Thursday, September 11, 2014

Scruffy Nerfherder Presents: The 10 Best Movies of Summer 2014

By Andrew Braid



Well, this long summer has finally drawn to an end, and if you're a Hollywood executive, the news wouldn't seem to be particularly bright from a financial perspective. While there were few outright flops, many big summer movies fell under box office analyst expectations, and only one movie (the crowned summer b.o. king Guardians of the Galaxy- who would have though a few months ago, right?) has grossed over $250 million domestic, compared to four last year and three in both 2012 and 2011. In particular July, usually the biggest and most integral month of the summer movie calendar, was utterly flaccid compared to previous years, with an utter lack of heavy hitters (the only real big movie that month being Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) resulting in a 30% decline from the previous year, the worst year-to-year decline recorded in decades. From this kind of perspective, it seems like this summer's movies were mostly pretty weak, lacklustre efforts, an unmemorable slate of films that's not worth talking about much, let alone sincerely looking back upon.
And that's where I'd have to call you out and say you're wrong.
Because if you're looking through a quality perspective we got some pretty awesome movies this summer. Sure, maybe the weren't all originals or groundbreaking masterpieces, but there were more than a few great times to go around in those comfy theatre seats and air-conditioned auditoriums. With most years I'll be lucky if the summer movie season can offer me enough genuinely great movies for a Top 5, but Summer 2014 was practically an embarrassment of riches by comparison, one that's going to make narrowing down my year-end Top 10 much more difficult than usual (hell, I might just end up saying "f*** it" and make it a Top 15 or 20- I guess we'll wait and see). So with the back-to-school season back in swing again, I thought it'd be a good time to look back and remember the good times we had at the movies this summer, the buttery cream of the popcorn crop that remind us why we all love Hollywood cinema in the first place (even with whatever bullshit they make us put up with next).
So here, in no particular order, are my picks for the 10 Best Movies of Summer 2014!


Neighbors

Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien


An early smash hit back in May, the latest comedy from the ever-talented Seth Rogen (joined by writer/producer/director partner Evan Goldberg) takes a simple premise (a new family ends up moving in next door to a raucous fraternity house) and knocks it out of the park, adding another example as to why Rogen is, like it or not, a generation-defining comedian. The consistent stream of laughs are expectedly raunchy through and through, but what makes the comedy stick (and gives the film a surprisingly good level of heart) is how gosh-darn likable all these characters are, and how much you find yourself wanting these two sides to work it out (the characters may step a bit over the line on one or two occasions, but not in a way that makes you turn against anyone). Seth Rogen is in fine form as usual, but Rose Byre goes above and beyond the typical wife/mother role and genuinely kills it every chance she gets (it helps that she and Rogen have excellent chemistry playing a married couple). It's Zac Efron who really surprises though as frat leader Teddy, a fun and good-natured college guy who realizes that his life is never going to get any better than his current fratboy days, and will do whatever he has to if it means making that big party last as long as it can. Throw in some memorably kinetic party sequences and you're left with a comedy guaranteed to give you a great time, even if it doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel.


Godzilla

Directed by Gareth Edwards
Screenplay by Max Borenstein; Story by David Callaham



While some were left feeling disappointed or cheated by the latest revival of Japan's world-famous King of the Monsters (likely due to the film's outstanding-yet-misleading marketing), Godzilla nonetheless brought back the old-school giant monster movie in an (appropriately) big way. Following inspiration as much from early Spielberg films like Jaws as it does the old-school Toho kaiji films, the film saves up on its huge-scale giant monster action, carefully and patiently building as we get to know the human cast who find themselves helpless in the face of these force-of-nature Goliaths. The film works to establish emotional connection to the action and destruction by framing it through a human perspective, lending the proceedings a massive sense of scale and a grounded level of plausibility- the viewer becomes part of the human crowds, awestruck and stunned in the face of such disaster around us. And when the film finally does reach its epic kaiju bout conclusion? Hoo boy does it deliver...
King of the Monsters indeed.
(For a full review of Godzilla, click here.)


X-Men: Days of Future Past

Directed by Bryan Singer
Screenplay by Simon Kinberg; Story by Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg and Matthew Vaughn


Arguably the most anticipated movie going into this summer, the seventh film in the X-Men movie franchise (though really the fifth, seeing how everyone hated The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, to the point where this film undoes anything that happened in the former and refuses to even acknowledge the latter) also proved to be the best so far. Despite being inspired by the famous 80s comic book storyline of its subtitle, Days of Future Past namely feels like a Terminator movie starring Wolverine and Charles Xavier, using the high-stakes drama of its post-apocalypse future scenes as a launching pad for a surprisingly fun 70s-set caper involving prison breaks, espionage and political assassination. It's tightly paced and never loses the viewer in its frequent intercutting of past and future, the action is the most impressive of any any X-Men film to date, and several characters in its ridiculously stuffed cast get at least some good moments to shine. It also proves quite effective as both a continuity clean-up and a major culminating story for Wolverine and Xavier. A more matured and noble Logan must come full circle and give his old mentor's past self the guidance his lost soul desperately needs, both for his own betterment and the sake of mutant-kind. An emotional talk between Xaviers past and future proves a standout sequence not just for this film but the entire franchise, and the much-talked about "Time in a Bottle" scene proves better than anything that everyone's pre-judgmental hate for Evan Peters' Quicksilver was dead wrong (if anything you're left wishing there was a lot more of him). What could easily have been a blatant fanservice movie ends up proving a top-tier comic book movie in its own right, offering compelling evidence that maybe it's not so bad if Fox holds onto those X-Men rights for a little while longer...


Edge of Tomorrow

Directed by Doug Liman
Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John Henry Butterworth


If there's any real contender for this summer's Most Pleasant Surprise, it's gotta be this one. The trailers looked solid yet unspectacular, struggling to stand out in a sea of one mega-blockbuster after another. But as it turns out Edge of Tomorrow is not quite what it seems, infusing its sci-fi/action movie premise ("Groundhog Day, but with mech suits") with a darkly comedic edge and a Tom Cruise performance that deliberately (and oh-so-entertainingly) plays against the actor's usual "Badass McGoodguy" persona. The film mines a lot of pleasure from showing Cruise's William Cage die in battle over and over (and over) again, but in a way that gradually builds a compelling character arc- like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, Cage genuinely learns to be a better person through his repeating time loop (that and he learns how to kick some serious alien ass). Everything in Edge of Tomorrow is a pleasant surprise, from its great action scenes to period-piece regular Emily Blunt's "Full Metal Bitch" Rita Vrataski, who proves to be arguably the best female action hero in some time (definitely the best I've seen in anything out this year). While the ending may (possibly) have a hole or two in it, you're still left with a more than fulfilled feeling walking out of the theatre, with a little more hope in the Hollywood system. See, studios? Great things can come from taking a chance on an original blockbuster...
...That's actually based on a Japanese light novel (damn, so close!)


22 Jump Street

Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Screenplay by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman; Story by Jonah Hill and Michael Bacall


With The Lego Movie and now 22 Jump Street, director duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller just had one hell of a year, and have officially proven they can do no wrong when it comes to making you laugh your ass off (no matter how unlikely or seemingly-bad the premise). The meta nature of the first film comes back in even greater force this time around, deliberately poking fun at the fact that this is an unnecessary sequel that's just a more expensive rehash of the first one ("Just do the same thing again, everyone's happy"). However, instead of forcing a reset on the character arcs of the original like so many other lazy sequels (comedy or otherwise), 22 Jump Street actually grows and deepens the partnership between Jonah Hill's Schmidt and Channing Tatum's Jenko, as Jenko gets an opportunity to rediscover his high school football passions and the undercover duo questions whether that first big assignment was just a fluke (because meta!). This genuine sense of growth and emotional connection for these inherently ridiculous characters is a big part of why the film delivers as the rare (almost unheard of) example of a comedy sequel that's actually as good as the original (despite blatantly acknowledging all the scenes that it just copy/pastes from the aforementioned first one). But namely it's Hill and Tatum's spectacular screen chemistry that carries the film once again, making us both laugh and genuinely feel for this pair of wannabe-cop doofuses to such an extent that you find yourself thinking "maybe those end credits jokes are right- I really could watch these two get into wacky hijinks forever!" Then again, as tempting as 22 Jump Street might make that seem, I hope they don't try to push their luck and actually make the walking punchline that is 23 Jump Street.
...Oh yeah, too late for that...


How to Train Your Dragon 2

Written and Directed by Dean DeBlois


Making a follow-up to a film as acclaimed and beloved as How to Train Your Dragon would be a monstrous challenge for anyone, but writer/director Dean DeBlois (now flying solo after working on the first film with Chris Sanders) steers the ship on this breathtaking, exhilarating and beautifully emotional sequel with an assured, confident hand that makes it look almost easy. Despite being a sequel meant as the middle chapter in a trilogy (the main influence being The Empire Strikes Back), How to Train Your Dragon 2 functions surprisingly well as a self-contained narrative in its own right, following Viking dragon rider Hiccup five years after the first film as an adult torn between the responsibilities of being a chief and the freedom of exploring and living amongst the dragons he's learned to befriend. Hiccup and Toothless are just as compelling and loveable as ever, but it's his father Stoick and long-lost mother Valka who steal the show with a reunion and subsequent musical moment that may very well rank as the two most beautiful, moving and truly romantic scenes of any film this year (animated or not). The action is thrilling, the animation gorgeous, the score marvellous- much like the first film you spend the duration as awed by its technical achievements as you are its alternately hilarious, touching and poignant story. It's a sequel that's every bit as great as its revered predecessor (in some ways even better), and will leave you impatiently anticipating How to Train Your Dragon 3 (now set for release in June 2017).
(For a full review of How to Train Your Dragon 2, click here.)


Snowpiercer

Directed by Bong Joon-ho
Screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Kelly Masterson; Story by Bong Joon-ho


Nearly swept under the rug and tarnished in the editing room by its U.S. distributor The Weinstein Company (because Harvey Weinstein's just kind of evil that way- and he has an extensive track record to prove it), the latest film from Bong Joon-ho (Mother, The Host- NOT the one based on the Stephanie Meyer book) is a prime example of why studios don't know what they're talking about when they think they should meddle with greatness. Snowpiercer is so many things all at once, be it a chillingly bleak science fiction story, a darkly funny social class satire or an intense, suspenseful action-thriller, and yet it all gels together so seamlessly where so many other movies would fall apart. Like its massive train that barrels around a frozen world, the film is always charging full steam ahead with one plot surprise and inventive idea after another, grabbing you by the balls with its gripping sense of unpredictability. And yet it still demands to be seen more than merely once- then you'll get to see laid bare all the careful setup of its many moving parts and clever machinations, and gain a deeper understanding of the complex character relationships that populate its narrative. If you love not just sci-fi but any kind of film that dares to be this original and refreshing, then do yourself a favour and check it out through whatever digital rental or video-on-demand service you have available to you.


Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver


So yeah, between this, Edge of Tomorrow and Snowpiercer, 2014 has proven a great year for blockbuster science fiction. With Dawn the long-running Planet of the Apes franchise proves in spectacular fashion that it's anything but dated in the modern moviemaking landscape, following up the surprise hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes with a bigger, bolder and achingly sombre sequel that builds off Rise's foundation and ends up outclassing it in every possible way. Dawn feels much closer to the old-school PotA films in feel with its more overt science fiction themes and its dark, pessimistic outlook, but given new emotional dimensions with its motion-capture cast of apes, a visual effects marvel if there ever was one. Andy Serkis once again commands the screen as ape leader Caesar, but this time he's got competition in the form of Toby Kebbel as the bitter, scarred former lab ape Koba. In a year of blockbusters lacking in memorable or noteworthy villains Koba stands mightily at the head of the pack, a genuinely sympathetic and astute character whose burning hatred for the humans who abused him drives him down a path of increasingly monstrous actions that only dooms what chance there was for the two sides to achieve peace. If Rise was the Batman Begins-esque reboot, then Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is The Dark Knight of this new Apes series,  a huge leap forward that's just as thoughtful, grim and morally complex as it is grippingly entertaining.
(For a full review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, click here.)


Boyhood

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater


Okay, let's get a few things straight about Boyhood. It is not some oh-so-perfect, flawless, "movie of the year/decade/century" (yes, the ads have actually used such a quote) masterpiece. At a huge 165 minutes the film is too long and unwieldy for its own good, with the final half-hour in particular mostly just dragging on and feeling its length. While the lead actor playing the titular boy at the film's core (Ellar Coltrane) gives a solid performance, Mason Jr. often feels like a cipher rather than a real fleshed-out character, and what we do get of a personality once he gets older mostly proves to be somewhat of a pretentious hipster asshole (but hey, to each his own if you like that kind of character, I suppose). The film struggles to find balance between slice-of-life realism and a more film-like narrative, with results that constantly shift back and forth from artful and compelling to forced and cliched. And then after over two and a half hours it all just stops with a smug, self-satisfied ending that chooses to needlessly spells out the film's message/conceit, as if it didn't trust its audience to realize for themselves "what it all means".
So yeah, it's far from perfect.
Having said all that, Boyhood is still plenty good enough to warrant seeing for yourself. The whole idea behind it (filming a whole film about a child growing up into adulthood with all the same actors over the course of 12 years) is a fascinating and truly daring experiment that at the very least demands the attention and respect of any devoted filmgoer. While the acting quality varies all over, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason Jr.'s parents both give excellent, possibly career-best performances that makes these people feel like real, flawed yet likable human beings (honestly, I kind of wish the movie were centred more around them). And when this messy, uneven behemoth actually works, it can be downright captivating to watch Richard Linklater make his on-the-fly filmmaking experiment unfold. For better or worse, it feels completely unlike anything you'll see all year, a sprawling yet intimate epic about growing up and living in the moment.
Oh wait, I mean, what if it's really the other way around? Like, the moments are just constant, man? Whoa, did I just blow your mind, dude? (seriously, screw that ending)


Guardians of the Galaxy

Directed by James Gunn
Screenplay by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman


If choosing the best movie of the summer (hell, maybe even the whole year) came down to which one was the most flat-out, unabashedly fun, then Guardians of the Galaxy would win hands-down. It's a film that both comfortably fits inside the successful Marvel Studios wheelhouse while also injecting its own subversively cheeky personality, all matched by director James Gunn's mix of reference-laden visual flair and groovy-as-groovy-gets soundtrack of 70s and 80s pop/rock hits. The cast absolutely kills it, with all five Guardians getting ample time to shine and show a delightful repartee with each other, whether it's the inseparable Rocket and Groot or Star Lord and Gamora's slowly sizzling romantic tension (and don't forget about Dave Bautista's Drax, easily the film's biggest surprise as he brings both straight-faced humour and angry pathos to what could easily have been yet another dumb brute character). In fact, seeing how the film has become such a box-office titan and beloved pop culture piece (it's currently still the #1 movie in theatres as I write this), recommending it seems almost redundant at this point.
So yeah, if you somehow haven't seen it already, just get it done and keep in the loop about what all that #Grooting business is about.
(For a full review of Guardians of the Galaxyclick here.)



What were your favourite movies this summer? Thanks for reading, and have a great fall!