More than 100 years after the birth of cinema, it sometimes feels like every story has been told. But the best films of 2014 dared to break out of their genres, explore new ways of filmmaking, and inspire viewers. Some of them even provided tools for popular understanding of our current political moment. This year, Selma, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, and Out in the Night all told stories of a criminal justice system harming Black communities, while Dear White People used satire to address racist power structures. Documentaries like The Great Invisible and Citizenfour attacked government and corporate malfeasance, science fiction films like Snowpiercer helped imagine future revolutions, and Pride delivered a lesson in movement solidarity.
Below are my top 15 films of the year. Many of them didn’t receive the distribution they deserved, but will no doubt live on as more audiences discover them.
15 — Dear White People — After months of hype and viral videos, Dear White People had a lot of anticipation to live up to. While the film focused narrowly on life at an elite, mostly white, college, it managed to pull in a wider range of issues and themes. This fresh and original film served notice that writer/director Justin Simien, and his talented young cast, are rising talents to watch.
14 — Whiplash — Damien Chazelle‘s Sundance award winner was a tense, brutal drama about a young man and his mentor/teacher. Or, as Barbara Herman called it, the “best homoerotic S&M film about jazz drumming you’ll see this year.”
13 — Coherence — This film slipped under most critic’s radar, but filmmaker James Ward Byrkit‘s debut about alternate realities is a smart and challenging low-budget sci-fi mind-bender. It’s the kind of film you want to watch again right after it ends, to keep unlocking its puzzles.
12— The Babadook — Writer/director Jennifer Kent‘s debut is the scariest movie I’ve seen in years. In a genre often dominated by male filmmakers and sexist tropes, Kent’s film is a breath of fresh air, and a truly terrifying balance of psychological and supernatural horror that keeps you in the dark, jumping at shadows.
11 — Edge of Tomorrow — It’s not often that a Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Cruise makes my list, but Doug Liman, director of Bourne Identity and Go, among other films, is a filmmaker who knows how to make an old genre come alive. Edge of Tomorrow is a rare find; a smart and exciting Hollywood sci-fi thriller.
10 — The Great Invisible — So much has been written and filmed about the BP Drilling Disaster of 2010 that it’s shocking to find stories that haven’t been told. But filmmaker Margaret Brown (who also went behind the scenes of Mobile, Alabama’s racially segregated Mardi Gras in 2009’s The Order of Myths) has given this disaster the documentary it deserves, with stunning access to both families on the Gulf Coast, and to men with money and power who work within the oil industry.
9 — Selma — Ava DuVernay‘s last film, Middle of Nowhere, made my 2012 best-of list with a moving story of families affected by the prison industrial complex. That it’s nearly unprecedented for a Black woman filmmaker to make a big budget Hollywood film shows how far we haven’t come, and this film gives a glimpse of what we’ve been missing. While Selma may not give enough weight to the grassroots activists of SNCC, and (despite the cries of certain historians) may be too respectful to President Johnson, ultimately this is a powerful document of an important historical moment.
8 — Tales of the Grim Sleeper — Before seeing this documentary, I’d never heard of the Grim Sleeper, an alleged serial killer arrested in South Central Los Angeles in 2010. This film presents a case that the race, gender, and class of the victims meant the news media and police were not interested in stopping the killer. Over a period of more than two decades, scores of women, almost all of them Black street-based sex workers and/or drug users, were raped and killed while the police and media turned a blind eye. Veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield talks to a coalition of Black women activists in South Central LA who worked to pressure the police and media to pay attention. He also talks to women on the street who encountered (and narrowly escaped) the killer. One woman gave police a sketch of the man, and led officers to his block more than a decade before he was caught, but the LAPD apparently did nothing with the information. Other women Broomfield finds were afraid to even talk to the police. This film is a disturbing and difficult companion the Black Lives Matter movement.
7 — Citizenfour — Filmmaker Laura Poitras was already making a film about (and had been a victim of) US government surveillance when Edward Snowden came to her. Long before this film came out, she had already made history by helping bring Snowden’s revelations to a worldwide audience. All this film needed to do to secure its place in history was to be a record of those revelations. But Poitras chose instead to make a film that takes the viewer inside a historical moment, making this not just important for what it tells, but also an example of bold and creative filmmaking.
6 — Omar — Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad has already directed at least 3 classic films. Rana’s Wedding (2002), Ford Transit (2003), and Paradise Now (2005). His latest is a moving film about resistance and collaboration, a thriller with twists and turns, and a story of love, friendship, and betrayal under occupation.
5 — Out in the Night — The Jersey Four, a group of young African American lesbians who were vilified in the media and aggressively prosecuted after they fought back against a hate crime, is an incredibly important story. And filmmaker blair dorosh-walther has created a powerful and urgent film that captures the lives and families of these young women, and shows a criminal justice system more interested in attacking them than protecting them. This film needs to be widely seen.
4 — Snowpiercer — Reportedly, a clash between Korean director Bong Joon-hoand distributor Harvey Weinstein kept this stunning film from wide release. Snowpiercer is a thrilling allegory of class struggle in a dystopian future that puts The Hunger Games to shame.
3 — Pride — If you like uplifting films about inter-movement solidarity and class struggle, this British crowd-pleaser from Matthew Warchus is perfect for you. A moving, funny, charming, film based on a true story of gay activists in the 80s that built an alliance with striking miners in Thatcher’s Britain.
2 — Boyhood — Enough has been written about Richard Linklater‘s bold and wise film that there’s no reason to add my praise. But even without the concept of watching actors age over a period of twelve years, this film feels like the culmination of what Linklater has been building towards throughout a career that started with the formal experimentation of Slacker and continued to push against narrative boundaries from Waking Life to A Scanner Darkly, Before Sunrise, and Fast Food Nation.
1 — Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) — Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu announced himself as a talent to watch with his debut Amores Perros, but nothing in his career to date comes close to the triumph of this film. Behind the film’s play within a play storyline lies a filmmaking tour de force that succeeds on every technical level and leaves the viewer breathless, with no wasted moment or misstep.
Among other notable films this year: Jodorowsky’s Dune, directed by Frank Pavich, documents a brilliant film that almost existed, but even without being made proved itself more influential than most films ever can hope for. Gareth Evan‘s The Raid 2 (part one made my 2012 list) continued to beat all of Hollywood action films at their own game. Dan Gilroy‘s Nightcrawler was as creepy as its name, and can be read as a blistering attack on both local TV news and capitalism. David Fincher‘s Gone Girl was either built upon misogynist stereotypes, or a comment on stultifying roles of patriarchy. Ana Lily Amirpour‘s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the Iranian-American feminist vampire film, is moody, clever and surprising.