Friday, December 30, 2005
"The Golden Years" are always some other time, aren't they? They're an idealized part of the past or a dreamed-of piece of the future when everything is just a little bit better. Food tastes more succulent, music sounds sweeter, movies actually move you and art transports you to another plane. But our critics think that 2005 had moments that were surprisingly golden. There were more than enough good films to fill a top 10 list. Artists continue to challenge and amaze. Musicians from a wide variety of genres delivered quality work that will outlast passing trends. Maybe 2005 wasn't a golden year, but it definitely had its moments. Join us in a look back at some of the shinier ones.
Sufjan Stevens: "Illinois " (Asthmatic Kitty). This is literate, kaleidoscopic chamber-pop exploring the history, folklore, locales and denizens of the state, and the fact that Abe Lincoln, Carl Sandburg and John Wayne Gacy Jr. peacefully coexist testifies to the album's compassion and conceptual ambition. Intricate vocal and orchestral arrangements, quirky instrumentation, gorgeous melodies, a cornucopia of styles and structures, and lyrics that are both engagingly universal and rivetingly personal -- let's hope this state-by-state project doesn't end anytime soon.
My Morning Jacket: "Z" (ATO). Louisville's post-Southern rockers throw off generic shackles, wisely hire an outside producer to tighten and solidify their once sprawling sound; they also overcome key personnel shifts and the pop impulse to make records longer than they need be (40 minutes serves MMJ perfectly). Jim James's otherworldly vocals and surreal lyrics are nowhere better served than in the weirdly beautiful waltz "Into the Woods," in which he notes, "A kitten on fire, a baby in a blender/Both sound as sweet as a night of surrender."
Ry Cooder: "Chavez Ravine" (Nonesuch). Cooder crafted a moving, musically rich requiem for a vanished East Los Angeles neighborhood inhabited in the '50s by Mexican immigrants and working-class Mexican Americans, ultimately destroyed by a deadly combination of McCarthy-era dirty politics, police corruption, Anglo attacks on "pachuco" culture and greedy real estate barons. (Dodger Stadium eventually took root there.) Tapping into Cooder's affinity for ethnic and roots music and his ongoing mastery of the storytelling soundtrack, the bilingual album melds the voices of pioneering '50s Chicano artists Lalo Guerrero and Don Tosti and conjunto and corrido with R&B and offbeat pop to bring a neighborhood back to life in melancholy memory.
John Legend: "Get Lifted " (GOOD/Columbia). Released in the last days of 2004, Legend's major-label debut lived up to its title and warranted the artist's nickname: John Stephens became Legend after session musicians he worked with began comparing him to soul legends from an earlier era. His smooth 'n' scratchy vocals, church-bred piano chops and ability to craft R&B songs that sound classic as opposed to retro were fortified with hip-hop attitude and beats as Kanye West went from collaborator to label boss, astutely making Legend his first signing: Each earned eight nominations for this year's Grammys. The gorgeous ballad "Ordinary People" proved this was no ordinary artist.
Bettye LaVette: "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise " (Anti). This is the feel-good/sound-good album of the year, marking the long overdue comeback of a criminally underappreciated Southern soul singer whose prime was in the '60s but who, despite approaching 60, can still sing up a storm, or quiet one. Drawing from a superb collection of songs by female artists that includes Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, Aimee Mann, Joan Armatrading, Fiona Apple and Sinead O'Connor (a stunning a cappella "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got"), LaVette transforms them all into soulful proverbs and spiritual epiphanies.
DVD of note: "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" (Paramount). This 3 1/2 -hour, Martin Scorsese-directed documentary's great strengths include massive doses of rare archival film and seldom-heard performances, as well as the normally press-averse Dylan riffling through his back pages in a surprisingly engaging and accessible manner. It covers the first 25 years of Dylan's journey as he goes from being a complete unknown to becoming the voice of his generation and the most profoundly influential songwriter in rock history. It's also as much a chronicle of the culturally and politically chaotic '60s as it is a portrait of the artist transitioning from folk roots 'n' revitalization to the electric currents of rock 'n' roll.
Danger Doom: "The Mouse and the Mask" (Epitaph). Danger Mouse and MF Doom team up for the craziest, coolest CD of the year. Funkier than a pair of ratty old sneakers and smoother than George Clooney, the duo blends rap, soul and the cartoon characters from Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" with addictive results. Non-animated guests include Talib Kweli, Cee-Lo and Ghostface.
Common: "Be" (Good/Geffen). Kanye West, a contender for this list in his own right, produced most of this album and gave Common, long respected for his lyrical ability, the sort of soulful, rich musical backdrop he deserves. His rhymes are as tight as ever, and West opts for gimmick-free music that's real and warm.
Franz Ferdinand: "You Could Have It So Much Better" (Domino). Actually, no, you can't have it much better than this confident sophomore release. Loaded with catchy riffs and a bit of camp, it propositions you like a dissolute young gentleman. And it does so with such style that when the band asks, "Do You Want To," you're bound to say yes. A great soundtrack for your rock 'n' roll party fantasies.
The Blind Boys of Alabama: "Atom Bomb" (Real World). On this release, the septuagenarian singers display the energy and experience to take a song like "Spirit in the Sky" and make it surprisingly catchy. So when they revive a classic from the Soul Stirrers' on the title tune, the performance rivals the superb original. Visits from David Hidalgo, Charlie Musselwhite, Billy Preston and Gift of Gab lend additional oomph to the proceedings.
The New Pornographers: "Twin Cinema" (Matador). In a time when the shiniest coin of the pop realm is hip-hop-flavored dance numbers, it's easy to forget the joys of a well-crafted piece of power pop. This disc will remind you. Ebullient and lush in its attitudes and harmonies, this indie pop supergroup's third release will make you want to lower the car window to catch the summer breeze, even when it's 30 degrees outside.
DVD of note: "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan" (Paramount). This documentary by Martin Scorcese accomplishes the seemingly impossible -- it makes Bob Dylan seem chatty. And, of course, the music isn't bad either.
Jason Moran: "Same Mother" (Blue Note) . The most exciting young musician in jazz turns his attention to the blues. He doesn't imitate older records but uses the blues as the raw material for a personal style that mixes bebop technique, hip-hop rhythms and avant-garde adventure.
Paul Kelly & the Stormwater Boys: "Foggy Highway" (Cooking Vinyl) . Kelly -- the Steve Earle or Richard Thompson of Australia -- makes the obligatory string-band album, but the understated arrangements allow some of Kelly's finest songs, full of loss and doubt, to shine through.
Bob Mould: "Body of Song" (Yep Roc) . D.C. resident Mould picks up the guitar again to deliver songs as passionate and tuneful as those from his days with Husker Du and Sugar. But Mould's experiences in the dance world give his new songs an undercurrent of electronica that updates his sound.
Flipsyde: "We the People" (Cherry Tree/Interscope) . The year's best hip-hop album has been largely ignored, but its combination of live instruments, political commentary, introspection and catchy melodies take the Roots formula a step further.
Lee Ann Womack: "There's More Where That Came From" (MCA) . Womack abandons her recent diva persona to go home to the hardcore honky-tonk she grew up on and delivers the best crop of cheating songs in decades.
DVD of note : "Brian Wilson Presents Smile" (Rhino) . This set actually includes two full-length movies. David Leaf's "Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson & the Story of Smile" is the rare music documentary that actually achieves a narrative build and climax as Wilson's self-doubts about his star-crossed masterpiece threaten to derail the London premiere of "Smile." "Smile: Live Performance" captures a confident Los Angeles live show that represents the best recording of Wilson's masterwork yet.
The Evens: "The Evens" (Dischord) . Fugazi sidles up to Woody Guthrie on the debut album of singer-guitarist Ian MacKaye and singer-drummer Amy Farina's new group, which is expectedly purposeful and unexpectedly pretty.
Konono No. 1: "Congotronics" (Crammed Discs) . This inventive sextet (not counting dancers) runs a DIY electrification scheme for traditional Congolese rhythms, generating polyrhythms that should entrance fans of techno and gamelan, as well as go-go.
Helen Love: "The Bubblegum Killers" (Sympathy for the Record Industry) . This Welsh sampler-punk quartet's latest EP is as witty, joyous and charmingly self-referential as ever and contains the best of the year's many Joey Ramone tribute songs.
M.I.A.: "Arular" (XL) . A Sri Lanka-rooted Londoner with great ideas and a limited voice melds grimy rhythms and giddy melodies, demonstrating that a British art school education is just as useful to a savvy worldbeat primitivist as to her rock 'n' roll predecessors.
Steve Reich: "You Are (Variations)" (Nonesuch) . The innovations are minor, but significant, in this piece for chorale and near-orchestra, which revisits the sounds and structures of the composer's "Tehillim" and "Music for 18 Musicians."
DVD of note: Morrissey, "Who Put the M in Manchester?" (Attack/Sanctuary) . With the same flair he demonstrated last year at DAR Constitution Hall -- if a more eccentric set list -- the Wildean indie-rocker flaunts his latest album, his back catalogue and bits of his favorite New York Dolls and Sinatra tunes to a rapturous hometown crowd.
"Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall" (Blue Note) . Hard to say what's more gratifying: that a 1957 concert recording featuring these jazz titans consistently challenging and complementing each other was discovered by Library of Congress Recording Lab Supervisor Larry Appelbaum or that the Blue Note release quickly became a bestseller despite the stranglehold that smooth jazz has on the airwaves.
" American Primitive Vol. II -- Pre-War Revenants: 1897-1939" (Revenant) . This double-CD compilation/exhumation is the second and final volume of roots music produced by the late John Fahey. It's devoted to long-dead blues, jazz and string-band musicians whose names seldom rang a bell anywhere but whose emotionally raw recordings continue to cast a spell. Never mind all the surface noise: The voices of Geeshie Wiley, Henry Spaulding, Mattie May Thomas and other revenants (i.e., a spirit who returns after a long absence) are penetrating and compelling.
Bettye LaVette: "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" (Anti) . Given some of the tunesmiths represented here -- Sinead O'Connor, Fiona Apple and Dolly Parton, for starters -- soul songstress LaVette could be accused of looking for inspiration in all the wrong places. The performances, however, are powerful enough to restore your faith in cover-song collections.
Charles Lloyd: "Jumping the Creek" (ECM). Though the music is sometimes meditative, if not downright dark, anyone looking for proof that Lloyd remains one of the most restlessly creative artists in jazz won't have to listen to this quartet session for long. But then the saxophonist probably wouldn't continue to have the luxury of collaborating with pianist Geri Allen if he weren't still exploring ways to keep his music intriguing.
Little Milton: "Think of Me" (Telarc) . A sentimental vote? Maybe. The soul singer and blues guitarist, who died this year, certainly never got the recognition due him. As this CD illustrates, his music was always unmistakable and often moving right up to the end.
DVD of note: Ray Charles: "Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings -- 1952-1959" (Rhino) . Granted, the price of admission ($149.98) is steep, but among the eight discs in this exhaustive box set is a DVD that captures Charles's performance at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. It's a prime-time, black-and-white artifact, hosted by the Voice of America's Willis Conover and boasting a terrific ensemble featuring saxophonists Hank Crawford and David "Fathead" Newman, plus the Raeletts. The tunes include the Count Basie band staple "Lil' Darlin' " to Charles's signature shout "What'd I Say." Capping the DVD is a revealing interview with Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, conducted by filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who directed "Ray."
Once again, the choices for the best 10 films of the year was an agonizing ordeal: So many choices, too few spots. Which is why you won't see -- but could easily have found -- "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Junebug," "Syriana," "Me and You and Everyone We Know," "Crash," "Mysterious Skin," "Millions," "Tropical Malady," "Paradise Now" and "Frank Miller's Sin City" on this list. (Rent these great movies anyway!) So here are the eventual winners, in approximate order of importance.
"The Squid and the Whale." Noah Baumbach's semiautobiographical movie is an ache-to-the-touch, sometimes agonizingly funny, portrait of an American family. The story, about the breakup of his own family, feels penned in the filmmaker's own blood. And as the patriarch, Jeff Daniels delivers a staggeringly authentic performance.
"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada." Tommy Lee Jones's big-screen directorial debut is filmmaking from the old school: a western-style, ruggedly honest film about a collection of heroes, hookers and curs all living on the Texas border with Mexico. As Pete, a simple man driven to exacting some tough justice, Jones shows why he took the top acting prize at Cannes this year.
"Brokeback Mountain." Sent to the Montana mountains to tend sheep one freezing winter, ranchers Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis Del Mar (Ledger) are drawn to each other in ways that the times (starting in the 1960s) never permit them to fully enjoy. As Ennis, the most conflicted of the two, Ledger is the aching center in an emotionally piercing movie.
"Capote ." It was a sensation when novelist Truman Capote chose an ignoble, bloody event (the murder of a Kansas family) to evoke with journalistic poetry. But the publication of "In Cold Blood" was also an auspicious moment in postmodern history, the beginning of violent crime as the grist for serious feature writing and fame as an end unto itself. As Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman takes hold of the author with the same authority Jamie Foxx did with Ray Charles in "Ray." He practically eclipses the man he's portraying.
"Hustle & Flow." Centered on DJay (Terrence Howard), possibly the most lovable pimp in the history of movies, Craig Brewer's film almost crystallizes into a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical, as DJay answers his true calling as a rapper. As the Memphis boy who decides to make a difference in his sorry, nowhere life, Howard owns every upstroke and downstroke of this movie.
"A History of Violence." David Cronenberg's masterwork poses as gift-wrapped, shoot-'em-up entertainment, about a likable, small-town hero (Viggo Mortensen) who must resort to extreme measures to protect himself and his family. But it's really about our culture's attitude toward violence. Is killing excused by moral imperative?
"Grizzly Man." Werner Herzog's documentary portrait of Timothy Treadwell, the eccentric bear activist, takes us into the heart of a dark soul. Treadwell, who wanted to break down the atavistic borders between man and beast, was devoured by a grizzly bear in 2003. There's a fascinating ideological clash, beyond the grave, between Treadwell's environmental harmonizing and Herzog's view of the universe as nothing but destructive chaos. But the synthesis between them is a source of enormous grace and power.
"Match Point." This mesmeric, almost Hitchcockian saga set in London is about an opportunist (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) whose passion for the wrong woman (Scarlett Johansson) leads him into personal tragedy. Woody Allen, simply by moving the heck out of New York, has made his best film since the days of "Hannah and Her Sisters."
"Kung Fu Hustle ." Stephen Chow's martial arts comedy introduces a crazy-quilt cast of characters, including a chain-smoking harridan (Yuen Qiu), in nightie and curlers, who can shatter glass with her screeching harangues and knock guys out cold with her aerial kicks. The movie, which seems to have been injected with Buster Keaton's gymnastic inventiveness, Sergio Leone's tough-guy posturing and the Three Stooges' antic madness, snaps and crackles like nuclear popcorn on a scorching griddle. Its stunts and visual effects are jaw-dropping.
"Off the Map." Campbell Scott's movie about a family (including Joan Allen, Sam Elliott and newcomer Valentina de Angelis) that lives in the desert doesn't just glow because of New Mexico's gorgeous sunsets. There's a collective scintillation about its rich, distinctive characters, narrative serendipity and ineffable magic.
AND THE BAD . . .
It seems like shooting turkeys in a barrel to pick on such by-definition clunkers as "Cheaper by the Dozen 2." This list, then, is dedicated to those magnificent follies, vanities and, not to put too fine a point on it, more spectacular disasters. If this list in any way causes any studio executives to lose their reserved spots in the parking lot then my work is done.
In order of calamity:
"Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith ." The most potentially compelling "Star Wars" episode of all -- Darth's Vader's evolution from Anakin Skywalker to the baddest heavy-breathing villain in sci-fi popular culture -- was marred by the disappointingly ordinary Hayden Christensen, whose character odyssey amounts to a twenty-something's hissy fit.
"Kingdom of Heaven." Ridley Scott's epic, about the battle of wills between a 12th-century crusader named Balian (Orlando Bloom) and Muslim leader Saladin (Ghassan Massoud), was more like a straight-to-DVD, digitalized "Lord of the Rings" sequel. Call it "Legolas Defends Jerusalem."
"Fever Pitch." This American baseball recasting of Nick Hornby's British soccer memoir, starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, was a complete strikeout.
"Meet the Fockers." Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand as Ben Stiller's nutty, huggable, liberal parents? It still hurts.
"The Pacifier." Vin Diesel, who finds himself on this list every year, plays a Navy SEAL dispatched to run a household full of kids. They should have called this "Kindergarten Flop."
"The Adventures of Sharkboy & Lavagirl in 3-D." Forget the 3-D glasses. Robert Rodriguez's ineptly staged sci-fi movie for children worked best with a blindfold.
"Bewitched ." As the witch of the TV series, Nicole Kidman should have used that broomstick to sweep this movie away.
"The Honeymooners." As Ralph and Ed, in this modernized version of the classic Jackie Gleason-Art Carney TV show of the same name, Cedric the Entertainer and Mike Epps deserved a one-way ticket to the moon.
"Be Cool. " This overwrought sequel to "Get Shorty" marked the return (and, with luck, the retirement) of John Travolta as loan shark Chili Palmer.
"A Love Song for Bobby Long. " Travolta was in rare form again, as Bobby Long, an ex-professor given to sleep, drink and literary quotations -- all this in a blond wig.
"SlideShow." In the year-end issue of Artforum magazine, artist, critic and curator Robert Storr also included this nostalgic yet unsentimental theme show -- a retrospective of slide-based art, which is going the way of the dodo -- on his list of top 10 exhibitions. His selection of the wide-ranging Baltimore Museum of Art show, which featured pieces by such artists as Robert Smithson, Nan Goldin and Jonathan Monk, was well deserved, as was his criticism of the Brooklyn Museum, where you would still have had a chance to catch "SlideShow" on tour, through Jan. 8, had the museum not inexplicably canceled it.
"Sean Scully: Wall of Light." The 39 works on view at the Phillips Collection, representing a major series of recent paintings, along with a supplemental array of photographs, related works on paper and early paintings, show the Irish-born abstractionist to be at the top of his game. Inspired by the stacked stone walls of the Mexican landscape, Scully's paintings are meant to evoke not just disparate places and times (or occasionally people) but emotional states. Through Jan. 8.
"PostSecret." Begun by Frank Warren of Germantown as a community art project in which anyone who wanted to could send in a postcard with an anonymous confession on it, this Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran exhibition, on view through Jan. 8, is part correspondence art and part group performance. The results of the project, hundreds of which are on display at a former Staples store in Georgetown, and several of which have been archived at http://www.postsecret.com/, are cumulatively quite moving.
"Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre." You could almost smell the cigarettes, sex and absinthe at the National Gallery of Art, where this exhibition on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's long-standing fascination with the Parisian neighborhood of nightclubs, circuses and whorehouses reveled in the temptations of the flesh. Finally, an NC-17 show at the temple of art propriety.
"Faces of the Fallen." It's not an art exhibition -- not exactly -- but this strangely moving show does feature hundreds of artist-made portraits, in almost every medium, of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. On view already for several months at Arlington National Cemetery, and now incorporating trinkets and other objects visitors have left behind, "Faces" has evolved from a static memorial into something with a life of its own. Through the end of March.