2014 was the Year of the Boy at the movies. I know, redundant, right? But this year seemed particularly laddish, or maybe that was just compared to TV, where interesting female characters—Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife, Professor Annalise Keaton on How to Get Away With Murder, Carrie Mathison on Homeland, the entire cast of Orange is the New Black—were popping up everywhere.
And I’m not just talking about the usual slate of Marvel films (boys in codpieces!) or even bro comedies like Neighbors and (the hilarious) 22 Jump Street. I’m talking about grown-up films, too—the ones not explicitly aimed at teenage boys.
Of course, one of the most important and extraordinary films of the year was simply called Boyhood—why mince words? But films like Birdman, Whiplash, Nightcrawler, Top Five, A Most Violent Year, Foxcatcher, Unbroken, and The Imitation Game were particularly male-focused. Maybe that’s why my Top 10 list (with 12 runners up—I just couldn’t help myself!) has lots of nods to films where women stepped front and center.
Look, a good film is a good film, no matter what—and I think my list reflects that. But if you argue that maybe I’m more interested in seeing female stories represented on screen because I’m a woman, I won’t disagree. That’s sort of the point. Hey Hollywood, I hear there are lots more like me.
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel. With Gustave H—an epicurean action hero, clinging to Old World grace wherever he can get it—Wes Anderson may’ve created his greatest oddball yet. The film, about Gustave on the lam after he’s falsely convicted of murder, is a banquet of visual and sensual delights, as painstakingly conceived as anything Anderson has done, but pulsing with energy and wit and danger. As Gustave, Ralph Fiennes gives the performance of the year. My review.
2. Force Majeure. The very institution of marriage is questioned in this scathing and darkly witty film by Swedish director Ruben Östlund. The French Alps provide the unforgiving and paradoxically gorgeous backdrop for the central couple’s existential crisis. My review.
3. Birdman. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s wonderfully manic backstage drama about a washed up movie star (Michael Keaton) striving for artistic bona fides and having his worth questioned by everyone—his daughter, his costars, the critics—but mostly himself. My review.
4. Ida. Two of the best performances of the year came out of this devastating film—set in post-WWII Poland and shot in impeccable black and white—about Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), an orphaned nun who, on the eve of taking her vows, discovers she’s Jewish. She meets her aunt (Agata Kulesza)—an alcoholic barrister, projecting an air of jaded glamour—and the two of them embark on a road trip to find the burial spot of Ida’s parents. The film is haunted—by death, by guilt, by the horrible things people did in the war—but it’s also a wonderful character study of these two unlikely travel companions.
5. Boyhood. Filmed, remarkably, over the course of 12 years in Austin, TX, Richard Linklater’s coming of age story eschews the expected “defining life moments”—first kiss, first heartbreak—for empathic and revealing glimpses at our young hero’s life. The film is about childhood, parenting, and time itself. My review.
6. Selma. The march for voting rights in Selma took place a mere 60 years ago, but had Selma been released only a few months earlier, we might’ve been able to view it as artifact of the past. We could’ve shaken our heads and clucked our tongues and thought, “Look how far we’ve come.” We no longer have that luxury. Selma is important viewing under any circumstances—both as a moving work of art and as a stirring piece of social criticism—but in the wake of the Ferguson and Eric Garner protests, it’s downright essential. (Some of the visual echoes are downright eerie.) Much as Steven Spielberg did with Lincoln, director Ava DuVernay gives us a Martin Luther King Jr. (extraordinary David Oyelowo) who is flawed, filled with self-doubt, and all-too-human. But rather than diminish him, these human frailties only serve to amplify his greatness. (Opens January 9 in Baltimore)
7. The Babadook. In bed, a widowed, frazzled mother reads a creepy pop-up book to her neurotic 8-year-old son and inadvertently invites a demon into their home. This low-budget film out of Australia has more ingenuity, smarts, and bone-chilling scares than any American horror film I’ve seen in years. As the mother, who feels guilty for perhaps not loving her son enough, Essie Davis is a revelation. My review.
8. Wild. Cheryl Strayed took to the Pacific Crest Trail to test herself, to punish herself, to cleanse herself, to find herself. Thanks to a fully committed performance by Reese Witherspoon and wonderfully sensory direction by Jean Marc Vallée, we’re with her every step of the way. My review.
9. We Are the Best! A burst of giddy energy and girl power from Sweden. Bobo and Hedvig are 13 years old and best friends. They dress in oversized sweaters and combat boots and spike their hair, even though, according to their disdainful classmates, “punk is dead.” They just laugh and, in true punk spirit, start a band, even though they can’t play their instruments. (They recruit a timid Christian classmate to play guitar, with hilarious and surprising results). Briefly, a boy threatens to come between them, but of course, he doesn’t. They’re like Huck and Tom as teen girl punks. Their friendship could power the universe.
10. Obvious Child. Jenny Slate, playing a standup comic and chronic oversharer who gets dumped, has rebound sex, and gets pregnant, gives the most charismatic performance of the year. (No surprise, she’s the creator of the irresistible Marcel the Shell With Shoes On). The film subverts all sorts of rom-com paradigms and even dares to address abortion in a frank, clear-eyed way. The twist? Rebound Guy just may be Mr. Right. My review.
Runners Up (in order): Whiplash, Love is Strange; Nightcrawler; The Immigrant; Citizenfour; Beyond the Lights; Two Days, One Night; A Most Violent Year; Stranger By the Lake; Dear White People; Under the Skin; Snowpiercer.