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This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Kristen Bell in a scene from "Veronica Mars." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Robert Voets)
Sean P. Means: The surprise gems of 2014’s movies (so far)

By Sean P. Means

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published May 02 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated May 03 2014 09:19 pm

The months between Christmas and the first weekend of May — the start of the summer movie season — are sometimes disparaged as a movie-lover’s wasteland.

The argument goes that after the Oscar-contending movies open (officially by Christmas, but in most cities not until January) and before the first of the blockbusters, there’s nothing worth talking about.

January has long been considered a dumping ground for movies not worthy of end-of-year awards buzz, particularly for horror movies. February, according to a recent article in Slate, is statistically proven to have the worst new releases of the year. And March and April are a grab-bag, a mix of romantic comedies and a few action flicks that were deemed not strong enough to compete in summer.

But the first four months of 2014 yielded some surprises, signs that the landscape for movies isn’t as barren as some believe.

With the summer season kicking off with this weekend’s blockbuster, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," The Cricket is taking a last opportunity to consider what we’ve seen already this year:

Ann Dowd and Margo Martindale » These two brilliant character actors each brought a little extra to sappy inspirational dramas. In "Gimme Shelter," Dowd played the no-nonsense founder of a shelter for pregnant teens. Martindale gave some grit to "Heaven Is for Real," playing a parishioner still grieving after the death of her son in Iraq.

Mackenzie Davis » This lithe Canadian-born actor had two breakout moments, coincidentally both playing characters named Lauren. One was in the bromance/romance "That Awkward Moment," as the wingwoman to Miles Teller’s character — a refreshing portrayal of a woman who enjoys sex as much as the guys do. The other was in "Breathe In," bringing some vitality to filmmaker Drake Doremus’ downbeat drama, as the daughter of a potentially unfaithful teacher (Guy Pearce).

"The LEGO Movie" » Moviegoers would be forgiven thinking this would be another toy-centered infomercial, along the lines of "Battleship" and "Transformers." But, lo and behold, this animated gem turned out to be delightful in all possible ways — a hilarious comedy, a smart action movie and a beautiful object lesson in the importance of childhood perspective.

"Mr. Peabody & Sherman" » Again, expectations of awfulness were thwarted in an animated movie. This computer-animated romp didn’t sully the memory of Jay Ward’s ’60s animated time travelers and turned out to be a lot of fun.

Kevin Costner » The "Dances With Wolves" star had a resurgence this spring. First there was the bat-guano assassin thriller "3 Days to Kill," but even better was his comic turn as a harried NFL general manager in "Draft Day" — a sports drama that played like a screwball comedy, with Costner deftly juggling a dozen problems at once.

"Veronica Mars" » The fans got what they wanted: a big-screen turn for their favorite teen TV sleuth. The rest of us got a smart, engaging movie with Kristen Bell in the lead.

"The Grand Budapest Hotel" » There’s always the worry with director Wes Anderson that he’ll be too precious, too self-referential — as he did with "The Life Aquatic" and "The Darjeeling Limited." But here, he created a perfect jewel-box of a movie, nesting a pre-World War II mystery in a Soviet bloc memory play inside a modern nostalgia piece. And he found in Ralph Fiennes a hidden reservoir of humor.

"Muppets Most Wanted" » Still fuzzy. Still funny. (Bonus points for Ty Burrell’s Clouseau-like Interpol agent and Tina Fey’s ice-queen Russian prison warden.)

Robert Redford » The Sundance Kid got to unleash his inner badass in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" as Alexander Pearce, a man so powerful he even gives orders to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) — and gets Iron Man to come to his niece’s birthday party. If you haven’t seen it yet, this is all I can say: You’ve never, ever seen Redford like this.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket, or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/seanpmeans. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.

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