Nightcrawler

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The bricks were a bellwether. When Warner Bros. first announced production for a movie about Legos—yes, as in the children’s building blocks— it sounded like one of the most absurd ideas to come out of Hollywood in a long time (no small feat). And when it received an early February release date—the time of year when lousy movies are let loose to die—its fate as a nonstarter seemed inevitable, even though parents will take their kids to just about anything that promises to shu…distract them for a couple of hours.

Feb. 7, 2014 arrived, along with a score from the widely referenced review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. Our mocking would now have backup, we thought. But The Lego Movie turned up 96 percent fresh. Now, this brilliant little not-just-for-kids flick is the animated feature to catch on Oscar night. It’s not only being hailed as one of the best animated films of 2014, but as one of the year’s best, period.

And if a February opening about a toy set can knock it out of the playpen, it follows that the rest of 2014 would offer more treasures still. (Well, that’s not exactly logical, but it happened to be true.) This made my 10-best whittling much more difficult this go-round; I’d started adorning everything in my initial broadly pruned list with an asterisk before realizing that wouldn’t fly. Upping the challenge was the diversity of the top-notch films. Should it be profound? Educational? Thought-provoking? Or is it OK to simply be silly, or eerie, or otherwise engaging? Can The Lego Movie seriously compete for best-ness against Boyhood?

In a year that saw critical acclaim go to superhero movies as well as deeply felt dramas and crack comedies, the answer is yes—and it’s why my chosen ones are listed in no particular order. The bottom line: Here are 10 great films. Catch ’em if you can.

Enemy

The most striking aspect of Denis Villeneuve’s surrealist story about a man who tracks down his doppelganger can’t fairly be talked about lest you clear the room with “spoiler alert!” blaring from a bullhorn. Jake Gyllenhaal, who ruled the bookends of 2014, lends subtle shades to his dual roles, and if you don’t think someone meeting his double is unnerving enough to warrant such a strong title, you’ll change your mind by the film’s perfect, WTF?-prompting final scene.

Nightcrawler

Gyllenhaal again, with a performance that would certainly nab an Oscar if this weren’t a year overstuffed with other worthy Best Actor contenders. Dan Gilroy’s dark directorial debut slums in the nocturnal world of crime journalism, where getting there first can translate into substantial cash for the freelance videographer who gets the best angle for blood spillage. Gyllenhaal’s Louis is a relentless, not-quite-right opportunist who teaches himself the game, then gets creepier as the work gets scummier—and more lucrative. Bottom-feeding suits Louis, and the film’s intensity suits Jake. Call it Donnie’s Darkest.

Birdman

Who cares if Birdman was, in fact, written for Michael Keaton? A good story is a good story, and once Alejandro González Iñárritu got done with it, this good story was a great one. Keaton’s turn as a washed-up former franchise star is one of the performances sure to elbow Gyllenhaal out of the races, though all the cast members—including Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Zach Galifianakis, and Amy Ryan—succeed in elevating their games to facilitate Iñárritu’s conceit of presenting the two-hour movie as one single camera take. The result is breathtaking fluidity; combined with an exceptionally fitting jazz-drum soundtrack and a script that’s both witty and glum, this Bird flies.

Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s latest isn’t remarkable because it was filmed over a 12-year period with the same cast. It’s remarkable because it’s about, well, everything. Romantic relationships, familial relationships, growing up, meeting challenges, surviving failure, celebrating success, revamping life plans (I could go on). Boyhood may be told from the perspective of Mason (Ellar Coltrane, becoming an adult before your eyes), but the story gives nearly equal emphasis to his family (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater) as they navigate life’s twists. Its 165 minutes zoom by, with episodic looks at family events big and small. As Mason heads off to college and his single mother breaks down, you realize how uncannily the film mimics the flow of not just boyhood, but life itself.

The Lego Movie

Referencing the film’s big, catchy song—if you’ve seen it, you know—is too easy. What makes The Lego Movie so massively entertaining is a Simpsons-esque script (early Simpsons, of course) that tosses out more jokes than you can process in one sitting, humor both visual and delivered rapid-fire by voice actors who are easily identifiable yet perfectly matched to their characters. (Will Arnett as Batman? Genius.) Better, the laughs are predominantly parodic in an old-school, Airplane! sense, a refreshing change after a couple of decades of self-described parodies that merely re-create scenes from popular movies and add, say, a bathroom gag. If you’ve had a bad run of subpar cinema, here’s your palate cleanser.

Jodorowsky’s Dune

Does a mere reference to Dune, David Lynch’s 1984 sci-fi disaster, leave you nodding off as images of endless desert cloud your brain? Keep reading. This documentary on cult Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s almost-making-of the film (instead of Lynch) is the ultimate date-night rental, virtually guaranteed to engage both the sci-fi fan and the diehard rom-com enthusiast eager to be charmed. Jodorowsky, now in his 80s, takes you step by step through his ideas and the film development process until the very last minute, when studio execs essentially said, “It’s brilliant, but no.” You don’t have to care a whit about intergalactic battles for an alien substance to enjoy Jodorowsky’s boatloads of charisma, imagination, and intelligence. His works that have made it to the big screen? Yeah, they’re an acquired taste, which you’ll discover when this film inevitably prompts you to seek them out. If they’re not to your liking (which you should know within 15, 20 minutes tops), just pop the doc back in and enjoy the madman’s company again.

Whiplash

There are no As for effort in Professor Fletcher’s music class. He justifies his often cruel, always dictatorial method of teaching by saying that the most harmful words in the English language are “good job.” In the adrenaline-fueled Whiplash, J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher with a virtual “High Voltage” sign on his face, while the main victim of his instructional rage is portrayed by Miles Teller in a role that sees the drum student cry, bleed, and get pissed off in thankless attempts to win Fletcher’s fleeting approval. Whiplash’s story, written and directed by relative newcomer Damien Chazelle, posits the conservatory as boot camp, with its essential question being how hard a talented student should be pushed if he’s showing glimpses of greatness. Simmons is frighteningly volatile—a sure Best Supporting Actor nominee—and Teller reportedly actually bled on the drums when his director aimed for vérité and wouldn’t cut merely because his star was exhausted. In this case, that push paid off.

Locke

Instead of Best Picture, call this the best Tom Hardy. He’s the only actor who appears onscreen during the film’s 85 minutes; potentially more punishing, his Ivan Locke never gets out of his car. That writer-director Steven Knight—and his star—pulled this off is a boast-worthy testament to unorthodox filmmaking. Hardy’s Locke, a construction manager with a family, does nothing but make (hands-free) phone calls on his evening commute to attend to a matter that will prevent him from supervising his company’s biggest project the next day. He explains, he reassures, he makes arrangements, and between hangups and dials, he thinks—but never, it seems, about changing his mind about his destination, despite major begging from those he calls and possibly dire consequences. In a film that sounds boring, Hardy fails to bore. His Ivan is calm, confident, logical, meticulous: everything you’d hope to be in a crisis. He’s also truthful—straight up, no hedging, just matter-of-fact—even when the truth is painful. Superheroes fared well this year, and though he wears no costume and drives a sedan, Ivan Locke should be counted among them.

Force Majeure

In this Swedish drama, a few impulsive seconds is all it takes to potentially tear an otherwise happy-ish family apart. Tomas and Ebba are with their two young children on a skiing holiday when, while having lunch, an avalanche heads toward the restaurant. No one is hurt, but how each of them reacts becomes fodder for one of those arguments that never really ends because there’s no clear answer, and neither person yells because the implications are so heavy with sadness. Ebba can’t let the matter go, and you don’t blame her. The film, then, feels like the equivalent of eavesdropping on marriage counseling—and who wouldn’t like a glimpse of how other couples resolve their conflicts?

Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case

In China, fame and money do not protect you from the law. And since the law is often arbitrary—if officials make the rules known at all—citizens may find themselves in the same infuriating predicament as Ai Weiwei, the globally lauded artist who designed Beijing’s Bird’s Nest for the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 2011, he was detained while attempting to board a flight to Hong Kong. Government officials gave him conflicting reasons for his arrest, including tax evasion and “subversion of state power.” Weiwei knows, though, that it’s because he aired his political opinions on a blog—and for that, he served 81 days in solitary confinement. Even viewers frustrated with the U.S.’s dysfunctional justice system will be grateful for what they’ve got after seeing the tyranny presented in The Fake Case. If you’re not familiar with Weiwei, the film shows him as thoughtful and strong-willed, but too smart to continually goad the government; certainly not the type to be justifiably imprisoned in the conditions he re-created as his next project, a series of chilling dioramas. Then again, we’ve got cops who kill unarmed kids on the street and never have to answer to the law. So see this documentary with some friends. And over a long, long dinner, discuss which country has it worse.