JASON'S BEST: The Ten Best Films of 2014 (Return to Jason's Best Main Page)


Ok, let me get it out of the way first and say that I didn't see as many movies in 2014 as I usually am able to get to. So there will be several that didn't make my list that you probably think should have been on it. And I also must say that there just wasn't a whole lot of movies that even interested me enough to get out and see them. Overall, it was a pretty lackluster year for movies. Thankfully, there were a handful of truly astonishing achievements that did save the year from being a total disappointment, and those are represented here, the movies that I thought were the best from 2014.

This is a film that will (or definitely should be) studied years from now as a masterwork of cinema. Every single element of this remarkable film is a study in the excellence of film craft. While some have called it a gimmick, the cinematography and editing alone are a study in what can be done when a filmmaker with great vision tries to do something different with the medium. The film is designed to look like it's all shot in one take, and it would probably take multiple viewings to find where the actual cuts are. Filming one take shots in movies are always a cinematic feat ... imagine filming an entire movie full of them. This technique doesn't just stand out though as a gimmick ... it's absolutely integral to the study of this character, and since this is a story about a former film actor, it makes perfect sense that the style of the film should be something revolutionary in film itself. Then add to that the choice of Antonio Sanchez's improvised drum score, which gives the film an urgency and immediacy to match the cinematography, which all help to bring us into the head of the lead character. Michael Keaton gives one of the most remarkable performances of his career as Riggan Thomson, a former movie actor whose storyline is eerily reminiscent of the actor who plays him. He once headlined the incredibly popular Birdman series of films, but left the series at the height of its popularity. As we meet him in this film, Riggan has already lost so much, and like anyone (regardless of whether they are in the film industry or not), he's desperately trying to get himself back into the limelight ... to matter again. The film revolves around his efforts to put on a Broadway production of a Raymond Carver story, which also closely resembles the downfall of Riggan's character. As just a behind the scenes look into the zaniness of a Broadway production, this film would be stellar. But as it is, combined with a powerful story about the nature of the film industry which rings so very true, it becomes something else entirely. Keaton is surrounded by a cast all on their absolute A games, and each plays a character that we're allowed to see more deeply into than another lesser film might allow us. Edward Norton, playing an actor with a huge ego, and Emma Stone, playing Riggan's rebellious daughter, were both deservedly nominated for Oscars for their incredible performances. As I was watching this extraordinary film, I was smiling from ear to ear during the entire thing. As a filmmaker myself, I was so impressed by the sheer audacity of the bold choices and the perfection by which it was carried out. I saw performances of such a strong caliber. And after having endured a year of such disappointing mindless action spectacles, I sat so happy that not only did we get a truly original film, but one that also demonstrated just how disappointing those types of movies can be when we get so many of them. The screenplay is so smartly written, as we truly get inside Riggan's mind, even hearing his alter ego of Birdman constantly talking him down, planting the doubt that so many artists have constantly playing in their heads. The voice of Birdman tells Riggan, " People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit." Haha. Well, give me a film like Birdman any day over the action spectacles we get today, because this is what cinema was meant to be.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Riggan gets caught outside in his underwear trying to make his way back into the theater or the scene when Riggan cuts down the critic who wishes to tear him down with a bad review

While 2014 wasn't a great year for movies in my opinion, I was so impressed that there were at least some directors of great vision who tried something different with film structure and narrative, and those are the two movies that became my top two choices for the year. Talk about a one of a kind experiment with this one. I've long admired Richard Linklater ... his "Before" trilogy of movies is for me still one of the most remarkable films about love and romance that have ever been made. Any filmmaker knows the difficulties of making any movie, but imagine all the unknowns that Linklater faced when he had the idea to make this movie. He initially started out wanting to make a movie about childhood and parenting, and then was hit with the idea ... what if we filmed a little bit each year, once a year for 12 years, where everyone could organically grow up on screen without having to have other actors play the children at different ages? And that's exactly what he did. But this film isn't just one of the best films of the year because of its experimental nature. While it's certainly unique in the history of cinema, it's what Linklater captured and how he put it together that makes this film an absolute gem. By subtly transitioning between time frames, without a huge announcement that a new year is upon us, we experience the transition of time in a strangely beautiful and also deeply emotional way. Especially if you have a child of your own, it's hard not to be deeply moved by seeing these children grow up so quickly in a span of 3 hours. (Isn't that how quickly it seems anyway that our children grow up?) But Linklater also celebrates that the ordinary in our lives is extraordinary for those of us who live it. I guess many people that have criticized this film complain that "nothing happens." Did they see the same film I did??? This film tackles so much in its story ... the difficulties of parenting, especially with divorce. The difficulties for the kids in divorce, and dealing with new parents. The perspective of both parents in a divorce, and how they relate differently to the kids when the kids stay with only one of the parents and barely visit the other. And it absolutely would not have worked had it not been for the performances ... Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are both perfect in their roles, and Linklater's difficult choice to find just the perfect young boy, Ellar Coltrane, to play the boy in his film worked out perfectly. And having Linklater choose his own daughter to play the other child gives this film an even deeper personal connection to where we're experiencing the very personal vision of a director who has consistently tried to reshape the boundaries of cinema, and with this film, he clearly knocked it out of the park.

FAVORITE MOMENT: The first seamless transition we get from the first year to the second year and realizing how subtly beautiful it is

Nearly all my life that I've loved movies, there was always one film critic who I followed the most ... one who I tended to agree with the most, and one who actually wrote about movies the same way I felt and wrote about movies. And that was Roger Ebert. I not only would read all his reviews, and purchase his yearly compendium of reviews, but he would be in my home every week via television along with that other great film critic Gene Siskel, reviewing movies and always keeping me up to date with what great movies I should see. I had the pleasure to finally meet Roger during one of his unique film festival at sea cruises, but long before I had met him in person, he felt as close to me as many friends. I know that sounds odd, but I think that was the appeal of Roger Ebert ... so many people could relate to him, and it resulted in that kind of connection being felt by a number of people. A number of people have wondered how he would have reviewed this film, the documentary based on his wonderful autobiography, and I think he would have undoubtedly given it a thumbs up. This documentary got so many things right, and took many brave steps to deliver a complete portrait of who this man truly was. First, it doesn't shy away from the darker, less likeable aspects of his life ... from his early days of being an alcoholic, and to his often brash attitude he would have with others. The film doesn't follow a traditional structure at all. As most everyone knows, Roger suffered from cancer in his later years, and had to have part of his face removed, and the reconstructive surgery he had completely changed how he looked and rendered him unable to speak. Director Steve James was granted unprecendented access to Roger in the hospital and at home, and he spares nothing in showing us the true difficulties of his final years, and his undying spirit to soldier on in spite of all the circumstances. The film is also a loving ode to the movies that Ebert loved so well ... we get several moments of classic film clips and moments from Ebert's reviews that remind us of his passion. We of course get to see the story of his relationship with Gene Siskel, and how the two of them together reshaped film criticism forever. We get to see young filmmakers who reached out to Ebert and were so touched by his efforts to support their work. But above all, this film is also the portrait of a powerful love story, that between Roger and the love of his life, Chaz. Chaz shows her strength of her love during many of the trying final months that we see captured here, and it's a beautifully stunning portrait of what true love looks like. Ultimately, Roger lost his battle to cancer, but as this beautiful film shows us, he was a true inspiration of showing how one can continue on amongst the worst of obstacles, and how sharing and living the passion of your true loves ... whether in relationships or in one's work ... is truly a gift not only to one's self, but to the world. And I find myself in this Oscar season thinking how Roger would have reacted to this film being snubbed for a nomination ... I have a pretty good idea how upset he would be. We're upset for ya, Roger ... but mostly, we're glad that your complex and passionate life got the kind of movie that it deserved. Two BIG thumbs up.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Honestly, every single moment of this beautiful film is an absolute favorite

For all the fascination I've had with computers ever since I was a kid, I was astonished that I didn't know a whole lot about the man who was responsible for modern computers as we know them. Going into this film, I was intrigued by the history, but expected maybe a pretty standard biopic. I certainly didn't expect that I would be seeing one of the year's best films. But it absolutely was. Unlike the disappointing film "The Theory of Everything", director Morten Tyldum creates a structure and storytelling techniques that are worthy of his film's subject. Since Alan Turing was such a complex mind, we also get a film with a unique structure to match. Seamlessly going back and forth in time between three different time periods, we see Alan's life as a child interspersed with the film's main storyline ... that of showing how Turing and a group of conflicted but dedicated engineers worked tirelessly to decode the most complex encryption machine known at the time, Enigma, the communication system used by the Nazis during World War II. Another part of the story takes place in the 1950's, after the war has ended, and Alan's life is in a horrible shambles from what he had to endure since homosexuality was actually a crime back in those days. It ends up presenting a stunning composite of the mind of a genius, and how that kind of person can be so misunderstood and ultimately, tragically destroyed. Benedict Cumberbatch, in any other year, would deservedly win an Oscar for this remarkable and deeply moving performance as Alan Turing. He completely embodies this man, and shows show much of the personal torture for not only dealing with the truth of his nature which he had to unfortunately hide, but also the difficulties of personal relationships when all he wanted to do was prove that his idea of a creating a computing machine to more quickly analyze Enigma's data was the right way to go. He ultimately would be shown to be correct, and by some estimations, it shortened World War II by two years. And unlike lesser biopics where the achievement of the team to break the Enigma code might be the end of the story, this film continues with the complexity of that discovery. In a stunning scene of incredible tension, Alan realizes that even though they could save lives because they were able to decode a message, they would have to let the attack go on otherwise the Germans would know they had broken Enigma. We get to see the complexity of how war and politics and secrets must be so carefully balanced, and also the unfortunate nature of beautiful discoveries being turned into things that weren't meant to be. If only Alan Turing could see where his invention would ultimately lead us. Isn't it always the torture of geniuses to be felled by other people's fears or prejudices, and their inability to ever step into someone else's shoes and know the world they are experiencing? While it's indeed a deeply moving tragedy of what eventually happened to Turing, this is also a very inspiring film about what belief and dedication and hard work can achieve. I'd dare say this is one of the most important films of recent times also, particularly as we continue to deal with the prejudices of others that impact other people's freedoms. We've come a long way since the tragedy of what happened to Alan Turing ... but we still have a ways to go.

FAVORITE MOMENT: The tension when the group of scientists who broke the Enigma code decide not to send a message to save lives so that the Germans won't know that they broke Enigma

What does director Christopher Nolan have to do to get some respect from the Academy? He makes his most personal film yet while achieving another technical astonishment, and yet receives no nomination for directing or best picture. But I guess shouldn't complain too much ... at least a director like Nolan is still able to make thoughtful and inventive ORIGINAL movies in today's Hollywood system. And "Interstellar" was an absolute marvel. In an age when most big budget movies are forgotten about 2 minutes after you see them, this is the type of movie that I wish we got more of. Filled with so many big scale ideas, and present so many intriguing moments that have you thinking about them and talking about them for days, even weeks afterward. "Interstellar" begins with the very frighteningly real future where our very existence on the planet is threatened. Matthew McConaughey plays a father trying to piece his own life together and that of his daughter when he stumbles across the now hidden NASA, where he quickly finds out that while life may be threatened on the planet, there's a plan in place to try to find a place in the universe where we can leave the Earth and start a whole new existence. From there, as we expect with Nolan, we begin a journey of one awe-inspiring visual after another, but the personal story remains intact all the way through. This is not mere spectacle for spectacle's sake. This is is a science fiction movie that works very hard to explain its science, but also lets you feel the very real emotion happening to the characters that take this journey, particularly in the deeply moving performance of McConaughey. I've also rarely seen space/time travel portrayed in such a very real way, to see that when mere hours pass for McConaughey and the others on the ship, decades have passed on Earth. There's a scene of pure heartbreak when McConaughey reviews 27 years of recorded video messages from his kids, and he sees them grow up in rapid time, and realizing what all he's missed in such a rapid time. As the film progresses and takes us on leaps into the ideas of black holes and other dimensions, you are taken along on a journey of possibility that brings back echoes of one of the greatest movies ever made, "2001: A Space Odyssey." Like Stanley Kubrick did with that brilliant film, Christopher Nolan is here to present what art does best: illuminate the larger questions of our existence, to present possibilities of things that we haven't yet discovered, to show the potential of us as human beings. And he does so in a way that also shows the potential of filmmakers ... to try to attain more, to take bigger and bigger risks, to get us away from the mindless blockbusters and deliver movies of real substance. I just hope that kind of inspiration and risk taking continues in more and more filmmakers, and we get more movies of not only this scale, but also of such originality. One of my favorite quotes from this movie comes from McConaughey: " We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt." One of the saddest moments for us as humanity is when we stopped that rising tide of space exploration that brought America to the moon in 1969, only to lose all that momentum to where we had to start over. Could you imagine where we would be if that momentum would have continued? And I look at the state of movies the same way ... the 1970's were one of the bravest and boldest times for movies, and one original film after another took brave risks and presented characters and storylines in films that we still study today. How many movies of today can you say that about? Christopher Nolan, God bless you for being one of those brave filmmakers, and thank you for the journey of this film, and the ideas and hope that you've given me and many others for years into the future.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Matthew McConaughey watching recorded video messages from his kids back on Earth after 20+ years have quickly passed and his emotional breakdown

Who would have ever thought that this movie would not only become such a huge success at the boxoffice (becoming the highest grossing war film ever made), but also become a political lightning rod of controversy? Some of that controversy is definitely hard to understand once you've seen the movie. Because what I saw in this movie is a truly masterful character study of one man's journey that allows us to fully understand why so many soldiers are driven to do what they do. Bradley Cooper gives the best performance in his career as Chris Kyle, who in real life was credited with the most kills of any other sniper in the military. We are thrown into Chris's world right away with a scene of incredible tension where he has to decide whether to shoot a kid in Iraq who is carrying a weapon that will end up possibly killing other American soldiers. We follow Chris through his four tours of duty in Iraq, interspersed with his experiences back home. It is in these moments that we see the complexity of Chris's life ... while he clearly seems to love what he does in protection of his country, we also see the ravages that war exacts on him. He no longer has the ability to relate to his wife, and the war takes more and more of a toll. By going back and forth between the incredibly vivid and harrowing war scenes and the scenes of domestic struggle back home, the film achieves a very unique accomplishment of truly contrasting the difference in the two worlds, and allowing us to understand PTSD in a much more vivid manner than many war films have managed to do. Director Clint Eastwood makes so many wise decisions in how to tell Kyle's story, especially with the tragic circumstances of what happened after his tours of duty were completed, when he was seeming to find his purpose back home and getting back on track. The audience I left the film with walked out in stunned silence matching the silence of the end credits with how movingly powerful that final title card is. I have been so impressed by how prolific director Clint Eastwood has continued to be, and here he directs one of his most deeply moving and vibrant works of recent times. The politics that have now been attached to this film don't make any sense to me. This is a very balanced film, that allows us to experience and fully live in Chris Kyle's life to where we can understand his motivations, while at the same time, seeing the true ravages of war. I certainly don't see this as a pro-war movie by any means. It's a deeply touching and heartbreaking film expertly crafted and acted, and well worth all of the success it is having.

FAVORITE MOMENT: After his final tour of duty, Chris gets called by his wife, where she discovers he's back in the U.S. but hasn't come home yet

Going into this movie, I had a feeling I was going to see the same kind of movie I had seen before about a hard nosed teacher looking for perfection and a young student trying to reach that perfection. What I ended up experiencing was FAR from any ordinary movie with that storyline, and instead completely absorbed me in the absolute perfection of cinematic flair and storytelling, and two standout performances by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller, who ended up creating a chemistry on screen that was truly remarkable. I have always been drawn to movies that show people pursuing their passions, and particularly in ways where you can follow what drives them, and see that kind of dogged determination that shows that something very deep from within is driving them to endure what they have to to achieve it. Miles Teller is Andrew Neyman, who wants to be "one of the greats", especially after witnessing the failure of his father to pursue a writing career. That ultimately leads him to Terrence Fletcher, one of the most ruthless teachers we've seen in recent films, and the resulting interplay is such a beautiful orchestration of its own, the film's masterful direction by Damien Chazelle and perfectly paced editing all adding so much to the already mentioned performances. By the end, we feel very much like Andrew ... totally exhausted, but also completely inspired and exhilirated, both by what has transpired on screen, but also HOW it engaged us. I'm so glad it became one of the independent films to rise all the way to the Academy Awards, because it is so richly deserved.

MOST POWERFUL MOMENT: The beautifully edited final sequence when Andrew finally confronts his instructor and achieves his goal

I know the struggles of independent filmmaking all too well. One of the additional struggles that I remain consistently passionate about is the need for women filmmakers of vision who want to present stories of real substance and challenge, with female characters of actual depth. Even in 2015, we still don't have enough of that. And thankfully, filmmakers like Naomi McDougall Graham (who wrote the screenplay and stars in this film) and director Meredith Edwards found a vision and found the support, and worked tirelessly to bring this deeply haunting and moving film to light. Theater by theater, festival by festival, they demonstrated the kind of dedication that the art of filmmaking truly needs, and I hope you take the time to find this film and see a shining example of what so many wonderfully talented filmmakers are trying to do. But it's not just my support for strong independent filmmaking that made this for me one of the best films of 2014 ... it's for the truly stunning writing, acting, and direction that created one of the most powerful portraits of mental illness that I've ever seen. So many other films about mental illness are so quick to try to put it in a box and label it so quickly. In this film, you see it from a much needed different perspective. Naomi McDougall Graham, who I have the privilege of knowing, wrote an incredibly complex character for herself, playing Lana, a young woman who arrives in New York as a new roommate to Katie Morrison's Kate. You watch as their relationship slowly unfolds, and how the secrets from both of their pasts are slowly revealed, until a turn is taken that you absolutely don't see coming, turning everything around from what you expected. And by the end, you realize you've experienced something deeply profound. I've had the privilege of knowing Naomi for a number of years when I cast her in a film that unfortunately could never find its financing. But I've followed her career since then, and I am so incredibly proud of her dedication to not only the art of filmmaking, but to also being a strong woman of vision out to change the types of movies being made. I am so proud to support the courage of yours and everyone else's vision that made this remarkable film, and thank you for the continued inspiration it brings.

FAVORITE MOMENT: The moment when Lana suggests to Kate's boyfriend that he should sleep with her as a solution to his and Kate's problems

Movies about historical events help to bring back the urgency and immediacy of events much more than text in history books can do. And they allow us to look back and wonder how on earth some things occurred like they did back then. We look back and hopefully realize how much progress we have made since those times. But in the case of "Selma", we realize while we have made progress, we still have a long way to go. In one of the most absolutely powerful films of the year, director Ava DuVernay has done an absolutely skillful job of finally making a film with Martin Luther King, Jr. as the lead character. I can't imagine the challenge of trying to take an icon and make them human again, but DuVernay definitely succeeded. Much in the same way that Steven Spielberg managed to take the icon that was Abraham Lincoln and focus on just one major event in his life, DuVernay does the same here. While not a standard biopic of King, she picked just the right event to show the type of man he was, to bring him back to his humanity, and illuminate one of the most powerful moments in the history of the civil rights movement. If DuVernay's task was challenging, imagine actor David Oyelowo. It's a true shame that this year's Best Actor was so competitive, because Oyelowo not only gives one of the best performances of this year, but of recent years. He manages to show us the real King ... not just the stunning oratory that we're used to through news clips. We see his sense of humor, we see his steady focus on trying to affect change non-violently, we see his anger and frustration, it's a remarkably lived in performance. And the way he captures King in this way is truly haunting at times ... there were shots where I thought I was truly looking at Martin Luther King, Jr., not just an actor giving a performance. The film is centered around the 1965 events in racially charged Selma, Alabama, and the protest march organized by King to restore voting rights. The film is absolutely fascinating in its portrayal of how a protest movement is put together, and how delicate the steps were to try to effect change. It demonstrates so clearly that real change unfortunately comes slowly, and it takes men and women of incredible courage to make it happen. I think this film should be required viewing for the youth of today, if nothing else to see how any injustice can be righted if you just have the courage to take it on. All of the performances surrounding Oyelowo are all first rate, and while there's controversy over the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson in this film and how he seems to resist the moves for change by King, it's beside the point for this film. Regardless of how it happened, the injustices that were happening at that time faced great resistance, and finally the bravery of so many helped convince a people that change was needed. It's a truly remarkable cinematic achievement ... and as the powerful Oscar nominated song "Glory" plays at the end of the film, we realize that we do indeed still have a long way to go to fully achieve the glory of Martin Luther King, Jr's dream.

FAVORITE MOMENT: Martin Luther King Jr. pausing in prayer with the crowd assembled to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in protest

The movies directed by Paul Thomas Anderson often require a second or third viewing before I can fully comprehend everything I've seen. And trust me, that is a good quality. And his latest film was definitely one of those experiences. PTA's films are always wonderfully challenging and are populated by some of the most richly drawn character studies of any contemporary filmmaker. This film certainly does have a plot, but like PTA's other work, it's the characters and the experience of the film that are the hallmark of its success. And I also say that as I'm still trying to piece together the exact plot of this film. It's essentially the story of Joaquin Phoenix's private detective who gets pulled into a bizarre case when his ex-lover Shasta arrives one day. And from there, it's a cavalcade of truly original characters played by the likes of Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, and even Martin Short! By the end of the film, you realize that Paul Thomas Anderson has truly made his first comedy, and what a completely wonderful comedy it is. Complemented by another criminally overlooked musical score composed by the great Jonny Greenwood, and painted with Robert Elswit's gorgeous cinematography, it's a reminder that we have far too few original artists like Paul Thomas Anderson making films of real subtance and originality ... and how I hope that axis one day changes.

FAVORITE MOMENT: The sexual scene of such aggression and pain that ends with the line "It doesn't mean we're back together"

And the next ten:

It began as a best selling book, and in a rare occurrence, the author of the book also wrote the screenplay. David Fincher, one of the most visionary directors in contemporary Hollywood, took on the film adaptation, and created a movie that clearly divided people between those who loved it and those who hated it, there seemed to be no middle ground on it. As you can tell by the film's placement on my list at #11, I fell into the camp of those who thought it was a stunning achievement. While not quite up there with some of Fincher's other work, this is still an incredibly dark and wonderfully twisty suspense thriller that rises far above the original material thanks to Fincher's style and masterful directing. Ben Affleck was perfectly cast as the husband who is pinpointed as the man who may have murdered his wife when she suddenly goes missing. Having not read the book beforehand, I thought the surprise twist was an incredibly interesting turn of events, and loved how it magnified Rosamund Pike's performance, which was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award. The film ultimately moved from just being a mystery-suspense thriller to becoming a very fascinating character study, particularly to the mystery of how two people come together and stay together in relationships that everyone else wonders how on earth they could work. I can't quite say this relationship in this film is working (haha), but it was nevertheless fascinating to watch. Outstanding supporting performances by Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Emily Ratajkowski, and especially Carrie Coon as Ben Affleck's sister make for a wonderful ensemble, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross reteam for another wonderfully bizarre and moody score to lift the material to an entirely different level as well.

Oh how I love contemporary filmmakers who make a film that seems like it came right out of the 1970's, that incredible decade that was filled with so many remarkably brave and original films. Director J.C. Chandor, who has already created two incredibly unique films with Margin Call and All is Lost, adds another remarkable original vision to that roster with this one, the story of a fuel supplier (played by Oscar Isaac) in 1981 New York City, who is determined to keep his own morality at the forefront as he ends up having to deal with so much corruption and decay that threaten the success of his business and his family. Jessica Chastain gives a stunning performance as his ruthless wife, and as Isaac's struggle continues, the film becomes an incredibly absorbing character study.

I knew about this documentary long before I ever actually saw it. I had read an article a while back about how Edward Snowden had arranged to reveal his secrets to the world. In requesting only certain people to meet together in a clandestine get together to introduce himself and deliver all of the government secrets he had, he had also requested documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. After reading the article, I couldn't wait to see the film and see this meeting. Regardless of how the documentary would be structured, just this subject alone would make it absolutely fascinating. And that's precisely the experience that I had seeing it. This is truly one of those documentary subjects where there really was no way to mess up the power of its story. Regardless of whether you feel Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor, what he did took an incredible amount of bravery and careful work, in pursuit of a larger truth and transparency for what he saw as a broken system. I tend to think people like Snowden are true heroes ... whistleblowers who at great risk to themselves, do their best to reveal and expose truths that need to be investigated more deeply. Whether everything he released and what will be revealed in future releases was wise to make public will be a continual debate ... but there's no denying the power of his story and the riveting document of someone changing their lives forever in pursuit of what they feel is right.

As much as I follow movies, it's very rare that I walk into a film without knowing a whole lot about it. This was one of the exceptions, and it became one of the truly delightful surprises from an overall lackluster year for movies. From the very beginning, I could tell it was going to be something unique and special. In one of my favorite sequences from the entire year's worth of movies, Mark Ruffalo's worn down record producer Dan wanders into a nightclub where he hears a simple song being performed by Keira Knightley's Gretta. As he hears the song and sees her talent, he envisions all of the additional accompaniment that could make the song a hit, actually hearing it grow, and that starts what is a beautiful examination of the art and creation of music, something we truly do not get a lot of in movies: seeing the actual work in creation. As the story progresses and we see the relationship complexities, I was so impressed at each and every turn this film made, never turning where you expected it to go. Backed by some really lived in performances, not only Ruffalo and Knightley, but also a wonderfully complicated Adam Levine, the film has a lot to say, but does it all so simply. If you truly want to feel good with a movie that affirms humanity and the treasures and gifts of practicing your art, this is the one.

A unique concept fleshed out into an extremely powerful and mesmerizing film, particularly due to a surprisingly effective lead performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. He plays Lou Bloom, a driven young man who becomes involved in the high stakes world of crime journalism in L.A. When Lou discovers just how cut-throat the business is, he finds himself being drawn even further and further into danger as he gets more deeply involved in sometimes staging scenes and crimes for the high paycheck and notoriety. Rene Russo is also very good in this film, which is able to tell a tight-knit thriller of a story, while also showing the sad nature of today's TV journalism where the bigger shocks = bigger audience. Director Dan Gilroy slowly builds up momentum and once it takes off, it never lets you go. Gyllenhaal has always been very good in his work, but he was definite revelation here.

16) WILD
There were definitely a lot of challenges in bringing the true story of Cheryl Strayed's lone journey to hike the Pacific Coast Trail to the screen. Solo journeys on film always present a challenge to make them cinematic, and director Jean-Marc Vallee does an extraordinary job, but it is mostly due to Reese Witherspoon's incredibly raw and brave performance that we get a very moving film experience. In trying to cope with the recent death of her mother (played by Laura Dern in her Oscar nominated role), she decides to hike this trail and re-examine her life choices that have brought her to this bankrupt place she now finds herself in. We do get the expected flashbacks, but also get some encounters that she has along the journey that help in leading her to a place where she can find some kind of enlightenment. Stories about individuals reaching a crossroads are usually always moving, but I'm glad that Vallee and Witherspoon didn't take any easy steps, and we get a very complex portrait of a character we don't always find ourselves liking, but maybe because we end up finding so much of ourselves in this wonderfully nuanced performance. It's definitely one of Reese Witherspoon's greatest performances, if not the best.

I love inventive science fiction concepts about the future, and this was one of the most unique that I've seen in some time. In this wonderfully inventive film, humankind has all been eradicated except for a final group of survivors that now live on a train that continually travels around the globe. With class societies set up within a confined setting, it of course raises revolt, and the resulting action spectacle is actually deeply engaging, with remarkable visuals propelling the story forward. Tilda Swinton gives a remarkably haunting portrayal, and solid performances are turned in by Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and others. Yeah, there were many things that strained credibility, but it was still a wonderfully executed concept, and one of the more memorable moments from a film-going summer that sure needed a lot more of them.

Admittedly, we tend to get a number of movies like this one, a drama/comedy where a dysfunctional family is brought together and forced to confront their issues head on. And while I know this movie didn't work for everyone, I have to admit that it did for me. From the genius casting of Jane Fonda as the family patriarch, to a very solid Jason Bateman as the lead as a man searching for meaning when his life becomes so completely screwed up, the story involves a large family coming back together when their Dad has died, and forced to spend several days together, bringing up many unfulfilled longings from the past, as well as new perspective on lives led astray that we often get when a major life event happens like the death of someone close. Everyone in this family is suffering from some sort of dysfunction, and like the most successful of family dramas, it plays out with a wonderful mix of comedy and drama. A very solid supporting cast helps make this film rise above so many of the more disappointing films like it that have come before. And besides that, the level of family dysfunction on display in this film will make anyone feel better about their own dysfunction, haha.

Of all the movies from 2014 that I couldn't forget even if I tried, this was definitely one of them. It's one of the most visually stunning and deeply haunting film experiences that I've had in some time, and I can't quite say it's a film I'd be excited to see again, but I'm sure glad I experienced it once. Director Jonathan Glazer created a mesmerizing head trip of a movie, telling the story of Scarlett Johansson's alien "visitor" to Earth ... and just like the film's title, this experience gets completely under your skin. This is also due to the incredibly unique and haunting musical score by Mica Levi (one of the best of the year). Part sci-fi, part horror, part thriller, it has an eerie brilliance that will most likely repel a lot of moviegoers, but if you stick with it, you'll find so much to appreciate and admire about this remarkably haunting cinematic experience.

In a year filled with blockbusters that for me mostly disappointed and drew a general ho hum, I was very pleasantly surprised by this one ... not only did it show that Tom Cruise still can carry an action film, but that Emily Blunt can actually outshine him, giving us an incredibly strong female character that didn't take on the usual roles that poorly drawn women tend to take in most action films. It even managed to rise above the theme of Earth being attacked by aliens which we've seen in countless other movies by telling a very trippy time travel kind of story where Cruise's character is killed early on, only to keep returning to fight the same battle again and again. It's heartening when unique, original films can still be made in today's Hollywood on a big budget, so we have to embrace them when they arrive.

Honorable Mentions:
Top Five
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The LEGO Movie