Tag Archives: Viola Davis

Why is Conservative Brigading Focusing so Hard on “The Woman King”?

“The Woman King” has everything you could ask for in an historical epic: the fate of nations, political intrigue, large-scale battles with personal stakes, generational drama, and a star-crossed romance. The cast is superb, the sets, costumes, and cinematography all remarkable. So why is it controversial? Let’s get to that nonsense in a minute. Let’s consider the film on its own first:

We’re told in the opening text crawl that the African nation of Dahomey is at odds with its neighbors and wrestling with its participation in the slave trade. Thuso Mbedu plays Nawi, a daughter who refuses to be married off to an older man. She’s instead given to the army, which boasts a fierce corps of women fighters.

Nawi doesn’t always do what she’s told, and the first half of “The Woman King” largely follows her training. She gets to know her fellow soldiers, most notably Lashana Lynch as her mentor Izogie. The training is intense and seeing Nawi grow and find her own path forward without losing her individuality is done interestingly enough to be its own movie. Mbedu and Lynch both shine in their roles.

Meanwhile, we see snippets of the kingdom’s politics. General Nanisca, played by Viola Davis, urges John Boyega’s King Ghezo to do away with the slave trade entirely. He’s not so sure. Many in the court agree with him, since it’s their primary way to buy weapons to fight the neighboring Oyo. Ghezo’s already done away with the slave trading of fellow Dahomey, focusing instead on capturing and selling their enemy. Before long, things come to a head with the Oyo, focusing on a brutal connection between General Nanisca and the Oyo’s new general.

Swirl in that brief will-it/won’t it romance for Nawi with the visiting Malik, who is half-Dahomey and half-Portuguese, and you’ve got all the components for a riveting epic.

We’re used to these types of historical movies being told in muddled gray-blues and muted reds, showing off the history of Europe as if everyone without a suit of armor was that mud-farming peasant in the opening scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”. More recently, the series equivalent has found a market in making everyone into some kind of Viking-era leather biker. This is the “gritty” that for some reason we all pretend is realistic, but more often fails a historical movie’s actual history and setting.

“The Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood courageously suggests that eras prior to this one had more than two color tones available to them. Cinematographer Polly Morgan shoots the film gorgeously with a focus on rich oranges, and more well-lit and thus natural browns, greens, and blues. There’s some beautiful use of mist. The film has a unique visual blend of side lighting characters in foregrounded shadow that’s rare but works gorgeously here. It did take me a moment to get used to an historical epic that looks more natural, since the medieval films that saturate the genre always look like they take place in a walk-in freezer. Once I acclimated, I was so glad the film was this expansive in its visuals.

There’s a later scene in “The Woman King” of a drowning and it was like watching a painting in motion. I wouldn’t describe the entire film like that, but there are visual moments that do reach this height. If I had one criticism, it would be a minor one. In films like these that span periods of time and large distances, it’s always good to have some compartmentalization of sequences. For an obvious but effective example, think of every helicopter shot montage of the Fellowship trekking over mountains in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. It doesn’t have to take that shape, but the most basic form is a wide environmental shot or brief montage interlude. I could have used a dash more of this in “The Woman King” to clarify larger gaps of time in the narrative. It becomes obvious that time passes, but that visual break-up can help us start a new set of scenes understanding this, instead of realizing it mid-stream. It’s a small but important aide to our immersion.

I also like Prince-Bythewood’s approach to fight choreography. She worked with fight coordinator Danny Hernandez on both this and Charlize Theron-starrer “The Old Guard”. In that film, they had a take on what can only be described as four person co-op fight choreo. Some of that partnered choreography makes it in here as well and it’s always a joy to see that level of creativity and execution. They’re hardly the first to do this kind of partnered fight choreo, but they are breaking a lot of exciting new ground on it.

My own pet peeve: I do think the spear work’s too spinny. It’s always too spinny; a spear is treated like a staff in historical epics because advancing in formation with the pointy end keeping the enemy at bay is less exciting than spinning it around in isolation to hit someone two feet in front of you. It’s akin to hundreds of European medieval epics that treat armored soldiers like turtles who couldn’t easily get up from their backs, or dozens of pirate epics that have that weird hip-to-hip choreography where the fighters hold each others’ hands down so they can banter instead of just slash each others’ legs to ribbons. Many will think it looks neat, a few will think, “Just stab the guy already”. There’s always something, but overall the fight choreo is great. Pet peeve concluded.

It’s a great film, a very satisfying watch, and it stands comfortably alongside other historical military epics we’d consider great. Why is there so much controversy around it then?


Is “The Woman King” accurate? Broad swathes are. King Ghezo did end the slave trading of Dahomey’s own people and focus on selling captive enemy. He did pursue the palm oil trade as a replacement for slave trading entirely. Our histories tell us this is largely due to Britain’s eventual anti-slavery stance, and pressure they applied to African states in the region, but let’s remember these histories were written by the British and gave credit for anything and everything to the British.

That doesn’t serve as proof that things happened differently, but we have many other histories from the same era where the British habitually took credit for things that indigenous populations clearly accomplished instead. Might the truth have been more mixed in Dahomey? We don’t know.

Conservatives have been happy to point out that Dahomey women soldiers that Europeans termed ‘Amazons’ only took part in two major battles, in 1890 at Cotonou and 1892 at Adegon. Both involved the Dahomey being defeated soundly by French forces. This speaks to the point I just brought up. Dahomey women warriors only fought in two major battles that Europeans recorded. This ignores more than 200 years of service before this point.

Dahomey effectively conquered neighboring kingdoms with these forces deployed. During the Second Franco-Dahomean War, they created special operations units to seek out and assassinate French officers. The French often recorded praise for these women’s skill and effectiveness. Yet the two battles with the French are the major moments that survive in European records, so more than 200+ years of operation are boiled down to a span of two events that happened two years apart. That accounts for 1% of the total time the corps existed.

If I sat down for my first two meals with you, and took this as proof that you had only ever eaten twice in your life because it’s all I’ve witnessed, it would reflect far more about my reality than it would yours. If I went around and argued with people who said you’d eaten prior to this, and I insisted that you have never eaten before the two moments that I witnessed, it wouldn’t really tell anyone anything about your history of meals. It would tell people that I’d lost all tether to reality and logic. Yet this is the argument conservatives are doubling down on about the two years of military activity Europeans partially recorded out of more than 200 years.

Yet click on the trailer, clip, or just about any post and comment after comment will highlight two things about “The Woman King”. They will highlight that the movie ignores Dahomey’s history of engaging in the slave trade, which is the quickest way to tell that commenter didn’t even watch as far as the opening text crawl. But maybe you had to go to the bathroom and missed it. The Dahomey arrange captives to sell in the first scene of the film. But maybe you had to go the bathroom again, I don’t know. General Nanisca and King Ghezo talk about it several times. Their court debates whether they should end their ongoing participation in the slave trade. Various characters discuss it. In fact, Dahomey’s engagement in the slave trade is the plot of the movie. It’s what the political intrigue is about. If you’re going to the bathroom so often you missed it, see a Doctor; I’m worried about your insides. It makes up half the film. It’s clear as day that any of these commenters didn’t even bother to watch five minutes of the film.

The other thing they’ll highlight is that Dahomey’s corps of women soldiers only ever engaged in two battles that they lost, posing the film as lying about their effectiveness and just making the whole plot up. Never mind that this ignores more than 200 years of the corps’ history of operation – quite literally ignoring 99% of their existence. Conservatives ignoring 99% of women’s work isn’t anything new, but it’s always useful to point out.

Historical inaccuracy is a hell of a thing for Incel boards to organize themselves against when their entire movement patterns itself as a shallow pastiche of “300” and they celebrate movies like “Braveheart” and “The Patriot”.

Look, I can still enjoy some “Braveheart” as a deep shame-watch, but the Battle of Stirling Bridge? Happened at a bridge. Who would’ve thought? Primae noctis? No historical agreement it ever happened. Wallace’s dad killed by the English? Didn’t happen, the entire orphan myth is invented. William Wallace the highland commoner? He was a noble from the lowlands. Wallace never made it as far south as his military success is depicted in the film. The face paint Scots wear hadn’t been widely worn in battle for 1,000 years, and the tartan kilt they all wear wouldn’t be worn for 500 still. The nickname Braveheart? Robert the Bruce’s, not William Wallace’s. Isabella of France, the princess he secretly impregnates at the end? She would have been three years old at the time – actually, wait, that’s part of the Incel platform, isn’t it?

The point being that if you’re going to be fine with a film of that ilk, or really just about any medieval European historical drama, “The Woman King” makes significantly more effort toward a level of involving accurate events and historical developments. I would put it as easily more accurate than most films and series in the historical epic genre, which to be fair, still isn’t saying it’s particularly accurate. The major two points being brigaded are complete nonsense, though.

Who cares about comments? They do shape perception. I consider myself pretty jaded and analytical about this, and even though I knew where the comments were coming from and that they were a brigaded effort, I still went into the film thinking that it wouldn’t engage Dahomey’s participation in the slave trade. Hear something enough and you don’t even register the point at which a falsehood goes over the boundary and gets treated as reality. We all like to imagine we’re immune to that, but we’re not special – these things can find their way into rewriting the perceptions of any of us, which is why we have to consistently call them out and talk about them.

When it comes to brigading about this made-up criticism, conservatives online are organizing around it as an argument for justifying erasure of the history of slavery in both our education system and art. Many states are seeking to erase an honest portrayal of the United States’ history of slavery and slave trading, instead replacing it with narratives about slaves being voluntary guests. Several states have passed legislation that bans colleges from teaching critical race theory, and many other elements that portray the real history of slavery in the U.S.

If conservatives can point to “The Woman King” and (deeply inaccurately) insist that Black artists are erasing African nations’ history of slavery, the conversation gets turned into, “Why can’t we?” It turns into a double-standard where white people who want to ignore slavery happened are the victims. They’re the ones who aren’t allowed to do something that’s normal for Black creators. Never mind that what they’re saying Black creators did is a gaslighting lie that’s the direct opposite of what those Black creators actually did.

What does this brigading do, though? It’s a pursuit of normalization. For better or worse (it’s worse), many viewers rely on user review aggregates to judge whether a film is worth their time or not. Brigading user reviews is a tactic organized by conservative groups online to discredit women filmmakers and artists of color. We can pretend it’s not effective, and it certainly isn’t always, but they aren’t looking for every outing to be effective. They’re looking for the one time out of 20 where it discredits someone. We’ve known ever since Gamergate just how effective it can be. We wouldn’t have ever had to deal with Steve Bannon or Milo Yiannopoulos at such an escalated level if we’d learned our lesson nine years ago. The blueprint of their work shaped much of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign strategy, a campaign for which Bannon was CEO.

You don’t have to sell your own ideas if you just tear everyone down to the same level of discredit, and the quickest route to that is blunt force online brigading. It doesn’t happen on its own; that kind of brigading really does require organizational evolution. These kinds of continued efforts still serve as a research and development lab for the next round of it, and conservative online focus on “The Woman King” is one part of the front line on the latest effort seeking to discredit Black history and Black voices.

If you’ve seen those comments or reviews, watch “The Woman King” to actually know what’s in it. If you want to enjoy a bunch of great performances and some beautiful cinematography and design, watch “The Woman King”. If you’re tired of muddy Viking biker gangs slowly discovering the secret choreographic advantage of getting up after falling down in a world that takes its visual inspiration from Eiffel 65’s 1998 pop hit “Blue (Da Ba Dee)”, and you want to see something good and satisfying instead, watch “The Woman King”.

You can watch “The Woman King” on Netflix.

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New Shows + Movies by Women — Shirakawa, Dahomey, Sicily

You may notice a few changes. First of all, it’s Thursday! What’s this doing a day early? I’m going to move New Shows + Movies by Women from Friday to Thursday. I’d like it to be a permanent move, but I want to make sure it works well first. It’s a better day for readership, and it gives readers a little more prep time to plan ahead for their weekend viewing. I’ll still cover everything coming out through Friday for the week.

I’m also playing around with titling. Dates are good, but they don’t grab people. Folks don’t click on something that says April 2022 because it’s now out of date…yet the shows and movies featured in that article will still be just as directed by women as they were a year ago. The purpose of the article and information it has doesn’t change or lose value, and the title should reflect that. Besides, the date remains the first thing after the title when you click through.

New series this week come from Japan, while new movies come from Italy and the U.S.


Dearest (Netflix)
directed by Tsukahara Ayuko

Japanese series "Dearest" on Netflix.

(Yes, Netflix is still terrible about releasing trailers for their smaller international licenses.)

In this Japanese series, Rio is a businesswoman who discovers she witnessed a murder 15 years prior. She has to navigate this newfound responsibility between the contrary urges of an old flame detective and a protective lawyer.

Tsukahara Ayuko directs. She’s directed a ton of Japanese series, including on Nogi Akiko’s “MIU404”, which landed last month (and which I loved).

“Dearest” is another in Netflix’s recent push to bring on more Japanese broadcast series.

You can watch “Dearest” (or “Saiai”) on Netflix. All 10 episodes are available immediately.


The Woman King (Netflix)
directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

“The Woman King” depicts Dahomey, an historical kingdom that counted among the most powerful nations in Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch, and John Boyega star.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood also helmed “The Old Guard”, “Beyond the Lights”, and “The Secrets Life of Bees”. She started in the 90s as a writer on “A Different World”.

You can watch “The Woman King” on Netflix.

Game of Love (Hulu)
directed by Elisa Amoruso

Bella Thorne stars as Vivien, whose partner Roy is preparing the family estate for sale. She discovers secrets about his past that put their romance in jeopardy. The film is Italian, but English language.

Elisa Amoruso has directed and co-written a number of romantic dramas, including Thorne’s previous “Time is Up”, which forms a loose franchise with “Game of Love”.

“Game of Love” debuts Friday, Feb. 17. You can watch it on Hulu.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

The Clinical and the Expressive — “The Unforgivable”

“The Unforgivable” has a lot of plot to sell you – even more than I think is wise. That doesn’t change the fact that it does so exquisitely. Based on a British series from 2009, “The Unforgivable” stars Sandra Bullock as Ruth Slater. She’s just been released early from prison, after serving 20 years of her sentence for the murder of a police officer. Ruth tries to jump-start a new life while tracking down her sister Katie, who was five when Ruth was arrested.

This is the bare premise for what follows. I went in expecting an examination of the experience of an ex-con trying to rebuild her life and reconnect with family. The ex-con and family legal drama genres are there, but the scope of “The Unforgivable” expands well beyond that. It reaches into an investigation of trauma and sacrifice, but also into the bounds of thriller.

Director Nora Fingscheidt helmed one of the best films of 2020, “System Crasher”. That film followed a young girl with rage issues who had exhausted every resource the social system had to care for her. She became a danger within group homes and with foster families alike, so she was shunted from one place to another. As each reached its limit and passed her on, she became unable to form permanent or stable bonds.

Despite the narrative being very linear, Fingscheidt tells that film in a dual manner. She has command of a documentarian, clinical approach to depicting systems. She meets this with an eye for sensory expression: departures through visuals and syncopation in editing that draw us extremely close to the kind of protagonist we might not otherwise seek out.

That’s on show in “The Unforgivable” as well. The system Ruth navigates is bluntly, clinically depicted. As the audience, we see that story in order, but her experience within all this is a jumble of memories, tensions, and anticipations introduced out of order. In this way, Fingscheidt delivers a linear narrative and a nonlinear emotional experience.

This is merged with an incredibly internalized performance by Bullock. There are moments of explosion and outburst, sure, but for the most part Ruth is contents under pressure. The tension in the film isn’t about seeing her burst, it’s about wondering how she hasn’t yet. The tumultuous moments are well acted, but it’s all those other moments of emotional suppression that define the film.

Bullock has a rare ability to carry movies almost single-handedly (just see “Gravity”). Here, she’s constantly surrounded by people, but her performance feels no less isolated or desperate. It’s among her best performances, if not her best work altogether.

The film’s written well in terms of its moment-to-moment dialogue. It carries multiple threads efficiently. As for the direction the plot takes, it can feel like a ride that jerks you back and forth a few times too many. The amount of cushion for this is going to vary by viewer. A subplot about the children of the police officer Ruth killed – now grown up and seeking revenge – feels like it visits from a less realistic universe.

In the hands of a lesser director, or lesser actors, the number of left turn additions would collapse the whole thing. Yet Bullock is joined by Jon Bernthal, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rob Morgan, and Aisling Franciosi, among an even larger ensemble cast that more than pulls its weight.

Every revelation too far or late genre shift too many is so perfectly anchored by the performances and filmmaking that I was willing to go along. Pushing around suspension of disbelief as you go is a tricky maneuver, but there’s such an ample well of talent on tap that tension and motivation are pretty well maintained. The intrigue to know what happens next, and how it’s acted and told, outpaces the deluge of plot development.

I did find myself questioning whether these extra shifts were really needed, but I think the film ultimately pulls them off. The initial pitch can seem like “Maid” without the (admittedly well-done) sentimentality, especially when talking about the contrast between an uncaring systemic experience and the personal emotional experience. I don’t think this comparison lasts long, though.

“The Unforgivable” reminds me of a very different genre that nonetheless uses a similar narrative structure. We don’t have to look further than Ben Affleck’s early directing career in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”, or to Scott Cooper’s rustbelt noir “Out of the Furnace”, to see other good films that share a similar mentality of excess additions and twists within an otherwise deeply realized, practical, and gritty world. I’d say “The Unforgivable” is better than at least two of these.

There are some key differences. Fingscheidt’s direction doesn’t go toward noir. While all three directors have a keen interest in people screwed over by the system, Fingscheidt’s is the only one that really communicates a clear view of what that system is beyond plot impetus. Furthermore, at least in “The Town” and “Out of the Furnace”, anger at that system merely serves as an excuse for violence. I’d say in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Unforgivable”, there’s a deeper contemplation of the messy intersection between idealism, accomplishing change, and mitigating harm. Fingscheidt did the homework in substance and not just style.

There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes talent at work here, too. Guillermo Navarro was Guillermo Del Toro’s go-to cinematographer for the first two-thirds of his career. This includes work like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”, and there’s a similar visual sense of empathy for traumatized characters whose ability to express themselves is stunted and discouraged.

Hans Zimmer joins David Fleming in composing an exceptional score. Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher” editor Stephan Bechinger is joined by Denis Villeneuve’s go-to editor Joe Walker. It’s a blend of sensibilities that works beautifully to create a unique rhythm.

Fingscheidt’s vision for fusing such different approaches is what makes the unwieldy scope of “The Unforgivable” work. Bullock’s performance is spellbinding without ever letting us into this walled-off, incredibly internalized character. It’s not the sort of thing we’ve seen from her before. A performance like that needs Fingscheidt’s ability to present a narrative in two simultaneous tones: the clinical, systemic, and linear joined with the personal, chaotic, and expressive.

Putting these two elements together is what makes the film special. “The Unforgivable” constantly has to find a way to communicate what Bullock won’t, and it connects these fragments beautifully. Does it heap too much plot on and ask too much of your suspension of disbelief? Viewers will have different answers to that question, and that sheds light on the different ways we watch movies.

If your suspension of disbelief and your interest in the emotionally expressive half of the film are both pliable enough to meet, there can be a relatively smooth handover between them. For viewers who treat one or the other of these with more rigidity or definition, there’s a greater gap to cross. Instead of serving the film, that dissonance can be its breaking point for you. You probably have a very good idea which type of viewer you tend to be, and whether you like movies that cross those boundaries or stay within them.

You can watch “The Unforgivable” on Netflix.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

New Shows + Movies by Women — December 10, 2021

The first series up this week is a pandemic-driven dark comedy from New Zealand. It brings up an interesting conversation when it comes to genre. Shows about pandemics are hardly new. Hits from “The Last Ship” and “12 Monkeys” to more procedural takes like “The Hot Zone” and “Helix” have dominated the last decade. Hell, even “The Strain” kept on straining for four seasons.

Yet during COVID, shows like “The Stand” and “Y: The Last Man” have not lived up to expectations in terms of either viewership or quality. Now, both were in substantial development before COVID hit, so it may not be a case of platforms thinking this is a topical moment. That’s reserved for tackling ill-advised pursuits like “Love in the Time of Corona”. What it does show us is that the fascination with pandemic-driven fare may have waned. After all, it’s no longer escapism for many.

Where does a dark comedy from New Zealand that features pretty explicit imagery of a pandemic and a similar premise to “Y: The Last Man” land? I couldn’t say, but it is one that I have some hope for – in part due to the involvement of Roseanne Liang, director of this year’s massively underrated “Shadow in the Cloud”. The film’s an ambitious period thriller that veers from tight “Twilight Zone” storytelling into absurd pulp action and makes astonishing use of a relatively small budget. If one person can fuse the starkness of a pandemic to a dark, gender-driven comedy, it’s Liang.

Ultimately, interest in pandemic-driven stories is going to be up to the viewer. Some may not want to be reminded in their escapism, while others will see making comedy out of it as a way of reclaiming a sense of control within their escapism. Neither takeaway is right or wrong; just be sure to respect your own reaction about whether watching pandemic-driven stories feels stressful or relieving.


CW: pandemic imagery

Creamerie (Hulu)
directed by Roseanne Liang

A plague has killed nearly all men on the planet. The remaining 1% of men are sent to a facility in New Zealand. It’s thought that even they died, until three dairy farmers run over a seemingly impossible survivor.

“Creamerie” is created by actress-producers J.J. Fong and Perlina Lau, and producer-director Roseanne Liang. As mentioned, Liang delivered “Shadow in the Cloud”, which may not be for everybody but is one of my favorite films of the year.

You can watch all six half-hour episodes of “Creamerie” on Hulu.

Under the Vines (Acorn TV)
showrunner Erin White

A man and woman who hate each other inherit a failing vineyard in rural New Zealand. Neither knows a thing about how to run or work a vineyard, so of course they make a go of it.

Erin White is a longtime director in New Zealand and Australian TV.

You can watch the first two of six episodes of “Under the Vines” on Acorn TV, with a new weekly episode dropping every Monday.


The Unforgivable (Netflix)
directed by Nora Fingscheidt

Sandra Bullock plays Ruth. She’s being released from prison after a 20-year sentence for killing a cop. Very few people are willing to give her a chance or forget her past, even as she searches for the little sister she may have been protecting.

In addition to Bullock, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, and Rob Morgan also star.

Director Nora Fingscheidt helmed the incredible “System Crasher”, an unflinching yet sympathetic portrayal of a girl with rage issues. It was one of the best films of 2020.

You can watch “The Unforgivable” on Netflix.

Off the Rails (VOD)
directed by Jules Williamson

Three women in their 50s bring the daughter of their late friend on a European rail trip. Things go “Off the Rails” in a series of comedic accidents, with a bit of romance sprinkled in.

This is the first feature film from director Jules Williamson.

See where to rent “Off the Rails”.

Anonymously Yours (Netflix)
directed by Maria Torres

In this Mexican romantic comedy, a mistaken text message between classmates leads to a real friendship. The pair fall for each other without realizing they’ve already met and can’t stand each other. I can’t find a trailer with English translation online, but the film will have one available.

This is the first film directed by Maria Torres.

You can watch “Anonymously Yours” on Netflix.

CW: NSFW, body horror

Two (Netflix)
directed by Mar Targarona

This Spanish horror film finds a man and a woman waking up next to each other and realizing their abdomens have been attached.

Director Mar Targarona helmed “Secuestro” and “The Photographer of Mathausen”.

You can watch “Two” on Netflix.

Take a look at new shows + movies by women from past weeks.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to continue writing articles like this one.

The Most Important Actor of 2014

Under the Skin cap

by Gabriel Valdez

The Oscars award the best performance of the year. They don’t take into account the sum total of an actor’s work across that year. What if you took every project an actor worked on, and used that to judge the best actors of 2014?

This year, we have to recognize the 2014 that Scarlett Johansson had. She led the action movies Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Lucy. She displayed incredible range going from a restaurant hostess in the foodie comedy Chef to an alien sociopath in the experimental horror Under the Skin.

Years ago, I had dismissed Johansson as nothing more than a “show horse,” an actor who’s trotted out to look good and not say much. It’s the same way I look at, say, Chris Hemsworth (Thor) now – an actor with limited talent who is nonetheless charming when he’s not asked to do much.

Either Johansson evolved or I was wrong – probably a little bit of both. She was the best thing about Captain America and expanded her Iron Man and Avengers role into a more complex, layered character. Even the Captain doesn’t develop in his film – he’s the same at the end as he is in the beginning. It’s his ethical constancy we admire (and, the film suggests, that all sides in government have lost). It’s Johansson’s Black Widow who’s asked to develop and change over the course of the film. She has to do this without ever taking center stage from Captain America (Chris Evans). That’s a demanding task and, at the same time, she even goes toe-to-toe against the film’s titular villain. It should’ve been called Captain America & Black Widow, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as well.

This Season's Underslung Grenade Launcher

Lucy isn’t what I’d call a good film – it’s very average – but Johansson is very good in the role, bringing a confused humanity to bear in a character who becomes a demigod. She also proved that her $40 million action movie could beat a more established star’s big budget extravaganza. The two opened the same weekend, but Lucy earned twice as much as The Rock’s Hercules on less than half the budget, adding one more nail in the coffin to the idea that women can’t launch films or lead action movies.

Chef is a joyous comedy that features Johansson at her charming best. She infuses her character with far more nuance than the role demands, and she adds some of the film’s best comedic timing to her scenes with co-star Jon Favreau.

Under the Skin is the most challenging film here, a mature psychosexual thriller in which Johansson plays an alien in the skin of a human. She picks up hitchhikers and others who won’t be missed from the Scottish countryside. In order to film this, hidden cameras followed an unrecognizable Johansson as she prowled the streets of Edinburgh in a nondescript van, talking strangers into the van while completely in character. Most of the later film is scripted, but it’s in these early, improvised moments that Johansson communicates a master manipulator to whom conscience is an incomprehensible notion.

Under the Skin dark center

It’s a deeply disturbing role – she is a sociopath and sexual predator every bit as disturbing as what Anthony Hopkins does to Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, except she’s more single-minded. When she arrives at a moment of horror that isn’t of her own making – some swimmers drowning as their lonely child cries on the shore – she communicates a terrifying and inhuman depth of dispassion.

Johansson deserved an Oscar nomination for it, although Under the Skin is the type of film the Oscars wouldn’t recognize in a million years. If her action roles are her calling card as a box office heavyweight and Chef keeps up her indie viability, Under the Skin is the role that reminds us she’s one of the best actors working today, someone who is far more than the show horse I once pegged her as, a high caliber talent just as capable of unsettling and disturbing an audience as she is of charming them.

Does Johansson give the best performance in a single role from last year? The Academy awarded a superb Julianne Moore performance. When we took a poll of seven writers on my website, Johansson barely lost out to the similarly un-nominated Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle. Look at her entire body of work for 2014, however, and it’s hard to deny that Johansson is the Most Important Actor of the Year.

When I asked the six other critics who joined me in our End of Year Awards for best acting and best films, we came up with the following ranking for actors across multiple projects. Here’s the top 10, and the others who earned multiple votes. Obviously, this is very Western-centric. Most of us haven’t had a chance to enjoy very many non-English films from 2014, so please take these rankings with a grain of salt. The world is full of a lot of performances we haven’t seen yet:

1. Scarlett Johansson. We were all in agreement here.

2. Martin Freeman, for his roles in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, BBC’s Sherlock, and FX’s Fargo. Benedict Cumberbatch gets all the fame and glory on Sherlock – what people overlook is that Freeman’s the real gem of the show.

3. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, for her roles in Belle and Beyond the Lights. This group voted her performance in Belle as the best performance by an actress this year.

Interstellar Jessica Chastain

4. Jessica Chastain, for her roles in A Most Violent Year, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Interstellar, and Miss Julie. Only four films in a year is an off-year for Chastain, who would’ve walked away with this in her six-film 2011.

5. Viola Davis, for her roles in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, Get on Up, and ABC’s How to Get Away with Murder. She’s taking part in a sea change on television where minority actors are getting the leads Hollywood refuses them.

6. Matthew McConaughey, for his roles in Interstellar and HBO’s True Detective. Sure, it’s only two projects, but you can’t get much better than these two.

7. Reese Witherspoon, for her roles in Devil’s Knot, The Good Lie, Inherent Vice, and Wild. For launching four films, it’s been an absurdly quiet year for Witherspoon, with little recognition for the amount of work she’s done.

Selma Martin Luther King David Oyelowo

8. David Oyelowo, for roles in A Most Violent Year and Selma, as well as a brief part in Interstellar. Selma is obviously the standout role. The other two are supporting, but he’s just that good in Selma.

9. Willem Dafoe, for roles in A Most Wanted Man, Bad Country, The Fault in Our Stars, The Grand Budapest Hotel, John Wick, Nymphomaniac, and Pasolini. Too bad we don’t give out a workaholic award.

10. Kevin Hart, for his roles in About Last Night, Ride Along, Think Like a Man Too, and Top Five.

Mockingjay Jennifer Lawrence 2

Others who got multiple votes included:

Benedict Cumberbatch, for his roles in The Imitation Game, BBC’s Sherlock, and his motion capture performances in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Common, for his roles in Every Secret Thing, X/Y, Selma, and AMC’s Hell on Wheels.

Michael Ealy, for his roles in About Last Night, Think Like a Man Too, and Fox’s Almost Human.

Mireille Enos, for roles in The Captive, If I Stay, Sabotage, and AMC’s/Netflix’s The Killing.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for being the only watchable actor in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and – more importantly – for creating and hosting Pivot TV’s game changing HitRECord on TV.

Chloe Grace-Moretz, for roles in The Equalizer, If I Stay, and Laggies.

Eva Green, for her roles in 300: Rise of an Empire, The Salvation, White Bird in a Blizzard, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, and despite her role in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Shia LaBeouf, for his roles in Fury and Nymphomaniac, as well as his Crispin Glover-level performance art that both inhabits and trolls method acting and our obsession with celebrities and their lifestyle.

Jennifer Lawrence, for her roles in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Serena, and X-Men: Days of Future Past. In my eyes, she won this in 2013, but while she was good in 2014, her roles didn’t seem as crucial.

Logan Lerman, for roles in Fury and Noah that both find a young man who wants to co-exist with the world being taught to dominate it instead.

Andy Serkis, for his motion capture roles as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, his uncredited work as Godzilla in Godzilla, as well as behind the scenes motion capture consulting and second unit director work on The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

Emma Stone, for her roles in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Birdman, and Magic in the Moonlight.

Shailene Woodley, for her roles in Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and White Bird in a Blizzard.