The movies on most critics’ annual 10 Best lists tend to be released late in the calendar year, when studios release their prestige Oscar bait. The first half of 2014, though, has brought a rich harvest of distinguished, challenging and just plain fun films in the indie, animation, documentary and blockbuster categories. My greedy wish: that the second half is even more bountiful.
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Gustav H. (Ralph Fiennes) is the perfect concierge for a sumptuous hotel in an imaginary Eastern Europe country about to surrender its luxe to the brutes of war. Wes Anderson’s masterpiece is a dizzyingly complex machine whose workings are a delight to behold.
The LEGO Movie
Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller turn those blocky, personality-deficient toys into living, lovable movie stars. It’s the best animated feature since — well, Frozen, but you know what we mean.
(READ: Review of The LEGO Movie)
In the 1970s, nutsy auteur Alexander Jodorowsky planned a lavish movie of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. It never got made, but this enthralling documentary shows that, at 83, Jodorowsky still has the power of a mad artist.
(READ: Review of Jodorowsky’s Dune)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
“Hail HYDRA!” whisper U.S. Senators loyal to Marvel Comics’ favorite Nazi social club. Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, turns Edward Snowden with way more muscles in this superior sequel — a thrill ride into paranoia.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Two-thousand-year-old vampires in love: that’s the super-suave duo played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, in Jim Jarmusch’s weirdly sweet love story for the ages.
(READ: Review of Only Lovers Left Alive)
Darren Aronofsky turns God’s first zookeeper into a survivalist who gets the Creator’s cleansing, destructive message in dreams. Russell Crowe lends a loopy magnificence to this dead-serious, madly ambitious Biblical epic.
(READ: Review of Noah)
From Crowe the eco-freak to Jesse Eisenberg the eco-terrorist. Instead of building an ark, he wants to blow up a dam. Kelly Reichardt’s political parable boils with silent rage and explodes with the violence of ideals gone wrong.
(READ: Review of Night Moves)
Edge of Tomorrow
Tom Cruise, nearly 52 but still G.I.-Joe fit, is a soldier who must keep reliving — and redying in — a bloody battle with alien monsters in Europe. Private Ryan meets Groundhog Day in the early summer’s smartest action fantasy.
(READ: Review of Edge of Tomorrow)
Stranger By the Lake
Gay men take their anonymous pleasures at a French lakeside where a killer awaits. The tension has an icy grip in this gay spin on Rear Window, this Blowup on the beach.
(READ: Review of Stranger by the Lake)
300: Rise of an Empire
My feta movie: Greek cheese and sleaze. Seven years after the homoerotic 300, cool, luscious Eva Green makes war a game both sexes can play, on nearly equal terms.
(READ: Review of 300: Rise of an Empire)