The best movies of the year so far?

Clockwise from top left, Sony Pictures, per-anders jorgensen/Magnolia Pictures; drafthouse films; Warner Bros.
Clockwise from top left, “The Lunchbox,” We Are the Best!” “A Field in England," and “The LEGO Movie.”

Since 2013 was such a strong year for movies and 2014 is shaping up to be the same, it seems sensible to take a half-time breather and quantify the year’s best films to date. The coming weeks will see the arrival of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” — the toast of Sundance and Cannes — and the new “Planet of the Apes” sequel is already generating gobsmacked early reviews. But January through June was a surprisingly unshabby six months at the movies, proof that even as the industry goes through fundamental changes, great cinematic experiences continue to entertain and challenge. Here are my 13 picks for the finest of 2014 so far, noting their availability in theaters or through video on demand (through cable services, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, or other outlets).


Take 2: Chef

Writer-director-star Jon Favreau’s return to form is an audience-pleaser made from familiar ingredients, but what’s wrong with comfort food? Especially when it’s prepared with this much affection? Favreau, John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale, and others nail the sweat and lingo of working chefs, and folks like Dustin Hoffman and Scarlett Johansson add spice in smaller roles. Even the kid’s all right. Make sure you eat beforehand or you’ll be starving afterward (in theaters).

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“A Field in England”


Just your average psychotronic historical horror drama from Britain’s Ben Wheatley, which is to say there’s nothing average about it at all. During England’s 17th-century civil wars, a group of AWOL soldiers searches for treasure in a field; power trips and mind games ensue, and that’s before those magic mushrooms kick in. Wheatley’s working far out on a limb of his own devising — catch his movies now before he saws it off (available on demand).

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“The Grand Budapest Hotel”

Take 2: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Do I really have to sell you on this one? Energized by the success of “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), Wes Anderson returns to his traditional whimsies, in this case a mythical Eastern European hotel between the wars and the legendary concierge (Ralph Fiennes) who rules it. Packed to the roof with good actors doing sly work, laughs from out of left field, and, beneath all the fun, an aching sense of personal and historical loss (available on demand).

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Pawel Pawlikowski’s drama about a novice nun (Agata Trzebuchowska) uncovering surprising family roots in early-1960s Poland is a conscious throwback to the films of Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson. The film’s heavy load of sorrow and sin is filtered through almost painfully beautiful black-and-white images. One the year’s most haunting movies and certainly one of its most visually stunning (in theaters).


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“The Immigrant”

Speaking of conscious throwbacks, James Gray daringly uses his 1920s-set tale of New York to channel the spirit of the great silent actresses, with close-ups of Marion Cotillard that are worthy of Lillian Gish. Joaquin Phoenix gives another great, baffling performance, and the final scenes are devastating — why the Weinstein Co. has released the movie with next to no promotion is the mystery of the year (out of theaters; no VOD date announced).

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“The LEGO Movie”

Take 2: ‘The LEGO Movie’

Between this and “22 Jump Street,” writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are the entertainers of the half-year. Given the assignment —
a two-hour toy tie-in — it’s almost miraculous that what emerged has this much wit, speed, playfulness, and self-awareness. Lord and Miller disarm thinking audiences by flattering their distrust of corporate filmmaking and then selling it right back to them as ingenious meta-fun. Did these guys make a deal with the devil? Oh, and the kids will like it, too (available on demand).

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What sounds like a gimmick — 90 minutes of a man in a car — acquires genuine soul thanks to smart filmmaking, writer-director Steven Knight’s nimble script, and especially Tom Hardy as the title character, a good man trying to hold his life together while talking on a speaker phone at 70 miles per hour. It’s remarkable, really: “Locke” takes one man and one location and gives us an entire multi-character drama (available on demand Aug. 12).

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“The Lunchbox”

Writer-director Ritesh Batra’s feature debut is a charming and ultimately powerful story of a lonely office worker (Irrfan Khan), a neglected wife (Nimrat Kaur), and the errant lunch-pail delivery that leads to a correspondence between the two and something possibly like love. It’s the kind of character-rich heart-tugger they used to make in Hollywood and apparently now outsource to India (available on demand).

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Maybe it’s not what you’d call commercial cinema — Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab doesn’t really do that — but this documentary is meditative, metaphysical, and mind-altering. All the filmmakers did was put a camera in a cable car carrying Nepalese religious pilgrims and tourists up and down a mountain. Yet the movie comes to seem like it’s holding all of humanity in its lens, and its stories are the ones we all provide when we look at people. A trip in more ways than one (available on demand Aug. 19).

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“Nymphomaniac Vols I & II”

Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jamie Bell in “Nymphomaniac II.”
Christian Geisnae/Magnolia Pictures
Charlotte Gainsbourg and Jamie Bell in “Nymphomaniac II.”

When Lars von Trier is being a bad little boy, he can be very bad indeed, but when he’s good, he’s really kind of brilliant. This two-part, four-hour tour of the life of a sex addict (Stacy Martin as a teenager, Charlotte Gainsbourg as an adult) goes heavy on the sturm and guilt, but what’s most shocking is how funny, tender, and thoughtful it is. Not for the faint of heart, but you knew that when you saw the title (available on demand Tuesday).

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Vol. II review


Take 2: Snowpiercer

An international cast plays the remnants of humanity in Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut, a startling dystopia set aboard a train that never stops. Led by Chris Evans (”Captain America”), the have-nots in the rear wage bloody rebellion against the haves up front. Imagine “Blade Runner” with added social rage or “Brazil” with extra teeth (in theaters).

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“Under the Skin”

Another artful puzzler from director Jonathan Glazer (”Sexy Beast,” “Birth”), this time with levels of dread and disquiet. Scarlett Johansson plays some kind of unearthly visitor luring men to their doom in rural Scotland. Is she part of a hive mind? Is she an allegory for women and the social skins they have to wear? What happens when a predator starts to sympathize with its prey? Glazer provides few answers, but his film’s eerie visuals and sound design prove impossible to shake (available on demand).

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“We Are the Best!”

Three middle-school girls in 1980s Stockholm form a punk band, despite everyone assuring them that punk is dead and that girls can’t play it anyway. That fine Swedish humanist Lukas Moodysson (”Together,” “Lilya 4-Ever”) comes in out of the cold with this rambunctious joy, a movie that remembers what it was like to be young and furious and in a band despite all lack of musical ability. Mira Barkhammar has a face for the ages: John Lennon crossed with a koala (available on demand).

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Graphic: Summer movies of 2014

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Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.