Wednesday, November 25, 2009

2000 playlist

Oh, and if I were to make a playlist of my favorite songs of 2000 that could fit on one of those silly compact disc things, it would probably look like this:

At the Drive-In - "One-Armed Scissor"
Atom & His Package - "Shopping Spree"
The Bloodhound Gang - "The Bad Touch"
Cherry Poppin' Daddies - "God is a Spider"
Clint Mansell - "Lux Aeterna (Winter)"
Deftones - "Change (In the House of Flies)"
Eminem - "The Way I Am"
Eve 6 - "Rescue"
Goldfinger - "San Simeon"
I Voted for Kodos - "Shallow Grave"
Less Than Jake - "Gainesville Rock City"
Linkin Park - "One Step Closer"
Millencolin - "No Cigar"
MXPX - "My Life Story"
New Found Glory - "Hit or Miss"
The Offspring - "Want You Bad"
Papa Roach - "Last Resort"
A Perfect Circle - "3 Libras"
Phoenix - "Too Young"
Queens of the Stone Age - "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret"
Suicide Machines - "Sometimes I Don't Mind"

Top 10 Albums: 2000

In the year of our lord 2000 (the first of this decade, but not, apparently, the first of this century -- and you're damn right, I just cited Wikipedia), I still listened to CDs. You know, actual compact discs. I don't think I've done this regularly in about four years. But back then, I had this enormous 400-CD disc changer. I had all my albums listed on a spreadsheet organized by artist, year, and rating (out of five stars).  In 2000 (read: almost ten years ago), the following were among my most-played (and highest-rated) artists: Good Charlotte, Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit. That's right, I was being angsty about girls with the Madden twins, angsty about... hell, I don't even know, with Mike Shinoda and Chester Bennington, and bumping the slick grooves and smooth rhythms of one Mr. Fred Durst. I still throw on the first Good Charlotte album every once in a while when I feel like reminiscing about high school (I don't think most people do this), and Linkin Park was -- and is -- good to blast when you want something to scream along to and don't want to think about what you're doing. As for the L-I-M-P Bizkit, I really have nothing to say except this: in ten or twelve years, the song "Nookie" WILL come on in a bar and you WILL sing along. Every word. With a half-ironic smile. Trust me on this.

That said, there was also a lot of good -- genuinely good, not ironically good or good for what it was -- music released (most of which I got into after the fact).  Here are my ten favorites:

Honorable mentions: At the Drive-In - Relationship of Command (way better than The Mars Volta), Goldfinger - Stomping Ground (great driving album), Good Charlotte - Good Charlotte (sentimental/nostalgic value), Linkin Park - Hybrid Theory ("Craaaaawling in my skiiiiin....!"), MXPX - The Ever Passing Moment (pop-punk classic).

10) Cherry Poppin' Daddies - Soul Caddy
Produced by: Tony Visconti, Jack Joseph Puig, Steve Perry
Standout tracks: "Swingin' with Tiger Woods," "God is a Spider," "Soul Cadillac"

Remember that band that did "Zoot Suit Riot"?  Yeah, they're not actually a swing band.  They do cut a mean swing track (the aforementioned "Riot," "Swingin' with Tiger Woods"), but they can also do punk ("God is a Spider"), ska ("Soul Cadillac"), and rock ("Irish Whiskey").  In other words, it's too bad these guys got typecast as a swing revival act (Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, et al.), because they were actually really good.  They cover a lot of musical ground on this one, and it's well worth the listen -- if you can find it. It's catchy as all hell with some great sing-along jams and verve to spare.

9) The Offspring - Conspiracy of One
Produced by: Brendan O'Brien
Standout tracks: "Come Out Swinging," "Want You Bad," "One Fine Day"

Disclaimer: The first three concerts I ever went to were Offspring shows. One of the first CDs I ever owned was Smash.  The Offspring has been one of my favorite bands since junior high.  That said, I still think this is a pretty kick-ass album ("Original Prankster" aside).  It's full of brazen, balls-out, fun punk-tinged rock songs.  "Come Out Swinging" is one of the best and most-aptly titled album-openers ever; "Want You Bad" is the best Cheap Trick song not actually by Cheap Trick; "Million Miles Away" and "Dammit, I Changed Again" are hidden gems in the bands oeuvre (perhaps the first time this word has been used to describe The Offspring's body of work).  The latter half of the disc delves into a bit more experimental territory: slower, more melodic songs and more complex instrumentation: "Special Delivery" captures the quirk that makes the band more than just a wannabe punk act, and "Vultures" is highly reminiscent of Ignition standout "Dirty Magic."  If you can get past the fact that this is the same band that did "Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)" (which is awesome in its own right), you might find something to like here.

8) Queens of the Stone Age - Rated R
Produced by: Chris Goss, Josh Homme
Standout tracks: "Feel Good Hit of the Summer," "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret," "In the Fade"

Before Queens of the Stone Age became Josh Homme and the Josh Homme Band (a great group in their own right), they were a pretty rockin' stoner rock band with not one, not two, but THREE lead singers: the aforementioned Homme, ex-Dwarves member Nick Oliveri, and Screaming Trees co-founder Mark Lanegan.  What a triumvirate they made (there's a vocab word for ya)! At times rollicking, at times subdued, at times proggy, at times grungy, and at all times a helluva good listen, Rated R captures the interesting group dynamic before egos took over.  The album feels like a midnight drive through the desert on acid -- the chorus of opener "Feel Good Hit of the Summer" sets the tone: "Nicotine, Valium, vicodin, marijuana, ecstasy and alcohol... c-c-c-c-c-COCAINE!" You know you're along for a trip then. The band trades of lead vocalist duties, but the vibe is the same: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.  You can always count on the Queens (whatever their membership) for that.

7) Less Than Jake - Borders & Boundaries
Produced by: Steve Kravac
Standout tracks: "Gainesville Rock City," "Malt Liquor Tastes Better When You've Got Problems," "Last Hour of the Last Day of Work"

It must be a good year for music when one of my favorite albums from one of my favorite bands only clocks in at number seven. I definitely went through a huge ska/punk phase in the middle of the decade, and while I still listen to a lot of ska (hey, either you like it or you don't), Less Than Jake is the only ska band that managed to eke its way into the "favorite band" conversation. Granted, the conversation mostly is mostly everyone sitting around and listening to Tom Petty pontificate about his amazingness, but LTJ is one of the bands that speaks up most often (how's that for an extended metaphor?). Why? Aside from all the ska prerequisites (fast, fun, catchy, AMAZING driving music), drummer Vinnie Fiorello is also one of the most underrated lyricists I can think of. He can take on a silly topic like the douchebag friend you had in grade school ("Mr. Chevy Celebrity") or a serious topic like looking back at a wasted life ("Last Hour...") with equal aplomb and without sounding too cheesy or pretentious.  That dichotomy has marked LTJ since their inception and has helped set them apart (in my estimation) from their equally fun but less interesting contemporaries (Reel Big Fish, et al.).  If you think I'm thinking too hard about a ska band, read the lyrics to "Last Hour..." or "Al's War" off of Hello Rockview. "So when ambition turns into competition / I'll never be the better man..."

6) A Perfect Circle - Mer de Noms
Produced by: Billy Howerdel
Standout tracks: "The Hollow," "Judith," "3 Libras"

A Perfect Circle: The Tool side project that a lot of people like better than Tool.  I used to be one of them, but APC might be the only band that takes more time to create music than Tool.  That, and Tool is just ridiculously good at the whole music thing.  That said, I'm still not sure if they've ever released a song as amazing as "3 Libras."  Although that might be because I'm a sucker for a chick with a violin (here's looking at you, Paz Lenchantin).  Either way, in A Perfect Circle, Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan explores a mellower side with former guitar tech (and actual APC mastermind) Billy Howerdel.  The formula is the same -- dynamic structures, religious themes, soaring vocals -- but the melodies are more haunting and the structures less imposing.  This is probably the "best" (read: most aesthetically challenging and artistically interesting) album on this list (SPOILERS: you won't find Kid A on here -- I'm more of a Bends/In Rainbows kind of guy) and one that still resonates to this day.

5) Suicide Machines - Suicide Machines
Produced by: Julian Raymond
Standout tracks: "Sometimes I Don't Mind," "No Sale," "Extraordinary," "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden"

This is perhaps the most interesting album on this list.  It's somewhat of an aberration for the band: it has none of the ska/punk sound that defined their early work, and none of the venomous, politically-charged punk edge of the later work they're most known for.  Instead, it has a sort of irreverent earnestness that I can't really say I've ever heard duplicated.  Case in point: the opener "Sometimes I Don't Mind" is a heartfelt love song... about a dog.  It took me about half a dozen listens before I realized this.  But it made me love it all the more because, hey, who doesn't love their dog?  Another example: the sweet, string-backed "Extraordinary" has the lyric, "That day will be etched in my mind as the day I made you mine / That day will live in my head as the biggest mistake of my life / Only kidding cause... / There's an extraordinary thing about you / That I can't put my finger on of figure out, it's funny."  You really have to listen to it, but I really feel like he's being sincere.  I've never heard another record that so balances the sweet and the silly, the sarcastic and the genuine, like this record does.  I bought the record the night before leaving for a trip to the east coast my junior year of high school, and it still brings back memories of the Jersey shore, the fall leaves in New Hampshire, my grandfather's funeral, and a time before I knew that life was as bittersweet as this record portrays it. Yes, I realize that sounds like the shitty intro to an undergrad workshop story, but I'm sticking with it.

4) New Found Glory - New Found Glory
Produced by: Neal Avron
Standout tracks: "Dressed to Kill," "Hit or Miss," "Sincerely Me," "Sucker"

Either you love these guys or you hate them.  Obviously, I love them.  No, make that LOVE them.  They're another one of those bands in the "favorite band" conversation.  They hang out with Less Than Jake and make wisecracks about the Dire Straits while the Offspring plays beer pong in the background.  Ben Folds has a beer with Rivers Cuomo.  You know.  Moving on.  New Found Glory is one of those bands that I will forever associate with a certain time in my life (and certain people).  It was the soundtrack to my first relationship and my first breakup and my first year of college.  It was a great time in my life and NFG is a great band.  Are those two things related?  Probably.  Either way, there's nothing like drunkenly singing New Found Glory songs with my friends at 4:00 a.m.  "Remember the time we wrote our names up on the wall?  Remember the time we realized "Thriller" was our favorite song?"  If you don't think that's one of the defining pop songs of the decade, well, I'll quote Brennan Huff here and say "You're fuckin' high!"  And you're fuckin' high if you don't like this band.

3) Eminiem - The Marshall Mathers LP
Produced by: Dr. Dre, et al.
Standout tracks: "Kill You," "Stan," "The Way I Am," "Drug Ballad"

In a lot of ways, I think that Eminem is one of the geniuses of our generation.  More so than Kanye West anyway (although I do love me some Kanye -- you'll probably see him pop up on here at some point).  He was one of the first -- if not the first -- mega star rapper to rap about stuff other than "big screen TVs, blunts, 40s, and bitches."  Of course, his raps about "homosexuals and vicodin" did catch a lot of flack -- is he a homophobe and misogynist?  Probably.  Does he have issues?  Out the wazoo.  But is he talented?  Undeniably.  He raps about school violence ("The Way I Am"), the ridiculousness of the celebrity culture of which he is inextricably a part ("The Real Slim Shady"), anger issues ("Stan"), and, well, doing a lot of drugs ("Drug Ballad").  Mr. Mathers isn't afraid to wade deep, DEEP into the human consciousness, drag the bottom for the worst of what people think ("Amityville," "Kim") and bring it up for everyone to see.  You know what they say: Someone's gotta do it.  Better him than me, but I'm glad he did.

2) Eve 6 - Horrorscope
Produced by: Don Gilmore
Standout tracks: "Rescue," "On the Roof Again," "Sunset Strip Bitch," "Girl Eyes"

If the only song you've ever heard off this album is "Here's to the Night," you're sorely missing out.  I know, I know, it was the soundtrack to countless proms and after-graduation parties -- believe me, I was there -- but there is so much more to this album than that song.  Just like there's so much more to this band than "Inside Out."  Dismiss them as a one-hit wonder at your own risk -- although the band only released three albums before breaking up (although they supposedly reformed), they are all insightful, clever pop-rock gems, and Horrorscope just might be their best (although their follow-up -- and, as of yet, last album -- It's All in Your Head is fantastic).  On this record, the band started to experiment a bit more with their sound, using a variety of production effects to achieve a unique organic-yet-electronic backdrop for the album -- especially on tracks like "Rescue" and "Sunset Strip Bitch."  Lyrically, this record is outstanding -- full of clever wordplay and tongue-in-cheek quips.  I mentioned Vinne Fiorello earlier, but Max Collins is a *criminally* underrated pop lyricist -- anyone who's heard "Inside Out" knows this.  No, he's not master poet or storyteller, but his lyrics have a way of getting in your head and moving things around. You'll be listening to a song for the hundredth time and go, "Oh, now I get it!"  Touche, Max Collins.  Touche.

1) Millencolin - Pennybridge Pioneers
Produced by: Brett Gurewitz
Standout tracks: "No Cigar," "Penguins & Polarbears," "A-Ten"

I have Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 to thank for discovering this record.  The greatest thing about those games -- aside from, of course, the awesome gameplay (Christ air for the win!) -- is that they always had awesome soundtracks.  The first game introduced me to Goldfinger and the already-mentioned Suicide Machines, THPS3 had "Ace of Spades" and that hilarious Del tha Funkee Homosapien song "If You Must," and 4 had way too much cool stuff to even list (and I kinda stopped playing those games after the fourth one).  But Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 had "No Cigar" on it, which is easily one of the best punk songs of the decade... and this album is just as easily one of the decade's best.With 14 songs and coming in at under 40 minutes, it's short, sweet, and to the point -- the point, of course, being to have fun.  Pennybridge Pioneers is almost infectiously fun, with bouncy hooks, jaunty choruses and other -y adjective/music term combinations (sprightly rhythms? mighty riffs? ...probably).  It's late and I'm running out of adjectives.  Regardless, this is a pretty seminal (love that word, haha) album for me and is still part of my regular rotation -- unlike the Limp Bizkits of the world.

Until next time, keep rollin', rollin', rollin' rollin', what? Keep rollin', rollin', rollin, rollin', come on!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Top 10 Movies: 2000

In many ways, the Best Picture winner for 2000, Gladiator, represents the balance I'm trying to convey in this blog between artistic/aesthetic principles and good old-fashioned entertainment value. Gladiator combines slick, visceral action with (admittedly, somewhat obtuse) social commentary and a liberal helping of drama. Pre-"Fightin' 'Round the World" Russell Crowe's Maximus sums it up best when he asks (and you knew this quote was coming), "Are you not entertained?!" In a word (or more): Hell yes I am! The audience loved it (to the tune of $450 million worldwide), and the critics loved it (to the tune of five Oscars). A lot of the movies (or albums or books) that I list on here will skew more towards one or the other (audience vs. critics), but Gladiator is the rare beast that managed to please both (and Russell Crowe is nothing if not a BEAST in that movie).

But enough about Gladiator. It's not even [SPOILERS] my favorite movie of the decade. And, no, it's no How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the year's domestic box office champ). I'm not that much of a populist. Anyway, here's my top ten, in descending order:

Honorable mentions: Quills (naked Geoffrey Rush is always good); Remember the Titans (loves me some Will Patton); Requiem for a Dream (Shooter McGavin sighting!); Wonder Boys (RDJ FTW).

10) Traffic
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Stephen Gaghan
Starring: Benicio Del Toro, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Soderbergh is the new Spielberg in that he is the new master of the "One for you, one for me" school of filmmaking. That is to say, he'll do one for the studios (think the Ocean's movies) and then one for himself (i.e. Che). His drug trafficking ensemble piece Traffic is firmly in the "One for me" category. It is also the first (well, one of the first) of the ensemble cast-social issue kind of film of which Crash (Haggis not Cronenberg) is the most offensive example.

But Crash Traffic is not (yeah, there was probably a better way to say that). The characters are less caricature (with the possible exception of Zeta-Jones' and Topher "Don't Call Me Foreman" Grace's characters), the social issue is less esoteric, and the direction is infinitely more restrained. Oh, and the script is far less contrived. Moving on.

Traffic did well on Oscar night, netting four golden men (including wins for Soderbergh, Gaghan, and Del Toro). All were worthy enough, although the competition wasn't exactly stiff -- I think 2000 was a fairly weak year for Oscar-type pictures (Erin Brockovich? Chocolat? whatever...). Although I guess I'd rather have seen Scott or Lee win for director. Traffic remains enduring to me, almost ten years later, for its elegant cinematography (I happen to love the tonal shifts from storyline to storyline... some do not), solid performances and script, and the fact that we got to watch Eric Foreman smoke heroin.

9) O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Directed by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: George Clooney, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson

The Coens are another couple of guys who know a thing or two about straddling the line between entertainment and art. The first of a few appearances by them on this blog is O Brother, Where Art Thou? With a heavy assist from both Homer (think ancient Greece, not Springfield) and T-Bone Burnett, the Coens' tale of escaped convicts and bluegrass music collected tons of awards. Unfortunately, most of them were Grammys (the most asinine of all the major awards -- although the music was *fantastic*). At the Oscars, the Coens got their usual screenplay nom and cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins (henceforth referred to as, simply, Deakins) was nominated as well (someone PLEASE tell me how he hasn't won a freaking statue yet).

Aside from kicking off an impressive decade for George "Dreamboat" Clooney, O Brother also featured standout supporting turns by Coen favorite John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson (the "Corruption is why we wiiiiiin!" guy from Syriana -- dunno why, but I always think of that line when I think of TBN), and John Goodman before he became Goodman the Hutt. Overall, O Brother might be the Coens' most enduring comedy (non-Big Lebowski division), combining Clooney's trademark charm/smarm, The Odyssey parallels, T-Bone Burnett's standout music direction, and Deakins' delightful cinematography. And that Roderick Jaynes guy sure can edit a motion picture. Wink.

8) Memento
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher and Jonathan Nolan
Starring: Guy Pierce (note: NOT Val Kilmer), Joe Pantoliano

True story: The first time I watched Memento in its entirety, I thought I was watching a Val Kilmer movie. You can see where I'm coming from, right? There's a resemblance. I'm not crazy.

Anyway, Memento marked the arrival of American auteur Christopher Nolan as a major filmmaker (SPOILERS: You will be seeing some of his other films on this blog. Not Insomnia though. Just saying.). The Academy recognized this, awarding the film with noms for Editing and Original Screenplay. It probably should have won the latter -- Gosford ****ing Park (and yes, I had to look that up)? Seriously? I mean, I enjoyed the film, but come on. Yeah yeah, murder mystery, sexual tension, class issues, etc. All you need is some amnesia and it's basically a soap opera.  Oh wait...

But Pierce's amnesia allows for one of the most interesting film structures of all time -- it makes the oft-cited Pulp Fiction seem as easy to parse as a grade school reader. Nolan's film broke free from the rigid structure endorsed by screenwriting professors everywhere (or did it?) by allowing the film to unfold as Pierce tries to piece together what happened to him. Complex, compelling, confounding, and other c-words, Memento established Nolan's cinematic sleight-of-hand approach that he later perfected in The Prestige.

7) Snatch
Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Written by:  Guy Ritchie
Starring: Jason Statham, Brad Pitt, Denis Farina, Vinnie Jones

First off, you have to love anything with Jason Statham. If you don't, you're just not American (yes, I know he's British, and yes, I have a few non-American friends who might read this). And second... well, that was really my main point. Jason Statham (aka Frank Martin and/or Chev Chelios) is the man. The Man. The sooner you come to accept that, the better.

Moving on... yes, Brad Pitt is in this movie, and yes, he talks funny. It's a great comedic performance, but he's no Statham. He's NO Statham. Got it? Good. The rest of the cast -- from a skittish Stephen Graham to a frenetic Denis Farina to Bullet Tooth Tony (Vinnie Jones should just legally change his name at this point) -- is top-notch. That's something British people say a lot, right? Top-notch? Regardless, Guy Ritchie is a top-notch director -- a one-trick pony, yes, but it's a pretty good trick (see: Anderson, Wes) -- and this is a top-notch film. One of the better crime films (always a favorite genre) of the decade. Almost as good as RockNRolla. And yes, I'm deadly serious.

6) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Directed by: Ang Lee
Written by: Hui-Ling Wang, James Schamus, and Kuo Jung Tsai
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

Who knew a story about a stolen comb could be so awesome? Okay, okay, it's not really about a stolen comb (it's about a stolen sword), but it is indeed awesome. Awesome, as in "inspiring awe." I was 17 when this came out, and definitely watched with mouth agape as Yun-Fat, Yeoh, and Ziyi, et al. jumped all around the screen, all the while fighting with all manner of weapons. This was my first real encounter with martial arts cinema/wire fu (unless you count The Matrix), and I loved it.

Although Zhang Yimou's Hero is probably better, CT, HD fared better, both at the box office and with the critics (and it didn't even have Quentin Tarantino's artificially attached to it!), as it racked up over $200 million worldwide and 10 Oscar noms (winning four but losing out in most of the major categories). At the time, I thought it deserved to win Best Picture over Gladiator... and maybe I still do, just because there are so many deserving foreign movies every year that get shafted by AMPAS. Lee later got his due though -- no, not for the undeservingly-derided Hulk, but for Brokeback Mountain, which just really goes to show that he's up for anything, source material-wise (did anyone actually see Taking Woodstock?). Anyway, this one had it all -- amazing fight scenes, a good love story, incredible set design, and one of the classic WTF? endings of all time.

5) Pitch Black
Directed by: David Twohy
Written by: Jim and Ken Wheat, David Twohy
Starring: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Keith David, Cole Hauser

Perhaps the first curveball on the list, Pitch Black is easily in the running for best sci-fi picture of the decade and (obviously) one of my favorite films of 2000. It's high concept at its best: Flesh-eating creatures only come out at night... world has two suns... OH NO! Solar eclipse! You then get to watch a supremely badass Riddick (Diesel... but you knew that... or should have) and always excellent (and hot) Radha Mitchell scurry around for ninety minutes or so. And did I mention KEITH ****ing DAVID? Seriously, if you don't know who Keith David is, get out now. Literally. Or watch this and come back:

Back? Good. Keith David is probably in a dozen movies you like and has one of the most distinct screen presences of all time. He even manages to out-badass Vin Diesel. And I'm talking about *before* he did The Pacifier.

Anyway, Pitch Black is memorable for its awesome concept and amazing visuals. Tons of lens flares and heat distortion and shadowplay in the first part of the film, and ever-encroaching darkness for the second part. It's all spare and minimalistic; Twohy uses his limited palette masterfully. Netflix it now if you haven't seen it.

4) High Fidelity
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Nick Hornby (novel); D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink
Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black

High Fidelity, the answer to the (unasked) Rob Gordon/Fleming trivia question of the previous post, is the rare example of the film being better than the book. Many times, characters' rich and complex interior lives are lost in the book-to-film translation.  Not the case here, as the film uses the controversial Ferris Bueller/Zack Morris "talking directly to the camera" technique to great effect. John Cusack is, for all intents and purposes, a first-person narrator in the movie, and none of Rob's idiosyncrasies are lost in the bargain. A masterstroke by the underrated Stephen Frears.

But this is really Cusack's show (he even has a screenwriting credit on this) -- Lloyd Dobler's all grown up and he's in the middle of an existential (read: girl) crisis. Music is either to blame for it, or is the only panacea -- or is it both? Love the soundtrack, love the random "top five" lists, love Jack Black's coming out party, and I really love Iben Hjejle's (how in god's name do you pronounce that?) performance -- too bad she never really did much else that anyone's seen. A must-see movie (and must-read book) for anyone that's ever been in the dumps about relationships. And who hasn't?

3) In the Mood for Love
Directed by: Wong Kar-wai
Written by: Wong Kar-wai
Starring: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung

After another couple viewings, this might even move to #1 on this list -- I've still only seen it the once. But I was sufficiently floored and knew I had to include it in the top five. It landed solidly at #3 behind the two movies that anyone talks about when they talk about movies released in 2000 (maybe I am that much of a populist, after all).

The key word here is "mood," and all the major players here (Wong, Leung, Cheung, and cinematographer Christopher Doyle) are masters at setting it. Wong is a subtle eroticist (I think I just invented a word) and a master of the melancholy; Leung and Cheung are two of the finest actors on the planet (they should both have multiple Oscar noms by now... hell, take Julia Roberts' statue for Brockovich away and give it to Cheung); and Doyle manipulates light and shadow to frame the characters and uses a soft palette to heighten the mood. In the Mood for Love is as close to virtuoso filmmaking as anything released this decade. It'd make you stand up and applaud if it wasn't so damn sad. Check out Wong Kar-wei's films if you aren't familiar. Filmmaking at its finest.

2) Gladiator
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Written by: David Franzoni, John Logan
Starring: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen

You knew this was coming, and while it's not a particularly inspired choice, I still think it deserves its ranking. The first (and really, only actually good) collaboration between Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe (not the last you'll be seeing of either of them), Gladiator is the little action movie that could. While it's not your typical Hollywood actioner, it still wasn't expected to make the critical impact it did. For that, you can credit its two main players: Scott and Crowe.

How Ridley Scott hasn't won an Oscar yet is beyond me. I'm sure AMPAS already has an honorary statue earmarked for him in 2025. Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven (yep, I said it)... the man will take on anything and will make it epic and poignant. I love epic movies and Ridley Scott does 'em better than anyone. He, more so than any director this side of Spielberg, understands the inherent grandeur of cinema and makes pictures that reflect that.

Say what you will of Russell Crowe a person (just watch out for flying telephones), but you can't deny his abilities as an actor. He has an undeniable presence, and for someone who is usually billed as the macho man, action hero type, he has a surprisingly versatile emotional palette (okay, that's like the third time I've used that word... no more). He just makes what he's in better. Hell, even Proof of Life and A Good Year were decent (Body of Lies though... not so much). I still think his portrayal of Bud White in L.A. Confidential is one of the best acting performances of the last 25 years. And, come on, one more time: "Are you not entertained?!"

1) Almost Famous
Directed by: Cameron Crowe
Written by: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup, Kate Hudson, Frances McDormand

I'll just come out and say it: I'm ripping off Bill Simmons (sports writer extraordinaire and one of my writing idols). He wrote a column a few months back espousing Almost Famous as the best movie of the decade. It was already in the running, but the column (and subsequent re-viewing of the film) pushed it over the top. And I think, at the end of the day, any film that somehow manages to get Kate Hudson an Oscar nomination has to be the best of its particular year. I mean, did you see You, Me and Dupree? Then you know what I'm saying.

Cameron Crowe might only be my second-favorite Crowe, but I love his saccharine schtick. I just enjoy watching his movies -- even (or perhaps especially -- and we'll address my Orlando Bloom fetish in future posts) Elizabethtown. (The obvious exception to this is Vanilla Sky. That movie sucks.) That said, Almost Famous is easily his best work -- his least clich├ęd (and that is a problem with his films), most fulfilling work yet. It's just got so many good, memorable scenes -- the Lester Bangs scene(s), the "Golden God" scene, the "Tiny Dancer" scene, the plane scene -- that still immediately come to mind, almost ten years later.

And then there's the cast -- just brilliant. The underrated (and that's probably how he likes it) Billy Crudup absolutely steals the movie as Russell Hammond, lead guitarist and songwriter of the fictional (actually all the music is by Nancy Wilson and Peter Frampton) band Stillwater. He's jaded and egotistical and supremely talented -- and he's even got a great mustache. Fugit (read: Crowe stand-in) is gangly and awkward and rises to the challenge of acting alongside his more experienced castmates. Hudson is *actually* good as Penny Lane, the self-professed "fucked-up girl" that winds up in the heart of Fugit's character and in the bed of Crudup's. Even better is Frances McDormand (when is she not good?) as Fugit's mettling yet loving mother. Oh, and Zooey Deschanel is his sister, Jason Lee is Stillwater's lead singer and Philip Seymour Hoffman is Bangs, Fugit's rock critic idol. Do I even need to say anything else? Read Simmons' column if you're still not convinced.

Wow. That took a lot longer than I thought it would. Anyway, thanks for reading. Direct any disagreements, omissions, praise, etc. to the comments area. Until next time.

A quick word before we begin...

Subtitled: Wherein I Will Use a Lot of Parentheses

I suppose you could call this a disclaimer. I figure any self-respecting critic (even a recreational one like myself) should at least give a peek into his or her process. Now, I wish there was some John Hollinger-like formula I could give you, something like: (aesthetic merit + entertainment value / times seen) x (Oscars won - Hilary Swank appearances + zombies) / ( MPAA rating + year-end box office rank). But there isn't. Most of those things are taken into account (especially Hilary Swank appearances), but in the end it's simply a matter of what I liked the best. I know, I know -- "How can you compare Bad Boys 2 and Babel? That's like comparing apples and oranges!" Well, I like apples better (and Bad Boys 2). See? It's easy.

The above example is just about movies. Keep in mind that I'll be trying to touch on as many forms of media as possible -- film, music, literature, television, video games, sports, etc. Expect a multitude of Rob Gordon (or Fleming, if you read the book)-like lists, some spanning the entire decade, some spanning a single year therein. Update schedule? There is none -- it's called "Whenever I feel like it," folks. Hope I can finish before the decade ends. Hope you can keep up. And don't be afraid to call me out. Or laud me. I always enjoy a good lauding.

That's it for now. First (actual) post forthcoming.

Disclaimer of the disclaimer: The title of the blog is a freaking pun. I'm pretty sure that means I can get away with anything.