It's a bit of a conundrum, really. Some movies are only meant to entertain, and as such often get left off of the usual year-end Top Ten lists. And while it's true that none of the films on this list, of The Ten Most Entertaining Movies of 2011, were anywhere near as "good" as We Need to Talk About Kevin or The Tree of Life, they're all whizz-bang entertainments that did exactly what they set out to do, and deserve plenty of credit for their trouble. In the interest of spreading the love, I'm leaving out the handful of genre films that actually made my Ten Best Films of 2011 – Warrior, Rango, Source Code and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil – but be aware that they'd have easily cracked the top five here otherwise.
10. (Tie) – THE ALMIGHTY THOR and 51
The world of straight-to-video genre movies is a scary place where many film aficionados fear to tread. But some of the most entertaining movies of the year were released on DVD only, for all the right and, yes, all the wrong reasons. On the “So Bad It’s Good” side of the equation we have The Almighty Thor, a “mockbuster” released simultaneously with this summer’s bona fide Thor to confuse audiences and drive up DVD sales. It’s impossibly low budget, spectacularly badly acted (Cody Deal’s surfer dude interpretation of the title character is a particular delight) and every bit as awful(-ly good) as you can imagine. Just as highly recommended: 51, a sci-fi monster flick with a witty script, memorable alien designs and a lot of neat ideas. No irony… 51 is just plain great, fun sci-fi filmmaking.
9. DRIVE ANGRY
Patrick Lussier is one of the few directors who understands that 3D is just a gimmick, used to turn a movie into a theme park ride. With Drive Angry, he put Knott’s Berry Farm to shame. The film is a thrill-a-minute cacophony of overwhelming awesomeness. Nicolas Cage stars as the escaped prisoner from Hell – literally – who returns to Earth to fight, screw, and avenge his daughter’s death at the hands of a would-be antichrist. William Fichtner basically reprises his role from Prison Break as an angel tasked with bringing Cage back to the underworld, and Amber Heard sure is pretty, isn’t she? Drive Angry is nothing but sleazeball, action-packed fun from beginning to end.
There were a lot of great action movie imports this year, entertaining and excellent and combinations thereof, but my favorite by far was Gantz, an adaptation of the popular manga by Hiroya Oku. The film stars an ensemble cast who are plucked from the brink of death into a mysterious room filled with a giant metal ball that eventually opens, distributes futuristic power suits and weapons, and teleports them all to a new locale so they can kill an undercover alien. The aliens are all unique and interesting entities, from onion-loving slicer-dicers to all-powerful robots and gigantic statues, and each battle is heart-racing. Beyond that the characters are all strongly defined and the mysteries are enticingly introduced, setting us up for a single sequel to wrap everything up, coming out next year. I hear the English dub is terrible, but the Japanese version with subtitles is one of the best superhero movies to come from the other side of either pond.
7. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
The best X-Men movie yet happens to be fourth. Huh. Didn’t see that one coming. Stardust director Matthew Vaughn takes us back to the 1960s, when Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) are still young men with an argumentative but close friendship. The inevitable betrayals are dramatized fantastically against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and before that, all the characters are given their moments to shine. Impeccably designed with an early James Bond flare, X-Men: First Class was slick, perfectly produced entertainment on every level.
6. REAL STEEL
I was shocked when Real Steel underperformed at the box office, since it took such a great concept – Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie – and used it to craft a familiar but deeply involving underdog sports story. Hugh Jackman stars as a boxer who fights with remote controlled robots. He winds up babysitting his estranged son over the summer. Together they turn a scrap heap of a robot into a rocket-powered Rocky Balboa, taking on superior opponents using old-fashioned strategy and moxie. The real stars are Dakota Goyo, an unusually charismatic young actor, and a string of distinctively designed robot opponents, all of whom I want to own as action figures. Shawn Levy graduated from “That Guy Who Did The Night at the Museum Movies” to a genuine blockbuster heavyweight director with this film. Not that anybody noticed…
5. FAST FIVE
Another astonishingly strong sequel, especially considering how utterly crappy the last entry was, Fast Five was the first film in the Fast and the Furious franchise to get the mix just right. A likable cast of characters, clearly defined goals and a string of elaborate car chases and heists. Seriously… How hard was that? Vin Diesel and Paul Walker are joined by a small army of cast members from the rest of the franchise to take on Joaquim de Almeida and Dwayne Johnson, playing a Brazilian mafioso and a dogged U.S. task force leader, respectively. Justin Lin directs the plot and action with equal skill, making everything easy to follow and absolutely thrilling. That’s more rare than it should be. One damned cool flick.
4. THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN
One of Spielberg’s most entertaining films – yes, that’s saying a lot – The Adventures of Tintin is an action-packed thrill ride of a movie that deftly barrels from one bravura set piece to another as Hergé’s titular comic book hero (Jamie Bell) gets himself mixed up in a centuries-old mystery involving pirates, buried treasure and drunken sidekicks. Some would argue that Tintin would have been better off as a live-action experience, but Spielberg’s impossible flying camera moves would have had to be done in CGI no matter what happened, so the motion-capture animation technique just makes everything seem consistent… and given his dedication to matching Hergé’s iconic character design, consistently magical.
Marvel Studios’ winning streak continued this year with Thor, a luscious and grand fantasy adventure directed by Hamlet’s Kenneth Branagh. Impressively, Branagh approached the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creation with the same reverence he gives The Bard. The eccentric blend of science fiction and fantasy concepts play like an outlandish period piece, and a winning supporting cast elevates the familiar human drama back on Earth. Thor brings the fun back to comic book movies, with a hero unfettered by neurosis, a gorgeous presentation and a series of big, brawny action sequences that rip most other blockbusters a new one. Superhero movies rarely get more fun than this, but we’ll get to one of them in a minute.
2. THE MUPPETS
Not many comedies on my list, but that’s because – Bridesmaids aside – most of the comedies I saw this year sucked. The biggest exception was easily The Muppets, a heartfelt and genuinely hilarious return to form for Jim Henson’s classic creations. Jason Segel co-wrote and co-starred along with a new Muppet, Walter (Peter Linz), both of whom reunite the original cast of characters to save Muppet Studios from destruction by a billionaire who’s incapable of laughter. A string of toe-tapping songs from Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie make the running time breeze by, as whimsical interludes with fart-shoes and countless celebrity cameos compete to bust your gut. Best of all, The Muppets actually has a point: that the pervasive nostalgia for our childhoods can be life affirming when actually applied in real life. A smart message from the funniest movie of the year.
1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
My initial review of Captain America: The First Avenger should be ignored. At the time I preferred the summer’s earlier release of Thor, but time and repeated viewings have found Captain America to be the superior film, and the year’s most superbly crafted, exciting example of mainstream blockbuster filmmaking. Director Joe Johnston returns to his Rocketeer era for a rollicking, powerful story of World War II, told from the perspective of an 88-pound weakling who becomes a true American hero. Evans anchors the cast, but superb work can be found across the board, with Hugo Weaving bringing The Red Skull to spectacular life in particular. It’s a winner on every level, and the most entertaining movie of the year.
HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order):
MEGA PYTHON VS. GATOROID
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS