There are so few things you can count on in this life. Death. Taxes. Michael Bay making a $200 million movie based on anthropomorphizing the toys from your mid-’80s McDonald’s Happy Meal. Indeed, summer cinema is usually defined by its big, muscle-bound (and, it must be said, rarely Mensa-eligible) blockbusters, which shoulder the struggling Hollywood economy with their massive opening-weekend hauls like better-abbed Atlases. Most years, character-driven art-house fare gets swept away by whatever CGI monsoon is currently threatening the dystopian vacation home of Vin Diesel. But 2014 is not most years. Because this summer, not only do the brainier flicks have box-office brawn, but the big-budget sequels, threequels and buddy comedies seem unusually sharp.
Is the heat just getting to me? Or am I really seeing …
Action Movies That Won’t Leach IQ Points!
I mean, no promises, but things are looking surprisingly smart in this stereotypically steroidal genre. Take Luc Besson’s Lucy (Aug. 8), that rarest of action movies that stars a woman not wearing a latex bodysuit. (Scarlett Johansson is the titular name-taking, ass-kicking heroine, a mob drug mule-turned-superhuman warrior.)
Stomping into theaters May 16, hell-bent on destroying everything in its wake—including, hopefully, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 disaster of a reboot—is everyone’s favorite killer amphibian, Godzilla. Yes, he’s starred in 29 movies before this one, but everything about the 2014 update, from its loyalty to the original mythology to its pedigreed cast (Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elisabeth Olsen), feels fresh.
X-Men and X-Men 2 director Bryan Singer returns to reinvigorate the franchise that launched a thousand mutants with X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23), which may have a ridiculous title but which manages to combine elder and younger casts from recent installments, and, hey, why have Michael Fassbender or Sir Ian McKellan when you can have both?
Another Marvel gang, Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug. 1), offers a quirkier take on the ol’ ragtag bunch of superheroes trope—hint: One’s a gun-loving raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper!—but in the hands of cult sci-fi/horror/comedy director James Gunn, it should be crazy in the good way, not in the John Carter way.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11)—the sequel to the 2011 prequel to the 1968 original, which in this case might really deserve the subtitle Days of Future Past—pairs Cloverfield director Matt Reeves with motion-capture master Andy Serkis as head ape Caesar. (In even more good news, for some of us, James Franco sits this one out.)
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and therefore exceptions to this exception to the rule that action movies don’t have to be inane, thin-plotted spectacles of computer animation and sweaty beefcakes staring off into the middle distance. Did I mention Michael Bay is doing a fourth Transformers movie, by the way?
Buddy Comedies That Are Actually Funny!
I know, I know. 22 Jump Street (June 13) sounds a lot like 21 Jump Street, except that this time, the undercover cops go to college, not high school (and also, presumably, the address of the precinct has moved next door). But the first installment of this Channing Tatum-Jonah Hill caper was so unexpectedly hilarious that I’ll take my chances on the statistically unlikely phenomenon of a superior sequel.
Another trust exercise: Let’s Be Cops (Aug. 13), from The Girl Next Door director Luke Greenfield, about two guys who dress up as policemen for a costume party and then get mistaken for real cops by mobsters.
And if you like your buddy comedies with more estrogen, Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon team up as a granddaughter-grandmother pair who road trip to Niagara Falls in Tammy (July 2), which McCarthy co-wrote with her husband (and director), Ben Falcone.
Wonderfully Weird Sci-Fi!
I don’t really understand the plot of Jupiter Ascending (July 18) based on its Wikipedia page, but the Wachowski siblings had me at “sci-fi space opera,” “Channing Tatum” and “Mila Kunis … stars as a janitor.”
In Edge of Tomorrow (June 6), Bourne Identity director Doug Liman casts Tom Cruise as a soldier living out the same suicide mission over and over again, like a really violent remake of Groundhog Day—which, if you ask me, has frankly been long overdue.
And Snow Piercer (Aug. 1) is another head-scratcher that has something to do with the terrifying future effects of global warming and people spending eternity riding a train (in other words, my worst nightmares), but Chris Evans, a.k.a. Captain America, is on board, so it can’t be all bad.
Potential Prestige Pics Not Hoarded for Fall!
Come September, you won’t be able to swing a $10 bag of popcorn without hitting a three-hour piece of Oscar bait, but those of us who like to call movies “films” (or, even worse, “pictures”) don’t have to wait until bikini season is over to get our fix for more elevated entertainment.
In The Immigrant (May 16), a Cannes favorite last year, Marion Cotillard plays a Polish Catholic who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 only to fall into prostitution at the hands of Joaquin Phoenix.
Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age drama Boyhood (July 11), starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as a divorced couple trying to raise their son, was shot over a 12-year period in order to use the same child actor aging in real time.
Another very patient director, Zach Braff, shows off his first feature film in 10 years with Wish I Was Here (July 25), a comedic drama in the vein of 2004’s Garden State, in which a thirty-something father of two struggles to find purpose in his life.
Depending on your position vis-à-vis his personal life, Magic in the Moonlight (July 25), Woody Allen’s latest homage to 1920s Europe, starring Emma Stone and Colin Firth, will either be a must-see or a must-boycott.
Vampire-Free YA Juggernauts!
Since the movie industry’s largest-growing audience demographic is made up of agile teenagers not yet too jaded or lazy to skip a trip to the multiplex in favor of on-demand home viewing, it won’t be a shock if the runaway hit of the summer turns out to be The Fault in Our Stars (June 6), the film adaptation of John Green’s critically acclaimed, best-selling novel about two young cancer patients in love, starring Divergent heroine Shailene Woodley.
Lois Lowry’s 1993 Newbery Medal-winning The Giver (Aug. 15) will also get the big-screen treatment this year, with Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep as denizens of a future “utopia” in which all emotional depth has been eradicated from humanity—presumably as a result of Facebook and Snapchat.
Pedigreed Musicals Featuring Zero Disney Ice Queens!
After gritty directorial dramas Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino, it was only a matter of time before Clint Eastwood tackled the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, right? Eastwood’s Jersey Boys (June 20)—based on the hit Broadway musical, which you can see at Paris Las Vegas—charts the rise and fall of the falsetto-happy ’60s pop group. While no big-name actors play the band members, Christopher Walken has a supporting role as a mob boss with an appreciation for tenor vocals.
James Brown also gets the biopic treatment in Get On Up (Aug. 1), directed by The Help’s Tate Taylor and starring up-and-comer Chadwick Boseman as the Godfather of Soul.
And on the less flashy side of the music industry, John Carney, the man behind 2007’s sleeper folk-musical hit Once, returns to bring us another love story set to acoustic guitar with Begin Again (July 4), starring Keira Knightley as the chanteuse who catches the eye of a record exec played by Mark Ruffalo. And, hey, if any of these can get “Let It Go” out of my head, they should win the Oscar right now, as far as I’m concerned.