Creed, Ryan Coogler’s Rocky sequel/spinoff, is looking like the most critically acclaimed movie of the high-profile Thanksgiving weekend — a real surprise, considering what a goofy idea it is. After all, the Rocky series is (to put it mildly) uneven, its only entry since 1990 was a blatant nostalgia play by star/writer Sylvester Stallone, and the idea of continuing the franchise by focusing on the long-lost son of Rocky’s opponent-turned-friend seemed to be a bit of a stretch. Yet Creed is a rousing, moving, endlessly enjoyable picture, which serves as a reminder that you can’t always judge a movie by its dodgy concept.
The LEGO Movie
To be clear, you could pretty much populate a list like this with the works of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, who’ve made something of a specialty of turning terrible ideas into good movies and television. And their crowning achievement in that field is last year’s animated hit, which took the almost comically simplistic notion of “Movie based on toy line” and turned it into a smart, funny, innovative, and surprisingly complex rumination on conformity and creativity. (And, predictably enough, Hollywood immediately started figuring out how create a bunch of sequels and spinoffs.)
21 Jump Street
Miller and Lord’s previous film tackled one of cinema’s most tired trends — transforming kitschy old TV shows into slick feature films — with a jolt of self-aware humor and freewheeling energy. Apparently realizing that they weren’t exactly dealing with a sacred text (the five-season cop show is mostly remembered for introducing Johnny Depp to the world), the filmmakers and their screenwriters constructed a sharp satire of buddy cop tropes, high school movies, and the very creative bankruptcy that gave birth to films like theirs. To wit: “Fortunately for you two, we’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s, and revamping it for modern times. You see, the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas. So all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”
Like Miller and Lord, screenwriter Peter Morgan has a gift for taking dull-sounding loglines and turning them into surprisingly compelling films. There’s no reason Frost/Nixon, The Special Relationship, or The Damned United should be as entertaining as they are, considering they concern a television interview, a prime minster’s approach to international relations, and the political machinations of a soccer club. But his most impressive feat is his Oscar-nominated script for The Queen, which reads like Princess Di fan fiction — a peek at the goings-on at Buckingham Palace and at #10 Downing Street in the immediate aftermath of her death — and plays as a riveting examination of shifting political mores and the evolving importance of the monarchy.
Mad Max: Fury Road
We’ve spent so much of the year reveling in the marvel that is Fury Road, it’s easy to gloss over what a long shot it was. But seriously, this was:
a) the first live-action film in 23 years from director George Miller, whose most recent credits were the Happy Feet films and Babe: Pig in the City; b) the fourth film in a series whose third film was released 30 years earlier; c) the first film in that series not to feature its marquee star, who no one wanted to star in it anyway because he’d not only aged out of the role, but revealed himself as a vile bigot; and d) a film that replaced that star with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, neither of whom had ever fronted a successful action movie.
In retrospect, io9 was right: this movie was a goddamn miracle.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
When Rise hit theaters back in 2011, the Planet of the Apes franchise looked about as unlikely for revival as Mad Max. After all, its original incarnation had been beaten to death by subpar sequels and an even subber-par TV series back in the 1970s; Tim Burton’s attempt to revitalize and reinvent it in 2001 was, charitably speaking, not successful. Oh, and it starred the irritatingly ubiquitous James Franco. So it was quite a shock that they not only jump-started the franchise, but laid out a new path, continued by the even better follow-up Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Put this one high on the list of unlikely sources for beloved cult movies: Jonathan Lynn’s 1985 comedy took its inspiration from a board game (more specifically, in terms of costume and production design, the front cover of a board game). And then, on top of that, the filmmakers decided to construct a mystery so malleable, it could twist into three possible endings, which they’d attach to different prints in different theaters. Both the concept and the gimmick flopped — but Clue found an afterlife on video, where its multiple endings (all included) and snappy, screwball style were finally properly appreciated.
The Social Network
In the hierarchy of less-than-promising feature film inspirations, “social media website” probably falls even lower than board game. But David Fincher’s 2010 Facebook movie, freely adapted from Ben Mezrich’s Facebook history The Accidental Billionaires, was less a social media valentine than a Citizen Kane-style portrait of the rise of a megalomaniacal millionaire, fueled by Aaron Sorkin’s bristling screenplay and the razor-sharp performances of Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, and Rooney Mara.
When befuddling interviews and stories of bad behavior began seeping out from the set of Andrew Bergman’s 1990 comedy, it sounded like Marlon Brando had attached himself to yet another dog. Why the hell (aside from a nice paycheck) was the distinguished actor wasting his time on a feature-length parody of his iconic performance in The Godfather? He didn’t offer up any answers in an immediately notorious on-set interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail, in which he called the movie “horrible,” so bad it was sending him into retirement, though “I wish I hadn’t finished with a stinker.” Yet it wasn’t “a stinker” at all — The Freshman is a clever farce about a film student (Matthew Broderick) who falls in with an underworld figure (Brando) who bears an uncanny resemblance to you-know-who. What could’ve been a one-note spoof or Brando vanity performance turned out to be his last great movie, filled with affectionate winks and a screwily refreshing storytelling style.
My Dinner with Andre
Two guys meet at a restaurant, sit down for dinner, and talk. Uninterrupted. For two hours. What should be the dullest cinematic experience this side of watching paint dry became one of the first bona fide indie hits of the 1980s, thanks to the mesmerizing storytelling of Andre Gregory, the engagement of Wallace Shawn, and the modest yet effective direction of Louis Malle.
“No, no, it’s a surefire hit. The director’s the hottest young filmmaker around! Didn’t you see his first picture?… What’s that? How much did it make? Um, well, only $2.8 million. But a lotta buzz! And his new one’s a crime anthology movie!… Y’know, three different stories, only vaguely connected!… Whaddaya mean, nobody makes those anymore?… What’re they about? Um, well, two hitmen trying to clean up a car, and a guy on a date with a gangster’s wife, and a boxer trying to get back a watch that his dad hid in his ass… No, don’t hang up! There’s stars in it! Bruce Willis is in it! I mean, I know he hasn’t had a hit in a couple of years, but Bruce Willis is in… What’s that? No, no, he’s not the lead… Who’s the lead? Well, it’s this character actor, Samuel L. Jackson, and — get this — John Travolta!… Hello? Hello? Are you there?”