To mark the end of 2005, Slate asked writers, artists, and other luminaries to name the most amazing—or most disappointing—cultural happening they stumbled on during the course of the year. Here are their responses:
Judd Apatow, writer-director, The 40-Year-Old Virgin
My favorite cultural event was the release of the documentary about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. It is almost always a letdown when press-shy artists speak. Remember Marlon Brando on Larry King. It made me want to scream at the TV, "You didn't talk to the press for so long. Why ruin it now by kissing Larry King?! The mystery is gone." Fortunately, this documentary is illuminating and inspiring. Bob Dylan, with great dignity, takes us through his story, and it only makes me admire him more. It also reminds all creative people why we need to take risks to do great work.
Noah Baumbach, writer-director, The Squid and the Whale
The transit strike temporarily brought Manhattan back to me. In recent years, I've felt dismayed watching neighborhoods like the Meat Packing District turn into playgrounds for tourists. I hate the grotesque mall that is the Time Warner building. New York is becoming more and more a place for other people. As infuriating and crippling as the strike was for so many, I selfishly appreciated having a city that was uninviting and briefly in turmoil.
Mark Bowden, national correspondent, the Atlantic
The cultural event that most disappointed me in 2005 was the Nobel address given by Harold Pinter. On the occasion of receiving the world's most prestigious literary prize, the brilliant playwright chose to deliver a passionate anti-American speech. This was not just a criticism of the Bush administration, or of the invasion of Iraq (popular and legitimate targets), but a sweeping indictment of the United States of America as the taproot of evil in the world over the last 60 years. Lord knows, America deserves criticism (we are pretty good at criticizing ourselves), but when you consider the millions slaughtered by Pol Pot in Cambodia, the widespread and ruthless repression of the late Soviet Union, the fact that one-fourth of the world's population still lives under the thumb of a repressive Chinese Communist regime, that Islamofascists are plotting acts of mass murder (including an attack that killed 52 and injured more than 700 in London last year) as the vanguard of an effort to sweep away from a large portion of the planet the cherished freedoms and tolerance of Western society, Pinter's reading of history old and new was juvenile, bizarre, and willfully narrow. At one point he compared the (appalling) persistence of the death penalty in America to the murderous practices of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. Pinter is, of course, entitled to his opinion, and thanks in no small measure to the sacrifices of Americans, he is free to express it. But we are free to be disappointed in him. I was.
Stephen J. Dubner, co-author, Freakonomics
I am grateful, nearly every day, for Larry David. (It should also be said that HBO's best show of any given season is reliably better, by a factor of at least five, than anything else coming out of that noisy box on my dresser.) At long last, we have been given a suitable replacement for the Woody Allen who made us laugh. And that would have been enough. But David is even better than that. A lot of the Freakonomics workthat Steve Levitt and I do is about abritraging the gap between people's declared preferences and their expressed preferences—that is, the difference between what people say they will do and what they actually do. Larry David simply eliminates that gap. He says what he thinks and does what he wants. He makes the rest of us look like a bunch of phonies.
Malcolm Gladwell, author, Blink
2005 was the year I discovered the Streets. Oh my. For the second time in 30 years, the British take an African-American musical form and wonderfully reinvent it.
Christopher Hitchens, columnist, Vanity Fair
At the opening of Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh wrote of hearing one sweet and civilized word, and of the effect it had—as if a fatuous, bawling voice on a loudspeaker had been suddenly switched off. The judge's highly literate and elegant ruling in the Dover, Pa., intelligent-design case has had precisely that effect upon me. Just for once—for once—the raucous, boring, bullying noise of the religious morons is turned off, and one can hear the lucid tones of reason, detachment, culture, and irony. That the voters of the same town should have firmly retired the demagogues and dolts of their school board, and that both they and the judge should have been of a Republican tendency, only adds to my sense that the resources of civilization are not yet exhausted, and that we have wells of real intelligence upon which to draw. Please don't wake me up.
Jim Holt, "Egghead" columnist, Slate; contributor, The New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine
The cultural development that most pleased me had to do with the movies. As someone who lives within easy walking distance of four art/revival houses, I was cheered to observe that the inverse correlation between cinematic cost and quality is edging ever closer to unity. This is especially true at the dirt-cheap end of the spectrum. Two of the best films I saw in theaters this year cost just a few thousand dollars to make. One of them, Tarnation, was created by a gay kid in Texas who spent his boyhood shooting home movies of his flamboyant self and his exuberantly dysfunctional family; by stitching them together with clever titles and a thumping good soundtrack, he made an unforgettable autobiopic without even maxing out his credit card. An equally cheap masterpiece was Funny Ha Ha, a slacker film that was minimalist in every way, except for its humor and emotional power. (Minimalism in decor—expensive! Minimalism in film—cheap, if you do it right.) The Squid and the Whale, made for just a few million, might have been the best picture of the year, so funny and moving that I forgot to breathe, thus having my first ever carbon-dioxide-induced panic attack in the packed theater. Even the magnificent Brokeback Mountain was put together for around a tenth of what it costs to make a "blockbuster." All of which ought to be a stinging rebuke to Hollywood, which sends one big-budget turkey after another gobbling and squawking and flapping into the nation's multiplexes.
Ben Karlin, co-executive producer,The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
I still can't believe they picked the Hitler Youth guy to be pope. I thought for sure that would take some of the shine off. Also, having the signal for "we haven't made a decision yet" being the same as "the room is on fire" may not be the best way to communicate information. A messenger eunuch will do the job just fine.
Neil LaBute, writer-director, The Wicker Man
Lucky enough to get tickets to a fantastic Katrina relief concert put on by Wilco in Chicago. My son Spencer and I sat blissfully through a blistering set by Jeff Tweedy and the boys, enjoying ourselves shamelessly at the expense of everyone in New Orleans. Very sorry that the hurricane hit; very happy to hear Wilco play at the top of their game—they remain the most adventurous and gifted band currently at work in American music.