Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 Review

This is the time when the custom of the country is to  look back and review the year just ending. It's somewhat random, the idea of the December review of the year gone by, not what I'd call natural:  In times past, the calendars of most classical societies began the year in the spring. If we followed that pattern, we'd have the whole winter to stay in from the cold and think (in the dark, or by candlelight) about the growing season and harvest season of the past twelve months.

That might not sound too attractive, but it would make more sense to review the past year when it is actually over, instead of sometime in the middle of December, when more could still happen that's worth including in the recap.  I'm waiting until the very end, so there isn't much chance of that (just over 0.1% of the year remaining).  One year, I might do a Meta-Review in January--"the year's 10 best '10 best'"--maybe drawing one from news, music, sports, movies, etc.--but it's not going to be this year; I haven't got time for the research now.  More about that in some future posts.

The Year in Obama
I'm sure you are reading elsewhere that this was a disastrously bad year for the Obama Administration. In particular, the media-borne criticism has been that he is an incompetent executive and that the public has lost confidence in him.  I would argue, on the contrary, that in 2013 he was vindicated, time after time, despite the increasingly desperate efforts to defeat him.  I will argue--in my preview of 2014--that the efforts will become even more desperate, and that they will be defeated even more comprehensively.  (link to follow)

First, though, we must stipulate three points, ones that I have made before, but must reiterate for purposes of the argument:
  1. the President does not control the economy; 
  2. the President does not control Congress; and 
  3. expectations for reform must be limited by an appreciation of the difficulties involved. 
Instead of a portrait, initially sketchy but refined over time, we get this perpetual cycle of creation and destruction of our great and famous.  Presidents are an extreme case.

President Obama was exalted more than he deserved for his victory over Mitt Romney in the 2012 election. His campaign performance was never as great as it was made out afterwards, nor as poor as it was described when he was perceived to have a subpar TV appearance in the first debate.  Romney was just the strongest of a weak field of Republican candidates; I'll admit it wasn't quite as close as I thought, but just by a couple of states' worth of electoral votes.

The tear-down started almost immediately, with the Benghazi affair.  Although it occurred two months before the election, it didn't connect as a serious campaign issue;  however, early this year came the craziness of Susan Rice's media and Congressional crucifixion following her appearances after the incident on the talk-show circuit, then the hearings, and John Kerry's rise as Secretary of State.  Now, finally, the story comes full circle as the Times reveals that, in fact, al-Qaeda had nothing to do with the riot and it was fomented by militia groups we had once supported. The right wing blog Townhall concedes the point and says, in effect, that detail didn't matter.  True, but a little late.  And Kerry?  He is on a bit of a roll, if a fragile one, with the interim deal on Iran and the success (so far) in avoiding a seemingly inevitable military involvement in Syria.

Congressional affairs can't be said to have given what Obama wanted (no immigration reform, no background check requirement for all gun purchases), but he ended up with the upper hand in two critical cases.  The "nuclear" confrontation came and was overcome, in the manner I suggested back in November of 2005, when the shoe was on the other foot:  Save the protracted filibuster dramatics for the big ones, the Supreme Court appointments that can change the direction of the whole government. The government "shutdown", of course, was just round 5 of a 12-round bout, but one that was won overwhelmingly, including a "standing eight count", the boxing term for the equivalent of a knockdown with the opponent on his feet but staggered, accomplished by the defending champion in the dark (blue) trunks.

And then there was the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  I first heard of the impending website fiasco only days before it was due to go live, from former Gov. Howard Dean, the man who should probably have been given responsibility for the implementation in the first place.  OK, the President is responsible for the execution of the law, and it was fumbled; and, he did fail to put the correct qualifier "if it is adequate" on his promise that "you can keep your insurance" (and he did allow the standard of adequacy to be placed a lot higher than it needed to be, as part of his deal--let's face it--with the insurers); however, Obamacare will end up doing most of what it was designed to do.  The real problems are that it was not designed to do nearly enough and that now Obama has been associated with ownership of US healthcare in general, and the responsibility for remedying its every defect.  One can only hope that this particular cycle will end with a separation announcement, in which Obama can put the hurting where it belongs, on the insurers and on those states which tried to prevent the ACA's implementation through every means they had.

I'm sure Obama will be feeling unloved and injured by the harsh treatment he received in 2013, but I hope he realizes it is just part of the circle of (political) life and his fall from grace is not as real as it may seem.

Fall Sports Preview Reviewed
A lot of the preview topics (for example, basketball and soccer) have not yet had definitive results--my hopes for the Bulls were dashed with DRose's new injury, and Chelsea remains in the middle of a crowded group at the top in England--so the predictions/comments which I made and must now assess are the ones about the regular season of football, NCAA and NFL, and the post-season of baseball.

My early-season NFL comments (dated Oct. 1) were right on the mark.  I was pleased by the changing of the leadership, citing the bad starts of the Giants, Cowboys, the "Washington Natives", Steelers, and the Packers--only that last team made it into the playoffs, and that one just barely.  I identified the Seahawks and Broncos as the early standouts (and they ended up as the #1 conference seeds) and the Saints and Patriots as veteran teams that could threaten to go deep in the playoffs.  Those were good guesses, too, though the Saints' narrow loss of the division title to Carolina means they will have a very tough time getting through. My prediction at this point is that the Broncos, this season's team earmarked for destiny, whipped into line by Peyton Manning's extraordinary ambition, will face whatever team in the NFC can muster a bit of defensive prowess (the Eagles, maybe?)

For the NCAA, the appropriate internal reference point is my later post on the subject, and my follow-up comment to that.  As for my commentary now, I refer to Daft Punk and lyrics from their big 2013 hit:
Like the legend of the phoenix/All ends with beginnings/What keeps the planet spinning/The force from the beginning/We've come too far to give up who we are/So let's raise the bar and our cups to the stars...We're up all night to get lucky
Yes, the BCS and NCAA got lucky in their drunken stagger to the end of the current cycle of chaos and stupidity, as two teams with appropriate records, one from the predominant SEC, made it to the championship.  I wish them slightly more luck in the future as they improve their system slightly, and I urge all fans of Something-other-than-Chaos to avoid all conference championship games, live or on TV, in all collegiate sports, as a form of protest to the corruption and venality of the college presidents, TV networks, and conference directorates.

Baseball:  there is little to say except that I failed to recognize the Botox-driven Beards of Destiny for what they were.  The Tigers should have beaten them but manager Jim Leyland failed to keep sufficient faith with his starters and was punished for it. I can't take much credit (or pleasure) in the Cardinals' run to the Series, as it was quite likely all along.  I do find the NL the more interesting league upon which to speculate with regard to 2014 (even though it's the AL doing most of the free agent spending, as usual):  were the 2013 Pirates the equivalent of the 2012 Nationals?  Are the Dodgers or Reds contenders next year?  Are the Nationals?  Tune in next spring, when we know what the starting rotations' composition and their health status look like.

Preliminary Review of 2013 Movies
Even though the year is essentially over--and it looks to be a top-drawer one in the overall assessment--my review is only preliminary:  mostly it's the fault of the movie studios' scheduling, a perennial irritant for me which is worse this year.  The game, for the producers of serious films which are not commercially as competitive, is to do a phony release before 12/31 and distribute the film out to the Academy in the hope that it will reward them and boost their subsequent box office.

The prime offenders this year are Nebraska, August: Osage County, Wolf of Wall Street, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Her.   A couple of them--in particular, the last two I named--are ones that I am very excited to see (and don't know when I will--more on this later).  August and Wolf are two that I am quite willing to ignore despite their pre-release hype and star power.  What, August:  Osage County is a comedy (as nominated for the Golden Globes--probably trying to avoid the ultra-competitive drama categories)?  Wolf of Wall Street has some of the worst word of mouth I have ever seen, especially a killer diss from the daughter of one of the real-life principal villains, which made me resolve not to ever give a penny to the movie--directly or indirectly--if any of the money goes to the guilty-as-sin author of the book from which it was drawn.

So, let us instead celebrate those movies which dared to release properly during this season:  American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, Saving Mr. Banks, Hobbit pt. 2 (Desolation of Smaug), and Hunger Games: Catching Fire.  The last two were well-made but commercially certain, so the decision to release was not risky (and made long ago).  I have not seen Saving Mr. Banks, which emerged late and could be a dark horse, but I would say--provisionally, because of the offending, really-released-in-2014 movies castigated above--that most of the award honors for 2013 should go to three movies: American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, and Gravity. 

I notice a direct comparison between each of the three and one of the top movies of recent years:  American Hustle vs. last year's Oscar Best Picture, Argo; 12 Years a Slave vs. last year's best picture, Lincoln; and Gravity vs. the similarly ground-breaking space travel-and-special-effects flick Avatar.   All of these are fine, worthwhile movies, but I think the 2013 efforts are at least as good as their counterparts. Hustle is the one that most surprised me--I didn't even have it in my fall movie preview--and seeing it proved even better than my raised expectations.  The dialogue is first-rate, as is the acting level of the ensemble; I think it should garner 8-10 Oscar nominations and several awards.  Also, versus Argo (and Zero Dark Thirty, for that matter), they are very much up-front about the fact that they mix truth and art, and I like Hustle's artistic additions (like the main characters' development, and the critical, brief performance of Robert DeNiro as a top gangster) better than those of the other two.  Like Lincoln, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult movie with an 1800's theme; this kind of boldness should be rewarded.  Like Avatar, Gravity has a storyline full of holes, but the payoff is well worth it--Avatar won three of the more technical awards, and Gravity should get those and possibly more.

In terms of awards, the hot categories will be the lead actor/actress ones and director, which have extremely rich fields of contenders.  I will be rooting for American Hustle's Christian Bale and Amy Adams, and for Joaquin Phoenix in Her, at least to get nominations.  What I think, though, is that the actual winner for actor will be Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years, and it would be thoroughly deserved.  For Best Actress, I feel Sandra Bullock in Gravity would have been close to a lock for Best Actress if she had not won for Blind Side a couple of years ago.  Given that,  Adams might squeak through, as she may be the only nominee in the category who has not previously won an Oscar (vs., say, Emma Thompson, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, and Bullock).  Wow--that's quality!  As for Director--it's tough:  there are so many good candidates, they should expand the category in 2013 to 10 nominees, as they have done with Best Picture (auteur theory salute).  Just to be nominated in this category this year is a high honor. My guess is that the winner will be Steve McQueen, for 12 Years a Slave, over Alfonso Cuaron (for Gravity), David O. Russell (for American Hustle), Spike Jonze (for Her), and either Alexander Payne (for Nebraska) or Paul Greengrass (for Captain Phillips).

This last-named movie leads me to the final point in my movie review: My condolences to those movies of quality released in long ago September or October (Captain Phillips, Rush, The Spectacular Now) or even before (Great Gatsby, Mud)--memories are too short, you had no chance for award consideration.

Oh--Best Picture?  An afterthought for me, a popularity contest among the Academy based on their guilt trips and other social impulses.  Probably 12 Years a Slave.

Last Notes
My apologies to Arcade Fire, Daft Punk, and Jack White--all of them had strong 2013 releases to which I paid insufficient heed.

This year in Death:  Nelson Mandela, Doris Lessing, Lou Reed, Charlie Trotter, Ray Manzarek, Margaret Thatcher, Hugo Chavez, and Ed Koch.  Peace be unto you all. *

*According to a recent survey (you can see the map in The Economist, if you've paid them), that's the second-person-plural form used most often just in Kentucky (and it comes naturally to me); it's "yinz" in western Pennsylvania (you-ins?),  "you guys" in most of the US, and, of course, "y'all" in the Southeast.  And "you lot" in much of England. 

No comments: