as the lights dim, we travel to Spain. Depending on your age, my fellow moviegoer, you may recognize your whereabouts: just after La Guerra Civil, circa 1944. Once the everyday world gives way to fantasy, however, knowledge and experience fail us both. We sit as children, naïve and unknowing. Or perhaps we visit Miami: a far more recognizable setting. Here too, familiar landmarks melt into a labyrinthine world inhabited by Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell; neither man seems keen on enlightening us. Are these points of reference just a little too commonplace? Check out the new David Lynch movie; I dare you to find the mundane in Inland Empire.

Even as we navigate our crumbling sci-fi future, immigration controversies rear their ugly heads, jerking us back to our modern lives. Here we are at the outset of 2007, looking back on an incredible year of movies. We have seen our world in new contexts, experiencing the schools of Brooklyn, the hospitals of Romania, and the homeless shelters of Belgium. Even a universal memory, life on September 11th, 2001, eventually revealed an entirely new perspective.

Perhaps Sacha Baron Cohen best represents this strange year. Be you a feminist or a frat boy, the movie theater tells stories both recognizable and remote. No experience, we hope, is too unique or ordinary to be shared. We’ve done our best to cull the cinematic offerings of 2006 to a pithy list. Please, let us know what we’ve missed.

Warmest regards,
[Stylus at the Movies]

Idiocracy is Kurt Vonnegut disguised as Mike Judge, spewing dystopian fables of an America gone to seed, where Costco is our preeminent law school, an energy drink called Brawndo (it has electrolytes!) has replaced water, and where a movie called Ass sweeps the Oscars, despite being nothing more than a man’s ass farting on-screen. (Consider it penance for Judge’s work in unleashing gross-out culture with “Beavis and Butthead.”)

Idiocracy grossed a meager $400,000 in theaters, proving Judge’s point. (Just two months later Jackass Two debuted to $30 million in its first weekend alone.) No need to fret for Judge, chalk it up to him being advanced. Like Office Space before it, Idiocracy will be worshipped in college dorm rooms for eternity, revealing layers and blink-and-you-missed-it sight gags with each viewing. It’s Judge’s way of flicking off the world, with wry smile intact.

[Jeff Weiss]
[Stylus Review]

In this severe Nick Cave penned outback Western, the clinging fingernails of civilization are torn from its farcical grip, leaving bloody stumps suitable only for pulling triggers. Lunacy and the seamless violence of nature sharpens the edge of this utterly bleak and tremendous film. Charlie Burns must kill one brother to save another, a stark and uninviting proposition if ever there was one. Like a brass buckle polished with blood, Charlie tightens up and moves through this unforgiving narrative with grim determination.

Guy Pearce truly nails his character’s emaciated and abandoned desperation. Indeed, Hillcoat draws memorable performances from the whole cast: a wilted Emily Watson, an emasculated and tragically poised Ray Winstone, and a gasping, deranged John Hurt. But crouched like a fateless native, overseeing the folly, is Charlie’s older brother, played by Danny Huston. He is a Kurtz-like figure, intellectually insane, exiled from some old hell, reveling in this new one. This could very well be the definitive modern Western: cursed with a whispering menace, cast in the shadow of death, but blessed with the killer’s touch.

[Paolo Cabrelli]
[Stylus Review]

If David Lynch’s 3-hour dirty-video whatzit is the “best experimental film” (per the National Society of Film Critics) of 2006, who’s the guinea pig? The viewer or the creator? Anticipated as a companion Hollywood nightmare to Mulholland Dr., Lynch’s most avant-garde feature in 30 years (or ever) won’t be getting any Oscar nods or multiplex engagements, and exasperation has been registered by fans who bargained on something more navigable, solvable, or jokily sadistic (oh, that Frank Booth). Inland Empire jumps down the rabbit hole more quickly than its predecessor, profitably abandoning its movie-studio base (On High in Blue Tomorrows looks like the kind of torpid melodrama that would ideally have been shot, and titled, by the Kuchar brothers in their Bronx apartment in 1959) in favor of its heroine’s labyrinthine, meta-conscious wanderings.

Laura Dern’s game, versatile inhabitation of Nikki Grace and her ghostworld permutations anchor the odyssey—never have this many close-ups of bewilderment mediated so many reverse shots of rooms, corridors, and streets. Perhaps plagued by the commercial equivalent of the plot’s gypsy curse, Lynch is self-distributing city by city, as even a lauded auteur is lucky to get an uncompromising experimental work booked for a night at the museum in an Opening Weekend Gross culture.

[Bill Weber]

In an abandoned building, a man gives up his child in exchange for cash. As he briefly turns back to the heap of clothing where the baby lies, we desperately search his face for some trace of guilt. But he returns only to retrieve his wallet.

Two boys struggle in the water, clambering atop each other’s shoulders for air.

How can we begin to form a moral stance, even should our lives depend on it? L’Enfant shatters our apathy and demands an angry response. The jittery camerawork and naked performances tickle our juror instincts, as if we were impartially observing pathetic losers on reality TV. But filmmakers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne deny us our familiar role as audience. To tell its story, L’Enfant shows only actions, sometimes only facial expressions. The lack of context forces us into a frustratingly limited perspective, where even the most careful observations may be mistaken. Despite these restraints, the film begs us to regain faith in our fellow man, pinning all our hope on insincere apologies and half-imagined glances of regret.

[L. Michael Foote]
[Stylus Review]

At what point does the cost of saving a man’s life outweigh the obligation to do so? The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the Romanian black comedy directed by Cristi Puiu, takes us on one man’s odyssey through the streets of Bucharest in search of medical attention for his rapidly declining health only to discover that relief doesn’t come easy for a lonely old man with little left to live for. Accompanied by a nurse whose main concern seems to be ending her shift rather than providing comfort or support to her dying patient, the duo travel from hospital to hospital finding little to no sanctuary for the increasingly delirious Mr. Lazarescu.

The film uses its comedy wisely; positioning the events in such a matter-of-fact manner that humor just seems to spring forth naturally from what would otherwise be morbid situations. On the one hand, you understand the institutional side of the matter: here’s a man barely alive to begin with. He lives alone with his cats, grumbling to himself as he winds down what is likely to be a short-lived existence. Plenty of other people need saving, why waste the effort on him? Still, you can’t help but feel appalled by the icy way in which these supposed emblems of salvation (i.e. the doctors charged with the duty of helping Lazarescu) apathetically dismiss the needs of their would-be patient. While the film comes off as a harsh denouncement against the Romanian healthcare system, it doesn’t necessarily answer the questions it raises, but merely posits them for our consideration as the camera lingers on the outskirts of the drama, calmly examining its intricacies.

[Dave Micevic]
[Stylus Review]

While watching The Queen, one feels that the filmmakers always have another card up their sleeve. Chronicling a tumultuous week in the life of a government devoted to tact and image, the movie slyly withholds a complete understanding of character. These people have kingdoms to lose; they are none too eager to expose their every emotion. Whenever the narrative seems to completely unravel, The Queen reveals another dimension, complicating matters and offering new insights. With very few missteps, The Queen tells a rich, multi-faceted, and properly ambiguous story.

The efficiently coiled plot begins with the election of Tony Blair (Michael Sheen). Ambitious, radical, and impossibly charismatic, Blair wants to change the face of English politics. However, the man must soon attend his first meeting as Prime Minister with the Queen of England (Helen Mirren), who is clearly not impressed by his winning personality. The Queen has dealt with several prime ministers during her long career, including, as she dryly notes, such heavy-hitters as Winston Churchill. A power struggle drenched in courtesy emerges, the future of England at stake.

[L. Michael Foote]
[Stylus Review]

In order to describe this strange and wonderful film, in which psychotic girls rape gay men up the ass after being possessed by the souls of other gay men, I would perhaps cite Moulin Rouge! In this aggressively artificial melodrama, however, love is a disease of the imagination. The death-defying romance begins with a boy drunk in a bar, his beloved scribbling a number on his comatose body.

Director João Pedro Rodrigues, a man of impeccable style, unabashedly manipulates his audience according to every random impulse. Cameras intensely zoom in on tear-stained faces while violins throb overwhelmingly. Cadavers, grief-stricken mothers, funereal bouquets, and fat men giving head are tools of immense hilarity. I recommend the delirious joys of Two Drifters to all and sundry, so long as you aren’t disturbed by wagging penises or necrophilia.

[L. Michael Foote]
[Stylus Review]

The Mexican director Guillermo Del Torro wastes no time getting started in this roaring good two-track story. A pregnant woman named Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her daughter Ofelia (11-year-old Ivana Baquero) travel through wild northern forests in Franco’s 1944 Spain. As soon as the girl can get out of that carriage, she picks up a rock with an eye carved into its surface and heads off the road. She spots an ancient rock carving overgrown with vines, a chunk missing from the figure’s face. Naturally the rock she’s found fits when she inserts it, and whatever thin membrane remains between an historical world ravaged by Fascist excess and vengeance and a mythological world of magical creatures is breached, its tatters cloaking Ofelia.

A horned satyr sets her to several tasks, complete with magic keys (that work in the real world), monsters, and slime. Del Torro has surely been heading for this immensely rich film, his second (after The Devil’s Backbone) explicitly set against the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, and it follows a string of films pairing bloody classical myths and vampire lore with modern political settings. While Ofelia instinctively seeks the forest’s magic over the sadistic violence of her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), art’s ancient, potent refuge has its own dangers and demands. Del Torro says he chose the horned satyr because of its traditional ambiguity, both ally and deceiver. Racing between two worlds, her mother lost in childbirth and the protective housekeeper/partisan Mercedes (Meribel Verdú) unmasked and tortured, Ofelia wastes no time in childhood either. She must discern, choose, act. When Mercedes turns the tables of Vidal, his horribly slashed-open face and his self-repair merge at the horizon of the two worlds’ savagery. Like no other film this year, except maybe Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Pan’s Labyrinth has the look of earthy, early photos sprung to life. Much magic, no Tinkerbell at all.

[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
[Stylus Review]

The fictionalization of recent tragedies always seems to conjure up accusations of exploitation. And why not? We need only look toward Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center for evidence of the way directors sentimentalize something that is beyond dramatic representation. Unfortunately for Stone, the mistakes of his film had retroactively been amended by Paul Greengrass and his United 93. How could two films dealing with similar subject matter produce such wildly divergent receptions? It’s a question of method. Stone takes the predictable route, attempting to heighten the emotional impact of his material by being overly portentous, playing up the tension and music where it isn’t required. Greengrass, however, recognizes this inherent quality in the material and takes his film in stride, allowing it to appeal naturally to our emotions rather than manipulating them.

United 93 contains no rousing speeches or sweeping musical arrangements, choosing instead to methodically examine the events leading up to the hijacking without speculating on the moral or political perspectives that would only distract from the pith of the film. The resulting effect is twofold. On the one hand, its lack of moral sentiment places it among the most honestly produced dramatic reenactments out there. However, it leaves its purpose open to interpretation, making it fodder for pundits on both sides of the spectrum who shamefully use it to bolster their already inflated opinions. Despite this, it would nevertheless be a tragedy to let the external hyperbole and the white noise of the media to wrongfully persuade one to dismiss the film since it remains one of the best of the year.

[Dave Micevic]
[Stylus Review]

Perhaps the most archetypal of cinematic productions, the crime drama, at least to this point, has remained relatively simply crafted. There’s no more basic a scenario than the creeping specter of evil, the retreat of justice under fire and, finally, its resurrection through the heroic exploits of a few good men. But real life can be quite different. Evil is born from good, righteousness overreaches, and evolves into oppression and, as the tagline from Miami Vice goes, “lines get crossed and the wrong people die.”

Director Michael Mann’s Miami Vice is a bold exploration of that other side of crime fighting—the self-doubt and illusions that inherently challenge a quest for complete justice. This isn’t the simple Die Hard film where you shoot up the bad guys and walk away clean; it’s about the price paid for justice.

[Imran J. Syed]
[Stylus Review]

If the best comedy is built on a solid foundation of pain and suffering, then Borat is one of the greatest comedies ever made. Sometimes shocking, sometimes nauseating, and always hilarious, Larry Charles and Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat was the most controversial film of 2006. In addition to dominating the airwaves, coining catchphrases, and topping the box office, Borat has already given birth to several lawsuits and even—as a friend of mine predicted after first seeing the character on "Da Ali G Show"—caused an international incident. That all this mainstream attention would be devoted to a movie that's essentially a piece of radical, almost avant-garde performance art demonstrates how desperate Americans are for a wake-up call.

Criticisms that the movie is uneven or merely a collection of sketches are irrelevant, and those who call Borat himself offensive miss the point. This is more than gross-out humor (though it is that, too); in time it will be clear just how concerned Sacha Baron Cohen is about racism, homophobia, and the "War of Terror," support for which he proudly pledges to a cheering red-state rodeo audience—right before he demands that "George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman, and child in Iraq!" With Borat, Baron Cohen has torn off the politically correct mask of America to reveal the furious, frightened, xenophobic faces beneath.

[Patrick McKay]
[Stylus Review]

The commentary about Martin Scorsese’s two-fisted Boston gangster epic tends to reference, whether in the spirit of praise or criticism, the director’s previous Mob movies, notably Goodfellas. That’s as it should be—The Departed gives Scorsese’s previous masterpiece a run for its money in both scale and craft. But Marty gives no sign of being a tired film maker returning to an old well for inspiration—The Departed crackles with life and vigor throughout and ranks as one of the best large-scale gangster movies seen in years.

William Monahan, a Boston native, gets the peculiarities of Beantown life just right, and his script blends the darker themes of betrayal and violence with a mordant humor that Tarantino would be proud of (the dialogue is exceptionally well delivered, too, with Alec Baldwin in particular practically walking away with the movie). But Scorsese is typically after much more than simple one-liners and a few good death scenes, as he plunges headfirst into the fractured family dynamics that dominate, and eventually destroy, both the police and the mobsters. The war between cops and criminals starts off as something of a simple morality tale, with Jack Nicholson’s operatic mob boss as the blood-soaked villain. But by the end of the film, there are no “good guys” or “bad guys”—just piles of dead bodies and a rat scuttling across the frame.

[Jay Millikan]
[Stylus Review]

Over the years, there have been plenty of gooey sob-fests made about gifted teachers making a difference in the lives of their ne’er-do-well students, and, well, most of them have sucked. So when a no-budget indie comes along about an earnest white liberal working in an inner-city black school, expectations may have been a little low. But Half Nelson does nothing if not confound expectations, as director Ryan Fleck takes a refreshingly honest look at race, institutional failure, and the joys and tribulations of teaching to a group of students whose futures have already been limited by a bloodlessly dispassionate society. Every note in this film rings true, particularly Ryan Gosling’s mesmerizing performance as Dan Nelson, the young teacher determined to help his students transcend their environment but increasingly convinced of his own futility.

Ultimately, Half Nelson is about the death (and rebirth) of idealism, as Nelson dulls his despair with a worsening crack addiction, only to be thrown a lifeline by one of his students, Dray, a young girl facing her own crossroads. Between Gosling and Shareeka Epps, who plays Dray, there were no two better performances in film this year, and the script and Fleck’s understated direction do a remarkable job of serving character over cliché. The film practically pulses with self-confidence as it systematically strips away all distractions to reveal the most beautifully resonant emotional truths ever seen in a “teacher” film.

[Jay Millikan]
[Stylus Review]

Charged, vivacious, fabulous. Pedro Almodovar’s Volver is a trashy, scandalously brilliant piece of work. Cruz is achingly sexy, iconically so, in the performance that will define her. She is the gorgeous center of a film that eloquently celebrates the vital force and complexity of femininity. The luscious colors and ripe narrative creates an atmosphere of such credible charm and warmth that when the film ended I was left in a kind of orphaned reverie. In complete control of proceedings, the director prances through the domestic devilry of Hitchcock, toward the emotional vastness of Sirk, more than capable of teaching both of them a thing or two about characterization. But comparisons of any kind are unfair as everything here is so close to the heart, exposed and beautiful. The experience of watching Volver is like recalling a vivid memory, remembering a sensuous, ridiculous life you’ve never actually lived.

[Paolo Cabrelli]
[Stylus Review]

Perhaps all mothers see their sons as Michelangelo saw David. Amidst horrific collapse brought on by mass grief for a childless future, set only twenty years hence, director Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men provides a moment of startling access to their vision. Damaged in its rescue and transport into England, the priceless marble statue sits horded in a citadel called the Ark of the Arts. Part of the left leg is gone, a shiny metal rod, prosthetic-like, connecting the foot and knee—as if David had crossed paths with an IED on his way to meet Goliath. For a rushing, brilliant instant you glimpse how irreplaceable to his mothers’ eyes is every young soldier so maimed. This helps set up the plausibility later when soldiers lay down their weapons at the sight of a baby.

Elsewhere Clive Owen’s Theo walks down an abandoned school hallway over trash, muck, and crunching broken glass—just minutes ago he’s put on flip-flops; you’re squeamish right along with him about those nearly naked feet.

Another: around a corner Theo refills his whiskey pint and overhears his old friend Jasper (Michael Caine) tell the pregnant girl Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) how Theo’s baby Dylan died; echoing Julianne Moore’s Julian, also dead now, Kee says of the baby’s photo, “He has Theo’s eyes,” while Mahler’s Songs on the Death of Children plays over Jasper’s stereo.

I had been fiddling with a likely list of top films, none quite away from the pack, when I saw this one. Beyond “I know it when I see it,” it may be the aesthetic precision of such reciprocal images, knitting together again the intelligibility of another’s experience, unflagging and detailed through both sustained catastrophe and stillness alike, that finally, honestly, earned my tears. Not everyone agrees—it takes a willingness to let the film have you, like the wary affection that grows up between Theo and Kee. Theo and Julian met at a ��60s protest rally—of course their son was named after the singer Bob. At the end, when Kee names her little girl Dylan, I thought instead about the poet not going gently into that good night.

[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
[Stylus Review]

Individual Writer’s Lists

Jeffrey Bloomer
01. United 93
02. Children of Men
03. Half Nelson
04. The History Boys
05. Little Children
06. Duck Season
07. Three Times
08. L'Enfant
09. The Departed
10. Inside Man

Paolo Cabrelli
01. Hidden
02. Volver
03. The Proposition
04. The New World
05. Brick
06. Quo Vadis, Baby
07. Children of Men
08. Land of the Dead
09. Miami Vice
10. The King

L. Michael Foote
01. Two Drifters
02. L’Enfant
03. United 93
04. A Scanner Darkly
05. Children of Men
06. The Queen
07. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
08. The Departed
09. Old Joy
10. Slither

Sky Hirschkron
01. Mutual Appreciation
02. Woman on the Beach
03. The Free Will
04. Bubble
05. A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
06. Brick
07. The Child
08. Flanders
09. The Forsaken Land
10. Three Times

Patrick McKay
01. Children of Men
02. Volver
03. Inside Man
04. Miami Vice
05. Borat
06. Marie Antoinette
07. Little Miss Sunshine
08. Tideland
09. The Departed
10. Little Children

Ron Mashate
01. Miami Vice
02. Volver
03. Dream Girls
04. Babel
05. Little Children
06. Borat
07. The Queen
08. The Last King Of Scotland
09. Half Nelson
10. The Departed

Dave Micevic
01. Children of Men
02. Half Nelson
03. Bubble
04. Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story
05. Volver
06. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
07. United 93
08. Pan’s Labyrinth
09. 49 Up
10. L’Enfant

Jay Millikan
01. Half Nelson
02. The Departed
03. Borat
04. A Prairie Home Companion
05. The Good Shepherd
06. Little Miss Sunshine
07. Iraq in Fragments
08. An Inconvenient Truth
09. The Queen
10. Inside Man

Nancy Keefe Rhodes
01. Children of Men
02. Volver
03. Heading South
04. Pan's Labyrinth
05. Letters from Iwo Jima
06. The Departed
07. Road to Guantanamo
08. Jonestown: The Peoples Temple
09. The History Boys
10. The Proposition

David Sims
01. Miami Vice
02. Three Times
03. Superman Returns
04. A Scanner Darkly
05. The Departed
06. Marie-Antoinette
07. The Queen
08. Half Nelson
09. Volver
10. Brick

Bill Weber
01. Inland Empire
02. Children of Men
03. Kekexili (Mountain Patrol)
04. Battle in Heaven
05. Gabrielle
06. My Country, My Country
07. 4
08. Neil Young: Heart of Gold
09. Pan's Labyrinth
10. Two Drifters (Odete)

Jeff Weiss
01. Idiocracy
02. The Departed
03. Borat
04. Thank You for Smoking
05. Nacho Libre

Illustration: Miguel Jiron

By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2007-01-16
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