The Films of 2018 That Surprised Me

I make this list every December. I tend to be broad in December and specific in January. Usually in January, I can say, “This was overrated, this was underrated.” Here, it’s more — which movies ended up being better than I expected them to be, and which ones were worse.

I should note, that opinion is based on nothing other than my expectations for the films back in January, or in the time before I saw them. So really, all a movie needs to make this list is that it ended up being better than I thought it would be.

So, here are the films of 2018 that surpassed expectations:

1. American Animals

This one is more because I had zero expectations for it going into the year. It looked like another heist movie without any particular standout cast and a director who hadn’t made anything. At best you figure a three-star, ‘It was perfectly fine’ kinda movie. But this one had a really strong hand behind it. They picked a unique way into the storytelling, which is the I, Tonya method. Only with the real people. So you have the real people telling their version of events (completely unreliably and contradictory) mixed with the film itself, making the film version of events way more interesting. And, the real people show up in the actual movie. Not like, as characters, but as themselves. There’s a nice moment where the real main guy is seen by the guy playing him right before the heist, sort of as an omen of what’s to come and where this path is leading. It’s a really nice touch and a wonderfully structured movie. I had the sense that this would be good as it came out, but I still didn’t expect this to be as solid as it was. This is the kind of gem from this year people need to see. It’s way more than just another heist movie.

2. BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee hasn’t really put out anything of note the past few years. Inside Man was his last movie that people really remember (and his last arguably ‘good’ movie). He did Miracle at St. Anna and Red Hook Summer and Oldboy and Da Sweet Blood of Jesus and then Chi-Raq. Chi-Raq is probably the only one of note there, though I think Oldboy did get seen (and savaged) by a fair amount of people. So I was somewhat leery of this one going in, even though the premise was amazing. I still didn’t expect what I got. And what I got was arguably Spike Lee’s most seminal piece of work since Do the Right Thing. As much as I love 25th Hour, and I think that will also go down as one of his three most seminal films, I think this film also has to join the list. And I think what makes all three of those movies really stand out is that all three are products of anger and having something to say in a time of crisis. Do the Right Thing is more of a general crisis, but 25th Hour is a direct result of 9/11 and this is a direct result of the current political climate. And I feel like the mix of story and voice really work together and create something truly special. This movie really goes all out. There’s a musical number! And it’s rare to see someone truly pull off what he pulls off at the very end of this movie, having the audience rolling with laughter and then, on a dime, having them sit in stunned silence, reflecting on the severity of the truth of the situation. This is one of the only real movies of the year that I was truly not expecting. Everything else was kinda better than I thought or didn’t turn out as bad as I was expecting. This one I really didn’t think would be as great as it is. And I’m glad I was wrong.

3. Blindspotting

This is one, I thought it would be solid, but I wasn’t expecting it to be what it was. This is a movie that I think takes everyone by surprise. They’re expecting commentary, and most of the time you expect that to be something serious. BlacKkKlansman is the same way, but that movie sold itself as a comedy, that movie was a comedy until the very end. This movie, you watch the trailer — it looks serious. The movie itself? Buddy comedy. And a good one. And there’s the commentary you want on top of that.

4. Bohemian Rhapsody

I had such doubts. So many doubts about this one going in. And surprisingly almost none of them had to do with all the turmoil during production. For me it was all — “What is this movie gonna be?” When Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out, it was for the exact reason I was worried about a Queen movie — the band was gonna control the message. They were gonna sanitize it. And to an extent, they still did. But watching this, any apprehension I had went completely away. All you need is Queen music and you’re in. By the time you got to Live Aid, you just wanted to start dancing around the movie theater. All the narrative deficiencies of this movie (and they’re there, but they’re there in literally every musical biopic) didn’t matter. This is one where, I went in nervous and hoping it would make this list. And I’m glad it did.

5. Eighth Grade

This is another one — I had a sense in January that this would be solid. But I still wasn’t expecting this. A mini theme of this list in particular is going to be one of directorial confidence and adeptness that I just wasn’t expecting. In some cases, I knew a movie would be solid, but the direction of it made it more solid. In this case, this is a first-time director and I just didn’t expect that the effort would turn out as good as it did. This one… people have this on top ten lists. It’s a really solid movie. I could never have expected it to be as solid as this. I’m not as in love with it as others are, but this is still so much better than I (or most people) could have ever anticipated.

6. Game Night

I’m always leery about studio comedies. Most of them are garbage. Even when I saw a trailer for this, I said, “Oh, this doesn’t look half bad.” And then I saw it and it was actually good! And funny! It’s rare for a comedy to be both. Something like Step Brothers say… I don’t think it’s very good, but it’s funny. This one actually has a pretty cohesive story and manages to make you laugh along the way. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I actually like a studio comedy more than, “Oh, that was okay.” This year, Blockers was okay, and The Package was okay (that was Netflix, but I still consider it a mainstream comedy). Me being okay and kinda laughing is one thing. This I thought was actually quite good. Now, they might ruin this with a sequel, but until then, count this as a very pleasant surprise that I will say nice things about. Which is so rare for a studio comedy today.

7. Green Book

This one. I knew it was coming, because of my Directors List. I saw Peter Farrelly was making this movie and I thought, “Oh boy. We have another Mr. Church on our hands.” (Does anyone but me even remember Mr. Church?) I knew they were filming in January, but I figured they’d finish and then it would come out next spring, because there’s no way this is strong enough for an Oscar push. So I didn’t track it. But man, did I have no expectations for this, and then cut to fall and festival season, and I’m like, “I kinda… wanna see that.” And so I saw it at the earliest chance I could (so… mid-October), and was blown away. And had a solid month to tell people, “Go see this. It’s not what you expect. It’s great. … yes, it’s by the Dumb and Dumber guy. Just trust me.” I guarantee you that if I had rated this back in January, I’d have said 3 stars. MAYBE it would get 3.5 out of me because of Viggo and Mahershala. But either way, this would have been the movie I was most wrong about this year. Even if my expectations weren’t documented, trust me, this was the biggest surprise for me in 2018, kind of the way The Big Short was for me in 2015. “You mean that guy, made this movie? Okay, and fuck yeah!”

8. The Hate U Give

To me, this was a YA movie. I saw they slotted it for October and an awards push and went, “Are you fucking serious? Really?” Just because it’s about police violence, that makes it buzz-worthy? Then it came out and people said it was good, and still I said, “Okay, sure.” But shit, man. This movie’s great. This movie gets you from the opening scene. The performances are great, it doesn’t belittle you that much (I do have problems with parts of it… namely the friend and the fact that it kept falling on YA tropes and narration after it needed to, and the overdone climax), and it’s just one of those movies where I’d say, “Show this to a teenager.” Because it sets you up with all the bullshit YA tropes. “This is my school,” and all that crap. And it really baits you and pulls the rug out under you when her friend gets killed. That happens late. And I realize why they did it, and it works better because of that. Then they go to some really fantastic places and get great performances out of the actors. This is the kind of movie that works better because it’s… it’s like when you give your dog a treat with their medicine inside. This is the epitome of a “kid’s” movie for adults. It works for people who don’t care about YA bullshit and gives the people who love it something to think about and talk about. I’m very, very impressed by this movie.

9. Leave No Trace

I expected this to be solid. Debra Granik’s last movie was Winter’s Bone, which was very solid. And Ben Foster was in it. So I expected good. I got very good. That’s really all this is. Not the biggest surprise, but I couldn’t find anything else that felt like it belonged here, so on this went. If only because it gives me a reason to talk up this movie some more. It’s just a quiet, well-acted, adult drama, the likes of which there are far too few of in today’s age, where everything either blows up or has a set piece every 12 minutes.

10. Searching

The thing with this is, the gimmick of this movie is one-note. They’d done it twice before this, so I figured it would just be more of the same. But you know what? This one was different. The first time this concept was used, it was for horror. The second time, horror. Supernatural horror. This is a thriller. Nothing more. A man and his daughter. She goes missing, he tries to find her. That’s what makes this work. They keep it compelling by not trying to remove it that far from reality. There’s something about this movie that keeps your attention. You care about the characters, you’re invested in the drama. The conceit isn’t a hinderance, even to people like me. At best I could have expected this to be okay. This is good. This is the best they could ever get out of this concept. And that’s certainly a surprise to me.

11. Set It Up

From a statistical standpoint (which we’ll deal with in two weeks), this is, along with BlacKkKlansman, the other film I was most wrong about this year. Honestly it’s because I saw the cast, I saw the premise, and I saw that it was Netflix and I probably went, “Okay, sure.” Because odds are Netflix is gonna release a 3-star, perfectly fine, but completely forgettable rom com. It’s a genre that’s almost totally dead nowadays and at best you’re gonna get something okay but not something really nice. I don’t regret having no expectations for it, because odds were, that’s what it was gonna be. But this was beyond a surprise. I fell in love with this movie pretty hard when I watched it. The writing was lively, the leads were game, and the movie evoked the kind of rom com from the heyday of the genre (the 30s and 40s, in case any of you were thinking 80s and 90s). It just works. And I know not everyone loved it, but even so, this was the kind of movie that I just could not have seen coming. This does as much to revive the rom com genre than almost anything else out there. Netflix’s constant stream of them seems to be keeping the CPR going, but it’s gonna need a few more like this to really have a pulse again. Still, this is a very good start.

12. A Star Is Born

I expected this to be solid. With the story being what it is, and the talent around it, there was no way this movie wouldn’t at least be pretty good. But this movie might even be something special. I think I need time to know that for sure, but at the very least, I was quite surprised with how sure-handed and executed this movie was. It’s really incredibly directed. It was Cooper’s confidence in the direction that really made me a fan of the film, ultimately. Gaga was fine and he was very good, which is to be expected, and the songs were great, which also helped. But really what made this a surprise for me was how well Cooper directed it. I was expecting a certain level of quality, but this was beyond that, and that was definitely a pleasant surprise for me.

13. Unsane

I don’t understand how this keeps happening. Every time Steven Soderbergh has a movie come out, I always end up, at the end of the year, going, “I don’t understand why I didn’t think that was gonna be as good as it was.” Every time. You’d think I’d learn by now. This one, I think, the apprehension was the fact that it was a tiny movie he shot entirely on cell phones in secret. So I’m thinking, “Okay, this is one of his ‘Bubble’s. That tiny, experimental movie he does in secret that’s really only for himself, so it’ll be solid, but maybe not be the most amazing movie in the world.” I’ve already adjusted my average floor rating for Soderbergh to 3.5. But man, this was a 4. This was really solid. The fact that it was shot on cell phones is basically only a technicality. It looks very good. Shooting on cell phones in 2018 is not the same as doing so ten or even five years ago. But man, I don’t know how it always happens that I somehow lower my expectations for a Soderbergh movie.

14. White Boy Rick

I blame people for this one. This was one of my five most anticipated movies going into the year. I was all over this one. I loved this idea, I was excited about everyone in it, and I really wanted to see this movie. Then as it got closer to coming out, the reviews weren’t great, no one was really excited for it, and it just looked like it was getting swept under teh rug. And I thought, “Oh, well I guess it doesn’t work.” But I made myself go see it in the theater anyway. And I loved it. Sure, it’s flawed, but it’s awesome. I don’t understand why everyone was so down on this. So my surprise isn’t “this was better than I thought” so much as it’s “Oh, so this is as good as I thought it was despite everyone telling me it wasn’t.” This is why no one should ever really pay attention to reviews. You gotta know you, and if you think you’re gonna like something, you gotta go with that instinct.

15. You Were Never Really Here

This one stems from not really expecting the kind of movie that I got. I knew it would be solid — Lynne Ramsey and Joaquin. And I saw a trailer end of last year, and I thought, “So this is just gonna be Joaquin going around, beating people up with hammers? Okay…” It just looked kinda generic. And I wasn’t sure exactly why he’d be doing a movie like this. Then I saw it. Oh my god, did I see it. This is an experience. I don’t think there’s a person who sees this movie who doesn’t go, “Wow, that direction.” That may also be negative. I’ll admit. Some people didn’t like the path she took. I loved it. Because this is a Taken movie that doesn’t show you all the stuff you’d normally see. Like, there’s more moments of him with his mother than there are action sequences. A major action sequence happens off camera. Two! The final one and the one where they show it to you on the security cameras. It’s almost an anti-action movie action movie. And it’s so dark. Those fantasies he has… my god. So I expected solid, and I thought it would barely be solid based on the trailer, but this ended up being so much better than any expectation I could have had. This is one of the better movies of the year.

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