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Diane Carson

Anyone familiar with novelist Thomas Pynchon will not expect a conventional film in "Inherent Vice," adapted from Pynchon's 2009 novel. Moreover, with screenwriter/director Paul Thomas Anderson guiding this cinematic adaptation through its illogical paces, linear progression is abandoned. As in "There Will Be Blood," "The Master" and "Punch Drunk Love," Anderson presents his stories from a distinctive, idiosyncratic perspective.

Director Ava DuVernay's "Selma" delivers a poignant portrayal of events leading up to and immediately after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march for civil rights. Restrained, dignified and multi-layered, "Selma" suggests many parallels to today's racial struggles here and across the U.S. without ever succumbing to heavy-handed moralizing. In this film, facts speak eloquently for themselves.

The best films of 2014 offer robust creativity and substantive content. These films are ones I want to re-watch for a stirring aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual experience. At the top is director Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," an unprecedented, 12-year production that captures the contemporary American family, not just boyhood. Eller Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke give brilliantly realistic performances.

English professor Jim Bennett has a dual personality. By day, he lectures university students in an animated way on the modern novel. By night, he debases himself and everything he professes to believe by repeatedly wagering every dollar he has and all he can borrow, up to a quarter million, until he's stripped bare. He embraces peril and courts disaster.

The best horror films translate nerve-jangling fears into frightening scenarios, tapping into conscious as well as suppressed anxieties: the malevolent stranger, the elusive intruder, or the evil doppelganger. The deliriously unnerving Australian film "The Babadook" capitalizes on those terrors, probing the dark, repressed unconscious of widow Amelia who struggles to care for and about her increasingly difficult son Samuel.

In the opening scene of "Foxcatcher," director Bennett Miller establishes his observational cinematic style. Wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, both 1984 Olympic gold medalists, physically grapple, at first just as part of a typical training session. Then, with increasing tension, the interaction segues into a serious psychological contest of will and character.

The much anticipated third installment in "The Hobbit" series, "The Battle of the Five Armies," wraps up Bilbo Baggins' fine adventure with two-and-a-half hours of personal and political drama. Gandalf anchors the multifaceted conflicts-- fighting the enticement of gold and power, struggles with morality, the critical importance of friendship and one's word--in short, dedication to good over evil.

In 1995, distraught over the sudden death of her beloved mother and a painful divorce caused by her own immoderate indulgence in casual sex and drug use, 26-year-old Cheryl Strayed impetuously and foolishly decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Somewhere along its 1100 miles from Mexico to Oregon she figured she might find herself.

Swedish Director Ruben Östlund introduces Tomas, Ebba, their son and their daughter beginning a week-long skiing vacation in the idyllic looking French Alps. Taking a lunch break on an outdoor veranda, they and others are shocked when an avalanche, intentionally set off by the ski resort for snow control, heads what appears to be straight for them.

The latest installment in "The Hunger Games" franchise, "Mockingjay -- Part 1," works hard to ramp up plot intensity, all the while building to a resolution that will come only a year from now in "Part 2." That it succeeds as well as it does comes largely from Jennifer Lawrence's charisma as Katniss Everdeen: strong, self-confident, and principled.

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