Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Best of the Best: 2006

Beautiful cover art. Still my favorite 3D Zelda.

Year: 2006
Movie: Stranger Than Fiction
Game: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Album: Dante XXI by Sepultura
Song: Becoming the Dragon by Trivium

Now when it comes to video games, 2006 had a bit more going on for me on the Gamecube side of things. For one, Midway released a new Rampage game, Rampage: Total Destruction. They had resurrected the franchise years prior on PS1 and N64 with Rampage: World Tour in 1997, and a direct sequel to that in 1999 Rampage: Universal Tour. These games took the formula of the 1986 arcade original, that of giant monsters climbing buildings and trashing them while fending off human armies, and updated it with neat looking prerendered graphics and a bit more variety. With Total Destruction, they tried to update it even further, this time using fairly good looking 3D polygon graphics, though still keeping the action on a 2D plane. In Universal Tour they introduced additional monsters for the first time, outside of the original trio of George, Lizzie and Ralph (a King Kong knockoff, a Godzilla knockoff, and a giant Wolfman). So in Total Destruction they upped the ante even more, adding a LOT more playable monsters, and a bit more variety in levels. Still the same basic arcade style gameplay, though: simple but fun.

There was also a little known sleeper hit released by Nintendo, called Chibi-Robo, a VERY Japanese title in which you play a tiny robot (Chibi meaning small or tiny), whose sole purpose is to clean. A housekeeper bot. But this particular one also has a bit of a Johnny 5 (Short Circuit) complex going on, where it has a "big heart" (or glitchy programming that makes him super nice), and so Chibi wants to make the family in the household happy as well. And that is the basic premise of the game: walk around a giant (to the robot) house, clean up messes after the humans (and their dog), explore and solve quirky situations (including at one point having to talk down a renegade toy army general), and help the family get along with each other better. It sounds on the surface like "What the fuck, why would anyone play this?" But BENEATH that surface, I assure you, it's actually quite fun and engaging. I never beat the entire game, but I did put in several hours of good house-cleaning elbow grease.

SUCH great art!

But as the picture above alludes, hands down, my Game of 2006, was the new Zelda entry, Twilight Princess. Now, the caveat in that is that I didn't actually play it until early 2007, but I'll explain why. As I've said, I didn't own a Gamecube during that console generation. I intended to buy one when this new Zelda was originally supposed to release in 2005, but then it got delayed for a year as they decided they also wanted to port it to their upcoming console, the Nintendo Wii. Now, stupid name aside, the Wii little by little revealed itself to be something I actually wanted, and since I had the money to buy one, and learned that it was going to be 100% backwards compatible, playing all Gamecube games and controllers etc., that I just decided to wait and play the GC version of Twilight Princess on Wii instead. I wanted to specifically play the GC version, not the Wii port, because it was the "real", original version of the game that I had been waiting years for, and I wasn't sure about these new-fangled "motion controls" anyway.

Well, long story short, because I was an idiot and didn't pre-order the Wii, I wound up having to wait months to actually get one, because they were literally out of stock in the entire area for awhile. Thanks to the runaway success of a simple title like Wii Sports, the damn thing was out of stock. Well, thanks to a contact I had at a local game store (NOT called Game Stop), I finally got my hands on one in February of 2007, along with copies of Wii Sports and Excite Truck (both fun games). But the main event, was borrowing Harold's GC copy of Twilight Princess, which of course he'd already beaten, and I had to make him shut the fuck up MANY times so as not to spoil anything for me. FINALLY getting to play it myself, I can firmly tell you.....it was worth the wait. I had more fun playing that Zelda than I had with almost any game in ages (outside of maybe Pikmin), and in my first playthrough I put almost 80 hours into the game, not because I had to, but because I spent a LOT of time just dicking around and exploring in between dungeons and plot points. It was a blast, and I genuinely enjoyed myself. It is, to this day, my favorite 3D Zelda (my favorite of all time of course being Link's Awakening, as detailed here).


As for movies, 2006 was, I'd say, perhaps the beginning of a downward trend in Hollywood, at least for me. There were some major stinkers that came out that year, such as Bryan Singer's (the man behind the not-at-all-accurate-to-the-comics-on-purpose X-Men films) latest foray into not really giving a fuck about being true to comic book source material, Superman Returns. Now, in spite not liking what Singer had done to my precious X-Men, I went to see this film solely because it was SUPPOSED to be a direct sequel to the previous 70s and 80s Christopher Reeve Superman films, the first two of which, at least, I love. However, it was.......less than enthralling. It certainly wasn't a BAD film....it just had an absurd plot, and for a movie about a bulletproof strong guy who can fly at the speed of sound...it was rather dull. 2006 also saw the "rebirth" of James Bond, going from the so-so era of Pierce Brosnan, to the NEW "reboot" style era of Daniel Craig. Now, Craig the actor is fine, he's talented, nothing against him. But what they did to Bond, the route they took, basically changing the character from the cerebral, suave thinking man's spy, into basically a generic action hero who shoots his way out of trouble and blows shit up.....that I hated.

On the fun side of things Mission Impossible III, even though it was directed by JJ Abrams (IE the man who tried to ruin both Star Trek and Star Wars), was a surprisingly good entry in that franchise. And the sequel to the Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man's Chest, was probably the most fun of that trilogy, especially because, I mean, c'mon, it had a giant Kraken. Grandma's Boy, starring Adam Sandler cohort Allen Covert, was also an R rated romp through video game and pot jokes. The pot jokes I could do without (as I don't partake), but it was still dumb fun. 16 Blocks, the last film directed by one of my favorite directors, Richard Donner, starring Mos Def and Bruce Willis, was also a very pleasant surprise. But in general, there just weren't any movies that felt BIG to me, that I could point to say say "Yes, THAT is my Movie of 2006!"

But the movie I did pick, was yet another surprise. I have been a Will Ferrel fan since his SNL days, and his early cameo appearances in the Austin Powers movies. I have not loved everything he's done, but I like some of his movies. His screaming and whatnot act wears thin on some, and many people aren't fans of his. But even to people who aren't necessarily his fans, I would highly suggest watching Stranger Than Fiction. As a writer myself, it was a delight to see a movie about the process and the struggle of writing, but also getting down into the fundamental elements of storytelling. Plus the story is very quirky, and endearing, and I would say this is easily Ferrel's finest performance as an actor (much like Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler's turns at more serious films revealed some great acting in them). It's a incredibly well done film, engaging from start to finish, and so it deserves the nod for 2006 film.

Simple but effective cover art.

Now the song of the year also goes to the runner up for album of the year, and that is Trivium's "The Crusade". Trivium is a band I had heard of, but never really listened to, in the early 2000s. They were, to some extent, part of that era's so-called "malcore" movement, which doesn't actually mean anything, except to imply that it's another kind of "hardcore" metal, but interspersed with pretty "clean" singing. Point is, I never got into their music, until this 2006 album came out. It was with Crusade that they changed their style (albeit briefly), to more of a 80s Metallica type vibe, more thrashy, dropping the screamy vocals almost entirely, in favor of Hetfieldian growling, which is just fine with me. Not all the songs on the album were winners, but several were, most especially the one that is my pick for song of the year, and that is the song "Becoming the Dragon". It's a really "pump you up" kind of song, that also happens to have a solid foundation in Chinese/Japanese mythology, telling the tale of the Koi fish who spent 100 years struggling to swim up great water falls, until he finally reached the mystical "Dragon's Gate", and was rewarded for his perseverance by the gods, transforming him into an immortal Dragon form whose very breath could create flame and storms. Basically, a song of surviving and transforming yourself into something greater, and I love it to this day, it's still a bit of a personal anthem to me.

As for album, well, Sepultura had been rockin' it with the Derrick Green lineup for some time. For those unaware, a lot of whiny metal fans with nothing better to do with their time, have spent the years since 1996, when original band leader Max Cavalera left the band, complaining that "It isn't Sepultura without Max", and bemoaning that the band should have just quit or changed their name. Even though Max started the "nu-metal" outfit Soulfly, and Sepultura with American singer Green, went on to make some great albums, especially 2001's "Nation". Well, while their work since has been okay, I personally consider "Dante XXI" to be their last great album. It was a concept album, based around Dante Allegiri's classic Inferno, and a diverse album with everything from thrash to outright peaceful music within. Certainly not one of my favorite albums of all time, but I was absolutely rocking it in 2006.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Best of the Best: 2005

Flawed, but still pretty great.

Year: 2005
Movie: Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
Game: Tekken 5
Album: Ghost Reveries by Opeth
Song: Soldier Side by System of a Down (or Born by Nevermore)   

So it was 2005. I was working at a job that I quickly grew to hate, not the least of which because it was a night job with long hours (often mandatory overtime) and working weekends. I had no real "day life" to speak of, because the daylight hours were typically spent trying to sleep. In general, not a terribly happy camper, but I persevered. There honestly isn't much to say about 2005 the year, as far as personal life went, because as sad as it is to say, it kind of went up in smoke working at said job. But the mid-2000s, while gradually sliding into some pretty murky waters, were still reliably producing some pretty solid entertainment for me to latch on to.

2005 saw many notable movies release. There was the first ever theatrical adaptation of the C.S. Lewis classic The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which itself was a very faithful version, and very well done, without much unnecessary excess. Hardly the most exciting story in the series, Lion is still plenty entertaining, a first look at the magical parallel world of Narnia, a world I had spent some headspace in as a child, reading the books, seeing the old cartoon and BBC adaptations. So I was plenty excited to see this movie, and it lived up to what I expected it should be. Could it have been EVEN better, or would I have done it a bit differently as director? Of course. But for what it was, it was good stuff.

A decent film, even IF that voice is annoying.

2005 ALSO saw the release of the newest take on the DC Comics classic Batman, titled Batman Begins. It was an interesting "origin tale" type take, and it tried to take the material more seriously than the previous Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films had. It employed heavy use of something Hollywood uses aplenty these days anyway, that being "shaky-cam" and up-close tight shots for EVERY single fight/action scene (just about), which can really ruin the action. It also featured an okay take on Bruce Wayne's early beginnings, trying to train and infiltrate the crime underworld to better understand it, with an interesting subplot involving the villain Ra's Al Ghul and eventually the Scarecrow. The year saw many other movies, including some notable remakes, one of them decent but overlong in the form of Peter Jackson's King Kong, another in the abysmally bad form of Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. One adaptation that I did rather enjoy, however, was Steven Spielberg's alternative take on the HG Wells' classic War of the Worlds, in which against type, instead of portraying the alien invasion itself and the war that ensued, he instead chose to focus on one family trying to survive said invasion and war. A fresh take that I quite enjoyed, and yet another Tom Cruise movie that I quite liked.

Never the greatest art, but sometimes a lot of fun.

Video game-wise, 2005 didn't hold a WHOLE lot for me. The Gamecube, while I didn't own one as I've said, had several games for it I really liked, but not so much in 2005. It DID produce arguably my biggest gaming disappointment, or certainly right at the top of the list, in the form of Star Fox: Assault, a game I had been majorly hyped for, in spite seeing and hearing about dumb gimmicks they were shoehorning into it. And then it came out, and my friend Harold and I tried it...and it was fucking awful. First two levels, that I had seen in trailers and gotten hyped by? They were fantastic. The rest of the game? A drooling, bland, uneven mess that featured mostly NOT flying combat missions, the keystone feature of the series. Instead, it had horrible, repetitive "get out and walk around and shoot stuff" missions....and it was just very UN-fun. I don't know off the top of my head if I have ever been THAT outright disappointed in a game before or since, as I absolutely loved Star Fox 64, and badly wanted a real, worthy follow up to that game. What I've gotten instead, for years, are one badly slapped-on gimmick game after another.

But on the other hand, on the Playstation 2, which by that time I owned, there were a couple of games at least that caught my interest. One of which I saw at a friend's house, an underrated sleeper hit called Shadow of the Colossus. A very unusual game wherein you play a horse-riding, sword-wielding hero, ala Link from the Legend of Zelda series, but instead of running around fighting enemies and solving puzzles, you explore a sprawling, barren land, locating and fighting only a handful of gigantic monsters, each of whom houses a piece of some demon's soul, that you need to use to somehow revive your lost love that you have brought to this forbidden valley. It has a great soundtrack, and while some of the boss designs are a bit goofy, the overall game is very unique and while not perfect, it's fun and keeps your interest. The other, which I actually owned, pictured above, was the PS2 release of Tekken 5. I had been into the Tekken games since playing the first three in arcades as a teen, and while not my absolute favorite fighting game series, I did really enjoy them. Unfortunately, Tekken 4 was the first major misstep for the franchise, after the brilliant Tekken Tag Tournament, and I really wasn't feeling it. But then part 5 released, and it seemed as if all was right again. Not only was the fifth game more in line with the amazing Tekken 3, but the home package also featured ALL three original arcade games as unlockable bonuses.

And it even had another bonus "adventure" type mode that nobody wanted to play....but hey, at least it had it. The only true downside to Tekken 5, was the boss, Jinpachi, who was the first instance of a Tekken character having some kind of projectile move. If it isn't bullshit enough that he can hit you with a fairly unblockable fireball that takes up a huge chunk of your life bar, then try on for size the fact that he can (as I recall) also refill his own lifebar. You basically have to steamroll him from start to finish, knocking him over repeatedly and not really giving him a chance to breath, to beat him. But outside of his bullshittery, I did have a lot of fun playing the game, which is why I picked it as my Game of 2005.

My first real exposure to the band, but a great one.

Now 2005 for music was, I dunno....interesting. It did have some good albums, like Nevermore's "This Godless Endeavor", an album I almost picked as Album of the Year. It also had System of a Down's two-part album "Mesmerize/Hypnotize", which while not GREAT albums, did feature a handful of really strong songs. But while working at said night job, a co-worker turned me on to Opeth, specifically their newest album "Ghost Reveries", and for some strange reason I was hooked. It must be said that while I love heavy metal, not ALL metal is created equal in my eyes, and for as much of it as I like or even outright adore, there is also MUCH of it that I really don't care for at all. And among that is included the vast majority of most "screamy" vocal styles, such as so-called "Death" and "Black" metal, to name a couple. And Opeth was a band I knew about, and knew they for many years were primarily just another Swedish death metal band (a lot of them come from Sweden).

But at some point in their career, they started to diversify and grow their sound. On the album preceding this, "Damnation", it was entirely acoustic style songs, and it was brilliant. "Ghost Reveries" was back to business as usual, with quite a lot of "death growl" vocals on hand....but also some fantastic songwriting, and moments of pure brilliance and beautiful "clean" singing interspersed. There were ENOUGH of those moments, that I really got hooked to it, even though I often strongly dislike that vocal style. And I eventually wound up liking it enough that I would now pick it as my Album of 2005.

As for Song of the Year, while I could certainly pick a song from that album, especially my favorite track "Harlequin Forest", I instead picked a tie between two songs that really spoke to me and embodied how I felt, deep in the second W. Bush term, deep in the middle of the Iraq War, deep in the middle of  steadily worsening economy and a shitty personal life. And those songs were "Soldier Side", a very haunting song about soldiers and war by System of a Down, easily the strongest song on albums that can otherwise often be downright silly. The other being "Born" by Nevermore, a song about, basically, how lost and seemingly helpless we all are inside the system we have created and have allowed to rule us.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Best of the Best: 2004

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, a 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.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Best of the Best: 2003

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.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Best of the Best: 2002

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.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Best of the Best: 2001

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, and 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-as-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 gteat film, one of Carrey's strongest performances, with a fantastic 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 a 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 top 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 20th birthday, 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 film-making 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. 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 new 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.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Best of the Best: 2000

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)

So......to 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.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Best of the Best: 1999

One of the last great 2D animated theatrical films.

Year: 1999
Movie: The Iron Giant
Game: Wrestlemania 2000
Album: The Distance to Here by Live
Song: Higher by Creed

So 1998 turned into 1999, a new year, the last year of not only a decade, but a century....even a millennium. And I'm sorry to report that while it had it's collection of moments, 1999 was not all that kind to me a lot of times, and it was far from one of my favorite years. But as usual, amidst the drama and bullshit of real life, and having to deal with other human beings (who can of course make your life both a heaven...and a hell), various forms of entertainment were there to help me somewhat sooth my wounds and troubled spirit. To help me find some release and escape. 1999 was certainly not a BAD year for movies, but it was a markedly lesser year compared to '96, '97 or '98, for me. It still had it's fair share of movies I really enjoyed, among them October Sky, Office Space, The Mummy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Ghost Dog, Big Daddy, Instinct, Detroit Rock City, The Sixth Sense, Man on the Moon, and Bicentennial Man.

There were a couple of candidates I had to consider for "best movie", one of them being Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. I realize, much like Metallica in the late 90s, that it's a popular opinion to have, that the Star Wars prequel trilogy, and that first movie in particular, are "garbage". I would like to point out that I have never felt that way. Were they flawed? Sure. Not AS good or as classic as the original movies? Absolutely. But I still always felt they were good movies, AND good Star Wars movies, even Phantom Menace. I never hated Jar Jar Binks, to me he was always just another goofy character like the robots, or like the Ewoks. I think a lot of people really just need to grow up. The movie itself was fine, and it had a lot of things to like about it, most especially the Jedi master Qui-Gon Jin, and the Sith warrior Darth Maul. And that epic song for their final confrontation, "Duel of the Fates", is still a great piece that I love to this day. The prequel movies are flashy, and they honestly should have used less CGI. But I still like them. However, upon really thinking about it, the movie that stuck with me the most from 1999, was The Iron Giant. It really has that Don Bluth type of vibe to it, even though he was not involved with it, and it was one of the last great traditionally animated theatrical film releases. A fact that makes me, as a huge fan of traditional hand drawn animation, very sad, as I wish it would make a comeback, a REAL comeback, in the United States. But Iron Giant is a really great story, a fun movie, and though many wouldn't know it, one of actor Vin Diesel's first real movie roles, as he did the vocal noises and eventual voice for the robot.

As for game? Well, looking back, '99 was the first year I ran into where it was honestly a little rough trying to pin down a favorite, as there were just less games that year that I really loved, the arcades had less releases, and I didn't own a Playstation or even the debuting Sega Dreamcast. Even though, the game Soul Calibur on Dreamcast WAS a game I immensely enjoyed, as I had very much liked it's arcade predecessor Soul Edge. I got to play it at a friend's house a bit, but not owning a DC myself, it's hard to really say it was my favorite game that year. And then I remembered, that I had gotten the wrestling game Wrestlemania 2000 for the N64 that year, and I DID happen to put a ridiculous amount of time into creating wrestlers and playing the game in general. So kind of by default, it wins game of the year on those merits. It was a decent game, though it doesn't hold up well now, too blocky and slow and clunky, but for it's TIME it was the best wrestling game out there.

SUCH a great album. The band's masterpiece.

When it comes to music, '99 was a weird time. In the late 90s in general, rap and "hip hop" had gradually become more and more mainstream and popular, and at the same time, an often rap-hybrid style of rock called "Nu Metal" (because they couldn't just spell new correctly) also got real popular. And of course pop music, what with Brittany Spears and Christina Aguilera and the Backstreet Boys, etc., was just getting worse. Though I had no way of knowing that shit would be awesome to listen to compared to how much worse pop music would continue to get. But there was certainly still much for me to enjoy as well, as I continued to get more into metal, discovering other bands and albums. One of those that I really got into in '99, was Sevendust, as I discovered their album "Home" by hearing the song "Denial" on VH1 randomly, and then later on the radio, and I really dug it. So I went out, got the album, and eventually wound up really liking it overall. Another big music moment for me also came from VH1 in '99, as they broadcast part of Metallica's amazing "S&M" symphony concert. And let me tell you, that to me was heaven in that moment. My favorite band, along with classical music which I really love, it as like peanut butter and jelly (or chocolate). And to my delight, they later came out with the concert on CD and DVD, which I of course eventually got both of. One of the two new songs they did for that concert, "No Leaf Clover", also wound up becoming one of my favorite Metallica songs, and was a decent candidate for my song of '99.

I also really liked the Creed album "Human Clay". I had gotten into Creed back in '98 actually, in the second half of my shit-tacular sophomore year. Their first album "My Own Prison" also really helped me through those tough times. Creed is of course, ironically, another band that many people shit on, but fuck 'em, I liked the first three albums at least (was not a fan of their recent reunion though). They were, at one point, considered one of my favorite bands, because I really resonated with some of their lyrics (because of the singer Scott Stapp's Christian religion, there were some Christian undertones to some of their songs, but thankfully, most of the time, they were fairly ambiguous, so non-Christians could also really relate). Well, "Human Clay" was one I really had to consider for my "best album" of the year, as I more or less loved the whole album. But really putting it to thought, and trying to "feel" which album meant the most to me, I decided to go with Live's "The Distance to Here" instead. In some sense, both albums held equal sway with me back then, but Distance was just so.....inspiring. Not every song is amazing, but the album as a whole is, and there ARE amazing songs on it, such as "The Dolphins Cry", "They Stood Up For Love" and "Dance With You". So it's my pick for album of
99. I also. however, decided to give it to Creed for my song of the year, with "Higher". It just really spoke to who I was and how I felt about the world back in my late teens (still do to some extent). To some I'm sure they felt the song was talking about the afterlife concept of "Heaven", but to me, it spoke more about dreaming of a better world, here on Earth.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Best of the Best: 1998

Such a great movie, such a legendary actor.

Year: 1998
Movie: Patch Adams
Game: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Album: Nightfall in Middle Earth by Blind Guardian
Song: Dust in the Wind by Kansas

The first half of 1998 was rough. A horribly shitty time for me, in fact, as issues with my mother and school and everything else all just kind of came to a head, and I was absolutely miserable, to put it mildly. By the summer, however, things took a turn and started to brighten somewhat, as I got to live with someone else, got my first ever official summer job, and headed into my junior year in high school (back in home study by choice) in the fall, with at least for the time being, things seemingly looking up. The summer of '98 especially had many good times, dicking around with friends, etc.

Many great movies, again, came out in 1998. Some of my favorites were The Wedding Singer, Dark City, My Giant, Almost Heroes (Chris Farley's last film), The X-Files movie, Lethal Weapon 4 (my first exposure to the great Jet Li), There's Something About Mary, Ever After, The Avengers (I had never seen the old show, but I loved the movie), Wrongfully Accused (great Leslie Nielsen film), Rush Hour, Pleasantville, and The Waterboy. But the three that stood above and beyond for me, were also films that touched me or spoke to me in some deep way. The first was The Truman Show, which was technically still kind of a comedy, but it was also the first real taste of Jim Carrey's considerable dramatic acting ability. And it spoke to me on the level that, it was honestly a satire on our very society, the way we go about our daily lives, and to my 16 year old mind at the time, it totally made me think "My god, what if I actually live in a little plastic universe too?" Plus it was just damn entertaining. The other two are both Robin Williams films, diving right into his late 90s "touching but serious films" phase. One was What Dreams May Come, which is equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring. Even though by this time in my life I was no longer the Christian I had been raised to be, the movie was very ambiguous and even universal in it's approach to the afterlife and all of that, and it was just a really deep, beautiful film.

But the movie that was the cream of the crop, for me, was Patch Adams, not only because it was a great movie somewhat inspired by a very awesome real life person. But also because, for me, the story and the things it had to say, about people, about life, and about what COULD be, instead of merely what is, really really touched me deeply and spoke to me. I simply cannot do justice with words to how much this movie impressed me. It was flawless, and it's concepts were enormous to my mind, and really got gears turning in my own head, with massive inspiration and ideas. It, of course, has the one major flaw, THAT scene, which some writer came up with, which never actually happened at all in Hunter Adams' life, and was absolutely unnecessary to give the movie a manufactured sense of drama. It already HAD it's own drama and tension, it didn't need that crap. And that kind of thing might bring a lesser movie down...but the rest of the film was SO strong that it thankfully survived that shit (and I really, truly hate that scene, in one of my otherwise favorite movies of all time). It is just a great movie, and in some very powerful ways, it quite literally changed my life, and had a big hand in my own personal evolution.

Da da da DAAAAAA!!

The game of the year, for me, and for many people, was of course Ocarina of Time on N64. There were many other good games in '98, not the least of which was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on the original Playstation. That game was one of the last great fully 2D games that came along, for years, before the indie scene really popped up within the last decade. And it was just a fantastic action game with a nice rpg-lite type system in place. It heavily "borrowed" elements from the Super Nintendo classic Super Metroid, putting it mildly, but it put those elements to great use, and gave birth to what many gamers now refer to as the "Metroidvania" style of game. But, Zelda was where it was really at.

1998 was also the first year I could afford to buy my own brand new game console and games by myself, and the N64 was the first system I ever bought myself, that summer. And Ocarina quickly became the highlight of my collection when it released. The game has not exactly aged super well, even though it's still great, but at the TIME, let me tell you, it was mind blowing. As much as Mario 64 had been mind blowing in 1996, "Zelda 64" was far more-so in 1998. It had (almost) everything you could want, it was very cinematic, it had a great soundtrack, it was one of the first  games to REALLY do 3D gaming right, because it controlled and played very well (for the most part). There was an epic story going on, and the game was just fun to play. I think the only major complaint I had about it, even at the time when I first got it, was that when they were developing it, they had done a lot of vague talking up, insinuating that the game world was going to be massive, and that you were going to be able to go exploring like in the old Zelda games, and there would be all these villages you could encounter, etc. etc.....and then what it actually was, was a "hub" (Hyrule Field), in which you could go to different levels, basically like Mario 64. But in spite of that limitation, I still poured a ton of hours into this game, and enjoyed it very much (except for that goddamn Water Temple).

SUCH a great album. And just look at that cover art.

1998 also happened to be, thanks in large part to my first ever summer job, the year that I really started both getting more into heavy metal music, but also just getting less into radio, and more into actually buying and owning albums. There were many great bands and albums that I discovered in '98, such as Metallica's "Garage Inc." (an album of cover songs), Megadeth in general but especially their albums "Cryptic Writings" and "Countdown to Extinction", Iced Earth's albums "Burnt Offerings" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes", Testament's "Souls of Black", other classic Metallica albums like "And Justice For All" which would go on to become my favorite of all time, and Rob Zombie's "Hellbilly Deluxe". But when I think back to albums that specifically came out in '98 that I got into, one really stands out the most, and that is Blind Guardian's "Nightfall in Middle-Earth". I can't do the album justice just using words to explain it, but let me just tell you, it's epic, and it's artistic, and it's fucking awesome. The album tells a good half or more of the tales from J.R.R. Tolkien's posthumous Silmarillion, which was something of a history and creation myth of Middle-Earth. I first discovered this band, and album, as I did many bands in 98, on an old site called "MP3.com", which you could listen to many songs for free to sample them. The song that did it for me, for Blind Guardian, among others, was "Nightfall", which tells of the first ever case of murder among the Elves, and their downfall into madness as they pursued the Jewels of Light (The Silmarils) into Middle-Earth. The entire album is just fantastic, playing out something like a metal "opera" of sorts, though not operatic vocally. And I must say, as a personal aside, Brian May of Queen is my favorite guitarist of all time, because the tone and texture of his lead guitar work is SO smooth and lyrical, and the lead work of Blind Guardian's Andre Olbrich is obviously heavily inspired by May, and that is never more evident than on his amazing work on this album. As a further side note, the album was produced by the Danish producer of the great Metallica 80s albums, Flemming Rasmussen, and it shows. If you've never heard it, even if you're not really into metal music, check it out, it's worth it.

BUT, as an odd bonus, my SONG of the year for 1998, was not even from the same decade. For some insane reason, even though I had grown up hearing various classic rock, there were many classic rock bands, and songs, that I just never heard. And as crazy as it seems, among them, was another band that would (along with Metallica and Queen) go on to eventually become one of my top favorite bands of all time, and that was Kansas. And the song, specifically, that won me over, was their biggest hit, "Dust in the Wind". Now, the irony was that I was just having lunch with my uncle one day, and the radio at the restaurant started playing the song, and it caught my ear and sounded amazing, and I asked him "Who's this?", and he replied "I think it's Kansas". It was game over after that, I went to Harold's house sometime later, and while his family stepped out to go get food or whatever, I looked up Kansas, and that song, on his computer. I'm pretty sure I found it on MP3.com or wherever, and started listening to it. And I listened to it on repeat for like, seriously, half an hour. It was that good, and it just hit me like a tidal wave.....it's simplicity, it's enormity, it's beauty and profound message. Plus that fuckin' sweet Robby Steinhardt violin solo. Sufficed to say, it instantly became one of my favorite songs that I had ever heard, and would eventually settle as my TOP favorite song ever made, of all time. That's right, my favorite band ever is Metallica, but my favorite SONG ever is by Kansas.