Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Top 25 Best Things About 1998

So, I wanted to do a list about all the good things that have happened so far in 2008, but then I realized that I would just be one more guy talking about how awesome Batman and Barack Obama are. Well, I hate being "one more guy", so I decided instead to do a list about all the awesome things that happened in 1908. 

Turns out 1908 was a shitty year for awesome. 1998, on the other hand, was basically the best year ever. Aside from the Clinton Impeachment, and El Nino, and Osama bin Laden issuing afatwa, and the abortion clinic bombings, and Windows 98, and Titanic, and George Michael getting arrested. (Leave him alone, people! The man is an artist!) Yep. Great, great year. 

For these reasons!

25. John Glenn, 77 years old, goes to space
See, if John McCain wanted to change people's minds on this whole John-McCain-is-older-than-Methuselah thing, he'd have the courage to go into space. Of course, McCain's idea of space is probably straight out of La Voyage dans le Lune, complete with astronauts in hoop skirts belaying down to the Sea of Tranquility with parasols and picnic baskets.

24. Bear Grylls, 23 years old, is the youngest to climb Mt. Everest
Nine years later, he became the youngest man to drink his own urine on national TV, on his much-lauded adventure/survival program "Man vs. Wild".

There was a long time when I just assumed this movie had not aged well, but after catching it on cable a while back, I was really pleased to see that it's alive and well, in fact. What was awkward about Warren Beatty rapping in 1998 is still awkward, and to some degree, I think that's kind of the point. More importantly, WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, WARREN BEATTY!?

Goddamn, this is a groundbreaking album. Not groundbreaking in a "Oh my gosh,ladies rapping!" sort of way, but a "Holy shit, that girl-rapper just won five Grammys and actually deserved it sort of way." And I know it's semi-sexist when people focus on the production values of a female artist's work--as if to say, "Well, sure it's good, she had help... and the help was all dudes"--but the collaborations with Julian Marley, Carlos Santana, D'Angelo, and a then-unknown John Legend are pretty damn good.

And though Jon Stewart wouldn't officially join the show until January of 1999, Kilborn's departure was a ridiculously good thing for the show. It set the ball rolling for The Daily Show to transform from an arrogant 22-minutes that showcased the ego behind the desk, toactually focusing on the hypocrisy and humor behind the headlines.

My memories of this movie mostly consist of listening to the soundtrack over and over and quoting it incessantly in the religion office of my high school, and if you know me, you get that that's a pretty sound endorsement of a film. PS: Terry Gilliam's third-best film? MAYBE?

19. The Minnesota Vikings go 15-1, set NFL record for points scored, Randy Moss is a freak of nature/Rookie of the Year
This is entirely a partisan inclusion, but I have very little problem with that. 556 points in 16 games! Can you comprehend that? That's almost 35 points a game! More than a touchdown a quarter! DAMN. Patriots fans: YEP. I know you broke the record last year. You also broke it with relatively the same team that won three Super Bowls, the same golden-boy quarterback, the same bulldog-in-a-hoodie coach... The Vikes did it with a quarterback everyone said wasway past his prime, a coach perennially on the hot-seat, and, oh-by-the-way, no one saw it coming. Um... but they ended up losing in the NFC Title Game. Shut up shut up shut up.

You simply could not have this cast together in one film today. It's too good. Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, and Jeff Daniels. (Oh, and Paul Walker. You go, Paul Walker!) I'll forgive the semi-heavy-handedness ("Get it, see, they're ostracized because they're in color... they're coloreds. Right?") and I'll applaud the masterful To Kill A Mockingbird court scene homage and frankly, I'll come out and say it, why the hell weren't the art direction and costume design for this film recognized with the Oscars they deserved! This film is a beautiful, complex meditation on how our values shape television and how television shapes our values.

17. Bulls win NBA Finals on Jordan's last second shot
So what if he pushed off... this was friggin' iconic. 

16. Black Star - S/T
I guess you can't say that a classic touchstone of so-called "conscious hip hop" is a fun listen, but dammit, I didn't apply that title in the first place, so I'm going to say it. This a fun album to listen to, and that doesn't take away from its insight or its social commentary. And I'm going to bring production up again, because Hi-Tek is seriously skilled. Too bad there was never a follow-up...

15. Fond TV farewells: "Seinfeld", "The Larry Sanders Show"... to a much, much lesser extent "Family Matters"

14. Silver Jews - American Water
Aaaah, this should even be higher, really... you start off with one of the all-time great album openers, "Random Rules"--seriously, amazing first line: "In 1985 I was hospitalized for approaching perfection"--and then you careen off into a wild, sprawling desert of stories, stories full of characters you half-already know, as if they are tumbling out of your dreams. For a moment, you want to ask David Berman and Stephen Malkmus why they know so much about your dreams, but by the time you get the courage, you are humming along and it's too late.

I don't think it's any coincidence that this film and Pleasantville came out in the same year. Far be it from me to peg 1998 as the first year that Hollywood became aware of television's potential for reality-engineering--I'm looking at you, Network--but they sure tapped into some kinda zeitgeist. And I'm not usually one to commend typically comedic actors for aberrantly successful dramatic performances, but goddamn is Jim Carrey good in this film.

12. Elliott Smith - XO
Let me first say that this is by no means my favorite Elliott Smith album. However, I think it deserves inclusion on a Best of '98 list simply for the shift in tone that it marks. As Smith's first major-label release, it is a snapshot of an artist moving away from his guy-plus-guitar image to a more intricately orchestrated, ambitious sound. This transition was catalyzed, in part, by Smith's contributions to the Good Will Hunting soundtrack, but you get the sense on this album that he could only say so much in lo-fi; he was searching for a new sound.

11. Good year for books looking to be made into films -- About a BoyThe HoursElectionHolesHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

10. Also like every 90's song ever: "Jumper", "Sex and Candy", "The Way", "Closing Time", "Torn", "Iris"...

9. Sports Night debuts
It may have only last two seasons, but I defy you to find snappier dialogue, more carefully-crafted characters, or a more engaging comedy-drama on TV today. AND let us not forget, Aaron Sorkin followed up the critical success of Sports Night with the 7-season triumph that I am watching as I write this list, The West Wing.

8. Outkast - Aquemini
I read something Chris Rock wrote awhile back about Erykah Badu's influence on this album. His thesis was that she was with Andre 3000 during the making of Aquemini and it turned out to be amazing, and further, that she was with Common during the making of Like Water for Chocolate, which also turned out to be amazing, so, basically, Erykah Badu is the grand muse of hip-hop. Anyway. This is a seriously great album, start to finish, but more importantly, it signified that Southern Hip Hop was just as important a player as the hip hop coming from either of the coasts. 

I have said as many words on the subject of Can't Hardly Wait as Harold Bloom has on Shakespeare, so I don't intend to load you down with more. I don't need to sell you on this movie, because chances are, if you are reading this blog, you were already sold on it in 1998.

6. Billy Bragg and Wilco - Mermaid Avenue
The history of entertainment is full of stories about landmark team-ups that should have been amazing but somehow crashed and burned. For some reason, A + B does not always equal brilliance. This was not one of those times. What is so blindingly apparent about this album is how well the poetry of Woody Guthrie compliments the voices of Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy, how well the melodic sensibilities of Bragg work combined with the ragged Americana of Tweedy, and vice versas all around. You hear genius-as-a-whole on this record way, way, way before the individual geniuses come to the surface. Oh, yeah... and Guthrie-as-rabid-socialist-Catholic/Robin Hood is a hell of a good time to listen to.

5. 1998 in baseball: Home Run Chase, Cal Ripken ends his streak, Yankees win 125 games
It is difficult to look back on the 1998 Major League Baseball season without the aid of some biased frame of reference, whether it's the rosy-tinted glasses of 1998-made-baseball-America's-game-again or the bitter-realism aviators of 1998-was-fueled-by-steroids-and-commissioner-indifference. Be that as it may, the images are enduring nonetheless.

4. Google founded
And now we can all google ourselves! It's as fun to say as it is to do. (When you google me, you get some reviews I wrote for Amazon, the homepage of my lab, and some interviews regarding various Columbia theatrical productions. Oh, and the WikiCU page that Rob wrote for me!)

I've gone back and forth on this film over the years. Sometimes it's my second favorite Wes Anderson film, sometimes it's my least. Then, I came to a realization--my least favorite Wes Anderson film is still likely to be quite a marvel. This film is like that perfect diorama that your rival brings in for the 6th grade science fair... painstakingly designed yet somehow effortlessly tossed off. This is the work of an auteur before he realizes that he's an auteur.

2. Neutral Milk Hotel - In the Aeroplane Over the Sea
This is not merely an album, it is a symphony. It has a) the best lyrics of any album from the 90s, b) the best horn section of any album from the 90s, and c) the best closing track of any album from the 90s. You here the opener, you have to sit for the whole thing. Plain and simple.

I will never get tired of this film. In thirty years, if someone asks me, "Hey, do you want to watch The Big Lebowski?" I can guarantee you that I will say yes. There is always something new to laugh at, and even when there isn't, there is always something familiar and wonderful to delight in. It is always a pleasure and a joy to see good actors having fun with their material and that's what makes the Coens so special, they absolutely infuse their films with FUN. This is the kind of movie you make when first and foremost, you flat-out love movies. 


El Gigante said...

If Fear and Loathing is Gilliam's third best, what's his second-Time Bandits, Fisher King, 12 Monkeys (do you count the Python films?)?

I think we all know that number one is Brazil.

Peter said...

Wasn't counting Python films. Obv #2 is Jabberwocky... hahahah. I was thinking The Fisher King, actually. Jeff Bridges is Jeff Bridges, Gilliam manages to rein in Robin Williams in that perfect way where he's still unpredictable (but not in a hard-to-watch way), and Mercedes Ruehl is absolutely captivating.

That being said, 12 Monkeys is awesome, Time Bandits is great, and Baron Munchausen ain't bad either...

Gosh, it's like we've forgotten this guy can actually make good movies. Wonder why? (TidelandTidelandTideland.)

Rob said...

I'm gonna admit that I don't really like Fear and Loathing. Or 12 Monkeys tbh.

And you missed one truly great 1998 album--Tortoise's TNT.

Wow, 1998 was fucking awesome.

El Gigante said...

1999 even better. Anyone?

Anonymous said...

Great Year Good times!