20. “Snowpiercer” - Chris Evans takes a small break from his Captain America duties and places himself on a non-stop train which circles the globe in a bizarre and violent sci-fi flick. Yes, director Joon-ho Bong’s movie is non-sensical, but - simultaneously - highly memorable.
19. “The Drop” - This small-time mob picture overfloweth with secrets and a sense of dread, but Tom Hardy’s and Noomi Rapace’s characters bring a blooming and sweet romance amongst the grit and grime of their surroundings. This is James Gandolfini’s last on-screen role, and it is a good one.
18. “The Homesman” - Tommy Lee Jones directs and stars in a raw American western in which he and Hilary Swank’s characters transport three mentally ill women across the unforgiving Nebraska territory towards a church in Iowa. This picture throws some shocking curve balls, and you will overwhelmingly feel thankful for air-conditioning, smart phones and convenient stores. Swank is terrific.
17. “Edge of Tomorrow” - Aliens and Earthlings fight in the heart of Europe, and humanity’s ultimate survival looks terribly bleak. On the other hand, an American officer (Tom Cruise) discovers a backhanded way to time travel, and this clever storyline, along with Cruise’s and Emily Blunt’s performances, deliver a very entertaining adventure.
16. “Selma” - In a painful, but also heroic, look back at America’s sullied history of southern race relations, director Ava DuVernay brings Martin Luther King’s historic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to life. David Oyelowo champions MLK’s non-violent fight to the big screen and channels the famous doctor with big speeches and dozens of smaller moments.
15. “Citizenfour” - This eye-opening documentary - in which government whistle-blower Edward Snowden tells his story - welds its power through its presentation of shocking content. Although director Laura Poitras misses some opportunities to summarize and present the information in standard documentary-style form, there is no denying the impact of the message.
14. “Ida” - A Polish orphan, Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska), grows up in a convent and is nearly ready to take her vows, when she discovers she is Jewish. Filmed in black and white, this no-nonsense journey yields heartbreaking body blows, but with her newly-found aunt (Agata Kulesza) by her side, Ida tries to shake her sheltered history by exploring an even deeper past.
13. “Inherent Vice” - Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson pulls up in his GTO and takes us on a truly peculiar trip into yesterdecade - 1970 to be exact - and into the life of private detective and proud hippie, Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). Since Doc is constantly stoned, our hero captures an off-center perspective on the “crazy” Los Angeles environment, but think how we feel in this time warp while living and breathing in 2015! A trippy movie experience.
12. “Foxcatcher” - Based upon an eerie and strange true story, an ineffectual multimillionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell) asks Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to live on his property to train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Their relationship quickly devolves into an uncomfortable stew, and this skillfully-crafted march towards something truly painful feels imminent.
11. “Leviathan” - Titanic clashes between the “haves” and “have nots” knows no borders as this Russian drama between an average homeowner (Aleksey Serebryakov) and the town’s mayor (Roman Madyanov) ripples with tension and intrigue. While Kolya (Serebryakov) attempts to stave off Mayor Shelevyat’s (Madyanov) shady wishes, we hold our collective breath on the outcome of this David vs. Goliath tale.
10. “A Most Wanted Man” - Director Anton Corbijn weaves through the secret world of German espionage through the gray and cloudy daylight surrounding the broad antiseptic office buildings and the hidden basement garages of Hamburg. “A Most Wanted Man” is a most welcomed film, and we have a golden, but melancholy, opportunity to witness Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brilliance in his last onscreen performance.
9. “Only Lovers Left Alive” - In writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s stylish and awfully cool horror film, Eve (Tilda Swinton) flies across the Atlantic Ocean to visit her very long-time lover, Adam (Tom Hiddleston). While the couple reminisce about their past experiences, we soon realize what they “are”. This moody film brings a level of humanity to a pair who aren’t exactly human.
8. “Gone Girl” - Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are perfectly cast in director David Fincher’s hugely entertaining adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s dark novel. Flynn also wrote the screenplay, and all the key elements of her book find themselves on the big screen. Even though the film runs just shy of 2 1/2 hours, it never bores, and the quick pace surges as the mystery confuses and then becomes crystal clear.
7. “Force Majeure” - A Swedish family visits a picturesque French Alps ski resort, and life seems perfect in an actual winter wonderland until a freakish incident scares the father, mother, son, and daughter. The brief shock only temporarily lasts, but the repercussions linger for much longer. A completely absorbing study of human nature, and the film surprises with unexpected humor. A thoughtful and visual treat!
6. “Whiplash” - A real stunner! Andrew (Miles Teller) enrolls in a hugely prestigious music academy in New York City and wants to be one of the great all-time drummers, and Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is his teacher. Sounds simple enough, but over 107 stressful minutes, Andrew and Fletcher pour, splash and douse oceans of contention for one another in one of the most hostile atmospheres I’ve seen in recent years.
5. “Two Days, One Night” - Rightfully nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, Marion Cotillard plays a woman in dire emotional and financial stress. Sandra (Cotillard) fights to keep her job - for reasons I will not give away here - and pleads her case to 16 co-workers. Directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s revealing drama finds Sandra battling her defeatist tendencies on a semi-methodical march to each colleague’s home. Sandra believes she’s only marching to keep her job, but her journey - without her knowing it - becomes an opportunity to discover her own self-worth. This quietly powerful film - just about - perfectly captures the wide spectrum of the human condition.
4. "Calvary” - Brendan Gleeson delivers an utterly captivating performance as a good priest living under extreme duress in small seaside Irish community. Although scenic beauty surrounds him at every winding country road turn, almost all of the townspeople constantly spew hostility in his direction. The biggest danger, however, comes from a man who enters his confessional box and threatens to kill him within one week. Writer/director John Michael McDonagh weaves a very dark “whodunnit” film which plays like an old western as it stumps towards Father James’s (Gleeson) date with destiny. A surreal and difficult picture to watch, but McDonagh creates a beautiful film noir. Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd and M. Emmet Walsh co-star.
3. “Guardians of the Galaxy” - Marvel Studios latest effort is also their very best. When five ruffians band together to deliver a mysterious orb for an astronomical (pardon the pun) profit, they discover the meaning of friendship. As corny as that sounds, the manner which director James Gunn gets us there is anything but corny. This is an entertaining action film of the highest order, and - accompanied by a wonderful 70s soundtrack - it captures the imagination. More importantly, this movie is simply extremely funny. As far as I’m concerned, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is right up there with “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and dare I say, “Star Wars”. Most fun I’ve had in a theatre in years.
2. “Birdman” - Riggan (Michael Keaton) is a 60-something former movie superhero star who takes on the most ambitious project of his career: he writes, directs and stars in his Broadway adaptation of his hero’s (Raymond Carver), short story. The picture plays out like a play as writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu films the 2-hour picture under several continuous 10-minute shots. While the camera winds through the hallways, dressing rooms, and the stage itself, we are privy to the backstage maneuvering and hilarity needed to put on a Broadway production. The writing is razor sharp, and all the performances hit their marks. None are better than Edward Norton’s portrayal of a talented actor with a chip - the size of a city block - on his shoulder.
1. "Boyhood" - Writer/director Richard Linklater creates an absolute marvel of a film. In a most unique way, he organically captures the impact of a dysfunctional and flawed upbringing over a 12-year period. Yes, Linklater filmed the story of a six-year-old boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) over 12 years. Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, come along to tell Mason’s and their characters’ narratives too. Their day-to-day conversations and seemingly ordinary events compile over years to help form a person from child to adult. Over 2 hours and 45 minutes, we, the audience, see Mason’s progression and the emotional land mines he’ll need to avoid from age 18 and beyond. A complete triumph. I’ve never seen another movie like it.