Why Rybaxel should contend for the WWE Tag Titles

Photo courtesy WWE.com
A little more than a year ago I never would have believed it if I was told I would soon become a fan of either Ryback or Curtis Axel, but the men have become some of my favorite elements of the WWE and, in my opinion, absolutely need to be in the Tag Team Championship picture.

The stop-and-start tag team division in the WWE has been in all but shambles of late, with The Usos (Jimmy and Jey) and The Wyatt Family (Luke Harper and Erick Rowan) being the only real focus. Not to complain - All four men are extremely talented, and they have put on consistently entertaining matches that have shocked just about everyone with their spots and outcomes. There are more teams to consider, however, if only a few at this point.

The wildly talented duo Cody Rhodes and Goldust - The Brotherhood, The Dust Brothers, or whatever they may be going by now - were riding a nicely unique wave of momentum when the younger brother broke up the team only to reassemble it under his newly embraced and very entertaining reinvention, Stardust. I'm not sure if the suitably bizarre backstage segments they've been doing instead of wrestling can be considered a continuation of that momentum, though. Whether this "cosmic key" quest they are on (reminiscent of much younger brothers playing pretend in a basement or backyard) amounts to anything more than simply a return to the ring is yet to be seen.

Xavier Woods also recently became one of the more exciting personalities in the company as he adopted an apparently Malcolm X-inspired gimmick to unite with Big E and Kofi Kingston in what is one of the most exciting angles we're currently seeing. Nothing has come of the new union of yet, however, and I would be surprised if the faction's first goal is obtaining championship gold (or bronze, or whatever the less-than-attractive new belts are supposed to be made out of).

Unless you count Slater-Gator (which has major potential and is already getting over), this brief rundown has already about exhausted the current main roster teams... which brings me to Rybaxel.

Neither the monster Ryan Reeves (Ryback) nor the third-generation legacy Joe Hennig (Curtis Axel) began with flattering runs. Ryback was over possibly just due to a catchphrase and CM Punk's renowned heel work, but his one-dimensionality made him ill-suited as a face. As for Axel, despite a marquee against Triple H and an Intercontinental Championship run, the man once unfortunately known as McGillicutty simply did not seem to have "it". Even the poet laureate of promos Paul Heyman couldn't help matters, and a feud with, yes, CM Punk made Axel out to be a glorified jobber.

Ryback turned heel against John Cena the night after WrestleMania XXIX, and after two hit-and-miss months of a World Title feud began his bully-hating bully gimmick. This tweak to The Big Guy's character, which wound up becoming an extension of the man's reputation with the Internet Wrestling Community, was a brilliant move that instantly made him more entertaining before he joined forces with, yes, Paul Heyman. Once both performers' time with Heyman was mercifully up a tag team was dubiously formed, as if there was nothing better to do.

Turns out, the pairing of Ryback and Curtis Axel has been a great success. I mean, I have no idea if either man is selling boatloads of merchandise or anything, but between the ropes and even in backstage segments the team chemistry has been improving week by week. The two bring out the best in one another, and a sense of friendly competition drives them to make that best better.

Whether highlighted on Raw or relegated to D-show Superstars, Rybaxel brings an infectious jock camaraderie to the programming. Modern kayfabe be damned - these real-life friends are going to show off their brute abilities, gloat about it to camera and hi-five on a job well done. At times the duo is reminiscent of Power & Glory (though for my money they are more talented than Hercules and Paul Roma).

If Harper and Rowan couldn't capture the titles from The Usos, and if they are indeed moving back in to a program under patriarch Bray Wyatt as they seem to have been since Battleground, another team needs to step up. No team other than Rybaxel is looking qualified enough at the moment. Ryback even enjoyed a singles victory over an Uso recently, and the teams have squared off at least twice on television since, so perhaps the idea of Rybaxel contending isn't so far-fetched anymore (though this article has been a long time coming).

Reports from last week's SmackDown taping did indicate Ryback walking out on Axel after suffering a loss, but this did not seem to wind up on Friday's broadcast. Perhaps folks backstage decided there's more longevity to Rybaxel and cut the bit. If this is indeed the case, I say it's a wise move, even if possibly inspired by a lack of depth elsewhere in the tag roster.

Rybaxel as tag team champions - which would be Ryback's first WWE championship - would be the spotlight the hard-working team deserves, and a possible stepping stone to a next chapter wherein the two competitors will move on to more successful singles careers than they had previously.


WWE Battleground: Evaluation of Response

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Nearly everywhere I turn on the 'net today I see complaints about last night's WWE Battleground special. People are saying it was awful, and that we the fans deserve better. Now, I can't disagree it was far from the greatest wrestling event of the year, but there is no call for the ire being tossed its way by the vitriolic Internet Wrestling Community.

That combination is important - wrestling and storytelling. The WWE roster is loaded with incredible wrestling talent right now, to the point that it may have never been better. The storytelling keeps it all in motion, however, rendering the in-ring action all the more exciting. Not every scene can be a climax, and not every outcome can be what you wanted. Battleground is a midway point between two major specials, and it did a solid job of propelling its key stories forward without blowing many off before SummerSlam.

Saying "we deserve better" is forgetting what a hot streak the WWE has been on since WrestleMania. By all means, Payback several months ago should have been a middling show. It's not a gimmick event like Money in the Bank, and it's not one of the "Big Four" like the Royal Rumble, but Creative and the included roster rose to the occasion and delivered a memorable night of wrestling and storytelling. Much of the same can be said for Extreme Rules.

To be fair, WWE could stand to scale back their special event schedule in many cases. Three weeks is simply not enough time to prepare a legitimate marquee, even with longer episodes of Monday Night Raw and a multitude of other weekly in-ring shows. No one can predict factors like Daniel Bryan's neck surgery taking him out of action - we don't have to imagine those wild cards throw major plans out the window - but when booking these events so far in advance the company would do well to afford each event enough time to develop. Since the company isn't doing this consistently now, however, in some cases it just comes down to being a wise consumer. If you were truly excited by the three weeks of lead-up and shelled out $45+ for Battleground, I would be surprised if you didn't get what you wanted. If you wisely subscribe to the WWE Network, there's really not much complaining to be done. Even if the monthly rate eventually goes up as is rumored, it's still a mind-bogglingly excellent deal to be getting every special event live for such a low amount of money, not to mention everything else the Network offers.

Being satisfied with one relatively mediocre event should not suggest I am complacent with the low-priced Network potentially meaning less exciting events. On the contrary. In 2012 I could barely stomach the product. In 2013 it had higher highs but was difficult to stick with enthusiastically. This year, with the Network and the company trying their damnedest to sell it, I'm gung-ho for WWE and the great wrestling and storytelling they've been putting out. That I paid a $9.99 subscription fee to access Battleground just makes me that much less disappointed that the night wasn't WrestleMania Junior.

Sure, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins didn't have the sanctioned match that had been billed, but the two stars occupied three major segments of the show and made for some of the most entertaining moments. It's difficult to imagine being too upset about this, as we got to see the two go at it in multiple venues, we got to see the furthering of their story, and now the inevitable showdown between the two of them at SummerSlam is that much more anticipated.

Sure, Jack Swagger vs. Rusev was riddled with rest holds, but not everyone can be a cruiserweight flipping maniacally off the top rope. In fact, this was my most anticipated match of the night and I was satisfied with what I got. I'm even more excited that the feud does not appear to be over and that I might be getting what I really wanted - a rematch at SummerSlam.

And sure, John Cena may have won and Bray Wyatt may have lost. I am admittedly biased here as throughout 2014 Cena has made a fan of me, and Wyatt has lost me as each cryptic promo has turned out to mean less and less. You really can't be upset that these guys won and lost, respectively, though. Your guys can't always win. We were all 99% assured Cena would be taking this one home, anyway, and it seems clear the Wyatt/Jericho feud is far from over. Does it not make sense, after all, that a guy who has needed the help of his cronies for the majority of his wins wound up losing after said cronies were ejected from ringside? Wyatt is not being "buried" with losses. His character plays a psychological game and his confidence on the microphone has had him constantly working with contemporary legends. He's fine. And besides, would you really have wanted Reigns' first big victory to have come from a throwaway Fatal Four Way?

And don't get me started on The Miz' victory. There were plenty of deserving individuals in the Intercontinental Battle Royal, but none with more legitimate momentum than The Miz, who seems to be in a do-or-die situation with this new Hollywood heel reinvention. He's 'doing', and proverbial 'death' does not seem imminent. The rest of the match brought the best entertainment of the night with Kofi's ever-inspiring anti-elimination creativity, some strong (if fleeting) underdog showings and more.

I understand some dissatisfaction with Battleground, but with the WWE Network as an economic option, a streak of four excellent specials in the rear view and SummerSlam on the horizon, it really doesn't make sense to complain about what was a suitable connect-the-dots piece leading to bigger things.


WWE Battleground: Predictions for Every Match

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Battleground may well be the most "minor" Pay-Per-View (or "special event" on the WWE Network) of 2014, but the 'E has stacked the card (in refreshingly unusual haste, no less) with matches that could render this coming Sunday one of the better outings of the year depending on the ever-important coalescence of performance and creative.

Hit the jump to find out how things could quite probably unfold at the pre-SummerSlam extravaganza.


Almost Arthouse #29: 'Tammy' & 'Deliver Us from Evil'

Ty Landis and Tom Stoup go to town on new releases "Tammy" and "Deliver Us from Evil" in the latest episode of Almost Arthouse, following a disturbing 4-month hiatus.

Listen to the episode at Sound on Sight, and follow us on Twitter @AlmostArthouse.


Radical Predictions for WWE Money in the Bank 2014

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For the fourth week in a row, WWE is in the thick of another excellent round of programming this time featuring some of the year's most memorable segments (Vickie's pudding-soaked farewell and Ziggler vs. Barrett just this past Monday, for example), and seems to be gearing up for a fourth stellar Pay-Per-View in a row with Money in the Bank.

Hit the jump to break down what could very well go down at the forthcoming special event, along with some radical predictions for the ladder-based affairs.


WWE Legends' House Season 2 Fantasy Casting

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Since its announcement several years ago, "Legends' House" just sounded like an awful idea. Another case of WWE striking when the iron has cooled on a trend, and making a mockery of its legacy and those who helped build it with blood, sweat and tears. Boy, was I wrong.

"Legends' House" was not only worth the wait for sheer entertainment value, it was an honest look behind the curtain at the wrestling business and a handful of beloved individuals' hard roads from territories to television and beyond. The brief 9-episode show (plus a reunion) is must-see for any wrestling fan. Even when it falls to the goofy levels of its "reality" predecessors, it's still a hoot just because it involves these, well, legendary characters.

One would imagine WWE is moving quickly to assemble further seasons for this hit concept. The first outing has begun to be referred to as "Season 1,", after all.

Hit the jump to see my ideas for which eight Legends should next inhabit the House.


WWE Money in the Bank 2014: Weighing World Title Contenders' Chances

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With a shockingly excellent sophomore outing for the Payback event in the rear view, we're now on the heels of an unusually thorough and exciting Raw this past Monday (Stardust!) with Money in the Bank fast approaching on the horizon.

With Cena's carefully executed stretcher match victory over Kane, the final entrant for the WWE World Heavyweight Title ladder match has been decided (and let's hope runners-up such as Ziggler, Rusev and Barrett will be placed in a briefcase ladder match at the last minute).

Hit the jump to break down the chances of each qualifier in this year's Money in the Bank main event for the WWE World Heavyweight Title (which, with all due respect for each belt's history, should really be merged in to one new belt featuring the new WWE logo... I mean, right?).


WWE Payback: What WILL Happen

Look at that picture. Just stare at it for, like, ten seconds. Just... what is... that thing. Anyway.

Hopes are still high that the WWE will kick it in to high gear mid-year, since Pay-Per-Views - er, I mean specials... or... yeah, specials, right? - are taking on a somewhat different business meaning now that the Network has ramped up. Money in the Bank and SummerSlam are likely to deliver based on a solid gimmick match basis and what is typically the second-biggest show of the year, respectively, but then Night of Champions falls around the point when the first round of Network subscribers will be reaching the end of the 6-month commitment period. It's do-or-die time, even if recent episodes of Monday Night Raw most certainly haven't felt that way.

So I suppose I should be fair and allow the WWE to be in low gear for a month here and there (safe money's on "there" being Battleground). I was really fired up after an excellent Extreme Rules, though, and all we've seen since is a whole lot of spinning wheels (with a handful of hit-and-miss mid-card angles still bubbling up, to be fair). Very few of the matches on the Payback card feel fresh despite added gimmicks.

Let's get down to it.

WWE Network Pre-Show: El Torito vs. Hornswoggle; Hair vs. Mask Match
Though the match name embarrasses me each time I think it let alone say it or type it, WeeLC was a healthy dose of fun to kick off an absolutely stacked night of action, so I hesitate to doubt the ability of this comedy duo to pull off another surprising match.
Problem is, we've been inundated with different variations of El Torito & Los Matadores vs. Hornswoggle & 3MB for nearly 2 months now. We've seen it more than we've seen Santino vs. Fandango, and that's really something. I'm not sure if Hornswoggle shaving his head is going to make this worth the rewind when I opt to hit Payback's "play from beginning" feature at my convenience Sunday evening.

Winner: El Torito, via whatever it is El Torito does

Sheamus (c) vs. Cesaro for the United States Championship
I didn't want to be one of the ones saying this, but wow, Cesaro has really lost momentum since his major night at WrestleMania XXX. At least he's maintaining a better status than he held this time a year ago. I'm holding out hope that there are big plans for the Swiss Superman in the coming months (a pipe dream booking I've entertained involves a Lesnar return, a certain vacant title and a major face turn), and the United States Title does not equate to "big plans", even if a former WWE Champion is currently its custodian.
Sheamus has been in more desperate need of a heel turn than Randy Orton was last year, and barring an unforeseen change in plans I believe the trigger has already been pulled to set that in motion. I'm not sure it's quite time for either of these characters to switch sides, however, and I don't see the 'E taking the strap from the Celtic Warrior after such a brief run.
This is admittedly a tough call to make this time around. Cesaro is being pushed, presumably to bigger things, and Sheamus is being protected until his next main event run. Their feud seems borne of in-ring chemistry that just had to be capitalized on. I'm thinking the contest ends in a double count-out as our competitors become rapt in a brawl and lose sight of the ostensible goal of the match. This seems a better option than one of the two being disqualified for breaking the rules, anyway. Keep the hard-hitting train rolling in to Money in the Bank, perhaps.

Winner: N/A (Double count-out)

Bad News Barrett (c) vs. Rob Van Dam for the Intercontinental Championship
With Cesaro in the US Title picture and Bad News Barrett in the IC Title picture, does that mean it's officially 2013 again? Here I was feeling as though the two European heels had graduated from these belts. Then again, the belts do feel at least a little more prestigious now than they were one year ago, when both Cesaro and Wade Barrett were in the thick of truly atrocious runs that devalued both the performers and the titles. All involved had to be rehabbed, and honestly I'm just concerned these mid-card titles will inflict some bad déjà vu.
It was disappointing to see RVD win the Beat-the-Clock Challenge on Raw recently, as he has never interested me and he's so washed up now I'm worried he'll blow up like a beached whale every time his pyro goes off. Credit where credit's due, though - the guy is putting people over in these latter years of his career (poor Kenny King), and it's not quite to the point that it's boringly predictable like it has become with Chris Jericho.
Though I'm not interested in the match simply due to RVD being the opponent, Barrett has become one of the most entertaining talents on the roster so it shouldn't be a total waste.

Winner: Bad News Barrett, via Bad News Bullhammer

Paige (c) vs. Alicia Fox for the Divas Championship
Just when the Divas division was about to be all about Paige, Alicia Fox has up and stolen the spotlight. And good on her - Paige has enough fan support that she can easily withstand a dull debut run, and Fox is one of the most talented and dedicated women on the roster yet barely ever gets to shine. The "crazy chick" heel may sound played out, but Fox is doing some of the most effective and entertaining character work I've seen from a Diva since resuming my WWE viewership a year and a half ago (good riddance, PG Era!).
There's no chance Fox actually takes the glittery strap off Paige, especially with AJ Lee on the cusp of a post-marital return and that beautifully modified Scorpion Deathlock in Paige's arsenal, but I'm expecting some excellent spots (Northern Lights suplex, please!). Actually, this one could surprise many and wind up as one of the more entertaining matches of the night if the competitors make the most of their allotted time.

Winner: Paige, via Scorpion Deathlock submission

John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt; Last Man Standing Match
No one has spun more wheels in the past month than John Cena and Bray Wyatt. Even Jimmy Uso and Luke Harper have done more to advance storylines and generate interest between Extreme Rules and Payback. I have gone from being interested in Wyatt rehabbing his character's/faction's stop-and-start momentum (which seems an overlooked issue) against Cena (whom as stated previously I've come to like in recent months) after their psychologically excellent WrestleMania match to being as completely bored as usual when either of these performers or their lackeys are on screen.
I had heard plans were to go long-form with this angle, but unless Creative is holding out for something special on the way to Money in the Bank it's clear from recent weeks this storyline has run its course. Besides, it's kind of tough to buy that Cena defeating Wyatt in a match would prevent Wyatt from spreading his message - whatever that message is - or vice versa, for that matter. I can accept it - it's WWE after all - but after a this long with no real development I stop to care because it just doesn't make sense.
Technically these guys are tied and Last Man Standing is the rubber match, though Wyatt looked stronger when Cena won at Mania (due to the aforementioned psychology) and despite a more physically based match that Cena always looked significantly stronger in, the unique finish at Extreme Rules kept Bray in the dominant position. This program is clearly all about putting Bray over in a big way, and that will continue at Payback when - with the help of his acolytes - Wyatt will emerge victorious.

Winner: Bray Wyatt, via Sister Abigail's Kiss

The Shield vs. Evolution; No Holds Barred Elimination Match
Now here's the match we wanted in the first place. Good on whomever booked it for doing this right. And I suppose I picked a poor event to switch from my "What COULD Happen, What WILL Happen" format because so many matches here are tough to call, and this one is no different, even if I can barely remember why these groups hate one another to begin with (not that I'm complaining - the matches have been fantastic).
The Shield is the hottest active thing going now that Bryan can't compete for however many months. The philosophy of late has seemed to be building the next generation, and a win here would galvanize this team even more than they already have been, which would be significant. Going 2-0 on Evolution? Would be pretty nuts right there. There's also the issue of Batista leaving at some unknown point (always rumored to be right after whatever the next special event is), so unless Evolution snatches up a new member (Sheamus? Cody Rhodes?) this feud has to go out with The Shield on top sooner rather than later.
Then, Evolution may look like chumps these days (sorry HHH - still love ya, big guy) but they're certainly not to be counted out. They've also been playing up the isolate and eliminate angle big time, and that may be exactly what we end up seeing, though not without a strong rally from their upstart opponents. I wouldn't count out an eliminated member of Evolution returning to ringside to help facilitate a win ("adapting" to the situation?).
I'll stick with what may be the safer bet and say Evolution takes this one. The Shield looks incredible right now (rarely have they looked otherwise, but it keeps getting better) and they can afford a loss - especially when it's to a group of multiple-time world champions. As for Batista, despite rumors I think he's sticking around for now. I'm just as down on him as the next guy - never been a fan, plus his promos and workrate are utter garbage - but I believe him when he says he's going with the flow. The flow, as mentioned, is currently about building the next generation, and through matches with Daniel Bryan, The Shield and recently Dolph Ziggler, Batista has proved that he takes no issue making younger talent look strong and even taking falls at big shows. He isn't obligated to leave to promote Guardians of the Galaxy quite yet, after all.
The Hounds of Justice will clinch this someday soon, but Payback will not be that day.

Winners: Evolution, via Pedigree, RKO & Batista Bomb

Daniel Bryan addresses the state of the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
They're gonna make this one belt soon, right? I mean, the WWE logo is slowly being changed to the pointy deal we see on the Network and the future WrestleMania logos so they'll need a new WWE Championship belt soon either way, and... well... they had just better not be separating them again (which could be an ill-advised swerve here, with Bryan keeping one and relinquishing the other).
Anyway... Bryan has to drop the belts. I can only imagine this bit is being drawn out so long because A) Bryan had that tedious half-year climb to reclaim what he won at SummerSlam, and B) if the belt was dropped before Payback, one would think that then would demand that it be contended for at Payback, and at this point it's too late to throw something like that together.
I keep saying what goes down at Payback is difficult to predict, which seems odd to say about what feels like such a "nothing" event, but how in the world can one predict what happens here? Yes, I think Bryan has no choice but to drop the belts. There has even been the added stipulation that if he refuses, his wife Brie will be fired from the company, so when he does vacate it won't look like he's easily giving in to Stephanie's demands (even though Stephanie is 100% correct - not only do we fans deserve to see the title defended, the title needs to be defended to maintain credibility). But then what happens to the title?
The ideal way for this to go, in my opinion, is for the inevitably vacated title to be announced for a Money in the Bank Ladder Match. To end the night on at least some kind of a bang (presuming this goes on last), some superstars wanting to contend for a spot in the match can make entrances and stare one another down. Kane will be there, I'm sure. Lesnar? Nah, he'll show up later. Preferably in a program with Cesaro. Even more preferably in a world title program with Cesaro.

Result: Daniel Bryan vacates the WWE World Heavyweight Championship; Money in the Bank Ladder Match for the Championship announced.

This feels like an event where one or three unannounced matches or segments will be added to the card, either due to the show running short or Creative (or whoever) simply forgetting to promote confirmation of a match (yeah right, but it's fun to imagine the ulcer this would give Vince).
Here are some potential offerings we could be surprised with during Payback, or at least which could be announced on the Pre-Show, based on sufficiently developed angles I believe could fit in this case.

  • Leo Kru-- I mean Adam Rose vs. Jack Swagger rematch (winner: Leo Kru-- I mean Adam Rose, via Party Foul)
  • Big E vs. Rusev (winner: Rusev, via Accolade submission)
  • Bo Dallas motivational speech promo (possibly to be interrupted by a jobber - let's say Sandow dressed as a Ninja Turtle - thus becoming a match won by Bo Dallas via BoDog)
  • The Usos (c) vs. Luke Harper & Eric Rowan for the Tag Team Championships (winners: Luke Harper & Eric Rowan via Discus Clothesline to an airborne Uso)


WWE Extreme Rules 2014: Galvanizing the New Generation

It would be difficult to justify this year's Extreme Rules as a Pay-Per-View of surprises, per se. After all, apart from one minor detail regarding a DQ, each of my predictions for the event came true, and they weren't very far-out predictions, either. I was also quite hyped for the event, being invested in every angle except the two most minor, those being WeeLC and the handicap match, so I would have been suitably satiated if everything had been merely adequate as opposed to incredible.

The real surprise is just how damn good this event really was overall. I had to check and make sure I hadn't suddenly reverted to being 13 years old again.

No stops were left intact, even before WeeLC commenced. That pre-show showdown of height-challenged performers was shockingly an acceptable amalgam of comedy (the stand-in commentators' punny names made me chuckle) and actual sports entertainment as El Torito, Hornswoggle and their respective entourages performed legitimate spots and told a character-based story in the ring instead of pulling the usual small-people-doing-big-people-things gags.

The breakout star of the night for me was by far Alexander Rusev. I had once seen him make a Raw appearance as his Brigitte Nielsen-esque advocate Lana spoke in Russian about him, and I saw his very brief segment on the most recent SmackDown, but I have been otherwise blind due to Hulu+'s episode trimming. Not only did Lana dedicate the match to Vladimir Putin and put a huge image of Putin on the Titantron, the beautifully anti-patriotic heel likes of which are so rare anymore, Rusev himself didn't boringly squash his opponents but still took it to them with gusto and won with the Iron Sheik's finisher! This whole match gelled perfectly for me, including Lana instructing Rusev to "Smash!"

And match of the year goes to The Shield v. Evolution. It would truly be something to see this slobberknocker topped in 2014, as The Shield mopped the Izod Center with their predecessors, making Triple H, Randy Orton and Batista look like they had just been wheeled out of a retirement community. I don't think I've ever been so excited to see my main man HHH get schooled. Amazing spots rapidly abounded, topped by a Superfly splash from Rollins in an unlikely location and immediately followed by Reigns' incredible and clean three over Batista. The not-so-promising six-man tag nature of this thing did not keep it from being an absolute classic. In case it wasn't clear already, it is now chiseled in stone that The Shield belongs at the top of the WWE.

Gotta hand it to two popular dudes I've been down on of late, as well. Due to creative ideas, talented opponents and fresh enthusiasm, Bray Wyatt and Daniel Bryan fired me up with their performances that involved chillingly demonic theatrics, forklifts and a burning table.

Hurray for Cesaro even though his match was the most dull of a card stacked with good matches (almost by default due to Swagger being the jobber of the feud and RVD being completely useless... but I hope his face is okay after that last sequence). Still decent, though, and I'm glad they made it elimination style at the last minute (better late than never).

Huzzah for Barrett after a solid match against Big E. I like these guys about equally but Barrett had 100% of the momentum going in to the night and deserved this win. Big E needs a better opportunity to show who he is outside the ring. Sometimes I feel I'm the only one on the Internet who knows he's amazing when given freedom on the mic. Actually, he and Barrett could probably have an excellent feud if they were allowed to make it personal.

And whoopee for Paige, as well, as she pulled off a beautiful-looking rendition of her signature submission finisher on the big bad Tamina, who also lived up to my positive feelings about her in-ring work. This Divas Championship match may have featured the only bad moment of the night when a cover was botched by... well, I'm not sure who is to blame for that one, but it was awkward for a moment or two there.

From top to bottom, Extreme Rules 2014 delivered on all cylinders. WrestleMania XXX signaled the shift: a new generation has finally dawned. The variables seem to be coalescing in its favor. Here's hoping WWE doesn't take its foot off the accelerator.


WWE Extreme Rules 2014: What COULD Happen, What WILL Happen

This is only my second one of these - the first having been WrestleMania XXIX - which I will attribute in equal parts to laziness and busyness. I suppose I should also attribute it to the fact that although the wrestling has been possibly more consistent than ever and the storytelling has had some major high points, the past year has featured a heavy amount of lackluster cards that have failed to get me fired up.

Now we come to Extreme Rules 2014. Last year's recently annual Pay-Per-View (I had better get used to not calling them that anymore) was top-to-bottom terrible, with the sole saving grace being the shockingly entertaining, if randomly chucked together strap match between Mark Henry and Sheamus, neither of whom are featured at this year's event (whether that is a good or bad thing is difficult to say, as both performers are so very hit-or-miss).

This year, however, represents quite probably the most I have been interested in a full card since, like, 2001. The established stars are hot and a refreshing number of up-and-coming stars are even hotter. With only a few meager exceptions, I am invested in every storyline heading in to the fallout of what was a very special night in WrestleMania XXX (made all the more special by the huge build-up shown for the first time ever on the new WWE Network). And the Rhodes brothers aren't even involved (fingers crossed for a slow feud built to a big, Dusty-involving blowoff at SummerSlam)! I don't even mind that so few of the matches are "extreme", as I've begun to care less and less for what was once called the "hardcore" side of this business. I'm seeing great storylines and great wrestling and I'm a happy boy.

So here's what I'd like to see happen at the event, and what will actually happen.

WWE Network Pre-Show: El Torito vs. Hornswoggle; WeeLC Match
Just to get this out of the way (no, I'm not talking about the pre-show match quite yet), since the WWE Network understandably does not carry Monday Night Raw live and Cable is preposterously expensive, I resort to catching Hulu+'s 90-minute version of the show that is available next-day and trims a lot of fat (so basically I don't "get" to see 3MB a whole lot).
A victim of this trimming has been the mini-feud between the mini-wrestlers El Torito and Hornswoggle, so I am entirely blind to whatever has been going on to create this match. I would be puzzled if this were a YouTube pre-show designed to accumulate last-minute buys, but since it's a Network exclusive, I guess they just want a comedy act to warm up the crowd? Forgive me if I'm neglecting the seething throngs of fans finally convinced to sign up for the Network so they don't miss this showdown.

What I'd like to happen: Match replaced w/Usos (c) vs. RybAxel for the Tag Team Championships
I'm not really a fan of the Junior Headshrinkers, but Ryback has been my homie since his heel turn almost exactly one year ago and in this new tag team Joe Hennig has begun to show that maybe at least 1% of his being is not a charisma void. It's fun to see these guys perform together, and I would not take issue with them receiving a rematch for the straps (even if they'll inevitably get the Rhodes Scholars treatment). Word has it tension between the two is a possibility after Friday's go-home SmackDown, and a singles feud between the two would be quite alright with me, as well.

What will happen: El Torito def. Hornswoggle
Not having seen the build-up, I suppose it's unfair to assume this will merely be a comedy match. With Los Matadores and 3MB at ringside and the moniker "WeeLC", however, I think I'm safe. At least it's better than WrestleMania III's more legitimized performers being wasted on a segment about little people dressed as offensive stereotypes, right? Well, I don't think a shiny bull is an offensive stereotype, anyway.
In short (ha-yuk), Torito will climb a comically small ladder and claim victory over Hornswoggle, simply because the latter is presumably the heel via 3MB association and this is a feel-good ordeal.

Alexander Rusev vs. Xavier Woods & R-Truth
I promise this is the last time this will happen, but this feud has also been trimmed from Hulu+ so I'm mostly blind to it. I also have less to say about it than WeeLC.

What I'd like to happen: Alexander Rusev def. Xavier Woods & R-Truth
The new monster heel with a vintage foreigner gimmick goes over a no-longer relevant K-Kwik and some other new guy I've never heard of, but I hear was Prince Albert's job fodder when Tons of Funk mercifully broke up a few months back.

What will happen: Alexander Rusev def. Xavier Woods & R-Truth
He'll make Kwik work of it, too.

Cesaro vs. Jack Swagger vs. Rob Van Dam
It's hard to believe I'm saying this about something involving Jack Swagger, but thanks to the magic of Cesaro these guys have one of the hottest feuds going right now. Well, ample credit goes to Paul Heyman and "Dirty" Dutch Mantel for their made-for-one-another promos, but Cesaro, man... who else could have turned Heyman face on the very same night he had earlier been gloating about Brock Lesnar defeating The Undertaker's notorious Streak, which was still very much an open wound?
It's disappointing to see the tired spot-fest that is Rob Van Dam shoehorned in to this at the last minute just because I guess they didn't have anything else for the guy to do now that he's back for another 3-month stint. Being optimistic, I suppose I can hope he'll mix it up since we've already seen Cesaro vs. Swagger several times on free TV thus far.

What I'd like to happen: Cesaro def. Jack Swagger & Rob Van Dam
Cesaro is one of the brightest future top stars the WWE has going, and it's great to see him on the receiving end of a wild push. This Swagger feud is an obligatory team-breaks-up-and-fights-about-it angle to keep him busy for now, but big things are on the horizon for the Swiss Superman should he not run afoul of the McMahon family.

What will happen: Cesaro def. Jack Swagger & Rob Van Dam
The Cesaro Train has left the station at full clip and it's not slowing down to pick up stragglers. Hopefully the match sees some amusing Heyman/Mantel moments and maybe RVD will try to show Cesaro that Heyman can be a rat somehow ("I didn't get it the first time you unnecessarily somersaulted across the ring, maybe try again?"), but Cesaro's walking away from this with his hand held high after a swing here, a neck crack there and Neutralizers for all.

Big E (c) vs. Bad News Barrett for the Intercontinental Championship
The Intercontinental Championship Tournament that's been on Raw the past few weeks has been fun to watch, and if you ask me the right guy won it. I'm a fan of both competitors going in to this match, and it should be a solid showdown.

What I'd like to happen: Bad News Barrett def. Big E
I've been down on Barrett in the past, but looking back on my thoughts regarding his WrestleMania pre-show match last year (defending the Intercontinental title against The Miz), I'm reminded that I've at least recognized an alleged talent people who were watching the product during his initial run are waiting to see capitalized on. Well, adding "Bad News" to his repertoire may just do the trick (if it hasn't already, considering certain backstage rumors of late), because not only is this guy fun to listen to (and mimic, and make memes of), he's got new wind in the ring and I found myself cheering as he climbed the IC tourney brackets.

What will happen: Bad News Barrett def. Big E
There was a time not long ago that I was extremely high on Big E, but due to mediocre booking he hasn't been made out to look like the beast he is in the ring, and he hasn't been permitted to show his uproarious sense of humor on the mic. I still like the guy and mark out for his entrance, and I will relish seeing him perform at Extreme Rules, but Barrett is the one with all the momentum here and it's time for some Bad News.

Paige (c) vs. Tamina Snuka for the Diva's Championship
How excited would everyone have been a year ago if we could have seen this booking? Paige is finally on the main roster and she came in with a bang. Yeah, the segment on the post-WrestleMania Raw could have been handled better (why is Paige all of a sudden so meek, and why did she interrupt AJ just to congratulate her?) but I still went nuts when it went down. I, for one, am also pleased to see Tamina getting a little push as I've always enjoyed watching her work. Well, it's either that or I enjoy seeing Nikki Bella getting super-kicked.

What I'd like to happen: Paige def. Tamina Snuka
Paige is the most exciting thing to happen to the Divas division in a long while, and I hope she holds the title for a long time, taking down predecessors like the Bellas, the Funkadactyls and so on in a series of competent matches. I don't think this hope is a pipe dream, either.

What will happen: Paige def. Tamina Snuka
Maybe I should pretend I want the opposite of what I think will actually happen at some point just so the "could" and the "will" part of this article structure will pay off.
Anyway... yes, I like that Tamina is getting a little push right now but that's simply because she's the resident big woman of the current Divas roster. Her job will be to make fans believe that Paige's reign has no chance, then to make Paige look great by counting the lights in the Izod Center. You know, the usual.

John Cena vs. Bray Wyatt; Steel Cage Match
I was not high on this feud heading in to WrestleMania as I did not feel Bray Wyatt was ready for this kind of spotlight and simultaneously did not feel the relatively non-marquee spot was a good use of John Cena at such a marquee event. The resulting match wound up being one of the better parts of the night due to the ring psychology - a true Batman/Joker dynamic straight out of "The Dark Knight" (several quotes from the film have been used in Cena's promos since, even). Wyatt, whom I had criticized as a victim of noncommital booking and nonsensical promos, got a huge rub from an entrance even wilder than usual and from performing well against Cena, and Cena's ultimate victory not only made perfect sense for Cena, it did nothing to hurt Wyatt. Excellent booking.
Even though the WrestleMania match could have been the blowoff to the brief feud, it only makes business sense to keep it going and with the exception of only one minor misstep in the always-doomed slideshow segment (in this case featuring Wyatt Family members' heads Photoshopped on to the bodies of babies and women - how embarrassing, oh my!), things have kept up and in my opinion gotten even better as Wyatt has continued his horrorshow and Cena's very being has been threatened by his opposition's rise in popularity. The go-home Raw's opening segment with Cena's caged promo and Wyatt's eerie interruption was one for the ages.

What I'd like to happen: John Cena def. Bray Wyatt
Yes, you read that right. Since Cena returned from his tricep injury last year, I've slowly but surely become a fan due to slight tweaks in his character that have worked miracles in turning me from a "Cena sucks!" guy to a "Let's go Cena!" guy.
Full disclosure, my 4½-year-old daughter and recently new owner of "Scooby Doo! WrestleMania Mystery" has become a full-fledged Cena fan and in turn he has become a prominent positive role model for her, so that is a key reason why I'd like to see him overcome the odds yet again here, as well. "Odds" because if you think that steel cage is keeping Harper and Rowan on the outside, I've got some Bad News. Remember last year's SummerSlam?

What will happen: Bray Wyatt def. John Cena
Swerve! Well, not really. Basically, it's Bray's turn. Yes, in my opinion the WrestleMania match was perfectly booked and Wyatt got the huge rub and all... but this feud is designed to put Bray over and it's time to do that literally.
As a sidenote, it's also possible this feud is also designed to switch Cena in to a lower gear, though I believe the man still has a title run or two left in him. Blah, blah, Ric Flair's record, blah.

The Shield vs. Evolution; Six-Man Tag Team Match
Six-man tag? Six-man tag!?!? You know this feud ain't ready to be over when this thing gets booked as a six-man tag (so... good, I guess?). Sure, all hell will break loose sooner or later but six-man tag is not what we want to see.
Anyway, thank goodness The Shield hasn't broken up yet. Each individual is great and each has a potentially huge future ahead of them, but as of now The Shield as a group not only functions extremely well as a unit, they're extremely over.
And thank goodness for nostalgia. I didn't know I could feel nostalgic for an aspect of the Ruthless Aggression Era, even my main man HHH's main stable of the time since Batista is just awful and the talented Randy Orton's latest arc has made him look like a lame duck, but there it was when Motorhead Entrance Music #2 struck and these guys appeared. And yeah, Flair crawled to the ring in a stupor to deliver an awkward promo only discernible in its aims by the way the commentators bellowed about it... I wish they'd keep that man off television due to the way he chooses to conduct himself, but I suppose it was important-ish to get the elephant out of the room (now keep him out).

What I'd like to happen: The Shield def. Evolution
Hey, I love me some Triple H more than most people seem to, but The Shield is where it's at right now, at the forefront of the new generation of talent. It'd be a blast to see them gain the upper hand after a strong matchup, and for Reigns to impale Triple H with a spear for the three count.

What will happen: The Shield def. Evolution via disqualification
After a battle hard-fought by both sides, The Shield will begin to close in on a tight victory when Triple H will get "extreme" and prevent his team from taking a fall with a sledgehammer to... let's say Ambrose's noggin. Or something like that. I almost want to say Evolution takes out The Shield clean here (well, maybe with some unfair play behind the official's back) just so they look like even more of a threat before Ambrose, Rollins and Reigns win in a blowoff match with a real stipulation... but a DQ seems even more probable.

Daniel Bryan (c) vs. Kane for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship; Extreme Rules Match
I wonder if the reason Daniel Bryan wasn't carrying the belts this past Monday is because they're about to unveil one unified belt with the new WWE logo they seem to be transitioning to? I sure hope they don't break up the titles again, anyway. It's already been better with just one World title, and they need to unify the IC and US titles, stat.
Anyway... despite a true rollercoaster of emotions from winning WrestleMania and marrying Brie Bella to his father and most special Make-A-Wish kid dying, Bryan has remained strong on television since finally being allowed to be the top guy (kayfabe, naturally, as anyone who thought he hasn't been the top guy since SummerSlam needs a reality check). And as seems to almost always be the case with a new champion, he's going to have to go through a seemingly unbeatable monster to hold on to that spot.
It is strange that this long-awaited Bryan/Kane feud is so far removed from the duo's days as popular tag champs Team Hell No. The commentators have even overtly veered away from mentioning the perpetually tense team during the Usos' tag matches. Does the WWE believe the extra layer we wanted to see capitalized on more than a year ago would overcomplicate things?
Anyway (again)... I do like that Brie has been accompanying Bryan to the ring, and I hope that on-screen partnership outlasts her simply being used as fodder for Kane's new slasher villain thing he's got going on. I also like the new slasher villain thing Kane's got going on! Sure, it could be going a whole lot smoother... his two outings thus far have been rather awkward... but I dig that the company is going for it, and maybe one of these days a segment will really gel.

What I'd like to happen: Daniel Bryan def. Kane
If only because I'm totally indifferent to Bryan and his losing here would just spark backlash from his fanbase. Hey, remember when this PPV used to be called Backlash? Good times.

What will happen: Daniel Bryan def. Kane
Of all the matches on the card this is the easiest to predict.
There will probably be a few near falls, and when I think about it I could see this ending in a DQ due to Kane simply wanting to destroy Bryan rather than win the championship (oh wait, extreme rules... right, nevermind). Not only, however, is the old Kane long gone and the new one difficult to remove from his lengthy stint as a comedy act, as mentioned above this type of match is just another telling of that old David and Goliath tale designed to further legitimize a new champ. It would be neat to see Bryan do what he did to Orton last year and make Kane tap by threading a kendo stick through his crossface submission finisher.

And there we have it. The only question remaining is... what will Leo Kru-- I mean, Adam Rose do the next night on Raw? If it involves Fandango and/or Santino, I will mournfully bid farewell to the man's promising career.


Top 10 Films of 2013

Honorable mentions
#20  Young & Beautiful (Ozon)
#19  Dark Skies (Stewart)
#18  Prince Avalanche (Green) - Listen to the "'Prince Avalanche' & TIFF 2013 preview" episode of Almost Arthouse.
#17  Saving Mr. Banks (Hancock)
#16  All the Light in the Sky (Swanberg)
#15  The Counselor (Scott)
#14  Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie)
#13  Paradise: Hope (Seidl)
#12  Pacific Rim (Del Toro)
#11  Behind the Candelabra (Soderbergh)

#10  Only God Forgives  Refn
As any Sylvester Stallone fan would also testify, I've seen plenty of epitomizing displays of badassery in film. I never once considered going in to Nicolas Winding Refn's "Drive" follow-up that supporting actor Vithaya Pansringarm would usurp my entire concept of badassery in one, yes, unforgiving - and karaoke-filled - slash.
"Only God Forgives" is a bizarre rabbit hole of precise philosophies of vengeance, hyperbolized Oedipal themes and bloodthirsty angst. It may not be Refn's greatest achievement, especially considering "Valhalla Rising" and the aforementioned "Drive", but yet again the director has reframed cinematic violence in freshly assured fashion like no other.

#9  MANAKAMANA  Stephanie Spray; Pacho Velez
A 16mm camera – its unmistakable, hypnotic hums and ticks audible through the unfiltered sound bed – remains stationary on one cable car, opposite travelers heading to and from the temple. Between rides of approximately 10 minutes a piece depending on the time of day, weather conditions, etc., we are shrouded in the stark shadow of the boarding stations, awaiting the emergence of the next passenger in to the sun’s light. At once, we are taken with gorgeous vistas over Gorkha, but there is more than meets the eye to this ultimate people-watching affair. Not dissimilar to the alternately serene and startling atmosphere, perhaps most striking is the juxtaposition of a much older society accepting newer technology in to the common fold of their ways.

Read the full review as part of Sound on Sight's TIFF 2013 coverage.
Listen to the "TIFF 2013 Recap & 'Prisoners'" episode of Almost Arthouse.

#8  The Broken Circle Breakdown  Felix Van Groeningin
When recommending "The Broken Circle Breakdown" to a friend, that friend observed, "It sounds a lot like 'Blue Valentine'". He couldn't have been more on-point - this devastatingly gorgeous Belgian melodrama charting how two people, no matter how connected, can be torn apart by uncontrollable circumstances is absolutely a Bluegrass Valentine.
One of several films on this list intrinsically tied to song - and one of two built with musical performances linked to Americana - "Breakdown" embraces the beautiful handshake film and music share, and persists beyond the screen with a soundtrack immensely difficult to get out of your head (as if one would want to).

#7  Frozen  Chris Buck; Jennifer Lee
Okay, so Disney's "Frozen" (which really should have been called "The Snow Queen" even if it doesn't follow the Hans Christian Andersen story in the least) is a very uneven movie. The silly troll scenes are useless, Olaf's supporting character arc just kind of disappears after being introduced in a dull song, and the second act drags considerably. That said, I simply cannot neglect the immense power "Frozen" brings to the table. Many say the film heralds a return to form for Disney, but I'd rather consider it a galvanization of a new direction.
The lesser yet more consistent "Tangled" (which, yes, probably should have been called "Rapunzel") features a more complex and proactive female protagonist (whereas most in the past have simply been pretty plot points waiting to be fallen in love with, roll credits), the inspiring and deeply layered "Brave" (admittedly Pixar but still under the same umbrella) is a complete upheaval of the Disney princess stereotype, and the jaunty "Wreck-It Ralph" introduces ambiguity between black & white heroism and villainy. Now "Frozen" brings us Queen Elsa, a unique character sympathetically toeing the line between good and evil, who empowers herself upon exile in the exhilarating and anthemic "Let It Go" number. That's not to forget Elsa's sister, whose twist ending refreshingly bucks two unfortunate Disney princess tropes in one swift motion.
I'm not sure I can go as far as to say it is already my very favorite of the company's "Masterpiece" canon (a difficult list to top what with nostalgia being a thing and all), but it has assuredly introduced me to my new favorite Disney character and my new favorite Disney scene, which is saying a lot.
At the very least, I am thrilled the deservedly most notorious  family entertainment company in the world is making a conscious effort to provide role models for people like my four-year-old daughter.

#6  The Lone Ranger  Gore Verbinski
I don't always feel like the only person who truly appreciates Gore Verbinski's bigger budget work, but when I do, I'm watching "The Lone Ranger".
Oh, wow, forgive me, I guess I just had to get that Dos Equis meme out of my system. And the statement is certainly not to forget the one-two punch that is "Dead Man's Chest" and "At World's End". I do also recognize there are other fans of "The Lone Ranger" - even a spare few who seem to feel about it as strongly as I do - but this film really took a bashing from audiences and critics alike and for one time more in my life I really do not comprehend why.
Verbinski operates in blockbuster filmmaking as if it were an art form all its own. His orchestration is symphonic and cyclical, his storytelling simultaneously powerful and subtle and his major set pieces leaving every penny of his budget apparent on screen, the man excels in presenting the duality of the "film industry" through visual poetry that reaches to the soul and high-concept adventure that feeds the eyes and ears 'til they're fully satiated.
"The Lone Ranger" is a film deeply reverent of the ghosts of America's natural heritage. It is a film about building rather than destroying. It is a film honoring its source while proving that such things are not necessarily hokey and outdated.
"The Lone Ranger" stimulates on nearly all levels and, for one very special chase sequence, makes me feel like a boy again.

#5  Nebraska  Alexander Payne
After the watered-down "The Descendants" I was worried about Alexander Payne. The definitively American auteur could not have turned me around more certainly than he has with his best feature to date.
"Nebraska" is undoubtedly the work of the Payne we know and love, with similar archetypes and structure, but the ideas explored here reach deeper than I feel "Sideways" and even "About Schmidt" do (which is not to discredit those excellent and affecting films). Road movies almost always appeal to me, however it is the notion of not having anything left to hold on to, and the idea of coming to terms with what could have been in life before passing the torch, that renders this one rock solid (even if June Squibb's reprisal of the verbally abusive wife is sadly one-dimensional).

#4  Prisoners  Denis Villeneuve
For nearly 10 years, Prisoners passed through many a director and star (including Antoine Fuqua, Bryan Singer, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christian Bale) before arriving in theaters, and it would be a challenge to imagine a team realizing the project with more tact than Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal have. Through Deakins’ carefully calculated cinematography, Villeneuve weaves without restraint an engrossing tale of many-cornered violation. The director wastes little time placing us in the initially guiltless shoes of one both victim and aggressor with all but complete conviction, effervescing conflicting unease in the protagonism. This is without question Jackman’s movie, yet in memory, the performance standing out among the thoroughly excellent ensemble is Gyllenhaal’s as Detective Loki, an exceptionally simplistic character on paper whom the actor has rendered fascinating through subtleties and ticks. The compelling layers put forth in Prisoners demand attention and revisitation.

Excerpt from Sound on Sight's The 30 Best Films of 2013.
Listen to the "TIFF 2013 Recap & 'Prisoners'" episode of Almost Arthouse.

#3  Out of the Furnace  Scott Cooper
Where my 2012 was marked by films naturally embracing the increasing presence of technology in our lives (a noticeable trend that has not and will not cease), this year seems to identify more with what truly makes us human away from the luxuries of contemporary society (and I don't mean Will Smith defeating an army of robots with the power of the human spirit, although that is a fun one).
The expert character study "Crazy Heart" was enough to make me perk up upon hearing of another Cooper-directed feature, but I proceeded with caution, never thinking "Out of the Furnace" would latch on the way it has. Christian Bale as Russell Baze - fantastic, even if in a role the master thespian could perform in his sleep - leads an ensemble any casting director would envy as an emblematically unblinking man's man. I mean, this guy is the Jean Claude Van Damme of suicidally grueling for meager pay at the same job that killed his father, he gets screwed by circumstance at every turn and he still stoically sees the blessings in his given life and tries to right whatever wrongs he can. He is the man we men wish we could be while simultaneously being grateful for the fortune of not actually becoming him.
Though I'd be inclined the think of it in grander fashion (IE neglected middle America in general), the "Furnace" of the title, which we strive to get "out of", could be literally perceived as the mill Russell labors in to pay for his own means, those of his girlfriend whom he wants to begin a family with, and the dangerous gambling bets of his brother. This younger brother represents the rebel spirit, not satisfied with the "good enough" Russell has embraced for the sake of his own peace and satisfaction. Trouble is inevitably stirred up, and the film becomes a beautifully filmed journey to return to some semblance of peace.

Listen to the "'Out of the Furnace'" episode of Almost Arthouse.

#2  Before Midnight  Richard Linklater
It barely feels fair to rank this or its predecessors in the same lists as other, unassociated films. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy's "Before" series feels transcendent of year-to-year film, automatically placing any of its entries ahead of most other ranking considerations and heading for the "of all time" category.
Perhaps the most impressive feat accomplished in "Midnight" is that the creative trio has again not settled for merely reuniting Celine and Jesse to have them walk around a different city and talk for ninety minutes (not that this would be a disappointment by any means). The pair are now in their early 40s and in a very different place in their lives then they were in 2004, or in 1995, and the introduction of this new situation - if successfully kept secret to the viewer, which proved difficult but doable - is as emotionally overwhelming as anything I have experienced in cinema.
Innovative raconteur Linklater has gone on record to state that he hopes Celine and Jesse will grace our screens again in 2022, but at this point there are no ideas as to what will make that film unique in the series. This is encouraging, quite simply because Linklater, Hawke and Delpy have yet to live these next nine years of their lives to naturally generate the content of their beloved characters.

Listen to the "'Before Midnight' & The Best and Worst of 2013 So Far" episode of Almost Arthouse.

#1  Inside Llewyn Davis  Ethan Coen; Joel Coen
Ranking films by year of release is convenient, and interesting as a time capsule, though no film can be wholly confined to the date it was released. No title on this list demonstrates that principle better than this one as, like with a folk song or a myth (both equally appropriate here), "Inside Llewyn Davis" is timeless - a Bob Dylan album come to life, simultaneously rejoicing and mournful.
The Coens excel when working with one lost protagonist puzzling through a practically foreign world of supporting characters who have life figured out for themselves, or are at least contented with their place in the figuring, and Llewyn signifies an absolute perfection of that concept. This is not to suggest that the brothers have settled for an improved formula. Speaking generally, as much as the subject matter is aided by its specific time period of one week in the year 1961, the Coens' daring with subtle suggestion, strong symbolism, referenced influences and a provoking cyclical frame render the film a true, layered masterpiece of endless watchability. Of course, the music is freaking fantastic, too.
I thought I had been setting myself up for disappointment with hopes entirely too high for even a Coens film, but it turns out those hopes may have been in just the right place for what is an experience with nary a lovely second not worth scrutinizing for all the thought put in to it and meaning behind it.

Full 2013 list on Letterboxd (rankings subject to change).
Listen to the new Almost Arthouse episode "2013 Top Tens".