August 1: Guardians of the Galaxy
What it is: The latest (and wackiest) entry in Marvel's sprawling cinematic universe tasks a ragtag team of alien outlaws with saving the galaxy.
Why you should care: In a summer packed with underwhelming, over-serious blockbusters like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Transformers: Age of Extinction, the well-reviewed Guardians of the Galaxy is poised to be the fun shot in the arm that the box office needs. It's hard to come up with a more inherently likable leading man than Parks & Recreation alum Chris Pratt, and the film's intriguingly offbeat supporting characters include a gun-toting space raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a sentient tree-man (Vin Diesel). Marvel's superhero dramas have gotten a bit formulaic, but Marvel is undeniably adept at delivering crowd-pleasers, and there's no reason to believe Guardians of the Galaxy will be any different.
What else is coming out: Get On Up, a Chadwick Boseman-starring biopic of "Godfather of Soul" James Brown; Calvary, a dark Irish dramedy about a conflicted priest.
August 8: About Alex
What it is: When a troubled man (Jason Ritter) makes a failed suicide attempt, a group of his old college buddies convene at his cabin for an eventful weekend together.
Why you should care: About Alex coasts along on the collective charm of its impressive ensemble cast, which consists of a number of reliable sitcom performers: Ritter (Parenthood), Aubrey Plaza (Parks & Recreation), Max Greenfield (New Girl), Max Minghella (The Mindy Project), and Jane Levy (Suburgatory). But About Alex takes things a bit deeper, exploring post-collegiate dissatisfaction through a number of perspectives, from chronic depression to thwarted ambition to the self-destructiveness of an ill-advised romantic attraction. The film's low-key charms will play particularly well to twenty-somethings, who will appreciate the "what does it all mean?" talkiness of its likable leads.
What else is coming out: The Hundred-Foot Journey, a genial dramedy about a pair of competing restaurants; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a noisy, Michael Bay-produced reboot of the popular children's franchise; What If, an indie rom-com about two friends whose relationship is complicated by romantic interest; Into the Storm, the found-footage tornado movie no one was asking for; Step Up: All In, the fifth installment in a totally interchangeable series of dancing movies.
August 15: The Giver
What it is: An adaptation of Lois Lowry's beloved YA novel, chronicling the experiences of Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), a young man who comes to realize that his seemingly utopian society has a darker side.
Why you should care: Long before The Hunger Games or Divergent conquered the YA landscape, there was The Giver, an award-winning, bestselling novel that used its compelling narrative to introduce a series of important moral and philosophical concepts to middle-schoolers. Lead actor Brenton Thwaites is still a bit of a question mark, and the stunt-casting of Taylor Swift is a little worrying, but it's hard to argue with Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep as the diametrically opposed adults at the heart of the narrative. Based on The Giver's trailers, it's clear that the filmmakers are aiming to maintain strict fidelity to the source material — so let's hope they've managed to retain the story's nuanced core.
What else is coming out: The Expendables 3, the latest entry in Sylvester Stallone's grand scheme to unite every actor who has ever appeared in an action movie under a single franchise; Let's Be Cops, a raunchy comedy about two friends who dress as police officers for Halloween — and end up being drawn into a real-life criminal conspiracy; The Trip to Italy, which reunites The Trip stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon for another banter-filled excursion; Life After Beth, a zom-rom-com about a man whose girlfriend comes back from the dead.
August 22: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For
What it is: A long-in-the-works sequel to 2005's slick but shallow Sin City, featuring several new interlocking noir-inspired tales.
Why you should care: The original Sin City wore its hyper-stylized, ultra-violent heart on its sleeve — and if its "more is more" approach did anything for you, you'll probably enjoy this sequel. In addition to actors like Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Bruce Willis, and Rosario Dawson, reprising their roles from the original Sin City, this sequel features a host of extremely welcome newcomers: Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Eva Green, perfectly cast as the platonic ideal of the femme fatale.
What else is coming out: The One I Love, a twisty indie rom-com about a couple who attempt to salvage their relationship by spending a week alone at a cabin together; When the Game Stands Tall, an inspirational sports drama about the end of the longest winning streak in high school football history.
August 29: The Congress
What it is: Twenty years after seeing her career tank following a breakout role in The Princess Bride, Robin Wright (Robin Wright) uses futuristic technology to have her exact likeness copied digitally, allowing Hollywood to "cast" her in movies for all eternity.
Why you should care: If you're bored of the movies Hollywood has been releasing all summer, you're not going to find anything less conventional than The Congress. A kind of bleakly dystopian sci-fi satire that splits its time between live-action and strikingly colorful animated sequences, the almost defiantly uncommercial The Congress has all the makings of a cult hit — so if it sounds like your cup of tea, get in on it early. (Full disclosure: If The Congress has piqued your interest, you can rent it on video-on-demand right now — but its visual splendor should really be experienced in a movie theater.)
What else is coming out: The November Man; a spy thriller that returns former 007 Pierce Brosnan to the genre; One Chance, a treacly-looking biopic about Britain's Got Talent superstar Paul Potts; As Above, So Below, the latest unfortunate entry in an obnoxiously long string of found-footage horror movies.
July 4: Life Itself
What it is: A documentary tracing the life and career of beloved Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, from his childhood in small-town Illinois, to the height of his fame sparring with Gene Siskel on a wildly popular syndicated program — and finally, to the hospital room where he spent the end of his life.
Why you should care: Life Itself will play best for those who are already fans of Ebert's work, but it's hard to imagine anyone who wouldn't be moved by some part of this sprightly, enjoyable documentary about a singular American life. With unusually intimate access to his subject and the many people who knew and loved him, director Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) delivers a rousing tribute to one of the most powerful and humane voices in criticism, while sketching a portrait that reveals that Ebert's work was only one part of his very full life.
What else is coming out: Tammy, a road-trip comedy about a troubled woman that puts writer-star Melissa McCarthy front and center; Deliver Us From Evil, this summer's requisite "based on a true story" horror flick; Earth to Echo, an E.T.-esque family movie about a bunch of kids who discover a friendly alien.
July 11: Boyhood
What it is: A drama chronicling a boy's life from age 6 to 18.
Why you should care: Boyhood's premise might sound banal on paper, but there's nothing conventional about this movie. For the past 12 years, director Richard Linklater has shot Boyhood in incremental pieces, which has enabled him to capture the growth of star Ellar Coltrane in real time. As a cinematic experiment, Boyhood is already a milestone, but all early reports indicate that it's also a brilliant film in its own right. And given the strength of Linklater's other major collaboration with costar Ethan Hawke, this is clearly a film to watch out for.
What else is coming out: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the impressive-looking sequel to 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes; A Long Way Down, an ensemble dramedy, based on Nick Hornby's novel of the same name, about a group of suicidal people who bond after meeting on the same rooftop.
July 18: Sex Tape
What it is: A bored married couple (Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel) attempts to heat up their relationship by filming a sex tape — and panic when they realize they've accidentally sent it to everyone they know.
Why you should care: Just as every summer has its breakout horror movie, every summer has its breakout raunchy comedy — and Sex Tape is nicely positioned to take this year's crown. The premise does a nice job skirting the line between sexy and goofy, and Diaz and Segel demonstrated a relaxed, easy chemistry in 2011's Bad Teacher (which was also directed by Sex Tape's Jake Kasdan). Bad Teacher's script was overstuffed and underdeveloped, but by putting the duo front and center, Sex Tape offers a second chance with some real promise.
What else is coming out: The Purge: Anarchy, a rush-job sequel to last year's surprise hit The Purge, set in a world in which all crime is legal for 12 hours; Wish I Was Here, a Kickstarter-funded drama by Zach Braff that looks annoyingly similar to his 2004 indie hit Garden State; Planes: Fire & Rescue, a sequel to a spin-off of the Cars franchise, with all the intelligence and originality that description implies.
July 25: Magic in the Moonlight
What it is: In 1920s France, a successful stage magician (Colin Firth) is hired to debunk a woman who claims to have actual psychic powers (Emma Stone) — but finds himself drawn to her instead.
Why you should care: Woody Allen's latest looks like a trifle compared to last year's Blue Jasmine, which netted star Cate Blanchett a Best Actress trophy at the Oscars. But when a trifle looks this sweet, it's kind of hard to complain about it. Returning to the time and setting that Allen so joyously played with in 2011's Best Picture–nominated Midnight in Paris, Magic in the Moonlight looks like a genuine charmer. It doesn't hurt that these are two of the most inherently likable leads to appear in a Woody Allen film in recent memory.
What else is coming out: Hercules, 2014's second (and hopefully more impressive) attempt to revive the Greek myth as a Hollywood blockbuster, with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in the title role; Lucy, a ludicrous sci-fi/action thriller about a woman who gains psychic powers after unlocking the other 90 percent of her brain.