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Top 10 Action Movies of 2011

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2011's action films were a mixed bag of tricks and treats for movie audiences and genre fans. A few of the more anticipated releases failed to impress, yet there were enough films released in theaters to make it a decent year for action fans.

Here are my picks for the best action films of 2011. Please feel free to disagree.

1. 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol'

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
© Paramount Pictures
Starring: Tom Cruise, Paula Patton, Simon Pegg, and Jeremy Renner

It's not normally a positive endorsement to say a movie almost made me physically ill, but Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol did so and still earned the title of the Best Action Film of 2011. A two-hour white knuckle roller coaster ride that doesn't neglect plot for action scenes, this fourth film of the blockbuster franchise proves A) there is indeed still life in the MI series and B) Tom Cruise still has what it takes to be an action star.

2. 'Hanna'

Hanna
© Focus Features
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana, and Cate Blanchett

Saoirse Ronan is extraordinary as a young girl raised completely off the grid by her father (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA man who's spent countless hours training her to be the perfect assassin. Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement), Hanna features incredibly complex fight scenes done with long shots and without quick cuts. The action scenes in Hanna also almost pushed the film into R-rated territory, but thankfully the MPAA didn't slap the movie with that less audience-friendly/box office friendly rating. Wright was able to release the film with a PG-13 rating without compromising or toning down the violence.

In our exclusive interview, director Wright talked about the violence and the rating. "I'm very pleased we got the rating we did because it opens it up to a larger audience. I think also, you know, the film has...I set out to make a film that had a moral and some sort of conscious. I'm terrified when I see films that are deeply misogynistic and glorifying of violence be given a PG-13 rating, or any kind of rating for that matter. So I think it kind of speaks to younger people, younger audiences on quite a responsible level. I'm very glad that it did."

And we're glad too in that no compromise needed to be reached and Hanna is the dark fairy tale/action film Wright wanted to deliver to audiences.

3. 'Thor'

Thor
© Paramount Pictures
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Stellan Skarsgard, Natalie Portman

Kenneth Branagh, an actor and filmmaker not known for working in the action genre, helmed this big screen introduction of the hammer-wielding god, Thor, and not only pulled off a film that satisfied comic book fans but also made an entertaining action comedy for those of us not into comics. As I said in my review, this is a superhero film "that's fun and that never takes itself too terribly serious while still treating the source material with respect."

4. 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2'

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
© Warner Bros Pictures
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, and Ralph Fiennes

The blockbuster Harry Potter series goes out with a bang - and with the best action sequences of eight films - in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Combine 2010's Deathly Hallows Part 1 with Deathly Hallows Part 2 and the result is the most faithful adaptation of J.K. Rowling's kid wizard series. The heart-stopping fight scenes have you holding on tight to your armrests, and Warner Bros and director David Yates see the series off with a finale that exceeds expectations.

5. 'Drive'

Drive
© FilmDistrict
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, and Christina Hendricks

Director Nicolas Winding Refn says it best when it comes to explaining the action and violence of Drive: "Like fairy tales, once the bad guys are judged, it’s always very vicious, but it’s always in one sentence like, 'And they died a violent ending.' It’s very quick. I felt that violence works when it’s quick and unpredictable."

Refn doesn't believe there's a set-in-stone limit as to how much violence a filmmaker can include before they've gone too far. "It’s just about how you do it," explained Winding Refn. "But, you must understand that violence is only a tool. If it’s used badly, it will be horrible. If it’s used correctly, it can be very interesting. But, essentially, it’s just a tool."

6. 'Warrior'

Warrior
© Lionsgate Films
Starring: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Morrison, and Nick Nolte

You absolutely do not have to enjoy Mixed Martial Arts to get into the action in Warrior. Equally impressive to MMA aficionados and people who don't know their Gogoplata from their Rear Naked Choke hold, Warrior is the best film ever made about the sport. The scenes in the ring will have you flinching in pain along with the combatants on screen.

7. 'Attack the Block'

Attack the Block
© Screen Gems
Starring: Nick Frost, Luke Treadaway, Jodie Whittaker, John Boyega, and Simon Howard

Writer/director Joe Cornish opted for old-school monsters and effects with this alien film set in South London. The effects set this action film apart from the pack, but that's not the only difference in Cornish's vision from other invasion movies. Attack the Block is funny yet Cornish doesn't shy away from showing off guts and gore. Overall, it's a low-budget sci-fi that outdoes its big studio counterparts.

8. 'X-Men: First Class'

X-Men First Class
© 20th Century Fox
Starring: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne, and January Jones

Although the film had some diehard X-Men fans up in arms for playing a little loose with the origin story, X-Men: First Class did manage to revive a franchise after a very disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand. By going back to the 1960s to serve up an origin story, X-Men: First Class provided audiences unfamiliar with the comics the basics of how our favorite mutants got to be the characters we've loved or hated in the three X-Men movies.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn, this X-Men featured some terrific CG action scenes as well as practical stunt work.

9. 'Source Code'

Source Code
© Summit Entertainment
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright

Okay, so it's more of a thriller than an action movie, Source Code still deserves attention for one of the most intriguing plots of the year. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier who awakes up in the body of another man and quickly finds out he's actually part of a mission to stop a devastating explosion from wiping out downtown Chicago. The special computer program has allowed him to enter the last eight minutes of a stranger's life and see what he sees, while still holding on to his own mind and completely aware of what his assignment is. Well-paced and with a plot we don't see in some form every weekend in theaters, Source Code isn't just for action fans but instead crosses over to draw him sci-fi and romance fans.

10. 'Super 8'

Super 8
© Paramount Pictures
Starring: Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Joel Courtney, and Riley Griffiths

Of all the films released in 2011, Super 8's the one that brought the real joy back to going to a movie theater, buying some popcorn, and losing yourself in a pretend world for two hours. It's like stepping back in time to Steven Spielberg's world of the 1970s, with first-rate alien effects and top-notch acting by a mostly unknown cast of youngsters. Everything director J.J. Abrams wanted to accomplish with this homage to Spielberg, he did - creating a film that's just plain fun to watch.

11. The Top Action Films at the Box Office in 2011

The best performing action films at the box office for 2011 were:

1) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, 2) Transformers: Dark of the Moon, 3) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, 4) Fast Five, 5) Thor, 6) Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 7) Captain America, 8) X-Men: First Class, 9) Super 8, and 10) Green Lantern

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