To me, 2011 feels like a rebuilding year for Hollywood -- and not just because it saw the release of "Moneyball," a movie about rebuilding baseball franchises. We've all seen the signs of weakness: Ticket sales hit a 16-year low, a few massive franchises neared or reached their ends, and -- long-shot campaigns for Bridesmaids, The Help and Harry Potter aside -- no title gained enough popular and critical acclaim to give moviegoers something to root for through the long awards-playoffs home stretch. If a French silent movie seen by fewer than 1 million Americans really does tap dance all the way to the Kodak Theater podium, it could feel like the equivalent of a Brewers-Royals World Series -- exciting for those directly involved, but not necessarily thrilling for the vast majority of fans at home.
Still, I see reasons to be hopeful about what happened last year. Start with actors, a handful of whom emerged as future Hall of Famers. Ryan Gosling proved just how versatile a single facial expression (call it the Gosmirk) can be by using it to animate three very different characters in Crazy Stupid Love, Drive and The Ides of March. Jessica Chastain rose from Double A to the Academy Awards on-deck circle with her soulful performances in The Tree of Life, Take Shelter, and The Debt -- not to mention her scene-stealing sass in The Help. Michael Fassbender injected a dose of brainy intensity into X-Man: First Class, then stuck two big forks into the Best Actor pie with his unforgettable turns in Shame and A Dangerous Method. And then there was Tom Hardy, transforming himself first into a seething, charging bull in Warrior and then into a louche British agent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. With Hardy set to play the villain in The Dark Knight Rises, I'm with Harvey Weinstein when he says, "He's going to be a huge movie star by August."
I could go on and talk about Jean Dujardin, Octavia Spencer, Elizabeth Olsen, Rooney Mara and all the other talented individuals captured in Moviefone's Top 11 Breakout Stars of 2011, but the point is that, in a year when worry warts lamented the declining star power of old reliables like Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, the Hollywood farm system was busy generating fresh blood -- some of whom, at least, seem destined to carry the franchises of tomorrow.
Speaking of franchises, yes, Harry Potter waved his wand for the last time, the Twilight kids are one installment away from retirement and a few would-be sequel-spawners (Green Lantern 2 anyone?) expired before they could reproduce. But Dragon Tattoo lured enough moviegoers to earn a return engagement, despite a bizarre Christmas release date and the ready availability of an alternate version on Netflix queues everywhere. And Captain America was decent enough to make us think The Avengers may indeed live up to the fan-boys' formidable expectations. And The Hunger Games is going to be great, or at least it should be. And Snow White and the Huntsman looks like it might not suck.
Notice anything interesting about three of those last four properties? They all feature female leads, as does this year's Pixar offering, Brave. And while it would be a stretch to say that we're seeing all these female-driven action movies because of the success of The Help and Bridesmaids, it's certainly true that 2011 was -- or should have been -- the year that finally killed the myth that movies aimed at women don't sell.
There was also progress on the distribution front, as indie filmmakers experimented successfully with closing or even inverting the gap between theatrical and on-demand release dates. Lars Von Trier's disturbingly brilliant Melancholia was available to national cable subscribers, for a price, before it even hit theaters, and J.C. Chandor's financial-crisis drama Margin Call began streaming the same day it opened at the cinema. True, those are small movies, and an attempt to do something similar with Tower Heist met an iron wall of resistance among theater chains, but progress is progress, and it won't be long before some major studio has the guts to test whether VOD really does "cannibalize" ticket sales. (My guess, based on my experience in digital magazine publishing, is that it doesn't.)
Another cause for hope: World-class directors who do not share their initials with Jesus Christ are experimenting with 3-D, in a development that promises to move the long-gestating technology past its "Chinese yo-yo" phase once and for all. Yes, the snowy cityscapes and intricate clockwork of Martin Scorsese's Hugo were a revelation, but so were the recombining robots of Michael Bay's Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Can an Oscar-worthy drama or Apatow-approved comedy in 3-D be far off?
So what will Hollywood's next championship season look like, once the landscape has settled and the new players have found their rhythm? It's hard to say, exactly, but here are some hallmarks of a winning streak: films that resonate with a sizable audience; actors who create characters we can believe, and believe in; studios that respect their customers' intelligence; audiences that reward bold, creative filmmaking and steer clear of anything that looks like a reheated leftover.
Here at Moviefone, we will be spectating as fanatically as any bleacher creature, cheering on the home team's doubles, triples and home runs and calling strikeouts, fouls and balks as we see 'em. We invite you to join us all year long as Hollywood tries, yet again, to ward off those "wait 'til next year" blues.