It’s that time of year again: Time for critics to post their best-of lists, closing out another year by trying to rank five or ten or twenty of the greatest accomplishments in popular culture; time for readers of magazines and websites to glean titles they might have missed and leave hyperbolic comments about how they CAN’T BELIEVE that SUCH-AND-SUCH didn’t make this list, YOU MORON. I love it. Not so much for the comments but for the gleaning. I always discover some new movie, show, or book that I completely missed out on, which is a fun and exciting way to start another new year—by catching up on the fun stuff I managed to overlook.
Throughout the year, though, I do manage to consume an ungodly amount of stuff made to entertain the eyes and the brain, and this year I feel like I managed to devour a few things that might not have gotten a ton of mainstream attention. I’m not going to bother to try and rank the things I derived pleasure and entertainment from, but I thought I’d offer up my five picks for the movies and television shows that I liked best but didn’t hear a lot of people talking about. Here goes.
The Babadook – And now I’ll immediately renege on what I just said about people not talking about these selections because lately The Babadook has been getting an ungodly amount of coverage on the sites I frequent, which is particularly unusual given that it’s a) a horror film, b) an independent film, and c) barely playing theatres (though it’s available to rent on iTunes). Maybe this movies is kicking off a great era of independent horror movie appreciation. Better yet, maybe it’s kicking off a great era of independent, female protagonist, horror movie appreciation. Whatever’s happening, I loved this meditation on the nature of grief and motherhood. Essie Davis is haunting and affecting as a flawed mother who struggles to cope with a troubled son and the storybook monster he claims is terrorizing their house. I can’t wait to see what director Jennifer Kent comes up with next.
The One I Love – An eerie love story straight from the Twilight Zone, The One I Love stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss as a married couple who goes to a retreat recommended by their therapist (Ted Danson) only to discover themselves. Literally themselves: There are two people who look and act exactly like them and claim to be them. The fantastical conceit allows both characters to encounter their ideal partners and to ask themselves what they want out of their marriage.
Obvious Child – This movie gets called a rom-com, and I guess it is, given that there’s a couple that meets cute and ends up dating. But the meet-cute culminates in a pregnancy and the refreshing thing is there’s no debate over what a woman should do with her body and there’s no “abortion/shmishmorshon” avoidance, a la Knocked Up. Instead, Jenny Slate as Donna Stern simply decides to have an abortion, and her friends and family support that decision. (Friend Prize of the year goes to Gaby Hoffman, who plays exactly the kind of friend you’d want around while you take a pee test—not just in this movie, but in Wild, too.)
Snowpiercer – The symbolism of a train that never stops running and in which the lower classes live in the end cars while the upper classes live near the engine is a little ham-handed, but, boy, was this movie fun. As the rebellion of the lower classes moves its way through the train, every battle grows more intense and more surprising, and the set pieces become more colorful and zanier. While I couldn’t get on board with director Bon Joon-ho’s mixture of horror and humor in The Host, Snowpiercer struck the balance perfectly.
Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow – Yes, the revised title is almost as dumb as the original title. Yes, this movie was virtually ignored during the summer box office. Yes, it stars Tom Cruise. But for all you Cruise-haters, please hearken to my words: You get to watch Tom Cruise die again, and again, and again, and again. What’s not to like about that? The action is fantastic and Emily Blunt is a total badass as she and Cruise try to save the world from aliens that have given Cruise the ability to start his life over at one specific point every time he dies.
The Americans – I’ve sung the praises of this FX show more than once, and season two was no disappointment. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell are doing phenomenal work as the Jenningses, Russian spies posing as Americans in the 1980s. The Americans offers perhaps the most interesting exploration of marriage on T.V. right now, and season three promises to delve deeper into family dynamics as the KGB insists on trying to recruit their daughter. (This show also gets a shout-out for Least Annoying Child Characters, Paige and Henry Jennings.)
The Chair – My only must-see reality show this year, Starz’s The Chair featured two first-time directors working from the same script to make his or her own film. The close look at what it takes to mount a film production from rewrites to theatrical release would be interesting enough on its own. But The Chair also offered a unique level of transparency, giving viewers a glimpse not just of how a movie is made but of how a reality show is made, as participants bitch about the lack of funding and creator Chris Moore describes how the show is evolving even as it’s being filmed.
Orphan Black – While this show premiered in 2013, I binged both seasons this year and am happy to report that season two holds up to the bonkers premise, white-knuckle action, hilarity, and surprise of the first. Have you heard of Tatiana Maslany? No? That’s because the stupid awards-givers behind ceremonies like the Emmys apparently don’t watch sci fi, but one of these days Maslany is going to claim all the prizes because she is doing such phenomenal work playing multiple clones of her Orphan Black protagonist, Sarah, imbuing each with careful, microscopic detail, that I actually kind of wonder if this woman suffers from some sort of multiple personality disorder.
Black-ish – This half-hour comedy was a real surprise for me. I don’t watch a lot of sitcoms (and my heart will always be yours, Parks and Recreation!), but I gave Black-ish a shot and was delighted to find that it’s not only hilarious, but offers a thoughtful look at race and class in America. Tracee Ellis Ross as Rainbow Johnson is doing fantastic work as what is easily my favorite televised portrayal of a real mother and woman—not your typical harried-but-smart-but-exasperated-mom caricature, but an actual human.
Hannibal – PRETTIEST. SHOW. EVER. I’m not kidding. Granted, you have to find waves of blood and human corpses pretty, but I’m telling you, Hannibal would be on this list for set design alone, so gorgeous is this show. Happily, it’s also a ridiculously fun and smart and scary drama, with a stellar performance from Mads Mikkelson (my Official Crush of 2014 and winner of Year’s Best Cheekbones). Season two really ramped things up several notches by putting Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) in the slammer for Hannibal’s crimes, then turning the tables by the end of the 13-episode run. This show can’t start its third season soon enough.