Yeah, so some films came out in 2011. The consensus seems to be it was a slow year. I have to agree, but still, I enjoyed myself. I saw about 35 films from 2011 by my count, which is better attendance than my last three years. I've still got almost 20 more I'd like to get around to.
The Oscars aired over the weekend and they tended to bear out the 'slow year' assessment with above-average but generally straight-forward crowd-pleasers The Artist and Hugo leading with five awards apiece in races that were hardly nail-biting. I enjoyed both films quite a bit, but was sad to see the two films I thought were truly brilliant get beaten out, The Tree of Life for best picture, director and cinematography and A Separation for best screenplay (to the thoroughly mediocre Midnight in Paris). My friends and I were fairly disappointed with the results and yet, one must acknowledge that this is what the Oscars do: they validate safe, middlebrow films that are generally liked at least a little bit by everyone. It is hard to fault the Academy too much for fulfilling it's long-established role.
For it could be much worse. Dull and conventional as the Academy is, they still have better taste than the movie-going public. I know that's a terribly snobby thing to say, but today I happened to look over the box-office returns for 2011 and, for someone who cares about cinema, it's highlights, innovations, eccentricities, emotional power and imaginative possibilities, it can't help but be a little depressing to see the numbers.
Here's the top 20 grossers for the year:
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
3. Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1
4. The Hangover 2
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
6. Fast Five
7. Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol
8. Cars 2
9. Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows
11. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
12. Captain America
13. The Help
15. Kung Fu Panda 2
16. Puss in Boots
17. X-Men: First Class
19. The Smurfs
20. Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked
Out of 20 films there are 12 sequels, 3 prequels and 3 comic book adaptations (which will probably spawn sequels of their own).
Of the remaining 3, one was an adaptation of a book (The Help), leaving only two original properties. One was Bridesmaids, produced by Judd Apatow (probably my all-time comedic nemesis) in his trademark style. The other was Rio, a warmly-received animated kids movie which performed well for Blue Sky Studios at the box-office, but barely half as well as their panned 2009 blockbuster threequel Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs. They won't make the mistake of risking a new franchise anytime soon; next year they've announced Ice Age: Continental Drift. No joke.
The top 9 highest-grossing films this year were sequels. On average, the top 8 films were the 4th entry in a franchise. The fourth! I can remember back to when my grandparents complained about how all that ever got churned out was sequels (as in direct sequels, number two in a series). They didn't know how good they had it. But this is presumably what people want. Or what advertisers have trained people to think they want.
Alright, then. Not depressed yet? Let's look at how the nominees for best picture fared. I'm going to list the nine nominees in order of their box-office takes, each one followed by a film that outgrossed them displayed in parenthesis as a point of comparison.
#13 The Help (Fast Five)
#41 War Horse (Battle: Los Angeles)
#42 The Descendants (Real Steel)
#46 Moneyball (Tower Heist)
#52 Hugo (Jack and Jill - This years front-runner at the Golden Raspberries)
#59 Midnight in Paris (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never)
#96 The Artist (Sucker Punch. A "fantasia of misogyny" - A. O. Scott)
#97 Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (The Roommate)
#132 The Tree of Life (Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer, Season of the Witch, etc.)
I like to think I have better taste than either the theater-swarming masses or the decrepit Academy, but then who doesn't? So here are my top 10 films of the year (make that 11, and keep in mind I didn't see everything, or even all that much) along with capsule summaries that may explain their lack of wide-scale appeal.
#132 The Tree of Life - Mankind, not to mention the individual, is doomed to a patrimony of struggle and bitterness, but don't worry, we're just insignificant motes in the grand scheme of the universe anyway.
#175 A Separation - An Iranian family deals with divorce, a grandparent with Alzheimer's disease and the contested miscarriage of an employee living in poverty. Even though everyone means well they still compromise their morals and tear each other apart.
#168 The Skin I Live In - Soap opera meets horror thriller meets sexual identity thesis in a beguiling, carefully-structured and admittedly unmarketable rabbit hole about an absurdly unethical surgeon, his beautiful experimental patient, and their complicated pasts.
#163 Shame - Loneliness and emptiness erode the soul. Sex doesn't help.
#170 Melancholia - Depression and the apocalypse are the only soulmates at a disastrous wedding.
#185 Take Shelter - You're either going insane or a terrifying storm is about to destroy everything and everyone you love.
#110 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - There's no honor among spies. Or action. Or even sex appeal.
#151 Margin Call - Investment bankers are greedy, but not happy.
#42 The Descendants - A family that stalks together, stays together (except for the terminally comatose adulterous wife).
#62 Source Code - A war vet uses time-travel to fight terrorism and fall in love. Too bad he's already dead. Or not... I guess.
#96 The Artist - 1929 hated the silent era. 2011 loves it.
Anyway, that's my take on 2011. Bitter as I sound, I ended up having a blast by the end! And I'm looking forward to the great films of 2012.
excellent essay and comparisons, Brian. i've actually seen about 1/2 of your top ten, and will queue up the others.
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