With just about two weeks of 2012 under our belts, I figure we now have a little perspective on 2011, so why not take a look back at some of the cinematic achievements — good and bad — of the year?
I limited this survey to 11 films because I don’t want to ramble on at length. Wherever relevant I linked to my full reviews of the movies mentioned. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the 2011 films I have opinions about; these are just the movies that leaped immediately to mind. There may be more where this came from. (I hope that sounds like a promise, not a threat!)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2 raked in $1.3 billion dollars at the box office last year, marking one of those rare times when a film’s financial success was commensurate with its artistic success. I really enjoyed this fun adventure flick, which seemed to contain all the action that was missing from the lugubrious Part 1. This movie reminded me of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as far as being a suitable wrap-up to an epic series. The characters reached a natural end point, and viewers felt satisfied that a complete story had been told.
Captain America: The First Avenger was just about perfect to me, and stands as my favorite comic book movie ever. Director Joe Johnston did a wonderful job with 1991’s The Rocketeer, so this comes as no surprise. Johnston perfectly captured the 1940s from both the movie and comic book perspectives, delivering a period piece that felt lively and modern. Chris Evans was perfect as the Star-Spangled Avenger, and Hugo Weaving’s evil Red Skull was — look, I can’t say it any better than I did in my review of this masterpiece.
Certainly one of the most anticipated movies of 2011 for me, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo managed to live up to most of my expectations for it. Rooney Mara announced herself as a new talent to be reckoned with — one who should be rewarded with at least an Oscar nomination — and Daniel Craig really vanished into his more mild-mannered role, completely subverting his James Bond persona. Director David Fincher was typically uncompromising in his adaptation of an uncompromising book — which was tamed by scripted Steve Zaillian.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the biggest surprise of 2011 for me, because I expected it to be pretty bad. The Apes epics of the 1970s did not really need to be retold, and Tim Burton’s 2001 version of Planet of the Apes was pretty much completely botched. But Rise was surprisingly good. First of all, the special effects were so good that Caesar being a CGI construct (performed by motion-capture master Andy Serkis) didn’t distract from the story. And, secondly, the story was pretty interesting. Instead of a typical anti-science screed, the plot made some reasonable extractions and peppered the exposition with plenty of thrills.
Thor was another pleasant surprise. I didn’t enjoy it as much as a lot of other viewers, but I was pleased that Shakespearean director Kenneth Branagh was able to bring such a sense of epic scale to the story of rebellious, double-crossing gods. Chris Hemsworth made a worthy God of Thunder, while Oscar-winner Natalie Portman was shockingly overshadowed by Kat Dennings’ charmingly brusque Darcy.
Marvel Comics’ winning streak continued with X-Men: First Class, which went in the back-to-basics direction after the excesses of X-Men: The Last Stand. The groovy 1960s vibe was exactly what this series needed, and the performances by a stellar cast — including Michael Fassbinder as Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) as Mystique and Rose Byrneas a reimagined Moira MacTaggert — firmly rooted the story in reality. A reality that was almost surreal itself during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I wish Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams could have maintained a consistent tone throughout Super 8, a period piece about a monster terrorizing a small town. The mostly unknown cast of kids — with the notable exception of future Oscar winner Elle Fanning — really lent verisimilitude and a sense of wonder and fun throughout the first portion of the movie, but everyone and everything simply ran out of steam by the time the all-too-convenient ending rolled around.
Real Steel is a movie that I’m rather embarrassed to admit enjoying. It looked completely stupid, but it wasn’t entirely brainless. In fact, director Shawn Levy was smart enough to fashion this Hugh Jackman vehicle to appeal to the kids in the audience (and the kid inside all adults). I saw this with my 11-year-old nephew, and he came out of the screening room floating on air — and shadowboxing and kicking his way through the lobby, just like every other kid there.
Sucker Punch, on the other hand, is a movie that I am not afraid to admit I loved, even though it landed on a many “worst of” lists. As I have noted, the extreme venom that greeted this film was completely undeserved. It was a lot of fun if you were willing to just go with it and follow creator Zack Snyder down an original, non-sequel/remake rabbit hole. Luckily, you can still do that on DVD.
The Hangover Part II may have been the biggest disappointment of the year. Hyped to an insane degree by the studio and hotly anticipated by fans, the movie was a crashing bore to anyone who saw the first one — which was just about everyone. Thailand was a long way to go just to do a virtual shot-for-shot remake of what happened in Las Vegas. Left filmgoers with a hangover!
I knew Transformers: Dark of the Moon was going to be trash when I bought my ticket, so that’s why I didn’t ask for a refund. This lousy three-quel didn’t even respect its own universe, let alone its audience’s IQ. I have never been able to tolerate Shia LeBoeuf, so his big-screen appeal is completely lost on me, but surely it was a mistake to make his Sam Witwicky character a completely unlikable, whiny little bitch. Who wants to see that? Don’t try to tell me the crowds flocked to see him; they wanted to see the big robots blow stuff up.
And let’s end this discussion here, giving us all time to do something to get the horrible visions of Dark of the Moon out of our collective brains…