The Most Surprising(ly Good) Movies – 2010

1. Brooklyn’s Finest – It was surprising enough to find the poster for this movie in theaters as the year began. It seemed like some sort of trick. Something made for the background of a movie about movies, or something unearthed after a decade of studio lawsuits keeping it from view. It did not seem possible that someone had made a generic-looking police drama for 2010 and expected it to play in theaters. Never mind one starring Richard Gere, Ethan Hawke and/or Wesley Snipes. As it turned out, it was sort of a trick. Brooklyn’s Finest barely played in said theaters, and those in which it did play instantly regretted it.

But from the first psuedo-wise rambling words out of Vincent D’Onofrio’s mouth, it is clear that no matter how many times the story you were about to be told has been told, you were ready to watch it again.

Anton Fuqua has a career full of movies that shouldn’t be as good as they are (excepting his first, The Replacement Killers, which should have been much better than it was), and are largely overlooked because of it. He’s never done anything terribly original and yet he infuses these very familiar stories with a distinct tension that originates in a stalwart adherence to reality, even when that might be the dull choice.

Brooklyn’s Finest revels in its dull moments. It wants you to feel those as much as it does when all its elements collide and it can’t help but explode. And you do. You want everyone to win, even though from the beginning it is clear not everyone can. Even though by the end, it is clear no one will.

2. Repo Men – First and foremost, there’s that title and it’s implication that it has anything at all to do with one of the worst retroactively-loved movies of all time, 1984’s Repo Man.  Even confirming the two had nothing in common served as little comfort. Because there was still this weird plot of organ repossession, being presented with as much seriousness as a dystopian sci-fi movie could muster. And then, perhaps the most damning harbinger of all… narration. Remy (Jude Law) is writing a book about what happened to him. Maybe the worst device in movie history. Things did not look good.


First there was the effortless banter between long time friends and colleagues Remy and Jake (Forest Whitaker) to begin to turn the tide. Then a motivated and unevil “villain” in boss Frank (Liev Schreiber) lent credence to this supposed not-so-distant future. A subdued emotional scene of organ repossession that goes wrong sets everything in motion and from then on Repo Men is a decidedly efficient thriller, even if the central plot device is still unavoidably strange and off-putting. The surprising turn though comes from how it devolves, very gradually and expertly spiraling into insanity. People start to act like no one possibly could, to do things that, while not unheard of in a movie reality, are at direct opposition of what this particular movie has set forth as its own parameters. It becomes a fantasy land, going out of its way to find a satisfying ending. Which sounds pretty terrible, I guess, but it comes at you so slowly you can’t help but go along with it for most of its duration. Only at its most ridiculous does it start to show its seams and allow you to question how this could all be happening.  And that is when it answers you.

3. She’s Out Of My League – Despite its slightly better-than-average cast, the trailer for this didn’t manage to seem any different than any other similarly-themed thing there’s ever been. In fact, it might have made it seem worse than that. And at first, except for said cast, there didn’t seem to be much elevating it from that status. There’s the same strangling self-involvement of the main character as he sucks everyone around him into a vortex of introspection. There’s the same misunderstandings that lead to needlessly embarrassing situations.  There’s even the obligatory scene designed to make the audience cover their eyes while they laugh at what they are only sort of watching.

But as it progresses, these things are spun into positives. That introspection turns out to be Kirk’s (Jay Baruchel) major problem. Those misunderstandings are just symptoms of more serious trouble plaguing the central relationship. Even that supposed-to-be cringe-inducing scene is just an extreme example of Devon’s (Nate Torrance) unwavering loyalty to Kirk.

Ultimately, She’s Out Of My League is only about one thing. But it manages to delve into every corner of that idea, allowing every scene to relate to it in a new and more complicated way. It isn’t on this list because it’s funnier than any of its like-minded competition, but because it takes itself more seriously than it probably should have and somehow turns that into its greatest asset.

4. RED – Take any individual piece of RED (Bruce Willis’ whispery, reluctant superhero, Mary Louise-Parker’s wide-eyed confusion, Morgan Freeman’s elegance, John Malkovich’s lunacy, Helen Mirren’s effervescence) and you would assume you had seen any and every possible variation of it before. But that’s the point, isn’t it?  These are people with long histories of being awesome and rather than inundate you with stupid flashbacks or dumb conversations by awed secondary characters, you just apply what you already know to them and let them get on with things.  And they do get on with things.  There are giant guns and amazing physical feats, of course, though not all exactly what you might expect.  The action is more straight forward than a lot of movies can seem to manage at this point and immeasurably better for it. But it’s how funny everyone is that’s the true surprise.  Not that any of these people have never been so before, obviously, it’s just that the way RED was advertised, it seemed like a pretty timid offering that would rely mostly on the idea that Helen Mirren with a machine gun was funny in and of itself.  But it goes way beyond that.

5. Babies – This really was a great trailer.

So it shouldn’t be able to make this list. But there was very little indication Babies would be any more than a trumped up YouTube clip. What’s most surprising, I guess, is that it isn’t any more than that. Just as that fragment of a home movie on the internet is an unadulterated view into the life of that cat that attacks itself in a mirror, Babies is as true a documentary as such a thing can be. There is no famous-voiced narrator, no expert interviews, no intrusive director, no meaningful dialogue at all. It really is just brilliantly photographed evidence that babies exist all over the place. You wouldn’t think we needed that sort of proof, but you’ll be happy to have it nonetheless.

6.-10.

The Greatest – Clunky grief cliches abound, but when they come up against the serene fragility of Carey Mulligan‘s Rose, they are instantly transformed into graceful portrayals of people in a largely unknowable situation.

Devil M. Night Shyalaman should probably have directed this instead of The Last Airbender. But thank goodness he didn’t. Someone finally remembered that it doesn’t really matter who is killing everyone as long as everyone is acting like a real person might when everyone around them is being killed.

Prince Of Persia – Proof that Mike Newell should have directed all the Harry Potter movies. You may think you know going in that it will be boring and won’t make any sense and that Jake Gyllenhaal’s accent is going to be weird, and you won’t be wrong about any of that, but there’s not a minute of it that allows you think about it.

Shrek Forever After – There are still some things you have to wince to get through, but overall as funny as the second one and more thoughtful than all the others combined.

Green Zone – What looks like a thinly-veiled Bourne movie turns out to be a kind of amazing war-noir more relevant than The Hurt Locker ever hoped to be.

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