Looking Back: Ethan Picks Five Pleasantly Surprising Hits from 2011

December 28, 2011

Real Steel

Yesterday, I counted down the biggest disappointments from this year in film, which included a set of blockbusters that just didn't live up to the hype generated leading up to the release, and failed to deliver a quality movie. But today, we're looking on the positive side of the year's biggest films in the form of five films that sort of caught audiences off guard by being surprising hits both at the box office and with most critics. I haven't included lower key favorites like Midnight in Paris, but films like Woody Allen's comedy are smaller, personal choices, and will show up on another list later this week. See the list below!

So without further adieu, here are the films that really surprised myself, audiences and critics in 2011 by really coming through as great pieces of entertainment and all around high quality movies:

Real Steel

#5. Real Steel - With the huge presence that Transformers has at the box office, there was a lot of naysaying about another film featuring fighting robots, especially from a director like Shawn Levy who has made a name for himself with films like The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen and Date Night. However, when the film hit theaters, many were surprised to see a story that didn't simply focus on metal-smashing robots, but a heartfelt story about an irresponsible, arrogant father (Hugh Jackman) and his estranged son (Dakota Goyo) as they bond while on the road for a Rocky-esque underdog sports story featuring a subtly charming robot called Atom. If you really want to know why this film was such a surprise success, you can read my full review right here.


#4. Bridesmaids - Normally wedding comedies fall flat with a slew of other romantic comedies targeted at women who love dragging their boyfriends and husbands to the next cheesy love story. But in this case, producer Judd Apatow and director Paul Feig assembled some of the finest comedic female talent around and delivered a raunchy hilarious romp that was still derivative, but contained so many great laughs that the story and characters came off fresh and fantastic. If anything, this film should be praised for helping skyrocket the career of Melissa McCarthy who has been around for awhile, but truly blossomed here.

X-Men: First Class

#3. X-Men: First Class - After the absolute disaster of a conclusion that came with X-Men: The Last Stand, franchise and films fans alike weren't sure that director Matthew Vaughn could inject new life into the comic book series, especially with a prequel that didn't feature any of the original cast members and only two familiar X-Men. However, it sounds like walking away from The Last Stand and handing it to Brett Ratner was the best move for Vaughn as working with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor X and Magneto respectively has yielded one of the more classy and thematically vibrant comic book films of the past decade. Plus, when it comes to surprise cameos, this flick has one of the best, but we won't spoil it.

The Muppets

#2. The Muppets - The return of some of the most iconic characters to the big screen after a decade absence is a daunting prospect, especially with decades-old characters as beloved as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the rest of the Muppet gang. However, passionate Muppet fans Jason Segel, director James Bobin and writer Nicholas Stoller brought the right amount of love, respect and comedy to all of our fuzzy friends to deliver a nostalgic, touching and absolutely hilarious family film. My love for the Muppets from my childhood almost brought a tear to my eye, and several adults from the older generation have been just as touched by the tribute to the old gang with a flare for contemporary comedy that doesn't stray far from Jim Henson's original creations.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

#1. Rise of the Planet of the Apes - The last time an ape revolution leapt to the big screen, it resulted in a disastrous presentation from Tim Burton, despite some of the best make-up and prosthetics seen on screen at the time. This time a new technological advancement would help make apes come to life as the beginning of the Planet of the Apes is chronicled in this prequel that worried fans and audiences ever since the original Rise of the Apes title was changed to the longer but traditional franchise title pattern we now know today. However, spectacular motion capture animation combined with an absolutely mind-blowing performance from Andy Serkis, the man behind the movement and performance for Gollum and the new King Kong, made this a spectacle to behold. If you need anymore convincing about the power of this performance and film, read my words on the potential for Serkis to get an Oscar nomination right here.

And that's a wrap. Plenty of people seemed to agree with my list of the biggest disappointments of the year, but I'm willing to bet there are those who will have a few words to say about these particular selections. As always, this is just my opinion as to what films really caught audiences off guard and rocked the worlds of both audiences and critics alike. What films do you think were the surprise hits of 2011?

Find more posts: Editorial, Feat, Opinions



I hated Bridesmaids, but you're right in saying that it was a sleeper hit with most audiences. 

peloquin on Dec 28, 2011


FIRST CLASS WAS HORRRIBLE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! right up there with origins and last stand. Wow big deal, a cheesy funny cameo saves the movie, gimme a break..

Chad on Dec 28, 2011


I don't know about you, but I prefer when people actually back up their assertions with reasoning. Not saying you're wrong, but I'd like for you to explain why exactly.

Phillip Gockel on Dec 28, 2011


I'll take one issue that bothered me about 1st Class.  The representation of the mutants of color (specifically Edi Gathegi and Zoe Kravitz) was horrible.  I was like.. what year is this?  Aside form that... Mac and Fassbender made the movie.

Duane on Dec 28, 2011


A comedian said this not me. If Darwin's ability is  reactive evolution; i.e. his body automatically adapts to any situation or environment he is placed in.... why was he a black person in America circa 1962. I don't know if i can fully understand your comment  about the representation of mutants of color (negative?) without using a spoiler. The movie was not perfect, had some small flaws and some cheese but overall was a pretty awesome superhero action movie at a time when the expectations for the X-Men series were at its lowest. Young Magneto kills it.

MiCkANADA on Dec 31, 2011


i would like to hear ur reason why this movie is HORRIBLE!?!?! u have no reason to back up why its horrible. 

jschan2 on Dec 29, 2011


I haven't seen Reel Steal, but I agree with all these!

Tabor Brown on Dec 28, 2011


My question is a surprise from what point in the campaign? I agree with number 5, 4, and 2 completely, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men First Class both had me hooked as soon as the first trailer was released.  At that point, I would have been surprised if they both weren't awesome. Go back to when the first news broke about them and I may have felt differently though. The same may actually be said about The Muppets as well. I wanted no part of it until all of those hilarious spots started popping up.

Zen on Dec 28, 2011


@Chad You're entitled to your opinion...but First Class was far from "OMGZ FIRST CLASS WAS HORRIBLE"

ajmo on Dec 28, 2011


lol, so all the ape movie had to offer were good effects...the rest sucked (the author isn't even mentioning the lack story/character developement)! if you define a movie by its effects you might as well say, star wars episode 3 was a good movie...lmao! as far as the other movies go: I only saw x-men and was pleasantly surprised! I'll probably watch real steel at some point, but the story line wasn't exciting enough to pay the movie ticket (the prospect of having a kid in this storyline ruined it for me).

Anonymous on Dec 28, 2011


I disagree on lack of character development for Rise..I felt enough for ceasar to want to see him kick the crap out of the humans! lol..

Lando on Dec 28, 2011


developping one character in a movie isn't enough for me...the other ones were right out flat. not talking about the apes here (I remember the gorilla and the mean chimp were two apes that appeared a few times in the movie, but they always "stayed the same"), francos performance was just hilariously bad (character was naiv), tom feltons' character pissed me off, worst generic villain ever, ms. pinto was there to look good...

Anonymous on Dec 28, 2011


 I don't get this character development crap when it comes to movies. If the story took place over a couple years time sure, but people don't change in a few days. They might change their mind about something, but "character development"? Please...

Anonymous on Dec 28, 2011


so you're implying that a character starts at point A in a movie in still is at the same point A when the movie is over? I don't think that you've understood the concept of character developement, it's about understanding the choices characters make during the movie, how they interact with their surroundings. oh and changing your mind about something is already a fraction of character developement. concerning rise of the apes, the human characters were flat out ashamingly stupid, none of their decision made any sense...

Anonymous on Dec 28, 2011


Don't take this the hard way, but you may have not understood the focus of the movie, it's not about the humans, its about the apes. And I personally think they did a great job in developping Cesars' story, he was the protagonist of the movie, and with Serkis acting, the FX and the script, we got a solid and entertaiing origins story

Ricardo_PT on Dec 28, 2011


Chiller, you are definitely an idiot attempting to sound smart. Please cease your internet usage.

Johnquintin on Dec 28, 2011


 It's not about starting at any point. People change their minds about things all the time. I might want scrambled eggs when I wake up but decide to eat cereal by the time I'm out of the shower. That's not character development, though, that's just decision-making. If someone is on the wrong side of the law at the start of a movie and decides, due to whatever events transpire in the film, to go straight.. that's development. But still, it's not something that should be required in any movie.. especially amongst adult characters. Ever heard the saying "leopards don't change their spots."? This "character development" thing, in my opinion, is a cheap way for people to criticize a movie when they can't seem to find anything really wrong with it...

Anonymous on Dec 31, 2011


X-Men, no; Apes, no ... adolescent material, what audience do you have in mind??

Robert L. Tuva on Dec 28, 2011


Transformers 3 because I pretty much gave up after that god awful second movie and I was pretty surprised it was pretty good.  Unknown looked like a Taken ripoff, but I enjoyed that movie. And my biggest surprise of 2011 is Insidious, thought it was going to be another crap horror movie that I would leave half way thru.  But I was very wrong.

Frightened Inmate #2 on Dec 28, 2011



DAVIDPD on Dec 28, 2011


Def would have put Horrible Bosses or Fast Five on this list. Both were truly surprising and great.

Ricdamovieman on Dec 28, 2011


Unknown was super boring...the female lead killed more people than Liam Neeson.

msuhu on Dec 28, 2011


I didn't like First Class. For me it seems a teen movie. Although Kevin Bacon's is great on the movie, steals the screen!! Rise of the apes ending seemed a "bit short"... could be more elaborated.

Bruno Graça dos Santos on Dec 28, 2011


Continuing from your comment about ROTPOTA, would you have liked the original ending (the ending they filmed before they changed it at the last minute to the ending you saw in theaters) where Caeser kills James Franco? They're suppose to be making a sequel to the first film so they probably left it open for the second. Plus even if they don't make a second, they did end the film with the virus spreading from the pilot towards humanity. Just gotta fill in the blanks from there.

JBrotsis on Dec 29, 2011


Real Steel was actually a little boring for me, I thought it focused to much on the actual character development than the boxing itself,and most of it was useless The next most annoying part of the film was the random flashes to somebody in the audience or Hugh Jackman during the robot fights,ok we get that they are there no need to show them every second

RockerReel on Dec 28, 2011


"The Muppets" is a box-office disappointment, dude, not a "hit".

Elizabeth Moon on Dec 28, 2011


$85 million box office on a $45 million budget is a fairly impressive return.

KorbenD on Dec 29, 2011


Not that impressive when the P&A was about the same as the production cost. Disney expected a bigger hit.

Max Renn on Dec 30, 2011


X men and the rise of the planet of the apes are definetly the best surprises i had this year at the movies. Those movies were handled the way a good blockbuster should and stood miles away from others like capt america or thor. I have to say that when it comes to the superheroes movies released this year, green lantern was my favourite, i know most of you would disagree. Maybe it was because i expected less from that one than the others. I don't understand what people saw in bridesmaids, i couldn't finish the movie (i know its unfair to comment on a movie i didn't watch till the end). Horrible bosses was a better comedy imo.

Ricardo_PT on Dec 28, 2011


Of course this is totally pointless, as if anybody would agree with this or any other list. it's nothing but one person's subjective opinion, which really means nothing. What one person thinks is HOT, the next thinks NOT. This is what I really loath about so-called "film critics" and their sites. It's so filled with arrogance, and condescension, as if what one person thinks is what everyone else should think. As if your insult or praise on this or that director or actor means anything. Just because you don't like (or like) a movie, doesn't mean that the next person, or a thousand people, will agree. So what's the point, other than showing what a condescending, arrogant person you are. You might think a movie sucks, while I and others think it's awesome...and vis-versa. What's the point? Do you think that you personally have some monopoly judgement on what is good and what is not? Not that there is any such thing. Of course you do, which is why you print this pointless nonsense. Movie blogs like this tend to stink of personal, subjective opinions, as if it's somehow representative of what the rest of us SHOULD agree with. As if you're some kind of authority on what is good and what is not. As if what any of the rest of us thinks, isn't valid.

Me on Dec 28, 2011


spend your time elsewhere man. Live and let live.

Wmhofrichtr on Dec 28, 2011


You're looking at this completely wrong...you're right when you say everybody is entitled to their opinion, and ethan was just expressing his, it so happens he has a platform to do that with this site. Never did he say "these movies are the best because i say so", hell, the title even says "ethan picks". People go on the internet to know about other people opinions, and perhaps change their own and learn with eachother. You don't have to agree with them, but the guys on this site know their movies and offer valid opinions, you dont have to agree with them. This was point 2. Point 1: if you don't want to be here, please, don't. And stop making scenes like this on the internet.

Ricardo_PT on Dec 28, 2011


Now you're just embarrassing yourself. Go back to crying into your tattered Twilight fan-fiction. 

Scotty97 on Dec 28, 2011


Welcome to the world of movies... where people like Ricardo_PT know how to live in.

Anonymous on Dec 29, 2011


Wasn't a fan of Real Steel, but I actually wasn't "surprised" by any of the others. They all had good directors and casts, I guess I was just more optimistic this year.

Andrew DiDonato on Dec 28, 2011


I agree with number 5, 4, and 2 completely, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes and X-Men First Class both had me hooked as soon as the first trailer was released.  At that point, I would have been surprised if they both weren't awesome. Go back to when the first news broke about them and I may have felt differently though.

Free movies online on Dec 29, 2011


yea we know, we read your comment up at the top of the page. If no one commented on it, its probably cause no one cares. 

JBrotsis on Dec 29, 2011


What happened to "Warrior", http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1291584/ ? When Firstshowing.net reviewed it this spring, it was stated that this movie was the best movie seen, upto/around march of 2011? I hope it shows up on someones list 🙂

David Banner on Dec 29, 2011


It is totally pointless, so why did you bother writing it. Silly bot.

ajmo on Dec 29, 2011


I don't find much fault with this list...I was a little Surprised how much I liked THOR...

all-seeing-eye on Dec 29, 2011


I agree with David Banner. I really enjoyed Warrior. I thought it would be a rip-off of The Fighter, but Tom Hardy was really great! Also, the fighting scenes were very intense. 

Al on Dec 29, 2011


Limitless was surprisingly entertaining.

Bhaal on Dec 30, 2011


its not the best film of the year or anything, but that movie was a lot of fun

Dpramroop on Dec 30, 2011


Shouldn't the "Warrior"have made this list, who saw that one coming? In my opinion other than Rise of the planet of the apes, that was the best movie of the year

Qmc0808 on Jan 2, 2012

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