bestof2014-11

Every day between now and Christmas morning, we’ll share the twenty-five stories that engaged, enchanted, amused and amazed us the most in 2014. If you missed them, now’s your chance to catch up; if you’re looking for a gift for the wonk in your life, then these are our most enthusiastic recommendations!

Today, Guardians of the Galaxy.

We all applaud success and accomplishment, but we save our most enthusiastic praise for those who succeed despite adverse circumstances. The Avengers was a triumphant blockbuster, and deserved the attention it got, but let’s face it: Robert Downey Jr., Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, the first ever convincing CGI Hulk, and Joss Whedon — The Avengers is the Olympic athlete that comes from a privileged background, and has the best training, equipment and support that money can buy. The achievement is impressive, but they had a good head-start. Guardians of the Galaxy, on the other hand, is the scrappy kid who learns to run in sneakers that are a size too big, who overcomes disadvantage every step of the way, but who, through sheer pluck and determination, makes it to the finish line first. It’s a lovably dumb idea stuffed with silly characters, an incomprehensible central plot and the world’s most unconventional soundtrack. Worse still, it’s a comedy sci-fi movie, which have a greater than average chance of missing in a major way: see the remake of Hitchhiker’s Guide, or the Men in Black sequels, or The Adventures of Pluto Nash.

Guardians is a long way from perfect; there are large parts of it, in fact, that aren’t even terribly good. There’s no space for the antagonist in the plot, which means that the movie squanders both Lee Pace and Karen Gillen, who is, in particular, given precious little to do. Ronan’s motivation is never fully explored, and there’s no real reason that we, the audience, care about Nova. In the end, though, that doesn’t really matter, because the movie’s appeal is not found in the conflict between the forces of good and evil, but in the interactions of our ensemble cast. As much as the villains are wasted potential, every member of the core team is far more developed and interesting than they need to be. In less skilled hands, Drax is a cypher and Rocket is a punchline; Guardians finds the heart and vulnerability in both characters, and draws it out. Gamora benefits the least from this care and attention, but that’s partly because she’s carrying the weight of her relationships with Nebula, Ronan and Thanos, and partly because she suffers from the same suffering-as-backstory issue that afflicts every significant female character in this story.

And as for Groot? Well, this says it better than I can.

The secret to Guardians‘ success is that these problems are completely eclipsed by effervescent charm and energy. This is a movie with a good heart, and a smart wit, and it earns your affection in every frame. Chris Pratt has never been better or more charismatic, and the decision to anchor the film in his lovable-goofus humanity may be the best bit of casting I’ve seen all year. Even if you don’t care about the Marvel universe, it’s an unmissable treat.

Get it now: Guardians of the Galaxy.