Monday, January 2, 2012

Top Six Most Pleasant Surprises of 2011

As the year finally 2011 winds to an end, various critics and bloggers have all begun to post their various Top 10 and Best of lists. I’ve flirted with the idea many times, but only now have I decided to make the effort to actually contribute my own personal lists. So, with One Man Film’s Tangent's recent creation, the time seemed perfect to take the plunge. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll publish my various lists, ranking everything from Best Performances to Most Overrated Films. Hopefully it’ll make for interesting conversation.

Final Destination 5:
First things first: no, Final Destination 5 wasn’t exactly ‘good,’ at least not in the conventional sense. In all honesty, its quality is par for the course from past installments–the characters are wooden, the writing is stilted, and budget wise, the whole thing looks uncomfortably similar to a SciFy feature. Yet unlike 2009’s The Final Destination, it was also a surprisingly good time at the movies. 
Director Steven Quale keeps his tongue planted firmly in his cheek throughout 5, and it helps–unlike the previous films, Final Destination 5 seems to be completely self-aware of its own inherent looniness. The methods of death are more ridiculous, as are the physical killings themselves–see the gymnastic scene for proof. Yet the film’s biggest surprise lies in its opening disaster sequence, wherein a bus full of teenagers are stuck on a collapsing bridge. It’s a visual marvel, and one of several pleasures in 5 that are by no means guilty.

5. Tower Heist:
Brett Ratner. There, that should be all the reason you need to know as to why Tower Heist was so dreaded leading up to its release. It didn’t help that the film was comprised mainly of comedians known more for their box-office draw than their comedic reliability. Add to the mixture the once-great-now-turned-family-movie-hack Eddie Murphy, and this solution looked to be positively poisonous.
And then, interestingly enough, Tower Heist was actually funny. Not just ‘smile’ funny or ‘light chuckle’ funny, but 'honest-to-God, full on guffaw' funny. The titular heist was surprisingly clever, the actors complemented one another well, Ratner delivered the necessary directorial goods, and Eddie Murphy was–I can’t believe I’m saying this–the film’s biggest gem. Tower Heist won’t be mistaken for anything profound, but that’s exactly its charm–it’s utter lack of pretension.

4. X-Men: First Class: 
One year. That’s how long filming took on this 60’s-set prequel to the X-Men franchise. In the span of 365 days, director Matthew Vaughn was tasked with writing, filming, and editing a major summer tentpole. To most directors, the pressure would prove unbearable. Yet for Vaughn, it seemed to only enhance his focus.

Coming off of the irreverent Kick-Ass, Vaughn brought all of that film’s bite and injected it into a franchise dearly needing of some edge (the last film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was almost unwatchable). It added up to a reboot that was–sorry–excellent.

                                                     3. The Adjustment Bureau: 
If one were to take The Adjustment Bureau at face value, you’d likely wonder how it could ever have qualified as a pleasant surprise in the first place. It’s not like the movie is lacking in talent–it stars Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, it’s directed by George Nolfi, and its concept is inspired from a Phillip K. Dick story. Yet ever since production wrapped on the project, bad buzz seemed to follow the film wherever it went–which was everywhere. Leaping from date to date across the release calendar, and occasionally being simply TBA, the studio finally managed to settle on March 2011. It didn’t help that there were Internet rumors of the film being everything from “a catastrophe” to “unwatchable.”   
Yet somehow, The Adjustment Bureau ended up being just fine–better than fine, actually. It’s mix of high concept sci-fi mixed with conventional romance added up to a tasty concoction, and the pairing of Damon and Blunt produced some of the most compelling chemistry all year. It was studio filmmaking of the best kind, and proved that a lack of confidence in a product is by no means determining of its quality.

Midnight in Paris: 
It’s no secret that Woody Allen hasn’t had the greatest of runs in recent years. Granted, there have been a few gems here and there, particularly Vicky Cristina Barcelona and the uber-serious Match Point, but the majority of his output has been ponderous and tired, verging on lazy (Scoop, anyone?). When news broke that Allen would be directing yet another all-star cast in yet another unique city–this time, Paris–anticipation remained low.
Yet surprise, surprise, the movie turned out to be terrific. Premiering at Cannes to widespread acclaim, Midnight in Paris surprised both Allen-skeptics and fans. Owen Wilson provided his most endearing performance since Marley and Me, the city was a character unto itself, and most crucially, the tone hit just the right balance between whimsy and romantic convention. The result was Allen’s most purely enjoyable effort since Deconstructing Harry.

1. Rise of the Planet of the Apes:
Speak of the devil–another Fox-released prequel/reboot that ended up being great. Yet with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the studio had even more to prove than with First Class. Coming off of a widely derided reinterpretation from Tim Burton in 2001 (a underrated film, in my view), Rise looked to be to 2011 what G.I. Joe was to 2009–one last visual spectacle designed to drain the last remaining dollars from tired moviegoer’s wallets. 

Turns out, however, that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was quite good. In fact, it ended up being one of the best films of the year. Combining pathos with action, director Rupert Wyatt delivered a movie that audiences were actually able to invest themselves in, and one that also happened to contain one of the year’s most unlikely memorable characters, Caesar. Who would have guessed that Fox–a studio widely known for its 'profit first, quality later' management style–would churn out two high-class blockbusters in one summer?

What were your most pleasant surprises of 2011? Feel free to comment below.


  1. Loved "Rise of the Planet of the Apes!" Can't wait to see "Midnight in Paris."-jcm

  2. Midnight In Paris was an unexpected delight. Even though I've enjoyed a lot of the post-millenial Woodster's output, I wasn't prepared for how wonderfully warm this one would be, particularly after the horribly limp, languid You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. I hope Nero Fiddled keeps his strong streak going, and that the money that MIP made translates into some US funding for another film in Manhattan!

  3. Couldn't agree with your more on Nero Fiddled-hopefully this is the start of another great run for Woody.