January 29, 2005, will long be remembered as a magical day in the history of Memphis and for something that happened thousands of miles away. It was that night that the city became the very center of the American movie industry when homegrown filmmakers Craig Brewer and Ira Sachs took the two big prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, the most prestigious annual showcase of American independent filmmaking.
It was the beginning of a movie-mad year for the city of Memphis, and it was made all the more special because not only did Brewer's and Sachs' second features -- Hustle & Flow and Forty Shades of Blue -- garner national attention, they both turned out to be among the year's best films.
And that streak continued with the Hollywood production that called the city home, Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, which is destined for multiple Oscar nominations this spring. Even the least of this year's four major Memphis-connected productions, Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown, is memorable. It may have been a bad movie, but it did right by Memphis.
This explosion of major film production was only the headline for a year of local film culture that boasted tremendous depth. Memphis photography icon William Eggleston hit the big screen twice, first with his own Stranded in Canton, which screened at the Memphis International Film Festival in the spring, and then in the form of the documentary William Eggleston in the Real World, which was shown at the Indie Memphis Film Festival in the fall.
In addition, Indie Memphis fulfilled its role as a showcase for local filmmakers. Such winners as feature Act One and short Bright Sunny South (since accepted at the Slamdance Film Festival) prove there's plenty of developing talent ready to follow Brewer and Sachs.
If there was a disappointment this year, it was the subpar attendance for Cinema Memphis' amazing Howard Hawks retrospective at the Cannon Center in the fall. In celebrating arguably the greatest of classic Hollywood directors, Cinema Memphis put some of the finest films ever made on the big screen and brought renowned film critic and historian David Thomson to town. Shame on Memphis filmgoers for not taking better advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Along the way, hundreds of movies screened locally. We saw as many of them as we could, and here our stable of film critics list their faves of the year. The best movies released in Memphis during 2005.
1. Vera Drake: Set amid the working-class neighborhoods of dreary post-WWII London, Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, about a domestic worker who moonlights as an abortionist and is arrested and tried for her alleged crimes, is ostensibly one big downer of a movie. And yet when I saw it early this year I left the theater giddy, energized by the stew of images and ideas I'd just witnessed. Vera Drake is a film of extreme virtuosity, but it isn't flashy. Rather, its effects and flourishes are subtle and inseparable from the story Leigh and his company of actors and technicians are telling. And while there's certainly a temptation to praise the film for its politics -- its frightening vision of a past that could be the future -- this is a great film not for what it's about but for how it's about it: Leigh's understated but devastating structural gambits; his static shots framed like an old master; the film's depth of indelible performances; small moments of such generosity and warmth they can break your heart wide open.
2. A History of Violence: A rare studio movie from Canadian master David Cronenberg, this was -- on the surface at least -- his most conventional film. Appropriate then that A History of Violence is very much about what lurks beneath seemingly placid surfaces. Set in an almost dream-state Smalltown, U.S.A., and starring Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello as a picture-book nuclear couple, A History of Violence has the archetypal feel of a fairy tale -- an erotic, violent fairy tale. As a consideration of the roots and role of violence, it's part revisionist Western and part film-noir thriller, deploying the iconography of American genre movies in a way that both honors and defamiliarizes them. No movie this year asked bigger questions with less polemical noise.
3. Nobody Knows: This entrancing film from Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, based on a true story, follows four young siblings who live on their own in a tiny Tokyo apartment after their mother abandons them. Trash piles up and order breaks down, yet there's as much magic as madness here. Kore-eda shot the film over the course of a year, so you see small physical changes in the children. There are terrible moments but also glory in the intimate, unforced manner in which these kids build their world around each other. Nobody Knows is less sentimental than most foreign imports that focus on children. It doesn't work overtime to provoke your tears. It doesn't have to. It moves gradually, inexorably, from wonder to unbearable sadness.
4. Kings and Queen: This sprawling, subtitled French talkfest from director Arnaud Desplechin weaves two linked protagonists through parallel stories that intersect at key points. Blending comedy and tragedy, artifice and naturalism, dance routines and gunplay, French hip-hop and "Moon River," sex and death, Kings and Queen is bravura movie-making that earns every one of its 150 packed-with-life minutes.
5. Junebug: This Sundance success story from North Carolina director Phil Morrison is one of the better, truer films about the modern South. Following a prodigal son and his worldly new wife from Chicago to his family home in rural/suburban Carolina, Morrison sketches the class and familial tensions that divide his characters with wondrous economy and neutrality. And he infuses the story with a contemplative grace that refuses to indulge familiar stereotypes or forced optimism. A Tokyo Story for the American indie scene.
6. Million Dollar Baby: Million Dollar Baby is excellent as a boxing movie, getting into the details of the so-called sweet science without denying the sport's savage, Darwinian simplicity: When people are hit hard they fall fast, and they get hurt. But the film's much-debated narrative twist -- and a great, guileless performance from Hilary Swank -- makes it more, taking established character elements and rocketing them into a more intense emotional realm. It transforms Million Dollar Baby from a film about boxing, career redemption, and second chances into a hymn to busted, broken families and the lonely, lost people they leave behind. But what's so striking even then is how dark and unrelenting the movie is, even as it strives for a final bit of grace.
7. Me and You and Everyone We Know: A minor award-winner at Sundance and Cannes, this nervy little movie from performance artist Miranda July evokes some of the best recent left-of-center American cinema. Its tone-poem aspects and respect for the emotional and intellectual sovereignty of childhood recall George Washington. Its cultural-fringe characters, middle-class SoCal apartment-life settings, art-world satire, and nonconformist embrace bring to mind Ghost World. But Me and You and Everyone We Know is no copycat. From its accidental near-self-immolation opener to its abrupt ending, it's a mysterious, idiosyncratic vision.
8. Hustle & Flow: What's best -- freshest -- about Hustle & Flow is how it unites seemingly opposed film worlds: It's an art film with commercial instincts; a commercial movie with art-film texture. This is why it underperformed box-office expectations (hopes?) and also why it deserved to be a smash. Like Brewer's previous career-making The Poor & Hungry, the real pleasures here aren't in the narrative so much as the detail, which starts with Terrence Howard's charismatic star-making turn and extends to the film's dead-on mise-en-scene, Scott Bomar's heroic score, and creation-myth music scenes so well-paced and acted that they sweep the audience up.
9. King Kong: Peter Jackson's gargantuan, meticulously crafted creature-feature isn't flawless, but it put me in that Saturday-afternoon-matinee-of-yesteryear mood as very, very few modern popcorn movies do. By contrast, Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy often put me to sleep. The ape itself -- a less mysterious, more realistic version of the low-tech original -- is a CGI creation that bests Gollum, but the real dazzlers here are Naomi Watts (best blue-screen performance in film history?) and Jackson's gorgeous, dizzying recreation of the original's iconic Empire State Building finale.
10. In Her Shoes: Apparently, I was the only critic who loved this mainstream comedy from master technician Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential, 8 Mile), but I offer no apologies. This splendid tale of mismatched sisters (Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette) is lighter on the surface than Hanson's more reputable work, but it has more depth and heart, entertaining so effortlessly that it felt breezy at 130 minutes. Guys who dismissed it -- or anything else, really -- as a "chick flick" risked discarding part of their humanity in the process.
Honorable Mention: Munich, The Ice Harvest, Broken Flowers, Downfall, Cinderella Man, Yes, The Squid and the Whale, 2046, Wedding Crashers, Forty Shades of Blue.
Brokeback Mountain debuted nationally in late 2005 but won't show up in Memphis until January 2006, otherwise this terrifically brave and sad movie would have surely made my list.
1. Munich: Following a team of Israeli assassins assigned to kill members of the terrorist organization Black September in retaliation for the Olympics hostage crisis of 1972, this film creates a fascinating lens through which to view the moral ambiguities of antiterrorism. Within the confines of a lengthy but often exciting spy thriller, director Steven Spielberg explores the personal cost of nationalism, security, and revenge in a way that would not have been possible had the film taken America as its direct subject.
2. Grizzly Man: This documentary follows Timothy Treadwell, a former alcoholic whose obsession with Alaskan grizzly bears ultimately turns deadly. I always know I'm watching a good film when I'm laughing and other people are leaving the theater. Sure, that's conceited, but so are director Werner Herzog's metaphysical ramblings. Luckily, this documentary finds the director paired with his perfect subject, and the results are equal parts hysterical and horrifying.
3. The Beat That My Heart Skipped: Directed by Frenchman Jaques Audiard, this is a story about a young man trying to distance himself from his criminal father and rekindle his life as a classical pianist. This skillful modernizing of James Tobak's late-'70s film Fingers ditches the original's exploitation in favor of a more complete and ultimately more riveting tale of a man trapped between two worlds.
4. King Kong: Computer graphics are the Pandora's box of contemporary blockbusters, but in this stunning remake Peter Jackson manages to achieve the impossible by delivering both ends of the spectrum. Unafraid to let loose, Jackson creates hyperbolic scenes of creature mayhem that capture the sheer excitement that audiences must have felt viewing the original. At the same time, his Kong achieves a level of emotional depth that does justice to the tragic romance between beauty and the beast.
5. Sin City: It seems unfair to call this film heavily stylized, when, in fact, it is attempting to be as faithful to its source material as possible. Directed by action savant Robert Rodriguez, this film recreates the hard-boiled world of comic-industry legend Frank Miller, often on a frame-by-frame basis.
6. Kung Fu Hustle: Steven Chow's biggest crossover attempt so far, this film has all the humor, kinetic cartoon joy, and rural amiability one would expect from Chow. I only wish it had been more of a box-office success.
7. Batman Begins: It's always nice to see a great franchise get a facelift. Hopefully this makeover will be more than a one-off.
8. Hustle & Flow: Having lived in Memphis since this film came out, I often wonder if it could possibly be as appreciated anywhere else. It's a great movie, giving the Mid-South Hustler the big-scale treatment he deserves, with terrific performances, music, and direction.
9. Capote: An Oscar-worthy performance, wonderfully stark direction, and a fascinatingly dark story.
10. The Squid and the Whale and Thumbsucker: Conveniently tied on my list for best self-indulgent comedies about dysfunctional families with young sons struggling through intellectually ambitious adolescent periods.
Honorable Mention: A History of Violence, Forty Shades of Blue, Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Unleashed, Cinderella Man.
1. Hustle & Flow: A star-making performance by Terrence Howard transforms a rap-music version of The Commitments into an exegesis on the struggle between man's urge to create and his urge to destroy. This film has an electric effect on its audiences, who often applaud after the sequence in which Howard, Anthony Anderson, and D.J. Qualls write a song (actually written by Memphis rapper Al Kapone) in Howard's makeshift home studio. Local hero Craig Brewer's storytelling instincts are keen, but his greatest strength is that he could get a good performance out of a fire plug.
2. King Kong: Peter Jackson adapts the prototype of special-effects extravaganzas like it was a Shakespeare play. Visually stunning and surprisingly deep, every frame of the director's dream project overflows with life and energy. It's epic spectacle filmmaking with a heart as big as Kong's, easily beating Titanic at its own game. King Kong reminds us of why we love the movies in the first place. Now please, Hollywood, no more remakes!
3. Occupation: Dreamland: This documentary about one of the Army units occupying Falluja is as deeply disturbing for what it didn't show as for what it did. Well-meaning soldiers try unsuccessfully to communicate with the local inhabitants and wonder in private why they are risking their lives. Not an antiwar polemic, it's a portrait of young people doing their best in a bad situation and a startling demonstration of the kinds of culture clashes and misunderstandings that lead to war. This movie is even more haunting because only a few weeks after it was filmed, Falluja was leveled in one of the most brutal battles of the Iraq war.
4. Good Night, and Good Luck: Obeying Godard's directive to not make political movies but make movies politically, director George Clooney tells the story of the public confrontation between Edward R. Murrow and Senator Joseph McCarthy from inside the CBS offices. His steady portrayal of news producer Fred Friendly supports David Strathairn's uncanny Murrow. Like Joaquin Phoenix in Walk the Line, Strathairn bears little physical resemblance to his subject, but he nails the newsman's unmistakable voice and steely glare. Cinematographer Robert Elswit deserves an Oscar for the stunning black-and-white world he created.
5. Bright Sunny South: Winner of Indie Memphis' Best Hometowner Short Film, this reserved and subtly funny story is well scripted and superbly acted. Director Andrew Ninnenger (aka Kentucker Audley) stars as a 20-something slacker who desperately wants to avoid a reunion with a man who saved him when he fell into a well as a child. Yet more proof that there is more to the Memphis film scene than Craig Brewer.
Honorable Mention: Sin City, Serenity, Walk the Line, Capote, El Crimen Perfecto.