Not Coming to a Theater Near You | 2006 in review

by Matt Bailey

Regarding movies and TV, 2006 has been a year of mild disappointment for me. Lost has finally proven to me that it’s about nothing more than a bunch of assholes stuck on an island (and it’s not helping matters that they keep killing off my favorite characters), after several years I finally gave up on C.S.I. (hey, I like corny dialogue and corpse humor), and even Project Runway had to manufacture drama to stay interesting this year.

On the big screen, so many films I wanted to love love love have turned out to be merely okay. As a big fan of Lost in Translation and of spirited period romps set to the best singles of the post-punk era, I was sure that Marie Antoinette would be my favorite film of the year. Just a couple months after seeing it, though, I can barely remember anything about it. After hearing so much about The Fountain for so many years, I was sure that it was going to be the next 2001: A Space Odyssey. Though I enjoyed it and appreciated it more than, apparently, most viewers, it still registers as a low-key curiosity and not the major, thought-provoking masterpiece it could possibly have been. I don’t have fingers enough on which to count the other disappointments of the year including Todd Field’s Little Children (or American Beauty II: Child Molesters are People Too), Clint Eastwood’s I-can-make-a-war-movie-too! Flags of Our Fathers, every superhero film made this year (though it’s not like I couldn’t have predicted that particular disappointment), and the release of a Brian De Palma’s follow-up to my beloved Femme Fatale that looked so awful I couldn’t even stand to watch the trailers. There were some satisfying non-disappointments in the year, though, like a James Bond film that made every Bond film before it look like a warm-up act, a Scorsese film that felt like a Scorsese film, and Crank—a film that had every indication of being absolutely terrible (and every right to be absolutely terrible) but which turned out to be a thrilling, vicious little guilty pleasure.

Nevertheless, it has been harder this year than last year to put together a list of the ten best screen experiences, and it surprises even me that most of the list is comprised mostly of films released in 2005, a film made decades ago that only this year got distribution in the United States, and DVDs of older films and TV shows. So, in no particular order, here are ten things I watched this year that were pretty darn awesome.

1   30 Rock

After the extraordinarily drawn-out, will-they-or-won’t-they cancellation of Arrested Development, it seemed like there was no hope remaining for the intelligent half-hour sitcom. Television executives and audiences alike seemed to have given up on the whole half-hour format except as a vehicle for teeth-grindingly wearisome jokes delivered by chubby “blue-collar” comics and brassy put-downs by the washed-up actresses who play their wives. Charlie Sheen and Kevin James even got nominated for Emmys, for Christ’s sake. And then, along came Tina Fey with her secret weapon Alec Baldwin, making a sitcom that was not only watchable, but endlessly rewatchable. I do wish they could figure out what to do with Jane Krakowski, though.

2   The New World

I don’t live on a coast, so I didn’t get to see this in a theater until, like, February of this year. I’m not sure what people were expecting from this movie—some sort of live-action version of Disney’s Pochahontas or something? All I expected was a beautifully shot, precisely edited, immaculately acted, visually overwhelming magnum opus and, well, that’s what I got.

3   Army of Shadows

How tragic that the best "new" film I saw this year was made before I was even born. There’s not much I can say about this amazing film that hasn’t already been said better by the other writers here. Had I not seen this film for the first time this year, though, this spot would have been taken by the theatrical cut of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, which is exactly the kind of film Jean-Pierre Melville might have made if he were still working today.

4   The Venture Bros.

I’m a hopeless latecomer to a lot of TV shows. If you look at last year’s list, you’ll see I was way behind the curve on Arrested Development and I was just as far behind on this show. Had I known when it first aired that I would be in for a non-stop barrage of spot-on riffs on Marvel Comics, Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and Klaus Nomi, I would have missed my own grandmother’s funeral for it.

5   The Jayne Mansfield Collection

Nearly a decade into the DVD format, Fox finally got off their corpulent, indolent fundaments and released Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Girl Can’t Help It on DVD in beautiful widescreen transfers. They charged me an arm and a leg for them and made me buy a shitty “western” “comedy” along with them (surely The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw is the blackest mark on director Raoul Walsh’s lengthy resume), but now that the dust is settled, I couldn’t be happier.

6   Petulia

If director Richard Lester is remembered at all these days, it’s either because he’s that guy that made that Beatles movie or he’s that guy that ruined the Superman franchise (before Bryan Singer ruined it all over again). I like to remember him as one of the more interesting directors of the wild period at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s at the major film studios that spawned Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Bob Rafelson, Mike Nichols, William Friedkin, Bob Fosse, Arthur Penn, Woody Allen, and so on and so forth. Of all the films of this era by all these great directors, Petulia stands among the greatest. Don’t ask me to explain it or justify it, just see it.

7   The Wild Wild West

With any luck, enough time has passed so that the first things that come to mind when the phrase “wild, wild west” is spoken or read are not a giant, steam-powered spider and Kevin Kline in a dress. The first season of the original television series, which was always formulaic but always a blast to watch, was finally released on DVD this year. While the first season of any series is usually never the best (series take a while to find the rhythm and style that really clicks), there’s no denying twin thrills of Jim West’s daring escapes (and there is always a daring escape) and his impossibly tight pants. Seriously, it’s like they’re painted on.

8   Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance

This film was released on DVD in the second Bette Davis Collection from Warner Bros., but the film belongs 100% to Miriam Hopkins. Anyone who ever worked with her or saw one of her movies will tell you that she would do her damndest to steal any scene she appeared in, and here Bette Davis seems perfectly willing to let her do so. Hopkins’ performance is so full of insane line readings and bizarre gestures it seems cut-and-pasted from some forgotten screwball comedy and not a part of this film, which is mainly a straightforward melodrama. Watching this film will undoubtedly be very few people’s idea of a good time, but those select few of you out there in the dark who appreciate oddball and decadent performances will savor this one.

9   Liza With A “Z”

Yes, I’m a huge homo, but I’m also a huge fan of Bob Fosse as a film director. This is not a film, precisely, but he did direct and choreograph Liza in this amazing piece of television. Ostensibly a documentary of a live concert (though it was shot over several days, with and without an audience), the musical arrangements and “patter” are very dated (I mean, even Laugh-In holds up better), but some of the shots (Owen Roizman supervised the cinematography) and some of the choreography is still quite dazzling.

10   The Squid and the Whale

I really wanted to hate this movie. I blamed Noah Baumbach (surely unfairly) for ruining Wes Anderson and even the idea of a film about the breakup of a pair of married writers and their bratty kids was enough to make me wince. And it had Billy Baldwin in it too? But out of a lack of anything better to see and out of some strange obligation I have to see everything that gets nominated for an Oscar, I went to see this. I practically started counting the minutes until it was over as soon as the projector was fired up. I was never more happy to have my expectations shattered.