Marvel’s take on the Norse God of Thunder distinguishes itself via a rousing early battle with the dreaded Frost Giants on their homeworld of Jotunheim, and keeps your attention with its Shakespearean story of royal family despair, and some deft fish out of water humor mined from the Earthbound, powerless Thor’s situation. Big budget SFX/action is new territory for director Kenneth Branagh, and save for an underwhelming desert battle with the Asgardian drone known as The Destroyer, he takes to it quite well. Thor’s final fight with his scheming brother Loki has all the weight one would expect of wounded, angry siblings with god-like powers and abilities. A fine lead-in to tide us over until the following year’s all-out superhero bash, The Avengers.
4 X-Men: First Class
Singlehandedly reviving the X-Men franchise, this film starts, appropriately enough, in the same place Bryan Singer’s 2000 series originator did: the Nazi prison camp at Auschwitz, with the future Magneto demonstrating his already considerable mutant powers. Flash-forward to the 1960s, and Erik Lehnsherr has grown into a vengeful Michael Fassbender, killing his way through escaped Nazi war criminals to find the one who killed his mother (Kevin Bacon, also a powerful mutant). In his murderous travels he comes across a far more peaceful mutant, telepath Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). In addition to the great lead performances of McAvoy and Fassbender and the intelligent script, First Class has some eye-popping displays of mutant ability, such as the demonic Azazel using teleportation to rain CIA bodies from the sky, Magneto turning hundreds of missiles back on the battleships that launched them, and Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw absorbing and repurposing military fire to explosive results.
This 80s-tinged neo-noir starring Ryan Gosling
as a taciturn stunt driver who moonlights as a wheelman to L.A.’s criminal underworld, won all sorts of acclaim for its visual beauty, vivid performances (Albert Brooks against type as a truly beastly hoodlum stands out) hip electro-pop soundtrack and jarring spurts of breathtaking action and violence. Gosling’s primarily benign character is driven to shocking feats of brutality in order to protect the lives of a woman and child he comes to care for, utilizing everything from his booted feet to a shotgun to ensure their eventual safety. A far cry from the non-stop pyrotechnics and rubber burning of a Fast and Furious flick, Nicholas Winding Refn’s film takes its time building character and atmosphere. The result is a highly memorable and resonant crime story that makes its action count. Despite underperforming at the domestic box office, the film gained certain cult status and was popular in home release formats.
2 The Raid: Redemption
Brimming with brutal, kinetic violence and containing an astronomical body count, this Indonesian bloodbath directed by Gareth Evans showcases the martial art known as Pencak Silat. Telling the simple story of a SWAT team enacting an early morning siege on a 15-story Jakarta apartment complex in order to depose the crime-lord who rules it, The Raid is a brilliantly choreographed melee of fists, feet, machetes and machineguns that seems to have no trouble keeping the proceedings from succumbing to the dull repetitiveness one would expect. In his trek to the top floor, good guy cop Rama (Iko Uwais) goes up against a seemingly endless wave of psychotic armed criminals and ultimately his own police confederates leading to what would be considered a bloody climax if not for the unbending gore-fest that proceeded it. This is third world carnage with first-rate style.
1 Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
The best installment yet of the Mission: Impossible series, Ghost Protocol is massively entertaining and often joyously silly. In his live action debut, animation veteran Brad Bird (Disney/Pixar’s The Incredibles) applies his knack for fluid staging here to phenomenal effect, as well as crafting some truly monumental set-pieces (a massive Dubai dust storm comes to mind). The script by Josh Applebaum and Andre Nemec is fast-paced and full of self -aware humor, perhaps the best of which mocks the film series’ historic reliance on its spies’ use of latex masks (which got pretty out of control in the second flick). Aiding the always-intense Tom Cruise
in his fourth outing as agent Ethan Hunt are Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, returning from earlier films, as well as professional hard-ass Jeremy Renner (The Town, The Avengers), new to the franchise, but fitting right in. Also making an impression is French actress Lea Seydoux as a gorgeous and terrifying assassin, who ventilates an IMF agent in the film’s opening minutes.