2011: the year in surprises

It’s the time of year when critics, bloggers, and pretty much everyone else with a computing device and an opinion feels obliged to put together a list of the top films/albums/TV shows of the year, alongside Oscar predictions and other early indications of how we expect to look back at the high points of the year 2011. Looking back on the past twelve months myself, it appears first of all to have been a year in which real-world events were substantially more interesting and exciting than anything the entertainment industry had to offer: the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring, the freak show that is the GOP presidential primaries, and the ongoing meltdown of capitalism made it harder to care so much about the 3D light shows that dominated the cinema screens.

Meanwhile, American television continued to ramp up its high-quality output, continuing established great series like Breaking Bad, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Justified, and Louie, while introducing a plethora of promising new shows. Game of Thrones has firmly established its front-runner position, but Homeland, Enlightened, and Boss each offered solid value in their first seasons, while holding varying degrees of promise for the future.

My very favorite films of the year are quite boring in their utter predictability: The Tree of Life and Drive are coming out on top of most major lists right now, and I’m sure I’ll also love Thomas Alfredson’s universally praised new take on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy once it finally reaches these shores. I’ll limit my own picks for the year then to the most pleasant surprises yielded by otherwise generic Hollywood fare: the films that stood out in ways that somehow defeated inherently mediocre expectations.

Sci-fi movies that weren’t completely stupid: Rise of the Planet of the Apes / Attack the Block
Two genre films benefited hugely from the ‘political turn’ that seemed to catch most people off guard this past year: 20th Century Fox’s cynical-sounding reboot of the age-old Planet of the Apes franchise offered a social and political allegory about protest and revolution that seemed to jibe with the year’s geopolitical changes, while the ways in which Attack the Block reflected the London riots and Britain’s big-city race issues was downright uncanny. After decades of science-fiction being dominated by conservative, mostly downright conservative fantasy, it’s great to see the genre rediscovering its political roots again.

A superhero movie that wasn’t a complete waste of time: Captain America: The First Avenger
The once-lively genre has been treading water for the past few years, increasingly descending into purely by-the-numbers franchise exercises that give us something nobody was asking for (The Green Lantern) or that serve as extended trailers for something yet to come (Thor). All the more surprising therefore that Joe Johnston’s workmanlike but perfectly serviceable tribute to Marvel’s Captain America works as well as it does. It suffers from the usual origin story problems –great setup, lazy payoff– but it musters up the nostalgic spirit of fondly remembered 1980s action films like Johnston’s own The Rocketeer.

Animated movies that didn’t suck: Rango / Puss in Boots
We have known for years now that the only animated films worth seeing (let alone exposing your children to) are the ones produced by Pixar, while the rest are generally mindless collections of poorly-executed fart jokes, homophobia, misogyny, and lazy pop-culture references. But this year, Pixar’s only offering was the foregone conclusion of cash-cow sequel Cars 2. And although there wasn’t anything to rival exceptional animated features like Ratatouille or even Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Rango at least gave us some clever genre riffs and an astonishing visual look, while Puss in Boots was miraculous simply for being a Shrek spin-off that managed to transcend its woeful roots in every conceivable way.

A romantic comedy that was funny and romantic: Bridesmaids
Putting the lie to the offensive prejudice that women can’t be funny, the comedic team of Bridesmaids gave us the kind of sleeper hit that refuses to patronize its primary audience. While overlong and overly formulaic in its narrative arc, it did put together the most hilarious comedy set pieces in recent memory by letting its team of comédiennes do what they do best. In a genre dominated by coarse, unfunny bromances and appallingly misogynistic time-wasters, Bridesmaids is nothing short of miraculous with its wit and charm.

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