Best of Summer 2014: The Blockbusters

Headed into summer 2014 it looked as though there were a few bright spots in the schedule, but it was likely to be a mere appetizer on the road towards an utterly packed 2015.  Lo and behold, Batman V. Superman got pushed to 2016 and Star Wars Episode VII was moved to late 2015, taking the shine off next summer.

Who could’ve predicted 5 months ago that Captain America’s second outing would successfully marry 70’s paranoid thrillers to modern action movies, or that the next Planet of the Apes would rocket the series into deserving A-list status?  It was truly a summer of overachievers. Here’s a rundown of the best blockbusters that hit, in order of release date:

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Cap’s second outing continues Marvel’s Phase 2 and delivers characterization, story , and epic action beats in equal measure. As directors, The Russo Brothers pivot from the first film’s gung-ho WW2-era jingoism to a more modern authority-questioning plot. Chris Evans continues to prove that he is the best choice for the role and brings a welcome lightness. The casting coup of Robert Redford pays thematic dividends and the rest of the cast shines as well: Anthony Mackie’s PTSD Falcon, Scarlett Johansson’s sly Black Widow, and even Sammy J’s squinting Nick Fury all get their moment in the sun. This is simply a well-balanced flick that set a high bar to clear in April (!) – which, I know, is not technically summer.

Secret Weapon: Sebastien Stan’s tortured and badass turn as Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier. Chris Evans’ Marvel contract is 6 films – when that’s up could Bucky Barnes fill Cap’s shoes? It would bring the Marvel Cinematic Universe closer in tone to the comics and could make for a nice redemption story. Falcon could slot in nicely here as well.

Neighbors

Neighbors

Seth Rogen has become such a ubiquitous screen presence (last year’s This is the End mined similar territory and this fall sees him re-teamed with frequent collaborator James Franco for The Interview) that a new movie of his is hardly an event. Thankfully Neighbors shakes off the fatigue and brings the funny in spades. As opposed to the “Slobs vs. Snobs” plotlines of 80’s films, Neighbors has “Slobs vs. Slightly Older Slobs” as rowdy frat boys next door – led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco – face off against Seth Rogen & Rose Byrne’s new parents. Sharp writing, a stellar supporting cast, and an overall contagious party vibe make this another notch in Seth Rogen’s belt and contribute to a movie that is perfect for throwing on and hanging out with.

Secret Weapon: Zac Efron as the Alpha frat bro Teddy. He’s a surprisingly nuanced character in a movie that actually has empathy for both sides. Efron brings dimension to what could’ve been a one-note character and, incidentally, is funny as hell too.

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Godzilla

Godzilla fans had reason to be cautiously optimistic when it was announced that director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) would take over the reins for the 2014 reboot of The King of Monsters. That faith was well-placed as this summer’s Godzilla was able to wash the bad taste of the widely reviled 1998 iteration out of everyone’s mouth (and brain!). In a movie that is deliberately withholding in reveals of the titular monster, Godzilla brought the scale and danger back to the franchise and rightfully made Godzilla a true force of nature. The human drama sometimes pales in comparison, but overall the spectacle and tone strike the right chords in what is an appropriately large scale film. Just when you thought you couldn’t take any more cities being destroyed on film, along comes a giant Japanese lizard to give large scale destruction heft and meaning.

Secret Weapon: Bonafide actor-extraordinaire Bryan Cranston in a too-short appearance as a scientist with ties to Godzilla’s reemergence emerges as the best performance.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men helped kickstart the cinematic Superhero genre in 2000 and the series has soldiered on with entries of varying quality over the years. 2011’s X-Men: First Class brought the franchise back to respectability and Days of Future Past continues that trend in an alternately jaunty and po-faced time travel yarn that manages to wrangle multiple generation’s worth of mutants. Bryan Singer returns to the director’s chair and combines a 70’s period-piece with a near-future dystopia in a film that has just about every actor ever. The sentinals finally appear onscreen (in full) and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan get to give their versions of Professor X and Magneto an appropriate sendoff (they’ll live on as the younger versions moving forward). A truly geeky movie that doesn’t hold the hands of non-fans, Days of Future Past brings pathos, fun (that Quicksilver scene!), and a large cast together in a movie that seems like it shouldn’t work, but against all odds does.

Secret Weapon: So many to choose from here, but it’s likely Michael Fassbender as the charismatic fascist Magneto. Evan Peters’ Quicksilver ranks a close second.

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Edge of Tomorrow

Tom Cruise’s star has dimmed in recent years almost to the point that he’s an underdog. Of course that’s perception and not reality, but it lends Edge of Tomorrow an air of triumph it may not have had otherwise. Cruise shines as an unlikeable asshole in this sci-fi pic that brings videogame sensibilities and  sharp dialogue to an end-of-the-world alien invasion story. The hook is that Cruise’s character is reborn after each death as he tries (against all odds, naturally) to stop the aliens. The European setting, abundant humour, and unique structure all bring novelty to what turns out to be a great blockbuster that feels effortless in the best way possible. Why can’t all movies be this fun? It didn’t fare well in ticket sales – perhaps it will be reborn on video (or VOD or BluRay or DVD)?

Secret Weapon: Emily Blunt’s stone cold Rita Vrataski (A.K.A. “The Angel of Verdunn” A.K.A. well, I’ll let you discover her last alias) brings physicality and authority to a character that has a great reveal in battle and then continues to develop throughout the film. With any luck this will lead to more action roles for her, should she choose that path.

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22 Jump Street

The smart money says that comedy sequels adhere to the law of diminishing returns (look no further than Ghostbusters, Caddyshack, The Hangover, or every comedy sequel ever made). Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (the directors who shepherded the first Jump Street and this year’s The Lego Movie to screens) defy all odds once again by proving that maxim wrong and delivering a comedy sequel not only worthy of the first entry, but that improves upon it in many ways. 22 Jump Street brings much of the first film’s bromance to the fore, in what turns out to be a rollicking romantic comedy/action movie not seen since the likes of Romancing the Stone. The plot is secondary to Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum’s rapport and banter, but the whole thing gels into a riotous good time that continues to surprise and delight.

Secret Weapon: Hill and Tatum proved their chops in the first flick (and elsewhere). Here it’s Jillian Bell (of Comedy Central’s Workaholics) that gets to steal scenes.

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Another sequel to a surprise 2011 hit, Dawn quickly jettisons Rise of the Planet of the Apes human cast but continues the story of lead ape Caesar. Andy Serkis imbues Caesar with depth and emotion in a film that flawlessly executes state-of-the-art effects (to the point where you don’t notice them, which is great) with an allegorical & timely narrative. Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Keri Russell anchor the human cast, but it’s the well-realized apes who shine in this pic. Hard sci-fi that is played absolutely straight faced, Dawn is brave and bold filmmaking, and contains some truly show-stopping action sequences in its second half. A classic franchise continues to be reborn for the modern age, as Dawn  shows the mutability of this now contemporary tale while still embracing its roots.

Secret Weapon: Andy Serkis continues to show why he is king of motion capture performances, but it’s really Toby Kebbell as the villainous but nuanced ape Koba that sears a mark on your consciousness.

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Guardians of the Galaxy

In a summer of (often pleasant) surprises, Guardians may be the biggest surprise of all. Marvel thought that audiences would flock to a 3rd-tier franchise, starring a guy best known for TV’s  Parks and Recreation, from the director of Slither? The gamble paid off and we’re left with a deft Star Wars update that should have J.J. Abrams taking notes. The Technicolor world of Guardians bursts off the screen in this jubilant space opera that deftly creates a new facet of the Marvel universe while ably introducing a memorable cast of characters. Time will tell, but Guardians feels like it will age into the type of film that fans will revisit often whenever they’re in need of a jolt of cinematic joy.

Secret Weapon: Chris Pratt steps up his game big time en route to being a gigantic star, and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel bring life to Rocket Raccoon and Groot in an instantly memorable fashion. Other ringers abound, but c’mon – you know it’s Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer that brought the house down. Director James Gunn shows an almost Tarantino-like ability to aid reinvention as Bautista, a former wrestler, shines in a movie full of standouts.

So there you have it! Marvel ruled a summer full of sci-fi hits and welcome surprises. There was no lack of quality amongst wide releases in summer 2014 and some of these flicks even proved that blockbusters can be thought-provoking, relevant and essential. What did I miss? How wrong am I? The class of 2015 has a lot to live up to – let’s see if they can rise to the occasion.

*Editor’s note: I didn’t see Transformers 4 and Ninja Turtles because I don’t hate myself.

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