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2011 at the movies: From magic to mayhem

  • Published Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012, at 9:49 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Jan. 1, 2012, at 9:53 a.m.

Welcome to 2012! But before we get too far, let’s look back at the films we had in 2011.

It was a tricky year at the box office, topped off with a lackluster holiday season.

Originality was scarce, as sequels continued to dominate. The seven top-grossing films of 2011 were all sequels, according to Boxofficemojo.com, with the final “Harry Potter” installment at No. 1 with a $381 million total gross. The highest-grossing non-franchise films were “The Help” (No. 11 with $169.4 million) and “Bridesmaids” (No. 12 with $169.1 million).

Studios continued to hurl comic book movies at us, as well. Some were jubilant (“Captain America: The First Avenger”) and some were junk (“The Green Hornet”).

Kiddie fare also continued to perform strong, with “Cars 2” the top-grossing animated film of the year at No. 7 ($191 million), followed by “King Fu Panda 2” at No. 13 ($165 million) and “Puss in Boots” at No. 15 ($143.9 million). The highest-grossing non-franchise animated film, “Rio,” came in at No. 15 ($143.6 million).

But amid all the big-budget spectacle and star-driven projects, there were some small gems that made my top 10 list of 2011. But I had my guilty pleasures, too. Here’s my list – let me know how it compares to yours.

1. “The Help” – This is a rarity, a studio film aimed at women that gained mainstream popularity from word-of-mouth recommendations. It’s also a tough sell – an “important” film with a message (we know that going in). That the film pulls it off without being manipulative or overly sappy is its strength, following a group of women who take on a secret writing project that puts their jobs – and lives – in danger. It was a great story told with conviction and honor, enlivened by a top-notch (sure to be Oscar-nominated) cast. Sure, it got weepy, but it earned it, and got it all right. Now was that so hard, Hollywood?

2. “Moneyball” – Swift and sophisticated, and driven by what may be Brad Pitt’s best performance to date (he also shined in 2011 in the head-scratching “Tree of Life”), this real-life tale of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane was more than just a sports movie. It was a gripping, against-all-odds underdog tale that provoked a cheering spirit.

3. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2” – Now I am not a die-hard Potter-head, and I thought the films dipped and swayed through the years. But – speaking entirely about the films and not the books – the plots were so dense with so many characters and so much sidelined action (another quidditch game? yawn) that it took way too long to tell the ultimate story of how Harry must confront the evil Lord Voldemort. But I saw every film, and I found the final “Hallows” to be ultimately satisfying on an epic scale worthy of its grandeur. The film finally wasn’t afraid to be dark, with real peril, real tragedy, real emotion and – at last – real magic.

4. “The Muppets” – Perhaps it’s just my own childhood nostalgia, but I didn’t have a bigger blast at the movies in 2011 than with Kermit and Co. as they got together to try to save their old theater from being demolished. It was self-effacing, whole-heartedly ridiculous and surprisingly inspiring. The gang was just as endearing as ever (it was like visiting old friends), and further proved that “kiddie” fare could still be just as entertaining for adults. Wocka, wocka, wocka, indeed.

5. “Drive” – Dark and hypnotic. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn brought the ferocity from his Sundance breakout “Bronson” and the disquieting brutality from his art-house hit “Valhalla Rising” to this tale of a Hollywood stunt driver (a smoldering Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a driver for heists, and accidentally falls in love along the way. Marketed as an action thriller, “Drive” was anything but (and probably angered some who thought it was). The film instead echoed the menacing tone and staid pacing of Refn’s other work, although “Drive” did have moments of extreme violence and exciting car chases. Overall, it was entrancing, and almost poetic in its bleakness.

6. “50 / 50” – It sounds like a downer, about a young man who discovers he has cancer and tries to beat it, but this was ultimately a life-affirming (and often funny) journey, with a powerhouse performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who I’m surprised has not been getting more awards recognition).

7. “Take Shelter” – Michael Shannon was riveting as a man torn by apocalyptic visions of a doomed future. But were they real or the result of a diseased mind? Writer/director Jeff Nichols delivered a haunting tale that was part horror story, part paranoid thriller and part ecological commentary, all driven by Shannon’s electric performance. Nichols keeps us guessing a little too long, but the payoff was worth it.

8. “The Descendants” – Wonderfully quirky writer/director Alexander Payne continued his study of ordinary men pushed to the brink (“Election,” “Sideways,” “About Schmidt”) with this touching story of a father and husband (beautifully played by George Clooney, sure to attract Oscar attention) who discovers his comatose wife may have been cheating on him. Payne crafted a gentle, engaging story (though I thought the subplot of the family selling their land overtook the focus). Still, it ultimately was a story about letting go and forgiving, and became surprisingly cathartic.

9 . “Hugo” – Legendary director Martin Scorsese’s foray into 3-D certainly was not what I expected. I thought it was going to be an “Oliver Twist”-like tale about an orphan who befriends a little girl. It kind of starts out that way, but then the story shifts to be about a mysterious filmmaker whose dreams (and work) have faded away. Once the story settles in past the set-up, the film becomes enchanting, and we can feel Scorsese’s absolute love for film pouring from the screen.

10. “Bridesmaids” – Another rarity: A comedy aimed at women that crossed over to the male audience. Perhaps because it was raunchy, but probably because it was just hilarious, driven by a game performance by Kristin Wiig. The film made fun of the excesses of the wedding ritual, but it also emerged as an examination of friendships, and the lengths we will all go to keep them.

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