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14 Movies That Defied Expectations — IndieWire Critics Survey

Critics can't avoid having certain preconceptions, but these movies proved you can never judge a book by its cover (for better or worse).

Shazam! Zachary Levi


Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This past weekend saw the release of “Shazam!,” a movie that proved to be a pleasant surprise for some critics who hadn’t been expecting much from D.C.’s latest superhero extravaganza.

This week’s question: What film has most defied your expectations, either for better or for worse?

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

The severity of Robert Bresson without the originality, a similar obsession with evil but veering toward the showmanship of grotesquerie: Bruno Dumont had long struck me as a director of great ambition with an artistic vanity to match, and when the New York Film Festival announced a nearly four-hour film of his, I went to see it with a sense of obligation falling short of the curiosity I’d like to bring to all movies but, on that day, didn’t—and that movie, “Li’l Quinquin,” turned out to be, from the very start, a cosmic exhilaration. It’s the self-remaking, the second artistic life of a filmmaker in his fifties and, apart from Dumont’s own personal breakthrough, one of the crucially pathbreaking recent films—as well as a sharp lesson to approach every movie with an open mind and a clean slate without dismayed anticipation on the basis of previous distastes.

Carl Broughton (@Carlislegendary), FilmEraFilm School Rejects

Numerous movies have defied my expectations for better or worse over the years, but a recent 2019 release comes to my mind, “Native Son,” directed by Rashid Johnson and screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks.

The film was already my most anticipated at Sundance due to the casting of ‘Moonlight’ star Ashton Sanders, and “If Beale Stree Could Talk” star Kiki Layne, but I found myself being out surprised by the grave subject matter on display. I found myself identifying with Ashton Sander’s character Bigger Thomas as he struggled with his identity as a young black man in America. Stereotypes can have a significant effect on a person of colors mental, and the way ‘Native Son’ addressed it is outright brilliant, as Thomas felt trapped by the standards he was supposed to live up to and overcome. “Native Son” is a hard watch, but an essential observation on American Society, and the people who are oppressed by it. “Native Son” was picked up by A24 but later sold to HBO where it premiered on April 7th.

Casey Cipriani (@CaseyCip), Bustle, Freelance

I’m sure there are a few instances in my movie-going life where this has happened, but the most recent I can recall is “Bumblebee,” the transformers prequel that came out late last year. With a clumsy, angsty, fireball teenage girl for a lead and a script written by a woman (Christina Hodson), “Bumblebee” was much more relatable than any of the other Transformers movies, at least for me. The previous Transformers movies dabbled in plenty of sexism and racism, which is why I wasn’t expecting much from this next installment. But “Bumblebee” managed to correct a lot of those mistakes. It also gave a robot an actual story arc, and let it be emotionally available. I was a huge fan and honestly find it the best Transformer movie to date.

Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews), 812filmreviewsThe Spool, Freelance

An enigma of cinema, Keanu Reeves’ filmography contains dross title after dross title. Always a wildcard, occasionally he’ll capture a cultural thirst we didn’t know we had. During the 80’s, he perfected the stoner-skater dude. With the “Matrix,” he latched onto the Wachowskis’ prescient vision of our future and present.

Each, because of their incredible success, became clichés. So much so, Reeves came to occupy the cultural importance of a punchline.

And when the trailer to “John Wick” dropped, no doubt there were many like me who had flashes of his “47 Ronin,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and “Street Kings” misfires in mind. A dog’s death serving as motivation for Wick to resume his killing-machine title? That demanded an eye roll. Another dumb action film filled with cars, guns, and bad Russian accents whiffed of desperation.

Nevertheless, Reeves proved me totally wrong.  Capitalizing on our thirst for well-choreographed dumb action films, his wildly successful “John Wick” films are among the best action movies of the past decade. They’ve also reintroduced Reeves to a new generation, thereby, creating a modern mythology around him. The oft-lampooned actor has morphed into social media de jour, a turnabout made fitting for a performer with more box-office success than most, yet without the cache accompanying such triumphs.

Joel Mayward (@joelmaywardCinemayward.com

Last summer, I was living in Paris for the month of July as Europe experienced a blazing heatwave. With no air conditioning in my flat and temperatures nearing 100 degrees, I found myself in a Parisian multiplex seeking respite for 2+ hours from the mid-afternoon sun. I bought a ticket for “Incredibles 2,” but quickly realized that the film was dubbed into French. While my French language skills were improving, they weren’t *that* good. The cinema offered no refunds, and it was still so hot outside. Only one film was playing that wasn’t dubbed: “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!” I hadn’t seen the first film, and had no desire to see the sequel. But these were desperate times, so I reluctantly found a seat as the credits began. And to my surprise, not only did I find the cheesy jukebox musical tolerable, I outright loved it. Maybe it was the heat, but over the course of the film’s 114 minutes, my cynicism was converted into foot-tapping joy. With its unapologetic optimism and a wonderful charismatic performance from Lily James, “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again!” is “The Godfather: Part II” of ABBA-based movie musicals.

Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant

I dreaded having to review 2008’s “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl.” It was based on a line of dolls, about which I neither knew nor cared. And, of course, the target audience was little girls. I did not fit into that demographic.

To my great surprise, the movie was smart and funny and charming. It was a very sweet little film that won me over. I gave it 3.5 stars in my review. That was a great reminder of how important it is to always keep an open mind.

Emmanuel “E-Man” Noisette (@EmansReviewsThe Movie BlogFacebook Fan PageYouTube Channel

The one movie that comes to mind that definitely defied my expectations for worse had to be “The Cabin In The Woods”  (2011). All of the trailers made the movie out to be a  typical horror film with some interesting scares to be seen. Upon entering the theater, I started watching the first 15 mins of the movie and thought that I had entered the wrong theater. As the movie progressed, I started to realize that this wasn’t just any normal horror flick, but instead a parody of horror movies. Had I known that going in, I would’ve skipped the  movie entirely. To this day, the false (albeit intentional) marketing duped me into watching a movie that I continue to loathe.

Expectations matter, in my opinion, when it comes to a movie. I’m totally fine with a film showing you one thing and giving you a slightly different version once you get into the theater. However, to grossly mislead a movie goer in regards to the genre is not fair play. Now, I’m not stick in the mud, and I get the ironic humor in all this (in hindsight), but most people would have major issues if they thought they were going in for a romantic comedy only to have the film be some torture porn thriller. So yeah. I say “Screw ‘The Cabin In The Woods’! “. I’m glad others enjoyed it, but I didn’t appreciate the misleading ploy and it really skewed how I perceive the movie.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to NailFilm Festival Today

I’m not sure I would say that the following movie has most defied my expectations, but it sure surprised me, and in a deeply pleasant way. As a devoted animal lover, I was pretty sure I was going to like Ceyda Torun’s 2016 documentary “Kedi,” about street cats in Istanbul, but I did not expect it to move me in such a profound way. Like Glen Zipper’s marvelous recent 6-part Netflix series “Dogs,” the movie uses its focus on its titular subjects to explore not only the fascinating ins and outs of their lives, but also to examine the beauties of the human condition. Beautifully photographed by lead cinematographer Charlie Wuppermann (Torun’s husband) and his amazing team of camerapeople, “Kedi” is truly an object of wonder.

Tasha Robinson (@tasharobinson), The Verge

I try really hard to walk into every movie with an open mind and a hope of greatness, but that’s particularly difficult with the umpty-billionth rote remake of some 1980s property that some studio exec remembers fondly from early adolescence and wants to mine for a few more bucks. In cases where I wasn’t a huge fan of the original property to begin with, it gets even harder. So 2012’s “21 Jump Street” was a real shock — a film that was actively commenting on the original and mocking the idea of a remake, instead of just trying to pretend that adding more sex and violence to the original premise was somehow adulting it up. Back then, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller weren’t known as in-demand hitmakers, they were just the guys behind a funny, weird TV show (“Clone High”) and a particularly lively animated film (“Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs”). Expectations for “21 Jump Street” universally seemed pretty low, but the film’s ebullient good humor, the comic timing and well-balanced partnership between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, and the overall air of good-natured self-mockery made the whole project deeply enjoyable. And the film’s smart analysis of how much social culture had changed over just a few years made the story feel timely and of the moment as well. If only every remake and reboot was this self-aware about its inherent downsides, and willing to reach for new dynamics to compensate.

Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Nerdist

I usually have a pretty good idea of how I’m going to feel about a movie based on the trailers, but I was recently pleasantly surprised by “Captain Marvel.” I never caught the Marvel bug and have found most of the previous movies pretty frustrating (except for the Thor movies – love me some Thor). They just aren’t my cup of tea and I had come to accept that. I had almost zero interest in “Captain Marvel,” was actually sort of dreading the press screening, which is why I was really taken aback when the credits rolled and I realized I had just had a super great time. I don’t know if it’s a great movie or even really a good movie, but I was thoroughly entertained top to bottom, really took to the vibes it was giving off, and am actually looking forward to seeing it again – it’ll be the first Marvel movie I’ve seen more than once. (It’s also highly possible I was distracted into loving it thanks to Annette Bening, for whom I would die. Who’s to say?)

Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson and Medium.com

To this day as I knock on the door of turning 40, I remain a willing sucker for an easy and breezy romantic comedy.  They don’t even have to be good to earn my enjoyment, yet I’ve been conditioned today to fear the worst.  I’ll get on my movie porch rocker and be one of many that say “they don’t make them like they used to” after the genre had a big peak in the 1990s. With the 20th anniversary of all things 1999 causing a parade of nostalgic celebrations, “Simply Irresistible” is a forgotten Valentine’s release and Sara Michelle Gellar vehicle from that year that will warmly make my retrospectives.  Count me with Roger Ebert as one of the few cinephiles charmed to pieces back then by its feather-light witchcraft. This was pre-“American Pie” and the raunchy romantic comedies of the Apatow era that followed in the decade after where near-chastity ended up being a refreshing  outlier. If anything, the purposeful ungainliness is part of the appeal as we watch a Meet Cute evolve into playful innuendo and entrancing emotional delights baked into the culinary setting and creations of the movie.  Sure, Gellar isn’t exactly Katharine Hepburn and Sean Patrick Flannery isn’t Cary Grant, but the flutter of “Simply Irresistible” matches its title. I watch it now to see a bright and lively movie that would fit right in with the screwball romantic comedies of the 1930s. I find that to be an impressive and rare commodity.

Andrea Thompson (@areelofonesown), A Reel Of One’s OwnThe Young FolksThe Chicago ReaderFilm Girl Film

All the potentially nightmare-fueling speculation about upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s “Aladdin” is both a reminder of how much it probably won’t live up to the original film I enjoyed so much, and how this franchise no one wanted was the source of my first great disillusionment about movies. When I first learned about “Aladdin and the Return of Jafar,” I was so confused as to why a sequel to such a big, fun movie was released straight to video rather than screening in theaters. Ah, the innocence of childhood. In other words? “Return of Jafar” was my introduction to direct-to-video Disney sequels, and it will always be the worst of them for me, no matter how many awful examples of this subgenre I’ve seen since.

Originally intended to be a pilot for the TV series (which still happened), “Return of Jafar” isn’t just a dumbed down version of the original film, it’s a cheap, lazy, rehash of what “Aladdin” already accomplished. Even as a kid I was appalled by how terrible the animation was and the lack of effort in practically every facet of this movie, which made its 70 minute runtime feel like an eternity. But most disappointing was the utter lack of Robin Williams as the Genie, which transformed the character into an annoying shell of himself. Thank goodness I wasn’t aware that his replacement Dan Castellaneta also voiced Homer Simpson, another beloved child staple. It’s not Castellaneta’s fault, it’s just that no other actor could’ve possibly replicated what Williams brought to this role.

Just how little Disney could value its own creation, one they had previously put so much time and effort into, boggled my young mind. The conclusion to what became a trilogy, “Aladdin and the King of Thieves,” was at least more enjoyable (not that that’s saying much), and featured Williams once again. But “Return of Jafar” will always be my first lesson in just how casually Disney and other companies could debase their own legacy.

Sarah Welch-Larson (@dodgyboffin), Bright Wall/Dark RoomThink Christian

I walked into “Alien: Covenant” expecting to be reasonably scared but ultimately disappointed by a paint-by-numbers sequel to “Prometheus,” which had a few elements I admired (the score, the cinematography and effects, and the medical pod scene) but little that I actually liked. I walked out of “Alien: Covenant” overjoyed that Ridley Scott had finally been able to make a movie with the ending he’d wanted for the original “Alien.” I loved the nods to the Romantics and chiaroscuro painting. I loved that it was genuinely scary, and not just gross. I loved the dynamic between the androids, and I loved that “Alien: Covenant” was an Alien movie that really didn’t give a rip about Xenomorphs; it was much more interested in the androids relegated to the background in previous Alien movies than it was in the origins of the aliens themselves. On top of all this, Scott managed to elucidate everything I didn’t get about “Prometheus,” making me retroactively appreciate the movie even more.

Brianna Zigler (@briannazigs), Screen QueensFilm InquiryFilm School Rejects

After sitting through the first musical number of “La La Land,” I turned to my boyfriend at the time in the theater and said, “I already don’t like this.” Truly, I have never had a more unexpectedly virulent reaction to a movie than I did with “La La Land.” I’m not really sure what the fuck happened there either, because it had all the ingredients for something I would like: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, a musical, directed by the guy who did the dope drum film “Whiplash.” Perhaps I fell too hard into the bombastic hype surrounding the film and, as I tend to be susceptible to doing, felt compelled to push back against it. I mean, how truly good and genuinely surprising can a movie musical actually be?

I remember feeling hopeful of the film when I first heard whispers of it in the months prior, but by the time I went to see it in a theater I was so tired of hearing about how great it is. And then because it came off as only mediocre to me after seeing it, that further enraged me. My boyfriend and I literally stormed out of the theater and spent over a half hour ranting about it in the car. The music was boring, the plot was ambling, the romance was unconvincing and the conflict felt forced. I think I was expecting to be underwhelmed, but I didn’t expect to hate it so much. Looking back, even though I still agree with all those points, the film probably didn’t deserve my wrath like that. Those musical numbers did suck though.

Q: What is the best movie currently playing in theaters?

A: “High Life”

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