1. Boyhood – Richard Linklater’s meditation on the passing of time is not only the best film of 2014, it’s also the most ambitious. What sounded like a gimmick – filming for three weeks every fall for a dozen years – becomes a brilliant tool for deep connection between viewer and character. Turns out when you watch a kid morph from a tyke to a teen, you get attached.
2. Birdman – Alejandro González Iñárritu keeps his cameras in constant motion in this kinetically energetic look at life in a theater. It’s a movie with a lot on its mind, but it’s sharpest when exploring the relative merits of live performance vs. film.
3. Whiplash – Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons go toe-to-toe as a student drummer and impossible-to-please band director. Think Training Day set in a conservatory. The wordless, on-stage showdown between the two is the most rewarding ending to a movie this year. And between its score and the similarly swinging music in Birdman, jazz is definitely back on the big screen.
4. Fury – World War II is all but wrapped up, and yet the members of a battle-hardened tank unit are sent out again and again to look death in the eye. It’s a gritty exploration of the unyielding connection among brothers-in-arms.
5. The Lego Movie – This is what it feels like to smile for 100 straight minutes. Chris Pratt transfers his Everyman persona to the animated world as an anonymous Lego construction worker charged with saving the day. But Will Arnett’s Batman and Will Ferrell’s Lord Business steal the show.
6. American Sniper – Bradley Cooper is nearing Sean Penn-level range as he follows his portrayals of a mental patient (Silver Linings Playbook) and a wild-eyed FBI agent (American Hustle) with a quietly internal reading of Texan Chris Kyle. Director Clint Eastwood uses abrupt cuts to transition from the chaos of battle to the unnerving calm of the home front. In the process, we understand why Kyle can’t ever get his mind and body in the same place.
7. Calvary – Brendan Gleeson gives a master class in wordless communication as a priest bracing for his own murder. As the lone shining light in a world of darkness, it’s a moving display of bravery and stoicism.
8. A Most Wanted Man – Director Anton Corbijn adapts John le Carré’s story of the messy business of the war on terror. And in doing so, he pulls off the rare trick of telling the story more clearly and concisely than the source material. Sadly, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last standout performance.
9. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Easily the prettiest movie of the year – if you’re looking for something to play in the background of a party, this is the one. But it’s plenty good with the volume up, too. Ralph Fiennes is a bundle of nervous energy as the concierge of a legendary European hotel.
10. What If – Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan trade rapid-fire bon mots as best friends who might be more if not for her boyfriend. Billy Wilder would be proud.
Honorable mentions: The Theory of Everything, Into the Woods, Chef, The Imitation Game, Big Hero 6, Wild, Gone Girl
Caveat: Try as I might, I’ve been unable to catch Selma, Love Is Strange and a few others that I have every expectation of being top-notch. If only there were more hours in the day.