In defense of his picking Terry Zwigoff’s Art School Confidential as number ten film on his 2006 best list in the IndieWire critics poll, IFC News’s Matt Singer confessed that “if I wasn’t so afraid of being laughed out of the critical community, it’d be a lot higher.” Well, I can relate to that–as maybe we all can in a variety of ways–except right now I’m starting to feel a little antsy about my own critical delights. Immediate case in point: my “favorites list” for 2006 posted January 2–what’s on it that even remotely challenges the consensus, that thumbs its nose at the unofficial “hipper than thou” avant taste machine? Not a lot actually: Happy Feet, Manderlay, Miami Vice, arguably Caché … though even these balky mavericks have enough high-end endorsement (“ooh look, Dave Kehr likes Manderlay!”) to reinforce the feeling of incestuous complicity, like the monastic seeker in Raul Ruiz’s Snakes and Ladders who stays buried in the theological trenches even as he strives to extricate himself, every fitful act of resistance (even atheism!) ultimately co-opted by the discourse. Or maybe Taxidermia, which didn’t get a single vote in IndieWire’s “best undistributed films” roundup–though maybe all that means is that whenever I’m set loose on a film that nobody else has seen, much less reviewed, then critical discernment flies out the window … So what does that make me: an almost too perfect mirror, like a straight-A student mastering the art of regurgitating what teachers want to hear, the ideal standardized test taker? And is any “independent” critical personality there at all, or are we all simply perpetuating each other’s biases to infinity? 

Which is partly why I’m grateful for Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth–on the 2006 best lists of “more than 100” critics, including any number I value highly–since I really don’t understand what the hyperbolic fuss is all about: drab, gray CGI embedded in yet another Spanish civil war run-through (shades of del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, an altogether subtler psychological confection with similar blue gray mood), where again we’re invited to hiss the bloody fascists and cheer on the partisans (except the partisans are committing atrocities too, albeit with more discretion, plus viewer-friendly doses of moralizing attitude). But maybe it’s a case of no one (OK, hardly anyone) bothering to watch del Toro’s Hellboy of two years past–too disreputable to contemplate, just a pulpy comic knockoff, ergo beneath our notice if not literally our contempt–so the level of expectation, the precedent established for exquisite detailing and expressive tonal flourishes, was never there to begin with. Yet there’s a single caressing moment in Hellboy, involving a green handprint on an aquarium glass, that’s probably more tenderly inflected than any of the chromatically challenged CGI work to be found in Pan’s Labyrinth. Not to mention an impossibly delicate snowfall in a churchyard, deftly one-upping the would-be poetical climax to Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 … or the ubercluttery mise-en-scene, Mesoamerican bric-a-brac and wonder-cabinet detritus coalescing in a musty baroque stew … and yes, even the explosions, handsomely appointed with micromanaged detail–what few other filmmakers would even bother to attempt since, well, they’re only explosions after all. So: number two on my list for 2004, and of course I could go on … but obviously there’s a more palatable alternative than that.