Monday, January 01, 2007

From the editor

By Matt Zoller Seitz

In the international terminal of JFK Airport, a woman asks a man she's sweet on, "Are you coming or going?"

"I don't know," he replies. "Both."

That exchange doesn't just underscore the story of Steven Spielberg's marvelous new film The Terminal, about an Eastern European man forced by circumstance to spend several months living in an airport. It ricochets in the imagination, prompting us to flash back through some of the striking images we've seen up to that point, revisit Spielberg's canon in search of related ideas and images and realize there are so many that counting them is impossible."
The above is from a piece on Spielberg's The Terminal that was originally published in NYPress in the summer of 2004.

I revisited the article at about 5 AM on December 31, quite involuntarily, after realizing that the introductory paragraph I'd been working on for the past half-hour sounded weirdly like something I'd heard or read someplace before; terrified of rehashing movie dialogue or someone else's criticism without meaning to, I did a Google search on keywords, and realized I was circling back around to images and phrases I'd toyed with in print two-and-a-half years earlier. It was deja vu all over again. Writing is a hall of mirrors, a combination journal and photo album that exists in your head from cradle to grave, present tense; so I guess it's inevitable that no matter what I write about, it somehow circles around to something I've seen before or written about before, someplace I've been before, someone I knew before.

I should not have been surprised. Hell, I spelled it out to myself in the banner of the main site: "A long, strange journey toward a retrospectively inevitable destination." The site's inaugural post made it even plainer:
My grandfather, a self-educated German-American farmer from Olathe, Kansas, believed that no journey, however seemingly circuitous or self-destructive, was ever truly unnecessary, or even avoidable. Sometimes we just have to continue along a particular path for inexplicable, personal reasons, disregarding warnings of friends and family and perhaps our own internal voices, until we arrive at our destination, whatever it may be. This type of journey, my grandfather said, was the equivalent of "driving around the block backward to get to the house next door."
One year later, and here we are again. To quote Stephen Sondheim's "Sorry -Grateful" from Company, "Everything's different/Nothing's changed/Only maybe slightly rearranged."

Well, maybe more than slightly. I originally intended to use this piece for a Top 10 or 20 list, or a free-ranging look at movies and TV in 2006, but because the holiday rush and the time constraints of editing have taken too much out of me, those will just have to wait. Instead I'll try to convey how much this site has meant to me personally during what proved to be a long and difficult year.

The House Next Door started out as a hobby -- a place to put writing that was too personal, too out-of-the-mainstream, too unclassifiable or too random to publish in NYPress, which employed me as a film critic, or The Star-Ledger, where I worked as TV columnist. But that changed when critic Jeremiah Kipp emailed in February to ask if I'd be interested in publishing his interview with former Salon film critic Charles Taylor. I said yes and published it Feb. 18 under the title, "Against Consensus." Unbeknownst to either of us, Jeremiah's contribution subtly changed the conception of The House; now it wasn't just my little writer's playground, it was more of a publishing house or gathering place, one where anybody could claim the spotlight as long as it was tangentially related to movies, television or pop culture generally. Jeremiah published other critic interviews in 2006 -- with Godfrey Cheshire, Walter Chaw, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Phil Hall.

And to my astonishment, as the year unfolded, 27 contributors joined the masthead, many of them publishing multiple pieces. They weren't just fellow ink-stained veterans, either; they were a mix of professional print journalists and online critics and talented newcomers or nonprofessional film buffs from all walks of life; the roster currently includes an active-duty serviceperson, a former rock-and-roller turned stay-at-home dad, a truck driver, a security guard and numerous college students. The amount of content increased to the point where I had to bring in help, in the form of my good friends Keith Uhlich, now the site's managing editor, and Jeffrey Hill, the art director. The only thing all these folks have in common is a love of moving pictures and a commitment to the idea of The House as a place to talk about obsessions, argue theories, drop knowledge and news, and of course, crack wise whenever possible.

When I peruse the archives -- collected in the sidebar on the main site, and grouped by month -- I'm struck by how often certain subjects recur, from Terrence Malick, Michael Mann and Steven Spielberg to Looney Tunes and Disney to Deadwood, The Wire and the Sci-Fi Channel to persistent arguments over politics, sex and violence in popular culture. Some of these were my obsessions -- in fact, the impetuts to start the site was to beat the drum for The New World, a masterpiece that had inexplicably met mostly with indifference, condescension or hostility in its home country. But other people brought their own fascinations, and over time, those fascinations jump-started mine -- and in a couple of cases, took me places I might not otherwise have gone. The list would have to include N.P. Thompson's interview with screenwriter Stewart Stern, which prompted me to revisit much of what Stern wrote; Odienator's ongoing interests in Douglas Sirk and Wilder's Wares; Wagstaff's appreciation of the original Bad News Bears, which caused me to revisit not just that movie, but much of director Michael Ritchie's work; Odienator and Keith Uhlich's diametrically opposed views on Miami Vice, which got me thinking about the aesthetics of television vs. movie drama, digital video and commercial storytelling conventions, in order to better justify my interest in Mann, and Steven Boone's review of Iraq in Fragments, which made me want to pick up a camera and start making movies again. Peruse the sidebar for more.

Strange that what started out as a solo venture became a collective enterprise. This has happened to me throughout my life, from elementary school comics newsletters up through independent film projects that were originally intended only as screenplays, but that ultimately morphed into self-directed ventures involving dozens of people whose only shared trait, it seemed, was a willingness to get drawn into another person's obsession. Everything's different, nothing's changed.

Over and above a well-deserved "thank you" to all the site's contributors, I would be remiss if I didn't give special praise to Jeffrey and Keith, whose hard work, fine writing and original ideas have kept The House in a perpetual state of construction and expansion -- and who kept the lights on while I was lost in a fog following the events of April 27. Thanks also to Sean Burns, the surliest sweetheart I know, for taking over my "Sopranos" recaps mid-stream, and imbuing them with a whiskey-and-sawdust toughness befitting the subject.

Love to you all, and have a happy and productive 2007.


Steven Boone: Top 5 Flicks

1. Volver. Pedro Almodóvar cuts the bullshit at last. Even his "mature" films of recent years are fairly bloated with precious auteur touches. This film is about what it's about from start to finish. And the way Almodóvar lights and coaxes a perfromance from Penélope Cruz, you'd think the famously gay director has a Hitchcock infatuation with his star.

2. Iraq in Fragments. A stunning one-man-band docu-poem shot with the camera David Lynch should've used to capture his hideous-looking Inland Empire (see below).

3. Miami Vice. A daring digital video experiment seemingly designed to irritate complacent audience members. I'll bet director Michael Mann watched the no-budget street racing nocturne Streets of Legend to get juiced for this gloriously sloppy love letter to professional partnership, brief encounters and video grain.

4. The Descent. American distributor Lions Gate marketed this British shocker as being part of the post-Scream, neo-grindhouse gore trend that started with Saw, but that's an insult. The Descent is a Lifetime channel women's bonding flick that goes madly, deeply Alien. Director Neil Marshall's stunning comic book dutch angles and dynamic cutting shame the blood bucket brigades responsible for trash like Hostel.

5. Find Me Guilty. Sidney Lumet's laidback mob comedy has the bounce and classical fluidity of his great '70s films. Watching this film on the big screen, you realize just how steep was Ho'wood's decline since the blockbuster era began.

Worst Disappointment: Inland Empire. This flick commits every aesthetic and storytelling crime Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive were wrongly accused of. But there's nothing wrong with David Lynch's nearly three-hour surrealist sprawl that shooting on a better camera wouldn't have fixed. Inland Empire is the first photographically ugly Lynch feature, due entirely, I believe, to the fact that he shot on the Sony PD-170, a dv camcorder best suited to gonzo porn and video depositions. It's like looking at an Edward Hopper painting through four screen doors. Past Lynch experiments in video -- shorts like The Amputee and Darkened Room -- sort of work because they're designed more to tickle the imagination than invite lingering exploration. But his theatrical features usually mesmerize with their long takes (colored and undergirded with otherworldy sound design) and the universe of contrast and color values often visible in a single anamorphic widescreen frame. He is a painter, after all. Inland Empire is as exquisitely art directed, composed, lit, scored and mixed as ever, but the low-res video image and its mush colors make it almost impossible to get lost in the cinematic illusion Lynch is attempting to subvert. How can you subvert something that subverts itself from the start?

Most Overhyped: The Proposition. I'll take Sam Raimi's cartoonish Wild West show The Quick and the Dead over thunderously self-important Westerns like this Australian epic any ol' day. Mangy dogs, whores and outlaws have never been so tedious.

The Lower Frequencies Award: Shottas. Four years after a VHS rough cut of this low-budget Rastafarian gangster film was stolen from the scoring studio, Sony Pictures gave it a limited theatrical release earlier this year. In the interim, the missing tape had yielded thousands of bootleg DVD's from New York to the Caribbean -- and legions of fans. It almost gives credence to the urban legend that bootleggers and Ho'wood studios are in cahoots. In any case, the tape thief did more for first-time director Cess Silvera than most agents and producer's reps.
Steven Boone is a New York-basic critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.


Dan Callahan: Tender is the Night

There were several things to get excited about in 2006. First and foremost was the US premiere of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows (1969), an epic meditation on the French resistance that dwarfs Melville’s smaller noirs. Robert Altman made a graceful final bow with the death-obsessed but elegiac A Prairie Home Companion, and David Lynch crafted a three-hour love letter to Laura Dern, INLAND EMPIRE, that features his most loving and sympathetic views of women caught in traps. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu made the movies feel like life again, with its real time study of a man heading towards the grave without much comfort along the way. And Emma Thompson spearheaded a charming and rather overlooked children’s film, Nanny McPhee, that captured some of the spirit of the old 1950’s Ealing comedies. A fleeting moment that has stayed with me: the way Vanessa Redgrave says, “You will burn, Maurice,” to Peter O’Toole in Venus, her voice filled with vengeful, “I’m going too far, but so what?” certainty. And two glories from the difficult but rewarding Jacques Rivette/Roberto Rossellini retros at MOMI and MOMA: the dreamy views of solitude in Rivette’s Out 1: Spectre (1972), and Ingrid Bergman’s lyric performance in the almost-never-seen, trance-like, valedictory Joan of Arc at the Stake (1954)

On a more depressing note, a film like Little Miss Sunshine became an “indie” hit; in the 1970’s, Little Miss Sunshine would have starred Ryan O’Neal and Jill Clayburgh and it would have been viewed as a completely artificial, commercial comedy. Today, it’s an “independent” movie because it didn’t cost too much money. Worse, though, to my mind, is the contemptuous Little Children, which got a bewildering number of critical raves for hating all of its characters and parroting arid old New Yorker short stories while adding a Dateline “To Catch a Predator” modern twist. Aside from the oases provided by tough-love Altman and romantic Lynch, 2006 was a year in film where contempt was in, from I Hate My Mother (the egregious Running With Scissors) to I Hate America (Babel). We even saw a revival of the Predatory Repressed Lesbian character (a syllable-munching Dame Judi Dench in Notes on a Scandal) that I thought had been retired since 1968. If I was to wish for anything in the coming year, it would be a little tenderness and some gentle understanding in our films. We’ve all had enough, I think, of fire hose theatrics and mean-spirited, hollow mockery.
Dan Callahan is a contributor to The House Next Door. His writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal, and Senses of Cinema among other publications.


Edward Copeland: The Year of Robert Altman

When Time Magazine, in what essentially amounted to declaring its official demise as a serious publication, named "You" (yes -- you ... and me and everyone else in the world. Can I put that on a resume?) as Person of the Year, I -- and just about everyone who doesn't work at the magazine (and probably many who do) laughed. Sure, they could have picked people who really affected the year like Moqtada al-Sadr or the batshit crazy president of Iran, but for me, there only was one choice: Robert Altman, who (on a nonpersonal level at least) hovered over my entire year as no other. It began early, on Jan. 11, with the announcement that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences finally would bestow upon the great director an honorary Oscar after missing the chance on five occasions (for MASH, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park) to give him the directing Oscar he so richly deserved. The movie buff-ridden blogosphere exploded with joy, with more than a few echoing my sentiment of "About damn time!" On Feb. 21, the proprietor of this blog declared a blog-a-thon in Altman's honor to be held the weekend of the Oscars.

Many couldn't wait that long and, in the lead-up to Altman's honor, premature tributes appeared all over the Internet. Among them: Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule's proprietor Dennis Cozzalio, who offered an exhaustive and personal two-part look at his career in honor of Altman's 81st birthday. "I was first exposed to the work of Robert Altman, whose 81st birthday it is today, at around age four or five, and I, of course, had no idea I had been exposed at all," Dennis wrote, later noting that his inability to see the movie version of MASH led to one of his first "movie crushes" as well as to his discovering Pauline Kael's film criticism. I, too, plead guilty to jumping the blog-a-thon gun, but as That Little Round-Headed Boy wrote, " can an Altman fan quibble about paying no attention to the rules?"

Then, when the actual Oscar weekend arrived, the real blog-a-thon hit like a hurricane with insightful, personal and probing posts appearing across the World Wide Web. Brian Darr at Cinemarati offered his own Altman Oscars. Wagstaff at Liverputty (and a frequent contributor here and at my site as well) looked closer at Altman's use of nudity. At The House, Matt Zoller Seitz interviewed Deadwood creator David Milch and spotted what should have been obvious to many of us -- the influence of McCabe & Mrs. Miller on Milch's great, now lamented HBO Western. When Oscar night came, Altman's gracious speech was without a doubt the highlight. He revealed what few people knew -- that he'd been the recipient of a heart transplant 10 years before from a young woman, and offered a prediction that sadly proved inaccurate: that he had many more years of filmmaking to come. As a final touch to infuriate Crash haters everywhere, Paul Haggis' obviously Altman-influenced film won Best Picture that night, something Haggis wrote specifically about in a year-end eulogy in Entertainment Weekly.

The Altman honor prompted me to try to catch up with many of his films on DVD, some of which I hadn't seen, others that I had, though usually not in the proper aspect ratio the way God intended. It was a journey that took me back to A Wedding and ended last week with O.C. and Stiggs. Some holes still remain in my Altman film knowledge -- I still haven't seen Brewster McCloud or Popeye, among others. June brought the wide release of A Prairie Home Companion, a film on which Altman's health was so frail that insurers insisted Paul Thomas Anderson be on hand as a backup director should anything happen. When I saw the movie, it seemed to me to be a light-hearted example of Altman directing his own eulogy and summarizing his career. I didn't know that he had told The Associated Press at its premiere that "this film is about death," much less how accurate my description would prove to be.

The day we all knew was inevitable came on Nov. 21, as Altman shuffled off this mortal coil. What a few months earlier had been celebration across the Net turned into impromptu communal mourning. Ross Ruediger at The Rued Morgue who had, just a month or so earlier, expressed such excitement at the news that Altman's next project would be a fictional adaptation of the documentary Hands on a Hard Body, mourned the loss not only of the filmmaker but of the film he wouldn't get to make -- a film that was, of course, but one item on a long list of projects that never came to fruition. I still long to have seen what Altman's Angels in America would have looked like, or to have had access to the long-fabled nine-hour cut of Nashville, or to have learned his ideas for a sequel to what I consider his greatest film. When I had the chance to interview Altman in connection with the release of Ready to Wear (or Prêt-à-Porter for sticklers), of the many things he said, one stood out for me at the time of his death.
"I find that all of these films are like your children and you tend to love your least successful children the most, but they're finished and the cord's cut and it's out there and it ... doesn't belong to me anymore."
Altman and his films always will belong to us, even if the great man himself isn't here anymore to provide new ones, and nitwits such as Emilio Estevez make lame-assed attempts to imitate him in dumb movies like Bobby. Matt titled his blog-a-thon post "Altman -- now more than ever," a takeoff on the movie studio's slogan in The Player. We do need Altman now more than ever, but we'll have to soldier on and make do. He was one of a kind.
Edward Copeland is a contributor to The House Next Door and the publisher of Edward Copeland on Film and the political blog Copeland Institute for Lower Learning.


Annie Frisbie: The Year I Stayed Home

I am a pathetic shell of my former self.

Picture a girl who once spent a month straight at Film Forum for a Fassbinder retrospective, a girl who had a standing Sunday afternoon movie with a friend for five straight years, a girl who sees all the Best Picture nominees and started compiling data for her year-end 10 Best in February. That girl used to look at surveys that asked, “How often do you go to the movies?” and wonder, “Who are those people who only go to the movies once a month?” She couldn’t imagine a week without a movie, or two. Double features were nothing, nor was standing in line on opening day. And if a movie deserved it, she had no compunction about seeing it a second time in the theater, because it was the experience she loved as much as the art.

At the time of this writing, it’s December 21, 2006, and rifling through my ticket stubs I discover that I’ve only been to the theater 12 times. That’s a movie a month, except I know that I saw more than one movie in at least one of those months, meaning there were movie-less months. I find this stunning. What was I doing if I wasn’t at the movies?

Let’s take a closer look -- but I’m warning you, it ain’t pretty.

Hotel Rwanda (January). Technically a 2005 release so I feel like I can’t count it in my examination of Why I Stayed Home This Year.

16 Blocks (March). One of those, “Oh, yeah, that movie. I liked that, right?” as I frantically try to remember anything about it.

Friends with Money (April). This feels right. Things couldn’t have been that bad since I made sure I caught personal hero Nicole Holofcener’s latest on the big screen. Maybe I’m exaggerating the extent of the problem. I could just be making the whole thing up, and I haven’t really lost my love for movies. I’m just saying I did so I can get published. Munchausen’s Syndrome by blogging.

X-Men: The Last Stand (May). I feel like crying when I remember how bad this movie was in every way. The half-assed writing, the phoning-it-in performances, the lamely outré special effects, and the crowd surrounding me, amplifying the crap by chatting away on their cell phones. Don’t mind me, I’m just trying to figure out why bad things happen to good franchises. I can probably do that without being able to hear the dialogue, since I know how important it is that you tell your caller, “Yeah, I’m watching a movie.”

The Devil Wears Prada (July). The former was the kind of movie that Hollywood used to do so effortlessly, but my disappointment in the lackluster framing story gets sent to the background by Meryl Streep. She’s acting her heart out, and for once it was almost worth sitting through the 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage from “Two and a Half Men” that preceded the film.

Little Miss Sunshine (July). We all clap at the end, and I feel like Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, and Abigail Breslin actually care about me in a deep, meaningful way. I want to thank them by having them over for beef brisket and mashed potatoes. (Email me.) But my flip-flopped toes are sticky from the floor residue, and I have to hold it till I get home because the bathroom has been declared a biohazard.

Miami Vice (August). My brother sells me on this because it’s playing at The Senator, the old movie palace in Baltimore, and I want my husband to see it. On the drive there, I regale him with memories of the 70mm festival they had there when I was in high school. “I saw Cabaret. Lawrence of Arabia. Dr. Zhivago.” I tell him about when I saw Quiz Show and they played the “This Is Your Life” sketch from Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. After Miami Vice is over I want to burn The Senator down, and throw my memories on the blazing pyre. I lose my voice because my husband and I can’t stop talking like Crockett & Tubbs. “Here’s how it’s going to go down. We’re going to have dinner.” “No, you’re going to have dinner.” “Okay.”

Half Nelson (August). I already saw it (and loved it) at Sundance, but I make the sacrifice to brave the chatty older crowd to see it at Lincoln Plaza because my husband worked on it. I don’t know why people won’t just shut up already and let a person watch a movie in peace. Especially when it’s quiet, meditative, and character driven, and we’re at a place that supposedly celebrates the cinema.

Jackass Number Two (September). My apathy is killing me. I am so pissed off at the movies that the only way I can justify going to the theater is if (a) I don’t have to follow a story and (b) it’s a belly-laugh comedy—the only kind of movie that’s fun in the packed theaters of today. We have a great time and we don’t want to jinx it, so we stay away from the movies until…

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazahkstan (November). It’s my birthday! And my birthday present involves naked wrestling! To make things even better, the group I’m with turns a near-disaster into a bonanza. Some company has bought a block of tickets and they’ve got 5 people holding 75 prime seats in the middle of the theater. That just isn’t done, because people used to respect The Line, but today I take it all as the cost of going to the movies. My friend who works in film production and doesn’t take no for an answer gets the theater manager to give us boatloads of concessions—a token of penance paid for on the land-grabbing company’s corporate card. We’re high on sugar and Sacha Baron Cohen. It’s comedies only for me from now on, the crasser the better.

Let’s Go To Prison (November). My brother comes up for Thanksgiving and we redeem the Miami Vice fiasco (“No, you’re going to pass the turkey”) by becoming three of the 25 people who actually saw this movie. In the bathroom that night, I step out of the shower and wipe the condensation off the mirror. “Am I turning into a fourteen-year-old boy?” I whisper to the face of a stranger. “I’m losing my demographic. I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy.” I smash the mirror with the soapdish and sink to the floor in tears. My husband wraps me in a bathrobe and sets me delicately on the couch. I find a Bridezillas marathon and start to feel better.

Blood Diamond (December). Hey, look, we’re at a Real Live Serious Movie! Kind of like when we went to see Hotel Rwanda. I’m engaged! I’m interested! I’m at the movies! And then, two seats over, I hear a tinny “Sexy Back” and a girl flips open her pink Razr and takes the call. I shoot her a look and force out a “shh” but my heart’s not in it. To be quite honest, I’m a little bored by the Jennifer Connelly storyline. I’d probably enjoy this movie just as much on DVD.

Something seismic shifted in me this year, and I’m scared I’ll never regain the dream of the movies that I’ve danced with since the night my father took me to see Watership Down at the old Rotunda in Baltimore. You remember the Rotunda, right? It had that cupola painted with stars that filled my field of vision and I didn’t know up from down from me from the stars and my hand in my dad’s and the rabbits that were so alive they’re still with me today. For now.
By day, House contributor Annie Frisbie is Senior Editor of Zoom In Online. By night, she’s the Superfast Reader.


Kenji Fujishima: 5 Memorable Moments

In thinking back on the 2006 movie year, I was initially going to conclude that this wasn’t quite as memorable a year as, say, 2004 or 2005 — when the fall season saw a whole slew of politically-minded American films (The Constant Gardener; Good Night, and Good Luck; Syriana; Munich), perhaps not all of them equally good, but nearly all of them worth seeing and thinking about. This year, with perhaps the exception of United 93 and World Trade Center — Hollywood’s first two attempts to directly address 9/11 — there weren’t really any studio movies that inspired the same degree of heated national debate as, say, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 did over two years ago (when pundits — none of them film critics, I suspect — seemed willing to endorse one film or the other to further some kind of political or social cause). In fact, this year — with the exception of Borat (and maybe Babel) — other potentially provocative social- or politically-minded films like Fast Food Nation or Bobby vanished fairly quickly in theaters (I didn’t get a chance to catch either film, unfortunately).

As I think more about 2006, though, I realize that there was still much for which to be thankful — certainly on the independent side. Politics wasn’t absent this year: witness Clint Eastwood’s two hero-debunking war epics (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) as well as the perceived critiques of America in Babel, Borat and others. Other noteworthy films of the year — Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times, for instance, or the late Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion — either didn’t make a big deal about their politics or eschewed them to tell resonant human stories. The year also saw quite a few established artists put themselves out on a limb — Sofia Coppola with Marie Antoinette, Alejandro González Iñárritu with Babel, Darren Aronofsky with The Fountain, Mel Gibson with Apocalypto, David Lynch with INLAND EMPIRE — trying to push themselves to greater artistic heights. Not everyone agreed on how successful each film or director was, but certainly cinema as an art thrives on such risk-taking, and there was more of it in one year — heck, more of it in one fall season — than one could have anticipated. 2006 may have seemed like an outwardly safe year, relatively speaking, but there was no shortage of experimentation to be found in films both big and small.

For The House’s commemoration of film in 2006, I wanted to contribute something a little different from the usual top-10-movies-of-the-year fare: a “5 for a Day” of five memorable movie moments. My definition of “moments” is fairly broad: they include either lengthy sequences or simply one particularly memorable image or scene. These are the sequences or images that stayed with me even after I saw them in a theater months earlier, and even if they occured in films I wasn’t too crazy about.

1. “A Time for Love” from Three Times

While the whole of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s three-part anthology about love relationships across time is fascinating and even profound in its own formally spare yet ambitious way, the first 40-minute segment, “A Time for Love” — set in Kaohsiung in 1966 (during the director’s own youth) — is the most vivid and touching of the three. Hou characteristically emphasizes medium shots, long takes and slow pans in depicting the stirrings of love between a soldier (Chang Chen) and a young woman who works at a pool parlor (Shu Qi) — a quiet, awkwardly blossoming romance that eventually hits a speedbump when the woman leaves town to work at another pool parlor elsewhere, leading the desperate soldier to scour town after town for her just before he is about to go off to army duty. But, emotionally, “A Time for Love,” in its own spare, Ozu-like manner, beautifully expresses the kind of exquisite romantic yearning that is almost Wong Kar-Wai-like in its power. You have to see all three segments — including the silent movie-like second segment, set in 1911 — to get the full measure of what Hou is trying to get at, but “A Time for Love” is a small romantic masterpiece in miniature.

2. The Conquistador gets to the Tree of Life in The Fountain

The whole of Darren Aronofsky’s attempt at a grand folly The Fountain didn’t add up to the sum of its hugely ambitious parts (but then, is there a cinematic folly in which this isn’t the case?). However, the climax of the 16th-century plot thread — when the Conquistador (Hugh Jackman) of Izzi Creo’s fictional story kills the soldier guarding the Tree of Life and finally makes his triumphant way to the “promised land,” so to speak — is the film’s lone glorious moment. There may have been no more spiritually transcendant a movie image this year than the image of the Conquistador partaking in the bark of the Tree of Life in a mad rush of childlike astonishment; there was no more darkly resonant a moment in The Fountain itself than the moment when flowers start growing out of the Conquistador and overtake his body — the arrogance of humanity’s eternal attempt to find the fountain of youth punished with a quietly Biblical fury. (If the film had ended there, I might have forgiven its occasionally laughable, if consistently sincere, mythmaking pretensions.)

3. José Yero looking on from a distance at Crockett and Isabella dancing hot-and-heavy in a nightclub in Miami Vice

Granted, the whole spacey look of Dion Beebe’s voluptuous HD videography of Michael Mann’s anguished post-9/11 updating of his hit ‘80s TV series was marvelous (arguably the best thing about the movie, which I admire in hindsight but don’t quite love as much as some of the other House contributors do). The film certainly doesn’t lack in arresting imagery, but one particular image still sticks with me. No, it’s not the painterly aerial shots of the Cuban sea and the horizon; it’s that of Cuban drug smuggler José Yero (John Ortiz) — having just discovered that his right-hand woman Isabella (the typically luscious Gong Li) is having an affair with undercover cop Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) — looking on jealously as the two dance erotically in a nightclub beautifully sums up the seething, genuinely operatic passions underlying the fairly standard-issue cops-and-robbers complications of its crime plot. For me, it’s not only the plot context, but also the finely wrought hot atmosphere — the disco music, the glowing neon lights — that makes the image particularly memorable: it acts as a wholly visual reinforcement of the film’s theme of buried passions surging dangerously to the surface. With the exception of some of the grandiose pop-religious imagery in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, there were no other images quite as sublime to be found in a Hollywood summer blockbuster.

4. The sequence on the island — massive chase, three-way duel and all — in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Speaking of summer blockbusters: there was one lone great action sequence to be found in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the bombastic, noisy and soulless sequel to the surprisingly fun original. When various heroes and villains find themselves on an island, tempers flare and betrayals occur that leads to an exhilarating chain-reaction sequence in which a three-way duel — atop a giant spinning wheel, no less — and an attempt by two doofuses to steal treasure improbably converge as one obstacle seems to top another obstacle in one giant ball of rolling momentum. Just when you think it can’t get crazier, it does. You have to see it to believe it; it’s the one gleaming jewel in an otherwise overstuffed action showcase (although Johnny Depp was still as fun to watch as ever, if inevitably less fresh and surprising).

5. The final image of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s trashed bedroom in Marie Antoinette

I’m not ashamed to say that I think Sofia Coppola’s widely-trashed pop historical drama is misunderstood. If it isn’t quite a masterpiece (it’s perhaps more interesting to think about afterwards than it is to necessarily watch), there’s certainly more to its surface lavishness (and its use of deliberately anachronistic ‘80s punk rock on the soundtrack) than most of its naysayers indicated. It’s an ironic kind of surface beauty that pulses through Marie Antoinette: Versailles as a huge self-contained playpen in which the rich soak up their privilege while remaining almost defiantly ignorant to the discontent brewing outside the castle walls. Of course poor Marie Antoinette got in trouble with the angry French peasants, the film suggests -- in such a stifling atmosphere, and at such a young age, how could she know any better? Thus the magnificence of the film’s final image, a short but chilling shot of Marie and husband Louis XVI’s empty bedroom after it has been trashed by peasants storming the Versailles. A more fitting representation of real life intruding upon a glittery, empty house of privilege would be hard to imagine.

Other memorable moments:

* Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) staring up at heaven and sticking out her tongue — seeking a possibly nonexistent redemption — in Chan-wook Park’s Lady Vengeance.

*Spike Lee’s Inside Man had a plethora of funny, distinctly Spike Lee-ish topical, race-related bits that had little to do with its heist story proper, but my favorite of these bits was a New York policeman’s snap reaction when he took off the hood of the Sikh: “Fuckin’ Arab!” As they say, it’s funny because it’s (quite possibly) true.

*“The Passion of Superman” — his near-death and rebirth — in the startling final half-hour of Superman Returns.

*Olive Hoover’s hilarious beauty competition dance in Little Miss Sunshine.

*Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) seeing the ghost of Elizabeth Short on the lawn at the end of Brian De Palma’s otherwise disappointing The Black Dahlia (sorry, Matt, Keith and other passionate partisans of the film).

*The sudden outburst of emotion in Kitty Dean’s rendition of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” in the opening minutes of Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, as well as a particular distorted mirror shot in the same film.

*The parkour foot chase in Uganda in Casino Royale (one of the best James Bond flicks ever)

*David Lynch’s insane INLAND EMPIRE has so many memorable moments — from the Greek-chorus floozies’ unexpected “Locomotion” dance to Nikki/Sue’s “death” in between three seemingly unconcerned homeless people — that, if you’re not too concerned with trying to figure out the connecting tissues underlying his extended avant-garde fever dream, you could simply savor the moments.

Any others I’m missing?
Kenji Fujishima is a contributor to The House Next Door, a Rutgers University journalism student and the publisher of My Life at 24 Frames Per Second.


Ed Gonzalez: 10 Revelations

1. The Passing of Robert Altman
2. YouTube
3. On High in DV Tomorrows: INLAND EMPIRE
4. Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke
5. The Resurrection of Army of Shadows
6. ¡Que Viva Mexico!: Battle in Heaven and Romántico
7. Exposing Oscar's Sham: Catherine O'Hara in For Your Consideration
8. Cartoon Bliss: Happy Feet and Monster House
9. Dexter and Michael Mann Do Miami
10. Cinematographer as Auteur: Emmanuel Lubezki's Children of Men
Ed Gonzalez is co-founder of Slant Magazine and contributing film editor for PLANETº Magazine. His work has also appeared in City Pages, The Village Voice, and Gay City News.


Ryland Walker Knight: Swiss Cheese Masculinity


I think I saw fewer theatrically-released movies in 2006 than any year since middle school due to a busybody calendar and a general dissatisfaction with cinema-going for the first half of the year. The year started in New York, in bed, drinking tea and not champagne, hermitting myself with my girlfriend from the ugly party noise outside our Lower East Side hovel. Simply put: movies were expensive in New York and I didn’t go that often. When I did go, I usually found myself at Film Forum for a repertory screening. Along with what I think is the best movie I saw last year (that I didn’t know would count; more below) I saw some great reprisals, the best being The Fallen Idol & Charley Varrick. I also caught up on some 2005 blindspots thanks to Netflix that proved as essential as touted: Best of Youth made me happy to be alive; Mysterious Skin threw me over the couch and had its way with my heart; The White Diamond showed me there was beauty left in Werner Herzog’s oeuvre; and The Intruder took hold of my subconscious for the better part of the two weeks I had it at home.

I had some good days at the movies in New York, though, including the best double bill I’ve taken in all year: Inside Man followed by Dave Chappelle’s Block Party at the Loews 34th (the easiest place to hop movies in Manhattan). Back on the Gold Coast, both films make me nostalgic for my brief time in Manhattan (& yet briefer, Brooklyn) and the exalted feeling walking out of the theatre that night. The Antonioni retrospective at BAM was kick ass – I got to see not only Zabriskie Point (my favorite) but the uber-rare Chung Kuo Cina (for the doubtful, maybe the best evidence of his filmmaking brilliance) on their big upstairs screen. Tristram Shandy in an empty 19th Street theatre was still rip-roaring hilarious. The print was dreadful but The Conformist kicked our butts uptown at Symphony Space. Seeing A History of Violence from the front row at Village Cinemas made it more visceral but not any better than "simpleminded pulp violence" (Edelstein's got it zero'd).

One of my favorite New York movie-going moments (biggest bragging rights with a certain friend) was getting to see Danis Tanovic’s L’enfer (Hell), the second part in a trilogy planned by Krzystztof Kieslowski and his writing partner Krzysztof Piesiewicz (who is now a member of Polish Parliament). The first, Heaven, was directed by Tom Tykwer in 2002, the (possible) third, Nadzieja (Hope), is in post-production according to imdb, with a proposed 2007 release date. L’enfer wasn’t as good as Heaven thanks to Tanovic’s literal-mindedness (contrary to the poetry of Tykwer’s film that built on Kieslowski’s open-ended, cursive filmmaking), but both have very good screenplays full of the moral complexities the made the best Kieslowski films (Dekalog, Double Life of Veronique) soar; not to mention beautiful leading ladies (Heaven has Cate Blanchett, L’enfer has Emmanuelle Béart; both are excellent in their respective roles on top of their stunning luminosity). A close second was seeing Double Life at the Walter Reade. My girlfriend didn’t like Veronique that much, which was a blow, but it held up gorgeously for me.

But the ultimate will remain, for some time I’m sure, seeing The New World’s 150-minute cut December 26th, 2005 uptown and wanting to walk all the way home, bouncing as I was, so giddy. That’s a cheat, I know, but a crucial -- and honest -- one.

Then summer came and things pretty much went to shit. I actually dug the third Mission Impossible movie in spite of its obnoxious handheld camera thanks to a meta-movie comment on Tom Cruise’s entire career as Hollywood’s favorite whipping boy matinee idol (love the Born on the Fourth of July riff). But then one thing after another was unadulterated garbage: X3, The Break-Up, Pirates 2. I was ready for Superman Returns to be just as bloated and awful, but somehow it was kind of perfect in an AI kind of way (surprising in its shimmering proficiency and skeptical, humanistic heart). A Scanner Darkly blew my mind when I saw it – and boy was I down afterwards – but I haven’t felt like watching it again, so it’s slipped in my brain rank. Then came Miami Vice. While I didn’t really grasp what had hit deep inside me at first, Mann's movie stuck with me throughout my trip down the Grand Canyon, and it was all I could talk about during the fall.

The biggest surprise of the summer, though, had to be M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water. I went in expecting to hate its guts after the abortion known as The Village (no amount of Judy Greer could save it) and a host of scathing “He’s-the-worst-narcissist-ever” reviews. I think Keith nailed it with his review on Slant, but I’ll offer a few words for the hell of it, despite seeing the picture just once back in August. First off, this is probably the best acting Paul Giamatti’s ever done. I know that will rankle some feathers, but his commitment helps render Cleveland Heep in three dimensions outside the typical Shyamalan one-note hero, much how Bruce Willis completely sold all of David Dunn’s crumbling façade and emboldened spirit in Unbreakable. With Giamatti’s performance as bedrock, the picture warrants M. Night casting himself as the tortured, misguided but ultimately essential writer character because he can act, too, believe it or not, and its meta context works brilliantly (even if he’s not really essential, just a very talented moviemaker). It’s a bold move, one that obviously ground many a critic’s gears, but it’s hardly different from Sofia Coppola’s misunderstood and underappreciated coup from a little later, Marie Antoinette; for me, they’d be a perfect double bill, with Marie playing first. I’d have to see Lady again to write any further about it so the last defense I can offer is Christopher Doyle and all he's worth because, c’mon, Night – did you really have to name the critic Mr. Farber?

The fall was brighter -- despite Seattle’s cloud cover -- both on the movie front and the home front. It’s too bad I had to leave everything behind, but school is calling. Most of my thoughts about the fall have been on my blog or here at The House (mostly in the comments) so I won’t recap it too much. Suffice it to say: I’m the luckiest guy…(not) on the Lower East Side.

* * *

Instead of a top ten list I offer a series of awards with brief comments. If you’d like to see my dash-off attempt at filling out a ballot for Dennis Lim’s poll (as if I were asked to submit one) you can click here. But for now I’m going to put my value judgments to work in something a little more hilarious, I hope.

The We Are Community, Hear Us Howl Award: (tie) Dave Chappelle’s Block Party & Volver. As I continue to expand my world beyond the bubble of solipsism, it's no wonder these films spoke to me. I grew up loving black culture and it still shines through despite my pale face. The race card is a tough one to play with any kind of poker face so Dave's wild enthusiasms and goofy good nature help bring the reality home. This film plumbs major depths, much like the Pedro picture, which I shouldn't be as attached to given I'm (1) not a woman, (2) not a gay man, (3) lusting after, not deifying, Penelope (and other beauties) with my gaze. Even if I didn't bust my hymen by stabbing my step-dad (reverse punctuation -- brilliant), I understand and empathize with these women and their survival plight. In a year so wholly dominated by swiss cheese masculinity it was great to see an entirely feminine movie where the men were hardly there. (My two favorite pictures of the year)

The You Can’t Front, You Can’t Fuck With It Award: Army of Shadows & Sátántangó. Nope, you can’t, can you? That’s right – absorb ’em, sponges. The Melville movie has to be the best movie I saw all year but I include it on my year-end ballot with dubious trepidation given its age. Yet the adage is true: better late than never.

The Termite Award: Miami Vice. No other film so thoroughly devoured itself and its surroundings. From the first smash-cut, form has kicked content in the back of the knee and thrown it face-first into the (dance-)floor, where the lucid dreamworld assault & fantasy battery never lets up. If it weren’t for the underbelly pastels, this would be just as bleak as the Melville picture. Maybe it still is? Regardless, it brings us to...

The He-Man Disillusionment Award: (three-way tie, listed in frequency of viewings) Miami Vice (5), The Departed (2), The Proposition (1). Time is luck; nihilism kills all and leaves no wake; if I had a brother this would be our favorite movie, flies and all. Being a man is rough, too, ladies.

The Worthy Failure Award: (tie) Marie Antoinette & Lady in the Water. See above.

The My Gawd, Oh Lawdy Award: Jackass: Number Two and Daniel Craig as James Bond. Borat can’t compete, and neither can any other man in the world (respectively).

The Sergei Urusevsky Award: Children of Men's dynamic duo, Emmanuel Lubezki & Alfonso Cuarón. Like the Russian master's filmography, Lubezki's work serves a sometimes dubious endeavor but the innovation & excitement are hard to ignore. Then you realize the virtuosity builds character while pushing your emotional buttons, and you understand why Cuarón is so talented. Plus, as Ed has said, he directed the fucking shit out of that siege.

The Auteur Award: Spike Lee’s double dip: Inside Man & When The Levees Broke. I’m a lifelong fan but this year made me swoon all over again; I'll never quit him. Even when he's way off base (She Hate Me) his chops and adrenaline-shot, graffiti burner movies always entertain in wild, unexpected fashions.

The Most Offensive Puerile Crap Award: Nacho Libre. Go away! Leave now -- and never come back! Or rather, come back, Jack Black, come back to where you once were king. Or rather, watch “The Eighth Blunder of the World” on the King Kong DVD and remember why we love him so. Nacho is just wrong: the antithesis of School of Rock on every level imaginable.

makin baby bulls

A few others I liked: Tristram Shandy (should be in my top ten but I botched that whole thing anyways so wtf-ever!), A Scanner Darkly, Superman Returns, Slither (a worthy successor to Shaun of the Dead, though bloodier & gooier where Shaun was funnier), The Fountain (so goddamned earnest), Casino Royale (pure animal), Snakes on a Plane (Yeah, believe it: with a crowd, this movie’s the shit), Stick It (How does Jeff Bridges save (and elevate) this?), and Talledega Nights (playing with fire: better than Borat).

And finally, my blindspots: In order of anticipation from “I gotta get there” to the last few “who gives a shit” titles: INLAND EMPIRE, Idiocracy, Three Times, An Inconvenient Truth, Old Joy, The Death of Mr Lazarescu, The Aura, Iron Island, 4, Syndromes and a Century, Iraq in Fragments, The Wild Blue Yonder, L’Enfant, Battle in Heaven, Letters From Iwo Jima, Idlewild, Perfume, 51 Birch Street, The Descent, Apocalypto, A Prairie Home Companion, The Prestige, The Puffy Chair, Fast Food Nation, Brick, The History Boys, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Bubble, United 93, The Good German, The Good Shepard, Little Children, The Queen, Bobby, Blood Diamond, Last King of Scotland, Dreamgirls
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy and eagerly anticipating his return to UC Berkeley in 2007.


Keith Uhlich: Frames and Flashes

The ones that cut the deepest:


The Black Dahlia

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu


Iron Island

Miami Vice (theatrical cut)

Neil Young: Heart of Gold

A Prairie Home Companion

The Promise (original version)

Three Times


Until next year:

Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications.


Todd VanDerWerff: The Year in Television

The year in television 2006 was most marked by just how easy it was to watch TV at your own chosen time, rather than a time chosen for you by network heads. DVRs made it easy to postpone watching your favorite show a few hours or even a few weeks. If you had to wait months, you could always turn to the inevitable DVD set and buzz through an entire season in a long weekend. And if you missed something completely, you could always turn to watching it on a network Web site or, less legally, on YouTube or via BitTorrent.

While many publications have realized that these events were significant in some fashion (Time magazine, no less, named all of humanity person of the year for seizing the reins of the information age so dramatically), few have realized just how significant they could be, given the right time and proper room to grow. Sure YouTube made mincemeat of public figures as varied as George Allen and Michael Richards, but it could prove an even bigger revolution when it comes to distribution models. Television, which has never had a proper independent television movement, seems poised to leave behind a network as a necessity, just as thousands of bands now more easily communicate with fans through their Web sites and offer MP3s through same.

Because networks have always controlled what got on the air, an independent movement has never had room to flourish in television. In the world of film, if you had a camera, some film stock and a few free weekends, you and your friends could throw together a movie, even if would almost certainly be awful. Perhaps you could cajole the local theater owner into showing it or submit it to film festivals where a variety of independent distributors might consider send it out to theaters nationwide or, at the very least, throwing it on DVD. It has never been so with television. Theoretically, it would be just as easy to shoot a TV series independently as it would be to shoot a film, but once it was completed, who would show your finished series? The networks, controlling the means of distribution, prefer to keep a tight lid on what gets shown, right down to the script stage. Although there are independent television festivals in their infancy, they haven’t resulted in anything that has made it to the air.

But all of that changes if you don’t need to make it to the air to be seen. If you can shoot a series on your own, then throw up a trailer on YouTube and put the episodes up on BitTorrent (or some easier-to-use equivalent) one by one, you don’t need to ever be on a network -- sure, the reach of the networks far exceeds that of even the most visited Web sites, but get your series in the hands of the right blogs and you might even start a bit of buzz. And from there, it’s not hard to imagine old media networks springing up to air the best stuff they find on the Net or at independent TV festivals -- sort of a Miramax or Picturehouse on the broadcast dial.

We’ve seen the nascent beginnings of this on YouTube and other sites. What were the Strong Bad shorts that were so popular a few years ago if not Adult Swim cartoons condensed to their smallest possible lengths? And what was the lonelygirl15 saga if not a fairly typical teen soap reimagined as a series of Webcast missives? While, admittedly, none of this comes close to rivaling the best of television proper, the quality of it has grown substantially in just the last few years, and it only continues to get better. Is there any doubt that 15 years from now, the number of shows the serious student of television will have to watch will include one or two that are exclusive to the Internet?

All of this may prove to be idle speculation, but even if only a small fraction of it comes true, it could prove to turn the television industry into a Titanic, taking on water just as rapidly as the flailing record industry. What is needed, perhaps more than ever, are good critics, willing to sort through the increasing number of broadcast options as well as the rapidly multiplying number of options online. If 95% of everything is awful (and the Internet vastly increases the number of “something”), then there’s going to be that much more of a need to direct viewers to the stuff that truly shines. Fortunately, the Internet has helped with that too.

2006 was also the year that the television blog finally came into its own. The Internet is perhaps the ideal medium to deal with the constantly shifting landscape of television. While it can take a few days to get a story about a significant episode of primetime television into a newspaper or magazine, all it takes is a few minutes to put that same post up on a blog. Not all of this commentary is as insightful as it could be, but by posting instant reactions to primetime TV, television blogs created a forum where TV fans could discuss their favorite shows and speculate about them. Some of the best television blogs are run by professional critics. Some are run by people within the industry. And some are run by amateurs who just want to share their love of the medium. By harnessing what’s unique about both the Internet and television (namely, their “never sleep” nature), television blogs have become one of the best places to critically dissect the medium.

None of this is to say that the television medium suffered a lackluster year in 2006. Far from it, in fact. It was a strong year for some of the best returning shows, and it boasted a strong crop of new shows too. In order, the 10 best television programs of 2006 were:

1. The Wire and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (both HBO): HBO offered two very different takes on the death of the American city this year, one calmly studious but full of a quiet rage, the other upfront in its anger, willing to bleat its rage from rooftops. The Wire, David Simon’s careful examination of the failure of institutions in the city of Baltimore, returned after two years off the air with its finest season yet, restructuring itself to be about a group of inner city kids struggling to survive. As with any season of The Wire, the dense plotting returned rewards in spade, and the politics, such as they were, struck a stronger blow against the bureaucracy inherent in any political institution than any number of carefully considered OpEd columns could. And the series even works as detective thriller for those wishing to avoid its political implications. Simon and his writers craft their narrative in the tradition of social novelists of the early 20th century like Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, and the payoff this season was as well-wrought as it was heartbreaking.

Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, however, was far more willing to use a loudspeaker to broadcast its message. Originally broadcast on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Levees was one of the first documents to capture the whole picture of what happened inside New Orleans during that awful week in 2005. While the sections where various politicians try to pass the blame on to each other can be tiring, they also deliver the sense that no one wanted to own up to messing up the initial reaction to the tragedy that was unfolding. Lee is unafraid of painting that tragedy in as bleak a light as possible. He uses jazz and other music to create several haunting montages -- one of dead bodies floating through the streets -- and he has a fine skill as an interviewer at prying the story of what happened from his subjects. Lee’s Inside Man was an entertaining enough heist movie, but this documentary was his true triumph in 2006, and an example of how the medium can do the long-form documentary right.

2. Battlestar Galactica (SciFi): Strange, perhaps, that the most relevant document about the current conflicts the United States finds itself embroiled in would be a television science fiction series, of all things, but Galactica is a wrenching, raw account of soldiers living on the edge, daring to fight back against an Other they barely know. Filled with strong, quiet acting from the likes of Edward James Olmos and Mary McDonnell, the series took big risks this year, settling its main characters on a planet, then having the enemy occupy that planet and expanding the show’s borders beyond its conventional “apocalypse in space” set-up.

3. Deadwood (HBO): The worst season of this series is still better than most seasons of other shows. While the scenes between Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen and Gerald McRaney’s George Hearst were the pure, ugly poetry the series does so very well and the plotline about Hearst’s dream of buying out the entire town was compelling, there were a lot of loose ends and meandering plotlines that just made one wish the fourth season creator David Milch had wanted had gone ahead so the audience could see what, exactly, was his final vision for the series. Still, there were so many stellar episodes and moments in the season that placing it any lower would feel unfair to one of the medium’s finest achievements.

4. The Office (NBC): Funnier than it has any right to be, the U.S. series found its own rhythms in 2006, finally breaking free of its British forebear. Grounded in strong, character-based writing and one of the deepest ensembles in sitcom history, the series balanced a hilarious dissection of American workplace drudgery with moments of true heart, then suggested that the only way the series could play fair with the audience was to go on to break all of its characters’ hearts. Amazingly, this deeply unconventional series has found a devoted cult audience that should ensure many seasons to come.

5. Friday Night Lights (NBC): Oddly poetic for a show about football, Friday Night Lights has become the low-rated critical cause celebre of the season, largely because it has too much football for the small-town show fans and not enough football for the sports fans. None of that should be any matter to the curious viewer, though, who will find a show about kids trying to escape their dead-end town, using any means necessary (anything from sex to football). H.G. Bissinger’s book works better as a TV show than it did as a movie (and I really liked the movie) because it can delve into the inner workings of the town it portrays, giving all of its many characters a fair shake.

6. Big Love (HBO): A re-viewing on DVD convinced me that this series, warmly reviewed enough when it first aired but not greeted with the sort of rapturous acclaims that other HBO series are met with, was better than it first appeared to be. In many ways, it’s the series Six Feet Under always aspired to be -- a series that uses the tropes of the sensationalistic family soap to get at deeper things in the American psyche. Unlike Six Feet, though, Big Love’s central premise is so ridiculous that it never needs to resort to the grand theatrics of the earlier series. It’s a frank examination of religion, morality, sexual politics and the American dream, filtered through a universe where our standard ideas of family don’t apply. It’s even a really sneaky argument for legalizing gay marriage.

7. Veronica Mars (The CW): The first nine episodes of season three made some missteps, but the last half of season two was the finest the show has been, mixing the weekly mysteries with the over-arching mystery and the soap opera plotlines. In its own way, Mars also tackles the U.S. class system. While not as searing an indictment as The Wire, its portrayal of a world where some of the characters have no hope simply because of the economic lifestyle they’re born into rings truer than we would like it to. And even Season Three, once it had ditched some of its sillier machinations, concluded its first arc on a high note.

8. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central): While The Daily Show with Jon Stewart remains lively and essential (even if its newest correspondents are fairly snooze-inducing), The Colbert Report has come into its own this year. Stephen Colbert’s persona has grown more merciless even as it gains the praise of the Bill O’Reillys it sets out to mock. Colbert is maybe the deftest improv comedian on television right now, and his ability to come up with exactly the right one-liner at exactly the right moment all the while remaining in character is well-night awe-inspiring. The show gets bonus points for the bizarrely funny guitar battle with The Decemberists, which even let Henry Kissinger in on the fun.

9. How I Met Your Mother (CBS): While the sitcom has made a comeback during the past year, you wouldn’t know it from glancing at the ratings, where only the mediocre Two-and-a-Half Men sits anywhere near the top. This series, which is easily on the worst possible network it could be on, has attracted a deeply devoted cult simply by having a winning ensemble and tight writing that calls to mind classics like Cheers. It’s nothing deeply innovative, and, really, there are “greater” series on television, but it does what it does well, and that’s nothing to denigrate.

10. 24 and Lost (Fox and ABC): Complain away. The former is a nearly fascist action movie that makes little to no sense and leaves behind so many plot holes it’s a wonder Jack Bauer doesn’t fall in to any of them. The latter is an oft-stupid series that thinks too much of itself and relies on Byzantine plotting and self-conscious weirdness, as well as a flashback structure that underlines every bit of subtext for the audience. But when these series are on, even if it’s just for one scene per episode, there’s nothing more entertaining or enthralling on the air. Much of series television is about dragging the audience into the moment, and no series do that better than 24 and Lost. If The Wire and When the Levees Broke are sublime, then 24 and Lost are the necessary ridiculous counterparts, but they are, at least, thrillingly ridiculous.

No top ten list is an exact science. The first five have been set in stone for a while now, but there was something like a 30-way tie for sixth place. To that end, here are 15 runners-up I would have been happy swapping in for any of these programs without being too worried.

In alphabetical order:

30 Rock (NBC): Tina Fey’s series has a great Alec Baldwin performance at its center and a wild willingness to try new things.

Bleak House (PBS): Fine acting and a strong script made this one of the finest Dickens adaptations ever committed to film.

The Boondocks (Cartoon Network): Aaron McGruder’s creation is a closely observed African-American mash-up of Desperate Housewives and King of the Hill.

Brotherhood (Showtime): A little slow-moving but ultimately rewarding, Brotherhood was unfortunately underseen, despite a warm critical reception.

Dexter (Showtime): A little too blithe in how it treats its hero and full of barely-sketched in supporting characters, this is still genuinely thrilling TV and a nifty twist of the procedural structure.

Doctor Who (SciFi): Deeply uneven but winningly acted and capable of episodes of great power, this is the finest remake since Battlestar Galactica.

Everybody Hates Chris (The CW): Few series on television make regular conflict out of making ends meet, but Chris makes it both moving and funny.

House (Fox): The formula is starting to impair the good doctor, but the medical mysteries are still fascinating, and Hugh Laurie is still delivering one of TV’s best performances.

Life on Mars (BBC America): The edits from the UK to US versions made some of the action inscrutable, but this time-traveling cop series had cool to spare.

My Name Is Earl (NBC): The central premise grows ever-more unwieldy, but the supporting players on the show are so fantastic that it’s easy to not care.

One Punk Under God (Sundance): Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye, is a fascinating subject for this documentary about Christianity in America.

Project Runway (Bravo): I don’t know a thing about fashion, but this reality series is so well-cast that that hardly even matters.

Scrubs (NBC): Finally giving up on being a ratings success, the series just decided to appease its rabid cult, and was the funniest it’s been in years.

The Sopranos (HBO): The sixth season started out so strong that its last half was bound to disappoint. Still, the sense of reckoning hanging over the show gives high hopes for the upcoming final episodes.

Ugly Betty (ABC): A cutesy pilot and an irritating adherence to the chick lit genre obscure this series’ true strengths: an examination of class and a willingness to let all of its stereotypes have layers.

Gone too soon: Lots of series were canceled this year, but I’ll miss most of all Fox’s deeply ambitious comedy Arrested Development, ABC’s even more ambitious comedy Sons and Daughters, The WB’s dreamy family drama Everwood and ABC’s creepily effective sci-fi thriller Invasion.

Other stuff: Here are some things I enjoy -- even without enjoying them as a whole:

The comedy of Rescue Me: The drama is often too over-the-top or demeaning to women, but the comedy scenes in this firefighter series are always worth it.

The last five minutes of Heroes: Ponderous and uneven (though that makes it easy to fast forward through certain characters’ storylines), the series comes to life in its last few minutes with its perfect cliffhangers.

The workplace scenes in The Loop: Philip Baker Hall and Mimi Rogers are so hilarious as the boss and sexual predator in this series that the second season will feature much more of them.

The music in Grey’s Anatomy: The series itself is slowly devouring itself, but the musical choices have gotten more adventurous in the third season, ranging from TV on the Radio to the Dixie Chicks.

Stuff I didn’t get to: No one critic can watch everything, but I’m particularly ashamed to have missed The Shield, Weeds, most PBS regular series (Frontline in particular) and Broken Trail. I’ll do better in 2007. Promise.

The worst: It’s almost too easy, but there’s nothing more nauseating on television than Nancy Grace, Headline News’ shrieking harridan of injustice, whose perfect goal would be a judicial system where the only judge, jury and executioner was Nancy herself. Her low point? Interviewing a woman whose son had disappeared, all but indicting that woman for the crime, then going ahead with plans to air that interview after the woman killed herself. The cable news networks are mostly wastelands, but Grace is a nadir among nadirs.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.