Every year, it's easy to come up with a long list of the year's worst science fiction and fantasy movies. Reels and reels of garbage arrive in cinemas with shocking regularity. But it's a good year when you can think of half a dozen great genre films off the top of your head. By that standard, 2011 was a good year.
Hollywood's box office was down, the biggest films were mostly sequels, and nothing really blew moviegoers' minds. But there amongst some outstanding atrocities, there were some real joyful discoveries. Here are our picks for the 10 best and 10 worst science fiction and fantasy movies of 2011. Let the debate begin!
Top image via Comic Book Movie, artist unknown.
10. Fright Night
We didn't expect that much from a remake of a cult 1980s vampire comedy, but Fright Night surprised us. Fast-paced, witty and genuinely exciting, this film packs enough surprises and clever character moments to keep you guessing. It's a great summer bubblegum flick. And amazingly, David Tennant doesn't steal the movie.
9. Midnight in Paris
Woody Allen's first venture into the fantastical in ages, Midnight in Paris is another one that caught us by surprise. Owen Wilson is a frustrated writer in Paris, who discovers a portal to the 1920s, where he meets Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. And then he discovers the truth about these culture heroes, in a funny twist that we won't give away here. Allen packs a lot of warmth and charm into what could have been a gimmicky time travel narrative.
8. Drive Angry
Okay, I know what you're thinking. But this movie is the reason Nic Cage exists. If you love drive-in movies and pants-in-the-air craziness, then this movie is like an instant all-time classic. You can choose to think of it as a straight-up comedy if you prefer — it's actually intentionally funny a lot of the time. Cage plays John Milton, a dead guy who drives out of Hell to save his daughter from Satanists, and that premise is the least crazy thing about this movie.
There were a lot of weird "cowering from the apocalypse" movies this year, from Vanishing on 7th Street to Take Shelter. But Melancholia was in a class of its own, combining stunning imagery with can't-look-away discomfort to make a portrait of one messed-up family facing the end of days. Somehow, a disastrous wedding and the destruction of our planet both manage to be equally horrifying and transfixing. This might be the most nihilistic movie about the end of the world ever made, but it's also amazingly funny and lovely.
This movie's premise could easily have lent itself to schlock: Saoirse Ronan is a super-assassin who has been trained to kill by her "father" (Eric Bana) but has never learned about music or art or love, or the joy of painting your toenails. Instead, Hanna is both a brilliant action movie and a lovely look at what it means to be a person. I liked this film when I saw it, but since then it's grown on me, mostly thanks to the beautiful imagery and the moment where Eric Bana explains to Cate Blanchett what fatherhood actually means to him. This film has stuck in my mind.
There were a brace of superhero movies this year, but only this one really stuck to our ribs. (We might have included James Gunn's Super on this list, but it's not really SF/fantasy enough.) Thor was about Norse gods, but managed to work in a lot of actual science and cosmic wonder along the way, thanks to Natalie Portman's obsession with finding an Einstein-Rosen Bridge. This film takes an age-old character arc — arrogant whelp learns responsibility and real honor — and sells the hell out of it, because it takes the time to develop its characters. Oh, and it makes you believe in both Asgard and New Mexico as real places. Best superhero movie in ages.
4. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Another huge surprise — who would have thought that after Tim Burton's attempt to resurrect the Apes series, we would all be raving about another journey to ape-world? And yet, thanks to a masterful performance by Andy Serkis as the super-smart ape Caesar, this movie became one of our favorites. Within its B-movie premise, Rise asks real questions about the future of humanity and the ethics of experimenting on animals... and doesn't take any easy answers.
There were a few book adaptations this year that tried to bring the whole "mind-bending thriller" thing to the big screen — like the underwhelming Adjustment Bureau. But Limitless actually did make us think and keep us guessing. Bradley Cooper is surprisingly engaging as a guy who talks a mile a minute on a wonder drug, and the whole thing becomes a great metaphor for Wall Street's "smartest guy in the room" culture.
This film came out in Norway in 2010, but was only released in the U.S. this year, so we're including it here. Mostly because we didn't list it among last year's best movies, and it deserves a primo spot. You might expect this to be just another sardonic foreign monster movie — but actually, this story of a government agency that keeps trolls down is a perfect blend of Norse mythology and government conspiracies. Well worth hunting down, if you haven't seen it yet.
1. Attack the Block
And speaking of great foreign monster movies... there was really never any doubt about 2011's best science fiction/fantasy movie. Like Melancholia, Attack the Block takes a small disaster (a nurse gets mugged) and then contrasts it against a huge one (a swarm of alien beasties arrive and start killing everyone in sight). Attack the Block is a fun, stylish action movie, but it also keeps circling back to that mugging, and doesn't ever let the teenage muggers off the hook, even as they become our heroes. And — miracle of miracles — the aliens have a real reason for being here, and the aliens actually wind up making sense, in a way that sets up the film's triumphant ending. Amazing.
10. The Change-Up
I loathed this film when I first saw it, but then I was on an airplane recently and the person sitting directly in front of me was watching it on his little built-in screen. It was hard to avoid seeing chunks of this film, and being reminded of just how dreadful it really waA lazy, dull comedy about two best friends (Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman) trading bodies, The Change-Up goes for the dumb joke over the interesting choice every time. (Example: Reynolds is a wealthy stoner who does nothing but have sex and goof off all the time — but then Bateman discovers Reynold's life actually sucks, because he has sex with pregnant women. What?) This movie is like the brain-damaged, ether-sniffing cousin of The Hangover.
Hollywood's new flavor of the month is apparently "dark fairy tale retellings," but let's hope this isn't a representative sample. Alex Pettyfer plays an arrogant jackass whose catchphrase is "Embrace the Suck." (It's almost too easy.) Because he's such a jerkwad, he gets cursed by a gothy witch to spend a year being tattooed and pierced — and if he doesn't find someone to love him, then he's stuck like this forever. Luckily, the girl he likes has a dad who's in trouble with gangsters or drug dealers or something, so Pettyfer convinces the dad to send the girl to live as his virtual prisoner. Even Neil Patrick Harris as Pettyfer's blind tutor can't rescue this stew of teen angst and creepy stalkerness.
8. Dream House
We're still debating whether this was an actual ghost story, or just a psychological thriller where it's all in Daniel Craig's head. The film tries for ambiguity, but stumbles over into "who gives a crap." Craig is a guy who moves into a nice new house with his family, except that a horrible murder happened there and... the twist is given away in the trailers, and it's actually dumber than it looks at first. Once you realize the truth about Craig and the house, it just spirals downwards into idiocy. It's like a terrible, sexless episode of American Horror Story.
7. The Darkest Hour
In a year of alien invasion stories, Darkest Hour still managed to stand out as the worst of the bunch. Unappealing characters, awful attempts at "funny" dialogue, shoddy editing, poor continuity, crappy special effects, horrendously bad science... this film pretty much has it all. You end up rooting for the aliens, because this film is proof that humanity deserves to die.
6. Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1
I had only seen one Twilight movie before this one — the one with the evil Seattle hipster vampires who come to the boonies to mess with our dysfunctional were-vamp-waif triangle. And it was actually an okay film. So when all-time-great director Bill Condon tackled the final book, expectations were reasonably high — and wow. This film really was supernaturally turgid — probably, the decision to split the fourth Twilight book into two movies was a bit of a mistake, since it means treacly pacing, and an endless fascination with Bella's emaciation and monster pregnancy. And you're stuck with a climax to this film in which a horde of attacking werewolves... don't. Kind of a letdown.
5. Transformers 3
We've all been letting this film off the hook because it was better than Transformers 2. You know what else is better than Transformers 2? Group sex with Tetsuo the Iron Man and Mickey Rourke's Russian electro-whip fetishist from Iron Man 2. Michael Bay set out to redeem himself with one more trip to the morphing-robots well, and wound up giving us Shia LaBoeuf's whiniest performance yet. Plus some really ill-considered "funny bits" featuring Ken Jeong and John Malkovich bringing more camp than a dozen Occupy Wall Streets. Oh, and the "plot"? Even more nonsensical than the last one.
4. I Am Number Four
There seems to be a common theme uniting many of this year's worst genre films, and that theme is "whiny angst." And nobody embodied that theme more this year than Alex Pettyfer — this time around, he's an alien kid who's being hunted down by monsters who have to kill him and his comrades in numerical order. The monsters are really, really OCD. There are about five minutes of Teresa Palmer kicking ass in this film. The rest of the time, it's Pettyfer whining about how he wants a real life, and being such an all-around dick that you want that gothy witch to come back and give him a mullet this time.
3. The Smurfs
Every year, there are several ill-considered attempts to monetize an old media property that someone somewhere thinks is cute. You have the silly jokes, the cutesy references to random bits of the source material, the sentimental crassness, and the scenes where everybody dances around to pop hits. This worked out surprisingly well in The Muppets, but in The Smurfs, it turns into a cold, calculated CG soul vortex in which Neil Patrick Harris actually becomes a computer-generated mascot. (Not really.) Harris plays a marketer, who learns about marketing from the Smurfs, who are there to market toys. That's what this film is about. Oh, and Hank Azaria wants to turn the Smurfs into cosmetic products, which is clearly the correct choice.
2. Green Lantern
Why did this film suck so much? Was it the total lack of plot logic? The lack of any meaningful character progression for its hero, Hal Jordan? The CG overload, which reduces Ryan Reynolds to a human head floating in a sea of cheese? No, actually — the real problem with Green Lantern is that it has no story to tell. The makers of this film made a bold choice, to throw away the traditional "superhero movie origin story" paradigm in favor of something more ambitious. And unfortunately, they showed why the "origin story" formula works so well, and why it's so hard to find alternatives. Also, they went overboard trying to stuff as many elements into the comics into one film as possible, instead of taking a scalpel to the overgrown GL mythos. They aimed to please the hardcore fans of the property, and wound up pleasing nobody.
1. Sucker Punch
In a year where there were so many awful corporate productions and money-grubbing attempts to create the next Twilight or Star Wars, the year's worst genre film was... a personal, quirky passion project. This was Zack Snyder's Inception. He wanted to make a weird genre piece in which someone travels down into layers upon layer of dream — or is it real? — in between making two huge superhero films. Unfortunately, some great visuals couldn't rescue this lobotomy fantasy from feeling, well, like a drill in the head. The over-reliance on fetishy sleaze, and the weird ways this movie tries to make its hapless characters seem empowered, aren't the real problem. The main problem? This film drags on and on, becoming ever more boring, until you realize that none of this stuff really matters.
Thanks to Annalee, Meredith and Cyriaque for the suggestions!