I don’t know what’s worse when going into a film – a feeling of dread, or a feeling of apathy.
The majority of the films I watch, I watch because I want to, because I’m curious, or because they’ve been sitting on my shelf for a decade and it’s time to write about them.
But sometimes I’ll go into a film with little or no expectations, only to be completely wowed by a flick I wasn’t expecting to enjoy – those are the best kinds of cinematic experiences, right?
This is far from a comprehensive list, but here are a few of my recent favourites.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
The Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou both came out when I was either studying film, or watching a lot more movies than I am now. I loved them both, especially the soundtracks, and one of them is on the Late Review list for a future date, but my interest in Wes Anderson films waned and I haven’t revisited them in years.
So when The Grand Budapest Hotel was released to pretty much universal praise, I figured it was just critics loving a darling. The trailer did little to pique my interest, and I wasn’t bothered if I never got round to it.
However, I picked up the DVD a couple of years ago on a whim for a quid, and went in expecting pretty pastel colours and overly quirky characters but little else. By the time the film had finished, I was a complete convert – yes, it’s very much a Wes Anderson film, but it’s so full of charm, hear, comedy, terrific performances, camera work and outright joy, that just typing these words makes me want to watch it again right now.
NOTE: The trailer for Anderson’s latest, The French Dispatch, also left me cold but I’m looking forward to finding out I’m wrong about that one too.
Dark Passage (1947)
This one was a real revelation to me, because it was something I’d never heard of – just another disc in a Bogart box set I’d been given and was working my way through.
From the get-go though, it’s a real surprise – starring Humphrey Bogart as an escaped convict trying to clear his name, the first hour or so of the film is shot completely in the first person, as if we’re experiencing the story through Bogart’s eyes.
I knew that technique had been done before, though probably never to that scale, but I didn’t think a crime thriller from the 1940s starring one of Hollywood’s best-paid stars (not to mention Lauren Bacall too, one of the four films they’d make together), would have taken a punt on that kind of experiment.
The movie reverts to a more traditional filming style after Bogart’s character undergoes plastic surgery (and winds up looking like Humphrey Bogart), but the thrill of seeing such a cool technique used in a 70-odd year old film was undeniable.
The Personal History Of David Copperfield (2019)
Now this one I at least had some sort of expectations going in, but only insofar as I love the work of Armando Iannucci, so I’m pretty much going to watch anything he creates.
However, as much as I know I’m supposed to adore the work of Charles Dickens, I’ve always struggled with actually reading his work. The closest I’ve ever got is a few chapters into a musty old copy of A Tale Of Two Cities and a graphic novel adaptation of A Christmas Carol.
So when I eventually picked this up as part of a two for a tenner deal to make up the numbers, I didn’t expect it to quickly go up against A Muppet Christmas Carol for the title of My Favourite Dickens Cinematic Adaptation.
In many ways, it doesn’t feel much like the rest of Iannucci’s work – between the Victorian setting, the lack of swearing and the well-worn and much-loved story, there’s every reason it shouldn’t work. However, I think I underestimated just how much respect he had for the book, his lightness and deftness with adapting it for a modern audience while retaining the period style and still adding a dreamlike direction to the film that is just utterly lovely.
Add to that a pitch-perfect cast (Dev Patel is wonderful, and Hugh Laurie’s melancholy Mr Dick is just beautifully played), and you’ve got a film that demands a regular rewatch whenever you need to lose yourself and just feel good for a while.
Murders In The Rue Morgue (1932)
I didn’t know what to expect when I picked up the Eureka box set of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, except for some potentially hokey pre-code horror, but man, was I pleased with what I got.
Each of the three films (there’s The Black Cat and The Raven which both feature Karloff also included in the now-discontinued set), has plenty going for it, but there are elements of Murders In The Rue Morgue which lift it head and shoulders above a lot of its contemporaries.
You’ve got German Expressionist camera angles and beautiful sets which make it look stylish as hell, and technical marvels like a camera fixed to a moving swing which, frankly, I didn’t think possible given the size of recording equipment back in the thirties.
To top it all off, you’ve got Lugosi doing his best ‘mad scientist’ schtick for (I think), the first time, and some surprisingly brutal deaths with a flippancy towards the lives of the unfortunates that really makes this one stick in the mind.
It might not be to everyone’s tastes, but for me, going in only having read the Poe story and knowing only that it was a film made before the Hays Code cracked down on anything dark in Hollywood, this was a real eye-opener.
Lars And The Real Girl (2007)
I’ll be honest, I have absolutely no recollection of how I found this film. I definitely had a copy on DVD, because I raved about it and gave it to a friend after watching it, but I don’t know how I ever found it in the first place.
It’s not a film I’ve revisited either, but it’s one I do think about often – the sadness and confusion as Ryan Gosling’s Lars introduces a lifelike doll to his family as his new girlfriend, and the sweetness with which it’s presented was a nice surprise.
A man with mental health issues falling in love with a doll is a story that could easily be played for cheap laughs, and the right tone is hard to hit, but Craig Gillespie nails it, and Gosling and the rest of the cast (which also includes the wonderful Emily Mortimer), play it just right.
It feels like damning it with faint praise to call it a nice film, but that’s what it is. If it were on my shelf, I’d definitely line it up for a Late Review, but as it stands, I’m happy to count this as one of those films I went into with zero expectations but was pleasantly surprised by.
There are plenty more movies I could have mentioned, and some I’ve mentioned in other posts – Captain Underpants: The Epic First Movie, Sing and My Neighbour Totoro were all films I watched to spend a peaceful afternoon with Junior Late Reviewer, but have become firm favourites in the house.
More recently, I went into Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse expecting to like it, but never could have imagined just how electrifying I would have found the experience (despite the slight faux pas detailed in my earlier post). Likewise, I spent the entire screening of Mad Max: Fury Road grinning and laughing like a loon at just how energetic and exciting cinema could be when all I expected was one step better than Beyond Thunderdome.
There are more, including a couple I’m saving for future Late Reviews, but I’d really rather hear some of yours so please get in touch on the socials, by email or in the comments and let me know which movies have been a pleasant surprise for you.
UPDATE: Another great response from readers led to the creation of a superb and eclectic list of films that pleasantly surprised Late Reviewer fans – you can see the whole list here.