"His voice betrayed a craving for terrible things." -- Don DeLillo

Send all adoration/vitriol to marc@shadowbloom.com

BEST OF 2006 AWARDS

Best in Music 2006: Albums of the Year
Best in Gaming 2006: Console Games of the Year
Best in Gaming 2006: PC Games of the Year
Best in Gaming 2006: Portable Games of the Year
Best in Television 2006: Shows of the Year
Best in Film 2006: Movies of the Year

I'm proud to present the fourth annual installment of the Best of Awards! My thoughts on the best (and worst) in music, video games, TV, and film. Violently disagree? So strongly agree that you've fallen deeply in love with me? Send it all to marc@shadowbloom.com. Enjoy!

Previous years:    2005       2004       2003

BEST IN MUSIC 2006 - ALBUMS OF THE YEAR

1.  Mastodon - Blood Mountain

In a few years when I'm writing about my severe hearing loss and the search for a good hearing aid, we'll know that Mastodon deserves some of the blame. Even if it's already playing at an earsplittingly loud volume, when the storming instrumental midsection of "Capillarian Crest" or the blazing guitar lead of "Bladecatcher" approaches, I'm cranking it up to 11. A bruising, soaring piece of metal euphoria, Blood Mountain is the latest masterpiece from Mastodon, who stands with Dillinger Escape Plan at the front lines of the math/metal/whatever-core revolution. While Mastodon shares the rapid time signature changes and fiercely complex instrumentation of Dillinger, they take a more accessible approach. Along with being willing to slow down and bludgeon you with heavy stoner rock riffs, the sing:scream ratio has steadily increased with each of their albums. Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age and Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta each drop in to help as well. That's not to say that Mastodon's an easy listen, though. If it isn't one of your genres of choice, try before you buy, but do give it a try. Start with "Capillarian Crest," my favorite song of 2006. Then head to "The Wolf Is Loose," which kicks off the album with an avalanche of drums, or savor the finger acrobatics of "Bladecatcher." If you've ever had any affinity for hard rock, this could be your new favorite band.

Highlights: "Capillarian Crest," "Bladecatcher," "This Mortal Soil,"
"Sleeping Giant"
Web site: www.mastodonrocks.com

2.  Tool - 10,000 Days

If a band is going to take five years between every album, they need to make each release count. So when Tool followed up 1996's brilliant Aenema with the disappointing, self-indulgent Lateralus in 2001, it was a long wait to see if they could get back on track (see also: the protracted wait between Nine Inch Nails albums, though Trent's finally breaking his routine by getting Year Zero in stores a lightning quick two years after With Teeth). Thankfully, with 10,000 Days, Tool has found a middle ground between the immediacy of 1992's Opiate and the expansive soundscapes of Lateralus. The average track length is still a radio unfriendly seven minutes (with "Wings for Marie" covering two tracks and totaling 17 minutes), but on 10,000 Days it feels like the songs need to be this long. On Lateralus, each song invariably ground to a halt midway through for minutes of near silence and interminable sound wankery, as if they could have made each song four minutes long, but felt determined to artificially stretch them out "just because we can." In contrast, album highlight Rosetta Stoned starts with rapid fire spoken word and bombs through 11 minutes with no dead time or pointless interludes. I don't consider myself a Tool fanboy--I don't obsess over Maynard's lyrics, pour over the Fibonacci breakdowns of each song, or fantasize about Danny Carey's drum kit--so I wasn't expecting the world from 10,000 Days, but I'm happy that, after ten long years, Aenema finally has a worthy successor.

Highlights: "Rosetta Stoned," "The Pot," "Vicarious"
Web site: www.toolband.com

3.  The Mars Volta - Amputechture

Another band in the "Yeah, we write really long rock songs--so what?" genre, The Mars Volta had long resided on my ever-increasing list of bands I needed to listen to, but it wasn't until I caught "Viscera Eyes" on the radio last Fall that I got my act together. "Eyes" is one of two songs on Amputechture that even remotely resemble a traditional single ("Vermicide" is the other) and since it's over nine minutes long and features extended portions in Portuguese, well, that gives you an idea of what the rest of the album is like. Adventurous listeners only need apply. With standard structures tossed out, each song ebbs and flows through myriad parts and numerous mind-bending guitar lines provided by Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and John Frusciante, only occasionally returning for a reprise. Don't look for help in Cedric Bixler-Zavala's cryptolyrics either ("There is a venom in numerical lies / Your convalescent thorns / Are but a crown of maggots"). Not exactly an album you throw on while you're out running a quick errand (you could go out and back before you get through the 16:41 "Tetragrammaton"). A year ago, I never would have guessed that two of my favorite songs of 2006, Tool's "Rosetta Stoned" and Mars Volta's "Day of the Baphomets," would each clock in at over 11 minutes, so both bands deserve some extra credit for that as well.

Highlights: "Day of the Baphomets," "Viscera Eyes," "Meccamputechture"
Web site: www.themarsvolta.com

4.  Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones

Three years after their punchy full-length debut (which won a Belated Best of Award two years ago), Yeah Yeah Yeahs have returned with a polished, evolved sound in Show Your Bones. The basic elements remain the same, but are more controlled now. As a result, while Bones is more focused and structured than Fever to Tell, it's missing the brash garage thrash of Fever. The increased production smoothes out some edges, but these edges were part of their personality. The end of "Mysteries" is vintage Yeahs as Karen O lets out her strangely erotic screams and yelps while Nick Zinner molests his guitar, but no song sounds as maniacally unleashed as "Tick" or "Man" from Fever. This isn't to say that Bones is a disappointment, though. Fever never approached the fragility of "The Sweets" or "Warrior" from Bones and if they'd simply churned out Fever 2.0, we'd also be missing refined winners like "Way Out," another of my 2006 favorites. Short, snappy, and a mix of acoustic guitar and booming Zinner riffs, "Way Out" just sounds like the perfect Yeah Yeah Yeahs single and a surefire radio hit (it even has the single-friendly second track spot on the album). Too bad the band hasn't taken advantage yet.

Highlights: "Way Out," "Cheated Hearts," "Dudley"
Web site: www.yeahyeahyeahs.com

5.  White Rose Movement - Kick

Floating somewhere between Duran Duran/Depeche Mode synthpop rock and Killers/Bravery retronica, White Rose Movement only appeared on my radar after their single "Alsatian" was given prime placement at the end of an Entourage episode last season (it played as the gang rode the Aquaman roller coaster). Its hypnotically simple guitar line and dashes of synth grabbed me right away, though the album as a whole is a little hit or miss. Singer Finn Vine lets out a righteous scream as the dance beats pound at the end of opener "Kick," but the band rarely returns to this level of intensity. Demonstrating the thin line they're walking, while "Girls In The Back" and "Testcard Girl" find the right anachronistic, modern/retro hotspot, the more monotonous "London's Mine" and "Deborah Carne" sound like filler in comparison. While I've been rather indifferent to the Killers/Bravery craze, I keep going back to White Rose. Give them a shot.

Highlights: "Alsatian," "Testcard Girl," "Kick"
Web site: www.whiterosemovement.co.uk


JURY PRIZES

Arctic Monkeys, "I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor" -- The British critical darling du jour. Love the video.

Thom Yorke, "The Eraser" -- Excellent song, but it's time to get a new Radiohead album ready, Thom.

Red Hot Chili Peppers, "Dani California" -- Great chorus, raging outro solo, it's like they can pump these hits out at will. Another wacky RHCP video too (I love the Misfits look).

Tenacious D, "Papagenu (He's My Sassafrass)" -- The whole album's fun, but this song makes me want to take hallucinogenic drugs and hop around like an idiot.

Morningwood, "Nü Rock" and "Televisor" -- Shout-out to Burnout Revenge for the introduction.

Justin Timberlake, "Lovestoned/I Think She Knows" -- JT is my hero. One of the hottest music stars on the planet, a budding film star, a new SNL mainstay, connected to Hollywood's most gorgeous women...what can't he do?

Peaches, "Tent In Your Pants" -- Guys, if you're at all homophobic or are not comfortable with your sexuality, stay away and head back to the metal. Because you will be singing this hook for days and, well, it's all about the cock. Say what you will about Peaches, but she certainly knows how to get to the point.

The Fray, "Over My Head (Cable Car)" and "How To Save A Life" -- Admit it, just by writing their names, I've got one of them stuck in your head now.


BEST OF COVER ALBUMS

The Dillinger Escape Plan - Plagiarism

Not sure what it was about 2006 that inspired bands to bring out cover albums, but Between the Buried and Me and Def Leppard joined in on the fun as well. Dillinger's EP is, unfortunately, only available on iTunes, but getting it is well worth needing to feed the Apple beast. The covers are surprisingly faithful given the disparate bands chosen. Nine Inch Nails ("Wish") and Soundgarden ("Jesus Christ Pose") are easy picks, but give the boys credit for tackling Massive Attack ("Angel") and doing a damn fine job with Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You" (complete with singer Greg Puciato showing off his falsetto). The band is currently in the studio working on their proper follow-up to 2004's Best of Award winner Miss Machine. It's due in September and you better believe I'm excited.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR

No new Matthew Good this year

Note that I'm not really disappointed in Matt, per se, but it just felt wrong for him not to receive an award and keep his streak going (Matt's been recognized every year since I started--making this his fourth appearance). After all he's given us lately, the man deserved a little break. With his new album, Hospital Music, nearly finished and due for release this summer, I shouldn't have to contrive an award to get him here next year.

BELATED BEST OF MUSIC AWARD

Injected - Burn It Black

If you watched more than 20 minutes of MTV2 back in April of 2002, you heard Injected's "Faithless" and you probably heard it a lot. Without each other knowing, my friend Chad and I each downloaded it on the same day after hearing it over and over again. For a few weeks, it was everywhere and then, nothing. "I-IV-V" appeared on the Spider-Man soundtrack, but I never saw a second video, MTV2 left them for dead, and that was that. I bought the album on a whim back when "Faithless" was on fire and listened to it on and off, but never fell in love with it. However, Injected benefits from the alternative music theorem that states that bands that are too much like everything else at the time they hit the scene are always better and fresher a few years later after their sound's been run through the Xerox a few more times (see also: Stone Temple Pilots). Going back to Burn It Black last summer randomly, I was hooked and kept it on a running loop for weeks. It's just loaded with alt-rock hits (including "Bullet," "Used Up," and "Only Hurts Awhile"). Sadly, Injected disbanded about a year ago, but they've left one great album for us. Check out the video for "Faithless" and go from there.

BEST IN GAMING 2006 - CONSOLE GAMES OF THE YEAR

1.  The Legend of Zelda: The Twilight Princess (Wii)

Initially, I was looking for an excuse not to put Zelda at the top of this list. It just felt too easy. After all, there are some problems with this latest entry. After Wind Waker's stunning cel-shaded reinvention of the series (which was at the top of this list back in 2003), Twilight is a step backward for the overall design, returning to the overly familiar 3-D Hyrule immortalized in Ocarina of Time. Yes, the overworld is considerably larger in Twilight, but you'll still get plenty of Zelda déjà vu. In some ways, homage skirts too close to full-on remake, as if Nintendo felt they must include Gorons and Zoras and was too afraid of fan backlash to drastically change them or their environments in any way. It's possibly the first time I've felt like I'm just going through the motions in a Zelda game, especially when you're scrounging yet again for bottles or larger money bags. But, just when you're feeling a little underwhelmed, you come across another dungeon and any problems just melt away. Sprawling and epically mounted, the Twilight dungeon romps outnumber and outshine Wind Waker's offerings. Textbooks could be written on the faultless design of Zelda dungeons and how they build upon techniques you've already learned while easing you into familiarity with new weapons and items. With each one weighing in at around two hours, it's more than enough to overlook the excessively tedious sidequests and unbalanced currency system (you'll lose track of how many times you need to leave money in treasure chests because you don't have enough room to carry all of it). It's easy to take the Zelda series for granted since it's maintained such a high standard of quality over a couple decades of installments, but you can't deny the magic when everything is clicking. My only hope is that next time the developers stretch their muscles a bit more to reach out of their comfort zone. Perhaps they're just playing it safe given the harsh fan response to Celda, but Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma deserve our trust--they've certainly earned it. In the meantime, welcome back to the top spot, Zelda.

2.  Guitar Hero II (PS2)

Want a recipe for landing a prime spot on this list? Start with a fantastic music game (last year's top three finisher Guitar Hero), add more songs and multiplayer modes, up the difficulty to satisfy fanatics, give the graphics a nice polish (including progressive scan support), and fix the small interface problems that popped up from time to time. Bam, instant classic and a mainstay on Top Ten lists. Developer Harmonix has been at the forefront of rhythm action gaming for the last five years and is no danger of losing their crown. Guitar Hero is an outreach franchise: it speaks to those who have never touched an analog stick or think today's games are "too confusing." Hand them the guitar and the brilliant Harmonix design takes over from there. As someone still holding out hope for a next-gen update of Frequency and Amplitude, the best part of Guitar Hero's success is that plenty of new iterations are on the way and bigger names are signing on to participate. With Harmonix now owned by MTV, the Guitar Hero series has been placed in the capable hands of developer Neversoft (creator of the Tony Hawk games) and Red Octane/Activision. More importantly, Harmonix is now free to focus on the game they were destined to make: the epic Rock Band. With Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s and Guitar Hero III due out this year, there's still plenty of rock coming, especially if downloadable content starts hitting the online marketplace consistently. I may never leave the house again.

3.  Bully (PS2)

An immersive, fully-realized setting is at the heart of classic gaming of many genres, from the grog-fueled streets of Melee Island in The Secret of Monkey Island to the sweeping mountains and plains of Zelda's Hyrule to the sun-drenched tropics of Far Cry. Add to the list of brilliant locales Bully's Bullworth Academy and its motley crew of burnouts, preppies, nerds, and jocks. One of the more controversial games in recent memory, Bully became a target of ignorant fire-and-brimstone politicians and hypocritical religious leaders as soon as it was announced--its school setting combined with its title and developers (Grand Theft Auto creators Rockstar Games) allowed overzealous critics to label it a "Columbine simulator" before we even knew anything more about the game. Rockstar wisely went into radio silence shortly after debuting the title, waiting to fully preview it until just a few months before its release. While its gameplay and structure certainly have much in common with the Rockstar line (including GTA, Manhunt, and The Warriors), the violence never escalates above fisticuffs and schoolyard pranks (swirlies and shoving people in lockers) and the tone is consistently satirical and playful. Attach another developer's name and no one would have raised an eyebrow.

I cherish those rare moments in gaming when something catches you offguard and surprises you with its creativity and ingenuity. They're moments of gaming transcendence where you're not just a player, you're a part of the game's world. In Bully, one of these moments happened early on. One "mission" has you currying favor with Eunice, a rather homely schoolgirl, earning you a kiss and her adoration (don't worry, you won't have any Hot Coffee here--you'll never do more than kiss your female classmates, though you can do plenty of that). Shortly afterward, I'm meandering around Bullworth Academy and start talking to another (much prettier) girl. Given the option to plant a kiss on her, I do so. As we finish, Eunice suddenly runs up, slaps me, and sprints away crying. I was awestruck. A beautiful example of perfect story, setting, and gameplay convergence, Bully is a joy from start to finish (my only plot gripe is that the malevolent Gary, one of my favorite characters, disappears after the first chapter until the very end). Special attention should also be given to the fantastic soundtrack by Shawn Lee, the only video game score I've enjoyed enough to buy on CD. Bully will be released on Xbox 360 and Wii this Fall, so take advantage if you missed it last year. You won't be disappointed.

4.  Saints Row (Xbox 360)

I'll be the first to admit that I'm not the biggest fan of the Grand Theft Auto series. That's not to say that I don't understand its appeal, but the go-anywhere-do-anything design (with little direction), kitchen sink gameplay (with little polish), and sprawling, enormous cities (with little focus) leave me a little cold. Perhaps it's from growing up on linear gameplay and tight, narrow storylines, but driving around endlessly bores the hell out of me and the "good at everything, great at nothing" game engine needs a serious overhaul. But, this isn't about GTA, it's about GTA clone Saints Row, an admirable step forward for the genre. Yes, there's still way, way too much driving, but the GPS system keeps you moving rather than pausing for the map every five seconds. The streamlined targeting mechanic allows for ridiculous bloodbaths--if you want realism, look away, but the numerous 100-on-1 assaults armed only with dual pistols are great fun. The side missions are tied nicely into the main story so you need to work on them to progress through the game, but there are enough that you can always choose a new one if you get stuck. Everything is taken way, way over the top, from the Casino-level swearing to the broad genre stereotypes that make up the cast. It's an admittedly thin line between Row and the GTA series, but I kept getting pulled back into Row until I'd finished it.

5.  Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (Xbox 360)

Except for a few of the Splinter Cell games, I haven't been on the Tom Clancy video game bandwagon for a while now (does it make me old that I have vivid memories of playing the original Rainbow Six PC game when it first came out?). While online squad-based war gaming has blown up over the past few years, I'm still primarily a single-player gamer, meaning I'm not really the target audience for games like this. That said, I had a blast marching my troops through the war-torn not-too-future Mexico of Ghost Recon. Coming months before Gears of War and Rainbow Six Vegas, Recon's superb graphics were early proof that maybe all that money spent on a next-gen system was going to be worth it after all. It's a quick run through the main campaign, so the fact that Recon is so high on this list despite my lack of multiplayer experience shows how impressive its gameplay is. If you have a batch of like-minded squadmates to go to battle with, that's even more reason to check this one out.

6.  Gears of War (Xbox 360)

2006's undisputed King of Hype, Gears of War is the latest from rock star (not to be confused with Rock Star or Rockstar) designer Cliff Bleszinski (of Unreal fame) and Epic Games. More a technical showcase for the Xbox 360 than a gameplay revolution, Gears deserves some credit for helping the PS3 get off to such a terrible start last Fall. With no similarly eye-catching killer app offered by Sony, Gears made the limping PS3's lineup look positively anemic in comparison. As beautiful as Gears is (and it is indeed), I'm going complain yet again about slogging through yet another apocalyptic wasteland. Grime, dirt, shadows, decay...are these the only things around in the future? How about a futuristic game that takes place in a vibrant, neon-blasted cityscape? Are we really doomed for thermonuclear war? Hey, if we've made it through seven years of a Bush presidency without doomsday (knock on wood), I'm feeling pretty confident about the future. As long as gaming's ravaged future is as gorgeously designed as Gears' is, though, I won't complain too much.

7.  Okami (PS2)

Ummm, it's Zelda with a wolf? Oh wait, that sounds like Twilight Princess. Let's see...it's Zelda where the main character is a wolf-god that uses a "celestial paintbrush" to restore trees and flowers to a barren, destroyed landscape, filling the scenery with swirling flourishes of light and color. Sweet. Sure, the fighting engine, while unique, gets a little tiresome over the game's considerable length and some of the sound effect "voices" are horribly annoying, but it's a wonderful swan song for sadly-short-lived Clover Studios. I still don't understand how this game hasn't ended up on Wii yet--the paintbrush screams for the Wiimote (though the PS2 controller does just fine). With Clover disbanded, we may not see a sequel, so take your time and savor one of the few original IPs of the year.

8.  Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam (Wii)

Developed by Toys For Bob rather than Neversoft and abandoning traditional Tony Hawk gameplay, Downhill Jam is a departure for the series. Unfairly dismissed by most critics, it's a blast of pure arcade fun that's one of the best racers on the young system. The tilt controls liven up what would be pedestrian on analog (the PS2 port of Jam has been altogether ignored by critics and consumers). For you developers out there, here's a tip for a surefire way to get me hooked on your racing game: just give me an extensive, staggered hierarchy of courses/events so I can keep jumping to the next one with no fuss. Given the right variety, my obsessive video game gene will kick in and I won't rest until I've plowed through them all (see also Burnout 3 and Burnout Revenge, though I'm terrified of the open world design Criterion is going for in the upcoming Burnout Paradise). It, of course, wouldn't be a Tony Hawk game without times where I'm near suicidal after repeating a difficult event for the 400th time (when I inevitably destroy my primary Wiimote after beating it on the floor too many times, Downhill Jam will be one of the culprits). The clean graphics, smooth frame rate, and self-deprecating sense of humor are just icing--Wii owners, give it a shot.

9.  Wii Sports Bowling (Wii)

For many nongamers, Wii Sports is the game that will draw them into the fold. It started a media blitz for Nintendo and has helped make the Wii the next-gen champion so far. Whether it's a raucous four-player doubles match in Wii Sports Tennis, a heated home run derby, or a casual round of golf, everyone has their favorites. Mine is Bowling, the most addicting game in the package. All of the fun and strategy without the tired arms, stale air, and rented shoes, it's a perfect party game. What's impressive is how well the Wiimote mimics real bowling: there's no single path to success. I started off with a straight shot down the alley, a high release point bomb that sent the ball flying straight at the pins. It worked and strikes followed. With practice, it slowly evolved into the opposite type of shot: starting on the far left of the lane, I apply a wicked spin that would ricochet the ball into the pins like a tornado. It worked and strikes followed. There's room for improvement, sure, since the graphics are functional, but otherwise awful, and there are no options for tournaments or other pin types (duck pins or candle pins anyone?), but it's an ideal way to show your parents that new video game thing they keep hearing all about.

10.  Black (Xbox)

Let's call this a "Most Likely To Succeed" or "Future Potential" award, shall we? After all the top secret reveals and hype, Black does come off as a bit of a disappointment. So why am I so excited for the next installments? Because Black was developed by Criterion, the geniuses behind the Burnout series. The gameplay concept behind Black is a strong one: make each bullet count, meaning teeth-rattlingly authentic sound and wildly destructable environments. Can't get a clear shot at a guard peeking out a nearby window? Train your fire on the walls and the bullets will take over from there, burrowing into the building and taking your enemy out. This is a game that's dying for a next generation installment. The faults (simplistic objectives, familiar environments, and a superfluous story) are easily correctible and Criterion has a good history of steadily improving their series (e.g. the Burnout series only became an AAA franchise (and Best of Award winner) with its third entry). With their considerable technological know-how already on display in early versions of Burnout Paradise, they are poised for a similar genre breakthrough with Black. Their first effort was promising, but I have a feeling the best is yet to come.

BELATED BEST OF AWARD

TIE: The Warriors (Xbox) and Oddworld Stranger's Wrath (Xbox)

Two 2005 gems from the final days of the original Xbox, The Warriors and Oddworld deserve your digging into the discount bin at the local GameStop. With so many subpar movie adaptations released every year, it's doubly entertaining when one succeeds admirably. The Warriors starts weeks before the events of the movie, filling out the backstory before rewarding you by letting you play through the film's frantic race to Coney Island. Par for the course for developer Rockstar, the production values are top-notch with most of the original cast reprising their roles. Oddworld puts a refreshing spin on the traditional FPS formula with a wide variety of live ammo you need to hunt and gather before using and an imaginative story that is weaved well into the gameplay without appearing as tacked on as most FPS plots are (if they even bother to have one). Depressingly (goddamn Microsoft), it doesn't look like either game is supported by the Xbox 360's archaic backward compatibility, but if you've still got an Xbox 1 lying around or hooked up, put these games on your must-play list.

NEXT GENERATION SEXY TIME AWARD

Helicopter Rides

With each new console generation, we get a new batch of nifty techno buzzwords to throw around. Multi-heximal cross-shading, blast processing, blah blah blah...we're basically talking about prettier graphics. But since each system doesn't ship with a tweaked out demo reel showcasing each new technology, it's up to the games to show us what our $500-600 is worth. The developers learned quickly one reliable way to make our jaws drop: take us on a helicopter ride! Dead Rising, Rainbow Six Vegas, Gears of War, Splinter Cell Double Agent...and many more. Nothing like a gorgeous view of a war-torn/zombie-infested city (complete with plenty of (buzzword alert!) motion blur) for a nice shared videogasm with your entertainment center.

HYPE IS SUCH SWEET NECTAR AWARD

The Games of 2007

2007 got off to a good start with the excellent God of War 2 and Super Paper Mario, but since the industry's release schedule is insanely backloaded to the holiday season, there's a staggering list yet to come. For starters: Bioshock (one I've been following and eagerly awaiting for a long time given my respect and love for its spiritual ancestors System Shock 1 and 2); Rock Band (Harmonix fulfills its destiny); Super Mario Galaxy (it's Mario, enough said); Mass Effect (Bioware makes me cry at the sheer scope of Effect's universe); Crysis (too bad my once-mighty PC won't be able to do it justice); Assassin's Creed (Ubisoft's new spin on the Prince of Persia design); Guitar Hero III (for now, the series will get all the money it wants from me); Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction (a year later, the real reason to get a PS3 (though Lair and Uncharted certainly don't hurt either)). And I'm only scratching the surface--I could go on like this all day.

We've had some banner years before, though, so we know how this will go. Some will be true masterpieces (I'm betting on Bioshock and Mario), some won't (I've bitched about the Halo series before, but I've a feeling Halo 3 will fall far shy of the mountain of hype that is building for it--it looks like more of the same to me), and some won't even make it to the dance (I'm looking right at you, Nintendo and Bioware). The gamers are the winners, though, so start saving your pennies and vacation time now because it's going to be an expensive and awesome few months.

BEST IN GAMING 2006 - PC GAMES OF THE YEAR

1.  Company of Heroes

When Company was first announced, there was a familiar response from many gamers: "Christ, another World War II game?! Seriously??" Leave it to star developer Relic, though, to unearth a gem from a mine that everyone thought was stripped a long time ago. Represented on this list last year with Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, Relic has extensive experience in the real-time strategy genre and has pushed Company far beyond its predecessors and its competition. They further streamlined and optimized the gameplay (the conventional controls belie impressive depth and complexity), developed state-of-the-art graphics and sound (with a nice monitor and a good pair of headphones, the level of immersion will have you ducking bullets), and, most importantly, added big fucking explosions. Whereas the RTS standard is static maps with lots of crap in your way, Company, thanks to the Havok physics engine, let's you carve a path through the buildings themselves. Sniper picking off your troops from the top of an abandoned farm? Don't watch your soldiers fall as they try for a lucky shot--sneak a group over, toss a satchel charge into the building, and blow it the hell up. Want something a little less subtle? Bring a tank over and let loose a few shells instead. Either way, no more sniper. Even if you've been to hell and back in World War II games already and assuming you have a computer that can handle it (I had to do some lever-sliding wizardry to get a good frame rate without too much graphical compromise), Company is by far the class of PC games from 2006.

2.  Prey

More perilous than any of the battles within Prey is the arduous, 11-year journey it took through the bowels of development hell before it even got near our PCs. First announced in 1995, Prey shuffled designers, underwent numerous complete overhauls, and seemed destined to slip into the Vaporware Hall of Fame (along with another infamous 3D Realms production, Duke Nukem Forever). After lying dormant for much of the new millennium, Prey escaped its production clutches and finally hit stores in the summer of 2006. It certainly starts with a bang: after an intentionally pedestrian sequence in a bar on a Native American reservation, a green light floods the area and begins pulling people and objects up into the sky. In a bravura, expertly directed interactive sequence, our hero finds himself locked in a people mover transporting him, his girlfriend, and his grandfather through the bowels of an alien spacecraft. I still get chills now just thinking about the moment he awakes and sees the Earth far below him as he's pulled into the ship. Once your "tour" is sabotaged, you're dumped into a standard first-person shooter, albeit with an alien setting and weaponry. Since the early years of Prey, much has been made of its gameplay innovations and they're effective for the most part. You'll walk on the ceiling, hit switches that flip the room upside down, walk through portals that drop you into entirely different parts of the ship, "spirit walk" to pass through barriers...and it's all plenty of fun for the first few hours. Unfortunately, once the novelty wears off, you may tire quickly of the "Blast Your Way From Point A to Point B" gameplay. Thankfully, the many years of polish were not wasted and Prey is littered with nice touches, from the Art Bell broadcasts to the poker machines to the well-timed "Don't Fear The Reaper" that comes on at just the right moment in the opening. It may have taken 11 years, but if 3D Realms has a first-rate IP on their hands now, I dare say it was worth it.

3.  Sam & Max

I stopped believing a few years ago that we'd actually see another Sam & Max game. After 1993's Hall of Fame Sam & Max Hit the Road (back when everything LucasArts touched was pure gold), it's been nothing but rumors, cancellations, and delays for 13 years. Telltale Games has answered our prayers, though, and, with the cooperation of the original comic's creator Steve Purcell, have brought the series back into full bloom. The gameplay is classic adventure point and click, though the graphics have been given a 3D overhaul. While the new art style looks nice enough, was it really necessary to move away from the game's 2D roots? Much of the intricate detail of the 2D backgrounds is absent in their 3D counterparts and the locations don't seem quite as alive as they did in the original game (which, again, came out 13 years earlier). It's a small criticism, though, and you'll still spend a few hours just clicking on everything in the environment to hear Sam and Max's priceless responses. The humor is as pitch perfect absurd as ever, so you'll want to take the time to enjoy it all (after clicking on a coat rack that has a noose hanging on it--Sam: "Where's the rest of the noose collection, Max?" Max: "It's a surprise!") Telltale should also be commended for actually succeeding with the episodic format while everyone else who tried failed miserably (see below). They've gotten a new episode out about every month and a half and each has a few hours of gameplay (though some of the locations and dialogue are recycled). Sadly, adventure gaming is one of the great old genres that may never reclaim its past glory, but Sam & Max does an admirable job of bringing some of the magic back. Go to Telltale's website and pick up the first episode for only $8.95 (or buy the whole "season" for $34.95 and download each new episode--there will be six total--as it becomes available).

BEWARE THE HYPE AWARD

Episodic Gaming

It's a great idea in theory: rather than enduring three to five year development cycles for major games, studios focus on polishing a small part of a game (just a few hours) and then release it for a discount price. New installments would be available every few months and gamers wouldn't have to waste hours on message boards and blogs bemoaning the latest delays. I've long been a proponent of shorter, snappier games. With open-world design prevalent in so many games, far too much time is wasted wandering around as you float between objectives. Instead of worrying about padding game lengths with half-hearted side quests, designers should narrow their focus and make the shorter time count by propelling you through each action showcase with little downtime in between (I think the new Prince of Persia games, for example, would flourish under this restriction). Of course, I'm not just talking about episodic games here--I'd much rather play a ripping 8-10 hour barnburner than a 25 hour adventure with lots of filler and cutscreens.

Sin Episodes and Half-Life 2: Episode One were the high profile games to hit the episodic circuit last year, but there's a slight problem...where the hell are the next episodes?! It's been almost a year since both hit stores and who knows when the wait will be over. If our choice is a glorified expansion pack every 12-18 months or just waiting the three to four years for a full-blown sequel, well, maybe we should just wait for Half-Life 3 (which I'm now convinced we won't see until 2013 at the earliest at the rate Valve's getting the HL2 episodes out). I appreciate that the developers are taking their time and not rushing unfinished levels out just to placate us, but we're either not ready for this experiment yet or, maybe more accurately, it's not a working strategy for AAA, super-high-profile projects. The much lower budget Sam & Max only came out in November and it already has four episodes available. I'm not ready to give up on this idea, but someone needs to take the lead here.

BEST IN GAMING 2006 - PORTABLE GAMES OF THE YEAR

1.  New Super Mario Bros. (DS)

Considering that Mario has no problem whoring himself out to other games (Mario Strikers, Mario Party, Dance Dance Revolution Mario Mix, Mario Pinball Land, et cetera and so forth...), it's been a long time since he returned to the genre that launched his rise to power: the classic platformer. While Nintendo's had no problem pumping out endless re-releases of his older console titles on the Game Boy and Virtual Console, they finally returned to his roots for a new adventure with the creatively named New Super Mario Bros. You know what you're getting here--lots of jumping, block breaking, Koopa smashing, diverse levels, all the time-tested elements of one of the most influential series in gaming history. Nintendo's gussied up the presentation with spiffy new graphic models (familar if you've played the Mario vs. Donkey Kong games) and more voicework (which may not necessarily be a good thing to some gamers), but it's still a retrotastic experience that feels at home on the DS even if it doesn't take advantage of the system's dual-screen capabilities (except for some gratuitous item management). A must-buy for those who pine for the good ole days, it'll help you wile away the time until Mario Galaxy actually hits stores.

2.  Super Princess Peach (DS)

Not content to let the boys have all the fun in New Super Mario Bros., the Princess has taken matters into her own hands in Super Princess Peach. While the art design is cutesy overflow even by Nintendo's standards, the gameplay is pure platforming goodness and isn't just Mario in a dress. Using the DS's touch screen, you activate Peach's emotions to solve puzzles, e.g. if Peach is angry she erupts in fire that can be used to burn through obstacles, if she's sad she's cries which sprouts Mario-esque climbable vines out of seedlings. Peach doesn't have the old school challenge of New Super Mario Bros., but it's just as satisfying and contains a plethora of unlockables and secrets. While the consoles have long moved onto the 3D realm, the Nintendo handhelds have carried the torch for 2D gaming and we should all be thankful.

BEST IN TELEVISION 2006 - SHOWS OF THE YEAR

1.  The Office (NBC)

A shocker, I know. I'll say it for the 47,153rd time: The Office stands alone. 2006 began with The Office finishing off a brilliant second season with classics like "Booze Cruise" ("BFD. Engaged ain't married. Never, ever, ever give up."), "Boys and Girls" ("This here is a run-out-the-clock situation. Just like upstairs."), "Drug Testing" (home to my single favorite moment from The Office (and that's saying a lot): Jim's jinxed storytelling ("It looked like that was going to be good.")), and "Casino Night" (which gave us the legendary Confession and Kiss).

To start the third season, the producers took a risk by moving our beloved Jim to Stamford. It was a sign they weren't willing to settle for the status quo by pumping out a rehash of season two. One of the hallmarks of The Office is continual character development and storyline progression, two things normally lacking in traditional sitcoms. Accordingly, it wouldn't have been realistic to keep Jim around Scranton after he suffered his "Casino Night" broken heart. Some complained it didn't feel like the same show anymore, but that was part of the point (we missed Jim just like Pam and the rest of the office did). Remember, there were only seven episodes before the merger (not even a third of the season), so this didn't drag on forever (and Jim met up with Michael and Dwight in "The Convention" and talked to Pam in "Initiation," so it's not like he hasn't had any interaction with them). It also let the other office members flex their muscles a bit in his absence (one of my season three highlights is the Pam/Ryan/Kevin commiseration from "Grief Counseling" (Ryan's reactions, especially when Kevin's telling his story, just kill me)). Of course, at Stamford we were introduced to Andy and the lovely Karen (both highlighted in this Call of Duty reel). While Ed Helms' Andy has already been promoted to series regular, the future is a little more murky for the JAM-impeding Karen.

Unlike any other show on television, The Office is about expressions and silence as much as dialogue. Pam's face lighting up when Jim catches her eye, Jim's patented looks of bemusement (beautifully meta-parodied by Karen in "Gay Witch Hunt"), small throwaway glances between Dwight and Angela, they'll keep you rewinding and rewatching. It's an acting showcase by a gifted cast that rightfully won the Screen Actors Guild Ensemble Award earlier this year. Recall the important lesson that Stanley learned in the ghetto, "Sometimes women say more in their pauses than they say in their words," and then marvel at the 27 seconds of silence Pam and Jim share in "Booze Cruise." I can't imagine another show trusting their actors so much.

Just watch The Office. It's all I ask.

2.  Lost (ABC)

Two and a third seasons, 50-something episodes, and Lost is still kicking. The Hatch has imploded, the real world still exists, a big purple light could be the turning point of the entire series, and I'm praying the floor doesn't drop out. We're still getting three questions for every answer, the occasional filler episode (written by one of the B-teams, not Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse), and a mixed bag of flashbacks (seriously, we really don't need any more Jack flashbacks, but I want a lot more Desmond and there must be some surprises brewing (Ben? Danielle?)). If you jumped off the bandwagon, there's not much to talk you back on yet, but with every new episode, I become more convinced that the writers know what they're doing and that this really is building to something huge. Just imagine how amazing the fifth season will be if they announce it's the last--you couldn't drag me away from the TV on Wednesday nights. Just keep it going, Lost, we're halfway there now.

3.  Project Runway (Bravo)

You can be forgiven if you've sworn off all reality TV. With all the copies of copies of copies polluting the airwaves, you may not have given a second thought to a fashion design show on basic cable hosted by a supermodel. Forget all that, though, because Project Runway is not just a fiendishly addictive show and a legitimate phenomenon, it's the best reality show on TV. As someone who admittedly doesn't know or give a damn about fashion, it's a mark of Runway's high quality that I treated each new episode as an event of nearly Office or Lost proportions. What separates Runway from its ilk are the contestants. Far from the vacuous blondes and testosterone meatheads that populate the majority of these shows, Runway's contestants are inspired, driven, intelligent, and <gasp> well spoken. The challenges are varied, the judges (namely Michael Kors and Nina Garcia) appropriately bitchy, and secret weapon Tim Gunn holds the show together (thank God he's coming back for the fourth season--it wouldn't be the same show without him). When it returns later in the year, just try the first episode and don't be surprised when you're coming back for many more.

4.  The Class (CBS)

Easily the biggest surprise of the Fall season, The Class is my favorite of all the new shows. Unfortunately, it's also this year's entry on my annual "Oh God, Please Don't Let This Show Be Cancelled" list (alumni include The Office, Invasion, and Arrested Development, so I've got a mixed record here). A fruitful collaboration between two sitcom veterans, David Crane of Friends and Jeffrey Klarik of Mad About You, The Class transcends its cutesy setup (a third grade class is gathered for a party 20 years later and eight of them become the focus of the show). I fell in love right away in the first episode. Rather than having one standout element, The Class is a winning mix of clever dialogue and sharply drawn characters (thanks to Crane and Klarik), great timing and chemistry from the ensemble, and assured direction (from James Burrows). The various pairings and storylines are intermingled without getting jumbled. Jason Ritter and Sean Maguire, in particular, play off each other with ease. Lizzy Caplan, already a secret crush of mine after Mean Girls, stepped in the Hotness Machine before joining The Class, so bonus points there. It's also nice to see that Andrea Anders emerged from the smoking corpse of Joey unscathed. The ratings have only been mediocre, though, and The Class was retooled slightly before returning in 2007 (mainly, dead weight Lucy Punch was dropped from the cast--the show's stronger without her), so the future's hazy right now. I'm hopeful it'll return (CBS isn't exactly brimming with great comedies), but I'm getting my voodoo rituals prepared just in case.

5.  Weeds (Showtime)

It's hard out here for a suburban housewife mom pot dealer and, as such, Weeds adopted a decidedly darker tone in its second season. It was a necessary move to keep the show progressing. As wacky as Weeds can be, it wouldn't have been realistic to keep things squeaky clean for Nancy's drug enterprise. Her attempt at expanding her flegling empire is the focus of season two and, naturally, things don't go according to plan. A refreshingly vulgar respite from polite, PC network fare, Weeds threw plenty at us, including Rabbinical school, abortion, happy endings, Huskaroos, an obligatory Snoop Dogg cameo, and, to top it all off, a hell of a cliffhanger featuring a good ole Mexican standoff. The short Showtime seasons are probably a blessing: the 10-12 episodes a year zoom by, but keep the writers from getting burnt out and rushing (or interminably prolonging) the storylines. Weeds won't be able to last forever, but at this rate, we should get a good four or five seasons out of it. Subjected to a traditional network schedule, it would have lost momentum a while ago.

6.  Dexter (Showtime)

From the Department of "How Could I Not Watch This Show," Dexter follows a blood splatter analyst for the Miami PD who moonlights as a serial killer targeting criminals who've eluded prosecution. And it's on uncensored Showtime. Oh yeah, of course I'm watching this show. Sort of Patrick Bateman meets Gil Grissom, Dexter Morgan is perfectly played by Six Feet Under vet Michael C. Hall, who lets Bateman-esque deadpan lines like "People fake a lot of human interactions, but I feel like I fake them all, and I fake them very well...that's my burden, I guess" ooze out without sounding silly. Based on the first of Jeff Lindsay's Dexter novels, the season wrapped up nicely and left room for a lot more (and Showtime's already renewed it for a second run). Thankfully, the pitch black comedy keeps the proceedings from getting too grim ("Harry and Dorris Morgan did a wonderful job raising me. But they're both dead now. I didn't kill them. Honest."), but there's still plenty to make your skin crawl. It's not for everyone, but if it sounds up your alley, it probably is.

Oh, and, for the record, Dexter features the best opening titles of all the new shows of the season (Heroes and Ugly Betty were close behind). I take these things very seriously. I'm actually hesitant to include the YouTube link because you really, really need to watch it in HD. So fucking gorgeous.

Another PS: I'm glad to see Michael Cuesta, director of L.I.E. and Twelve and Holding, credited as a producer and director. Hope this work helps him take less than four or five years to get a new film off the ground.

7.  Entourage (HBO)

Ahh, to be young, rich, and part of the Hollywood glitterati. Three seasons in now, Entourage has been called out by a few critics--they say the relationships among the foursome are a little too conflict-free, the acting a little scattershot, the storylines a little too breezy--but I wouldn't ask any more of the show. Yes, there's still room for a weighty drama about the perils of early fame, but why criticize Entourage just because it's not that show? Anyway, it's more fun savoring the outsized personalities and madcap L.A. insanity. Step up the seriousness and you'd have to tone down a lot else and I'm happy with the status quo right now. So, instead of finding things to complain about, how about we get back to wondering how Ari's going to get back in Vince's good graces, how the Ramones movie is turning out, and how Debi Mazar earned a title credit when she gets ten minutes of screen time per season. Sometimes, it's worth just kicking back and having fun.

8.  South Park (Comedy Central)

Ten seasons of South Park. 153 episodes. TEN SEASONS. People get pissy when a 25-year-old complains about feeling old, but I remember those initial ads for South Park back in the summer of 1997, I remember watching the first episode, and, ten years later, I don't care, I feel old. Matt and Trey show no signs of stopping, though, and Comedy Central knows a good thing when it sees it, so it's not hard to see South Park going for another ten. Thankfully, our American pop culture circus and fucked up BushWorld continue to feed them plenty of material. I stopped watching The Simpsons as it trailed off into a recursive loop about eight years ago, but I keep going back for more of Cartman and the boys. This season was the best in years, starting with "The Return of Chef," which serves as a case study for why you should never, ever piss Matt and Trey off. I'm hard pressed to think of a major protagonist in ANY TV show, animated or not, that died as brutal, painful, and malicious a death as Chef's. Once again, DO NOT PISS OFF MATT AND TREY. It takes a certain kind of mad genius to cast Towelie as James Frey ("A Million Little Fibers") or Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, and John Wayne Gacy as the Three Stooges ("Hell on Earth 2006"), but that's mad genius I want to witness every week. Then, of course, there's the entire episode revolving around (and using actual in-game footage from) World of Warcraft. Glad to have you on the list, South Park, and I hope the magic continues through the eleventh season (which starts in early March).

9.  24 (FOX)

Also known as the Season Where Everyone Dies, season five of 24 was a main character bloodbath the likes of which would make Oz proud. Emergency!Plane!Landings! Nerve!Gas!Hits!CTU! The!President's!Involved! Just another shitty day for G.I. Jack, American Hero. I'm surprised the producers decided to cash so many death chips this season since they now need to introduce a new batch of characters and get us attached before the killin' can start again. While Tony and Michelle's deaths were a little rushed and not quite momentous enough, I don't know if I'll ever be prepared to discuss the fall of Edgar, one of the most emotionally devastating moments of 2006...so let's just move on. It's a shame, though, that the producers didn't take advantage of the twist ending by setting season six in China or in some prison camp, something like that. So far, the current season has been too been-there-done-that and shaking up the setting or reworking the premise would have been a welcome change.

By the way, gotta love the mini RoboCop reunion we had in season five. Peter Weller, Ray Wise, Paul McCrane...couldn't Kurtwood Smith or Miguel Ferrer been worked in as well?

10.  30 Rock (NBC)

With the final spot on the list, 30 Rock represents all the promising new shows of the Fall season that just missed the cut. Friday Night Lights, Ugly Betty, Heroes...all worthy weekly watching, but not quite ready to join the elite. 30 Rock is still developing and hasn't quite caught its stride yet, but I've got a soft spot for it, especially in the wake of the ongoing Studio 60 death spiral (see below). The screwball sensibility and should-be-preserved-in-amber performance by Alec Baldwin are more than enough to keep me coming back each week. It's too inconsistent to deserve a higher spot on the list, but when it's clicking, it's right up there with the best (the blind date episode was one of the comedy highlights of the year). It's going to be a crucial Spring--if it flounders, it'll be another forgettable failure, but if it gets into a groove, it could rocket its way up this list. Here's hoping...

DISCLAIMER: The Wire and Battlestar Galactica are conspicuously absent from this list. The reason is simply because I missed the boat on them both a few years ago and haven't caught up yet. I've got the first season of Battleship on DVD, but haven't had the time to dedicate to it. I did, however, recently watch the first season of The Wire. AMAZING show. It absolutely lives up to the tremendous hype. Frankly, by the time I catch up on all the seasons, I'll probably just need to give The Wire its own Belated Best of Award because it's just that good. If you were wondering why these two shows aren't on here, though, there you go.

DISAPPOINTMENT OF THE YEAR

ABC Cancels Invasion

The problem with watching as much TV as I have the last few years is that, inevitably, some of your favorites are going to get ripped away from you. Invasion started slowly, but gathered considerable momentum by the middle of its first season. The plot barreled forward (even if it needed to rely on The Explainer, a character whose entire purpose on the show was to jump in occasionally and explain what the hell was going on) and the season ended with a massive cliffhanger. So, naturally, ABC pulled the plug and that was that. If you were a fan of the show and want to get depressed, check out the Wikipedia entry where cast member Tyler Labine discusses where the show would have gone in its second season. Rest in peace, Invasion. I just pray that I'm not giving this "award" next year to CBS for cancelling The Class.

THE PROLONGED BREAKUP AWARD

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC)

What a bizarre courtship I've had with Studio 60. Hyped beyond belief before the season began, Studio 60 kicked off with a fun pilot filled with lots of classic Sorkin dialogue, Matthew Perry making a Vicodin joke within five minutes, and a murderers' row ensemble. I was already getting a spot ready for it on my top ten list. It coasted for a few episodes, but then the rumblings started. Ratings were terrible; the show was on the edge of cancellation; the cast and crew were already looking for other work. Bad times. All I was seeing was another show that I'd fall for and have stolen away from me too soon (see Invasion). Trying not to have my heart broken, I started distancing myself from the show. I prepared for the inevitable and convinced myself that the show wasn't that great to begin with. I was cold and dispassionate, daring Studio 60 to break up with me. But then...nothing happened. The cancellation rumors slowed down and more episodes were ordered. I knew this didn't necessarily mean the show would last, but it also meant it wasn't going to just disappear overnight. I was cautiously ready to welcome it back, but then our relationship took another turn. Studio 60, which had been decent, but not great, for most of the Fall, quickly became bad. As in, really, really awful. Closing out 2006 and going into 2007, the show meandered trying to find a focus. Desperate to find a successful approach, Sorkin coupled up every major character using ridiculously accelerated, laughable storylines. Finally, even after dreading its cancellation early in the season, I now couldn't WAIT for it to go away. I kept watching out of some bizarre obligation I felt, but I actively disliked it and didn't see any way it could redeem itself. And now, as of this writing (late February 2007), it's disappeared into an extended hiatus to make way for The Black Donnellys, no one knows if it's coming back, and, frankly, I hope it doesn't. What a sad, sad state of affairs for what should have been one of the bright spots of the season.

THE FLOYD GONDOLLI AWARD

"I like simple pleasures, like butter in my ass, lollipops in my mouth. That's just me. That's just something that I enjoy."

Lucky Louie (HBO)

Lucky Louie was not a great show. I won't argue it was. But, you know what, when you tell me that HBO is going to air an R-rated sitcom that's something like "Roseanne with cursing" with Louis C.K. as the star, I'm sorry, I'm going to watch that show and I'm going to enjoy it. I'm a man of simple pleasures and a sitcom with swearing is one of them. Sure, it was crass (the nudity was entirely gratuitous) and unfocused (Louie's friends were particularly badly written and unrealistic), but then there's an episode like the one where Louie calls his wife, ummm, the c-word. That joke's been handled more tactfully on other shows (30 Rock just did it a few weeks ago), but when Louie gets in trouble, begs and pleads until he's almost in the clear again, and then loses it and rips off a c-word tirade that digs him so much deeper, well that's some funny right there. Unfortunately, HBO hasn't renewed it for a second season, so I guess we'll just have to chalk it up to a missed opportunity. I love Louis C.K. and really wanted this show to work and if they'd gone back to the drawing board, maybe they could have really turned this into something. I had fun watching it, though, so, fuck it, it's getting an award.

BEWARE THE HYPE AWARD

The Nine (ABC)

One of the most critically acclaimed pilots of the Fall season, The Nine was shoved down our throats by ABC in an attempt to find something, anything, to stand next to Lost. While its ratings failure and eventual cancellation may have been disappointing to some, I was happy to be able to take it off my schedule. First, ABC needs to realize that, despite their continual efforts, it's not a good idea to follow up a mindbending, multi-character serial drama with a mindbending, multi-character serial drama. There's only so much mindfucking I can take in the course of a night and trying to keep track of so many disparate plot strands over two hours is a bit much to ask of an ADD-addled country (though, honestly, I'm probably giving too much credit to The Nine, which was nowhere near as complex as it sold itself). Timing issues aside, The Nine simply wasn't a good show. The premise, nine strangers deal with the aftermath of being caught in a hostage standoff during a bank robbery, was solid, but it couldn't sustain an entire TV season. As a result, the series ground to a crawl quickly and teased out "secrets" that weren't worth the drawn out reveals (the big "What did Scott Wolf do?" mystery was the definition of anticlimactic). Since the show was parceling out the events of the robbery in such small portions, the characters knew much more than the audience did and, accordingly, were forced to talk endlessly around things that should have been discussed directly. It's a thoroughly frustrating approach for viewers--so many times, I wanted to scream at the TV, "JUST SAY IT, JUST FUCKING SAY IT!!!!" Some shows can get away with this to an extent: Lost pains me when the main characters don't ask the most basic questions when they have the chance, but at least they're not way ahead of us and still doing that. It also helps that Lost's story is a thousand times (yes, I did do a scientific study) more compelling than The Nine's. I'm also curious where the show would have gone in a second season. Would they have really not told us the whole hostage story in one season? That would have been brutal to witness. If it were a six hour miniseries, it might have been a ripping tale, but as it stands, it's yet another high concept serial drama that couldn't fulfill its promise.

BEST IN FILM 2006 - MOVIES OF THE YEAR

1.  United 93
Written and Directed by Paul Greengrass

An astonishing film that no one wants to see, United 93 transcends the stifling trappings of a wounding subject that is still too close to our cultural consciousness. It avoids the uninspired TV movie approach of Oliver Stone's unsuccessful World Trade Center by tightly focusing on the strangers in the plane, giving us no backstories, and letting the events of the day unfold one step at a time. It recalls that when September 11, 2001 started, it was a day just like any other. As a result, even though we know how the movie will end, the suspense is nearly unbearable as the passengers confront the unthinkable with selfless, immediate courage and we're drawn into hoping that just maybe it'll all be okay. Greengrass has faultlessly crafted the film, from the casting of all unknowns (any "name" actors would be too distracting) to the documentary aesthetic that strips all melodrama, making United 93 feel more real than you would imagine (which may be too much for some to handle). A masterpiece.

2.  Children of Men
Based on the novel by P.D. James
Screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Born from our world of perpetual war and fear, Children is both a too-prescient vision of an imploding future and a textbook of technical cinematic bravura. The sudden eruptions of violence, the shockingly abrupt deaths and disappearances, the ambiguous allegiances of both civilians and military...all hit far too close to home in our imperialistic times and mark the film as one of the most modern of the 21st century. Teamed with Cuarón's confident and ambitious direction, Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is awe-inspiring and features some of the most dizzyingly complicated and intricate single shots ever seen on screen (perhaps the greatest injustice from this year's Oscars was Lubezki's loss in Best Cinematography). Rather than allowing us to hide behind the artifice of film, Cuarón and Lubezki immerse us in the collapsing world as war correspondents rather than removed observers. We dodge bullets with Clive Owen's Theo and walk terrified of what unknown may be waiting around the corner. It's yet another triumph for Cuarón.

3.  Letters from Iwo Jima
Based on a book by Tadamichi Kuribayashi and Tsuyoko Yoshido
Story by Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis
Screenplay by Iris Yamashita
Directed by Clint Eastwood

Whereas Children of Men steps forward in time to reflect on our current culture of war, Letters steps backward and succeeds no less. While companion piece Flags of Our Fathers is too scattered, Letters' structure is more mannered. The conceit of telling a familiar war story from the opposing side would be a racist/revisionist disaster in less mature hands, but Eastwood handles it with the proper solemnity and respect (indeed, it's hard to imagine many American directors who would be willing to take on such a project and then film it entirely in Japanese, a choice that deepens the film's impact substantially). It's a portrait of war with no pat winners and action movie heroes, only sudden victims and dishonored survivors to whom death is preferable. Some of the most shocking violence in Letters comes not with the Americans, but deep in the mountain catacombs where the few remaining Japanese choose dignity in death over facing their failure alive (the grim, nervous determination of the suicide scene makes for an unforgettably terrible moment). Even Eastwood's broader strokes (such as the reading of the young American soldier's letter) come off not as overwraught and maudlin, but painfully moving and sad. Taken with Flags, we see war not as a simple game with good and bad, winners and losers, but one that damages everyone, one that we'd be better off not playing at all.

4.  Pan's Labyrinth
Written and Directed by Guillermo del Toro

A fairy tale confluence of the horrors of war, the beauty in the grotesque, and the innocence and perseverance of youth, Labyrinth is del Toro's long-awaited breakthrough after years of jumping between small independents (The Devil's Backbone) and big-budget comic book flicks (Blade 2 and Hellboy). A girl escapes the watchful eye of her new stepfather, a cruel, fascist captain, by entering a fantasy world in the surrounding forest. The special effects are stunning, making sure that Labyrinth doesn't look like a CGI cartoon. In del Toro fashion, the outbreaks of violence are unnerving and bloody--even if it's a fairy tale, it's certainly not for kids, something the bittersweet ending will also remind you. Del Toro's film is even more impressive considering the failure that is Terry Gilliam's Tideland, a similarly themed movie that, disappointingly, founders in all the ways that Labyrinth succeeds.

5.  The Queen
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by Stephen Frears

Adhering to traditional rules of royal conduct and familial loyalty, Queen Elizabeth, in the wake of Princess Diana's death, remained silent and refused to extend her sympathies. What followed was a steady decline of popular support amid conflicting advice from her closest advisors--to the public, she was stubbornly out of touch and unwilling to make even the smallest gesture. The Queen follows her through these tumultuous days, her stoic, regal demeanor only betrayed by glimpses of weariness and unease. Helen Mirren offers a rightfully acclaimed performance as the Queen, disappearing entirely into the role (if you walked in not knowing the actress, you'd be hard pressed to guess correctly). Even with opinions coming in from all sides (from James Cromwell's obstinate Prince Philip to Michael Sheen's nervous and vox pop-aware Tony Blair), Mirren's Elizabeth maintains her stone-faced resolve. In her moments away from the noise of advisors and public outcry, though, we see hints of a Queen who knows that she is part of a past generation and that her time is slowly reaching an end. Even if you don't have any particular affinity for the Royal Family, Mirren ensures you will be riveted until the final moments.

6.  Casino Royale
Based on the novel by Ian Fleming
Screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Paul Haggis
Directed by Martin Campbell

Bond grows up by getting younger. Far from the superspy automatons of earlier entries, Daniel Craig's Bond is smoldering with anger and arrogance, boldly unpredictable. The action set pieces are spectacular (obligatory shout-out to the Sebastien Foucan free running genius), the villain sufficiently cold-blooded and creepy, and the generous running time never flags.
[Read my original review here.]

7.  Hard Candy
Written by Brian Nelson
Directed by David Slade

I still don't want to say anything about it. You can read my festival review, but stop there and just see this movie.

8.  Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
Based on the novel by Laurence Sterne
Screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Directed by Michael Winterbottom

"Tristram Shandy was a post-modern classic written before there was any modernism to be post about," says Steve Coogan (as himself) in Michael Winterbottom's glorious adaptation of the notoriously unfilmable and massively influential novel. Since Laurence Sterne's masterpiece is possibly my favorite book of all time, I had high hopes for the film. Thankfully, Winterbottom and company barely bother trying to follow the book's ostensible "plot." Instead, they capture its playful spirit, myriad digressions, and meta-commentary, flipping between the film itself, the making of the film, and the actors just hanging around after hours. Coogan has dismissive fun playing himself (similar to Coffee and Cigarettes) and, appropriately considering the source material, Tristram just doesn't feel like any other movie out there right now. I'm sure Sterne wouldn't want it any other way.

9.  Jackass Number Two
Based on the TV series created by Jeff Tremaine, Spike Jonze, and Johnny Knoxville
Directed by Jeff Tremaine

Boys will be boys. Number Two kicks off with a running of the bulls, full frontal nudity, and "The Valentine," the moment in the theatre when I started crying and losing control laughing. For the unfamiliar, it's more good-natured and silly than you may think, so give it a shot (and have a drink or two beforehand if it helps). It's gotta only be a matter of time until Jackass 3: The Search For More Money. I'll be there.
[Read my original review here.]

10.  The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Screenplay by Cristi Puiu and Razvan Radulescu
Directed by Cristi Puiu

Mr. Lazarescu is sick and slowly dying. He seeks help and is pushed from hospital to hospital with no one willing to stop and help until his mind is frayed and his body utterly exhausted. Puiu's naturalistic style allows the troubling, sad tension to build slowly as Lazarescu slides further into hell. Yeah, it sounds a lot like The Pain and the Yearning, but there's room in your cinematic diet for some existential depression. Enjoy.
[Read my original review here.]

WHAT THE HELL, HERE ARE FIVE MORE

11. The Departed...because when you combine that cast, that crew, and a whole bunch of guns, it's got to be good.
12. A Scanner Darkly...because Big Brother's still watching, right over there, just far enough away that you don't notice, but he's there, always.
13. Apocalypto...because when a raving alcoholic director with a whole bunch of fuck you money decides to make a painstakingly authentic, bloody Mayan chase thriller complete with public beheadings and torture, I'm going to pay attention.
14. Clerks II...because, holy shit, I can't believe Kevin Smith managed to defy all odds and actually make this movie really funny.
15. Lady Vengeance...because Park Chan-wook amplified the themes of Oldboy by toning down the energy and violence.

HORROR WILD CARD

Final Destination 3; The Descent; Slither

Turn your brain off and have some fun. What's your poison? We'll start with the gory Rube Goldbergian death traps of my beloved Final Destination series (the second entry won this award back in 2003). For Destination fans, here's how I rank the three movies: the second has the best opening disaster (by far; the sprawling interstate car wreck is unbelievable), the second and third tie for best deaths overall (with an honorable mention to Seann William Scott getting his head lopped off in the first one), and the third wins for best ending. Sure, the "death skipped me, now it's coming for you, no, wait, it's really going backwards, oh shit, no, it's coming for me now" plots are plenty silly, but who cares about that when people are getting burned to death in tanning beds. God, I love these movies.

The formula for The Descent just sounds like quality: group of cute women + trapped in a mazelike cavern + amazing subterranean photography + flesh-eating little man-creatures = movie I will watch. And, finally, Slither simply takes the piss out all this. How about this one's formula: Nathan Fillion (let's all light a candle for Firefly, shall we?) + Elizabeth Banks (fellow Penn grad I've had a crush on since The 40-Year-Old Virgin) + writer/director James Gunn (husband of Jenna Fischer, Troma vet, and writer of the excellent Dawn of the Dead remake as well as the underrated Scooby Doo movies (yeah, I said it)) + a bunch of slimy slug-like things = a nice break from self-serious horror.
[Read my original review of The Descent here.]

FILM FESTIVAL FARE

A Lion in the House; Hanging Garden

What, the four-hour documentary about kids with cancer didn't make it to your local megaplex? Thankfully, this is what we have film festivals (and PBS) for, so hopefully some of you were lucky enough to find this upsetting, yet uplifting, film about the courage and devotion of families fighting an unimaginable battle. Since Lion covers multiple families over a number of years, it never slows or repeats itself, quite a feat for such a expansive film. Garden writer/director Toshiaki Toyoda was represented here two years ago with Nine Souls and has returned with another wonderful film, this time focusing on a family in flux. Toyoda's expressionist direction and camerawork accentuate the family's unrest--the camera sways and glides through each scene, rarely settling into traditional compositions. Given his films' impressive visuals, it's a shame that festivals are the only way to catch them on the big screen, but they're a must-rent, especially for fans of contemporary Japanese cinema.
[Here are my original reviews of A Lion in the House and Hanging Garden.]

THE ONG-BAK AWARD FOR EXCELLENCE IN ASS KICKING

TIE: District 13 and The Protector

Screw it, I won't choose. I just can't do it. You've gotta love District; it's got parkour co-creator David Belle running and fighting out of his mind. But you can't just ignore The Protector; it has Muay Thai superhero Tony Jaa, the man who inspired this award last year. Both movies are great fun. Both will leave you reeling from the tremendous no-wires-or-CGI action. Don't settle for one, go for the double feature and kick some fucking ass.
[Click for my original reviews of District 13 and The Protector.]

WORST OF THE YEAR

TIE: Lady in the Water and Shadowboxer

Two completely terrible movies. Too bad no one felt fit to step in during production and let Shyamalan or Daniels know that their beloved films were unbearable and ridiculous. Lady is a so-called fairy tale with no magic and a story so nonsensical that even after the movie spends 110 minutes explaining it to us, we still don't know what the hell the point is. Meanwhile, Shadowboxer is a clusterfuck of gallingly unrealistic characters and way over the top direction. With Lee Daniels, perhaps we can chalk it up to trying to do far too much in his directorial debut. After all, he's done some quality work as a producer (The Woodsman and Monster's Ball), so maybe we should just get him some Valium and give him another shot. I'm done with Shyamalan, though. At the very least, he needs to retire his pen for a while, clear his head, and show us some directing chops. No more scripts for a while, Night, you've been grounded. Don't call us, we'll call you.
[Check out my original reviews of Lady in the Water and Shadowboxer.]