Rewinding: The Best of Summer 2014

Summer 2014 may have ultimately been a commercial disappointment, but that didn’t keep a number of high-quality films from hitting screens. From major box office hits to low-budget indies, here are ten films from Summer 2014 that you should watch again – or for the first time.

Boyhood

Shot in pieces over a decade, Boyhood could very easily have just been a technical achievement. Thanks to remarkable performances from Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and newcomer Ellar Coltrane, though, Boyhood transcends other coming-of-age stories with a sprawling story that takes mundane parts of life and turns them into a fascinating whole. The little touches help make the film: elements like the evolving music, the touches of current pop culture, and changes in fashion. A casual dismissal of the creation of more Star Wars films is particularly humorous, in light of the imminent Star Wars: Episode VII.

Calvary

This is a dark comedy, with an emphasis on dark. The premise: a victim of sexual abuse confesses to a priest that he plans to kill said priest in one week, because he believes it will be worse for the church to see a good priest die than a bad one. Over the course of the week, we see him struggle with what to do while also dealing with various parishioners in his small town. Brendan Gleeson gives a brilliant performance as Father James, while the film tackles its weighty subjects with a balance of sensitivity and humor. It’s a heavy film, but it treats the subject matter intelligently.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Hail Caesar. Where Rise of the Planet of the Apes freshened up the long-running franchise, Dawn took the series to a new level. The humans here aren’t quite afterthoughts, but the focus is primarily on the apes, and that decision works surprisingly well. Just as he did in the previous film, Caesar is the heart of this film, but the rise of Koba into out-and-out villain gives Caesar a legitimate adversary. In the process, the summer had a villain worth remembering and a film that set a new bar for the series.

Edge of Tomorrow

In spite of a painfully generic name (seriously, the original title – All You Need Is Kill – is so much better, as is the tagline Live. Die. Repeat.), Edge of Tomorrow proved surprisingly fresh. Tom Cruise may be something of a punchline these days, but Edge of Tomorrow used his movie-star persona to tremendous effect, whether as the pretty-boy media star of a war; a weaselly, manipulative coward; or a burgeoning hero. And let’s be honest – there’s something just a little bit fun about seeing the various ways Tom Cruise dies in rapid succession that works to the film’s benefit.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Just in time for summer’s end, Guardians of the Galaxy became the #1 film of 2014 at the domestic box office. Who would’ve thought that a film based on a Marvel property that most audiences aren’t aware of, that includes a gun-toting raccoon and a monosyllabic talking tree, would be the biggest hit of the year? The Marvel brand name certainly helped make Guardians a hit, but a smart story and inspired casting (welcome to the big leagues, Chris Pratt) helped make Guardians into a genuinely great film. Plus, Guardians provided (for me, at least) the single most unexpected laugh of the year with the Jackson Pollack line. Along with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel has owned the box office this year, and deservedly so.

Neighbors

Remember when Seth Rogen’s career seemed to be spiraling down, with films like The Guilt Trip? Yeah, it’s hard to remember that was just a few years ago, thanks to the one-two punch of last summer’s This Is the End and this summer’s Neighbors. Rogen settles nicely into a (slightly) more mature role, and Zac Efron gets to let loose in his best film role to date. It helps that, unlike Rogen’s normal raunchy, Apatow-related comedies, Neighbors doesn’t overstay its welcome with a bloated runtime.

Obvious Child

A lot of people like to try and paint Hollywood as a liberal bastion, but for all that talk, some hot-button “liberal” topics are usually avoided. Obvious Child tackles one of the biggest ones, abortion, with an unusual sense of humor and matter-of-fact assuredness. The film deftly avoids the normal trope of making abortion a shameful, or at least difficult, decision. Dramatic tension may still arise from the decision, but it’s handled in a refreshingly different way.

Snowpiercer

Arriving in the U.S. a year after it made its mark elsewhere around the world, Snowpiercer was shunted into a limited theatrical release prior to its arrival on VOD services. Fortunately, it arrived without edits from Harvey Weinstein. This dystopian picture offers an exhilarating amount of action with humor, heart, and science fiction. Chris Evans has never been better, and Tilda Swinton creates one of the year’s most memorable characters. While this list is unranked, Snowpiercer stands as my #1 film of the summer.

What If

The romantic comedy genre as a whole is largely dead, which is good. Like other genres before it, it’s a hard genre to tackle with anything different. In order to work, films that are in some form a part of the genre have to find something special to make it work. With a razor-sharp repartee between its two leads, What If is able to largely subvert the genre and stays clear of many romantic comedy tropes. If only the film steered clear of a few big ones, it would have a bigger shot at making my Top 10 at the end of the year.

22 Jump Street

Phil Lord and Chris Miller strike again. 22 Jump Street shouldn’t work, but that’s what you can say about all of the other films these two have created. Here, they take on the concept of Hollywood sequels –where bigger is better – and decimate it with some huge laugh-out-loud moments. Add in Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s natural chemistry, a beefed-up role for Ice Cube, and a scene-stealing performance from Jillian Bell, and the result is one of the funniest movies of the year, by far.

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