By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist June 3, 2014 at 12:05PM
Here's a bold statement: 2014 is looking like a pretty damn good year for movies so far. We've had a few strong ones in a row (2011, 2012 and 2013 were all overflowing with goodness), but a little less than halfway through this year, and the discerning moviegoer has been spoiled with choices. Of course, there's been a lot of swill, but from the blockbuster to tiny foreign indies, there's been plenty worth checking out.
As is traditional once it gets to June, we've sat back and taken stock, and picked out the very best movies of 2014 (so far). In fact, there's been so much goodness on offer that we could fill the list a couple of times over solely with films we've seen at 2014 festivals. But while that's certainly been the story of our 2014, it's not particularly representative of the what's been going in the U.S. theaters, so we've strictly limited ourselves to a slightly uneven split between films that have actually already been released, and those that we've seen at a festival (Sundance, SXSW, Berlin, Tribeca or Cannes) that either have 2014 dates slated, or we strongly suspect/hope that they will.
But we're also keen to know what you've enjoyed in 2014, at festivals, in theaters or on VOD—let us know your own favorites of the year so far in the comments section. And read our choices below...
Best Films That Have Been Released In 2014
There are plenty of scuzzy revenge-type American independent genre movies out there, but for one to premiere at Cannes Directors' Fortnight suggests that it's something special, and that's exactly what "Blue Ruin" delivered by the time we caught up to it in Toronto 2013 (read Gabe's A- review). The story of a vagrant who discovers that the man convicted of murdering his parents has been released from prison and sets out to take vengeance, only to become a target of the killer's family in turn, is a bravura follow-up to "Murder Party" by director Jeremy Saulnier. Our reviewer found that the film avoids the wish-fulfillment of much of its genre, and as a consequence it's a movie "of almost unbearable tension, a no-frills pressure cooker that rattles the senses not just for what occurs, but for what's waiting just off screen at every turn." He found it to be "the most suspenseful American film of the year, a thriller that feels like lightning across a quiet night sky: sudden, terrifying and excitingly singular." It got a small release, through Radius/TWC in April, but it more feels like the kind of film that people, especially genre fiends, will be discovering and obsessing over on home video formats for years to come.
"Submarine" might not have been perfect, but it marked the arrival of a hugely exciting new voice in the shape of actor-turned-director Richard Ayoade. His follow-up, the Dostoevsky-indebted "The Double," co-written with Avi Korine (Harmony's brother), was worth the wait: an even more distinctive and odd film that's quite different from anything else you'll see in 2014 (Kevin's A- verdict). Following mild-mannered office drone Simon James as his life takes a dark turn when a doppelganger named James Simon joins his company, soon winning over colleagues and the girl that he secretly loves, as Kevin said in Toronto, the film "matches its visual consistency with a narrative rhythm that is utterly engaging," with a gorgeous look from DP Erik Wilson and a great score by Andrew Hewitt. It also has an "emotional and thematic pull that is surprisingly weighty for this sort of picture," while among a strong and eclectic cast also including Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn and Noah Taylor, star Jesse Eisenberg "gives two excellent performances... [allowing] him to find new notes to both his trademark on-screen personas." Magnolia released the film for a very limited run in May, and it's one well worth the bother of seeking out if you still can.
"Edge Of Tomorrow"
With the whopping great exception of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," it's actually been a pretty good year for blockbusters so far: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," "Godzilla" and "X-Men: Days Of Future Past" have all had much to recommend them, even if none were flawless. But the best of the batch, at least so far, is not one that we were expecting: Tom Cruise vehicle "Edge Of Tomorrow," which has started rolling out internationally and arrives in U.S. theaters on Friday. Doug Liman's film is a rarity for a summer tentpole: a big movie that's not a sequel, and not based on a well-established household name property. Its DNA is familiar, to some extent, taking the conceit of "Groundhog Day" and layering it on to a sci-fi war picture, with a overwhelming hint of World War II (the film centers around a D-Day style invasion of alien-occupied Europe from the U.K.). But Liman, making his best movie in at least a decade, combines the elements into something that feels fresh, aided by a script that's significantly smarter than it needs to be, and giving the action sequences an energy and clarity, doing for the sci-fi flick what he did for the spy movie with "The Bourne Identity." Cruise has his best mainstream role in eons, the film initially making him a very unsympathetic, cowardly figure and letting him earn the audience's trust, in part thanks to Emily Blunt, who's instantly iconic in a welcome kick-ass female co-lead (a rare example of Cruise genuinely sharing the spotlight). The film doesn't stick the landing, and it should be said that there are one or two naysayers on staff (contrast Drew Taylor's rave review with Gabe Toro's counterpoint pan of the film), but most of us are firmly of the belief that "Edge Of Tomorrow" is the blockbuster of the year so far.
Last year, Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal teamed up for "Prisoners," a gripping and beautifully made thriller that featured one of the best performances of the year from Gyllenhaal. But even before that, the pair had worked together fruitfully, quietly making Canadian indie "Enemy," a thriller about a professor who discovers he has a doppelganger, which premiered at TIFF alongside "Prisoners," and according to our Rodrigo Perez, it's even better. He described the film as an "equally dark but more experimental and arty cousin," to the other film, like "Paul Thomas Anderson of 'There Will Be Blood' making a Brian De Palma movie, or Claire Denis directing Christopher Nolan's 'Memento.' " "Thick with weighty themes, disquieting portent and anxious tension," according to Rodrigo, it cements Villeneuve's talents, and showcases those of the supporting cast like Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon and Isabella Rosselini. And if you thought Gyllenhaal was great in "Prisoners," you ain't seen nothing yet: the actor "carries the entire film on his shoulders, and he delivers with a smoldering internalized performance of torment that is easily his finest work." A24 released the film back in March, but if you missed it, no fear: it hits DVD and Blu-ray on June 24th.
"The Grand Budapest Hotel"
One would think that it would have been hard to top the reaction to Wes Anderson's last film, 2012's "Moonrise Kingdom," which won plaudits as it opened Cannes and proved to be his most critically and commercially successful picture since "The Royal Tenenbaums" over a decade earlier. But less than two years later, Wes was back, and the reaction to "The Grand Budapest Hotel" was even warmer: it won rave reviews, and has proven a legitimate arthouse box office smash, taking in over $150 million so far, more than twice his previous best haul, and a bigger take than other hefty pictures like "The Monuments Men," "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" and "Transcendence," among others. It's particularly satisfying because the film reaches something like peak Wes: featuring his biggest and most expansive cast, toplined by a performance of unexpected comic genius from Ralph Fiennes (virtually matched by newcomer Tony Revolori), intricately told in homage to Stefan Zweig, and more like an impossibly beautiful cuckoo clock/wedding cake combo than ever before. Frequently hilarious, but undercut with a deep thread of melancholy, the film does leave you sad, rather than uplifted. But, as Jessica Kiang said in her review from Berlin, "It is indeed a strange thing to feel a little sad at the absence of something that you never had, but where on earth in the real world might we ever encounter such craft, such dedication to beauty, such attention to detail? Perhaps nowhere, except in a Wes Anderson movie." The film is still in some theaters, and comes to DVD and Blu-ray on June 17th.