Biggest Movie Surprises of 2012


The year at the movie theater isn't quite complete (looking at you, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty), but 2012 is winding down, and so after some 60-odd reviews it's time for a Screening Room reckoning of sorts. Let's begin with a look at 10 films that, after they were over, didn't meet expectations for one reason or another. I've selected a handful of movies that threw me for a loop over the past year either because they were much better or much worse than I thought they would be going in. Aside from my own expectations, there was only one other criteria for inclusion on this list: the movies selected could not appear on my Best of 2012 or Worst of 2012 list, which will appear in this space in the coming days and weeks. With that, on to the pleasant surprises and surprising disappointments.

Pleasant Surprise: John Carter

A disastrous marketing campaign and reviews that were middling turned this Disney vehicle one of the biggest commercial flops of the year. But if you, unlike most everyone else, actually take the time to watch John Carter, you'll find a sci-fi action flick with a fully fleshed out universe. Yes, I concede that the point of entry to this universe is a bit lofty, but, you know, go back and consider what it was like being dropped in to Tattooine in Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time. Even with its flaws, John Carter has serious charm (Woola!) and it looked tremendous. If it had been marketed differently, it might have been a tentpole for Disney. As it is with Disney's takeover of Lucasfilm, we've seen the last of Barsoom, which, while not a tragedy, is too bad.

Surprising Disappointment: Moonrise Kingdom

It's not that Wes Anderson's latest was lousy -- quite the opposite in fact. It's that seven feature-length films into his directorial career, I've grown a bit weary of Anderson's signature style, which seems to box him in now more than it allows him to explore any new territory. For some reason, I keep comparing Anderson and Woody Allen, another auteur director, in my mind. This is unfair because no one is nearly as prolific, but Allen manages to keep his signature style and yet is clearly willing to spread his wings. I'm ready to see Anderson do the same, and until he does I'll probably be a bit disappointed with Rushmore, Part XXVII or whatever he chooses to call his latest work.

Pleasant Surprise: The Five-Year Engagement

As long as Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller want to keep teaming up and making movies, I'll keep showing up and watching them. The Five-Year Engagement is a relatively straightforward and conventional romantic comedy, which, these days, means it is also about 20 minutes too long. But Segel and his co-star Emily Blunt are so charming, I didn't mind spending the extra time with him. Segel's willingness to embarrass himself for the sake of silly and heartfelt laughs are on display in this film, and it's part of what makes him one of my favorite comedic actors around.

Surprising Disappointment: Wanderlust

Like the stars of The Five-Year Engagement, Wanderlust was blessed with a leading man (Paul Rudd) and a leading lady (Jennifer Aniston) with plenty of charm and comedic chops. Unlike The Five-Year Engagement, it all went to waste. It's not easy to make a bad film with Rudd involved, but Wanderlust showed the way. A lazy premise that awkwardly dovetailed the housing crash with a hippie commune made for one of the most fantastically stale feeling movies of the year.

Pleasant Surprise: Goon

It's my contention that Seann William Scott is one of the most underrated comedic actors around, and that sense was only emboldened by the gonzo hockey comedy Goon. Centered on a fictional minor league hockey team, Goon is at first reminiscent of Slap Shot, but Scott, playing enforcer Doug Glatt, takes it in an entirely different direction. There are laughs and fisticuffs in spades, but there's almost no cynicism to be found; in its place is a sweet and thoughtful meditation on finding your place in the world, not matter how odd and strange that place might be.

Surprising Disappointment: Lawless

Ah, what might have been. Lawless combined the aesthetic of two of television's best dramas -- Justified and Boardwalk Empire -- and enlisted a star-studded ensemble cast featuring Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Gary Oldman and Guy Pearce. Despite this, it was a mostly aimless and unnecessarily blood-soaked jaunt through Prohibition-era Appalachia. The problem? Pearce made for an outstanding villain, but the trio of brothers led by Hardy, who, nominally at least, should have been the heroes of the story show almost nothing to make the viewer pull for them in any demonstrable way. Lawless could have been a heart-thumping period piece or perhaps even a thinly-veiled examination of the ongoing War on Drugs. Instead, it was a straightforward action film with extra doses of 1920s fashion and nihilism.

Pleasant Surprise: Bernie

Whatever you think of Jack Black -- and believe me I empathize if you find him to be mostly annoying -- it's hard to argue that he isn't, at least occasionally, capable of greatness. Director Richard Linklater's latest, Bernie, is clear proof of that. Shed are his tongue-flicking theatrics and all the other trappings that make Jack Black so Jack Black-y. In their place is a slightly creepy, stirringly funny portrayal of Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director in a small town in Texas who was sentenced to life in prison after murdering a curmudgeonly widow that he befriended. It might just be the finest performance of Black's career, and it's a stark reminder that Linklater, most famous for directing Dazed and Confused, is as good as any artist around at explaining his native Texas to those of us in the other 49 states who can't make heads or tails of it most of the time.

Surprising Disappointment: Albert Nobbs

Glenn Close's transformative performance as the titular character in Albert Nobbs was far less surprising than Jack Black's in Bernie, but no less powerful. Playing a 19th century Irish woman who pretends to be man in the name of a steady paycheck, Close is tremendous and heartbreaking. It's the rest of the plodding film -- and most of its other players -- that fail to stack up next to her performance. This is a film that might change some minds in the Bible Belt, but will probably be a thin bore most everywhere else.

Pleasant Surprise: The Avengers

Lost, just a little bit, in the massive blockbuster take of The Avengers is Joss Whedon's and, indeed, Marvel Studios' soaring achievement. When I first heard that Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger were but tributaries to a shared film universe that would be realized in The Avengers, I had visions of banks running over -- of biblical-style flooding. I saw no way this wouldn't be a disaster even with someone as brilliant as Whedon at the helm. And why wouldn't I assume such a thing would be the case when an increasingly cynical Hollywood so often serves up cinematic catastrophes? All I can say is I was wrong -- a few billion dollars wrong -- and I'm happy to have one reason to not be so pessimistic about what big studios have to offer us.

Surprising Disappointment: Wreck-It Ralph

On one level, Wreck-It Ralph was a relief. It was funny in spots, it had a worthwhile, if not wholly original message and it didn't treat its target audience -- kids -- like sugar-addled halfwits with no attention span. On another level, though, it could have been so much more. I expect more from the likes of John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jack McBrayer and the other talented voice actors cast in this film. That Wreck-It Ralph happened to be one of the better family films released this year says more about the quality of that genre right now than it does about this particular film itself.