A year that started off with such promise for Hollywood ultimately fizzled before the first fireworks of Fourth of July were lit. Hollywood continued to stumble through sequels, remakes and adaptations that earned their fair share of bank but an equal amount of tepid critical response and word of mouth. The year was mostly devoid of crossover successes that we’ve seen in recent years (like Inception and True Grit) and even the Oscar outlook at the end of the year wasn’t entirely promising.
However, all was not lost as a pair of superheroes and some old furry friends re-entered the mainstream to much critical acclaim, and at the end of the day, a boy wizard (and Alan Rickman) once again ruled over all.
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2
The last installment of the Harry Potter franchise validated the decision to split the 7th book into two movies with a whizbang torrent of death-defying action and dramatic climaxes, and a majestic depiction of The Prince’s Tale (wherein we finally see the thread of Severus Snape’s complex history unraveled before our eager eyes). The film also validated the first part’s long journeys towards this climax, underlining the desperation and angst of Harry, Ron and Hermoine’s quest, bringing them and their friends and allies to this epic climax inside a war-zone-turned Hogwarts. By far, one of the most satisfying conclusions in modern fiction was given an equally effective and exciting adaptation to screen.
2. Captain America: The First Avenger
Marvel finally unleashed two of its top superheroes only months apart last Summer, with both making exciting entrances, though in vastly different tales. Captain America, the most iconic of Marvel’s Avengers, gets the slight edge thanks to fantastic direction by Joe Johnston and a story that captures the essence of Cap’s comic-book origins. Though Cap is as far as apart from the Human Torch in personality as you can find in the Marvel Universe, Chris Evans dials it down to nail Cap’s dry patriotism. He’s surrounded by great performances who help inject the film with humor and chutzpah, including Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. And in a summer of cardboard comicbook romances (Thor’s Natalie Portman, Green Lantern’s Blake Lively), Hayley Atwell brought some much needed charm and strength to the part of Peggy Carter, hardly a damsel in distress but the bittersweet sting of Cap’s long climactic nap.
Thor was always going to the most difficult of Marvel heroes to translate on screen as he is both a vaunted mythological figure AND a longtime Marvel hero with a rather dense, sometimes-inaccessible mythos. However, Marvel Studios and Kenneth Brannagh managed to make the concept work by embracing the abstract beauty of Asgard and its denizens and finding a way to make magic a bit more believable in the same power-free world of Tony Stark. Chris Hemsworth, charming and effusive as Thor, and Tom Hiddleston, pitch-perfect as the devious Loki, stand out amongst a well-assembled cast of Asgardians. The film slips a bit when Natalie Portman starts making googly eyes at Thor briefly turning the movie into a corny, romantic farce but is generally saved by its focus on Thor’s relationship with wayward brother Loki, who eventually makes a cameo at the tail-end of Captain America propelling the two films towards their next destination, The Avengers.
The most surprising movie for me this year was Hugo, which probably solidified Martin Scorcese’s reign as Director Supreme, now that he’s found a way to make a masterful children’s movie! Set in 1930s Paris, the film follows the titular character through his home in the Montparnesse train station and the various characters he comes across in his journey to finish repairing an automaton that his late father discovered in a museum. Halfway through, the film morphs into an amazing love letter to the birth of cinema complete with dazzling 3D recreations of old black & white silent films! To describe the movie will never give it due justice as the story is so one-of-a-kind and the cinematography is brilliantly breathtaking, you just have to see it for yourself.
It took one of the best animation directors around to make this year’s best straight action film. Brad Bird advanced the Mission Impossible franchise even further with amazingly-orchestrated action sequences that very rarely seem reliant on any CGI. Tom Cruise takes it down a few notches and reminds you that he’s still damn good at this, while surrounding himself with an expert team and facing off against a wisely-understated cast of Foreign actors. The entire sequence in and ON the Burj Khalifa was easily the best action sequence on film in 2011.
6. The Muppets
With Pixar downshifting to a Cars sequel this year, their usual place in top family cinema was usurped by some very old school puppetry, err, Muppetry. The Muppets was a well-timed slice of nostalgia, whimsy and good, clean fun. The film helped restore relevance and acclaim to the Muppets, who’d recently been relegated to subpar made-for-TV fare, and reminded everyone young and old of why their legacy endures to this day.
7. Red State
Kevin Smith’s latest film came with some unfortunate preconceptions on the part of petulant critics and a jilted blogosphere, but the film was a great success in guerilla independent film-marketing and a visceral joy to watch. A number of well-known actors move in and out of the film as a service to the kinetic script, but at the heart remains Michael Parks, who won’t likely get the credit he deserves for his mind-blowing portrayal of Pastor Abin Cooper, the charming yet sociopathic cult leader, who in today’s world doesn’t seem as much a fictional creation as he seems representative of far too many real life individuals.
8. Super 8
Some criticized JJ Abrams for mining co-conspirator Steven Spielberg’s early works for the type of whimsical, family-oriented fantasy that Spielberg crafted so perfectly once upon a time. However, it’s an inspiring homage (lifted by the amazing cast of young actors) that cut through the CGI-vomited, overacted malarkey that littered the Summer movie landscape and challenged audiences who forgot that movies used to be more than a showcase of how much money studios spent on special effects.
Outside Looking In: Moneyball was a homerun (you see what I did there?) that made the statistical aspect of the sport accessible to the mainstream while also staying incredibly true to the real events the movie was based on (and if you’re a baseball fan like me, you’ll have fun with the accuracy of the games and players). I wish the movie had made a more overt argument against the financial divide in the sport and how at the end of the day, moneyball hasn’t been as successful as the movie purported. (The Red Sox most certainly didn’t win the World Series because of sabermetrics alone.
Though Rise of the Planet of the Apes utilized some cardboard cut-out characterization for the humans and maybe gave a little too much heroism to the apes that will eventually ruin civilization, it was a fun ride with amazing special effects and really fun action sequences. In a summer of bloated and disappointing robots, cowboys, aliens and lanterns, it was nice to see that you only need a few dozen apes for a good time.