It’s the end of the year, and now for the unnecessary lists that are fun to make. I’ll do a top 10 list as well, but for now, I do want to note the films that surprised me at how good they were. On the flip side, I also want to shine a light on the films that disappointed me immensely. Now, there were many films that weren’t good this year, and many great films as well. However, the point of this list is to highlight those movies where there was a lot of skepticism or a lot of hype on my own behalf which turned out to be unwarranted. None of these are in any specific order, either. So instead of drawing out the introduction, I’ll just go ahead and begin with my surprises of the year.
There’s no doubt that The Avengers was going to be a massive financial success, no matter how good the movie was. But there was a lot working against it: too many stars, an insane amount of hype surrounding it, and a director who has only ever appealed to a very niche audience. Joss Whedon managed to do something that every studio will want to emulate again, bringing together 5 different movies and combining them into an unforgettable cinematic experience. To say The Avengers was a critical success is putting it mildly. It blew many away, but especially those like me who were assuming it would be too much packed into one movie. It’s not perfect by any means, with a slow beginning, but once it gets going the stakes are constantly being raised. This is the superhero movie comic fans have been waiting for, not trying to ground itself in reality like a Christopher Nolan flick, but also not being completely outlandish. In its last hour, The Avengers manages to propel itself into a must-see spectacle, providing some of the best action sequences of the year while still providing the signature Whedon humor we all expect. A movie like this with as much riding on it as it does, could have gone completely awry, but instead, it amazes and astounds.
21 Jump Street
No one expected a remake of the 1980’s TV show starring Johnny Depp was at all going to be a worthwhile film. In fact, I’m sure most put it under the category of “Who asked for this?” right there next to this year’s Total Recall. But leave it to Phil Lord and Chris Miller of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs fame to acknowledge the ridiculousness of its premise and become one of the best comedies of the year. Proving once again that Channing Tatum can do nearly anything, including comedy, him and Jonah Hill are a perfect duo in this buddy cop comedy that doesn’t hold any punches. It has a few moments that feel a little slow, but it’s able to entertain and coalesce into a crazy finale that puts it up there as one of the most fun films of the year. Also it has one of the best drug-induced scenes ever, let alone this year.
I never thought I’d be able to say again that I enjoyed a Tim Burton film. Apparently all it took was for him to return to his roots and take his original short about a dog who dies and the child that raises him back from the dead, to finally make a film I can get behind. It’s funny, charming, and above all else, smart, and Frankenweenie really shows just how much I missed Tim Burton. So far, I’ve really been praising the third acts of these films, and this movie is no exception. It takes what is already a pretty unique premise, and manages to raise the stakes to an incredulous level while providing an homage to the classic horror films that have inspired Tim Burton and his career. Frankenweenie is probably my favourite animated film of the year, and definitely a movie I will watch every Halloween from now on.
Because as I said before, Channing Tatum can do nearly anything, and one of those things was once dancing. This movie wasn’t flawless, but to be honest, it has plenty of surprises. First off, Steven Soderbergh has not had the greatest filmography as of late. I hated Haywire, but there was promise in there for something good. But it was all squandered due to Soderbergh’s direction. Hence why this film looked like it would be terrible. On top of that, there’s the story (pulled straight from IMDB): A male stripper teaches a younger performer how to party, pick up women, and make easy money. Basically, this looked like Soderbergh’s cash-grab movie for the year, aiming for the female demographic and completely ignoring the majority of the male population. But there’s a reason this is on my surprises list: the movie was great. Not perfect, but a lot better than anyone could have expected. Awful performances aside from the two leads Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn, this movie is filled with plenty of great performances from Tatum and Matthew McConaughey, and even Olivia Munn manages to pull together some decent acting for once. The plot is even better than a skeleton description would have you believe. Oh yeah, and the dancing is really fun too.
The Hunger Games
Sure, I probably had no reason to worry about this movie, but I think it was the audience that deterred me from it. Especially since The Hunger Games looked to be trying to garner the same audience as Twilight and other films of that nature. The feat here is that it got that audience, and was also a great film. Once again, not perfect, but it has one incredible performance from Jennifer Lawrence (who is always impressing since she burst onto the scene) and a pretty entertaining plot. Unfortunately, the movie drags on too long, uses a lot of shaky cam for scenes that don’t even warrant it, and Josh Hutcherson is laughable as the guy who keeps trying to impress Katniss. In fact, most of the teen drama stuff doesn’t work that well, but the action is exhilarating and a lot of the scenes before the hunger games are pretty to look at and very interesting. It’s a nice set up for what looks to be a promising series, and hopefully the rest of the films do not disappoint.
Let’s just get this out of the way right now. Upon repeated viewings (and I’ve now seen the film three times, and likely will again soon) I am more and more displeased with myself for enjoying Prometheus. I like it on a very base level. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go beyond that at all, which is why this movie is such a mess. Plot holes are the least of this movie’s problems. Characters are never consistent and are always finding ways to astound the viewer with their idiotic moments. It’s a complete shame because one of the best performances of the year is in this travesty of a film, and that’s Michael Fassbender as David. If Prometheus had just been a little more polished, this could have avoided being the utter disappointment it is. There’s great scenes, and then there’s godawful ones which will make any Sci-Fi or Horror fan cringe, but those great scenes do slightly outweigh the bad ones. It’s just glaring how bad those awful scenes are and I only wish Ridley Scott recognized the problems before he released this visually stunning film.
The Dark Knight Rises
Oh how the mighty have fallen. Prometheus is not the only big budget film from one of the best directors to be plagued with problems. Christopher Nolan shows just how much he’s willing to sacrifice the traits of Batman for an epic conclusion to the best iteration of the Dark Knight yet. Following what is arguably the best superhero film ever created, The Dark Knight, Nolan created another gorgeous movie filled with great performances and gave Tom Hardy another memorable role to add to his resume. Unfortunately, what this movie does well, which is a lot, it also is filled with almost as many plot holes as Prometheus and one of the worst character reveals that I can remember this year. This is not a bad movie though, and in fact, is a very enjoyable one if you’re able to overlook the few giant problems that terrorize this film. The Dark Knight Rises will likely only end up a minor tarnish on Nolan’s otherwise legendary filmography, and he will bounce back from the critical reception, seeing as how it was a financial success, but I wish it was just written a lot tighter.
This is probably the only giant surprise on this list, due to it being praised by almost every critic who has seen it, but I’m in the minority when I say, this was one of the biggest wastes of time I have ever seen. Sure, the events that take place are shocking, but at what point was I seeing a film adaptation in this “ripped from the headlines” movie. Compliance doesn’t even try to provide a cinematic experience, and is content with adapting every word from a news story while sprinkling in a few character inconsistencies for the sake of more uncomfortable scenes. Craig Zobel demonstrates that suspense is little more than just showing someone walking for two minutes to their car and back, or watching a person drive their car for a couple more minutes. Anything suspenseful in this film feels extremely contrived, and it’s up to the audience to warrant any attention to the film. Ann Dowd and Dreama Walker are incredible in this movie though, especially Dowd, but there were so many better ways to tell this horrifying story than merely copying it exactly as it was reported.
Pixar is the one studio that is used to always be associated with quality films. Then came Cars and its sequel, which did no favors for the studio. I was hoping that series was the only thing that would go wrong for them, but alas, then I saw Brave. Once again, not a bad film, like the first two on this list, but it just lacks the all ages feel of Pixar’s previous efforts. It’s a very straightforward plot, that goes places I didn’t expect, but it also relies really heavily on childish humor and just plays out like a fable. I mentioned in my review how it feels claustrophobic, and I still stand by that, with the universe not feeling anywhere near as open as other Pixar films. The story for Brave is also fairly mediocre and everything is as predictable as it can get. But if you need a film for the family to enjoy, you could do a lot worse. Maybe if the backstage drama behind this film wasn’t such a mess, the movie could have come out a little better, but there’s only so much one can try and do to understand what went wrong. Hopefully Brenda Chapman gets another crack at directing because without interference she might have a chance at making something remarkable.
To Rome with Love
After the success of Midnight in Paris, I, along with many others I’m sure, thought Woody Allen had finally recovered from his many mediocre and bad films. It was a spark of the creative genius he used to be, and one of my favourite films of 2011. So because of that, I went into To Rome with Love expecting something just as smart and funny. Perhaps that was my own crazy expectations, but what part of this list isn’t me expecting too much from a film? To Rome with Love ultimately boils down to a bunch of stories dealing with love and celebrity, none of which are all that entertaining. There’s some clever musings in there, but it ultimately feels like an American director who thinks everything foreign is funny just because it’s in another language. The most juvenile of jokes are perceived as smart because they’re from an Italian rather than an American. It’s this kind of backwards thinking that makes me wonder whether Woody Allen really is all that great of a director/writer or if he has just made so many films that it’s hard not to make a handful of good ones from time to time.