2011 was a big year at the box office, with massive blockbusters ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2"), emotional performances ("Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2") and instant classics ("Harry Potter and ..." oh, you get it) all converging to make this one of the most intriguing cinematic years in recent memory.
But as big as the year was at the theater, many of this year's biggest stories weren't on screen at all, but rather behind the scenes. Hollywood controversies, shocking deaths and studio intrigue provided just some of the surprising and unforgettable headlines that helped shape the year in film. With that in mind, then, here's a look at some of the stories from 2011 that you'll be talking about for years to come.
15. 'The Hobbit' Finally Begins Filming
Well, shucks, that took long enough, didn't it? Eight endless years after "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" made a metric ton of cash and won a whopping 11 Academy Awards, Peter Jackson finally began filming J.R.R. Tolkein's beloved "Lord of the Rings" prequel "The Hobbit." After years of lawsuits, union strikes, squabbling and one high-profile casualty (former "Hobbit" director Guillermo del Toro), fans were over the moon at the announcement that filming had at last started on location in New Zealand this spring. Of course, by the time the first half of "The Hobbit" arrives for Christmas in 2013, a full decade will have gone by since "Lord of the Rings," but that's okay; at least the elves will still be alive to see it.
14. Hilary Swank's Chechnyan Choice
Big-time stars making paid personal appearances at private events is nothing new, and for most actors or musicians it's a quick and easy way to make a lot of cash for basically no work. But this year, multiple Oscar winner Hilary Swank discovered just how high a price one can pay trying to chase an easy payday when she agreed to appear at an event celebrating Chechnyan president Ramzan Kadyrov. Kadyrov is viewed by many as one of the most brutal leaders in the world, with multiple human rights violations charged against his regime; so it's easy to see why video of a smiling Swank palling it up with him at a private party would ruffle a few feathers. By the time the controversy had faded, Swank had even been dumped by the PR company she had hired to help clean up her image. Now that's saying something.
13. Lars von Trier's Horrible, No Good Day
Once upon a time, Lars von Trier was known for making controversial (and acclaimed) movies like "Dancer in the Dark" and his newest, "Melancholia." After his appearance at the Cannes Film Festival this May, though, he's now known for making controversial (and very much unacclaimed) jokes expressing sympathy for Hitler and declaring himself to be a Nazi. That he was attempting to make a joke when he made his pro-Hitler comments is pretty clear, but you know what else is clear? You shouldn't make pro-Hitler jokes or announce you are a Nazi. After the worldwide firestorm surrounding his comments, that lesson is one that von Trier may have finally learned.
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12. Ashton and Demi Call It Quits
It was one of the most unlikely Hollywood romances in history -- and now it's abruptly over. Just a few short years after becoming America's surprise sweehearts, 33-year-old Ashton Kutcher and his 49-year-old wife Demi Moore called it quits following widespread reports of Kutcher's fooling around. It was just the latest -- and final -- chapter in a romance played out entirely in the media, with most of the coverage coming from Kutcher's own extremely popular Twitter feed, which had chronicled all the ups and downs of their marriage for the whole world to read. That level of fan intimacy made their separation even more surprising for followers who thought they had come to know everything there was to know about the couple's relationship. Now, sadly, they do.
11. Natalie Portman Gets Oscar AND a Baby
It sometimes felt like every single movie out this year had Natalie Portman in it, but that's not quite true; only 75% of new releases actually featured the diminutive star (among them "Black Swan," "No Strings Attached," "Your Highness" and "Thor"). She would have been in all of them, of course, except she was a little too busy dominating the news cycle with two other achievements: winning her first Best Actress Oscar (for "Black Swan") and having her first baby (with "Black Swan" choreographer Benjamin Millepied). We think she's earned a bit of a break, don't you?
10. Controversy Surrounds 'The Help'
When "The Help" arrived in theaters this August, it quickly became one of the most successful dramas of the year -- and unquestionably the most controversial. What everyone could agree on was that the powerhouse cast turned in great performances, including Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as two domestic servants in the pre-Civil Rights era South who share their life story with a young local would-be journalist (Emma Stone). But while some found the story an uplifting message of racial harmony, others, particularly in the African-American community, condemned the movie for literally having the story of the Civil Rights movement told by and through the white perspective, a subtext that they felt ironically undermined the entire purpose of the film. And with awards season almost upon us, chances are we won't see the end of this debate anytime soon.
9. 'Dark Knight Rises' Mania Sweeps Nation
When "The Dark Knight" hit theaters in 2008 just months after star Heath Ledger's untimely death, the result was a pop phenomenon that propelled the film to the second highest all-time box office gross. It seemed like a once in a lifetime confluence of circumstances, but when "The Dark Knight Rises" began filming earlier this year we all discovered that lightning can, in fact, strike twice. With every casting choice endlessly debated (Anne Hathaway is Catwoman! Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn't The Riddler!) and every leaked photo pored over for the tiniest scrap of information (is that Hathaway's costume? What does Tom Hardy's Bane really look like?), it's clear that Bat-mania has once again infected the world -- and it's here to stay.
8. 'Jackass' Star Ryan Dunn Killed in Car Accident
For years, the cast of MTV's shock-stunt series "Jackass" have tempted fate on camera for the entertainment of millions, making so many close escapes that fans had begun to believe they were truly invulnerable. All of that came to a shocking end in June when star Ryan Dunn was killed in a fiery car accident in the wee hours of the morning near his Pennsylvania home. Stunned fans are still searching for some sense in the tragedy of a man taken far before his time; Dunn was just 34 years old.
7. 'Bridesmaids' and Melissa McCarthy Kick Off Comedy Revolution
Judd Apatow has been so successful with his adult comedies over the last decade that the an entire sub-genre has been named for him; describe something as an "Apatow movie" and everyone knows what you mean. But this year, that mold wasn't just broken -- it was shattered into atomic dust by one of the biggest surprise hits of the year, "Bridesmaids." Not only did it give Apatow his biggest hit ever, it did so by featuring not the standard Apatow man-child but rather a slew of incredibly talented women, including star Kristen Wiig and breakout sensation Melissa McCarthy. The result has already transformed how the industry looks at female comedians; McCarthy alone has half-dozen new projects lined up. So did Apatow ironically obsolete himself? If "bridesmaids' is any indication, we may spend the next decade talking about "McCarthy movies" -- and that would be just fine with us.
Also Check Out: The 10 Best Movie Trailers of 2011
6. James Franco and Anne Hathaway Bomb at the Oscars
While most discussion about Brett Ratner's disastrous attempt to liven up the Oscars has focused on, you know, Ratner putting both feet in his mouth and biting them off, it shouldn't be forgotten why he was brought on board: because the last hosting gig failed so terribly. That gig, of course, came courtesy of the fresh young duo of Anne Hathaway and James Franco, who cohosted the 2011 Oscars. They were supposed to bring in the youth demographic, but instead they alternately bored and confused everyone from ages 9 to 90, especially Franco, whose thousand-mile stare and beyond-deadpan delivery convinced some that the whole thing was a weird performance art experiment gone horribly wrong. Turns out that the multi-talented star can only do almost everything.
5. Bella and Edward Finally Do It
After years of nearly blinding "Twilight" fanaticism, the moment fans have been waiting for finally arrived this year: Edward and Bella actually doing it. Fittingly, all that pent-up lust -- which is let loose during their honeymoon in "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1" -- is released in a violent explosion of passion that results in shredded pillows, a broken headboard and the conception of a mommy-eating monster vampire baby. All the debates over Team Edward vs. Team Jacob have been resolved, and by all accounts, the ultimate winners in the Bella sweepstakes are the fans themselves. It's about time.
4. Brett Ratner's Oscar Fiasco
In the seemingly neverending quest by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to keep the Oscar telecast relevant in this crowded and competitive digital age, someone came up with a brilliant idea: hire Brett Ratner to produce the Oscars. After all, with his reputation for over-the-top action, surely he would come up with something buzzworthy, right? Well, there turned out to be plenty to buzz about, but that was thanks mostly to his other reputation, as a world-class d-bag. A few viral clips of him hurling around homophobic slurs later, and Ratner was out -- along with his hand-picked host, Eddie Murphy -- leaving everybody involved with egg on their face. We're guessing this isn't the kind of chatter the Academy had in mind.
3. Elizabeth Taylor: The Passing of a Legend
A wise soul once said "every man dies, but not every man really lives." Okay, so that was actually Mel Gibson in "Braveheart," but the sentiment holds true, especially when it comes to Elizabeth Taylor, who died this year after living a life unlike any before her. That one of the greatest talents of the 20th century also happened to be one of its greatest beauties might just be a quirk of fate, but Taylor turned that into one of the most iconic careers in Hollywood history -- and one of the most publicly scrutinized off-screen lives in film history. She was both the last of the great movie stars and the first tabloid sensation, bridging the gap between the Golden Age of Hollywood and the modern age of paparazzi and reality television. That she stole the spotlight one last time with her death is really the only way she could have gone out.
2. The 'Hunger Games' Casting Frenzy
With "Harry Potter" done and "Twilight" nearing its inevitable conclusion, fans and industry insiders alike have been desperately searching for the Next Big Thing. Based on the media circus surrounding the casting for "The Hunger Games," it looks like they've found it. With dozens of major characters being cast over the course of the year, there was plenty to talk about, but nothing compared to the Internet explosion (or is that implosion?) that followed the announcement of Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role of Katniss Everdeen. People are still debating the choice, and the chatter isn't likely to end any time soon; after all, once the film hits theaters in March, attention can turn to the casting of the sequel, "Catching Fire."
1. The Amazing End to 'Harry Potter'
After over a decade of unparalleled film excitement -- and unmatched box office earnings -- J.K. Rowling's epic worldwide phenomenon about a boy wizard and the lizard man who hates him finally came to an end with "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2." And what an ending it was. With "Deathly Hallows: Part 1" having gotten all the set-up out of the way, "Part 2" was over two hours of pure, straight-up fangasm courtesy of the Battle of Hogwarts. They say that all good things must come to an end, but few things have ever come to a better ending than this. Just what fans will do to fill their time for the next decade, though, is another issue.