There were plenty of great movies this year—and plenty that tarnished the silver screen. We invited our film critics to vote on their favorite and least favorite movies of 2014, and then compiled this list from the results. We also flag a few to look forward to in 2015. The contributors are Glenn McDonald (GM), Neil Morris (NM), Craig D. Lindsey (CDL), Isaac Weeks (IW) and Brian Howe (BH).
BEST OF 2014
1. Boyhood—Richard Linklater delivers one of the hardest great films to talk your friends into seeing. "Hey, it's three hours long and you get to watch this kid age into a teenager!" But I still give it the hard sell when folks ask for recommendations, because it truly was the best, most unique film of the year. —IW
2. Whiplash—This Sundance darling is a nail-biter about a young, driven jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his sadistic conservatory instructor, personified id Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, an almost surefire Oscar nominee). The scariest part isn't Fletcher's profane proclamation that genius only evolves from immense adversity. It's our fear that he might be right. —NM
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel—Wes Anderson doesn't just make movies; he builds worlds. Budapest depicts a kind of alternate-history Europe—one of alpine elegance and hallucinogenic intrigue, with shifting time frames and the freakiest downhill sled sequence ever. Ralph Fiennes leads an ace ensemble through the most beautifully designed film of the year. —GM
4. Birdman—This meta-movie about career resurrection turned out to be one for Michael Keaton, who shines as a fallen superhero-franchise star mounting a Broadway comeback. Superlative sound design leads us through a maze of Altman-like long takes, magical-realist beats and spiky narrative rhythms. It's the 2014 multiplex film most likely to make you wonder if you've wandered into an art house by mistake. —BH
5. Guardians of the Galaxy—What sounded on paper like an oddball choice for the next Marvel Studios franchise turned out to be a Star Wars for a new generation. This high-spirited space romp might be the only film to ever make me wish it had been released when I was a kid myself. —IW
6. A Most Violent Year—Director J.C. Chandor continues his meteoric rise with his third feature, which comes out in limited release on Dec. 31 but doesn't reach the Triangle until January. In this bleak drama, set in 1981 New York City, the efforts of a mostly honest immigrant (an Oscar-worthy Oscar Isaac) and his no-nonsense wife (Jessica Chastain, tremendous) to expand their burgeoning heating oil delivery business clash with a corrupt system. —NM
7. Life Itself—Documentarian Steve James' moving tribute to the late film critic Roger Ebert shows that the man lived a life that was just as amazing and fascinating as the movies he loved. —CDL [Editor's note: the documentary airs on CNN Sunday, Jan. 4, at 9 p.m. EST.]
8. Under the Skin—Jonathan Glazer's hypnotic sci-fi whatzit, starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien femme fatale, works as both a mind-bending work of guerrilla filmmaking and a sly indictment of our sexist, sex-obsessed, patriarchal culture. —CDL
9. Snowpiercer—This English-language South Korean sci-fi film, based on a French graphic novel, is set aboard a massive train serving as humanity's post-apocalyptic ark. Society's prejudices and class inequities persist, from the elite near the front to the maltreated, rebellious dregs in the rear. Among the tremendous cast, Tilda Swinton stands out (as usual). —NM
10. The Raid 2—Gareth Evans' sequel to his 2011 slobberknocker, produced in Indonesia, puts 2014's American-made blockbusters to shame with its relentlessly entertaining, downright ass-kicking action set-pieces. —CDL
These fine films didn't quite make our top 10 but were ranked highly by individual writers.
Citizenfour—An English teacher once told me that Catcher in the Rye may not be the best book ever written, but it might be the most important. I had a similar feeling watching Citizenfour, Laura Poitras' revealing, all-access documentary on NSA-leaker Edward Snowden. This was the year's most essential film. —GM
The Babadook—Australian actor and director Jennifer Kent's impressive feature-length directorial debut unforgettably captures what a horror show single-parenting can be. —CDL
Obvious Child—As a stand-up comic in trouble, Jenny Slate is like the love child of Gilda Radner and Louis C.K. in this funny, touching indie from director Gillian Robespierre. My guess is that we'll be hearing a lot more from Slate and Robespierre in the future. —GM
Locke—During a 90-minute car ride down the M1 with a revolving series of hands-free phone calls, writer-director Steven Knight reveals a man whose personal and professional lives are coming undone by the minute. But this film is all about Tom Hardy, who again stakes his claim as today's most talented actor in an (essentially) one-person masterwork. —NM
Gone Girl—Despite its critical and commercial success, the awards community has largely neglected this adaptation of Gillian Flynn's potboiler. Sadly, you're more likely to hear talk of its male nudity than the quality of its tightly wound tale. —IW
WORST OF 2014
These bombs made us curse the name of Thomas Edison for ever inventing the Kinetoscope.
1. Tammy—Co-writer and headliner Melissa McCarthy is a very funny improv performer and a veteran comedy professional, which makes the profoundly unfunny Tammy the most baffling movie of the year. The story goes nowhere at all, slowly, and there's exactly one good joke in the entire script. I counted. —GM
2. Sex Tape—A couple records their three-hour romp through The Joy of Sex, but hijinks ensue when the video inadvertently goes viral. A bawdy bore, this is the unsexiest movie about sex, which is saying something considering that its stars Cameron Diaz. The presence of Rob Lowe is as witty as this flaccid farce gets. (Google "Rob Lowe sex tape" if you're too young to get the joke.) —NM
3. The Legend of Hercules—It's been almost a year since I saw this stinker (not to be confused with 2014's Hercules, starring the Rock), which is mired in horrible acting and cheap-looking production values. I still can't figure out what the petals constantly floating across the screen are supposed to be. Ragweed, maybe? —IW
4. Men, Women & Children—Jason Reitman (with Up in the Air now distant in his rearview mirror) directed this insipid, hydra-headed screed against the dangers of online society, fragile familial relations and modern teen angst. It's a moribund approximation of rambling Paul Haggis pap, with Reitman as a codger howling at the evils conceived inside of the Internets and its series of tubes. —NM
5. The Best of Me—This Nicholas Sparks adaptation was the only film I watched from the front row this year, because I had to stop myself from walking out at least three times. They seriously couldn't find a kid that looked like a young James Marsden, the most generic-looking leading man in film? —IW
Note that these release dates are subject to change by the studios.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Dec. 18)—The Star Wars franchise has been so thoroughly flogged over the decades that it's easy to forget the magnificent rush of the original films' swashbuckling spirit and sci-fi mythology. What the world needs now is a quality Star Wars movie. May the Force be with director J.J. Abrams. —GM
Spectre (Nov. 6)—It's the 24th film for Bond, James Bond. Daniel Craig is back, as is Sam Mendes, who directed Skyfall. And after resolving a number of longstanding legal disputes, the producers can once again use the Spectre brand (hey, they've made it the title) and maybe, just maybe, resurrect Ernst Stavro Blofeld (perhaps played by Christoph Waltz, who joins the cast). —NM
Inside Out (June 19)—No creative entity in Hollywood has a better track record than Pixar. The animation studio's next film is set in the mind of a young girl where five emotions—Anger, Disgust, Fear, Joy and Sadness—try to get along. With story and direction by Pixar all-star Pete Docter, this one can't miss, right? Although Joy looks worryingly outnumbered. —GM