Rules are sometimes meant to be broken, which is why this year's list is the Top 11, not 10. It also has something to do with a very strong year in documentaries, foreign, American studio and indie film. For those titles that are unfamiliar, investigate and surprise yourself.
Alejandro González Iñárritu has directed a film filled with great performances, including the best of Michael Keaton's career, as an action film star beset by problems during a Broadway play he has financed and stars in. The magical realism works, everyone is perfect in his or her role and the ambiguous but elegiac ending fits a stunning film that breaks new ground while conjuring up theatrical disasters that are as funny as they are terrifying.
A complete mind-bender that requires great attention. Based on sci-fi master and Solaris author Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress, this is a mix of live action and animation, set in a future where avatars are replacing human actors. When fading star Robin Wright, as herself, enters a virtual reality animated world, the mayhem really begins. Not just complex for its own sake, The Congress is deeply moving at its end. Ari Folman (Waltzing with Bashir) again shows how special his work is.
Almost nobody saw LFO, Swedish director-writer Antonio Tublen's hilarious and unpredictable science fiction black comedy about an inventor who comes up with an electronic tone that hypnotizes people instantly. His base desires, liking sleeping with an attractive neighbor, are replaced by an existential dilemma: Should he try and make the entire world a better place to live or will it go disastrously wrong? Simply shot but flawless in its logic and execution, with a chilling ending to boot.
Venus in Fur
Roman Polanski is back in fine form, with this haunting, psychosexual pas-de-deux between a stage director and an actress who has a strange power over him during auditions. While it takes place within a Parisian theatre, it is playwright David Ives's clever source material and the perfectly calibrated work of Mathieu Amalric and Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, that keeps us on the edge of the seat, with a master of suspense at the helm.
Everyone is seemingly creeped out, in a good way, by Jake Gyllenhaal's bugged-eyed, skinny, polite psychopath in Nightcrawler and rightly so. But writer-director Dan Gilroy's bleak and razor-sharp vision of crime as a TV commodity speaks volumes about our wayward moral universe. Rene Russo has come a long way from romantic comedies to a soulless news producer. Like the accidents and murders it portrays, Nightcrawler disturbs and remains in your head.
What a year for Jake Gyllenhaal, who played a character who spies on a double of himself, in this eerie adaptation of Portugese literary fiction icon Jose Saramago. Directed with precise and increasing dread by Denis Villeneuve, Enemy explores how two seemingly identical men can be very different in temperament and how their women react in entirely unpredictable ways when they discover they are in the company of doppelgangers.
Finding Vivian Maier
There were many fine docs in 2014, but this gets top honors, not only because directors John Maloof and Charlie Siskel have discovered the work of street photographer Vivian Maier, who took brilliant shots of everyday people while being a nanny. The film not only presents the best of her more than 100,000 previously unknown photos, but also investigates how a collector of family photos at auctions stumbled upon an unheralded and very private genius with a camera.
The Book of Life
Jorge Gutierrez has made a studio animation film like no other, with his Mexican iconography and music mixed with pop. The hero spans three worlds to pursue his true love and the eye-popping visuals of a cheery Mexican underworld is the highlight of this lovely and surprising gem of a movie, celebrating a Hispanic culture rarely seen in major animated films.
Michel Gondry again makes this list, with a surreal depiction of Paris, love and tragedy, aided by fantastic production design and otherwise inanimate objects that come to life in the most charming and natural of ways. Audrey Tatou easily gets into your heart, as the waif in love who suddenly learns a flower seems to be growing in her lungs. Never maudlin, never static, a true cinematic flight of fancy.
Art and Craft
There are plenty of docs about art forgery, but Art and Craft is about a strange, at times seemingly mentally handicapped man who worships his recently deceased mother and can forge artwork in any style. Rather than selling it, he fools major U.S. museum curators, donating the forgeries to them, and an investigator tries to bring to light his peculiar, hard-to-prove behavior.
Based on Emile Zola's novel Therese Raquin, In Secret is lushly shot by Charlie Stratton and he makes the best possible use of leads Jessica Lange, Oscar Isaac and Elizabeth Olsen. Romance, murder, lust, guilt, secrecy and revenge are served up deliciously in a classic book adaptation that simply could not be better.
Worthy Contenders: Big Hero 6, CitizenFour, The Imitation Game, Kill the Messenger, A Most Wanted Man, Particle Fever.