2011: Seven film stories we never saw coming
This post has been corrected. See note below for details.
The film world had its share of predictable turns this last year. "Harry Potter" went out with a bang. "Twilight" and "Transformers" earned a gazillion dollars (more). And 3-D continued to have us seeing double, the novelty now officially worn off.
But the last 12 months were also full of unexpected twists -- from a movie that had women saying things we hadn’t heard on-screen before, to a filmmaker who again was saying things he shouldn’t have been saying (but sort of had before). Here are seven of the year’s most notable surprises. (Click on the related links below for a full spin down memory lane.)
Always a Bridesmaid. Sure, there was a sense before the year started that, when it came to potty-mouthed humor, it just might be the girls' turn. But few could have predicted that an R-rated film featuring a lack of A-listers and a heavy marital theme would become a cultural phenomenon. Yet with “Bridesmaids,” Kristen Wiig, an actress known mainly for character parts, and Paul Feig, an actor and director known mainly for television, teamed up and, with an assist from Judd Apatow, created a monster smash. The film was the highest grossing original comedy of the year ($169 million) and launched the career of the previously little-known Melissa McCarthy. Maybe more important, It touched off a Hollywood gold rush and stirred a feminist debate. It even...put Wilson Phillips back on the map.
Ratner revival. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences made some unusual choices in 2011 -- a lifetime achievement award for Oprah, a rule-change allowing a variable number of best-picture nominees. But even the most adventurous pundit couldn’t have predicted this summer surprise: Brett Ratner, known for popcorn movies like "Rush Hour," would be producing this year's Oscars telecast. And he'd be bringing along Eddie Murphy, who rarely made public appearances -- let alone at one of the most watched television broadcasts of the year -- to host.
Ratner retreats. Oops. After all the hype about the kind of sensibility Ratner would bring to the Oscars, it turns out we wouldn't have to worry about it much. This fall, Ratner made lewd and offensive comments on Howard Stern’s radio show, causing embarrassment for the Academy and a quick resignation from the foot-in-mouth producer. Murphy, who had been persuaded by Ratner to take the gig, quickly followed suit. But the host’s replacement was even more of a stunner: Billy Crystal, who had hosted his first Oscars more than two decades before, would be returning, making the 63-year-old the oldest solo host since the mid-'70's.
Daybreak for Woody. For a number of years past, Woody Allen was like baseball, or Ron Paul. Every season, through thick and thin, he was there, doing his thing, with few believing he could be much of a factor. Yet that all changed this spring when Allen released his (depending on how you count) 46th directorial feature, a whimsical piece called "Midnight in Paris.” First the movie found an art-house audience. Then it became a crossover hit. Then it became a phenomenon. The story of a curmudgeonly writer transported to period Paris became the prolific director's most successful film ever. It even got people to see Owen Wilson as a star again.
Craig cratering. When he was cast in the summer of 2010 as the hero of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Daniel Craig could do no wrong. He had come off several films in which he enchanted audiences as James Bond and had even thrown in a well-reviewed Broadway turn. And 2011 was looking even brighter: Craig had a role not only in "Dragon" but would be bringing out the eagerly awaited Jon Favreau-directed action-adventure "Cowboys and Aliens." But Mr. 007 soon found that the villains were getting the better of him. First, James Bond was caught in movie limbo. It eventually got out, but the disappointments were only starting. "Cowboys and Aliens" was a summer wet blanket. ”Dragon Tattoo" has struggled in its first weeks of release. And Craig launched a bomb with the horror title "Dream House," which was such a mess that its director tried to have his name taken off it. It was all enough to make an actor feel like someone had thrown a martini in his face.
Kings crowned. Studios have pulled out old movies and dressed them up in new clothes before. But few could have predicted what would happen with a new 3-D edition of “The Lion King." When Disney decided to re-release the animated classic, it seemed like a nice but quaint idea. After the movie came out atop the box office one September weekend, though, it seemed like the company might have something more on its hands. Soon it won another weekend, beating new movies from Brad Pitt and Taylor Lautner. As the weeks piled up, the audiences kept coming. The film wound up grossing nearly $100 million -- not bad for any movie, let alone one that was 17 years old.
That melancholy feeling. Lars von Trier had made plenty of ill-advised comments before. But no one in or outside a Cannes news conference room could have foreseen what would happen on the morning of May 18. After answering some innocuous questions about his new movie, "Melancholia," Von Trier took out a shovel and began digging. "I understand Hitler. I sympathize with him a bit. ... I'm a Nazi," he said as his star Kirsten Dunst looked on in horror. Things were compounded when Von Trier showed only occasional remorse after the fact. A round of interviews with Dunst co-star Charlotte Gainsbourg were canceled as she hurried out of town, and the festival took the unusual step of declaring Von Trier persona non grata. In perhaps an even bigger surprise, the famously gabby Von Trier announced several months later that he was swearing off news conferences.
[For the record, 1:15 p.m., Jan. 3: An earlier version of this post identified the star of "Melancholia" as Reese Witherspoon. Kirsten Dunst stars in the film.]
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Lars von Trier at the Cannes Film Festival. Credit: Getty Images