1. “Boyhood” With this touching coming-of-age drama, writer-director Richard Linklater accomplished so many groundbreaking things at once: Filming nonprofessional actor Ellar Coltrane over 12 years, then folding his actual youth and adolescence into a fictional story starring Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, Linklater created a new cinematic language, allowing past and present to mesh as seamlessly as they do in real life. He allowed his actors to age naturally and gracefully on screen, defying Hollywood’s usual age-phobic strictures. And he created a portrait of a family evolving, yet staying the same, that moved and resonated with anyone who had ever been a parent, or a child, or both.
2. “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s portrait of a former action star (Michael Keaton) making one last bid for authenticity was an exercise in technical brio (it seemed to be filmed all in one take) and in the art of acting. Not only did Keaton deliver a thoroughly convincing portrayal of a man straddling the realities of aging and his own most cherished myths, but he was joined by an astonishingly game group of co-stars, including Emma Stone, Amy Ryan and a breathtaking Edward Norton.
3. “Citizenfour” Laura Poitras’s taut, claustrophobically effective documentary, in which she puts viewers in the Hong Kong hotel room when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden first shared his revelations about government surveillance, unspools like a real-time thriller that both humanized its subject, clarified his purpose and reminded viewers what’s at stake in his disclosures.
4. “Force Majeure” Visually stunning, narratively meticulous and often grimly funny, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s drama about a picture-perfect couple coming unraveled during a ski vacation in the French Alps got at gender politics, sexual dynamics and the delicate balance of self-perception far more incisively than the more-hyped “Gone Girl.” What’s more, it looked better, with crystalline snowscapes and hushed hotel corridors worthy of Kubrick at his most elegant and atmospheric.
5. “Foxcatcher” is a creepy movie, as unsettling and unresolved as the true crime at its center. Steve Carell submerges his comic persona to play John E. du Pont, who in 1996 murdered wrestler Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo). Channing Tatum rounds out the extraordinary three-man ensemble as Schultz’s brother Mark, who emerges as a tragic figure of dogged striving and thwarted ambition. For all the film’s allegorical commentary on capitalism and morning-in-America self-deception, director Bennett Miller ultimately allowed the story to stay as it was: bizarre, bewildering and surpassingly sad.
6. “Under the Skin” Scarlett Johansson was in two big hits this year — “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and the action flick “Lucy” — but her best work was in Jonathan Glazer’s creepy, cryptic “Under the Skin,” in which she played a self-possessed alien whose predatory nature subtly transforms from terrifying to affectingly vulnerable. Moody, superbly controlled and supremely weird, this film lived up to its title, quietly getting under the viewer’s skin and staying there.
7. “Selma” Ava DuVernay’s dramatization of a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement is a stirring historical pageant, but at its best shows Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) as a cannily perceptive political operator, especially when dealing with Tom Wilkinson’s equally shrewd Lyndon Johnson. Finally, the most important chapter of 20th-century American history has taken pride of place within the culture’s dominant narrative medium — not as context, backdrop or plot device, but the subject itself.
8. “Edge of Tomorrow” Why on Earth didn’t you see this movie? It had all the mind-bending time-travel of “Interstellar,” some wise-cracking, save-the-day derring-do a la “Guardians of the Galaxy,” plus Tom Cruise flirting with a wonderfully smart, strong heroine played by Emily Blunt. Stylishly directed by Doug Liman, this refreshingly un-self-serious adventure deserved a bigger audience — and, granted, a better title. Now it’s being marketed under the banner “Live. Die. Repeat.” So will you finally give it a chance? Please?
9. “Beyond the Lights” Gina Prince-Bythewood’s deliriously entertaining backstage romance took all of the tropes from “Gypsy” to “The Bodyguard,” gave them a fresh, feminist spin and put them in the hands of a superlative cast, including Minnie Driver as a steely-eyed stage mom, Nate Parker as a handsome, reliable cop and the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a pop singer whose future they tussle over. Delicious to watch and listen to, the film was elevated by Mbatha-Raw’s honest, physically startling performance.
10. “Locke” If “Birdman” and “Foxcatcher” were ensemble pieces at their best, Steven Knight’s “Locke” was the quintessential one-man show: British actor Tom Hardy commands the screen as the title character, a construction manager who lives out an entire midlife turnaround in the course of a 90-minute drive from Birmingham to London. Hardy is transfixing as a man desperate to keep the various spheres of his life from spinning out of control; the movie itself is a daring, utterly absorbing exercise in real-time storytelling.
There were far more than 10 notable movies in 2014, and a lot of them shared cinematic DNA, either by way of genre or country of origin. They also suggested a few encouraging or enduring verities, including:
First time can be a charm: Several first-time directors made impressive debuts this year, including Dan Gilroy, whose L.A. thriller “Nightcrawler” was a slithery, atmospheric evocation of the news media at its most opportunistic. Gillian Robespierre made a nervy splash with “Obvious Child,” a tart, audaciously unapologetic comedy about a young woman seeking an abortion. Claudia Myers evoked the life of a working military mom with the sensitive domestic drama “Fort Bliss.” Perhaps the year’s most assuredly triumphant arrival was Justin Simien with “Dear White People,” a funny, wise and nuanced satire on racial identity set on a liberal college campus.
The urban thriller is having a comeback: Like “Collateral” and “L.A. Confidential” before it, “Nightcrawler” preferred L.A.’s dark underbelly to its sun-kissed daytime persona. New York received a similar make-under in two outstanding crime dramas set in the outer boroughs: Michael Roksam’s “The Drop,” starring Tom Hardy, was a superbly written, beautifully acted downbeat gem. In “A Most Violent Year,” J.C. Chandor channeled the muted palette and subdued mood of the great crime dramas of the 1970s. Cool.
British people are smarter than we are. And they have better taste. And they’re better actors. On paper, the historical dramas “Mr. Turner” and “The Imitation Game” — along with the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything” — were run-of-the-mill great-man myths. But in the hands of directors Mike Leigh, Morten Tyldum and James Marsh (with assists from actors Timothy Spall, Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne), they transcended their genre to become graceful works of art — and sure-fire awards bait for those keeping score at home.
Documentaries are movie-movies. Forget false distinctions between nonfiction films and narrative “movie movies.” This year’s best documentaries exemplified cinematic storytelling at its best, full stop. If you haven’t yet, see “Last Days of Vietnam,” “Life Itself,” “Finding Vivian Maier,” “Particle Fever,” “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” “Mistaken for Strangers,” “National Gallery,” “The Overnighters” and “Happy Valley” and tell me I’m wrong.