The Most Surprising(ly Good) Movies – 2009

1. The Hangover – There was nothing about The Hangover that appealed to me.  From the title alone I was in fear of it becoming christened one of the “new classic” comedies with other things I can’t stand, like Old School and Dude, Where’s My Car? Finding out that Todd Phillips directed it was the ultimate confirmation of that.  Seeing Justin Bartha’s name in the credits seemed like The Hangover was running up the score on me.  I braced myself for 90 minutes of struggling not to bellow at anyone and everyone in the theater, “Why are you laughing?”

But that moment never came.  And as each minute passed, not only was I not angry, I was increasingly amazed that this thing unfolding in front of me was not only something I was laughing at, but was something that had to unfold.

2. A Perfect Getaway After the supposedly stunning final twist of The Sixth Sense, numerous movies have banked their entire success on emulating that same feat.  But of course, when a movie hinges solely upon your ability to be tricked by it, it can go terribly wrong.  And even when it goes right, it’s just one moment that shouldn’t quite make up for an entire movie of otherwise bland ones.

A Perfect Getaway has that one moment, but by the time it comes, it doesn’t matter.  You probably have it figured out already anyway.  But you don’t ever feel cheated because everything that happens around it has merit all its own.  The movie never waits around for the twist.  It’s constantly reminding you (through initially irritating meta-dialog) that it’s coming.  But then it folds that very dialog into everything that’s going on, almost making you feel stupid for questioning it in the first place.

A great twist makes you re-examine everything you’ve already watched, and this does that, but with the added bonus of continuing to watch a well-paced thriller even after the twist has been revealed.

3. Everybody’s Fine – I suppose it wouldn’t have been possible to advertise Everybody’s Fine accurately and expect to see results.  But the way it was presented made it seem the most insipid of family comedies.  There was a sense though, that there was something else going on.  It was too sluggish, that trailer.  Too much of a failure at anything it tried to present as exciting or interesting that there had to be something they weren’t showing us.

Turns out, what they were withholding was just about the most devastating movie in recent memory.  Without being heavy-handed, Everybody’s Fine managed to expose the fraud in everyone when it comes to their families.  It was at once a completely honest and depressing portrayal of aging, regret, compromise and lying in the least judgmental way I’ve ever seen on screen.  What amounts to a series of one act plays between Robert DeNiro’s Frank Goode and each of his children is hemmed together with introspective traveling interstitials in which he reveals himself to be the annoying father you do not want to sit next to on a train.

There’s nobody to feel terribly sorry for.  There are no touching dance sequences or embarrassing, hide-your-face moments.  No mistakenly taken drugs or cathartic soul-bearing monologues.  This movie is poised perfectly between anything that could be considered a marketable commodity and suffered the appropriate fate as a result.  But it will punch you in the stomach all the more unexpectedly because of it.

4. The Great Buck Howard – As bizarre as the premise might seem (a washed-up magician rises to stardom after putting a bunch of people to sleep), you cannot be prepared for how off this whole movie feels.  Because really, it’s a fairly standard plot: Troy (Colin Hanks) gets a job as an assistant to a weirdo menacing mentalist (John Malkovich) and learns some stuff as a result of their adventures together.

But just as Troy learns to appreciate The Great Buck Howard’s antiquated act, you will learn to appreciate the apparent familiarity of the structure of the movie.  It helps that it is full of fantastic performances, not only from John Malkovich, of course, but from supporting (Griffin Dunne, Debra Monk and Steve Zahn) and bit (Nate Hartley, Wallace Langham, Adam Scott) players alike.  Not to mention Tom Hanks, amazing as Troy’s father, the requisite outside viewpoint, annoyed by pretty much everything going on around him (and Colin Hanks has never been better than he is in these scenes with his real and fictional father.)

5. The Invention Of Lying – I don’t know that I ever imagined this would be bad, really. It just always seemed like a thin idea for a feature.  But what seems like a sketch idea at best never gets tired.  Even though you’ll never stop coming up with things that couldn’t possibly exist in the world without the act of lying, you won’t hold the presence of any of them against this movie.  It builds its world effortlessly and never needs to lean on its basic premise for its jokes. The surprise, however, does not come so much from being better than expected, but rather from where this movie goes.

The introduction (and subsequent reduction) of the idea of religion seems like something most movies would go out of their way to avoid, but The Invention Of Lying attacks it head on.  It becomes its reason for being.  It’s incredible that there were not protests outside the theaters showing this.  As if religious groups have finally realized that that sort of demonstration only leads to an increase in ticket sales for the thing they want boycotted.


Shuttle – Unlike most Americans-in-peril movies that at first glance this appears to be, Shuttle doesn’t bother with anything unfamiliar or complicated.  Its villain is just a guy doing his job.  His horrendously evil, but still ultimately mundane job.

The International – The International seems like the two hour finale to a really good BBC show you wish you hadn’t missed.  Not everything makes a whole lot of sense, but more because they don’t really stop to catch you up, not because they didn’t know what was happening.  Of course, that makes it sound like some sort of non-stop action thriller, which you know it isn’t because I just compared it to a BBC show.  Although there is one incredible out-of-nowhere shootout at The Guggenheim that could be the only thing you take away from this movie and you’d still think it was worth it.

12 Rounds – When a movie unabashedly steals the plot from Die Hard With A Vengeance, you would expect it to just seem like a low-rent Die Hard With A Vengeance.  Turns out, you’d be right, but it also turns out you’d be pretty happy to have an any-rent Die Hard With A Vengeance.

17 Again – This really isn’t a very good movie.  And the fact that Zac Efron is awesome and hilarious shouldn’t be such a huge shock, but he is and it was and that’s really the only reason to watch it.  But it’s a really good reason.

Lymelife – I don’t ever want to like these dystopian family dramas.  And usually I don’t have to.  It seems like they just fill the frame with actors you like and hope you don’t notice the complete lack of emotion being put forth.  But this one is different.  It fills the frame with actors you like, sure, but it didn’t have to.


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