The 20 best movies of 2014

 

(Follow the links for full-length or capsule reviews.)

1. Whiplash

J.K. Simmons plays a teacher at a prestigious music academy determined to find the greatness in a student by any means necessary. Miles Teller plays a drummer who wants to be great. Whiplash is a ferocious piece of work, a rattling wooden roller-coaster of a movie. Never mind the particulars, never mind the mistakes, just hang on tight and savor what happens when two exceptional actors sink their teeth into a script and never let go. Whether the spectacle we witness is bullying or academic S&M, Whiplash is riveting.

In theaters now.

2. Boyhood

Filmmaker Richard Linklater and his cast got together for a few days of shooting every year for 12 years to create this transcendent look at one boy's journey to the brink of adulthood. The specifics of life for the kid and his family trigger memories of your life and it all swirls together. Remarkable. The film is nearly 3 hours long, but the time flies by, as time is wont to do. Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke star.

On video Jan. 6.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Trouble is afoot in a remote resort-spa in 1932. Wes Anderson's latest artfully framed diorama/pop-up book/puppet show does all of the good things you'd expect, but there's more this time. Aided immeasurably by Ralph Fiennes exceptional lead performance, the fanciful trappings and shifting spotlights somehow seem more genuine than the real world. Anderson doesn't just take viewers through the looking glass, he shows us the depth within it. Costarring every cool actor on Earth.

On video now.

4. Life Itself

Filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) worked with Roger and Chaz Ebert to incorporate the realities of the “third act” of the famed writer's life into this documentary based on Ebert's book. The result is fascinating, funny, heartbreaking and honest. We see Ebert being noble, brave and clever. We also see him behaving like a spoiled schoolboy. We see him prepare for his own death. Unforgettable.

On video Feb. 17.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy

Chris Pratt sets the tone of the highly entertaining space epic. He's spot-on as a Han Solo type, swaggering about and cracking wise, while radiating a sunniness that warms those in his sphere of influence. By example, he helps his teammates be better souls.

On video now.

6. St. Vincent

The story is routine: Grumpy old coot babysits his new neighbor's kid because he needs the money. Antics and bonding occur. But the stars are Bill Murray (in peak form), Melissa McCarthy (underplaying, bless her heart!) and young Jaeden Lieberher (holding his own with Murray). Sweet, sad and funny.

In theaters now.

7. Locke

He's supposed to be headed home to his family. He needs to be at work for a big event in the morning. Instead he's driving to a hospital where a coworker he had sex with is about to give birth. We stay with him in the car for the entire movie. Sure, the concept is gimmicky, but it works because lead actor Tom Hardy is extraordinarily talented.

On video now.

8. Foxcatcher

Remember the news story about John du Pont, the wealthy eccentric whose involvement with wrestling took a tragic turn? This is the fictionalized version of that bizarre reality. Steve Carell plays du Pont, with Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo costarring as wrestling brothers Mark and Dave Schultz. The acting is top notch. Trying to figure out what was going on in du Pont's head will drive you crazy.

Opens locally in January.

9. The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Alan Turing, the British logician and cryptologist called in by his government to crack the Germans' Enigma Code. Another situation complicates matters further. The WWII thriller/drama is fascinating. Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley lead a powerhouse cast.

In theaters now.

10. Force Majeure

When it looked like disaster was about to strike, Mom threw her arms around the kids, while dad grabbed his cell phone and ran. And with that the tone of the family vacation changed. Are instinctive reactions a measure of a person's character? That's just one of the questions this pitch black comedy gives you to chew on.

On video Feb. 10.

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11. X-Men: Days of Future Past

Clever superhero epic with some killer action scenes.

On video now.

12. American Sniper

Bradley Cooper is outstanding in Clint Eastwood's portrait of real-life military sniper Chris Kyle.

Opens locally in January.

13. Point and Shoot

In this unusual documentary, a young guy tries to takes off on a self-described “crash course in manhood,” filming himself along the way, of course. The goings-on get seriously weird.

On video Feb. 17.

14. Gone Girl

Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike star in David Fincher's adaptation of the best-selling novel about a search for a missing person that – ahem – takes a surprising turn.

On video Jan. 13.

15. Edge of Tomorrow

Yes, the title sounds like a soap opera. Get past it and check out the snappy sci-fi action flick starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt.

On video now under the title Live Die Repeat.

16. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The second in the POTA reboot is a Shakespearean action/tragedy, with a bold lead performance by Andy Serkis.

On video now.

17. The Lego Movie

Everything is awesome in this bright animated family film starring Chris Pratt.

On video January 6.

18. Chef

Jon Favreau wrote, directed and stars in this feel-good story of a father, his son, their extended family and a food truck. Light and charming.

On video now.

19. Wild

Reese Witherspoon plays a woman who decides to shake up her troubled life by hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail. Flashbacks show what brought her there. Witherspoon shows what keeps her going. Laura Dern costars.

In theaters now.

20. Snowpiercer

Class war on a post apocalyptic train traveling the earth forever. Way better than it sounds. Starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton.

On video now.

Honorable Mentions

Nightcrawler — searing performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as a gonzo news photographer

The Raid 2: Berandal — almost non-stop kick-ass fighting

Captain America: The Winter Soldier — Superhero spy story

Birdman — Michael Keaton triumphs over show-off direction and a maddening score

A Most Violent Year — Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in a taut crime story

Tim's Vermeer — ace documentary about an art mystery

Jodorowsky's Dune — fun documentary about the Dune that might have been

Love is Strange — John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in a touching love story

The Lunchbox — smart Indian film about a different sort of a relationship

Most Annoying Movies of 2014

A Million Ways to Die in the West — Seth MacFarlane's vanity project isn't faintly funny

Left Behind — Nicolas Cage in a reboot of a Kirk Cameron movie about a post-rapture world...how embarrassing

Transformers: Age of Extinction — what's Mark Wahlberg doing in this junk?

Hercules — Hercules and his crew are con artists in this version

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For — the first one was striking; this one is stricken

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Ed Johnson-Ott has been NUVO's lead film critic for more than 20 years.

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