Cinema in 2006
(1) Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand). It isn't just the laugh-out-loud third-act arrival of a typically grin-struck and beehive-hairdoed MD who keeps a pint of Mekong whiskey in her prosthetic leg that'll leave you convinced that Syndromes is Apichatpong's funniest film to date. A blissfully bonkers daydream about intoxicating orchids, unrelieved erections, the possible meanings of the acronym DDT, and the smoke-snarfling blowhorn in the bowels of a Bangkok hospital, Syndromes commissioned as part of the Mozart-celebrating New Crowned Hope series is so stuffed with surrealist comedy that it might serve as an ultracryptic gloss on Sigmund Freud's Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. While Tony Jaa heads the world over turning most of what might have become a truly modern Thai cinema into some sort of throwback kickboxing hall of shame and even the brightest of contemporary Thai filmmakers seem increasingly content to play catch-up with their own shadows (Wisit Sasanatieng's politely nostalgic ghost story, The Unseeable; Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's short treatise on air travel and irrational longing, "Twelve Twenty," in Digital Sam in Sam Saek 2006: Talk to Her), Apichatpong's unattenuated ability to keep bending time's arrows to his own cinematic desires seems almost as remarkable as his always Cupid-like inclination to keep firing them straight into our hearts.
(2) I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/Malaysia). Diehard Tsai aficionados will no doubt recall that this leading light of modern Taiwanese cinema is actually a native Malaysian but who could have anticipated a sex-comedy-slash-love-hate-letter to old Kuala Lumpur as sweaty, scrungy, narratively schizoid, and violently scrubbed and scoured as this? Fans of the foot-stompin' fellatio follies of Tsai's last film, The Wayward Cloud, that's who. Splitting his constant muse, Lee Kang-sheng, into two separate but similarly catatonic parts, each of them oblivious to the admirers who covet and caress his mostly supine form, Tsai burrows beneath and brazenly overenlarges the seediest sounds, side streets, and half-finished architectural skeletons of the country's monsoon-moist first city in ways that even Malaysia's brave new breed of cine indies rarely dare. As bizarre and visual gorgeous as it is brutally suspicious of Kuala Lumpur's racially polyglot society, I Don't Want to Sleep Alone shifts the director's patented mannerisms and love-blossoms-in-the-ruins paradigm only slightly but just enough to remind viewers that even the moldiest mansions can prove breeding grounds for desire and that scratching an itch only makes it worse when the bedbugs start to bite.
(3) and (4) The Host (Bong Joon-ho, Korea) and The Departed (Martin Scorsese, US). Two mass-market blockbusters from opposite if equally cinephilic corners of the multiplex world, relative newcomer Bong's politically loaded sci-fi spectacular and past master Scorsese's performance-driven, pretzel-logic policier both made buckets of ducats at box offices across the planet, even as they were winning the most fickle of film critic's hearts and minds. That The Host would immediately be optioned for a Hollywood remake surprised no one; that The Departed would manage to reinvigorate and at times even overshadow its already quite vibrant Hong Kong source material surprised almost everyone. (Christopher Doyle, eat your hat.) OK, so Martin Sheen's no Anthony Wong how about the mouth on Mark Wahlberg? Or the riotously rat-infested payoff of the movie's final shot? And as for the blend of blighted familial relations, bitter anti-Americana, and run-Run-RUN! hyperkineticism that fuels The Host to say nothing of the exquisite Zen archery of Bae Doo-na well, when faced with the task of trying to improve upon the effortless zap and zeal of Bong's filmmaking, the chopshop chumps in Hollywood haven't got a chance.
(5) and (6) Old Joy (Kelly Reichardt, US) and A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, US). I've loved Kelly Reichardt's deliberately lo-fi reconsiderations of many of the early 1970s' most cherished genre-memes since her Badlands-on-a-lunch-money-budget first feature, River of Grass. My feelings about almost every Richard Linklater film I've suffered through since Slacker have run entirely to the opposite extreme. So while the inclusion of Old Joy Reichardt's gorgeously drifty riff on modern American malaise and misfit male bonding seems an entirely natural inclusion on this list, the appearance of Linklater's fear-soaked and ferociously rotoscopic incarnation of Philip K. Dick's most harrowing and heartbreaking book surprises no one more than me. But from the first volley to the film's inescapably haunting final thought "I saw death growing up from the earth" A Scanner Darkly's inescapably despairing analysis of lives sucked hollow by addiction had me hooked.
(7) through (11) The Wire, The Sopranos, The Shield, Deadwood, Dexter (various directors, US). I may have already perilously and uncharacteristically overburdened this list with Americana, but the ways in which so much of modern American television, now some five or six years into its latest and most glorious golden age, has risen to the occasion provided by modern American cinema's almost wholesale evasion of politically progressive and powerfully open-ended storytelling is a phenomenon no one can afford to ignore. From the battle of the Wills (Shakespeare versus Burroughs) that underscores the sixth season of The Sopranos and the seriously fucked-up bad copbad cop antiheroics of The Shield to the symposium on the failure of social systems borrowed from the poetics of the ancient Greeks by The Wire and the McCabe and Mrs. MillermeetsBerlin Alexanderplatz frontier profanities of Deadwood, today's American television is as much a source of constant pleasure as an unprecedentedly complex nexus of narrative sophistication and moral-vacuum despair. That the "hero" of this season's best new program, Showtime's Dexter, isn't just a lovably humanized sociopath (à la Tony Soprano), a homicidal policeman (à la Vic Mackey), or a basket case forensics specialist (à la the entire cast of CSI: Miami) but a huggable (and strangely pink-lipsticked) combination of all three delivers ineluctable proof positive that where once lay a vast wasteland populated by Gilligans and Gidgets now blossoms the promise of a brave new world. (Chuck Stephens)