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The 5 best movies of July 2014

While the thought of summer movies usually brings to mind big special-effects extravaganzas and sequels, the best movies of July 2014 span a surprisingly wide range of genres. Sure, one of the choices is indeed a sequel filled with effects, but other choices include a couple of unique indie films and even a documentary. These are truly the best of the big screen for July 2014.

5. "Begin Again"

From John Carney, writer and director of the 2007 film "Once," "Begin Again" stars Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo and features Maroon 5's lead singer Adam Levine in his feature film debut. This charming and joyful movie actually feels a bit like "Once" on paper. Both movies revolve around strangers who bond through a shared love of music, and both feature a powerful alt-rock soundtrack. The original title of the movie was, in fact, "Can A Song Save Your Life," a question which would have to be answered "yes" by everyone seeing this lovely film.

4. "Snowpiercer"

While "Snowpiercer" was put into limited release at the very end of June 2014, its box office earnings all fell into the month of July, earning it a spot on this list. A surprising and frequently astonishing movie from Korean director Bong Joon-ho, "Snowpiercer" pushes the concept of a post-apocalyptic dystopia to an extreme by imagining a huge train that loops the Earth each year carrying the only survivors of a failed climate-control experiment. The metaphor of the train, providing forward motion that never gets the passengers anywhere, powerfully underlies the action of the movie.

3. "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

As an effects-laden sequel, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" definitely has a summer movie pedigree. The dark tone and sheer intelligence of this movie lift it above the status of a mere sequel, however. Andy Serkis, best known for his role as Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, gives a ground-breaking performance in his motion-capture role as Caesar, the leader of the apes. A war movie that manages to combine the pulp pleasure of an ape on horseback firing machine guns with thematic questions about what it means to be truly human, "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" is another movie that is fully satisfying on multiple levels.

2. "Life Itself"

Steve James, the director of acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams," teamed up with Martin Scorsese to present this lovely tribute to the late film critic Roger Ebert and, by extension, to the medium of film itself. The movie takes viewers behind the relationship between Ebert and his on-screen partner Gene Siskel. The film shows the audience how Ebert vowed, after Siskel's unexpected death from brain cancer, that he would be transparent should something similar happen to him. Sadly, that's exactly what happened.

1. "Boyhood"

Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" breaks new ground as a movie filmed over 12 years, all to allow its young star, Ellar Coltraine, to grow from the age of 6 to a man of 18 right before the audience's eyes. The passage of time, an afterthought in most movies, drives "Boyhood" and makes the story all the more real. The feat of filming across 12 years is impressive enough, but "Boyhood" hits the screen as a seamless piece of work that flawlessly tells a small and personal story.

Summer of 2014 is already a rich feast for moviegoers, thanks to the breadth and depth of the movies featured here. If these are the kinds of movies hitting the screen in the summertime, 2014 could end up being one of the best years for film in a long time.