There’s nothing better than heading to the movies with some friends to see a flick you haven’t heard much about, only to be delightfully surprised when the film turns out to be absolutely awesome. We here at Goliath have always enjoyed those experiences, and we’ve found that in an era where consumers are constantly bombarded with advertisements, trailers, teasers and even teasers for trailers (that last one is really, really stupid), we get less and less cinematic surprises every year. Thinking on this, we decided to go back and highlight some really great movies that surprised the hell out of us when we saw them, and to suggest that our beloved readers check them all out (if they haven’t already) so they, too, can get in on the surprise.
15. Spy (2015)
Despite striking gold with their collaboration in 2011’s Bridesmaids, there was little reason to be hopeful for another Melissa McCarthy and Paul Feig team-up when it looked to be as formulaic and forgettable as the action-comedy Spy. McCarthy had just come off a string of mediocre comedies that routinely cast her as a frumpy loser and based on the trailers, it looked like that was the exact same experience being sold by Spy. It was surprising then to find that not only was Spy better than it had any right to be, it was arguably the best comedy of 2015. Much of this can be attributed to how Spy plays with convention, as if Feig — who wrote and directed the film — was aware of the way McCarthy had been typecast and decided to give her the role of Susan Cooper as a way of combating the way she had been pigeonholed by Hollywood.
Indeed, Spy’s central plot involves Susan — a desk-bound CIA agent who gets the chance to go out into the field for the first time — proving to her colleagues, superiors, and enemies that she is way more capable than her appearance would suggest. It also helps that Spy is uproariously funny, with Jason Statham in particular stealing the show as an exaggeration-prone, testosterone-driven rival agent who turns out to be a bumbling idiot. You’d be forgiven for writing off Spy as just another mediocre comedy based on McCarthy’s track record alone, but trust us when we say that it’s the real deal and much, much better than you think it is.
14. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007)
A spoof of prestige music biopics like Ray and Walk the Line that rose to prominence in the mid-2000s, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story represents a rare box office misfire for Judd Apatow-produced comedies. Much of this can be attributed to it being an R-rated comedy starring John C. Reilly, a talented character actor better known for playing second fiddle to Will Ferrell, but it also probably has something to do with Walk Hard’s marketing doing little to differentiate it from the many other Apatow productions that were being released at the time. It’s unfortunate because more than a decade later, Walk Hard has achieved true cult classic status and is every bit as funny as other standout mid-2000s comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers.
Reilly commits fully to his washed-up rock star character and gets to show off his musical talents in a series of hilarious original songs (“Lets Duet” is an innuendo-laden masterpiece). The supporting cast is also universally excellent, with Tim Meadows’ drug-pushing drummer being a fan-favorite, as well as a number of famous actors and musicians turning up as various historical figures closely associated with the era (if you need any more convincing of this movie’s brilliance: Paul Rudd and Jack Black turn up as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, respectively, and trade insults before getting in a fistfight). Simply put, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is one of the funniest films of the 21st century and one that nobody would have ever predicted would turn out to be so awesome.
13. The Lego Movie (2014)
Animated movies had long since become respectable entertainment (thanks Pixar!) by the time The Lego Movie came out, but it’s hard to imagine anyone expecting a movie that very easily could have been a glorified toy commercial to be any good, let alone one of the best animated movies of the decade. Then again, The Lego Movie’s theme song is literally called “Everything Is Awesome,” so we probably should have known that the movie would be something special.
The Lego Movie nails pretty much everything it sets out to do and then some. The voice cast, led by Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, and a never-better Will Arnett as Lego Batman, a character who made such an impact that he got his own (also very good) spin-off movie, is across-the-board excellent and bring the film’s colorful cast of characters to life alongside the beautiful animation.
There are no shortage of gags and laugh-out-loud moments in The Lego Movie either, but they’re tempered by a surprisingly emotional story that somehow taps into the inherent creativity and imagination behind Lego toys without coming off as a corporate marketing tool. Though subsequent Lego films have diminished in quality and lost sight of the creative spark that made The Lego Movie such an unexpected hit with audiences and critics, everything really was awesome for one installment at least and that’s more than most blockbuster franchises can say.
12. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
The original Planet of the Apes spawned a number of interesting sequels that took the franchise in some pretty surprising directions but even with such a consistent track record, did the world really need yet another reboot? After all, Tim Burton already tried his hand at bringing Planet of the Apes back in the early 2000s with a new film starring Mark Wahlberg and that was pretty much a disaster, so it was hard to be hopeful when news came that Fox was developing a new series of Apes films set before the events of the original. Thankfully, the gamble paid off, as Rise of the Planet of the Apes won over audiences and critics with its more realistic tone and a heartwarming, but doomed relationship between Caesar (impeccably played by Andy Serkis through motion capture) and James Franco as the man who raises the highly intelligent chimpanzee.
As an introduction to a whole new slate of films, Rise of the Planet of the Apes truly blew us away with how good it actually turned out to be, but what’s even more unbelievable is that the films only got better from there. Both Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) were directed by Matt Reeves and are two of the best summer blockbusters of the last decade. It’s now at the point where one could realistically argue that the last three films are the best in the entire Planet of the Apes franchise.
11. 21 Jump Street (2012)
We cannot stress enough how wrong we were to immediately dismiss 21 Jump Street, the 2012 remake of the beloved ’80s television series starring Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Dave Franco, Brie Larson and Rob Riggle. While trailers made the film seem like an idiotic attempt to capitalize on an older intellectual property, what audiences actually got was a brilliant comedy that was equal parts tongue-in-cheek references and laugh out loud humor. Anchored by the hilarious chemistry between Hill and Tatum, 21 Jump Street is one of those movies we were sure was destined for the $1.99 Blu-ray bin at Walmart; boy, were we wrong on that one. One of the best comedies of the last 10 years, 21 Jump Street is a movie that we were dead certain we’d hate, and one that we’ll happily and readily admit we were wrong about (so long as we get to watch it after while laughing at how wrong we were, mmmk?).
10. The Social Network (2010)
When news started to leak out that Columbia Pictures was making “The Facebook Movie” (as it was referred to in early days), most people just laughed. No one wanted to watch a movie about the time-wasting site that only seemed useful for creeping your ex, seeing baby pictures posted by people you haven’t spoken to since Grade 10, and constantly ignoring those Candy Crush or Words With Friends invitations — stop it people, I don’t want to play!
As the project actually came together, though, we gained a clearer picture. First of all, David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac) was going to direct it. Acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The American President) was penning the script. And Jesse Eisenberg had signed on to play Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, so all the right pieces were in place to make a great movie.
It was better than anyone would have ever dreamed. It turns out the story of how Facebook went from a dorm room hobby at Harvard University to a multi-billion dollar company that invokes serious questions of data collection and privacy was actually intriguing, dramatic, and even somewhat scandalous at times. The film received eight Oscar nominations (winning three of them) and also won four Golden Globes.
9. Get Out (2017)
Okay, here’s the pitch: noted funny man Jordan Peele (known from the Key & Peele sketch comedy show and for being a cast member of Mad TV for five seasons) wants to make a movie. Despite having zero experience as a film writer or director, Universal Pictures took a chance on Peele to make Get Out. But did we mention that the film wouldn’t be a comedy at all? Nope, for some reason Peele wanted to make a horror movie. None of it made sense.
Fans and critics alike scoffed at the idea of Peele making the switch from comedy to horror. When the first teaser trailers for Get Out were finally released, nobody really knew what to think. They didn’t give away any key plot points (which was good), but they also did very little to drive up interest (which was bad). In the end, though, the movie turned out to be one of the most surprising pieces of cinema brilliance in the last few years.
Peele’s brilliant writing and directing produced a film unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. His themes of institutional racism hit home even harder as the real world swirled with controversies of police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. Universal’s investment paid off handsomely, too. Get Out only cost $4.5 million to make, but brought in over $250 million at the box office. It’s also been nominated (and won) a litany of awards already, with Oscar season around the corner.
8. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
This art house comedy directed by Jared and Jerusha Hess has become famous for the way it snuck up on cinemagoers. With a production so low-budget they could only afford to pay star Jon Heder $1,000 dollars for the title role, Napoleon Dynamite was never supposed to be a runaway freight train of critical success; however, when the film reached Sundance in 2003 and was purchased by Fox Searchlight and Paramount Pictures, a limited release followed by a national one lead to good word of mouth and poof, you’ve got yourself a cult classic that made “Vote for Pedro” the #1 fashion accessory of 2004. The warm reception to this extremely strange film (it’s still weird to watch, even after all these years) has puzzled industry analysts for some time, and similar success stories surrounding quirky comedies have lead some to label the phenomena “the Napoleon Dynamite Problem.”
7. Clerks (1994)
The now-famous story behind how Kevin Smith made Clerks is pretty common knowledge, but we’ll recite it in brief in case you’re unfamiliar with the story. Shot for a little over $27,000 dollars, which Smith accumulated by maxing out credit cards, selling his comic book collection and working at the variety shop where the majority of the film takes place, Clerks would go on to make over $3 million in theaters to become one of the most profitable films of all time, launching Smith into the limelight and setting the stage for the prolific career he’s since experienced. A hilarious flick that showcased the director’s flair for natural dialogue and quirky characters, Clerks was a monumental surprise for moviegoers who expected a few cheap laughs from this low budget, black and white comedy. What a shock it must’ve been to be introduced to Dante and Randall. Bunch of savages in this town…
6. Juno (2007)
Remember that whole “Napoleon Dynamite Problem” we were talking about earlier? Yeah…Juno fits really, really well into that equation. Directed by Jason Reitman and written by Diablo Cody, this quirky comedy starring Ellen Page and Michael Cera was shot for a measly $6.5 million (which seems like a ton compared to Clerks, but who’s counting, right?) and went on to make a staggering $230 million worldwide. Also starring Jason Bateman, Jennifer Garner, Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons, Juno received almost universal acclaim from critics, who wondered where this little comedy that had taken the world by storm had come from. Eventually nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (where it also won Best Original Screenplay, while being nominated for two other awards), Juno was a crossover sensation that fits perfectly with the overarching paradigm of this list.
5. Zombieland (2009)
It’s the fall of 2009, and you’re sitting in the movie theater with your friends. You’ve got a ticket to see something called Zombieland, because all the tickets for Surrogates starring Bruce Willis were sold out (bullet dodged, people). You’re halfway through a delightfully surprising film that features a witty Jesse Eisenberg, a Twinkie-obsessed Woody Harrelson, a charming and gorgeous Emma Stone and a precocious Abigail Breslin, when all of a sudden, who should show up but BILL MURRAY! The most hilarious cameo in recent memory, Bill Murray’s appearance is just one of the many surprises the film had to offer in what turned out to be one of the most purely enjoyable films to come out in quite some time. A road trip buddy comedy disguised as a zombie action film, Zombieland also featured a swell soundtrack and some genuinely good writing from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. And we’re not the only ones who feel this way; we’ve yet to meet someone who wasn’t legitimately surprised by how much they loved this film.
4. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
It’s not often that unique, well-crafted science fiction films sneak up on viewers, but that’s just what happened when audiences filed in to see Edge of Tomorrow. Billed as science fiction meets Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow really didn’t seem to be much more than a cheap Tom Cruise vehicle when it hit theaters in 2014. Directed by Doug Liman and written by the perpetually underrated Christopher McQuarrie, Edge of Tomorrow sees Cruise’s William Cage trapped in a time loop, wherein he must figure out how to stop a critical attack by an invading alien race by dying each day and learning from his mistakes. A unique premise, impressive world building and wicked visual effects helped to elevate this science fiction thriller above its mediocre peers, and the film was greeted with acclaim and commercial success when it came out.
3. District 9 (2009)
Speaking of original, well-crafted science fiction thrillers, they don’t get much more original than 2009’s District 9. Directed by Neill Blomkamp and starring Sharlto Copley, District 9 went through an interesting series of developments on its way to critical and commercial success. Originally ticketed to direct an adaptation of the beloved Halo video game franchise, Neill Blomkamp was given a budget of $30 million dollars for a unique project when funding and creative issues forced the Halo movie to shut down. From that $30 million came District 9, a smart sci-fi action flick that had a lot to say about race and apartheid in South Africa (while containing some pretty awesome action sequences to boot). District 9, which was so good it received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, was one of the biggest box office surprises ever, earning $210 million worldwide.
2. In Bruges (2008)
The film debut of acclaimed Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, whose stage work is known for its gore, violence and foul language, In Bruges surprised the world by being a darkly comic, somewhat poignant tale of two hit men who choose to hide out in Bruges, Belgium, after one of their assassinations goes very, very wrong. Starring Brendon Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell (who proved to the world in this film that yes, he could actually act), In Bruges was not a commercial success, although it did make $30 million on a $15 million dollar budget, but its black humor and great cast chemistry elevated it to cult status almost immediately.
1. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
It’s kind of hard to believe a movie starring Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, Greg Kinnear, Toni Collete and Paul Dano could sneak up on anyone; as it were, Little Miss Sunshine blew everyone away when it premiered at Sundance in 2005, eventually being sold to Fox Searchlight in one of the largest distribution deals in cinema history. The film, which follows a strange and highly dysfunctional family as they attempt to enter their youngest member (Abigail Breslin) into a beauty competition, would go on to receive near universal critical acclaim (it was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, while winning Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Arkin) and gross over $100 million on an $8 million dollar budget. Not too shabby for a family dramedy, eh?