The Most Surprising(ly Good) Movies – 2007

1. Next – For something ostensibly about time travel, it is remarkably devoid of the sort of minutiae generally ascribed to that mini-genre. And for a fairly large budget sci/fi action movie, the effects are inexcusably bad. But it’s nice that those things can ultimately not matter. Nicholas Cage is great as a guy who can’t be surprised but desperately wants to be, and while you constantly wonder why Jessica Beil doesn’t just run away from him, she doesn’t seem so sure herself, so it’s not so unbelievable.

In that way, it does seem to have an answer for every problem you might have. Every time a flaw in the logic of a character or the future-telling abilities of Nicolas Cage’s Chris Johnson comes up, it gets answered. And not in an immediate expository sense, but organically and within the story. Just, you know, with terrible effects.

2. 1408 – Time was when we just accepted the premise of a horror movie. We didn’t need it explained through psychology or world events or even supernatural detail. Things just existed or happened or both and that’s the way it was for an hour and a half. Somewhere along the line, we began to demand an explanation. Which is great of us. Except that we never set any standards for said explanation. We’ll pretty much take anything. Unless of course, Stephen King’s behind it in which case we’ll revert to our old ways and take nothing. I guess he’s been grandfathered in. Which is nice of us. Especially since it can sometimes get us something like 1408. I don’t know why this room is haunted, never mind haunted in the specific way that it is. And I don’t know how John Cusack gets out of it when no one else can. Or what residual effects said survival’s going to have on him afterward. But that’s maybe for the best. Because that’s generally where other horror movies lose it. And ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s that 45 minutes in the middle that makes this so surprisingly good. John Cusack is stuck in a room. By himself. For 45 minutes. It shouldn’t work. We haven’t been waiting for a showdown of Man vs. Room. Nor should we have been. But we might have changed our collective mind if we’d known this is what we’d get.

3. Surf’s Up – Generally, what makes this list are things that I went into with negative or, at least, zero expectations. That’s not the case with Surf’s Up. They weren’t terribly high, but the trailer was funny enough. Of course, all of that was tempered by the glut of penguin-related stuff we’ve been forced to confront lately. And these penguins were going to be surfing, which seems more illogical than even an animated production has a right to be.

But with incredible vocal performances all around (most notably Jeff Bridges, whose breathing alone is worth watching this for), deft handling of the animated DVD extra staple – the false documentary, and one of the best ending/lessons of any kids’ movie there’s ever been, Surf’s Up went way beyond any expectations I may have had. Tempered or otherwise.

4. Breach – Chris Cooper is great. We all know this. And even though we may know already that Robert Hanssen was, in fact, a Russian spy, the way Chris Cooper plays him, he’ll make you not so sure. And while that is obviously laudable, it seems to be the only thing ever praised about Breach. Which isn’t fair. Because for a movie whose biggest action scene consists of Ryan Phillppe purposely driving into a traffic jam to sustain its sense of tension and paranoia from start to finish seems much more rare than Chris Cooper being great as a somber, guarded know-it-all.

5. Stardust – It’s a fairly trite formula. Two people that don’t like each other falling in love over the course of an outlandish adventure. But Stardust not only takes kind of an extreme approach to both those conceits (Yvaine basically starts off as Tristan’s captive, so that’s a difficult hurdle to overcome) it’s maybe the most realistic metamorphosis of such a relationship. When Tristan goes back to Victoria towards the end, it’s out of obligation to the motivation of his adventure than anything else. Where usually this character would just be a dumbstruck guy who needed an epiphany, Tristan’s already had his but just doesn’t think it means as much as it does. And if that sounds boring, there’s a bunch of ridiculous ghost and magic stuff that’s surprisingly well thought out for something like this.

6. – 10.

Lions For Lambs – Nobody saw it, so it can’t have the impact it wants to. But Robert Redford seems to know it wouldn’t have anyway. And maybe resignation isn’t the greatest thing to praise about a movie that kind of wanted to be a Common Sense for a new American revolution. But it’s a welcome admission and might give its message more weight than if it dared to be naively hopeful.

Music & Lyrics – I have no right to be surprised anymore that a generic romantic comedy starring Hugh Grant will be as good as such a thing can be. But it still seems like there’s no way this streak can continue.

Starter For Ten – It’s kind of not fair to include this since I had no idea what this movie was going in. I didn’t even know what the title meant. But now I suppose I do and I know it has almost nothing to do with this kind of perfect 80’s college comedy.

Live Free Or Die Hard – It’s Len Wiseman’s fault that there was any dread whatsoever mixed into the delightful prospect of a new Die Hard movie. But I still need to apologize to him.

Bee Movie – I don’t think I ever believed this would be bad. But those commercials Jerry Seinfeld was doing during 30 Rock were pretty terrible. So there was some fairly solid evidence that this might not go all that well. But all that was erased in the opening minute with that bee funeral joke.


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