Let’s be honest up front: the studio output this year left much to be desired. Sure, wide releases from the Coens, Shane Black, Denis Villeneuve, and Robert Zemeckis fulfilled expectations, but we had to dig deep for the studio films that caught us pleasantly off-guard. While much of our year-end coverage will be focusing on the overlooked gems, today we’re kicking things off by highlighting the few major releases that left us surprised.
Note that the below ten features are strictly films that received a wide release on their opening weekend and not ones that eventually expanded with a roll-out. Some, for various reasons, arrived with virtually little-to-no anticipation around these parts, while others wildly exceeded our standard expectations, and a few managed to be among our favorites of the year.
Check out our selections below and let us know what surprised you most in 2016.
10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
Blockbuster sequels often feel more like cash grabs than genuine attempts at quality filmmaking, but 10 Cloverfield Lane is a brilliant anomaly. First-time director Dan Trachtenberg ratchets up the suspense to unbearable levels, ingeniously exploiting viewer uncertainty about, firstly, whether the heroine’s imprisonment within a bomb shelter is really meant to protect her from the radioactive fallout of an unseen nuclear apocalypse, and secondly, whether the next moment in the film will glide uneventfully by or erupt into violence. 10 Cloverfield Lane controls our emotions like a puppeteer does his marionettes, and the fiber keeping the wires intact is John Goodman. Playing the captor with unclear motivations, the actor exudes an off-putting earnestness that invites our trust in one instance (he can’t be lying, right?) and paralyzes us with fear in the next (we realize he can’t be reasoned with). As for the film’s finale, some people scoff at it, but I found it exhilarating: a bonkers paean to female badassery that proves Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a genre leading lady on par with the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Charlize Theron. – Jonah J.
Don’t Breathe (Fede Alvarez)
Don’t Breathe would make a great double bill with Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, given that both confine their characters’ fight for survival to tight indoor spaces. But whereas Saulnier’s picture uses this initial constraint of place as a point of departure for raw, naturalistic violence, artifice remains ever-present in Fede Alvarez’s horror hit. From an ostentatious long take that maps out exactly where both hunter and hunted can maneuver within the given space to the crutch of blindness so pointedly written into the villain’s characterization, Don’t Breathe often feels less like an act of storytelling than a cinematic exercise whose rules have been self-consciously spelled out. Accordingly, plot development exists largely as a string of increasingly tense set-pieces, where each successive segment feels like Alvarez testing his chops, showing us what he can do. Ultimately, the success of Don’t Breathe’s craftsmanship lies in the balance it strikes between immersiveness and distanciation, on the one hand not being so self-referential in its showiness as to break a sense of narrative consequence, on the other heightening the intensity by keeping us aware that we are at the filmmaker’s mercy. – Jonah J.
The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig)
Say what you will about comic-book adaptations and the like, but there may not be a genre more tired in Hollywood than the coming-of-age film. Thanks to their relatively cheap budgets and aims to connect with a pre-determined movie-going (though, that is up for debate) audience, many often feel like they are hitting checkboxes and not much else. Enter The Edge of Seventeen, which depicts teenage angst with such pinpoint accuracy one wonders why it’s never been handled precisely this way before. A debut no less, writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig‘s script — which never dumb downs or generalizes the high school experience — is brought to life perfectly by Hailee Steinfeld in an emotionally honest performance that even outpaces her break-out in True Grit. – Jordan R.
Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (Nicholas Stoller)
Even after Neighbors emerged in 2014 as a summer comedy standout, it was hard to expect a sequel as thoughtful, progressive, and funny as Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. This time around, a sorority determined to party as hard as the boys has moved in next to new parents Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne). Meanwhile, Teddy (Zac Efron) continues to struggle with his post-college identity. Chloe Grace-Moretz, Kiersey Clemons, and Beanie Feldstein are standouts, and director Nicholas Stoller does not shy away from real, current issues in our American college institutions while never taking anything away from the laughs to be had. – Dan M.
Nerve (Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost)
Chalk it up to being released around the height of the Pokémon GO craze this summer — perhaps its targeted audience was a bit too consumed with their phones — but Nerve seemed to come and go fairly quickly. The latest film from Catfish duo Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman isn’t shy about making fairly pronounced remarks regarding this generation’s technology obsession and its pervasion in our social lives. Where it does succeed is in its manic energy — a dare featuring a 60mph blind motorcycle stunt with geographical authenticity and a Philippe Petit-esque walk come to mind — proving that this summer, if one wanted genuine thrills, they had to drop down a few budget levels. – Jordan R.
Latest posts from The Film Stage