I enjoy all the year-end lists that pop up on the WWW around this time, mostly because they demonstrate that if there’s one thing the Web’s good at, it’s making lists. I also enjoy realizing that there’s about a snowball’s chance in hell that I’ll get around to reading, seeing, and listening to all of the books, films, TV shows, and music that all of these lists tell you it’s essential to have consumed.
One movie that seems to have popped up on a lot of lists is Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” which Steve and I saw this weekend. I wouldn’t say it’s a masterpiece or anything, but I would wager that it’s a hell of a lot better than most of the movies released this past year. Nevertheless, just as was the case with “Lost in Translation” (another excellent movie) last year, when the critical consensus starts getting too huge, the detractors have to show up to make sure the “favorite” is knocked down a couple of pegs (or two). Thus, the boring, stale dweeb AO Scott of the New York Times, whose opinion about film is about as valuable to me as that of the sponge sitting on my kitchen sink, says that “Sideways” is the “most drastically overrated film of the year.” NP Thompson says that the movie “plays like a dumb sitcom.”
I thought the film was excellent, understated, and well-observed. Few people in the showing we were at seemed to get it, though; most of the hilarious moments were greeted by silence. Maybe it’s because it’s a completely California movie — the movie’s set in San Diego and Santa Barbara County, and the characters typify a kind of California self-absorption that’s hard to understand (or to find amusing) unless you’ve lived in California or know Californians. Oh well. I still think it’s well worth seeing, even if you hate California (maybe even more worth it, in that instance).
Anyway, I’m hardly one to speak about current movies. I only saw seven new releases in the theater in 2004, which seems like a pathetically small number, but there are very few movies I’m willing to fork out the bucks and go through the public ritual of seeing anymore. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” sounds like an intriguing premise, but I’m tired of excusing movies with the exasperatingly untalented and overrated Jim Carrey in them just because they have a good premise (e.g., “The Truman Show”). “Before Sunset” is being praised to the skies, but I thought “Before Sunrise” was uninspiring, so why should I like “Sunset”? “Bad Education” is getting a lot of raves, but I have yet to see an Almodóvar film that I’ve liked. So it goes.
As for music, well, I’m even less able to offer worthwhile comment there. My musical discovery of the year was Ella Fitzgerald’s songbook box set, the last album of which was released in 1964, so that should tell you something about my level of hipness. However, I do listen to new music on the Web once in a while, and one album that really impressed me (that I haven’t yet bought) is the Fiery Furnaces’ Blueberry Boat, which is feverish, bizarre, insane, and inspired all at once. The Strokes’ Room on Fire was released in 2003, but I didn’t hear it till 2004; I liked the instrumentation, but you have to get past the whiny, braying, processed lead vocalist to get to the instrumentation, which is too big a hurdle for me. (Also, the main riff of the leadoff track, “What Ever Happened?”, sounds too much like a ripoff of the chugging riff of Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” to be taken seriously.) What I’ve heard of the most overpraised album of 2004, Arcade Fire’s Funeral, didn’t set me on fire. I loved PJ Harvey’s Uh Huh Her, which is no huge leap forward, but at this point even PJ Harvey in a holding pattern is superior to most of the crap out there. I didn’t hear a single new hip-hop or R&B album that I liked, which is pretty sad.