Well, a good chunk of 2014 is already done and gone. And while we're sad to see it go, it seems like the perfect opportunity to stop and reflect on the movies that have been released thus far this year. While last year was championed as affording a standout collection of cinematic treasures, from the looks of it, 2014 could be even better -- and way weirder.
Some of the best movies have involved Scarlet Johansson as a lifeforce-sucking space alien, a pair of groovy vampires in love, and a superhero movie where a talking computer delivers large chunks of important exposition. Yes, 2014 is very awesome and very weird.
Here's our list of the top 10 movies of the year (thus far). What have you seen of our list? What did we miss? And what do you think the chances are for 2014 topping 2013 in terms of pure excellence?
Article photo courtesy Warner Bros.
Gallery | The 10 Best Movies of 2014 (So Far)
- 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'
Last fall's "Thor: The Dark World" was easily the weakest Marvel movie thus far: it had an iffy story, slack pacing, and groan-worthy dialogue (except for whatever Kat Dennings said). So it was with some trepidation that we approached "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Thankfully, we didn't just get a terrific popcorn movie, but one of the better films in the Marvel canon. Period. This is largely due to the fact that the movie appropriated the tone and feeling of a '70s conspiracy thriller (for at least the first two-thirds, before the spaceships start coming out), and because the Russo Brothers, making their Marvel debut, actually gave the female characters (like Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow) and African-American characters (including the new hero Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie) something to do. But this movie really belongs to Chris Evans, who plays the title role with a mixture of aw-shucks charm and deep uneasiness about the new time that he's been unthawed into. He's the rare hero you are urging to become more cynical. We hope that this is the start of a new stretch of super-cool Marvel movies, continuing with this summer's "Guardians of the Galaxy" and next year's "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and, of course, (finally!) "Ant-Man."
- 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
The idea of Wes Anderson tackling the outbreak of World War II in Eastern Europe was always a touchy proposition. After all, does the mass extermination of countless Jews really need to be wrapped inside his patented brand of doily-ready whimsy? But, as it turns out, the movie was much sadder, more violent, and more contemplative than we imagined it would be, featuring a number of fine performances (led by the irrepressible Ralph Fiennes) and some of his more adventurous visuals in quite some time (complete with at least three different aspect ratios). This was the first Anderson movie to break the $100 million mark (worldwide), and with good reason -- it's more universal, wilder, and weirder. We still wish he would loosen up and push things even further (his dollhouse worldview is feeling fairly well-trodden), but this is easily his most complete, emotionally resonant work since 2009's animated fable "Fantastic Mr. Fox."
- 'The Lego Movie'
It's hard not to think about a movie based around the colorful building blocks being a naked act of commercialism run wild. And it is that... sort of. But it's also a wonderfully witty animated film that features some of the more gorgeous visuals you're ever likely to see (niftily blending stop-motion animation and 3D computer animation) and one of the few movies for children where talk about "the limitless power of imagination" doesn't feel like a series of empty platitudes. (It also might be the best use of 3D since "Gravity.") The Lego world, as depicted in the movie, with shades of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Wreck-It Ralph," is a world of limitless possibility, where Batman can join forces with a 1980s-something spaceman and a construction worker drone to save the world from certain destruction. There's genuine awe and a profound kind of wonder buried, brick by brick, within "The Lego Movie." It's also easily the funniest movie of 2014 and proof positive that director Phil Lord and Chris Miller ("21 Jump Street") can make you laugh (and, we're not ashamed to admit it, cry) in any dimension.
- 'Under the Skin'
For some, the movie's logline (Scarlett Johansson as a sexually omnivorous alien) was enough to get them into the theater. But once there, they watched something altogether different unfold: a dreamy, technically unparalleled marvel about the fluidity of sexuality and what really makes us human. It sounds like it could have been a direct-to-video "Species" sequel; instead it's something that will be puzzled over and picked apart for years. Johansson, who has long been a cinematic sex icon, knowingly deconstructs her own image, turning the male gaze that's so heavily fixated upon her (even by writers in the New Yorker) into something powerful and dangerous and refracting it back upon those same men. And oh how she destroys those men. Director Jonathan Glazer, a certifiable genius who takes way too long between movies, filmed parts of the movie using tiny hidden cameras, but when he goes big (this was the guy who directed award-winning music videos for Jamiroquai, Radiohead, and UNKLE), his visual sense is almost overpowering. The sequences where Johansson marches sexually aroused young men to their doom (to the strains of Mica Levi's dissonant score) is more than unforgettable; it's the primordial, gooey stuff of nightmares.
- 'Grand Piano'
Talk about a surprise: this is a micro-budget indie thriller that stars Elijah Wood as a classical concert pianist who comes out of retirement for a sold out show, only to find himself on the wrong end of an assassin, who is tormenting him from backstage. And it is totally brilliant. Owing an equal debt to "Phantom of the Opera" and "Speed," it's a movie about creative passion and tireless thieves, and is directed, with pinpoint percussion and a playful, sardonic edge by Eugenio Mira (working from a script by Damien Chazelle, whose "Whiplash" took this year's Sundance Film Festival by storm). Overstuffed Hollywood thrillers could learn a thing or two about this economic, utterly entertaining thriller that doesn't waste a single moment in its brief 90-minute runtime.
- 'The Raid 2'
The first "Raid," released a couple of years ago to enthusiastic response (by anybody who saw it – which maybe wasn't a whole bunch of people), already felt like a next generation classic. It uncannily used the basic framework of "Die Hard," mixing in a whole bunch of Eastern martial arts and the structure of an '80s video game, to create an intoxicating, blood-soaked blast. The sequel expanded the scope and feels even more like an ass-kicking breakthrough -- this is a film that you don't watch, you experience. (And, at a running time of nearly 3 hours, it's an exhausting experience at that.) Writer/Director Gareth Evans clearly knows that overkill is underrated, and piles on the breathless action set pieces (including a "mud fight" and a car chase that will blow your mind), careful to weave in an intricate crime plot that gives just the right amount of pause to the story so it's not just one brutalizing fistfight after another. In a weird way, "The Raid 2" is an ultraviolent crime epic. And a new classic, too.
- 'Only Lovers Left Alive'
Ever wonder what ageless vampires talk about? Well, leave it to "Mystery Train" director Jim Jarmusch to answer that question (it turns out, they talk about everything). "Thor" baddie Tom Hiddleston and the luminous Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, immortal bloodsuckers who are hopelessly, desperately in love... despite the fact that they oftentimes can't stand each other. It's a wonderful ode to relationships of any kind, really -- not just the kind that have to take place during the cover of darkness -- and the movie adds nifty flourishes to pre-established vampire mythology (gloves and sunglasses, y'all). This is easily Jarmusch's best movie since 1999's "Ghost Dog," and it might be his most energetically directed movie ever, casting a moody, forlorn spell over anyone who watches it. There might not be any neck-biting or turning-into-bats transformations, but that doesn't keep this from being one of the best vampire movies in recent memory.
For some reason, audiences slept on "Oculus," the deeply clever, deeply scary horror movie about a woman (future superstar Karen Gillan), but that is not going to keep us from acknowledging it as one of our favorite films of the year thus far. The movie is incredibly spooky and structurally ambitious, dealing with the mirror's past as it parallels with what is going on in the present. Even if audiences didn't get behind it initially, it should have a long, long life as a cult favorite. This is the kind of movie that kids put on at slumber parties to freak out their friends (the apple scene is a classic in the making). This was one of the rare horror films that could have easily necessitated a long franchise; that will probably never happen now.
- 'Jodorowsky's Dune'
There are a number of unmade movies that exist exclusively in the imagination of freaky film nerds. But none has quite the same power as the version of Frank Herbert's "Dune" that was being planned by surrealist (and midnight movie pioneer) Alejandro Jodorowsky. This documentary, featuring extensive interviews with Jodorowsky and his key creative collaborators on the project, is the closest we'll ever get to actually seeing his version of "Dune" -- a sexy, 10-hour-long space odyssey that was so complicated and unhinged that there was no way it could have ever been completed back then (this was the mid-'70s, before "Star Wars" even). The biggest compliment you can afford "Jodorowsky's Dune" is that it takes the tantalizing possibility of Jodorowksy's failed endeavor somewhat more concrete. After watching this documentary, it becomes something that everyone wants to see, and not just the egghead cinephile faithful.
- 'Muppets Most Wanted'
The grand Muppet reboot got off to a shaky start with 2011's Jason Segal-led "The Muppets," a film with the most cliché-ridden plot imaginable and an uninspired new Muppet at its center. Thankfully, "Muppets Most Wanted" relegated Walter to the sidelines and introduced a zany, "Great Muppet Caper"-esque plot about an international jewel thief who looks eerily like Kermit the Frog. While "The Muppets" tried to recapture that Muppet mojo, it was "Muppets Most Wanted" that felt more like a real Muppet movie. (We're still pining for them to make the long lost "Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made," but that's unlikely to happen, especially without Frank Oz's involvement.) With celebrity cameos out the wazoo (hey! There's Tom Hiddleston again!) and finely calibrated comic performances by Ty Burell, Ricky Gervais, and Tina Fey, it feels like a much more unhinged (and much funnier) affair, especially with the new batch of songs (look for at least one of them to compete for the Oscar next year!) Somewhere, Jim Henson is smiling.