Tuesday, December 20, 2005

16 Things I Liked in 2005

"I'm pretty tired of making lists/ It's just this emptiness I can't chase away."
--The Clientele

OK, deep breath, everyone.

I was going to post this in a few different sections over the course of the week, but why not just make it the longest post ever? You can all scroll, can't you?

And I was going to make it 15 entries, but why not be even more arbitrary? So, it's 16. And unlike lists I've exchanged with friends in the past, which were almost always about music, this is the whole kit and caboodle -- my favorite stuff from the past year, whether it's a book, a movie, a song, or a tennis match. I've also included a few sound files (on highlighted songs), as a holiday treat.

One last note: I'd love to hear some of your favorite 2005 moments and artifacts. But also, you are not at all obligated to read Ray's inevitable 10,000-word reply in the comments section, and Ray's views and opinions in no way express the views and opinions of A Special Way of Being Afraid. Thank you, and enjoy:

16. “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson

I think this was released in ‘04, but I only discovered it this year and others who are way hipper than me seem to be putting it on this year’s list as well. And if you’re going to cheat, number 16 is the place to do it.

Anyway, I’m really sorry about this – really, I am – but this is a great song.

16B. Other Songs

Hell, as long as we’re here, and as long as we’re cheating, here are 10 more songs I enjoyed from the past year, not including the two that get longer mentions further up the list, and also not including any that are on the full records that get mentioned later on. Got it?

Oh Well (Fiona Apple, Extraordinary Machine)
I Wanna Know Girls (Portastatic, Bright Ideas)
The Soft Rewind (Portastatic, Bright Ideas)
Your Heart is an Empty Room (Death Cab for Cutie, Plans)
Little Flowers (Denison Witmer, Are You a Dreamer?)
Station Approach (Elbow, Leaders of the Free World)
Sad Eyes (Josh Rouse, Nashville)
Black (Okkervil River, Black Sheep Boy)
Nightclothes and Headphones (Jason Forrest, w/Laura Cantrell, Shamelessly Exciting)
Mr. Brightside (The Killers, Hot Fuss) -- Still more cheating; deal with it.

(And come to think of it, that whole Portastatic record maybe deserved a slot of its own; good stuff.)

15. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Important preface: I never read the book. (For someone who frequently refers to his geekiness, I’m actually remarkably unschooled and uninterested in nerd stuff, having never read Dune, sat down to play Dungeons & Dragons, or even seen Return of the Jedi in its entirety.) I know those who have read the book are loyal to it, and this movie adaptation is uneven, for sure. (If I’m being honest, it’s possible that the sole reason why this makes the list is the scene when Bill Nighy’s character is giving him a tour of the reconstructed universe near the end. His explication of being right vs. being happy was my favorite 30 seconds of any movie this year.)

14. The Wall to Wall Sessions – Chris Mills

I know my music collection pretty well, but the whole technological upgrade this year did produce a few rediscoveries, like Mills. I’ve had two older records of his for years, and hadn’t listened much until recently. They’re good. So I looked to see what he was up to these days, and this is it, ten songs recorded and mixed live in Chicago over five days (thus the title). He's traded in a fairly straightforward rustic rock sound for lots of orchestration and backing vocals. The whole thing starts on a stark note, though, with Mills singing a cappella: “Oh, I dreamed I was Richard Pryor / running on fire down the Sunset Strip.” The name of that song is “Chris Mills is Living the Dream,” and yes, this is an ambitious project.

13. Me and You and Everyone We Know

I already wrote about this movie (posted on November 9, if you care to find and read it), so I won’t go on and on. I’ll just say that it’s occasionally maddening and unsuccessful, but it’s unique above all else, and worth checking out for that reason alone -- and for the handful of truly great moments peppered throughout.

12. “Neverending Math Equation” -- Sun Kil Moon

Sun Kil Moon is Mark Kozelek, who also records under his own name and whose first band was Red House Painters. He once released a full CD of AC/DC covers (much weirder even than you think if you’ve never heard Kozelek, who arranges music and sings like he’s just smoked the purest weed on the planet). This latest record is entirely made up of Modest Mouse covers. I’m not a big MM fan -- their lyrics are clever but always frantically trying to outrun their melodies, and their singer’s voice is gratingly adenoidal, even for a hipster band.

Like that AC/DC effort, this one is only intermittently successful, but this song is maybe its peak moment, especially when Kozelek’s hazy voice slurs the opening lines: “I’m the same as I was when I was six years old/And oh my God I feel so old.”

11. Reese Witherspoon in Walk the Line

I’ve always liked Reese well enough, but probably wouldn't have guessed she was capable of this. As June Carter Cash, she has to: a) play a legendary performer; b) play the role of everyone's sweetheart off-stage; c) play the steely real person underneath both a and b; d) hold her own with Joaquin Phoenix, who’s not chopped liver himself in this thing; and e) convince you that she deeply loves Phoenix’s Cash despite his constant self-destructive behavior. She pulls it all off, beautifully. Oscar, please.

10. “Out of Ohio” by Ian Frazier

I mentioned this essay (The New Yorker, 1/10/05) earlier on the blog, but it’s worth another nod. Here’s the final paragraph for those of you have either read it or don’t mind reading the end out of context. It picks up when Frazier is on the last leg of his hitchhiking journey to New York, and is sharing a car with a driver from Costa Rica:
It was a mild day in early March, just before rush hour. Lights had come on in some of the buildings, and dusk was beginning to gather in the spaces between them. We went through the Lincoln Tunnel and popped up on the city floor, with buildings and vehicles impending all around. Our windows were open; the city smelled like coffee, bus exhaust, and fingernail polish. The Costa Rican was going to stay with relatives in Queens, a place as exotic to me then as Costa Rica. I was going to Greenwich Village to meet my friend David, who had told me he could find me a place to stay. I got out at Thirty-fourth and Seventh, the southwest corner. When I pass by that corner occasionally today, I still think of it as the place where I landed. The Costa Rican and I wished each other good luck, without pretending to exchange phone numbers (we didn't have them, anyway) or saying we’d keep in touch. We were now each a little part of the other's past, and in New York the past was gone.
9. Julian Velard at The Living Room (March 18)

Julian Velard gets compared to Ben Folds and Billy Joel because he plays a mean piano and writes proudly melodic songs. That’s fine, because I love Ben and Billy, unfashionable as they may be. Velard’s jazzier than either, though, and I knew my friend Brad, up from Texas, would be a fan. I’ve seen Velard play before, but this was one of his better shows, partly due to serendipity: when his keyboard malfunctioned before the set started, he had to drag out the club’s upright piano. With several band members on a pretty small stage, its bulky presence was a bit awkward, but its sound much, much less so.

8. "The Trapeze Swinger"– Iron & Wine

It seems that every year, some preview tricks me into getting way too excited for a movie I would otherwise dismiss. For me, inexplicably, that movie in 2005 was In Good Company. (It turns out, much to my surprise, that combining Topher Grace, Scarlett Johansson, shots of New York, and Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill” is all that’s needed. I feel like such a lab rat.) Unsurprisingly, the actual movie was mediocre through and through. The one clear highlight was discovering this song, which played over the closing credits and only appears on the movie’s soundtrack. It runs for more than nine minutes, but it’s not composed of the distinct sections that often accompany such length (there’s no change of mood, a la “November Rain” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” though if you know Iron & Wine, that’s no shock; his mood change is usually from tranquil to slightly more tranquil). In fact, the song's lyrical structure is as repetitive as its melody, but luckily both are drop-dead gorgeous. A sample of the lyrics, two of the song's eight verses:
Please, remember me
I heard from someone you're still pretty
And then
They went on to say
That the pearly gates
Had some eloquent graffiti
Like 'We'll meet again'
And 'Fuck the man'
And 'Tell my mother not to worry'
And angels with their gray
Were always done in such a hurry

Please, remember me
At Halloween
Making fools of all the neighbors
Our faces painted white
By midnight
We'd forgotten one another
And when the morning came
I was ashamed
Only now it seems so silly
That season left the world
And then returned
And now you're lit up by the city
7. Junebug

Anytime you try to respectfully dramatize the emotional and intellectual standoffs between a family of semi-rural North Carolinians and a couple of self-conscious, urbane Chicagoans (one of whom comes from the aforementioned N.C. clan), you’re liable to screw something -- or lots of things -- up. Writer Angus MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison manage not to, for the most part. I hope Amy Adams gets an Oscar nomination for her work in this, because she richly deserves it, but since Paul Giamatti wasn’t even nominated last year for Sideways, I’m not holding my breath.

6. Life in Slow Motion – David Gray

In 1994, my girlfriend at the time told me she had heard a great song on NPR the previous night called "The Light." (Yes, Dallas has an NPR station.) On that recommendation, I picked up the two records Gray had released at that point, and became an insufferable advocate, throwing him onto mix tapes for people with reckless abandon. One more record followed, almost killed by label troubles, and then a long silence. A few years later, he released White Ladder on his own dime in the UK, and I spent some silly amount of money to have it shipped to me in Texas. A year or so and a hit single later, it was a smash in the U.S., and I was in New York, where people were disdainful of another sensitive singer-songwriter ready for his Gap ad moment. Fair enough, but their loss.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of White Ladder, and I (along with the rest of the civilized world) thought its follow-up, A New Day at Midnight, was pretty lackluster. They both featured lots of blips and whirs that were completely absent from his earlier work, which was all acoustic guitar and earnestness. I’m happy with this new one, though -– the blips and whirs sound more committed to and deeper, like they were previously missing a few coats. (My “deeper” is another’s “overproduced,” and I respect that.) And we all have voices we react to for reasons that would be no fun at all to explain, even if we could – his is one of them for me, and it’s in fine form here.

5. Home Land by Sam Lipsyte

If you’re looking for plot, this novel isn’t the ideal choice. The story’s mechanics aren’t all that important, and start to rust a bit towards the end. But if you’re looking for voice, pull up a seat and get comfortable. Lipsyte’s narrator, Lewis “Teabag” Miner, writes increasingly caustic and self-loathing updates to his New Jersey high school’s alumni bulletin, updating his cheery classmates on the shameful downward spiral that is his adulthood. Needless to say, his often vulgar missives go unpublished in the bulletin, but we get the joy of reading them.

Even very funny writing doesn’t always elicit an audible laugh, but the first half of Home Land generates many of them. It’s crammed with compact, hilarious lines, like this one about Lewis’ visit to a strip club:
The dancers are all educated so there’s no exploitation and the DJ is a connoisseur of the moody tunes I favor in the company of nude women who despise me.
4. Andre Agassi vs. James Blake, Quarterfinals of the U.S. Open (September 6)

I debated whether to include sports on this list (for instance, I’m leaving off North Carolina’s winning the college basketball title), but this is too exceptional not to make it, mostly because I was there. New York’s superiority complex is often, well, justified, as in the case of hosting dramatic sporting events. The crowd at the U.S. Tennis Center that night knew it was there for something special: Blake, a young American, not far removed from being even younger and coming up short of lofty expectations, was harnessing his talent on the fly, and putting together his best-ever Grand Slam tournament. Plus, he’d overcome the kind of personal adversity in the past year or two that television producers salivate over. Andre Agassi, young-brat-turned-gracious-diplomat, was playing in maybe his last U.S. Open.

Blake won the first set with ease, the second with only slightly less ease, and it really seemed like the night was headed for anticlimactic disappointment. But it was all a set-up. When Agassi rallied to win the final three sets, he took a crowd that sounded reasonably split in the early stages and turned it into an airport-decibel mob of support. It was well past 1:00 a.m. when we left, marooned in the distant reaches of Queens, but the throng heading to the subway was very much awake. I’ve been lucky to attend more than my share of great sporting events, but the only one that clearly beats this was Game 6 of the 1986 World Series (the “Bill Buckner game”). Special thanks to Patty for making sure I was in attendance for this one.

3. Grizzly Man

This is Werner Herzog’s deeply weird and surprisingly entertaining documentary about Timothy Treadwell, an idiosyncratic (if by idiosyncratic, you mean mentally ill) animal lover who spent a part of each year “protecting” grizzlies in a wildlife reserve, before eventually being killed by one of the bears. Treadwell’s death is mentioned early on, and the rest of the movie focuses on Herzog’s conversations with those who knew him, as well as, most stunningly, lots and lots of film footage that Treadwell shot and left behind.

It doesn’t seem right to laugh at such a tragic story, but there are several moments in this that are riotously funny – not guiltily-chuckle-to-yourself funny, but the-audience-is-collectively-swaying-side-to-side-and-popcorn-is-flying-around-like-
the-theater-scene-in-The-Muppet-Movie funny. Take my word for it. An interview with one woman in particular is something Christopher Guest couldn't dream up with the aid of hallucinogens.

My favorite subplot is Herzog’s disdain for Treadwell’s optimistic worldview. He feels, rightly so, that nature is mostly vicious, and that Treadwell was a deeply misguided do-gooder whose fate was inevitable. But when Herzog gives full voice to his pitch-black view of nature and life towards the end of the movie, with his alarmingly Schwarzenegger-like accent, you realize that you’ve spent the past hour and a half in the company of not one but two true nut jobs.

2. The Best of Youth

This six-hour movie was made as a mini-series for Italian television in 2003, and this year Film Forum showed it in two three-hour blocks. It follows two Italian brothers, Nicola and Matteo, from 1966 to 2000. As satisfying in its sweep as a good novel, and packed with all the big themes -- family, love, politics, terrorism, hope, despair -- it’s played out by a very talented and ridiculously beautiful cast. I believe it’s available on Netflix, and since it was originally made for TV, it probably doesn’t lose much (if anything) on the small screen. Worth seeking out and spending the time required.

1. It’s All Right Now by Charles Chadwick

One of my favorite novels of any year. It’s a long one, related by its British Everyman narrator, Tom Ripple, over three decades of his life. It's wry and well crafted and it feels like life. In other words, you’ll need to start reading it immediately, so I’ll keep this short. Here’s some high praise from David Gates, who reviewed it in Newsweek:
No writer--no writer--has ever been more scrupulous in honoring his characters' complexity, in distinguishing who they sometimes appear to be from who they sometimes are.
And here’s one of my favorite passages from the book, when Ripple is recalling a visit to church with his parents when he was a boy, which is indicative of the beauty throughout:
My father used to sneak off to church sometimes, leaving his account books spread across the kitchen table as if to find something that added up for a change. So he knew the tunes even if he couldn’t sing them, or only in throaty snatches. My mother stared ahead of her, grimly silent, as if she knew them only too well. The last hymn was about fighting the good fight. I remember that because my father sang loudly then as if suddenly reminded that courage was something he’d forgotten to tell me about.


Blogger Dezmond said...

Ha Ha!! You have now opened the door! I was awaiting some sort of Best of 2005 posting, so then I could give you my own purely objective best of lists for the year as well.

First, your list. We don't get many books down here in Texas, so I haven't read any of the literature or poetry or other such nonesense that you discussed. =) But I do watch a lot of movies and listen to a lot of music, so I can talk about that.

No shame in "Since U Been Gone", I agree, it is a great pop song. Nothing wrong with enjoying great pop for what it is. Reese was outstanding in "Walk the Line", you are right. I think she is a shoe-in for the Oscar this year. Joaquin wasn't too bad either.

David Gray. Well, I don't know. I was one of the many people you assaulted with your Gray campaign in Texas so many years ago. Actually, I love 'White Ladder', I think it is one of the most successful examples I can think of mixing that acoustic aesthetic with, as you say, beeps and blips. It is warm yet mechanical at the same time. Perfect mix of usually mutually exclusive sounds and feels. Plus, I support the whole home grown recording movement, and Gray's 'White Ladder' might just be the poster child for successful DIY recording, along with Springsteen's 'Nebraska' and Steve Winwood's 'Arc of a Diver'. But, as far the new one, I was so bored with his previous one that I just didn't have the desire to grab this one. I think Gray's creative days have come and gone, honestly. Other than 'White Ladder', I could easily fit the songs of his I like from the remainder of his catalogue on a single mix disc. Granted, those songs kick ass. But you are so right, sometimes a certain artist who is seen as good to mediocre by the rest of the critical world just hits you dead-on. For me, that guy is Colin Hay, the previous lead singer and genius behind Men At Work. ('Down Under', 'Who Can It Be Now?', 'Overkill', 'It's a Mistake', 'Be Good Johnny', and yes, even 'Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive'...that Men At Work). He has forged a rewarding but very under the radar solo career since his days as a Man at Work. Hay is my Gray. I will push him on anyone who will listen. By the way, he has several totally acoustic records that would not sound out place at all beside some of Gray's early work. That's neither here nor there, I am simply saying I understand your unexplainable attachment to a mediocre artist.

"Grizzly Man" was amazing. One of my favorite films of the year as well. You are totally right, one of the best aspects of this film is the grossly divergent philosophies of Treadwill vs. Herzog, and how Herzog lets that spill over big time into his portrait of Treadwill. For me, one of my favorite humorous scenes was with the helicopter pilot who discovered Treadwill's body. If was basically, and I'm paraphrasing, "you go out there and mess with these bears, your gonna get killed. What an idiot. He thought they was people in bear costumes or somethin'. Well, they ain't. He got what was comin'". He said it a lot more rednecky than that, but I was rolling during that scene. Absolutely brilliant film, and you know it didn't even make the cut for an Oscar nomination this year in the documentary category? I'm not saying getting a nomination, it wasn't even in the final cut for consideration to GET a nomination. What idiots.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

OK, here are my rankings of the films I saw this year that came out this year in theaters. I saw many, many more films than this, but these are ones in theaters this year. (NOTE: 'Hotel Rwanda' was released in 2004, but not released for mass viewing nationwide until 2005, so that is when it came to theaters in my part of the country).

A+ : none [NOTE: there are probably 10-20 films EVER released that would get A+]

A : Crash, King Kong

A- : Batman Begins, Grizzly Man, Hotel Rwanda

B+ : Harry Potter: the Goblet of Fire, Inside Deep Throat, March of
the Penguins, Walk the Line

B: Capote, The Constant Gardener, Land of the Dead, Lord of War, Star Wars III

B- : none

C+ : Broken Flowers, Fantastic Four

C: none

C- : Mr and Mrs Smith, Sin City

D: none

F: none

Go see "King Kong" with all haste, for obvious reasons, it is
something that should be experienced on the Big Screen. I could list better films (and far more worse ones), but it heralds a new level in filmaking, it really does. Peter Jackson has finally accomplished what has never been done: made an epic film with absolutely groundbreaking effects that supports a solid story with immense heart. He puts the elements together in one satisfying package. I mean, you know what you are getting into going in, so you have to be
able to suspend belief and enjoy an adventure tale with action, humor, heart and soul. He is extremely reverential towards the 1933 original (with several funny, sly winks at it that you might pick up on if you are familiar with the original), wisely ignores the 1976 remake, and creates his own vision of the Kong story all at once. It has some flaws, definitely, but the joys are so immense that the flaws are easily forgiven. Put it this way, I haven't simply enjoyed sitting in
a film like this since I was kid. Seriously. I went by myself the
other night on a whim, and had such a great time. A huge credit goes to the performances, in the hands of lesser actors the film would not be nearly as fun. ESPECIALLY Jack Black, inspired casting for that part.

10:07 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Cool. I'll play with your format. I've got a list of my favorite Entertainment thingies of 2005 as well. I've got 16 as well, but my commentary will be shorter than yours (in no particular order):

* The Return of Big Star:
Big Star is probably the greatest cult band nobody has ever heard of. They got back together and released their first record of new studio material since 1977, and much of it maintains the shimmering pop brilliance of their heyday. Alex Chilton, welcome back.

Don Cheadle:
...has quickly become one of my favorite actors. With star turns in 'Hotel Rwanda' and 'Crash' this year, Cheadle is an actor's actor.

The best thing on network TV. Kudos to the producers for creating a show with a large, sprawling cast and exploring all kinds of odd side trails in the story. The development of the Korean couple has been especially engrossing.

Rockets-Spurs, the last regular season match-up in the 2004-2005 season:
The sole sports moment on my list, but it is a doozy. Tracy McGrady was a God from Olympus this night, scoring an astounding 13 points in the final 36 seconds of the game to allow the Rockets to defeat the Spurs by one point. I was at the game and it was crazy. It was so late in the game and the Rockets were so behind that most of the arena had already left, save the few diehards such as myself and my friends. We were fortunate to witness basketball excellence. It meant more, though. I was recovering emotionally from a terrible break-up. She lived in San Antonio and we used to go to Spurs games all the time together in happier times. She is a Spurs fantatic. I had retreated back to Houston to repair my crippled emotions. So, this was my new town vs. her town, McGrady was my freakin' champion, and when he defeated the Spurs, my ex was also defeated!! I called her a gloated that night. Cartharsis indeed. Thanks T-Mac.

The Gorillaz, "Feel Good Inc.":
This is probably my favorite single song of the year. Groovy, funky and cool.

'Battlestar Gallactica':
Now, this is the best TV show on right now, period. On the sci-fi, they decided to reinvent a space cheese classic series from the 70's (which I love as well), and turn it into a dark as hell drama that just happens to be set in space. Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnald lead a fantastic cast in a story of genocide, survival, intrigue and action. Not to be missed.

King Kong DVD release:
Finally the original 'King Kong' is released on DVD and given a world class presentation.

The Band - 'A Musical History':
The best box set released this year. Covers all of the essentials (and is beautifully remastered), but also has a bevy of truly essential rarities. These aren't castaways, try some unearthed recordings of The Band backing Bob Dylan when Dylan first went electric and changed rock forever. Beautifully presented as well with an excellent book.

We disagree here John, but I thought this film was a wonderful examination of racial prejudice from all angles.

Live Aid DVD release:
They finally put out the DVD's for this legendary charity concert from the mid-1980's. A wonderful time capsule to watch to see who was hot in the 80's.

Duran Duran in concert:
This is the best show I saw this year. DD tore the house down, and the audience loved every minute of it. A close second was seeing John Fogerty in concert, he has not lost a step since the CCR days. Incendiary show.

'Grizzly Man':
John already discussed this very well.

'Rome' on HBO:
It had a slow start, but if you stuck with this series, it was totally engrossing.

The New Pornographers - 'Twin Cinema':
The best album of the year. Pop bliss, and the heirs to Big Star.

King Kong kicking ass on top of the Empire State Building:
Peter Jackson's new version of this classic is a marvel (see above comments), but it climaxes in this iconic sequence and does not disappoint.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous LFW said...

The younger and wiser sister of Mr. ASWOBA here, to weigh in on this list...

1,4,6,7,8,11, and a couple of songs in 16B are the items I am familiar with, to varying degrees.

Though I am still about 80 pages shy of finishing your #1 pick, I thoroughly support its positioning. Beautiful, honest, heartbreaking... what more can you ask for in a novel?

Though I wasn't in attendance at #4 , like Mr. Fancy-Pants here, it was the culmination of a week that introduced me to the greatness of tennis.

The David Gray hasn't really gotten to me yet, but I won't give up on it. I don't think it has the potential to be as satisfying to me as any of his other albums (with the exception of "A New Day at Midnight," which I never really got into, either.).

Junebug was great, and Amy Adams deserves some recognition for her work in that, which I would argue is more of a stand-out performance than Reese's in Walk the Line. Not that she wasn't great. I just don't see how it was so spectacular to warrant its own spot on a best-of-the-year list, especially as the only actor present. That seems crazy to me. This might just be enough for me to write my own Top Ten Acting Performances of the Year....

(Okay, so I just saw the title of your list again, and rather than purporting to be a best-of-anything list, it's just some stuff you "liked" over the course of the year. So feel free to include Reese's June Carter Cash, or anything else you please. 'Cause it's your list, and, you know, you could just have weird taste.)

"The Trapeze Swinger" is gorgeous.

And everything else I'll check out. (Except the Kelly Clarkson song, which if I happen to hear while shopping sometime, great, but otherwise, I'll be damned if I'm going to seek it out! No, I'm kidding. I'm sure it's a very catchy pop song and whatnot, yadda, yadda, yadda.)

2:26 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

I agree that Adams was at least as good in Junebug as Reese was in Walk the Line -- Junebug was ranked higher on the list for a reason. And though I implied Reese deserves the Oscar, I imagine she'll be nominated for Best Actress, whereas Adams would be nominated for Supporting. I think they both deserve to win, really.

3:44 PM  

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