The 40 Best Movies of 2014

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As writer-director Edgar Wright recently declared on Twitter, “People who say there aren’t enough good movies anymore are not watching enough movies.” It’s a point that became abundantly clear as we attempted to narrow down our year-end list of 40 staff favorites, which could have easily ballooned to 60 or 70 selections.

Granted, the big studios — which ground out sequel after sequel this year — often made it tough to find the good stuff (our sympathies to anyone who had to sit through multi-million budgeted headache-machines like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 or Transformers: Age of Extinction). But for those willing to do some digging, there were plenty of independent gems (SnowpiercerCoherence) to be found, often through video on demand, which boomed in 2014, potentially changing the way we watch movies forever. But the year wasn’t entirely indie-centric: There were also a few bravo-worthy blockbusters, from the goofy sci-fi of Guardians of the Galaxy to the small-star, big-scale delights of The Lego Movie. Without further ado, here are Yahoo Movies’ top 40 movies of 2014:

40. Foxcatcher
Bennett Miller’s drama about a real-life murder case is a taut psychological portrait of two indelible personalities: The naive Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) — whose inarticulate desperation makes him a too-easy mark — and the creepy, insinuating heir John du Pont (Steve Carell), who has decided to dabble in wrestlers the way his old-money mother breeds horses. Mark Ruffalo provides the only glimmers of warmth as Mark’s older brother Dave, but the movie that emerges is still a chilling look at what happens as Du Pont gradually unravels, seemingly hell-bent on taking the Schultz brothers with him. – Kerrie Mitchell

39. The Fault in Our Stars
It was high time millennials got their very own Love Story, and this adaptation of John Green’s hit novel about the lives of teens with cancer hit the spot (and the box office, where it became one of the most profitable movies of the year). Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort successfully yanked the tears from what seemed like every man, woman, and young adult with their talk of “little infinities” and romance. And, yeah, we swooned, too. OK? OK. – Breanne L. Heldman

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38. The Theory of Everything
You’ll never look at Stephen Hawking in the same way after seeing him portrayed as a funny coed charmer whose health may be in decline but whose bright personality, wit, and astronomical brilliance persevere. Eddie Redmayne shows infinite range portraying Hawking at various points in his life, from a fully functioning young student to an ALS-suffering academic who could communicate only through facial gestures (and his famous speaking aid). A bit saccharine, sure, but still a poignant tribute to one of our greatest minds. – Kevin Polowy

37. Jodorowsky’s Dune 
In the early ’70s, midnight-movie director Alejandro Jodorowsky — an art-film rascal who favored exotic visuals over clear-cut narratives — decided to tackle Frank Herbert’s sprawling novel Dune. His version (which was to include performances by Mick Jagger, members of Pink Floyd, and Orson Welles) never got made, but this fond, ever-twisting documentary does its best to recreate and celebrate Jodorowsky’s vision, providing a too-brief glimpse at what could have been the loopiest sci-fi movie ever made.

– Brian Raftery


36. Begin Again
Seven years after his revelatory indie musical Once, writer-director John Carney tells a similar yet glossier tale of love and guitar licks —  this one set in New York City and starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley (who sings, and sings well) —  and winds up with a perfect companion piece. Despite cheers at its Sundance premiere and a solid showing at the box office, unlike Once it still feels like this film hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. – K.P.

35. Interstellar
No, Interstellar is not the second coming of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it is a rousing space adventure in its own right, one that manages to blast past questionable plot points and stilted, expository dialogue with an epic scope and a charismatic star turn by Matthew McConaughey. He may not be the next Kubrick, but Christopher Nolan definitely has the right stuff to be the next Philip Kaufman.  – Ethan Alter

34. Life Itself
Roger Ebert never stopped writing — he was still blogging just days before his death in 2013 — and as Steve James’s respectful (but hardly sugar-coated) documentary shows, he never stopped loving movies, either. Alternating between Ebert’s newspaper and broadcast-TV heyday and his painful final years, James portrays Ebert as the competitive, argumentative (but ultimately endearing) critic we always suspected he was, and the footage of him struggling against cancer is devastating without ever resorting to mawkishness. Life Itself is a movie Ebert would have loved. – B.R.

33. Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live. Die. Repeat.)
Yes, this was yet another Tom Cruise vehicle with a deafening trailer featuring the tireless star dodging a hail of bullets. But Edge of Tomorrow wound up being one of Cruise’s best action flicks in years, with the star running, gunning, and (occasionally) grinning through an intergalactic battle. And Emily Blunt made the best decision of her career by trading in her trusted corset for a battle suit, becoming a badass sci-fi star in her own right. – Matt Whitfield

32. Blue Ruin
A grimy, sweat-stained revenge drama, Blue Ruin lays out its premise in an impressively efficient, almost wordless opening, in which a hollowed-out drifter learns the man who killed his parents is getting out of jail, setting off a back-and-forth game of revenge. What follows is a horror show of home invasions, arrow wounds, and gothically tangled family ties. Blue Ruin gets pop-culture bonus points for the inclusion of The Brady Bunch’s Eve Plumb, who shows up as a backwoods sister packing serious heat. – K.M.

31. Big Hero 6
Disney’s latest animated hit is proof that, even in our post-WALL-E era, we can never get enough loveable robots. Big Hero 6’s literal and figurative big star is Baymax, an inflatable, highly huggable bot who befriends Hiro, a young boy mourning the loss of his robotics-genius brother. The two team up with a few other unlikely heroes and attempt to save their fictionally mashed-up town, San Fransokyo, from getting sucked into a time-space dimensional no-man’s-land. Big Hero 6’s edge-of-your-seat action and innovative animation make it a treat for the kids, but the film’s earnest, agreeably gooey core will appeal to grownups, too. – Meriah Doty

30. Wild
It would’ve been pretty easy to dismiss Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar-nominated Dallas Buyers Club as some tired hybrid of Into the Wild and Eat Pray Love. But then you’d be missing a pair of the year’s best performances, with Reese Witherspoon delivering a raw and visceral turn as Pacific Crest hiker Cheryl, and Laura Dern making you cry for a second time this year (after Fault in Our Stars) as her ill-fated mother. Their performances help make this a wildly affecting story. – K.P.

29. We Are the Best!
The premise is appropriately punk-rock primal: In early-’80s Sweden, three teenage girls — frustrated by their parents, teachers, and peers — decide to form a band and take over the world (or, at least, their quiet corner of Stockholm). The group’s songs are as scrappy and vibrant as the film itself, which is part coming-of-age story, part backstage minidrama, and all heart. – B.R.

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28. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The first sequel in the rebooted Apes franchise finds humanity decimated in the wake of the flu pandemic and apes mostly ruling the earth. Which is a total drag for humanity but terrific for us moviegoers: That means we get extended scenes with the complex ape society, led by our wise simian hero Caesar (Andy Serkis in marvelous motion-capture form). The seamless special effects only deepen the movie’s majesty, as we watch both humans and beasts fumbling toward an uncertain future and fighting for survival. – K.M.

27. Inherent Vice
Master filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson and his current muse, Joaquin Phoenix, move away from the intense dramatics of The Master for this stoner-noir film that feels like the director’s own stab at The Big Lebowski. The movie follows Phoenix’s weeded-out P.I. on a hazy odyssey as he attempts to make sense of a nonsensical Los Angeles kidnapping, a quest that’s dotted with pratfalls and face-plants  It’s layered, confusing, dark, funny, and expectedly stylish. And man, is it a trip. – K.P.

26. The Guest
This gnarly little thriller, in which Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens plays a mysterious loner slowly wreaking havoc upon a rural household, is scuzzy B-movie perfection, the kind of well-executed creeper-feature you might find on Cinemax in the late ’80s. And Stevens, who’s robotically buff and unnervingly charming — even when he’s gutting someone — looks like he’s having as much fun as the audience. – B.R.

25. X-Men: Days of Future Past
In a year overstocked with superhero flicks, Days of Future Past ranked as one of the best. Powered by Hugh Jackman’s time-tripping Wolverine and seamlessly synthesizing the mutant-happy casts of X-Men: First Class and old-school X-Men in a story of technology run amok, Days delivers the finest installment yet of the long-running franchise. And Evan Peters’s joyous Quicksilver scene was among the most indelible movie moments of 2014. – Marcus Errico

24. Under the Skin
Aptly named, Under the Skin spawns a terror so unexpected that moviegoers won’t be able to shake off this avant-garde sci-fi thriller for weeks. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth), Skin stars Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious drifter who picks up would-be male suitors, gets them alone, and … well, the less said, the better. In addition to delivering some of the more horrifying onscreen death scenes of the year — all accompanied by Mica Levi’s haunting score — Skin  features Johansson’s most daring (if least seen) performance of 2014. – M.W.

23. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Between the killer action, humor, and surprising plot twists — including some startling truths about Hydra — the second Captain America entry was pretty much everything you could want from a superhero blockbuster. With a Bourne-like tone and a focus on Cap’s affable goofiness —who can forget his endearing pop-culture lists? — Winter Soldier had us ready to start a countdown for May 6, 2016, when Captain America: Civil War hits theaters. – B.L.H.

22. Only Lovers Left Alive
More — much more — than just a hipper-than-thou vampire movie for the Williamsburg set, Jim Jarmusch’s latest richly imagined, music-soaked mood piece is also a touching elegy for a certain breed of artist, perfectly embodied here by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. Making expert use of the desolate urban landscape of Detroit, as well as the exotic Old World flavor of Morocco, Jarmusch crafts a bloody lovely gothic romance. – E.A.

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21. The Skeleton Twins
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader play symbiotic siblings Maggie and Milo, whose years-long estrangement is finally bridged by Milo’s nearly successful suicide attempt. So in case you weren’t prepared, Twins isn’t exactly a raucous, feel-good comedy starring your two favorite SNL alums. Instead, it’s something much better: A dark, kind of warped, but ultimately warm-hearted dramedy about two brilliantly funny and deeply screwed-up people who can’t seem to stop self-destructing. – K.M.

20. Beyond the Lights 
In Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Klieg-lit drama, an ascendant R&B star (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and an L.A. cop (Nate Parker) have an unlikely meet-cute moment: She’s about to hurl herself out of a luxury hotel, and he swoops in to save the day. What follows is a thoroughly modern (yet thankfully old-school) love affair — one free of winking or weeping — and the kind of deeply pleasurable movie romance no one makes anymore. That Beyond also happens to be an astute examination of 21st-century news media and the modern-day music biz is an unexpected, welcome plus. – B.R.

19. Guardians of the Galaxy
We admit it: We were skeptical going to a movie based on a minor, largely forgotten comic series. But Marvel’s whiz-bang mashup of Star Wars and The Avengers had us hooked from the get-go. With a perfect cast — led by Chris Pratt’s goofball rogue and the CGI comedy stylings of Rocket and Groot (spin-off, please) — a guilty-pleasure soundtrack, and fan-appeasing cameos (hello, Howard the Duck!), Guardians proved to be the ultimate summer popcorn-cruncher and a welcome addition to Marvel’s expanding cinematic universe. – M.E.

18. Obvious Child
If only more movies about postcollegiate young adulthood were this intelligent and honest. Jenny Slate scores in her first leading role, as Donna Stern, a fumbling New York comic who gets pregnant after a disappointing breakup, too much beer, and a one-night stand. Written and directed by new talent Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child artfully injects humor without undermining Stern’s somber predicament in a movie about abortion that proves to be anything but preachy.  – M.D.

17. Top Five
In his third movie as a writer-director, Chris Rock finally translates the spirit of his standup to the big screen. Top Five — which also owes a cinematic debt to Woody Allen — takes place over one day and finds Rock playing the semi-autobiographical Andre Allen, a comic known for his goofy persona who’’s striving for respect by making a serious movie. Needless to say, it works out better for the real-life Rock than the one on screen. —Jordan Zakarin

16. Coherence
No other 2014 movie effectively messed with our minds like this micro-budget thriller about a series of strange occurrences that take place at a dinner party after a comet passes overheard. James Ward Byrkit’s imaginative directorial debut proves that science fiction doesn’t require big-budget effects to get spine-tingling results. —Gwynne Watkins

15. The Imitation Game
The remarkable story of Alan Turing, a genius scientist whose code-cracking machine helped guide the Allies to victory in World War II, comes to the big screen in this powerful, moving, and wonderfully acted biopic. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers his most inimitable film performance yet as the brilliant, but abrasive Turing, while Keira Knightley scores a major assist as perhaps his only ally. —K.P.

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14. The Grand Budapest Hotel
What might have been a tricky film becomes a valentine in the hands of Wes Anderson. The director brings his distinctive visual style and sense of character to this bittersweet comedy about a central European hotel concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who is framed for murder during the ominous political upheaval of the 1930s. —G.W.

13. Mr. Turner
A number of filmmakers have tried to depict the careers of great painters on a big-screen canvas, only to end up with incomplete portraits. That’s thankfully not the case with Mike Leigh’s masterful look at the life and times of British artist, J.M.W. Turner. Anchored by Timothy Spall’s remarkably lived-in performance, the film captures the beauty of Turner’s paintings without missing the complexities of the man who created them.  —E.A. 

12. Selma
Director Ava DuVernay’s third film is an incredible look at a crucial moment in during the 1960s civil rights movement. Selma zooms in on Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by a remarkable David Oyelowo) and the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery that helped pressure President Lyndon Johnson into fighting for, and ultimately passing, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The tightly focused drama has an electric energy and, sadly, a resonance with what’s happening in the country today. —J.Z.

11. A Most Violent Year
Writer-director J.C. Chandor’s third film is a slow-burn story about ambition, corruption, and morality. Oscar Isaac delivers a smoldering performance as a small-time player in the home-heating oil racket, who faces hijackings and armed thugs as he expands his company during a crime-ridden winter in 1980s New York City. Jessica Chastain brings the tough sass as his scheming wife, who watches her man try to keep his humanity in a world that’s all but forcing him to abandon it. —J.Z.

10. Dear White People
Usually Twitter feeds, no matter how brilliant, should just stick to 140-characters bursts. First-time director Justin Simien, however, turned his parody account into a very smart and funny satire about race relations in the 21st century, with the focus on privilege and assimilation at a fictional college campus. Tessa Thompson puts in a breakthrough performance as a conflicted campus DJ and house president. — J.Z.

9. Force Majeure
A Jury Prize winner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival (and likely Best Foreign Language Film nominee at the Academy Awards), this Swedish import swiftly snowballs from a quiet indie film with a simple premise into a chilling psychodrama about gender roles, family dynamics, and the illusions of security. Helming the emotional landslide is writer-director Ruben Östlund, whose unsettling shifts in tone create an icy ledge on which rattled viewers teeter as the fate of a marriage hangs in the balance. —M.W.

8. Snowpiercer
Bong Joon-ho’s white-knuckle, post-apocalyptic thrill ride aboard the last train on Earth ranks as one of the year’s criminally unseen films. The titular Snowpiercer transports the planet’s survivors on an endless loop through a wintry wasteland — and serves as a crucible of culture and class, kept in delicate, if disturbing, balance at the behest of its near-omnipotent engineer (Ed Harris). Chris “Captain America” Evans leads a revolt through the train, uncovering truths about the Snowpiercer and himself one car at a time. —M.E.

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7. Gone Girl
David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn expertly capture the twisted tone of Flynn’s best-selling novel about a feckless man who may or may not have killed his wife. Helped by standout performances from Ben Affleck, Carrie Coon, and Rosmund Pike, Flynn and Fincher weave Amazing Amy’s manipulations with Nick’s nasty awfulness and bring it all to a suitably creepy conclusion, elevating this thriller from pop pulp to Oscar contender. — B.L.H.

6. The Overnighters
This powerful documentary uses the story of a North Dakota pastor to explore how economic hardship can force good people into impossible moral quandaries. Jesse Moss’s film is topical and compassionate, yet also seeded with genuinely shocking moments that go off like bombs. —G.W.

5. The Lego Movie
With any other filmmaker, an animated feature about Lego figures just being Lego figures wouldn’t be worth busting out of the bin. But comic whizzes Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street) have crafted a hilarious, dizzying, all-ages hit so loaded with clever jokes and visual gags that it demands repeat viewings. —K.P.

4. Birdman
Here’s the best superhero movie of 2014. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s spellbinding black comedy about Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up former cinematic crime fighter pouring his soul and money into a Broadway play, is like nothing you’ve ever seen, appearing to unfold in one dazzling, continuous shot. It’s not just the cinematography that’’s incredible, though. Keaton gives a shattering, career-best performance, as does the fierce Emma Stone as Riggan’s troubled daughter. —K.P.

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3. Nightcrawler
Jake Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds for this film, but that was hardly the most interesting aspect of his performance in Dan Gilroy’s smart and very dark look at obsession and the media. Gyllenhaal plays carnage-hungry paparazzo Lou Bloom, a sociopath who will stop at nothing to get the money shot and move up in the world. It’s a riveting performance in a thrilling flick, making for a great directorial debut from a veteran screenwriter. — J.Z.

2. Whiplash
Whiplash features a terrifying J.K. Simmons as a sadistic music conservatory instructor and a committed Miles Teller as his dangerously driven drum student. But it’s not just the towering performances that set the drama apart: Director Damien Chazelle maintains a thriller-like pace to the plot while still asking uncomfortable questions about musical obsession, the quest for excellence, and how much of your soul you have to sacrifice to become the best. —M.D.

1. Boyhood
Even if Richard Linklater’s time-elapse family drama — filmed in just 39 days, over the course of a dozen years — had been just a well-intentioned cinematic stunt, it still would have been a remarkable feat. But Boyhood stands out from every other movie this year not just formally, but emotionally, as well. The story of a young Texas boy (played by Ellar Coltrane) who grows into an ever-questioning young man, Boyhood stays in your mind (and heart) for days, if not months, after viewing. This is partly because Mason’s journey —full of minor victories, interior anxieties, and the occasional trauma — is so relatable, no matter when or where you grew up. But it’s also because Linklater emphasizes the quieter moments of everyday life, reminding us that our existences are defined not by giant plot twists, but by an accumulation of smaller moments we barely have time to notice. With Boyhood, though, Linklater is reminding us to look closer at the world around us. It’s impossible not to feel changed after experiencing it for the first time (or the second, or the third). You don’t seize Boyhood; instead, Boyhood seizes you. —B.R.

Related: The Worst Movies of 2014

Related: The 2014 Yahoo Movie Awards