Although they generate the most hype and box office, it’s rare when a studio release actually delivers above and beyond our expectations. With our latest year-end wrap-up we’re taking a look at the handful of films we had little hope for, yet ended up being entertaining, perhaps even amongst our favorite films of the year. Ranging from summer blockbusters that were seemingly doomed from the start to instantly forgotten spring releases to a film from a director we usually disregard, check out the ten below and let us know what your favorites were in the comments.

2 Guns (Baltasar Kormakur)

In a summer when many hotly anticipated blockbusters revealed themselves to be bloated duds, Baltasar Kormakur’s light, witty and just plain fun 2 Guns was a brief breath of fresh air. That matter-of-fact brevity in the title carried over to the film at large, with Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg forming a pairing so amiable that even a crazed gunfight involving stampeding bovines became a thing of goofy beauty. It’s always nice to see an action flick where the performers, not the pyrotechnics, are the main draw and while Kormakur doesn’t give us characters for the ages, he absolutely understands the appeal and value of both star power and well placed character actors.  – Nathan B.

The Conjuring (James Wan)

Supernatural films based on true stories and featuring seances, shadowy cellars and creepy, make-up covered hags have a really hard time garnering critical respect. None of that is helped by the fact the ghostbusters being highlighted in James Wan’s The Conjuring are the Warrens—as infamous for alleged bull as they are for their dubious role in The Amityville haunting—and that the man heading it all up previously brought us Saw, Insidious and that forgettable thing with the killer puppets. It was a truly welcome surprise then, to discover that not only is The Conjuring a worthwhile addition to the haunted house stable, but it’s pretty darn scary. Wan, who seemingly forgot most of what he learned here when making Insidious 2, takes command of his considerable resources—elegant, atmospheric sets, dread inducing cinematography, a moody, nail-biting score and truly strong central performances—and tunes them all into a creepy wavelength that works because of its utter conviction in the paranormal mayhem its flinging at the audience. – Nathan B.

Dead Man Down (Niels Arden Oplev)

Everyone is always decrying the lack of originality in film, as well as the dearth of films geared solely toward an adult audience, so it’s a bit of a shock that Dead Man Down didn’t fare better in the box office. Expectations were low due to the generic marketing, but this English-language debut from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo director Niels Arden Oplev is actually a mature, gripping, and thoughtful piece of crime fiction. What appears to be a simple tale of revenge turns into an affection romance mixed with a bloody morality tale, filled with well-detailed characters, earned moments of thoughtful introspection, and some dynamite action set pieces. Now that it is available on Netflix Instant, hopefully it finds the audience who missed it in theaters. – Brian R.

Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee)

Disney’s Frozen probably didn’t need to break from the traditional princess mold to be a hit for the studio. So the fact that this long-coming interpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen takes the time and patience to expertly turn that image on its head is both welcome and laudable — and directly opposite any marketing might suggest. Spinning a testament to true, unconditional love, unpacking the fool’s gold of ‘waiting for my prince to come,’ and asking big questions about the effect of fear on a young person’s sense of individuality and self wouldn’t count for much, if the package delivering it weren’t a strong story, passionately told. Fortunately for Disney and its fans—heck, even its critics can breathe easy this time—Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck have made one of the snappiest and most endearing Disney animated products in some time. – Nathan B.

The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)

Wait, you’re telling me it isn’t completely true to the classic text? Its use of temporally incongruous music is egregious? Everyone’s acting so overly mannered? The 3D was a blatant bit of showmanship? Hold on… the green screen and period recreations are incredibly facile in appearance? Yes, you have just described Baz Luhrmann‘s The Great Gatsby. You have just summarized why we think it deserves to be on a best-of list. – Nick N.

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black)

Kicking off the summer blockbuster season, expectations were about as low as it comes for the latest Marvel entry. Their first film since The Avengers had us question if they can continue a solo story without the team dynamic and when it comes to Iron Man himself, his second feature left much to be desired. While Kiss Kiss Bang Bang writer-director Shane Black clearly had to adhere to the Marvel mold, the film packed enough of his witty touch that we were pleasantly surprised. As nerd tears were spilled over the handling of a certain villain, to me, it was one of the most refreshing, funny shifts in the otherwise lackluster blockbuster season. Audience demands indicate a fourth film for the Robert Downey Jr. will eventually roll around and while expectations are bound to deplete, hopefully it’s another pleasant surprise.  – Jordan R.

Pain & Gain (Michael Bay)

Michael Bay‘s best film — and very likely the best film he’ll ever make — is self-awareness and inversion writ large, the less-subtle-than-a-hammer-to-the-fingers expounding on (deep breath) “the American dream” all the better for how little sense it actually makes. It’s a good bit of debaucherous fun that breaks so many of the director’s tonal rules: mean, but not cruel; stupid, but not “dumb”; excessive, but (mostly) within a certain sense of reason. Your mileage may vary on how tolerable the expressions prove, but none of it’s to discount Dwayne Johnson‘s performance, among the strangest in the Bay oeuvre and something supernaturally great all its own. – Nick N.
This is the End (Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)

Expectations certainly weren’t rock-bottom for this summer comedy, but with unproven directors in Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg we weren’t sure if they could pull off a high-concept project such as this one. Thankfully, they managed to succeed behind the camera, perhaps to an even greater extent than their Judd Apatow colleagues (and the man himself, when it comes to his last few films). It certainly helps they recruited just about every friend they had in Hollywood, but even moreso, when it comes to the apocalypse, I appreciated their desire to find a bit of truthful reactions amongst the silliness. With the duo already at work on their follow-up film we imagine This is the End marked just the beginning of a long directing career in the world of Hollywood comedies. – Jordan R.

The Wolverine (James Mangold)

If one based their anticipation for a film solely on its predecessor, we imagine expectations couldn’t be lower this summer than those for The Wolverine. Yes, 20th Century Fox did everything in their power to urge us this was a stand-alone entry, completely separate from X-Men: Origins, but the baggage still remained. Thankfully director James Mangold, proving he can at least be competent in just about any genre, crafted an engaging actioner, even if things did putter out towards the finale. While we can’t help but dream what the original iteration directed by Darren Aronofsky would have looked like, Mangold gave Hugh Jackman a solo outing that proved there is still a story to be told when it comes to our most popular member of the X-Men. – Jordan R.

World War Z (Marc Forster)

Victory was snatched from the zombified jaws of defeat when this mega-budget, oft delayed, drastic diversion from its source material actually made a grand splash at the box office. A well coiffed, always grinning Brad Pitt and cultural obsession with the walking dead–as well as likely superhero fatigue–helped World War Z find its franchise legs, and a sequel is already moving forward (Juan Atonio Bayona was just announced as helmer). Although financial success can sometimes be the first and last word on a film’s worthiness in Hollywood’s eyes, it helps that WWZ was also a reasonably entertaining mainstream spin on the zombie mythos. As compelling as the bigger setpieces seem–particularly one involving Israel’s near Biblical attempts to curb the zombie hordes–it was the smaller, understated sequences like a riot in a New Jersey WalMart, a rain-soaked siege on a Korean tarmac, and a cat and mouse game through an empty research center in Whales that gave the film the nervy thrills necessary to rise above its generic roots. Bite and release was the modus operandi of these zombies, and as a film, World War Z adopted their tactic; it’s got quite a grip in the moment, and if it doesn’t exactly infect your every waking thought afterwards, it’s not completely disposable either. – Nathan B.

What wide releases surprised you most this year?

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