1. Gone Girl-Everything I look for in a great film: David Fincher's latest work is challenging, thought-provoking, engaging and novel. It asked profound questions about our presumptions and biases in the media age with one of the most gut-wrenching twists in moviedom and a wonderful coming out performance for frosty Bond Girl Rosamund Pike. Ben Affleck, Casey Wilson, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, and *gasp* even Tyler Perry deliver great supporting performances for one of the year's most unlikely ensembles.
2. Grand Budapest Hotel-Wes Anderson never fails to deliver on his quirky style but this was one of his more translatable and universally profound films. The comical performance by Ralph Fiennes and the relationship between Gustav and Tony were two things that made the film timeless outside of the Wes Anderson fan contingent. On top of that, the picturesque setting of a posh hotel in bizarro Central Europe lends itself well to some of Anderson's best visuals.
3. Interstellar-To call this film ambitious is an understatement. To translate a realistic look at space travel with black holes and relativistic jumps in time is a tall order but Christopher Nolan's up for the challenge and did not hold back on his intricately crafted style of storytelling. Some found the story ridiculous with "love" saving the day but I went along for the ride.
4. Whiplash-Like the first three entries on this list, this film is thought-provoking and novel. It's kinetic, it takes you deep into a world you never knew existed before, and it has some of the most memorable scenes of the year. A fully-realized film thematically, no scene is really wasted here.
5. Wild-A masterful adventure film based on the true-life story of a woman's journey along the Pacific Coast Trail. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallee of "Dallas Buyer's Club," the film enables the viewer to really experience the physical strife and isolation of Cheryl Strayed's journey. It's like "Cast Away" or "127 Hours" but it also works well when it features the protagonist making connections with other people.
6. Calvary-The film is an exploration of grief, sin, unhappiness, faith, and the emptiness that comes with wealth. In spite of all that, the journey of the priest (played brilliantly by Brendan Gleeson) is one of hope despite the fact that this could possibly be his last week on Earth.
7. Pride-A feel-good film that balances a large ensemble incredibly well. It's a little sugary but it's based on a sugary historical moment, so oh well.
8. Birdman-Films about actors and filmmakers can become a little vain. This is the third time in four years that a film about making a film (or a play) won Best Picture and that's slightly problematic. Alejandro Inarritu unapolagetically wears his heart on his sleeve when he makes pictures and that human touch ties so many disparate projects of his. In this case, the performances are great and the merging of story, technological innovation (which some might call trickery), and a wicked score merge to make something that's awards worthy on some level.
9. Into the Woods-The film is adapted from a Stephen Sondheim play which presents some near-impossible challenges when it comes to deciding how to intermingle the light-hearted humor and Gothic angles. It's hard to say whether director Rob Marshall nailed the transitions. On top of that, the film's tone is incredibly jarring as "Happy Ever After" turns into six different levels of weird in the second half. In spite of all that, the film was really memorable in a twisted way. Moreover, the musical element adds something: The song's aren't particularly hummable but the cast displays their theatricality with the numbers.
10. A Million Ways to Die in the West-With the exception of one scene (Neil Patrick Harris's shoot-off) Seth McFarlane stays clear of overly crass and low ball humor in this extremely hilarious parody that makes great use of McFarlane's hyper familiarity with pop culture. Although it's definitely a popcorn film more than an ambitious comedy (by Jason Reitman, Edgar Wright or Christopher Guest), few comedies can deliver such a strong rhythm of laughs like this and that deserves credit. The film's also better looking than a comedy has any right to be.
11. Still Alice-Better known as the film that won Julianne Moore an Oscar but no one saw (this happens nearly every year in the Best Actress category and occasionally the Best Actor category too). The film is a bit devoid of momentum at times but the film is visceral and Julianne Moore's performance is a great example of an actress winning an Oscar for the right role. Alec Baldwin is great here as well.
12. Imitation Game-The way this biopic screams out for Oscar is mildly off putting if you're conscious of Oscarbait. The the story's insistence on cutting back to Turing's childhood is unnecessary, but the historic personalities portrayed here are very strong and memorable. Math isn't a very sexy topic and this film doesn't make it wholly interesting but it comes close.
13. Chef-Not a particularly ambitious film but a thematically coherent and well-paced one with a clear passion for its subject.
14. X-Men Days of Future Past-The first couple X-Mens would probably have made my top 10 of their respective years and this one doesn't provoke that level of amazement from me but it's not really a flawed film either (except for the fact that actors like Anna Paquin, Halle Berry and the rest of the older X-Men are pretty much wasted in cameos). The film could have used some more focus on some of the other characters but the small scale focus on Beast-Wolverine-Magneto-X-Mystique is an interesting change and I like that it transitions decades rather seemleesly.
15. Begin Again-The narrative didn't really have that high of a high (Knightley's character anticlimactically decides to release the music herself anyway and the marriage reconciliation is equally forgettable) but it has some memorable moments and is made with a certain amount of passion for its subject. As a mood piece, it's very inviting and a worthy follow-up for Jay Carney for Once.
16. The Judge-Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) is such a dislikeable character that he turns this film into a downer pretty quickly. The argument scenes are almost like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, for example. At the same time, there's a lot to respect the film's ambition and there are a lot of thought-provoking moments here and there. Certain characters like Dax Shepherd's dim-witted lawyer and Vera Farmiga's Sam shine. The courtroom drama underneath it all is pretty decent too.
17. Boxtrolls-The only animated film I saw this year. It was interesting visually and I admired it's slightly darker themes.
18. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit-This film certainly came in under the radar (I didn't hear about it until I took a chance on it at the Redbox) but I liked the idea of a hero who was essentially an analyst ("Get Smart" tried this on a comic level) with brains. Even his fighting style (I'd go so far as to say my two my favorite action scenes of the year were in this film) were fought using not just Jack Ryan's reflexes but his smarts. The score and visual look were also somewhat inviting.
19. Horrible Bosses 2-This is not a film with anything original to offer as a sequel. It's last act is too confusing to follow and I get the sense I'm not supposed to care. That said, it was more or less what I paid for: The familiar rapport between three solid comic actors with winning chemistry and some memorable set pieces. The addition of Chris Pine and Christophe Waltz into the cast didn't hurt. Besides, the part of me that quit "House of Cards" because Frank Underwood never got his comeuppance, enjoyed seeing him in the slammer here.
20. Top Five-I love Chris Rock as a stand-up and I applaud him for making a personal film but I don't know if he's actually saying anything here. When given the opportunity to create, Rock's messages are somewhat pessimistic and a downer (His conception of Everybody Hates Chris is a loving family that's always threatening disciplinary measures on him). While the film worked thematically, I didn't feel like even the allure of Rosario Dawson could fill the holes of emptiness created by the protagonist's wealth.
21. Long Way Down-Pretty much a by-the-book adaptation of a pretty unique story. A couple of the changes worked (making Toni Collette's character's son slighty able, softening Pierce Brosnan's character) while others didn't (shipping the two younger characters, the lack of resolution from the journalist spy/lover incident).
22. Cantinflas-A middling biopic with a few bright spots. It's specific to a setting but I was a little disappoint by how Mexican it felt beyond the subtitles. The best part perhaps was seeing the guy's creative process in a trial-and-error kind of way.
23. Bad Words-Like "The Judge," it's main character was too dark to be uplifting or rootable. At the same time, I admire Bateman's decision to try something a little darker (whereas for Downey Jr., it's just routine). The movie would have been better if it had some interest in recapturing the spelling bee and recreating that drama. This could have been an opportunity to go specific. .
24. Snowpiercer-The premise for the film is novel and sets up some cool visuals and could go deeper into some sort of mythology if it held up under any level of scrutiny. Why are humanity's last survivors convinced that cramming into close quarters with people who want to oppress/murder them on a never-ending train is a good idea? The steps in the plot (someone dies, someone else gets shot in revenge) were repetitive and the ending was muddled.
25. Lucy-The film set up some cool action scenes and special effects. Moments like Lucy ignoring flight safety or chatting with her roommate while using 20,000 times more brainpower had a funny catharsis. I got behind the story of the character (and like what ScarJo did with Lucy) but a cool concept became more and more outlandish to the point of stupidity. The Morgan Freeman narration trope is getting strained at this point.
26. Foxcatcher-I'm sure I'm in the minority here but this film was as dull and as a Hallmark movie-of-the-week. So the creepy-acting guy with an inordinate amount of time to pursue his interest of a sport where young males touch and tumble with each other and barely acceptable ways, turns out to be a pedophile. That's a surprise? The film's scarce musical score is also annoying.
27. Captain America 2-A couple of the action scenes were great but I found myself caring so little about these characters that it felt like I was dropped into a long-running procedural midway through the season. Why do I care about Captain America as someone who didn't see the Avengers or the first Captain America film? Maybe I wasn't the target audience?
28. Mazerunner-I thought this was going to be about people trapped in a maze like what Ariadne would have designed in "Inception." And maybe they would have been running instead of walking. So much for reading too much into the title. It turns out they were trapped in a village without adults like "Kid Nation" with a more dramatic score and desperate ambitions to be a tentpole film. But, hey it was nice to see Patricia Clarkson for a few minutes.
29. Camp Takota-I was intrigued by the backstory of three YouTube stars crowdfunding their way to a film, but if this is what new media has to offer, I'm fine with the old studio system. This had no edge and barely even had a grasp of what summer camp is like. I wouldn't say Hannah Hart, Mamrie Hart and Grace Helbig are necessarily bad actors or that there personalities didn't shine through but it was a lazy attempt to fit their comic persona into a story.