If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that a sci-fi movie about a talking, trigger-happy raccoon and a walking tree would wind up being the highest grossing movie of the year, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. However, not only did Marvel’s long-shot “Guardians of the Galaxy” turn out to be a surprise summer blockbuster, it became the highest grossing movie of the year, even beating out the well-received “Captain America” sequel.
2014 was an interesting year at the movies. Summer, normally the time when studios roll out their biggest blockbusters, didn’t seem to drive as much buzz as in seasons past. Some of my most highly anticipated films at the start of 2014 turned out to be a little bit of a letdown (though five of the seven did end up making my “best of 2014” list, just not in the order I expected). And I was also (pleasantly) surprised by a number of films this year. Here’s the list of my top 10 favorites from this year.
10. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
The reboot/prequel “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a surprise hit in 2012, and its sequel, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is even better. Humankind is now living on a post-apocalyptic Earth, while apes grow more intelligent and begin forming their own society. The always-great Andy Serkis has a riveting motion-capture performance as ape leader Caesar, and I liked how the movie portrayed both sides of the conflict without choosing a side.
9. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
I still believe “The Hobbit” would have been better as a two-parter than stretched into a trilogy, but Peter Jackson certainly goes for broke in the final chapter of the saga based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” prequel. Elves, Dwarves and Humans are forced to put their differences aside to fight together to defeat an Orc army, and Dwarven king Thorin Oakenshield must overcome his greed for the treasure inside the Lonely Mountain. The film kicks off with a tense set-piece involving the dragon Smaug’s attack on a village, and ends with Bilbo returning home to his beloved Shire, setting the stage for the events of the “Lord of the Rings.”
8. Arrow and The Flash
Technically, these are TV shows, not movies. However, I couldn’t resist including them in this list, due to the great characters, intriguing plot lines and close-to-cinematic quality. These two CW superhero dramas, both based on DC Comics characters, are some of my favorite currently running shows on TV. “Arrow” returned for a third season this fall, and Stephen Amell continues to turn in a strong performance as the conflicted vigilante Oliver Queen. Grant Gustin joined the fun this fall in a new spin-off, “The Flash.” More light-hearted than “Arrow” but still with plenty of suspense and interwoven mystery, “The Flash” has been a lot of fun so far.
“Interstellar” is a big, ambitious, flawed and beautiful piece of science fiction, from director Christopher Nolan. Faced with an Earth that is dying, a brave team of astronauts venture into deep space to find another planet that is capable of supporting life. The film stars Matthew McConaughey, who continues his surprising career renaissance. With echoes of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the more recent “Gravity,” “Interstellar” is gorgeously shot and thought-provoking. A few of the themes are perhaps communicated with too heavy a hand, but it’s still a must-see for sci-fi and Nolan fans.
6. Edge of Tomorrow
This movie didn’t seem to receive a lot of attention when it was released — which is a shame, because it’s a clever, fast-paced sci-fi thriller. A sort of mash-up of the concepts of “Saving Private Ryan” and “Groundhog Day,” Tom Cruise plays a PR officer in the military who turns down a risky assignment. His reward is being demoted to the rank of private and sent into battle. It’s not a spoiler to reveal Cruise’s character dies — because he ends up coming back … again and again and again. The key to the mystery will also be the key to saving the earth from a race of invading aliens. Cruise uses the film to subtly poke fun at his own action hero persona, and Emily Blunt is great as the steely soldier who helps him.
5. The Fault in Our Stars
I didn’t expect to like this movie, or even that it would end up on my “best of the year” list. However, it’s far more than just another film in the “teen romance” genre. The movie stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as two teenagers with cancer who fall in love despite the realization their story isn’t likely to have a happy ending. It’s a movie about learning to appreciate the small moments and recognizing the truth in the phrase “it’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” I’m not ashamed to say this movie made me cry in the theater, and then again when I rented it at home. It’s a beautiful, mature love story.
4. X-Men: Days of Future Past
My favorite of the X-Men films is still the prequel “First Class,” but “Days of Future Past” is a fun, stylish “Avengers” style round-up of X-Men, including past and future versions of the main characters. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is sent back in time to alter history, thereby saving mutants from destruction. The highlight of the film for me was seeing both the younger and older versions of sometimes friends/sometimes enemies Magneto (Michael Fassbender and Ian McKellen) and Professor X (James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart). The movie also contains the best — and most fun — prison break scene I’ve ever seen in a movie: lighting-fast Quicksilver’s trippy rescue of Magneto from a holding cell in the Pentagon, set to “Time in a Bottle.”
3. The LEGO Movie
Yes, everything really is awesome about “The LEGO Movie.” No one expected this to be a blockbuster, but it turned out to be one of the most clever and creative movies of the year. Far more than just a shameless advertisement for LEGO products, the film is delightfully quirky, with original humor and a big sense of imagination. It’s also surprisingly moving, with a message that you don’t have to be super smart or extraordinary in order to be special. An all-star voice cast and fun cameos (hello, LEGO “Millenium Falcon”!) are other highlights.
2. Captain America: The Winter Solider
Proving to be a huge early year hit and one of the best in the line-up of Marvel’s “Avengers” tie-in films, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” succeeds as both a superhero action film and a taut political thriller. Chris Evans gives his best performance yet as the loyal but conflicted Steve Rogers/Captain America, struggling to adapt to life in the modern era and uncovering a secret that destroys the organization S.H.I.E.L.D. Rogers also had plenty of fun, flirty chemistry with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, adding an unexpected will-they-or-won’t-they element to the Marvel-verse.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
I thought long and hard about which film should end up at No. 1, and it was a tough choice. Technically, I think “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was a better film, but as a movie-going experience, I enjoyed “Guardians of the Galaxy” just a little bit more. It’s been a long time since I had as much fun at the movies as I did when I watched “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It’s a quirky, irreverent space opera with a cast of colorful characters, led by a star-making performance from Chris Pratt. With a funky ’70s soundtrack and plenty of laughs, the film also had just the right amount of action and heart. I’ve watched it numerous times already, but I haven’t gotten tired of it yet. It’s the year’s unlikeliest hit, but one that’s well deserved.