The Best Movies Of Summer 2014: Aliens, Apes, Heroes, Monsters And Families

With Summer 2014 approaching its conclusion, its time to look back and inventory the blockbuster season. For the last few years, the Summer movie season has been filled with a lot of disappointment. This year, however, a lot of great films hit theaters. My top twelve best movies of Summer 2014 list is comprised of a mix of big Hollywood blockbusters and some smaller independent films which played Sundance and other film festivals earlier in the year. Some of these may have flown under your radar. Which films made my top ten movies of Summer 2014? Hit the jump and find out.

Disclaimer: Why isn't ______ movie on this list? Either the following twelve movies on this list entertained me more, I didn't care for that movie, or I might not have seen it. Thats right, I have not seen every film released this summer. While I write about movies, I'm not a film critic who sees everything in theaters. (I'll eventually see anything I've heard is half good at home later.) There are even a couple big films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Expendables 3 which I have yet to see, although I don't expect either film would've made this list. So take this list however you want to. Also, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is not on the list because it was released in April. For me, the summer movie season begins in May. Enjoy.

Magneto XMen Days Future past

12. X-Men: Days of Future Past

No, it wasn't quite as good as X-Men: First Class, but it was cool seeing the older X-Men actors sharing the screen with the new class. This is a comic book story I read when I was younger, and it always seemed like such a crazy concept. I never would have expected them to be able to make it into a big screen movie. The futuristic opening with Blink zapping portals and the X-Men team in full action comes close to my hopes and expectations of what an X-Men movie action sequence can be. As much as I didn't like Quicksilver's design, I loved seeing the character in action on the big screen.

signal

11. The Signal

The Signal is the kind of science fiction movie that I love — intense, mysterious, original and extremely ambitious. What is The Signal? It's a puzzle that keeps you guessing and working to figure it out. Director William Eubank (a former cinematographer, something which shows in the visual composition of every frame) crafted a high concept film with big production value and an intimate character story, completed on relatively low budget — under $4 million.

The film tells the story of three friends on a road trip who somehow awaken in a mysterious room. Their attempt to escape begins to reveal more questions than it answers. The Signal premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and its very likely you might not have thought about seeing it. And you should, but let me warn you that this movie is not for everyone.  If you liked the mysteries of Lost or still watch episodes of the old Twilight Zone television series, this was made for you.

22 Jump Street

10. 22 Jump Street

As an adaptation of a 1980's high school set crime drama, 21 Jump Street really had no right to actually be a great comedy. But directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are the masters of "under-promise / over-deliver." Your expectations? Throw them out the window. 22 Jump Street is genius because not only is it the same thing all over again (only set in college), it's a send-up of the sequel concept. The film is self-aware and very clever, hilarious, and densely packed with laughs.

Chef (4)

9. Chef

As much as I love the fact that Jon Favreau has become a director of big blockbuster films such as Iron Man, I really miss his smaller films like Made, Elf and Swingers. (The last of which he wrote but didn't direct.) Favreau has returned to his roots a bit with this film, which may have gone under the radar of most of America.

Favreau plays a chef who loses his restaurant job. He starts up a food truck in an effort to return to his more creative work, all the while trying to build a relationship with his estranged son. In a way its a story about Favreau himself, who got stuck working within the system on big films with studio execs demanding he serve all the classic dishes, offering little room for creativity or humanity.

Which is interesting because I feel like this isn't a groundbreaking film for Favreau, its a return to him making the classics and doing what he does best. The story is a feel-good indie, charming and hard to dislike. Chef will leave you with an appetite. The food cooking sequences earn my highest award for cinematic "food porn". Designed by LA chef and film consultant Roy Choi, the cooking sequences are some of the best and most realistic I've ever seen in a theatrical movie.

I Origins

8. I Origins

Another independent film which I first saw at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival earlier in the year. Please ignore the awful title – Mike Cahill's I Origins might be the best "science vs faith" movie I've seen since Robert Zemeckis's Contact. That is a very huge compliment coming from me, as Contact is one of my favorite films. I Origins, a haunting film that explores the idea of a supreme maker, the afterlife and the concept of souls through the eye of a science-grounded sceptic, delivers successfully on that mind-bending premise. I urge you to stay away from the reviews or trailers as the film is a hard sell without spoiling some of the adventure it provides. I Origins is the kind of movie that will leave you in profound conversation well after leaving the theater. If that sounds like the type of movie you want to experience, go into it with some friends so you won't be alone on the other side.

Snowpiercer

7. Snowpiercer

 The Host director Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer is a science fiction film filled with political satire and great contained world building. At times its exciting and violent and other moments bizarre or absurd, but the story never fails to keep you interested of entertained. The gritty steampunk-like post apocalyptic future setting is nothing we've ever seen before, without breaking the bank — cleverly using the contained story to create a richly imagined world and fun surprises. My one complaint is that the film does suffer under its over two hour running time — the final 30 minutes could use some trimming.

Edge of Tomorrow

6. Edge of Tomorrow

I'll admit, I didn't love Edge of Tomorrow as much as most people I know. While most of the film is awesome, the first and last 15 minutes of the film are pretty bad in my opinion. I absolutely loved the Groundhog Day-like timeloop concept at the core of this film. The mech-suits are cool, but I feel the marketing focused on the imagery rather than the high concept story, which is one of the reasons why the film was not a bigger success. There are so many great ideas in this film, and it was fun how they played with the stakes which are usually disconnected from a story of this type. I just wish the finale could have been set within the same time period as the rest of the film — it seems like that would have provided a symmetrical conclusion more in line with the story at hand. Here's my pitch, highlight the invisotext to reveal:

So the movie gets up to the point where Tom Cruise's character Cage realizes that he can't take Rita (Emily Blunt) any further on the adventure as all avenues result in her death. The next day Cruise loses the timeloop ability and must stop the alien core before the established point in this battle where (without Cage's assist) Rita must die. So we not only have the stakes of this being "for real" with no "do overs" but you have both events going on at the same time. Cage is going into the Alien's central HQ and the same battle we have seen many times throughout the film, leading up to Rita's death. That ticking time clock would have made the sequence more dramatic, and the moment when Cruise destroys the Alien HQ would be met with a spectacular shot of the aliens fizzling out on the battlefield mid-fight (much better than what we saw, the aliens dropping into the puddles in the dark and dreary exterior of the louvre. And don't get me started on the post-climactic sequence which brings Cruise's character back to the beginning of the story. But hey, if you want to use that cheap gimmick ending, why not at least end on Cage calling Rita by her "real name"?

Okay, I'm done. I really loved a lot of this movie but my problems with the opening and conclusion prevent it from being higher on my list.

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

5. How To Train Your Dragon 2

How To Train Your Dragon was one of my favorite movies of 2010, so its no surprise that it makes this list. Actually, I imagined it might be higher. Dean DeBlois' sequel is more Star Wars than the Star Wars prequels, and offers a rich beautiful expansion of this world. The story is more mature than the previous installment, and packs a more emotional punch. The action is bigger, soaring to greater heights, and while the story is not a retread on the first film, it offers some great symmetry in its structure and theme. All of that said, I somehow expected more. There was no one sequence that topped that first ride with  Hiccup and Toothless, which was so elegant — making us question whats up or down.

I am however very disappointed to see this film underperform at the box office as its a really great animated film which deserves to be owned by every family. Hopefully by the time the third film in the trilogy is released the series will have a bigger fanbase from home video and create more of a splash at the box office.

Mike Relm Godzilla remix

4. Godzilla

Godzilla was the fun theme park ride I was looking for this summer, and Godzilla was the popcorn film of my Summer. I'm the type of guy who loves the long tease, and Godzilla brilliantly stretched the reveals of the title creature and the film's other monsters, slowly building a sense of dread inside me.

When the action happens, director Gareth Edwards presents sequences that feel more Spielberg than Spielberg. I love how 99% of the action is grounded from a human point of view — most monster films opt for the epic wide-shots from impossible vantage points. Strangely, the script for Edwards' film feels more like a Roland Emmerich movie than Emmerich's 1998 Godzilla movie. Which again, I had less of a problem with than most critics. That said, it would be nice if the announced sequel beefs up the story a bit.

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-caesar-1

3. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the big surprise of the Summer of 2011. And while I really dug that movie a lot, the human characters left a lot to be desired and the film contained some real cringeworthy moments, like Draco Malfoy yelling "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" Matt Reeves' Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is to Rise as Empire Strikes Back is to A New Hope — it improves on the promise, world and characters in every single way imaginable. Dawn does what all great science fiction films do, in this case making us ponder big questions about our world while watching a story about intelligent ape characters in a setting we will never experience in real life.

Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell's ape performances are the greatest motion capture performances to ever grace to silver screen — truly next level. Having the film start from Ceasar's point of view instead of that of the humans was a brilliant yet risky choice. I love that the first 15 minutes of the movie is basically a silent nature film with few words spoken and mostly sound language. I could watch a whole movie of just the apes living in their community, no humans needed.

Even the human badguys were not black and white villains, offering us a chance to empathize with their dire situation. This film actually had me tear up twice, which is a huge feat. I've seen this film three times in the theater. In any other year this might be my favorite film of the year, but this Summer was just so packed with great movies.

guardians of the galaxy

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy was the pure-fun movie of this summer (and year so far). It makes me happy that such a story with such bizarre characters and settings has been fully accepted by the mainstream public. While this film is adapted from the Marvel comic book series, it may as well be a Marvel-branded original movie directed by James Gunn. Its great to see such a fully in big budget sci-fi film in a world with movie studios struggling to try to make science fiction movies less sci-fi and more human so that they'll appeal to the mass audiences. I hope Marvel lets Gunn explore even weirder sci-fi territory in the sequel.

Everyone loves Rocket and Groot, but thats to be expected. The biggest surprise of the movie has to be Dave Bautista as Drax – Bautista perfectly handled the humor and brought the character to life. Chris Pratt is hilarious and makes a great misfit hero. The 1970's/1980's "awesome mix" soundtrack is amazing, and the group actually has a good proper theme song (something other Marvel films lack).

This is another film that I've seen two times in the theater this summer. I use to see a lot of movies multiple times during their theatrical runs, but as I grow older that practice is happening less and less. I'm not sure if as we grow older I am finding my free time to be more valuable or if I've become more picky and am only returning for those films that deserve another viewing on the big screen. Either way, I plan to return to see this a third time on the big screen — I have yet to see it in IMAX 3D, which I've heard expands and plays with the 3D in ways that no other film has. Also kudos to James Gunn for supervising Marvel's first good 3D post conversion.

Boyhood

1. Boyhood

This is the third film on this list that I've seen more than once in the theater, and considering its almost three hour running time, its the equivalent of seeing a Pixar movie like Toy Story almost 4 and a half times.

Boyhood is a small epic. Richard Linklater has truly created something special with Boyhood –  a remarkable, beautiful, cinematic achievement, like nothing you have ever seen before (or are likely going to see again). I had been looking forward to this film for many years now and the film surpassed every expectation. Boyhood is more than just a gimmick or experiment, its a great movie about how our lives are built and rebuilt and changed over the course of our formative years. Its not just the best film of this Summer but is likely going to top my best films of the year list. Its a movie I expect to revisit regularly for years to come, a modern classic.

Discuss: Which films was I right about, which movies was I wrong about? What movies did I leave off this list or possibly not see? Did anything fly under the radar this summer? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!