I’m always confused as to why so many folks, especially fairly prominent critics and publications, see fit to publish their year-end lists before the year is even over. For starters, how do you know that something great isn’t going to come out in the days (or weeks) that still remain in the year? It smacks of snobbery, elitism, and ignorance, as if these pundits have looked at the upcoming release schedules and, with a wave of their hand, dismissed everything else that is still to come because they think/know it will suck.
But more importantly, there’s absolutely no way that anyone has experienced enough of any given year’s movies, albums, books, and whatever in that particular year to accurately judge what’s the best. Part of me wants to hold off on publishing this list for another 6 months, a year, even longer. I’m constantly discovering music and films from 3, 5, even 10 years ago that constantly cause me to reevaluate what I’ve found to be the best of those years.
Ironically enough, after essentially saying that year-end lists are, to some degree, intrinsically flawed and not to be trusted, I present my own personal year-end list. However, I add this caveat right up front: this list is by no means comprehensive, and could totally change within two weeks. However, the items mentioned below are those that have stood the test of time so far, and I have a pretty good feeling that they’ll still be here 3, 5, even 10 years from now. Also, as a little experiment, I’m eschewing the list format and opting for something a bit more conversational. It feels less pundit-y for me, more informal, and more honest. So let’s get started…
What else can I say? 2005 was the year of Sufjan Stevens. Sure, those of us in the know knew he was something special way back around the time of Enjoy Your Rabbit, and that the best was still to come. But even then, we were surprised by Come On Feel The Illinoise. The man’s songwriting grew by leaps and bounds, becoming more ambitious than anything he’d done to date, incorporating intricate choral pieces, high school cheers, delicate folk, Steve Reich-esque minimalism, and even a bit of disco into the mix.
But as intoxicating as the music was, the lyrics were where it was at. Stevens’ lyrics are simply astounding, as much for their audacity as for their honesty. Who else could combine references to Carl Sandburg, Joe Jackson, world expos, and zombies with searing explorations of human depravity, the silence of God, childhood friendships, and the whole of human experience, and pull it off brilliantly?
But Illinois wasn’t Sufjan’s only appearance this year. He also made some contributions to Denison Witmer’s latest, Are You A Dreamer?. I’ve been a longtime fan of Witmer’s music, but on this album, everything about his songs — his hushed voice, delicate guitarwork, pensive lyrics — came together in startling new ways. It certainly didn’t hurt that The Innocence Mission’s Don Peris produced the album. Indeed, Witmer’s hushed, confessional music achieves a whole new level under Peris’ tutelage, resulting in the strongest, fullest album from the man to date.
In all honesty, I wasn’t really expecting music Sigur Ros’ Takk…. I’ve always had a fond place in my heart for Iceland’s most famous sons, but after the exhausting (), I was pretty sure that the boys had just about done everything they could do with their music. And I was completely right… and completely wrong. Takk… doesn’t deviate much from the band’s formula, blending gigantic, glacial swells of guitar with fluttering synths, orchestral bombast, and of course, Jonsi Birgisson’s fey, ethereal voice.
Takk… may not quite achieve the same celestial heights of Ágætis Byrjun, but their music has never felt so joyous or celebratory (check out the polka break on “Sé Lest” if you don’t believe me). And tracks such as “Glósóli” and “Sæglópur” proved the band could still summon the thunder of the gods when they wanted to.
Make Mine Music proved once again to be a label to watch, with several strong releases this year. Epic45’s England Fallen Over EP was a lovely slice of nostalgic atmospherica. A little bit noisier than what I’ve come to expect from the label, it was a lovely blend of Disco Inferno-esque post-rock and Morr Music electronics. And “We can sit and make plans/That we know we’ll never see/Filled to completion” is still one of the saddest lines I heard all year.
Yellow6’s Melt Inside was the finest album I’ve heard by the band yet, a tense, sparse album of alienated guitar drones and seductively paranoid female vocals. It could be an exhausting listen at times, but there was such a sense of existential longing pervading its songs that I couldn’t help but get drawn in every time I listened to it.
The Rainfall Years was a band that I’d know about for several years, due to their having released material on the (in)famous World Serpent label. Their latest, Ramifications, was a gorgeous slice of melancholy atmospheric pop à la David Sylvian — rich, evocative vocals and lyrics, delicate instrumentation, etc. — but it ventured into much darker, noisier territory than one typically associates with the former Japan frontman.
Although I’d heard Feist’s solo material much earlier in the year, courtesy of Waxy linking to a couple of her videos, it wasn’t until much closer to the year’s end that I finally dropped some coin and picked up Let It Die. And I wasn’t disappointed.
The main selling point is Feist’s voice, rich and smoky and seductive, as it spins tales of heartache and loss. The other selling point is the amazing mixture of styles and genres, from acoustic balladry to Fleetwood Mac-inspired FM pop to full-on disco orchestration, and it all sounds so good. Listening to her cover of The Bee-Gee’s “Inside And Out” for the first time was one of my fave musical experiences of the past 6 months or so.
It might not be as good as The Cycle Of Days and Seasons or as inventive as Cold House, but Hood’s Outside Closer ultimately proves to be as compelling and arresting as anything the band has done. It serves as sort of a missing link between their last two full-lengths, blending their earlier, more pastoral sounds with the glitch-riddled electronica of their more recent stuff, the effect being that the new life is breathed into the former sounds while the latter sounds become warmer and more human.
The Go! Team’s Thunder, Lightning, Strike (yes, I realize it came out last year, but this is the re-release) could easily be chalked up as a novelty record, and in years to come, the band might sink into such a niche. But that ignored the fact that this record is one of the most delirious albums you’ll hear this side of The Avalanches’ Since I Left You.
Taking a similarly whimsical and nostalgic approach to sampling, throwing in some funky instrumentation, and the occasional chirpings of their MC, Ninja, The Go! Team’s debut is just very, very fun, intoxicating, and ingenuous album. All it wants to ask is whether or not you can come outside and play, which, in these über-hipster days, is a good enough reason for me. It doesn’t hurt that “Everyone’s A V.I.P. To Someone” is one of the most glorious end songs I heard all year.
I held off on posting my list partly because I was a slacker, but also because there were several 2005 recordings that I wanted to get a chance to hear before finishing things up here. One of those recordings was Goldmund’s Corduroy Road. The first time I heard a snippet from this disc on Type Records’ website, it hit me so hard that I was almost afraid to buy the album, lest it not live up to the expectations created by that snippet. I then realized that was a really stupid reason for not buying an album, and I’m glad I did.
Goldmund’s (aka Keith Kenniff) gentle, elegiac piano compositions are simply spellbinding, the sparse songs barely able to stand under all of the nostalgia and sorrow. It’s a recording that absolutely transforms your surroundings while it’s playing, and stays with you long after the final note has faded.
The Web has been my primary source for information about music, but interestingly enough, I’ve never really used it as a source for actually getting music. This year, I actively began venturing out into the various netlabels that have sprung up over the years, primarily in the electronic music scene. Which eventually led me to the website of Thinner/Autoplate and what was easily my best discovery of 2005 — the music of one Jason Corder.
Corder has released a prodigious amount of music under a number of monikers — Off The Sky, Zen Sauvage, Colour By Numbers — as well as his own name, and all of it is well worth checking out (and much of it is available for free). However, it was his work as Off The Sky that had me the most captivated. Listening to his Caustic Light EP was like hearing all of the ideas and concepts I’d ever wanted from a glitchy/ambient/guitar-based project rolled into one, taking the best pieces of Susumu Yokota, lovesliescrushing, Bark Psychosis, David Sylvian, Labradford, and more, and rolling them all into a single, haunting, illusory sound.
His most recent full-length, It Is Impossible To Say Just What I Mean, might have been a little more structured and song-like than Caustic Light, but it was just as beguiling. What ultimately gets to me in Corder’s music, primarily in his Off The Sky recordings, but in pretty much everything I’ve heard from him, is ultimately how warm and human his music sounds.
One doesn’t often use words like “warm” and “intimate” when describing cut-up guitar fragments and micro-house, but it’s true with Corder’s music. For example, Caustic Light may be composed of shifting, kaleidoscopic slabs of guitar and vocal snippets, but it’s dreamlike sound has a haunted, nostalgic patina coating it. It’s rare to find music as left-field as this, and yet as beautiful and entrancing at the same time, which makes Corder’s music all the more special in my book.
I’m afraid that my list of favorite movies feels painfully short. Part of that was just that I was unable to make it to the theatres and festivals this year (and many films just don’t come my neck of the woods). As a result, there were many movies that I missed and hope to see as soon as they arrive on DVD. But I also knew I’d feel like I was copping out if I didn’t post a list culled from the movies that I did see this past year, however few that might have been. So here goes…
Although technically not a 2005 movie — it only hit American shores in 2005 — Millions is just too good to disregard it on mere technicalities. In the hands of most directors, the story of a young boy who finds a bag of money and attempts to help the poor of Britain while having visions of the saints, Millions could easily have come sentimental drivel. The film certainly has plenty of Kleenex moments, but thanks to the skill and extraordinary style of Danny Boyle (yes, the same Danny Boyle who directed Trainspotting and 28 Days Later), the film is as inventive and engaging as it is heartwarming. And yes, I just used the “H” word.
It doesn’t hurt that the film’s emotional core is supplied by Alex Etel, whose wide eyes and expressive face provides one of the most affecting portraits of childlike faith I’ve ever seen. I don’t have a family of my own yet, but I suspect that, should I ever get one, Millions could easily become a mainstay of our household’s viewing.
As much as I’d like to say that Tim Burton’s vision of Batman wasn’t all that bad, I know that deep down inside, I’m lying through my teeth. Sure, Burton might have captured some of the more ghoulish, fantastical elements of the character, but compared to the depth and realism achieved in Batman Begins, they ultimately pale in comparison. What I appreciated the most about Batman Begins was the slavish devotion to realism. When Bruce Wayne wakes up the morning after his first foray as the Dark Knight, and we see his body covered in bruises, I knew I was watching something great.
Somehow, director Christopher Nolan and actor Christian Bale do an amazing thing. By making the film as realistic as possible (for a comic book movie, that is), they make it seem all the more legendary. Bruce Wayne’s training, his dark struggle with his parents’ death, the mastering of his fear, the effects his menace has on his enemies — all of these things have an oomph that blew me away the first time I saw the film.
Yeah, I saw Revenge of the Sith, and when I walked out of the theatre, I felt pretty much nothing. It was more like accomplishing a task, checking something off a list, than seeing a movie. On the other hand, when I walked out of the movie after Serenity, I felt elation, excitement, and yes, a bit of anger at Joss Whedon (if you’ve see the movie, you know why). Serenity, the offshoot of Whedon’s much-abused and sadly-neglected Firefly series, is better than all of the Star Wars prequels rolled together.
Smart, engaging dialog? Check! Memorable characters and amazing ensemble performances? Check! Thrilling space battles? Check! Intriguing moral commentaries? Check! Extreme panic when you realize that characters you’ve come to know and love might not be walking out of the firefight alive? Check, check, and check! Nathan Fillion delivers more bravado and emotion in 5 minutes than most action “stars” do in an entire movie, and almost every one of the other lead actors — none of them terribly well-known — all have a moment or two to shine. The only disappointing thing about the movie is that one is left wanting to see so much more from these characters as they explore Whedon’s unique and wildly entertaining ‘verse.
At the risk of revealing just how much of a philistine I am, I’ll admit to having never read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. However, that didn’t stop me from finding Capote a thoroughly engaging and rewarding film. Much of that is due to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s amazing performance as Capote, revealing both the pitiable and contemptible sides of the man. Although essentially a story about the costs, dangers, compromises, and temptations that one must struggle with in pursuit of their art, the film is also a highly enegaging thriller. True, there are no shootouts, no femme fatales, no pyrotechnics — but there is as much intrigue, double-crossing, and mystery in Capote as any film in the genre. And did I mention Hoffman’s amazing performance?
True, it wasn’t everything that it could or should have been. But in this desacrilized world we live in, any attempt to remind us of magic and fantasy should be welcomed, and for that reason, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I could go on and on about how the filmmakers deviated from C.S. Lewis’ classic, and how the film could’ve been so much better had they tired less to be like Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings movies and truer to the book’s spirit, but the truth is, the film is actually quite good as it stands.
As Alex Etel was for Millions, Georgie Henley is this movie’s heart and soul. As Lucy Pevensie, she is the one who ultimately transports the viewers into this world and makes them see it through her eyes. The actual appearance of the world, including the beautiful CGI that brings Narnia’s talking animals to life, is quite, well, magical (especially in the case of the Mr. and Mrs. Beaver). And Tilda Swinton delivers a chilling performance as the White Witch.
It’s a fine movie, but in all honesty, it could’ve been even better. Here’s hoping that, like the Harry Potter movies, the Narnia movie franchise (you know there’s going to be a franchise) just gets better and better with each passing movie.
I couldn’t stand Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds. I thought it was too overwrought, too riddled with plot holes and glaring flaws that left me thinking the alien invaders should have spent some time perusing “The Evil Overlord List.” I’ve never had much of an affinity for Spielberg. Unlike many, I don’t feel inclined to put his movies on a pedestal simply because they’re his. But something inside me felt, well, betrayed at how bored and disappointed I was by War Of The Worlds. Nevertheless, the moment I saw the trailer for Munich, I got excited again. The trailer looked grim and mean and brutal — not because it was trying to shock, but because it had to be.
That’s exactly how I would describe Munich the movie. It’s grim and mean and brutal, full of bloodshed and atrocity and terror and paranoia. And I’m so thankful that it is. In this day and age, where it seems like the only way to respond to mindless violence is with more violence, the only way to deal with terrorists and their leaders is to bomb remote villages and hope that we got them (and that they won’t be replaced with someone worse), it’s good and even necessary to have a movie like Munich remind us of the terrible consequences of violence, no matter how justified and righteous it may be.
Many have criticized the film for all manner of reasons, and it’s a film that is bound to spark lots of debate and discussion. That’s what any good film should do. But this is an important film, a powerful film, a very timely film. Many critics of the film complain that it’s too complex, that it unnecessarily muddies what should be a “black and white” issue. But vengeance and violence are never “black and white” issues, especially when entire nations are involved. Munich is a powerful reminder of that, a powerful warning that if our only response to violence is an eye for an eye, however justified that might be, soon we’ll all be blind.