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 an excellent start.
Here, listed in alphabetical order, are our critics' picks for the best films released theatrically from January to June 2014:
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.
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).
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.