Brent Bozman

Hayden Childs

McChesney Duntz

William Ham

Dana Knowles

Gary Mairs

Michael Tomczyszyn

Scott Von Doviak

George Wu

The Algonquin Kids’ Table: 2003 Top Ten Lists


Top 10 of 2003

1. Album (Hip-Hop): Prefuse 73 — One Word Extinguisher. There’s hip-hop DJs and there’s techno DJs, and no matter how fast they race side by side, never the twain shall meet, right? Right. But goddamned if Scott Herren isn’t doing the best he can to pave a merge lane between them. Mixing innovative breakbeats and crunchy, diffused hip-hop production with sleek, clever techno tinkering, Prefuse 73 is already pointing in the direction that underground rap will be headed a year or two from now. Equally satisfying to discriminating fans of hip-hop’s experimental side and techno’s intellectual tendencies, One Word Extinguisher is club without being cold and street without being stupid. Scott Herren, like a lot of innovative hip-hop heads, is more appreciated in Europe than in the U.S., and that’s a damn shame: guest rapper Mr. Lif knows what time it is, and so should you.

Runner-up: Viktor Vaughn — Vaudeville Villain. It seemed impossible that the artist formerly known as MF Doom could follow up the phenomenal Operation: Doomsday album with anything remotely as great, but here’s the proof.

2. Album (Rock/Pop): Guster — Keep It Together. After the release of Lost and Gone Forever, it seemed like the underappreciated Boston trio was, well, lost and gone forever. The album was their first on a major label, and, as with so many other good bands who got their big break, it seemed like it would be their last. It was a masterpiece, but it was met with relative indifference and might have spelled the end for the too-talented. However, Keep It Together gives them another chance to make it as big as they deserve; it’s an equally amazing album, but in an entirely different, low-key vein. Bringing Joe Pisapia into the fold gave them a great voice, a rootsy touch and a pair of memorable songs (“Jesus on the Radio” and “Careful”), and “Amsterdam” is hands-down one of the most amazing singles of the year. This record should, but won’t, make them superstars.

Runner-up: The Weakerthans — Reconstruction Site. Winnepeg-based genre-futzers continue to progress, fusing punk-metal, indie-crush and a bit of Canadiana with dazzlingly literate, close-cutting lyrics.

3. Book (Fiction): John Banville — Shroud. “The name, my name, is Axel Vander, on that much I insist.” But it’s a false insistence, or at least it may be: Axel Vander is, first and foremost, a liar. He is a writer and a professor of literature, but he is also a walking falsehood, an embodiment of untruth, and late in life, he may be finally exposed for what he truly is — whatever that may be. Written in incredibly skillful, intelligent prose by the literary editor of the Irish Times, this is a novel of ideas that never lets them overwhelm the story, a novel that brings new meaning to the idea of the unreliable narrator (and the unreliable writer). Vander is a towering character (based, fascinatingly, on literary theorist Paul De Man), and the book is a fantastic treatment of themes of identity and deception by a master stylist.

Runner-up: Khaled Hosseini — The Kite Runner. The first novel by an Afghan novelist to be written in English, The Kite Runner is a flawed but powerful and emotionally weighty novel of generations in Afghanistan and how that country’s tragic history affects them all.

4. Book (Non-fiction): Azar Nafisi — Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Reading Lolita in Tehran, a deft combination of memoir and literary criticism by a female university professor in Iran, is the kind of book that could easily go astray. The story of how she gathered seven of her best female students to study selected classics of literature could easily have become hollow “life-affirming” claptrap about the power of art to transform and improve. In fact, it does have much to say about art’s transcendent qualities, but without a trace of hollowness or cliché. Fascinating as memoir — the way the girls view books like Lolita and Daisy Miller through the lens of life in an Islamic theocracy is an intriguing cultural study, and Nafisi’s accounts of trying to focus on the books while Iraqi bombs fell on her city is gripping — it also works quite well as literary criticism, offering particularly keen insights into Nabokov’s masterpiece from the eyes of an Islamic feminist writer.

Runner-up: Michael Lewis — Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Time will tell if the Oakland A’s can stop choking, or if Beaneball proves as groundbreaking as Lewis clearly hopes it is. But whatever the case, this is an essential study in the science and economics of baseball.

5. Comic (Mainstream): James Sturm and Guy Davis — The Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules. The comics press (and plenty of fans, myself included) were taken by surprise when James Sturm, the writer and artist behind the brilliant 2001 indie graphic novel The Golem’s Mighty Swing, announced that he’d be taking on “comics’ greatest foursome” in a Marvel miniseries. It ended up paying tremendous dividends — artistically speaking, at least. Unstable Molecules, a difficult, disturbing, postmodernist reimagining of the origin of the Fantastic Four, didn’t sell well and wasn’t gladly received by Marvel zombies, but it’s an incredibly rewarding piece of work — dense and multi-layered, telling a very real and compelling story on the surface and saying a lot of insightful and intelligent things about comics themselves below. Unjustly overlooked, Unstable Molecules deserves to find an audience.

Runner-up: Jason Hall and Cliff Chiang — Beware the Creeper. Another unfairly slept-on miniseries, this one from DC: the Creeper, in this version a mysterious woman, emerges from the artistic and political hotbed of Paris and solves a murder-mystery among the Surrealists.

6. Comic (Independent): Al Columbia and Ethan Persoff — The Pogostick. Al Columbia is up there with Jim Woodring and Bob Burden as one of comics’ great eccentrics; in Ethan Persoff, he has found a kindred spirit and a perfect collaborator. Although the format of The Pogostick is naggingly reminiscent of Chris Ware’s perfect Acme Comics — unconventional formatting, emotionally dead people in front of vibrantly alive backgrounds, hapless characters unable to express their inner torment — Columbia and Persoff differentiate themselves with a nasty jolt of sick humor and singularly memorable protagonist in Audrey Grinfield, the demented but reticent design proofer who in many ways is the anti-Jim Corrigan. Published by Fantagraphics and drawn in a bizarre, flat style that unnerves and intrigues, The Pogostick is alternately hilarious and heinous, and a great introduction to Columbia.

Runner-up: Marjane Satrapi — Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Funny, sickening, honest and charmingly illustrated, Satrapi’s memoir of growing up during the Iranian Revolution is never sentimental or sappy. Can be read to fine effect as a companion piece to Reading Lolita in Tehran.

7. Movie (Fiction): Elephant. Inexplicable, unformed, inconclusive and possibly pointless: these criticisms can be applied to a great deal of Gus Van Sant’s work, and they certainly apply here in spades. And yet it’s one of the most compelling films I’ve seen in years, one of those movies in which almost nothing happens while, at the same time, one gets the sense that nearly everything is happening right before your eyes, if only you watch closely enough. Best described as a free-form imaginative conception of the day of a Columbine-style high school massacre, Elephant is elegant and elegiac and utterly incomprehensible: it shows us everything and tells us nothing, just like life. Largely improvised dialogue and naturalistic acting from a young cast of unknowns gives Elephant a remarkably disturbing verité feel. Once seen, impossible to forget.

Runner-up: 21 Grams. On first viewing, I was less than impressed by Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu’s first English-language film; it seemingly lacked the coherence and drive of Amores Perros. But on second look, the tremendous acting and inventive structure carried the day.

8. Movie (Documentary): The Fog of War. Errol Morris has long been America’s premier documentary filmmaker, a director with the rare gift of making a difference and a storyteller who forces us to look at intrinsic aspects of our own national character that we’d generally be more comfortable not recognizing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his latest, a series of interviews with Robert McNamara, the architect of America’s Vietnam policy as the Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara’s measured reminiscences — it’s unfair, perhaps, to call them confessions — embody the title of the film perfectly, and remind us that those at the top of the chain of command are as susceptible to muddied thinking about war as the men in the field. Offering no easy answers — perhaps no answers at all — The Fog of War does at least ask timely questions.

Runner-up: Capturing the Friedmans. Andrew Jarecki’s messy, ambiguous, ugly documentary about a high school teacher and his son, charged with child molestation in the 1980s. Nothing is clear — not even the intent of the filmmakers — in this look at crime and how we respond to it.

9. Live Show: Hella. With only two instruments on stage — a drum kit that looks like it was designed for a retarded youngster and then run through a trash compacter and a single guitar with almost no effects — northern California’s Hella makes some of the most hellacious noise I’ve ever heard. The instrumental duo, consumed with energy, gurning nasty faces at each other, and working in breathtaking synchronicity, play a unique blend of technofied guitar-rock and spasmodic, herky-jerky free jazz. Aside from their uncanny togetherness, alarming tightness and sheer dynamics, Hella is fast — they play with such breakneck intensity that you fear one or the other of them is going to drop dead at any moment. But hope that they don’t: if you catch them on tour, I can guarantee it will be the most jaw-dropping show you see all year.

10. Television Show: “Arrested Development.” Only half a season old, it’s perhaps too soon to judge this new Fox sitcom a success or a failure, but if new shows are measured by their potential, this one has already won. The story of attempts by the scion of a wealthy Orange County real estate family to hold house and home together after the father is sent to prison for securities fraud, “Arrested Development” has tons of great satirical fodder, top-notch writing that dangles endless bits of plot at us and manages to resolve each one with a killer joke at the end of each episode, a willingness to take risks both topically and structurally, and an absolutely top-shelf cast, including dead-on performances by Jessica Walter, Portia de Rossi and the always-excellent Jeffrey Tambor — and, not incidentally, the best use of David Cross outside of “Mr. Show” so far.