As red carpets roll out, gold statuettes are buffed up, and potential Oscar nominations roll in, ‘tis the season for giving... awards. From Bae Doona to Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi, from Michael Haneke to Michael K. Williams, TIM WONG salutes the (alternative) faces behind the year’s best in film and television.

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“Funny Face” was Fred Astaire’s serenade of choice for wooing Audrey Hepburn into show business in Stanley Donen’s 1957 musical. Almost fifty years on, it heralds a new girl in town. She is Bae Doona, the nutty, scrunchable, unshakeable 27-year-old Korean actress whose “mysterious beauty” seduced Park Chan-wook enough to cast her as Shin Ha-kyun’s anarchist girlfriend in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance – the best black comedy of its year. Prior to this, Bong Joon-ho elicited her inner-superhero in Barking Dogs Never Bite. More recently, he had her don a tracksuit and archery bow as Nam-ju, a modern day Legolas fighting to save her captive niece with flaming arrows in monster movie The Host. For admirers in on her secret, those cue ball eyes straight out of a Japanese anime provide a window into her charmed method and soul. For those oblivious to her powers: Bae is a Clark Kent of the acting world, where gawky ordinariness is but a disguise for considerable thespian talent. Possessing a face as elastic as Audrey Tautou’s and a body with all the lanky physicality of Shelly Duvall’s, she is certainly one-of-a-kind; the “Silly Putty of Korean Cinema”, I once wrote. And while she’s got, a lot, of per-son-al-li-ty, Bae’s real gift is to remain disarmingly average, unglamorous or down-to-earth no matter what the role: a feat that in times of cosmetic fixation and celebrity-dictated image is all the more remarkable. There’s no better example of this than in Linda Linda Linda, where makeup and fashion have been discarded in favour of a dishevelled rain-soaked uniform, and a late-pubescent awkwardness in a Japanese high school where she doesn’t know the language, let alone the lyrics to a Blue Hearts song. If the film is euphoric, it’s entirely because of her. Gershwin might’ve penned his music half a century ago, but he could’ve easily been thinking of Doona when he wrote: “Though you’re no Mona Lisa, for worlds I’d not replace, your sunny, funny face.” Don’t go changing, Bae.

Ari Gold may get to “hug it out” on HBO’s Entourage, but it’s Johnny Drama who really needs the love. The struggling older brother of rising Hollywood star Vincent Chase, Drama coat-tails on his sibling’s newfound acting fame, leeching from embarrassingly blundered auditions, to bit parts relegated to the cutting room floor, to mawkish TV movies with Brooke Shields. The character is a masterstroke of excruciating comedy topped only by Kevin Dillon’s willingness to self-deprecate on cue: his potted career in reality cast similarly in the shadow of more successful sibling Matt. But while bro gets to bathe in the spotlight of an Oscar nomination via Crash, Kev is clearly the one having more fun. You see it in the polarity of their respective fictional LAs: Matt’s an egregious racial loud-speaker blurted across freeways of ethnic malaise; Kevin’s a boogie wonderland of bright lights, red carpets, and hot, hot girls. In a town where everybody knows Vince’s name, Johnny is quite content to tag along for the ride. Kevin has no qualms about milking it either, appropriating first-hand experience as a second-rate actor into a hilarious, spirited, sporting performance. It’s a queasy balancing act of being the laughingstock one minute, and the endearing underdog the next. And Dillon’s candor makes Drama’s little triumphs all the more victorious; when he and Ralph Machio get to kick Pauly Shore out of the Playboy Mansion, that’s his Academy Award. The Baldwins wish they had his role.

A purveyor of modern horror, Michael Haneke’s vicious anatomies of contemporary fear and loathing are the most frightening movies of their kind; they are cold, calculated, and deeply disturbing on human levels we can’t and shan’t forget. The Euro provocateur did not release a picture in 2006, but he announced and began work on one we’ve been following ever since: an English language remake of his 1997 terrorist act Funny Games, relocated to the repugnant Hamptons and starring Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as married couple Anna and George. Whether or not you buy into the original film’s contentious knife-in-the-back – either the greatest twist in cinema history, or the most abominable – this is surely the boldest move by a filmmaker in a year where remakes were once again par for the course. The audacity does not end there: this is clearly not a financial sell-out for the Austrian, but a precise and deliberate attempt to strike at the heart of a heavily mediated, inherently violent society zombified by the likes of Hostel and Saw. Already the foundations have been set by David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, a veritable textbook for Haneke on how to launch a surprise attack on American values. Judging by his oeuvre so far – including the unsettling and masterful “Glaciation Trilogy” (The Seventh Continent, Benny’s Video, 71 Fragments), three Haneke primers finally released to DVD this year – an ambush on viewer passivity shouldn’t be a problem. Chances are audiences won’t see it coming; let them squirm in the horror of their own bloodlust.

Babel’s latest Golden Globe nominee teeters on the edge of the world in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest patchwork of grand human tragedy. Impervious to the sonic overload of metropolitan Tokyo, the extraordinary Rinko Kikuchi plays a deaf-mute girl on the verge of utter oblivion; her mother is dead, her father is distant, while her land of silence threatens to dissolve her very existence. She cannot hear, yet needs to be heard. The actress’ conviction here is not hard to see: full frontal nudity preceded by a scene that can only be described as the salaryman’s fantasy of a schoolgirl uncrossing her legs. Chieko isn’t imitating the sexual agro of Sharon Stone though; her upskirted antics are a cry for help, a plea in times of hyper-connectivity for a real human’s touch. If the character’s wanton promiscuousness sounds like another rebellious youth movie gone astray, it is Kikuchi’s teen spirit that makes all the difference: a feisty exterior that fortifies an otherwise damaged sense of self, where no concessions are made to petty melodramatics, it’s-my-party tantrums and other poor rich girl clichés. Those piercing brown eyes offer the only way in, portals into something far deeper than the rather obvious pathos of Guillermo Arriaga’s script. Kikuchi also guides us through the film’s most ecstatic sequence: plunged headfirst into Shinto’s pulsating nightlife, her senses heightened by alcohol and drugs, we watch as she ascends momentarily into a state of bliss, drowned by the sensation of music she can touch, smell, taste and see. Contrary to the belief that Babel’s Japan narrative is the most tenuous of the stories told, it is actually the root of the film’s global discord: where Tokyo, as an accelerated, escalating, frighteningly-modern cityscape, towers with Babylonian fragility, and where Chieko is perched atop, naked, incommunicado, her despair bleeding downwards to the four corners of the earth. For Rinko Kikuchi, she can only look up.

Praise was few and far between for Vincent Ward in 2006, whose battered and bruised River Queen endured a critical lashing in the wake of a much troubled production. The bad publicity didn’t help, but neither did the pack mentality of New Zealand’s media, who only a month earlier had clamoured to suck Peter Jackson’s cock dry. What ought to have been said was that King Kong was the most wasteful, self-indulgent film by a New Zealander that year; and River Queen the bravest and most ambitious (as was Lord of the Rings before). A friend posits an interesting theory that King Kong is autobiographically, an allegory for Peter Jackson’s career (i.e. a hairy, unkempt man worshipped on a remote South Pacific island is discovered by a film mogul and shipped back to America to make millions in the entertainment industry). Incidentally, Vincent Ward’s ordeal also found its way into River Queen: just as Samantha Morton’s character has her child stolen, and spends the rest of the picture fighting to claim him back, Ward’s ‘baby’ seemed destined for the screen, only to be snatched from his arms (he was fired by producers during the shoot), and would elude his grasp for some time after. Though River Queen made it to the can, all that trauma to the womb left it deformed; the critics saw an easy target, and swooped like vultures. But if the film is flawed and disjointed, an imperfect heritage piece, it is also a soulful, sensual, at times lyrical capsule of primal New Zealand, and a determined example of the kind of vision Kiwi filmmakers should be trying to emulate. When the movie gods conspired, he stoically fought on. Don’t be discouraged Vincent; things didn’t go all according to plan for PJ this year either.

As 24’s man without a plan, Gregory Itzin played President Charles Logan with all the stutter and incompetence of a certain George W. Bush, channelling the douchebag-mentality of America’s commander in chief into a portrayal of leadership so frighteningly unequipped, not even Jack Bauer it seemed could save us from such ineptitude at the top. We first saw a perspiring Itzin sworn into office in Season 4, reluctantly taking the reins from then President Keeler – struck down in a terrorist attack aboard Airforce One. As a cowering ball of indecision, he proceeded nevertheless to ride out the storm, returning this Season as a similarly loathed, though far more assured leader of the free world – until crisis strikes again. The hesitancy, the nervous pacing, the sweaty palms – Itzin’s version of a bungled Presidency must’ve had the axis-of-evil in stitches. But deceptively, that outwardly clueless demeanour masks something far more sinister: that the man has a plan after all. In Logan’s case, playing it dumb was the ace up his sleeve amidst an elaborate and unfolding terrorist plot he sanctioned: the rationale being that by depositing nerve gas in Russia, and thus “proving” the existence of weapons of mass destruction, America’s military presence in Central Asia becomes justified, therefore ensuring the flow of oil to the US! Itzin’s role in all of this is one of a great masquerade, concealing his hand until, like all great 24 twists, the wool is pulled firmly over our eyes. The only giveaway is that prickly nose of his, which just gets longer, and longer, and longer. The lies, the complicity, the hidden agendas – it all sounds disconcertingly familiar. On a show where the suspension of belief is a prerequisite, Itzin’s fictional President comes alarmingly close to the truth.

A queen among kings, Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s troubling fairytale of pre-pubescence in a clandestine school for girls was the most obscure and overwhelming film I saw this year. And I can’t put my finger on it. Whether it’s her uniquely feminine vision, the film’s torrent of image and sound, the very exacting yet organic design of its mise en scène, or an inquisitiveness about the nature of childhood shadowed ominously by a gaze of the unseen, Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence recaptured the intuitive, fluid, sensory experience of 2005’s extraterrestrial The Intruder, also directed by a woman, Claire Denis. But whereas that film immersed us in the primal, ecological journey of one man’s search for his long lost son, Innocence submerges us in the stream of a mother’s womb. From its opening rush of water, which gives birth to the film’s youngest pupil Iris, to its final euphoric fountain of youth – an image that heralds eldest pupil Beatrice’s plunge into adolescence and womanhood – this is a work awash with the physical and biological landmarks of growing up. If the film is a fable about puberty, it is also a maternal vision that could have never been directed by a man (accusations of paedophilia would arise, for one). Best known as the long-time collaborator of Gasper Noé, Hadzihalilovic’s aesthetic does not shy away from the sinister or the carnal either. It exists in an unsettling space – somewhere between light and dark, naivety and maturity, fantasy and potential reality – that’s all down to Hadzihalilovic’s instinct, both as a woman and a filmmaker.

Now here’s man who’s keeping it real. While 50 Cent and The Game battle lyrics on who got shot up more, and Nelly concocts an entire song dedicated to the absurdity of ‘grillz’, Michael K. Williams is busy putting the ‘G’ back into Gangsta. Or should that be Gay? As Omar Little on HBO’s peerless The Wire, he may just be the first homosexual gangbanger to successfully infiltrate the world of oversized shirts, crotch-hugging jeans and pimped-out SUVs. And yet Omar is no rap music video extra. Brandishing Kevlar, a shotgun, and a big ol’ facial scar, Omar cuts a lean, mean figure as he stalks Baltimore’s drug-infested streets. When they re-up, he sticks ‘em up. And yet such thuggery belies the density of character and performance: not only is Omar an intimidator, but a gay ghetto cowboy, a black urban legend, a friend and foe of the law, a modern day Robbin’ Hood, a ghostly assassin, a curb side philosophiser, and best of all, a raconteur, who happily testifies in court to exact revenge on Barksdale’s drug dealing crew, lending colourful evidence to a damning murder sentence and making a fool out of the defence attorney in the process. Aside from Brother Mouzone – the bowtie-wearing, New Republic-reading Muslim hitman from New York – Michael K. Williams gets to sink his teeth into The Wire’s most entertaining and original role. That he does so with consummate ease – a steely, street-wise cool, at once tender, moral and cruel – is a testament to the writing and the man. What a character. What an actor. What a show.

Praise needn’t be justified for one of America’s finest filmmakers, whose passing last month brought to the fore an oeuvre of enduring relevance, brilliance and importance: McCabe & Mrs Miller, Nashville, 3 Women, and Tanner ’88 ranking among the utmost of my Robert Altman favourites. In A Prairie Home Companion, Altman’s final fling is at once a tribute to the lush medium of radio, and posthumously, a premonition of the end of an era. That the film’s unfolding performance – the last ever broadcast of a beloved musical radio show – is watched over by a guardian angel, that the spectre of death lingers throughout, that eulogies are discussed, an old legend dies, and strains of classic Altman seep through its pores – makes for an uncanny and entirely appropriate endnote. It is a work of humour, of indelible charm; a remembrance of things past; a plea to continue on. It’ll make you pine for Altman long after. But if A Prairie Home Companion positively draws the curtain on a 50-year career, it also signs off the great director with a hushed modesty. Poignantly, when Lindsay Lohan’s character asks Garrison Keillor “You don’t want to be remembered?” following the death of a fellow musician they ought to publicize on-air, he replies: “I don’t want them to be told to remember me.” That’s Bob’s humility as an artist right there. And we won’t easily forget.

This delicate, blithe spirit once infamous for lying on a bed with her half-naked father in “Lemon Incest” may have not out-performed other actresses in 2006, but as an exquisite creature of cinema, no one came as close. Granted, there’s an ample amount of subjectivity, if not guilty pleasure in singling out Serge’s daughter over other equally-as-alluring, arguably more talented women in film this year – Maggie Cheung in Clean, Shu Qi in Three Times, Penelope Cruz in Volver – but never mind. Let us praise Charlotte Gainsbourg for being Charlotte Gainsbourg, the doe-eyed, dainty French waif who had Gael García Bernal and the rest of us at hello in The Science of Sleep. Imperative to the success of any romantic comedy is The Girl, and if Gainsbourg’s elfin charms are anything to go by – a fawnish, bookish, ethereal loveliness that’s at once rarefied yet genuinely within reach – Michel Gondry’s follow-up to Eternal Sunshine can be considered an ecstatic, pit-of-the-stomach success. Her infectious scenes with Bernal – playful flirtations livened by Gondry’s wacky homebrew imagination – remind us that this is not a conceited movie star, or just a fleeting pretty face, but someone capable of relaying the giddy intangibility of first love; of an all-consuming crush. Also not to be ignored is Gainsbourg’s icicle turn in Lemming. In metamorphosing from studious and obedient wife to the sharkskinned spectre of Charlotte Rampling, she almost pulls off a Naomi Watts. And she’s still adorable. Butterflies, indeed.

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ALSO IN LINE for praise: Richard Linklater, for two films rooted unnervingly in the here and now; Jeremy Piven and Jean Smart, the ying to Kevin Dillon and Gregory Itzin’s yang in Entourage and 24 respectively; Lee Young-ae, for her cruel beauty and subversiveness in Sympathy for Lady Vengeance; Guillermo Arriaga who crafted two robust, epic screenplays in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Babel; Abigail Breslin for a pair of un-Dakota Fanning performances in Little Miss Sunshine and Keane (a late arrival in New Zealand this year); a grossly underrated Clifton Collins Jr. as Perry Smith in Capote; Eva Green for being the sexiest Bond girl in decades; and David Letterman, for eating Bill O’Reily for breakfast, lunch and tea.

See also:
» One-Sheet Wonders: The Best Movie Posters of 2006
» Year in Review: Best of Film 2006