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14 Best Movies of 2014

As the year winds down, here's a look at Pete's favorite picks

This year flew by—2014, we hardly knew 'ya. It wasn't the best year for movies, but when I searched through my list of movies I liked over the past 12 months, I was surprised to find more than 10 solid entries. And there's more to look forward to—I still need to see The Imitation Game, A Most Violent Year, Selma, Inherent Vice, and the second half of The Theory of Everything.

So, here's to my favorite 14 films of 2014—with hopes that the year ahead brings much joy at the movie theater. (The New Year looks promising: We're kicking off the next installment of the Classic Film Series at the Orinda Theatre with a free screening of The Princess Bride on January 8, and there's that new Star Wars movie to look forward to at year's end.)

14: A Most Wanted Man
This post-9/11 thriller from master novelist John le Carré featured a wildly complex story and a knockout lead performance by the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as German spy with an unshakable ethical code. The final shot of the film was the most heartbreaking moment I experienced at the cinema this year.

13: Edge of Tomorrow
The big summer blockbuster has not been my cup of tea since, oh, I'll say Terminator 2: Judgment Day back in 1991. But this Tom Cruise sci-fi action spectacle was tons of fun and one of the nicest surprises of the year. Plus, it's time-jumping narrative (Groundhog Day meets Aliens) gave my Time Travel Movie Club an excuse to go out to the theater together.

12. Life of Crime
This Elmore Leonard adaptation almost snuck past me, but I made a trip to Berkeley's Elmwood Cinemas to watch what turned out to be a dynamite telling of Leonard's great 1970s novel, The Switch. I once heard Quentin Tarantino say that this was his favorite Elmore Leonard book of all, because he was caught shoplifting the paperback as a kid and had to wait a long time to finally read it. (Tarantino's Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Leonard's Rum Punch, features some of the same characters.) As I'm writing this, I suddenly remember liking the darker crime drama The Drop, based on a story by Dennis Lehane, quite a bit as well.

Life of Crime features a terrific cast, including John Hawkes, Mos Def, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Aniston, Mark Boone Junior, and East Bay native Will Forte, and director Daniel Schechter nimbly directs the kidnapping-gone-awry story. Bonus points for the film's 1970s set design, done very well on a small budget.

11. Top Five
Comedian Chris Rock, who channels Woody Allen here with a day-in-the-life of a celebrity comedian love story that is funny from start to finish. Rock stars and directs, and his original screenplay should be considered for an Oscar, if Oscar cared about comedy. He also brings in a killer cast of funny, funny people, including Jerry Seinfeld who gets the movie's funniest line.

10. Life Itself
A wonderful, insightful, deeply emotional documentary about the late film critic Roger Ebert and his remarkable contributions to all things cinema.

9. Fury
I was very surprised by this gripping, grueling boots-in-the-tank journey through the hellish final days of World War II's German battles. Director David Ayer has become an expert in action filmmaking, and he takes filmgoers through trench warfare battles that are exhilarating and nightmarish. I saw this one with my dear dad, my favorite companion to see war history and horror films, so the experience was greatly enhanced by the company.

8. Only Lovers Left Alive
I waited for Blu-Ray for Jim Jarmusch's latest, a spin on vampire mythology that was probably the hippest movie of the year. I wish I had seen this gorgeous film on a big screen, but oh well. Stars Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton play ancient vampires, and Jarmusch's very clever twist on the genre is that his bloodsuckers are the ultimate tastemakers—they've been around long enough to know what's cool (vintage guitars, for example) and what, um, sucks.

7. Foxcatcher
This truth-is-stranger-than-fiction account of eccentric mega-millionaire John du Pont's—chiefly, his relationship with Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz in the late 1980s—is a haunting story, expertly directed by Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote). Terrific performances by Steve Carell as du Pont, and Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo as the Schultz brothers made this chilly drama thoroughly fascinating until its horrifying, slow burn finale.

6. Boyhood
Richard Linklater's epic family drama, filmed over a dozen years for a week each year, is likely this year's Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards on February 22 and it's a worthy choice. Linklater's daring experiment worked beautifully, capturing American family life through the eyes of Mason, a Texas-born boy who we watch age from primary school to college. As terrific as newcomer Ellar Coltrane is in the central role, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette excel as his parents. Both veteran actors give wise, warm, wonderfully real performances, and Arquette is a sure bet to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. I'm certainly rooting for her—she's a terrific actor in a career-best role, she's also a terrific person who has worked tirelessly in support of Haitian children and families following the disastrous 2010 earthquake. 

5. Nightcrawler
Here's where I hope my list can really start to offer some surprises and service, as there isn't anything on my top five that caused a big ripple at the box office. Not nearly enough people went to see Nightcrawler, despite the rave reviews star Jake Gyllenhaal received for his bug-eyed performance as Lou Bloom, a sociopathic freelance videographer for a low-rated L.A. news station. Rene Russo and Bill Paxton are perfectly cast in supporting roles. Nightcrawler plays like a lean, mean mix of 1940s noir and 1970s satire (Paddy Chayevsky's Network is an obvious influence). It's two-hour running time flies by, with only a few minor missteps along the way

4. Enemy
Gyllenhaal stars again—this time playing dual roles—in one of the year's weirdest and most intriguing mind-benders. This small-budget film from Canadian director Denis Villenueve (who previously teamed with Gyllenhaal for last year's thriller Prisoners) plays like a David Lynch fever dream. Creepy, crazy, awesome.

3. Under the Skin
Scarlet Johansson crushes her role as an extraterrestrial femme fatale, who occupies a human body and preys on unsuspecting Scotsmen, in this tripped-out sci-fi creepfest from British director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast). Hypnotic, terrifying, terrific.

2. Calvary
Writer-director John Michael McDonough follows his wonderful 2011 debut, the hilarious action comedy The Guard, with something much darker and more haunting. McDonough re-teams with the great Brendan Gleason, who gives a titanic performances as a priest in a small Irish town that seems to be sinking into hell. I was surprised by advanced reviews describing Calvary as a black comedy, I found the film to be truly disturbing and heartbreaking. And awesome.

1. The Babadook
By the looks of my list, dark was big in 2014. So it makes sense that The Babadook, an absolutely terrifying supernatural horror film that also serves as an allegory about parenthood, sits atop my list. This stunning debut from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent is an instant classic, ready to share space on the DVD shelf next to Roman Polanski masterpieces such as Rosemary's Baby, Repulsion, and (my favorite) The Tenant. In a perfect world, this year's Best Actress Oscar would go to Essie Davis (Best Actor would be Brendan Gleason for Calvary), for her shattering performance as a stressed out single mother trying to keep it together while being tormented by the maniacally creepy (and wonderfully imaginative) titular hobgobblin.