Most Surprising and Disappointing Movies of 2011 So Far

Personally, the mid-way point in the year is not so much a time for putting together lists of the best films of the year thus far. If you want my take on the best, just look at the scores I’ve given movies released in 2011 so far and you’ll find my top picks (although I’ve only given one 4.5/5 and that was to “X-Men: First Class,” so now you know all you need to). Rather, I’m more interested in assessing what we thought we’d like that didn’t work out and what we didn’t think we’d care for that went above expectations. After all, most years in movies are back-weighted thanks to festivals and Oscar season. Most people end up disappointed in the year so far because July through December yields better films in general.

I haven’t seen all these movies (4 of the 10), but in combination with past success, early buzz, user ratings, word of mouth and box-office receipts, this was not a tough list to put together. My early findings were this: March was a hotbed of activity in this area this year. Looking at March 2012 and 2013, March is shaping up to truly be a buzz-worthy month with films that have big hopes yet not enough confidence to go up against the titans of summer.

The Biggest Disappointments of 2011


5. The Dilemma

Not many people had high hopes for “The Dilemma” after the trailers came out. Ron Howard directing Vince Vaughn and Kevin James felt awkward and Vaughn has been losing steam as a comedian. Yet a box-office success would’ve been reasonable enough to predict. Of Vaughn’s last five releases, only one (“Fred Claus”) did not make $100 million in the United States. “The Dilemma” finished about $25 million below that with $48.4 million. Perhaps a poor January release date with 21% on Rotten Tomatoes and negative word of mouth snuffed its life quickly with more adults interested in seeing well-reviewed Oscar fare. Movie goers also react negatively when a film doesn’t come as advertised; “Dilemma” was pitched as hard comedy but had too many dramatic twists and turns. I gave it a 2/5.

4. Drive Angry

Exploitation films have never performed that well in theaters, but a 3-D movie focusing on cars and attractive ladies in the form of Amber Heard alongside Nicolas Cage seemed to be the perfect antidote to the winter doldrums of February. For any film not a comedy or drama in 2011, “Drive Angry” finished dead last with just more than $10 million domestically. I’m sure that they had to pay Cage at least that much. To be fair, however, the film earned mixed reviews (45% RT) and mostly satisfied those who indulged it. I rated it 2.5/5 and found it watchable in spite of being hollow. No question, however, that it constitutes one of the worst box-office performances for an action film maybe of all time.

3. Scream 4

Reunion films tend to make noise. We saw how well “Toy Story 3” did more than 10 years after “Toy Story 2,” so why wouldn’t the highly successful “Scream” franchise from Wes Craven make bank about as many years later with stars Neve Campbell and Courtney Cox back (among others)? With good early buzz and a decent 57% RT score for a horror film, the movie seemed poised to lap up April audiences with nothing better to do and horror fans who helped the films make back production costs in nearly one weekend. Yet “Scream 4’s” opening totaled $18.6 million, more than $16 million less than “Scream 3” and that’s with more than 10 years of inflation. The film made $38 million domestically and nearly hit $100 million worldwide. Not a total failure thanks to international audiences, but not a guaranteed start to a new trilogy as The Weinstein Co. hoped. This floppage has me most dumbfounded of all: where did the fans go all these years later? Attendance was clearly down. Did Ghostface kill them? Seriously, when a berated “Scream 3” can open with $34 million, that means it has a big fan base to patronize it no matter what a la horror films such as “Saw” and “Resident Evil.” Something was lost in the last decade, even though most fans who showed up liked what they saw.

2. Green Lantern

Of all action genres, we hold our superhero films to the highest of standards, which means the ones that turn out to be average fall the hardest. I wouldn’t call “Green Lantern” a bad film, I found it quite watchable actually, but it left so much to be desired, especially for a superhero movie that takes us beyond the reaches of Earth (well, somewhat). The film’s lack of imagination was a tremendous let down and its paying dearly at the box office for it. Warner Bros. should have seen this film break $100 million in two weekends, but it’s taken three, with that third weekend totaling $6.5 million. Around the world, no one cares, which has not been the trend in 2011, so that’s surprising. Just $33 million overseas so far. With such a tremendous lack in staying power, “Lantern” won’t even see $200 million worldwide most likely and that was the cost of the production budget alone. In this heated summer battle, you can’t come up lame in reviews (26% RT) just a couple weeks before the big July films, or you’ll get crushed. That’s what happened and you can’t imagine Warner Bros. is happy about it, even with the studio talking up the sequel.

1. Sucker Punch

When the trailer debuted just after Comic-Con last summer, roars of excitement came from cinephiles everywhere for Zack Snyder’s impossibly cool-looking femme fatale action fantasy. But what was one the most highlighted weekend of March on most movie calendars quickly came and went. Most could have predicted “Sucker Punch” would make less than $20 million considering the mediocre openings of most films targeted at males 13 to 30 such as “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Kick-Ass,” but what those films had that “Sucker Punch” didn’t was a Rotten Tomatoes score higher than 22%. I just viewed this film for myself and while much of it blew me away, it was an uncooked mess on the whole. Snyder, the man who made an unprecedented $456 million worldwide with “300” in 2007, came up with $89 million across the globe. I couldn’t have thought more highly of this film from last July up through the first wave of reviews, but I didn’t even end up seeing it in theaters. Perhaps the real disappointment is Snyder, whose films have gotten worse and worse reviews since “300” and made less and less each time.

The Biggest Surprises of 2011

5. Rango

The first of four March releases on this list, “Rango” surprises the least, only because animation has been so good. This was Gore Verbinski and this animation studio’s first attempt at the medium, however, and it looked stunning. The heart and humorous nature of the story and Johnny Depp’s performance as the out-of-water lizard helped matters as well, but normally you don’t expect a first effort to be so excellent. “Rango” ended up as 2011’s first big hit both critically and at the box office, grossing a respectable but not earth-shattering $242 million worldwide and an 89% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film would probably rank about sixth on my list of best films so far this year.

4. The Adjustment Bureau

I had become deeply interested in this film a little over a year ago, but that all dwindled when Universal moved it from late July 2010 until this past March. As it turns out, the move was likely in response to “Inception,” which would’ve completely crushed it thanks to a few similarities and similar release dates — quality had nothing to do with it. So few action films or sci-fi films in this case get the characters right, but George Nolfi’s directorial debut did and more people than I ever expected made plans to see this film. It would certainly not have opened with $21 million going up against the summer tentpoles, so props to Universal for realizing that. Modestly budgeted at an estimated $50 million, the international gross more than doubled that with about $125 million. I would rank it currently as my fifth favorite of 2011 thus far.

3. The Lincoln Lawyer

I would not have pegged an early-year film starring Matthew McCounaghey as a favorite for one of the first best-reviewed films, yet “The Lincoln Lawyer” managed to do just that. With an 83% on Rotten Tomatoes and an identical audience approval rating via Flixster, audiences really liked this legal thriller. For a drama, the film opened reasonably with $13 million, but hung on week after week to make an unusual $57 million (and it’s still playing in 30-some theaters across the country). The strong supporting cast seemed to bolster this one a bit, with Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei and William H. Macy among others. Director Brad Furman has two credits: this film and “The Take,” both with greater than 80% on Rotten Tomatoes. Expect to see more of him. I eagerly await this coming Tuesday when I can check it out on DVD.

2. Limitless

Welcome to the big leagues, Bradley Cooper. The fourth and final March film in my biggest surprises, “Limitless” drew mixed reviews and seemed kind of helter-skelter, but audiences responded well to the premise of a man who can take a pill that unlocks the full potential of his brain. With a strong 70% RT score, “Limitless” opened similarly to “Adjustment Bureau,” just shy of $20 million, speaking volumes right away to Cooper’s drawing power as co-star Robert De Niro isn’t enough in this kind of film. Although I seemed to mostly read so-so reviews claiming that the film didn’t jump on its high concept and dissolved into more of your typical triller, audiences didn’t seem to mind. In domestic gross, “Limitless” finished just behind the much more hotly anticipated March film “Battle: Los Angeles,” which just missed my list of biggest disappointments.

1. Insidious

Marketing gave you little reason to believe “Insidious” would be anything other than a film trying to capitalize on the “Paranormal Activity” phenomenon. After all, “Activity” director Oren Peli produced the film. Yet that’s precisely why we should’ve been interested and “Insidious” turned out to be one of the best-reviewed horror films in recent memory. With “Saw” director James Wan at the helm and some talents who took pay cuts in Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne, distributor FilmDistrict found themselves with an absolute dream film. Fans loved it, RT critics gave it 67% (anything above 50% is a victory for horror) and it made $53 million domestically after opening with just $13 million. The clincher? A budget below $2 million. That, folks, is how you make a good movie on all cylinders.


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