When last we checked in, we gave a list of 10 of the best movies of the year. And as the months have worn on, we'd decide to check back in, and give you another sampling of the best the year has to offer.
There were some notable omissions and things that we left off just because they haven't come out yet, but what strikes us about this crop of films is just how different they are -- there are personal epics and outer space fantasias; movies about apes, trains and abortion (not to mention Scarlett Johansson, throwing people through walls). What could be better than that?
So read on for our list, revisit the last one (the latter slides below), and let us know what we left off, what we screwed up on -- and what you're looking forward to in the months to come.
Gallery | The 20 Best Movies of 2014 (So Far)
- 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
Sure, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" was a whole lot of fun, especially with its Marvel superhero-sized take on the '70s conspiracy thriller, but what made "Guardians of the Galaxy" such a refreshing blast in this superhero-choked summer, was that it actually had a distinct personality, and that personality was pretty off. Taking place in the farthest reaches of the cosmos meant that even if "Guardians of the Galaxy" bombed (which, as we know now, it didn't), it wouldn't affect the rest of the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe; it also meant that it could be really weird and fun. Chris Pratt became a bona-fide movie star in his role as Star-Lord, and was supported by a wonderful, totally colorful (literally) cast that included Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and Karen Gillan, with Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel (voicing a talking raccoon and a tree-creature, respectively). The whole thing was just a blast -- from the candy-colored design aesthetic to the soundtrack full of '70s-era soul staples to the quip-filled screenplay. It might not have been the best big movie to come out this summer but it was the best time at a movie all summer (and maybe all year).
There was every other movie released in 2014... and then there was "Boyhood," an almost unfathomable achievement that blurs the lines between filmmaking and anthropology, charting 12 years in the life of a young man (played, with patience and grace, by Ellar Coltrane) and all that that entails. Maybe the most shocking thing about a conceit as grandiose as "Boyhood" is how small it is -- scenes begin and end elliptically; time passes, as it does, with limited outrageousness. Things just happen. Parents come together and fall apart; dreams are born and then fizzle; life goes on. Director Richard Linkater, coming off a similarly brilliant exercise in time, last year's "Before Midnight," captures the humility of everyday moments with such subtlety and nuance that the movie doesn't feel like a movie at all, but rather a documentary, unfolding before your very eyes. (Special props also need to be singled out for Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, not just for their generous donation of time but in their raw, unglamorous performances.) "Boyhood" was a singular experience, one unlike anything else in motion pictures this year (or, perhaps, ever). And it was just as long as "Transformers: Age of Extinction." So think about that. It's all happening right now.
- 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'
Part of what made 2011's "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" so much fun was that it was such a surprise. The reboot/prequel to the original series of classic sci-fi films (seriously, watch "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" -- it's the bomb!), combining cutting-edge motion capture effects with a classical "prison escape" plot was riveting and heartfelt and meant that the pressure was on for the sequel to match (or top) what came before it. Luckily, it did. Director Matt Reeves gave us a tale firmly entrenched in the nascent ape society (the first 20 wordless minutes are especially brilliant), showing how the human society, ever on the verge of war, can't leave well enough alone. It was another technological tour de force, of course, with Andy Serkis's Caesar, forced to assume a position of power, as not just the head of a culture but the leader of an army, is again the standout; he breathes soul into the pixels. But it is Reeves who deserves the most credit -- he brings humor, humanity, and soul into a movie that borrows from several previous "Apes" movies but has a distinct mood and energy all its own. Also, for the first time in a few decades, a "Planet of the Apes" movie that was actually scary.
- 'Edge of Tomorrow'
While championed by critics (myself included), "Edge of Tomorrow," the whirligig sci-fi film from "The Bourne Identity" director Doug Liman, was almost universally ignored by audiences despite the fact that it's really, really good. In the film, Tom Cruise plays a PR flak who's drafted into an intergalactic conflict (Earth has found itself invaded by the Mimics, bio-mechanical monsters that are all spinning tentacles and gnashing teeth). He's a coward and he knows it, and on his first day of battle he finds himself infected with the alien's blood -- something that gives him the rare ability to restart the day, but only if he dies. So Cruise teams up with a soldier that has had a similar experience (played by a terrific Emily Blunt) and they go about saving the world. It sounds like a typical sci-fi movie, except with the time travel twist, but it's an absolute joy, thanks mostly to Cruise's willingness to make himself look goofy or foolish and Liman's formal inventiveness. Hopefully, audiences will catch onto the movie when it hits digital platforms and home video, even though it's gone through a confusing title-change. Whatever Warner Bros ends up calling this movie, it's majorly terrific.
- 'Obvious Child'
The transition from a "Sundance favorite" into something that everyday audiences can enjoy is always a shaky one, but "Obvious Child," a winning, utterly real romantic comedy from Gillian Robespierre, did just that, and made it seem easy. The film is basically what would happen if "Knocked Up" happened in real life and not in some fantasy land that Judd Apatow created. Instead of keeping the baby and getting info forced comedic situations with the would-be father, the young girl (in this case, the irrepressible Jenny Slate) would have an abortion. And that's what she does. But the film never gets bogged down in the specifics of the procedure or how much of a bummer it all is; instead, it feels like an act of empowerment. And never, for a moment, does the movie lose its winning sense of humor, which oscillates between bubbly and sardonic. It's a high-wire act that is pulled off with an unfathomable amount of aplomb. This isn't an abortion comedy; it's a comedy about a woman who goes through with an abortion.
In July, there was a showdown of sci-fi behemoths: on one side there was Michael Bay's fourth "Transformers" film (with the ludicrous subtitle "Age of Extinction"), which opened on thousands of screens in eye-piercing 3D; on the other side was "Snowpiercer," by South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho, which was probably just as epic but not nearly as long and came out on a handful of screens. "Transformers" was barely watchable; "Snowpiercer" is a stone-cold masterpiece, which is appropriate given that the film takes place in a bleak futureworld, where human tampering has brought about a new ice age and all of humanity (including Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell) is contained to a single, unstoppable train. As heady as it is fun, "Snowpiercer" is one of those sci-fi classics that people will be talking about for decades to come, complete with its own, highly controversial ending (that, like the conclusion to "Blade Runner," is also open to a fair amount of debate). The fact that so few people have actually seen the movie (even after it debuted, in subsequent weeks, on VOD) is something of a tragedy, but this is clearly the kind of movie that will have a long, long life after theaters.
- 'Cold in July'
If you only known Michael C. Hall as the charming serial killer on his Showtime series "Dexter," then you owe it to yourself to seek out "Cold in July," the profoundly brilliant low-budget revenge movie from up-and-coming genre filmmaker Jim Mickle. This is a very different Michael C. Hall. The film is a period piece and Hall plays a small town frame-store owner who murders an intruder who has broken into his house. When the man's father (Sam Shepard) is released from prison and decides to pay Hall a visit, the movie threatens to zig in a certain direction, before it up and zags in a completely unexpected one. That's part of what makes "Cold in July" so much fun -- it's wildly unpredictable in the best way possible. Even months after its release, we don't want to say too much. Just know that it's a throwback to old thrillers from the '80s (complete with a deliriously amazing synth score by Jeff Grace) and features one of the greatest performances of the year, courtesy of Don Johnson (as a pig farmer/bounty hunter).
With the memories of the 1998 "Godzilla," which starred a frazzled Matthew Broderick and, for some reason, much of the cast of "The Simpsons," still fresh in our minds, we approached "Godzilla" with excitement but also trepidation. This is one of the most iconic screen monsters of all time; we prayed that they wouldn't mess it up again. Thankfully, they didn't. Director Gareth Edwards instilled actual awe and wonder into the character, and teased his look until the big finale, when the King of the Monsters battled a pair of insect-y monsters that wanted to get busy (and end the world). While Edwards could have probably chosen a more charismatic lead (Aaron Taylor-Johnson didn't emote as much as he "stared blankly"), the movie is still full of terrific little performances (by people like Bryan Cranston and Sally Hawkins) and delivered the goods in a smart, effective way. With this latest incarnation, Godzilla was returned to his former glory. It was cause for celebration... and maybe the destruction of a few major cities.
The idea of having Michael Fassbender, proud owner of one of the planet's handsomest faces, in a lead role that requires him to encase his head in a giant papier-mâché sphere for most of the film's running time, might not be the most appetizing to some. But this oddball flourish, one of many that makes up the totally beguiling, charming, and in the end, emotionally engaging "Frank," ends up being one of the biggest draws for the film. It's loosely based on Frank Sidebottom, a persona of British comedian Chris Sievey, but is also something else entirely, and can speak for any constructed musical act, everything from Captain Beefheart to Daft Punk. Domhnall Gleeson, who will soon be setting off for a galaxy far, far away, plays a young musician who is entranced by the titular musician (Fassbender) and his merry band of losers (including Maggie Gyllenhaal and Scoot McNairy). The screenplay, by journalist Jon Ronson and "Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy" writer Peter Straughan, is witty and smart, keeping it just this side of a feature-length exploration of the Muppets' Electric Mayhem band. And we mean that in the best possible way.
There are a lot of claims leveled at big summer movies: there aren't enough female lead characters, they're too long, they're not about anything. Then, along comes "Lucy," starring Scarlett Johansson as a young woman who accidentally overdoses on an experimental drug and starts to utilize unprecedented parts of her brain, that wrestles with knotty existential issues and is also 88 minutes long. What is there not to love her? What makes "Lucy" such an incredible, kicky film, especially in an age of studio-mandated sequels and spin-offs, is how wildly original this is -- it's like if the "Tree of Life" was remade as a direct-to-Cinemax action movie. It's the two halves of "Lucy," the one that thinks that firing a whole lot of bullets is really cool versus the one that is pondering the entangled nature of ourselves and the cosmos, that make it so refreshing. And Scarlett, coming off a truly incredible year that saw her dazzle in small personal projects ("Under the Skin") and large-scale franchises ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), is absolutely unstoppable. If you stayed away from "Lucy" because the trailers made it seem formulaic, hopefully you will visit it soon.
- 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'
Last fall's "Thor: The Dark World" was easily the weakest Marvel movie thus far: it had an iffy story, slack pacing, and groan-worthy dialogue (except for whatever Kat Dennings said). So it was with some trepidation that we approached "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Thankfully, we didn't just get a terrific popcorn movie, but one of the better films in the Marvel canon. Period. This is largely due to the fact that the movie appropriated the tone and feeling of a '70s conspiracy thriller (for at least the first two-thirds, before the spaceships start coming out), and because the Russo Brothers, making their Marvel debut, actually gave the female characters (like Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow) and African-American characters (including the new hero Falcon, played by Anthony Mackie) something to do. But this movie really belongs to Chris Evans, who plays the title role with a mixture of aw-shucks charm and deep uneasiness about the new time that he's been unthawed into. He's the rare hero you are urging to become more cynical. We hope that this is the start of a new stretch of super-cool Marvel movies, continuing with this summer's "Guardians of the Galaxy" and next year's "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and, of course, (finally!) "Ant-Man."
- 'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
The idea of Wes Anderson tackling the outbreak of World War II in Eastern Europe was always a touchy proposition. After all, does the mass extermination of countless Jews really need to be wrapped inside his patented brand of doily-ready whimsy? But, as it turns out, the movie was much sadder, more violent, and more contemplative than we imagined it would be, featuring a number of fine performances (led by the irrepressible Ralph Fiennes) and some of his more adventurous visuals in quite some time (complete with at least three different aspect ratios). This was the first Anderson movie to break the $100 million mark (worldwide), and with good reason -- it's more universal, wilder, and weirder. We still wish he would loosen up and push things even further (his dollhouse worldview is feeling fairly well-trodden), but this is easily his most complete, emotionally resonant work since 2009's animated fable "Fantastic Mr. Fox."
- 'The Lego Movie'
It's hard not to think about a movie based around the colorful building blocks being a naked act of commercialism run wild. And it is that... sort of. But it's also a wonderfully witty animated film that features some of the more gorgeous visuals you're ever likely to see (niftily blending stop-motion animation and 3D computer animation) and one of the few movies for children where talk about "the limitless power of imagination" doesn't feel like a series of empty platitudes. (It also might be the best use of 3D since "Gravity.") The Lego world, as depicted in the movie, with shades of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Wreck-It Ralph," is a world of limitless possibility, where Batman can join forces with a 1980s-something spaceman and a construction worker drone to save the world from certain destruction. There's genuine awe and a profound kind of wonder buried, brick by brick, within "The Lego Movie." It's also easily the funniest movie of 2014 and proof positive that director Phil Lord and Chris Miller ("21 Jump Street") can make you laugh (and, we're not ashamed to admit it, cry) in any dimension.
- 'Under the Skin'
For some, the movie's logline (Scarlett Johansson as a sexually omnivorous alien) was enough to get them into the theater. But once there, they watched something altogether different unfold: a dreamy, technically unparalleled marvel about the fluidity of sexuality and what really makes us human. It sounds like it could have been a direct-to-video "Species" sequel; instead it's something that will be puzzled over and picked apart for years. Johansson, who has long been a cinematic sex icon, knowingly deconstructs her own image, turning the male gaze that's so heavily fixated upon her (even by writers in the New Yorker) into something powerful and dangerous and refracting it back upon those same men. And oh how she destroys those men. Director Jonathan Glazer, a certifiable genius who takes way too long between movies, filmed parts of the movie using tiny hidden cameras, but when he goes big (this was the guy who directed award-winning music videos for Jamiroquai, Radiohead, and UNKLE), his visual sense is almost overpowering. The sequences where Johansson marches sexually aroused young men to their doom (to the strains of Mica Levi's dissonant score) is more than unforgettable; it's the primordial, gooey stuff of nightmares.
- 'Muppets Most Wanted'
The grand Muppet reboot got off to a shaky start with 2011's Jason Segal-led "The Muppets," a film with the most cliché-ridden plot imaginable and an uninspired new Muppet at its center. Thankfully, "Muppets Most Wanted" relegated Walter to the sidelines and introduced a zany, "Great Muppet Caper"-esque plot about an international jewel thief who looks eerily like Kermit the Frog. While "The Muppets" tried to recapture that Muppet mojo, it was "Muppets Most Wanted" that felt more like a real Muppet movie. (We're still pining for them to make the long lost "Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made," but that's unlikely to happen, especially without Frank Oz's involvement.) With celebrity cameos out the wazoo (hey! There's Tom Hiddleston again!) and finely calibrated comic performances by Ty Burell, Ricky Gervais, and Tina Fey, it feels like a much more unhinged (and much funnier) affair, especially with the new batch of songs (look for at least one of them to compete for the Oscar next year!) Somewhere, Jim Henson is smiling.
- 'Grand Piano'
Talk about a surprise: this is a micro-budget indie thriller that stars Elijah Wood as a classical concert pianist who comes out of retirement for a sold out show, only to find himself on the wrong end of an assassin, who is tormenting him from backstage. And it is totally brilliant. Owing an equal debt to "Phantom of the Opera" and "Speed," it's a movie about creative passion and tireless thieves, and is directed, with pinpoint percussion and a playful, sardonic edge by Eugenio Mira (working from a script by Damien Chazelle, whose "Whiplash" took this year's Sundance Film Festival by storm). Overstuffed Hollywood thrillers could learn a thing or two about this economic, utterly entertaining thriller that doesn't waste a single moment in its brief 90-minute runtime.
- 'Only Lovers Left Alive'
Ever wonder what ageless vampires talk about? Well, leave it to "Mystery Train" director Jim Jarmusch to answer that question (it turns out, they talk about everything). "Thor" baddie Tom Hiddleston and the luminous Tilda Swinton play Adam and Eve, immortal bloodsuckers who are hopelessly, desperately in love... despite the fact that they oftentimes can't stand each other. It's a wonderful ode to relationships of any kind, really -- not just the kind that have to take place during the cover of darkness -- and the movie adds nifty flourishes to pre-established vampire mythology (gloves and sunglasses, y'all). This is easily Jarmusch's best movie since 1999's "Ghost Dog," and it might be his most energetically directed movie ever, casting a moody, forlorn spell over anyone who watches it. There might not be any neck-biting or turning-into-bats transformations, but that doesn't keep this from being one of the best vampire movies in recent memory.
- 'The Raid 2'
The first "Raid," released a couple of years ago to enthusiastic response (by anybody who saw it – which maybe wasn't a whole bunch of people), already felt like a next generation classic. It uncannily used the basic framework of "Die Hard," mixing in a whole bunch of Eastern martial arts and the structure of an '80s video game, to create an intoxicating, blood-soaked blast. The sequel expanded the scope and feels even more like an ass-kicking breakthrough -- this is a film that you don't watch, you experience. (And, at a running time of nearly 3 hours, it's an exhausting experience at that.) Writer/Director Gareth Evans clearly knows that overkill is underrated, and piles on the breathless action set pieces (including a "mud fight" and a car chase that will blow your mind), careful to weave in an intricate crime plot that gives just the right amount of pause to the story so it's not just one brutalizing fistfight after another. In a weird way, "The Raid 2" is an ultraviolent crime epic. And a new classic, too.
For some reason, audiences slept on "Oculus," the deeply clever, deeply scary horror movie about a woman (future superstar Karen Gillan), but that is not going to keep us from acknowledging it as one of our favorite films of the year thus far. The movie is incredibly spooky and structurally ambitious, dealing with the mirror's past as it parallels with what is going on in the present. Even if audiences didn't get behind it initially, it should have a long, long life as a cult favorite. This is the kind of movie that kids put on at slumber parties to freak out their friends (the apple scene is a classic in the making). This was one of the rare horror films that could have easily necessitated a long franchise; that will probably never happen now.
- 'Jodorowsky's Dune'
There are a number of unmade movies that exist exclusively in the imagination of freaky film nerds. But none has quite the same power as the version of Frank Herbert's "Dune" that was being planned by surrealist (and midnight movie pioneer) Alejandro Jodorowsky. This documentary, featuring extensive interviews with Jodorowsky and his key creative collaborators on the project, is the closest we'll ever get to actually seeing his version of "Dune" -- a sexy, 10-hour-long space odyssey that was so complicated and unhinged that there was no way it could have ever been completed back then (this was the mid-'70s, before "Star Wars" even). The biggest compliment you can afford "Jodorowsky's Dune" is that it takes the tantalizing possibility of Jodorowksy's failed endeavor somewhat more concrete. After watching this documentary, it becomes something that everyone wants to see, and not just the egghead cinephile faithful.