As the curtain closes on 2011, Starburst takes a look back at the movies which shaped the cinema-going experience this year - the pirates, the wizards, the aliens, the superheroes and all points in between.
All things considered, 2011’s been a decent year at the flicks. In truth, it’s been a pretty familiar recipe - sequels, reboots, superheroes with a smattering of - gasp! - new ideas, a couple of outstanding efforts from the indie sector and, at the front-end of the year, a trio of promising genre films which were all-new, stand-alone movies which actually demanded that the audience pay attention to the plot rather than allow themselves to be dazzled by a miasma of CGI. Two British-made films made a particular stir at the Box Office and, amusingly, these two movies really couldn’t have been more different and their success not only demonstrates that there’s still life in British cinema (also evident in under-rated triumphs like ‘Kill List’) but also that it’s still possible for modern cinema to appeal to several hugely-different churches. At the beginning of 2011 everyone - honestly, everyone - was talking about ‘The King's Speech’ and in the summer audiences were flocking to see the resurrection of a movie tradition most thought had died a death in the 1970s - the feature-film version of a British sitcom. It’s hard to tell if ’The Inbetweeners Movie’ was knowingly referencing its less-than-salubrious predecessors in its familiar tale of Brits-get-drunk-and-cop-off-abroad or just moving the characters from the phenomenally-successful E4 sixth form comedy to the next logical step in their story but the audience really didn’t give a damn and they flocked to see the movie in droves. ‘The Inbetweeners Movie’ was an astonishing success; budgeted at around £4 million, the cinema tally in the UK alone was in the region of £50 million and the recent DVD release has already sold a million copies after just a fortnight on the shelves. Neither of these films, of course, fall within the remit of Starburst Magazine but it would be horribly remiss of any 2011 Film retrospective to not at least acknowledge their staggering success as indicators that, from time to time, the British film industry is still alive and still capable of delivering a bit of a kick every now and again.
Join with me, please, as I step into Starburst's very own TARDIS to journey back to a cold, miserable and snowy January 2011 and the very beginning of what would turn out to be a rather memorable twelve months at the movies. Here we go.... VWORP VWORP...
January 2011 saw the movie industry emerge from its Christmas slumbers with a few potential big-hitters and a handful which were always destined to sink pretty much without trace. First off the blocks, on January 5th, came the forgettable Russell Crowe thriller 'The Next Three Days' which was about... ah, dammit, I did warn you it was forgettable. The aforementioned 'King's Speech' appeared on 7th January and began making waves almost immediately which is more than can be said for the risible Nicolas Cage/Ron Perlmann medieval fantasy 'Season of the Witch' which combined ropey CGI, underwhelming action sequences and ludicrously-anachronistic dialogue to create another 'why-the-Hell-did-he-agree-to-this?' title to add to Nic Cage's embarrassing CV. 'The Green Hornet' arrived on 14th January and rapidly buzzed off. Casting former porker comedy actor Seth Rogan was the death knell for any hope of a serious reboot for this long-forgotten superhero franchise (last seen as a short-lived 1960s US TV series from the makers of 'Batman' and which introduced the late Bruce Lee to the American public) in much the same way that casting Jack Black in the execrable 'Gulliver's Travels' pretty much guaranteed a cinematic write-off for the big Christmas flick for 2010. 'The Green Hornet' wasn't a complete waste of time but it was nothing if not a wasted opportunity, Rogan's comic bumbing undermining the one or two moments when he actually threatened to look like a potential action hero.
The controversial and divisive 'Black Swan' arrived on 21st January but genre fans might have been more interested in the grisly, unsettling remake of 'I Spit On Your Grave' and 'John Carpenter's The Ward', not much of a renaissance for the legendary director but a watchable bit of hokey horror. Clint Eastwood tackled the supernatural for the first time in the underrated 'Hereafter' which saw Matt Damon as a reluctant psychic; after a spectacular opening sequence depicting a devastating tsunami 'Hereafter' became a slow-burn character piece which rewarded the patience required to stick with its interconnected human dramas.
February saw the arrival of two of the year's best films - the Coen brother's remarkable remake of 'True Grit' and Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg in top form in 'The Fighter', neither of which are Starburst fodder so we'll move swiftly on. February 18th saw the wet Alex Pettyfer playing the wet survivor of a wet alien race in the rather wet 'I Am Number Four' and the same day saw the return of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the likeable and under-appreciated comedy sci-fi road movie 'Paul'. 25th February saw - hooray! - Nic Cage back in the mercilessly-daft 'Drive Angry' (Angry? Angrily?? Oh, don't get me started on all that again...) and Anthony Hopkins served up prime slices of genuine ham in the interesting little old school chiller 'The Rite' which was so right it was wrong.... er... or something.
Into March and Matt Damon starred in the classy and intriguing 'The Adjustment Bureau' in which a group of secret men wearing hats control the destiny of Man. I'm not really selling it very well but it was much better than it sounds and it was one a trio of sci-fi movies released early in 2011 which marked a refreshing change from the gung-ho histrionics of the summer season crowd-pleasers by presenting intelligent and - whisper it - original stories without over-relying on glitzy visuals. Speaking of which, March 22th gifted us 'Battle: Los Angeles' in which... well, big aliens flattened LA and the US Army fought back. Far better than the underpowered 'Skyline' and 'Monsters' from 2010, this was brash, explosive stuff which was at least courageous enough to leave the story open-ended (in anticipation of the sequel we'll probably never see) and it's always heartening to see Michelle Rodriguez playing that butch marine character she specialises in again. Hammer continued its cautious return to the big screen with low-key shocker 'The Resident' but sadly most people stayed at home. Arf arf... 'Limitless' was the second promising high-concept genre movie of the year, the adrenalised story of a would-be writer (Bradley Cooper) who takes a brain-enhancing drug which gives him access to the limitless (hence the title) power of his mind. But the drug has some terrible and unforeseen side-effects. Despite becoming overly fanciful towards the end this was a dynamic and engaging effort powered by a meaty performance from Cooper.
True horror on April 1st with 'Justin Bieber: Never Say Never' (in 3D - screeeeammm!) in which the pop phenomenon (go on, name one of hits, I dare you....) does his thang live!! Zack Snyder's 'Sucker Punch' disappointed many with its over-stylised visuals and flimsy storyline but it seems to be gaining a bit of a cult reputation on DVD where its extended cut is earning some admiration so is probably due a bit of a reappraisal.
Released on 8th April was the tough European thriller 'Hanna', 'Atonement' director Joe Wright's powerful hit-girl fantasy boasting pulsating action sequences, a script which occasionally veers off the rails and a stomping Chemical Brothers soundtrack. Yeah, that'd be me down wit' the kids...
15th April saw the arrival of the deeply dreary 'Red Riding Hood' and the wet Alex Pettifer again in 'Beastly', a wet (didn't see that coming, did you?) 'Beauty and the Beast' knock-off in which pretty (wet) boy Pettyfer is turned all beastly until he finds true lurve. Of course I didn't see it, what do you think I am, some kind of idiot? That's a rhetorical question, by the way...
Teen stalker flick 'The Roommate' also stank up the place from 15th April and the undemanding and extremely unlikely Aussie teen invasion movie 'Tomorrow When The War Began' arrived on the same day. Sequels are threatened.
I've avoided the plethora of animated movies which did the rounds this year because there were just so many of them and, well, they're for kids really, aren't they? Bless 'em. But I have to give a dishonourable mention to the April release of 'Mars Needs Moms', an animated feature so unsuccessful (although not badly reviewed) it's now acknowledged as one of Hollywood's biggest financial disasters of all time. Those thudding sounds you hear would be heads rolling somewhere at Disney...
A strong contender for 'film of the year' must surely be Duncan (son of... oh, never mind) Jones' second feature, the stunning 'Source Code', an elegant and original time travel (well, actually 'time reassignment') yarn starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a US helicopter pilot mysteriously separated from his troop in Afghanistan who suddenly finds himself living the same few minutes over and over again on a commuter train in downtown Chicago. How did he get there? Why is there? Why is this all happening? Yes, it stretches credibility a bit and I'm sure the science is a load of old toot but 'Source Code' is a gripping and genuinely innovative sci-fi film in a genre which can be horribly derivative. It's also, incidentally, the third of those original high-concept sci-fi movies I was banging on about a bit earlier.
April ended with the first rumblings from the summer season as Kenneth Branagh's 'Thor' arrived in the form of a flowing-maned Chris Hemsworth as the Norwegian God exiled to Earth by the machinations of his evil brother Loki. Big and bombastic, 'Thor' seemed a little low-key (I can never tire of that joke) for a big superhero film and it's clearly another piece in the jigsaw which will eventually fall into place in 'The Avengers' next summer but there's fun to be had here with the usual fish-out-of-water comedy and some flashy visuals and overwrought acting.
'Attack the Block' arrived on 13th May and whilst many admired first-time UK Director Joe Cornish's (of TV/radio 'Adam and Joe' fame) gritty urban sci-fi comedy horror, others were uncomfortable with its depiction of a bunch of street hoodlums becoming unlikely heroes and what appeared to be a celebration of modern British street gang culture. Whatever. I just liked the way the big bear aliens climbed up the outside of buildings and Nick Frost's turn as the friendly neighbourhood stoner.
Second volley from the Big Guns came with the mid-May release of the much-anticipated (?) fourth instalment of the worryingly-tired 'Pirates of the Caribbean' franchise. Johnny Depp was back as Captain Jack Sparrow in 'On Stranger Tides' and hopes were raised higher than Jolly Rogers with the news that the baggage of the first three films (sorry, Orlando and Keira) had been swept away to allow for some new characters and situations. Sadly 'On Stranger Tides' turned out to be a rancid, vacuous, soul-destroying shambles, Depp on autopilot, hand outstretched for his pay cheque for the entire tortuous running time, newcomers like Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane given little or nothing to work with. Even more sadly, the film took squillions at the Box Office worldwide proving that you actually can fool all of the people all of the time and I await with a heavy heart the inevitable announcement of another turn around the deck with the increasingly-tedious Jack Sparrow. Me, I'd rather walk the plank...
Home invasion horror in June as 'Mother's Day' saw the return to the big screen of Rebecca De Mornay as the twisted matriarch of a family of hoodlums who hole up in a quiet family home when a heist goes wrong. Much torture and grisliness ensues. A better bet was the return of the 'X-Men' in a clever franchise reboot 'First Class' directed by Britain's Matthew Vaughn and featuring classy turns by James McEvoy and Michael Fassbender and telling the origins of the mutant superheroes in the early 1960s. Visually rich and with a denouement which, although based around an actual historical event we all know the outcome of, still managed to be edge-of-the-seat stuff, 'First Class' restored the reputation of the 'X-Men' after the misfires of 'The Last Stand' (which actually isn't that bad) and 'Wolverine' (which is). June 17th saw more superhero shenanigans in Martin Campbell's well-meaning attempt to bring the virtually-unfilmable 'Green Lantern' to the screen. Ryan Reynolds did his best with a gee-whizz performance but the whole concept - and some of the bizarre aliens - were just a bit too much for a mainstream audience and sadly 'Green Lantern' didn't light up too many lives and the promised 'darker' sequel seems like wishful thinking.
Into July and God bless Michael Bay for 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' which, whilst not as offensively stupid as the second movie in the series, 'Revenge of the Fallen', was equally as ridiculous and exhausting but with a last half-hour that really has to be seen to be believed. Quirky and off-beat - and brutal - dark superhero tale 'Super' captivated many whilst Harry Potter's endless battle with Voldemort and his minions finally came to a shattering conclusion in 'Deathly Hallows Part 2' which was much like all the previous Potters but with a bit more death and destruction. Not really my cup of tea but well done everyone. The final big superhero movie of the year arrived at the end of July in the shape of 'Captain America - The First Avenger' which, you'll not be surprised to learn, is another film on the road to 'The Avengers'. This was great, exhilarating wartime comic strip fun, directed with real panache by Joe Johnston and with Chris Evans (no, not that one) in his element as superwimp-turned-superhero Steve Rodgers.
August saw the arrival of 'Super 8', JJ Abram's love-note to the 1980s kid's fantasy movies by the likes of Spielberg and Joe Dante, the first big-screen outing by 'The Smurfs' became a Starburst favourite and 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' confounded all expectations - pretty low after the debacle of Tim Burton's hideous 2002 'reimagining' of the original - by being quite possibly the best genre film of the year. With a stunning motion capture performance by Andy Serkis which made super-ape Caesar appear more human than many of his co-stars, this was a bold and brave 'back to the beginning' adventure which cheekily referenced the original 1967 movie whilst telling the story of how one ape sowed the seeds for the downfall of mankind. Two sequels have been greenlit and they're eagerly anticipated. One of the year's biggest disappointments was Jon Favreau's 'Cowboys and Aliens' which was ultimately just a waste of a damned good title. Dreary and largely humourless, the film was deadpan when it should have been uproariously funny and it was a struggle to work out who was the more boring, the seen-'em-before aliens or the po-faced Daniel Craig and craggy Harrison Ford. Robert Rodriguez brought back his 'Spy Kids' for a fourth outing but the old generation had moved on and the new one weren't interested. 'Conan the Barbarian' sank like a stone and 'Final Destination 5' dared to tell the same story again but at least had the decency to add a twist or two and a rather neat way of, let's hope, tying up the series once and for all.
September 2nd saw a trio of notable releases, as former 'Doctor Who' David Tennant stepped into the shoes of the late Roddy McDowell to play theatrical vampire hunter Peter Vincent against Colin Farrell's undead blood-sucker in a remake (of a cheesy 1980s original) which, whilst hardly necessary, was enjoyable enough but wasn't quite the Hollywood break Tennant might have been hoping for. The 'found footage' movie craze continued apace with 'Apollo 18', a slightly-tiresome and claustrophobic effort about something nasty infiltrating a previously-secret Apollo moon landing mission. Ben Wheatley's 'Kill List' managed to combine British gangster-flick sensibilities with a soupcon of 'Wicker Man' weirdness. Yet more 'found footage' stuff from 'Troll Hunter' on 9th September, a Scandinavian import most memorable for its bleak, wintry landscapes and the brilliantly-realised and sometimes-unsettling giant trolls stamping about through the snow. 21st September saw 'Judy Moody and the Bummer Summer' which surely can't be as scarily hair-raising as it sounds, Ryan Gosling gave a performance of superb stillness in the brilliant 'Drive', a film whose trailer would have led you to expect something entirely different to the film you actually saw. Naughty trailer-makers! Starburst would coin the phrase 'artmageddon' to describe the likes of Lars Von Trier's paralysingly slow 'Melancholia' at the end of the month and there were some fairly bloodless shark attacks in the aptly named 'Shark Attack 3D'. I shall, incidentally, say no more about the continuing blight of 3D cinema other than to hope that this tedious fad really is running out of steam and we can go back to watching films which don't have to find ways to make you think things are being thrown out of the screen at you...
October saw the arrival, years after the original, of 'Johnny English Reborn' starring Rowan Atkinson as Britain's most bumbling secret agent. Tee hee. Well I liked it... Paul Anderson's ludicrous (and yet ludicrously-enjoyable) steampunk 'The Three Musketeers' really should have done much better business and Hugh Jackman's battling robots feelgood family movie 'Real Steel' seemed to hold its own but I've yet to test its mettle (come on, work with me here).
October 21st saw Steven Soderbergh's tense ensemble killer plague flick 'Contagion' which chilled and captivated until the last reel which wrapped the story up far too easily with far too many cosy contrivances and the 'found footage' franchise which reinvigorated the whole concept has surely reached its conclusion now in the creepy and scary 'Paranormal Activity 3'. I'm big and tough, I wasn't scared and I absolutely did not sleep with the light on the night I saw it. Honestly. The much-anticipated 'Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn' arrived mid-October and, much as I enjoyed it, its motion-capture animation made it a soulless experience and its European sensibilities, quirky storyline and utter absence of a female figure for audience identification has, as I expected, led to its Christmas US release under-performing spectacularly which must cast some doubt on what had appeared to be shoo-in sequels with Anthony Horowitz already at work on the scripts.
Ok, we're on the home straight now, Christmas is in sight. November saw a competent if pointless remake of 'Straw Dogs', Justin Timberlake made an effective escape from comedy movie hell in 'In Time' which was pretty much a remake of 'Logan's Run' in all but name, 'The Human Centipede 2' was doubtless as repellent as the few seconds I've endured of the original. 'The Awakening' was a welcome return to the big old haunted country house movie in a delicate and atmospheric chiller starring Rebecca Hall and Dominic West and 'Immortals' was lot of CGI nonsense a la '300' with lots of bare-chested men beating each other about the head. Probably. The sappy 'Twilight' saga reached movie number four with 'Breaking Dawn' breaking Box Office records when it was released on November 18th. Here at Starburst Towers we all know better than to challenge our Editor's unquestioning devotion to this franchise and we anticipate his pain and anguish at its conclusion next year. There'll be tears...
More 'artmageddon' cinema from quality indie flick 'Take Shelter' with a bravura performance from Michael Shannon as a sturdy blue collar worker obsessed with visions of a forthcoming apocalypse which never comes. Or does it? 'Resistance' was set in a rural wartime Wales in an alternative timeline where the Nazis invaded but nothing much happened and the real war was much more exciting.
December! Festive frolics! Parties! 'A Fairytale of New York' on the radio every bloody five minutes. Back in the multiplex Martin Scorsese confused his usual audience by making 'Hugo' a charming and visually-breathtaking children's film, the much-delayed remake of 'The Thing' turned out to be a prequel which told the same story as the original (or rather, John Carpenter's 1982 remake of the 1950s original... still with me?) so it was all a bit pointless really. 'Another Earth' was a contemplative indie piece which used a big sci-fi idea - the sudden appearance in the sky of a mirror-image Earth - to tell the very human stories of two lost and wounded souls. Guy Ritchie's version of 'Sherlock Holmes' turned up the comedy dial for its sequel 'A Game of Shadows' with Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson but some good set pieces saved the film from sinking under the weight of its increasing silliness. I can't and won't, however, forgive the ridiculousness of Holmes' final disguise. And finally, and most recently, we have Tom Cruise in what already appears to be a career-saving fourth outing as Ethan Hunt in 'Mission impossible: Ghost Protocol' and David Fincher's studied take on 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' starring Daniel Craig.
So there we have it. 2011 - A Year in Film. It's been a pretty broadbrush retrospective, of course, and I dare say I've missed out one or two of your favourites much as I've missed out almost all the animation. But hopefully I've managed to jog a few memories of films you might have seen months ago or titles you'd forgotten but meant to catch up with on DVD and Blu ray. Despite the slew of sequels and superhero flicks, it's been a pretty good year with some entertaining blockbusters and even one or two new ideas in amongst all the reheated stuff. My colleague Chris Holt has already flagged up the films you need to keep on your radar for 2012 (and you can read that here) but rest assured that Starburst - online and in print! - will be with you every step of the way to guide you through the treats and terrors which lie ahead in another year at the movies.