2014 was a strange year for Hollywood, from the shocking deaths of Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman to North Korea's hacking, Sony backing down and then not. On the plus side, it's only a year until Kim Jong Un allows us to see Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens. Here are my 10 (make that 11) favorite movies of the year, with American Sniper (opening Jan. 16) and Chris Rock's Top Five just missing the cut. — Steve Persall, Times movie critic
10 The Lego Movie: (PG) Just when you think you've seen it all in animation, along comes the cubism possibilities of snap-lock building blocks. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller created faster-paced fun than the real toy ever did.
9 Nightcrawler: (R) Jake Gyllenhaal's cockroach vibe as a news videographer anchors this modern-day Network, where if it bleeds, it leads. Writer-director Dan Gilroy prowls L.A. looking for the worst in all of us, finding it in a creepy outcast trying to make a buck.
8 Gone Girl: (R) David Fincher's clinical, cynical vibe was perfect to adapt a novel that read like a movie. Easier to spoil than roadkill, this twisty mystery was 2014's smartest popcorn flick. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike were impeccable casting as the year's most fatal attraction.
7 Life Itself/Jodorowsky's Dune: (R and PG-13) Two documentaries about men who loved movies. Roger Ebert memorably wrote about them; Alejandro Jodorowsky makes them. Or tries, like the insane, aborted adaptation of Frank Herbert's Dune that nonetheless changed sci-fi cinema. Two thumbs up. Twice.
6 The Grand Budapest Hotel: (R) Wes Anderson's screwball confection unleashed Ralph Fiennes' inner fool, as a fussy concierge conning guests and quasi-Nazis at an Eastern European resort in the 1930s. As artfully manicured as any Anderson movie, and richer emotionally than most.
5 Under the Skin: (R) Ten minutes into Jonathan Glazer's movie I wanted to walk out. Then it lived up to its title, with malignant pacing, haunting images and Scarlett Johansson as an alien succubus becoming more human, and therefore more vulnerable as a woman. Think Species directed by Stanley Kubrick.
4 Selma: (PG-13) The most necessary movie for our time on this list. Director Ava DuVernay simply, elegantly retells Dr. Martin Luther King's 1965 campaign for voter equality, in the face of dangerous opposition. David Oyelowo is magnificent as King, in a movie with stunning parallels to – and lessons for – today. Opens locally Jan. 9
3 Whiplash: (R) Damien Chazelle made the year's finest directing debut with this minor-key thriller set among jazz musicians at a performing arts school. J.K. Simmons is ferocious as the instructor demanding perfection from a young drummer (Lecanto High grad Miles Teller). Best final scene of the year.
2 Foxcatcher: (R) Cinema with the pace and detail of long-form journalism. Director Bennett Miller examines a true story of murder among 1-percenters. Steve Carell chills against type as John DuPont, a billionaire latching onto the Olympic dreams of wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz (Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo). Opens locally Jan. 16.
1 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance): (R) The year's boldest movie experience, a mega-meta show-biz satire unfolding with the illusion of a single, uninterrupted take. Michael Keaton roared back to relevance as a former movie superhero making a Broadway comeback, surrounded by the year's best ensemble cast.
Contact Steve Persall at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.