Best of 2011: Year in Review

It’s time to put a lid on the movie year of 2011 and bury it deep, deep within the recesses of the earth. As I’ve done the last couple years, it’s time to reflect on some of the emerging trends within the world of Hollywood. Below you’ll find a series of bold statements about the year that was.

I think if I’d known how 2011 would turn out, I’d never have said such disparaging things about 2010. Last year we had some great films, films that would have stood out in any year (“Inception,” “Toy Story 3,” “The Social Network,” “The King’s Speech”), but the gap between those films and everything else was wide. This year, however, was the year of the good but not great, movies that would’ve nicely filled that gap in 2010. The Oscar contenders of this year are not powerhouse films and most enjoyed movies would average 3.5 or 4 stars on Movie Muse if everyone were voting.

But enough wallowing, as some good things were happening this year, as well as some noteworthy things.

2011 provided the best showcase for women in a long time

Two of the top 12 films in U.S. box-office receipts this year exclusively featured a female-dominated cast. I’m not going to do the research to prove it, but I’m pretty sure that’s never happened — ever. “Sex in the City” in 2008 has been the closest thing in recent memory, and that was based on a proven property, which neither “Bridesmaids” nor “The Help” are.

We’ve known women actors are capable for a long time; that’s not where the sexism in Hollywood lies. The problem has been that most female roles aren’t starring vehicles, especially in the mainstream. The roles written for women aren’t usually very powerful, and the few that are each year tend to earn Oscar nominations without hesitation. Yet these two films featured men in maybe three roles between them (that I can think of off the top of my head) and they performed the better than any movie this year that wasn’t a sequel or a blockbuster tentpole.

“Bridesmaids” had the bigger of the two hurdles to overcome, namely that old notion that women aren’t funny. The tides have been shifting awhile now in this regard thanks to the likes of Tina Fey and Kristen Wiig, and “Bridemaids” was the first film to really embody that, though in fairness Emma Stone’s “Easy A” was 2010’s best comedy far and away. Television has been more ahead of the curve lately with two shows by Whitney Cummings debuting this past fall, including the hit “2 Broke Girls,” and now it’s film’s turn. It will be interesting to see if “Bridemaids” becomes the anomaly or not.

“The Help” on the other hand is a tour de force. Featuring amazing performances from Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jessica Chastain, Bryce Dallas Howard and Emma Stone (there she is again) among many others (Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek), it’s the best-acted film of the year. Call it a bonus that all the main roles are women, but it’s a combination of a best-selling novel a great adaptation and expert casting.

Best Actress in a Leading Role will probably be the deepest category at the 2012 Oscars. Davis should be there for “The Help,” but there’s also Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe, Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbs” and Tilda Swinton’s acclaimed turn in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Those actresses already have a lot of Oscar clout to begin with, so if they all scored nominations this year it would surprise no one. Keep in mind that they would also leave knock-out performances from Kirsten Dunst (“Melancholia”) and Charlize Theron (“Young Adult”) among others out of the mix.

Younger women with dramatic chops have also been cropping up more and more lately. Last year saw Jennifer Lawrence rise to fame and this year we had Elizabeth Olsen in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” as well as Felicity Jones in “Like Crazy.” Saoirse Ronan (“The Lovely Bones”) even headlined her own action film in the exquisite “Hanna,” one of 2011’s most underrated. Mia Wasikowska transcended Alice in “Jane Eyre” and Rooney Mara blew away folks as Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

All I can say beyond that is “girl power.” Roles for women have not been better in recent memory, which could mean ever.


Audiences favored comedy/dramas in 2011

Considering 2011 featured movies all put into production after the economic downturn, it’s not surprising that few films were dark or especially challenging, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” aside (and feel free to ask Sony how that’s fairing for them box-office wise). I’ve even heard a fair share of boo-birds regarding “The Descendants” and I can only chalk that up to the subject matter. Even “50/50” — a film about cancer — had a comedic edge.

R-rated comedies saw a lot of success this year, with “Bridesmaids” reigning supreme. “The Hangover Part II” did it’s job making obscene money and even “Horrible Bosses” did well enough that sequel talk has begun. “Bad Teacher” and “No Strings Attached” saw decent box-office returns and mostly positive reviews too. I would even argue the reviews and reception for all these films were more positive than any of the films deserved, but I was entertained by them nonetheless (except “No Strings” — wasn’t a fan).

Yet with some foul-mouthed comedies such as “The Sitter” and “30 Minutes or Less” underwhelming in all aspects, it’s not about the genre tag of comedy, but about providing levity in more dramatic storytelling. Case in point would be “The Help.” Had it been marketed as or word gotten out that it was an extremely harrowing film about race relations, it would’ve never done so well at the box office. Fortunately that didn’t happen because the film was quite humorous in spite of its subject matter.

We even have a family film making its case for the best of the year. Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” could even end up with the most Oscar nominations of any film in the 2012 ceremony thanks to its stunning visuals. Hardly an ounce of pessimism exists in this historical fiction fairy tale. Another of 2011’s most highly regarded films is also a fairy tale taking place in Paris: Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Top-form writing from the beloved filmmaker along with a whimsical plot made it one of the feel-good films of the year and Allen’s biggest box-office performer.

Touches of wit helped many other top films this year. “Moneyball,” starring Brad Pitt in what’s looking like an Oscar-nominated role, rose above possibilities of sports movie clichés to become a crowd favorite in theaters this past fall. To offer a comparison, let’s take a look at another star-powered fall movie that came just two weeks after “Moneyball”:  “The Ides of March.” The film starred George Clooney, Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti among others, certainly more of an acting heavyweight than “Moneyball,” but it was also heavy in subject matter, a film that’s a total buzz-kill in regards to American idealism. “Moneyball” made about $35 million more (substantial in terms of dramas) thanks to a lighter tone. And despite a handful of Golden Globe nominations, no one is name-dropping “Ides” in the Oscar conversation.

Romantic comedies benefited too, with “Crazy, Stupid, Love” getting insane buzz as one of the best rom-coms in ages. Imagine my lack of surprise when I watched it and discovered it to be one of the more far-fetched and ridiculously optimistic movies of 2011. Is there always a place for these kinds of films? Yes. However, I don’t think some of these films get as excellent of reviews without somewhat of a demand for light-heartedness and feel-good fare at the movies.

The last two years I’ve talked about how animation has proven itself heads and tails above other genres. Oddly, we got lots of commercially driven animated films this year (e.g. “Cars 2,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Puss in Boots”). Imagine if Pixar had dropped “Toy Story 3” this year. It already made more than any film in 2010, so who can say how well it would’ve done in 2011. The market for heart was there, but more consumers than usual sniffed out the money-grubbing nature of these sequels and spin-offs. That made room for “The Muppets,” a cry for innocence and nostalgia that came at a time when moviegoers wanted it most.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announces the Best Picture nominees, count the number of feel-good movies, and you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree.


Independent cinema shined amidst the high number of average studio films.

Quick lesson for those still confounded by what makes a movie independent. It’s all about the financing. If you raise your own money, your film is independent, even if it gets picked up by a studio in order to be distributed en masse. Anyway, the late season Oscar-buzz films the studios championed this year disappointed.

Clint Eastwood let down Warner Bros. again with “J. Edgar,” and the studio chose to expand “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” in late January instead giving it prime positioning — an indictment on the quality to be sure. Sony will have some love for “Moneyball,” but its big holiday film was “Dragon Tattoo,” which regardless of Oscar intentions hasn’t exploded like they thought when they gave it a budget of $90 million. Fox continues its Oscar success with its FoxSearchlight division (“The Descendants” this year), but Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought A Zoo” got a mixed critical reception. Disney will have “The Help,” but “War Horse” hasn’t quite gotten the praise some expected, even if it does end up in the Oscar conversation somehow. Perhaps Paramount came closest with “Hugo” over Thanksgiving.

Anyway, when this happens, the independent films step into the spotlight. They’ve been on the rise anyway, as we’ve seen the aforementioned FoxSearchlight constantly getting one or more films in the Oscar race. This year you might hear more about films you’ve never heard about then ever before. Even if the Academy won’t recognize them, theses are films making people’s end of the year lists.

The one you will hear of in the Oscar race is “The Artist.” Considering it is French made, you could even call it a foreign film. Many folks believe it will take home Best Picture. “The Descendants” is another that you’ve likely already heard of.

But I’m mainly talking films such as Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” Steve McQueen’s “Shame,” Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” (OK, semi-indie), Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” and Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” These films might not ever break into the full-on mainstream, but they’ll get noticed more than usual. (Also, keep in mind that they all deal with depressing subject matters.) In tandem with the rise of the Internet’s impact on the film world, these films are getting noticed more than ever before. At some point — though it’s a long way off — film fans won’t need the Academy to tell them what to go see anymore.


The future of 3D and IMAX technology became much clearer

Last year was the knee-jerk reaction to “Avatar.” In my Year in Review I talked about all the needless post-conversions and sloppy 3D, and that audiences were growing averse to the medium and studios had even begun to recognize it. 2011 was when it really showed in the box office results. By July, it was clear that only in the rarest of cases would a majority of ticket sales be for 3D showings. Whereas in the beginning of the summer you were hard-pressed to find 2D showings, by the holidays it was all squared up. December’s biggest hits, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” were not even offered in 3D.

The latter, however, renewed the vitality of IMAX. The early opening of “M:I 4” on 400 IMAX screens paid off immensely for Paramount. Considering “The Dark Knight Rises” prologue played before each screening, that film will be an IMAX must-see in 2012. The key, however, is that much of those films were shot with IMAX cameras. They’re a pain to work with, but expect studios to push for their biggest films each year to be shot partly in and then offered in IMAX.

Personally, I saw four films in 3D this year and one in IMAX. Of those five, one was on accident and one was thanks to not enough 2D showtimes. I would expect that number to be the same or less come next year. “Thor” and “Green Lantern” were the negative experiences. The action was blurry and not enough scenes were post-converted anyway. The 3D did nothing for the experience. I was happy, however, to spend the extra cash on “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Hugo.” The action scenes were that much better in 3D in “Transformers” and Scorsese made such great use of the extra depth of field that word can’t describe. Not every moment of both films benefited, but the experience was a positive one. As for the IMAX, it was well worth it for one of if not the most entertaining action film of 2011 in “M:I 4.”

The 3D films of 2012 should be much better. Most of them had time to film in 3D because they were greenlit during the backlash of 2010, or just decided not to convert. But more significantly, 3D is getting in the hands of people who know how to use it. Martin Scorsese demonstrated in “Hugo” that 3D should be a part of films for a long time. That might be hard to stomach, but go see that film and understand why. If chosen for artistic reasons and done by truly talented individuals who are thinking about how to take advantage of it in every scene, it can be a remarkable tool. That’s why the 3D film I’ve put on my 2012 calendar already is sci-fi thriller “Prometheus” from director Ridley Scott, who has already said he never wants to make a film in 2D again.

It will be hard for the average consumer to be able to figure out which films are worth the 3D surcharge, but as long as the critics getting first crack at reviewing these films call attention to it appropriately and studios allow the filmmakers making these movies to choose for themselves, no one should feel ripped off. Over time, we should see studios only trying to sell their biggest and most visually astounding films in 3D. For starters, it’s believed the sequel to “Star Trek” might film in 3D (word is currently that it will be  converted, but let’s hope not). That’s a big-ticket film for 2013 with a respected director in J.J. Abrams — a smart use of the technology.


The big money comes from the foreign box office

You might not care about what happens overseas, but Hollywood does, and based on the miserable performance of the North American box office in 2011, you can be assured studios have already started to let foreign markets influence their decision-making as to what films to bring to the general public in the future.

If you look at the year’s seven highest-grossing films (all sequels), every film on that list made a higher percentage of its gross from overseas markets than its predecessor. In some instances the drops were small, such as (unsurprisingly) “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1,” two movies with huge and devoted followings that you can be assured of some consistency film to film.

The numbers I’ve pulled represent the drop in gross percentage of North American dollars from the previous film to its sequel. Let’s start with one of the year’s biggest franchises. 2009’s “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” made 48 percent of its $836.3-million worldwide gross (about $400 million total) from domestic pockets, yet “Dark of the Moon” made only 31 percent of its whopping $1.1 billion from Americans and Canadians. To make that clearer, stateside “Dark of the Moon” made $50 million less than “Revenge of the Fallen,” yet in the rest of the world, it made at least $300 million more. And “Moon” took place exclusively in America, whereas “Fallen” had scenes in Egypt and China. “Moon” now boasts the title of fourth biggest movie of all time behind “Avatar,” “Titanic,” and “Deathly Hallows Part 2.”

I don’t need to say much more, but I will, because I see it as a big deal. The eighth biggest film of all time is now “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.” The most recent film prior to the fourth was “At World’s End” in 2007, which made 32.1 percent of its gross (about $309 million) domestically, a pretty healthy if not ideal number. Can you guess what happened with “On Stranger Tides”? It did better overall, yet North Americans spent just $241 million on it, just 23 percent of its total gross. The rest of the world blew $800-plus million on seeing this film. A fifth “Pirates” movie would be a tough decision to make if you look at the domestic numbers, but a no-brainer if you look at the international ones.

For your edification, “The Hangover Part II” made 43.8 percent domestically, down from 59 percent for the original 2009 film, though the sequel did not make more total than the original. “Fast Five” made 33 percent domestically down from 42 percent for “Fast and Furious.” Pixar, however, saw the trend coming, making “Cars 2” an internationally based film with characters and locales from all over the world. Their overseas percentage went from 47.2 percent for “Cars” to 65.8 percent for this summer’s sequel.

So either Americans and Canadians became more discerning of the sequels and commercially driven films Hollywood force-fed them this year, or they’re just getting poorer. You could make a good case for the latter, but keep in mind that “Deathly Hallows Part 2,” the biggest movie of the year, made substantially more than “Deathly Hallows Part 1” in North America, close to $100 million, and they were released within a year of each other. The economy has made everyone here stingier, whereas overseas, the demand for these sequels looks a lot like American demand used to be between 2000 and 2009. So they don’t just have more money to spend, but they also want these films more than we do. Expect studios to greenlight sequels and films with huge budgets only if they have international appeal.


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