The Most Surprising(ly Good) Movies – 2011

1. Rubber – This appeared to have the potential to be one of the worst movies of the year. A tire is killing people? What are they trying to pull here? Only in forcing yourself to watch the first few minutes will you see that it is not. (Not one of the worst movies, I mean. It is still about a killer tire.)

You might not even like those first few minutes. You might not like any of the minutes. But you will not be able to condemn this movie for any of the reasons you thought you would. Rubber is the epitome of this category.  Even without marketing making up your mind for you, you will more often than not enter into something (or choose not to enter into something) based on notions that you assume to be correct. Because so much of the time they are correct. Rubber is the movie that will constantly prove you wrong.

2. Midnight In Paris – On the way in to see and advanced screening of Larry Crowne, a woman on the escalator gushed about the new Woody Allen movie. She sounded crazy. Which was very very sad. I hadn’t even realized we’d reached the point where we not only weren’t watching new Woody Allen movies, we’d think anyone who told us we should was a mental patient on the lam.

A whimsical fantasy with a traditional romantic comedy at its core, Midnight In Paris is as close to Purple Rose Of Cairo Woody Allen, maybe even Love & Death Woody Allen, as we could have hoped to get even twenty years ago. To get it now defies not only the odds, but the only logical conclusion left to us after watching Scoop. And getting that kind of Woody Allen now should suffice, but he had to go and give us something as relevant as most anything he’s ever done. In a year when it seemed as if every corner of cinema was looking backward with awe (Hugo, The Artist, Super 8) or ambivalent irony (Drive, The Muppets) someone perennially guilty of this told us we should probably let all of that go.

3. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes – With the avalanche of remakes and sequels and “reimaginings” being released, the odds are in favor of one or two surpassing expectations. Especially when those expectations are on a steady decline. So this surprise is not due exclusively to dulled hopes and poor marketing (though those helped), but rather to simply being blindsided by one of the best movies of the year.

You must have experienced the wake of the world’s realization of this. If you weren’t at least in the room when someone said Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was great to someone who did not believe them, you might be by yourself more than I am, which is already far too much. And that might be the most surprising aspect of this movie, that it got pretty much everyone to agree, mostly begrudgingly, that it did right what we have come to expect no one could anymore: make a thoughtful, wrenching, tense, big budget, computer-generated, action-oriented success.

4. The Conspirator – Last time out, Robert Redford (the director) forced his politics to the fore (albeit in a surprisingly engaging and entertaining way.) I said then he was trying to be Thomas Paine for whatever year that was. He saw that such an approach was impractical and so employs the somewhat subtler Arthur Miller route here, making what amounts to The Crucible for 2011 (and with recent events, he may have been more prescient than even he thought.)

Again though, he does it with a kind of easy, confident presence – much like he used to project onscreen himself. Nothing stands out as particularly stylized (though the acting is largely impeccable as you might expect) allowing the whole to stand out unencumbered. Despite being a period piece and a courtroom drama, it manages not to feel exclusively like either of these. Neither does it feel like the History Channel production it easily could have (historical inaccuracies notwithstanding.)  The Conspirator delivers its topical message amidst a perfectly crafted story of a man reluctantly riling against immoveable forces. Unfortunately, it still failed miserably in getting people to see it.

5. Crazy, Stupid, Love – Again, hope wasn’t so low for this. It has a fairly impressive cast and an inviting (if generic) premise. But (also again) benefits from the lowered expectations the years of Valentine’s Day and Nancy Myers have effectively eroded.

This is not to say it isn’t one of the funniest and touching movies of the year. Just that it doesn’t do anything terribly original. But it does not have to. Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling are beyond perfect together, allowing their suspiciously forced relationship to seem inevitable. The characters are so fully realized you can even come to terms with the inclusion of the wise-beyond-his-years kid (though that took me seeing it twice to achieve.) And each parcel of the story progresses so steadily and naturally that even the bizarre packaging that is finally revealed is a welcome bonus rather than an eye-rolling gimmick.

That title’s still pretty dumb though.

6.-10.

Bill Cunningham New York – Because of the overbearing narrating directors or the suffocating desperate political messages so prevalent in documentaries these days, something like this seems quaint by comparison. And as such, destined for television. And that isn’t so terrible. But once in awhile, you can learn something about a fascinating person in a grander more entertaining way.

The Green Hornet – Any January release date has to give you pause. And it’s not as if any of these people (Gondry, Rogen, Moritz) have impeccable records. But the true surprise came of course from Jay Chou, who doesn’t need our country to be a star, but can have it anyway if he wants.

The Adjustment Bureau – Fate and divine plans and hats and doors and all-powerful beings that still have to answer to more powerful beings do not seem like parts of a poignant romantic drama hidden inside a sci-fi thriller. But they are.

Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold – It would have been nice if someone other than aforementioned overbearing narrating director Morgan Spurlock made this, but the unfortunate truth is, no one else could have. This movie succeeds despite his ubiquitous presence. Which is surprising enough on its own. But it goes beyond to be one of the greatest tools of media literacy we never thought to ask for.

The Help – The billboards for this seemed like pathetic panhandlers. There was no way anyone was going to see whatever this terribly generic graphic was advertising. But soon word would spread that a brace of actresses were trying to out do each other and in the process fill up the Supporting Oscar ballot all by themselves.

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