Although it wasn't a standout year for movies collectively, 2014 will be remembered for individual performances. Many movies catapulted into contention for best of the year based mostly on the actors' committing their bodies and souls to their respective roles.
Just like my worst-of-2014 list came with a caveat, so too does my best list. Several films, most notably Selma, Still Alice and Inherent Vice, were not screened for local critics prior to the end of the year. Each is likely to be lauded come awards season, but I can only judge what I was able to see.
With that out of the way, here are the 10 best films I saw in 2014.
This ultra-indie sci-fi film flew under the radar, but it deserves to be noticed. It impresses not with technical wizardry but with precise filmmaking, turning a seemingly simple story inside out via clever twists and editing. You might not know which way is up by the end of the film, but in this case, that is definitely a good thing.
9. Life Itself
Making a documentary about a film critic may seem strange, but when it's the life of Roger Ebert, it's deserved. Ebert, along with fellow critic Gene Siskel, influenced both movie fans and filmmakers with his outsized career. But what's remarkable about this film, directed by Steve James, is the access it had to Ebert during his final months, showing an intimate portrait of a debilitated man still doing what he loved: watching movies.
I was unable to officially review Chef when it was released, but it made a big impression when I finally got to see it. A love letter to food and fatherhood by writer, director and star Jon Favreau, Chef is both a feast for the eyes and the heart. After he had been stuck making big studio films for a long time, it was a pleasure seeing Favreau get back to his simple roots.
7. Gone Girl
Films with high expectations on them often struggle to succeed, but Gone Girl, based on Gillian Flynn's best-selling book and directed by David Fincher, had no issues. With great performances by Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike and the signature moodiness of Fincher, the story packed the requisite punch even if you already knew all of its twists and turns. The ending is the ultimate love-it-or-hate-it — but it's also one you can't get out of your head.
6. Top Five
I had little idea that Chris Rock was making a movie at the beginning of the year, let alone that it would wind up making my top 10. But this pseudo-autobiographical film showcased everything that's funny about Rock and even stretched his dramatic muscles a bit. Featuring a slew of Rock's comedian friends doing what they do best, it's the most personal — and best — film Rock has ever done.
Sometimes you can imagine multiple actors pulling off the same role, but Jake Gyllenhaal absolutely owns the part of Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler. He gave over his entire being to the film, playing a freelance videographer willing to do almost anything for the perfect shot. The intensity he displays in certain scenes is stunning, with monologues turning into master classes in acting. You may loathe his character by the end of the film, but you'll love Gyllenhaal for giving you an indelible performance.
Wes Anderson has been hit-or-miss for me through his previous seven films, but he hit it out of the park with The Grand Budapest Hotel. The film contained every trademark quirk for which Anderson is known, but the cumulative effect of all those things added up to something much more enjoyable and meaningful this time around. With stellar performances by Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori and Anderson's usual troupe of actors, it was an early-year gem that deserves to be remembered.
Filmmakers seem to be risk-averse these days, so when one truly takes a chance, it's worth recognizing. Writer/director Richard Linklater took a big one with Boyhood, a film he made over the course of 12 years, and it paid off in almost every way. Getting to watch a boy literally grow up before your eyes is a unique experience, and even though the film didn't have the full emotional impact I expected, it made me thankful for the opportunity to take the journey.
You've never seen a movie like Birdman, which takes you on a never-ceasing trip inside the deteriorating mind of Riggan Thompson. Written and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the film takes the high wire by using long takes and subtle editing techniques to make it seem as if the entire film were done in one shot. With a drum-heavy soundtrack, constant movement and the performance of Michael Keaton's career, it's one of the front-runners for the Best Picture Oscar, and deservedly so.
The obsessions of two different men collide in Whiplash, which takes the seemingly innocuous world of jazz music and turns it into a pit of hell. Miles Teller's drum student faces off against J.K. Simmons' teacher, and the battle of wills between them has the tension of a great thriller. Written and directed masterfully by newcomer Damien Chazelle, the film is full of blood, sweat and tears, and it has the most epic drum solo you'll ever see. It's unforgettable.