2) BOYHOOD – Twelve years in the making, Richard Linklater’s follow-up to the suberb Before Midnight, is a miracle of a movie, and maybe even his masterpiece. Chronicling the development of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a quiet, curious Texas-born kid from ages five to 18, the celebrated writer/director achieves unassumingly profound heights in conveying the transformative journey of childhood and how our relationships shape and form what kind of adult we grown up into. It's a sensitive film of boundless warmth and poignancy - buoyed by fantastically realized, authentic turns by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as our lead’s divorced parents - that mesmerizes with its pleasantly relatable every day simplicity. At one point in the picture Mason, out for a walk for his father, inquisitively asks if magic exists in the real world. Watching Boyhood unfold is joyous proof that it does.
WHIPLASH – Words just can’t convey the spine-tingling electricity generated by the final moments of writer/director Damien Chazelle’s enthralling indie about one obsessively single-minded drummer’s battle to win over his draconian jazz teacher. Fuelled by the combustible, profane chemistry of dueling stars Miles Teller and a sadistically terrifying J.K. Simmons (give this man the supporting actor Oscar, already!), Whiplash is a superior take on the Rocky-esque underdog story that more than lives up to its title. Although the film poses tough questions about how best to foster artistic virtuosity, Chazelle never leaves an ounce of doubt that he’s in complete and total control of his own pulse-quickening gifts.
4) LIFE ITSELF – Given Roger Ebert’s immeasurable Pulitzer Prize-winning influence in the arena of film criticism, it would have been easy to crank out a superficial, fawning tribute to the man’s brilliance and impact. Thankfully, Steve James, the celebrated director of Hoop Dreams, resisted that urge. Loosely based on the legendary newspaperman’s memoir of the same name, the picture instead offers a warts and all glimpse into the mortal behind the icon, honing in on his industry-changing work, personal triumphs and failings, ravaging illness and the extraordinary marriage that gave him peace and strength. This is a genuinely moving, funny, surprising – the segments recalling Gene Siskel’s swinging single days are jaw-dropping – and perceptive documentary that acts as a majestic testament to both its subject’s legacy and his passionate zest for, well, life itself.
5) NIGHTCRAWLER – Plainly put, no performance last year was as riveting as Jake Gyllenhaal’s unnerving transformation into reptilian sociopath Lou Bloom, the soulless corporate slogan-spouting opportunist driving writer/director Dan Gilroy’s sinister L.A. neo noir. Emaciated, bug-eyed and operating like a detached alien wrapped in human skin, the actor hypnotically disappears into his juicy role as an observant, immoral loner who sets out to conquer the TV news world by capturing the most grotesque footage possible. A near perfect blending of live wire performance and moody, character-focused storytelling (recapturing the spirit of edgy 1970s classics like Network and Taxi Driver), Nightcrawler keeps you precariously on the edge of your seat, trying - yet never quite succeeding - to anticipate which way its unrepentantly slimy protagonist will veer next.
6) HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2 – A sensational family entertainment, this enchanting return trip to the tiny Viking island of Berk matches the first chapter in terms of pure eye-popping exhilaration and wonder, while adding an unexpected layer of darkness. Adapting Cressida Cowell’s best-selling children’s novels, returning writer/director Dean DeBlois has lovingly fashioned another delightful adventure yarn, full of heart and breathtaking sights, which also serves as a refreshingly mature warning about the importance of humane animal treatment and responsible pet ownership. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is also a pitch perfect case study in sequel world expansion done with imagination and wit, opening up intriguing new terrain for Hiccup and Toothless – one of modern cinema’s most winning creature creations – to spread their wings and fly.
7) JODOROWSKY’S DUNE – There’s was never any doubt that Alejandro Jodorowsky, the surrealist Chilean director of such head-tripping hallucinogenic odysseys as El Topo and Holy Mountain, is one odd duck. However, as evidenced by Frank Pavich’s hilarious and engrossing documentary, he’s also a wonderfully engaging storyteller and thoroughly misunderstood visionary. A retrospective look at Jodorowsky’s failed attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s science-fiction classic “Dune” into a bizarro artistic masterwork in the mid-70s, the film weaves priceless behind-the-scenes anecdotes, insightful critical commentary and page after page of beautiful concept art into an inspirational tale of thwarted genius nevertheless changing the cinematic landscape forever.
10) NYMPHOMANIAC – Controversial cinematic provocateur Lars Von Trier’s two-part magnum opus of button-pushing excess should probably have been unwatchable. A four hour meditation on female sexuality, maturation and, uh, fly fishing, Nymphomaniac is an utterly relentless, uncomfortable and overwhelming experience that follows its erotically fixated protagonist (fearlessly played, at differing ages, by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stacy Martin) from her earliest stages of naïve experimentation to the darkest depths of self-destructive compulsion. And yet, despite the heaviness of its downward spiral structure, Von Trier infuses the film with so much energy, offbeat humor and engaging enigmatic oddness that it leaves you mentally unpacking its many mysteries long after you’ve dazedly reached its disquieting conclusion.
Honorable Mentions: BLUE RUIN, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, THE GUEST, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, UNDER THE SKIN