CPArts

Arts in Review 2003

Dec. 26, 2003 – Jan. 8, 2004

Access Hollywood

Those who switched on MSNBC on Dec. 14 for coverage of Saddam Hussein’s capture saw a thumbnail of the bedraggled former president of Iraq just above the crawl—a spitting image of the guy in the wildly defiant photo on The Marx Reader. America had vanquished another old enemy—and this time we got to watch the cavity searches. But it was the lack of culture-vulture accouterments in Saddam’s hovel as much as his public humiliation that seemed to hold our horrified fascination most. “You mean, he didn’t even have a cell phone?” said an incredulous Manhattan apartment doorman when he was relayed the news.

Access to wealth, goods, and comfort has always been a capitalist promise. But 2003 was the year that access itself appeared as a desideratum, a must-have commodity for one to be a full participant in the cultural economy. It was pure access, after all, that news outlets were hawking as they embedded journalists with the coalition forces invading Iraq, even if many of the real war stories were happening elsewhere.

The iPod and the cell phone that doubles as a camera or a Web browser moved out of the yuppie-toy ghetto to become standard middle-class appliances, making every Metro car a curious hive of public privacy. As a remedy, perhaps, people tried a bit of good old-fashioned social engineering: Friendster and similar networks, arguably the biggest cultural phenomenon of the year, which go well beyond online dating. The services, as Spring Street Networks Chair Rufus Griscom told the New York Times, allow the “purchasing [of] access to like-minded people.”

That is, if you aren’t behind a firewall. But that won’t shield you from the Recording Industry Association of America, which sued hundreds of “substantial file-sharers” this year. Even people who are supposed to get their music for free were treated like law-breakers—just ask any newspaper music writer who was denied an advance of the latest by the Strokes, OutKast, or Jay-Z. The labels call it “preventing Internet piracy” or “giving priority to long-lead-time publications”; we call it Spin control: making sure no one first hears about your hot new record in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

Some writers resorted to listening to CDs in publicists’ Manhattan offices—not exactly the ideal reviewing environment. Neither is the night-before-deadline press screening of this week’s John Woo movie, something that’s become increasingly common in these days of studio-mandated “anti-piracy” efforts. Count among those the Motion Picture Association of America’s hapless attempt to ban the distribution of DVD screeners to Academy Award jurors: Kill Bill would have still ended up online, and this year’s Monster’s Ball would have gone Oscarless. Underseen indies weren’t the only potential victims, though: Critical discourse—read: everyone’s ability to judge the ever-increasing heap o’ cultural product—would have suffered, too. You can’t blame the suits in New York and L.A. for circling the wagons while they figure out how to make all this new technology turn a decent buck, but it’s not just the pirates they’re shutting out.

Of course, maybe that’s exactly what the entertainment industry wants: each of us in our own spider hole, wired for sound, light, and credit-card transactions—and with no one else there to counter the marketing. No, the revolution won’t be televised, comrades; the revolution will be a television. (Or, if you prefer, a “home theater personal computer.”) As long as you can pay to play, it will give you all the access you want.

—Robert Lalasz and Leonard Roberge

The Bigger Picture Show

By Mark Jenkins

It’s December, time to talk about the best films of the year. Before addressing quality, however, something must be said about quantity: Wow. With the opening of the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, the rebirth of the Avalon Theatre, and the continuing efforts of Visions Bar Noir, the commercial megaplexes, and the city’s nonprofit repertory programs, as well as a plethora of local festivals, 2003 brought more movies than a professional viewer—let alone a mere amateur cinephile—could possibly see.

Film

The local exhibition landscape is still changing. Lately, the Avalon and Visions have experimented with second-run bookings, and the Silver has emphasized such mainstream programming as Bill Murray and Nicole Kidman retrospectives. With so much going on, finding an audience for a worthy but underpublicized foreign or indie movie seems harder than ever. After all, D.C.’s 2003 foreign-flick hit was Cédric Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole, the most cosmopolitan of sitcoms, but a sitcom nonetheless. Still, with Landmark opening eight art-film screens at 11th and E Streets NW on Jan. 9, and such major repertory attractions as a three-venue Yasujiro Ozu retrospective due in the spring, next year should offer plenty of alternatives to Hollywood.

That’s encouraging, because mainstream American movies have seldom been less interesting than they are these days. Indeed, Hollywood seems to have barely roused itself for the Christmas prestige-film season, producing only a few likely contenders for the Best Picture Oscar. As always, films that open in New York and L.A. in December but won’t arrive in D.C. until January are not eligible for my top-10 list. But this year there aren’t even many of those: A few foreign films aside, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Monster, The Statement, and The Company constitute the entire list.

Such shallow year-closers as Something’s Gotta Give and Mona Lisa Smile—or even the self-consciously “magical” Big Fish—demonstrate Hollywood’s continuing reliance on shopworn formulas. Yet the studios looked far and wide in 2003, and not just for the directors and locations of such above-average semi-Hollywood films as In America (set in New York but shot mostly in Dublin by an Irish director), The Pianist (directed by a Polish-bred, Paris-based fugitive from American justice), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (shot in Mexico by an Australian), and Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (an all–New Zealand production, save for some of the stars and much of the money).

2003 was also the year that a few American movies—Lost in Translation, Kill Bill—Vol. 1, and The Last Samurai—turned Japanese, with both Uma Thurman and Tom Cruise delivering more than just a perfunctory arigato or konichiwa. Only one mainstream flick, The Guru, borrowed heavily from Bollywood, but American distributors peddled both Bend It Like Beckham and Bollywood/Hollywood, which also drew on the style and energy of Indian movie musicals.

Other phenomena that arrived in threes this year: films in which a character’s depth is immediately established by the loss of her or his young children (The Human Stain, 21 Grams, and In America); more celebrations of the Great North American Loser (Love Liza, Owning Mahowny, and The Cooler); and—most hilariously—movies in which glamorous A-list actresses impersonated cleaning ladies (My Life Without Me, House of Sand and Fog, and The Human Stain again).

The most exciting alternatives to Hollywood hokum came from the revitalized cinemas of France and Britain, as well as the emerging film cultures of Iran and Brazil. (We didn’t see many Asian films on commercial screens this year, alas.) The big story of 2003, though, is the triumph of the documentary. Nonfiction films, usually relegated to festivals and noncommercial venues, boldly countered the simplistic myths of megaplex fare, often drawing decent crowds in the process. Ultimately, I put only two documentaries on the following (alphabetical) top 10, but that was a close call.

Bus 174. This documentary starts as an analysis of a single Rio de Janeiro busjacking—and the TV coverage of the bungled standoff—but as director Jose Padilha fills in the backstory, the film expands into a critique of all Brazilian urban society.

City of God. The style of this pyrotechnic Brazilian slumland epic is brash and unapologetically intrusive, but the film is grounded by director Fernando Meirelles’ naturalistic use of nonprofessional actors and improvised dialogue.

Demonlover. The spirit of Irma Vep returns with a darker, more sweeping mission in Olivier Assayas’ brilliantly choreographed (if excessively Lynchian) world tour of today’s high-finance, mass-media multiverse.

In America. Very sweet even when it’s sad, director and co-writer Jim Sheridan’s semiautobiographical comedy-drama uses a kid’s-eye view of life and death to banish irony and tap into primal emotion.

In Praise of Love. The first two-thirds of Jean-Luc Godard’s cinematic return to Paris is the most beautiful film released in Washington in 2003—even if the last third is visually interesting but intellectually tiresome.

In This World. Mixing docudrama and guerrilla cinema, director Michael Winterbottom follows two young Afghans from Pakistan toward London, focusing tightly on these real refugees to exemplify all the people currently on the move from the Third World to the First.

Irreversible. Gaspar Noé’s startling breakthrough film, which turns on a brutal rape scene whose reputation kept audiences away, has a schema as rigorous as its nihilistic viewpoint. It’s confrontational, self-conscious, and utterly absorbing.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Irish documentarians Kim Bartley and Donnacha O’Briain’s account of the failed 2002 coup against Venezuela’s democratically elected leftist president is unapologetically polemical, but notable foremost as a gripping you-are-there account of events underreported by the U.S. media.

Sweet Sixteen. Defeated-working-class Scotland is familiar ground for director Ken Loach, yet this tale of a 15-year-old boy’s battle for normality is fresh, smart, and funny, in large part because of first-time actor Martin Compston’s ferocious performance.

Ten. Set entirely in the car of an upper-middle-class Tehran woman, this series of vignettes is Abbas Kiarostami’s latest ingenious answer to the question of how to tell the truth about contemporary Iran within the confines of official censorship.

The films that almost made this list are Matt Dillon’s City of Ghosts, Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, Claire Denis’ Friday Night, Karim Ainouz’s Madame Satà, Patrice Leconte’s Man on the Train, Bahman Ghobadi’s Marooned in Iraq, Fernando León de Aranoa’s Mondays in the Sun, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Mortal Transfer, Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, Jeff Blitz’s Spellbound, Christine Jeffs’ Sylvia, and Nicolas Philibert’s To Be and to Have.

Among the movies that were great fun to watch but didn’t add up to much of anything were Delphine Gleize’s Carnage, Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s Intacto, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark, and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. Jane Campion’s In the Cut is fundamentally a dumb slasher flick but is thrillingly photographed; Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things brilliantly evokes immigrant London’s underworld but is yoked to a contrived plot; Stephen Daldry’s The Hours features two evocative chapters (Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore) and one unendurable one (Meryl Streep and Ed Harris); Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever starts powerfully but turns unpersuasively transcendent; Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters is upstaged by its own harrowing real-life material; Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation has a charming delicacy that’s undermined by its shallow condescension toward the Japanese. Of those 2003 films that weren’t proudly pitched to junior-high-school boys, the worst was Lisa Cholodenko’s Laurel Canyon, an excruciating tease.

Traditionally, I’ve listed some of the year’s repertory and film-fest highlights that were unlikely ever to be seen again (except in the hipper video-rental shops). And no doubt some of the more interesting rep and fest titles to screen locally in 2003 will remain elusive—don’t expect another shot, for example, at the films in the National Museum of Women in the Art’s brave but sadly underpublicized Anne-Marie Miéville series. Yet it’s worth noting that such outstanding films as Pearl Gluck’s Divan, Hany Abu-Assad’s Ford Transit, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s Fulltime Killer, Jia Zhange-ke’s Unknown Pleasures, and Abderrahmane Sissako’s Waiting for Happiness—to name but a few of the year’s highlights—have American distributors and might very well enjoy local commercial runs. For the first time in years, D.C. has enough screens to accommodate all the hobbits, serial killers, and flick chicks Hollywood sends our way, with room left over for films designed to do more than sell nachos. CP

Dog Catchers

We didn’t mean to, but we saw all of these miserable failures, from megaplex filler that aimed low to foreign flick that had all the art-house bona fides:

Film

Dopamine. Directorial flash will get you only so far, even in the Sundance Film Series. Mark Decena’s numerous shots of synapses firing belies the lack of sparks flying between dopey programmer Rand (John Livingston) and mopey educator Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd). The most expressive character in the film? The computerized bird, Koy Koy: You can almost feel his yearning to beat the crap out of the agent who suggests “indie cred” would be better for his career than a cameo in Finding Nemo.

—Josh Levin

The Event. Remember the promos for that short-lived Fox drama Skin? Well, try this one on for size: “Parker Posey is the district attorney!” Too bad “AIDS tear-jerker” turned out to be the better encapsulation. Look no further for proof that an uplifting story about a family coming together to overcome devastating trauma can be boring as all hell.

—Josh Levin

Gigli. Why pile on? This thug-life Rain Man was Bennifer’s Springtime for Hitler.

—Tricia Olszewski

Just Married and My Boss’s Daughter. Ashton: 2003 has really been my year, dollface. I starred in Just Married with a stoned-looking Brittany Murphy and My Boss’s Daughter with the now-disgraced Andy Richter and Michael Madsen.

Demi: I want you even more!

Ashton: You 40-year-old chicks must be really hard up.

—Tricia Olszewski

Kangaroo Jack. For the streetwise kiddies, there’s a rapping kangaroo. For their befuddled dads, there’s Estella Warren bathing in a waterfall. For producer Jerry Bruckheimer, there’s an industrywide plea for an asset freeze to prevent him from putting out another such abomination.

—Tricia Olszewski

A Man Apart. XXX without the corny jokes, crazy stunts, or exotic locales—which leaves just the giant blockhead. After the wife of Vin Diesel’s character is killed, he spends a lot of time staring out at the ocean, apparently mourning his career.

—Tricia Olszewski

The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Quoth the Architect: “The first [Matrix] I designed was quite naturally perfect. It was a work of art. Flawless. Sublime. A triumph only equaled by [the trilogy’s] monumental failure.” I paraphrase. But who’s gonna argue?

—Tricia Olszewski

Seabiscuit. The feel-good movie about the little horse that could—and the little trainer that could, and the little jockey that could, and the little country that could, and... If the stultifying voice-over by historian David McCullough doesn’t Ken Burns you to death, writer-director Gary Ross’ glacial pacing surely will.

—Josh Levin

Swimming Pool. Just ’cause it’s francophone don’t mean it’s unconventional. A Brit mystery novelist (Charlotte Rampling) heads to France to get in that writing state of mind. While she’s getting her groove back, some hot, artsy young tail (Ludivine Sagnier) prances into her villa and gets her groove on. Oh, and there’s a mystery involving...sex, maybe? Even more mysterious: why this stinkbomb didn’t go straight to Skinemax.

—Josh Levin

21 Grams. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Amores Perros was one of the best movies of 2000, joining forces with Sean Penn and Benicio Del Toro, two of the most transfixing actors on the planet? Twenty-one grams of solid gold, right? See, that’s how those clever bastards try to fool you. No amount of time-slicing flourishes or virtuoso acting could save a plot so contrived Donald Kaufman would scoff: Man (Penn) gets a heart transplant and falls in love with the widow of the donor (Naomi Watts). Where were Christian Slater and the baboon?

—Josh Levin

2 Fast 2 Furious. Finally, a movie that celebrates diversity! We get a Hot Asian Chick (model Devon Aoki), an Angry Black Man (Tyrese), and a Dopey White Guy who’s down with everyone because he says “yo” and “bro” a lot (Paul Walker). Who knew a franchise could suffer from the absence of Vin Diesel?

—Tricia Olszewski

Songs of Praise

Me and the Major Labels

Last year I opened this piece with an anecdote from Bonnaroo, an independently promoted jam-band festival in Tennessee that drew 70,000 people and was advertised strictly via the Internet. So it seems only appropriate to make it a tradition: At this year’s Bonnaroo—same MO, 10,000 more attendees—the festival’s publicist cornered me to ask a favor. He was holding a press conference with one of the day’s performers, and he was worried the forum would be dominated by representatives of publications such as High Times—which for some reason he thought might not impress Mr. James Brown.

Indie

And so it was that I found my Spin-contributor self with the guy from Rolling Stone and the dude from USA Today, all of us desperately trying to think of soft-ball questions for Soul Brother No. 1. My contribution was to tell Brown that, like him, a lot of the bands performing made a point of owning their own publishing and recording rights, and to ask him whether that was the smartest business decision a young artist could make. In a response that touched on the importance of a good education, SARS, Iraq, music at ballgames, and the meaning of life, Brown made one coherent point: “There is no record business,” he said. “So whatever they are telling you is jive. That makes entertainment a little unstable.”

This from a man who would take out an ad in Variety the very next month announcing his impending divorce and calling it a “show business decision”—and then spend the rest of the year appearing on talk shows with his wife denying they’d ever planned to split. But you needed only to look at the music-biz story of the year—the iTunes Music Store—to see that Mr. Excitement was onto something. CD sales declined for like the bazillionth straight year, and I didn’t interview a single major-label artist who saw record sales as at all relevant to his income. For the big-timers, records are loss leaders, projects around which they can build tours and other tie-ins—which is how they make their real money.

Indie artists don’t have that luxury, and I think that’s probably the only useful distinction between most big and small labels at this point. Every single record I’ve chosen as an indie release below was put out by a company that sends out advance copies, hires publicists, and is generally run as a business, not a labor of love. If the records matter most, it’s because, at least until this iTunes thing levels the playing field some more, the records are all these people have. And if you think there’s something wrong with that, what you’re telling me is just jive.

Here are 10 records that probably made their creators at least a little bit of money this year:

10. Ruckus, Galactic. Produced by Dan “the Automator” Nakamura, this New Orleans jam band’s bid for indie cred is Exhibit A in my wife’s campaign to prove my taste has declined beyond all aid. But Ruckus shows that magic happens when the urge to wank is channeled instead into creating a heart-fibrillating groove. Freud would’ve called it sublimation; I call it sublime.

9. Exit English, Strike Anywhere. I’m with Michael Little on this one: Most current punk rock is way too much like church. I humbly suggest that if you’re still outraged by Little’s suggestion that D.C. music is boring, please head down I-95 to Richmond. You’ll still feel superior, but you’ll dance more.

8. The Rosebuds Make Out, the Rosebuds. If you think three “yeah”s are always better than one, then you need to hear this North Carolina trio absolutely rip it up garage-style on “Kicks in the Schoolyard.” Trust me: It’ll shorten the life of your Previous button.

7. Gallowsbird’s Bark, the Fiery Furnaces. This is the kind of Americana that Europeans eat with a spoon: rollicking, bluesy accounts of la vie bohème delivered with tongues so far in cheek that it’s a wonder these Brooklynites can sing at all. Gets more wonderful every time I listen, too.

6. Electric Version, the New Pornographers. When Neko Case croons, “Nobody knows the wreck of a soul the way you do,” she could be singing the epitaph of head Pornographer Carl Newman. My only complaint is that the album’s almost too much of a good thing: The sheer quality of its world-weariness can be tough to take for 46 minutes. Still, that didn’t stop me from listening to “The Laws Have Changed” 20 times in a row when I first got this.

5. Happy Songs for Happy People, Mogwai. Hey, space rockers: Mogwai hasn’t been a Slint soundalike for years, and on this one the lads show they can shake the clouds as deftly as they can tickle the dandelions. There’s no Elvish, either.

4. Worse for the Wear, the New Amsterdams. Side projects that don’t suck, Part 1: As a Get Up Kid, Matthew Pryor has never convincingly expressed who he is; as a New Amsterdam, Pryor is very much his own man—a guy who loves touring but misses his family, a Midwesterner freaked out by Paris Hilton, a rock ’n’ roller who takes drugs only when they ensure punctuality. Turns out he likes the Beatles, too.

3. Give Up, the Postal Service. Side projects that don’t suck, Part 2: As frontman of Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Gibbard has never broken the good-but-not-great barrier; as the voice of this dance-music collaboration with Dntel’s Jimmy Tamborello, he oozes charisma, confidence, and humor, singing about getting schooled by ex-lovers sick of his boy-rock shit—and being freaked out by Paris Hilton.

2. Hearts of Oak, Ted Leo/Pharmacists. A virtuoso amalgam of a Catholic education, a passion for politics, an unpredictable falsetto, and extreme stereo separation, this album sent me to the dictionary more than once. (“Abjure” is not a rock ’n’ roll word, Ted.) But it sent me into a completely unwatchable fit of dancing more often. I want to have kids so I can embarrass them by loving this album long after I’m supposed to stop liking poppy punk.

1. Dear Catastrophe Waitress, Belle and Sebastian. I want to kiss Trevor Horn for waking Stuart Murdoch up to the fact that he’s the reason anybody ever liked Belle and Sebastian in the first place. Democracy, schmemocracy: As long as Murdoch can reference Thin Lizzy, eviscerate an ex-bandmate, and make fun of himself for being a “little lost sheep” all in the same song, he’ll remain the king of indie.

—Andrew Beaujon

Open Up and Say...Daaa!

I totally creeped out Bret Michaels this year. There I was, hanging with Poison’s hirsute, middle-aging howler on the Poison tour bus drinking Poison beer after a late-summer Poison show at Nissan Pavilion. Behind me was a combustibly cleavaged groupie who looked like a wrinkly reimagining of E! babe Brooke Burke. After spotting my reporter’s notebook—out for show at this point—Old Brooke smiled and said, “You’re a music writer? You have the greatest job ever.” This shallow ego boost triggered me to confront Poison’s bug-eyed frontman, throw a fist in the air, and shout far too loudly, “I’m the only one keepin’ metal alive, Bret!” I still have no idea what that means or why I said it—and neither did the security guard who gently guided me off the bus.

Pop

Now, I’m telling you this sad but true tale for a few reasons: (1) You should know that I have no shame. (2) You should know that I really like hair metal, especially Ratt. (3) You should know that I’m a shameless man who really likes hair metal, especially Ratt. And only a person with nothing to hide should be allowed to concoct a best-of list. Did you see the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time? What were the White Stripes doing on there? Where was Supertramp? That pisses me off. I take a lot of guff for my love of cheez, but at least I’m no poseur.

So here we go: This will be the most straight-up best-of list you’ll read all year, which was a pretty damn good one for guilty-pleasure pop music. The following selections are based solely on how long a CD stayed put in my stereo. Remember: I have no shame. Oh, and the White Stripes suck.

1. The Black Album, Jay-Z. Jigga rides off into a supposed sunset with Seussical flow that never fails to thrill. You know damn well that he’ll be back. You just don’t know if he’ll ever sound this good again.

2. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, OutKast. OK, so maybe Dre and Big Boi don’t need each other anymore. Nevertheless, this two-disc fun house of musical mutations is silly and scary, sexy and soulful. Sure, it’s on every other best-of list, too—but the poseurs ain’t lying about this one.

3. “Welcome Interstate Managers”, Fountains of Wayne. I live in the suburbs now—not Columbia, exactly, but you can see it from there. I think of this tragically uplifting album every time I take the recycling out on Thursday. Or is it Friday?

4. Try This, Pink. Did you see that Pink and Tommy Lee are dating now? What took them so long? I bet they play this loud, lewd blend of R&B and R&R when they film themselves humping.

5. Everything Must Go, Steely Dan. Apocalyptic tour guides Fagen and Becker make sure that when we all go out for good, we’ll go out swingin’.

6. La Bella Mafia, Lil’ Kim. Queen Bee went Old Navy on us way too early. But before she started pushing hoodies, she scrumped out the catchiest album of her career. C’mon, Kim: Fellating a Sprite can is way more respectable than getting chummy with Fran Drescher.

7. The Neptunes Present... Clones, the Neptunes. The party platter of 2003, with makeshift mayors of Virginia Beach Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo saving some of their best neck-breaking beats for Ludacris, Dirt McGirt, and Snoop.

8. 12 Memories, Travis. Fran Healy’s political musings are the stuff that yawwwns are made of, but when he’s feeling sad and lonely, he still makes the most heart-smushing Britpop around.

9. Chain Gang of Love, the Raveonettes. Listening to this is like having sex with sexy, switchblade wielding Danish zombies. In Phil Spector’s jail cell. And covered in sand.

10. At Last, Cyndi Lauper. This collection of covers is the most surprising album of the year, not because it’s so good, but because it’s so unbelievably heartbreaking. Goonie love lasts only so long.

The best single of the year was Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” followed closely by “Undercover” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton—what took them so long?—“Whenever I Say Your Name” by Sting and Mary J. Blige—ditto—and “Got Some Teeth” by Obie Trice. Best greatest-hits package? Reloaded, Tom Jones. Best reissue? The entire AC/DC catalog. Best concert? It’s a tie: Duran Duran at the Warner Theatre and Radiohead at Merriweather Post Pavilion.

And finally, this year’s I Really Like Barry Manilow—No, I’m Not Being Ironic—Award goes to Hall & Oates, not so much for the duo’s not-awful 2003 album, Do It for Love, but for all those years of soft-rockin’ service. You see, I was listening to Darryl & John as I drove my newborn daughter home from the hospital. Singing along to “Private Eyes” kept me from driving off a bridge.

Of course, when she’s older, I’m gonna introduce her to Ratt. After all, someone’s gotta keep metal alive.

—Sean Daly

A New Membership

It’s merely annoying that the world’s most meteoric hiphop star is a grinning individualist known more for his bullet wounds than his intellect—after all, 50 Cent can flip a decent verse. But the rapper is still an embarrassment, and Dre and Em really should have known better: Their protégé exudes the vibe that all his biggest fights are in the past. The bad attitude that earned 50 his battle scars seems to have dissipated before he got famous—which doesn’t leave much fun for the rest of us.

Hiphop

Yeah, “In da Club” was a mighty single, but those who bought into the rest of Get Rich or Die Tryin’ might want to consider this: No matter how refreshing 50 Cent’s ear-to-ear smile and casual demeanor might be to a large swath of hiphop consumers, his macho rhythms and been-there, done-that mythology are all too familiar to anyone who’s witnessed the three-decade slide of the cock-rock superstars of the ’70s. Maybe we’ll just have to ride it out, bracing ourselves for a future of nostalgia tours and soundtrack appearances. Maybe 2004 will see 50 Cent disappear. And maybe, just maybe, these 10 hiphop records will be the ones that people remember from 2003:

1. Vaudeville Villain, Viktor Vaughn. Yes, the man who lived through the early ’90s as KMD’s Zev Love X has the dreaded multiple-moniker disorder (his aka’s now include MF Doom and King Geedorah). But he also has a savant’s ear for disorienting, enticing, and tight-as-hell street beats. Vaughn’s rhymes are ace, too: When his sci-fi syllables and junk-movie homages are flowing, hiphop culture warps into an interstellar space that only he can control.

2. Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, OutKast. If Big Boi is OutKast’s firmly rooted sea anemone, then André 3000 is the attendant clown fish, working against the hiphop currents to capture and share morsels of jazz, pop, and soul. The anemone, meanwhile, just stays cool, waving his arms in the air, because the funk can’t be denied. Everybody benefits.

3. Later That Day..., Lyrics Born. A novelty of sorts: An indie hiphop record that strives for listenability and succeeds simply by doing its own West Coast thing. For Lyrics Born, that means putting down hot ’70s grooves, overlaying them with a sharp worldview, and pointing the results just to the left of mass appeal. Things start slowly, but don’t most parties?

4. The Black Album, Jay-Z. This supposed swan song gets points for the supercharged “99 Problems,” but loses ’em for its single-minded attention to shaping the MC’s legacy. Still, Jay hasn’t been this efficient since The Blueprint, and he knows it.

5. Shades of Blue, Madlib. Of course it’s cool—that’s what happens when a skillful, Blue Note–worshiping producer handles jazz from the vaults. Madlib plays a subtle trick, though: Shades of Blue isn’t about chilling out to the classics. It’s about shifting our perspectives on what’s old, what’s new, and what matters, not just to hiphop but to music in general.

6. This Is Not a Test!, Missy Elliott. Timbaland and Elliott now can afford to stop pumping their collaborations full of goo, and for the most part they’re able to control the urge.

7. 8 Million Stories, Soul Position. Drum-kit-driven beats (via RJD2) intertwine with personality-packed rhymes (via Blueprint), and both are better for participating in the back-slapping dude hug. The stoners get something, too: RJ’s headphone-ready, blaxploitation-style production accents.

8. One Word Extinguisher, Prefuse 73. Hiphop DJing was born from a simple collision of technology and art, but people weren’t thinking that hard about it. Prefuse was born from one man’s desire to prolong that collision. You can hear Scott Herren thinking about it in every click and thump, but that doesn't mean he ain’t in touch with his gut, too.

9. One A.M., Diverse. What it is: A purposefully lean debut from an intelligent MC who’s probably on the verge of a creative growth spurt. What it isn’t: self-satisfied, pedantic, or unnecessarily cerebral.

10. Chicken ‘n’ Beer, Ludacris. There’s always room for obnoxiousness in hiphop, because the music allows goofballs such as Ludacris to say exactly what they want. His baritone braggadocio and hyperactive libido might never evolve, but isn’t that the point? Besides, behind those greasy beats, there’s a pop-culture mastermind hard at work.

—Joe Warminsky

Wayne’s World

Wayne Shorter has won album-of-the-year honors at the jazz magazine I work for two years in a row now. I’m sure some of the positive vibes represent genuine love for Shorter’s latest, the classical-jazz Alegría. But others are no doubt left over from the good reception enjoyed by the saxophonist’s previous CD, the all-acoustic Footprints Live! After years of that fusion stuff, it seems, most jazz fans are just happy to have the 70-year-old Shorter back on the nonelectrified side of the tracks. If we like this one, maybe Wayne’ll cut another swingin’ quartet date.

Jazz

The jazz world is like that: Fans are always stoked for the old dudes, and sometimes it seems as if every musician over 55 is a “master.” The jazz world simply loves to venerate its heroes, and, as Shorter’s case demonstrates, it gets especially tweaked when those heroes return to their “roots.” That’s all well and good if you’re a member of the pump-priming jazz press. But we live in a rootless age, and what with technology, travel, and common sense, Our Music has come a long way from its original sources. There are plenty of younger players out there creating new music that reflects their modern-day experiences and isn’t grounded in any one tradition. And anyway, utter purity has never existed in jazz. Cross-pollination has always been where it’s at, daddy-o, and here’s a top 10 to prove it:

1. These Are the Vistas, the Bad Plus. The most rousing and divisive jazz record in years—and it’s by a piano trio? Sure, a lot of cranks saw these Midwesterners as white elephants (with an emphasis on the “white”). And sure, the Nirvana, Blondie, and Aphex Twin covers here scream “novelty act.” But those songs are actually pretty killer—and the band’s angular originals are, well, as original as they come. You need this CD, whether you want it or not.

2. The Bandwagon, Jason Moran. It sounds as if it had been recorded on a Walkman, but this is still a stunning document of a band and its leader at their peak. The best postmodernism in the genre, live at the Village Vanguard.

3. New Conceptions, Chucho Valdés. This legend of Cuban jazz has released a ton of albums, both as a solo artist and as leader of the legendary Irakere. Dare I say that this is the pianist’s best record yet? I just did.

4. Airports for Light, the Vandermark 5. Prolific reedist Ken Vandermark absorbs various forms of art voraciously, then shoots out his own interpretations. Songs on this alternately smokin’ and cerebral disc more than live up to their dedications to such diverse talents as Gerhard Richter, John Cassavetes, Curtis Mayfield, and Sonny Rollins.

5. Changing Places, Tord Gustavsen Trio. Elegant, late-night piano-trio music. The band plays slow and slower, with Gustavsen striking a note only when he absolutely decides it’s required. Space is the place, and it’s gorgeous.

6. Live at the Village Vanguard, the Fred Hersch Trio. Pianist Hersch is a master of harmony, and this live ’n’ loud recording is what a date at the Vanguard should sound like. From one of the smartest and—ahem—purest trios in jazz, too.

7. Malicool, Roswell Rudd & Toumani Diabate. Trombonist Rudd hooks up with kora player Diabate, and the mixture of low brass, 21-stringed harp, and West African percussion is as unique as it is inspiring. Monk goes to Mali.

8. Equilibrium, Matthew Shipp. The most avid and prolific of those exploring jazztronica, keyboardist Shipp is a fascinating technician and arranger. Here, he goes heavy on the grooves, turning in his most appealing mix yet.

9. Freak In, Dave Douglas. The problem with combining jazz and electronica—a fluid live form vs. a programmed studio creation—is that usually the bleeps and bloops win out, making the music far too rigid. Not so here, as trumpeter Douglas builds a solid bridge between two very different worlds.

10. Sonic Trance, Nicholas Payton. Somewhere between electronica and electric Miles—and by Payton, the formerly buttoned-down trumpeter who everyone thought would be the next Wynton Marsalis. Such beautiful blasphemy.

—Christopher Porter

Heavy Thoughts Tonight

One more reason Newt Gingrich is right about the war: Back in May, Newsweek reported that the U.S. Army was torturing Iraqi prisoners to the tune of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” apparently confusing the midtempo cut from 1991’s multiplatinum Metallica for some kind of musical extremism. “These people haven’t heard heavy metal before,” Sgt. Mark Hadsell told the mag. “They can’t take it.”

Metal

Right. Not only can they take it, they can dish it out: According to the March 10, 2003, issue of Der Spiegel, an Iraqi army officer’s son nicknamed Bloodmaster formed a state-tolerated metal band after hearing pirated Metallica tracks. Truly, this is something the White House has to get a grip on.

So do the suits in the music industry. Yet despite another year of declining CD sales and downloading as usual, metal dominated the summer stadium circuit, nü-metal acts Evanescence, Linkin Park, and Korn all shifted massive units, and hair-metal fetishists the Darkness parked at No. 1 in Blighty. Even Metallica’s middling St. Anger managed to go platinum.

Still, with the notable exception of Cradle of Filth’s hooky, indulgent, and often excellent Damnation and a Day—the first black-metal album to be released on a major in the United States, as well as the first to enter the Billboard 200—my favorite arguments for metal as art came, as usual, from the indies. If Bloodmaster ever gets that free-market economy we’ve been promising him, I’m sure he’ll agree.

The year’s best, in alphabetical order by artist:

When Fire Rains Down From the Sky, Mankind Will Reap as It Has Sown, Anaal Nathrakh. I was listening to the Smiths when Slayer’s Reign in Blood came out in 1986. But hearing that watershed back then must have felt something like listening to this one now. Beyond-fierce, beyond-dense black metal from two accountant-looking guys who always seem to be pushing at the edge of musical possibility.

Below the Lights, Enslaved. Both Spin and Mojo ran prog primers this year, so perhaps the time is ripe for a Viking metal act with an analog-synth fetish and at least one King Crimson tattoo. Lots of sketchy headbangers like progressive rock, but this Norwegian foursome is singular because it’s more Eno than ELP—more about atmosphere than just trottin’ out the chops.

The Sky’s Run Into the Sea, Growing. Growing didn’t invent drum-free hard-core throb (see: Earth). But the all-but-instrumental Olympia trio is definitely the genre’s most meditative and melodic bunch. What that will mean to the heshers is anyone’s guess—although any band that quotes “Norwegian Wood” probably couldn’t care less.

Things Viral, Khanate. The Linda Blair vocals turned me off at first. But get past those and you’ll discover a New York quartet that makes the Melvins sound like speed metal. Nearly ambient experimentalism that’s still scary as hell.

Plague Soundscapes, the Locust. The Locust guys keep insisting that they’re not metal. They’re just snobs: Plague Soundscapes is every bit as speedy, spastic, and double-bass-dense as any other grindcore record, retrofuturist synths notwithstanding.

Retaliate, Misery Index. Locals Agoraphobic Nosebleed and Darkest Hour both turned in good-to-very-good records this year, but I listened to Baltimore’s Misery Index more than either. Perhaps it was because the trio introduced true punk sensibility to guttural American death metal: no wanky solos, no Neanderthal lyrics—just straight-ahead riffcentric grinding.

Australasia, Pelican. The EP from February was more metallic, but the full-length from November revealed more depth: The all-instrumental Australasia reveals the Chicago quartet can be as heavy as Opeth, as reductive as Neu!, and as folky as any Thrill Jockey act with acoustic guitars.

Two Rooms (Full of Insects), Earl Shilton. Sick of being ex–Bolt Thrower man Alex Thomas, the Brit drummer rechristened himself after a Leicestershire village and recorded the entirety of this ever-shifting, mostly instrumental gem of revisionist thrash all by himself. Sans Thomas’ indecipherable growl, Two Rooms would be perfect for occasional headbangers: Without the genre trappings, this is nothing but one killer riff after another.

White 1, Sunn O))). This was a great year for Stephen O’Malley. In addition to playing guitar in Khanate, he also checked in as half of the minimalist-drone duo Sunn O))), a band that’s every bit as glacial and a lot easier on the ears. It didn’t hurt that Julian Cope showed up to get all meta, either: “Play your gloom ax, Stephen O’Malley/Sub-bass ringing the sides of the valley.”

Liberation, 1349. These corpse-painted Norwegians may be traditionalists at heart (they cover black-metal pioneers Mayhem), but there’s something inadvertently avant about the way the quintet’s debut buzzes and hums from the speakers. Though 1349’s concepts are all shock ’n’ awe (favorite song title: “I Breathe Spears”), the music is heft-free and peaceful in a weird way: tweeter-testing sheets of raspy vocals, tremolo-picked melodies, and trebly blast beats.

—Brent Burton

In With the Old

Being rediscovered by hipsters is a rough deal. No one gives a fuck about you for the better part of 20 years, and then all of a sudden there are these bands worshipping your slap-bass lines, appropriating your impeccable use of the cowbell, and putting you in the same sentence with Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. The hype can be wonderful, but it comes with messy rituals, too: the jowl-exposing photo shoots, the where-have-you-been interviews, the forced reunion gig at some festival.

Reissues

If you’re 2003’s reissue king, James Chance, you have no choice but to accept the spotlight suddenly shining in your direction and bask in the nerd glow—after all, it beats playing in that jazz combo. This past year, the Godfather of No Wave had to recount the death of his manager/girlfriend, reveal his drug “issues” and label problems, and even tell one interviewer that the last show he caught was Little Jimmy Scott. Not bad, but the fact still marks him as a fogey. “I don’t really go out much anymore,” Chance explained.

The trade-off was ubiquity. James Siegfried—the altar boy from Milwaukee who shared loft space with Lydia Lunch, punched out Robert Christgau, and studied sax under David Murray—was everywhere this year. You heard his signature “Contort Yourself” in all its various mutations: the cold, brittle standard; the remix; the spaced-out disco version. Not just all over the Rapture’s much-hyped Echoes, but also on every compilation that tried to cash in on the new New York scene with the old New York scene: Soul Jazz’s New York Noise (the best of the bunch, and the only must-have), Rough Trade’s Rough Trade Shops: Post Punk 01, ZE’s Mutant Disco and N.Y No Wave. The song appeared on the standard reissue vinyl of the Contortions’ Buy, too—not mention on the four-CD Irresistible Impulse box set.

But the hipsters could have it worse. Jazzbos will eventually have to pretend to embrace Miles Davis’ ’80s back catalog. Country fans will get to sort out posthumous Johnny Cash collections for the next five years. Hippies will have to contend with Canned Heat for the rest of their lives. “Contort Yourself” deserves the heavy spins. With its bass taffy, slide-guitarscrapes, and vocal ’n’ sax vomit, it captures our perceptions of its late-’70s milieu better than any other song. The birth of rap, the last days of disco, the evilest of punk—it’s all here, depending on which version you hear. I hope Chance’s middle-aged hips make the most of it. Other artists have to die before they get theirs, watching their records live out their years on the eBay circuit, or, worse, get covered by Yo La Tengo.

It’s instructive to note that even with the glut of “Contort Yourself”s out there, fanboys were still clamoring for the domestic re-release of No New York, arguing that its four Chance tracks are no less essential. Instead, they got packages from one NNY participant (Mars) and a couple of fellow travelers (Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham). If only those records had come with a lecture from Thurston Moore: They turned out to be more interesting to read about than to actually listen to.

Just in case that’s a sign that the Great No Wave Revival has nothing left to revive, here’s a list of other notable records that made it from the collector swaps and onto our grubby stereos this year. After all, even hipsters need to get out of the city sometimes.

—Jason Cherkis

Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s, 1926–1937, Various Artists. Old Hat boss Marshall Wyatt went up to Frederick, Md., to the home of Joe Bussard, and headed down the cellar stairs. He surfaced with 24 tracks from before the world went to hell and an affectionate portrait of a cantankerous character both loved and loathed among hard-core collectors of old shellac. It’s all killer, no filler, and far and away the compilation of the year—but then, with 50,000 sides to choose from, it ought to be.

—Glenn Dixon

The Greatest Hit (Money Mountain), Blue Orchids. Founding Fall members Martin Bramah and Una Baines balanced the opposing imperatives of postpunk and psychedelia like nobody else, and this LP-plus-singles package makes the case the only way possible: with the band’s full early- ’80s catalog and nothing else. Who says a collection needs to be compleat to be great?

—Leonard Roberge

The Definitive Hoosier Hotshots Collection, the Hoosier Hotshots. This two-disc set from these National Barn Dance regulars may be stickered “35 Classic Cuts of Country Corn!,” but Indiana’s Depression-era novelty giants don’t exactly put you in mind of Cledus T. Judd. With Hezzie Trietsch’s virtuoso slide whistle leading the way, the quartet melded jazz, pop, and vaudeville, and it came at country from the Western-swing and Hollywood-cowboy angles. Don’t believe the hype that this is “the ONLY collection available,” either, but it’s definitely the place to start.

—Glenn Dixon

Folk and Pop Sounds of Sumatra, Various Artists. More a tour through an obsession than a thorough survey, Folk and Pop is culled from cassettes that Sun City Girl Alan Bishop acquired in Sumatra in 1989. There’s really no rhyme or reason beyond that. To Bishop’s credit, the collection’s Bollywood-style pop, Latin-tinged balladry, blissed-out trance, and bizarre “drama” outtakes all sound perfectly right and natural together.

—Brent Burton

Cedric Im Brooks & the Light of Saba, Cedric Im Brooks. Sometime in the ’60s, a Kingston saxophonist travels to America and discovers Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Sun Ra. He returns to his home base, cobbles together a loose band of horn and drum players, and sets to connecting his country’s musical history to ours. The best retro party record of the year.

—Jason Cherkis

Goodbye, Babylon, Various Artists. You’d have to be a pretty hardhearted heathen to deny the corporeal pleasures of this box set, a six-disc collection of Southern gospel and religious songs from the first half of the 20th century. There are plenty of familiar voices, from Bukka White’s craggy blues drone to Hank Williams’ pinched country croon to Mahalia Jackson’s melismatic gospel bellow. But whether it’s the Dixieland shuffle of the Blue Chips or the calypso bop of Roaring Lion With Cyril Monrose String Orchestra, there’s just as much joy in the obscurities.

—Brent Burton

The Smoke, the Smoke. “The Hobbit Symphony” is exactly the sort of excess that gives 1968 a bad name. But the rest of this long-loster, co-produced by West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band member Michael Lloyd and Runaways impresario Kim Fowley, is remarkable for its restraint, string and horn sections notwithstanding. In other words, Dear Catastrophe Waitress this lovely little gem definitely ain’t.

—Leonard Roberge

Lost and Found: Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics, Pete Rock. Lost and Found was recorded in 1994 for Rock’s own label but long left to the bootleggers. The lyrics and flow of rappers INI and Deda may have gathered dust, but they don’t obscure the production skills of one of hiphop’s best. The intricate jazz loops will make you think you’re back in your dorm room debating the latest Spike Lee joint—which ain’t such a bad place to be.

—Jason Cherkis

It’s Not Up to Us, Byard Lancaster. This one seemed as if it would be a real screecher. After all, Philly saxophonist/flutist Byard Lancaster honed his chops with fiery free-jazz pioneers Sun Ra and Sunny Murray. But on his 1968 debut as a leader, Lancaster barely lets out so much as a skronk. Even freaky six-stringer Sonny Sharrock reins in the noise, very nearly swingin’ his way through, of all things, “Misty.”

—Brent Burton

No Other, Gene Clark. It seems that every commercial flop from the past stands a good chance of being resurrected by rock snobs as a “misunderstood masterpiece.” The tag is apt, however, for Clark’s admittedly self-indulgent but absolutely gorgeous No Other. Somehow the questionable addition of strings and gospel singers to a country-rock record gives an epic weight to the coked-out cosmology of the early-’70s Laurel Canyon set.

—David Dunlap Jr.

Home is Where the Art is

By Bob Mondello and Trey Graham

OK, let’s run the numbers. Arena Stage has decided it needs $75 million to $100 million to build an oval theater space enclosed in a vitrine with a soaring roof that’ll also shelter its current complex. The Shakespeare Theatre wants $77 million to nearly triple its seating capacity with a new auditorium a block from its current Lansburgh Building base. And the Atlas Theatre Project consortium is looking for $12 million to build two new stages on H Street NE.

Theater

Now, factor in the projects that are already under way. What was once a stage in a barn at the Olney Theatre Center is rapidly being transformed into a four-theater, 14-acre campus with a $10.5 million price tag. The Studio Theatre, Woolly Mammoth, and the Gala Hispanic Theatre are in the process of scraping up $12 million, $7.5 million, and $3 million, respectively, to finish paying for their already-under-construction new spaces.

High Points
Twelfth Night
Folger Theatre
Crave
Potomac Theatre Festival
A Night With Dame Edna
National Theatre
Richard III
Shakespeare Theatre
Follies
Signature Theatre
Lady Chatterley's Lover
Washington Shakespeare Company
1776
Ford's Theatre
Proof
Arena Stage
Lackawanna Blues
Studio Theatre
Speaking in Tongues
Round House Theatre
Talley's Folly
Theater J
The Tamking of the Shrew
Royal Shakespeare Company
Low Points
The Tale of the Allergist's Wife
National Theatre
An American Daughter
Arena Stage
Ghosts
Shakespeare Theatre
I Worry
Wooly Mammoth
Stones in His Pockets
Kennedy Center
Sidney Bechet Killed a Man
Metrostage
A Delicate Balance
Keegan Theatre

Stop there—though there are other projects afoot—and note that local companies have already run up a $222 million tab for local theater construction. That’s more than five times the amount granted to organizations by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001. Repeat: more than five times.

And we’ve left out the $650 million or so that the Kennedy Center says it’ll be raising from public and private sources to build a ceremonial driveway and two multipurpose arts buildings on top of the tangle of highways that currently cut it off from downtown. And the millions the KenCen has already spent expanding its parking garage and renovating its concert hall and opera house. And the proposed $200 million, three-auditorium music museum that may eventually occupy the site of the old Washington Convention Center.

Factor those in and you have a one-city, billion-dollar theatrical building boom. Not too shabby. Also not too likely, of course. Some of the construction plans will inevitably fall by the wayside as fundraising efforts hit the wall with area philanthropists.

Still, the Shakespeare Theatre has half its cash in hand, and most of the smaller projects are nearing their fundraising goals, so a lot of new theaters will actually get built in the next few years. That much is certain.

And for what? Well, this year, that seemed less certain. Though it was healthy enough at the box office, 2003 was a theatrically anemic year, with a good deal more drama offstage than on. Basking in the footlights were shopworn Broadway revivals at the National and timeworn, dinner-theaterish revivals at Arena, while behind the scenes, there was all sorts of ferment. There were changes in approach (the Helen Hayes Awards overhauled its judging system); changes of the guard (the Actors’ Theater of Washington got handed off to a new team); and deaths both individual (Ford’s Theatre icon Frankie Hewitt) and institutional (Le Neon Theatre Company closed shop, and Cherry Red Productions said it would, too).

But the year’s main backstage event was the theater community’s ferocious—and pretty much universal—carping about the Washington Post’s coverage of the local scene. Early in the year, disgruntled theater insiders circulated an e-mail dubbed “The Marks Matrix” that purported to illustrate how small theaters were falling through the cracks while the Post’s editors repeatedly sent the paper’s lead critic, Peter Marks, out of town. By midsummer, there were earnest discussions at League of Washington Theater meetings about what to do about the fact that local shows sometimes had to wait until their final weekends to be reviewed, while the openings of such Broadway nonstarters as Enchanted April and Taboo got splashed all over Style’s front page.

Then again, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that the peripatetic Marks wasn’t missing much on the home front while he filed his dispatches from Manhattan and London’s West End. There’s a list of “high points” accompanying this wrap-up, but only two or three of this year’s shows would have made the best-of cut last year, and nothing on this list remotely rivals such 2002 highlights as the blistering Medea brought to the KenCen by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre—or even the Zora Neale Hurston discovery, Polk County, that Arena dug out of the archives last year.

Happily, the same can be said of the other end of the spectrum; there weren’t a lot of outright disasters in Washington theater in the past 12 months. Still, it’s hard to get excited about a year when the big onstage news was...competence.

The long and shortcomings of it, artistically speaking:

Commercial Houses

The Kennedy Center served up a low-key, largely British season, importing both the year’s undisputed low-water mark (the execrable Stones in His Pockets) and what’s probably the high point as well: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rousing rotating rep of The Taming of the Shrew (brilliant) and that play’s sort-of sequel, The Tamer Tamed (historically intriguing). And thank God—another offering as iffy as the RSC’s springtime As You Like It would have made us worry about the center’s five-year contract with the company.

Another theatrical institution—Stephen Sondheim—met with a mixed reception at the KenCen this year, too. The Eisenhower Theater’s only musical this season, Bounce, came in on a wave of lukewarm notices from Chicago and didn’t find many more fans locally, though it was able to ride the coattails of last year’s Sondheim celebration to run at 90 percent of capacity.

With the Kennedy Center Opera House closed all year for renovations, the National Theatre got its best shot in years at producing a respectable season—and blew it. The Producers, The Lion King, and Hairspray all played smaller cities, while the Shuberts booked the National with the theatrical equivalent of a dose of NyQuil—a broad, wheezing Tale of the Allergist’s Wife—and D.C.’s zillionth go-round of Cats. The house’s only bright point was a too-brief Dame Edna stand, which sold out to the rafters. Ford’s, meanwhile, scored with a smart, solid 1776 that felt made for its historic stage, and made an uneven attempt at epic with The Grapes of Wrath. Otherwise, the house marked time with fillers.

Downtown Repertory Houses

Would that things had been different at the city’s leading resident stage, but Arena’s management is seemingly hellbent on carving out a new niche for itself as a revival house. The theater Zelda Fichandler founded five decades ago as an alternative to the commercial drivel across town at the National now prides itself on reproducing that same drivel in a not-for-profit setting. Not surprisingly, the company sometimes does it well: Ain’t Misbehavin’ was capably mounted, and Camelot’s costumes are certainly pretty. But if there’s a point to lavishing the company’s resources and expertise on mainstream musicals, Wendy Wasserstein sitcoms, and entertainments about church ladies and their hats—other than as box-office insurance—it’s not immediately obvious. There will always be an audience for shows that have been crowd-pleasers in steam-table venues, but a season built around them is a sad sight at a house that once set the nation’s theatrical agenda.

By comparison, the Shakespeare Theatre seems almost bold these days, even when it’s producing hidebound classics. This year it updated Ibsen’s Ghosts to the age of AIDS, dressed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in finery that all but drowned out the play’s poetry, and served up a scene-stealing 16th-century drag heroine in The Silent Woman. It also gave us the Mrs. Malaprop Nancy Robinette has long deserved and introduced a fearless young up-and-comer named Daniel Breaker. If not everything worked, there was at least a sense of discovery to the troupe’s offerings.

The Studio Theatre, for its part, discovered a shattering sense of humanity in Suzan-Lori Parks’ chilly, schematic Topdog/Underdog and uncovered unsettling layers of humor and horror in Edward Albee’s The Play About the Baby. The company found little to add to Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, but it did import a pair of solid solo performers, so on balance, its year was pretty substantial.

The Woolly Mammoth crew came fast out of the gate with the ambitious, intriguing Jump/Cut, then more or less coasted. It’s been a good year for the troupe’s actors, though, with Sarah Marshall doing double duty as diametrically opposed sisters in The Mineola Twins and Rick Foucheux donning sequinned spandex in the troupe’s current attraction to add a paunchy, disabled Elvis impersonator to the already diverse raft of characters he played in 2003.

Foucheux’s Malvolio was one of the best things about the magical Twelfth Night with which the Folger Theatre kicked off the year. (Elizabeth the Queen, with Michael Learned, was its other notable offering.) And Foucheux brought a positively amazing grace to the lyrical Talley’s Folly staged by Theater J, a company that proved especially strong in 2003. The house that Ari Roth built also co-produced and played host to Jump/Cut, and it mounted two interesting new works—The Mad Dancers and From Tel Aviv to Ramallah: A Beatbox Journey—that proved both formally intriguing and emotionally expressive. Theater J has unmistakably become a theatrical force of late, though skeptics will justifiably wonder whether it’ll make anything of the new Wasserstein offering that’s next on its agenda.

The Washington Stage Guild found an interesting wrinkle for Shaw’s The Philanderer, producing both of the endings he wrote. And half a block away, an amusingly bloody-minded punk-rock adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was one of the few offerings from the Source Theatre. The venerable alt-theater outlet otherwise played real-estate broker this year, taking a restructuring break and renting out its 14th Street space to other companies (including the Actors’ Theater, for a well-conceived but unevenly executed Lilies). Source did manage to keep its 23-year-old summer theater festival alive, and this month it launched its new season with a double bill of new plays from a local and a formerly local writer.

The ‘Burbs and Beyond

With 110 in the Shade and Follies, the Signature Theatre continued to do what it does best—resuscitate worthy but underproduced musicals by stripping them of the Broadway grandiosity that can make them seem mere entertainment machines. The company stumbled somewhat with its straight plays, and it settled for a pleasant, diverting take on Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which was more interesting for its accident of timing (opposite the composer’s Bounce at the Kennedy Center) than for anything fresh it revealed about the show.

The Washington Shakespeare Company and the Keegan Theater both staged intriguing rotating repertories at the Clark Street Playhouse, though Keegan pressed its luck by following a sharply observed Sam Shepard rep with a lamely inadequate Edward Albee pairing. WSC’s adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, meanwhile, was among the year’s best-directed ensemble offerings, though the Night of the Iguana it offered alongside was interesting mostly for its intensity—and for Cam Magee’s immensely warm Hannah Jelkes.

Teatro de la Luna didn’t produce much besides a mounting of the allegorical Cuban comedy Manteca (Lard), but at least it made a small splash with that one outing. Of the six offerings from Alexandria’s MetroStage, only a winsome staging of Tom Stoppard’s Rough Crossing made any kind of impression. (No, wait—the half-baked Sidney Bechet Killed a Man made a perfectly miserable impression, which probably wasn’t what the company had in mind.) The American Century Theater likewise misstepped, with, among other 2003 awkwardnesses, a well-meaning excursion into the perilous territory of Dear World, Jerry Herman’s bizarro musicalization of The Madwoman of Chaillot. At least Jack Marshall & Co. will be able to clip the warm reviews for Benchley Despite Himself, Nat Benchley’s wistful and well-built homage to his witty writer grandfather, when they’re putting together their year-end scrapbooks.

The year’s nerviest piece of theater, bar none, turned up in a black-box space at that mushrooming Olney complex: Sarah Kane’s Crave, part of the annual Potomac Theatre Festival, played like a frantic conversation among our collective demons, and Cheryl Faraone’s bare-bones production insisted that audiences sit up and listen. (Olney’s mainstage season wasn’t nearly as exciting, though its largely charmless Charley’s Aunt did let the estimable Colleen Delany prove she can play funny as well as she plays melancholy.) Meanwhile, over at the Round House Theater in Bethesda, where audacious theatricality is forever at war with a cavernous space, the war was won on occasion—most notably in a richly produced Heartbreak House.

Small Fry

If there’s a local company known for both the greatness of its temerity and the smallness of its budgets, it’s Cherry Red, whose demise (as a producer of full seasons, anyhow) will be mourned among its loyal legions of local smut connoisseurs. For all its irreverence, the company turned in two substantial pieces of work this year: the disturbing Penetrator and the ambitious, amusing in-joke that was Kenneth, What Is the Frequency?, by company co-founders Ian Allen and Monique LaForce. Nearly as bold and every bit as poor, the movement-oriented Synetic Theater barely survived its breakup with the Stanislavsky Theater Studio, but it nonetheless managed to mount a hypnotic Salomé—and, when it resurfaced at the Rosslyn Spectrum, to reprise its silent take on Hamlet, a multiple–Helen Hayes Award winner last year.

Which, come to think of it, brings us back to the shelter question. Most of D.C. theater’s small, scrappy troupes have obsessed for years about finding permanent venues—but you’ve gotta wonder if the comforts of home encourage challenging work. It’s true the Theater Alliance presented a solid season in its second year at the H Street Playhouse. But the technically homeless African Continuum Theatre Company does substantial work, too, in the awkward Kennedy Center space it’s been sharing with Woolly Mammoth and the American Film Institute. And consider Stanislavsky—perpetrator of mostly indifferent work since it established itself as the resident company at the Church Street Theater—as well as Catalyst, which presented two ungainly messes this year at its Capitol Hill Arts Workshop base.

Fact is that black boxes and church basements, storefronts and warehouses have always been home to some of the most interesting theater in Washington. And billion-dollar real-estate boom or no, some such out-of-the-way spot is just as likely to host the next production or the next performance that stands our hair on end. So build away, everybody. Just don’t forget to keep looking over your shoulders. CP

Tightening the Beltway

By Glenn Dixon

This was the year the lousy economy caught up with the museum world—or so it seems from the perspective of someone trying to apply an arbitrary time tag to trends that lap over a 12-month span. This was the year the attendance-hungry Corcoran Gallery of Art went desperately vaudeville: Figuring that if the public likes impressionism, it’ll love impressionism that it can climb on like pigeons, director David Levy & Co. gave a major exhibition to Monet remodeler and Johnson & Johnson heir J. Seward Johnson Jr., art’s most eloquent argument for a truly punishing estate tax.

Art

Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik took flak in some quarters for writing, “This is the worst museum exhibition I’ve ever seen.” In private, he challenged me to come up with one to top it. Well, it’s been three months, and even though I summered in Santa Fe back in the mid-’80s, I still haven’t cracked that nut. Worst? Worst, although if the Corcoran ever gets around to its tabled celebration of the art of Paul McCartney, the discussion will be reopened, I’m sure.

Later in the fall, the Corcoran attempted to mend its image with Jim Sanborn’s Manhattan Project homage. (I know, I know: These things have been in the works for years, but this is how they look in viewer time.) Am I alone in thinking that Sanborn’s “Atomic Time” and Johnson’s “Beyond the Frame” were essentially the same show? Each started with a grabby subject guaranteed to draw eyeballs, then gussied it up with next-best-thing-to-being-there theme-parkery and stage-managed it all to within an inch of its life.

And each signals a growing museum interest in entertainment, which, you’ll recall, was a significant subtheme of “Fantasy Underfoot,” this year’s uneven Corcoran Biennial. All year, the Corc never quite got a handle on it. Either the entertainment was fine but the rigor, illumination, and complexity of good art were lacking (Johnson, Sanborn), or art got up to its usual navel-gazing tricks and entertainment products just happened to be inspiring its insular little reverie (the biennial).

The show that came closest to getting the balance right was the Baltimore Museum of Art’s “Work Ethic,” a lighthearted examination of art’s shift from object-production to experience-provision in light of similar developments in the larger economy. The survey was well-selected and -installed, especially given the tight quarters curators had to work with, but a themed group show lives or dies by its catalog, and failing to address the institutional support that skews art-world economics was unforgivable in this context.

Still, “Work Ethic”’s Erwin Wurm is a curatorial dream date in these straitened times, a possible ideal for the artist of the future. Thanks to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Can’t Stop” video, he’s got pop-culture name recognition and skews young. His rather friendly One Minute Sculptures don’t exist without audience participation. His materials—plastic bowls, rubber bands, etc.—are so cheap that they defy insurance. And with the cash you save, you can fly him in for a lecture—though be sure to schedule enough time or he’ll bitch about it from the podium.

Also using cheap materials, though in large enough quantities that a corporate donation of 2-liter sodas was welcome, was local sculptor Dan Steinhilber, who landed a “Directions” slot at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. If upon its announcement, the opportunity seemed somewhat premature, an assured installation dispelled initial doubts. Add in a show-stealing turn in Numark Gallery’s summer group exhibition, and Steinhilber has begun to deliver on his promise.

As that Hirshhorn outing demonstrated, siting a show in the lobby is a good way to draw viewers inside, and the anointment of local luminaries is a solid cost-cutting measure. You don’t have to fly anything in, and you can schedule the artist’s talk any time you like—it doesn’t have to coincide with the opening. (There was some grousing, however, about the Corcoran College’s artist-in-residence gig going to Sanborn, who normally resides across town.) Another way to go easy on the budget is to put your curators to work on stuff you already have on hand. After costly Gerhard Richter and Arte Povera blockbusters, the Hirshhorn retrenched with the museumwide “Gyroscope.”

The gimmick was that the show was always a work in progress—and it worked. Every visit brought new surprises. It was great to see the Giorgio Morandi room before it was marred by wall text, and where else can you scratch your head over why Pavel Tchelitchew was ever taken seriously? A few days ago, the blotchy walls behind some terrific late-’50s/early-’60s Ellsworth Kellys hadn’t yet been painted over, and it was also possible to watch the installation of a couple of Sol LeWitt wall pieces. At the Hirshhorn, there’s always something I try not to miss, however brief my visit. (Count your blessings, Washington; lines and fees rule out brief visits in other towns.) It used to be the Robert Irwin disc painting in the basement; now it’s Enrico Castellani’s tautly stretched White Surface 2 in the black-and-white room upstairs.

The National Gallery of Art’s spring Vuillard retrospective, by contrast, was a bungled, bloated affair (owing, I suspect, to catalogue raisonné shenanigans I never got to the bottom of), but lovely where it mattered. (“Vuillard, Intimiste: The 1890s” would have been near the top of my best-of list.) And in the fall, the NGA proved it could mount a brilliant small show by a big name: “Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier” was all the stronger for its tight focus. As museums step away from the blockbuster, it could serve as a model of a smart way to cut back. The only liability is that viewers trained for the long march are reluctant to linger in just a handful of rooms.

Next year should be a big one for a bunch of local galleries, as Hemphill Fine Arts, Conner Contemporary Art, and G Fine Art move into roomier digs diagonally across 14th Street NW from Fusebox, and Numark grows into its new E Street NW space. But this year belonged to Fusebox. If in 2002, the gallery as a whole seemed somehow better than what was inside it, the exhibitions have since caught up, with shows by abstract painters from New York, L.A., and D.C., and a four-night collaborative projection-performance ranking among the year’s most exciting art-scene events.

“CENSUS 03,” the Corcoran College of Art–organized summer survey of rising and mostly local talent, was far too spotty, but it included three young artists—none a Fuseboxer, it should be noted—I agonized over leaving off my top 10 list. Maggie Michael and Graham Caldwell stole the show, she with large new paintings that took her “cloned” paint pours as points of departure, he with expansions on ideas he explored in an Addison/Ripley Fine Art solo that suggested glass may soon be leaving its craft associations behind for good. Steinhilber seemed to be coasting at “CENSUS,” saving his energies for the Hirshhorn.

Some of the very best things I saw this year—the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Philip Guston retrospective, the Guggenheim Museum’s “Kazimir Malevich: Suprematism,” Michael Heizer’s North, East, South, West at Dia:Beacon, James Turrell’s Skyspace at the Mattress Factory—were out of town and thus ineligible, but here’s the cream of 2003 in D.C.:

1. “Gerhard Richter: Forty Years of Painting,” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. According to Richard Wilbur’s “Epistemology,” “We milk the cow of the world, and as we do/We whisper in her ear, ‘You are not true.’” The cow here was painting itself, the dairy hand contemporary art’s foremost aesthete/agnostic.

2. “Thomas Gainsborough, 1727–1788,” at the National Gallery of Art. Gainsborough had been one of those canonical painters I figured I didn’t need to delve into, but there’s no gainsaying the elegant etiolation of his portraits. It’s in the enchantingly unconvincing fantasy landscapes that he tips his hand, however, revealing that he has minimal interest in deceiving his audience, being pleased simply to delight it.

3. “Joseph Mills: Inner City,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Some years ago, I criticized Mills for street photographs of drunks and cripples that seemed exploitative, almost predatory. But in the appropriate context, his purpose seems almost devotional, the infirmities and deformities of his subjects like stigmata, outward signs sought in kinship by an artist inwardly touched.

4. “Jean-Antoine Houdon (1741–1828): Sculptor of the Enlightenment,” at the National Gallery of Art. From Washington and Jefferson to Molière and d’Alembert, the political and culture heroes of two nations came to life beneath Houdon’s calipers and chisel. Three busts of the aging Voltaire found him to be the embodiment of the era’s intellectual ideal: skeptical, rueful, witty, and wise.

5. “W.C. Richardson,” at Fusebox. The self-effacing Richardson says he’s content to keep doing the same thing he’s always done: figure-ground push-pulls brought about by color-pattern competition. But he’s doing it better than ever, in canvases of startling, musical intricacy.

6. “Colby Caldwell: [still life],” at Hemphill Fine Arts, and “Alpha-Arvonia,” at Fusebox. With heavy stretchers and digital traces, Caldwell positions his memory-obsessed Super 8 photography somewhere between painting and new media. Video shot through a boxcar door similarly situated the moving image as Chessie propelled it through four nights at Fusebox that passed all too quickly.

7. “Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier,” at the National Gallery of Art. It’s a little horrifying to see Picasso holding his lover up to the light as though she were a rough gem he could cut a thousand different ways. You quickly grasp how someone in the grip of such genius comes to be an artist first, a human being second.

8. “Directions—Cecily Brown,” at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Rauschenberg just wanted to erase de Kooning. Brown wants to replace him entirely, reanimating he-man, woman-hating action painting with forceful feminine erotics.

9. “Sylvan Lionni: Shine,” at Fusebox. Geometric abstraction cold, clean, and beyond pristine—until you notice the sociology and autobiography creeping in.

10. “Patrick Wilson: 1:00 P.M.,” at Fusebox. Finish fetish holds Light and Space in a smoggy, blissed-out luminist embrace.

Plus one ringer from the lecture hall:

Fred Tomaselli at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Not a show but a slide talk—funny, sharp, and a little crispy around the edges—that conveyed perfectly who Tomaselli is and where he comes from. I still think there’s a good chance his labor-intensive psychedelia is overrated, but his Floydian slip conflating “oblivion” and “the sublime” was a happy accident that yielded a thoroughly apt idea: “the oblime.” CP

Little Big Shots

By Louis Jacobson

The realization dawned on me only slowly, but 2003 actually turned out to be a very good year for photography enthusiasts in Washington. Unlike 2002, this past year brought few blockbuster shows at major museums—just a stylish, if poorly contextualized, Margaret Bourke-White retrospective at the Phillips Collection and a somewhat smarter Robert Frank show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden—venues that in 2002 mounted important shows on Alfred Stieglitz and street photography, respectively—this year offered photography buffs...nothing. (Don’t get me started on the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, which are still undergoing their tragicomically long renovation-related closure.) Fortunately, other venues picked up the slack. In fact, the roster of impressive exhibits at smaller galleries was unusually long this year—almost enough to fill two top-10 lists.

Photography

One felicitous trend on the local scene was a flowering of black-and-white landscape photography, from Bruce Barnbaum and Carl Austin Hyatt at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery to Sally Gall at the Ralls Collection to a wide-ranging landscape show at the Fraser Gallery Bethesda. In fact, so many dramatic, sweeping vistas were hung this year that they almost canceled each other out. A couple that stood out from the pack were the Edward Riddell show at the Troyer Gallery, and Phil Borges’ piercing, hand-tinted portraits of children and adults set against stunning natural backgrounds in “Cultures on the Edge” at Ralls.

Another notable feature of 2003 was a wealth of art from (and about) Cuba—ironic, perhaps, given Fidel Castro’s recent crackdown on dissidents and artists. Lydia Ann Douglas’ “Cuba Through My Eyes” at the Dupont Circle Teaism and the multiartist “Cuba Now!” at the Sumner School Museum and Archives both presented thoughtful and often enigmatic photographs of the island nation (including, in the latter show, stunning black-and-white street images by Washington photographer Nestor Hernández). Fraser’s Bethesda outpost also mounted “De Aquí y de Allá (From Here and From There),” an impressive and angry group show of Cuban and Cuban-exile photographers and artists, including such standouts as mixed-media artist Aimee Garcia Marrero and printmaker Sandra Ramos.

A third, rather peculiar pattern emerged in 2003: an inverse relationship between the size of the art and the quality of the show. Though there were a few exhibitions of large-scale works that came off well—including “William Wegman: New Pigment Prints” at the David Adamson Gallery and flower images by Andrzej Pluta at the Fraser Gallery Bethesda—many of the year’s finest local photography shows were made up of works that were positively, even aggressively, petite. Most notable among them were the New York images of Godfrey Frankel, shown last spring at Hemphill Fine Arts. Other members of the “Small is beautiful” club were Robert Shlaer, Stephen Petegorsky, and Deborah Luster.

The energy of the small-scale artworks, the dominance of the smaller galleries—together they made 2003’s local photography shows a collective triumph of substance over size. Here’s one critic’s opinion of the best of them:

1. “Godfrey Frankel: Contact Prints, 1943–1948,” at Hemphill Fine Arts. The best photography exhibition this year in Washington featured images made half a century ago. What distinguished the late Godfrey Frankel’s photographs of New York from those of Berenice Abbott, Ben Shahn, and other contemporaries was Frankel’s conscious decision to print his images small—just 2-and-a-quarter inches square, a size that emphasizes their astonishing detail. Looking at Frankel’s photographs requires up-close attention, but the payoff is worth it.

2. “Henry Horenstein: Aquatics,” at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery. Horenstein, who has produced 30 children’s books, visited zoos and aquariums to photograph sea creatures using only available light. A simple idea—but the effect is wondrous: grainy black-and-white images that skillfully communicate the animals’ reflective and translucent properties.

3. “Classic Baseball,” at the Govinda Gallery. Veteran Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. somehow managed to mount a photographic exhibition about America’s most well-documented sport without including any overly familiar images. No matter how famous the player, Iooss always found some aesthetic angle to draw in the fan and nonfan alike. His pièce de résistance: a wide-angle photograph of Cuban children playing stickball on a street corner that casually echoes the composition of da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

4. “Sights Once Seen: Daguerreotyping Frémont’s Last Expedition Through the Rockies,” at the U.S. Department of the Interior Museum. Robert Shlaer quit academia to learn the vanished art of making daguerreotypes, then hitched up his van and headed West to make a retro photodocumentary of the obscure, and ill-fated, final expedition of explorer John Charles Frémont. Conceptually, the project is on thin ice: The photographs from the original 1853–1854 trek vanished in a long-ago warehouse fire, forcing Shlaer to speculate about what the party saw. But the notion of using daguerreotypy for landscape work—something rarely done in the technique’s brief heyday—is inspired, and the resulting tiny images, all gorgeous detail and eerie tinting, exude an iconoclastic charm.

5. “Stephen Petegorsky: Gold Work,” at the Ralls Collection. After years spent careering from landscape work to conceptual art to photojournalism, Stephen Petegorsky has found a niche that really works: art decoratif. Using a complicated process, Petegorsky photographs prosaic subjects—a bird, a leaf, a starfish—and then pastes emulsions of the images onto small boards coated with colored clay and gilding. The resulting works—some fossil-like, others suggesting cave paintings—are gems whose surfaces play mesmerizing tricks with reflected light.

6. “Stephen Lawson: The Light of Day—New Work,” at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery. Lawson’s geometrically rigorous time-lapse images, made with eccentric, custom-designed cameras, are at once narrowly conceptual and expansively affecting. While some of the pieces at Ewing paled in comparison with cleverer images that were not included in the show, most of those on display were thought-provoking. One work, in which Lawson photographed sequential vertical segments of a rural valley at 4:30 p.m. every Friday for a year, illustrates the cycle of life with efficiency, intelligence, and poignance.

7. One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, in “Southern Images: Six Contemporary Photographers,” at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery. Deborah Luster, the standout of Ewing’s somewhat mediocre Southern-photography show, made an exhaustive series of collaborative photographs with Louisiana inmates. Using a 5-inch-by-4-inch format that resembles an old-fashioned tintype, Luster documented prisoners in unexpected, self-chosen garb, from Mardi Gras costumes to rodeo gear to chef’s toques. In the process, she humanized her otherwise invisible subjects.

8. “Robert Frank: London/ Wales,” and “Both Sides of the Street: Celebrating the Corcoran’s Photography Collection,” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. A few years before he published the groundbreaking, and still hugely influential, book of photographs The Americans, Frank spent time documenting rich and poor in London and Wales. Though the images are hardly revolutionary, they do include tantalizing details that point to an artist on the verge of an aesthetic breakthrough. An unexpectedly enlightening bonus to the Frank show was the near-simultaneous “Both Sides of the Street,” a retrospective featuring works that either presaged or paid homage to The Americans.

9. “Tobacco: Architectural Photographs by Maxwell MacKenzie,” at the American Institute of Architects. MacKenzie’s fourth major project chronicling vernacular architecture once again set high standards. In an inspired moment, MacKenzie took what had previously been just a tool for spotting old barns—an ultralight glider—and used it as a vantage point from which to photograph the barns. These aerial images were further improved by being arranged into matrices, which exhibited their diverse hues to great effect.

10. “Surface Tension,” at the David Adamson Gallery. Ray Charles White was inspired artistically by the mercury he used to pinch from his dentist father’s reserves. From this petty pilfering he graduated to making photo-based silk-screen prints that document the rippled, quicksilver-like surface of a quiet lake on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. After years of returning to the same spot, White had learned the water’s every mood. He used that knowledge to construct, through painstaking trial and error, large-scale, fractured images of the water’s surface in striking tones of sepia, beer-bottle green, and Tahoe blue.

Though they weren’t photography per se, two impressive pieces of video art this year offered valuable insights on the photographic process. In Civic Endurance, at Conner Contemporary Art, Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry used digital cameras to capture a carefully choreographed act of social protest, in which 26 homeless youth in Seattle stood successively for one hour each on the same street corner. The project’s intention was to challenge the city’s anti-vagrancy law, but the resulting video—artificially sped up to fit into a two-hour time frame—also accomplishes an artistic purpose, beautifully tracking the shifting daylight and the changing moods of the city. And in Home, part of the “Homeland” show at the Corcoran, Susan Black made exquisite use of a simple conceit: lashing a video camera upside-down to the outside of a car door, then letting it run while driving around an affluent suburban neighborhood. The result is bracingly vertiginous and a little bit unsettling.

Finally, one photographic book of local origin deserves kudos this year. In creating At First Sight: Photography and the Smithsonian, Smithsonian photography curator Merry A. Foresta plumbed the dark recesses of “the nation’s attic” and found a treasure trove of utilitarian images that display unexpected artistry, from X-rays of animal specimens to hundred-year-old blue-tinted images of Japanese kite frames whose spare, minimalist forms foreshadow a number of movements of 20-century art. CP