If you are in any way similar to me, you may remember 2011 with a distinct lack of fondness. At the time, I had just begun my mission to visually consume all the films I possibly could, and there was an overwhelming sense of disappointment after some of the highs of 2010. But looking back, thinking about some of the films released that year that were missed at the time and watched since, I have to ask, was it really so bad? Does 2011 deserve the scorn, the disregard I feel when I casually refer to it as the worst year for film in the last 10? Perhaps it’s time to reassess the year as a whole, peaks and troughs.
It is easy nowadays to summarise a year as “Year of the Sequel”, and maybe from now on the end of year top Box Office lists will always be dominated by franchises. But tracing this mentality back to 2011 is surprisingly revealing. First off, and perhaps most importantly, 2011 saw the beginnings of modern cinema’s most successful extended universe, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, The Incredible Hulk had been released one year previous, adding to both Iron Man and Iron Man 2 to create the first half of “Phase One”. But does anyone really count Edward Norton’s incarnation of the big green fella, the actor having been immediately replaced in the universe with Mark Ruffalo? Neither of the Marvel releases in 2011 can be dismissed with so much ease, adding Captain America and Thor to the team that would become the Avengers just one year later. Whilst few might argue that these films were ground-breaking, or indeed amongst their favourites of the year, the success Marvel went on to achieve is undeniably a result of their hard work back in 2011, to create a franchise to mirror the comic book industry in scale.
But the Box Office was perhaps not yet quite prepared for superheroes, with the final instalment of the Harry Potter series securing the top spot for the year. The Deathly Hallows – Part II is widely considered the best of the Potter films, and certainly the most financially successful. Elsewhere in the world of sequels, after a five year hiatus Brad Bird’s first attempt at a live action film reinvigorated the Mission: Impossible series with Ghost Protocol, amping up the ridiculous factor and letting Tom Cruise scale the tallest building in the world. Equally surprising, Fast & Furious 5 still retains its title as the best in the series, and a reboot of the Apes franchise, starting with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, soared with the help of outstanding performance capture. Markedly positive steps, but other franchises failed to deliver. The loss of director Gore Verbinski from the Pirates of the Caribbean series took its toll, and new cast additions Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane could not save the film from absolute silliness and Johnny Depp’s self indulgence.
The biggest let down of the year, however, can probably be attributed to Pixar. For the first time outside of the Toy Story trilogy, Pixar brought out a sequel, a follow up to 2006’s Cars. Within Pixar’s impressive oeuvre, Cars seems a strange choice to want to keep developing, and started a trend of Pixar pivoting to a side character to continue a story. In this example, tow truck Mater took the limelight, but since we have seen films focusing on sidekicks Dory and Mike Wazowski, never bettering the original film.
Of course, there was a little bit of original work too. Woody Allen finally returned to form with Midnight in Paris, perhaps his best work this century; whilst Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life divided audiences and critics. French director Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist claimed top prize at nearly all of the awards ceremonies, appealing to a sense of Hollywood nostalgia and the romanticism of the silent era. But Hazanavicius wasn’t the only auteur to profess his love of a time gone by – Martin Scorsese’s Hugo fawned over the work of George Melies, with the same sort of admiration Scorsese had had for Howard Hughes 7 years previous. These and a few others made up the Academy’s choices for Best Picture nominations, forming a running theme of finding beauty, art, and even magic in everyday life. Ground was broken: Meryl Streep won her third Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, and Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids alerted the male population to the fact that the opposite sex is funny too, a fact we Wiig fans knew all along.
And of course there are some more obscure gems hidden in the mess of Blockbusters and Oscar Fodder. Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive astounded, and Steve McQueen’s Shame proved that both he and star Michael Fassbender deserved the acclaim they had received three years earlier for Hunger. On the action side, it is difficult to say a bad thing about Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, pitching UFC fighting brothers Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy against one another. Perhaps most impressive of all is Gareth Evans’ The Raid, a masterpiece of phenomenally choreographed fight scenes and unrelenting thrills.
But having started, it’s difficult to stop. Our skin crawled at Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, and we belly laughed at John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard. So what if War Horse spelled the beginning of a disappointing period for Spielberg? Or if Tomas Alfredson’s follow up to the remarkable Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, was a bit of a convoluted mess requiring multiple viewings. Yes, there were lows, but the highs were undoubtedly so. And the best of those highs? I would be remiss to end this article without recommending my favourite for the year, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. And with that in mind, maybe it wasn’t so bad in 2011 after all.
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