The 10 best movies of 2014: No four – Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language,” says JK Simmons’s music teacher in Whiplash, “more harmful than ‘good job’”. So we won’t use them. After all, they’d be inappropriate. It’s fitting a film that bangs the drum so hard for bloodshed in the service of excellence succeeds so soundly the regular set of superlatives are redundant. “Job”, too. This is not a job. This is something you choose to do every waking moment. To which your dreams are also devoted.

JK Simmons plays Terence Fletcher: bald, burly, terrifying; the conductor of the jazz band at a top conservatoire. Fletcher is a raging bullhead, glowering down on a full metal drumkit in tight T-shirt from the moral high ground. On the stool is newbie Andrew (Miles Teller): desperate to impress, prepared to sacrifice everything for a shot at Buddy Rich-ish brilliance.

Damian Chazelle’s movie comes with a bracingly unfashionable message: it is worth working yourself into an early grave in the pursuit of virtuosity. More than that: it is essential. There is no room for compassion here. Whiplash is a smack in the face for an “award for participation” society, a world in which you get a slap on the back for showing up. Fletcher is the film’s grand baddie and its vindicated hero. He is hated and venerated. He is an absolutely fantastic creation.

Chazelle was 28 when he shot this (in 19 days, it was then edited and submitted to Sundance within another 50). It’s his first feature, and it’s a doozy. It stands out among this year’s crop like a thunder rumble in white noise. Its ancestor is not something like Beasts of the Southern Wild, the other recent Sundance-spawned enfant terrible which turned into an Oscar contender, but Gravity. It is just as immersive an experience. You exit the cinema reeling, exhausted, whooping (there’s no drop-off here; the final 20 minutes are the best).

Cymbolic imagery … Whiplash

Whiplash may look like a musical, but scratch beneath the surface and this is all movie; as sweaty and bruising as the best macho smackdown thriller, as brutal and rootable as the finest sports drama. While other awards films this year labour the point, this proceeds at a lick (106 minutes), neither dragging nor rushing, taut as a new snare. It’s a movie of military precision about the quest for it. Anyone in its crosshairs doesn’t stand a chance.

Can it sustain momentum right through to next year’s Oscars, like its Sundance sister, Boyhood? It ought to. To see this is to be converted into a cheerleader, regardless of reciprocation. Andrew hoovers up a crumb of praise as if it’s crack. Whiplash delivers the purest hit of cinematic exhilaration this season.

Whiplash is released in the UK on 16 January. The Guardian’s top 10 of the year is based on the 2014 season of films as measured by the Oscars, Baftas and Golden Globes, according to US release dates. A separate, 2014 UK release specific top 10 will appear in Film&Music and online on 12 December.

Which film has topped your own list? Tell us in the form below, and we’ll round up your favourites in a readers’ choice list.

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