NEW YORK (AP) -- Sandwiched between the chest-thumping ambition of awards season and the swaggering spectacle of summer, spring movie-going is usually an afterthought, a limbo for films not bankable enough for July or highbrow enough for the Oscars. But it might actually be the best time of year for the movies. In springtime - particularly this year - the movies come alive.
It's not that the movies of March and April have been so tremendous. Many of them are flawed. But imperfection isn't something that should be papered over with big-budget engineering or test-screened away into sleeker products.
Instead, these leftovers and oddities offer something that can be harder to find later in the year when so many films come pre-packaged, whether as awards bait or box-office juggernauts: a sense of surprise.
Who would have thought a movie based on a toy line ("The Lego Movie") would prove to be both inventive and slyly subversive? Who would have predicted a documentary made by a novice filmmaker about palling around with his brother's rock band ("Mistaken for Strangers") would turn out a comic but tender portrait of brotherhood? And how often do we see filmmakers with the talent and proclivity for darkness of Darren Aronofsky entrusted with a $130-million movie ("Noah")?
Opening Friday are two of the year's best films: Jim Jarmusch's "Only Lovers Left Alive" and David Gordon Green's "Joe." Both are movies with their own distinct rhythm, made by filmmakers who have long charted their own path. Jarmusch and Green are shape-shifters who, in these films, feel like they're in their most natural shape.
"Only Lovers Left Alive" is about two long-living vampires (Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston) who have passed the centuries not sucking blood, but soaking up culture. Languorous and pensive but also dryly comedic, it's one of Jarmusch's best.
"Joe," based on the novel by Larry Brown, stars Nicolas Cage in a performance that will remind many of why they once put their faith in his talent. It's a kind of modern-day Western, uprooted from the Mississippi of the book and placed in the backwoods of Texas, where Cage's Joe is a former convict trying to stay out of trouble. The director David Gordon Green uses non-professional actors (including an exceptionally raw performance from an elderly Austin homeless man, Gary Poulter, who died after production) and real locations that give "Joe" a naturalism you can feel.
But that's far from all. Opening last week was Jonathan Glazer's beautiful sci-fi horror "Under the Skin," one of the most striking films to come along in some time. With Scarlett Johansson as a predator extraterrestrial, the movie looks at Earth (Scotland, specifically) through alien eyes. There is plenty to marvel at in the view, but also a lot to be disturbed by.
Like "Noah," (which some objected to for extrapolating an environmental subtext from the Biblical tale), not everyone will go for "Under the Skin," but few are likely to forget it. These are movies that provoke a response. Whether you're on their side or not, that's a good thing.
The same might be said for Lars von Trier's much talked-about "Nymphomaniac" (with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgard) a far funnier film than you'd expect, given its reputation for graphic sex. Each of the two "volumes" of the film are on video-on-demand, a still relatively recent phenomenon where, with the click of the remote, you can immediately decide for yourself about the latest sensation from one of cinema's most interesting and infuriating directors. (The superb, mysterious French film "Stranger by the Lake" also uses explicit sex for an eerily placid murder thriller set at a lakeside cruising spot for gay men.)
But for a theatrical experience, the best thing going right now might be Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," a movie that has, in a slowly expanding release, become Anderson's highest-grossing worldwide. With an Oscar-worthy performance by Ralph Fiennes as a fastidious concierge, it's been called Anderson's most superficial movie (for its candied set design) and his deepest (for its melancholy nostalgia of a more refined, pre-World War II era). It's both.
Any Errol Morris documentary is an event, and that's no different for his latest, "The Unknown Known," in which he spars helplessly with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But the movie isn't about Morris' failure to get Rumsfeld to open up; it's about Rumsfeld's smug refusal to re-examine the past. It's one of the most ironic films you'll ever see.
How about animated films? There's the hugely charming, hand-drawn, Oscar-nominated "Ernest and Celestine," produced by the maker of "The Triplets of Belleville" and also released in an English version with voices
by Forest Whitaker, Paul Giamatti and others. It's a delightful picture book of a movie. The final movie from Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki, "The Wind Rises," is also not to be missed.
And there's more still: Steve Coogan's surprisingly good big-screen version of his long-running comic creation "Alan Partridge"; the serene gentleness of the switch-at-birth Japanese film "Like Father, Like Son"; and "Veronica Mars," innovatively released, snappiness intact.
With such rich offerings, the movies are off to a very good start in 2014.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: HTTP://TWITTER.COM/JAKE-COYLE