Hayden Childs

William Ham

Dana Knowles

Gary Mairs

Leonard Pierce

Michael Tomczyszyn

Scott Von Doviak

George Wu


The Algonquin Kids' Table

This Issue: 2003 Top Ten Lists

Phil Nugent - 12:17pm Feb 24, 2004 PST

The last couple of years, it's felt to me as if the culture is in a holding pattern, Maybe nobody's sure yet how to address what's going on (the first American plays to openly address 9/11, or rather to address reactions to 9/11, opened in New York in the fall, inspired a few small sniffs of disdain and crept off into the corner to die), or maybe everybody was waiting to find out how The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings finished up. There's been a conspicuous lack of masterpieces, of anything designed to challenge a viewer's preconceptions or shake him to the core. But compared to the torpor of about ten or fifteen years ago, there seem to be a lot of smart, talented people trying to do honest work, and there's generally been something around worth making time for. My own top ten list for movies this year would be a motley but much-loved beast carved out of American Splendor, Capturing the Friedmans, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, The Triplets of Belleville, The Man Without a Past, In America, Lost in Translation, Finding Nemo, The Weather Underground, Remembrance of Things to Come, Thirteen, Bus 174, In This World, The Good Thief, The Station Agent, Shattered Glass, Balseros, 21 Grams, and God knows what that I'm forgetting. The attention I've been able to pay to music this past year has been spottier, but I did get a major pulse rush from thanks to the Wrens, the Fiery Furnaces, Buck 65, OutKast, Yo La Tengo, Missy Elliott, the Dandy Warhols, Dizzee Rascal, the Drive-By Truckers, and live albums by Television and the Handsome Family.

One of the greatest, most deeply affecting audio-visual charges I got this year, though, was from a collaboration between a former video whiz kid, director Mark Romanek, and an old reliable gracefully edging towards the exit, Johnny Cash: the video for "Hurt", the high point of Cash's last album (which, despite some tongue-clickings I heard about the law of dimishing returns, is a goddamn sight stronger than any album that features both "Desperado" and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" has any right to be) and a major return to form for Romanek after his stillborn debut feature One Hour Photo. A career summary and a requiem for a major artist who was also a visibly dying man, it was perched right on the edge of being exploitative, and it is a deeply painful thing to watch the first time, yet I think it's one of those works that turns pain into a kind of rapture. It's three or four minutes of film that leave you feeling that you've just remembered what's really important.

I agree with Dana that one of the glories of the year has been the steady stream of remarkable performances by talented, very young actresses. (And to Dana's good list of same, I'd tack on Whale Rider's Keisha Castle-Hughes; Rachel Hurd-Wood, the miraculously clear-eyed Wendy of P.J. Hogan's Peter Pan movie; and Raven Goodwin, whose performance in The Station Agent confirms the promise of her beautiful work last year in Lovely & Amazing. To say nothing of all those fresh-faced, shifty-minded little scene-stealers in The School of Rock.) But to watch Cash in "Hurt", or to listen to his record (or to Al Green's reunion with Willie Mitchell on I Can't Stop), is to remember the value of years of training and an adult consciousness--the equipment of an old pro, whatever the age. Vanity Fair declared this a moment for show-biz youth in a issue whose cover looked like the most overproduced issue of Seventeen on record. But if you saw the entertaining remake of Freaky Friday, you saw a kiddie flick transmuting itself into a joke about innocence vs. experience. As the mother who wakes up to find herself occupying her teenage daughter's body, Lindsay Lohan is a lot of fun to watch. She's assured and very cute, and it's amusing to watch her try to act her notion of older than her age, all snippy and persnickety. It's a fine shtick. But as her opposit number, Jamie Lee Curtis knocks the movie out of the park. It's not just that she has reserves of training that, one hopes, are still in Lohan's future; it's that she has the experience and the imagination to really summon up, not just a cliche idea of a difficult teenager, but a real teenage girl with her own strange quirks and ideas, and to convey what she's like to such a degree that it's a kick to see her trying to function in someone else's body. The miserable, self-pitying expression--the eyes haggard and resigned, her lower lip down around her shins--she wears for the climactic moment when her character is trying to do the right, self-sacrificial thing is as amazing as anything I saw in a movie, oe even on the subway, all year. Right now we're coming out of the tail-end of the awards season, where we keep getting hit over the head with big, booming pronouncements about how My House of Sand and Fog on a Big, Fat Cold Mountain or whatever was carried down from the mountaintop to stun us all blind with its beribboned magnificence. Which I do appreciate--it gives me something to set my watch by. But I think it's the little things, like Curtis' pout, or Malcolm McDowell's self-amused speechifying about "phony ballet" while he tries to remember who the hell he's talking to in The Company, or watching Samatha Morton silently going from familial playfulness to white-hot lust in about three seconds as she chases her kids out of the apartment in In America, or just Billy Bob Thornton's hungover dismay at the latest living, squalling nightmare taking up space in his lap in Bad Santa, that keep me going.

Hayden - 10:43am Feb 25, 2004 PST

I'm not sure about the holding pattern thesis, Phil, although I can say that I expected the excesses of the Bush presidency to lead to a punk rock rennaissance. I guess that Leonard's probably correct in saying that hip-hop is the vital underground music form of the double-oughts, though.

Still, it seems to me that there's been more music that I find compelling made over the last two years than in the previous two, which, in my eyes, contradicts the holding pattern thesis. I remember having to struggle to come up with a top ten best albums for either 2000 and 2001 (I say this in full knowledge that it will take me some time to find some supporting proof, and I hope that the rest of you won't demand instant results here, or results at all, for that matter).

Leonard Pierce - 11:14am Feb 25, 2004 PST

I guess that Leonard's probably correct in saying that hip-hop is the vital underground music form of the double-oughts, though.

...and, like the vital underground music of previous decades, most people won't notice it until it's already over.

I wouldn't say that pop music is in any kind of a holding pattern, but I will say, for whatever it's worth, that I had a lot harder time picking out my favorite hip-hop records than I did my favorite rock/pop records of 2003. Which might suggest that I'm just pickier about one genre than the other, or might suggest that the Balkanization of music has gotten sufficiently advanced that rock & pop bands are having a little more trouble finding their audience than once they were.

Conversely, I think movies are going from strength to strength. I can scarcely remember a time when there were so many good movies to choose from, and while there's still lots of crap floating around, the good stuff comprises a real embarrassment of choice. I'd echo Jonathan Rosenbaum, who, in his top 10 of 2003 article in the Chicago Reader, attributed it at least partially to DVDs.

Phil Nugent - 05:56pm Feb 28, 2004 PST

I may have been unclear. I don't mean that there's not a lot of good work out there--there is indeed--but that, at a time when there are some pretty important things going on in the country at large, most of it seems scaled small and to be peering inward, rather than trying to address what's going on in the country. Maybe my thinking on this has too much to do with my having recently read The Dream Life, J. Hoberman's thrilling book about how movies of the 1960s and 1970s reflected and engaged the politics and consciousness of their eras. Not all of those movies were as good as The Manchurian Candidate and Bonnie & Clyde and The Wild Bunch and McCabe & Mrs. Miller and (Hoberman's nominee for "last sixties movie") De Palma's Blow Out; some of them were fiascos like Arthur Penn's The Chase, and some were opportunistic drool like Joe or the Dirty Harry pictures, or crude, clueless gestures made by people wading in over their heads (like John Wayne's The Alamo and, later, The Green Berets). But that kind of electric connection between what was on the news and on the screen must have exciting. I probably saw at least twenty more good new movies this year than I saw in 1993--I feel comfortable saying that. But which of them could be called a zeitgeist movie for our times--Pirates of the Caribbean? Except maybe for The Lord of the Rings and a couple of the best (of a startling number of amazingly good) documentaries, the most nakedly ambitious movie I liked this year was probably 21 Grams, which mostly uses its wide-eyed view of the space and variety of American life for a depiction of private agonies, and anyway I'm lonely in liking it. (Most people I know whose opinions I respect found the plot mechanics too ludicrous to buy into.)

I'm also in the minority here on Elephant, which left me squarely on the fence--a position not too many movies (or anything else) set me down on. It's intelligent and thoughtful and I'll even call it a return to Van Sant, who I once cheered for as lustily as any American who's commandeered a camera in the last fifteen-odd years, and who I had pretty much totally given up on. I admire his willingness to take on a big, disturbing subject, and his refusal to stick little labels everywhere like Chester Gould and try to "explain" Columbine. (God knows he makes less of an ass of himself than Michael "The evil aura emanating from the nearby munition factory drove the boys insane" Moore did in Bowling for Columbine.) But I wonder if he doesn't go too far in the opposite direction, so far that his movie barely tells you a thing. In his determination not to reduce the subject to platitudes and easy solutions, while carefully measuring out just enough visual variety to keep the viewer intrigued, I think he threatens to aestheticize his subject rather than grapple with it. he himself has repeatedly described Elephant as a "Rorshach test", and while that sort of gibes with Jean Renoir's invaluable contention that a movie ought to leave enough of itself "unanswered" that a viewer can bring some reaction of his own to it, he may be pushing it too far. I mean, a Rorshach test, even the most elegant one imaginable, even one with butchered kids in it, only tells you what you yourself bring to the viewing experience. (And it's true that people have wildly differing reactions to the movie and that it's interesting to compare them. For instance, I remember one friend who loves the movie complaining about what he saw as the too-pointed political message of the kids in the committee room talking about sexual tolerance being the only well-adjusted kids in the school, whereas I thought that, except for the poor girl with body issues and the trio of gals who go straight from the cafeteria to the bathroom for a purging, and of course the killers, all the kids in the movie seemed very well adjusted from what I could see. God knows the blond kid who takes the wheel from his drunken father and goes to the principal's office to call his brother for help in getting pops home handled the situation better than I would have in my teens, or for that matter five minutes ago.) It's interesting, all right, but it doesn't tell me anything about high school violence or the atmosphere it grows out of or anything else to do with the world at large. The most remarkable sequence is probably the one near the end involving Bennie, the black kid who appears out of nowhere to act heroically, for a while. But it plays like one of those late-Bunuel games on the audience's expectations, and a sick-joke comment on the sacrificial treatment of black characters in Hollywood films (like Scatman Crothers in The Shining or Woody Strode in Spartacus). Like too many movies of the last few decades, it's less about life than about other movies.

"For me, everything bad in Elephant stemmed from its scattered attempts to explain what is, to my mind, essentially incomprehensible."---------------------------------->More on Page Three!