Monday, February 22, 2016

Best of the Best: 20 Years of Life and Entertainment Pt. 2

So as stated last time, what originally started innocuously enough as a simple "Best of 2015" list, quickly evolved into a monster project wherein I decided I needed to do such a list for the past 20 years of my life. In the first installment of this epic endeavor, I covered the years 1995-1999, which in all honesty was a lot of fun, even though it involved some fairly arduous research, because those years, my teen years, while very hard and dark at times, also remind me of just how NOT shitty the 90s really were. Granted, entertainment-wise, things in the late 90s already were devolving. TV shows, the sheer amount of watchable movies in theater, video games, music, you name it, steadily started to creep a little bit more towards where things generally stand now. BUT, at least for those entertainment things, they were still some great years that held some truly fantastic stuff in them that I still enjoy to this day.

And now, it's time to tackle the next five years, 2000-2004. So away we go!

This poster would be perfect without their faces.

Year: 2000
Movie: Unbreakable
Game: Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards
Album: Demons & Wizards by Demons and Wizards
Song: Do Not Resuscitate by Testament (or 3 Days in Darkness by Testament) put it mildly, 2000 was an interesting year. It was the turn of the millennium. There was a big "Y2K" scare trumped up by news outlets and various businesses, making people think that some sort of glitch in computers' dating systems, was going to cause the entire modern world to just crash. Spoilers, that didn't happen. I even remember gathering some friends together that New Years' Eve ('99), so that we'd be together just in case shit went down, and then it didn't. It was another NYE just like any other. 2000 was the last half of my senior year of high school. I took my first couple of college classes to finish out credits I needed to graduate. I briefly worked my first (and only) fast food job that summer. I went to my first real concert (not just a local band), to see Anthrax and Megadeth live. I started the first chapter in my post-high-school, technically adult life. I started my first full college semester in the fall. Oh yeah, I also had my first real girlfriend. And that turned into a mess all it's own that is better not gotten into. I briefly gained an old friend back, lost a couple others. It was a very up and down year, that, due to said girlfriend, put simply, didn't end well.

BUT, as ever, there was always various mediums of entertainment there for me. On the film front, 2000 was actually still a pretty solid year for movies. I still went to see many. Though I for some reason also quite possible racked up a lifetime high score for most shitty movies I've ever bothered to see in theater in a single year. Movies such as Scream 3, Hollow Man, The Cell, What Lies Beneath, two very "MEH" films about missions to Mars, Leonardo DiCaprio's The Beach, Final Destination, etc. I suppose I should have known not to go see most of those crap-tacular horror films. I also saw Battlefield Earth, which while not GREAT, I surprisingly didn't hate as much as most seemed to.

Don Bluth's Last film for many, many years.

On the GOOD movie front, there was a lot to like. There were dumb but fun movies like Little Nicky, Dude Where's My Car?, The 6th Day and Ready to Rumble. There were some great martial arts/action films, like Romeo Must Die and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the latter of which I was really blown away by. I went to see it multiple times. It was full of not only amazing fight scenes, but also a gorgeous, haunting soundtrack, beautiful visuals, and deep philosophy. That one was honestly a very close runner-up for my "movie of 2000". There were other really strong films, like the Dennis Quaid film Frequency, and of course the 2000 blockbuster Gladiator. 2000 also marked the last year, as seen above, that a Don Bluth directed film would come out in theaters. He had a grand, epic concept, and wanted to do a serious, science fiction animated film, and in all honesty, it was pretty good, but as Hollywood is often wont to do, it was terribly mis-marketed, and thus really failed to find a big audience. The financial failure of the film caused Bluth, arguably the greatest animation director of all time (this side of Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki, of course), to tap out, and got out of the film business, which made me very sad.

But, as already long since spoiled by the first image of this article, while there were a few very strong candidates to consider, my "Movie of 2000", hands-down, was M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable. I had already become a fan of Night's work, as many did, due to his big hit from the previous year, The Sixth Sense. But this movie, for me, topped that one in every way. His strength as a director, to me, was obviously smaller scale stories, based strongly around character growth. He unfortunately became known for "twists" in his movies, to the point that people expected them, and got disappointed when some of his later films stopped having them, as if he was obligated to continue the same trick over and over. Some of his most recent films, also sadly, have not been up to par, mainly, I feel, because of his attempt to do bigger budget, large-scale "Hollywood" style pictures. I think he's still a great director, or can be, he just needs to scale it back down, and get back to the style of films he was best at. But to me, for my movie-going dollar, Unbreakable represents him at his very best. A heartfelt, even heart-rending story about an ordinary man, experiencing marriage and family troubles, unsure and unfulfilled with his place in life, a very strong drama all around, but wrapped in a wonderfully powerful and haunting "real life" look at the metaphors and themes found in superhero comic books. The movie addressed the core essence of comics so well, I thought, and even the "twist" at the end, to me, was more powerful on a narrative level, than any other he has done. This was his finest work, it remains my favorite film of his, and honestly, I'd probably put it somewhere in my Top 30 or 40 films of all time, easily. And trust me, that's a tough list to suss out.

Not amazing, but very fun.

Moving away from movies, on the games front, 2000 was far less prolific. At least to me. As mentioned before, I did not own a Playstation, nor a Sega Dreamcast. Though at one point I had intended to try and get a Dreamcast, which would have been the only Sega system I had ever owned at that point. But then the really neat looking 3D Castlevania game that had been in development for it got cancelled, and my interest in owning one eventually waned. Which is just as well, because, alas, Sega was not long for this world as a console maker (the officially gave up on the Dreamcast in 2001, after less than 3 years of being on the market, and went "third party", which led to the insanity of seeing Sega games on Nintendo consoles). The newest system I owned was just the Nintendo 64, and by 2000, there really weren't that many great games coming out for it anymore. At least to me. I was not into Banjo-Tooie (one of the worst game titles of all time), nor Zelda: Majora's Mask (I tried, but seriously, fuck that resetting-time mechanic). There were neat titles like Mickey's Speedway USA, WWF No Mercy and Paper Mario. Perfect Dark was okay, but the main thing I liked about Goldeneye 007 wasn't the single player, but rather playing the multiplayer with my friends. PD had the opposite thing going on, where the single player was more interesting, but the multiplayer, at least to me, wasn't as good.

So the game I picked as my GOTY for 2000, was HAL Laboratory's Kirby 64. It was the first "3D" Kirby, or rather, the first to feature polygonal graphics, instead of 2D sprites. That was a trend that everything in that PS1/N64 generation followed, which made me very sad as a gamer, because they had barely begun to scratch the surface of just how impressive 2D gaming could be, when most companies suddenly abandoned it for the new craze of polygons and "3D" gameplay. Kirby on N64 however was kind of a compromise, because it featured (for the time) fairly impressive 3D graphics, but gameplay that was for the most part still very much traditional 2D Kirby fare. The game featured a new element in the ability to "fuse" two different powers, to make additional powers. Not really revolutionary, but a neat added wrinkle to the design. I think the game was a tad short, it could have used at least one more world. But all in all, I still had a lot of fun with it, so it was likely my fav. game from that year.

Still like this cover.
So, now that I've gone and talked about the Year 2000 far more than I had intended to, I guess I'll wrap it up by talking a bit about music. There weren't an over-abundance of new albums that year that I really loved. Metallica dropped a new song for the fifth year in a row, "I Disappear", which was featured in the credits of Mission Impossible 2. Green Day came out with their new album "Warning", which I bought and liked, and it had some very good songs on it, though I didn't love it as much as the previous album "Nimrod". I had gotten into the group Apocalyptica back in 1998, which is a Finnish quartet of cello players, who originally got famous covering Metallica songs as instrumental cello versions, which is how I came to know them. They too put out a new album, "Cult", in 2000, and it had some good music on it, featuring for the first time mostly new original works by the band themselves. But when it comes to "best album of the year", for me, it was "Demons & Wizards". D&W was a side project that I had been highly anticipating, a collaboration between the prime players of two of my new favorite bands of the time, Blind Guardian and Iced Earth. To be specific, it featured the lead songwriter and guitarist of IE Jon Schaffer, and the lead singer of BG Hansi Kurch. It was a really great combo, for my money, and featured some really strong songs, including the explosive album opener "Heaven Denies".

As for song of the year.....well, I was listening to a lot of stuff around then, but one that I listened to a lot, both because I liked it, and also because I was by varying degrees at times in a very dark mindset, listening to the '99 Testament album "The Gathering". It had many strong, dark, angry songs that fit that mood, but the two songs that really "spoke" to me, were "Do Not Resuscitate" and "3 Days in Darkness". The first dealt with, as you might imagine, life becoming too much to bear, and just wanting out. A feeling and mindset I'm sad to say that I've been able to relate too far too many times in my life. The second, about the infamous "Mayan Calendar" prediction that the world would end in the year 2012, complete with a really bad ass instrumental outro that really did sound like the world was ending. So yeah. There's that. All in all, 2000 was another major year for me as a person, and in many ways, much like 1995, was a milestone year, because once again, my life would never be the same afterwards.

My movie crush of the new millennium.

Year: 2001
Movie: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Game: Pikmin
Album: Animosity by Sevendust
Song: Duck and Run by 3 Doors Down

So the infamous Year 2000 came and went, bringing with it some good, a lot bad, at least in my personal life. 2001 would not fare much better, in fact in some ways it was worse. I spent the vast majority of the year still being devastated by the bad relationship I had gotten out of, so much so that even though my Baltimore Ravens won (not just won, but outright fuckin' dominated) the Super Bowl that year, and I know I was there with some friends watching it, I only vaguely remember seeing it, because my thoughts were elsewhere. I was in an incredibly vulnerable state, to say the very least, and what I thought my life had been, and where it was all going, PRE-girlfriend, was basically flipped upside down and backwards. I was still intent on trying to follow through with the plans I had before her, that I was going to go abroad, to England first and then wherever in Europe, possibly never to return for all I knew. I certainly had no desire at all to ever come back to California, I wanted to leave my shitty little hometown and all the bad memories I had collected in it far behind me. So I did go, I traveled by myself, on a Greyhound bus (no fun, not recommended) cross country, and eventually wound up in New Jersey, staying with an aunt of mine. Long story short, my stay there was not what it could have been, and it was the most lonely and isolated I had ever felt, with no friends and basically only myself for company most of the time. I never did get the money saved up to go on to the UK, and life threw me a curveball and sent me headed BACK across country (by bus again, brutal), to the California side of South Lake Tahoe.

I was 19, finding myself in yet another situation that was mostly out of my control and unstable, living with a "friend" there, and trying to write a book, which I actually did get several chapters into. But then life happened.....Fate happened.....and "9/11" happened. I don't mind telling you, that day, that time right after then, was possibly the scariest and most lonely I had ever experienced, even when compared to the toxic fallout from the ex. I was awakened very early that morning, told to turn on the news, and saw the Twin Towers and the Pentagon burning. It was a nightmare come to life, the world that had once seemed sleepy and relatively safe from my California vantage point, the world that had been so uneventful and undeniably better in the 90s, was forever changed in one day. I honestly feared that this was it, that our crazy ass fuck President Bush was going to go off the handle, and we were just going to start bombing people to hell. That World War III was upon us, and that kind of post-apocalyptic shit you see in movies was going to actually happen. That was my initial fear at least. And there I was, helpless, alone, and broke in Lake Tahoe, powerless to do anything. I felt very very small during that time, and a world already full of uncertainty, became all the more uncertain by the moment. Well....WWIII never did start, and though we engaged in two pointless, costly wars in the Middle East over time, war was not the biggest price we paid in that "Post 9/11" world. No....the real price we paid was, at least in my view, a kind of innocence lost. I turned 18 too late to vote against George W. Bush, and then the world was thrown into chaos before I had even turned 20. I got to spend my adult years, my 20s, the "prime of my life", in a much darker, much more bitter and paranoid, much more uncertain America.

Such a great film.

As for movies? Well, I saw less movies in 2001 than I might have, in part because at varying points I was living in New Jersey, then Lake Tahoe, and eventually wandered my way back to Chico shortly after 9/11 occurred, broke as a joke. There were several movies I saw, especially late in the year, that I did really like, such as Jet Li's The One (possibly still my fav. Li movie), the silly Ben Stiller comedy Zoolander, the dark Denzel Washington drama Training Day, the first Harry Potter film (I had never read the books, but found that I liked the movies), and even the excellent Jim Carrey drama The Majestic. That last one in and of itself, was a very close candidate for my Movie of 2001. It's a great story, that speaks to the love and magic of films, that spoke (ironically) of a loss of innocence and things changing forever, and of the paranoia of the 1950s McCarthy era. The filmmakers couldn't have had any way of knowing just how much this film would speak to a Post-9/11 world when they were making it, but it certainly came at a pertinent time. The film didn't do that well money wise in the box office, but American audiences honestly often ignore really great films, and pour money into hot garbage instead. Regardless, it was a really strong film, one of Carrey's strongest performances, with a great co-starring performance by Martin Landau as well.

But, as much as I love that movie, there was one other film that came out in late 2001 that I loved even more, and that was the first in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. I had been waiting for them to make live action LOTR movies for years, hearing rumors and then finally confirmation that it was happening. And one thing, in all that pain and loneliness and confusion and outright insanity that my world, and the whole world, now was, that could soothe things and help you escape for a little while, was the outright greatness that was that first, glorious moment seeing Tolkien's work put up on the big screen. I had grown up with The Hobbit and Rings books, first being read to me, and then later reading myself. I grew up with the amazing Rankin/Bass Hobbit cartoon that is one of my to five favorite films of all time, as well as the "sequel" Return of the King, and Ralph Bakshi's late 70s LOTR animated movie as well. So it was safe to say I was a lifelong fan, and my anticipation for this film had been higher than perhaps any other since I started getting to see movies in theater in 1995. And it did not disappoint. From opening to close, I enjoyed it, and marveled in the sheer spectacle of Middle Earth being brought to painstaking life on the screen.
I loved it so much after seeing it, that I actually think, if I'm remembering correctly, that I went back to see it a total of something between seven and nine times, which is by far a record for me. My mother asked me what I wanted for my 21st birthday from her, and I told her all I wanted was enough money to go see Fellowship several times, so she obliged. This movie was my pick, replacing Dragonheart, as my top fav. movie of all time, for the next several years. I even loved it so much, when I bought the special edition DVD set, I sat and watched ALL of the special features, many hours worth, and enjoyed it the entire time, both because I love Tolkien, but also because I love the magic of filmmaking in general. But, all that being said, looking back, it was not a perfect film. The story could have been adapted better, especially after my finally going back and reading the LOTR books in 2014, I realized just how much could or should have been in the film. I know if I ever, in my wildest dreams, had the chance to do my own big budget LOTR trilogy, it would be distinctively different. But still, many things about the film WERE spot on, such as the casting, for the most part. Ian McKellan as Gandalf the Grey, and Sir Christopher Lee as Saruman the White, were brilliant. The soundtrack, also, was superb, and their take on Hobbiton was truly beautiful.

Such a weird, but wonderful game.

Moving on to video games, between the years 2001 and 2004, gaming was an odd, uncertain time for me as well. I had somewhere along the way, been an idiot (much as I had been in years past with my NES and SNES consoles that I eventually replaced), and got rid of my N64. So there was a period there where I did not actually personally own ANY video games on my person at the time, truly a first in my life since early childhood. Even so, even though I would eventually get my hands on an NES and SNES again, by 2003, I did not own a Nintendo Gamecube, nor a Sony Playstation 2. It bears mention, I suppose, that I have never been attracted to the Xbox brand, and thus have never bothered owning any of those systems either. But during this time, I had, I suppose you could say, "fallen out of gaming". Not that I didn't still love video games, I did. I was just poor, didn't have any systems of my own at the time, and was just less interested in them than I had been in my childhood or teens. But, having said that, I still did get to check out certain new games that came along due to friends who owned the systems. My friend Harold owned a Gamecube, and so I got to see things like Super Smash Bros. Melee and Wave Race: Blue Storm, both of which I enjoyed. But the game that really won the year for me, in the "eleventh hour" even, releasing in December, was an odd little game, a brand new franchise from the mind of Shigeru Miyamoto (creator of Mario and Zelda, etc.), called Pikmin.

It was a very weird type of game, where you played the part of a tiny little spaceman called Captain Olimar, who had crash landed on a strange, alien world, and needed to recover the parts to and repair his ship, before 30 days were up, because that it when his life support runs out. Lucky for him, he runs into these tiny little vegetable creatures, which he names Pikmin, who sprout leaves and then flowers on their head-talks, and travel in packs. As Olimar, you use up to 100 Pikmin on screen at a time, to help you explore the world, and find the parts to your ship, as well as fight miniature monsters who get in your way, and discover "treasures" to take home as well. The "treasures" were one of the best parts of the whole experience, as they were in actuality little bits of human trash, and Nintendo even took the time to change many of those items from Japanese-centric, to things Americans would recognize for our release of the game, such as Duracel batteries, or 7-Up bottle caps, etc. You used the three types of Pikmin, the red immune to flame, the blue immune to water, and the yellow immune to electricity, to help you complete your mission in a weird fusion of exploration, puzzle-solving, and strategy gameplay. And quite frankly, while Harold thought it was okay, I fucking loved it, so much that I stayed up by myself at his house when he rented it, and played through the entire game. I initially got the shitty ending, because the last boss is a real bastard. But it was still the most original, coolest game experience I had had in years, and it instantly became one of my Top Favorite Video Games of all time.

A really bad ass album.

Now, as for music, as I once again find myself talking too much about a given year, 2001 was a stronger year for music indeed, at least to me. There were several albums that I really liked that came out that year, including Megadeth's "The World Needs a Hero", Sepultura's "Nation" (my favorite album of theirs), and Live's "V" (Five). But the two bands that topped my that year, were Sevendust and Creed. In a stroke perhaps of sheer irony, both bands' initial efforts came out in 1997. Then the year I got into Sevendust, both bands' second albums release in 1999. And wouldn't you know it, both bands' third albums dropped shortly after 9/11 happened, in late 2001, Sevendust's "Animosity" and Creed's "Weathered". I really loved both albums, and both had many songs that really spoke to me. But I gave the final nod to "Animosity" because it has stuck with me after all this time, and remains to this day my favorite Sevendust album.

As for song, well, I had gotten the debut 3 Doors Down album "The Better Life" back in fall 2000, but in 2001, amidst all the danger and adversity and uncertainty I was facing, the song "Duck and Run" became a real anthem for me. It's a song that speaks of life just beating you down, over and over, but you keep getting back up, you won't "Duck and Run" away, because life is not going to beat you. And I don't mind telling you, there have been many, many moments in my life when it earnestly felt like life had in fact beaten me, that I was down for the count. Yet I persist, I survive, and keep moving forward. And this song was yet another in a long line of music that has helped me in that survival, throughout all these years.

SUCH a good movie. Arguably Disney's last great movie.

Year: 2002
Movie: Treasure Planet
Game: Eternal Darkness (or Castlevania: Harmony of Dissonance)
Album: Degradation Trip by Jerry Cantrell
Song: Psychotic Break by Jerry Cantrell

2002 was an interesting year for me. It was certainly an improvement over the darkness of 2000 and 2001. But it was still a very uncertain time for me, as I was without a place of my own, kind of floating around, spending time at my mother's tiny apartment, settling back into college, trying to figure shit out. As far as movies went, of course, there were many big ones that year. The first Sam Raimi Spider-Man, while flawed (that Green Goblin suit was retarded), was a movie I really enjoyed. There was the second Harry Potter, the second in the Star Wars prequel trilogy (which in some ways is my favorite of that set). There was the excellent inverse take on an alien invasion, in the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs. There was the dark but interesting Spielberg directed, Tom Cruise film Minority Report. Many other little films I enjoyed like Orange County, John Q, Mr. Deeds, and The Transporter. I, like many people, saw the American remake of The Ring, and while it honestly isn't a great movie, I was certainly drawn in at the time simply because I didn't know what the hell was going on. In fact, it's the only time to date, that I have ever gone to see a movie two times in one day. My friends and I had seen it, and gone back to one of their houses, and his roommate had just gotten home, and we were telling him all about it. He wanted to see it, and the next showtime was going to start soon, so we all packed in a car and rushed back downtown to go see the very next showing. Sufficed to say, that movie freaked me out a fair bit, as I have a thing about ghosts and such. I had to sleep with the TV on in my room for a bout a year after that, let's just say that.

But while I was tempted to pick Star Wars Episode II for my Movie of 2002, I decided to go a different route, and pick what in my humble opinion is the last great traditionally animated Disney film, Treasure Planet. There were others around this same early 2000s era that were good, like Atlantis and Brother Bear. But I really loved Treasure Planet, it just had a lot of whimsy and adventure to it....and like Atlantis, it didn't have any singy-song moments, which is rare for Disney. I thought the sci-fi space take on the classic story was very well done, and very imaginative. And I really, truly wish that Disney would get back to making movies like this again. They did, years later, make another "Princess" film that was 2D animation, and a Winnie the Pooh movie after, but for the most part, they still just do 3D CGI cartoon films. And some of those are good, don't get me wrong....but 2D animation, to me, will always, always be the best. It just has a magic to it, that CGI lacks.

Probably the best "Horror" video game ever made.

Gaming in 2002, for me, was much like gaming in 2001, though I did perhaps get to see or play a higher volume of games. There were several games I tried and liked, such as Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee, which was a fun Godzilla battle game, though it needed more monsters. Metroid Prime was a major risk, making a 3D first person Metroid game, but it worked out, as the game was really in-depth and fun to play, though hard. Nintendo actually released a second 2D Metroid on the Game Boy Advance called Metroid Fusion, released on the same day, a major overload for Metroid fans after a near decade wait for a new game. There was also an okay remake of Spy Hunter by Midway. But the two that are the strongest candidates for me, were both "horror" related games. The first was the Game Boy Advance game, part of the Castlevania series which I have loved since my teens, called Harmony of Dissonance. It was a game very similar in style to their Playstation hit Symphony of the Night, and some have criticized it for the fact that music isn't the most amazing in the series. But to me, it was the best new Castlevania to come along in years, and the best one they've made since. It was very fun, and they added some really awesome mechanics to the SoTN formula that fleshed out the gameplay experience even more. It was basically the SoTN sequel people had been clamoring for for years, so in all honesty, people should have been far happier with it.

However, I did not actually get to play HoD until 2003, so that leaves my pick for Game of 2002 to be the Nintendo published oddity (for them), a "survival horror" game entitled Eternal Darkness. Now unlike the Resident Evil series (of which the Gamecube that same year had received both a good remake of the original, and a not-so-good prequel called RE Zero), Eternal Darkness had a much better functioning gameplay system, in which you could aim for enemies heads, limbs or torso with relative ease, and there was more strategy and flow to the gameplay. The story and setting, though, were what won me over. Hearkening deep shades of two of my favorite writers, Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, the story spans many centuries, allowing you to play many different characters, as events center around a dark cult, a Necronomincon type book made from human flesh and bones and written in blood, and their attempts to bring the Old Gods back into this world, to wreak destruction. It had a fairly deep story, and some genuinely creepy moments, including a certain bathroom moment earlier in the game (if you've played it, you know), that managed to scare the shit out of me. Not a perfect game, and it really would be nice to get an improved remake or sequel. But it was really great and novel for it's time, and I enjoyed it a lot.

RIP Layne Staley.

2002 was a more sparse year for music, however, so my choice of favorite album and song was a fair bit easier. There were song bands I got into that year, but nothing that was new that year. So my choice is the second Jerry Cantrell solo album, "Degradation Trip". As you can see, the album was dedicated to the memory of his former Alice in Chains band-mate, singer Layne Staley (aka the reason I loved AiC so much). Layne had died that same year, of a drug overdose, as he had never beaten the addiction demons that had caused Alice in Chains to break up in the first place. But he was still a close friend of Jerry, so Jerry dedicated the album to him, and even wrote the last track "Gone" in his memory. On a funny side note, as you can also see, bassist Rob Trujillo, formerly of Suicidal Tendencies, was in a transition phase at this point in his career, also having played for Ozzy Osbourn and Black Label Society, before he would ultimately get hired as the new bassist for Metallica in 2003. As for song, while there are several goods ones from that record, I chose "Psychotic Break", a haunting and somewhat sinister tune that has stuck with me over time. In a better year for music, I likely would have picked something else, but it's still a very good album.

An amazing film.

Year: 2003
Movie: The Last Samurai
Game: Soul Calibur II (Gamecube version)
Album: We've Come For You All by Anthrax
Song: Frantic by Metallica

The year 2003 was a year that began with both a new beginning of sorts, as well as an ending. At the age of 21, I finally managed to get my first place, my first home that was all my own, on my own. And just as I was in the midst of moving in, and still going to college, the mother that I had had such a strained relationship with for most of my life, passed away. For as long as I could remember, she had been mired in all sorts of health issues, that only got worse over time as she did not take good care of herself at all. By the end, she could barely move on her own, and was on more pills than I cared to count. And she eventually slipped into a coma and passed. It was a rough, interesting time for me. I say "interesting" because my feelings were certainly mixed. This woman had never been my "mom", in fact I had grown up without the privilege that most kids get, of having actual parents of any kind. I had a grandmother that often felt like more of a jailer at times, and when my mother was around, she was just there, if anything an annoying sister. So when she passed, I was certainly sad, I mourned...but though it may sound fucked up to say, I mourned not just because of her passing, but also for the mother I could have had, the parent I had deserved to have as a child. It's complicated.

But regardless, on in life I went, and as ever, at this juncture at least, entertainment was still there to help me make my way in life. Many movies caught my fancy, such as Adam Sandler's Anger Management, or the awesome Chow Yun Fat film Bulletproof Monk, which was honestly a strong contender for Movie of 2003. I can't recommend that movie enough, it's one of the best martial arts movies I've personally ever seen. Although many criticized it for dumb reasons, I also for the most part really enjoyed Ang Lee's Hulk film. And of course The Return of the King, the incredibly long last installment of Jackson's LOTR trilogy. But the movie that wins the prize, is a movie that really touched me, in a real way. The Last Samurai, directed by Edward Zwick, and starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, is a really wonderful film that attempts to show the transition time in late 1800s Japan, from the last vestiges of the old era of the Samurai, to the more modern, more "Western" influenced era. Not 100% historically accurate of course, but it tells an incredible story, and is a moving, romantic take on the simple older ways, versus the modern machine. Cruise himself gives perhaps, I feel, his best performance (and that's saying something, because weird or not, he's an incredible actor). There were, of course, idiots who tried to criticize that "Oh, why is a movie about Japanese Samurai starring a white guy as 'The Last Samurai'?" And naturally, like most such opinions, it is founded in uninformed drivel. Cruise's character is an observer, he is seeing their world through our "Western" eyes, and he never himself becomes a Samurai, though he does embrace their ways while acting as their prisoner. Instead, he bears witness to the final stand of The Last Samurai, that being the actual warriors who he comes to call friends. If you've never seen it, I highly recommend it.

A once great series.

Going from Samurai to some more Samurai, while there were some games I dug in 2003, including as I mentioned before, the GBA hit Harmony of Dissonance, as well as F-Zero GX (which was fun but ridiculously hard), the game that gets my pick for Game of 2003, is the Gamecube version of Soul Calibur II. Better in many ways than the original Calibur game (itself the sequel to the often forgotten Soul Edge), this was the first time in the series that they decided to throw in a gimmick, that gimmick being that each platform would receive an exclusive character. Now, on the one hand, throwing in characters that do NOT fit the game world at all (such as Star Wars characters in SCIV, which was beyond dumb), is lame. But, as it so happened, while Heihatchi from the Tekken series in the PS2 version (he has no weapon in a weapons based fighter), and Spawn in the Xbox version, were nonsensical inclusions, Link being in the Gamecube version somehow fit. Perhaps not the more realistic setting of the SC series, but his swordplay was right at home. And naturally, they managed to fit in all of his signature moves and weapons, even boomerangs and bombs. It was, in all honesty, the last good entry in the series. SCIII (which for some insane reason was PS2 exclusive), was okay, but the series really went downhill overall after SCII.

They've come for you all.

2003 was a better year in music than 2002, and among other things, the two "big ones", for me anyway, were a new Anthrax album, and a new Metallica album. Now, while I did like several songs off of "St. Anger", and in general, in spite of the purposefully garage sounding production and goddamn snare drum sound, enjoyed the album, it is not my fav. album from that year. In fact, it's easily the worst Metallica album of all time, and I say that not hating it at all. But comparing it to any of their other records, it's no contest. I think with better production (as Bob Rock was otherwise known for great sound to his albums), it would have done the songs more service. But, ultimately, it still would have likely been their weakest record, and that's somewhat understandable, given that it was born from the most uncertain point in the band's history, when they came very close to ending. But, St. Anger did produce my favorite song of the year, as the lead track "Frantic" REALLY spoke to me for a long time, of how I felt about my life and life in general.

But, the album that then does win my Album of 2003, is Anthrax's "We've Come For You All". Easily the best entry in the John Bush era of Anthrax, this album was a punch to the face (in a good way) from start to finish. The band was really on fire, and while they never really WENT anywhere (the previous albums had good music to be found), this was definitely a return statement. Sadly, it would also wind up being the very last John Bush record, because after that, the other band-mates decided they wanted to do this silly 80s reunion tour with their old singer Joey Belladonna, and wanted John to participate too, and he was not feeling it at all. And I don't blame him. It was really stupid, to be honest, they had just put out their best album in years, and should have built on that momentum and released an even BETTER album to follow it up. Instead, they take several steps backwards, do the stupid reunion tour so that old metal-heads with 80s jean-jackets and mullet hair-dos could party for a few minutes. They lose John Bush, their singer of many years, in the process, and eventually lose Joey as well, because the guy is a flake. And the band basically wound up in limbo for many years, without another album release until late 2011. They even briefly got John Bush back for some live tour dates, but he ultimately decided he didn't want to rejoin full time, which of course made me sad all over again. They finally got Joey to come back, did a new record that was okay, and that's where they've been since. I will always wonder, if they hadn't been fucking idiots, what potentially great albums Anthrax might have put out, still with Bush all these years. Oh well.

The perfect album for the W. Bush era.

Year: 2004
Movie: Spider-Man 2
Game: Pikmin 2
Album: American Idiot by Green Day
Song: Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day

So finally we get to 2004. I was still in college, but by the end of that spring semester, I had decided that I was done with school, disenchanted, disenfranchised, over it. Done with the system, done with how it all worked. I was going to move on, and focus on my writing. I worked at a bar over the summer, large very creepy bar, at night, by myself. It was a lot of fun, really. And then that fall I switched to a tech company (of sorts), doing data entry and various other shit like that, for the better part of the next two years. It was a job that I would wind up rather miserable in, but that's a story for another year.

As movies go, 2004 was still okey doke. The third Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban came out, and it honestly was a strong choice for the top movie of the year. It was my favorite Potter film for many years. I also really enjoyed Pixar's The Incredibles, which was a very novel and rich take on the superhero concept, this time with a family (including super kids). The Brad Pitt film Troy was also an interesting adaptation of the classic Greek epic poem The Iliad, and it was a solid film, well done, imagining what the events might have been like if they were "real", sans any direct depictions of gods or mythological phenomenon. The movie might have been more fun if it had the mythological stuff, but it was good for what they attempted. The Butterfly Effect, while a bit of a downer, wound up really surprising me also, considering it stars Ashton Kutcher. But Spider-Man 2 wound up winning the year, as it built on the foundation the first Raimi film had laid down, and built a better film out of it. The first was entertaining, but the second, I felt, really got more to the heart of the Peter Parker character, and while not super-accurate to the comics, the film depiction of Doctor Octopus was actually very well done. Easily the best Spider-Man film they have yet made.

How to do a sequel correctly.

Now in 2004, I finally got my hands on a (at the time) "current gen" console, a used PS2 that I bought from someone. I found myself playing an awful lot of the WWF wrestling game Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain, like Wrestlemania 2000 before it, mainly due to the whole create-a-wrestler feature. Metroid Prime 2 also came out, and while it's a good game, I felt it wasn't as good as the first. But I would be remiss if I didn't pick Nintendo's Pikmin 2 as the Game of 2004. It is, in almost every meaningful way, an improvement and a better game than the original. And when it comes to game sequels, that is precisely how you do them right. Now when I originally played this, mind you, I did love it, and felt then that it was a better game, in all ways but one. It had no time limit to complete the game, unlike the first which gives you 30 game days. There were even more areas to explore, and more treasures to find. In fact that was the focus of this second game, was that you were sent back to this planet to find more treasure. But the ONE drawback, or at least so I originally felt, is that there are underground areas that are basically often mandatory, and once you go down into them, it can often mean doomsday. If you fuck up, and don't play your cards right, on these missions you can very easily lose all your Pikmin, which is a tragic state indeed, let me tell you. BUT, I'm happy to report, that after coming back within the last few years and playing through the game again, which I actually beat this time, those caves aren't SO bad. Don't get me wrong, they can be kind of fucked, but the game IS overall an improvement over the already brilliant first game. I wish I could say the same for Pikmin 3, but I digress.....

THE band of 2004.

And as I already spoiled above, my album of the year, without a shadow of a doubt, was Green Day's "American Idiot". I had, as I'd mentioned in the previous article, been a Green Day fan since at least 1994 or 1995, when I first heard songs like "Basket Case" and "When I Come Around". But their output over the year in between had been very uneven, with "okay" albums like "Insomniac" and "Warning" sandwiching a better album like "Nimrod". Well....I guess in that light, the kept up the trend, perhaps by total accident. As the lore goes, they basically had most of an entire album written, perhaps even recorded, and some shit went down, and they somehow lost it all. Distressed as anyone would be, instead of crumbling, what they did was they turned around and wrote a FAR BETTER album (most likely), inspired by the absolute bullshit of the George W. Bush era, they wrote an anthem album, a rock opera for a new generation. And "American Idiot" was just that. It was  an album that came at the right time, especially in light of "W" winning a second term (dubiously, but whatever). The album attacked everything about the cynical, dark, often disdainful post-9/11 America, and called out bullshit left and right, while also speaking to the inner heart of American youth, the confusion, the suffering, the uncertain future, etc. It was an album of it's time, for sure, and an album that I absolutely latched onto.

Now I have always felt that the first half of the album, in general, is far stronger than the second half, but overall, it's a classic album with many great songs. And the song that was pretty much my Song of 2004, was the mournful ballad "Boulevard of Broken Dreams". I would dare say, though, that "American Idiot" might well still stand, and perhaps forever remain Green Day's finest work. A punk band that had long wrote mostly silly or oddball songs, suddenly had something serious to say, and it really worked.

So that's it for Pt. 2 of this epic undertaking. I'll be back soon enough, with Pt. 3. For now, cheers, and enjoy!