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The Five Best Movie Surprises of 2011... So Far

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Thursday, Oct 13, 2011
Oscar season may end up altering this list severely, but for now, these five films are the pleasant reminders of why we give some movies a chance instead of dismissing them on sight...of first trailer.

A good way to judge a quality film season is by balancing the pleasant surprises against the bitter disappointments. If you come out even, or by the grace of the modern digital deities ahead, it’s a pretty decent year for traversing to the cinema. Of course, Oscar season carries a bulk of these extreme ups and downs, so reevaluation may be necessary come January. Yet there are always a few gems that show up early. In 2011, I’d like to think we’re at least even. With three-fourths of the year gone, here are the surprises I found most rewarding and revelatory.

# 5 - Bridesmaids

Ok, everyone’s a fan now, but before Kristen Wiig became the hottest comedy commodity since Betty White, her first writing feature looked just plain awful. Most people wrote it off as a rip off of The Hangover with female leads (because of the misleading trailer), or an off-putting gross out comedy (because of the trailer), or just another misguided attempt at a movie by SNL vets (because of the trailer…and countless past examples).

Then it came out and people actually watched it before judging it. Positive reviews came flooding in, audiences fell in love, and it became the massive success it is today. Hell, it’s even got the faintest bit of Oscar buzz for best original screenplay. Not to be a buzzkill or a naysayer or to take anything away from Wiig or Annie Mumolo, who co-wrote the film, but if Bridesmaids actually ends up with nominations this coming January, I think it’s more for political reasons than artistic ones.

The film showed many of the flaws found in first-time features. It was too long and too reliant on exposition. What got it on the list was Wiig’s deft comedic performance and the fact that everyone expected it to be freaking terrible! And it’s not because women made it or starred in it or any other sexist reason – it just didn’t look like the funny, heart-filled picture it is, actually. Bridesmaids is an effectively funny movie with likable characters. I would go as far as to say it’s ideal summer fun. Let’s just make sure we don’t make it the high bar we compare all future movies written by women against. I think even Wiig would say she could do better (and she will).

# 4 - Hanna

This one may not come as a surprise to anyone who enjoyed all of Atonement, knew Joe Wright directed both films, and like their epic war romances as much as their child spy action flicks…which would be Spy Kids, I guess. For everyone else and for all of you out there who wrote this one off a little too quickly, Hanna is a captivating, exhilarating look through the eyes of a disciplined, deprived young girl with a unique and singular mission: kill Marissa Wiegler.

Of course, there’s much more to it than that, but telling you would ruin all the fun. The film’s mysteries unravel with a deliciously slow burn of information mixed with incredibly fast action scenes, elaborately shot by Wright and cut together by an expert post-production team. Though the stories couldn’t be more distinctive, Hanna shares all of the best qualities with Atonement. The Chemical Brothers’ score blends beautifully with the action on screen, and Wright employs another lengthy, exquisitely blocked one shot. Thankfully, it skips the lackluster second act and downright ridiculous finale of Wright’s previous entry.

I know a movie about a 16-year-old female killing machine may be an alienating subject for some. I didn’t even see it in theaters, despite the mainly positive reviews and a strong recommendation from a trusted friend. Luckily, I imagine this film plays almost as effectively on your HDTV as it would in a luxurious theatrical venue (it goes against my personal creed to say it’s just as good). Get over your silly qualms, and embrace Hollywood’s originality whenever you can – after all, aren’t you sick of superhero movies by now?

# 3 - Green Lantern

No? Well that works out splendidly then. Green Lantern, the unfairly maligned sci-fi hoot-and-a-half , was the best superhero film of the summer. Yes, it’s far better than Captain America, a film missing a superhero – we’ve all seen Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger jump over fire and run down cars, and they were playing your average Joes. Yes, it’s even better than X-Men: First Class, a film missing the key ingredient for summer action flicks – fun.

Green Lantern features a historically prized hero who’s bestowed a ring of incredible power. No, not that one, you LOTR nerd. Though I could have gone for a few more tricks from the most powerful weapon in the universe, it’s an origin story and its wearer isn’t yet an expert. What he’s best at is cracking wise (as Ryan Reynolds always has been), wooing the ladies (as Ryan Reynolds always has been), and facing his fears as a man, hero, and general do-gooder (I can’t really attest for Reynolds’ stature here).

Detractors called it clichéd, sloppy, and expository. I counter with nay, never, and only when necessary. Sure, we all know what’s coming in this popcorn blockbuster, but its earnestness is its appeal, as well as its spectacular special effects (my God, just look at that suit!). This movie, and Green Lantern in general, is made for fathers and sons. It’s about the battle between will and fear, two ideals facing young men every day. The wearer must be fearless, or at least as the movie teaches us, brave when faced with fear. People of all ages should be able to latch onto these universal feelings, especially when told with such excitement and humor. Cynics can call it corny. I’ll stick with courageous.

# 2 - Footloose 2011

Yes, I’ve mentioned my bias for this remake of the Kevin Bacon classic before, but now that I’ve seen the picture in full (and on Footloose Friday) I feel much safer in recommending it to everyone I can. Director Craig Brewer has crafted a loving homage to the classic teenage dance picture of yesteryear, while his cast of young no-names kick off their careers in style.

A few tweaks have been made here and there, including an altered opening sequence and additional background on the rebellious Ren McCormack, both adding more dramatic weight to the picture. There are obvious and subtle tributes to the original, so fans should keep their eyes as open as their minds. I know the stigma out there against remakes, especially of beloved films with even more beloved stars, but please give this one a chance. It’s just as much fun as the original, with enough alterations to make it relevant and more than enough reverence to honor its predecessor.

# 1 - Warrior

If you’re lucky enough to be near one of the 300 theaters Gavin O’Connor’s rousing fight picture is still playing, go see it. Now. It’s not about MMA. It’s not a rip-off of The Fighter, or Rocky, or any other fight movie that’s come before it. It has the training montage, the reluctant return to the ring/octagon, the worried family members, and even the climactic final fight, but Warrior isn’t concerned with any of those genre clichés. It’s about family conflict, and boy are these characters conflicted.

Starring Tom Hardy (Inception, the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises) and Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom, the upcoming The Great Gatsby) play estranged brothers both looking to get back into the fight game. Hardy, as Tommy, just returned from overseas, a topic he’s none too keen on discussing. Edgerton, as Brendan, needs money to support his family because he’s not making enough as a science teacher. The siblings haven’t talked in years and it has something to do with their alcoholic father, Paddy, played poignantly by Nick Nolte.

Secrets are divulged slowly as the three men come together physically if not emotionally. There’s a lot bubbling under the surface, and it all comes out inside the cage. This expression of sentiment via violence is what Drive wanted to accomplish, but lacked the heart and emotional bearing. Warrior has it in droves. O’Connor’s instant classic (attendance be damned) could be accused in the future of not even being a sports movie, like Jerry Maguire or For Love of the Game. Though I would dispute it, I would also consent the film is not really about the sport it depicts. Let me put it this way – no one who goes to see this movie, no matter the reason, will be disappointed. So go. Go! Now!

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