Welcome to Vox's Summer Movie Week, as we look back at the movies of summer 2014.
One of the most noteworthy developments of the past decade in the film world has been the shift from studios making all sorts of different kinds of movies to studios making more and more so-called "tentpoles": large films that will cost lots of money but hopefully also make back lots of money. These sorts of special-effects extravaganzas tend to sell better overseas, and a steady diet of them has resulted in a studio system that primarily produces them with a handful of comedies, horror films, and Oscarbait prestige movies every year. By and large, the smaller or middle-budget films that used to be the studios' stock-in-trade have gravitated toward independent studios and divisions like Fox Searchlight, which specifically function as smaller studios with a mind toward independent film.
However, one of the happy offshoots of this has been that those tentpoles, increasingly, are directed by exciting directors who rose out of the indie film world or even television. Exciting, brilliantly visual work is being done in the world of blockbusters, and the summer of 2014 marked a sort of tipping point. So many blockbusters featured such wonderful visuals and terrific direction that if you were to pin a title to this summer, it would be "the summer of the beautifully-directed blockbuster."
Here are seven sequences, arranged in chronological order of release, that prove what we mean. Please note that we haven't included some of the summer's wonderfully directed indie films, like Boyhood, The Immigrant, and Coherence. As great as those movies are, they are not the first thing you think of when you think "summer movie." These blurbs will also contain spoilers, of a necessity, so if you haven't seen the movie yet and want to be unspoiled, skip past that blurb.
1) Godzilla in San Francisco, Godzilla (dir: Gareth Edwards; director of photography: Seamus McGarvey; editor: Bob Ducsay)
Godzilla is basically nothing but a long string of beautiful images loosely collected around a plot (and a surprisingly good plot). In his review of the film for RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz compared the film to the works of director Terrence Malick, whose films are famously interested less in the human drama than the natural world around that human drama. Godzilla fits that description to a T, but it also borrows liberally from other great blockbuster directors, Steven Spielberg, in particular.
Edwards uses Spielberg's approach in Jaws — show the monster only a very little bit — to stunning effect, even in the film's final confrontation between Godzilla and the giant, spider-like monsters known as MUTOs. The big lizard stomps through downtown San Francisco, but smoke from fires and dust from rubble collect to obscure what's really happening. His tail swishes quietly through the sky. Sounds echo through skyscraper canyons. And then the monsters spot each other and the fight resumes.
2) Quicksilver speeds up, X-Men: Days of Future Past (dir: Bryan Singer; DP: Newton Thomas Sigel; ed: Michael Louis Hill, John Ottman)
My colleague Alex Abad-Santos has already written beautifully about this sequence in his own piece on how Singer saved the X-Men franchise. I'll only point out how brilliantly this stands out as a short film in the midst of a larger story, how it stands out both by calling attention to itself and by picking one gimmick and following it to its logical conclusion. And the choice of Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle" to score it is inspired.
3) The first battle, Edge of Tomorrow (dir: Doug Liman; DP: Dion Beebe; ed.: James Herbert)
Edge of Tomorrow is the perfect collaboration between director and editor. Liman and Herbert use the unusual conceit — Tom Cruise's character gets doused with alien blood that allows him to rewind time after he dies — to invert and revive their film over and over again. But the film's first battle drops Cruise's character into a situation he's not remotely prepared for and reimagines the chaos of Saving Private Ryan's famous opening battle scene in a sci-fi context. Tossed amid aliens who are ruthless, instant killers, our hero is utterly outmatched — until we realize it's his death that will make him the valorous soldier he always pretended to be.
Edge of Tomorrow seems a good bet to be rediscovered on video. Liman's work here is probably the best overall directorial job of the summer, as he juggles lots and lots of different timelines at once and keeps them completely coherent (with a huge assist from Herbert). But this scene digs immediately into the chaos. It's a shock-and-awe campaign not just on Cruise's character but the audience, setting up the stakes immediately.
4) The flying sequences, How to Train Your Dragon 2 (dir: Dean DeBlois; ed. John K. Carr)
It's been a good year for mainstream animation, between this and February's Lego Movie, and DeBlois (who both wrote and directed) turned this into a kind of personal expression. There's a lot of loss and grief at the heart of Dragon 2, and while it seems to run parallel to the main plot in ways that can irritate, it's still potent enough to drive the film.
It's the flying sequences, however, that are what we come to see, and it's the flying sequences that make Dragon 2 into one of the most thrilling films of the summer. Our heroes swoop and dive, jetting through clouds in ways that leave the already impressive first film in the dust. In particular, the film makes brilliant use of 3D, an add-on that is becoming more and more jeered as it seems unnecessary with so many films. Dragon 2 reminds us just why it seemed so impressive in the first place.
5) It works, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (dir: Matt Reeves; DP: Matthew Seresin; ed.: William Hoy, Stan Salfas)
There are numerous sequences from the terrifically-directed Apes that could fit here, but I'm choosing this muted one from the film's midpoint. It best depicts Reeves's thesis for the whole film: why did the world of the original Apes films from the ‘60s have to exist? Why couldn't man and ape have lived in harmony? For all the brilliance of the film's action sequences (even the otherwise rote concluding fight features a shot that apes platforming video games terrifically), the movie works so well because it builds a peaceful vision of what that world of harmony could have looked like.
This is best expressed in this scene. The humans have been working on restoring a dam to working order, to bring power back to a post-apocalyptic San Francisco. The dam roars to life. Amid the overgrown woods, an old 76 ball begins rotating again. And in the distance, poking through the fog, city lights. It's a gorgeous sequence, and it provides a space for quiet contemplation, before the bottom drops out.
6) A call home, Lucy (dir. and ed.: Luc Besson; DP: Thierry Arbogast)
Sometimes, great direction is all about knowing when to trust actors. Lucy is a film with its fair share of problems, but Besson's completely out-there direction is not one of them. (His script, on the other hand...) Here, however, he tones down the hyper-kinetic action in favor of showing a woman evolving into something else having her last human moment by calling her mother. It relies heavily on Scarlett Johansson's performance, but Besson trusts her enough to carry the idea across, and it makes for an early emotional climax so powerful that the film is largely unable to live up to it later on.
7) The title sequence, Guardians of the Galaxy, (dir: James Gunn; DP: Ben Davis; ed.: Fred Raskin, Hughes Winborne, Craig Wood)
I wrote a bit about this in my review of Guardians, but the energetic title sequence to this incredibly fun thrill ride is a perfect encapsulation of everything the film wants to be. As star Chris Pratt dances around an alien landscape to Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love," using lizard creatures as microphones and showing off some sweet moves, Gunn keeps showing just how tiny he is in the overall landscape. It's a great visual tipoff that this man is part of a much larger story, and it lets us know that the film we're about to watch will be very funny and very irreverent.