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10 movies manage to glitter amid dark year at multiplex

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2014 is likely a year Hollywood would rather forget: Slumping summer box office.

Sony email hack and the studio’s subsequent The Interview debacle.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and The Expendables 3.

But as the year is only days away from its big finale, it’s time to focus on what the studios got right with my top films of 2014.

As with any year-end picks, it’s an entirely subjective list based on a range of criteria that includes artistic merit and mental and emotional stimulation.

These films may not be perfect — although at least one of them is — but they all crackle with creative passion and integrity that resonate as more than mere studio releases but deeply personal projects.

10. Jodorowsky’s Dune. A fascinating archeological dig into the greatest movie that never was, director Frank Pavich’s documentary of the failed 1974 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune is a celebration of the ethereal potential of cinema and a tribute to cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and his Holy Man quest to make a “spiritual” film. His vision of Dune never made it out of pre-production — Hollywood wouldn’t touch it — and with a cast featuring Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali was probably bound for cult status if it had. Yet the legacy of this aborted ambition is undeniable, launching film careers for Alien writer Dan O’Bannon and Alien designer H.R. Giger, among many others. Jodorowsky’s Dune is the ultimate tease to what might have been.

9. Interstellar. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a spiritual descendent of Jodorowsky’s Dune: a wildly ambitious and deeply personal project that confounds and overwhelms. A bold exploration of mankind’s future in the stars and across the dimensions, Interstellar, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, challenges rather than coddles, riddling moviegoers with its questions in place of answers. The reward, then, of Nolan’s work is not in the immediate gratification of a well-made film, but in the deep contemplation of an intelligent movie that toys with the concept of time, and surely will stand the test of it.

8. Citizenfour. Citizenfour is a powerful and disturbing real-time document of the NSA leak as it played out in Edward Snowden’s anonymous Hong Kong hotel room. Snowden first contacted filmmaker Laura Poitras months before he leaked the documents, and she was there to capture those clandestine revelations as they filtered through the media and changed his life and ours forever. Poitras becomes distracted by the minutiae of these moments, yet her imperfect real-life thriller is the most important documentary of the last 25 years. It may not sway negative opinions of Snowden, but, as Citizenfour offers, that’s not what’s important to him. Knowing what our government is up to and then talking about it is.

7. Life Itself. Roger Ebert was a hard drinker-turned recovering alcoholic. He was a ladies’ man who, according to at least one friend, made terrible choices in women. And his off-screen relationship with fellow film critic Gene Siskel could be downright nasty. This documentary makes you miss Ebert all the more. Filmmaker Steve James’ (Hoop Dreams) Life Itself is a wondrous and uninhibited revelation of our most influential and arguably passionate film critic, whose death silenced a unique voice that will never be replaced, and the story of a life as enjoyable and magical as movies themselves.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Inspired by the writings of Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel is Wes Anderson’s bittersweet comedy-drama about an eccentric concierge (Ralph Fiennes) and his beloved hotel — both of which fell out of fashion by the 1930s. Fiennes is a perpetual motion machine come to life, whirling through the screen with boundless energy, roguish wit, and a charming smile for the ladies — particularly the wealthy and elderly. Anderson’s customary quirkiness is omnipresent, but The Grand Budapest Hotel offers a surprisingly touching streak by the filmmaker as a wistful celebration of anachronisms.

5. Nightcrawler. Jake Gyllenhaal simply disappears into the unsettling role of Louis Bloom, a creepy freelance TV photojournalist who trawls a.m. Los Angeles for blood and carnage to film. His footage brings big bucks, and for a desperate-for-ratings station news director (Rene Russo), necessitates a pact with the devil. Louis’ ambitions and hard work are not only to be admired and rewarded, but feared as well. The Bourne Legacy screenwriter Dan Gilroy wrote and makes an impressive directorial debut with this dark, biting satire of media, capitalism, and our obsession with the go-getter entrepreneurial spirit.

4. Gone Girl. Five years into their marriage, the impossibly perfect relationship between Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) and Nick (Ben Affleck) has become a well-maintained lie to everyone, including themselves. Once she goes missing, Nick becomes the logical — and easy — suspect for police. But surprises abound in Gillian Flynn’s adaptation of her own best-selling novel, and under the guidance of director David Fincher, the story is more than a tight thriller, but a cold and clinical contemplation of relationships and ideal love, and the secrets hidden and lies told to maintain the illusion of it all.

3. Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is a struggling actor attempting to shed his past as a superhero onscreen with a dramatic comeback on Broadway. The parallels are obvious and Keaton delivers a brilliant comeback performance of his own in this meta comedy that mocks method acting (Edward Norton), actors and agents (Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis), selfie culture (Emma Stone), and critics. Director and cowriter Alejandro González Iñárritu’s dark comedy-drama is spot-on, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s technical wizardry a visual feast.

2. Whiplash. A tense, unnerving drama that explores the potentially dangerous teacher-student relationship between an abusive jazz instructor (J.K. Simmons) and his star drummer pupil (Miles Teller), Whiplash offers two revelations: Simmons and writer-director Damien Chazelle. For Simmons, Whiplash is the opportunity to retire his “I recognize that guy” character actor status with an explosive breakthrough performance as a bully more monstrous than R. Lee Ermey’s sadist drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. And for Chazelle, in his major film debut, Whiplash is a showcase of talent that, for the final 20 minutes of the movie, will have you breathless and on the edge of your seat.

1. Boyhood. There’s never been a film like Boyhood, writer-director Richard Linklater’s decade-plus-in-the-making documenty and celebration of a 7-year-old boy named Mason’s (unknown Texas actor Ellar Coltrane) journey into manhood. From the milestones (his parent’s divorce, first kiss) to the everyday (fighting with his older sister, trying to fit in), Linklater captures an evolving life in quasi-real time (based in part on Coltrane’s age and real-life experiences). Boyhood is an extraordinary achievement for its noble ambition, but it’s far more interesting as relatable cinematic snapshots to our own lives. To watch Mason grow up is to experience the pain and magic, hurt and joy of that journey again. Boyhood is more than a nostalgic jolt, it’s a trip through life itself.

Contact Kirk Baird at: kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734.

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