"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo

Send all adoration/vitriol to marc@shadowbloom.com

BEST OF 2003 AWARDS

Best in Music 2003: Album of the Year
Best in Gaming 2003: Portable Game of the Year
Portable Game of Year Honorable Mentions
Best in Gaming 2003: Console Game of the Year (First Half)
Best in Gaming 2003: Console Game of the Year (Second Half)
Console Game of the Year Honorable Mentions
Best in Television 2003: Show of the Year
Best in Film 2003: Movies of the Year

Without any further ado, I present my Best of 2003 series. An excuse for me to highlight the best in music, movies, video games, and anything else that strikes me from the past year. There won't be too much rhyme or reason to this. I'll list the award winners in a few categories with my comments and I'll also give some Honorable Mentions. To kick things off, the Best in Music.

BEST IN MUSIC 2003 - ALBUM OF THE YEAR

TIE:

Matthew Good - Avalanche

Tricky - Vulnerable

There were a number of great albums that came out this year, but these two stood above the rest. Incidentally, they both represent significant departures for the two artists. Matt Good, following the drawn-out and emotional breakup of the Matthew Good Band in the wake of their best album yet, The Audio of Being, in early 2002, was walking into the studio a solo artist for the first time. He recorded his most adventurous album yet, a sprawling masterpiece of strings, multiple 8-minute epics, guitar rock-outs, and his best vocal work yet. I've written about the glory that is this record before on this site and it's a crime that it hasn't made more waves. American audiences have been completely shut out from Avalanche--since Matt is proudly Canadian, there was no official US release, meaning MTV and radio stations will have nothing to do with him. Interestingly, when "Antipop", the second single from Audio of Being was released in Canada, it debuted with a video featuring Dale Earnhardt Jr. jetting around the continent with Matt. US audiences, so enamoured with Earnhardt, caught wind of this and heavily requested the video on TRL, actually getting it on the air, albeit with a warning from Carson that the album couldn't be found in US stores. Pop over to www.amazon.ca and you can find it there cheap. Worth every penny five times over. It is also worth noting that besides being a musician, Matt is a tireless, outspoken advocate for human rights and Amnesty International, having supported fan fundraising efforts that have brought in thousands for AI. His blog on his official site is fascinating, passionate, and intellectual. A highly recommended read. Finally, perhaps the best news is that Matt has already finished most of his next album which will be released in the late Spring. Apparently, having gotten lavish instrumentation out of his system, the new album has been recorded almost entirely live as a four-piece and will feature a much rawer sound. Easily my most anticipated album of the year and it very well could be back in the Best of 2004. "Fake lightning flashes over the skyline / Deer in your headlights / So gun it, gun it, gun it, gun it, gun it / We're singing songs about 21st century living / If hate's in your heart, man / You'll take what you're given."

Tricky has made a career out of being a chameleon, constantly changing styles, confounding his fans and critics alike. After pioneering the Trip Hop scene with the groundbreaking Maxinquaye in 1995, Tricky refused to allow listeners to pin down his style. Pre-Millenium Tension and Nearly God followed up Maxinquaye with a much more abstract, withdrawn approach. Tricky always seemed to be experimenting with rap/hip hop/pop form, playing with conventions. A restlessness seemed evident in all his albums, a creeping doom that infiltrated his ravaged, pot-stained voice. Just listen to Tricky soulfully growl "We have to die because of lies / Wanna take my clothes off / Tear my mouth and nose off / And take out my eyes / Take out my eyes" on his fourth album Angels With Dirty Faces. 2001's Blowback was supposed to be his first major departure, featuring a cavalcade of guest stars like Alanis Morissette, Ed Kowalczyk, Hawkman, Anthony Kiedis, and Cyndi Lauper, among others. While it was his most pop-friendly album to date, the overwhelming mix of guests and changing vocal styles gave the album a disjointed feel and it resulted more in a couple of great songs (including "Girls" and "You Don't Wanna") surrounded by more than a few mediocre ones. Tricky was trying to reach beyond his death-ridden negativity, but hadn't found his new voice yet.

Luckily, with 2003's Vulnerable, Tricky has blasted back onto the musical scene with his finest album since his debut (I would even argue it betters his debut in many ways). His most open and accessible album yet, it resulted partly from Tricky's move to LA, allowing him to bask in the sun rather than the dismal rain of Bristol. He also found a new muse to channel his music through. While his most famous chanteuse is Martina Topley Bird, who has been around since Maxinquaye, Vulnerable features his first album with Italian singer Costanza Francavilla. When I first got the album in July 2003, I flipped through the liner notes as I was putting the CD in and noticed that the entire album was basically just her and Tricky. Unfamiliar with her voice, I knew there was a chance for this to be an amazing album (I was tired of the musical chairs of guest musicians), but it all depended on her presence. Within the first 15 seconds of "Stay," the album's opener, she won me over. I could not stop listening to the CD. Rarely does an album capture me so quickly that I listen to it straight through the first time only to want to listen to it again immediately afterward. It was omnipresent in my car and computer for over a month and I still haven't tired of it. I strongly believe that "Antimatter," the first single from the album, was the best single of the year and, if there were any justice, would have been playing on radios and on MTV nonstop. Infectious to the point where I was singing along the very first time I ever heard it, it perfectly combines the new pop sensibility that Tricky's showcasing on Vulnerable with the hip hop beats he's been playing with for years. Utter genius.

One of Tricky's problems with his earlier albums is that many songs tend to have little musical variation. A beat will start with the song and carry on throughout with no changes. On Pre-Millennium Tension, for example, "Lyrics of Fury" and "Sex Drive" are tremendous songs that go on for about a minute too long each with nothing but repeating instrumentation. On Vulnerable, Tricky elminates this problem with more straightforward song compositions (meaning verses and choruses). The simplicity of this approach gives the songs a naked, stripped down feel (hence the album title), unobscured by technological wizardry. Another result of this approach is it allows the inherent sexiness of Tricky's music to shine. Take "What Is Wrong," which features Costanza's beautiful voice glowing on top a basic drum beat, a driving bass line, and a few keyboards. Her whispering "You and me heavenly / Forever / What does it mean" is one of the most sultry moments in music from the past year. This isn't to say that the darkness in Tricky's music is completely gone now. Fear of God's abandonment arises in "Wait For God," featuring the fantastic chorus, "I wait for God and it's very hard / I am the lamb I don't understand / I drink your blood and I'm still thirsty / I wait for God and it's very hard." For another showcase of Costanza's skills, check out her frantic Italian rap in "Where I'm From." It's an album filled with highlights.

These were the two albums of the year that I knew were special the first times I listened to them. I give them my highest recommendation. In many ways for me, Matthew Good has filled in a musical void from the breakup of the Smashing Pumpkins (my all time favorite band ever hands down) a few years ago. Billy Corgan's still around and recording, but it's not the same as the halcyon days of Mellon Collie and Siamese Dream. My quickly developed obsession with Matt comes closest in passion only to the Pumpkins. With Tricky, I've been a fan of his for years, but have never found an album of his that completely captivated me. I do love Maxinquaye, but it never kicked me in the face as much as Vulnerable has. It's possible that Tricky was my most-listened-to artist of the second half of 2003 only because Vulnerable caused me to break out and reevaluate his whole collection. Both Matt and Tricky have reached new musical heights and I eagerly await what will come next. We'll find out very soon from Matt, though I'm not sure when we'll see more from Tricky. He sadly just cancelled his US tour, a huge disappointment for me because he's one of the few artists left I am absolutely dying to see in concert (and oh I will be making a trip up to Canada some day for a Matt Good show, count on it). Given his track record, it seems likely that Tricky's followup will be yet another departure. I can only hope that he will take the lessons he's learned from Vulnerable and expand upon them rather than abandoning them. That remains to be seen...

BEST IN GAMING 2003 - PORTABLE GAME OF THE YEAR

Mario & Luigi - Superstar Saga (Game Boy Advance)

Before I delve into what makes this game so great, a quick tribute to the best video game villain of 2003: the evil Fawful! As the right-hand man of the main villain, you get to face off against Fawful a number of times. The best is, naturally, your final showdown with him at the end of the game. As Mario & Luigi is a heavily tongue-in-cheek game, Fawful gets the privilege to spout off many non-sensical, Monty Python-esque taunts. Try on this one (taken from the end battle), "Your lives that I spit on are now but a caricature of a cartoon drawn by a kid who is stupid!" I fucking lost it when I read this. Put this along with his battle cry, "I HAVE FURY!" and you've got a Villain Hall of Famer. Here's what I really want: you know those Successories posters, right? I want one with a big picture of Fawful on it looking all evil with that taunt written underneath with the header "I HAVE FURY!" That would make me very happy--how can I make this happen? (getting an urge to open Photoshop...) For the record, this is the second of my Video Game Successories ideas. Both are genius. The other one was inspired by 2001's PS2 game Frequency, easily one of the top five best games of the past five years. After weeks of sitting on my friend Chad's bed in his dark college room staring at his TV playing Frequency, I wanted this poster: a picture taken from behind of Chad and I leaning forward staring intently at the TV with the header Frequency and the quote "It doesn't matter if you make the 20's if you can't make the 8's" (credit to Chad for the quote). Diehard Freqs out there should know what I'm talking about. Again, who wants to make this happen for me?

Anyway, I sense I've strayed from the point... Since the GBA was released a few years ago, we still haven't gotten an original Mario game for the system. By this point, we've gotten ports of all three NES Mario games as well as Super Mario World from the SNES, but nothing the GBA can call its own. While Mario & Luigi isn't a platformer, it's as close as we can get for now. An action-RPG with its roots in classics Super Mario RPG and Paper Mario, M&L doesn't take itself too seriously and emerges as one of the best games available for the system. An isometric point of view has Mario and his reluctant hero brother journeying around the Beanbean Kingdom trying to hunt down the evil Cackletta. Its RPG roots show in the leveling up, item and equipment management, and the many battles. Luckily, the game doesn't fall back on the tired and frustrating RPG habit of random encounters. Here, you can always see the enemies on the screen and can avoid them if you want to. No need to worry about constantly battling wimpy foes for paltry experience points after you've progressed far enough in the game. The RPG elements are nicely implemented and never bog down the game. Clothing and item management is never overbearing and never takes your focus off the fun at hand. The key to the game's success, though, is the brilliant battle engine. Rather than using a tried-and-true early Final Fantasy/Dragon Warrior style battle system, M&L shakes it up by adding action elements to the mix. Players must time button presses for stronger attacks and defensive moves, ensuring that you're involved in the battles at all times. It works perfectly and makes the battles much more fun, thereby making you want to fight everyone around, making tedious experience point gathering unnecessary since you always keep leveling up. Developer AlphaDream and Nintendo should be commended for such meticulous and effective game balancing.

It also weighs in at a decent length too, taking roughly thirty hours to complete. The GBA has been a little lacking in quality software (that isn't a port of an already released game), so games like this are a breath of fresh air, especially with its quirky sensibility and offbeat humor (watch for numerous references to other classic Nintendo games). Now, I just want a sequel released for the GameCube--I can't even imagine how great that would be. If you own a GBA and haven't given this a try, you're missing out on one of the best game experiences of the year.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Final Fantasy Tactics Advance (GBA)

A purely battle-based RPG, FFTA is a reimagining of the original Final Fantasy Tactics on Playstation 1. By keeping the focus solely on the well-designed battle system, SquareEnix gives the game extraordinary depth with hundreds of missions (meaning battles) and a staggering amount of customization for your party (which can hold over 20 people, though only a maximum of six fight at a time). The battles are fought on a 3-D field where combatants are free to move around, opening up a degree of strategy unheard of in the other Final Fantasy games. I never played the original, but got sucked in quickly to the battle system, always needing to play one more match. Within two weekends, I had racked up over 20 hours of playing time and I'd barely scratched the surface. By the time I eventually finish the game (which won't be any time soon), it'll have taken me probably 80-90 hours or more. Not for all tastes, to be sure, but what it does it does very, very well.

Wario Ware, Inc: Mega Microgame$ (GBA)

Easily the most creative game of 2003, Wario Ware appeals to the ADD-addled gamer in all of us. It features a slew of mini-games (over 200), all of which take five seconds to play. Literally. Definitely one of those games that needs to be played to be understood, its brilliance lies in its accessibility. Anyone can pick it up and, within minutes, they'll be hooked. The games are thrown at you at breathtaking speed, giving you little time to rest before you're off on the next one. "Boss battles," slightly extended minigames, are interspersed as well. Furthermore, all the games are placed into different categories, from sports to "strange" to even a group based on old Nintendo games (including snippets of classics like the original Legend of Zelda, F-Zero, and Donkey Kong). Its incredibly quirky (some may say incredibly bizarre) sense of humor is quintessentially Japanese and adds immeasurably to the appeal of the game. Its only drawback is that you inevitably want more, more, MORE! An upcoming GameCube version may help that desire, but for now, kick back and enter Wario's weird and wonderful world.

Super Mario Bros. 3: Super Mario Advance 4 (GBA)

The most confusingly titled game of the year (would it have killed Nintendo to make Super Mario Bros. 3 be their third Advance game so this wouldn't look so disjointed?) is also one of the best. A port of Super Mario Bros. 3 from the NES (technically, it's more a port of the SNES All-Stars version of SMB3 with its updated graphics and sounds), it gets on this list simply because it's finally a portable release of the single best Mario game ever. Yes, Mario 64 is second on the list, but for pure platforming pleasure and ingenuity, it begins and ends with SMB3. Desert, air, water, ice, supersized, et cetera, levels keep the gameplay fresh throughout. It really doesn't get much better than this. Nintendo also added in some cool sounding E-Reader options like new levels. I'm DYING to play new SMB3 levels, but haven't been able to use that as justification for plunking down $40 for an otherwise useless peripheral, so I can't judge those. Sure, I've played it a dozen times before and many of you probably have as well, but hey, now you can take it with you. Good enough for me. A classic is a classic and should never be left off a list like this.

BEST IN GAMING 2003 - CONSOLE GAME OF THE YEAR (FIRST HALF)

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube)

In the summer of 2001, Nintendo unveiled a teaser trailer for the new Zelda game and unwittingly sparked a firestorm of fan ranting and controversy. The problem stemmed from footage Nintendo showed a year earlier of a Zelda tech demo. It featured an adult, wonderfully-rendered Link battling an intimidating Ganondorf. Long-time Zelda fans began salivating immediately. However, Nintendo pulled a 180 with the new trailer, stunning everyone with a new, young, cartoony, cel-shaded Link. Gone was the seemingly more adult approach in favor of what looked like a kid's title. Needless to say, the message boards were inundated with confused, vitriol-filled messages spewing anger at Nintendo's change of heart. Shigeru Miyamoto, Zelda's creator and Gaming God, emphasized that this new approach would allow the developers to make a more fun, imaginative game. He envisioned it as a cartoon come to life. Many, many people had their doubts, but waited to see what Nintendo could do. After a fantastic showing at E3 in 2002 (how could Nintendo lose when they're showing Zelda, Mario, and Metroid all at the same time--their amazing showing that year was only countered by their horrible offering last year (Pac-Man anyone? I didn't think so)), many of the doubters were won over, but now the wait began. Arriving in March 2003, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker not only took the title as one of the top two games of the year, but also stands as one of the best games of all time.

I've been a fan of the Zelda games since way back in the good ole NES days (I still remember calling Nintendo's hint line to get help with one of the damn dungeon puzzles in the original Zelda--anyone else think about how much the hint line and book industry was completely and utterly destroyed by the advent of the internet? I have a box of old hint books and they completely stop dead in the mid-90's once AOL and Prodigy were household names). However, I couldn't get myself into the N64 Zelda games. I think I started playing Ocarina of Time at least three or four separate times without ever finishing it. For some reason, it wasn't as involving to me as Mario 64 and its ilk were (for the record, I did finally finish Ocarina shortly before starting Wind Waker--thanks to the awesome bonus disk Nintendo was offering for pre-orders). From the first moments of Wind Waker, though, I was hooked and drawn completely into this new world. The cel-shaded animation is drop-dead gorgeous. Screenshots are one thing, but to see the true beauty of this game you need to see it in action. Miyamoto hasn't created a static world of pre-rendered backgrounds and repetitive surroundings; the environment around Link is alive and exciting. Watch Link's myriad facial expressions or the smooth-as-silk animation and be awakened to the potential of today's games. The storyline is a welcome departure from the standard Zelda mold while not completely eschewing its past. Some say the sea exploration gets tedious, but there's so much to discover that it never hurts the experience. Plus, it has the best end battle of the year: a two-on-one showdown with Link and Zelda versus Ganon. Gaming doesn't get more satisying than your final victory in that matchup. Anyone still upset by the visual style is being close-minded--Link's got plenty of time to grow up. For now, with another Cel-da sequel reportedly on the way, I couldn't be happier.

BEST IN GAMING 2003 - CONSOLE GAME OF THE YEAR (SECOND HALF)

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (GameCube/PS2/Xbox)

To clarify, the reason I've split this award up into the halves of the year is simply because I wanted a way to award both of these amazing games. The end of the year is usually the ideal launch time for flagship titles (Prince of Persia in 2003, Metroid Prime in 2002, et cetera), but there are always one or two games that just miss this window and end up being the first big titles of the next year. Wind Waker just missed release in 2002 in the US and ended up being a major launch last March. This year, for example, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes for GameCube is the A-list title that just missed the holidays and will be released in early March (in fact, I'd take odds that MGS will be popping up on this list next year).

So, why does Prince of Persia deserve to be on this list? Picture this: you're standing in front of a gaping pit of spikes. Across the pit is safety, tantalizingly out of reach. You know you can't leap across--you just tried it and after your quick death skewered on the spikes, you had to rewind time and try another approach. Suddenly, you have an idea. You run towards the wall and start sprinting across it, your feet gliding you over the spikes. You can't do this forever, though, and you start to slip towards a painful death. You look across the pit and see, on the other wall, a small ledge. With your last step before falling, you push off the wall, leaping across the pit and grab onto the ledge on the other side. You pull yourself up, hug the wall, and start walking carefully across the remainder of the pit. Out of nowhere, a metal gear pops out of the wall and starts moving towards you, grinding and slicing everything in its path. With only a split second to spare, you drop off the ledge and grab onto it, your feet dangling inches from the spikes. You climb across the ledge and, finally having cleared the pit, drop safely to the ground. As you move towards the door, two monsters materialize and attack. You stab at one and kick off of it, actually leaping up in the air, over the monster, bringing your sword down with a satisfying crunch on the back of its head before it knew what was happening. As the other monster prepares to attack, you take out the Dagger of Time and stab it, freezing the beast in place. As his body begins to drop to the ground in slow motion, you take out your sword, do a front flip for a flourish, and slice the monster in half. The monsters destroyed, you put away your sword and dagger and progress on into the next room. You're unstoppable, you defy time and gravity, you are the Prince of Persia.

Now, picture jaw-dropping animation and beautiful graphics conveying that scene. Add in spot-on controls that become second nature almost immediately. Toss in a compelling storyline and the best ending of the year (for the record, here's how it breaks down: Mario and Luigi has the best villain (the evil henchman Fawful), Zelda has the best end battle, and Prince has the best ending--are you with me?) Mix it all up and you have a more-than-worthy recipient of a Game of the Year award. Simply put, everyone must experience this game. It revolutionizes 3D gameplay at nearly a Mario 64 level. I look forward to many, many sequels to come. Brilliant.

A non-sequitor, but I've got another one of my fucking great ideas. You know those commercials Nike used to air for the Prestos with those street runners who leaped around a Parisian cityscape with reckless abandon (one ad featured a man going up and down a building by leaping from balcony to balcony). They were awesome commercials (hell, I have a pair of Prestos--literally the only pair of Nike shoes I've bought in over 10 years) and I wish they were still airing. The point is, how can we get these guys involved with Prince of Persia? I'm thinking a full ad campaign with these guys running around more Middle Eastern settings--or maybe something like "Signs You've Been Playing Too Much Prince of Persia" with them leaping around town. Hell, if there were ever a Prince of Persia movie, I'd audition these guys first. This idea makes too much sense to just ignore. C'mon video game marketers!

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Amplitude (PS2)

Sequel to the amazing Frequency, possibly the most overlooked game of the past couple years, it gets a mention on this list just because it keeps the Frequency formula going strong. The rhythm-action genre has a small niche in the gaming market, but Frequency and Amplitude set the standard. Infectious music, hyper-addictive button-tapping gameplay, great multiplayer (special bonus for both being online), graphics straight out of your last rave, these games hit on all cylinders. Accessible to all types of gamers, it can take over your life. I literally remember almost nothing of January and February 2002 simply because I was playing Frequency in a friend's room every night for hours. Sounds a little sad, but god it was an unbelievable amount of fun. The two games have a small, but fervent fan base and deserve all the attention they can get. Frequency was easily the best game of 2001 (technically, since it came out in December) and this sequel only expands the greatness.

Manhunt (PS2)

It would have been the most controversial game of the year had it been marketed or hyped at all. Wisely, Rockstar stayed off TV and released Manhunt under the radar. Why so much secrecy? Can you imagine Joe Lieberman and other "moral crusaders" reacting to a game where the player, in brutal detail, decapitates enemies with piano wire, jams crowbars through their necks, and stabs them in the eyes with pieces of glass (and that's just the beginning). It wouldn't be pretty. Rockstar should be commended for fearlessly developing a game unabashedly for adults only. Imagine if 8mm were mixed with Splinter Cell. The story is simple: you take the role of James Earl Cash, a convicted felon sentenced to death. After supposedly being executed, he wakes up to find himself in a burnt out, decayed city. Next to him is a small headset. Putting it on, he hears the Director, who tells him the only way he can survive the night is to hunt down and massacre the gangs surrounding him before they find and kill him. The Director will be watching for his own perverse pleasure on the myriad cameras placed around the city. So begins the cat-and-mouse stealth snuff film that is Manhunt. The gameplay is simple, but is held together by a powerful engine. The suspense is palpable as you sneak behind the gangmembers, preparing to execute them. Few games reach the emotional intensity of this one. The executions are dramatic, but do not feel exploitative (e.g. the infamous Night Trap). It's another niche game, but those who can stomach it are in for a wild ride.

Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando (PS2)

I missed the first R&C, but was very glad I took a chance on this one. An action-platformer with all the frills, R&C2 will appeal to all those people who loved Mario 64, but just wished he had picked up a massive gun by the end. Jumping puzzles and a slew of enemies will be familar to platform gamers, but the key to the game is the huge assortment of gadgets and weapons. Gadgets include the Thermanator (which can freeze or liquidize water), the Swingshot (handy for crossing open gaps), and the Tractor Beam (for pulling down bridges and moving obstacles). Weapons range from basic shotgun and sniper rifle variants to the crowd-pleasing Gravity Bomb and the crowd-clearing Bouncer. The gameplay is relatively linear, but there are plenty of secrets to find and a variety of minigames liven up the experience. A respectable length (probably about 20-25 hours) helps make this an easy recommendation for a fun, explosive time.

CLOSE BEHIND...

SSX 3 (PS2, GCN, Xbox), F-Zero GX (GCN), Viewtiful Joe (GCN), Ikaruga (GCN), Def Jam Vendetta (PS2, GCN)

NOTABLE, BUT DIDN'T HAVE TIME TO PLAY YET...

Beyond Good and Evil (GCN, PS2, Xbox), Tony Hawk's Underground (PS2, GCN, Xbox), Final Fantasy X-2 (PS2), True Crime: Streets of LA (GCN, PS2, Xbox), Soul Calibur II (GCN, PS2, Xbox), Jak II (PS2), Skies of Arcadia Legends (GCN)

BEST IN TELEVISION 2003 - SHOW OF THE YEAR

TIE:

Celebrity Mole: Hawaii (ABC)

The Practice (ABC)

Prevailing public opinion may persuade you to see The Mole as a just a second-rate knockoff of the Survivor formula, but give it some time and it emerges as possibly the best of its kind. The basic Mole premise is take a group of people and have them each compete in games and challenges to put money into a pot. However, one contestant has been planted by the show and actively works to sabotage each event to keep money out of the pot. At the end of each episode, each contestant has to complete a test focusing on the identity of the mole. The person who scores the worst on the test (meaning they ostensibly know the least about the mole), is "executed." When it reaches the final three contestants, there is one last test and the winner, the mole, and the mole's final victim are revealed. Winner takes the pot. Now toss various B-list celebrities into the mix and you've got Celebrity Mole, nothing but pure TV goodness!

Now, for Celebrity Mole's first season, try out this award-winning group of contestants: Stephen Baldwin, Corbin Bernsen, Michael Boatman, Kim Coles, Frederique, Kathy Griffin, and Erik von Detten. This show is awesome and I won't hear any discussion otherwise. It never gets old seeing celebs doing ridiculous stunts (one early challenge involves chasing down sheep in a pen) and then getting into fights with each other over it. I would pay good money to see a documentary on the Mole careers of Corbin Bernsen and Stephen Baldwin, who had this strange love/hate, over-enthusiastic relationship with the show that culminated in both being eliminated surprisingly early, much to their extreme chagrin. They then both returned for Celebrity Mole: Yucatan this year and didn't fare any better. Seriously great television. A large part of the show's brilliance is that it NEVER becomes obvious. I've only watched the two Celebrity Moles, but both times, when it was down to the final three, my girlfriend and I said, "Okay, the Mole is probably X, it could be Y, but it's definitely NOT Z." Guess who ended up being the mole both times? (if you guessed Z, congratulations for paying attention). She said the exact same thing happened when she watched the second installment of the original, non-celeb Mole (neither of us has seen the first installment). The finale, when many reality shows start treading water, is also excellent as they go back over each stunt showing how the Mole enacted their sabotage. With only seven contestants, the show is over before you know it, meaning you really have no reason not to watch. No need for the commitment necessary for 24--it's just a few weeks of great TV. Game Show Network (oh wait, I mean GSN) has acquired the rights to these shows and will start playing back Celebrity Mole: Hawaii on March 16. Do yourself a favor and indulge in the greatness.

For a complete change of mood, there's The Practice, which gets this honor for having the audacity to fire half the cast, including the leads, hire James Spader, and have it turn into one of the best shows of the year. Now, I watched the Practice its first couple of seasons while in high school and loved it, but it slipped off my radar in college. Over the past few years, though, the plots have only been getting more and more convoluted and impractical. Practice has never been a show that stayed TOO much in the realm of reality, but a Hannibal Lector plotline, homicidal lawyers, and continually incestuous relationships within the firm meant that this one jumped the shark a while ago. Who would have guessed that just wiping the slate clean and starting over would return the show to its former glory? The key was the hiring of James Spader as Alan Shore, a charmingly duplicitous and slimy lawyer. Unafraid to skirt the grey line of ethics at times and brazenly ignore it at others, Shore radiates charisma and becomes the sun with everyone else just orbiting him. James Spader continues batting .400 in his quest for the Sleazy Character Hall of Fame (at this rate, he'll beat Michael Douglas' record) and seems to relish his role.

As good as this season has been, though, it has just been announced that it will still be The Practice's last. It's a shame that ABC and David E. Kelley are pulling the plug right after the show got its mojo back, but Kelley apparently is interested in creating a spinoff that would focus on Alan Shore and civil rather than criminal law. While it's sad to see The Practice go, it's overdue and at least Kelley is sending it off with a high note. And we should still have more of Spader's brilliance coming to us every week next season, so I really can't complain. Spader's deserved his own series for years now and thankfully he'll be in one that lets him cut loose with his depraved side.

BEST IN FILM 2003 - MOVIES OF THE YEAR

I'm way too indecisive to possibly pick my single favorite movie of the year, so instead I'm giving my Top Ten, in no particular order.

Elephant
Written and Directed by Gus Van Sant

A haunting look at school violence, Van Sant bucks the mainstream once again and portrays a problem while offering no answers. His camera quietly crawls around the hallways of an Anytown, USA, high school, capturing snippets of conversations and hints of action. The nondramatic approach works well in creating a sense of creeping dread--the controversial violence in the final third of the film seems just beneath the surface at all times, ready to ignite at any given moment. The film's power results from Van Sant's refusal to romanticize the violence, stripping it of the sexiness of a Hollywood blockbuster in favor of only cold, abrupt death. Van Sant also refuses to offer a compact explanation for the killers' motives, knowing that it would be audacious and horribly arrogant to presume that he could distill it into 80 short minutes, if such an "explanation" even exists. The film ends as abruptly as it begins--we are not privy to grandiose openings or Hollywood endings, only a pure, raw look at a day unlike any other for one suburban school.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
Screenplay by Frances Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson
Directed by Peter Jackson

Much has already been written about LotR--I thought it was a tremendous cinematic accomplishment that ended the saga on a brilliant note. Worthy of all those Oscars. Non sequitor: is it just me or are films like this helping to serve as a sort of cultural correction for our collective societal ADD? This and J.K. Rowling's books are the biggest examples. I mean, here's a 210 minute film that was the highest-grossing of the year with many people seeing it multiple times. At the same time, you've got J.K. Rowling releasing 800 page Harry Potter tomes that people of all ages are foaming at the mouth over. We may be sitting back and relaxing as our attention spans dwindle closer to nothingness every year, but things like this show it ain't going without a fight. Want more? How about when King gets its Extended Version put on DVD at year's end and it runs around four and a half hours long. With multiple commentaries included. It's almost enough to make you just turn MTV back on, isn't it?

School of Rock
Written by Mike White
Directed by Richard Linklater

It's a cliched saying, but I would absolutely pay money to see Jack Black Reads the Phone Book. As a devout fan of Black and his band Tenacious D (The Greatest Band on Earth™) for years, I couldn't wait to see a film starring him from a script by Mike White (Chuck and Buck, The Good Girl) and directed by Richard Linklater (Waking Life (one of the best animated films of all time), Dazed and Confused). The result is a family film that's more for the parents than the kids. Black's manic energy is still here, though without his trademark expletive-laden explosions (no one swears like Jack Black; it's like poetry--just listen to "Inward Singing" on the D's album to see what I mean). The film speaks to kids without condescending to them and has a surprising amount of heart. A departure for everyone involved, but a very successful one.

Kill Bill: Volume One
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

If there's one thing you can say about Tarantino, he certainly knows film. Tarantino creates a dazzling take on the traditional Japanese samurai film by paying homage to the past while mixing in his own cinematic eccentricities and endless imagination. The amount of violence is staggering, but it displays such stylistic, cartoonish flare that you're too mesmerized to be disturbed. Uma Thurman kicks ass in a MAJOR way and keeps a impish smirk on her face the whole time. My only problem with the film is that we, of course, have only seen half of it so far. I wish that Tarantino were able to convince Miramax to release it in one part because it likely would have been a brilliant three hours. Volume One cruises along and is only just hitting its stride when it ends. I will riot if they don't release a DVD version by the end of the year with the original version intact.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Based on the novels by Patrick O'Brian
Screenplay by Peter Weir and John Collee
Directed by Peter Weir

This was one of my biggest surprises of 2003 because the trailer just made the movie look SO boring. After all the critical acclaim it received, I decided to see it and was amazed. A stunning epic that wisely focuses on the relationships between the men rather than bloodshed, Master has not a single weak link. The performances (led by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany) are superb, the Oscar-winning cinematography is gorgeous, and the pacing never slows for a second over its two-hour-plus running time. Its enticingly open-ended conclusion only made me want to keep watching for another two hours. Apparently, Weir and Crowe have seen franchise potential in the series (O'Brian wrote 20 books with Crowe and Bettany's characters), but the difficulty and expense of such ambitious films (shot in the same water tank as Titanic) may keep this from becoming a reality (especially since the first film was only a moderate box office success).

Shattered Glass
Based on the article by Buzz Bissinger
Screenplay by Billy Ray
Directed by Billy Ray

He's young, ambitious, and successful. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was the Executive Editor of the Daily Pennsylvanian, he moves on to a presigious position writing for The New Republic. He's loved by his peers and his articles gain national acclaim. And, within just a few years, he is unceremoniously fired for fabricating dozens of articles, his reputation forever ruined. Glass traces the fascinating story of Stephen Glass with a keen eye for the details of writing for a large magazine and the inter-office politics within. Hayden Christensen, looking to distance himself from the Star Wars albatross looming over him, transforms himself and is excellent as the self-depricating, attention-starved Glass. Peter Sarsgaard is equally effective as Editor Chuck Lane, who has the unenviable task of trying to hold his team together while sifting through the bullshit Glass throws at him. A taut journalistic "thriller" that didn't quite receive as much attention as it should have, it was just released on DVD and will hopefully find a welcoming audience there.

Finding Nemo
Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson, and David Reynolds
Directed by Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich

No one produces as many consistently great films as Pixar and last year's effort is one of their best. They're absolutely unstoppable and, let me get this straight, Disney failed in negotiations to keep them under their wing? Why were there even negotiations at all? Let's see: Pixar is one of the most well-respected studios in Hollywood and has been pumping out an unprecedented number of major critical and financial successes, including Nemo, which was the second-highest grossing film of 2003 with $859.9 million in worldwide box office along with millions more in DVD sales. Then there's Disney, a company fighting off a hostile takeover with internal dissention and a board ready to stage a coup against Michael Eisner. Pixar is offering them loads of free money and good publicity by association and they're fighting this? Pixar should have walked in, said "This is what we want," and Disney should have kissed their feet and thanked them, end of story. Anyway, I sense I've strayed. Nemo is endlessly inventive, funny, technically-groundbreaking, and a perfect family film. If other studios aren't taking notes on Pixar's success by now, they're only falling further behind.

Thirteen
Written by Catherine Hardwicke and Nikki Reed
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

Not the film to see if you're looking to start a family soon, thirteen plows its way through underage sex, drugs, petty theft, and all the other fun parts of being a young teenager. Nikki Reed and Evan Rachel Wood are picture-perfect in the lead roles, though it will be interesting to see if they can match their success here in less familiar roles in the future. Featuring raw, powerful performances from the leads as well as Holly Hunter and Jeremy Sisto, an uncompromising direction by Catherine Hardwicke, and another effective score from Mark Mothersbaugh, it's a compelling and never-dull experience. The cast and crew should be commended for not holding back or diluting the intensity of the material.

American Splendor
Based on the comic books by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner
Screenplay by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

I've said before that we're currently in the Golden Age of Comic Book Movie Adaptations thanks to leaps and bounds in special effects coupled with modern hyper-stylish editing. There's X-Men, Spider-Man, Blade, From Hell, and even less kinetic fare like Ghost World and American Splendor. A brilliant docudrama told with unabashedly proud comic book flare, Berman and Pulcini's film exudes creativity and brings to life the story of Harvey Pekar. Berman and Pulcini toy with documentary conventions, bringing in the real Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner to comment on various aspects of the film. It works perfectly and further fleshes out the eccentric characters. A biting strain of black humor pervades the film and gives it its substantial charm. Should have won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar this year. Now, I'm just waiting for the long-in-limbo film adaptation of Alan Moore's seminal Watchmen...

Horror Wild Card: 28 Days Later..., Cabin Fever, and Final Destination 2

There will be those of you who will scoff at my inclusion of these three movies, but what it comes down to is this: at all three movies, I had a fantastic time at the theatre and that has to count for something. Sure, I enjoyed Oscar-bred films such as Mystic River and Monster, but there's ALWAYS a time and place for a good splattery horror film and these three delivered in spades. 28 Days Later... is the most critically-respected of the three, a visceral thriller directed by Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting fame). Also the most serious of these three, the film's photography of an empty, ravaged London is gorgeous and a perfect evocation of apocalyptic dread. Cabin Fever is much more playful and is a kitchen sink horror film of black humor, sex, viral infestation, and buckets of gore. Kick back and enjoy. Final Destination 2 is probably the black sheep of this group, but may be my favorite. A far too underappreciated reimagining of the traditional slasher/splatter film, Final's "innovation" is that it's a slasher film without the slasher. By making the killer just an unseen "Death," a whole world of imaginative bloodletting is opened up. We watch slasher pics for the thrill of the murders and Final allows for some brilliantly complex, Rube Goldberg-ian death scenes. Since we know the cast is doomed for grisly deaths, the movie achieves its suspense by just having us guess when it's going to happen. From the jawdropping opening car wreck to the massacre in an open field (involving a head impaled on a large pole, a car exploding, and razor wire graphically slicing a victim in thirds), you can't beat the animalistic bloody thrills of Final Destination 2.