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The Best and Worst Movies of 2014 So Far

Grand hotels, growing boys, reboots and robot toys — Peter Travers picks the highs and lows of the year’s films to date

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Transformers: Age of Extintion, and The Lego Movie

Photo by Martin Scali/Fox Searchlight, Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures, Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

We're almost at the halfway point of 2014, and already, we've seen some incredible, though-provoking movies, a few instant classics, and handful of straight-up duds. We've still got a long way to go before we can assess the year en toto — the depths of the summer-blockbuster dog days and the heights of the fall's prestige season, not to mention early winter's Oscar contenders, still lay ahead. But the first six months has certainly delivered its share of giddy highs and crushing lows.

The Best TV Shows of 2014 So Far

So, with that in mind, we give you the best and the worst movies of 2014 to date. Arty sci-fi headscratchers, gratuitous superhero-film reboots, old-fashioned melodramas, new films by Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson and [gulp] Michael Bay — it's the cream of the crop and the bottom of the barrel of the year so far. By Peter Travers

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BEST – 2. ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’

Another Texas-born filmmaker, Houston's Wes Anderson, scored his biggest box-office hit ($164 million worldwide, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com) with this idiosyncratic look at 20th-century European opulence and life during wartime. That it is also his most ardent and artful creation yet is the icing on the cake. Check the ingredients: old-world elegance, Nazis, larceny, murder, pastry miracles, world domination, toboggan chases, Tilda Swinton as a dowager cougar and Ralph Fiennes, at his lightest and most verbally dexterous, as a bisexual concierge who finds war unforgivably rude. Only Anderson could have used a toybox confection to frame a startling vision of  humanity under siege. Isn't it about time that Oscar recognized one of the most brilliant stylists in its midst? 

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BEST – 3. ‘The Lego Movie’

A kiddie cartoon based on plastic toys somehow transforms into the year's most subversive comedy, a sendup of franchise filmmaking that delivers fun for squirts and adults without cheating either. The directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — of Jump Street 21 and 22 fame — have managed to make inanimate objects come alive and fill us with joy. (You should be taking notes, Michael Bay.) By the time Emmet the construction worker (voiced by Chris Pratt) overthrows President Business (Will Ferrell), everything in this  movie-mad, comic-crazy hellzapoppin' is awesome, indeed.

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BEST – 4. ‘Under the Skin’

Science fiction that doesn't coddle audiences can bring out the haters — and Jonathan Glazer's tale of an alien who comes to Earth in the form of a babe (a never-better Scarlett Johansson) practically defines divisive. But go with the haunting flow as this strange beauty lures men to a lair where murder is just for starters, and you'll be shaken and oddly moved. Glazer (Sexy Beast) is exactly the kind of provocateur you should let under your skin.

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BEST – 5. ‘The Immigrant’

Ever since I saw James Gray's transporting film a few month ago, I can't get it out of my head. From Little Odessa to Two Lovers, the Queens-born Gray — a filmmaker in touch with his Russian-Jewish roots — rarely gets the viewer support he deserves. Get busy, people. Marion Cotillard, her face a canvas of conflicting emotions, is breathtaking as a Polish immigrant, circa 1921, who is talked into the sex trade by a hustler (Joaquin Phoenix). With classical rigor and a full heart, Gray achieves a delicate balance that most Hollywood hacks wouldn't even dare to attempt.

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BEST – 6. ‘Locke’

Yes, folks, this is the movie about a Brit in a BMW yammering on his car phone for 90 minutes. But since Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises, Warrior) plays construction foreman Ivan Locke with such coruscating brilliance, you won't be bored for a second. Writer-director Stephen Knight focuses on Hardy's face and voice as Locke tries to keep his career, his marriage and his future from hitting a wall. It shouldn't work at all, and yet it does, beautifully.

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BEST – 7. ‘The Normal Heart’

I've been told that director Ryan Murphy's version of Larry Kramer's 1985 play about the AIDS crisis is not a real movie because it premiered on HBO. Screw that. This is the digiverse, meaning we grab something great wherever we can get it. Written, directed and acted with a ferocity and feeling that the studio system has neglected, The Normal Heart hits you hard. And if Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer and Julia Roberts win Emmys instead of Oscars, who's fault is that? 

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WORST – 1. ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’

It's early to make predictions, but I'm betting that this blockheaded blockbuster — the start of Michael Bay's new Transformers trilogy (God help us all) — will defeat all comers for the title of Worst Movie of the Year. Devoid of humor, humanity and purpose, Age of Extinction acutely represents Bay’s gift for repeating himself ad nauseam and still suckering audiences into believing that soulless, robotic filmmaking is a good thing. 

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WORST – 2. ‘Blended’

For a while it looked like audiences would never get tired of Adam Sandler's brand of sitcom smarmy. But this feeble family farce about a widower who drags his kids to South Africa not only eviscerates any fond memories we may still harbor about Sandler and costar Drew Barrymore in 1998's The Wedding Singer; it's godawful enough to inspire even his diehard fans to revolt.

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WORST – 3. ‘Transcendence’

Johnny Depp stars in a techno-thriller of more than usual stupidity and worthlessness. That Depp practically Skyped in his performance as a deceased expert in artificial intelligence is understandable. That the terrific cinematographer Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight) would choose this swill in which to make his feature debut as a director is downright confounding.

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WORST – 4. ‘Think Like a Man Too’

Based on the premise that he already fooled the public once by getting people to line up for the first Think like a Man in 2012, despite its singular achievement in the realm of terrible, director Tim Story cynically believed he do it again with this witless sequel. He was right. For shame.

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WORST – 5. ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’

No one asked for a reboot to Sam Raimi's Spidey trilogy that ended in 2007. But we got it anyway in 2012, and it was far from amazing — more like bland and pointless. That goes double for this sequel, one that exists merely as an exercise in the art of brand milking. Kill me now.

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WORST – 6. The Other Woman

This strained comedy about three women (Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann and Kate Upton) who team up to get revenge on the rat bastard man who done them wrong is meant to be a triumph for feminism at the movies. But the year hasn't produced an uglier, more misogynist look at female behavior than this vile contraption — and from a female screenwriter, no less. WTF!?!

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WORST – 7. ‘Need for Speed’

As a Breaking Bad obsessive, I rooted mightily for Aaron Paul, the immortal Jesse, to make it in movies. But this strained racing drama, adapted from — yikes! — a video-game franchise, left Paul inhaling the fumes of every drag-strip cliché imaginable.

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WORST – 8. ‘Heaven Is for Real’

Christianity sells. I get it. But do all the God-fearing movies that have littered the cinematic landscape so far in 2014 have to be as treacly as Randall Wallace's film version of the bestseller about a dad (Greg Kinnear) who learns about heaven from his five-year-old son's near-death experience?    

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