The Most Surprising(ly Good) Movies – 2016


1. Paterson – It was the year 2000. I was going to throw a Steven Spielberg themed party. Everyone was pretty excited. Then my roommate’s film school friends came over and were told about it and they made sour faces in unison. They said, “Why don’t you do like Jim Jarmusch?” I said, “Because I want everyone to stay awake.” They did not show up.


Since then, Spielberg has made some less than perfect movies. Jim Jarmusch has mostly made the same movie and mostly I have not seen it. Until 2016, I still would have had much the same reaction to such a suggestion. But with Steven Spielberg turning in not just the worst production of his career but of pretty much anyone’s, it wasn’t going to be difficult for Jim Jarmusch to finally emerge victorious in this contest no one else knows has been happening for more than a decade and a half. In fact, as I write this, I still have not seen his documentary from 2016, Gimme Danger. But I know it’s way better than The BFG. So he didn’t even have to try that hard. But he did. And he made what I and mostly no one else would say is the best movie of his career. This is his Straight Story. In the punny way but also in the straightforward way (which itself is punny, I’m afraid.) It’s his most accessible. And not even he could force a wooden performance out of Adam Driver (although Scorsese came pretty close.)


Paterson can be annoying in typical Jarmusch ways. But his penchant for nothing is happening and probably never will works far better than it ever has before. Perhaps because he is trying to show us what I suppose he thinks is a normal life.


Brett Ratner’s best work is obviously The Family Man and my theory as to why is that he was telling a story that was essentially his worst nightmare: waking up from a nonstop playboy life with a family in the suburbs. Perhaps the same thing is at play here. Jim Jarmusch doesn’t have as much to fear from being a bus driving poet with the greatest wife and the worst dog, convincing himself his crumbling city is the best because some famous people lived there once. But he’s still playing around with a life of which he hasn’t to this point shown any glimpse of wanting to be a part. And that may be why it all feels a thousand percent more authentic than any of the stylized boredom he’s been handing us for years.




2. Complete Unknown – It’s not at all that this looked to be bad in any way. But I saw the trailer a lot and then never noticed it playing in any theater anywhere (it apparently did, for 38 days in 63 theaters) and then forgot all about it until it showed up for free on Amazon Prime. Even had I known the specifics at the time, these were all bad signs.


Michael Shannon is a good actor, I’m not dumb enough to dispute that. But I’ve never really grasped what it is that everyone else sees in him, why everyone wants him in every movie they make even if it’s just to play some invisible Life magazine photographer. But I get it now. And there were some other movies in 2016 that would lead me down the same path, but his reactions to the bizarre but totally relatable circumstance of Complete Unknown are always surprising and subtle and perfect and true. Then comes the improv/con artist scene with Danny Glover and Kathy Bates and this movie ascends to heights I couldn’t have imagined.



3. Criminal – I like Kevin Costner. But I’m not here to defend his continued existence. Criminal certainly did not seem to be some sort of sleeper comeback mission for his career. The trailer is normal enough until you briefly glimpse Ryan Reynolds. Are they switchng Ryan Reynolds’ body and or mind with someone else’s? Again? How many times can this happen? There must be serious side effects to this procedure. Is Kevin Costner starring in an action movie? Was that Tommy Lee Jones? Is it 2016? Is David Bowie really dead? Is the villain a South American Fisher Stevens? What is happening?


“They thought they knew what they’d get. But they were wrong.”


That’s how the trailer for Criminal ends. So I mean, I could have just believed them.

But I didn’t. I was just like you except in that I saw it anyway. And was subsequently treated to some efficiently understated action and one of the creepier home invasions there’s been. And most surprisingly, what is maybe Kevin Costner’s finest performance. I know, you’ll say the bar wasn’t so high on that. I won’t bother pointing you to movies you liked, that he was good in, that doesn’t matter now. I’m not saying they cast the perfect person. Clearly they did not or they’d have gotten someone who could have opened a movie better, like anyone. But there’s little disputing he does a fine job of executing a strange character, with another character stuck inside his brain clawing his way out. The struggle between the two is something you’d have no business expecting out a movie like this no matter who was starring in it. That it’s Kevin Costner only intensifies that consternation. Which can mean either amazement or dread. Which is perfectly applicable both for your feelings about Criminal as well as the content of Criminal itself.



4. Standoff – You’ve scrolled by this on Netflix a hundred times already. It’s just some stupid movie some international shadow figure used to write off the million dollars he made from some intentionally confusing financial scheme. Oh, is Laurence Fishburne in it? Nice try, movie. I see Thomas Jane there with him and I know he only does terrible VOD movies now for reasons unclear to anyone who has seen any of them because while yes, they are all terrible, he is always great. So anyway, you assume Standoff is one of those terrible things and if you were daring enough to press play (or accidentally hover over it and have it start playing automatically) you’d be proven right. Because those first few minutes so crucial to the life of a Netflix movie are exactly what you imagine when you see the cover/poster/whatever we call the digital equivalent of such things now. Even Thomas Jane is kind of bad in those first few minutes. And Laurence Fishburne is nowhere to be found. Oh, it’s one of those ones where the big famous actor is just bait to draw us in but he only showed up for a day or two of shooting and we sit around like dummies watching Thomas Jane and his wife for an hour before that star shows up.

But then the wife is gone and there’s Laurence Fishburne, trudging along, shooting at kids, busting into Thomas Jane’s house and it settles on you that this movie is called Standoff and within seven minutes you are in said standoff and it’s just going to be Laurence Fishburne and Thomas Jane yelling at each other and trying to outwit each other and making each other laugh reluctantly and making you laugh not reluctantly and then sometimes shooting at each other and you finally come to realize you should have given some of those other Thomas Jane movies a chance.


Except you probably should just quit while you’re ahead.



5. 국가대표 2 / Take-Off 2 (aka Run-Off) – This Korean sports movie sequel has a wonderful trailer. I didn’t understand much of it, but I knew I had to be sure and see it when it finally came around. But before that, I also knew I had to track down the first installment. I tried and failed to find a video store in Koreatown that was still open and carried it, I tried and succeeded to find it online only to have the copy crap out on me halfway through. I signed up for OnDemand Korea only to find that while it was available there, it (understandably) had no subtitles. Then I found it on YouTube, where I swear it had not existed before (and might not now), and finally watch all of Take-Off, the story of the underdog Korean Olympic ski jumping team.


It was terrible.


So now I was no longer looking forward to Take-Off 2, obviously. But I’d already invested so much time in this rollercoaster. So I went. And it was everything you would want in your underdog Olympic story. Plus, as a bonus, it had nothing to do with the first Take-Off. Which of course meant I had completely wasted all that time and effort watching the first Take-Off. But that didn’t matter anymore. Because Take-Off 2 was here to erase all those sour memories.



Anthropoid – A great spy movie with a fantastic ending and one of the worst titles in history.


The Legend Of Tarzan – The trailer was so frustrating. Why does everyone know who Tarzan is like they’ve seen all the movies?!? But this movie has really great answer to that.


Remember – This movie tricked me and that may make me dumb, but that isn’t the only reason it makes this list.


The Finest Hours – Casey Affleck ought to be the favorite for two Oscars this year. And his half of The Finest Hours is only slightly better than the other half.


Me Before You – You’re laughing but you didn’t see it so shut up.





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