Dir. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu
Iñarritu's epic account of a washed-up action hero taking a gamble on Broadway, directing and starring in a Raymond Carver adaptation, fires on just about every imaginable cylinder. It is foremost, perhaps, a feat of cinematography, the film's camera a sentient beast that follows Riggan (Michael Keaton) and this powerhouse ensemble up-, down- and backstage and into NYC in a snare-powered long-long-long-shot sonata. The film is excessively theatrical, but also spectacular, with keyed-in performances and some serious directorial panache. Birdman is not only a diagnosis but a diatribe and a dance — for fame and for love and for life. It is both a visual and philosophical feast; as one critic put it, "The Dark Knight of the soul."
2. Force Majeure
Dir. Ruben Ostlund
Force Majeure is what you'd call a tense viewing experience. It is often slow, tortuously awkward, viciously uncomfortable. But Ruben Ostlund's new take on the disaster movie — the "disaster" is an anti-climactic avalanche at a ski resort in the French alps — occasions new frontiers in family drama: Force Majeure is mesmerizing to behold, inflated by two go-for-broke performances by its leads; and laced with extraordinary music and sound effects to dynamize an already vivid, wrenching script.
Dir. Damien Chazelle
Here's how you have to characterize the performances of both Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in this music-school flick: balls-to-the-motherflipping-wall. As drumming prodigy and infamous instructor, Teller and Simmons face off in what is possibly the most visceral and thrilling film about music ever made. Moreover, this film begs the question of educators: How do you facilitate greatness in your students? Just how far can they be pushed? The final six minutes will have you panting, but the entire film will have your heart and your feet tapping in bloody time.
Dir. Richard Linklater
Boyhood follows a young boy from age 5-18, charting what would be an ordinary path toward manhood. Why is it extraordinary? Because it was captured over the course of 12 years. Linklater's exceptional work with the film's star, Ellar Coltrane, and the film's gutsy scope has earned it the number one spot on many a year-end list. The performances (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette) are dynamite, and the slow and miraculous event of watching a character literally grow up before your eyes is something you've never seen before. Understated and elegant and often painfully sad: This is life as a motion picture.
5. The Grand Budapest Hotel
Dir. Wes Anderson
In this decorative story within a story, Wes Anderson deploys all his trademark production design to bring the world of a fictional Eastern European hotel to life. Anderson, of course, is Hollywood's preeminent master of atmosphere, and the setting here is ripe for his prop-heavy vision. But it's not only lovely surfaces on display. In the story of a legendary concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and his adventures with an earnest lobby boy, friendship and art and history are considered and re-colored in all of Anderson's textures and tinsels and hues.
Dir. Dan Gilroy
This one's all Jake Gyllenhaal, he of the sunken eyes and the '70s-vintage apparel. He is Louis Bloom, a driven (borderline-deranged) man who weasels his way into the world of Los Angeles TV journalism and soon dominates it: He does not merely bend journalistic ethics; he rapes and pillages them, becoming a hyper-active participant in a crime narrative in order to get exclusive footage. Gyllenhaal is magnetic, alternately Aspergeresque and monomanical in this delirious, heart-pounding, shadowy opus.
Dir. Bennett Miller
Though Steve Carell should not win the Academy Award for his portrayal of oil tycoon and wrestling enthusiast John DuPont, his is one of three outstanding efforts in this film by Bennett Miller, the director of Capote and Moneyball. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are also excellent as Mark and Dave Shultz, the wrestling champs who are brought to the Duponts' Foxcatcher Farms to train team USA. The wandering and impressionable Mark is swept into DuPont's demented world beyond the point of escape, and DuPont slowly but surely loses his mind. Humongously heavy, Foxcatcher is not at all your typical Disney sports film.
8. Jodorowsky's Dune
Dir. Frank Pavich
The year's best documentary is a sort of tribute to a film that might have been, the monumental but ultimately doomed Dune adaptation by wacky surrealist auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky. This film, which chronicles the pre-production and studio resistance of what would have been a 14-hour monolith, finds a chatty 86-year old Jodorowsky as effervescent as ever, showing us that we, too, should ask of films what he does, what most Americans ask of psychedelic drugs: the ability to be moved and transported and mentally blown away.
9. Gone Girl
Dir. David Fincher
Fresh off The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher has yet again found optimal source material for his preferred visual style: dark, sleek, smoky, sinister. Here, in a twisting narrative courtesy of Gillian Flynn's bestselling novel, Fincher creates a rich, duplicitous world set into motion by a missing woman (Rosamund Pike) and the husband (Ben Affleck) who may or may not have offed her. Bursting with suspense and seduction, it's another masterwork of tone and style.
Dir. Laura Poitras
In what might be the scariest film of the year — sorry, Babadook — this searing documentary is the behind-the-scenes account of the Edward Snowden affair in 2013. Filmmaker Laura Poitras was in Hong Kong with Snowden and journalist Glenn Greenwald as the young NSA-contracted data engineer leaked the information which would fuel America's ever-growing anxiety about privacy. This play-by-play account is as engaging as it is horrifying because it's not science fiction.
Have Not Seen: American Sniper, Selma, Unbroken
Honorable Mentions: Into the Woods, The Babadook, Inherent Vice, Guardians of the Galaxy Bottom Feeders: The Monuments Men, 3 Days to Kill, 300: Rise of an Empire, Child of God