In an art form that thrives on sequels — and that might as well market its products as “the predictable meets the formulaic” — any film, any actor, any director that still retains the capacity to surprise is an anomaly. Here are 10 of this year’s movies about which I can honestly say, “I did not see that coming.”
Melissa McCarthy’s performance in this acerbic little gem of a movie — directed by Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and co-written by Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”) — comes on the heels of “The Happytime Murders” and “Life of the Party,” which are only the latest two crushing disappointments in a string of lousy movies starring the actress. Playing the real-life Lee Israel, a celebrity biographer who turned to forgery when her writing career dried up, the actress delivers the performance we’ve been waiting for, a low-key, Oscar-worthy turn as a bitter and unvarnished misanthrope. McCarthy isn’t back. She goes someplace she’s never been before.
In a year when the highest-grossing documentary was the uplifting profile of Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — outperforming even Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” — it may be that viewers have grown tired of polemical nonfiction. “Science Fair,” an absolute charmer along the lines of the 2011 spelling-bee doc “Spellbound,” profiles a group of teenage contestants at the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair. A prizewinner at festivals from Sundance to SXSW, the film includes traditional surprises (including the identity of the ISEF winner, which is unexpected for at least two reasons). But the most surprising thing is that the film — with its implicit critique of an anti-science White House — is actually political. Or rather, that it’s both political and the feel-good film of the year.
The year’s best plot twist, hands down, is best not described, even with a spoiler alert. But this perfectly constructed magic trick of a movie — the third collaboration between director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody — introduces a story about the relationship between a frazzled new mother (Charlize Theron) and the hyper-confident “night nanny” she hires to help out (Mackenzie Davis, in the title role), only to pull the rug out from underneath the whole thing. That it does so without disturbing a single piece of plot “furniture” makes for an impressive feat of writing, directing and acting — as well as one heck of a good movie.
Paul Schrader, whose résumé includes the screenplays for “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” has a spottier track record behind the camera than in front of the keyboard. (Have anyone seen “Forever Mine” or “The Canyons”? Ugh.) But the writer-director’s latest film, a somber and at times surreal drama about a Christian pastor (Ethan Hawke) who experiences a spiritual crisis after the death of a man he was counseling, is a return to peak form — and early Oscar buzz — for the filmmaker. (Both the screenplay and Hawke’s performance just received prizes at the Gotham Awards.) You wouldn’t be alone if you had written off Schrader as a contender. But you would be wrong.
The premise of seven random strangers who meet at a Nevada motel on a stormy night, including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a traveling salesman (Jon Hamm) and a soul singer (Tony winner Cynthia Erivo, in an astonishing turn), sounds like a recipe for cliche. But this noirish lark from writer-director Drew Goddard never goes where you expect. Maybe that’s to be expected from the Oscar-nominated writer of “The Martian,” the writer-director of the meta-horror flick “The Cabin in the Woods” and an acolyte of Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams who got his start writing for Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” before graduating to Abrams’s “Lost.”
Filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has called this remake of the 1977 giallo-horror cult classic the polar opposite of his multi-Oscar-nominated gay love story from last year, “Call Me by Your Name.” In an interview with The Washington Post, Guadagnino described that 2017 film as a look at the importance of family and “Suspiria” as an investigation of the “terminal consequences of a terrible mother.” In the space of 12 months, no other director has made such an extreme about-face. Guadagnino’s latest film is the stuff of Freudian nightmares — and enough to erase every warm memory of “Name.”
There are many surprises delivered in the Coen brothers’ existential western anthology, whose six separate stories — unrelated except for a shared theme of human mortality — include two with twist endings worthy of O. Henry. The fact that its chapters were gathered from material written (and shelved) by the Coens over the course of 25 years suggests it’s a wonder the film ever got made. And finding a home on Netflix is, for filmmakers of their caliber, something new. But it’s the performance of Bill Heck — who? — in the installment titled “The Gal Who Got Rattled” that feels like the biggest revelation. The actor, who’s been making movies for a while but is probably better known in the New York theater world, is absolutely sensational, in the role of a love-struck but laconic cowboy, opposite Zoe Kazan.
I defy you to watch the trailer for this strange — and strangely haunting — film (Sweden’s official submission in the 2018 Oscar competition) and tell me what it’s about. The story, which takes on ancient Scandinavian myth as a metaphor for immigration and the sense of being an outsider, will be less mysterious once you actually sit down and watch the thing. But it’s still an original experience: part fairy tale and part gritty contemporary police drama. It includes two things you couldn’t possibly see coming: a sex scene that springs something startling and a love story that is stunning in its power to move.
What’s the big deal? That the feature debut of writer-director Ari Aster, with an 89 percent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is as good as it is? Or that the art-house horror film — which mixes family drama and frights better than “The Haunting of Hill House” — includes a character whose fate is even more disturbing than that featured in the Netflix hit? Neither. It’s the fact that “Hereditary’s” central performance (by Toni Collette, as an artist and mother who is losing her grip on her loved ones and her sanity) is being talked about (and rightly so) as Oscar worthy.
The first film directed by Andy Serkis, an actor known for his motion-capture performances, is a reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Sure, Serkis’s “Breathe” came out before it, but that’s only because “Mowgli” was held back so it wouldn’t have to go head-to-head with the recent Disney version. Regardless, do not make the mistake of thinking that the adaptations are at all similar. Blending live action and motion-capture performances by Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Benedict Cumberbatch, the PG-13-rated “Mowgli” is way darker than any previous version of Kipling’s classic about a boy raised by wolves. And it’s not just the shocking violence and intensity that makes this a grown-up movie, but the moral complexity of its human and nonhuman characters.