17. Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
This is a deep, contemplative work that touches on so many issues of our time, such as fear of aging, modern celebrity, modern media, modern film…modern everything, really. And it’s almost completely led by women (many of them without love interests), specifically Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloë Grace Moretz.
Juliette Binoche is the fortysomething film actress Maria Enders in the midst of a divorce who has to come to grips with some hard truths after she agrees to take on the role of Helena, an older woman who is seduced and destroyed by Sigrid, a much younger woman she falls in love with.
When Enders was just starting her career, the play served as her launchpad when she played Sigrid. Now an impetuous, very modern young actress (Moretz) is playing Sigrid, and Enders must cope with how much she and film have changed, while navigating her complicated relationship with her personal assistant, played by Kristen Stewart.
The film is steeped in metaphor, with many parallels to Binoche’s life, and is set in sophisticated European locales that are welcoming to viewers who dabble in indie fare while including enough references to high culture that allow more seasoned watchers to feel smug. Stewart’s character Valentine sums it up best when she says, “It’s theatre. It’s an interpretation of life. It can be truer than life itself.”
16. Inside Out (2015)
Many movies have been made about what the landscape of our minds would look like, but count on Pixar to make us feel like we’re seeing it for the first time. In this case, it’s the mind of preteen girl Riley, seen through all the emotions of Fear (Bill Hader), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Joy (Amy Poehler) that live inside the control center in her head.
In an epic example of bad timing, Joy and Sadness get lost in the mesmerizing, terrifying maze far outside the control room just as Riley is struggling to adjust to a cross-country move where nearly everything goes wrong. As Riley struggles externally, Joy and Sadness journey through the many beautiful, fantastical, and downright strange realms within. Just don’t be shocked if there’s a tear or two shed at the conclusion of Bing Bong’s (Richard Kind) story arc. Sniff, sniff.
15. Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter (2014)
Kindness can save many people, but not all people. Kumiko (Rinko Kikuchi) lives alone in a tiny apartment in Tokyo, where her only friend is her pet rabbit. She works for a boss she hates at a dead-end job, and she is constantly reminded that at 29, it’s considered a disgrace that she’s single with no family.
The only bright spot in her life is that she’s convinced she’s found a treasure map. In the form of the movie Fargo. So much that she obsessively watches the movie again and again, trying to find the place in the film where Steve Buscemi buries a briefcase full of money beside a highway.
When there are clear indicators that she’s about to be fired, she steals her boss’s company card and flies to Minnesota to find the treasure she believes is there. When she gets there, many good-hearted Midwesterners take her in and attempt to help her, but it’s clear that she needs more than they are equipped to give.
Kumiko is all the more heartbreaking for being as compelling as she is delusional, and her story’s end is similarly as devastating as it is beautiful, and certainly one of the most memorable I’ve ever witnessed onscreen.
14. The Babadook (2014)
Single motherhood can often feel like you’re alone against the world at a time when you feel the least equipped to protect your child. Toss in an amazingly talented director, a horror element that has roots in real life as the destructive power of suppressed grief, some great leads and you have a horror movie that ranks among the greats.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a troubled mother who lost her husband while he was driving her to the hospital for their son’s birth, and Noah Wiseman is her difficult son Samuel, now six years old. We have no trouble sympathizing with her, and soon share Amelia’s horror as the monstrous Babadook invades her house, then her body.
Whether she and Samuel win their fight against it will depend on the bond they share. The catch is it might require multiple viewings so you can finally watch it without covering your eyes.
13. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
There are fully-grown movie stars who dream of having half the charismatic ferocity that the pint-sized Quvenzhané Wallis possesses in “Beasts,” a deceptively simple tale of life in The Bathtub, an off-the-grid community in Louisiana.
Wallis is Hushpuppy, who is perfectly suited to her beautiful, harsh existence, but big changes are on the horizon. They know the world’s wicked ways will unleash a flood on their beautiful home one day, but that day comes sooner than anticipated when Hurricane Katrina arrives. And Hushpuppy’s heroic journey beckons, one where she must cope with her father’s ailing health and her deceased mother, whose ghostly presence still lingers.
Then there are the ancient fierce creatures called aurochs, who may have been awakened by civilization’s forces. By the end, we know that life is not and never will be easy for Wallis and the others in her community, but that’s okay. She’s learned to be the best at surviving whatever comes her way.
12. Carol (2015)
Just because there are women in the world who can only find love with each other does not mean an end to male attempts to control and fetishize them. So it’s nice that “Carol” and its director Todd Haynes manage to avoid that trap.
The picture they present is a subdued one (much like the way the lovers must hold back, at least publicly) that nevertheless conveys the passion that Cate Blanchett’s elegant housewife Carol and Rooney Mara’s aspiring photographer Therese feel for each other in 1950s New York.
In true romantic fashion, they are irresistibly drawn together from their first glance across a crowded room. From then on, it’s only natural that two women so refreshingly unapologetic about their attraction to each other and their budding romance quietly but firmly refuse to allow the condescending men around them to stand in their way (and probably cost them a Best Picture nomination).
The era is lovingly, painstakingly recreated, as are the vicious obstacles, such as a “morality” clause that could label Carol an unfit mother and cost her custody and visitation with her young daughter in the midst of a nasty divorce. Movies rarely allow the course of true love to run smooth, but here it means an ending that tugs on heartstrings even more.
11. Difret (2014)
The pain humans inflict on each other is such that the most terrifying horror film can never compare to real life. “Difret” is one sad story among many. In rural Ethiopia, a 14-year-old girl named Hirut (Tizita Hagere) is abducted and raped when she is heading home from school, according to the local custom of abduction into marriage.
When she kills her would-be husband and escapes, many of the men in her village call for her death. But when a tough female lawyer from the city named Meaza (Meron Getnet) hears about her case and defends her, they go up against an old tradition in a country where many are unwilling to change.
The story of both women and what they must overcome is told in a calm, methodical way that eschews melodrama and realistically, painfully portrays how people cope in the absence of legal protections many take for granted. The wrong done to Hirut means her life as it was must end one way or another, but “Difret” is impressive in the way it depicts those who fight for justice.
10. Sicario (2015)
When idealistic, honorable people journey into a place where there is no honor, the result is seldom pretty. It certainly isn’t when Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate Macer volunteers for an elite task force aiming to take down Mexican drug cartels. Or so they say. The deeper Kate delves, the more disturbed she becomes by the lack of a moral compass or any real rule of law among with those she’s signed up to work with, not to mention pretty much anyone else who comes into contact with the War on Drugs.
Director Denis Villeneuve, keeps the violence from becoming glamorous, much like he did in “Incendies” and “Prisoners.” He refuses to allow us to believe in righteous heroes riding up to get us out of the mess we’ve made, or really any sort of comfort or hope. The movie mostly lacks a Mexican perspective on this mess, but otherwise it’s a sobering look into one of our most disastrous policies.
9. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014)
There’s a reason “Law & Order” only shows the highlights of the trial. Because trials are actually quite boring in the real world. But “Gett” makes dry legal procedures riveting. So riveting that even though the entire film takes place in the small Israeli courtroom where Viviane (Ronit Elkabetaz) is trying divorce her husband Elisha (Simon Abkarian), it almost feels like a frigging car chase.
Because apparently within Orthodox Jewish communities, the husband actually has to agree to a divorce in a court presided over by rabbis. And Elisha is determined not to give her one. So the case drags on for years as he refuses to grant it and ignores the summons to appear.
Witnesses come to testify at various times, and throughout it all, Viviane’s behavior and clothing is put under the microscope as her husband tries every trick he knows to keep his control over her. Throughout, Elkabetz’s performance is riveting as she subtly and beautifully conveys the desperation and strength of a woman committed to regaining her freedom and her life.