The movies that surprised us and live on in eternity


As the summer heat rescinds and kids head back to school, those aching for a two hour theatrical vacation are scraping the barrel for options. Not known for hits, August tends to be a wasteland reserved for fill-in movies. As of publication, Hobbs & Shaw is running away with this month’s box office numbers, and in a far away second (by almost $100 million) is… Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Yikes. 

To honor the dog days of cinema, we at Flixist are devoting this month’s feature to films that surprise. The ones where we go to see because it’s either too hot or too cold or there’s nothing better to do, and end up leaving the theater delighted. These hits may not have blown out the box office, but have lived on in glowing glory. Up first is a film that changed the view of high school and comedy in general.  

It’s been twelve years since Superbad was released, and time is a funny thing. From an age perspective, the film would be hitting pubescent stages that eat away at Seth and Evan in nearly every second of the movie. From a schooling perspective, Superbad is about to graduate, just like the two friends. Either way, it’s hard to believe that over a decade has passed since Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg graced the world with two raucously desperate boys constantly vexed by the opposite sex. 

Superbad remains one of the premiere comedies. Not just in its shelf life, but in all of film history. The opposites attract rule has never been stronger with the bullish Seth and the pusillanimous Evan, two friends navigating their way through their final days of high school in hopes of scoring a party invite to woo the girls of their dreams. It’s made up of rewatchable scenes and quotes splattered left and right. There’s a fake ID and an honest conversation about tiramisu. There’s cool cops and a heartfelt rendition of The Guess Who’s “These Eyes.” And who could ever forget Seth’s flashback story of his lunchbox full of phallic illustrations? It’s a story of friendship between two overly honest friends where nothing is off limits. It was unexpected. It was a surprise.

Finding Nemo (2003)

Finding Nemo

In hindsight this probably sounds dumb, but Finding Nemo is absolutely the definition of a surprise hit. Released during one of the worst summer’s for blockbusters (at least critically), no one really believed Pixar could create another smash hit. The studio definitely carved out its own niche and created a successful string of films (with each grossing more than the last), but who the hell would have expected five hits in a row? Not only that, but Finding Nemo nearly broke a billion dollars in gross during a period where that was simply unheard of.

I’ve always been a big fan of Pixar and even still like them despite less than stellar modern films, but Finding Nemo was the one that really got me hooked (no pun intended). There was a dramatic improvement on Pixar’s technological side and the storytelling felt more considered. This wasn’t just “everyone’s a bug” or “the world is a bunch of toys.” You had a father on a mission to save his child and deal with his own failures as a guardian. There was a lady who was forgetful and had extreme anxiety about her ineptitude. This was deep stuff for a kid’s film.

But the whole point of this post is about being a surprise hit and there really is no better example of that. Everyone flocked to see this simply because the garbage polluting theaters at the time was stuff like Gigli and Dumb and Dumberer. A stupid movie about fish in the sea had to be better than that.—Peter Glagowski

Divergent (2014)

After the Harry Potter film franchise ended in 2011, a gap needed to fill. Alongside Hunger Games came the Divergent film franchise another take on a dystopian universe. While the second and third films in the series (based on the books of the title) did not do as well as Divergent it still sticks in my mind as a surprise hit. It was just so different and no one really knew if it would translate well onto the screen. I had heard of the book series by Veronica Roth but I instantly fell in love with this film. It was a great introduction to the world Tris Prior (aka Beatrice) and her friends live in. It was just so captivating and the visual effects were amazing. If you were a fan of Inception this film 100% borrows elements from that such as what is real and what is not.

The simulation aspect of Divergent just took things to a whole new level for me. Sure the acting wasn’t exactly Oscar-worthy but the story was there. It stayed true to the source material and did well in theaters. Too bad the last film Allegiant ended basically on a cliffhanger, and the planned TV series still has yet to see the light of day. For the time being, I will just enjoy what we do have.—Tarah Bleier

Moulin Rouge (2001)

In the summer of 2001, Baz Luhrmann struck gold. Moulin Rouge would become one of his best-loved features, hallmarking his name as a director and solidifying his name as an auteur. Released early-ish in summer in the States, it would be a few months before the film got its full worldwide distribution. He’d already worked on Strictly Ballroom and had Romeo + Juliet under his belt, but the kitsch production design didn’t stop there. Moulin Rouge was a film of operatic proportions that still managed to retain quirky elements—two things I’d say other films hadn’t ventured to meld together so well.

The secret to his success? I think he likes to entertain, but to demand his spectators’ attention in the process. A lot of his success owes to his clever manipulation of space and time, a cinematic and real-life universe that gets tangled up. When Ewan McGregor’s Christian, a poet who falls in love with courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman), sings “The hills are alive with the sound of music…”, it gives you pause. Isn’t this film set in 1900? Julie Andrews wasn’t even born until 1945, let alone thinking about a hit musical number. And aren’t we now watching this film produced in 2001? It’s a clever way of breaking down the layers involved in filmmaking and winking at the audience; he’s is in on the joke too. To have those surprise elements, in the same way as his previous work but on a much larger scale, physically part of the film, is why I think it became such a hit.—Sian Francis-Cox

Dredd (2012)

“So like, RoboCop?” “I think a little bit? But it’s post-apocalyptic. But there’s a sense of satire with the ultraviolence so yeah. I’ve never read the comics.” The final words of two friends before their minds were blown by Dredd. Sorry, Dredd 3D.

How often is it that a late-summer action romp billing itself largely based on the gimmick with which theaters will swindle you out of a few extra dollars for your ticket ends up being your favorite movie of the year? I’ll give you a moment to read that question several times, and more to think of an answer.

With Dredd, longtime fans of the 2000 AD comic staple were given a worthy and faithful adaptation of the classic serial, no longer left to languish over the Stallone film from the ’90s. For a layman like myself, I was assaulted by the intense, unrelenting action violence, administered by a gruff-no-BS Karl Urban under his Judge’s visor. The fascistic thematics of the character are unapologetically on display in Dredd, and as the audience we’re not given much of a reason to care or be worried. How’s that? Simplicity.

Taking pages from action classics like Die Hard or Speed, Dredd sets limitations for itself. Responding to violence in the Peach Trees mega-apartment complex, Dredd and trainee Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) are confined and forced into confrontation, squaring off against drug-pushing goons who act as reasonable fodder for our visceral thrills. Trimming the fat of a complicated story and giving us mere glimpses of the vast sci-fi sprawl beyond Peach Trees, Dredd is grand popcorn movie-making on a budget. Writer (and, allegedly, director of much of the film) Alex Garland would go on to deliver Ex-Machina and Annihilation, further cementing him as a brilliant voice in modern sci-fi filmmaking. But with Dredd, it’s all about the thrills. Too bad it took a quiet release for people to realize it.—Sam van der Meer

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)


I’ll never understand why Scott Pilgrim vs. the World didn’t get more love when it was released. Sure, the fanbase who do love it is strong and vocal, but it didn’t really hit like other comic book movies these days. This film is an adaptation of the graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley and is the first foray in comic book movie world for director Edgar Wright. Wright was actually approached about the comic after a producer saw Shaun of the Dead. It took him till after Hot Fuzz to decide that he wanted to do it and he nailed it.

Everything about this movie is a love letter to the comic and video games. The video game sound effects, comic book stylized fights, and frames that were ripped straight from the graphic novel. The characters live in ridiculous world where people burst into coins if you defeat them in battle and being vegan gives you superpowers. It’s such a fun ride that you might miss all the clever jokes scattered throughout on a first viewing with Xs and other fun things hidden in the background. The film gained traction after a few years and got some of the recognition it deserved, but it is still an unvalued effort that I will urge anyone to give a view.—John Morey

The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005)

The 40-year-old virgin

Get ready for some hyperbole! The 40-Year-Old Virgin in my opinion is the single most important/revolutionary movie of the 2000s. 

I am a big sports fans and in sports there are things called coaching trees. It starts with one coach, like Bill Parcells, and assistant coaches that work for him go on to other jobs create branches, and their assistants that go on get their own branch. The greatest coaches of all times have massive trees filled with incredible disciples. 

If The 40-Year-Old Virgin was a coaching tree it would blow your mind. This was Judd Apatow’s massive break. This was before Steve Carell really hit his comedic genius stride. Paul Rudd was still just “that guy from Friends.” Seth Rogen was that awkward chubby stoner from “that teen show.” Jonah Hill was a nobody. Elizabeth Banks was someone who you knew you had seen in something before. You see my point right? And guess who else was in this?! Jane Lynch! Catherine Keener! Kat Dennings! Leslie Mann! Mindy Kaling! Umm KEVIN HART!

So yeah the cast alone. Not to mention the fact that this movie was so funny, enjoyable, and heartfelt and led to the creation of every other Apatow movie, Seth Rogen’s career, and everything Steve Carell has done since. Most important 2000s movie ever!—Nathan McVay

Split (2017)

Crapped into theaters in January by producers who knew very well at this point that M. Night Shyamalan’s star had faded, it seemed Split would be another flop from a man who learned the hard way that doing one good twist doesn’t make someone the next Spielberg or Hitchcock. Working with lower budgets, though, Shyamalan had shown with The Visit that maybe he still had a bit of magic left to spare.

He proved that in spades with Split, a surprisingly dark and relentless thriller boasting an excellent performance from James McAvoy as a multi-personality psychopath worshiping some innermost demonic entity. It was bleak and uncompromising, and Shyamalan even waited until after the closing title card to shit all over it.

That’s the most restraint anyone could expect from him.—Kyle Yadlosky

300 (2006)

Movies released the first weekend of March do not define genres. The first weekend of March is still part of the January/February crap movie dump—too far away from the summer season to land true blockbusters and too close to the Oscars for anyone to even consider releasing something interesting. Yet 300 helped redefine action cinema for a new century, propelling Zack Snyder into directorial stardom (for better or worse) and creating a new look to cinema where slow motion action sequences gave us comicbook panel style moments of actionable beauty and gore. The film, adapted from a comic, came before comicbook movies truly took hold and blasted its way out of March with a staggering $456.1 million box office. This was all done with and R-rating

No one really saw this coming, either. Snyder was a relative unknown, his only other feature film being the fantastic reboot of Dawn of the Dead. Gerard Butler, all abs in this film, wasn’t a leading man anyone cared about. The comicbook was well known among its fans but little known outside of that. The historical aspects? Not really a big hit with audiences either outside of Gladiator. This movie had every reason to come, make some money, and then drift away. Instead we’re still talking about it to this day and memeing it non-stop. March movies don’t do that, but 300 managed to pull itself out of its release date with a style and story that was fresh and new at the time. Most surprisingly of all, it still stands up despite the copy-cats and cliche that inevitably followed it.—Matthew Razak

Searching (2018)

There’s something about late August that’s a real ghost town for new movies. Sandwiched right between the summer blockbusters and the Fall’s horror/Oscar draws, late August usually feels like a dumping ground for movies that would have bombed in any other time of year. It’s also during this time that I usually discover a little gem in the rough, a true surprise that blows nearly everyone out of the water and fades away as quickly as it appears. 

On the surface, Searching seemed like a rehash of Unfriended’s concept of “everything is shown via computers,” but Searching offers an incredibly compelling and surprising thriller that offered a mystery that was truly compelling. My eyes darted across the screen to see if I could discover any clues to what happened to John Cho’s daughter, and when those little clues popped up, I felt a rush of excitement leading to an ending that shocked me but also made total sense in the context of the movie. Clues and secrets were always present and weaving them all together made the ending even more satisfying. Apparently audiences thought the same, with recent reports indicating that director Aneesh Chaganty is being courted to develop a followup. I don’t know if he’ll be able to recapture the same magic, but Searching was a breath of fresh air for 2018, an original film that *GASP* made money!—Jesse Lab

District 9 (2009)

I couldn’t tell you what the heck I was expecting from District 9 upon its initial release. As someone who was wired into film news, even as a young ‘un, it was hard for me to escape the production background of this movie. A lot of hullabaloo surrounded writer-director Neill Blomkamp teaming with producer Peter Jackson after their attempt at making a Halo movie faltered, so apparently, this was the next best thing. Other than that—and the fact that aliens were in this movie—I knew nothing. And perhaps that helped to maximize my enjoyment of this oddball experience.

I distinctly remember the atmosphere of our screening; laughter, cheering, and gasps were prominent. Blomkamp’s acting muse—the bold and bonkers Sharlto Copley—was a revelation, and has become one of my favorite present-day working actors since then. I haven’t seen District 9 in full since it was in theaters, but I still find the quote “FOOKING PRAWNS!” stuck in my head time to time. The story was a harrowing sci-fi allegorical take on apartheid in South Africa, and Blomkamp used a mismash of genres to create something unexpected.

Too bad Blomkamp never made a movie after that! Nope, nothing else to see here.—Chris Compendio

Nick Hershey