No movie wowed me and enthralled me and inspired me in 2014 like Whiplash. Featuring Miles Teller in a star-making performance and J.K. Simmons in the most memorable and iconic role of his long career, this is a tightly edited, endlessly entertaining movie that literally hits every right note. The vastly talented writer/director Damien Chazelle has crafted a near-perfect film, one that always surprises and impresses, and ultimately works in every way.
Richard Linklater is a director to treasure. His Before trilogy is one of the landmark projects in recent film history, and he has equaled it, if not surpassed it, with his magical 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood. Who else but Linklater would have spent so long making a movie that ultimately is just about people, and their struggles, and their triumphs, both in childhood and in adulthood. Ellar Coltrane is a natural in the main role, and Ethan Hawke brings depth to his role as his father, but it’s Patricia Arquette’s emotionally affecting role as his mother that will stay with me the most.
Jake Gyllenhaal has been slowly and quietly becoming the best actor of his generation, with startling work in End of Watch, Prisoners, and Enemy. Nightcrawler is his best, most haunting performance yet, easily the most embarrassing oversight of this year’s Academy Award nominations. He is downright brilliant as a down-on-his-luck man who resorts to crime scene videography to make a living. Rene Russo had one of the great comebacks of the year with her complex supporting role, and writer/director Dan Gilroy keeps the tension building until an end chase scene that is both shocking and disturbing.
4. Gone Girl
David Fincher films have become events for me at this point, with particularly Fight Club and The Social Network being all-time favorites, and no one but Fincher could have been a better match for Gone Girl. He brings his meticulous eye for casting, pacing, and black comedy to this fascinating tale of deception and resentment. Gillian Flynn masterfully transformed her terrific novel into a wickedly entertaining movie—like Gyllenhaal, her lack of an Oscar nomination is baffling, especially given that Paul Thomas Anderson’s incomprehensible script for Inherent Vice made the cut. Rosamind Pike, like Rooney Mara in Fincher’s previous The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, gives a magnetic performance.
5. Life Itself
As a lifelong fan of Roger Ebert’s film reviews, both written and televised, I have waited for the day his unique life would get the documentary treatment. Steve James, who made the monumental Hoop Dreams, does Ebert proud with this informative and hugely emotional film, one that includes insights from Martin Scorsese and Gene Siskel’s widow Marlene, as well as heartbreaking images of Ebert’s last few months alive before his death in April 2013. His fascinating relationship with director Russ Meyer is given proper screen-time, but it’s his 25-year love story with his wife Chaz that may resonate most of all. As hard as parts of it are to watch, I loved every minute of this film, and I can’t wait to see it again.
6. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The one great blockbuster of 2014 is the best Apes sequel of them all. Andy Serkis returned as Caesar in this action-packed and exceedingly dark sequel to Rise. The character of Koba is a commanding screen villain, and the visual effects are truly spectacular. Matt Reeves directed one of the best horror films of the last five years—2010’s Let Me In—and with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he shows that he can tell absorbing stories in any genre and on any budget.
7. The Skeleton Twins
Easily the most underrated film of 2014, The Skeleton Twins offers an enormously effective blend of comedy and drama, with Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader in their best film roles to date. What starts as potentially indie-cliché—the gay brother who attempts suicide moves in with his estranged sister—becomes something unexpectedly moving. The scene of Wiig and Hader lip-syncing Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” is one of the 2014 movie highlights.
8. A Most Violent Year
J.C. Chandor is three for three with A Most Violent Year. His debut Margin Call featured a heart-racing story and an impressive ensemble cast, while his All is Lost featured one sole actor—Robert Redford, in the performance of his career. His latest teams powerhouse actors Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in a sometimes unbearably tense crime drama set in 1981 New York. With shades of The Godfather and some of Sidney Lumet’s best work, A Most Violent Year is captivating from beginning to end.
Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, and Emma Stone lead an all-star cast in one of the most beguiling and thrilling movies of the year. Emmanuel Lubezski’s stunning cinematography, which makes the whole movie look like one long shot, has to be seen to be believed, and director Alejandro Inarritu thankfully lightened up a little to tell a story that mixes tragedy with some truly biting comedy. Keaton is a revelation in a role that calls back to the actor’s own days as Batman, as well as his high level of talent that was on display in films in the 1980s but rarely in the last two decades.
One of the best food movies I’ve ever seen, Jon Favreau’s enchanting comedy is loads of fun, blending scenes of borderline food porn with a moving father-son story. Favreau, who made the great Swingers before he moved on to studio tentpole land, made a welcome return to low-budget entertainment with this film, which features charming supporting performances from Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, and Emjay Anthony, as Favreau’s son. Chef may not be the most insightful or unpredictable movie of 2014, but more than any other film on this list, it’s one that made me feel great.
#11-20 (in alphabetical order)
Big Hero 6
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Fault in Our Stars
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Love is Strange
X-Men: Days of Future Past