Several hundred movies opened in Memphis in 2007. Here are our critics' faves:
1. Knocked Up: The movie of the year in so many ways, Judd Apatow's riotous comedy about a mismatched couple confronting an unwanted pregnancy united art and commerce like no other 2007 flick. It's wildly unlikely to receive the Oscar nomination it certainly deserves because it isn't deemed "serious" enough, though it's as serious a mass-released movie as I saw this year. Knocked Up isn't perfect for the very reasons its detractors cite: It privileges a male perspective, no doubt, as most movies do, which is why we need more female filmmakers. But, after four viewings, I find the women here every bit as likable, funny, and relatable as the men whose collective Peter Pan syndrome Apatow critiques even as he mines it for comedic bonhomie. And I find that the film's generous depiction of life as a series of fumbling negotiations to be as real and vital as anything on the big screen this year.
2. Children of Men: This futuristic, dystopian journey from Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamã También) takes a familiar genre and reinvents it — with outdoor settings, quietly poetic moments, and bravura long takes — as something unusually organic and intimate. A rattling, resonant response to a litany of public anxieties (nuclear threat, terrorism, flu pandemic, immigration, etc.), the film imagines a future in which mankind has become infertile, but it never offers a scientific explanation, suggesting that new life has simply rejected a world so rotten. Yet, from this dire premise, a movie emerges that's essentially about hope. From city to forest to war zone to a lone boat in the sea, it's an unforgettable experience.
3. Black Book: No American studio released a film in 2007 as briskly paced and consistently exciting as this merciless Dutch World War II epic from former Hollywood director Paul Verhoeven. Set in Nazi-occupied Holland, Black Book is a serious, morally complex, intensely entertaining adventure yarn about a Jewish woman (a dazzling Carice van Houten) trying to stay alive amid the chaos of the war and its messy aftermath.
4. Zodiac: David Fincher's finest film, about the investigation into the real-life "Zodiac" killings that haunted the San Francisco era in the late '60s and early '70s, is essentially a movie about not quite knowing something. It's an obsessive movie about obsession, perversely engrossing in its withholding of any kind of resolution.
5. Pan's Labyrinth: Like Children of Men, Pan's Labyrinth is a 2006 film from a Mexican director that arrived in local theaters last January. A lyrical but somber adult fairy tale, Guillermo del Toro's film presents a child's-eye view of the Spanish Civil War, where the adolescent Ofelia copes with new life under the watch of her Fascist stepfather by escaping into a fantasy life. Both of these worlds are envisioned with great richness, and the parallel narratives comment on each other. But part of the depth and mystery of Pan's Labyrinth is how del Toro resists obvious symbolism or underscored doublings. The connections between Ofelia's waking Fascist nightmare and her equally dangerous dream life are intuitively graspable and endlessly evocative yet defy easy explanation.
6. In the Shadow of the Moon and No End in Sight: I can't think of a more persuasive or more depressing indictment of the recent degradation of our national character and competence than a double feature of the two best documentaries to play Memphis this year. A tribute to the Apollo space program told entirely from the perspective of the only living humans to visit the moon, In the Shadow of the Moon is an inspiring tribute to national resolve and an almost mystical treat. No End in Sight, a sober, comprehensive analysis of what went wrong in post-invasion Iraq, is a damning indictment of a government where can-do idealism has devolved into arrogant ineptitude.
7. No Country for Old Men: Intricately designed and richly photographed by Roger Deakins, No Country for Old Men is the Coen brothers' most measured film ever, a tense, virtuoso thriller where violence is undercut by the rare appearance of actual human emotion. Like any other Coen movie, No Country for Old Men is more about their cultural source material (Cormac McCarthy's novel, film thrillers from '40s noir to Sam Peckinpah) than about real life. But here, unlike most of their work, they treat their influences right.
8. Juno: A precocious film about a precocious kid (the splendid Ellen Page in the title role), Juno is too in love with its own hipster verbosity at first but settles down then blooms into a family comedy of rare generosity.
9. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: Who saw this coming? At the ripe age of 83, veteran Hollywood director Sidney Lumet made his finest film in at least 25 years with this bleak, twisty heist flick in which Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play a pair of desperate brothers who try to knock off their parents' suburban jewelry store. The film's oscillating chronology moves with the disorderly precision of a crossword puzzle where each correct answer sets up the next, while the bruising story emerges as a subtle generational allegory for an era of crushing debt.
10. Away From Her: Canadian actress Sarah Polley emerged as a potentially major filmmaker with a directorial debut (which she also adapted from an Alice Munro short story) impressive in its utter lack of autobiography. This modest drama about an elderly couple coping with the onset of Alzheimer's (including a great performance from Julie Christie as the afflicted) has palpable warmth but avoids sentimentality with its meticulous, unflinching austerity, achieving something like a sense of grace.
Special Jury (of One) Prizes
Grindhouse: At a time when the experience of filmgoing is being constantly debased, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's high-concept double feature was a heroic effort to turn the movies into a communal event. So sad, then, that Grindhouse garnered such a meager audience. However, set together, the two films — Tarantino's car flick Death Proof and Rodriguez's zombie movie Planet Terror — functioned as an unintentional test of aesthetic judgment. Do you like great cinema (Death Proof, Tarantino's finest work since Jackie Brown, if not Pulp Fiction) or do you just like to see stuff blown up (the comparatively inept Planet Terror)?
Killer of Sheep: Long as much a rumor as a movie, Charles Burnett's haunting 16-millimeter 1981 feature about everyday life in Watts got new life in 2007, hitting the art-house and museum circuit, including a June showing at the Brooks Museum.
Team Picture: Barring Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan, Kentucker Audley's Indie Memphis Film Festival winning feature debut was the year's best local feature.
Honorable Mentions: Ratatouille, Michael Clayton, Waitress, Black Snake Moan, The Bourne Ultimatum, Eastern Promises, Offside, Gone Baby Gone, Paris Je T'aime, Little Children.
1. Army of Shadows and Black Book: I said all I needed to say about Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 masterpiece, Army of Shadows, which screened once at the Brooks Museum, awhile back, but I can't wait to gush about Paul Verhoeven's best film, Black Book. In a movie where no one is safe or secure for more than 10 consecutive minutes, Carice van Houten's lead performance is the only sure thing, and she gets you on her side early when she steals a kiss from a Dutch sailor while cooking a fish for him. Her vitality and star power remind me of the great bombshells like Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard. But Black Book is bolder when Verhoeven coolly punctures the mythology of World War II and all its "greatest generation" bravado and argues that even more heinous wartime atrocities occur after the loser surrenders. I wonder if he's kept up with the U.S. involvement in Iraq?
2. Hot Fuzz: The Don Quixote of action-comedy buddy pictures; when you're not amazed by its dual effectiveness as a dry, character-driven English satire — and, eventually, a kick-ass action flick in its own right — you're marveling at the endless throwaway references in Hot Fuzz to the hyper-manly movies it knowingly steals from. (I still can't get over the unexpected nods to Melville's Le Samouri and the Chuck Norris discount-bin title Silent Rage.) All of Lethal Weapon's bastard children are hereby euthanized.
3. Zodiac: An obsessive-compulsive nightmare about murder, paperwork, and telephone booths, David Fincher's epic study of the men who couldn't stop pondering the identity of the "Zodiac" killer is the year's most outrageous studio release. Holding narrative closure eternally at bay, this is principally a film about almost knowing something, and its loose or dead ends may frustrate some viewers. But once you nestle into its brown polyester world, you'll stay there spellbound.
4. The Curse of the Golden Flower: Will Zhang Yimou's period epic, which is perhaps the apex of the high-gloss martial-arts fable, lose its considerable visual power on a smaller screen? I hope not. The Curse of the Golden Flower contains some of the most breathtaking battle choreography I've ever seen. I'm sure Chow Yun-Fat's triumphant, slow-motion hair-shake as he's about to beat down his challengers will still hold up, though.
5. Pan's Labyrinth: The most memorable sequence from this ghoulishly smart and inventive phantasmagoria (when brave little Ofelia steals some food from the lair of a stringy demon) should soon belong to all of horror-film history. Take a look at that demon once more and you see Nosferatu's cousin, zonked out at the dinner table, waiting for his next tyke-shaped hors d'oeuvre, his eyeballs on a plate next to him.
6. Paprika: This surreal blast of sensory overload captures the boundless possibilities for pleasure and misery of all the virtual universes we care to inhabit: the Internet, our memories, dreams, wherever. And to keep you focused and fearful, Paprika boasts the year's most jarring, disorienting sound design.
7. Paris Je T'aime: I'm still pleased by this outstanding work of artistic democracy. Just look at the kinds of lives we get to see in this anthology depiction of Paris. Whether you're old, young, single, married, divorced, native-born, tourist, immigrant, live, or dead, everyone gets a voice and a couple of moments to be seen. City air breathes free.
8. Knocked Up: You know, the funny Seth Rogen-Judd Apatow collaboration.
9. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men: Two from cinematographer Roger Deakins. The first one is photographed for show and contrast; Deakins is such a magician in Assassination that he seems capable of anything, like lighting a whole crowd scene with flame from a half-burnt matchstick. He shot No Country with less fanfare and swagger, in a cool, man-with-a-job-to-do style. It's beautiful all the same. I keep coming back to that queer, grave Coen brothers picture and I can't shake it; I keep hearing Tommy Lee Jones' voice and seeing his bewildered, trancelike stare. To be continued, I reckon.
10. No End in Sight and In The Shadow of the Moon: America: Love it or leave it, buster.
DVD Highlights: Here are two films that saw commercial release during 2007 but never made their way to Memphis. I urge you to catch them in the privacy of your own home.
1. Inland Empire: David Lynch's impossible, masterful three-hour opus (which grows to cover nearly four hours on the special-edition DVD) is a meta-movie as toxic as the most bitter striking screenwriter's revenge fantasy: an epic avant-garde work whose scenes and tones pass back and forth into and out of the bleakest craters of fear, pain, and despair like runners passing batons in an endless relay; the comeback vehicle of the new century for Laura Dern, who plants herself in the movie and runs wild as the id of every backlit Hollywood film goddess; a black hole trimmed in pastel and tissue paper; a crock; the least likely home of the feel-good ending of the year. I could keep going; Inland Empire might be a film without a ground floor. Maybe I still am; maybe it is.
2. Chalk: As the much-needed antidote to nearly a century of stupid "inspirational" movies about education, this unsparing and funny look at the everyday lives of high school teachers may be too much of an insider's film. But see it anyway. I teach high school, and Chalk's endless, petty conversations about the tardy policy and other bureaucratic nonsense are the God's honest truth.
1. Children of Men: Children of Men is one of those rare films that is so singular, it really doesn't have any historical cinematic analogue. What's not to worship about it? It's dystopian, with a hopeful outlook; an actioner, with a pacifist heart; political and moral, without being preachy. Director/co-writer Alfonso Cuarón goes documentary-style to put the viewer right in the thick of things. Bar none and by a goodly margin, Children of Men is the best film of the 21st century thus far.
2. Zodiac: I've read plenty of books that chronicle an investigator's personal decline after becoming obsessed with trying to solve a crime; it's maybe my favorite subset of the mystery genre. But I'd never seen a movie that pulled off the trick until Zodiac. Who done it? Director David Fincher. His masterpiece, Zodiac imposes a dread that is both physical and existential and adds gorgeous photography and a brilliant script to outstanding performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Mark Ruffalo and a career best from Robert Downey Jr.
3. No Country for Old Men: About as straight a poker face of a film as you're ever likely to get from the Coen brothers. It even contains what amounts to the Coen mission statement: Deputy Wendell (Garret Dillahunt) is embarrassed when he can't help but laugh upon hearing about a horrible crime. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) responds, "That's all right. I laugh myself sometimes. There ain't a whole lot else you can do." Oh, and Javier Bardem co-stars as Anton Chigurh, the scariest movie character since Li'l Zé in City of God.
4. Charlie Wilson's War: The most fun I had watching actors act all year, even if Julia Roberts is in it. It's too much to keep up with anymore, but Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Hanks turn in something close to career performances. The film's mix of drama and comedy is utterly entertaining. For my money, Charlie Wilson's War is the next Best Picture Oscar winner, and it would be deservedly so.
5. Grindhouse: It's almost not fair, as Grindhouse gets two movies in the Top 10 list for the price of one. Though Robert Rodriguez's splatter-happy Planet Terror is thoroughly entertaining, Quentin Tarantino's half, Death Proof, is the real story here. Pure cinematic thrills, whether it's tires or mouths going 100 miles per hour.
6. Atonement: A mathematical discovery: Keira Knightley + Joe Wright + Jane Austen (2005's Pride & Prejudice) = Pass the barf bag. But Keira Knightley + Joe Wright + Ian McEwan (Atonement) = Pass the popcorn.
7. Lions for Lambs: Many critics who have panned Lions for Lambs — and that would be just about all of them — level two charges against the film: It isn't cinematic enough and it's too talky. Um, remember when breaking from convention was a good thing for art to do? A must-see political commentary for anyone who thinks it's still okay to admit that another political side — from whatever side you're on — might be capable of making valid points.
8. Knocked Up: Knocked Up might have made it on this list on the strength of its comedy alone, which, at times, had me laughing so hard my vision got fuzzy. But its nonjudgmental core values — accepting of the knuckleheaded and the ambitious alike — assures its place. Plus, Knocked Up led my wife and I to move Freaks and Geeks to the top of our Netflix queue, for which I am forever in its debt.
9. The Bourne Ultimatum: A workshop in brilliant editing — credit goes to Christopher Rouse — highlighted by one sequence's hand-to-hand combat in a tiny bathroom. Director Paul Greengrass' handheld camera is deft enough to get in so tight we feel we're part of the fight but is still able to explain the action. What isn't visually captured is revealed through audio clues, including the sounds of knives, fists, and breathing. The film's the topper to a top-notch action series.
10. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: Enjoy the first few, pre-opening-title minutes of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Once the title comes up, the devil has got it figured out. But it's a highly watchable vision of human torment — and not the flames and hot pokers version. About two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) who conspire to rob their parents' jewelry store to escape what their lives have become, the movie takes place in a hellish locale that is cold, lonely, and utterly personal. Convincing stuff.
Honorable Mentions: Lucky You, The Curse of the Golden Flower, Black Book, Jindabyne, Letters From Iwo Jima, The Lives of Others, Goya's Ghosts, Michael Clayton, The Host, Pan's Labyrinth.