Can I be honest? This has been kind of a rough year, at the movies and elsewhere. From the cold, ugly jolt of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s accidental overdose in early February to the equally startling suicide of Robin Williams in late summer, it somehow seemed like a natural slide into the slow-unfolding misery of this endless fall, which has by now come to resemble a Guernica-style tableau of civil-rights atrocities, sexual-assault scandals, and Bill Cosby’s sickeningly steep fall from grace. 2014 has felt to me like a year in which beauty, truth, and joy were even scarcer commodities than usual. Which makes the great films that came our way this year that much more important to remember. Here (in alphabetical order) are 10 that made it seem worth it to keep on keeping on. The usual taste disclaimers apply—I’m willing to concede these may all simply be movies that happened to land in front of my eyeballs on the day I needed them to. If that is the case, may there be more such days next year.
The Babadook. The Australian actress-turned-director Jennifer Kent’s first film (in theaters and streaming now) is a horror debut as distinctive and sophisticated as the early work of David Cronenberg or John Carpenter. Is the widowed single mother at its center, superbly played by Essie Davis, going slowly insane from loneliness, exhaustion, and enforced isolation with her difficult 7-year-old son? Or (as her son believes) is their house, in fact, haunted by a long-clawed, top-hatted storybook monster called the Babadook? Scarier yet, what if maternal psychosis and a murderous monster living in the basement end up being pretty much the same thing?
Boyhood. Is gathering a multigenerational cast of actors together every summer for 12 years and creating a decade-spanning fictional narrative around the ways they grow and change as performers and people a “stunt”? Well then, so is life. After three viewings, I still can’t pry apart exactly how the time transitions work in Richard Linklater’s fluidly edited and minutely observed portrait of an evolving Texas family. Or maybe I just don’t want to pry anything apart. Boyhood (available to stream now) is a film of impressive craft that’s nonetheless curiously resistant to analysis, an experiential river that picks you up and floats you downstream.
Force Majeure. The Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s pitiless satire tracks the rapid dissolution of a well-off couple’s marriage after they and their two children survive a near-disaster at a French ski resort—an event husband and wife remember in starkly different ways. Filmed against the sublime whiteness of looming Alpine peaks, Force Majeure is a tour de force deconstruction of marriage and contemporary masculinity. It’s also one of those icily sadistic black comedies that deliberately and by incremental degrees expose their characters' worst selves, leaving the audience to wonder uncomfortably how we might fare under the same ethical conditions.
Gone Girl. I can’t really excuse my lasting affection for Gone Girl. Its sexual politics are pretty retrograde, and it’s not as deep a film about marriage or the state of contemporary gender relations as it thinks it is. David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s best-seller (adapted by Flynn herself) is just a slick, manipulative, great-looking erotic thriller, a slighter higher-shelf version of the Fatal Attraction/Basic Instinct trend of the late ’80s and early ’90s. But I like that kind of movie, and I liked the way Gone Girl played with my head. I truly hope the imminent eradication of the patriarchy (which we should really get going on in 2015) will not have to involve the repudiation of deliciously amoral cinematic femmes fatales like the one Rosamund Pike plays to perfection here. You’ll have to pry Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity from my cold, dead hands.
Ida. Pawel Pawlikowski’s 80-minute black-and-white drama (which you can stream now) concerns a young novitiate nun and her aunt in the 1960s, searching Poland for their family’s history during World War II. Ida’s ineffable timelessness, its shot-by-shot purity, recalls the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer or Yasujiro Ozu. But the power of this austerely lovely film is ultimately less aesthetic than emotional, thanks to the delicate yet gut-wrenching performances of its two Agatas: Trzebuchowska, a first-time actor discovered at a Warsaw café, and Kulesza, a longtime veteran of the Polish cinema, television, and stage.
The Lego Movie. I clearly remember the circumstances in which I saw The Lego Movie. It was a raw, sleeting February night, the day after Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead. I’d been up all night the night before writing about him, and I was tired and sad and more than a little annoyed to be hustling to a screening of what surely had to be a toy ad disguised as a children’s movie, Transformers for tots. But to my surprise, Chris Miller and Philip Lord’s sharp-witted, lovingly crafted, oddly profound stop-motion opus (now on DVD) had me smiling within five minutes, laughing in 10, and, may God have mercy on my soul, bopping to Tegan and Sara’s ode to universal awesomeness by the time the closing credits rolled. Everything in the real world still sucked. But there was something comforting in the 180-degree reversal The Lego Movie had performed on my low expectations (and for that brief 90 minutes at least, my mood). Making us laugh when we didn’t think we had it in us is an important function of movie going, and one that’s too seldom honored on year-end lists.
Mr Turner. I want Mike Leigh to live long enough to make a film about every figure from English history who has ever caught his fancy. His historical fictions about creators of art—the Gilbert-and-Sullivan backstage drama Topsy-Turvy and now this biopic about the final years of the great English landscape painter J.M.W. Turner—have such intellectual scope and heft and such a sense of rowdy, burgeoning life, they make other period pictures seem like children’s dress-up games. As the troubled, remote, often barely verbal Turner, Leigh’s longtime collaborator Timothy Spall gives a performance of immense richness and unsoundable mystery. And the images—of light on water, ships passing on the Thames, a housemaid grinding yellow pigment for paint—show us 19th-century England as Turner might have seen it, and make us understand his hunger to get it all down on canvas.
The Missing Picture. There’s always at least one movie on my end-of-year list that I wouldn’t have found if not for the list-making process itself, that festive early-December rummage through piles of unwatched screeners in search of the kind of small foreign or documentary films that can blow right by you on first release. This year that spot is occupied by The Missing Picture (available to stream now), the French-Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s remarkable autobiographical essay on his family’s—indeed, essentially his entire city’s—forced evacuation and imprisonment at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Panh was 13 when his family was marched from their home to a bizarrely extremist Communist work camp in which personal belongings and close relationships were forbidden. His reconstruction of those events combines rare footage of the empty city of Phnom Penh with diorama-like displays of hand-carved and painted clay figurines, which Panh arranges to recreate his own memories. The narration, written by Panh and read by a French narrator, is thoughtful, poetic and oblique, without a trace of sentimentality or didacticism. The Missing Picture is evidence of art’s ability to transform (if never redeem) human suffering.
Selma. Ava DuVernay’s politically astute dramatization of the months leading up to the passing of the Voting Rights Act is arriving at exactly the moment the country needs to see it—not just for emotional reasons, but for tactical ones. Selma is a study in the art of political negotiation, and of the way that, sometimes, real change can start to happen only when negotiations break down and Americans take to the streets. In a startlingly controlled and modest performance, David Oyelowo gives us a Dr. Martin Luther King stripped of the gloss of easy idealization, but with his rhetorical power and force as a moral leader intact. This is no starchy historical biopic but a passionate and moving account of a turning point in U.S. history that’s too often celebrated without being genuinely remembered. It feels good to remember it, especially now.
We Are the Best! Lukas Moodysson’s high-spirited feminist comedy (streaming now) about a trio of middle-school girls who form a punk band in early 1980s Stockholm earns its title, right down to the exclamation point. It doesn’t matter that only one of the girls in the group can play a single note of music, or that the other two seem uninterested in expanding on their unnamed band’s one-song repertoire. The point of this band is its existence, the place it provides for these social misfits to find a sense of identity, agency, and friendship. Moodysson is a master at working with actors in late childhood, and the performances he gets from these three young actresses are so vital and naturalistic you’d swear you were watching cinema vérité were it not for the precision with which each story beat is hit.
And 10 runners-up: