Though 2014 is only at the halfway mark, it’s already shaping up to be one of the best movie years on record, thanks to wisecracking Legos, hipster vampires, and a certain Budapest hotel. Here are our favorite flicks so far:
Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier reinvigorates the revenge thriller with this lean, Kickstarter-funded flick that combines spurts of shocking violence with Coen Brothers-style dark humor. Macon Blair stars as Dwight, an in-over-his-head schlub whose awkward attempt to settle an old score makes him one of the year’s most oddly endearing protagonists. Crackling with moments of quiet tension, Blue Ruin is as understated as it is unsettling.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
From a story standpoint, Captain America: The Winter Soldier — in which our beloved Cap finds himself targeted by shadowy government forces —is one of the tightest Marvel films to date. Using the ’70s espionage thriller as a template, Winter Soldier is the rare comic-book caper that’s not only free of bloat, but also rooted in the real world. Throw into the mix the easy chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans; a fearsome and complex adversary in the Winter Soldier; and parkour-packed action sequences, and you’ve got one of the smartest superhero movies ever made.
Edge of Tomorrow
Many viewers decided to skip Tom Cruise’s time-tripping sci-fi joyride, which is a shame, as it’s the star’s slickest, giddiest action flick in years. As a cowardly military-PR agent who gets unwillingly stuck in an oft-repeating, Groundhog Day-like battle, Cruise gets to employ all of his apex charms here, running and gunning with maverick energy, and occasionally flashing that still-potent, Risky Business-era smile. And co-star Emily Blunt, playing a brutally driven war hero, gives an athletically fierce, appropriately edgy performance.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Grand Budapest Hotel is writer-director Wes Anderson’s best work in years. Flamboyantly colorful, it’s driven by an utterly comic performance from Ralph Fiennes, who plays an old-world concierge with a love for little old ladies. He’s aided by a gaggle of brilliant support from the Anderson irregulars, but what really puts Grand over the top is its soulful nostalgia for a lost civility that can never to be recaptured.
The Lego Movie
Directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller — the whiz-kid co-directors of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the Jump Street films — continued their streak of mining smart, hilarious movies out of the unlikeliest of sources. The Lego Movie is a wildly inventive family movie so brimming with laughs, sight gags and subtle asides that it begs for revisiting – which works out well, considering your kids are going to want to watch it over and over.
Roger Ebert receives the four-star documentary he deserves from filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams), based on the late film critic’s memoir. The warts-and-all look at Ebert’s lifetime examines his impact on the industry he covered — including his complicated relationship with longtime sparring partner Gene Siskel — and chronicles his final days, resulting in a surprising (and deeply affecting) meditation on death.
This cross-generational R-rated comedy — in which new parents Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne feud with bad-boy frat leader Zac Efron — struck a chord not only with young married couples struggling with the responsibilities (and uncoolness) of raising a kid, but also with carefree college kids who feel their sole responsibility is to party as hard as humanly possible.
In this taut drama from director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy), Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg play environmental extremists trying to destroy a hydroelectric dam. With its ambient score, gorgeous shots of Northwest forests, and long passages devoid of dialogue, Night Movies is a minimalist drama that nonetheless achieves maximum tension.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Only Lovers Left Alive marks a milestone for director Jim Jarmusch, who crafts a hipster serenade to his long-time partner Sara Driver in the form of a vampire genre film. Unlike most vamp-chroniclers, however, Jarmusch is less interested in bloodletting as he is in documenting what long-term love would look like, with dreamers Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton cast as a centuries-old couple in crisis.
The first English-language production from acclaimed South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother), Snowpiercer is an action-packed, uniquely layered story of survival and social struggle. Set in the near-future, after a man-made Ice Age has frosted the entire planet, Snowpiercer places Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, and Octavia Spencer on a high-speed train loaded with at-odds survivors and strivers. It’s a violent, genre-bending, and visually stunning thriller that never derails.