To say that our top three critics don’t always see eye-to-eye would be an understatement, but they can all agree on at least one thing: “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is one of Wes Anderson’s best movies, and one of the strongest entries in a year that has so far offered no shortage of cinematic excellence. Also mentioned by at least one critic: a steamy gay-cruising thriller, a hotly debated biblical epic, and two staggeringly ambitious magnum opuses that clocked in at more than four hours apiece. There will be many more hours (and weeks, and months) of moviegoing to come before they have their final say on the year in movies, but at the moment, 2014 is off to a fine start.
Here, listed in alphabetical order, are our critics’ picks for the best films released theatrically from January to June 2014:
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Re-reading my Variety review of “Moonrise Kingdom,” I found the line, “While (Wes) Anderson is essentially a miniaturist, making dollhouse movies about meticulously appareled characters in perfectly appointed environments, each successive film finds him working on a more ambitious scale.” His latest is the apotheosis of that aesthetic — a nested series of stories as complex and intricately detailed as fine Swiss clockwork, given soul by the great Ralph Fiennes.
“How to Train Your Dragon 2”
Between this and “The Lego Movie,” we’ve been spoiled by great animation this year. My expectations were sky-high for the follow-up to DreamWorks’ cartoon coming-of-ager, and writer-director Dean DeBlois exceeded them, delivering a sequel with integrity, one that respects and expands upon the original while aging the characters five years — a rarity in a medium where Bart Simpson has spent the last 25 years repeating Mrs. Krabappel’s fourth-grade class.
What an exhilarating experiment: Using just one actor (Tom Hardy), one location (a moving BMW) and a series of phone calls as his script, writer-director Steven Knight has crafted a gripping character-driven drama. It’s the polar opposite of all the comicbook movies hogging screens these days, not simply for its lack of visual effects and spandex suits, but because “Locke” recognizes that a flawed human being is infinitely more interesting than a superhero.
“Stranger by the Lake”
As sexy Euro thrillers go, this one might have seemed too steamy to see in theaters, but I urge viewers to catch up with it at home. Nominated for the French equivalent of the Oscar, this tense Hitchcockian psychodrama is set entirely at a gay cruising ground and doesn’t shy away from what happens in the bushes — or the heads of the men seeking connection there.
“Le Week-end” (pictured, above)
Granted, it’s more glamorous to watch young people fall in love for the first time, though there’s something immensely satisfying about observing how a trip to Paris challenges and ultimately rekindles the spark for a fuddy-duddy older couple. I’m embarrassed to admit I was unfamiliar with leading lady Lindsay Duncan, who’s been acting for nearly four decades and yet gives a revelatory performance opposite Jim Broadbent (and a very funny Jeff Goldblum).
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Wes Anderson’s ambitious chronicle of an imaginary Europe in the lull between two not-so-imaginary wars is, unsurprisingly, a marvel of technology and design, with its round-robin aspect ratios, ingenious use of miniatures and a luxe hotel worthy of Thomas Mann. But the triumph of Anderson’s film is that it is equally rich — and finally, terribly moving — in its sense of an irrecoverable past, first loves, true friendships and small acts of heroism.
Directing for the first time in his native Poland, expat filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (“Last Resort”) delivered this nearly perfect gem of old-school art-movie craftsmanship: a bittersweet 1960s road picture set against a nation still haunted by the specter of the Holocaust. In her debut performance, Agata Trzebuchowska is a quiet revelation as the Jewish novitiate slowly coming to terms with her family’s tragic past. Every frame of cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal’s full-frame, black-and-white images is a textbook study in painting with light.
A movie that feels like an American classic even as you are watching it for the first time, James Gray’s masterful portrait of a 1920s Polish emigre (Marion Cotillard) navigating the tenements and low-rent vaudevilles of New York’s Lower East Side limped into a few dozen theaters one full year after its Cannes premiere, though the strong reviews and per-screen returns were a reminder that it deserved far better. No matter: “The Immigrant” will stand the test of time, from its indelible opening shot of the Statue of Liberty seen from behind to its devastating final image of two diverging departures to points unknown.
“Norte, the End of History”
A mammoth achievement by the Filipino director Lav Diaz, this loose modern retelling of “Crime and Punishment” admirably pulls off that Dostoevskyan trick of showing how a nation’s loss of ideals is reflected in the thwarted lives of individual men and women. Long (four hours) but immensely rewarding and full of unexpected flourishes (including one character’s ability to astrally project himself), Diaz’s most accessible film since 2001’s “Batang West Side” has happily brought much overdue attention to this gifted filmmaker and his largely unsung body of work.
“Nymphomaniac” (pictured, above)
Movie stars CGI-ed into extremely compromising positions may have been the marketing hook, but Lars von Trier’s two-part magnum opus was, predictably, more titillating for the mind than it was for the senses. Rooted in a long, intricately digressive conversation between two unlikely bedfellows — the titular sex addict (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and the dweeby bachelor (Stellan Skarsgard) who rescues her from the cold — Trier’s film blossoms into a wildly associative mash-up of disparate literary, scientific and philosophical explanations for the workings of the world. Heady stuff, delivered with a wink and a smile … and some whips and chains.
“The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Wes Anderson’s flair for obsessively detailed world building has never found a more perfect match of subject, style and theme than in this exquisitely funny-sad elegy for European high culture during the interbellum years. As the fabulous fop of a concierge who oversees the proud establishment of the title, Ralph Fiennes gives the most vital performance to grace an Anderson joint since Gene Hackman lit up “The Royal Tenenbaums” — arguably, and perhaps not coincidentally, the director’s finest achievement before this one.
The fragile bond between two very different Jewish women forms the emotional and philosophical core of Pawel Pawlikowski’s haunting evocation of his native Poland during the 1960s, a black-and-white character study etched in innumerable shades of moral gray. From the austere, top-heavy opening images, hinting at the divine presence looming above our heads, to the ground-level final shot of a young woman quietly coming into her own, no other film this year made more pointed and deliberate use of the camera to explore issues of belief, suffering, and the intricacies of personal and national identity.
“Noah” (pictured, above)
Suffused with all the torment, madness and hot-blooded passion you want from a proper Old Testament epic, Darren Aronofsky’s bold and singular vision of biblical times is thrilling to behold and even more thrilling to contemplate. And if it isn’t ultimately a movie to set on quite the same towering pedestal as Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), it offers no less definitive proof that the most searching and dynamic spiritual art comes not from those content merely to promote Christian doctrine, but rather from those with the Jacob-like courage to wrestle it to the ground.
“Only Lovers Left Alive”
As rare as a draught of AB negative, as eclectic as a Bill Laswell recording, Jim Jarmusch’s ravishing mood piece — a hypnotic ode to artistic accomplishment shot in the moldering ruins of post-recession Detroit — is by no small margin the best film he’s made in years. Thanks to superb performances by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, it also boasts 2014’s most credible, moving and certainly enduring love story so far, centered around a couple of hipster vampires more blessed than cursed by their unusually long view of human history.
“Under the Skin”
A corrosively beautiful masterpiece, and the third tour de force in a row from the visionary British filmmaker Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”), who seems not to have gotten the cinema-is-dead memo. Insane, unnerving, all-but-indescribable sounds and images — the toxic crimson of Scarlett Johansson’s lipstick, the primordial goop into which she lures her unsuspecting victims, the screeching siren call of Mica Levi’s score — continue to linger indelibly in the memory.