2011 has not been a great year for the movies. Looking back on the titles released between January and May, it’s very hard to find anything that really excited me … or movie-goers in general. It really wasn’t until May and the kickoff to the summer movie season that things got hot at the box office. Looking back at my list of films seen this year, I decided to focus on a specific type of movie to consider for my top ten this year. My criteria for selecting the list of films below was simply this: they had to entertain me. They aren’t typical Oscar bait movies or the ones that will end up on any other mainstream film critic’s list, but of the movies I saw in 2011, these ten are the ones that made me enjoy going to the movies. The Top Ten Popcorn Flicks of 2011, in alphabetical order are:
Bridesmaids – Hands down, the funniest movie of the year. Yes, funnier than The Hangover Part II, Horrible Bosses and Hall Pass put together. Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo‘s script was simply brilliant, going from outrageous comedy to deep character examination without ever becoming sappy or maudlin, and the cast, including Wiig, Maya Rudolph and breakout star Melissa McCarthy, showed us that raucous, raunchy comedy is not simply a man’s territory.
Captain America: The First Avenger – In the summer of superhero movies, this one stands out simply for the fact that everyone involved made the brilliant decision to keep the character’s origin faithful to the comics and left the setting in the 1940s during World War II. The effect of Chris Evans as a 98-pound weakling was jaw-dropping, and Hugo Weaving chewed up every last bit of scenery as the villain, Red Skull. Great fun, and a terrific cliffhanger ending to tie in to next summer’s The Avengers.
Drive Angry – I worship at the alter of Todd Farmer, screenwriter extraordinaire. I feel like he and his cohort, Patrick Lussier, are making movies just for me. I loved their re-do of the 80s slasher film My Bloody Valentine, and I am still gaga over their latest effort which seems like a play on the 70s car exploitation films (and done much better than Tarantino’s Death Proof), but throws in a bit of the supernatural and some sly literary references to boot (as well as an understanding of the 3D process)! And they’ve given Nic Cage his best role in years. Trust me, don’t write this one off. Just enjoy the ride.
Final Destination 5 – Yes, I’ve really put this on my list. After the fourth film, which was met with mild revulsion by audiences tired of the same old, same old, bombed, director Steven Quale and his writers managed to breathe some life into the series by adding an escape clause to the standard “You Can’t Cheat Death” plot, and cleverly tying the film to the first one. The theatrical version also boasted the best use of 3D to date, and while the story was familiar, the character deaths were extremely creative. Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but it was probably the best time I’d had in a theater all year.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – After breathing new life into the franchise with M:I 3, J.J. Abrams turned producer for the fourth installment and gave director Brad Bird a chance to spread his wings from animation (The Incredibles) to live action … and what a ride he took us on, from Russia to Dubai, from the depths of the Kremlin to the top of the tallest building in the world, the film is clever and funny with edge of your seat, nail biting scenes of Tom Cruise actually scaling that tower. Truly an exhilarating thriller, and the addition of IMAX only made it all the more intense. Best film of the series so far (and the third one was pretty great).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes – This film had no right to exist, nor to be any good. Tim Burton already screwed up with his take on the Apes story, so how could this new movie – that actually messes with the original series timeline – be worth seeing? I don’t know how they did it, but I was pleasantly surprised with the film from beginning to end. The script was clever enough to not tie itself to the original series, but scattered enough homages to the original throughout to please the fans. Best of all was the very subtle set-up for a possible sequel in a head-scratching moment that makes you go “AHA!” once you realize what just happened, followed by an extended end credit sequence of events that spells out exactly where the next film is going. Huge credit also goes to Andy Serkis for his portrayal of the ape Caesar, achieved through the motion capture process that helped create a fully realistic CGI creature (in fact, all of the various apes were CGI, an amazing accomplishment in itself). Even with James Franco badmouthing the finished film, this was a true surprise well-worth seeing.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows – If you loved the first Holmes film, then you will eat this one up. The plot is complicated and requires the viewer to really pay attention, the banter between Holmes and Watson makes this one of the best buddy films in quite some time, and the introduction of Moriarty to the series after the tease in the first movie was a very welcome addition. The only drawback: Reichenbach Falls. If you’re familiar with the Holmes mythology, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Not that it ruins the movie, but you have to wonder what will happen if there’s another.
Super 8 – If you’re a film buff who came of age in the latter part of the 1970s, then this movie was made for you. Directed by J.J. Abrams, the film has producer Steven Spielberg‘s filmic DNA all over it, from the family dynamic to the absent parent plot device to the pure sense of wonder seen in many of his earlier films, particularly Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goonies. In fact, the first two-thirds of the film could have been directed by Spielberg himself, with Abrams picking up the last third with the introduction of the Cloverfield inspired alien. A lovely film that will resonate with anyone who was a kid back then.
Transformers: Dark of the Moon – Believe it or not, this really was one of the best action films of the summer. After the disastrous second film, Michael Bay and company (minus Megan Fox) seem to have actually listened to the critics and the fans who universally called that film a steaming pile of crap (even Bay eventually copped to that consensus) and made a third film that had a real story to it, that didn’t overpower everything with another new robot in every scene, that really gave the characters something to do and then pulled on our heartstrings when it seemed our heroes had been obliterated. The 1960s-set prologue was also a stroke of genius, and was the second film of the summer to incorporate real historical events into its story. And even at nearly three hours, the addition of 3D was never tiresome and added greatly to immersing the viewer in the story. After thinking the franchise had been put down for good after movie number two, the third one rose triumphantly from those ashes and gave new life to the Autobots.
X-Men: First Class – The first film of the summer to weave 1960s history into its story (the Cuban Missile crisis) – as well as some World War II history – this was one of the finest superhero films of the year. Yes, in hindsight it does have some problems (especially in how the film treats some of the minority characters), but a strong performance by James McAvoy as Charles Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart in the original X-Men trilogy) and a star-making turn by Michael Fassbender (in the Ian McKellan role) gave the film some real human emotion amongst all the mutant abilities. The real surprise was the film’s just average box office performance. The film certainly gives us enough insight into the characters to bring us up to the events of the original trilogy, but I really am hoping to see the further adventures of the young Professor X and Magneto and their team of mutant X-Men.
All of these films, except Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (both still in theaters) are available on home video. If you’re just looking for an evening of entertainment, you really can’t go wrong with any of these.