Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in 'Boyhood'
Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in ‘Boyhood’

There were some standouts among this year’s big-screen releases, but it was a pretty lean year in terms of masterpieces — at least among the films that I managed to see.

1. Boyhood Twelve years in the making, Richard Linklater’s bold experiment paid off with a real-time-ish masterpiece, an evocative exploration of growing up that is both singular and universal.

2. Ida Just before she takes her vows as a nun in a Polish convent post WWII, an orphaned novitiate (Tagata Trzebuchowska, a stunner) is sent to meet the aunt (Agata Kulesza) she never knew about and finally learns the long-guarded secret of her Jewish identity. Together, the two women set out to learn the exact fate of their family. Pawel Pawlikowski’s crisply shot black-and-white film unfolds as a mystery, domestic drama and coming-of-age saga — as well as an entire country’s reckoning with its complicity in the evils of the Holocaust.

3. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Beyond the technical achievement of shooting an entire stream-of-consciousness feature as if in a single continuous tracking shot, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s ambitious drama is a fascinating exercise in theatrical subjectivity. And the glimpse into the increasingly deranged mind of Michael Keaton’s faded movie star/Broadway auteur manqué is never less than fascinating. 

4. Selma Has there really never been a big-screen biopic of Martin Luther King Jr.? And who’d have thought that publicist–turned–filmmaker Ava DuVernay would be the one to pull it off? She centers her timely portrait of the civil rights hero and the triumph of nonviolent protest on a mesmerizing performance by British actor David Oyelowo. #BlackLivesMatter indeed.

5. Snowpiercer This is the rare movie that I actually paid to see a second time, a sharply drawn allegory of income inequality in the guise of a sci-fi action thriller. In addition to a loopily entertaining premise, stunning set design, and well-choreographed action sequences, it boasts a memorably over-the-top (and overbitten) turn by Tilda Swinton as an officious baddie who prefers to be called “Sir.”

6. Love Is Strange Writer-director Ira Sachs’ follow-up to Keep the Lights On is a timely tale of a long-time gay couple whose belated marriage leads to professional calamity and financially induced separation. It’s an all too real tragedy set in post-Bloomberg New York City, where true love is tested by the vagaries of economic insecurity and real estate.

7. Force Majeure Sometimes a single moment can unravel a lifetime of trust. Swedish director Ruben Östlund explores just such a moment in the life of businessman Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), on a skiing holiday in the French Alps with his wife and two towheaded children when an avalanche advances alarmingly close to their lunchtime perch on an outdoor deck. Can a man face up to an instance of cowardice and selfishness?

8. Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel seems intent on releasing a new comic-book movie every other month, but at least this franchise launch suggests that the studio intends to mix up its formula every once in a while. This space opera/Indian Jones-style adventure/buddy comedy (based on a comic that even diehards conceded was obscure) emerged as the summer movie we didn’t even know that we’d been wanting.

9. Locke Spoiler alert: The car never crashes. Tha’s all the more incredible since the action in this taut, suspenseful indie consists entirely of a contractor driving in his car and fielding phone calls. Seriously. It helps that the sensational Tom Hardy is behind the wheel, and that his character is facing crises both occupational and domestic with a riveting, almost preternatural calm. But given the film’s claustrophobic constraints, writer-director Steven Knight achieves a remarkable amount of tension in just under 90 minutes.

10. The Theory of Everything I’ve never thought much of Eddie Redmayne as an actor until this film, which is anchored by his technically accomplished performance as the ALS-afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking. (Note to the Academy: He shot the film out of sequence, relying on notes to tell him just how disabled to play Hawking in any given scene.) But midway through, James Marsh’s biopic cannily emerges as a dual portrait with an equally fascinating second subject: Hawking’s devoted, self-sacrificing care-giver of a wife, Jane, played by Felicity Jones with a rare combination of steel and vulnerability.

Honorable mentions: Edge of Tomorrow; Unbroken; Obvious Child; The LEGO Movie; Art and Craft.