Thursday, January 04, 2007

Top Stuff 2006

Out with the old and in with the new.

Well, almost...

A few things that floated my boat, whetted my whistle and moved my mojo last year.

In the world of movies, it was a bit of a stagnant year. Not unexpectedly, my favourite films of 2006 were new takes on well-worn events. Inside Man elevated the heist genre to new levels of excitement, thrills and humour through a re-invented Spike Lee and charismatically electric performances from Denzel Washington, Clive Owen and Jodie Foster. Worth seeing alone for the legendary Agent Starling being called "a magnificent cunt" with heart-felt schaudenfraude.

Elsewhere, another pair of reliable directorial hands magiked up another take on gangster life - this time The Departed, itself a remake of the classic Infernal Affairs. Those gnarled hands were Martin Scorsesse's and his pulling power drew in a veritable feast of other expensive Hollywood hands, including: Leo Di Caprio in his most mature and captivating role yet; Matt Damon successfully subverting his all-American Bourne charm into a real malevolent presence; Alec Baldwin chewing scenery with tremendous relish; M
ark Wahlberg with the most gratuitously offensive and hilarious insults known to man; and Martin Sheen doing what he does best - being grand and fatherly.

All of these pale when compared to the blinding fire with which Jack Nicholson lit up the film however. Deranged, violent, sexed-up and coursing with a humour blacker than coal at midnight - this was a virtuoso and scintillating performance.

In contrast to Jack's bombast was Tommy Lee Jones' directorial debut - The Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada. A reinvention of the modern Western, this was an unexpectedly subtle examination of life on the border, both geographically and emotionally. Jones himself has surely never knowingly underacted in his life prior to this film but his presence here is solid, grave and absolutely spell-binding. Armed with a script from 21 grams and Amores Perros screenwriter Guillermo Arriga, it is less wilfully misleading but equally well and similarly constructed. With torrents of unexpected laugh-out-loud moments and touches of real sadness, this is a film not to have missed.

Other honourable mentions go to: The Wind That Shakes The Barley, United 93, The Proposition and Brick.

What an awesome year for music! There were welcome returns from Elbow and Snow Patrol, maturing and moving on musically in two excellently constructed records. Elbow are a national treasure, with Guy Garvey's wit and graft a palpable presence throughout the album. Yet Elbow remain strangely unvaunted. Compare that to Snow Patrol, who's success knows no bounds. Eyes Open contained more anthems than an entire World Cup - rock rarely gets this good or as precious as the achingly good duet with Martha Wainwright on Set The Fire To The Third Bar.

Debuts by the dozen battered and bruised the Top Ten all year, but none so forcefully and with such cheeky fun as The Fratellis' mixture of rock, pop, stoner stories and psychotic women. Hazily gliding it's way there though were Guillemots and their everything-including-the-kitchen-sink instrumental approach combining with woozy melody and occasional outbursts of stonking hooks to make a strange brew of bewitching pop.

Yeah, there was the Arctic Monkeys, Gorillaz and Gnarls Barkley. But take a break from such commercially shrewd hits and luxuriate in the sounds of Jenny Lewis, Josh Ritter and the utterly fantastic Duke Special: a piano-playing Belfast guy with dreadlocks, whose debut LP of meandering rock-a-longs cannot be lavished with enough praise.

2006 was also a year of the best Hip Hop I've heard yet - Plan B and the unshakeable Kanye West. Plan B has slipped almost completely under the radar, too brutal and honest for the charts but challenging, inspiring acoustic-driven rap for the home.

2007 has a lot to live up to.

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