The 2011 film year-in-review

By Kevin Romani

2010 was a remarkable year for the motion picture industry. The year was filled with outstanding achievements in crowd-pleasing, popcorn entertainment with the likes of “Inception” and “Toy Story 3.” The more sophisticated, artistic audiences were also treated to lower budget masterpieces such as “Black Swan,” “The King’s Speech” and “127 Hours.” The Academy Awards picked a perfect time to expand the Best Picture nominations from five to ten the year prior, as tough decisions would have been necessary in 2010 to select only five Best Picture nominees.

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2011 has been the exact opposite. The film community is in the midst of awards season, yet few pictures are standing out as clear front-runners for the major categories. Most of the films that were heavily hyped coming into the winter months were met with mediocre reception from audiences and critics alike. Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” for instance, is visually arresting, but suffers from several narrative issues. David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” remake feels unnecessary when compared to the 2009 Swedish film and offers a pace much slower than that of the high-octane trailers which promoted the film. Additionally, most of the summer blockbuster fair was underwhelming. Big-budgeted films like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “The Green Lantern” focused on style over substance, providing ludicrous story-lines and over-the-top action.

Despite the overall flawed year, here are the five best films of 2011:

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

When news of the development of a fourth entry to the “Mission: Impossible” series first broke in 2009, the story was greeted by skepticism from film pundits. Several questions arose. Was Tom Cruise too old for such a physically demanding role? Was a fourth film necessary after a fitting ending in the third film? What story could be compelling enough to entice audiences to return to an inconsistent series? Producer J.J. Abrams and his Bad Robot Production company, along with a dedicated Tom Cruise, addressed these issues head-on. Abrams, who directed “Mission: Impossible III,” put directing duties aside due to other commitments. Brad Bird, director of animated hits like “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles,” was given his first live action assignment with “Ghost Protocol.” Bird’s enthusiasm for the project translates with the exciting action and fast-pace of the film. The casual viewer would never know that this was Bird’s first experience in working with actors on set instead of on a sound stage only. Continuing with what made the third film a hit, Bird successfully weaved fascinating set pieces and spy gadgets with interesting character studies. Tom Cruise gave an impressive performance, and despite his age, looks as if he has a few more “Mission: Impossible” films left in him. “Ghost Protocol” is a stylish film with impressive visual effects, and was a clear winner this winter. The film has grossed over $500 million worldwide to date.

50/50

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s impressive resume expanded this past fall with “50/50.” Gordon-Levitt portrays a 27-year-old diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. This news leads to unsteady relationships with his girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), mother (Anjelica Huston) and best friend (Seth Rogen). Even with its heavy plot-line, “50/50” works seamlessly as a dramatic comedy. Rogen, as one would expect, provides most of the humor, as he plays a character reminiscent to most of his onscreen roles. The cast was exceptional, most notably from Gordon-Levitt and Rogen, who shared excellent chemistry. Another bright spot came from Anna Kendrick, who played Gordon-Levitt’s psychiatrist. Her performance is equally as charming as the one she gave in “Up in the Air,” her breakout film. “50/50” is a film that provides countless laughs while tugging at the audience’s emotional heartstrings concurrently.

Super 8

J.J. Abrams makes his second appearance on this list, and this time as a writer and director instead of producer. “Super 8” may have been marketed as a monster-movie filled with mystery last summer, but the essence of this film is in the children who find themselves consumed by the extraordinary. The picture is Abrams’ nostalgic tale that mirrors his own upbringing as a film fanatic more interested in making short movies with friends than in standard childhood activities. “Super 8” also explores the dynamic between the main character, Joe, and his father. These themes make the film easily relatable to the audience, and give it great emotional impactl. This is where “Super 8” is most successful. The film is disappointing in some regards, particularly in the science-fiction themes, but these themes are only included to drive the narrative forward. “Super 8” is a film about growing up and letting go. With its unforgettable performances from its youthful cast, sharp direction from Abrams and a sweeping musical score from Michael Giacchino, “Super 8” was one of the few highlights in an otherwise poor summer.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

The other major success of the summer came from the final “Harry Potter” film. The previous seven entries of the series were all solid films, but none come remotely close to the quality of “Deathly Hallows: Part 2.” The picture felt like an epic from the 1960s similar to “Lawrence of Arabia,” as it possessed massive set pieces and countless extras. The final film also had a feel akin to the fantasy classic “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” as a sense of magical escapism and relentless action was found in the film. The cast and crew of “Deathly Hallows: Part 2” all offered their best work, as the actors’ maturity and the crew’s technical mastery were evident in this final showcasing. The ending was beyond satisfying, as no loose strings were left unattended. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” is the capstone piece of the most financially successful franchise in film history, and deservedly so.

Moneyball

Most sports-themed films suffer from predictability and formulaic approaches. They all feel the same, and the two forms of entertainment rarely mesh well together on screen. Though it is a story of executives instead of a team, an unusual MO for the sports movie genre, “Moneyball” is the best sports film in recent memory, and possibly the best baseball movie of all time. “Moneyball” is to baseball fans what the “Food Network” is to culinary enthusiasts, as the narrative incorporates references to several obscure players and discusses statistics only the most dedicated fans are interested in hearing. These references and moments are designed for baseball fans, but casual fans of the sport will still easily appreciate this film for its storytelling alone. The screenplay from Aaron Sorkin (“The Social Network”) and Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) is riddled with sarcastic, witty dialogue and intriguing relationships. Brad Pitt gives a humorous and believable performance as Oakland Athletics’ general manager Billy Beane. Jonah Hill takes a more dramatic turn with his portrayal as Peter Brand, Beane’s assistant. The film also delves into the hardships of serving as an executive for a sport’s franchise, as Beane struggles to balance his work life with being a father. The scenes between Beane and his daughter, Casey, are among the most memorable from the picture. In addition to being a strong sports film, “Moneyball” is a genuine, realistic picture that makes the audience forget they are watching a movie.

Kevin Romani can be reached at  [email protected] Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinRomani.