2014 is halfway gone. While many associate the spring and summer with empty blockbusters and mediocre genre films, there have been plenty of terrific options at the cineplex in the year's first six months. Here are my favorite ten films thus far this year:
Some felt this sequel was inferior to the previous entry into the franchise-- in fact, the opening number makes a number of jokes about the diminishing returns of sequels-- yet if you're a fan of delirious Muppet hijinks, Muppets Most Wanted was a marked improvement over the last film and the best in years. Bret McKenzie's songs are catchier and funnier than ever, the celebrity cameos are packed in at every turn, and the globe-hopping Muppet tour is highlighted by its villain, Constantine, whose duplicitous smooth love serenade to Miss Piggy, "I'll Get You What You Want (Cockatoo in Malibu)," gave me my biggest laughs of the year to date.
Bong Joon-Ho is the current cinematic king of madcap genre mash-ups. His sci-fi family romp, The Host, was one of the more inventive and wonderful monster movies of the last twenty years, and, with Snowpiercer, the director thankfully dives back into science fiction, giving us the most nutty "blockbuster" of the season. Chris Evans gives a career-best performance, Tilda Swinton chews scenery with outrageous monologues (and some impressive fake chompers), and the tone switches from violent action to broad satire to grim horror and back again. Some would call it a mess, and they're not wrong-- but Hollywood would be a much better place with more messes like this.
Tom Cruise + running + science fiction = a winning combination, nearly every time. This go around, in the incredibly fun Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise is given ample help from smooth direction by Doug Liman and a killer script by the Butterworth brothers and Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote and directed Cruise's grossly underrated Jack Reacher). The end result is if Groundhog Day and Saving Private Ryan were combined with an alien invasion-- yes, really. Emily Blunt, never better than when she showcases her icy strength, makes for a wonderful partner-in-world-saving, the action and effects leap off the screen, and the tension is palpable even as jokes fly. Forget sequels-- this is summer blockbuster movie-making at its finest.
7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
... okay, maybe don't forget all sequels. With the newest Captain America film, Marvel has made its best solo film to date, giving their time-displaced hero a 1970s-esque government conspiracy to unravel. Yes, there are maniacal villains, giant special effects, and shocking plot twists, but at this point, Marvel has finely tuned its entertainment machine. Everyone gives praise to Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, the undisputed star of the Avengers and the Marvel Universe, but Chris Evans doesn't get nearly enough credit for his own balancing act. His character is far more earnest than most action movies would allow in 2014, and this film is brave enough to create a character free of snark, grit, and moral ambiguity.
Speaking of brave, Jon Favreau, director of the first two Iron Man films for Marvel, has created a film with essentially zero plot for very little money and thrown it out into the world. We are better for it-- Chef is a joyful, earnest, and heartfelt ode to art and family. When critics decimate his work, Favreau's chef character creates a sandwich truck and travels the country, getting to know his young son better. That's the whole film. It's blissfully free of complications and conflict-- it is content focusing on good people finding happiness in life. It's tempting to tiptoe into food-related puns about how "satisfying" the film is, how you'll "want seconds," etc... but you get the idea.
5. THE DOUBLE
Richard Ayoade has created an absurdist dystopian future worthy of Terry Gilliam, presenting Dostoyevsky's The Double with a flair for memorable dark images, a wickedly pitch-black wit, and dueling performances from Jesse Eisenberg, tapping into both his usual neurotic shtick and his Social Network megalomaniac shtick, playing them off each other as our protagonist and the ultra-confident doppelganger who wanders into and begins to ultimately destroy his life. Don't look to this film for explanation or feet planted firmly in reality. Look instead for bold, funny, and heartbreaking satire, guaranteed to be unlike anything else you see this year (including Denis Villenueve's Enemy, actually based on the exact same story-- this film is far superior).
4. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Wes Anderson has done it again. After spending a few films diving headfirst into melancholy (including The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited), he has reinvigorated himself and made better films than ever before, with 2012's Moonrise Kingdom and this year's The Grand Budapest Hotel. He's done this by committing to full-blown farce, with the laughs coming a mile a minute, the artifice in the imagery being played for laughs, and the melancholy to sneak up on the audience through pauses and small moments instead of hammering us in the face with it. I was more emotionally affected by his last two films than I'd been by his work in years, and The Grand Budapest Hotel gives us not only that strong undercurrent of sadness, but countless laughs and an absolutely rip-roaring performance from Ralph Fiennes, showcasing his considerable comedic talent.
When it comes to comedic talent, no comedy directors today are operating on the level of Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Their Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs was one of the funniest films of the last decade, and their exceptional Jump Street duology has rocketed them to mega-stardom (the sequel, 22 Jump Street, just missing the cut for this list). The Lego Movie may be their best work to date, however, if one considers the degree of difficulty. They have made an anti-corporate story by using a corporate product. The jokes comes sailing at a pace I haven't seen since... well, their other films, and the animation is unlike any movie you've seen before. The real secret weapon, however, is the film's heart; Lord/Miller know better than that, and the end of this zany kid's movie had me unexpectedly reaching for Kleenex. May Lord and Miller lord over comedies for years to come.
2. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE
Jim Jarmusch, darling of the indie cinema circuit for thirty years, has dropped out of nowhere potentially the best film of his acclaimed career, an unspeakably cool vampire journey which dives into art, time, and the conflicted feelings that come with aging (or, in the vampires' cases, not) and watching the world pass you by. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton don't seem like the sexiest couple of the year on the surface, but their chemistry is positively second-to-none. I could have watched an entire movie of them simply listening to music and talking about the world-- and, thankfully, much of Only Lovers Left Alive is exactly that. It thumbs its noses at pretty much all of cinema's inferior attempts at tackling vampires in love, giving us one of the sleekest, sexiest, and coolest films the year is likely to see.
Here comes a film that left me feeling like I'd been punched in the face. The odds are against this year giving us another movie with such a singular vision, so unwavering in its commitment to trust the intelligence of the audience. In Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, we follow Scarlett Johansson as an alien who is seducing men in Scotland, luring them to her lair where they are turned into some sort of food for her people. Of course, we're never told she's an alien or what she's doing with the people-- but we glean what we can, and by film's end, the details don't matter. What matters is the style, the haunting visuals which surprise at every turn, and Johansson's performance, which is incredibly muted yet oozes with sensuality, danger, and an aching need to understand humanity. There are pictures you'll never see anything like again, moments you'll never see coming, and a depth of heart that you won't expect in a film that on the surface seems Kubrick-level cold. If you go to the movies for plot, you won't find it here. If you go to be transported to another world, Under the Skin will knock your socks off. It's my favorite movie so far of 2014 by a landslide.