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January 3rd, 2007

The five best of 2006

Most critics get to make best-of lists at year's end. Since Chizine's critics don't formally prepare any such, I'm slapping mine right here. I'm especially pleased to report that finally, this year, American films outnumber Asian, although number one still goes to Hong Kong:

1) Dog Bite Dog - As my buddy Tom Piccirilli said in an e-mail after watching this little masterpiece, "Holy Mother of God". This is without question the most ultraviolent and nihilistic film ever made; if this one doesn't leave you feeling like you just took a punch by Ali, then you're already in a permanent vegetative state. Director Soi Cheang has made a number of smaller gems, including last year's Home Sweet Home, but this one is full-tilt-boogie, shot in a kinetic, strobing style that's nearly experimental, and featuring the year's best performance, from cute Hong Kong pop star Edison Chen, here hunched and snarling as the Cambodian hitman pursued through Hong Kong by the manic cop (a nearly-as-good Sam Lee). Unfortunately you won't find this at Netflix, but hey, c'mon - you can grab an all-region DVD for fourteen bucks (plus shipping) from Yesasia.com, and all your friends will think you rule for actually owning this.

2) Inland Empire - It's strange, it's unsetlling, it's funny, it's David Lynch. Read more over Chizine, but mainly just see it.

3) Casino Royale - Forget that it's a James Bond film, it's just an all-round perfect American action film, with a tight, logical script, incredible production values, jaw-dropping stunts, and the hottest leading man in years.

4) Election 2 - Johnnie To's follow-up to last year's Triad thriller Election puts decent man Louis Koo in charge and forces him to do indecent things. A harrowing nailbiter, with some of the best politics seen onscreen in years (suffice to say that neither Hong Kong nor mainland China come off particularly well here).

5) Monster House (preferably the 3D version) - Sweet-natured, gorgeous, funny, and genuinely creepy, this is one more example of my theory that kids' movies are often better written than their adult counterparts, since they can't rely on violence, sex and language and just have to tell stories. The 3D version was also the best doggone 3D EVER.

A few side awards: Biggest Disappointment of the Year goes to The Descent, which tries to pass off a bunch of indistinguishable, backbiting bimbos as feminist heroines, and substitutes music stabs and rack-focusing for real scares.

Best Guilty Pleasure of the Year: A tie here, between the DVD release of Russ Meyer's classic Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, with those jawdropping lines ("This is my happening, and it freaks me out!") and fashions; and Asia Argento's The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, with Asia's hyperkinetic, insanely-colored direction transcended only by her performance as the ultimate all-American white-trash mom-from-hell.

Best Television of the Year: Battlestar Galactica. Is it the best science fiction series ever done? It's certainly close. Smart, sexy, funny, and relevant.

And now the books...

My five favorite books of 2006:

Lost Girls, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie - It was a long time coming (no pun intended!), but well worth the wait. Moore's three-volume meditation on the intersection of pornography, fantasy, art and war (as told through the grown-up versions of Wonderland's Alice, Oz's Dorothy and Peter Pan's Wendy) is simultaneously erotic, thoughtful, whimsical, tragic and funny. Gebbie's art matches the prose, moving from gorgeous pastels to hard-edged inks and pencils, and the beautiful production of the books is also noteworthy. The final two pages of Lost Girls have haunted me for months now, like nothing else I've read in years. Between this and the wrap-up (in five trade paperback collections) of his Promethea series, there's no question that Moore is our new Philip K. Dick.

Prodigal Blues by Gary Braunbeck - Y'know, if I were only a writer, rather than a writer and a reader, I'd hate this guy. Everything he touches is gold. He wrote the best short horror story last year ("We Now Pause for Station Identification"), and he's written the best horror novel this year. His tale of an innocent man whose life becomes intertwined with a family of the victims of a notorious child molester is truly shocking, but also deeply tragic (as great horror often is). Deena Warner's illustrations serve the text very well indeed, making for a book you'll want on your shelves.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel - This graphic novel about a young girl growing up in a funeral home run by a dysfunctional family is what I always wanted Six Feet Under to deliver, but for me that show could never move past an essential dishonesty. Fun Home, on the other hand, is painfully honest, and I just love the way Bechdel's Maurice Sendak-ish illustrations complement and comment on the text.

American Morons by Glen Hirshberg - Any Hirshberg collection is a cause for rejoicing, and this one continues the fine tradition of his first collection, The Two Sams. The title story, a deeply unsettling piece about American tourists lost in Italy, is one of the best genre pieces in years; the final story, "The Muldoon", is a wonderful tale of growing up in a Jewish family dominated by a semi-mythical grandfather. Everything in between is pretty fine, too. Anyone interested in the art of horror writing needs this book.

Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z. Brite - I'm a total sucker for anything featuring New Orleans chefs Rickey and G-Man, but I think this is the best book in the series yet, exploring issues of race and gender with extraordinary grace, humor, and a very uncomfortable murder mystery element.

Now, excuse me while I get on with 2007's reading...!