Best of 2014

It was a year of gimmicks and grandeur, subtlety and the sublime, led at the box office by guardians of the galaxy and in our hearts by unthinkable illness and inspiring love. Yes, the latest “Transformers” and “Hunger Games” movies felt endless, but their shortcomings were made up for by “The Lego Movie,” “Chef,” “Nightcrawler,” and numerous other pleasant surprises this year.

Here are the ten best films of 2014:

10. Guardians of the Galaxy & Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I know it’s weak to include a tie on a Top Ten list, but these movies are connected and part of a greater power – that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“The Avengers”). They are also the two highest grossing films of the year – “Guardians” earned $332 million, and “Winter Soldier” raked in $259 million – and while big box office does not mean a movie is good, both these films were tremendously successful in what they attempted: “Guardians” was a romp through outer space that was the most fun I had all year at the movies, while “The Winter Soldier” was both an exciting action pic and a sociopolitical commentary on the military industrial complex. Both “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” are available on home video.

9. The Fault in Our Stars
Going into “The Fault in Our Stars,” I was dreading it. My mother had recently died of cancer, and here was a best-selling adaptation of a tearjerker about teenagers simultaneously finding love and dying of cancer. I don’t need this, I thought. But then Shailene Woodley’s Hazel Grace won my heart with her earnest sweetness, and Ansel Elgort as Hazel’s boyfriend Gus won her heart and ours with his humor and sensitivity. This movie wasn’t really about teenagers dying of cancer – it was about living life to the fullest and not fearing what may come tomorrow. Hazel Grace and Gus had cancer, but it didn’t have them, and that made all the difference. Now available on home video.

8. Life Itself
I know, I know. It’s a documentary about a film critic being championed by a film critic, and how boring is that? Trust me, it’s not. “Life Itself” tells the life-affirming story of film critic Roger Ebert with grace and candor, and under the steady hand of director Steve James – whose film “Hoop Dreams” Ebert named the best picture of 1994 – “Life Itself” emerges as an unflinchingly honest and inspiring story as well. Now available On Demand.

7. The Theory of Everything

Declaration: Eddie Redmayne gives the performance of the year as renowned astrophysicist Dr. Stephen Hawking. The physical contortions, mannerisms and slurred speech are a true marvel to behold from Redmayne, who twisted his face so much during production that the makeup artist told him one side of his face was getting more muscular than the other. In theaters now.

6. Interstellar
Sometimes you watch in awe and appreciate the sheer scope and ambition of a movie. “Interstellar” is one of those times. Director Christopher Nolan doesn’t just take us on an out-of-this-world adventure, he takes us to alternate galaxies, wormholes, distant planets and other dimensions. The fact that it all came together so well and offered such an absolutely spectacular experience at the movies made it all the more special. It’s in theaters now, and should be seen on as big a screen as possible.

5. Wild
Welcome back to awards season, Reese Witherspoon. The Oscar winner for “Walk the Line” will likely receive another nomination for “Wild,” in which she plays a former heroin addict with a troubled family life who decides to hike the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada. Witherspoon gives a fearless, raw performance, and the flashbacks to her character’s personal life are handled with a deft touch by “Dallas Buyer’s Club” director Jean-Mark Vallee. In theaters now.

4. Edge of Tomorrow

The best action movie of 2014 is “Edge of Tomorrow,” starring Tom Cruise as Cage, an unlikely soldier thrust into an unwinnable war with aliens. But there’s a “Groundhog Day” twist in that Cage begins the day anew every time he dies, leading to clever plot developments and exciting action sequences throughout. Now available on home video.

3. Gone Girl
This is silly, but it’s true: When my wife and I walked out of “Gone Girl” I was genuinely frightened of her. As in, “don’t even try to hold my hand” scared. I know that’s irrational, but such was the impact of director David Fincher’s story about a missing wife and the hapless husband trying to track her down. Rosamund Pike’s performance is Oscar worthy, as is Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her own novel. Available on home video January 13th.

2. Unbroken
Speaking of Oscar worthy, the Academy loves to reward historical period pieces with a deep soul, which is exactly what “Unbroken” is. Directed by Angelina Jolie, co-written by the Coen Bros. and shot by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, “Unbroken” is about Olympian turned WWII hero Louie Zamperini and his experiences before and during the war, which included surviving on a lifeboat in the Pacific for 47 days, only to be captured and tortured by the Japanese for two years. Jack O’Connell is superb as Zamperini, and the story is a testament to the power of perseverance and sheer will. In theaters Christmas Day.

1. Whiplash

No movie this year caught fire with the same absolute force as “Whiplash.” Led by Miles Teller as an aspiring drummer in a music conservatory jazz ensemble, and highlighted by a sure-to-be Oscar winning performance from J.K. Simmons as a teacher who torments his students, “Whiplash” knocks your socks off with its intensity, story, great performances and wonderful finale. 2014 was a good year for movies, but for pure entertainment value this was hands-down the best of them all. “Whiplash” is in limited theaters now and will be available on home video February 3rd.

Honorable mentions: “Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed” is a gem of an indie about a schoolteacher who wants to meet John Lennon, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” was the best animated film of the year, “Fury” brought humanity to war in ways movies rarely attempt, “Foxcatcher” features Channing Tatum and an unrecognizable Steve Carell in a superb drama about a wrestler and his would-be coach, David Oyelowo is phenomenal as Martin Luther King, Jr. in “Selma,” which opens nationally January 9th, and the early best picture frontrunner, “Boyhood,” is a tremendous cinematic accomplishment.

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