Worth the hype and then some, "Birdman," for my money, is a couple laps ahead of everything else this year. Much attention has been paid to the film's uninterrupted long takes, and it's a great distraction from what's really going on here. "Birdman" brings us an actor (Michael Keaton) fighting to get out of his own head before the foundation of his shaky sanity collapses completely.
The cast is the year's best, Keaton might win an Oscar and top to bottom it's the most original high-wire act among the year's great movies.
2. "Blue Ruin"
These end-of-the-year lists are a good place to catch movies like "Blue Ruin," which barely register with audiences during their initial run. This taut thriller features a pacifist out for revenge. And Jan Brady. Both are true and neither are the best, most exciting thing about this movie.
"Nightcrawler" may require repeat viewing, either to justify or contradict your first impression. It's a seamy noir about the lengths a videographer will go to not to grab the story but rather just to get the cash. You'll buy the ticket for Jake Gyllenhaal's clinical, deeply disturbing performance, but the not-too-far-fetched plot will make you hate the media all over again.
4. "Grand Budapest Hotel"
Why did they release this in March? "Grand Budapest Hotel" is 2014's comedy champeen, a hilarious, energetic, preposterous romp. A brilliant turn by Ralph Fiennes grounds it, and director Wes Anderson proves he has no match when it comes to making Wes Anderson movies.
Like "Grand Budapest," "Snowpiercer" shows us another odd ensemble in the closet of Tilda Swinton. She plays the mouthpiece for the private corporation that, once the planet freezes, runs the perpetual train carrying what is left of humanity. The latest societal critique from South Korea's Bong Joon-ho, "Snowpiercer" is one of the year's strangest but clearest visions.
6. "Force Majeure"
A father shucks when he should have jived, and he spends the rest of the film either avoiding the confrontation with his wife or facing the pivotal moment and his own shortcomings. It's a testament to the work of writer-director Ruben Östlund that "Force Majeure" can hang so beautifully for so long on a split-second decision.
J.K. Simmons. J.K. Simmons. J.K. Simmons. Nobody anywhere did better work than Simmons this year. He's Robert Duvall's "Great Santini" running a jazz ensemble with an iron fist.
8. "The LEGO Movie"
Weird and hilarious, "The LEGO Movie" might be the first kids' movie designed to avoid them altogether and aim entirely toward adults. The deep pop culture references and cheesy production elements make this both a send-up and shining example of its genre.
The technical undertaking of Richard Linklater's 12-year production may be greater than the story and the central performance, but no other movie put us in touch with our own mortality quite like this. Seeing the age in Ethan Hawke's face, to say nothing of Ellar Coltrane going from kindergarten to college, makes you realize how quickly all the time vanishes.
Nothing is wasted in this austere Polish period piece. "Ida" depicts a young nun who learns that she is in fact a Jewish survivor of Nazi occupation. It effectively captures life behind the Iron Curtain using gloriously bleak black and white cinematography, and favors minimal dialogue and narrative curves.
Special Bonus Feature: The Godawfulest
Bob Grimm is covering the rest of the year's worst flicks but his list does not include the cherry-on-top perfection of Nicolas Cage remaking a Kirk Cameron end times movie. That either means he's lucky or has questionable taste in bad movies.
"Left Behind" is not just bad and stupid and incompetent. It's all of that plus Nic Cage flying a jumbo jet right the hell into God's apocalypse. Essential viewing for purveyors of total schlock.