25. “Fast and Furious 6″
Its brilliance is in its self-awareness. The physics-defying action gets so outlandish we figure Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, the late Paul Walker, and the rest of the gang are in on the joke. (There’s no possible way the cargo plane could have sped down the runway for that long!) Add an epic girl-on-girl fistfight, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson flying through the air, and big ‘ol explosions, and you get the most entertaining action romp of the year. – Meriah Doty
24. “The Kings of Summer”
It’s a coming-of-age indie that hits all the right notes. Three teen boys, sick of their families, become bent on building a hidden house in the woods. They grow facial hair — or at least try to — get in touch with their inner bear-men, and beat the heck out of some drainpipes. A hilarious and heartfelt performance by newcomer Moises Arias is the cherry on top of this surprisingly delicious cake. – M.D.
23. “Captain Phillips”
If ever there was a story primed to receive the big-screen treatment it is the harrowing ordeal of Captain Richard Phillips and the 2009 hijacking of U.S. cargo ship Alabama by Somali pirates. When you throw in Oscar winner Tom Hanks as your cinematic hero and Oscar nominee Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy” as director and combine them with edge-of-your seat/based-on-a-true-story action, you have one of the most satisfying moviegoing experiences of the year. – Kara Warner
22. “Before Midnight”
There’s something to be said for a franchise that takes its time between movies. In this third installment of the love story that began on a train to Vienna in 1995 and was rekindled in Paris in 2004, we learn that Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) may not have tied the knot — that’s not their style — but they do have an adorable set of twins and a seemingly endless amount of arguments and affection for each other. Through the non-stop dialogue we’ve come to expect from these Richard Linklater films and set in the backdrop of Greece, we’re reminded that long-term relationships are messy and take work, but they can be no less magical than, say, falling in love with a stranger on a train. – Breanne L. Heldman
21. “20 Feet From Stardom”
The unsung heroes behind some of pop music’s biggest hits finally get their time to shine in this heartbreaking-yet-life-affirming documentary from award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville. Part love letter, part confessional, “20 Feet From Stardom” honors these supremely talented back-up singers while showcasing why they never should have been relegated to the shadows in the first place. – Matt Whitfield
In Alexander Payne’s landmark black-and-white comedy, a lonely son (Will Forte) takes his alcoholic father (Bruce Dern) on a doomed car trip from Montana to Nebraska to collect a Publisher’s Clearinghouse windfall. Simple? Simply perfect thanks to Dern’s gristly performance, Payne’s shot-for-shot precision and writer Bob Nelson’s humorous insight into the Midwestern heart of darkness. Nothing is left to chance but everything feels spontaneous in Payne’s American masterpiece. – Thelma Adams
19. “Fruitvale Station”
“Fruitvale Station” is one of those ultimate “movies you need to see, but will never want to watch again.” Ryan Coogler’s slow-burn directorial debut tracks the final 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant (“Friday Night Lights” alum Michael B. Jordan, who, it turns out, could one day be “the Michael Jordan of acting”), the Oakland father killed by a BART cop who later claimed he mistook his gun for a Taser. It’s a damning indictment of excessive force, and contains the most devastating climax of any film this year. – Kevin Polowy
Ron Howard’s ’70s era Formula 1 racing flick has it all: compelling and colorful characters, fast-paced pedal-to-the-metal action, and beautiful people taking off their swanky clothes. Though he’s still bigger than life as playboy James Hunt, it’s nice to see Chris Hemsworth convincingly lose the cape. While Golden Globe nominee Daniel Bruhl manages to steal some of Thor’s thunder with his cold and calculated portrayal of rival racer Niki Lauda, what really drives the movie is the real-life competitive nature of the two men, and of the head and the heart. – Adam Pockross
17. “Blue Jasmine”
You’ll hear plenty about Cate Blanchett’s riveting performance this awards season, and rightfully so — scene by scene, she honestly breaks down right before our very eyes. But there’s more to the picture than just fantastic acting; Woody Allen’s nuanced pacing and deft dialogue seamlessly walks the thin line between comedy and drama with a verisimilitude only a master can convey. The final redemptive scene between Bobby Cannavale and Sally Hawkins might just be the best minute of filmmaking this year. – A.P.
16. “Stories We Tell”
In this fascinating documentary, actress-turned-director Sarah Polley (“Away From Her”) turns the camera on her own family as she unravels the shocking secrets of her paternity. Polley also suggests that the stories we tell, even among children with the same mother, will never entirely mesh. While many directors are amazing storytellers, whether their medium is fiction or nonfiction, we recognize Polley because she is also a fearless truth-teller. – T.A.
15. “Saving Mr. Banks”
This one — about Walt Disney’s (Tom Hanks) wooing of author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) in his attempt to adapt “Mary Poppins” for the big screen — pushed every button on our emotional dashboard: We laughed, we cried, we pondered, we sang. It’s about so many things, yet it covers them all with resonance. It’s about the hopeful power of storytelling; it’s about finding common ground when ground is not easily given; it’s about forgiving past sins to move onto future greatness; it’s about the price of art, and how very valuable it can be. Somehow, though its messages are heavy indeed, in the end, there’s a therapeutic catharsis, eerily akin to flying a kite. – A.P.
14. “The World’s End”
The third collaboration between director Edgar Wright and his co-writer/star Simon Pegg is a thoughtful and emotional exploration into the themes of aging, conformity, and addiction. And it features a bunch of sloppily drunk guys kung-fu fighting robots. Following “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz,” the film caps off the team’s loose thematic trilogy that hides its themes under snappy verbal comedy and the trappings of genre, and “The World’s End” is their most resonant work yet. Wright’s camera work is both calculated and frenetic, and the performances are top notch, particularly Nick Frost going against type as a buttoned-down lawyer who falls off the wagon and hulks out. Wright will next enter the Marvel Universe for “Ant-Man,” but here’s hoping he and Pegg are up for another round after that. – Matt McDaniel
13. “The Conjuring”
There have been far, far too many exorcism movies in the past decade — they’ve become so disposable that even “The Last Exorcism” got a sequel (Come on! It was called “The Last Exorcism!”) — and most of them have been horror-ible (sorry). It’s all the more reason “The Conjuring” was such a welcome breath of fresh air/pure terror, a highly original, often understated shocker that like many of the all-time best films in its genre, never revealed too much and sustained a bone-chilling mystery that kept us on the edge of our seats. Oh, and that doll. This wasn’t only the scariest movie of the year, it was among the very best. – K.P.
One Southern California mother’s piercing documentary about Sea World and Shamu turns into an explosive expose about corporate malfeasance and the fate of the six-ton serial killer whale Tilikum. Gabriela Cowperthwaite created the movie that Sea World doesn’t want us to see — and launched the #FreeTilly movement. “Blackfish” joins the American documentary renaissance with an edge-of-your-seat feature as compelling, shocking, and revealing as any summer blockbuster but completely CGI-free. – T.A.
11. “The Place Beyond the Pines”
The marketing campaign missed when it tried to sell us a stunt-driving bank-robber vs. golden-boy police detective story starring two of the silver screen’s sexiest men: Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper. Sure, the movie was that, for a riveting hot minute, but the rest of Derek Cianfrance’s daring film is what truly sets it apart: a structure-defying, multi-generational, gray-as-a-storm-cloud drama about fathers and sons, and what it means to be a man. While Gosling and Cooper may never have been better, it’s Dane DeHaan who’s the biggest surprise, perhaps because he’s barely in the trailer. – A.P.
Between the catchy songs performed by killer voices — a special tip of the hat for Idina Menzel and the surprisingly fantastic Kristen Bell — and the ridiculously adorable faces of the current Disney era, you’d be hard-pressed to dislike this animated fairy tale. “Frozen” has the makings of a “Little Mermaid”-style classic, but with an even more modern, feminist twist. After all, the main moral of the story has nothing to do with sweet Anna falling for the woodsy Kristoff, but rather the love of family and sisterhood. – B.L.H.
9. “Short Term 12″
Here’s a film that most folks probably haven’t yet heard of (it made just a smidge over a million at the box office), but we couldn’t recommend highly enough. Destin Cretton’s comedic drama has drawn comparisons to 2006’s excellent “Half Nelson,” and rightfully so: Like “Nelson,” it’s based on a short of the same name, and it centers on twentysomething idealists (Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.) hoping to effect change through the young people they mentor (here at a foster care facility in place of a middle school, and award-worthy Larson in lieu of an Oscar-nominated Ryan Gosling) despite their own flaws and troubles. “12” is the type of film that will have you in stitches one moment, tears the next; it’s sweet, funny, tender, moving, and beautifully true to life. – K.P.
8. “Inside Llewyn Davis”
The story of perpetually down-on-his-luck folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is not a happy one, but because it’s told through the artistic and insightful lens of Joel and Ethan Coen, there is cinematic magic made in the misery. Their exploration of the early beginnings of American folk music has a timeless, familiar quality and, as we’ve come to expect from the Coens, a killer soundtrack. Not to mention a few key performances by Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and John Goodman. – K.W.
7. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”
Don’t act so surprised to see this film so high on our list. After all, when was the last time a book adaptation with a huge following that was also a sequel succeeded on so many levels? We’ll bet never. Jennifer Lawrence and co. brought more action, higher stakes, and even more heartfelt emotion to the franchise’s second installment. Packed to the brim with great performances and both heartbreaking and heart-pounding moments — with just the right dash of fun — we have to give a District 11 salute to director Francis Lawrence, who just nailed it. Needless to say, our countdown to Nov. 21, 2014, when “Mockingjay – Part 1″ hits theaters, has already begun. – B.L.H.
Who would’ve thought that watching Joaquin Phoenix fall in love with his computer, in this case a highly-advanced operating system (OS) voiced by Scarlett Johansson, would make for one of the more oddly realistic and emotionally moving films of the year? That is the beauty of Spike Jonze’s “Her,” a thoughtful, unique, and slightly frightening look at where our addictions to technology may soon lead us. – K.W.
5. “Dallas Buyers Club”
Every bit as great as Tom Hanks Oscar-winner “Philadelphia,” “Dallas Buyers Club” — also about a man with HIV-AIDS — is vastly different, showcasing a visceral, rousing cowboy spirit. “I prefer to die with my boots on,” Matthew McConaughey’s Ron protests as he goes against doctor’s orders. Jared Leto is searing and heart-wrenching as Ron’s unlikeliest of sidekicks. Intuitive in all the right ways, “Dallas” flaunts its star’s most important performance to date. – M.D.
4. “The Wolf of Wall Street”
Martin Scorsese’s previous movie was “Hugo,” a sweet, kid-friendly romp that made some wonder if the old master had lost his edge. But he shut critics down with this, his fifth and best collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio. This adaptation of Jordan Belfort’s memoir of unlimited greed and debauchery in the financial world of the early ’90s has the manic energy of Scorsese classics like “Goodfellas.” It’s also flat-out hilarious, with Jonah Hill heading up a deep bench of comedic talents. The film does run long, and it could be seen as unintentionally glamorizing the reckless behavior it actually decries. It’s still the most potent jolt of pure cinema you’ll see this year. – M.M.
3. “American Hustle”
“American Hustle” not only moves, it purrs and dances its a** off. Fat-and-bald Christian Bale, sexy-to-the-max Amy Adams, and the rest of the outrageously brilliant cast get supersized by David O. Russell’s inventive, dare we say, lyrically guided mind behind the camera. He even manages to sneak in a pseudo-musical into his ’70s crime opus: Bale and Jeremy Renner lead a restaurant sing-a-long and Jennifer Lawrence angrily croons to Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die.” – M.D.
How did they do it? It’s a question we’re still asking about director Alfonso Cuaron’s astonishing science-fiction movie. And we don’t mean how did they film that 12-minute-long opening shot that puts you right in deep orbit with the astronauts on screen. Or how did they get Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, two of the biggest stars in the world, to agree to be dangled like puppets in an enclosed box to simulate the motion of spinning off into space. Or how did “Gravity” get to be the highest-grossing original film of the year (not a sequel, comic-book adaptation, or both). The real question is how did they make such a visual spectacle and pulse-pounding thriller also one of the most heartfelt and genuinely moving stories of the year? – M.M.
1. “12 Years a Slave”
In the hands of any other director, the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man kidnapped and forced into slavery from 1841 to 1853, could very well have been formulaic, run-of-the-mill, and overly sentimental. Thankfully, it landed in the hands of Steve McQueen (“Shame”), who portrays the brutality of slavery by framing Northrup’s tale as a taut thriller, creating a visceral experience for viewers akin to someone grabbing you by the throat and not letting go for two hours (in a good, somewhat cathartic way). What results is an instant classic, and the definitive slavery film of our time. Believe the hype: “12 Years a Slave” will knock you out … again, in a good way. – K.P.