Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Best of 2006—Blurred Edition

For the second year in a row, I can’t come up with 10 movies that would require compiling a “Best of” year-end list. In fact, I don’t think I even saw 10 movies in the theater this year. And glancing at the bevy of top-movie lists this past month, seems I didn’t miss much. “The Queen”? “Flags of Our Fathers”/”Letters from Iwo Jima”? “Little Miss Sunshine”? No thanks. The only consistently high-rated films I wanted to see but missed were “Borat” and “Dreamgirls.”
The simple fact is, there really are more reasons to stay in than ever. Television in 2006 didn’t just catch up to the film industry, the “boob tube” surpassed traditional Hollywood moviemaking. Sure there’s more reality schlock than ever, but TV is also taking more risks and greenlighting more ambitious projects than ever before, too—in my lifetime, anyway.
Taking a cue from HBO, the network that started this resurgence nearly a decade ago with “The Sopranos,” broadcast execs finally got wise and divided serialized shows (my flavor of choice) into mini-seasons, so viewers get major story arcs in big chunks, rather than having to sift through weeks of reruns for one new morsel. Thus shows like “Heroes” and “Lost” become more satisfying because their deep stories are played out in power-packed intervals.
Of course, all that said and still the most significant and powerful piece of filmmaking I saw in 2006 was, in fact, a movie. Since the lines between traditional cinema and traditional television continue to blur, I’ve blended my “Best of 2006” into one master list. Here goes …

1. “United 93”—This was quite simply one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Screw Scorsese, writer/director Paul Greengrass deserves every award-season accolade for actually completing a seemingly impossible mission of translating the still-open wound of Sept. 11 into a piece of work that not only keeps you pinned back in your seat, but honors those brave passengers at the same time. I don’t know that I’ll ever watch this movie again, but it’s burned into my memory. For more viewing, I highly recommend Greengrass’ “Bloody Sunday,” which is similar in its documentary-style production. You can also check out my review from April here.
2. “Deadwood”—In any other year—meaning one that didn’t offer “United 93”—this superb Western would have topped the list. “Deadwood” is, yes, my favorite television show of all time—although simply labeling it a “television show” doesn’t seem to quite encapsulate all it has to offer, and at the same time reinforces my thesis about quality TV in general. A terrific cast, impeccable acting, true Shakespearean writing, classic Western themes, shocking violence that nevertheless didn’t feel excessive, and, unlike “The Sopranos,” characters you can actually love and root for. I’ve never seen its equal and can’t imagine I will ever again. You can read my June preview/review here.
3. “24”—The best adrenaline rush on screen—big or small—this year. I caught up with the herd in 2006, watching seasons 2-5 on DVD, and am definitely now a Jack Bauer devotee. Season 5 is my favorite of the bunch; I rank the others this way (best to least best): 4, 2, 1, 3. More on this topic soon (I hope, if I have the time/energy) as Season 6 blasts into existence in less than two weeks.
4. “Superman Returns”—I know most critics either panned or were generally indifferent to Bryan Singer’s take on the Man of Steel, but I absolutely loved it. Maybe it just caught me at a particularly good time, but this film gave me chills throughout, and I can’t wait for the next one. For more, check out my review from July here.
5. “PTI”—The little show I like to call “Pardon the Interruption” may only draw a few hundred thousand viewers a day, but it’s consistently the funniest half-hour on TV. Even with co-host Michael Wilbon morphing into an utter talking head and fellow host Tony Kornheiser spending most of the fall on split-screen for “Monday Night Football,” these two knuckleheads are the two most influential sports commentators in the business. And they make me laugh every single day.
6. “Entourage”—Season 3 may have had some rough spots (oh, that horrible two-episode “Dom” arc), but the first two eps of the year were two of the funniest pieces of television work I’ve ever seen. In fact, Jeremy Piven’s Ari Gold smashing his assistant’s little “power figure” statue may be my favorite comedic scene of all time.
7. “The Nine”—Wow, forget what I said about those TV execs, because there’s no way this show should have been pulled from the schedule already. I hope they do at least let this season run its course, because this show started hot and never cooled. John Billingsley’s kooky suicidal-turned-optimistic Egan Foote received well-deserved acclaim, but Tim Daly (remember the straight-laced pilot from “Wings”?) was just as good as a gambling-addicted cop, maybe even better.
8. “Lost”—I basically gave up on this show (more on that in a minute) but came back for the Season 3 premiere and got hooked all over again. By focusing on the power trio of Jack, Kate, and Sawyer, “Lost” returned to its strengths this fall and turned in a couple of its best installments. And let’s not forget a fabulous turn by he-with-the-wicked-eyes Michael Emerson as super-baddie (or is he?) Ben/Henry, plus sterling newcomer Elizabeth Mitchell as Jack’s captor/love interest, Juliet. Here’s hoping for more of the same when the show begins its 16-episode spring season in February.
9. “Heroes”—Although a little too self-aware at times of its “mythology,” credit NBC for taking a risk on this stellar action/drama. Like “24,” superb acting from multiple cast members helps ground a hyper-real show in a sense of human reality. There wasn’t quite enough payoff for that so-cool “Save the Cheerleader. Save the World” promo, so I’m a little reticent about the new “list” thing—again, a little too self-aware. But I’m definitely a fan.
10. “Whiskey on a Sunday”—This flawless rock doc told me everything I’d ever want to know about Flogging Molly, one of my favorite bands. It not only gives a great oral history of the group, but provides deep insights into several songs—most notably the heart-wrenching story of frontman Dave King playing an homage to his father, “The Likes of You Again,” for his mother for the first time. And the bonus CD was awesome, too.

Honorable Mentions
• “Cars”—The latest Pixar effort probably belongs on the above list, but it was just missing that intangible little extra something found in classics like “The Incredibles” and “Toy Story.” Solid, to be sure, but the first half-hour or so kinda dragged. Still, there were some absolutely glorious images and laugh-out-loud moments.
• “The Departed”—I really, really, really liked this movie—right up until the last five minutes. That ending left a bad taste in my mouth. Until then, though, it was certainly one of the best gangster movies I’ve seen in a while. Kudos to Leo and Marky Mark—two actors I typically avoid—for spectacular performances. And as a Matt Damon fan, he didn’t disappoint, either.
• “The Prestige”—If I had made a top 10 list of just movies, this would have been on it somewhere.
• “Smallville”—The 100th episode was amazing, but Season 6 has drifted a bit. Nice touch in the last ep, though, using AFI’s “Prelude 12/21” as the outro music.
• “V for Vendetta”—Another movie that had a lot going for it until the bitter end. I just can’t get too excited about a film that’s going to preach at me about how I need to “understand” Islamic terrorists. Still, great performances by Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman.

Biggest Disappointments
1. “The Sopranos”—I ranted back in May about the exaggerated Vito story arc, so I won’t rehash here. But it says something that I, a devoted “Sopranos” fan, can’t remember a single thing about the Season 6 finale.
2. “X-Men: The Last Stand”—I knew going in that Brett Ratner was no Bryan Singer, but there’s no way I could have predicted in my worst nightmares the abomination that is this movie. You can read my review here.
3. “Alias”—The series finale was actually pretty good, but just about everything else about Season 5 was mediocre at best. It didn’t help Jen had to go get knocked up by Affleck, but they should have just ended with the excellent Season 4 finale. How great would it have been if Syd had just looked at Vaughn in the car and said, “I’m pregnant”—and there’s your series! The writers did the best they could, I guess, with little input from J.J. Abrams and a midseason hiatus, but this was a far cry from the series’ Season 2 peak.
4. “Lost”—As I mentioned earlier, Season 2 was a major drop in quality from the first go-round. Primary characters such as Jack, Locke, and Sawyer all went in petty, alpha male, king-of-the-mountain directions that made me dislike them, which is a bad, bad thing. Once again, J.J. Abrams leaves a project and it goes to crap. Can we clone him or something?
5. “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”—On first blush, I may have overrated this movie. I watched it on DVD over the holidays and it didn’t hold up very well—too dark, not enough genuine yuks. Of course, it may shift again depending on how well it ultimately sets up the third installment. And speaking of …

Bring Me That Horizon
It doesn’t take a genius to figure this out, but I’ll go on record now that this year may break ever box office record in the books based on summer alone. The month of May brings “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek 3,” and “Pirates 3”; other surefire blockbusters include “Harry Potter 5,” “Bourne 3,” plus the long-awaited “Simpsons” and “Transformers” movies (the former looks hilarious, the latter looks, well, meh). And let’s not forget a revitalized “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” film in March!
Those are just the titles I can remember off the top of my head—I’m sure there are a few more pending “blockbusters” waiting in the wings. The scary thing is, I’ll probably see most, if not all, of the aforementioned installments; I just wonder if all these “must-see” movies will end up cannibalizing one another.
Hopefully they’ll be good enough to at least give me a reason to sit in a movie theater again.

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