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

Send all adoration/vitriol to marc@shadowbloom.com

BEST OF 2004 AWARDS

Best in Music 2004: Album of the Year
Album of the Year Honorable Mentions
Best in Gaming 2004: Console Game of the Year
Console Game of the Year Honorable Mentions
Best in Gaming 2004: Portable Game of the Year
Portable Game of the Year Honorable Mention
Best in Television 2004: Show of the Year
Television Show of the Year Honorable Mentions
Best in Film 2004: Movies of the Year

And now, the Best of 2004 Awards! Nothing like an excuse to spread the love for my favorites in music, video games, movies, and TV (while also pointing out a few unhonorable mentions along the way). As always, comments and complaints are appreciated (marcberz@comcast.net). Enjoy!

BEST IN MUSIC 2004 - ALBUM OF THE YEAR

TIE:

Slipknot - Vol 3: (The Subliminal Verses)

The Dillinger Escape Plan - Miss Machine

A banner year for cathartic, imaginative, and exceedingly loud metal music, 2004 saw the release of new albums by two well-respected bands who set out to expand their musical approach and break from the restrictions of their previous releases. Both succeeded admirably, blending quiet, melodious moments in with the thrash to create a unique, multi-faceted sound that shames the boring repetition rock currently clogging radio stations. It's only appropriate that the two albums share the Album of the Year honor.

At face value, Slipknot's Vol 3 seems to proceed along the same path as their first two releases. Songs like the crowd-pleasing "Pulse of the Maggots" and the thrashing, bass-heavy assault of "The Blister Exists" stray little from the successful Slipknot formula. Delve a little deeper, though, and a new emphasis on songwriting is revealed. In a surprisingly ambitious move, there's not a single swear word to be found in Vol 3, Slipknot's first record missing the usual "Parental Advisory" sticker (this coming from the band who featured "People=Shit" on their last album). Some fans bemoaned this decision as a calculated business move to appeal to a broader audience, but I saw it as an attempt to move beyond these shock-rock crutches. The lyrics still wallow in melancholy and aggro-depression, but their focus is tighter now that the f-bombs aren't dropping every few seconds. They also facilitate the band's movement into quieter territory. Acoustic Slipknot? Absolutely. When I saw Slipknot in concert last April before the album's release (read about the fun journey of this concert here), shortly before they came on a haunting acoustic song was piped through the room. I remember thinking it was a great song, though I didn't know whose it was. A month later I learned it was "Circle," the first of two excellent acoustic songs on Vol 3. Besides these two departures, there's even an inspired mix of their new acoustic sound and their traditional thrash in the schizophrenic "The Nameless" ("I never wanted anybody more / than I wanted you... / The only thing I ever really loved / was hurting you...") I've always thought that Slipknot was most successful when they let lead vocalist Corey actually sing along with his usual screaming and this dynamic is used more effectively in Vol 3 than in any of their earlier albums. The rumor is that this will be Slipknot's final album and it would be a shame because I would love to see how far they could take their new approach. It this marks the end for Slipknot, though, there's certainly no better way to go than after releasing your masterpiece.

The past two years, there's been a pattern to the two Albums of the Year. One is an accomplished album from an established band taking a bold step into broader musical horizons (Slipknot this year; Matthew Good's Avalanche last year), the other is a surprise that jolts the band back into my awareness and causes me to reevaluate their entire catalog. Last year it was Tricky's Vulnerable--this year it's the Dillinger Escape Plan's Miss Machine. I first learned about DEP a few years ago during some Amazon.com stream-of-consciousness browsing. I bought their first album, Calculating Infinity, but never really fell for it. Their sound, a pounding, headache-inducing mix of thrash metal, jazz-influenced time signature switches, and quiet, melodic breakdowns--fueled by stunning technical brilliance--worked wonders on individual songs (most notably, album starters "Sugar Coated Sour" and "43% Burnt"), but as an album it became a little too repetitive and overwhelming. After a tumultuous few years that saw the departure of original lead singer Dimitri Minakakis (and the ensuing release of an excellent stopgap EP with Faith No More singer Mike Patton), they brought on Greg Puciato as their new vocalist and set out to make their long-awaited followup. The result is the masterful, musically-sprawling Miss Machine.

Simply put, there's a lot of screaming on these albums. Depending on your CD collection, this will likely be the biggest hurdle to cross in enjoying DEP. However, while Minakakis's voice never strayed from its intimidating growl, Puciato is more than capable of mixing in some actual singing. This greatly breaks up the monotony that plagued the first album. DEP also works in some standard song structures--meaning actual choruses in some songs. Some will bitch about DEP selling out by employing some traditional forms, but I think it instead allows the album to garner much more momentum. The punishing attack of openers "Panasonic Youth" and "Sunshine the Werewolf" recall old DEP, but they give way to the chorus-friendly (and (gasp!) radio-friendly) "Highway Robbery." Then it's back to the old ways with "Van Damsel" before shifting into the industrial-sounding "Phone Home" (many people relate "Phone Home" to Nine Inch Nails, but I think a much more accurate comparison is recent Marilyn Manson--you could slide this onto The Golden Age of Grotesque without missing a beat). The overall flow is greatly improved and makes the album eminently listenable from start to finish.

The best example of the endless potential of DEP's new approach is "Baby's First Coffin," reportedly the first song they wrote with Puciato. A rigidly structured song, it begins with the familiar DEP pound for one minute, gives way to a Puciato growl over a pulsating guitar riff for another minute and a half, and then downshifts into a dazzling section where Puciato breathlessly sings over quiet arpeggios and a driving drum beat ("I could promise the world if we could travel through time / Don't back out on me now / Relax and remember the promise of the sign / I wish you could see yourself now / You look at me..."). This lasts another minute before the explosive 30-second finale. Possibly the most inspired and creative song I heard last year and just a hint at the potential of DEP. They seem on the cusp of a breakthrough and are already influencing other musicians. For those of you with plenty of scream-metal in your collection, you must start listening to this album immediately. For everyone else, at least give it a chance. It overwhelms when you first hear it, but keep listening and you'll soon start appreciating the awe-inspiring guitar acrobatics, the inhuman endurance of drummer Chris Pennie, the intricate song structures, and you'll be hooked before you know it. The greatest challenges yield the greatest rewards.

Slipknot Highlights: "The Blister Exists," "Welcome," "Vermilion," "The Nameless"
Web site: www.slipknot1.com

Dillinger Escape Plan Highlights: "Panasonic Youth," "Phone Home," "Baby's First Coffin," "Unretrofied"
Web site: www.dillingerescapeplan.com
(NOTE: Go on DEP's site and, in the Discography section, you can listen to a nice collection of their songs--including "Panasonic Youth" and "Baby's First Coffin"--go get a taste).

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Matthew Good - White Light Rock & Roll Review

The follow-up to last year's co-Album of the Year, White Light doesn't reach the ambitious heights of "Avalanche," but Matt's peerless songwriting is still intact, making it yet another gem on his sparkling resume. In just the past three years, he's released three four-star rock albums (in addition to his first two solo albums, late-2001 saw the release of Matthew Good Band's wonderful final album, The Audio of Being, which paved the way for the musical extravagance Matt explored in Avalanche). Here, he purposefully takes a step back from the orchestras and grandeur to focus on straight-up four piece rock. Nearly the entire album was recorded live in the studio and the raw emotion bursts out of "Poor Man's Grey" and "North American for Life." Matt's singing is still as beautifully melodramatic as it's always been and only he finishes songs with lines like, "How can you love Jove, Drusilla, and forsake Rome?"

Highlights: "In Love With A Bad Idea," "It's Been A While Since I Was Your Man," "We're So Heavy"
Web site: www.matthewgood.net
(NOTE: Matt's CDs are only readily available in Canada, but don't even think about importing at exorbitant cost from Amazon.com. Instead, just pop over to www.amazon.ca and get his CDs for a fraction of the "import" cost).

Baby - Baby

Thanks to a falsetto-friendly, vibrato-soaked singing voice, any project Craig Wedren touches instantly breaks apart from his peers. Best known as the frontman for 90's art-rock pioneers Shudder to Think, Wedren has quietly spent the past few years working on soundtracks (School of Rock, Laurel Canyon) and playing small acoustic sets in New York City. 2004, though, brought the debut release of his new project Baby. An NYC-based supergroup of six musicians including two sultry chanteuses, Baby defies simple labels with their idiosyncratic sound (which I've called Disco Deathpop). A dizzying mix of 80's New Wave electronic pop, guitar anthem strut, sex, and roller rink catchiness, the eclectic sound is thoroughly refreshing. If there were any justice in the music industry, "Free Los Angeles" would have soared up the pop charts this year. My only complaint is the slim 30-minute length. That's enough for 11 songs, but a little more would have been appreciated, especially since it's questionable that they'll even release another album. Regardless, it's still a terrific 30 minutes while it lasts.

Highlights: "Free Los Angeles," "Giddyup," "Call Wait"
Web site: www.babynyc.com

BELATED BEST OF MUSIC AWARD

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Fever to Tell
Queen Adreena - Drink Me

We heard from the screaming guys up above, now it's turn for the screaming girls. I missed both of these albums when they were first released (YYY in 2003; Queen Adreena back in 2002 (shoutout to Ricky for introducing me to them when I was in London in 2002--we even saw them live--but I never owned the album myself until this past year)), but they came back with a vengeance this year. YYY is a furious guitar-drums-vocal trio that can bash out two minute garage-rock ejaculations ("Pin" and "Man") as well as radio-friendly pop-rock fare ("Maps" and "Y Control"). Queen Adreena is a more experimental prog-rock/art-metal (create your own genre label today!) band that moves comfortably between pounding intensity ("A Bed of Roses" and "Under A Floorboard World") and unsettling quiet ("My Silent Undoing" and "For I Am The Way"). Both bands are blessed with lead singers capable of soaring all over the map. In particular, Katie Jane Garside of Queen Adreena sounds as if she were recorded while alternating between a heavy morphine drip and being set on fire--often all within a single song. Scary, unpredictable, and cathartic--all things you want in a good rock band. Highly recommended.

BEST IN GAMING 2004 - CONSOLE GAME OF THE YEAR

Burnout 3: Takedown (Xbox/PS2)

You're in the final round of a three-race, cross-country Grand Prix. You quickly soar across the road and into oncoming traffic, driving with reckless speed and dodging cars left and right, building your boost meter. Your opponent is closing in, nudging your car insistently from behind. You suddenly slow down, letting him fly past you. Kicking in your boosters, your vision blurs as you surge towards your opponent again. You're nearly side by side with him when you jerk the wheel to the left and smash into the side of his car. Losing control, he grinds along the rail at the side of the road before he slams head-on into oncoming traffic. Everything moves in slow motion as you watch your opponent's car flip over and crash in a frenzy of sparks and shattered glass and metal. Another car slams into him, sending his car off the road and spiraling towards the trees. You kick on your now-full boosters again and dart towards the finish line, just another typical day on the Burnout 3 circuit.

In a year loaded with high-profile sequels and overhyped disappointments (see below), Burnout 3 snuck out the door in September and blew away its competitors before they even hit stores. Developed by highly-respected Criterion Studios (creators of the Renderware engine and newly purchased cog in the Electronic Arts juggernaut), Burnout offers pure, unadulterated gaming joy thanks to a brilliantly realized gameplay engine. Another showcase for the versatile Renderware platform, Burnout's graphics are jaw-dropping, the physics make each crash a thing of beauty, and, best of all, everything blasts along at a nonstop 60 fps. Throw in over 150 events and pacing that focuses on quantity (and variety) of races, not extreme difficulty (cough F-Zero GX cough), and you've got a good 15-20 hours of nonstop racing just in the single-player mode (more if you want all the myriad unlockables). Even with all these events, the variety keeps you from ever getting bored. You've got the typical race modes (including the punishing Burning Lap, a race against the clock where racing perfection and constant boosting are required to hit some of the gold medal times), but there's also the Eliminator (last place is eliminated after every lap until one remains), Road Rage (takedown as many opponents before three minutes are up or your car explodes), and Crash Junctions (where your goal is to create as spectacular (and expensive) a crash as possible). A fast-running, low-lag online mode is just the icing on the cake. You know a game's got its hooks in you when (in real life) you find yourself driving on the highway next to a huge gas tanker and all you can think about is slamming into it at breakneck speed so it'll explode and net you $99,999 in crash damage. Not only one of the best racing games ever, but one of my new personal favorites of all time. Don't miss it.

**BONUS** Best of 2005 Preview
If it had been released just two weeks earlier, Resident Evil 4 (GCN) would be sharing Game of the Year honors with Burnout 3. It's a groundbreaking reinvention of the survival horror genre, a pulse-pounding action roller coaster, and one of the scariest video games I've ever played. The main quest takes a solid 20 hours and the quality doesn't flag for a second. This year could be a gigantic one for video games (with the new GCN Legend of Zelda and the Xbox 2 due by the end of the year), but Evil has already solidified its place on this list next year.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (Xbox)

A significant step in the continuing integration of video games and movies, Butcher Bay provides more entertainment than either of the two Riddick films. At first glance, you'll be stunned by the ultra-realistic graphics, some of the best yet seen on a console. Keep playing and you'll experience the innovative, genre-mixing gameplay (powered by a versatile engine) that features stealth action (complete with sneak kills), brutal hand-to-hand combat, and even FPS mayhem. The Hollywood-level voice talent (led by Vin Diesel) draws you deeper into the game world and the compelling, dark storyline keeps you there. It may be a tad short for some gamers (about 10-15 hours), but I'd much rather play a short, but consistently great game than a much longer one with lots of down time. One of the biggest surprises of 2004, action/adventure/stealth gameplay doesn't get much better than this.

Donkey Konga (GCN)

So you've got this pair of bongo drums. On the screen comes a stream of symbols, ones representing the left drum, right drum, both together, and a handclap (or a tap on the side of the drums--registered by a small microphone). Hit the drums matching the symbols in rhythm to the song and you've got Donkey Konga! Sound strange? It is. Sound fun? Oh yeah, it is. I'll fully admit to being a rhythm action whore (see: last year's Honorable Mention Amplitude or its predecessor Frequency), but Konga is simple enough that anyone could enjoy it. Same standard rhythm action warnings, though: if you have no rhythm, proceed immediately back to Burnout 3. If you have no patience for a decidedly mixed selection of songs, you may want to stay away (multiple Tito Puente songs? Good. Multiple Donkey Kong-themed songs? Bad. Very bad). But if banging on a drum in time to Crystal Method's "Wild Child" sounds fun, give it a shot. $50 gets you both the game and the drums, a great deal since the drums will also be used in the promising platformer Donkey Kong Jungle Beat due out in March (as well as the inevitable Konga sequels).

CLOSE BEHIND...

Metroid Prime 2: Echoes (GCN), Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (GCN), James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing (PS2/Xbox/GCN), Katamari Damacy (PS2), Sly 2: Band of Thieves (PS2), Mortal Kombat: Deception (Xbox/PS2)


ONE STEP FORWARD, TWO STEPS BACK AWARD

Prince of Persia: Warrior Within (Xbox/PS2/GCN)
Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal (PS2)

Expectations were high for these two sequels, both having received Best of 2003 awards last year (Prince: The Sands of Time shared Game of the Year and Ratchet: Going Commando was an Honorable Mention). However, while improvements have been made in both games and they are certainly both worth playing, a few noticeable flaws bring down the overall quality. Last year's Prince of Persia was a critical hit due to its amazing platforming elements and rock solid gameplay. Many people had complaints about the fighting system, though, and Ubisoft resolved to overhaul it for the second game, introducing a surprisingly complex combo-based system. My problem, though, is that this doesn't solve the issues I had with the fighting in the first game. I didn't mind the simplistic fighting, just that there was too much of it, artificially stretching out the game's length. For Warrior Within, Ubisoft kept the enemy count high, except now there's a more difficult combat system attached to it. I'm not playing Prince as an Arabian-combat simulator. I'd be perfectly happy if they removed all combat from the game as long as I could keep running along walls and leaping across spike pits. The platforming still is so engaging that these faults don't keep the game from being fun (the fierce urgency of the Dahaka chases is a great addition), but it's an unfortunate small step backwards for the promising revival of this franchise.

Up Your Arsenal, likewise, is still recommended for fans of the series and it's plenty of fun to play, but the short turnaround time between iterations is starting to show. Here, the problem is the development of a new multiplayer mode. Developer Insomniac Games did a nice job transplanting traditional deathmatching into the Ratchet and Clank universe, but it comes at the cost of the single-player game. The planets are even more linear than the last game with very little room for exploration. I took great enjoyment out of exploring every inch of every planet in Going Commando, smashing objects for money and uncovering secrets. In Arsenal, you're pushed along a narrow path with disappointingly little interaction with the environments. Also, the developers cut corners by adding in numerous "Assault" levels in Arsenal. Essentially just a single-player deathmatch mode with AI bots, the levels would have been a nice break from the platforming if there weren't so many of them over the course of the game. It's too easy a way to extend the game's length without adding more worlds or sidequests. Again, though, I'm not saying the game isn't worth playing. The action is still fast and furious and the weapons are as bombastic as ever (even if none of the new weapons matches the awe-inspiring glory of Going Commando's Bouncer), but I just didn't have quite as much fun here as I did with Going Commando. As much as I'd look forward to playing new iterations of Prince and Ratchet this year, maybe the developers would be wise to take an extra year to make the next games something really special.

BEWARE THE HYPE AWARD

Halo 2 (Xbox)
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (PS2)

If you read just a quarter of the pre-release hype surrounding Halo 2, you'd be forgiven for assuming that the game was shipping with a free AIDS vaccine and a Grays Sports Almanac from the future. Predictably, critics fawned over Halo 2 with "Game of the Year" and "Best Shooter of All Time" bandied about. While multiplayer was always the emphasis, many previews focused also on the revamped single-player game, complete with a "compelling storyline" and "exciting gameplay." So it was certainly a bit of a disappointment that, after just a couple hours, Halo 2 reveals itself to not only be a shell of the great first-person shooters that PC gamers have coveted for years, but it also doesn't even get close to challenging GoldenEye for the title of Best Console FPS Ever. I'll admit that, to the majority of players, the multiplayer is the reason to buy the game. For my money, though, I've been tired of standard multiplayer deathmatching for a while now. Little innovation has been made in the genre for years and, even gussied up with new maps and weapons, Halo 2's multiplayer still reeks of been-there-done-that. I'll also admit that I certainly don't have a cabal of friends to come over and play Halo 2 every night. Definitely part of the reason gaming publications fell head over heels for Halo was because that's an environment where a ton of gamers can all spend lots of time playing together without even the impersonality of online play. My primary interest was in the single-player mode and it fell woefully short of my expectations. First, the lack of varied objectives is a unforgivable design flaw. Literally every single chapter follows this formula: 1) Begin level, shoot all enemies 2) Proceed from Point A to B, shooting all enemies 3) Arrive at B, shoot all enemies 4) Proceed from B to C... and so forth. For a reminder on how to do this correctly, break out your old Nintendo 64 and marvel at GoldenEye's mission variety (destroy security cameras, hack computers, rescue a scientist). That was seven years ago. Then you've got the overlong and boring level designs, the decidedly subpar weapons (fuck the ineffective Covenant energy weapons, where are my machine guns and shotguns??), and a storyline that's weaved into the actual gameplay in only the most minimal amounts. For all the development time spent on Halo 2, it still feels rushed and missing the extra layer of polish that separates true classics from pretenders. Multiplayer FPS fiends with lots of friends may see this as the Next Coming, but I'm going back to Metroid Prime 2 while waiting for TimeSplitters: Future Perfect instead.

When gaming magazines weren't foaming at the mouth over Halo 2, they were likely puckering up instead for GTA: San Andreas. My problems with GTA are the same things that critics trump up about the series: open-ended design and gameplay variety. I've been saying this for a while and I still stand behind it: I don't like open-ended gameplay. I'm not interested in being allowed to wander around aimlessly throughout a enormous city (just like in real life!). If I wanted to get lost in a vibrant city while getting in lots of adventures, hell I live in Philadelphia. It's a development crutch to keep from having to create a fully fleshed-out storyline. Casual gamers can giggle all they want over being able to steal cars and shoot people indiscriminately, but this gets very boring fast. Critics justify the open design by emphasizing all of the different gameplay types, but here's the next problem: the game engine may support all of these options, but the limitations of the engine (and the hardware) keep any of this gameplay from actually being good. Being able to parachute off buildings, play basketball, shoot pool, et cetera doesn't thrill me if none of it is particularly fun to do. Whereas Burnout 3 has a meticulously designed, flawlessly executed driving engine, GTA just has a few mediocre engines tossed together. The idea is a promising one, I'll admit, but until we get the game that features basketball powered by the NBA Street engine, driving powered by Burnout, parachuting powered by Pilotwings, and stealth missions powered by Splinter Cell, I'm content to sit back and wait. Just look at the recently-released Mercenaries, a GTA clone that one-ups the originals by narrowing the focus to just driving tanks and blowing the shit out of buildings. It's a tighter, more fun game than GTA: SA, heretical as that might sound.

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

Def Jam: Fight for NY (Xbox/PS2/GCN), X-Men Legends (Xbox/PS2), Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow (Xbox/PS2/GCN), Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (Xbox), Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2), Fable (Xbox)

BEST IN GAMING 2004 - PORTABLE GAME OF THE YEAR

Mario Golf: Advance Tour (Game Boy Advance)

Not exactly a four star year for handheld games. If Nintendo is going to hold off Sony and the sexy Sony PSP handheld due out in late March, they're going to have to do better than this. Last year was certainly all about the Nintendo DS, but unfortunately this meant practically the complete abandonment of the Game Boy Advance. It's sad how few noteworthy games there were for the GBA in 2004, especially compared to the number of good games that were out around the time of the GBA:SP's release in early 2003 (though 2005 is off to a good start with The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap). The most frustrating part is that, even after slowing GBA development to a halt, Nintendo still had their typical awful launch for the DS. Believe me, I'm exactly the type of overzealous Nintendo fanboy who would buy the DS immediately after release, but I just couldn't justify it with the terrible launch lineup Nintendo had prepared. I mean, come on, Super Mario 64 DS (a rehash of the N64 original) and Feel the Magic: XY/XX just aren't cutting it for me alone. Where's Wario Ware? Where's Animal Crossing? They're coming, but about six months too late. Sony would be wise to get the PSP in as many stores as possible soon. Nintendo may have had a pretty successful release by beating Sony to market, but this laughably mediocre lineup will just look even worse when Sony is putting Ridge Racer and Metal Gear Acid in stores (though initial reports hint that the PSP's launch lineup may not be particularly strong either). Even now the rumor is circulating that Nintendo is preparing the next generation of Game Boy (likely as a true competitor to the PSP). This would just spread Nintendo's resources even thinner and could relegate the DS to Virtual Boy status very soon. Nintendo has owned the handheld market for years now (after creating it with the release of the original Game Boy way back in 1988), but I hope hubris doesn't keep them from recognizing the very real threat Sony poses. Luckily for Nintendo, though, I think Sony is making a mistake with their price point. They recently announced that the PSP will be available here for $250 in a package including a memory stick, headphones, a soft case with cleaning cloth, and a few other small things. However, earlier Sony hinted they would release the PSP in America at an ultra-low price point (probably around $180-200) for just a base system package (this is how they modeled the Japanese release in December). The $250 package is nice, but releasing a lower-priced version would have effectively undercut Nintendo's price advantage. Sony would likely lose money on each system sold (the Xbox model), but profit isn't the point here, market penetration is. If Sony can get the units into as many homes as possible, their advantage in marketing and brand image can take over and finish Nintendo off. Sony seems to be allowing Nintendo to have its market share, instead going after the iPod crowd exclusively. Sony will surely make a killing, but they're not confronting Nintendo as aggressively as they could be. Hopefully Nintendo will be smart enough to take advantage of this. Following the developing handheld war was actually better than any of the portable games released in 2004 and it'll continue throughout 2005. The gloves are off and the real fight is just about to begin.

Anyway, back to Mario Golf: Advance Tour. Developed by Camelot Software Planning, Advance Tour is the followup to their groundbreaking 1999 Game Boy Color release Mario Golf. Tour doesn't feature as much innovation as the earlier game, but instead refines the gameplay and ups the graphics, keeping all of the fun intact. The primary difference between Mario Golf and other golf games is the emphasis on RPG-lite character development. As you win tournaments and training minigames, your character earns experience points which you can use to level up and increase stats like shot length and how the ball carries. In another twist, Advance Tour pairs you with a computer-controlled partner that you can level up as well. This effectively doubles the length of the game because each course has tournaments and match-ups for both singles and doubles. The experience point system is a great addition because it adds more incentive for playing the different tournaments and all the minigames. The control system will be familiar to any video golfers, but it's been tweaked to add top and back spin. It's not revolutionary, but it works perfectly well within the confines of the hardware. The graphics resemble a toned-down version of Mario Golf: Toadstool Tour for the GameCube and show off the power of the GBA. The skewed 3-D course perspective can be a little odd at times, but it never distracts from the gameplay. With plenty of courses, lots of fun minigames, and even some characters and clubs to unlock, there's enough to keep you busy for a while with Advance Tour...at least until Camelot readies their next iteration of the series.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Final Fantasy I & II: Dawn of Souls (GBA)

Last year gave us SquareEnix's GBA redux of Final Fantasy Tactics and this year we get pumped up versions of Final Fantasy I and II. Next year, could we get handheld Chrono Trigger? Pretty please? We've seen remakes of these two games before (in Final Fantasy Origins for PS1), but it's nice to have them on a handheld for the first time along with handy new features like being able to save anywhere. The gameplay is full-on Old School RPG complete with random encounters and large dungeons, but the lack of a map in the dungeons can make it confusing to pick up and play when you're on some random floor and don't remember what ground you've already covered. Regardless, there's enough playtime in just one of these two games to justify a purchase, but put them both together and you've got the best handheld bargain of the year. Now I'll just keep crossing my fingers for Chrono Trigger in 2005.

BEST IN TELEVISION 2004 - SHOW OF THE YEAR

Desperate Housewives (ABC)

Ahh, my lovely desperate housewives...you had me at hello. A mad scientist mix of tawdry soap opera sex and Twin Peaks-esque black humor and mystery, Housewives was one of the runaway smash hits of the new TV season and it deserves every bit of the acclaim it's received. Its dark tone is set right from the opening moments of the pilot as we follow the last day of Mary Alice Young (played by Brenda Strong, aka "braless wonder" Sue-Ellen Mishkie from Seinfeld), a seemingly happy mother who would appear to have it all, as she goes about her daily chores...and then retrieves a gun from the closet, puts it against her head and pulls the trigger. Mary Alice then becomes our posthumous narrator and our focus turns to her friends, heartbroken and confused over the sudden suicide. Housewives has turned into quite a career rejuvinator for its cast. Teri Hatcher is rescued from her Howie Long/Radio Shack purgatory and is wonderful as Susan Mayer, newly divorced and living with her Gilmore Girls teenage daughter. As one of the few people with fond memories of Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (from back in 1993--god, I feel old), I'm happy to see Hatcher winning over audiences and critics alike (she just won the Golden Glove for Best Actress: TV Musical or Comedy). It's also nice to see Felicity Huffman finally in a successful show (best known as William H. Macy's wife, she also played Dana is the sadly short-lived Sports Night (Aaron Sorkin's pre-West Wing dramedy)). Here she plays Lynette Scavo, a once-successful career woman who's now taking care of her four (hellish) children. Rounding out the ensemble are Marcia Cross (a vision of cold, statuesque beauty) and Eva Longoria (playing a trophy wife to a ethically duplicitous husband, she's the token young member of the cast).

Special notice must be given to the writers. Countless times each episode, you're certain you can guess what's going to happen and they never fail to pull the rug out from under you or take an unexpected detour. This feeling of unexpectedness, that anything can happen (and that any character may even be expendable), is a breath of fresh air in a TV climate over-saturated with crime and medical shows. Every time we think we have a character figured out, we're given a snippet of backstory that completely alters our perception. My only concern is whether the show will be able to maintain its momentum as this season goes on and it enters its second year. Creator Marc Cherry claims that the mystery of Mary Alice's suicide will be solved by the end of the first season, but I hope he has something up his sleeve for next year. Honestly, the characters are strong enough that the undercurrent of suspense isn't necessary for the show, but now that he's established how well it works tied in with traditional soap opera conventions, I hope it isn't just abandoned. Regardless, right now it's hitting everything out of the park. It's been announced that the first season will be released on DVD during the summer--if you've missed out so far, don't miss it then.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Lost (ABC)

For you conspiracy fans who've needed a fix since the X-Files went off the air, there's Lost, ABC's new stuck-on-a-(haunted?)-island-(purgatory?)-filled-with-mystery-(and monsters?) drama. Created by uber-producer (and Mission Impossible 3 director) J.J. Abrams, Lost wins its audience by dangling just enough of its tantalizing secrets to keep you pressing on from week to week. By spending so much time delving into each character's backstory, an entire season can cover just 40-50 days on the island. This no doubt excites the hell out of ABC, but I'm wondering how well the show can sustain its momentum as more time passes. Does Abrams have an overarching "grand idea" in mind for Lost or is this just the longest setup for an epic anticlimax we've ever seen? Unfortunately, the answer may not be coming any time soon. For now, I'll give Abrams the benefit of the doubt since, armed with a wonderful ensemble, it's all made for some great TV so far. I just hope he's willing to throw us a bone before the whole show gets bogged down in ambiguity and conjecture.

Arrested Development (FOX)

Not just the best comedy on TV, but also the most innovative and daring, Arrested blows the standard sitcom format out of the water. In theory, we're watching the filming of a documentary about the dysfunctional Bluth family. With that comes handheld camerawork (already defying the three-camera shoot sitcom tenet) and even a couple of meta-moments (in a courtroom, the judge says that cameras aren't allowed in, so we wait patiently outside until the action suddenly bursts out again). Then there's the bitingly sharp dialogue, filled with endless puns and double entendres so subtle you may miss a few of them the first time. Easily the best part of the show, though, is the unstoppable cast. When David Cross is a minor character in your ensemble, you've really got something. Jason Bateman is perfect as Michael Bluth--ostensibly the straight man, his dry sarcasm is loaded with wit and self-deprecating humor. I've said right from the start that it would only be a matter of time before he won a well-deserved Best Actor Emmy (and he seems well on his way after winning the Best Actor award at this year's Golden Globes). The first season is already available on DVD and is worth every penny.

Joey (NBC)

Admit it, Joey Tribbiani was carrying Friends during its last couple seasons. Chandler married Monica and was summarily emmasculated, Phoebe floated in her ditzy orbit without any decent storylines, and Ross and Rachel continued their embarassingly overdrawn will-they-or-won't-they tango (as Mr. Cosmo Kramer once said, "I pursued and she withdrew...then she pursued and I withdrew...and so we danced."). Throughout all of this, you could always rely on Joey for a good sex or food joke. Transplanted into LA for his spinoff, Joey's producers wisely left their main character alone, but gave him a supporting cast refreshingly different from his old Friends. Paulo Costanzo (of 40 Days and 40 Nights as well as one of the worst movies of the year (see below) A Problem With Fear) plays charmingly fresh-faced Michael, Joey's young and naive rocket scientist nephew. Michael's book-smart nerdiness works well against Joey's dim-witted street-smarts and there's a strong comedic dynamic between the two. Drea de Matteo, as Gina, Michael's mother and Joey's older sister, is out of the Joey mold, though her abrasiveness and over-the-top sexuality get a little old. The show is as traditional a sitcom as they come and stands in stark contrast to more experimental fare like Arrested Development, but the formula still provides plenty of laughs. Matt LeBlanc (a great, under-appreciated comedic actor) has lost none of his lovable charm and there's still plenty of material to work with (set in LA and featuring an actor, the show is perfectly poised for some sharp Hollywood satire). It's nothing groundbreaking, but I'll take this over other sitcom dreck like Still Standing or Yes Dear any day. At the very least, it's a solid half-hour of Joey Tribbiani jokes. Works for me!

BEST IN FILM 2004 - MOVIES OF THE YEAR

In no particular order...

Primer
Written and Directed by Shane Carruth

Intelligent and thought-provoking in ways other science fiction films only dream of, Primer achieves its brilliance by eliminating all special effects, the anchor that lesser sf films fall back on. Filmed for $7,000, the forced economy gave writer/director Carruth no room for gaudy effects or elaborate sets, just the ambition of his Big Ideas. The plot concerns two scientists working out of a garage who accidentally create a machine capable of moving objects through time. As they struggle to comprehend exactly what it is they've created, they become more and more seduced by its capabilities. The experiments soon get out of control, but when will it be too late to fix what they've already started? The fractured narrative suits Primer perfectly, though it takes a few viewings before all the pieces come together. Someone needs to start bankrolling Carruth's movies soon because Primer looks like just a start for this talented new voice in the stagnant science fiction genre. A must-see for sf fans or anyone who's tired of turning their brain off for the latest Hollywood spectacle.

Sideways
Based on the novel by Rex Pickett
Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne

The critical darling of 2004 (though a slight backlash seems to be growing), Sideways is finally the first film from Alexander Payne that finds the perfect middle ground between egotistical self-loathing and bittersweet pathos. Paul Giamatti continues his wonderful character work (following in the footsteps of last year's Top-10 pick American Splendor) as failed writer and wine critic Miles Raymond (when will someone finally give Giamatti an Oscar??) Teamed with Thomas Haden Church, Virginia Madsen, and Sandra Oh, the four make up the best screen ensemble of the year (even besting Closer's A-list dream team). There's a genuine camaraderie between the four that gives life to the dialogue and performances. Employing broader comedy than his previous films, Payne makes Sideways simply more fun to watch than the darker Election or the more morose About Schmidt. It's a shame that it likely won't win more than perhaps a screenplay or supporting actor award at the Oscars this year because, in my opinion, this is the best of the Best Picture nominees (you'll notice that none of the other four are on this list).

Hero
Written by Feng Li, Bin Wang, and Yimou Zhang
Directed by Yimou Zhang

The most lavishly beautiful movie of the year, it demands to be seen on as large a screen as possible. Made in 2002 and inexplicably delayed in the US until 2004 (when, ridiculously, it was released just months before Yimou Zhang's followup, House of Flying Daggers), Hero is a Rashomon-influenced collection of flashbacks dealing with one man's quest to eliminate three assassins in early China. The cast is a highlight list of the best Chinese actors working today: Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi make up the four leads and all excel in familiar roles. The martial arts photography is jawdropping with swashes of brilliant color painted across the backgrounds. Flying Daggers was a close contender for this list, but Hero's smoldering stoicism enraptured me. A simple martial arts tale told with unparalleled artistry.

Kill Bill: Volume Two
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

A great year for swordplay-in-cinema, Tarentino completes his nouveau-samurai epic by slowing down the high-velocity bloodletting and playing with Western conventions instead. Michael Madsen and Daryl Hannah are appropriately heartless, but David Carradine steals the show as Bill. His inevitable confrontation with the Bride is a battle of wits more than hyperbolic physicality. Each knows what the other is capable of and fully respects he or she for it. I bitched last year that we'd better have a full uncut version of both films out on DVD by this time and, frustratingly, we don't have it yet. No doubt every single penny will be milked dry out of these DVDs and both volumes were top-sellers last Christmas. It's a new year, though, and I respectfully demand yet again the release of the complete four-hour version of Tarantino's opus. Miramax may dictate how we watch these movies in the theatres, but I want to have the choice in my home.

Moolaade
Written and Directed by Ousmane Sembene

To experience a film set and shot entirely in Senegal would alone make Moolaade noteworthy. That it deals with the unsettling topic of tribal female circumcision, but does so in a way that is inspiring, full of warmth and humor, and deeply humanistic, makes this easily one of the best movies of the year. At 81 years old, director Sembene has filled every inch of his film with heart and empathy. It is not an expose on tribal customs, but a glimpse of a village caught in a collision of modernism running head-on into the traditions of the past. The town in Moolaade is trapped in flux, unable to reject its roots while also unable to ignore the upswelling of female sexual independence rising around it. We're not given clear-cut villains and heroes, just people who believe unwaveringly in the power of their convictions.

Maria Full of Grace
Written and Directed by Joshua Marston

You've seen the glossy, epic Hollywood blockbusters about drug kingpins (Scarface being the undisputed champion), but until Maria, you hadn't seen the drama focusing on the so-called "drug mules," the young women who are paid to swallow packets of heroin and smuggle them across the border. Catalina Sandino Moreno, in a star-making and Oscar-nominated performance, plays Maria with understated resignation and naive innocence. Maria's decision to become a drug mule seems inevitable to her--it is a way to escape a life slowly slipping into monotony. The connection we feel with Maria raises the stakes as she risks her life as a smuggler. The film's crowning achievement is the airplane ride across the border with three other women also scattered onboard as mules. The suspense and tension are palpable as they prepare to face customs agents and the dealers who will do anything to ensure that they get every ounce of the drugs. It's an auspicious debut for Marston and hopefully a sign of more to come from the talented newcomer.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg
Directed by Danny Leiner

Say what you will about Dude, Where's My Car?, but I've long maintained that what was missing from that movie that would have pushed it into comic gem territory was an R rating and lots of pot jokes and swear words. I mean, it's just screaming to be a stoner comedy, but the (likely studio-mandated) PG-13 rating meant all drug references had to be swept under the rug. As a result, a movie that should have been about two stoner goofballs getting into surreal adventures turned into one about two blithely idiotic goofballs getting into surreal adventures. It took four years, but Danny Leiner finally was able to make his stoner epic and the result is the brilliant Harold & Kumar. Writers Hurwitz and Schlossberg wisely up the intelligence of their leads, raising the movie out of the bumbling fool territory mined by myriad lesser comedies. Being able to relate to Harold and Kumar makes their misadventures that much more appealing (as opposed to the glazed over obliviousness of Dude's Jesse and Chester). Then there's the inspired list of cameos (Fred Willard, Anthony Anderson, Christopher Meloni, and others--not to mention a zoned-out Neil Patrick Harris) along with two pitch-perfect performances from charismatic leads John Cho and Kal Penn. After an unfortunately mediocre box office run, it seems destined for cult status. Don't miss out on the best comedy of 2004.

Bad Education
Written and Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Almodovar dials down the flamboyance and ups the noir in his dazzling new film. A Hitchcockian tale of double identities, simmering eroticism, fractured memories, and childhood trauma, it is also a compellingly autobiographical look at Almodovar's development as a director. Gael Garcia Bernal (one of the finest young actors of his generation) is excellent again, tackling multiple roles (including a transvestite) with refreshing abandon. Very few actors would be willing to take on such a role and even fewer could do so without resorting to caricature. Part of Education's joy is attempting to dissect its plot--Almodovar feeds us information judiciously, tossing in a clever twist whenever we may think we have everything figured out. The result is a much darker tone than many of his earlier films--which may turn off those who want another sex-filled comic romp. We'll see what direction Almodovar wants to take us in next.

Haute Tension (High Tension)
Written by Gregory Levasseur and Alexandre Aja
Directed by Alexandre Aja

Absolutely fucking terrifying. Blood-soaked and filled with some of the most shocking, brutal murders ever seen in a horror movie, Haute Tension is in a league of its own. Those of you with no stomach for gore and rivers of blood, with weak hearts, prone to vivid nightmares, please proceed on to the next movie. But for those of you willing and excited for a chance to take a ride on an insanely intense horror roller coaster, this is your movie. A throwback to the brutal slasher movies of the '70s, Tension's threadbare plot (reminiscent of Dean Koontz's Intensity) follows two college-aged girlfriends going to visit one of their families for vacation. Soon after arriving, a menacing figure arrives in an exterminator van and proceeds to violently murder the entire family (and I mean violently--just try to watch the meticulousness of the father's murder without your jaw hanging open). One of the women manages to hide, though, and watches as her friend gets kidnapped. She follows and the cat-and-mouse game begins. It's a little disingenous to include this in a Best of 2004 list since it's only going hitting wide release this June, but I saw it during the Philadelphia Film Festival in April and couldn't leave it out. All you need to know is this: the MPAA has rated Tension NC-17 for violence. No explicit sex or full-frontal nudity--just sheer violence (and rumor has it that Lions Gate will release it unedited). Where you go from here is up to you.

Hotel Rwanda
Written by Keir Pearson and Terry George
Directed by Terry George

Another crash-course in African cultural history, Rwanda is carried by an Oscar-nominated performance by Don Cheadle, who's finally given the chance to carry a movie himself rather than being relegated to an ensemble. He tackles the role of Paul Rusesabagina with aplomb, embodying the dignity of man who did not seek greatness, but found himself unable to turn a blind eye when his fellow man needed him. The story propels with the momentum of a Hollywood thriller, but also with the unpredictability of a true story. Sophie Okonedo earned a supporting Oscar nod for her role as Rusesabagina's wife. Nick Nolte, Joaquin Phoenix, and Cara Seymour are also around in much smaller roles. A tense and ultimately sad look at our not-so-distant past.

HORROR WILD CARD

Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, and Saw

The big-budget Hollywood gorefest, the acclaimed British horror-satire of said gorefests, and the sturdy B-movie sleeper hit. All great and worthy of the horror wild card award. Dawn is the flashy remake of the 1978 George Romero classic and surprisingly doesn't suffer in the update. Director Zack Snyder tones down Romero's keen satire of commercial culture, but ups the intensity and piles on the well-done special effects. The opening fifteen minutes of Dawn--up through the end of the brilliant opening credit sequence--is one of the best horror movie openings I've ever seen. Shaun is the British hit that crossed over successfully to the States last Fall. Like Scream before it, it mercilessly parodies horror conventions while never forgetting that it's still a horror movie. Loaded with gallows humor and plenty of spilled entrails, it's a nice companion to the more straightforward Dawn. Finally, Saw is a low-budget thriller that works thanks to a whip-smart premise and an ending that sends you out in utter shock. It's been tossed aside by critics (Travis Crawford, the Philadelphia Film Festival programmer responsible for introducing me to Miike and Kitamura and who's opinion I respect immensely, eviscerates the movie in his review on tlavideo.com), which I think is a shame since almost everyone I know who's seen it loves it. It's not a hallmark work in the genre, but certainly a solid b-movie that'll stick in your mind afterward. I don't want to be a Saw apologist, but hell, just turn your brain off and let it take you for a great ride.

FILM FESTIVAL FARE

Nine Souls and The Uninvited

Speaking of Mr. Crawford, these were two of his selections for the Film Festival and it's easy to see why they were personal favorites. Nine Souls follows nine convicts recently escaped from jail who try to get their lives back in order. They soon find out, with tragic and bloody consequences, that they can't just turn the clock back. Beautifully directed and accompanied by a powerful guitar score. The Uninvited is a eerily haunting story about two people tortured by memories of the death of a young child. A psychological ghost story intercut with scenes of harrowing brutality (one scene involving an infant caused the audience to collectively gasp in disbelief), it is certainly one of the most unique horror movies of the past few years. I highly doubt either will see any sort of commercial distribution, so hopefully they'll reach DVD soon enough.

WORST OF THE YEAR

A Problem With Fear and Anatomy of Hell

Two bad, bad, bad movies. I saw both during the Film Festival and only Anatomy saw a smattering of a release across the country--consider yourself lucky. Anatomy is Catherine Breillat's latest and let's hope she just needed to get this out of her system. A far-too-graphic collection of explicit sexual material and scenes of characters spouting pointlessly philosophical ramblings about male fear of female sexuality. As a disclaimer notes before the film begins, a stand-in was used for all of the sexually-explicit shots of the lead female role, meaning that we're treated to a lot of extreme close-up shots that would be uncomfortable in some porno movies. I respect Breillat a great deal, but it's time she went back to incorporating her ideas into a narrative structure rather than just confronting us with explicit material for its own sake. On the other hand, Fear is just as bad as they come with no redeeming value. The filmmakers had a decent idea for a ten minute short film (people's individual fears begin to come to life), ballooned it out of control to fill 90 minutes, and then forgot to include any semblance of an ending. It stars Paulo Costanzo (who's gone on to much better things in Joey), who doesn't embarass himself too much, and Emily Hampshire, who does. Hampshire's character Dot is possibly the most annoying person I saw in a movie last year. The only thing that kept me going was wondering if they were actually going to tie it up somehow in the end. Imagine my frustration, then, when I realized that they weren't even going to try. You'll probably never hear of this movie again and for that we should all be thankful.