1) Boyhood: The best art often reflects life in grand, dramatic, creative ways that make you reconsider the way you think and view the world. Richard Linklater’s movie, shot over 12 years and documenting the progression of Mason (played by first-time actor Ellar Coltrane) from a boy into a young man, took the opposite approach, dwelling on the small, everyday moments that accumulate over time, shaping us into the persons we grow up to be. Aided by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason’s divorced but loving parents, Linklater made you feel like you were peering into the lives of real people. As Hawke tells Mason,“We’re all just winging it. The good news is you’re feeling stuff, you know? And you’ve got to hold on to that. You get older, and you don’t feel as much, your skin gets tough.”
2) The Grand Budapest Hotel: In his biggest, most ambitious film to date, Wes Anderson took a hotel manager (Ralph Fiennes) and his loyal lobby boy (Tony Revolori) and thrust them into a wild adventure replete with gunfights, high-speed chases, prison breaks and cliffhangers, all told through Anderson’s singular, meticulous visual style. The year’s most imaginative, lovable charmer.
3) Birdman: Director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s bristling, technically dazzling story about a fading actor (Michael Keaton in top form) trying to save his career by adapting a Raymond Carver short story to the stage was as energetic and punchy as its percussion-heavy score. The movie, which also featured a hilarious performance by Edward Norton as a rigid Method actor, was a high-wire act about reinventing ourselves and staying true to our beliefs in a world that constantly tempts you to sell out.
4) Selma (opens Jan. 9): Historical biopics tend to be movie medicine: They’re good for you, but they don’t necessarily make for great entertainment. The genius of director Ava DuVernay’s film is that instead of trying to cram the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. into two hours, she focuses instead on one incident – the civil rights leader’s perseverance to lead a march from Selma to Montgomery, AL to protest the inability of African-Americans to vote. David Oyelowo’s performance as King does justice to the real man’s oratory prowess and his ability to negotiate treacherous political waters with words, not violence.
5) Ida: Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski’s transfixing tale of a nun preparing to take her vows when she learns a shocking secret about her past used black-and-white photography, meditative silence and off-kilter framing to give us a portrait of a young woman (Agata Trzebuchowska) reeling from the discovery everything she thought about her life was wrong.
6) Under the Skin: Scarlett Johansson radiated a seductive, otherworldly vibe as a woman driving around the streets of Scotland picking up men, presumably for sex. But as director Jonathan Glazer gradually reveals, her intentions are far stranger and more difficult to explain. The movie, which boasted some of the most stunning images of the year, was a beguiling, elusive portrait of the ultimate outsider – a beautiful blank slate who waits too long to claim her womanhood.
7) Two Days, One Night: (opens Jan. 16): The movies by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (La Promesse, The Kid with a Bike, L’Enfant) sneak up on you. The Dardennes favor naturalistic acting and a straightforward, no-fuss style, two things that serve them perfectly in this story about a woman (Marion Cotillard) who has one weekend to convince her co-workers to forego their bonuses so she won’t be laid off. A story of desperation, greed and human nature, anchored by Cotillard’s marvelous performance. We all like to think we’re good people. But what happens when we are put to the test?
8) The Raid 2 / Snowpiercer: The two best action movies of the year looked like Hollywood productions, but were too smart and imaginative to have been made at a studio. The crime drama The Raid 2, director Gareth Evans’ sequel to his 2011 cult hit, ran two-and-a-half hours but felt like one, with one giant, amazing action setpiece after another, including one of the best car chases ever filmed. Snowpiercer, Joon-ho Bong’s post-apocalyptic tale of a bullet train carrying the last people on Earth after an ice age killed off all life on the planet, was just as wild and outrageous, with a superb cast (including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and Ed Harris) turning what could have felt like an belabored metaphor into a rousing, surprising entertainment.
9) Gone Girl: When David Fincher signed on to direct an adaptation of the bestselling novel by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the script), the question hanging over the movie was “How will they handle the enormous twist at the center of the story?” Not only did Fincher pull it off, but the performances by Ben Affleck as a husband suspected of murder and Rosamund Pike as his missing wife elevated this sleek, elegant thriller into a provocative look at the battle of the sexes and the impossibility of truly, fully knowing another person – even your spouse. To quote Bruce Springsteen: Is that you, baby? Or just a brilliant disguise?
10) Guardians of the Galaxy: Just when you thought there was nothing left for comic-book movies to surprise you with, along came director James Gunn’s rollicking film of a band of intergalactic heroes (led by Chris Pratt in an unlikely, genius stroke of casting). Funny, thrilling and amusingly irreverent, this felt more like Star Wars than just another Marvel Comics adaptation. More, please.
– RENE RODRIGUEZ
1) Boyhood. This engaging story about a boy growing up is mesmerizing not only for the way it was shot — over the course of 12 years, as its characters aged in real time — but also for its weirdly fascinating examination of ordinary family life. Director Richard Linklater manages to leave you wishing for more despite Boyhood’s three-hour running time. Anybody want to tackle Girlhood next?
2) Wild. In a weak year for women’s roles, Reese Witherspoon gives her best performance in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s inspirational adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) focuses on Cheryl’s relationship with her mother (Laura Dern), which fuels her journey: She is literally walking away from the mess she’s made of her life, hoping to become, as she says, the woman her mother thought she was. p>
3) The Grand Budapest Hotel. Life is an up (Fantastic Mr. Fox) and down (Moonrise Kingdom) ride for Wes Anderson fans. But in this charming, hilarious and ultimately poignant tale of a legendary concierge (a dapper, wonderfully profane Ralph Fiennes) and his devoted lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori) the director finds the perfect vehicle for his whimsy.
4) Birdman. Divisive, bitter but funny, thought-provoking, surprising, unapologetically original. All elements you long for in a movie, and here they are in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s fantastically edited film about a movie star (a terrific Michael Keaton) struggling to mount an impossible Broadway production based on a Raymond Carver story. Iñárritu also gets great work from Ed Norton as an egotistical Method actor and Emma Stone as Keaton’s troubled daughter.
5) Guardians of the Galaxy. I thought superhero movies had long passed the point where they were fun. Then I saw Guardians of the Galaxy — twice! — and realized my mistake. As a lovable idiot on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Chris Pratt was hilarious, but nothing prepares you for his seamlessness transformation to action hero. The soundtrack is nostalgic bliss. Bradley Cooper offers up his best work ever as Rocket Raccoon, and Vin Diesel — yes, that Vin Diesel — delivers wisdom for the ages.
6) A Most Violent Year. J.C. Chandor’s film about a businessman trying to avoid violence in 1980s in New York hasn’t garnered the buzz it deserves, but star Oscar Isaac, channeling Al Pacino circa The Godfather, delivers a quietly hypnotic performance as a man slowly being forced to make dangerous compromises. (Opens in South Florida Jan. 30.)
7) Snowpiercer. Relentless pacing, furious energy and riveting cinematography drive this movie about class warfare aboard a train at the end of the world. The ending drags on a bit longer than necessary, but what comes before it keeps you invested in the fate of its characters — and humanity itself.
8) Only Lovers Left Alive: The most languid vampire movie ever stars Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as an ennui-drenched undead couple living apart (she’s in Tangiers, he’s moping around Detroit). Her wild younger sister (Mia Wasikowska) draws them back together. Director Jim Jarmusch’s best film in ages will wipe all irritating traces of sparkly vampires from your memory, I promise.
9) The Imitation Game. In the battle of British biopics, the crisply made, moving story of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) — who broke the Nazi Enigma code in World War II — tops the flashier Stephen Hawking movie The Theory of Everything. When this movie played at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, I was shocked by how many people had never heard of Turing. Here’s hoping Morten Tyldum’s film changes that.
10) Foxcatcher. Director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote) approaches the tragic story of the relationship between millionaire sponsor John du Pont (Steve Carell) and Olympic wrestlers Mark and David Schultz (Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) with care and restraint. The pace is slow but riveting, and the film’s emotional pay off makes it worthwhile.
– CONNIE OGLE