*1. The Grand Budapest Hotel: a story within a story within a story about the wonder of storytelling in a magical hotel that time forgot, until now.
*2. The Imitation Game: a conventional but beautifully executed script that goes in one door – cracking the Nazi code – and comes out another – a man tragically persecuted because he is gay. Classic storytelling in the screenplay form.
*3. Nightcrawler: Horatio Alger from Hell. How to make it in America using the sleaziest tactics creative capitalism allows. Network for 2014, but darker.
*4. Whiplash: a minimalist fight between player and coach perfectly focused toward the final knockout punch.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy: the most entertaining film of the year is the result of writers who have mastered the craft of the comic myth.
*6. Interstellar: a post-graduate class in the cinematic plot of convergence, including some plot holes the size of the universe that prevent it from being a knockout.
*7. Selma: the preaching in the monologues is powerful stuff. The preaching in the dialogue is not. A moving portrait of one of the great battles in the civil rights movement and the imperfect man who made it happen.
*8. Birdman: structurally ambitious, but few things are as hollow or pretentious as an existential exploration of what it means to be an AC-TOR.
*9. Boyhood: a hundred moments in a boy’s life, struggling to form a pattern, but the total is considerably less than the sum of the parts.
*10. American Sniper: portrait of a professional killer with the typical Eastwood bait and switch, bemoaning the cost of violence while wallowing in the pleasure of the kill.
*11. The Theory of Everything: although this film has real emotional power, the man against disease story has no dramatic engine, so it gets slower and more annoying as it goes on. Maudlin and on-the-nose, this is what’s known as an actor’s movie.
12. Wild: an ultimately satisfying memoir-true story about a woman healing herself. But it’s all medicine. There’s no plot to make it fun.
*13. Foxcatcher: a predictable, single-line descent about two nut jobs and the decent guy who gets caught in the middle. The fake nose doesn’t help.
14. A Most Violent Year: a passive protagonist and a plot that hits the same beat until, suddenly, the movie’s over.
15. Gone Girl: an absurd battle between a psychopath and an idiot, with one of the worst endings in years.
16. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies: thousands of onscreen deaths give undeniable proof that the monstrous Orcs are the worst warriors in history.
*17. Inherent Vice: an Oscar-nominated, endless, boring mess that cements Paul Thomas Anderson’s reputation as the most over-rated writer-director working today. Bad plot, bad characters, bad dialogue, bad acting. Bad.