from the eyes of a young teenage protagonist, and thankfully, Mud succeeds first and foremost due to the incredible performances of Tye Sheridan (Ellis) and Jacob Lofland (Neckbone).  Christ, those kids can act.  Sheridan has a scene in the transition into the film’s final act that delivers as much raw emotion as any performance I’ve seen this year.  But if those necessary performances weren’t enough, the film is exploding with performances that jump off the screen: Matthew McConaughey (who can do no wrong now, apparently) as the titular character, Ray McKinnon as a father struggling to stake his claim in a changing world, and Reese Witherspoon in perhaps the most understated (and all the better for it) performance of her career.

I remember reading a description of Mud some six months before it was released, and making a mental note I had to see the film, so I had built up a great deal of hype around it.  Still, after leaving the theater, I felt the film was so much more than even I had anticipated.  It was a poem of painful truths, yet still an optimistic thought on what we might become—how much stronger we might be—after licking our wounds, and looking forward to that open sea where we had once only known a very small pond.

2.  12 Years a Slave

Oh.  My.  God.

Steve McQueen’s masterpiece is a must-watch, if uncomfortable (it kind of has to be, right?) experience.  I didn’t quite think McQueen’s previous effort, Shame, was deserving of the acclaim it received, but you could tell McQueen knew what he was doing.

Given stronger material and more (name) actors to work with, McQueen works wonders with one of those rare films you really do have to find a way to see.  It’s really difficult to describe, for me at least, and there are hundreds of reviews out there that will do more justice than this sad little offering.

Just take my word for it: you will be shocked, you will be moved, you will not forget this film, and you really must find a way to see it.

3.  American Hustle

As I usually say on here, I mostly base my interest in films around the director attached.  David O. Russell will always be a slam dunk.  I remember seeing Three Kings with my dad as a kid, and loving that movie to death.  I remember buying I Heart Huckabees as a teenager and suddenly assuming a (bullshit) understanding of existentialism (oh, the many ways in which I thought I was smarter than everyone else, but sounded like a complete idiot — guess not much changes through the years!)

Russell’s last two directoral efforts, Silver Linings Playbook and The Fighter, have been nothing short of exceptional, so my expectations were nothing short of epic for this one, especially as it managed to essentially combine the casts of those two films.

So, in all honesty, I was slightly let down.  Slightly.  It didn’t seem to have as much life, as much color as his other films.  Something just felt a bit off.

That said, it was still a damn good movie.  And I would see it again, and probably enjoy it more the second time around.

It felt about 20-30 minutes too long, and I wasn’t thrilled with Bradley Cooper’s performance, but Christian Bale, Amy Adams and especially Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner were exceptional, and when the film picked up pace, it really became clear it deserved a spot in this year’s top five.  Again, it’s not that there was anything wrong with the film—by all metrics, it should score well—but I just found myself expecting more consistent moments of brilliance, and found myself wading through a lot of dialogue in the process (which can work in a Tarantino film, and works when it’s well-written as is the case here, but it felt extraneous in spots).

It probably reads like I’m complaining about this film.  I’m not; I’m mostly trying to explain why it isn’t in my top 2, but absolutely deserves a watch.  I have no doubt damn near everyone associated with this film will be nominated, and with good cause, and I walked out thinking I enjoyed the film and would like to see it again.  It was clever and funny, if a bit unsure of what tone it aimed to strike at points, and hit intelligent thematic beats on the pursuit of something better without hitting us over the head or being obnoxious about it.

4.  About Time

Yeah, I’m a sucker for Richard Curtis films/scripts (Love ActuallyNotting Hill) so this was on my must-see list.

I expected a lighthearted romantic comedy with some wry British humor to separate it from the heaps of other forgettable romcoms (or as 2013 introduced us to: zomromcoms!)

Instead, I got a film that forced me to bite my lip to stop my lower jaw from quivering during the third act.  Gee, thanks Richard!

Seriously though, the less said about this film, perhaps the better, because the advertising and initial act set it up as one thing, and it ends up being something—at least for me—so much more powerful than its premise.  Okay, brief spoiler: it’s the most sentimental take on a father-son relationship I’ve seen in at least a decade.  I wanted to hug my dad after watching.

Relative newcomer Domhnall Gleeson (yes, son of iconic character actor Brendan Gleeson) was a terrific anchor, but damn, did Bill Nighy steal the show.  Top 5 performance of 2013.  Just true brilliance, the best of Bill Nighy, and Bill Nighy has made brilliance standard.  Why can’t all actors be more British?

The anti-Curtis crowd may find some of the script schmaltzy, and the sci-fi crowd would tear some of its logic to pieces.  And that’s all fine.  But I found the film to be one of the smartest, most sincere, enjoyable, refreshing two hours of my year.  My hat off to Richard Curtis for delivering once again.  This is the kind of understated genius that inspires me to finish a screenplay someday.  Or something like that.

5.  The Hunt

Two words: Mads Mikkelsen.

Mikkelsen delivered one of the performances of the year in this clever, often-uncomfortable Danish drama.  Few films will make you feel for the central character quite like this one does, which doesn’t always make for the most pleasant viewing experience, but certainly makes for a rewarding one in examining how one lie can become something much, much uglier.

This can be a frustrating film at times, but it forces you to identify with the protagonist and makes you work much in the same mode as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.  There’s nothing forced here, nor melodramatic.  Just a well-directed, well-acted worst case scenario that seems terrifyingly real.

6. The Place Beyond the Pines

I’m not sure there was a more divisive film in 2013 than director Derek Cianfrance’s second collaboration with Ryan Gosling (the first, Blue Valentine, is not a recommended date movie, by the way).

It really seems that you either loved or hated this one, and I totally understand why.  It took risks, including a major one at the end of the film’s first act.  It was enormously ambitious—perhaps to a frustrating extent in trying to detail the ripple effects of a fateful encounter across multiple generations of fathers and sons.  And because of those two qualifiers, it probably wasn’t the film you envisioned from the trailers, especially as the third act came to life.

But for my money, I respected the hell out of its ambition.  It tried to do something most films can’t do, at least within the context of one film, and I thought for the most part, it succeeded.  Yes, there are leaps of logic involved, and a few plot conveniences, but I found myself engrossed throughout.  It’s also fun watching Dane DeHaan’s star power grow—he turned in some impressive performances in 2012-2013, and 2014 is setting up for a breakout year of sorts.

7.  Gravity

I don’t quite know how to classify Gravity.

Is this a top film, as in one of my top overall films of the year?  Is it just a “fun” film, a novelty, something along the lines of Avatar?

I think, to understand the brilliance of Gravity, you have to understand how much Alfonso Cuaron invested in this film.  We’re talking years of work.  Years of waiting until the technology was available to make this film possible.  Years of sitting on that epic continuous tracking shot and waiting for the chance to finally create his dream film.

And to state the obvious, Gravity‘s visuals are stunning.  We’ve almost been casual in the way we’ve described one of the most impressively-constructed films ever made.  Like it’s expected, because James Cameron blew our minds a few years ago as well, so this sort of thing just happens.

I was able to catch it in IMAX 3D and…wow.  If we’re lucky, there is one film per year worth seeing in IMAX 3D.  This was it.  This was absolutely stunning.  No film has relocated the viewer to a foreign space and joined them to the characters’ fates quite like this one.

Add in a really impressive performance by Sandra Bullock—read more on how much time she put into training to shoot this film—and yes, I do think you have a top 5-10 film.

That said, the impact is probably lost if this is watched on anything other than the big screen.  Though I think some of its existential themes are well-constructed and a bit smarter than popularly given credit for, you mostly watch for the spectacle here.

8. The Spectacular Now

I’ll be honest: The Spectacular Now was a film I knew I always needed to see, purely from aggregating critical consensus, but also a film I could never get excited about seeing.  Penned by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Heber (500 Days of Summer), I knew there was little chance this was a dud, and highly probable to have a strong heart at its center, but still—high school, boy meets girl, relationship drama, and because I have a lifetime membership in the Showtime early AM insomnia club, which constitutes the only demographic to have ever survived the endurance test of the scriptvomit of a movie like Project X, I knew it featured that face I associate with the worst hour-and-change I ever found myself too lazy to change the channel.

Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  On so many accounts.

From a pure story perspective, the film was nothing special, and the ending was entirely rushed (offering an open-to-interpretation final beat that felt lazy given the pacing).  But few films benefited from honest, realistic performances this year quite like this film.  Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley were unbelievable as the central couple, and perfect-note offerings from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kyle Chandler, Andre Royo and Bob Odenkirk only served to enhance what was another of 2013’s strongest offerings in the deconstruction of “love” (this in its sense of empowerment in meaning beyond a moment).  Issues like alcoholism and abandonment are scripted so naturally, you keep waiting for the Hollywood cliche, and it thankfully never comes.  You keep waiting for a misstep, for a sharp veer into teenage drama or beer pong territory, and instead, you’re treated to some of the best on-film chemistry captured in recent years, and the kind of storytelling honesty that evades so many similar efforts.

9.  The Way, Way Back

This one straddles my fun/great list, but hell, it gets the edge for the ensemble cast’s strength alone.

Sam Rockwell is at his very best here, turning in a performance that hits just about every note possible, and one of those vintage Sam Rockwell performances that you can’t imagine anyone else quite pulling off.

But it’s not just Rockwell.  Everyone plays a part here.  Liam James, whose character from The Killing could be considered “mildly annoying” at best, really does a fantastic job grounding the film with an awkward teenager performance that comes off naturally.  Allison Janney and Toni Collette are fantastic as always, and Steve Carell makes you want to punch him harder than ever before (which is entirely necessary to make this film work).

It’s far from an all-time-great film.  But it’s written and acted with a sort of effortless wit, smarter than it should be, and overall just a damn charming piece of work.  I tip my hat to Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who clearly have a bright future in this business.

10. Rush

This was a late add because I didn’t catch it until December 27, and is probably higher up in the list if this really mattered, but whatever, just trying to include.

Bit of a different offering from Ron Howard here, which I loved.  Felt fresh, exciting, new.  Didn’t feel like it pulled from familiar elements, which might be a criticism of Howard films.

I don’t really care for motorsports, and multiply that disinterest by 100 when considering motorsports movies, but this was riveting throughout, because while it was certainly about sport, it was just as much about what fuels competition.  Probably the best recent example of an on-screen rivalry, traced from its inception through its conclusion.

Daniel Bruhl delivers an exceptional performance as Niki Lauda, and gets an add to my best male actor list below.  Chris Hemsworth—who is really trying hard, and arguably succeeding, at proving he’s more than just a nice face—holds serve, granted with an easier character to portray, and everything about this film had me interested throughout, which is about as high praise as I can offer for anything.

JUST PLAIN FUN

These titles can be considered the “not quite the best, but still worth a watch” crop of my 2013 picks.  As the header implies, I just had fun watching them, even if I don’t supposed I’ll necessarily remember any of them years from now.

1.  The Kings of Summer

Easily the most strange and most surprising film I saw in 2013, but in the best way(s) possible.

I initially saw the trailer for this one before a screening of Mud, and thought it looked like your fairly standard teen rebellion dramedy flick.  Boy has strict parents, boy rebels against strict parents, boy engages in antics, boy learns things, boy appreciates his parents, but not before some climactic event happens first.

So the script doesn’t stray too far off that path, quite honestly, but this film was set apart by two things.

First, the writing.  Chris Galletta, whose only previous credits were as a production staffer for David Letterman, penned one of the funniest scripts of the year.  It’s random, it’s nonsensical at points, but not in the obnoxious Diablo Cody sense of either of those elements.  It has a certain bite to it, a strange kind of funny.  It knows its characters, feeds them great lines, and has a lot of fun in the process.  Really, that’s likely it right there: it was the most fun script I encountered all year.

Second, the performances.  Everyone in this cast is perfect!  Nick Offerman gives his best non-Ron Swanson (in the sense Offerman can ever not be Ron Swanson) performance yet, stealing the show for the most part.  Offerman’s wife, Megan Mullally, is similarly hilarious, and from there, the central three performances bring life into the film, courtesy Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso and Moises Arias.  Damn, those kids were funny, but weighted where they needed to be, really just working in conjunction with Galletta’s script to hit the perfect notes at the perfect time.

Also incredibly impressive, if I can spin an impromptu third point, was the direction of Jordan Vogt-Roberts.  Here’s this oddball summer teen rebellion comedy, and it looks freaking gorgeous throughout.  It looked like a more enjoyable version of David Gordon Green’s Prince Avalanche.  Wow.  That kind of thing doesn’t usually stand out in a film like this.

The humor may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but damn, I can confidently say I did not want this film to end.

2.  The Conjuring

James Wan’s Insidious sequel may have been a bit loud on jump scares, but his 2013 counterbalance The Conjuring was one of the purest horror films I have ever seen—and I’m a guy who only really regards Jacob’s Ladder and Session 9 as must-see horror films.

(Well, okay, recent must-see horror films.)

Probably the most fun I had seeing a movie with friends this year.  The pacing was perfect, the performances were believable given genre, and all of the scares felt so well-earned, not forced.  This was less about ghosts jumping out from the darkness than it was about the unbearable tension built up by a game of hide-and-clap we know cannot possibly end well for the protagonist.

3.  This Is The End

I don’t know why people were surprised this flick was fun/funny.  If you knew even the bare basics about the cast and premise, you should have been prepared.  And the good news was: it never let down in any way.  Everyone points to Channing Tatum’s cameo—which was hilarious—but the film achieved golden status for me when a coked-out-of-his-mind Michael Cera slapped Rihanna’s butt (and the related back story of Rihanna slapping Cera’s face harder in each successive take).

4.  Warm Bodies

Though it faded toward the end, and had a lot of intelligent source material to work with, you can’t fault Warm Bodies for being a funny, well-written twist on the romcom genre (zomromcom!)  Without Nicholas Hoult, I’m not sure this film quite works, but some strong writing and acting elevates this just above “see it on HBO sometime” status.

5.  V/H/S 2

The original V/H/S was a fun take on the oversaturated found-footage genre, but ultimately fell short of its ambitious mark because the central story made little or no sense, and the anthology put its best foot forward with a terrifying first segment but had little ammunition left to scare or surprise the audience afterward (it’s OK to lead with your best, but you’d better build toward that same level again at some point, and the original assumed a downward trajectory).

So, in addressing the flaws of the original, V/H/S 2 was markedly improved.  Still far from perfect, and in this case, leading with perhaps the weakest offering of the bunch, but overall far more even and consistent.  The “Safe Haven” tape could stand alone as one of the best moments in horror film in recent years, and “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” was essentially heavy metal found-footage, equally schlocky and conscious of its ridiculousness in a way only Jason Eisener (Hobo With a Shotgun) could ever manage.

6.  Funeral Kings

Funeral Kings was an exciting first step for Kevin and Matthew McManus (or as known, the McManus Brothers), who shot around a fairly tight script and budget to bring us a cheeky, if uneven, riff on adolescence for Catholic boys.

If you grew up Catholic, as I did, you could relate to a lot in a much more organic sense than something like The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys.  Though the film was a bit uneven and suffered from a few flat-note performances, it was also honest about kids in a way most films just aren’t, or refuse to be.  2013 actually featured another beat along that train of thought, the Canadian film I Declare War, which was similarly successful in exploring adolescent psychology but too often flirted with nonsensical fantasy and cheesy special effects which served to undo the more interesting task of asking just what exactly fuels friendship, betrayal and those waning moments of juvenile selflessness before you realize there exists a ladder, and if you want to climb up, you might just have to crush some hands in the process.

Back to this film, though: nifty soundtrack, Kevin Corrigan (there is never enough Kevin Corrigan), took some risks, and refused the temptation to ever be anything it wasn’t.  I hope to see more from the McManus Brothers going forward.

7.  Hell Baby

I tend to gravitate toward films based on directors, and seeing Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon at the helm (you probably know them best from Reno 911! but each has a far more impressive resume than I would venture most folks realize) with a cast list featuring Rob Corddry, Leslie Bibb, Keegan-Michael Key (of Key & Peele fame), Michael Ian Black, Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer made this an easy rental.

As with a lot of work these writers/directors/actors are responsible for, it will be fairly divisive.  You either subscribe to that school of comedy, or you don’t.  I found Hell Baby consistently hilarious.  The po’boy interlude may have been the hardest I laughed at any scene in any film in 2013, and Key stole the show as F’resnel, the sagacious neighbor who randomly climbs through windows or lives in the crawlspace.

MOST DISAPPOINTING

1. Out of the Furnace

The first scene of the film really sets it up for failure.  Woody Harrelson—at his backwoods tweaker best, and no one plays deranged bad guys or idiotic good guys quite like Woody Harrelson—delivers an opening note of palpable menace, the kind of on-screen evil you know will scorch the earth to its very core before giving the protagonist the satisfaction of pulling the trigger for that one final act.

But then, the rest of the film was just…boring.  I suppose it strived for atmospheric, but the end result was more of a bleak meandering through interiors that had yet to be introduced to the invention of the lightbulb.

Worse, where the imagery of a Terrence Malick or Lars von Trier film may resonate in its subtle beauty, this film was essentially two hours of juxtaposing cuts of opposing characters doing similar things in different circumstances, as if created to screen for first-year film students still being introduced to the concept of mis-en-scene.

(Gee, I wonder why they’re showing Christian Bale doing this while Woody Harrelson does that…the implication completely eludes me!)

I liked the cast.  I should have liked the film.  But given its obsession with the obvious while spinning a yarn about damn near nothing, I found myself checking my phone with alarming regularity instead.

2.  Prisoners

Prisoners had a unique enough concept, but the execution was fairly poor throughout, and the hope was that you would be too distracted by the Swedish art house production makeover to notice.

I don’t know how people found this film to be terrific.  It started out with a promising premise, and for a while, there were shades of a great Dennis Lehane-esque mystery.  But then it devolved into an extraordinarily silly exercise in patience with an obvious “twist” you found yourself hoping wouldn’t be the twist, because it was that dumb and illogical.

Hint: if you have to introduce all of your explanatory elements in the third act, your script is probably flawed, and your final act may suffer consequentially.

3.  Cloud Atlas

Completely hypocritical to my thoughts on The Place Beyond the Pines, of course, I understand the ambition of this film, but don’t think it’s enough to atone for its many sins, not the least of which was its clunky editing and narrative constructive (yes, I know it’s nearly impossible to translate this novel to screen, but no, that doesn’t mean I have to pretend that the story was in any way spun with consideration for the audience—it was a complete symphony, or cacophony, rather, of filmmaker chest-beating).

I did like some parts of Cloud Atlas, but the sci-fi/futuristic segments weren’t for me.  So maybe the film just wasn’t for me, and I concede that, but it felt like a good idea with no organization and Tom Hanks in horrible makeup, speaking gibberish half the time.

4.  The World’s End

I’m sure this will shock some.  While I wasn’t a huge fan of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I am—or was—a huge fan of the Cornetto trilogy.  Shaun of the Dead, of course, is brilliant…I think, perhaps, a bit overplayed now, but it still exists in an elite pantheon of comedies.  I remember hearing about it when I was in high school and finding it in Blockbuster (dating this a bit), obscured by a million other titles, with its two copies available for rental.  Since then, it’s really become a cult classic, as is evidenced by the fact it seems to be on cable TV every single night.

Fast-forward to Hot Fuzz, which I consider one of the most re-watchable films I have ever seen (also on that list: In Bruges) and probably quote too often.  By this point, Edgar Wright was really establishing a unique style that I’ve seen emulated in at least two or three titles since now.  Brilliant comedy, brilliant direction, absolutely setting up sky-high expectations for future efforts.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t find The World’s End…well, fun.  Even Scott Pilgrim, which I found flawed, was fun in parts, but with his last two efforts, it really feels like Wright is trying too hard to force the issue.  There’s almost too much stylistic flair and looks-better-on-paper dialogue crammed in to frames, and the result is a sensory overload of directorial decisions that really distract from the longer setup/payoff act Wright often adhered to in his initial efforts.

I was as shocked as anyone.  I hardly laughed.  I kept waiting for the film to get better as the bar crawl escalated, but it really didn’t.  Some of the visual gags were amusing.  The effort to cram in references to every single sci-fi movie or TV show ever was more than a bit distracting.

Edgar Wright, you don’t have to work so hard to convince me you’re doing something neat!  I already know you are.  So focus on doing something neat.

5.  Gangster Squad

How a director as innovative and fun as Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) managed to take a cast featuring Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin and Nick Nolte, and then produce the most bland mobster movie ever made, is entirely beyond me.

BEST MALE PERFORMANCES

1.  Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt

2.  Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

3.  Matthew McConaughey, Mud or Dallas Buyers Club (dealer’s choice!)

4.  Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street

5.  Bill Nighy, About Time

Also of note:  Daniel Bruhl (Rush), Sam Rockwell (The Way, Way Back), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland (Mud), Michael Fassbender and Paul Giammati (12 Years a Slave), Daniel DeHaan (The Place Beyond the Pines, Kill Your Darlings), Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now), Jeremy Renner (American Hustle), Christian Bale (American Hustle), Keith Stanfield (Short Term 12)

BEST FEMALE PERFORMANCES

1.  Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)

2.  Brie Larson (Short Term 12)

3.  Shailene Woodley (The Spectacular Now)

4.  Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)

5.  Emily Watson (The Book Thief)

Also of note:  Sandra Bullock (Gravity), Kristen Scott Thomas (Only God Forgives), Amy Adams (American Hustle), Kaitlyn Dever (Short Term 12)

NAMES TO KNOW FOR 2014

1.  Daniel DeHaan, actor

2.  Brie Larson, actress

3.  Kaitlyn Dever, actress

4.  Lupita Nyong’o, actress

5.  Jeff Nichols, director

6.  Gareth Evans, director

7.  Tye Sheridan, actor

8.  James Ponsoldt, director

9.  Miles Teller, actor

10.  Shailene Woodley, actress

11.  Kevin & Matthew McManus, writer/directors

12.  Susanne Bier, director

13.  Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director

14.  Chris Galletta, writer

15.  Lake Bell, actress/writer/director

16.  Destin Cretton, writer/director

17.  Keith Stanfield, actor

WHAT I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO IN 2014:

1.  They Came Together

2.  Gone Girl

3.  Interstellar

4.  Veronica Mars

5.  Godzilla

6.  Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

7.  Noah

8.  This Is Where I Leave You

9.  The Grand Budapest Hotel

10.  22 Jump Street

11.  Exodus

12.  Fury

13.  The LEGO Movie

14.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

15.  Stretch

16.  The Boxtrolls

17.  Robocop

18.  Draft Day

19.  Horrible Bosses 2

20.  Dumb and Dumber To

ODDS AND ENDS

1.  Short Term 12 just missed my cut for 10 best pictures, and is a bit of a heavy watch, so “just plain fun” seems like an odd categorization.  But it’s worth a separate mention because of its staying power, the organic force with which it is directed, and three terrific performances by Brie Larson (noted already on here), Kaityln Dever and Keith Stanfield.  Dever seems to be on the Jennifer Lawrence track to me—star in backwoods crime sage (Dever in FX’s Justified, Lawrence in the brilliant A Winter’s Bone), continue to make a variety of smart choices from there.  Tremendous young actress; she should go far.  And Stanfield blew me away in a supporting role in this film.  He dominated the screen with every frame he commanded.  Larson won a best actress enumeration from me, and I continue to be impressed with her every performance.  The film on the whole is a bit heavy here—which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s pit-in-the-stomach viewing—but full of terrific performances and so completely unforced, I’ll continue to welcome anything Destin Cretton has to offer.

2.  2013, again, asked us to interrogate what constitutes a “performance”—and no, it wasn’t just Andy Serkis this time around.  Instead, I’ll submit another name for consideration: Troy Baker.  Ring a bell?  No?  Well, if you played any of these video games this year, it should: Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, Saints Row IV, Batman: Arkham Origins…the list goes on.

But our artform discussion d’jour (well, d’whatever-is-French-for-year) should stem from The Last of Us, which was as compelling as any film released in 2013.  Baker’s central performance was brilliant, and went beyond the conventions of standard gaming.  I know we’re still not at a point where we would ever nominate someone for voicework, lest Peter O’Toole or Jeremy Irons already won an award, but it’s worth again asking ourselves how we frame the medium which allows consideration for such accolades.

Even a year or two ago, this conversation would have presented itself as ridiculous.  But I look at what games are increasingly able to do—and not just from a graphical capacity—and I really do feel a talent like Baker is just as responsible for wow’ing me as a Tom Hanks or Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Certainly, it’s a trend worth keeping an eye on.

3.  I consider Kristen Scott Thomas’ performance in Only God Forgives to be a top performance of the year, and Only God Forgives to be one of the worst films of the year.  Go figure.  She was terrific, though.

4.  As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster I’ve always had a healthy video collection.  When I was a kid, I’d track which days movies like Twister and Independence Day would be set for release on VHS, chart out how many chores I’d have to do to afford the $25 purchase, and make sure I had a copy available to watch on its release date.  Throughout junior high and high school, especially as I got my first job (as a library page) at 15, I purchased hundreds of DVDs—some better investments than others (on the bright side, I did manage to sell Napoleon Dynamite at a garage sale a few years back!)

But in the last few years, as film has switched to streaming and Blu-Ray, I’ve really stopped buying and collecting film.  Partly because I have more immediate spending priorities these days, thanks to Sallie Mae and aspirations of owning my own house.  But also partly because I find there are fewer and fewer films I absolutely must own in hard copy format, somehow.

I only purchased one Blu-Ray this year: Mud.  That’s how much I loved this film.  So I encourage you to give it a Red Box rental, if nothing else.

(And if you’re wondering what constitutes the rest of my paltry Blu-Ray collection:  The PropositionThe Social NetworkInceptionWatchmen, Rushmore, The Dark KnightHellboy II and the first two seasons of Game of Thrones.)

5.  You’re going to love what Gareth Edwards does with 2014’s Godzilla.  Trust me.  Monsters was an incredible first offering, and everything about the Godzilla remake points to something epic.

6.  Hardly an original thought, but 2013 was definitely the year of Matthew McConaughey.  I can’t wait to see Dallas Buyer’s Club and The Wolf of Wall Street.

7.  It seems, every year I write these lists, I have a more difficult time coming up with great female performances than great male performances.  I wonder if I’m predisposed to think more of one gender’s acting ability (and need to work on being more gender-neutral), if leading parts just aren’t written as strongly for women not named Tilda Swinton, or if the Best Actor category really is just a stronger field than Best Actress.

8.  I demand more Jason Eisener.  His short in V/H/S 2 was a nice appetizer, but I need a fix of whatever feature effort he may have up his sleeve.  Hobo With a Shotgun remains one of the most effortlessly fun and stylish movies I’ve seen in recent years—though best not watched with anyone who winces at a hard-R rating.

9.  I think Ray McKinnon adds tremendous value to anything he’s in.  Strongest actor in the first season of Deadwood, and that’s saying something.  Great, necessary-to-making-the-film-work turn in Mud this year, and oh by the way, created one of the year’s best TV series in Rectify (more on TV series later) on the side as well.

10.  I think This is 40 was much, much better than everyone else did, apparently.  Much prefer it to Knocked Up, which received rave reviews to the lackluster reception surrounding Judd Apatow’s latest.

11.  The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug didn’t quite make my second-tier list, but we need to stop this mob mentality thing of blindly bashing this trilogy.  Really, it’s not that bad.  This entry was quite enjoyable, if a bit overwhelming for my eyes in IMAX 3D.  I’m not a Tolkien purist or Lord of the Rings fanboy, so maybe I miss the little things, but from my “learning the story on the fly” perspective: I don’t find any flaws in the Hobbit trilogy, thus far, I didn’t find in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  I’m mostly just interested in the locations and the action, honestly, and it hasn’t disappointed yet.

12.  Insidious: Chapter 2 was brimming with good ideas, and in theory, should have made for a strong sequel to one of the strongest horror offerings of 2012, but my goodness, was the execution off.  The writing ranged from okay to awful, and the over-reliance on loud jump scares seemed a complete 180 from The Conjuring, another James Wan offering.  I liked a lot of the ideas behind this sequel—the interdimensionality/time travel elements that served to actually enrich the original chapter were brilliant, and Wan has a knack for understanding what just looks creepy on screen (notably, the makeup and costume for The Bride in Black), but all of these ideas were ultimately undone by a poor script and its own insistence on being loud instead of smart.  Which is a shame, of course, because Wan clearly understands subtlety, both in his other 2013 effort, and in Chapter 2’s best scenes (an uncomfortable elevator ride, a glimpse of a ghost in another room that doesn’t even serve as the frame’s focal point).

13.  I thought Safety Not Guaranteed was one of those solid-B kinda movies that sneaks up on your Netflix queue, but wasn’t quite great enough to watch twice, so while I don’t mean to denigrate director Colin Trevorrow (even if he is a one-L Collin), I’m not sure I would trust him to direct Jurassic World either.  Then again, if Uwe Boll directed Jurassic World, it would still probably be better than Jurassic Park 3

14.  Shia LeBeouf is trying really, really hard to stop being Shia LeBeouf.  Just kidding.

15.  I’ll be interested to see how Aubrey Plaza’s career evolves.  I worry about Parks & Recreation characters being typecast, but I think Plaza has more overall potential than anyone else in that cast, so I think she can really do some surprising things with her career, if she is so inclined.

16.  If you’re a Boardwalk Empire fan, watching American Hustle is really distracting.  Not only do you get to see Eli Thompson and Richard Harrow, but there’s an actual tie to the BWE storyline with mentions of Meyer Lansky.

17.  Elysium had some cool ideas, and Neil Blomkamp still has as bright a future as anyone in sci-fi, but damn man…broadcasting  a message like “rich people are inherently evil”?  Lazy.

18.  I don’t really know how to watch or comprehend Shane Carruth (PrimerUpstream Color) films, but I’m glad he exists.  In a world where Harmony Korine’s redundant crap is mistaken for genius, it’s nice to have real auteurs thinking outside of the box who truly deserve your attention.

19.  More Casey Affleck, please.

20.  I wonder when Netflix gets into the original movie game, after singlehandedly changing the TV model.

21.  Perhaps my most shocking discovery of 2013: I think The Book Thief was actually underrated, and this from someone who expected overrated schmaltz.  Yeah, there were some ham-fisted moments, but I really think the film assumes a perspective most World War 2 films don’t—that of the German commonfolk caught up in the conflict (as, in my experience, most World War 2 features are told through the eyes of Jewish victims and Holocaust survivors or American soldiers).  And I could ignore the weaker parts of the film because it captured that perspective so compellingly, the sense of Nazis occupying Germany itself and forcing so many people into impossible decisions and creating a culture of helplessness and submission.  Also credit where credit is due: manipulative moments in film designed to make you tear up…still make you tear up.  So someone must be doing something right.

22.  Keep an eye out for Lake Bell.  Bell, a regular on Childrens Hospital, has been rising on the comedy scene, and directed (as well as wrote and starred in) her debut feature, In a World… this year.  It didn’t quite make my above lists, but it was one of the more refreshing moments in comedy I encountered this year.  Bell is really smart, and understands genre (conventions/expectations) in a manner similar to Galletta, another feature on this year’s list (with both hopefully trending toward Jody Hill genius territory), which bodes well for the future of comedy.  And yes, I think Bell could play a big role in the future of comedy.  I’ll make that leap.  She’s smart enough, that’s for damn sure.

23.  Another (late add) title just missing most of my lists—Kill Your Darlings.  It was a tad too inconsistent to quite hold up as a top 1o candidate, but it would be in the “last 5 out” bubble easily.  Fascinating story, and a lot of substance behind the direction.  Keep an eye out for John Krokidas, the film’s writer & director, as we move forward.  Easy to spot the talent there.  Also a good opportunity to remind about the talent of DeHaan, who anchors the soul of this film.

On the Future of American Soccer

For the first time in a long time, I believe there is a meaningful, tangible evolutionary trend in the way soccer is addressed in the United States.

Let me preface by saying that my evidence is purely anecdotal, which arguably doesn’t qualify as evidence as all.  Nothing like shooting down your argument before you even hit the third graf, huh?  But having grown up in the American youth soccer system, and now having a sideline perspective, I’ve seen enough to know that Bob Dylan headlines the marquee for this particular spectacle—the times, indeed, are a’changing.

When I entered the American youth soccer system, somewhere around age six, the focus was largely on competitive effort and results.  It was, after all, an American athletic offering.  You compete.  You win.  What the hell was a tie to anyone, and what were we to do with a losing record?

Almost immediately, you were taught to dribble and shoot.  Basic skills, okay, necessities for doing much of anything on the pitch.  But whereas other nations may focus on ball skills, tactics, or small-sided scenarios, the American program circa 1995 was an immediate 11v11 affair offering a hodgepodge of fast kids, toebashes and daisy-picking.  The only directions: pass, shoot, THAT WAY!  The only objective: win.

There is something inherently American about results.  Culturally, we don’t like to dissect the how and why of it all.  We’re a bottom-line people.  If you’re going to do it, by golly, you’re going to emerge victorious.  What’s the sense in any other approach?  If you don’t teach kids to win, surely, you’re teaching them to lose!

Right?

Essentially, when I was in my elementary years, you “developed” your skills in a program which rewarded speed and power over tactics, finesse and ball skills.  Everything was fairly predictable.  The fast kid beat everyone else to the ball and found himself on a bee-line toward the keeper.  The leg kid wound up to boot the ball while everyone in the immediate vicinity scattered for fear of taking one to the gut, or worse, the groin.  Everyone else just kind of ran into each other, ran in clusters, hacking and shoving where they dared.

Travel programs or traditional clubs didn’t really surface until you were about 12 years old, though I’m sure there were exceptions.  Twelve was the magical age where you either played high-level competition across the state and region, or stayed with a local recreational program.

So you would think, of course, that club programs would refine the skills sorely lacking at an earlier age, right?  Well, kind of.

At 12, I learned basic strategic concepts I probably should have learned at an early age.  Sometimes, you have to go backwards to go forwards, in learning of the possibility of dropping to an open teammate and switching the field or playing the ball into open space when a sideline was shut down.  I started to learn about cover and pully systems, about proper marking techniques, about the intricacies of each players’ role, and specifically, why right-wingers should never find themselves on the opposite touchline!

Still, the endgame was very much results-oriented.  My first U12 club coach was the greatest coach I ever had.  He got a mismatched group of kids to play as a team, to understand positioning, proper organization, movement, possession techniques, etc.  But even then, the goal was always to win, and the focus at the conclusion of our 4-4 season was less that we had taken huge strides in understanding how to play soccer, than the fact we finished the second half of the season 4-0!

My experience was very much the same for the rest of U12-U14 play in particular.  Practice drills were all about shooting, scoring, putting the ball in the back of the net, with little thought as to how or why we were doing it.  World Cup.  Wembley.  Blood.  Scrimmage, scrimmage, scrimmage.  Little emphasis on formation—all club teams seemed to assume a 4-4-2 with no discussion of how that might change as games unfold—and a total reliance on athleticism, as if strategy and smarts were tertiary items that should only be broached on occasion.

So while practices were fun, and I recall notching more than my fair share of goals and assists (particularly fond of my right corner crosses into the box) through spring, winter and fall seasons, I can’t honestly say I improved much, if at all, as a player from ages 12 to 14.  I played about as well as my confidence allowed at any point…and that was it.  There was very little instruction of how I might, for instance, get a bit creative in the air, or with my feet, or how I might make a better run into space, or how I might pick up a head of steam, encourage a teammate to drop back to cover for me and take on a certain defender.

It was all, effectively, a scrum.  Occasionally, an athletic kid broke away.  When I started playing keeper a bit more toward ages 13 and 14, I saw my fair share of them!

(And even then, as a keeper, there was a stunning lack of education on angles, box play and commanding the backline.)

You would figure high school, then, might cure all that ails developmental soccer.  After all, kids are finally settling into their athletic potential in high school years, and understanding core sport concepts.  A high school football team, for instance, is far more likely to run a shotgun spread play with multiple option routes, for instance, than a junior high team which largely relies on basic run plays.

But my view of high school soccer was basically this: spend 30 minutes in the weight room, run laps or hills, warm up with a few basic four-cone possession drills, and then shoot or scrimmage your way to the finish line.

Scoring.  Shooting.  Winning.  Not much else.

So you can imagine my surprise at returning to the club I grew up in, then, and seeing an actual developmental academy system in place.

I’m still new, and I don’t know all the specifics.  Most of the time, I feel like a player myself, taking it all in and understanding what coaches are going for now, how much it’s all changed.  But what I see is the system folks like Jurgen Klinsmann reference when they envision a brighter future for American soccer.

Gone are the aimless scoring exercises.  Gone are meaningless competitive exercises.  They have been replaced by a developmental pool which refines ball skills and tactical awareness from a young age.  U8s are no longer as focused on winning games, then, as they are understanding when you might use inside, outside and laces, and how you might take away an attacking angle and slow the opponents’ advance.  U11s—who I help coach—are less instructed to WIN and SCORE ALL THE GOALS as they are to apply tactical lessons to gameplay, learning how to support teammate runs, execute a drop pass, switch the field, keep possession, etc.

Gone are pointless conditioning exercises—honestly, kids can either run or they can’t, and no amount of practice laps or sprints is going to change that, at least for developmental ages.  In their stead: proper warm-up drills which place an emphasis on controlled touch, positive stretching techniques and head-up execution.

It’s these little things you see adding up to a more talented player pool.  Understanding tactics early on, so creativity can be taught and encouraged when kids start tapping into their athletic potential.  Executing set pieces, moving the ball as a cohesive unit, learning basic soccer theory so that fundamental execution becomes an afterthought and players can focus the majority of their attention on those undefined elements which depend more on their ability in a spot, in a moment.

This is what America is finally figuring out, I feel: soccer isn’t football, or at least, our interpretation of football.  There is a proven method to developing talent.  It may not mesh with our traditional understanding of American sport, and we have to accept that if we ever really want to evolve our national product.

I can see some of the early examples.  There are players in our U14 pool who would take my lunch money, and the U15+ squad would destroy most varsity squads I’ve ever come across.  With such a high tactical awareness and understanding, these players are free to evolve those untapped parts of the games my generation of American soccer was never quite afforded, and the results are stunning not necessarily in terms of “American” results, but in terms of aesthetics, form and qualities that translate to higher levels of competition.

This is the future of American soccer.  And I can’t wait to see what it means for our national team in the decades to come.

That Time I Almost Won Michael Jackson’s Guitar.

What is my biggest regret in life, you might ask?

Well, I have a few.  That one pair of track pants to start with.  The in-depth AIM conversation about the “ass-to-ass” scene in Requiem for Dream, in which I described in detail to a fellow ninth-grader, would be up there as well, mostly because my mom got on my computer and read it in full, then broke this news to me before my first job interview.  Sweet timing, mom!

But I would say, by far, my biggest life regret involved Michael Jackson’s guitar.

When I was a kid, in the pre-internet days, or at least the pre-internet-for-anything-other-than-dancing-baby days, people used to rely on TV for two now defunct concepts: music video and call-in contests.  Not of the QVC variety, mind you, but of the “please dear God keep sitting through these La Bouche music videos for the next hour” variety.

One such call-in contest took place on VH1’s cable channel, and promised a Michael Jackson autographed guitar to the 100th caller, or something arbitrary like that.

Now, let me tell you a little bit about what Michael Jackson meant to my childhood.  The first thing I ever purchased with my own money, a collection of birthday and Christmas money piggybanked for a year or two, was Michael Jackson’s History compilation.  I don’t know what it was.  Jackson wasn’t even necessarily still cool when I was a kid; he’d bleached himself bonkers.  But I remember counting down the days until that album release date, and having my dad drive me to Best Buy to cash in my savings, and I remember the world video premiere for “Man in the Mirror”, and “Scream”, and generally feeding my boombox nothing but Michael Jackson and the Space Jam soundtrack.

So, I must have been around eight years old, and of course I’m calling in to every damn contest.  I never get through, not even to local radio stations to make requests.  It’s more for the thrill of the hunt.

And then, something happens that day, during that concert.

I get through.

The first thing the woman on the line asks me is for my name.

8-year-old me blanks for a while, but manages to stammer and spell it out for her.  Now, in retrospect, am I sure there is some rule that you have to be 18 to win these?  Yes.  But that interrupts the story flow here, so let’s ignore that for a second.

She then asks for my address, where they can ship Jackson’s guitar to me.

Lady, I’m 8 years old.  What is an address?

I start freaking out.  I’m on the phone just stammering for a while, and then I just keep saying some variation of I don’t know, how do I find out my address?  And eventually I realize nobody is around to help, so I just kind of start crying and hang up the phone.

I could have had Michael Jackson’s autographed guitar.  Did Michael Jackson even play guitar?  I don’t care!  It was Michael Jackson.  And all I had to do was provide my address.  Instead, I cried.  A lot.  Like, a lot more than I should have even.

To this day, I get nervous when I have to spell out my address on the phone, which thankfully only applies to pizza deliveries and mail-order brides.  Also, exercise equipment I use for 48 hours before remembering that napping feels a lot better than exercising.  And it’s because of that damn dark day from my childhood.

Sometimes, I think about how that might have changed my life.

“Hey Sarah, do you want to go to the mixer with me?”

“Sorry Collin, I’m already going with Nick.”

“Oh yeah, does Nick have an autographed Michael Jackson guitar?

“No.  I just like his face a lot better than yours.”

“Oh.  Right.  Well, I guess that’s fair.”

Well, okay, junior high is never the best judge of anything.  Let’s try something else, rewind a bit:

“Hey Kyle, do you want to spend the night at house this weekend?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ve got an autographed Michael Jackson guitar!

“So?”

“…and we can put on Channel 78 after my parents go to sleep.  If you wait 10 minutes, you can kinda see through the static!”

“Awesome, what night did you say again?”

So, see, it would have made a world of difference.

The thing is, I’m pretty sure it was my one shot to ever win a contest.  I have won no contests of consequence ever since.  No call-in contests.  No fantasy football or college basketball bracket money pools.  Of the three times I’ve been to Vegas, my best trip was a break-even.

(To be fair, I did win a contest in eighth grade where I could pick a friend, and our principal would take myself and said friend out to lunch one day.  My friend was Hindu and practiced a vegetarian diet, so naturally we went to Burger King and said principal drove like a freaking madman to get there.  But bonus points for being allowed to bring that large carbonated plastic diabetes goblet back to English class and have the teacher tell me to throw it away — naw, Mrs. N, the principal said I could … and he’s your boss, so if you got a problem with it, I guess you can take it up with my man Rog or just start packing your stuff now.  I didn’t say any of that, of course, I just threw the Coke away as I was asked.)

I’m the guy who fate selected to win a Michael Jackson guitar as my only stroke of contest luck across my entire lifetime, and I didn’t even get the damn guitar.

So what did I miss out on, pricewise?  I’m looking at eBay and there are autographed Michael Jackson guitars going for $5,000.  5,000 dollars?  That’s like 15 percent of what I still owe Sallie Mae!

Anyway, the lesson here, parents, is to teach your kids their address by the time they start watching VH1.  Actually, no kids watch VH1 anymore, so that lesson no longer applies.  I guess it’s just my handgrenade to fall on in the end.

Oh well.  At least I had Channel 78.