If 2013 was the year that black-centric films by black filmmakers finally nabbed the spotlight (think Fruitvale Station, Mother of George, Lee Daniels' The Butler, and, of course, 12 Years a Slave), then 2014 was the year that gave us a streak of hope about queer directors telling their own stories, which, if not quite cracking the mainstream or destined for Oscars, still came out on top in terms of quality. Elsewhere, other movies exhibited their makers' best work, while even a Zac Efron crowd-pleaser emerged as a male-on-male milestone.
Despite the rapturous praise, Boyhood isn't without flaw. A throwaway racist subplot about a Hispanic laborer is an unignorable stain, and since the growth of Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) is chronicled almost as closely as that of her protagonist brother, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), Childhood might have been a more apt title. Still, these shortcomings do seem minor when compared to Richard Linklater's monumental achievement—an unprecedented, 12-years-in-the-making epic that marries the filmmaker's obsession with time to his knack for capturing the small wonders of adolescent ennui. Caveats and all, it's a singular director's magnum opus.
It's impressive enough that a rather green talent like Gareth Edwards (Monsters) was entrusted with this name-brand summer tentpole, or that his cast consists of no-joke actors like Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, and Elizabeth Olsen. But the clincher is that Edwards—helming a remake, no less—nearly restores one's faith in the big-budget blockbuster. He's the first director in recent memory to present non-tedious metropolitan destruction; his restraint and attention to scale yield an awe-inspiring creature feature; and he uses an iconic monster as an indictment of man's futile obsession with control—an impartial emblem of nature as the ultimate equalizer.
8. Love is Strange
Though Love is Strange's inciting incident is indeed a gay marriage, it's the movie's lack of traditional, explicit gayness that's cause for celebration. In a paean to his home city of New York and the older generation of gay men who influenced him, director and co-writer Ira Sachs offers a post-gay vision of everyday people, all of whom now live in a world where who they sleep with is hardly the beginning and end of what defines them. Employment, communication, bureaucracy, and—of course—real estate are the quotidian conflicts faced by the film's equally flawed Manhattanites (played by Alfred Molina, John Lithgow, and, most brilliantly, Marisa Tomei). Love is Strange is, beyond all else, about empathy, which every community—gay, straight, or otherwise—needs most.
In an era when male relationships—and their depictions in popular media—are increasingly ambiguous in regard to what classifies as queer behavior, Neighbors emerges as a testosterone-slathered firebrand of sexual confusion. On one level, it's an equal-opportunity ode to the beauty of Zac Efron's form (men and woman, younger and older, take notice); on another, it's an objective, yet baldfaced, play on the storied homoeroticism of fraternities. Neighbors isn't merely the gayest non-gay mainstream film ever released; it's an encouraging, progressive sign of the times. And it's really, really, really funny.
6. The Immigrant
A New York-centric filmmaker through and through, James Gray has made movies about crime (The Yards) and romance (Two Lovers) that unmistakably ooze the essence and atmosphere of the island he calls home. Starring Marion Cotillard as a Polish transplant circa 1920, and Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner as two men who bring mystery, misery, and magic into her life, The Immigrant is Gray's most personal film and his personal best, showcasing New York as the precarious entry point of the American Dream. Breathtakingly shot, often in amber hues, by Darius Khondji, the film rethinks the land of opportunity as a land of double-edged swords.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is the Wes Anderson film for those who respect, but rarely warm, to the work of Wes Anderson. The master of meticulous whimsy always runs the risk of alienating viewers, since his brand of bittersweet humor, wrapped tight in a dollhouse aesthetic, can feel insular to the point of impenetrability. The greatness of Grand Budapest is that it's finally of our world, yet still very much of Anderson's, its nesting-doll story as much a stand-in for European history as it is a breeding ground its maker's endless artistic gifts. Anderson's usual suspects (Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, etc.) all serve their maestro well, but it's Ralph Fiennes, as a sexually ambiguous hotelier, who gives the screen performance of his life.
4. Only Lovers Left Alive
The coolest movie of the year, and quite possibly the coolest vampire movie ever concocted, Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive starts with the delectable pairing of svelte Tom Hiddleston and ageless Tilda Swinton and only goes uphill from there. Moody to a fault, and set in the equally entrancing locales of Detroit and parts of Europe, the film has what feels like a matchless respect for the bloodthirsty undead. As the lead rocker duo recall the many eras they've seen, Jack White is regarded with as much reverence as Darwin, with whom they've very conceivably rubbed shoulders. They've long felt the pulse of culture and its influencers, and the film's title isn't just a nod to the ultimate old married couple; it's a bittersweet prediction of what they'll become.
3. Under the Skin
You know a filmmaker has developed something transcendent when comparisons to Kubrick actually feel reductive. Yes, the influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey is coursing through the frames of Jonathan Glazer's third feature, from HAL-9000-esque orb imagery to elliptical, existential space travel, but Glazer's vision is ultimately so much his own that it feels criminal to share the credit with a more renowned master. Staggeringly beautiful in all its eerie simplicity, this starkly graphic alien saga is less about a woman coming to terms with her sexuality (thought it's about that too) than it is about a newborn coming to terms with being human.
2. Stranger by the Lake
Yes, this is the movie with all manner of uninhibited, full-frontal gay sex scenes, one of them involving a fully captured ejaculation. But French director Alain Guiraudie bypasses any accusations of making mere pornography by turning a story about cruising into mythical high art. Set in a single location—an unnamed nude beach—where action unfolds in an intimate, yet almost disorientingly cyclical, nature, Stranger by the Lake would be cheer-worthy if only because it revived interest in Guiraudie's formidable, underappreciated oeuvre. What makes it one belt notch away from being the year's best movie is its frank, fearless examination of desire, which takes one man to such lusciously dark depths that the result may even be his own demise.
1. Dear White People
In modern American culture, labels have become both a toxin and a necessity, dangerously boxing people in while giving them a much-needed niche in society. For a first-time feature filmmaker, gay black director Justin Simien understands this astonishingly well, and in Dear White People, he uses the idea-laden setting of a (moderately) multi-cultured Ivy League campus as a playground to explore nearly every facet of contemporary identity. Blackness, whiteness, queerness, feminism, and more are plumbed in a literate, street-smart swirl of provocative notions and dialogue, and Simien's master stroke is his benevolent willfulness to give every character the floor. There are no wrong answers in this movie, and no right ones for that matter—just a curiosity about the opposing and equally justifiable arguments of every party. That Simien is able to be so even-handed while presenting a work of brute authority is some kind of miracle, and his movie, barely north of satire, is one the world needs—right now.
Honorable Mention: The Drop, Foxcatcher, Ida, Locke, Mommy, Of Horses and Men, Palo Alto, The Skeleton Twins, Venus in Fur, Wild.