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Movie Reviews: A Look at Best Summer Films of Year 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past comes out next week. Photo: Media File
Take 1/ David's Thoughts
The summer of 2014 has certainly been a disaster by Hollywood financial standards, but the same cannot be said for the quality of films on the market.

There have been some undeniable disasters such as "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," "Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" and anything by Michael Bay, but there have also been films that are truly breathtaking in every possible way.

Take, for example, Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," the antithesis of everything Hollywood blockbusters strive for. There are no explosions. In fact, there is barely any sustainable action or even linear plotting. The story takes place over 12 years and simply documents the lives of the characters inhabiting Linklater's world. There are moments that will make viewers cry and even laugh, but they come from the wonder of what is unfolding. The sentimentality that is often a touchstone of such coming of age movies is actually ignored throughout as Linklater instead strives for an exploration of the existential nature of growing up. It is arguably the most riveting of summer films to hit cinemas in 2014.

Another summer film that has risen to tremendous heights despite being the anti-blockbuster is the spy thriller "A Most Wanted Man." Anton Corbijn's film is making waves because it features Phillip Seymour Hoffman's final lead role, but the film deserves a lot more credit for its other tremendous elements. The film manages to balance character and political commentary in a way that never feels manipulated or overdone. Hoffman is obviously the main attraction here, but Rachel McAdams proves to be just as riveting and fearless in this beautifully orchestrated thriller.

This might make it seem that the "independent" world has a lot more to offer this summer than the mainstream did, but that is not completely the case. There were certainly a few popcorn flicks that had a lot of value to add. Tom Cruise's "Edge of Tomorrow" (renamed "Live Die Repeat" for home video release) proved that smart science fiction films are still possible in a world where robots (AKA Transformers) or rehashed Superhero sequels dominate.

But the real winners of the summer in the blockbuster department were "Rise of the Planet of the Apes,"
"X-Men: Days of Future Past" and "Guardians of the Galaxy." The former presented a brilliantly crafted Shakespearean drama led by the ever brilliant Andy Serkis as Caesar the chimpanzee. The human element in the film might have been a bit lacking in comparison with the primates' story, but the overall effect of the film is one of wonder and overpowering emotionality.

"X-Men" was huge for the franchise on a number of fronts. It became the highest grossing film in the franchise but also restored it to its former quality as one of the pioneers of the superhero franchise. With director Bryan Singer back at the helm, the movie united what was great about the original films in the franchise while continuing to look forward and explore untapped potential. While not necessarily reaching the existential heights of the "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," this film still managed to show how relevant the franchise's themes are in the modern world.

"Guardians" does not have the profundity of "Apes" or "X-Men," but it more than makes up for it with the tremendous joie de vivre that dominates the film. Everything about this superhero movie is almost anti-superhero. The film knows not to take itself too serious and instead has fun overturning all of the established clichés of the genre. Just look at the climax, which is supposed to create a massive all-out CGI battle between the main heroes and the villainous Ronan. Instead, director James Gunn goes for a far shorter denouement that borders on anti-climax. The film is propulsive without ever allowing the viewer any time to breathe. It is relentless in its fun and engaging entertainment. It is the ultimate popcorn film.
Take 2/ Francisco's Thoughts
The 2014 summer was headlined by the slumping box office and the failure of many movies to garner their expected audiences. It was also headlined by the way too many movies with franchises scored disappointing reviews, including "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," "Transformers," "Godzilla" and "The Expendables 3." These visual effects-driven films overpowered some of the most intelligent and engrossing films released during the summer months.

The best blockbuster of the summer was "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." The film not only had the best special effects of the summer, but it also had a compelling story that was not reliant on action or explosions. Matt Reeves brilliantly balances the world of the apes and humans and gives time for audiences to interact with each character. Andy Serkis once again gives a career-best performance as Cesar, the ape leader. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is one of the most powerful blockbusters of the year.

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is also a master class in how superhero movies should be made. The cast, the action sequences, and the plot are superb thanks to the direction of Bryan Singer. Singer never gets caught up in the big action sequences, but instead makes sure to focus on the characters and their stories. Each action sequence is motivated by the character and never feels overzealous.  Michael Fassbender is once again a stand out while Jennifer Lawrence gives gravitas to her Mystique.

The summer also featured some of the best Indie fare that was suddenly overlooked in favor of giant explosions and cheap laughs.

Among these films were David Michod's second feature "The Rover." The post-apocalyptic film features compelling performance by Guy Pearce as well as a breakthrough for Robert Pattinson. Pattinson was almost unrecognizable as the stuttering Rey who meets the quiet and solemn Eric (Pearce.) The film is beautifully shot providing an austere look and Anthony Partos' music is sparse but effective.

One of the other big standouts is Gia Coppola's "Palo Alto."  The drama meshes the stories of various different teenagers vividly and each story is evenly and meticulously focused. Jack Kilmer gives a striking and breakout performance while Nat Wolf and Zoe Levin showcase two destructive teenagers. Emma Roberts and James Franco are also compelling in their supporting roles.

As John Carney's follow-up to "Once," "Begin Again" is a charming romantic comedy infused with some very catchy songs. Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo are engaging on screen while Adam Levine makes a worthy acting debut. "Begin Again" was underappreciated by audiences but it is the type of romantic comedy that is heart-warming and feel-good. It is the perfect summer movie disguised as indie fare.

"Boyhood" broke every major rule in the book as it was shot over 12 years and does not really follow a straight-forward narrative. The film showcases the experiences of one boy over the span of his childhood. The movie is funny, touching and provides scenes that will make audiences cry and laugh at the same time. It is also extremely nostalgic and proves once again why Richard Linklater is one of the best Indie filmmakers of our time. Patricia Arquette is the stand-out in the film as Mason's supporting but destructive mom.

Anton Corbin's intelligent "A Most Wanted Man" was the complete opposite of what a summer film should be. It is a slow but tightly-paced thriller that could test audience's patience. However, it is as heart-wrenching and exhilarating as the big blockbusters. The movie is led by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last lead role and one of his finest in his career. Rachel McAdams is also stunning while Robin Wright is devilish as a U.S. CIA agent.

Finally, James Gray's underrated "The Immigrant" sadly came out at a time when no one was interested in a dramatic film. The movie features a stunning and heartbreaking performance by Marion Cotillard in her first English-language lead role. Joaquin Phoenix also does brilliant work as an unpredictable businessman while Jeremy Renner provides lightness to this very dark tale. The cinematography by Darius Khondji is also some of the best of the year as each shot resembles an old black and white photograph. The art direction and costumes are incredibly detailed as they capture the 1920s to perfection while Christopher Spelman's score brings a nostalgic atmosphere to the film.

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