I covered many of my music picks in my Thanksgiving Round-Up, my Summer Hitlist, and Spring Picks. Plus Steve Holtje, our ace managing editor, and the rest of Culture Catch critics and writers have been on top of the whole spectrum of culture the entire year. Here's a sampling of some of my cherished cultural moments from this past year, alphabetically listed. I certainly missed some crucial art openings, didn't have enough time to read about 20 books sitting next to my desk, and didn't see a handful of "must-see" movies and plays. By no means can one person consume even just the smart culture available in New York, let alone the rest of the world. But still I believe I've witnessed enough to share some of my favorite moments, both real and digitally rendered. Enjoy.
American Buffalo @ Belasco Theatre
Our theater critic Victoria panned it, and just about everyone else for that matter, but Cedric the Entertainer rocked the Broadway matinee I attended. He was more than capable of handling the verbal jabs of co-star John Leguizamo as well as the glare of the critics and neon lights on said thoroughfare. Santo Loquasto's junk-shop cluttered set design deserve major props, too.
Boris Garcia: Once More into the Bliss (Porch Week/Ryko)
Philly-based progressive bluegrass quintet released their third feel-good CD to very little fanfare. But don't let the name scare you off from enjoying their utterly infectious tunes. Produced by Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth with just enough punch to melt the ice on any winter day.
The Charlatans: You Cross My Patch (Cooking Vinyl)
I thought this was New Order's latest! Nope. One of my favorite U.K. rock records by one of my favorite Manchester bands probably didn't even register on your music radar and it was initially given away for free. Fantastic way to let the youngsters know who you are and let your fans reconnect. Quite possibly their best collection of songs and well worth the price of admission, just ask music Svengali Alan McGee.
The Dark Knight
Heath Ledger (R.I.P.) was the darkest villain we've witnessed on screen since the Devil grabbed hold of poor Linda Blair so many years ago. He might win a posthumous Oscar, too. His real-life tragedy so fueled our desire to grasp every nuance of his menacing presence that we often overlooked his extraordinary co-stars -- Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, and Gary Oldman.
Duffy: Rockferry (London)
Thankfully no indulgent vocal gymnastics from this young U.K. Dusty Springfield-style siren. Just plain ol' white girl soul on a collection of very strong throwback-sounding pop R&B tunes.
This indie gem from the Irish team that brought viewers the simple but heartfelt Once have done it again. Some critics think they may receive Academy Award considerations for lead actress Eileen Walsh's tour-de-force portrait of a faithful but passion-starved wife trying to save her crummy marriage from crumbling into a heap before the couple reaches their tenth wedding anniversary. Anyone who has ever tried to breathe life into a stale relationship will know her frustration.
Mike Edison: I Have Fun Everywhere I Go Book & CD (Instellar Roadhouse)
Memoirs collected about his life on edge of punk-rock, porn, pot, wrestling, and fringe culture is no-holds-barred hilarious. The abridged CD was produced by Jon Spencer and features Mr. Edison's stories accompanied by an onslaught of noise, beats, theremins, and general Blues Explosion cacophony.
Endless Boogie: Focus Level (No Quarter)
One listen and you'd swear this is some "lost" boogie band psychedelic classic -- think Canned Heat meets Humble Pie -- from the late '60s. 10 songs clocking in at 79 minutes might seem over-wrought, but not in the retro-sweaty hands of these four middle-aged dudes from NYC. Plenty of guttural Gibby Hayes/Beefheart growls, endless git-tar riffing, plodding bass lines, and a drum mixed so low you'd swear this was recorded with a single mic in a single take. Pass me that bong...and Rock On!
Writer/Director David Koepp (our very first podcast interview) has fashioned a fabulous old-fashioned adult romantic comedy set in New York City, framed by the acerbic wit of Brit Ricky Gervais as his leading man, Tea Leoni as the muse, and Greg Kinnear as the philandering, dead husband. Just released this week on DVD.
Zhang Huan: "Blessing" & "Unique Woodcuts" @ PaceWildenstein
The East is producing some of the most crucial art in the world. My favorite show of the year was Chinese artist Huan, who was showcased in two separate shows simultaneously, at PaceWildenstein and Pace Prints in Chelsea. Blessing featured an enormous piece entitled Canal Building (5' 11" H x 59' 1" L x 19' 8" W) made entirely of incense burial ash. One had to view the top surface of the ash painting, depicting a landscape with people digging a canal, from a scaffolding walkway fixed above it. The other show featured silkscreens mounted and carved on old wooden doors -- Memory Doors -- gathered from the Shanxi Provence in China depicting military, labor, and daily life themes.
Big spectacle movies for giant screens sometimes can leave an audience begging for a morsel of acting chops and marginally acceptable dialogue. Thankfully this movie had both in spades. Robert Downey Jr. inhabited the cartoon character Tony Stark with frightfully human dimension, and hopefully will remain with the Iron Man franchise as long as it exists. A furiously fun but serious comic book adaptation that appealed to both critic and fan. Can't wait till the sequel.
Yong Ho Ji: "Mutant Mythos" @ Ghana
This NYC-based, South Korean-born artist meticulously layers tires on his cast resin figures to render each life-size mutant creature (sharks, jaguars, wild boar, wild dogs, etc.) on display for his solo show at Gana Art Gallery in Chelsea, NYC. Each "modernized golem" taking up to three months, cutting the tires with mat knives and securing them to their casts. These eco-rendered beasts were both beautiful and powerful.
B.B. King: One Kind Favor (Geffen)
Is T-Bone Burnett the best producer on the planet? Barely debatable now that Jerry Wexler has passed on. One thing is certain, he knows how to capture the true rootsy essence of any artist. Mr. King is 82 years young, although you'd swear this horn-enhanced set of earthy retro blues tunes was a long-lost recording from Lucille's Boss circa late '50s/early '60s.
Me and My Friend: Red Hot Chili Peppers
U.K. photographer Tony Woolliscroft has spent twenty-plus years on the road, backstage, and in the mosh pits with one of America's true iconographic bands that still has high octane gas left in their flaming hats. This loving homage is a hoot. Though it has yet to find its release in the U.S., look for it next fall from Abrams book. Or buy it today through Tony's website.
Barack Obama's Presidential Victory
Can an extremely smart President elect mean smart culture will be back in vogue in America? After all, this is a man who back in June told Jann Wenner that Stevie Wonder was his musical hero. "When I was at that point where you start getting involved in music, Stevie had that run with Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Fulfillingness' First Finale, and Innervisions, and then Songs in the Key of Life," he said. Except for The Beatles, that's probably the most dynamic consecutive string of life-affirming, consciousness-raising visionary LPs ever produced by a single artistic talent.
Oni Dance @ Joyce Soho
Modern dance doesn't have the audience it deserves, and this inventive and acclaimed L.A.-based ensemble led by Maria Gillespie certainly deserves a wider one. I spent an evening completely overwhelmed by their sensual, artistic, and athletic prowess. Coming back to the Joyce in late January. Don't miss them.
Piplotti Rist: "Pour Your Body Out" @ MoMA
Switzerland-based Ms. Rist has created a visually stunning, scrumdiddlyumptious color colliding 25-by-200 foot projected video on the second floor atrium that features a giant black and pink pig, apples bobbing in a lily pond, a naked red-headed lass crawling through a colorful tulip-bursting flower field, giant toes squishing fruit salad, and more eye-popping visuals. With her droning music playing in the background, the carpeted center with a circular coach is the perfect oasis for relaxing your mind and slipping away upstream.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex NYC
Though it's in the heart of Soho -- when it shoulda been on the Bowery -- it still rawks. And the history of rock movies that kicks off the tour is worth the price of admission. Ditto for their loving recreation of CBGB and the current Clash exhibition. But you'll crack up when you see a pick sitting in a plexiglass case that someone claims the Boss used on "Thunder Road"! My favorite small and all-too-brief moment, though, was seeing a film clip of the late, great -- and former Akronite -- Bob Quine rip into his guitar with Richard Hell & The Voidoids in the CBGB exhibit. Now there's a guitar hero who warrants his own retrospective. Check out their crucial swag shop with a plethora of cool retro tees.
Shearwater: Rook (Matador)
Thanks to our music editor Steve for picking this earlier in the year. Austin-based Jonathan Meiburg started this deeply contemplative and engaging project with Okkervil River's Will Sheff as a super indie one-off. He then joined Okkervil briefly, then left, and then Sheff left Shearwater. Quite possibly one of my favorite CDs from this waning decade.
Sun Kil Moon: April (Caldo Verde)
These plaintive, quicksand songs draw you slowly down a rabbit's hole. Moreover, they're Mark Kozelek's finest tunes since Red House Painters roamed the Bay area. Not all that different, lyrically, sonically or dynamically. And for us fans, and potential converts, that is a very good thing.
Sunshine Superman: The Journey of Donovan (Eagle Rock DVD)
As honest and thorough a journey as you'll ever see on any rock icon. The footage of the Scottish bard with The Beatles in India is truly magical. If you've not seen my backstage video interview with Donovan, check it out.
Vincent Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night @ MoMA
It's been said that Van Gogh liked his absinthe. He once wrote to his brother Theo of the sky and the water in the RhÃ´ne River being "the color of absinthe." Certainly the wormwood-induced euphoria inspired his majestic colors and swirls of night skies, twilight landscapes, interiors, poets (EugÃ¨ne Boch portrait, top left), and thirty more works on display. Just a few weeks remain before it moves to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in early February 2009.
Existentialism love story never resonated so convincingly, especially in this animated masterwork. Pixar has had few, if any, missteps in their remarkable canon of work. This cinematic achievement will stand the test of time, like Kubrick's isolation masterpiece 2001.
Although 20th Century Fox is trying to block Warner Brothers' March 2009 release date, this much-anticipated film is based on one of the best graphic novels ever published. What happens when a superhero is convicted of murder? This tangled web of intrigue is not your everyday superhero fodder. Recently reprinted as a hardcover edition. I reread it this summer and couldn't help but notice how many women were reading it on the subway.
How could writer/director Guy Maddin create a compelling narrative about his native Canadian city? One need only to spend the ninety minutes with this loving homage to feel and breathe his passion and unique filmmaking skills.
Mickey Rourke is electrifying as a fading professional wrestler running on fumes. He's the comeback kid of the year in one of the best movies of the year! Now will some director find a movie for Marisa Tomei where she doesn't have to take off her clothes? Not that there's anything wrong with that, but she's a gifted actress who deserves more than exposing her God-given assets. Props to Bruce Springsteen's end credits tune, too.
I'm quite curious to hear from our readers what cultural experiences/moments resonated with them in 2008.
Happy New Year! peace.
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. He promises to finish his book of short stories this year!