This is one year I am glad to see make an exit. But there were a number of things in 2003 that grabbed my attention or made me leap for joy. There were many more worsts, but I don’t believe in poking sticks into people’s eyes needlessly — there is no point in it. And so, with no further adieu, we bring you AF&O’s picks for the best of 2003. Please share your picks and opinions of mine in the Comments!
Best in Music
- OutKast – Speakerboxxx / The Love Below In their ambitious multigenre dual-sider, André 3000 took on love; Big Boi provided the hip hop hot sauce, and America danced with glee. Hey ya! These guys had better get Grammys.
- The White Stripes – Elephant Finally. Jack lives up to the hype. With drummer Meg, the young guitarist makes music that delivers joy and tears — just terrific stuff.
- Emmylou Harris – Stumble into Grace Emphasis on the “grace”: This gorgeous set of songs, most written or co-written by the artist, pushes the boundaries of country-folk and shares important, often melancholy, stories of life’s travails. Harris’ voice, as always, fills this listener with rapture, and guest appearances by artists such as the McGarrigle sisters, Jane Siberry and Luscious Jackson’s Jill Cunniff make the experience even more memorable.
- Annie Lennox – Bare The erstwhile Eurythmics singer’s agonizing divorce is the force behind this passionate collection of songs. Her pain is our gain.
- The Strokes – Room on Fire I love these guys without apology. Yeah, they’re poseurs, and this album will take a few listens before one can truly appreciate it. But once dug in, wow — we knew these boys were immensely talented after Is This It, but the outfit has matured since its release, and its hard-won experience has infused pop gems such as “The End Has No End,” “12:51,” and “Reptilia” with a heretofore nonexistent depth that makes each listen an adventure.
Honorable mentions: The Diary of Alicia Keys, Dan Fogelberg’s Full Circle, Live’s “Heaven,” Ryan Adams’ Rock ‘n Roll, Jay-Z’s The Black Album (Don’t go, Jigga!), Jason Mraz’s Waiting For My Rocket To Come, Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, Warren Zevon’s The Wind
Best in Film
- Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Masterpiece. Flawed, yes — I didn’t realize three-plus hours had passed until the story had ended three times, and what was with Frodo’s moving scar? But the performances were gripping, the special effects nearly seamless, the power of the plot so intoxicatingly riveting that I didn’t quibble about the changes to Tolkein’s story until days later… and Viggo Mortenson’s Aragorn really turned into a magnificent king, didn’t he? Oof! I’d better hear Oscar calling for this one.
- Master and Commander Don’t know why I am not a bigger fan of Russell Crowe. Don’t even know why I went to see this film, because I really don’t like Russell Crowe. But good thing I did: The entire cast served as hero of this beautifully crafted adventure movie; they thrilled me with their bravery and derring-do. And Crowe as their captain was strong, energetic, and thoroughly captivating. Perhaps I will go back and check out Gladiator after all.
- Finding Nemo Went for the kid. Had a total blast. The voice performances were engaging, the animations enthralling, the story absolutely heartwarming. Nemo ended up giving more bang for the moviegoing buck than the vast majority of grownup films produced this year. Yet again, hail Pixar!
- Lost in Translation Director Sofia Coppola offers a lovely and beautifully shot tale of two Americans traveling in Japan who connect while coping with their individual life transitions. Bill Murray’s performance is marvelous — the film is worth seeing only for him, but Coppola’s work is breathtakingly moving, funny, quirky, and ultimately inspiring.
- A Mighty Wind Christopher Guest and Co. returned with another improv humor-fueled mockumentary, this time focusing on the world of ’60s folk music. What a hoot: The performances by Guest, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer as music trio the Folksmen are as hilarious as their previous stint as Spinal Tap, and the stories surrounding the “New Main Street Singers” actually reduced me to tears of laughter. But what really resonates is the story of onetime folk lovebirds Mitch and Mickey — Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara (especially Levy) — make their characters’ sadnesses feel real.
Honorable mentions: Eugene Levy in Bringing Down the House, Mystic River, Pirates of the Caribbean, Bad Santa, X2: X-Men United (a sequel that improved upon the original!), the Indiana Jones DVD release
Best Books I Read My book-buying budget was very small this year, so I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on the best books of the year. Instead, I’ll present, in no particular order, my faves from the books I was fortunate enough to read in 2003.
- George McMahon and Christopher Largen – Precription Pot The moving story of McMahon’s life, this book tells about his experiences as a sufferer of Nail Patella Syndrome and as one of the few Americans who receive legal medical marijuana from the US government. McMahon knows he is in a privileged — though not perfect — position and he works as an activist and advocate for others who need medical pot. This book is part of that activism, and it’s well worth your time.
- Joe Conason – Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth This and the two following it are, I suppose, obvious choices, but they did indeed inform readers of the right-wing’s mendacious streak, and entertainingly. Of the three, journalist Conason’s is the best, hands down.
- Michael Moore – Dude, Where’s My Country? Funny, passionate, well-researched. The man deserved the Oscar; it’s a shame he is more pragmatist lib than true progressive.
- Al Franken – Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right Pissed off Bill O’Reilly and Faux News. Worked for me. Plus, Franken’s a howl.
- Steve Parish – Home Before Daylight: My Life on the Road with the Grateful Dead One of the best recountings of the behind-the-scenes world of Jerry Garcia and Co. What helps is that Parish, a Dead insider, doesn’t have an axe to grind and he is not afraid to talk about the band’s — and his own — dark side.
Honorable mentions: JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, David Brock’s Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, Jan Morris’ A Writer’s World: Travels and Reportage 1950 to 2000
Best in Television
My access to cable TV was limited this year, and this limits what I was able to see in 2003 — keep that in mind. These are presented in no particular order.
- “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” No, I don’t buy the stereotypes that gay = stylish and heterosexual = hopeless, but this show goes beyond those triticisms and shows people coming together and acccepting one another. TV needs more of that. Plus, some of the tips are really excellent for anyone. Cheers, queers.
- “Ellen DeGeneres Show” My girl Ellen is back on TV and funnier than ever with her new daily talk show. Unlike Rosie, DeGeneres is actually nice, she sucks up to no one, and she’s genuine. Plus, I love her mom.
- “Arrested Development” Well, how about that? Broadcast-TV sitcoms can be original, creative and smart. And funny.
- “Angels in America” It’s about time they brought Tony Kushner’s stage masterpiece to the screen. Let’s hope America watched and got the message.
- “Oklahoma!” Cheers to the Public Broadcasting System outlets smart enough to air the “Great Performances” featuring the 1998 London revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic. Hugh Jackman’s electrifying performance as Curly is reason enough to watch it, but the rest of the cast is also outstanding. Bravo, PBS.
Honorable mentions: Garry Shandling and Brad Garrett’s Emmy Awards kiss, “24,” “Skin”‘s third — and last — episode, all of the “Law and Order”s, Hugh Jackman on “The View,” “Six Feet Under,” “The Amazing Race” and the victorious Chip and Reichen and Jerry Bruckheimer