The Most Surprising(ly Good) Movies – 2013

1. Leviathan – Since I still have heard nothing about this movie, even months after seeing it, it wasn’t the usual low (or even no) expectations being exceeded that puts this movie on this list. What’s surprising is how much better it gets the further away I get from seeing it. By no means is this a good movie. It’s an incredible chore to sit through. There’s absolutely no story and there isn’t meant to be. It’s not beautiful to look at, most of the time the point (if there is one) seems to be how ugly it is. A lot of the time it takes the length of a shot (which almost always goes on for a very long time) to figure out what it is you’re even looking at.leviathan-still

Leviathan is a documentary, but only in the purest sense. There is no narration. No interviews. The only true hint to its point of view is its title. It relies entirely on its images, and as I said, it doesn’t even always bother making those comprehensible. What is left is the haunting essence it plants inside you, where it can grow, maybe forever, fostering a fascinating memory that far outweighs the pain it caused burying it there in the first place.

2. White House Down – You don’t believe me. And I can’t blame you. I still don’t really believe me. Not to say I thought this wasn’t going to be enjoyable. Roland Emmerich may make a lot of bad movies, but almost all of them are inherently watchable even if they tend to be for the wrong reasons.

It didn’t help, of course, that this movie had already come out. And I don’t even mean it’s obvious and completely overtly embraced Die Hard roots. Olympus Has Fallen isn’t horrible either, but it didn’t exactly clear a path for what seemed like the exact same movie a few months later.


Add to this the bizarre and unwarranted backlash against Channing Tatum we all somehow decided to invest ourselves in despite the fact that we never truly allowed him to reach the peak we’ve already knocked him off of and White House Down should really have taken its ball and gone home to some kind of humble September release date.

While ultimately it died with its boots on, left for dead by the country it loved and still does, when it mattered, there it stood, proud and unmoved, right before the all-important July 4th weekend. For the people if not by them. Indivisible purple waves of glaring ramparts. Banner yet waving. Literally. But more on that in this year’s best of.

That’s right. White House Down is one of the best movies of 2013. And 2013 wasn’t even a substandard year as these things go. And if that isn’t a surprise, I don’t know what is.

3. The Internship – Yes, there were low expectations. Very low. The Internship seemed to be forcing upon us both a star power comedy team we never agreed to and egregious placement of a product we already saw too much of. But even if you think you’ve seen Vince Vaughn do his Vince Vaughiest one too many times, if he turned out to be funny, you couldn’t truly consider yourself to be terribly surprised.DF-05960_05970_R copy.JPG

The Internship might have counted on your sour attitude though, because it made sure it’s first twenty minutes were some of the worst minutes on screen in 2013. The worst! This is not exaggeration. Even if you’d just woken up from the coma induced upon you in 1995 and had no idea what a Wedding Crasher or a Google was, you’d have found your expectations sufficiently hamstrung by those minutes. Which is a state necessary, perhaps, in order to find what follows as satisfying a comedy about the state of our culture and economy as you could ever have expected in an otherwise healthy frame of mind.

4. John Dies At The End – When this showed up in everyone’s suggestion list on Netflix, it seemed like it must have been a Netflix original. There was no way it had earned its place there with positive user reviews or, you know, anyone watching it. Further investigation would get you nowhere. Except for obviously supporting appearances by Paul Giamatti and Clancy Brown, which isn’t even much of an endorsement (Shoot ‘Em Up, The Guardian, respectively), there wasn’t much to go on. Anjohn_diesneedd if you went further, finding out it was from the creator of Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep couldn’t (shouldn’t) have filled you with too much confidence.

But none of that potential knowledge could have prepared you anyway. John Dies At The End manages to walk that line of bizarrely entertaining without veering into nonsense for its own sake. Usually, when a movie can and will do anything, nothing can surprise you. But John Dies At The End finds a way. As evidenced by its title alone.

5. Broken City – There’s a lot going on in Broken City. Sometimes it seems like maybe too much for just a movie-sized thing. Like it needed to be a barely watched six-episode mini-series on AMC rather than a barely perceived blip on the January release schedule. And if all it turned out to be was a perfectly executed intricate drama it would be enough to put it on this list. But then comes Mark Wahlberg infusing it with totally unexpected comedic flourishes that it is becoming increasingly clear only he can do.Broken-City

The Hughes Brothers have always made visually striking movies (and TV), but that is apparently because Albert handles the technical aspects while Allen’s responsibility is the actors. With Albert absent on this project, the look of it does suffer in a way, but only in that it does not have the distinct quality something like Dead Presidents or The Book Of Eli does. It’s functional style fits the material and certainly doesn’t detract. And somehow not having his brother around has made Allen even more adept at coaching the performances. There is no weak link in Broken City save for maybe its trailer, which gives way too much away. But like I said, there’s a lot going on, so there’s still plenty leftover that it doesn’t.


World War Z – If fans of the book had their way, it would have been Ken BurnsWorld War Z. And they were all so vocally upset that by the time I saw it, I was convinced it would prove to be a failure of Transformers proportions. So maybe anything would be surprising(ly good) after that.

The Family – There are a few points in The Family where you are going to want to walk away. It presses its brutality further than we are used to even in an age of the eternal chainsaw massacre, never mind when it’s part of a comedy. But just when you aren’t going to stand for it any longer (maybe even a little after that) the movie forces everyone to face the things they’ve been doing. And Robert DeNiro’s character watches Goodfellas, which is just weird.

The Counselor – The trailer seemed odd and boring and Ridley Scott’s been difficult to take lately so even the prospect of Cormac McCarthy’s first produced screenplay couldn’t truly factor in. But there was no good way to advertise a movie so perfectly and oppressively fatalistic.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Turns out Hunger Games movies don’t really need any hunger games to be compelling. But it’s nice when they finally show up too.

In A World… – Lake Bell’s always been great. But the idea of her making her own movie based on her bizarre obsession with trailer voice over seemed at best like the sketch she’d never get to do because they’ll never ask her to host Saturday Night Live. But there’s a whole lot more depth to this seemingly simple story of professional and familial jealousy. And side note, Rob Corddry is going to win an Oscar someday. You just watch.


2 thoughts on “The Most Surprising(ly Good) Movies – 2013

Add yours

  1. Great list. My big surprise was The World’s End. I thought I’d hate it – Simon Pegg having gone off the boil, and all – but in the end I quite liked it.

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