Chris Nashawaty
September 12, 2014 AT 04:00 AM EDT

1. The Theory of Everything
James Marsh’s Stephen Hawking biopic features jaw-dropping turns by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. It’s hard to think of a more difficult challenge than capturing Hawking’s inner intelligence and the outward physical limitations brought on by his motor-neuron disease. But Redmayne does both in a performance just as remarkable as Daniel Day-Lewis’ in My Left Foot.

2. Foxcatcher
Director Bennett Miller (Capote) once again burrows into the darker corners of the American psyche for this chilling stranger-than-fiction true story about unstable scion John du Pont’s murder of an American wrestler. I had some issues with the film, but it’s gorgeously made. And Steve Carell’s nuanced performance as du Pont will make you see him in a new light.

3. Pawn Sacrifice
Ed Zwick’s time-capsule drama about the brilliant and paranoid Brooklyn chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and the Cold War showdown with his icy Russian nemesis, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), is smart, tense, and beautifully acted.

4. Nightcrawler
In screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s blisteringly gonzo directorial debut, Jake Gyllenhaal goes deep into creepyville as an amoral, Rupert Pupkin-like sociopath who films bloody crime scenes and sells the grisly footage to an equally amoral TV news producer (welcome back, Rene Russo).

5. Whiplash
Already a hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Damien Chazelle’s devastating drama about the psychologically brutal relationship between a single-minded young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and his sadistic, drill-sergeantesque instructor (J.K. Simmons) is one of the most exhilarating films I’ve seen all year. It swings, stings, and sticks with you.

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