Summer 2014 opened with a bang, but despite some strong moments here and there, it’s going out with a whimper — not to mention a face palm or two.
When the box office is tallied, this summer will have fallen considerably short of last year’s record-breaking earnings — but that doesn’t mean the season was a complete failure. In fact, audiences had an impressive variety of original ideas and new installments of established franchises to choose from, a solid mix of indie fair (Richard Linklater’s exceptional Boyhood) and big-budget Hollywood fodder (X-Men: Days of Future Past). Summer 2014 even turned a sentient tree and a talking raccoon into movie stars; that alone deserves some kind of award.
As the season comes to a close, let’s look back at some of the best summer movie moments — in order of their release — that made forking over our allowance worthwhile. Note: This isn’t a ranking of the best summer movies; rather, favorite scenes or beats from them. Like our picks? Do you have a few of your own? Then sound off in the comments section!
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
While summer traditionally starts in May for most, we’d be remiss if we ignored Cap breaking tradition to kick off the season in April.
Winter Soldier has all the right ingredients to make for a great summer movie — it’s fun and funny, exciting and dangerous, and truly marks an evolution for Marvel Studios in terms of building a huge comic-book movie sequel on the back of a conspiracy thriller.
This impressive narrative gamble pays off big, most notably in the film’s most inventive action sequence, involving Nick Fury, a car chase and lots of guns. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo execute this scene with surgical precision, giving each beat the right amount of whatever it needs, and thus setting the standard for the rest of the action to follow. As cool as it is to see Helicarriers falling from the sky, we’ll take Fury outsmarting Hydra goons with the help of his SUV’s mini-gun any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.
The characters are largely one-dimensional and the story packs more physical punches than emotional ones, but when director Gareth Edwards unleashes the titular monster, he does so with fanboy-pleasing glee.
For this film, it’s a tie between the atmospheric HALO jump sequence and Godzilla’s final battle, where the big guy gives his battered opponent a mouthful of blue fire before dropping its severed head like a mic.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Bryan Singer delivered his second-best X-Men film, uniting past and future mutants to wage a battle across time against the Sentinels in the comic-book movie equivalent of Terminator 2.
The critically acclaimed sequel is packed with emotional and action-packed set pieces, but its signature scene has to be when Quicksliver helps Wolverine and Xavier break Magneto out of prison. This sequence has an effortless sense of fun and excitement, which explains why we’re still talking about it long after the credits have rolled.
Edge of Tomorrow
If you didn’t see this movie in theaters, then you made the wrong call.
Edge of Tomorrow finds new ways to make the time-loop that Tom Cruise’s reluctant hero is forced to relive seem fresh, funny and emotionally resonate, while simultaneously serving the eye-candy spectacle a movie like this needs. The end result is both epic and intimate, as evidenced by the film’s first storming of Normandy beach to battle an alien threat. It’s the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, but with mech suits. It starts with a drop ship exploding while its soldiers dangle from its bay like metal marionettes, swinging and crashing and falling in a haze of tracer fire and explosions.
The fun continues in a training montage that lets Cruise show off his surprisingly great comic timing as his character learns how to become a more effective killing machine.
How to Train Your Dragon 2
It’s disappointing that this film underperformed at the box office. But that doesn’t mean it’s a misfire; quite the opposite, in fact.
The flying sequences — especially our re-introduction to Hiccup and Toothless — surpass the first film on every level, as does the film’s overall dramatic scope. But as grand as the physical action in Dragon 2 is, the sequel’s best moment is a very personal, very emotional one — the death of (spoiler alert – turn back now!) Stoik.
Whereas the first film raised the stakes by maiming its main character — which has to be a first for animated film — Dragon 2 clears that bar by dispatching one of the series’ most beloved figures. And it’s a body blow to the audience, one that may have scared off some parents from taking their kids to see it in theaters when, ironically, this heartfelt moment is what should have brought them to the multiplex in droves.
22 Jump Street
Filmmakers Chris Miller and Phil Lord continued their recent hot streak with this summer comedy hit, subverting the action comedy genre once again while also challenging the conventions of sequels, which was taken to the next level when the end credits offered a ‘sneak peek’ into the future of the franchise. And yes, we’re completely down with sending Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill into space for 2121 Jump Street.
It’s a tie between any scene featuring Tilda Swinton and the intense train car battle halfway through the movie, which finds Chris Evans and his band of have-nots battling the titular train’s oppressors in a pitch-black brawl, with the violence glimpsed in between night vision POV and muzzle flashes. While the movie as a whole may be uneven, this sequence is damn near perfect.
That ending. That ending.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Koba’s heartfelt argument to Caesar as to why the Apes’ leader should be more aggressive towards human slaves was inarguably one of the most powerful moments of the summer. CG has been getting better and better with each new blockbuster, but rarely have CG characters felt so real as when Koba pointed out his own scars and stated “Human! Work!”
A Most Wanted Man
One of Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s last performances also happens to be one of his best. In a summer full of climatic CG showdowns and city-wide destructions, none of them come close to achieving the white-buckle tension of Wanted’s climax, which hinges on whether or not the good guys can get the bad guy to sign key documents. That’s it; no monsters, no Autobots. Just ol’ fashioned great storytelling.
Guardians of the Galaxy
It would be really easy to say “all of it” as our favorite, because the biggest hit of the summer is chock-full of great set pieces and character beats.
But as much as we love dancing Groot, Quill singing into an alien lizard like it was a mic and Star-Lord challenging Ronan to a dance off, we have to pick the prison break sequence for our list. Here, character dictates the action, which finds the perfect balance between high stakes and belly laughs — especially after we learn why Rocket asked for that one inmate’s leg. Guardians isn’t a perfect film, but it does give the audience a great time at the movies, which is a kind of perfection of its own.