The logic of film marketing suggests we need to know everything about a movie before we’ll pony up for a movie ticket — but that doesn’t mean that’s the right way to see every movie. There’s a lot of competition for our attention these days, meaning many of us do a lot of vetting before we’ll actually sit down and watch something. But trailers too often telegraph the entire plot, even as the omnipresent social media discourse analyses its cleverest moments to death before you get a chance to plunk down for a ticket.
“Spoiling” is harder to do with a movie like Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, a genre-bending action/sci-fi/thriller/family drama currently earning rave reviews, punching above its weight at the box office, and packed with more surprises than could possibly be spoiled in a two-minute trailer. It’s a ride, and far from playing to your expectations, it gos out of its way to subvert them with ever-wilder twists. It is a film with depth for a dozen viewings, but your first should still be as fresh as possible; I’d even recommend against watching the excellent trailer (which I’m embedding below against my better judgement), even though it doesn’t give away as much as you might think it does.
Some movies simply seem designed to be watched with as little foreknowledge as is possible, unsullied by expectations. Sometimes even knowing the premise is a spoiler. Some of them feature twist endings, but none of them are just about the twist endings. You’ve gotta have a twist beginning and middle, too. Twists everywhere, all at once. (In the spirit of the piece, you’ll forgive me if I don’t say much about the plots of these movies.)
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
The story of a Black telemarketer who pretends to be white, Boots Riley’s directorial debut plays, at first, like a strictly social satire before veering into territory that’s both more biting and way more fucked up.
Cabin in the Woods (2012)
There have been countless “cabin in the wood”-style horror movies, with every possible variation of the many associated tropes done to…death; Sam Raimi was already parodying and subverting the genre with his Evil Dead movies way back in the 1980s. We know these movies, and we know how they’re meant to work. While it initially looks like Cabin in the Woods is a Scream-style deconstruction of the subgenre, it soon reveals itself to be something far more ambitious. While the trailer makes it clear that something weird is going on, the biggest twists are far from predictable.
Bong Joon-Ho’s unlikely, accomplished Best Picture Oscar winner starts out like a darkly humorous satire, the kind of sharply pointed comedy of manners and social class that South Korean filmmakers do so well. Then it nimbly shifts gears, and spends the rest of its runtime careering into much darker territory.
Django Unchained (2012)
The number one question that people ask about Django Unchained on Google is “is Django Unchained historically accurate?” Which suggests that fewer people have seen a Quentin Tarantino movie than one might suspect. Every Tarantino film of the past decade+ has taken place in some sort of real-life historical context, then tossed history out the window in often rather satisfying ways, as happens here. Save your internet deep dive for after you’ve watched it.
The movie that put Christopher Nolan on the map was a genuinely original mind-blower back in 2000, and still retains much of its power to surprise (and confuse) two decades later. If you can watch it without knowing the premise, do so immediately.
The Prestige (2006)
Another mind-bender from the brothers Nolan, The Prestige takes a story inspired by real-life warring magicians and performs some slight of hand of its own, deftly blending genres and taking a hard left turn from its initial straightforward period piece trappings.
The Lighthouse (2019)
Come for Robert Pattinson in an old-timey mustache, stay for the gallery wall-worthy cinematography, subversion of vintage movie-making techniques, an all-time weird Willem Dafoe performance, and a plot that goes places.
Shutter Island (2010)
The elements of noir are solidly in place in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel, right down to Leonardo DiCaprio’s rumpled suit and period Boston accent. Then the tone quickly shifts, leaving us guessing as to what genre of film we’re in, exactly.
The Red Shoes (1948)
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s deliriously colourful spin on the Hans Christian Anderson legend only looks like a romantic fairytale fantasia.
Holy Trinity (2019)
Director Molly Hewitt’s colourful directorial debut hasn’t made a huge splash as yet, but it’s surely destined for cult status. The upbeat sex-and-king-positive film involves a dominatrix who can communicate with the dead, and I’ll leave it there.
Dark City (1998)
It doesn’t take long for Dark City to reveal itself as something other than the highly stylised neo-noir that it sets out as, but the plot twists and nimble blending of genres make it consistently surprising. The superior director’s cut (available for rental via Prime Video or Vudu) fleshes out the world while doing a lot less hand-holding, so it’s even better if you’re looking for surprises.
What could possibly be surprising in a low-budget relationship drama set over the course of a dinner party? And what’s up with that comet?
The contours of Jordan Peele’s followup to Get Out don’t become clear until the final act, but the film never feels like it’s waiting on a big reveal or a twist (though there are a few). The surprises are littered throughout.
One of our most interesting, wildly inconsistent filmmakers, M. Night Shyalaman managed the closest thing he’s had to a slam-dunk in years with Split, a horror thriller anchored by a brilliant (if, problematic) performance from James McAvoy. Though there are surprises right up until the end, the director eschews his traditional reliance on a twist ending in favour of something more like a twist beginning.
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
This Elizabeth Taylor vehicle with co-stars Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift may be quite a bit talkier than many of the other movies here, but its impressive weirdness (drawn from the Tennessee Williams play) piles up throughout its runtime. By the end, you’ll almost certainly be wondering how this ever could have possibly been made, with this cast, in 1959.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
In genre terms, IMDb considers Big Trouble in Little China a fantasy martial arts action-comedy (that began life as a western), and that’s probably more than enough information to tell you if it’s for you. By quite a stretch it’s the weirdest of the great John Carpenter/Kurt Russell collaborations of the 1980s.
Slack Bay (2016)
As absurd as film gets, led by a fabulous performance from Juliette Binoche, I’m not sure I could spoil Slack Bay if I wanted to. As much as any film here, it defies even the most rigorous attempt at summary.
The Invisible Man (2020)
Finally: a Universal monster reboot done right. This one that takes the bare bones premise of H.G. Wells novel (and James Whale’s excellent 1933 film version) and by shifting its focus, creates something new and interesting.
I make no guarantees, as this seems to be very much a love it/hate it affair…but I’m personally team Malignant. Its genuinely batshit plot twists are just this side of silly, and, when blended with some over-the-top horror, all add up to a good time at the movies.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Though slightly less common in 1997, when digital effects were expensive and streaming services weren’t desperate for genre content, this type of space-marines-fighting-aliens movie was still the kind of thing that we’d seen a million times. Or so we thought. Professional provocateur Paul Verhoeven clearly had little interest in something so straight-down-the-middle, opting for a film that satirizes the book it’s based on rather than adapts it.
Werewolves Within (2021)
It’s on the lighter side, as werewolf-themed horror movies go, and that’s to its credit. It’s a rather charming (but often grisly) mystery with impressive twists, turns, and misdirects.
Kaboom probably isn’t New Queer Cinema titan Gregg Araki’s best, but it’s certainly his most fun, colourful, and fast-paced. While having a fair bit of sex, a bunch of college students face the potential end of the world.
Swiss Army Man (2016)
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who later went on to direct Everything Everywhere All at Once, made Swiss Arm Man waaay back in 2016, cementing their reputation as masters of emotionally engaging weirdness…and, fortunately, didn’t doom their careers. If it weren’t already clear, this is also the movie in which Daniel Radcliffe proved that he was well and truly ready to step out of Harry Potter’s long shadow.
One of those nearly, but in this case unfairly, forgotten Best Picture Oscar winners, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s very dark comedy is surprising both in its directorial style (the closest thing to a gimmick here), and in the ways that the jokes keep piling up. Iñárritu is known for more overtly dramatic movies (The Revenant, 21 Grams, etc.), but here directs all of that energy at making Michael Keaton’s life a living hell. It features a great performance from Keaton, playing off his once-and-future Batman role.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
Many supernatural thrillers aspire to deeper resonance, and very many of those deal with grief. Few do so as cannily as Nicholas Roeg’s classic, set in a beautiful, but somber, Venice and starring Julie Christie alongside Donald Sutherland doing the best work of his career.
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
Banksy’s documentary tells the story of fellow street artist Thierry Guetta (also known as Mr. Brainwash)…and good luck figuring out what’s real here and to what extent. It’s no less fascinating whether as fiction or fact.
Palm Springs (2020)
Cristin Milioti, Andy Samberg and J.K. Simmons star in this romantic comedy that takes a quick lurch into science fiction — a good case of a film with a plot twist that comes at the beginning, rather than the end, and that keeps surprising throughout.
I love to imagine the faces of the non-art house cinema crowd after haplessly happening upon Annette while scrolling through Amazon Prime. “Oooh, Adam Driver! I love him!” they think, clicking play, wholly unprepared for what French director Leos Carax and extraterrestrial musicians Sparks hath wrought.
Barb and Star Go to Vista del Mar
An example of a movie with a trailer that is effective for making the movie look much less clever than it is, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar only looks like a Kristen Wiig SNL sketch stretched to its absolute limit. It’s actually way fucking weirder.
Don’t let anyone spoil the stupidity of Serenity for you.
Extra Ordinary (2019)
Extra Ordinary pays homage to those crappy horror films you used to rent from the video store based only on the freaky box art. Except it’s actually really, really good. It starts like a parody and gets weirder as it goes; the presence of Will Forte is both a red herring and its secret weapon.
Psycho did its job much, much too well, and, as a result, the number of film fans left to be surprised by its central twist are few. Still, if you only know Psycho as a famous title, there are more to its surprises (and shifts in perspective) than showers. Much copied, but never bested for shocking its audience: This is, quite simply, how it’s done.