Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics two questions. (The answer to the second, "What is the best film in theaters right now?" can be found at the end of this post.) Send suggestions for future questions to sam at indiewire dot com.
Q: This week's question comes to us courtesy of New York magazine's Bilge Ebiri, who asks "Name a film you love that you never, ever, not in a million years thought you'd ever like." So, how about it?
Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post
Christian Blauvelt, BBC
Finding you love a movie that gives every indication you should hate it is an especially rich joy – one that far outweighs that nagging feeling of guilt you might simultaneously possess that tells you "Maybe I shouldn't have been so quick to judge." In the past few months I experienced this quite acutely with "Steve Jobs." I've never been a fan of the films of Danny Boyle. His career-long insistence on oversaturated colors, tommy-gun editing and endlessly manipulative characters recall Hitchcock's notion of films being the equivalent of machines wired into your nerve endings that play upon your emotions. But if Hitchcock played our emotions like Glenn Gould, Danny Boyle plays them like Lars Ulrich. Needless to say, like Jim Emerson, whose take on "Slumdog Millionaire" in early 2009 was the smartest in film criticism, I had remanded Boyle to the "Life is Too Short for…" pile. For that matter, I never "got" the cult of Aaron Sorkin. It seemed — and still seems — to me that he had amassed such ardent fans by being smart without being challenging, for merely helping many reinforce their worldview and articulate it in a florid manner they could not.
So what a joy to discover "Steve Jobs" — a movie that should have been the ultimate expression of Sorkin and Boyle's excesses but instead found a way to puncture them. Sorkin's dialogue — and the whole movie — is so purposefully, extravagantly artificial that he seems, for the first time in his career, to be saying that he doesn't have all the answers. He doesn't know what makes Steve Jobs tick. And he's not even going to try to find out. That makes the movie much more about us and the way we turned Jobs into a cypher to read into what we want. And Boyle seems to run with that idea — instead of passing off artificiality as sham realism, as in "Slumdog," he embraces the inherent phoniness of Sorkin's screenplay and gives us the best "filmed play" in ages, one drenched in irony. I doubt if I'll rush to see the next work from either Boyle or Sorkin, but with "Steve Jobs" they accomplished something I thought would be impossible: they made me take notice.
Casey Cipriani, Bustle, Indiewire
I went into "Mad Max: Fury Road" pretty skeptically. I was never a huge fan of the originals and I found them overly macho, but I hadn't seen them since I was a kid/teenager, so maybe my perception is skewed. But I expected "Fury Road" to be another post-millennium bro fight explosion fest, swaying more into Michael Bay territory. I didn't really know what to expect from George Miller at this point. But who knew that "Fury Road" would be a feminist's dream? Between Charlize Theron's Imperator Furiosa, the many female characters, the amazing look, and the exciting action, I fell in love. Indeed it was an explosion fest, but there was something about watching this kind of action movie subverted that made me so incredibly happy, and it's one of my favorites of the year. I want more Furiosa.
Adam Batty, Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second
Given that I wasn't particularly taken aback by "Birdman," nor any of Alejandro González Iñárritu's earlier films, I was amazed to find that I enjoyed "The Revenant" as much as I did. While it's not without it's shortcomings (I particularly enjoyed Richard Brody's critical reading of the film) I found it to be a really affecting piece of work, and a memorable spectacle on the big screen. Other such surprises include Fellini's "Amarcord," George Miller's "Mad Max: Fury Road" and Woody Allen's "Annie Hall."
Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit
Just this past year, I had no expectations for loving "Creed" like I did. Likewise, I'd never responded to a Tom McCarthy film before "Spotlight." I didn't expect to hate either, but in both cases, I wasn't especially keen on them as contenders for my top ten list. I was one of the few not blown away by Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station," and while I always enjoy a "Rocky" film on some level, I was of the mind that "Rocky Balboa" put a sufficient cap on the franchise. Similarly with McCarthy, I always seem like the one shrugging his shoulders when a movie of his gets acclaim, but here I found it to be the best film of 2015. Basically, it functions as a reminder that keeping an open mind is important and that sometimes the best theatrical experiences are the ones you least expect.
Neil Young, Hollywood Reporter
Topical answer: "Creed." Wasn't expecting very much at all when I took my seat in my local multiplex yesterday afternoon (my skepticism based largely on "Fruitvale's" manifold deficiencies) and first "act", with its incessant, intrusive muzak and transparent schmaltz, didn't improve my mood. But when Rocky visits the cemetery and says "Yo Adrian" to her gravestone with such casual affection, emotion pricked my desiccated tear-ducts and I gradually started to be sucked in. By the end the waterworks had flowed on several occasions - including with laughter, at the sheer bizarreness of the whole Bellew/Everton angles - and I left the cinema needing to compose myself before re-facing the world. But it wasn't just a matter of a flinty heart melting into slush: Coogler's handling of the first big fight, seemingly all in one unbroken shot, that's proper punch-the-air stuff.
Mallory Andrews, cléo, Movie Mezzanine
Definitely "Eyes Wide Shut." I was only 12 when it came out and for whatever reason my only impressions of it was that it was gratuitously pornographic, slow, and that Tom Cruise was terrible in it. I finally got around to seeing it under less than ideal viewing conditions — in university in a boy's room on a tiny TV. Said boy was likely hoping to leverage the film's salacious content to his benefit. I was immediately captivated by the movie, drawn in by the deliberate pace, the creepy eroticism, and Tom Cruise's perfect casting. Even the purposefully fake-looking New York streets hold a great deal of affection for me (there's a neighbourhood in Toronto that looks exactly like the exterior of the costume shop, and I think about the movie every time I pass through). The boy, you may have guessed, hated it. That flirtation didn't last, but my regard for "Eyes Wide Shut" has continued to grow. I've since seen it on the big screen as a 35mm print, and it still ranks as one of my favorite theatre-going experiences ever.
Charles Bramesco, Uproxx, ScreenCrush
I had half-watched the original "Magic Mike" on DVD at a pal's house some months after it gyrated through theaters, and it didn't seem to me like any great shakes. It was proficient in all the ways that I had come to expect from director Steven Soderbergh, even studio-mode Soderbergh, but there was nothing there to grab my attention or otherwise endear the film to me. And so I hope my lack of early interest in a sequel would be understandable — Soderbergh had gotten his name off of the production by shifting to editor and cinematography, and the scent of cash-in-via-ab-shots was reeking off of the first trailers. God, what a fool I was. I had no ida I was walking into a deliriously pleasurable Vincente Minnelli musical by way of late-night softcore, an experience of pure positivity that left me (and I'm not being hyperbolic) in tears of joy. This movie about the therapeutic, cathartic powers of self-evident entertainment proves its own thesis by being the most fun to be had at theaters all year.
Zac Oldenburg, Having Said That
"The Princess Bride"! Now, this was my younger self, elementary school, and I had a neighbor who always wanted to watch it; I didn't get it. It was on a lot when I would visit his house and I never sat through it, nor really enjoyed any moment of it. I did recognize Andre the Giant. I avoided The Princess Bride for years because of this neighbor. But, some time later, I caught up with it again and was completely won over by it. My heart can't grow much fonder for Wesley, Buttercup, Inigo Montoya, Fezzik and the gang. One of my all time favorite movie quotes, that I apply to actual real life, is "If only we had a wheelbarrow that would be something!" Glad I came around.
Danny Bowes, RogerEbert.com, A.V. Club
I was taken as a 19-year-old dickhead under extreme duress to see Whit Stillman's "The Last Days of Disco." I had a silly aversion to disco and a less silly aversion to yuppies and essentially treated the experience as something banned by the Geneva Convention. And yet, by about five minutes into the picture, I was already enchanted. It's been one of my favorite movies ever since. Take that, preconceived notions.
Jordan Hoffman, Guardian, Mashable
In 1995 I was just about to graduate from film school at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. Fully indoctrinated in the NYC indie scene, and interning at the time for a well-regarded producer whose cred in this world was and still is legendary, to buy a ticket for a mainstream Hollywood picture was akin to volunteering for a route canal. But you see, there was some girl I was sweet on and she wanted to see the new Tom Hanks movie. Ugh. What does one do? One does a cost-benefit analysis and soon deduces that it's better to be seen with a dishy redhead from the College of Arts and Sciences on your arm, even at a bozo flick, than to spend another night in alone in the dorm with a rental from Kim's. (I was a young idiot, please go easy on me.) Anyway, that's how I saw "Apollo 13" at the Waverly (now the IFC Center for you youngsters) and, by God, Opie Cunningham made a goddamn masterpiece with that one.
Christopher Campbell, Nonfics
"Justin Bieber: Never Say Never." I can't recall why I even went to see it. Maybe I thought a review on my site at the time would be good traffic bait. Maybe my wife was curious. Regardless, I was shocked to find myself watching not just a good documentary but an essential piece of music history focused on a particular pop star who found fame in a new era of internet-fueled success and fandom.
Josh Spiegel, Movie Mezzanine
I’m going with "21 Jump Street." In going through the replies to Bilge’s tweets, I saw a number of people name-drop "The LEGO Movie," but honestly, after seeing Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s first two feature films — "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs" and then the adaptation of that infamously cheesy '80s FOX show — I had fairly high hopes. I didn’t have supremely high hopes for "21 Jump Street," in spite of having enjoyed "Cloudy." The premise of the TV show, and thus the film, was so silly that I couldn’t imagine buying it in a feature. I liked Jonah Hill, but wasn’t remotely sold on Channing Tatum in early 2012. (Tatum’s career had led him to success, but Haywire was the only film in which he figured heavily that I really enjoyed to that point.)
So I was pleasantly surprised by the results of "21 Jump Street," which succeeds primarily because it never once shies away from acknowledging how stupid the premise of the old show was. I don’t doubt that a few of its diehard fans may not have enjoyed the meta humor (or the fate of Johnny Depp’s character, reappearing in a cameo), but I found the movie deliriously funny. The drug freakout scene early in the film is a pinnacle of glorious stupidity, including Tatum’s gleeful fuck-you’s to both science and Miles Davis. I remain very hesitant about Lord and Miller’s next film, a young Han Solo movie. But if anyone could possibly make that premise work, it’s them. It’s what they’ve built their careers on.
Richard Brody, New Yorker
The answer is near at hand, near the top of the list for 2015. Bruno Dumont has always seemed to me to be a bit of an imposter whose films strain for a sanctity and a purity that are as artificial and as second-hand as the degradations and the dourness from which their pseudo-Bressonian grace arises. So the anticipation of four hours' worth of Dumont, when the New York Film Festival programmed his four-part television series "Li'l Quinquin" in 2014, was less than eager — I planned to fulfill a journalistic obligation that, based on past experience, would yield little pleasure and little enlightenment. Imagine my surprise when, near the beginning of the series (or, rather, the film, which is how Dumont, as I later learned, thinks of it), showing a group of children pedaling out through broad fields of coastal stubble to follow a helicopter to an abandoned bunker, he would soon offer one of the great recent cinematic moments of tragicomic fantasy, of horror sublimated through incongruity. In the children's bruised and rowdy tenderness, the harsh winds of rural family life, the antics of the film's now-legendary police duo, the crude force of hatred and desire, and the intimate ethnography of village life, Dumont seemed, for the first time, to make a movie that arose organically, spontaneously, naturally from his experience and his observations — and at the same time, and perhaps for that very reason, to inspire his freer and wilder but more precise and pointed flights of imagination. It's his eighth feature; he made it in his mid-fifties; and it's perhaps the most chilling and exciting lesson that i've ever received on the subject of: never write anyone off. I can only imagine my dismay and self-loathing if, on the basis of past displeasures, I had avoided this film.
Kyle Turner, Movie Mezzanine
I think the answer that immediately comes to mind is the documentary "The Search for General Tso." I was originally offered to review it on short notice , but I didn't have enough time, and when I looked at the trailer, it looked poorly made and, ironically, bland. It appeared on Netflix some months later, and food porn enthusiast that I am, I took a dip. I was pleasantly surprised how well articulated its examinations of cultural identity, assimilation and diaspora were. It was both thorough and concise, and as someone who has wrestled with my personal identity (racial and otherwise) for several years, I was moved by it.
Ali Arikan, RogerEbert.com, Dipnot
"Fever Pitch." The one with Jimmy Fallon. And "Tombstone." The one without Jimmy Fallon.
Tomris Laffly, Film School Rejects, Film Journal International
Most recently, I really didn't think I'd like David O. Russell's "Joy," given my previous aversion to most of his movies. But I did like it. A lot. Go figure.
Gary M. Kramer, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News
Expectations often fail to equal outcome. Two films that I was wary about seeing, "Hunger" and "4 Month, 3 Weeks, 2 Days," remain among my favorite dramas the year they were released, though I was initially not looking forward to seeing either of them. I just felt that such grim subject matter would be more relentless miserablism. But I found both of these indelible films to be highly life affirming.
On the comic side, I expected "The Way Way Back" to be simplistic, formulaic, and quirky — all those Sundance-y qualities I resist. I was happily surprised. That film completely charmed me.
Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye For Film
The reenactment of a day in the life of a member of the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, taken on by a first-time feature director, appeared to me as a horrible idea bound to go wrong. László Nemes with his team, co-writer Clara Royer, cinematographer Mátyás Erdély, sound designer Tamás Zányi, editor Matthieu Taponier, costume designer Edit Szücs and composer László Melis has created a film that forces us to think, connect dots and ask vital questions in a revolutionary way. I was offered, after speaking with the director weeks earlier, to do the opening night post-screening discussion for "Son of Saul" in New York with Géza Röhrig. He gives an unforgettable performance as Saul Ausländer, who, in an inhumane place, tries to regain what it means to be human.
Piers Marchant, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Philadelphia Magazine
That film would be "Swingers," and I was so convinced I would find it annoying, I refused to even watch it during its initial release, and now it holds a special, little place in my pantheon. In retrospect, it was doomed to me because of its combo of aggressive poster and commanding tagline (Vince Vaughn smugly holding a martini up to your mug with the tag: "Get a night life."), which did the film a serious injustice. I guess there would be people out there willing to watch a movie of VV going out and getting plastered and making good with the ladies and laying on the arrogance (witness most of his subsequent career), but I wouldn't care to be one of them. What I didn't realize, of course, is how much heart the film actually had. Jon Favreau's Mikey desperately wants to be one of those guys, but is still so busted up about his ex, he can't get out of his own hugely neurotic way. A miserable dude who kind of hates himself and questions everything about his life? Now, that's a film I can get behind.
Jeff Berg, Las Cruces Bulletin, ABQ Free Press
"Mad Max: Fury Road." Everything seemed to go against it — a remake, noise, violence, hype — but all in all, it became a favorite for last year. In the ancient category, the Raquel Welch western, "Hannie Caulder." Even viewing it years after seeing it as a kid, it holds my interest.
Mike McGranaghan, The Aisle Seat, Film Racket
I tend to approach every movie with openness, but I have to admit that I never expected to love "Spring Breakers" as much as I do. Harmony Korine's prior films left me cold, particularly "Trash Humpers," which I turned off in disgust after about twenty minutes. Walking in to "Spring Breakers," I thought the cast and concept were interesting, but expected something similarly self-conscious and empty. To my very pleasant surprise, I found the movie utterly electrifying. It was funny, and disturbing, and poignant, with a visual style that was as original as it was beautiful. I saw the movie two more times before the year was out, eventually awarding it the #1 slot on my year-end top ten list. Best of all, each subsequent viewing revealed hidden layers of depth, thereby confirming my belief in its brilliance. I know "Spring Breakers" is hated by some, but I will defend it vigorously. That it caught me off guard just makes me love it that much more.
John Keefer, 51 Deep
To me, film is everything from 1895 to today. I don't truck in predilections but I do have go-to's, some of which I don't always go to. In other words I'm indecisive and don't have a particular favorite movie or type of movie. I'm obsessed so I love it all and gaps in my viewing history are exciting lapses I get to correct. I wouldn't be surprised if I loved a Sirk weepy or a Miike bleedy. This might be beating a dead kaiju but I didn't necessarily think I'd watch all 28 (soon to be 29) Toho-produced "Godzilla" films nor did I think I'd love "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" as much as I do.
Jason Shawhan, The Nashville Scene, Interface 2037
The trailer for "The Book of Life" was just dreadful, making it look like an incoherent narrative stuffed full of out-of-place stars with jokes aiming for the basest of pop culture references. It looked like the kind of children's entertainment that could only have been made by a corporation that despised children.
So imagine my surprise when, after having an evening's plans evaporate, I ended up at a 10 pm 3D show of the film, by myself. (Basically, all I need to go against my own instincts is a review from someone I trust — in this case, Bilge Ebiri — and quality 3D.) It is an utter delight of limitless creativity and energy, rightfully earning its place on 2014's top ten. It's also a film I delight in showing others. So you never really know...
Q: What is the best movie in theaters?
Other movies receiving multiple votes: "Anomalisa," "The Big Short," "The Revenant"