At the end of a year that saw remakes of reboots and retreads of rehashes, a year of more ninja turtles and another Godzilla and a worse “Robocop” and all the rest, I found myself slinking into one of the only movies among the 50 or so I saw in theaters this year that wasn’t on opening weekend.
“The Babadook,” a little Australian picture by first-time director/writer Jennifer Kent, has to be considered a horror film, though you could almost as easily call it a psychological thriller. Befitting its $2 million budget, part of which was raised through Kickstarter, perhaps no movie this year did more with less, riding a pair of enrapturing performances — one by Essie Davis as a grieving, stressed-out single mother; the other, by little kid Noah Wiseman, as her precocious but disturbed only child — to a tense, unpleasant, frightening time at the movies. I think there were four other people at the Monday evening screening.
Finding gems still lurking in the crannies of cineplexes is always a joy, but never more so than when virtually everything else under the roof has been seen in some fashion before. (By quirk, even the current movies that aren’t sequels — “Top Five” and “Big Hero 6,” e.g. — are sporting numbers in their titles.) Looking back at 2014, there were few great bigger-budget films, though we might see “Interstellar” as a brave benchmark some years from now, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” out Wes Andersoned even Wes Anderson, and within their respective genres, “The Lego Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were instant classics. We also got more X-Men, another Spider-Man, more Transformers, another Purge, same planet, same apes. They all run together, if you let them.
It won’t always hold true that the most distinct movies, the most memorable, will be those made on smaller budgets — for one, Tom Cruise’s somehow overlooked “Edge of Tomorrow” was a weird, deluxe production. But for a smaller film to share the marquee with the mass-produced blockbusters it has to bring something special. That was the case in what might wind up as the year’s best picture, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” The premise couldn’t be simpler: follow a boy’s life from age 6 till his first year of college. With audacity and ambition, Linklater actually does that, holding together the same cast for 12 years and shooting only a few scenes a year. Somehow, over more than a decade of filming, Linklater needed only about $4 million. That’s roughly one-fiftieth of what it costs to bring you a Transformers pic these days.
What makes “Boyhood” so incredible (to the tune of a 100 percent favorable rating on Metacritic and 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) is how believable it becomes as the years turn. As weird as this will sound: the film and its cast, especially star Ellar Coltrane, grow together so seamlessly, you lose track of the fact that you’re even watching a movie. More so you may well be watching vines grow in tandem, using one another as trellises.
“The Babadook” accomplishes much of the same, as the mother and child seem to cook one another into something dense and hard and dark over the course of an hour and a half. Partly a boogeyman flick, partly a meditation on parenthood, partly an allegory for grief, the movie works in part because its framing and sound and acting are all superb. Maybe this is the level of thoughtfulness and craft that characterize all small-budget horror movies from Australia — not that you or I would probably know, though, because how many of those do we really take in? So few, I’d wager, that when you see one come through town, you know it’s probably something special. Those curiosities have proven themselves to be chances worth taking.