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The top 20 films of 2014

We pick this year’s cinematic feats including Fury, Ida and Boyhood. How many have you seen?

Anyone who says 2014 wasn't a good year for cinema deserves a duct-taped mouth, stat. Even the sequel and comic-book fare has stepped up its game this year. Who didn't like Guardians of the Galaxy or 22 Jump Street? Stick all of this year's films released in the UK* – both blockbuster and backroom indie – in a sieve, and what comes out are the films that have shaped the past 12 months. Our end-of-year list has been put together on a points-based system, so there is actual maths involved – and you can't argue with actual maths. We've polled our contributors for their favourite picks and ranked them in this definitive guide to cinema in 2014.

“Let the ladies come to the front!” screams Kathleen Hanna in The Punk Singer, Sini Anderson's fearless and revealing documentary tribute to one of riot grrrl's defining figures. The frontwoman of punk outfit Bikini Kill helped spearhead the early-90s movement, giving a female voice to grunge and empowering a legion of girls ready to let their hair down in the mosh pit. This fearless telling of her story is as necessary as it is touching, as Hanna continues to influence a new generation of feminists and frontrunners.

This film is a serious event: Robyn Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska) trains up a caravan of camels for the 1,700-mile journey from Alice Springs, Australia, to the Indian Ocean. She writes to National Geographic about her proposed journey, and they kit her out with an annoying sidekick photographer (Adam Driver) to document the trip at intervals. Her struggles are numerous, and when the public finds out about her undertaking she becomes famous, hounded by tourists who want to meet the “camel girl”. It's a true story, based on a bestselling book by the real-life Robyn Davidson. Wasikowska's turn is enough to thaw any cold heart, and the arresting visuals will have you booking a one-way flight to Oz.

Read our interview with Robyn Davidson here

Fanboys circle-jerked for months ahead of Interstellar, and rightly so: Christopher Nolan's latest cerebral blockbuster delivered in spades, even contributing to the science community with a discovery about the physics of black holes. What this film does well – you know, apart from the robo-humour and ice-cloud rendering – is flirt beautifully with aspects of time. It's in the little moments, like the one where Matthew McConaughey watches a video sequence of his children growing up, attempting to make contact, that Nolan really grabs you.

Read our interview with Jessica Chastain here

Here's a nice alternative to The Sound of Music. Just as she's about to take her vows and join the convent as an abbey-go-lucky nun, Ida discovers she's got some long-lost family that she must reconnect with. Pawel Pawlikowski's monochrome marvel took both the Critic's Prize at Toronto International Film Festival and Best Film at BFI London Film Festival. It starts off slow, but prepare to buckle up as the family drama unravels until Ida has her "Climb Every Mountain" moment.

Read our interview with Pawel Pawlikowski here

David Ayer's wartime drama about a danger-seeking tank crew blows every other war film out of the water in terms of sheer carnage. Reportedly, actors were manipulated on-set to ramp up the performances, using personal stories as weapons against each other and even, according to Shia LaBeouf, being forced to watch decapitation videos at the insistence of Ayer. “I never broke down in front of the guys,” Logan Lerman told us earlier this year. “That was always private. I just had moments where I was like, 'Fuck this, I don’t want to be here right now.'” This explosive story is as painful to watch as it is exhilarating.

Read our interview with Logan Lerman here

Jesse Eisenberg owns this headfuck as polar-opposite characters – one is the anxious, social pariah Simon pining to talk to (*gasp*) a girl! The other is his doppelganger James, a smooth-talking slimeball who swiftly nabs the crown as office favourite. Richard Ayoade's darkly funny treatment of this strange situ – based on the Dostoyevsky novel of the same name – offers a wry nod to the soul-sapping treadmill of office politics every layman must endure at some point in his life.

Read our interview with Jesse Eisenberg here

Of course, Abel Ferrara's film about outrageous excess and scandal stars Gerard Depardieu. Inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, it was snubbed at Cannes and failed to receive distribution in France – perhaps because the French are a bit sensitive when it comes to poking fun at their own. Regardless, Depardieu lives it up Ja Rule-style as Devereaux, a French presidential candidate who is arrested after he is accused of raping a maid in his hotel.

Read our interview with Abel Ferrara here

So Lars von Trier has admitted that he's no good sober, making headlines again with his “aha!” moment – that nothing he creates is good unless he's under the influence. We think that's silly, as this sexual saga is, apparently, the only work he's written when teetotal. Most of it takes place bedside, with an old dude (Stellan Skarsgård) spouting metaphors about how fishing is like sex. But Brit newcomers Stacy Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark steal the show with their tag-team titillations. Von Trier is on his A-game here, sober or not.

Read our interview with Stacy Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark here

Yann Demange's debut feature is an over-the-shoulder exercise in tension. When an English soldier gets cleaved from the rest of his team during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, he becomes the subject of a manhunt. Easy target, ya dig? Jack O'Connell serves up a meaty performance as Private Gary Hook, a Derbyshire lad on the run from an Irish gang's molotov cocktails. The film's history lesson is served with lashings of suspense and a singular narrative that will knock your socks off.

Read our interview with Jack O'Connell here

Everyone and their dog seemed to have an opinion about this year's most talked-about release, David Fincher's Gone Girl. Adapted from Gillian Flynn's slow-burning novel of the same name, the film took revenge to New Orleans and back with a plot more twisted than a bowl of spaghetti. Makes sense that a narrative this movie-ready was penned by a former film critic for Entertainment Weekly. That's right, Flynn used to lambast the duds of her day before her debut novel. Whatever the source text, this seat-of-your-pants thriller is a double fist-pump of entertainment. It's also pretty cool that Rosamund Pike is leading a surge of complex roles for women in film.

Brendan Gleeson took home Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards for his tough-talking portrayal of a Catholic priest in John Michael McDonagh's surprisingly sombre, meditative black comedy. The plot treads in the footsteps of Father James, who must confront his destiny after receiving a death threat in the confessions box, while struggling to keep the faith amid the slings and barbs of his heathen townsfolk. This is one relgious caper whose ballsy high-jinks you won't find in church.

Let Oscar Isaac sing his way right into your heart in the Coen brothers' understated latest. As folk singer Llewyn Davis, Isaac navigates the treacherous waters of a relationship with preggers Jean (Carey Mulligan), while trying to catch that elusive big break as an aspiring songwriter on the NY music scene. Following Davis through a week in 1961, this well-crafted drama is based on the life of little-known folkie Dave Van Ronk, a formative influence on the young Bob Dylan.

Read our interview with the Coen brothers here

Midwifing a song to rival Lambchop's “This Is the Song That Never Ends” in ear-clawing annoyance (“Everything Is Awesome”) wasn't the only feat this plastic pilgrimage accomplished. It threw down the gauntlet in the animation department, and the rapidfire humour of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller – the duo behind the guffaw-heavy antics of 22 Jump Street and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009) – was a godsend. Tiny plastic people finally get their due here, when a pleb construction worker is plucked from his dreary existence and tasked with thwarting Lord Business, who threatens to glue all of the Lego universe into an immobile wasteland. We're quick to admit this isn't the sort of film we'd normally go out of our way to champion, but mainlined through clever one-liners, this story is a side-splitting surprise worthy of our top ten.

Who would be so mean as to get someone fired from work for a measly bonus? The Dardenne brothers – the Belgian duo behind Rosetta (1999) and L'Enfant (2005) – direct this sustained cinematic panic attack wherein factory worker Sandra (Marion Cotillard) must go canvassing door-to-door over a nail-biting weekend after her colleagues are presented with an ultimatum: keep her on the staff, or let her go and take a €1,000 bonus. If that isn't enough to get your blood boiling, her boss threatens to sack anyone who sides with Sandra, who continues to battle depression. Heartbreaking and urgent, the film toys with every emotion in the book in its depiction of life in all its flagrant cruelty.

A Biebs lookalike, a constipated Julianne Moore and a star-fucking R-Patz are three very good reasons to watch David Cronenberg's mind-melting Hollywood satire. Moore plays Havana Segrand (a Real Housewives name if I've ever heard one), a flagging actress who desperately grasps at a comeback by reprising the role that made her mother famous. She so badly wants to play the part that she'll stop at nothing, calling her agent at all hours to goss and chinwag. This vapid saga isn't for everyone, but we were enamoured with its skewering of H-town's delusional drama. Its tongue-in-cheek story is riveting and so #current we're waiting for a TLC spinoff series. Carrie Fisher even makes a cameo.

Read our interview with David Cronenberg and Sarah Gadon here

Wes Anderson takes the twee to task in what is his funniest and best film to date. Inspired by the life and writings of Viennese author Stefan Zweig, this tall tale boasts an inspired cast including Bill Murray, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Jude Law, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe and Tilda Swinton, and encircles a hotelier wrongly framed for murder and his aspiring lobby boy who comes along for the ride. Jam-packed with all the Anderson signatures (the colour yellow, typography, face tattoos in the shape of tropical countries), it's like the haute-couture of visual storytelling.

Read our coverage of The Grand Budapest Hotel here

These badass chicks will only make you wish you'd shaved your head and started a punk band at 12 rather than wasting your time playing Lego. Just me…? OK. Lukas Moodysson's anarchic gambol piles on the punk with a trio of girls that – despite not knowing a downbeat from a deadbeat – power on to become a formidable musical outfit flipping the bird to their haters. Think Detroit Rock City (1999) with a killer line in chunky knitwear.

Having bagged just about every critical prize en route to potential Oscars glory next year, Richard Linklater's epic – filmed one week a year over 12 years, yadda yadda – is so much more than the sum of its unusual production parts. You know how some people grovel at JK Rowling's feet saying, “You were my childhood”? Well, this movie can claim that for many after slotting both Sheryl Crow and Gnarls Barkley into its immortal soundtrack. Plus, there's a Harry Potter book-launch segment in the film. Linklater signed a WOM contract with regular collaborators Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette to document the life of a growing boy (Ellar Coltrane) over one decade – through his awkward puberty phase, his relationship with an abusive stepdad, and his first love. It's a time capsule movie with something for everyone, and you'll forgive the sprawling runtime as your mind is blown time and again by the fact it was shot over a bloody decade.

Read our interview with Linklater and Ellar Coltrane here

When early promos surfaced on the internet of a slick, sunken-cheeked Jake Gyllenhaal begging for a job (best movie marketing of the year?), everyone's attention was piqued. His bug-eyed, socially stony Lou Bloom hit the memory-erase button on audiences slow to forget Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010). Bloom is a stringer who films the aftermath of crime scenes for the morning news, manipulating those around him to get the best footage possible. The film is deeply unsettling, not least because it digs in to the seedy underbelly of LA's most wacko, serving up a haunting portrait of crime chasers who skewer reality for cereal entertainment. If you leave this one feeling anything less than disturbed, you're officially a creep: please refrain from going through our bins from now on.

Read our interview with a real LA nightcrawler, Alexander Gitman, here

Granted, there's more dialogue in a handful of tweets than there is in this monumental Jonathan Glazer film. And we'll glaze-r right over Scarlett Johansson's dicey English accent, if it's all the same to you. Why this film tops our list isn't hard to guess: it's got more atmosphere than a Mars Curiosity rover test lab, a chiller of a soundtrack by Mica Levi (AKA Micachu) and a WTF factor that will leave you reeling with more questions than answers. ScarJo – an alien lorry driver in Glasgow – lures unsuspecting men back to her flat. Psych! Instead of a bit of sexy time, the unlucky gents fall into a mucky black no-man's-land, where she then harvests their organs. Glazer's dazzlingly strange conceit confirms him as perhaps the most daring auteur of his generation. That a film this eerie can seize the imagination of even the most mainstream of viewers makes this, without doubt, the year's best film.

Read our coverage of Under the Skin here

*All of the films that make up this list were released in the UK in 2014. If you feel like some of them are 2013 films, you're American.