Top 20 Movies That Exceeded Expectations

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Top 20 Movies That Exceeded Expectations

VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: Johnny Reynolds
Well, that was surprising. For this list, we'll be looking at movies that did far better than we anticipated based on critical reception, box office numbers, and awards. Our countdown includes "Iron Man", "21 Jump Street", “Napoleon Dynamite”, "The Hangover", "Get Out", and more!
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Top 20 Movies That Exceeded Expectations


Well, that was surprising. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 20 Movies That Exceeded Expectations.

For this list, we’ll be looking at movies that did far better than we anticipated based on critical reception, box office numbers, and awards.

#20: “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014)


Spy movies are usually pretty entertaining, but “Kingsman” surprised everyone with how unique it was. The film follows a foul-mouthed criminal teen who trains to become an organization’s next secret agent. Marketing couldn’t show just how vibrantly violent and darkly comedic the movie was. But word-of-mouth helped spread its hilarious brutality. The film was praised for its stylish action sequences, as was newcomer Taron Egerton’s performance. It became director Matthew Vaughn’s highest-grossing movie, which is pretty impressive considering his previous was part of Fox’s “X-Men” franchise. It was successful enough to spark a film franchise, earning a sequel and even a prequel.

#19: “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008)


An underdog story through and through, Danny Boyle’s masterpiece did far better than anyone could have guessed. The film follows Jamal Malik, a “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” contestant accused of cheating who tells his life story to show how he knows each answer. It’s a feel-good rags-to-riches story that earned $378 million worldwide on a budget of only $15 million. It also won 8 Oscars, including Best Picture. But all of its future success was put into jeopardy when Warner Bros. closed U.S. distributor Warner Independent Pictures just as filming wrapped. Warner Bros. clearly didn’t know what it had on its hands as a straight-to-DVD release was considered. Luckily, Fox Searchlight came on to co-distribute and the rest is history.

#18: “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004)


There are plenty of indie movies that became box office giants, though not many are as big of a cultural phenomenon as “Napoleon Dynamite'' was. The comedy follows an exceptionally odd teen who attempts to help his friend win the school class presidency. Featuring an incredibly unique sense of humor, the film was made for a mere $400,000. Only $1,000 of it went to star Jon Heder. However, a successful showing at Sundance led to Fox Searchlight’s purchase, which led to a limited theatrical run followed by a wide release and a worldwide pull of $46 million. Heder was able to renegotiate his contract to earn more and you couldn’t go to a department store without seeing “Vote for Pedro'' t-shirts everywhere.

#17: “Saw” (2004)


The “Saw” franchise is one of the most successful of all time, but it has a very humble origin. It began as a low-budget short film so that writers James Wan and Leigh Whannell could receive funding. That funding was only around $1.2 million and the production only lasted 18 days. Directed by Wan and co-starring Whannell, “Saw” was a monster hit at Sundance and TIFF. In theaters, it pulled in $103 million, making it one of the most profitable horror movies of all time. It ushered in a new horror trend that Hollywood would be obsessed with throughout the 2000s, itself receiving several sequels. More importantly, it jumpstarted Wan and Whannell’s careers as modern horror icons.

#16: “Star Trek” (2009)


Although J. J. Abrams had made a name for himself in TV, this 2009 reboot of the beloved sci-fi series was only his second feature directorial effort after “Mission: Impossible III.” Not only that, but there hadn’t been a new movie in 7 years. And with the franchise’s reputation for odd-numbered entries being less than great, the 11th overall film had fate stacked against it. However, the back-to-basics plot, fantastic cast, and incredible effects made “Star Trek” a hit. It earned a couple of sequels, helped begin an era of new TV shows, and led to Abrams jumping into another cherished sci-fi film series.

#15: “The Hangover” (2009)


You’d have been forgiven for writing this one off as just another raunchy comedy from the director of “Old School.” And while it featured plenty of risqué jokes, it was also much more clever than anyone could have guessed. Following an especially wild bachelor party, three friends awaken to find the groom missing and must piece together the previous night. It’s hard not to get sucked in by the mystery as every scene adds another piece to the absurd puzzle. And every hilarious encounter is navigated by rising stars Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis. With a budget of $35 million, it brought in $469 million worldwide and spawned two sequels, for better or for worse.

#14: “Casino Royale” (2006)


There were plenty of good reasons to not be excited about a new “Bond” in the mid-2000s. A big part of the fandom insisted that Daniel Craig wouldn’t work simply because he’s blond, which sounds ridiculous in retrospect. A more understandable reason was that the franchise’s formula had gotten stale, especially in 2002’s schlocky, CGI-heavy “Die Another Day”. “Casino Royale” took the character back to his roots, literally, by showing him earn his Double-O license. The grittier take from “GoldenEye” director Martin Campbell and Craig’s grounded, brutal portrayal breathed life into the tired series. Thrilling stunts and a fantastic villain also helped to make it a franchise high.

#13: “Get Out” (2017)


It’s not unheard of for a comedic actor to transition to something serious. But Jordan Peele’s move to horror, behind the camera no less, surprised everyone. Known mostly for his work on sketch comedy shows “Mad TV” and “Key & Peele,” Peele’s directorial debut came out of nowhere. Trailers for “Get Out” couldn’t give too much away, but that means no one knew what to expect from it. It ended up being an incredibly clever and chilling tale about institutional racism, as well as one of the most important horror films in recent memory. On a budget of $4.5 million, it brought in $272 million worldwide. It also earned 4 Oscar nominations with 1 win to Peele’s screenplay, which is incredibly rare for the genre.

#12: “The Lego Movie” (2014)


At first glance, or maybe even the second and third, “The Lego Movie” seemed like a cash grab feature meant only to sell more of the iconic bricks to kids. How wrong that assumption was. Following an ordinary construction worker prophesied as special, the movie told an interesting story about conformity. It featured incredible voiceover work from the likes of Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, and Will Arnett as the scene-stealing Batman. The animation was surprisingly fantastic and the jokes were often hilarious. Its worldwide pull of $468 million on a $60 million budget led to a sequel and two spin-offs. Not too shabby for a tie-in movie about toys.

#11: “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010)


This adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s book has turned into one of DreamWorks’ most successful franchises, though you wouldn’t have guessed it back in 2010. Marketing didn’t make it look very original or special from DreamWorks’ other works like “Shrek” and “Madagascar.” But the story of the misunderstood creatures and the boy who sought to redeem them was extraordinarily heartwarming. Beautifully animated flight sequences made great use of 3D. And although it had a hefty budget of $165 million, it brought in close to half a billion worldwide. 2 Oscar nominations, 2 sequels, and numerous TV spin-offs later, “How to Train Your Dragon” stands as the gold standard for the studio’s animation capabilities.

#10: “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)

While the franchise has definitely fallen from grace, the first entry was a stellar adventure movie. But it was the family-friendly Disney’s first PG-13 film and it didn’t exactly draw positive word of mouth for being based on a theme park ride. However, the PG-13 rating ended up being entirely necessary. The explosive action and spooky effects for the Black Pearl’s cursed crew made it thrilling and captivating. It also earned Johnny Depp his first Oscar nomination and led to him, as well as pirates in general, finding massive mainstream success. On a budget of $140 million, it brought in over $650 million worldwide.

#9: “Batman Begins” (2005) Christopher Nolan is one of the biggest directors working today. But at the time he signed on to “Batman Begins,” he was yet unproven with big-budget productions. Not only that, but the caped crusader’s reputation had taken a hit thanks to 1997’s overly cheesy “Batman & Robin”. And many fans were probably fine leaving him on the page or in animation. Nolan’s more realistic interpretation turned out to be just what the character needed. Darker visuals and more insight into Bruce’s training gave a better understanding of the hero who strikes fear into the thugs of Gotham. And it gave us what many consider one of the best trilogies of all time.

#8: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011)

Rebooting a beloved sci-fi film series is always hard. But it’s especially difficult to garner excitement when the previous reboot is as maligned as Tim Burton’s 2001 film was. Add on the fact that this movie was swapping out practical effects for CGI, and it left some moviegoers scratching their heads. However, said CGI effects were astonishing, earning several prestigious awards and an Oscar nomination. Andy Serkis’ layered mo-cap performance as Caesar was heart-wrenching, carrying the fascinating origin of the hyper-intelligent apes. As a result, “Rise” became the highest-grossing film in the series at $481 million worldwide. That is, until the sequel was released in 2014.

#7: “21 Jump Street” (2012)

When Hollywood adapts a TV show into a feature film, it doesn’t usually go well. However, turning the Johnny Depp-led cop show into an action-comedy with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum was a genius idea. The film follows two younger-looking cops going undercover as high schoolers to stop the spread of a new drug. The comedic chemistry between Hill and Tatum resulted in one of the best buddy cop movies in some time. Not only did it pull in $201 million on a $42 million budget, but its sequel was even more successful. This could have easily been a serious slog of a movie given its source material. But it was a delightful and hilarious surprise. Now if only we could get that third movie.

#6: “District 9” (2009)

From a failed adaptation of the video game “Halo” rose this groundbreaking sci-fi film from producer Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp. Although its original incarnation was a failure and the filmmakers were forced to recycle props and set pieces, the film soared past any expectations. The film’s grimy set design fit splendidly with the documentary aesthetic and story of xenophobia. That’s not to mention its terrific visual effects, which earned it 1 of 4 Oscar nominations. Worldwide, “District 9” earned 7 times its $30 million budget. That’s insanely impressive considering it mostly relied on viral marketing and stylistic “Humans Only” ads.

#5: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018)

It’s no secret that Sony’s handling of Spider-Man has let down fans on several occasions. With low reviews for “Venom” released a few months prior, the fact this was animated instead of live-action, and that it was anything but a traditional Spider-Man story were all signals to not get our hopes up. However, “Spider-Verse” blew all expectations out of the water. The revolutionary animation was unlike anything we had ever seen and made it feel like we were watching a comic book. Miles Morales’ journey to discover that anyone can wear the mask was at times heartwarming and at others downright tragic. It surprisingly beat Disney and Pixar for the Best Animated Feature Oscar.

#4: “Iron Man” (2008)

Despite the MCU now being the biggest film franchise in existence, it began on the backs of an actor and character who weren’t exactly popular. Iron Man was far from a Marvel A-lister at the time. And Robert Downey, Jr.’s career was only beginning to reform after drug arrests in the early 2000s. With Marvel movies dropping in quality in the mid-00s with the likes of “Fantastic Four” and “Spider-Man 3,” the newly formed Marvel Studios needed to reassure moviegoers. Although picking the director of “Elf” was a strange choice, Jon Favreau proved himself a capable action filmmaker. “Iron Man” earned $585 million worldwide on a $140 million budget. More importantly, it ushered in a new and exciting era of superhero films.

#3: “Rocky” (1976)

The original “Rocky” was written in just over 3 days, filmed in 28 days, and only given a budget of around $960,000 because then-newcomer Sylvester Stallone refused to sell the script unless he could star. So, the bar for its monetary expectations was probably already low. But its underdog production and story acted as signs for its future performance. The film would go on to become a resounding success, earning a whopping $117 million at the box office and winning 3 out of 10 Oscar nominations. It turned Sylvester Stallone into a bonafide movie star. It also kickstarted a decades-lasting series that spawned another franchise.

#2: “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)

People may have been surprised to see George Miller return to this post-apocalyptic franchise 30 years after the last entry. And multiple problems behind the scenes surely didn’t help the morale of cast and crew members. However, what was achieved is now considered one of the best action films of all time. A simple plot and high-octane thrills meant any general moviegoer could be entertained. The film was praised for Charlize Theron’s intense performance. And the use of practical effects and real, modified death cars bolstered the film’s extreme chase sequences. While it didn’t necessarily wow at the box office, it did win 6 Oscars out of 10 nominations, an unheard-of feat for action movies. More movies in the series are now in development.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)
A Non-Horror Stephen King Adaptation Now Considered One of the Best Movies Ever

“Titanic” (1997)
Historical Romance with 11 Oscar Wins

“Mean Girls” (2004)
A Teen Comedy That’s Much Deeper Than You Think

“Edge of Tomorrow” (2014)
A Clever Twist on Time Loops

“Deadpool” (2016)
Proved That R-Rated Superhero Movies Could be Box Office Juggernauts

#1: “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope” (1977)


It might be strange to think about now, but “Star Wars” did not have a strong start. George Lucas and 20th Century Fox were initially convinced it wouldn’t perform well among other blockbusters that summer. Apparently, many theater chains held the same belief as the film only received a limited release in around 40 theaters. But swarms of crowds wanting to see the movie led to a much wider release, pulling in $503 million on an $11 million budget. “Star Wars” earned 7 Oscars and its cast were made superstars overnight. The little movie that could built an empire of sequels, TV shows, video games, and, of course, toys.
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