Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grey Cup 101: Riding high

For only the fourth time in 101 Grey Cups, the Saskatchewan Roughriders are the champions. I suppose that every championship is memorable, especially when they come so rarely, but this 2013 team set itself apart with how they won. After it looked like they might lose against BC in the West Semi-Final at home, Durant took over. His numbers over three playoff games: 60 for 77 for 795 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions. The Riders scored 109 points while giving up only 61, and they dominated their final nine quarters in a way rarely seen. This Cup was won authoritatively, and it was so much more than just a Grey Cup win. This win is about the past, present, and future of the Riders.

There were a lot of ghosts from the past that were excised on Sunday night, including the victory over former QB Henry Burris. This was vindication for the past five years of heartbreak, least of which was the loss in 2009 and the repeat loss in 2010. This was the end of the doubts for everyone who questioned the team in the last half of the season. This was the end of the joking about the 13th man and the disappointment in not winning one for Ken Miller. This was the end of doubts about whether Durant could win it and #dariansfault. This was also the silencing of reminiscing of the Riders' last win in 2007. Don't get me wrong: we loved 2007, the dream season under Kent Austin, the championship that just appeared seemingly fully formed, gift-wrapped, almost too sudden to really appreciate it. The Riders would not be where they are today without that championship to kickstart the reasonable expectation of success, but let's face it: that Cup was about the past, not the future. 2007 was about the players who had endured a decade drought of even appearing in the Cup, and whose hearts were broken year after year by either the Lions or the Eskimos. 2007 was the culmination of all of the hard work of Danny Barrett and Roy Shivers, who worked so hard to restore the Riders to respectability both on and off the field from 1999 to 2006. It was about the genius of Eric Tillman, who put the final pieces in place to secure that team's place in history: coach Kent Austin, QB Kerry Joseph, RB Wes Cates, and many others. But even when we remember that 2007 Cup, it's mainly about Austin, and it still seems surreal. But 2013 is very real and very present.

2013 was about the players who are playing now, and it was about Rider Nation. Almost every player, from Durant and Dressler to young players like Sheets and Heenan to prodigal son Chick to newly adopted Riders Simon and Hall, was part of the victory. Every single one of them has said that they could not have done it without the fans, and I believe it. This was not a team playing by itself on the field; this was a team propelled by an insatiable need not only to win it for themselves, but for all of the fans - both in Saskatchewan and the Rider diaspora - who have invested so much of themselves in this team. The Riders are a synecdoche for the province: the once have-nots who are now, after years of turmoil and trouble, finally firmly established as flourishing. It's no wonder that people are flocking back to Saskatchewan at record rates (100,000 people in the past decade), as it has never been better to be there, or to be a Rider fan.

But 2013 is also about the future of the Riders, as this team's dominance was a statement of the promise of years to come. This is a team that is built to win and to keep winning, with a strong young core of players who love playing with each other in Regina. Of course, the CFL is incredibly swingy, and teams can go from worst to first (or vice versa) in a season, but the Riders have established not only a winning team, but also a winning culture. Winning is expected now, and it's reasonable that it should be expected. Saskatchewan has one of the best home-grown talent development streams in the country (if not THE best), and players from Saskatchewan want to come play for the Riders. Sure, they won't win every year, but for the foreseeable future, they will be one of the teams to beat, and they will play hard against every team in every game. This team has accomplished so much in the past and in the present, but something tells me that the future holds something more for these Riders, and that they are not done yet.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Head up, shoulders back

I was certain of one thing going into Sunday's CFL game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the B.C. Lions: that Darian Durant would not let the Riders lose. I was confident in the team's ability to win, though not blinded to the possibility of a loss, but I knew that their quarterback would not be the reason for the loss. Three quarters of the way into the game, it looked like I might be partially right, as the Lions seemed destined to win, though through little fault of Durant's performance. It ended up that I was right, and I was personally inspired by how Durant led the Riders to victory. Allow me to recap how events unfolded in the last quarter of the game, forgiving the necessary football terminology, and then I will explain why it was so meaningful for me personally.

The Recap: Riders vs. Lions, November 10, 2013

The Riders had not played well for most of the game. Except for a drive near the end of the second quarter that resulted in a touchdown to Weston Dressler, it seemed like BC's game to lose. The Riders had not held the lead since the first quarter (3-0), and they were down 25-16 with five minutes to go in the third quarter. Things did not look good at that point, even as the team got the ball back at midfield. Durant fumbled a handoff to a teammate, and though he managed to recover it, it seemed like it might not happen for the Green and White; a few plays later, the team was stopped on a 3rd & 1 conversion for the first turnover of the game, and the loss that seemed improbable at first now loomed as inevitable. The defense forced a two-and-out, but it seemed like the win might already be a fait accompli for the Lions. Then something changed.

On the last play of the third quarter, on 2nd down with nine yards to go, Durant pulled off a quarterback draw and ran up the middle to get 15 yards and a first down. Two plays later, after an incomplete pass left the team facing 2nd and 10, Durant called the same play and ran for 35 yards to put the Riders in prime position for a touchdown, which Durant delivered moments later in a pass to Dressler, leaving the Riders trailing by two points. After a five-and-a-half minute drive resulted in a field goal for the lead, Durant successfully rushed on 2nd and long twice more in the final minutes to extend his team's drives and ultimately secure the win. His final numbers were telling: 19 of 23 for 270 yards and 2 touchdowns to go along with 97 yards rushing, including 76 in the fourth quarter alone (91 if you include the run to end the third quarter). Durant decided not to let the team lose, and they didn't. He needed a lot of help along the way - two touchdowns by Dressler and five field goals by Chris Milo, along with a shutdown of the Lions' offense by the Riders' defense - but Durant was the inspiration for the rest of the team.

Watching Durant lead

What really struck me was how Durant ran, particularly in his 35 yard run. Most QBs scamper and hunker head down when they run, attempting to eke out the minimum yards necessary to make the first down before they crumple and slide to avoid a hit. Durant ran powerfully, with his head up and shoulders back, choosing to run as much as he could before going down to avoid a hit - not out of cowardice, but out of wisdom, as he knew that incurring an injury to himself at that point would be foolish and pointless. He ran knowing that he needed not only to get the yards, but to inspire confidence in his teammates that they could - and would - win the game. He chipped away at the Lions' defense, which was still successful in neutralizing running back Kory Sheets, one of the most explosive backs in the league, by completing short passes and then running himself when he needed to. He was the leader that the team needed on Sunday - though it has been quite a journey from his beginnings with the team five years ago.

Durant started out as a young quarterback playing above his expectations, as he led the Riders to unexpected Grey Cup appearances in his first and second full seasons in 2009 and 2010. He suffered some injuries in 2011, along with some coaching changes that set him back, and he had to re-evaluate himself and re-establish himself as the leader he had shown extended glimpses of being in his first two seasons. After another new coach in 2012 and a difficult first-round loss to Calgary, Durant came back with a vengeance in 2013, starting off with one of the best half-seasons ever by a CFL quarterback. He and the Riders trailed off after their torrid 8-1 start, in which Durant did not throw an interception until his 9th game, but he (and the team) recovered and still ended the season well: they finished 11-7 and he threw for 31 TD and over 4100 yards against only 12 interceptions. Even during their final 3-6 stretch, in which the team had a lot of missed opportunities, Durant was referred to as a "veteran leader", and he knew that he would have to get the team back on track for the playoffs. He proved it especially on Sunday, as he did not seem like the young mistake-prone quarterback exceeding expectations, but the established leader who knew himself and his team, and how to get to that victory even when it seemed unlikely.

The personal connection

The reason I took particular note of Durant's performance on Sunday (and indeed his entire career) is because I have felt a particular kinship with Durant. He is six months older than I am, but his professional career as the Riders' QB has mirrored my career in Victoria almost exactly in length (the timing, of course, varies because of the discrepancy between the CFL season and the school year, but just stay with me on this one). Like Durant, I started off in Victoria strongly, with two years of teaching in my subject areas and a lot of success professionally and relationally at my school and in my church community here. Then, like his injury-laden season with coaching trouble, I had a similar year of challenges after being laid off and working as a teacher-on-call for a year. Then, like Durant, I had a new opportunity to establish myself; for him, a new coach, and for me, a new school. But like the Riders' 2012 season, my season was ended abruptly, and I was left looking for answers (as well as a new job) in the off-season.

Like Durant and the Riders, I started my next "season" strongly; in my case, this included two summers that bookended a school year. I directed a successful camp ministry at the Forge (my church), followed by surprising success in working as a teacher-on-call in 2012-2013, particularly with younger kids, as I spent a surprising amount of time with students in K-5. I capped off the overwhelmingly positive year by again directing Forge Camps in 2013, a time that I consider one of the most rewarding I have ever had in ministry (or employment, for that matter). But like the Riders in 2013, my record has been different after Labour Day, and I have struggled significantly over the past two-plus months of working as a teacher-on-call. I have had some good periods in the past nine weeks, but I have been in a rut most of the time: not feeling motivated, not feeling successful, not able to manage my time well on days off, etc. I have not been able to explain it or even figure it out, but these past two months have been some of the hardest in my life. Just like the Riders' 3-6 finish, my struggle hasn't made a lot of sense, per se, but I have still had to deal with it in the meantime.

"Head up, shoulders back"

And on Sunday, I broke in church. Publicly. Crying. If you know me, you know that I don't do that. Ever. But I did, and it was hard even going to church that morning because I knew going in that I would need to break, and that it needed to be with everyone, and that it was what I needed to do to be not only the person I needed to be but also a leader in that community. So I asked for prayer, and people gathered and prayed for me, and I sobbed and my wife sobbed, and something in me broke; I got lots of hugs after the gathering was done, as well as a number of words of encouragement from a number of people who know me well (as well as a few that don't). One of the main prophetic words I received during the prayer time was from a friend who had the phrase "head up, shoulders back" very clearly for me. It resonated immediately, because my attitude over the past couple of months has just been to (metaphorically) put my head down and just power through this difficult season of life, mostly on my own strength. It's clearly not working, and I needed to break down and have someone point it out for me.

What the Riders were doing on Sunday was not working; the fumble and subsequent failure of 3rd & 1 showed that clearly. So what did Durant do? He responded to the situation as it unfolded around him, he changed the way he led, and he ran forward with his head up and shoulders back. He inspired his teammates, and he earned that victory on Sunday. He still used the previous methods, including Sheets' running game, with limited success, but it was the overall shift in his composure that made the difference between winning and losing. Of course, it's not going to get any easier for him next week going into Calgary; in fact, it will be even harder, and the team might not win, despite his efforts. But they're going to try, and they're going to leave it all on the field (I hope). And that's what I'm determined to do in this season: I'm going to do my best and I'm going to do everything I can to change my composure just like Durant did. I don't know if I can make any changes to my current state of employment or living situation, but what I can change is my attitude and my focus. Instead of just trying to get through, I need to hold my head up and put my shoulders back and to focus my attention in a different direction. In my case, I need to look to my faith in Jesus, as well as looking toward the areas in which I can experience success. I need to look to those around me to inspire me and carry me when I can't take it. And I need to remember that regardless of the outcome of the season that it's all worth it for the journey.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

On Contemporary Christian Music

I recently went to the local Christian bookstore to pick up a new album. It's not a habit I try to keep, but for some releases it's just easier (and cheaper) to have them order it in, rather than trying to order it from Amazon or even through HMV. In this case, the album was the new collection of worship songs from Dustin Kensrue - the former lead singer of Thrice and one of my favourite songwriters - entitled The Water and the Blood. I took a few minutes to look around the store, as I often do, mainly as a way of keeping in touch with what has been happening in the Christian music and publishing industry in recent history. The question, it seems, is why I would feel the need to do that; the answer, I think, is multi-faceted. Part of it is market research: knowing what's out there, who's saying what, and how it might intersect with my life through the people around me who are consuming that culture. Part of it is personal interest, as every so often I find something that I would not have otherwise found, perhaps a new release from a favourite author or artist, or a book title that intrigues me. And part of it is nostalgia: a way of keeping in touch with that part of my past, whether it was my time working in a Christian bookstore six years ago or my time as a Christian-music-only listener in my early university years. I bristled as I waded through the aisles of kitschy baubles and unfortunate trifles to make my way to the music section, and what I found there fascinated me.

I took a few minutes to look through the store's selection, as well as the top releases. Among the artists featured prominently in the store's selection were: Third Day, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, MercyMe, Casting Crowns, Switchfoot, Kutless, Chris Tomlin, Hillsong United, tobyMac, Plumb, Steven Curtis Chapman, Jeremy Camp, Matt Redman, Sanctus Real, Jars of Clay, Martin Smith, and Skillet, among others. Notice anything strange about that list? It's almost identical to the artists that were featured in 2003, a full decade ago (and not a lot different from 1998, for that matter). So I decided to inspect the track listing of WoW Hits 2014, the 19th (!) edition of the most popular tracks in Christian music to see if it was just this particular market's idiosyncrasies or whether this was a wider trend. Of the thirty tracks on the album proper - I overlooked the "bonus tracks" which deliberately focus on new and upcoming artists - only five tracks were from artists that were newly prominent in the past five years. I was curious, so I did a quick check to see how many artists on WoW Hits 2014 were prominent in 2003, and the number was a staggering fifteen - fully half of the album's roster. Just pause for a second and let that sink in: of the most popular artists today in Christian music, half were popular a decade ago, and over 85% were popular five years ago. That's a staggering statistic.

Now, I do recognize that this cursory examination could be criticized as providing a limited perspective, and that it is entirely possible that a wider look might give a different picture. So I looked at the top Christian/Gospel songs and albums at Billboard. On the songs chart, the numbers were similar, with about half of the 25 songs by artists that have been established for a decade, and 6 or 7 songs by artists who have appeared in the past five years - slightly higher than the WoW compilation's ratio, but not much. The Christian albums chart was even more telling - of the 25 albums, three or four were by new artists (with one surprising inclusion of former Live singer Ed Kowalczyk - when did that happen?), and the remaining albums all by decade-long established artists; that's over 80%, even more saturation from artists from 2003 than on the WoW Hits 2014 song list.

So, to recap, that's somewhere between a 50% and 80% possibility that if an artist was popular in Christian music in 2013 that they were popular in 2003. I took a quick peek at the number one albums on Billboard's Christian music chart from 2003 to see if the reverse was true - that being in popular in 2003 meant you would be popular in 2013, and I found only two exceptions: Evanescence, whose career trajectory changed shortly after their initial success after then-member Ben Moody released a tirade about having been released in the Christian market in the first place; and Stacie Orrico, who apparently has a new album coming out in 2014. (The only two other arguable outliers were Michael W. Smith, who won a Dove as recently as 2012, and P.O.D., who still had a number one Christian album in 2012, long after their relevance in the greater musical world.) Granted, 2013 and even 2003 are a long way from 1993, when dc Talk's Free At Last topped the charts for 34 weeks of the year, or 1983, when Amy Grant's Age To Age was the top-selling Christian album every week of the year in the midst of an 85-week streak atop the charts, but my point should be clear by now: when you make it in Christian music, you stay in Christian music, unless you have some grave moral failing. And even then, you can regain your status and come back to the fold, as did Grant, who recently topped the charts in July with her new album.

All of these stats beg the question: why is there such a staggering lack of innovation in CCM (contemporary Christian music)? There are many arguments to be made here, all of which have likely played a part in this functional stagnation. The nature of producing and selling music is different for the entire music industry, as fewer artists are produced by major labels in general, so it is no surprise that there are limits within CCM. In addition, the ability for artists to distribute their music independently is entirely different than it was a decade ago, so many artists can now choose to distribute their music without a middleman (ie. the labels) and deliver it directly to the listener; this is how NoiseTrade started, in large part due to co-founder and former CCM poster boy Derek Webb. The internet - iTunes and YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and the like - have almost completely revolutionized the way we interact with music and musicians, starting sometime in early 2006, around the same time that iTunes reported its one billionth download (Coldplay's "Speed of Sound" on February 22, if you're interested).

But perhaps the central argument is that the scope of CCM is very narrowly limited. It is almost entirely based in Nashville, and its distribution is highly centralized. The industry's awards - the Doves - are a significantly "insider" event, and many critics of CCM have pointed out the (metaphorically) incestual nature of the industry. Furthermore, there is a very tight definition of what constitutes being "Christian" and a strict code of morality that persists anachronistically. If an artist does not adhere to that limited definition, which seems to be primarily centred in Conservative American Evangelicalism, they are not allowed into the industry. And even established artists have to earn their way in; just look at several artists from Tooth & Nail Records who started on the outside, but have now been accepted by the industry (eg. Kutless). It's far easier to maintain a relatively binary model of acceptance, both for the producer and consumer, than it is to open up to dialogue and discussion, and a narrower focus makes it easier to market and define what is "Christian music" and what is not.

Of course, many people would rightfully ask, "why should we even care"? After all, isn't this whole idea of defining music as Christian or not anachronistic in and of itself? It seems so passé to even be thinking about the idea of labels, much less Christian music, as the hyper-individualism and constant self-determination of the iTunes and YouTube age of music has created a culture in which the consumer is paramount, the artist significant, and the producer seemingly irrelevant. So perhaps it doesn't matter, or it shouldn't - except that CCM still sells albums, and it exists as a commercial force, though not a particularly influentially artistic one. Despite the fact that it lacks innovation, lags a half-decade behind in trends, has little diversity, and is almost completely culturally irrelevant, CCM still exists and influences the listening tastes of perhaps millions of listeners.

Is it entirely a bad thing that CCM is still doing its thing? Probably not, as it does appear to provide a useful service for people who want their musical choices pre-edited and sorted according to arbitrary non-musical factors (ie. the faith of the artist). I'm sure that there are arguments to be made about censorship and editing and artistic control and brainwashing and the opiate of the masses, and were I feeling more ideologically driven, I would probably take the time to make those arguments here. But it seems like a lot of effort for little return, so I refrain and treat CCM mostly as an amusing oddity that occasionally produces great artists in spite of itself. I kind of like that there are at least a few artists who make it through in CCM who are worth my attention; my current cause célèbre is The City Harmonic, a Canadian CCM worship band that I have discovered in the past two months, and one that likely would not have as much of a presence without CCM. So CCM exists, and my occasional interactions with it are enough to pique my interest, make me shake my head, chuckle at the quaintness of it all, and ashamedly recall the time a decade ago in which I listened to nothing but Christian music.

Perhaps no band better exemplifies the last decade of CCM than San Diego surf-rockers Switchfoot, who will release a new album entitled Fading West in January 2014. In the midst of that admittedly embarrassing Christian-music-only phase, I remember proclaiming in Feburary 2003 that Switchfoot's album The Beautiful Letdown heralded a significant shift for Christian music. Here was a band that started in CCM, made the successful crossover to the mainstream, and established themselves as a cultural entity with their presence on the soundtrack for the movie A Walk To Remember. Letdown had hits that made it on the main charts, and their subsequent album, Nothing Is Sound, debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in September 2005, though it dropped quickly thanks to Sony's short-sighted DRM copyright protection. They released their final major label album, Oh! Gravity, in late 2006/early 2007 to less commercial success (No. 18 debut on Billboard), and then they went away to record a new album as an established independent band. Their two albums released so far received not insignificant airplay and attention, and the band now has artistic freedom, as well as commercial success within and without the world of CCM. They owe where they are to CCM, but they are no longer bound by it; they benefit from their exposure in CCM, but they're not limited by it.

That's perhaps the lesson here overall: CCM is still meaningful for people, but it is not the entirety of the conversation on Christian music as it was even a half-decade ago. Even though most of the artists are the same, and the industry itself has not changed, the world around it has. The listeners are better off, and even CCM itself is the better for it, even if they don't have the capacity or willingness to acknowledge it.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Oscars 2013: Early thoughts

The narrative is well under way to the Oscars, which will take place in just under four months on March 2. The nominations will not be known until mid-January, but the speculation is already well under way, as the regular columns started in late September. Kyle Buchanan's Oscar Futures at Vulture updates which films are up and down weekly in each category, and Mark Harris writes his perspectives at Grantland about once every week and a half. Most of the real contenders are already established and widely agreed upon, even though they have not been widely released or screened for the masses; of course, there is some argument as to whether this is a good thing or not, but it still is fairly clear which films will likely come out leading in award season. What is far less clear is which films will ultimately come out on top, as much of the posturing and advocating is yet to come. Of course, there are always a few surprises in the last two months, whether they are supposed frontrunners that are critical failures or that fail to gain the necessary traction at the box office, or previously unknown films that ride a groundswell of support to a surprising run. But still, by this point, we know probably at least 80% of the films that will dominate the conversation over the next few months.

When I wrote this post last year (admittedly with two extra weeks of knowledge at the time), the only film that was not a part of the overall conversation at the time was Amour, and the only frontrunner that dipped was The Hobbit (although The Master did fail to break through outside of the acting categories. This year, the field seems even narrower than last, with only eleven films currently mentioned as major contenders - the ones that seem like they will vie for Best Picture and most of the primary awards. The list currently includes (and likely will continue to feature): 12 Years a Slave; American Hustle; August: Osage County; Blue Jasmine; Lee Daniels' The Butler; Captain Phillips; Gravity; Inside Llewyn Davis; Nebraska; Saving Mr. Banks; and The Wolf of Wall Street in some order. There are a few minor contenders that may have an opportunity to be recognized for a performance or two, or perhaps a screenplay nomination, and right now, that list is much shorter, with fewer than half a dozen films on that radar, including: All Is Lost; Dallas Buyers Club; Don Jon; Enough Said; and Rush.

With those titles in mind, here are five films that I think may earn a place in the conversation with their release over the next two months - call these my wild cards.
1. The Book Thief - Though the adaptation of the young adult novel has received little buzz and some middling early reviews, it does feature a favourite setting for Oscar (the Holocaust), as well as a couple of often-noticed performers (Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson).
2. Mandela: A Long Walk To Freedom - Not much has been released about the new biopic of young Mandela, but never count out The Weinstein Company, high-profile biographies, or black actors who deserve to be noticed (ie. Idris Elba).
3. Labor Day - Jason Reitman's newest film is a drama, rather than a comedy, but Reitman along with stars Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin might be enough to ensure this film gets a second look.
4. Out of the Furnace - Young director Scott Cooper's last film, Crazy Heart, went on to two wins for 2009, and his newest might have the same kind of surprises in store. With a cast that features Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Shepard - all of whom have been nominated or won in the past - this could be the ultimate dark horse for the year.
5. Her - Spike Jonze's first effort in four years has had a quiet reputation so far, which perhaps best befits the tone of the film. Jonze has been nominated before as Director, though he could also receive some attention for his screenplay this time, as could star Joaquin Phoenix.

So, with those lists in mind, here are a few early observations and some very preliminary predictions; after all, if I'm wrong, I haven't lost anything, but if I'm right...well, I haven't really gained anything, I guess, but it would be great to know I was right.

1. I am puzzled by the lack of attention toward The Great Gatsby, and I still would not be surprised to see it re-enter the conversation beyond the possible artistic nominations for costumes and set design. It features a director who has been nominated (Luhrmann), a high-profile star (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young ingenue (Carey Mulligan), beloved source material, and it made a lot of money. It may not have the kind of critical support necessary to get some of the main nominations, but it seems odd that it wouldn't be mentioned at all.

2. I'm further puzzled by the lack of attention being paid to Leonardo DiCaprio. He is one of the most bankable, marketable movie stars working today, and he has not one but two notable performances in 2012, with Gatsby in the books and The Wolf of Wall Street finally coming out in December. He has been in the conversation for performances in each of the past five years, but his last nomination was for Blood Diamond in 2006. I think he breaks that streak this year, likely for Wolf; I don't know if he'll be able to win, but I think he'll be a strong contender.

3. It seems like 12 Years A Slave will be one of the dominant entries this year, and that its presence will really bring a focus on the status of African-Americans in film, much like Precious did in 2009. It is with a sense of irony that critics note this fact, as director Steve McQueen is British, but the writer and stars are mostly American. After last year's highly-criticized "whitewashed" versions of slavery in Lincoln and Django Unchained, it seems that 12 Years A Slave is perfectly timed to enter into that discussion and perhaps redefine it. But with three of the major contender films dealing with issues related to racism, this is easily one of the most significant years for black filmmakers. My wild card prediction is that the total number of black directors ever nominated for Director will double this year, with McQueen and Lee Daniels taking two of the spots.

4. American Hustle will be the film that finally earns David O. Russell an Oscar (for screenwriting), and it's going to nab a couple of acting nominations too. All five of the principal stars have been nominated for Oscars in the past three years, and four of them for films by Russell (with two victories). It's entirely possible that Hustle could be the film with the most nominations, if it lives up to its advance billing.

5. Matthew McConaughey and Michael Fassbender break through with nominations after several years of "almost but not quite" making it.

I have a very long list of films that I know I will need to see at this point, but my top films to see are definitely 12 Years A Slave, Inside Llweyn Davis, American Hustle, and The Wolf of Wall Street. It's just too bad that several of those will not be released here for another two months. Maybe I should just go see Gravity again...

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