This is a pessimistic list. It means I go into a lot of movies expecting them to be terrible. Or at least mundane enough to forget about come this time of year. But these movies are the reasons I do just that. At times, it feels better to come out of something worthy of this list than one considered to be the best. But I suppose it helps to never expect much of anyone.
1. Bernie – Even if this were not a true story, there would be little doubt as to where it was headed. Bernie never intends on surprising anyone. Not in the traditional sense. The events are all inevitable. From the first moments you will know this, even if you weren’t explicitly told by all the semi-documentarian interviews with people who sort of heard what happened maybe. Which you are.
The surprise of Bernie comes from how easily you can be swayed into sympathy for someone who objectively doesn’t deserve any. And the semi-pseudo-documentary architecture helps to deliver that. Afterwards, you might be able to shake it off and question whether or not it’s right to think of the titular character the way you did, but that should only prove further how effective the movie is. You can’t ask much more of the medium than to become so wholly immersed in a situation of which you have no business being a part.
2. The Possession – There are at least three of these every year. Whether the subject is ghosts, possession, demon, or esoteric religious artifact, it makes little difference. They are horror movies that count on you not needing anything more than an atmospheric trailer to get your money. You will walk away unsatisfied, barely able to remember any of it (especially when it has a title as generic as The Possession), and you might even know that beforehand but you can’t help yourself. The appeal and the expectation does not generally move beyond that. If you find yourself mildly scared or shocked at any point at all, you probably count that as a victory.
I can’t say you will find that moment in The Possession, never mind more than one. But then, that wouldn’t be so surprising if you did. It would just be the best you could hope for. What you will find is a compelling family drama that turns into a taut frame up movie. Only the framer can’t be dealt with in the normal cathartic physical manner because it’s possessing the framee’s daughter. Which means finally, yes, it has to succumb to its roots and ultimately do some supernatural things that probably don’t really make sense, but even that comes across as a reluctant last resort and is aided tremendously by the shockingly awesome guide played by Matisyahu.
3. Madagascar 3 – On the one hand, the bar for animated movies has been raised so high lately that it would be unwise to expect anything to be as lifeless as the other Madagascars have been. But to think otherwise would be flying in the face of a much more proven theorem, that sequels of highly successful franchises are terrified of change.
Somehow, Madagascar did not rest on its painfully unfunny laurels. It hired a screenwriter known for much more intimate fare and then got a seriously accredited Director of Photography to make sure it would never fall static. The result is comedy and action that could easily have made Madagascar 3 one of the best movies of 2012. Unfortunately, this ideology only carries so much weight and eventually focus groups overtly infiltrate a climax that will leave you baffled. Or shout-singing nonsense about a wig.
4. 21 Jump Street – When a little way into the trailer for 21 Jump Street, it is revealed that this promising buddy cop comedy starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum was in fact, a 21 Jump Street movie, it felt like a theft. Like a promising original funny movie had just been stolen from us and replaced with yet another remake of a thing too old for its target audience to remember.
But 21 Jump Street was aware of this and seemingly everything else as it meta-ed its way into the great buddy cop comedy it seemed like it could have been from the outset.
5. Safe – You don’t really think of Jason Statham as an actor, even if you realize that’s all he is. He’s more of a bowling ball. Something you throw at stuff so you can watch it fall down. I figured someday, Sofia Coppola would make him play some sad version of himself and the world would briefly realize they’d never given him enough credit. So that it would come out in what seemed like a factory-made placeholder between Transporter and Expendables movies is the epitome of surprising.
But it isn’t just Jason Statham’s performance that makes Safe stand out. Even though it’s not telling a terribly original story, everything about Safe feels just slightly different. From the way the action is shot and choreographed to the motivations of every marginal character. Not exactly what one would expect from the director of Remember The Titans and Uptown Girls.
People Like Us – With a horrendous poster, a trailer drowning in boredom when it bothered to make any sense and a title that could mean as many different things as inflections your imagination could muster, People Like Us seemed dead on arrival. Before arrival even. But great performances, properly motivated characters and even accurate LA geography make this not only better than it looked, but better than it should be.
The Bourne Legacy – I would never have guessed that a less action-oriented, more complicated Bourne movie would manage to revive what had so quickly devolved into nonsense. Never mind that Jeremy Renner could be a thousand times more charismatic than Matt Damon in the lead of it.
The Three Stooges – A double surprise. That this unwanted, unwarranted and uninspired resurrection could be among the funniest movies of the year, and that it could be brought to us by the Farrelly Brothers. Who finally again found a way to make a dumb (but not stupid – mostly) comedy that, while not completely eradicating the awful humor you’re expecting, is paced quickly enough to be packed with jokes you don’t.
Pitch Perfect – The trailer wanted me to believe that not only was a bunch of white girls singing “No Diggety” impressive and original, but also funny. Turns out Pitch Perfect knew itself a lot better than I did.
Contraband – What seems like a standard revenge thriller turns out to be comedic con game, with Mark Wahlberg leading a team of misfits into a really weird spiral of uncontrollable events. Sometimes, it seems like this movie surprises itself. It can’t help but do so to you too.