2016: Movies That Were Better Than I Expected
The key word here is ‘I’. I can only base this on my opinions and only my opinions. This is not meant to say anything about the quality of the films as most people would think of them. This is only meant to say —
I preview a lot of movies this year. Like all people, I have certain expectations for them and for what I will think of them both when I preview them and going into the film. This is a list of the films that either were way better than I thought, or that I ended up liking way more than I thought. Pretty simple, really.
Here are the films of 2016 that exceeded my expectations:
1. 10 Cloverfield Lane
This was originally called Valencia until mid January, when they revealed what it actually was. Originally I heard it was some sort of thriller with Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Which interested me well enough, but really didn’t do all that much for me. Because — a thriller, in March? How good could it be? Then they announced it was Cloverfield and I thought, “Oh, shit. That’s not good.” Because I hated Cloverfield. Straight up hated it. Couldn’t watch it, couldn’t stand it. So the idea that this was gonna be something similar to that did not give me hope. But then the trailer was good. It showed a contained thriller that was more about the characters than whatever the fuck Cloverfield is. So I got interested. And — the movie was good. It stayed in that bunker for 85% of the movie. And then it lost me when they got out and tied it fully into Cloverfield. But the fact that they made a movie first and then made a “sequel” or spinoff or whatever this is, that’s what kept this better than I thought I was getting when they revealed the title.
2. American Honey
This one was half not knowing what to make of it in January and half “this can’t be that good, right?” A movie like this is impossible to really describe until you see it. And then even after trailers and stuff and hearing it was good, I figured it was gonna be too pretentious to be really good. But it’s not. I don’t know how it’s not, but it isn’t. It’s really good. It’s vibrant, full of energy and really well done. I like when hipster bait movies are actually good movies.
This was a pure example of me not knowing what the hell this was. I remember in January that this had a set release date in October, which didn’t move all year, and that I knew almost nothing about it. I didn’t realize it was based on a true story or anything until about a month out. Then I got really excited for this and went out of my way to see it. Which I’m glad I did, because this was wonderful. Sometimes things are better than I thought because I had no idea what to think of them.
We all sort of knew this was gonna be fun, the way it was ramping up, but I still had my doubts. I kept my expectations measured, because I knew this was gonna be overrated. I figured it would be entertaining, but not great, and that people were gonna think this was one of the bestm ovies of the year. But actually, it was really entertaining, more so than I thought. For its budget, and the fact that I thought it was pretty smart in how it went about its business, I really didn’t think it was capable of that. So good on them. This was the most fun I’ve had with a superhero movie in two years, which, nowadays, with superhero movies, is a lifetime.
5. The Edge of Seventeen
To say I had zero expectations for this in January is an understatement. I continued having zero expectations for this until the day I saw it. This got released on a big weekend and go no push whatsoever. If I wasn’t tracking it I’d have no idea this was even out. And I figured it was some standard high school movie that I wouldn’t really care about. And then I saw the trailer, which was great, and decided, “Screw it, let’s check it out.” And this was wonderful. You’ll notice a couple of these movies appearing on all these lists. And it’s because I was really surprised at how good they were, and also can’t believe that no one knows about them.
6. Everybody Wants Some!!
I sort of know by now that I’ve constantly underrated Richard Linklater for years. But even so, you hear “Dazed and Confused spirutal sequel” and you go, “Are you sure?” And I figured it would be good, but I didn’t think it would be this good. This movie was amazing. It’s the perfect hang out film. It feels like a Saturday afternoon, just like Dazed and Confused did. To have no expectations and be surprised for the better is one thing. Here I had pretty solid expectations for it, even bordering on high expectations by the time I put it on, and it exceeded even those.
7. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
This was only gonna go one of two ways: either it was gonna exceed my expectations, or really disappoint me. That’s what happens when you take one of the most beloved franchises of all time for people my age (since we grew up with it) and continue it, potentially unnecessarily. I deliberately avoided reading about this, only saw the trailer twice, so as not to get any opinion on it one way or the other. So when I went into this, it was with more than an ounce of trepidation. And I really enjoyed it. I’m not gonna get into specifics, since this isn’t the place for it, but based on what I thought I was getting, I was very pleasantly surprised with this. This isn’t like the other movies where I’m recommending them to others, ultimately. This is one where we all had a reaction to it, positive or negative. I’m just saying, mine was positive.
8. Hell or High Water
Another example of — I expected this to be pretty good, but I didn’t expect great. This transcended every expectation I could have had. To have a movie that looked like a hidden gem that maybe some people knew about to a movie that’s now a consensus top 20-25 movie of the year that has a legitimate shot at a Best Picture nomination — that’s an unqualified success.
9. Kubo and the Two Strings
If you look at Laika, historically, they’ve always made good, but not great, films. I’ve always respected the artistry of their movies, but never loved any of the films. Coraline was very good. Not totally for me, but very good. ParaNorman was amusing, but wasn’t great. The Boxtrolls was whatever. I had some hope for this one based on certain elements, but still my hopes weren’t that high. But then I saw a trailer, and early word of mouth was way more positive than I ever thought. And I got so excited for this that I went out of my way to see it opening weekend in the theater. And this went from something I thought I’d like but not love to a movie that’s still one of my favorites of the year.
It’s always a risky proposition when a movie is being groomed as a Weinstein Oscar contender nowadays. Half of them never come out and you don’t hear about them. And even when they do come out, a lot of the time they’re bland and trying to appeal only to the older voting contingent and are never really embraced by most of the viewing public in any strong way. (Look at The Imitation Game — good movie, we liked it, but we barely remember it two years later.) So I had concerns about this. Even coming out, still most people think of this as something they think will not be great and be manipulative and melodramatic. But I was surprised at how solid a movie this was. I found myself way more engaged then I expected to be, and it built to a pretty rousing conclusion, when they tell you what the title is about. I really had no expectations for this to be as solid as it was, and that was nice to see.
You gotta be nervous about Disney now, especially when they try to do something in the tradition of their greatest movies. It’s rare to have two hits in the same year, and Zootopia was already a hit. I didn’t love it, but it was a good movie. It’s not like Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur, where one is clearly not remotely on par with their other stuff. So when Zootopia hit, you had to have some ounce of trepidation for this. Especially — Polynesian-influenced, and Disney’s not the best with dealing with other cultures. And the music, what if that sucks? So many opportunities to go wrong. And yet, it was lovely. A beautiful story, well told, and it hits two of the three Disney Venn Diagram segments — not hand drawn (okay, I can deal), good songs and good story, and not that racist. Not only is this not that racist, it actually does a pretty good job playing up the culture and not turning them into some sort of island stereotype. On that alone it exceeded my expectations. But I could have sworn this was a pretty good movie that didn’t hit the Disney heights I’d like it to, and it actually did manage to be up on that Tangled level for me. Really, really good, but not yet (if ever) on that level of the real classics. Which is always the level you want to be.
Because The Birth of a Nation already got overhyped and failed, you had to temper expectations with this one. There’s always one indie movie (specifically about black protagonists), which people want to overhype for political reasons, I guess so they can shout about how it wasn’t nominated and how racist that is (which is a legitimate case to be made some of the time). Nothing annoys me more than when a narrative is built for a film before it comes out or as it’s coming out (does that count as a pun for this movie?) designed to make it so anyone who doesn’t like it has to feel defensive and guilty about how they feel. So my reaction to this was, “Wow, this actually sounds like it might be good, but let’s wait and see.” And it was actually that good. And I’m happy it was. Normally I get “Oh that was pretty good, but I don’t love it.” I actually loved this movie. And even though this is gonna be talked up to death over the next two months, I completely support this happening.
13. Morris from America
This came out of Sundance, and while I almost ignored it, something about it made me think, “This might be good,” so I tracked it. But since it’s Sundance, and you can never truly listen to the buzz coming out of Sundance, I was fairly unsure of what I’d be getting with this. So when it turned out to be really good (shout out to Craig Robinson, who killed it), that by far exceeded my expectations. Huge fan of this. It’s not rare for a Sundance movie to greatly exceed my expectations (look at last year’s #1), but this one did feel like an especially pleasant surprise.
Because I barely knew what this was, I had zero expectations for it. Even hearing a logline, you think maybe it’ll be a decent kind of thriller. But I am serious when I say — this is as good as a Hitchcock movie. Sure, it looks like a movie made today and feels like one, but this movie had me riveted from start to finish, and I really only was gonna watch it because it’s basically a Director’s List movie/something that was easy to watch at the time. At best I wanted watchable. I didn’t expect really good. One of my favorite surprises of the year.
Because Clint Eastwood’s recent output has been shaky at best, and this is one of those stories where you go, “How the hell can this be good?” The event took about six minutes total. You figure he was gonna take a six minute event and stretch it over two hours, and throw in a lot of flag waving and ‘New York’s finest’ praising (which is exactly what we’re all thinking about Patriot’s Day and Boston). But the minute I walked into the theater and saw 96 minutes runtime, I thought there was a shot for this to be good. And then it was good. This is his best movie in a few years. And while it’s not without some problems (or maybe contrivances), it was much better than I expected it to be.
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Tomorrow are the films that weren’t as good as I was expecting.