Variety Critics Pick the Best Films of 2014 (So Far)

Grand Budapest Hotel

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:

PETER DEBRUGE

Peter Debruge
@askdebruge

“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.

“Locke”
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).

SCOTT FOUNDAS

Scott Foundas
@foundasonfilm

“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.

“Ida”
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.

“The Immigrant”
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.

JUSTIN CHANG

justin chang variety

Justin Chang
@justincchang

“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.

“Ida”
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.

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  1. Sarah says:

    ‘The Immigrant’ is a beautiful film and Marion Cotillard was amazing! it’s a shame that she won’t get her second Oscar nomination for this film because of that stupid lobbyist Harvey Weinstein! but I hope she gets a nomination for ‘Two Days, One Night’ or Macbeth!

  2. Kim Stone says:

    I’m Sexy

  3. Jim says:

    I do agree with “The Grand Budapest Hotel” in the Best of 2014 so far. The one I would add to the Best of 2014 is Mark Harris’ “Black Coffee”. Harris comes from the South Side of Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. He mad a few independent films like “I Used To Love Her” and “Black Butterfly”.

  4. Doug says:

    I’m also missing Miyazaki’s final piece; The Wind Rises

  5. Tatiane says:

    This list is missing Maleficent***

  6. steve barr says:

    The Immigrant is my favorite fim of the year . It should be up for best picture , actress , director and screenplay,cinematography and art direction . It probably wont be because Harvey Weistein dumped the film . He should be ashamed of himself .

  7. Stergios says:

    “The Immigrant” is an instant classic. And Marion Cotillard’s performance is a marvel on its own. I don’t even want to imagine of her being snubbed again at the Oscars 2015. She should win her second Oscar as soon as possible and her unforgettable portrayal of Ewa Cybulska in James Gray’s beautiful film is more than worthy of an Oscar win. No matter the competition, it’s absurd to imagine any performance being preferred than Cotillard’s phenomenal turn in this film.

  8. Cam says:

    I saw Michod’s The Rover last Friday and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year. Haunting, beautiful and tragic.

  9. Josh says:

    If you haven’t already checked it out, ‘What we do in the Shadows’ – is a New Zealand Comedy-Horror Mockumentary directed by Taika Waititi (Boy) and Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords), about the everyday life in a flat of vampires.

    It’s just a small movie from a small country, but I promise its worth a look. One of the best films I’ve seen this year.

  10. Chad says:

    Blue Ruin was the most impressive debut in some time. The way it turned the ”revenge” theme on it’s head was a marvel and the lead performance would have Ossar buzz in a perfect world.

  11. mountanto says:

    Ida was incredible. Locke was great. Nymphomaniac, while not top-rank von Trier, was also great. GBH…eh, I’m just not an Anderson devotee. I need to see it again, though. The Immigrant I didn’t care for, outside of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. Noah was mediocre, Under the Skin had great moments, but was a pretty underwhelming whole. I desperately want to see Norte the End of History.

    So really, two thoughts:
    – The love for GBH is approaching groupthink. That’s a little unsettling.
    – Why, why, why has no one mentioned Alejandro Jodorowsky’s beautiful The Dance of Reality? It’s a magnificent film, one of my favorites of the year, and yet…bupkis.

  12. I’m very happy to see “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Under The Skin” mentioned!

  13. Where is Days of Future Past. I Loved it.

    • Rachel Zabrowski says:

      While Days of Future Past can be considered fun, It probably didn’t make any lists for being a relatively unreliable adaptation of the comic books. Not the best, that’s for sure.

  14. feingarten says:

    Having seen Locke/The Immigrant/Noah and Only Lovers, I found the very best to be Locke-a series of phone calls revealing a man’s entire life essayed by the quiet poignancy of Tom Hardy; for myself the best performance in The Immigrant was Jeremy Renner’s Emil; I couldn’t agree more with the assessment of Noah anchored by Crowe’s terrific take and Only Lovers an enjoyable spin on the well worn vampire genre!

  15. Gaspar Marino says:

    I hated Under My Skin…Much Ado About Nothing

  16. JJ says:

    I think the mainstream films have been better than the indies – except for my favorite film so far this year, Grand Budapest (although that had Rudin and Fox behind it so I’m not sure how indie it is)…I think Captain America, X-Men, Neighbors, 22 Jump nailed it. On the indie side, I liked Tim’s Vermeer. And I loved Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia.

  17. Kevin Ramirez says:

    Overlooking Captain America: The Winter Solider

  18. Ed Kargir says:

    Boyhood opens in July I doubt I’ll see a better film the rest of the year . Ida is very good.

  19. J.E. Vizzusi says:

    “IDA”, Please if you can find it.. go see it!

    One of the most sensitive and enduring drama’s of the year finished in a gorgeous retro black & white and a film noir full frame that will take you back in time.

    Terrific performances by the entire cast, filmed on locations that go with the storyline and magically directed with fantastic cinematography.

    Short list Oscar nod for sure!

    JEV

  20. tlsnyder42 says:

    NYMPHOMANIAC, UNDER THE SKIN and ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE? Yuck!!! These guys are pulling our legs; they can’t be serious!!!

    • Blechhhhhhh says:

      They’re serious because they’re actually good films that stick with you long after they’re over. Unlike most of the crap that gets pushed out of Hollywood’s fetid rectum every Friday night at your local walking dead multiplex crammed in between the Cheesecake Factory and the Cracker Barrel.

  21. Glenn C. says:

    Couldn’t agree more. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the best film. Really.

  22. LEGO MOVIE! 1st time I can remember the number one grossing film of the year (so far) making it to my “best films of the year so far” list! Also happy for the wide range of films you’ve spotlighted here and agree on some, ready to punch fist through wall in disagreement on at least one! (No, won’t tell.) Also, LOVE LE WEEKEND & wish everyone who appreciates brilliant writing, directing, acting and movies that surprise and delight at every turn to catch his gem! I suspect I would have added David Gordon Green’s JOE to this list of best films that have been released theatrically.

  23. PETER says:

    Well, THAT was disappointing!

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