I’m a big advocate for movie sequels. How often do you hear: “The first one is always the best”? Too much. If the 2014 movie seasons succeeded in anything, it’s in slapping that notion out of the air and stomping on it with a vigorous boot heel. Of course not all movies on this list are better than their predecessors. And by that I mean the first two choices. 5-1 are absolutely, unequivocally better than the first entries. So let’s talk about them.

7. How to Train Your Dragon 2

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2oth Century Fox

The first How to Train Your Dragon is one of the best modern animated features. There was every doubt in my mind that the sequel wouldn’t live up to its predecessor. For the most part, it doesn’t. The first half of 2 Train 2 Dragon covers some interesting ground, but never breaks the mold for traditional sequel fare. It expands the story of Hiccup and company exploring the world, with the realization that dragons are still considered enemies in other parts of the world. The second half becomes something marvelous and often heartbreaking.

6. Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

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Lionsgate

Catching Fire really turned me around on this series. A lukewarm reaction to the first movie, I never imagined how invested I would have become with this story or characters. After an Empire Strikes Back ending to the previous entry, Katniss uses her status as a symbol of the Mockingjay to stand up against The Capitol and save Peeta. Catching Fire approached similarity to the first film by undermining it subverted expectations. It’s the first movie done right. Mockingjay comes out of nowhere by being part war film, part propaganda analysis, all thought-provoking.

5. Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead

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Well Go USA Entertainment

I really enjoyed Dead Snow for all its gore-tastic goodness. The kills are funny in the “I can’t believe this is happening” way. I came out hoping to rewatch it soon. I walked out of Dead Snow 2 with the biggest, dumbest smile on my face. Vastly different from the first, Dead Snow 2 incorporates themes of American interventionism (seems to be a big thing this year), greed, and loss. This is a zombie movie with more brain than brawn. Don’t fret! The brawny action doesn’t get lost in the increased focus on character. And the action coincides with the comedy, you might laugh up a lung.

4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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20th Century Fox

The Apes franchise isn’t known for great sequels. I could only recommend Escape from the Planet of the Apes as a worthy successor to the original masterpiece. Well, no more. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a blockbuster with lots on its mind. Opening with a mostly dialogue free 15 minutes, Dawn sets itself apart from other big budget movies early on. There is plenty of action to satisfy (a 360 degree long shot from the perspective of a tank had me cheering) but it’s always punctuated with tragedy. We al know it’s inevitable, yet, we don’t want the humans to fight the apes. Racial and politically charged stories in a summer movie? INCONCEIVABLE.

3. 22 Jump Street

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Columbia/MGM

Remember that time I thought 21 Jump Street looked like ass (not the good kind)? Oh, how far we’ve come. Without a doubt in my mind, 22 Jump Street is the best comedy sequel ever made. The Jump Street franchise itself is well on its way to achieving some more serious levels of hyperbole in the landscape of great comedies, but how can you not appreciate a comedy like this? 22 is meta on a level that Birdman dreamt of reaching. On a surface level this is essentially the same movie as the first. It’s a funny rehash, with the best material revealing itself once the characters turn the plot on its own head to become a completely different beast. Ice Cube’s meltdown in the film is the reason I still believe in the comedy genre.

2. The Raid 2: Berandal

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Sony Pictures Classics

The Raid is an action staple by this point. Point A to Point B with the minimal amount of story necessary to get an audience invested in- OH MY GOD HE SLAMMED THAT GUY’S NECK INTO A BROKEN DOOR. *ahem* Needless to say, it’s one of my common recommendations to friends, allies, and people who like watching people punch each other in unique ways. The Raid 2 ups the scale in every way. Some focus is sacrificed for larger action set pieces. Minus a cameo from an actor in the original film, the script knows how much action to show, and when to let he audience breathe. Nonstop action is perfectly fine for the first film’s hour and thirty minute runtime. With a whole other hour added to it, The Raid 2 required a deeper story. Think The Departed with action scenes that made someone have a seizure at Sundance. Favorite moment: There is a car chase that involves cars chasing each other while undercover cop Rama hops in, out, and between cars. Somebody filmed this. I love them.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Marvel/Walt Disney

Guardians of the Galaxy was a serious contender for this list but it’s more spin-off than straight sequel to The Avengers. The First Avenger looks at America in a time where it was easy to be patriotic. The Winter Soldier looks at America when we need to be reminded of what America can truly stand for. It’s a bit blatant with the handling of the themes. What ties it all together is merging the concurrent themes with action that feels straight out of Bourne or Raid than any superhero movie. Why is it the best sequel of 2014? It’s an awesome time at the movies. It doesn’t talk down to the audience. It pits the Star-Spangled Man with a Plan against the onslaught of morally grey surroundings modern America finds itself in. Most importantly, it reminds us that fictional heroes can still inspire good within the audience. The price of freedom is high. It’s a price we should all be willing to pay.