When it comes to bad expectations, I like to think that everyone would like to be proven wrong. Nobody wants to go to a bad movie and everybody wants to like a movie they see. It’s always pleasant to find yourself having a good time, but that feeling just gets so much more amplified when delivered in ways that you weren’t expecting: whether due to your apprehension, lack of warning, or just by surpassing your imagination. Either way, a good time is a good time and an unexpected good time is a fucking great time. And the best kind of prize is a sur-prize so here we go looking at…
THE BEST SURPRISES OF THE 2010s
Ramona & Beezus (2010, Elizabeth Allen, USA)
Probably doesn’t say very nice things about me that I expect little from modern children’s movies (largely because the preceding decade the 2000s – and being raised off of it – meant that I experienced first hand how little studios trust young audiences), but the treatment of Beverly Cleary’s work here as low-key intelligent and emotional really took me by surprise and that it was able to deliver this in the pleasant attitude that kids movies are have to have to work at all is just as endearing to me.
Insidious (2010, James Wan, USA & Canada) & The Conjuring (2013, James Wan, USA)
One great horror movie from the director of Saw? It must be a complete fluke, especially since Insidious crashes by the end. TWO great horror movies from the director of Saw? At that point, I have seen the light and outside of Insidious: Chapter 2 tripping the momentum a bit, Wan has reliably shown himself to be the better half of between him and Leigh Whannell as a creative team (though Whannell has lately proven himself to be a more thoughtful director than writer, so they both have talent in their own way).
Pariah and Mudbound (2011-’17, Dee Rees, USA)
The Last Thing He Wanted knocked a bit of the energy with which I would have followed Dee Rees wherever the hell she went after these two, but it’s still there. Mudbound was the one I was less optimistic about so there’s a bit more exceeding of expectations there, but Pariah also showed a controlled thoughtfulness on the application of color and soft light based on mood of the character that immensely transformed this character study into something dazzling. And it’s for that reason, I smugly feel ahead of the game when it took people up to Arrival to be on Team Bradford Young and meanwhile I was there from the beginning.
Winnie the Pooh (2011, Stephen J. Anderson & Don Hall, USA)
I was honestly surprised that Walt Disney Animation Studios still had one more traditionally animated movie in them during their lamentable shift to full-time CG (and maybe the unfortunate box office performance of this movie played a part in them not having returned in the past 9 years) but I was even more surprised that they actively did as much as they could to re-create the warm power of the 1977 film rather than just coast on by with the brand-name to remind kids they still have Winnie the Pooh toys. It’s basically what the sort of magical reincarnation I wanted out of The Muppets.
Attack the Block (2011, Joe Cornish, UK) and The Kid Who Would Be King (2019, Joe Cornish, UK & USA)
I’m getting to the age where I start to think “I wish I had this movie in my life as a kid” with new releases and Joe Cornish has tapped into that inner child for me twice over. Attack the Block is frankly the only movie that has met John Boyega’s screen charisma with a worthy movie (you’re adorable, Star Wars fans) and also boasts some of the most excellent nighttime urban cinematography I’ve seen in a long time while The Kid Who Would Be King is so excited to adopt basic Arthuriana to a kids’ tale and to input some worthwhile bedtime horror movie aesthetics into it all. Joe Cornish is the most on-kids’-level person in cinema I can think of since Jack Black.
21 Jump Street (2012, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, USA) and The Lego Movie (2014, Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, USA Denmark & Australia)
Two can’t win concepts that are obviously conceived out of synergy and brand work. And Lord and Miller instead transformed them into wonderfully self-reflexive and energetic diversions in their own right – The Lego Movie being the denser film, but 21 Jump Street having an endless grab bag of comedy styles to throw in. I don’t entirely disbelieve that moving to a big-budget picture was a daunting task for the two of them, but I can’t help thinking they weren’t entirely playing ball with the Sacred Lore of the Star Wars franchise and that daring is what got them kicked off of Solo.
Antiviral (2012, Brandon Cronenberg, Canada & France)
Well, Brandon is definitely his father’s son – exploring the same concepts and genre staples that David had perfected upon in the decades prior – but it’s honestly promising to see him find a new avenue and perspective with which to dissect the appalling gruesomeness of the body horror genre and tie it to a future vision that has just the right concerns to feel present even in its sterile theatricality. Basically, yes, this is totally a movie by a Cronenberg, but it’s also a movie I don’t think David could have ever conceived upon.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012, John Hyams, USA)
I’ve mentioned this movie in, what, two previous lists by now? I swear this is the end of the mentions for this movie but it is sincerely shocking that such a smart and exciting piece of action cinema could come from… I repeat, a direct-to-video sequel to a Roland Emmerich film that stars Jean-Claude Van Damme. “Fine” would already be better than this movie should be, it is full-on thrilling.
American Hustle (2013, David O. Russell, USA)
I know that David O. Russell has fallen way out of favor critically (and that’s to say nothing of what a real piece of shit he is as a human being) but I can’t pretend I won’t miss the way he had a talent for just throwing characters in a blender of drama and trusted his actors to organically develop things from there (y’know, when he wasn’t yelling at them). And it really blows my mind that this movie of all pictures was the one that got us deciding that Russell was not a good storyteller, given how amazingly it juggles several different focuses (politics, gritty crime, romance, family) and delivers it in such a hilarious and messy but human package about people who hurt themselves and others by lying.
The Guest (2014, Adam Wingard, USA)
So there’s definitely a running theme in this list (as probably was going to be expected) regarding directors that I really don’t care delivering a movie that I found myself having a very good time with. And The Guest is very good fucking time and much as I’d love to credit it all strictly to Dan Stevens’ psychotic charisma, I also have to admit that it’s the first (and given Blair Witch and Death Note after it, the only) Wingard and Barrett movie that doesn’t feel above its trash cinema concept. Each time I’ve seen it – three times now – I find myself more and more pulled into the gleeful homage of it all and less of any cynicism that put me way the hell of the mumblegore group in the first place.
Two Days, One Night (2014, Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium France & Italy)
Feels weird to say this about a movie looking into paralyzing economic and emotional anxiety (especially at the current state of the world, which divebombed in a way that this movie did not foresee), but it’s honestly a quietly enjoyable and mildly optimistic film where the cast of almost entire unknowns (outside of Marion Cotillard, who I think is only the second time the Dardennes used a movie star) still portray the kinds of fears the working class have in their situation where capitalism pits them against each other in cruel ways but also have enough of a sense of community to try to do the right thing in smaller ways that can build up. So the surprise is that a movie I walked into the Cannes Palais fearing would make me feel desolate left me kind of inspired.
The President (2014, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Georgia France UK & Germany)
I have to confess that of the major Iranian New Wave filmmakers around, Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the one that I have the least familiarity with. But the impression I’ve gotten from his work is definitely not one of the bitter sarcasm of The President, which is a satire that holds no punches back towards brutal dictator regimes. And while Makhmalbaf does recognize that the central character of this film is a human – just as impressionable and reachable as the rest of us – it just goes to show that even the kindest of filmmakers can get really mean when he needs to be and Makhmalbaf would definitely know better than most what he’s talking about when it comes to the cruelty of dictators.
Zombeavers (2014, Jordan Rubin, USA)
You go to a movie titled Zombeavers expecting something so-bad-it’s-good. You don’t go in expecting to be unironically amused by it all but that’s exactly how Zombeavers with its game sense of horror movie parody and the loving craftsmanship of its titular monster puppets. I deeply deeply want a Zombeaver plush toy. Please make one.
John Wick (2014, Chad Stahelski & David Leitch, USA)
Oh yeah, it’s very easy to walk into a John Wick movie now and know you’re getting pure action movie excellence, but at first glance “Keanu Reeves kills people in vengeance for his baby puppy” seems like the kind of movie you buy off the bargain bin of a Walmart store (complete with me being able to picture it replacing Nicolas Cage instead of Keanu Reeves). Instead, it’s proven itself to build off unexpectedly sophisticated action setpieces with a sense of structure and humor to them that made me eager to see it again. Do you know how hard it was to convince Josh to watch this movie? I still haven’t convinced him and he’s already been a convert because of Parabellum but I promise he will one day see the light.
A Most Violent Year (2014, J.C. Chandor, USA)
Nothing about Chandor’s previous work – Margin Call and All Is Lost, both of which have been shown him to be one of the decade’s great breakout filmmakers – implied to me that Chandor was interested in looking back and delivering something with classicism in its makeup. But here we are with A Most Violent Year maintaining the same sense of thrilling urgency as his other pictures but now delivered in the clothes of post-New Hollywood 70s New York crime drama and all the chilliness surrounding it and somehow it’s able to balance that assured ambiance while still feeling wholly modern in its editing and shooting (hello again to our man Bradford Young!)? Mirabile dictu!
Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick, USA)
That’s what I get for doubting Terrence Malick, but it’s not just the return to camp Malick that made this such a pleasant surprise. It was the revelation that Malick was done with his previous style of structuring his films and now was trying out brand new principles in this film. Some of them work, some of them don’t, but they were all fresh to my eyes and that Emmanuel Lubezki was willing to follow along with his most playful work to date just continues to make this music to my ears.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016, Zack Snyder, USA)
Look, I walked in expecting the worst popcorn movie of the decade. Possibly the century. If it was just that I didn’t get a movie as bad as I feared, this wouldn’t be on the list. It was how this movie almost totally reversed course from the newly-stale formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which was obviously expected the moment anyone saw a trailer and realized they couldn’t see a thing) but also how much of that approach landed. Not all of it, arguably not even most of it. But enough to feel like this was a more satisfying experience than I think people admit (and frankly that the DCEU refined – rather than abandoned – this aesthetic in the superior Wonder Woman and Aquaman).
Lost in Paris (2016, Dominique Abel & Fiona Gordon, France & Belgium)
I had never even heard of Abel and Gordon but imagine my joy after walking out of this wonderful physical comedy, that they had plenty of earlier cinematic works for me to indulge in. You don’t really this kind of wonderfully charming comedy that much these days, the kind that knows the inherent amusement in the rhythm and shapes and movements of the human body, aspiring for the feats of living cartoon but still humbly utilizing elements that only live-action can deliver. They haven’t made anything new yet and there’s still one movie of theirs I can see for the first time, The Fairy, but boy am I going to get impatient once I have to wait for new Abel/Gordon.
Trolls, The Boss Baby, and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie (2016-’17, Mike Mitchell/Tom McGrath/David Soren, USA)
It feels like an eternity ago but it was mildly disappointing that Dreamworks Animation Studios was on the edge of closing down because Home looked like a surefire bomb. At that time, it was disappointing only because it would have been nice to have variety in one’s choice of CG animation powerhouse studio. Now, we have the hindset of 5 years later and we see exactly what our reward is for tolerating Home as a picture enough that its box office saved the studio: for the first time ever, Dreamworks Animation actually decided to explore different possibilities for their movies and the results are the best, most ambitious trio of works they’ve given us that don’t have the words Dragon or Panda in their title. The free-for-all of colors and textures that they indulged in between 2016 and 2019 (I didn’t list Kung Fu Panda 3, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, or Abominable because by that point it wasn’t a SURPRISE, but suffice to say that they’re just as or MORE satisfying) turned out to be one of the great redemption stories in animation in my eyes, even if Trolls: World Tour seems to have now seen the end of that era.
First They Killed My Father (2017, Angelina Jolie, Cambodia & USA)
Another filmmaker I didn’t care for before, largely due to her habit of all my least favorite narrative habits in Serious Cinema ™. And a dive into historical message picture especially brought me to fear the nadir of Jolie as a director, but turns out that she was capable of delivering emotional intensity and subjectivity from the perspective of child without even feinting towards all the Oscarbait clichés. I mean, there’s the opening Rolling Stones montage and the ending helicopter shot (or was it a crane?), but that’s literally the end of all the issues. Devastating and effective cinema and I honestly wonder if the fact that it’s a matter that she has personal stake in helped focus her as a filmmaker.
Happy Death Day (2017, Christopher B. Landon, USA)
The PG-13 rating is often enough murder for horror movies in my eyes and it’s especially murder for slasher films since… the two reasons for their existence are now decidedly removed from the table. And yet Happy Death Day finds a way to work out as movie – if not necessarily as slasher – by taking its central premise of “slasher Groundhog Day” and letting that develop its central character Tree (with the help of a just-as-surprising lead performance from Jessica Rothe) in broad unsubtle but still nuanced ways towards a rootable protagonist. And when you’ve having enough fun with that, who’s gonna miss some silly ol’ boobs and blood subgenre anyway?
Phantom Thread (2017, Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)
Obviously I was sold on the basis that the last time Paul Thomas Anderson collaborated with Daniel Day-Lewis, it resulted in one of the only Paul Thomas Anderson movies I thought was worth a shit. And somehow, I was even confident that even Anderson could do well to translate the sensations of touching and visualizing fabric into the sweeping romantics of this story. But then I happened to be pleasantly surprised by how I couldn’t recognize any of Anderson’s boring late-90s-to-2000s modernism in the look and feel of the picture. And even more, what I was unprepared for whatsoever was how hilarious it was, leading to a mildly uncomfortable theater experience where I was the only one laughing myself to tears until eventually the whole audience started to join in halfway through. I might speculate if it was the most I’ve laughed at a movie in the entire damn year of 2017.
Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting (2018, Boots Riley/Carlos López Estrada, USA)
Two wholly different great pictures delivered from one single location. With Sorry to Bother You, we got to see the complete boundlessness of a first-time filmmaker with the resources to just make something loud and wild and with all the focus of a message picture with a dizzying and electrifying lack of hands on the wheel. Blindspotting, in the meantime, was watched completely on the recommendation of my friend (M.B., if you’re reading this dude) and turns out to have the same dedication to issues relevant today (and I fucking mean TODAY) while still maintaining the pleasant and sincere easiness of a buddy picture. Whether the irreverence of Sorry to Bother You or the humanity of Blindspotting, both movies end up feeling nothing like the medicine their premises would probably imply but instead invite you to see the world through their eyes and come to the observations they have yourself, straight from the heart of Oakland in 2018.
And none for Black Panther, bye… (just kidding, Ryan Coogler is also a cinematic pride of Oakland himself and frankly Creed is an honorable mention to this list).
Alpha (2018, Albert Hughes, USA)
The “boy and his dog” subgenre of either prehistoric (as in this movie’s case) or post-apocalyptic tales is way too old and stale to expect any new surprises from it, right? Well, you see what the title of this post says so you already know you’re wrong. I think Alpha is maybe the best that the subgenre has given us: it’s certainly the best looking for one, delivering the undeveloped environments in sharp detail. It has the tightest A-to-B adventure storytelling I’ve seen out of these stories, which already beggar a sparse and focused approach to be worth anything like a damn. And in general, it is the sort of movie with a sense of… attitude that feels appropriate to the time period it is set in rather than the time period it was produced and released in. Which sounds like nothing, but it makes me a lot more interested to see the sort of principles that its lead characters have to favor over others for the sense of survival. And in general, that sort of feel of time is something I think we get more from animation – where the style can be adapted specifically to period-appropriate visual concepts – than in live-action where you have to perform that solely by content rather than form so I can’t help being smitten with that.
A Simple Favor (2018, Paul Feig, USA)
To be quite fair, Paul Feig wanted us to go in expecting an entirely different movie. We’ve seen the trailers, we’ve seen the posters. He wanted us to come in with the thought “Oh whatever, just another comic director who wants to suddenly turn in a dramatic thriller to prove that he can be taken seriously”. So when I was suddenly slapped in the face with “Surprise, bitch! This is actually a comedy too but now taking the piss out of the post-Gone Girl subgenre of missing women with hidden secrets and even though we’re clowning on them, it still has characters with more interiority than that genre gives them and a more delicious sense of style!” I was just playing along, right? Right?
Definitely the funniest film Feig has ever made and probably will ever make.
The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018, Eli Roth, USA)
This is literally a Mad Libs exercise: “Eli Roth directs an Amblin’ Entertainment-produced children’s film based on John Bellairs’ beloved book starring Jack Black and Cate Blanchett.” But you know what? These things all mixed together well enough, not necessarily without concessions (for the good: Roth’s habits that make me dislike his movies are toned down, for the bad: some of the creepy and gloomy atmosphere in Bellairs’ books are left on the page rather than on the screen), but enough so that I can’t help being overjoyed to learn that Roth has an inner Spielberg-fanatic in him or effortless the chemistry between Black and Blanchett of all people could prove to be. Throw this up with the Joe Cornish entries as a movie I wish existed when I was a kid.
Atlantics (2019, Mati Diop, France Senegal & Belgium)
I know I said this already with Pariah and Antiviral and John Wick and Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting, but I mean it here more than anywhere else: I am stunned that a feature debut could be so fucking capital-G Great. We’re talking tonal shifts here, we’re talking multi-genre approaches, we’re talking sounds that blanket us, we’re talking visuals that capture the exact balance between futurism and realism. I mean, it’s easy to say that Diop is already the niece of a fucking cinematic legend and that she had the best cinematographer of the year, but I think we really need to give it to what a singular voice she’s proven to have in filmmaking.
Child’s Play (2019, Lars Klevberg, USA & Canada)
They had to do A LOT of work to get me on-board with rebooting one of my favorite horror movie franchises without the people who made that franchise wonderful – no Dourif, no Tilly, no Mancini. And they actually accomplished it by walking and using all the knowledge we familiar with the franchise already have – no need to pretend this is more serious than it has to be, no need to have any illusions about who’s killing these folks – and having a unique approach to the character of Chucky that could only be possible by starting back from the drawing board and looking how America in 2019 differs from America in 1988. Plus, I mean… Mark Hamill is REAAALLY good as Chucky. Would I rather rewatch most of the old movies? Sure, but I might rather put this on than the original.
Hustlers (2019, Lorene Scafaria, USA)
I think it could get me shot to walk in on film twitter and say Hustlers is the best Scorsese movie since Hugo (and if Hugo didn’t exist, it would be the best Scorsese movie since The Age of Innocence), but I would mean every word. It delivers the sort of energy, the formalism, and the observations that I feel Scorsese’s latest movies have been receiving praise for without really bringing. And if we can put that comparison to bed, it’s also just a surprisingly effective story about women forming their own families and the sort of unfortunate pains and truths and conflicts that might grow between their own deep love for each other. And it’s really refreshing to find one that can maintain that honesty while being as flashy and superficial as this film succeeds at being in subjective ways.
Gemini Man (2019, Ang Lee, USA)
Because I have eyes, like most people, I walked away from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey fully decrying the evils of high frame rate as a cinematic “tool”. And because I still have eyes and unlike most people I opted to go see Ang Lee’s Gemini Man in the best possible presentation available to me as soon as possible (2K 120fps 3D Dolby Theatre, baybee!), I walked away from it now singing its praises to the highest level of heaven possible. A movie that uses that sort of “You Are There” technological setup to deliver an immediacy to surroundings in unexpected ways (especially water), to give us an unnerving clarity to high octane action, and to just make it all seem like a glorified video game we get to walk through deserves to reignite passion for such a previously misused concept. Honestly, I can’t wait to see what James Cameron fucking does with it next year… Avatar 2, let’s fucking do it baby, come on!