In alphabetical order:
The Babadook. The fiendishly clever horror yarn from first-time writer/director Jennifer Kent hinges on a mother’s love for her son – and the sense of panic that arises from realizing that love may not be enough to protect him. Is the storybook demon terrorizing widowed mother Amelia (Essie Davis) and eight-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) real, or a product of Amelia’s overwrought emotional state? The power of Kent’s film is in its careful disinterest in answering that question; with a parent’s pragmatism, this film advances the idea that if it’s real to your child, that’s all that matters. (Still available on cable VOD and iTunes.)
Beyond the Lights. It took me a few films – and the arrival of star-in-the-making Gugu Mbatha-Raw – to appreciate the work of Gina Prince-Bythewood. A fine, old-school romantic drama that explores the addictive power of stardom, Lights pulls every melodramatic lever while inhabiting a world of music videos and behind-the-scenes music-biz machinations that feels an awful lot like the real thing. Mostly, though, it offers a luxe romance between Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker that takes its time and gets us to care about these characters. Even when we know where it’s going, it’s still a treat to watch it get there. (Coming to DVD on February 24.)
Birdman. Perhaps the year’s most effective combination of directorial artistry and acting chops, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) gives grand life to the inner monologue of a tortured artist. As we watch Hollywood has-been Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) and his fellow actors ping-pong around the inside of a Broadway theater, rehearsing for the play Thompson hopes will restore his reputation, director Alejandro González Iñárritu shoots them with the fierce resolve of a documentarian – which makes his visualist flights of fancy, such as when characters literally take flight, all the more spectacular. Anchored by a tour de force performance from Keaton, it’s a surreally inspiring piece of work. (Still in theaters.)
Blue Ruin. A small-scale rural thriller, reminiscent of the best work by the Coen brothers, Ruin is remarkable in its absolute commitment to its modest goals – much like the motivations of its vaguely inept but determined antihero, Dwight (Macon Blair), who returns to his hometown to enact vengeance on the man who murdered his parents. Dwight’s resolve – and his slowly growing confidence as he deals with the ramifications of his hunt for payback – make for a grimly authentic crime drama. (Now screening on Netflix.)
Boyhood. Yep, this was that “stunt” movie – the one that writer/director Richard Linklater shot over the course of 12 years, reuniting his gradually aging cast annually to chronicle the passage of time for a typical Austin, TX, family. Boyhood deserves recognition for that feat alone, but I was skeptical about giving it too much credit for its creator’s offscreen determination. Instead, when you watch the film, let the performances wash over you – especially Patricia Arquette and newcomer Ellar Coltrane as mother and son – and see if you’re not genuinely transported into their homes, their relationships, their lives. (Now on Amazon Instant Video; coming next week to DVD.)
The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson has always been a precise filmmaker, but as his career has taken off his movies have become increasingly like those dioramas I used to build out of shoeboxes in elementary school – everything is a set piece, even the actors, and everything feels glued into place. But that’s only a criticism if the movie itself doesn’t work, and in Hotel Anderson finds a gorgeous synthesis between frustrating rigidity and storytelling joy. The tale of a surprisingly heroic concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who must clear his name of a murder charge takes us on a madcap journey of stylish chases and soaring romantic gestures. It’s a hoot and a half. (Now on DVD.)
Guardians of the Galaxy. Making a hit out of Captain America or Iron Man is easy; building a brilliant adventure comedy out of a cast of little-known comics characters, much harder. But director James Gunn, an indie filmmaker at heart (Slither, Super) was the right man for this particular job – he maintains an immaculate balance between space-opera heroics and candy-colored whimsy, and never forgets to keep it fun. (Now on DVD.)
Life Itself. Steve James (Hoop Dreams) looked back at the life and times of Roger Ebert in a doc that was – much like its subject – elegiac and funny, profane and wise. Ebert died in 2013 after a long battle with cancer, and that fight was chronicled here as well, but the emphasis was appropriately on a life of critical analysis; we learn what drove Ebert, what enraged Ebert, and what causes could inspire that fabled thumb of his to twitch upward or downward. (Screening Sunday, January 4 on CNN.)
Listen Up Philip. Probably the least-seen film on this list, Philip never made it into wide release but enjoyed a brief run on VOD and is now available on iTunes. The third film from writer/director Alex Ross Perry was a character drama featuring a thoroughly unlikeable character – an insufferably snooty writer (Jason Schwartzman) who openly belittles colleagues and friends and doesn’t learn a thing over the course of the film. This is a natural role for Schwartzman, who’s been honing his bizarrely appealing obnoxiousness since Rushmore (1998), but Perry magnifies the effect by resisting the urge to redeem his character. If you seek this out, watch for a splendid turn from Elisabeth Moss as Philip’s girlfriend.
Snowpiercer. When the premise is established that a man-made climate change “solution” accidentally turns our warming planet into a barren, frozen husk, Korean director Bong Joon-ho (2006’s The Host) isn’t inviting a debate about science. Nor is he asking us to ponder the engineering wizardry of a prescient inventor who pro-actively creates a perpetual motion engine to power the Rattling Ark, a massive train that circles our icy globe, once a year, without stopping. Gifts like Bong’s film don’t come around often, and we shouldn’t worry about the “why”: Instead, try to kick back and enjoy the dizzying, dystopian ride. (Now streaming on Netflix.)
Runners-up this year included Chef, Gone Girl, Whiplash, Begin Again, Nightcrawler, Jodorowsky’s Dune, The One I Love, Lilting, and Locke. Look for more about a few of those in the next couple of days.