Texan movie critic’s picks for top 10 films of 2014

Charles Liu

The 87th Academy Awards are Sunday, Feb. 22. In preparation for the ceremony, our movie critics have rounded up their picks for best film of the year. To read Daily Texan critic Alex Pelham's predictions for the 87th Academy Awards, click here.

2014 had its fair share of exceptional films that dug into the human condition. The following 10 films are my “Best Pictures of 2014” in descending order. Each triumphs in terms of performances, writing, technical achievement and directing. 

10. Still Alice

In “Still Alice,” Julianne Moore breaks hearts as a linguistics professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Her transformation from an intelligent woman into a nearly lifeless husk is portrayed almost entirely from her own view. This perspective allows us to understand her fear and sadness as her own mind turns against her. Thanks to Moore’s performance and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, “Still Alice” is a touching, sensitive portrayal of illness and love. 

9. American Sniper

“American Sniper” avoids jingoistic territory, thanks to sure-handed direction by Clint Eastwood, who depicts the war in Iraq as a morally ambiguous conflict. The film’s subject, late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), has been called a hero by his supporters and a murderer by his critics. “Sniper” reminds us that he was first and foremost a man. Its action scenes thrill, but “Sniper” doesn’t relish in the violence. The scenes depicting Kyle’s domestic life show us that war follows soldiers home, and that’s not something to take lightly.

8. Interstellar

“Interstellar” is Christopher Nolan’s biggest, most special effects-heavy film yet. It’s an awe-inspiring vision of human determination in the face of extinction, and a science-fiction epic that plays with the dimensions of space and time. Yet, in spite of its grand scale and technical ambition, “Interstellar” remains grounded by focusing on the love between an astronaut father (Matthew McConaughey) and his daughter (Mackenzie Foy plays her as a child, and Jessica Chastain plays her as an adult). Space is cold, but “Interstellar” warms the heart.

7. Whiplash

Music is serious business in director Damien Chazelle’s dramatic piece about a college jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his abusive conductor (J.K. Simmons). Both actors turn in stellar performances, making “Whiplash” a magnetic, mesmerizing experience. In an era that tolerates mediocrity, “Whiplash” centers around characters that strive for excellence, but it lets us decide whether they’re pushing themselves too far.

6. Gone Girl

Based on Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel, “Gone Girl” is a grim psychological thriller about Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a man whose wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), goes missing. The disappearance serves as the springboard for the exploration of a crumbling marriage and a tabloid media that leads witch hunts instead of real investigations. Director David Fincher’s surgically precise style of filmmaking makes “Gone Girl” suspenseful, and its lead performances make it superb.

5. Foxcatcher

Bleak and chilling, “Foxcatcher” digs into the psyche of the mentally-ill John du Pont (Steve Carell), the infamous coach of a successful U.S. wrestling team who murdered one of his athletes. Supported by excellent performances by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, Carell’s unnerving portrayal of a man detached from reality is a drastic departure from his comedic work. Director Bennett Miller molds “Foxcatcher” into a tragedy of unrequited love and unfulfilled desire — one that will haunt you long after it ends.

4. Selma 

Timely and relevant, “Selma” takes place during a critical period of Martin Luther King Jr.’s (David Oyelowo) civil rights battle. There’s a striking lack of sentimentality in the picture. “Selma” is constructed like a documentary, and all the emotions you’ll feel while watching the film owe credit to its talented cast, not cinematic manipulation. Director Ava DuVernay lets moments breathe, and Oyelowo is understated yet powerful as MLK himself. “Selma” stands tall as a tribute to the brave men and women who marched for freedom, an emotional film that brings the civil rights movement to life.

3. The Grand Budapest Hotel 

At first, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” appears to be a cheerful, energetic tale set in a fictional, candy-colored 1930s Europe. Ralph Fiennes stands out as the titular hotel’s concierge determined to please his patrons at all costs, and the smart, witty script never has a dull moment. Stick with “Grand Budapest,” and you’ll discover that it’s really a melancholic picture that laments the loss of innocence in a world overtaken by war.

2. Birdman

“Birdman” might not be a superhero film, but it is just as vibrant and action-packed as any. It’s convincingly edited to look as if it has been shot in just one take, which means the camera literally zips from scene to scene. The camera often follows the brilliantly-cast Michael Keaton, who stars as a washed-up actor desperate to be taken seriously as an artist on Broadway. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu crafts a humorous and surreal experience around Keaton’s character that explores a celebrity in a world where social media can thrust anyone into the spotlight. It’s easy to get five seconds of fame, but it takes someone truly special to be remembered. It’s safe to say “Birdman” won’t be forgotten.

1. Boyhood

Director Richard Linklater’s grand, 12-year experiment has paid off: “Boyhood” is a masterpiece. It’s not a film with a story, rather a time capsule marked by milestones, a period piece that was created during the periods it captures. It’s a critique of social conditioning, which grapples with the definition of “normal.” It’s an unprecedented work of art, lent humanity by a strong cast that includes Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Most importantly of all, “Boyhood” portrays life with tender, emotional honesty. Few films are as real; few films are as true.