Best of 2003 List
by jeffrey w. ruggles
I would say that in this world there are only a few things that I anxiously wait for and get excited about each year. One would be baseball season; another, the season of spring. But one thing that I always look forward to, are those "oh-so-controversial" year end lists. I love to agree or disagree with them, calling the journalists brilliant visionaries or moronic know nothings.
Every year I create one of these lists. Yet, over the years I've noticed that my lists have become longer and longer, incorporating numerous categories and genres like favorite comedy film, and best produced record of the year, or best book written in English! Quite simply it has become ridiculous. Therefore, this year I have decided to narrow my "Best of 2003" list to twelve items, one for every month in a year I guess. These include music, books, television, movies, shows, etc. Really, anything that blew me away during the year. So without further ado, here is my BEST OF 2003 list, in no particular order.
In all honesty I'm not a huge fan of television. But of course, like most people, I watch it. There is always the possibility that something worthwhile might come on, so I feel I must have the ol' boob tube on. Yet, I've realized that it's been a good ten years since there was a show that I really wanted to watch every week, that I thought about and that really engaged my mind. This year I found all those things. It came in the form of an HBO show called Carnivale. If you imagine Twin Peaks meeting John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, having one night of passionate love making and then sending their love child to the circus to work, then you have a general idea of what Carnivale is like. Nick Stahl leads an amazing cast of characters all working for a traveling circus in 1930's America. Carnivale is a truly weird, cryptic show about the nature of good and evil. It always seemed to asked way more questions than it could ever answer and in the end that is what made it interesting and good enough to put on my best of list. Carnivale presented great writing, great acting, great photography, great story, great everything which is rare for TV. I just hope HBO decides to run another season.
2. Lightning Bolt - Live in Kansas City September 15, 2003
I became a bit angry at music this year. It felt like there really wasn't a lot coming out that was worthwhile and this seemed to spill over into live music as well. Every band I saw seemed to be mediocre at best. I was seeing a huge number of shows and leaving the venue wondering why I even spent my time and money for something so run of the mill. That is until I saw Lightning Bolt at a small art gallery in downtown Kansas City. For those of you who are not "in the know", Lightning Bolt is a band that formed in Rhode Island after its two members met at art school. I never knew it was possible for two people to make so much noise in my life. Imagine this: a stack of amplifiers standing about six feet wide and ten feet high and a drum set consisting of one snare, two floor toms, one cymbals and a bass drum. Then imagine a bass player playing some of the most technical and imaginative and fast bass lines that you have ever heard. Imagine the drummer wearing shotgun ear mufflers because his snare is so devastatingly loud. Imagine that same drummer wearing a mask on his head that has a built in mike which he puts in his mouth and shouts at the top of high lungs. Imagine a mix of metal, hardcore, free jazz, noise rock all coming at you at lightning speeds. Imagine that this lasts non stop for one hour. Imagine all this and you will still have no idea what it is like to see Lightning Bolt. The experience was indescribable. I've never seen so many "too cool for school" indie rock assholes dance so hard in their life. In fact, I'm getting exhausted just conjuring up the memory of the show. Anyway, this was by far the best show I was all year. Run, don't walk, to see Lightning Bolt. You will not regret it.
3. Gerry - by Gus Van Sant
I really hate Gus Van Sant. Or, at least I did up until this year. After seeing all of his shitty movies like Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester, and Psycho, I had told myself that I would never see another one of his films. Then I saw a still from Gerry and it really intrigued me. I did a bit of research and found out a little about the film. The story seemed simple enough: two men lost in the desert. Then the reviews started pouring in and people were furious. The film really sparked my curiosity and I felt I had to see it. So, one night at the video store I picked it up. The girl across the counter gave me the warning that it was the worst movie I would ever see, that no one who had rented it had liked it, that for two hours "nothing" happens. Wow, I thought, I've never seen a movie get a reaction like this. Before I go on let me say this: I have been known in the past to like things that people hate simple to be different. But after watching this film I knew that there was something more. I had never seen a mainstream film that was so minimal or "hard." There are certain parts of the film where the main characters (played by Casey Affleck and Matt Damon) simply walk around. In fact, one walking shot lasts close to eight minutes! It really turns the idea of the Hollywood film on its head. I suppose that if you are watching this film for story, plot, character development and the like you will be highly disappointed. But if you watch it for the subtext, I think that the viewer can get a lot out of the film. It questions what movies are supposed to do and how they are supposed to be. Even though I'm not sure it is as profound as Van Sant thinks it is, I do think it is innovative and I'm very anxious to see where Van Sant goes from here.
(*I would also like to say that Van Sant's film Elephant has a lot of the same qualities and it too blew my mind.)
4. RES Magazine
Res started in the late nineties as a magazine dedicated to the burgeoning medium of digital video. In my opinion it was one of the best filmmaking magazines out and virtually the only zine that even dealt with works being shot on DV. In 2003, Res gave itself a makeover and came back bigger and better than ever. Not only did it chronicle the ongoing journey of DV, but it also began to cover cutting edge music, fashion, art, and culture in general. Plus, if you were a subscriber, every issue would come with a DVD jam packed with rare music videos, short films, tutorials for software such as Final Cut Pro 4, trailers for upcoming films, and tons of other juicy stuff. ResMag is also responsible for ResFest, a traveling film festival that showcases cutting edge short and feature length movies. Many of these can be found on the three Best of ResFest DVD's (which are all amazing I might add) that are now available. So, if you are interested in film, music, or art Res is a must.
5. Erase Errata
I think music has gotten pretty boring. It seems that most bands today simply rip off styles from the past, rather than appropriating those styles and changing them into something different. Bands like the Stokes, Kings of Leon, The Detroit Cobras, etc. bring nothing new to the table. Realistically speaking they're pissing on you and telling you it's a rain storm. Yet, in a time when mimicking your idols is quite common place, one band stands out: Erase Errata. These four women, Jenny Hoyston (vocals and trumpet), Ellie Erickson (bass), Bianca Sparta (drums), and Sara Jaffe (guitar), hail from San Francisco and create some of the most interesting music that I've heard in recent years. Taking the dance/punk of the early eighties that seems to be so popular right now, they add an interesting flavor by bringing improvisation and dissonance to their songs. They're short, sweet and to the point. I dare you not to shake your ass when listening to Other Animals (2001) or At Crystal Palace (2003). It's refreshing to see four adventurous women taking a stab at insightful, experimental music. Any fan of The Rapture, Liars or the early eighties No Wave bands they rip off such as DNA or James Chance and The Contortions should pick this up. Hell, pick it up anyway.
6. The Secret Life of Cowboys by Tom Groneberg
I go through these phases where I read book after book after book. Then at some point I burn myself out and can't read anything. Books, magazines, cereal boxes, nothing. But something always catches my eye and I restart the cycle. This time it happened when I saw The Secret Life of Cowboys by Tom Groneberg, an autobiographical account of heading west to become a cowboy. The story is quite simple, a young Tom Groneberg graduates from a college in Chicago and decides that he's going to go west and learn to be a cowboy. He is sick of his suburban life and feels like he needs to find a different part of himself, a part that can only be discovered by riding horses, ranching, hunting, and testing himself against nature in its purest form. The book takes the reader to Colorado and Montana, Groneberg's sparse, eloquent prose acting as the perfect companion to the land and trials he describes. The book is often funny and I would liken his writing style to that of Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver. Both heartwarming and thought provoking, The Secret Life of Cowboys is a great read for anyone.
7. Blankets by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf Comics)
Until this year I never really considered comic books or graphic novels to be a valid form of art. I had always considered them pretty cheesy. Superheroes saving the world, have never really been that interesting to me. But I admit I was wrong. This year I found that a whole different world of comic books exists. They don't deal with cartoon heroes and villains. In fact, they actually deal with real people! While walking through Borders one day, I noticed a large book (about 600 pages) with a really cool illustration on the cover. I picked it up and on the inside I discovered a very cinematic book with a beautifully touching story and amazing drawings. This book had a ton of heart and I really appreciated its honesty. Craig Thompson tells a partly autobiographical tale of growing up in a world of parental issues, questions of faith, and of course first loves. I found myself laughing, crying, worrying and going through just about every human emotion I can think of. Blankets made me check out his first graphic novel Goodbye, Chunky Rice which also turned out to be quite good. But it was the scope and truthfulness of Blankets that changed my mind about the validity of comic books as a true art form. And yes, I am now a comic book nerd!
8. The Decemberists
I'm always looking for an album that could be my soundtrack for driving across the country. Well this year I was graced by not one, but two albums by The Decemberists. Not only could you drive across the country, you could sail around the world to these two records. The brainchild of Colin Meloy, The Decemberists sing of sea shanties and long coastline drives in a way that puts you right in the scene. The songs on Her Majesty the Decemberists and Castaways and Cutouts are complex, bringing together a multitude of instruments such as vibes, piano, stand up bass and various percussion instruments. Meloy's voice is beautifully distinct and cannot be compared fairly to anyone working in the music business today. Portland Oregon's The Decemberists present some of the most literary, intelligent music since Bob Dylan and simply put, The Decemberists deliver brilliant pop songs.
Porn. Usually disgusting and degrading; mostly fake women and hairy-chested men mixing bodily fluids. Pretty boring. But with the advent of Suicide Girls, porn has a whole new face. Not one single "blonde bombshell" graces the pages of this site dedicated to the beauty of the punk rock girl. Tattoos, piercing, bob haircuts are the name of the game here. Instead of exploiting women, it shows unconventional women in a sexy light, taking their differences and labeling them as sexy instead of weird. Each girl is given the chance to show their true colors by filling out personal profiles to accompany their pictures. And it's not just your normal fair. There are questions like what is your favorite music, who is your favorite artist, what are your favorite books, etc. The fact that the site is run by a woman helps as well. I think there is going to be a new trend in porn and that is women running the show. God bless cutting edge pornography! (P.S. Watch for a short segment on Suicide Girls of HBO's Real Sex.)
10. Old School Horror Revival
Two of the most enjoyable films I saw this year both stemmed from the horror genre. I'm talking about Cabin Fever and House of 1000 Corpses, two brilliant films that get their originality by taking an otherwise used up and outdated formula and reinventing it. Both recall 70's and 80's horror, putting a humorous spin on it and creating something quite amazing. To me a film that sees itself for what it is, is much greater than a film that claims to be something it is not. Cabin Fever and House both succeed in this and because of this they stand out as two of the best films of the year. (Note: 28 Days Later also did this to some extent.)
11. Death Metal
Last year it was ambient music that fascinated me. I was so enthralled by the idea of a music that barely existed, that could be so quiet that you weren't even sure if there was anything at all. The extremes have always interested me and I attribute this fascination with my love of ambient records. This year though, I discovered the opposite end of the spectrum: death metal. I heard a band from North Carolina called Nile and was blown away by the speed, ferocity, and brutality of their music. The singer growled about ancient Egypt, the guitar player played with an uncanny technical ability and the drummer pounded the double bass to the extent that it sounded like a machine gun. It was fast, hard, loud, and dark. This record led me to bands like Morbid Angel, Origin, and Cephalic Carnage. All of their music could be easily described as a controlled explosion. Though it can be hard to listen to at times, I really appreciate death and black metal for its exploration of the extremes of music.
12. "Remix to Ignition" - R. Kelly
Despite all the controversy surrounding R. Kelly, I believe that he delivered the best "summer jam" that I've heard in a long, long time. "Remix to Ignition" signaled the right moment to cut loose. With a chorus containing lyrics like "Sippin' on Coke and Rum/ I'm like so what I'm Drunk/ It's the freakin' weekend/ Baby I'm about to have me some fun," you can't lose. All I know is this… whatever happens with Mr. Kelly this song will remain one of my perennial favorite summertime jams.
Note: To read the "What We Loved Most in 2003" feature straight through, click here to go directly to the next article.