As a film critic, you learn to keep your expectations to a minimum, because more often than not, the movie in question is never as good as you hoped. That doesn’t change the fact that there are still some movies that you want to see more than others, and as long as you don’t mind the possibility of disappointment, it’s okay to let your inner fanboy out every once in a while. This year certainly has plenty of movies to get excited about – at least, that’s what Hollywood is banking on with an upcoming slate that includes “Pirates of the Caribbean 4,” “Cars 2,” “Green Lantern,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor” – but there’s a lot more great stuff out there than just the usual summer tentpole films. To give you a better idea of what’s coming to theaters this year, I’ve assembled my 11 most anticipated movies of 2011 with the hope that you might discover one or two titles to add to your own must-see list.
Who: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig and Jason Bateman
What: Two British sci-fi geeks on a cross-country road trip through the U.S. encounter a real-life alien named Paul who needs help getting back to his home planet.
When: March 18th
Why: The trailer may not instill a whole lot of confidence with its heavy dose of juvenile humor, but as a fan of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (who also co-wrote the film), it’s hard to imagine them disappointing their fanbase. I wouldn’t necessarily expect anything as great as “Shaun of the Dead” or “Hot Fuzz,” but between all the geeky sci-fi references and the awesome supporting cast (including Jason Bateman as the FBI agent on their trail and Seth Rogen as the voice of the titular alien), it’s safe to say that “Paul” will be every bit as funny as it sounds.
Who: Saorsie Ronan, Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett and Olivia Williams
What: A girl raised by her father to be the perfect assassin is sent on a mission across Europe while eluding operatives under the command of a ruthless CIA agent.
When: April 8th
Why: Director Joe Wright may be best known for sappy period dramas like “Pride and Prejudice” and “Atonement,” but I can’t wait to see what he can do in a completely different genre – especially one that provides him with a bigger playground to work within. The trailer seems to suggest that “Hanna” will be more than just your average action-thriller, with Wright aiming for something a little more thought provoking. And with a cast that includes Eric Bana, Cate Blanchett, and one of the best young actresses in the business in Saorsie Ronan, this could be the surprise hit of the season.
Who: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Lucas Till and Jason Flemyng
What: The story of Charles Xavier (Professor X) and Erik Lehnsherr (Magneto) as young men learning to control their powers, and how they worked together with a band of mutants to stop the greatest threat the world has ever known.
When: June 3rd
Why: Apart from the fact that it takes place in the 1960s and serves as a prequel to the original trilogy, details on “X-Men: First Class” are pretty scarce. But after walking away from the directing gig on the last “X-Men” film, I think that most fans are curious to see what Matthew Vaughn can do with the franchise. The retro setting definitely has my interest piqued, and using the relationship between Xavier and Lehnsherr as a parallel to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is brilliant. That hasn’t stopped Internet forums from stirring up bad buzz in response to the recently leaked photos and rumors that Vaughn is feeling pressed for time, but he doesn’t have a bad movie to his name yet, so it’s probably better to just let the film speak for itself.
Who: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Alan Rickman and Ralph Fiennes
What: Harry returns to Hogwarts with Ron and Hermione to find and destroy Voldemort’s remaining Horcruxes, leading to the inevitable battle between the Boy Who Lived and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
When: July 15th
Why: The real question is, who isn’t looking forward to this movie? The previous seven films have grossed over $6 billion worldwide, and where most franchises tend to lose steam around the third installment, this series has only gotten better over time. They’ve also gotten progressively darker, and “Deathly Hallows: Part Two” promises to be the darkest yet, with the massive Battle of Hogwarts resulting in the death of several major players – some good, some bad, and some whose allegiance remains a secret. I’m still holding out hope that the movie will dive a little further into Dumbledore’s past, because “Part One” covered so much of the book that the only thing left is the battle.
Who: Jim Cummings, John Cleese, Craig Ferguson and Tom Kenny
What: A collection of classic Winnie the Pooh stories including “In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One” and “In Which Rabbit Has a Busy Day.”
When: July 15th
Why: Of all my selections, this is undoubtedly the one that will raise the most eyebrows, but there’s a certain nostalgic factor that has me really excited about a new “Winnie the Pooh” film – especially one created using traditional, hand-drawn animation. The art design looks incredible (polished but respectful to the original characters) and the trailer suggests a clever, breaking-the-fourth-wall angle to the story that involves the real world bleeding into the storybook world. And if that’s not enough to win you over, Zooey Deschanel will be lending her bubbly-twang voice to the classic “Winnie the Pooh” song. It’s just too bad that it won’t have a chance to find an audience, because Disney has foolishly decided to open the film on the same weekend as the final installment of the “Harry Potter” saga. Oh bother, indeed.
Who: Jesse Eisenberg, Danny McBride, Nick Swardson and Aziz Ansari
What: A small-town pizza delivery boy is kidnapped by two wannabe criminals and forced to rob a bank.
When: October 5th
Why: This one almost missed the cut solely because of Danny McBride’s involvement – whose arrogant redneck shtick is really starting to get on my nerves – but I’m willing to give the film the benefit of the doubt if only because it reunites Jesse Eisenberg with “Zombieland” director Ruben Fleisher. It’s really nice to see that Eisenberg isn’t taking his career too seriously, because he’s just as great in comedies as he is in more serious fare like “The Social Network.” The wild cards are McBride, Aziz Ansari and Nick Swardson – all funny men who sometimes try too hard for a laugh – but if Fleisher can rein them in, “30 Seconds or Less” has the potential to be this year’s “The Hangover.”
Who: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Morrison
What: The son of a former boxer is trained by his alcoholic father to compete in a mixed martial arts tournament where he’ll face off against his older brother.
When: September 9th
Why: The rise of MMA has already ushered in a few movies about the popular combat sport (“Redbelt,” “Never Back Down”), but none of them have really done it any justice. Granted, it’s still a little early to know whether “Warrior” will be any different, but it certainly has the right ingredients to become the next great fight film, and it all starts with Tom Hardy. If the British-born actor isn’t a huge movie star in the next few years, then Hollywood has gotten it all wrong, because this guy just oozes charisma. It’s no “Inception,” but “Warrior” looks to be yet another great stepping stone for one of the most promising actors in the business.
Who: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks and Christina Hendricks
What: A Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a wheelman discovers that a contract has been put out on him after a heist gone wrong.
When: November 9th
Why: It might sound like a direct-to-DVD action movie starring Cuba Gooding Jr., but you needn’t look any further than the amazing cast that director Nicholas Winding Refn has assembled to realize that there’s probably more to “Drive” than meets the eye. Ryan Gosling, in particular, has a pretty good track record when it comes to picking interesting projects, and I find it hard to believe that he’d follow up his award-nominated performance in “Blue Valentine” with some ordinary genre flick. That doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, but even if “Drive” is just your run-of-the-mill action-thriller, at least we know it’ll be entertaining with the people involved.
Who: Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Paul Rudd and Chris Cooper
What: Gary and his Muppet roommate, Walter, team up with Kermit the Frog and Co. to save their old theater from an evil oil tycoon.
When: November 23rd
Why: Jim Henson’s Muppets have had their share of ups and downs over the years, but a comeback has been cultivating for quite some time now (due in part to a series of viral videos starring the motley crew), and a feature film is exactly the push they need. As a fan, it’s nice to see that the new movie will be in good hands as well, written by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel, who proved their own Muppet love by featuring Henson-styled puppets in their comedy, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” and being directed by James Bobin of “Flight of the Conchords” fame. Additionally, Conchords member Bret McKenzie will be providing music for the movie, and the list of cameos already includes the likes of Zach Galifianakis, Ricky Gervais, Billy Crystal, Emily Blunt, and some that are so top secret not even Segel himself will divulge the details. What’s not to be excited about?
Who: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Paula Patton and Josh Holloway
What: Super-spy Ethan Hunt enlists a new recruit for help in his most dangerous mission yet.
When: December 16th
Why: There’s so little known about the latest installment of “Mission: Impossible” that I had to fake my way through the above plot summary. In fact, the only thing we do know is that the movie will act as a passing-of-the-torch of sorts between Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner, with the latter intended to become the new face of the franchise should they decide to make any more. And although “Mission: Impossible 3” is arguably the best film in the series, with J.J. Abrams returning as executive producer (as well as conceiving the story), Pixar alumni Brad Bird directing, and a cast that includes Cruise, Renner, Simon Pegg and “Lost” favorite Josh Holloway, “Ghost Protocol” looks like it could easily take over that spot.
Who: Daniel Craig, Rooney Mara, Stellan Skarsgaard, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson and Christopher Plummer
What: A disgraced journalist investigates the disappearance of the niece of a wealthy business magnate with the help of a young female hacker.
When: December 21st
Why: Hollywood remakes of foreign films aren’t usually met with a whole lot of enthusiasm, but in the case of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (which is technically being adapted from the bestselling Steig Larsson novel of the same name), everyone is waiting to see how David Fincher puts his own stamp on the material. It’s already been confirmed that the movie is shooting in Sweden, but will the actors speak with Swedish accents, and can Rooney Mara live up to the impossible expectations of playing one of this generation’s most iconic heroines only a few short years after Noomi Rapace’s career-making performance in the same role? I’m certainly curious to find out, because if anyone can improve upon the Swedish version (a solid thriller in its own right, but not definitive by any means), it’s Fincher.