It’s always weird to do a "Best Movies of 2014" list because it’s no secret that studios hold what they consider their prestige films until late in the year so they get the best chance at Oscar consideration (it didn’t always work this way; at least not quite to this degree). So, it’s kind of like making a list of the best bites of yogurt, but if you’re only halfway through the cup and you didn’t mix in the fruit that’s waiting at the bottom. (I hope someone makes a “10 Worst Analogies of 2014 So Far” list and that last one makes it on.)
Anyway, there’s no real point to a mid-year movie-ranking list and the act of making one is somewhat futile. That said, here are the best movies of 2014 so far!
(Note: These movies have all been released in theaters and I am not including movies that I saw at film festivals that have not been yet released to the public.)
'X-Men: Days of Future Past'
‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ had almost no business being this good. From the outside looking in, the story looked like quite the mess – perpetuated by some of the sloppiness in the prior films – yet, somehow, we have a time travel movie that makes a lot of sense and corrects a lot of the mistakes of the past movies.
This was a film that I wandered into during last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival just because, frankly, not much was playing opposite its press screening. What a treat this turned out to be. This documentary (directed by Teller and narrated by Penn Jillette) watches as a man named Tim Jenison – who has no painting experience – tries to duplicate a Johannes Vermeer painting using technology that he believes Vermeer himself used in the 17th century. In other words: proving that Vermeer was more of an inventor and innovator than he was a pure artist.
'22 Jump Street'
’22 Jump Street’ is less a sequel than it is a meta commentary on cash-grab sequels. And it takes a special nuance by a director to make sure that this comes through without a) actually turning into a cash-grab sequel or, even worse, b) making your audience feel stupid for paying to see the movie. Directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord are very deft at threading needles – which is why this isn’t their only appearance on this Best Movies of 2014 list.
It’s fun to laugh. In college, instead of making up dumb excuses to hang out, we’d just say, “Do you want to hang out and laugh?” While watching ‘Neighbors,’ I had almost forgotten how fun it is to go to a movie and laugh. For whatever reason, truly funny comedies don’t come around that often anymore. While watching ‘Neighbors,’ (which came out before the also very funny ’22 Jump Street’) it had been so long, it actually seemed so foreign to be laughing this hard and this often. People like to laugh! And it looked like we were on pace for a nice string of comedies until ‘A Million Ways to Die in the West’ came along and ruined everything.
'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'
Here’s a trick: Try to explain the plot of ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ without sounding like a crazy person. It might be impossible. Even so, while watching it, everything seems to make perfect sense! These Marvel Studios-produced movies are as much a secret recipe these days as Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken. But, it's hard to argue that it's not working.
'Under the Skin'
‘Under the Skin’ (by far the oddest film on this list) was filmed, at times, guerilla style, with a wig-wearing, van-driving Scarlett Johansson strikes up conversations with unsuspecting Scottish men. Later, after the “victim” is told he’s in a movie, he’s asked if he wants to continue filming. I’ve been wondering a lot about how those conversations went.
“So, you’re in a movie. That’s Scarlett Johansson!”
“What? No way, mate!”
“Do you want to be in more of the movie?”
“You bet I do!”
“Great. From now on you will be naked, walking around with an erect penis. Cool?”
'The Grand Budapest Hotel'
‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is Wes Anderson’s most financially successful film of his career. It’s also his most action-packed and, kind of strangely, bloody film of his career. It’s actually kind of odd to see people get their throats slit in a Wes Anderson movie, but, yet, here we are. Aesthetically, this might be Anderson’s most clichéd “Wes Anderson Movie,” but, storywise, it’s actually a welcome departure.
It’s kind of unfair to refer to this as “the abortion comedy,” a designation everyone knew would happen, but doesn’t really do this film justice. Jenny Slate does a wonderful job as a stand up comedian who uses her public platform to work through her feelings. ‘Obvious Child’ takes a controversial subject and brilliantly humanizes it in a way that is rare.
'The LEGO Movie'
‘The LEGO Movie’ could have (and probably should have) been really dumb. I mean, still staring at that title, how in the world is this not just good, but a great movie? Not that, at this point, we don’t all have confidence in the machine that is the Lord & Miller directing duo, but, good grief, that this is even coherent is a minor miracle – let alone one of the best films of the year so far.
'Edge of Tomorrow'
Maybe the marketing campaign confused potential ticket buyers. Maybe, outside of the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise, Tom Cruise is no longer a box office draw. Maybe it was the blasé title that offered no hint of what this movie was about. Movies are expensive and maybe people were just saving up their money to see the new ‘Transformers’ movie. Who knows, really?
‘Edge of Tomorrow’ didn’t completely bomb, but it certainly underperformed for a movie that really was this good and this original. Poor Tom Cruise, you can actually tell while watching that he’s making a movie that’s something special -- because it’s been some time since he’s made something that would classify as “something special.” But, here we are. And, eventually, this movie will catch on.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.