Several hundred movies played in Memphis theaters in 2006. With Black Snake Moan delayed until next year, none were directed by Craig Brewer, and too few emanated from outside our own film culture. But despite a box-office dip this year, there were still plenty of good-to-great movies, and, collectively, our critics saw everything worth seeing. Here's how we remember the year.
1. Dave Chappelle's Block Party: Those devoted to comedian Dave Chappelle for his Rick James impersonations may have found the dawdling pace and low-key laughs of this concert movie (sort of an updated WattStax) frustrating, but I found it thrilling, a utopian vision where Chappelle and his diverse group of friends concoct a seductive cultural alternative: Fierce but not coarse. Righteous but not rigid. Essentially Afrocentric but open to all. Honorable Mention: Sacha Baron Cohen's movie-of-the-year candidate Borat was another guided tour of contemporary American culture, this one Alexis de Tocqueville by way of Jackass and The Daily Show. Where Chappelle's show tapped into a generosity and openness too dormant in recent years, Borat was a comic attack on a heart of darkness all too real.
2. Brokeback Mountain: I first saw Brokeback Mountain in Minneapolis over Christmas, weeks before it opened in Memphis but well after the movie itself had been overshadowed by its cultural uses -- as political football or punchline. And I walked out of the theater that night feeling fiercely protective of a movie as tender and wrenching as any classic Douglas Sirk melodrama -- ready to roll my eyes equally at uptight straight men all too willing to sacrifice part of their humanity by dismissing it and lefty critics insisting it -- groan -- "wasn't queer enough." Re-watching it nearly a year later, it already looks iconic -- again, as a work of art, not just as a cultural moment. Honorable Mention: Though more homosocial than homosexual, The Matador was another late-'05 standout that didn't roll into local theaters until early 2006.
3. Caché (Hidden): This European art-film twist on a classic film-noir trope -- a nuclear family threatened by a shadowy outsider -- is more than just a good, twisty mystery. It's an allegory of domestic insecurity, cultural privilege, and selective public memory that combines formal precision, political/cultural content, and personal intrigue better than any movie to play Memphis this year. Set in an unnamed French city, Caché is rooted in the history of minority communities in that country, but it also implicates Western culture more broadly. Honorable Mention: Another horror film of sorts, the better-than-the-genre-standard The Descent is similarly driven by the return of the repressed and the shock of violence.
4. Inside Man: "Slumming" in a Hollywood director-for-hire project, Spike Lee delivers an instant heist-flick classic that pays gritty homage to such "New York in the '70s" gems as Dog Day Afternoon and The Taking of Pelham 123. Honorable Mention: Though it was seen on HBO instead of in theaters, Lee's reflective but quietly furious four-hour Katrina doc, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts, might have been the real movie of the year.
5. A Prairie Home Companion: A fictionalized final performance of Garrison Keillor's real-life public-radio staple, A Prairie Home Companion turned out to be the final film from octogenarian master Robert Altman, who died in November after battling leukemia, and even upon its release, Altman allowed that it was a film about death. As such, it was gentle, bemused, inspiring -- a loving reverie about performers and performance with Altman's floating, penetrating camera moving ghostlike around the theater. And the quintessential actors' director gets particularly radiant performances from a backstage hen house of Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, and Lindsay Lohan. Honorable Mention: Neil Young: Heart of Gold, another handsomely shot concert film about the intimacy of collective performance (with virtuoso direction from Jonathan Demme), rhymes with Altman's final testament emotionally, thematically, and visually.
6. L'Enfant: Belgian filmmaking brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne have delivered a series of great scruffy, morally searching dramas set amid an urban underclass milieu (seek out La Promesse and Rosetta), but this deceptively simple tale -- a petty thief sells his newborn son and has to get him when the mother/girlfriend finds out -- may be their best yet. Honorable Mention: The critically underestimated The Pursuit of Happyness is another sharp film about parenting and poverty, and though the Will Smith vehicle would seem to be the opposite of a Cannes-winning "art film" like L'Enfant, both works are clearly the product of filmmakers familiar with Italian Neo-Realism.
7. United 93: British director Paul Greengrass delivers the year's most heroic directing job for this gripping yet sober and non-exploitive account of the 9/11 flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field -- much of it told in real time and with some air-traffic controllers and other on-ground personnel playing themselves. Honorable Mention: Where United 93 burrows deeply into a moment that changed the world, Why We Fight, the year's finest theatrical documentary, pulls back to investigate the growth of American militarism and shows why we were primed to make the biggest mistakes in 9/11's aftermath.
8. The Prestige: Christopher Nolan's tale of dueling turn-of-the-century magicians didn't get the press or box office of his Memento or Batman Begins, but I think it's his most satisfying film and maybe the most purely entertaining studio drama of the year. Honorable Mention: Similarly, Martin Scorsese's Boston gangster yarn The Departed proved that big-budget studio movies could be smart and cinematic without scrimping on popcorn-movie pleasures. So why can't more filmmakers (and their studio overlords) pull it off?
9. Half Nelson: Emerging star Ryan Gosling and unknown actress Shareeka Epps delivered two of the year's best performances as a teacher/student duo in this compassionate, perceptive, and unflinching character study, perhaps the year's best American indie film. Honorable Mention: Though there are moments that descend into schmaltz, the under-recognized studio flick Akeelah and the Bee, another fine film about education and disadvantage, is something rare: a great movie both for 12-year-olds and the grown-ups who love them.
10. Quinceañera: This modest little gem about two teenage Mexican-American cousins in the rapidly gentrifying Echo Park neighborhood in Los Angeles is the kind of observant, naturalistic regional filmmaking that the American "indie" scene is supposed to be about. Honorable Mention: Actress Joey Lauren Adams' Arkansas-set writing/directing debut Come Early Morning, which screened at this year's Indie Memphis Film Festival, is another ace example of the genre.
Other Honorable Mentions: A Scanner Darkly, The Queen, Shut Up & Sing, The Black Dahlia, The Science of Sleep.
1. Dave Chappelle's Block Party and The Science of Sleep: These two films, both directed by Michel Gondry, capture two sides of the artistic temperament. Chappelle makes his most daring comic-humanist statement yet by staging and hosting a free concert in Brooklyn that doubles as a bona fide utopian community. Chappelle's love for his fellow man -- and his exuberant, demotic love of all humor and performance -- are irresistible. The Science of Sleep, on the other hand, gives us an emotionally stunted dreamer (Gael Garcia Bernal) whose desires and fantasies mingle suggestively and then disastrously with his possessive feelings for his next-door neighbor. The pair's botched romance attains tragic weight during the film's whimsical, melancholy climax.
2. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and L'Enfant: Two films that dare to invoke titanic, unwieldy talents and succeed in spectacular fashion. With its temporal shifts, unexpected eruptions of beauty, wit, grotesque violence in unlikely places, and its passionate articulation of a moral code in a universe that seems to regard its inhabitants as so many insects melting under the refracted light of an enormous magnifying glass, Three Burials is the closest cinematic approximation to the novels of William Faulkner I've ever seen. And in spite of its breathless hand-held camera work and its complex, authentic lead performances, L'Enfant shares the same sense of the universe's beauty and mystery found in the works of the great French director Robert Bresson, whose work is alluded to in the film's final, lingering shot.
3. Monster House and Akeelah and the Bee: Two sensitive, wise films about adolescent hopes and fears. Monster House, Gil Kenan's dark, fast-paced animated feature, balanced its playful visual and narrative style (including my favorite opening sequence of the year) with several knowing depictions of the awkward 'tween age when boys' interests in driveway basketball and dinosaurs are challenged by a new, mysterious interest in girls. Akeelah and the Bee, one of the great American family films, is more incisive about the relationships between knowledge, class, school, and community than any other film I saw this year, or maybe this decade.
4. The New World and Don't Come Knocking: Two sublime visual experiences from Terrence Malick (cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki) and Wim Wenders (cinematographer: Franz Lustig). Although set centuries apart, both films argue that multiple histories and eras exist simultaneously, and both believe that the same personalities shudder and struggle through the years in search of their wounded heart's cure. Essential cinematic poetry.
5. Breakfast on Pluto and Duck Season: Two criminally underappreciated "foreign films" that borrow the pop and minimalist aesthetic that revitalized American independent cinema so long ago. Breakfast on Pluto is, among other things, a visionary interpretation of the songs of Van Morrison. Duck Season borrows the still-camera aesthetic from Jim Jarmusch's seminal Stranger Than Paradise and forges a touching, multigenerational film that Wes Anderson or even Yasujiro Ozu would envy.
6. Wordplay and Why We Fight: The year's two most informative and passionate documentaries. Like Block Party, Wordplay is a sincere celebration of community and fellowship. Plus, it's a revealing ethnography of crossword puzzle culture and construction. Why We Fight turns the bold, assertive title of Frank Capra's series of WWII propaganda films into a question as it provides an evenhanded account of the personal and structural damage wrought by the rise of the military-industrial complex.
7. Hard Candy and The Descent: Two meticulous, methodical, and thoroughly creepy "exploitation" films -- one for the girls and one for the boys. The excruciating Hard Candy commands respect as an allegory about the Internet and teen sexuality, but it also earns its place here as a long-overdue corrective to decades of misogynistic, gynophobic horror films. The Descent is remarkable for its gorgeous single-source lighting and the accretive, inescapable dread of its opening 47 minutes. Stitch those minutes to the last half of Hard Candy and you have the most frightening and stylish horror film of the last few years.
8. Inside Man and The Black Dahlia: Two brilliant directors -- Spike Lee and Brian De Palma -- who, as hired guns, made the strongest, strangest, deepest police procedurals of the year.
9. Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Ask the Dust: Two more great artists return from the wilderness. Jonathan Demme's Nashville-shot concert movie is a humbler, more relevant closing benediction than either A Prairie Home Companion or The Last Waltz. Ask the Dust is the year's great sleeper, an incisive look at writerly insecurity that showcases Salma Hayek's most volcanic, erotic, and powerful performance.
10. The Queen and Half Nelson: Two films about meaningful contemporary dialectics: royal/plebeian, student/teacher, youth/experience, image/reality.
1. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest: Hyperbole earned: The second part in the Pirates trilogy is the best popcorn adventure since the heyday of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars series. If director Gore Verbinski can avoid whatever amounts to the Caribbean Ewok in the final installment of the trilogy (At World's End, due out in May 2007), he's positioned to do George Lucas one better.
2. The Proposition: Beautifully directed (by John Hillcoat), savagely written (by Nick Cave), and breathtakingly acted (Guy Pearce, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Emily Watson), The Proposition fires on all cylinders in its portrayal of 1800s Australia in transition from badland to, ostensibly, civilization."What fresh hell is this?" asks one character in reference to the land. The movie's answer is unforgettable.
3. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan: The "It" movie of the year, and it's well-earned to boot. Knowing that it's all real -- the stunts Sacha Baron Cohen pulls, the reactions to him, the people believing badly, the bear -- gives Borat a no-movie-magic vérité that a conventional satire wading in the same slime pool could never attain. I know the scene of the year is in this film, I just can't pin down which one it is.
4. L'Enfant: It's been seven months since I saw the emotional bildungsroman L'Enfant, and I still think about it. I think about the terrifying premise -- an aimless petty criminal sells his son on the black market so that he and his girlfriend can still live carefree. I think about the direction by the Dardenne brothers, simple so as to not distract from the characters. I think about the prostrate, raw, perfect ending. I think it's time to watch the rest of the Dardennes' movies.
5. Casino Royale: Casino Royale is among the finest entries in the James Bond franchise -- and the best since 1981's For Your Eyes Only -- but let's not get crazy yet: I'll wait until Daniel Craig has a few more 007 films under his belt as perfect as Casino Royale before I'm ready to say that nobody does it better.
6. Blood Diamond: In the Africa of Blood Diamond, wars are composed of opponents swapping massacres, roads are one ambush after another, and "devils are bad men who are only that way because they live in hell." As evidenced by this film, director Edward Zwick knows how to shoot action, actors, and mountains; all three are captured beautifully in an affecting work that disturbs even as it entertains.
7. Brick: The first half of Brick revels in the winking fun of its premise -- a hard-boiled noir set in high school. Then there's a subtle shift midpoint, and suddenly the premise fades into the background and all of the pain and emotions of the characters gets earned. The movie was already thoroughly enjoyable (the opium-den noir trope transformed into stoners hanging out behind a gas station is marvelously clever). But when it shifted tone and actually became a serious movie, my jaw dropped a little.
8. The Protector: The Protector has two of the greatest martial-arts scenes I've ever laid eyes on. In one, Thai warrior Tony Jaa fights his way up four flights of stairs in a restaurant/bag-guy lair, all in a single take. In the other, Jaa takes on wave after wave of henchmen; his only finishing move is breaking bones and snapping joints. It's a clinic in such action-movie scenes, and it's magnificent. Required viewing for fans of the genre.
9. Brokeback Mountain: Nevermind the joke that is Crash beating Brokeback Mountain for the 2005 Best Picture Oscar: Brokeback is infinitely more worthy than Crash's melodramatic tripe. As Ennis, Heath Ledger is brilliant. But the less showy, more nuanced performance from Jake Gyllenhaal steals the show as the object of Ennis' love. I'll admit to being uncomfortable at times watching Brokeback, but no time more than when considering Jack Twist's fate.
10. House of Sand: Real-life mother-daughter combo Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres put on a powerhouse acting show in House of Sand, playing, alternately, different generations at different ages in the same family. It never comes across as a gimmick, either. Each actress follows the lead of the other in crafting characters that don't feel patchwork.
Honorable Mention: United 93, Strangers With Candy, Down in the Valley, Fateless, Flags of Our Fathers, Miami Vice, Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, Stranger Than Fiction, V for Vendetta, Half Nelson.
Black Snake Moan stars Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Timberlake in a Southern gothic tale of nymphomania, blues, bondage, and other core values.