Despite some notable high points, 2012 hasn’t been the strongest year for sci-fi and fantasy films.
Your knee-jerk reaction to a statement like that might be, “Hang on! Avengers ? Dark Knight Rises ? Looper ? Has SFX gone mad?”
And yeah, there are some great, great films in the Top 10, but the quality starts to dip quite drastically as you head into the mid and lower reaches of the chart. So much so, we seriously considered only doing a Top 20 this year to save the ignominy of having to include John Carter .
Don’t get us wrong. We don’t have as much of a downer on John Carter as some people, but, well, one of the top films of the year?
Between Carter and the behemoths at the top of the chart there are a lot of good-but-not-great films. This year, animated movies have done particularly well almost by default; they’re jolly, fun, well-made and a darn site less irritating to watch than vacuous action movies. 2012, then, is the triumph of the not-bad sci-fi and fantasy movie.
But there have been some pleasant surprises. Especially the number of original movies (ie, not sequels or based on comics or books) in the Top 10. See, Hollywood, you do have it in you. It’s also been a great year for quirky, low-budget films.
This list was compiled by votes from a vast range of SFX writers, both on staff and freelance (about 40 people in all). So it’s the critics’ choice. Which doesn’t make it more or less valid than a reader-voted choice, but it does mean it hasn’t been knobbled by Joss Whedon fans block voting. What that means for The Avengers and The Cabin In The Wood …? Well, read on and find out.
Countdown starts on the next page…
25 John Carter
Director: Andrew Stanton
Cast: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Mark Strong, Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton
Poor old John Carter, a film which will forever be synonymous with the word flop. Not quite the Heaven’s Gate of sci-fi cinema – it didn’t bring down the company (Disney knew it had Avengers up its sleeve anyway, and didn’t seem too worried about writing off this expensive vanity project) – it nevertheless made a Michael Cimino out of Andrew Stanton; he entered the film as one of Hollywood’s hottest directors and exited it as a laughing stock with a reputation for excess, reluctantly forced to make a follow-up to his biggest success, Finding Nemo . His confrontational style when it came to any less than glowing comments about the film in promotional interviews didn’t help win him many friends either.
And poor old Taylor Kitsch, who must have entered 2012 thinking this was his year; he was the star of two hugely expensive potential blockbusters ( Battleship being the other one) which fell flat at the box office.
But not so poor us, the audience. Because although hardly anyone went to see it, those that did were pleasantly surprised to discover that John Carter was actually not that bad. Deeply flawed, sure: overlong, tortuously plotted, ponderous where it should have zipped along, hampered by Kitsch’s hollow central performance and set on a Mars that looked uncannily (and often dully) like Arizona with CG knobs on.
It was also, perhaps, a little too slavishly loyal to its source material. Pre-publicity for the film kept trying to ram home how Star Wars owed much to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pulp novels, but audiences didn’t care about that. They just saw a load of Stars Wars tropes being trotted out again, with less interesting characters.
But there was fun to be had. The four-armed Tharks were marvellous motion-capture creations, with the actors’ subtle performances shining through. Lynn Collins was a fantastic feisty princess. There was a stunningly-realised walking city. The action scenes were amazing. And the comedy alien dog – despite looking like a potential Jar Jar in the trailers – was actually cute and funny.
John Carter is not a work of flawed genius that French film critics will rediscover in 30 years’ time and hail as a classic. It’s more of a flawed folly, crippled by very odd, somewhat self-defeating creative decisions from the outset (why no “Of Mars?”). But at times it is great pulpy, sci-fi action that’ll be fun to watch on TV on soggy Sunday afternoons for years to come.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Clare Foley, James Ransome, Juliet Rylance
Ellison Oswalt is a true crime author whose career is on the wane. He’s so desperate for fame that he moves his family into a home that, not long ago, was the site of a horrific family murder and disappearance. His plan is simple: write about the case again, become famous and his family will forgive him.
Then he finds a box full of old Super 8 movies; one of which shows the murders at the house. Ellison is terrified but presses on, little realising that whilst he’s watching the movies, the movies are also watching him…
Sinister shouldn’t work. Ellison is such an unbelievably horrible person that you should cheer when it becomes apparent just how much trouble he’s in. However, Scott Derrickson and Robert Cargill’s script cleverly mirrors the gradual unpacking of the family with the gradual unpacking of the story as we discover just what happened, to terrifying effect. The movies in particular are wonderful; silent apart from the projector whirring, they’re small trips into hell with huge reveals coded into each and a growing sense of menace that builds to unbearable levels by the end of the movie.
It helps that the film is chock full of great actors too, with Vincent D’Onofrio turning up as an occult phenomena expert and James Ransone and Fred Dalton Thompson as local police officers all doing great work. Likewise Ethan Hawke, who revels in these slightly feral writer roles, is the perfect combination of hateful and sympathetic. Ellison just wants another 15 minutes of fame - is that so much to ask?
Yes, it is. And watching him pay that price will take you through one of the most inventive, disturbing horror movies of the last five years. You’ll never look at a Super 8 projector the same way again.
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron
If, at the start of 2012, you’d drawn up a list of the year’s most anticipated movies, Prometheus would have been at the top. A prequel to Alien directed by Ridley Scott? Count us in. Scott's insistence on secrecy, followed by a thrilling teaser trailer, raised expectations to a dizzying high.
It disappointed, of course. How could it not? But even accounting for the hype factor, Prometheus feels like a film that's been compromised. From the studio's apparent directive to ditch most of the Alien elements, to the replacement of a truly frightening Fifield mutant (look it up on YouTube…) with a lame latex-faced zombie, it’s a movie filled with odd creative decisions.
Still, those calling it a disaster are, frankly, wrong. It’s a beautifully made, often awe-inspiring piece of work. The performances from Noomi Rapace and Michael Fassbender are excellent. There's a fantastic, questing score from Marc Streitenfeld. Even the 3D felt justified – especially contrasted with the muddy mess of The Avengers . As a cinematic experience, it’s easily one of the year’s best and most immersive.
It’s also far more coherent than its reputation suggests. Many of the supposed plot-holes and questions can be easily resolved just by thinking about what's happening on screen. It’s a movie about faith that requires you to make up your own mind about a few things. That's the sign of a filmmaker crediting his audience with intelligence – isn't that a good thing?
Director: Seth MacFarlane
Cast: Seth MacFarlane, Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis
Seth ( Family Guy ) MacFarlane’s feature debut was a dizzyingly original fusion of children’s fantasy and gross-out comedy. Taking an idea that would easily be the basis for any U-rated Jim Carrey comedy – what if your imaginary childhood friend became real and grew up with you – MacFarlane takes this idea and turns it into a potty-mouthed bromance as Mark Wahlberg’s John Bennett has to balance the needs of his girlfriend (a drop-dead Mila Kunis) with that of his dope-smoking bear, Ted.
Surprisingly sweet-natured beyond the f-ing and blinding, Ted also threw up an unexpected Flash Gordon tribute, with Sam J Jones cameoing as himself, and also indulging in a fantasy sequence where he dons his old 1980 Flash Gordon garb in a perfectly-recreated scene with John on the back of a rocket cycle en route to Sky City. Not dubbed this time, mind.
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Winona Ryder
We’ve almost got so used to the regular disappointment of a Tim Burton opening that we’ve forgotten why we fell in love with him in the first place. Arriving hotfoot after the wretched Dark Shadows came Frankenweenie , a small-scale gem of a family flick that took Burton right back to his beginnings.
In 1984, Disney sacked Burton after he completed his short film, Frankenweenie , about a boy who brings his pet dog back from dead, fearing it was too dark and too scary for the Mouse House brand. 28 years later, a full-length Frankenweenie arrived in cinemas, under a Burtonised rejig of the Walt Disney logo, still in black and white and with its black-clad spirit immaculately intact.
This was Burton returning to the sources that originally inspired him: Universal horror, ’50s suburbia and movie homages. Frankenweenie is probably his best film since Ed Wood , a similarly economically-budgeted monochrome love letter to cinema’s dreamy past.
20 Hotel Transylvania
Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Cast: Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Selena Gomez, Kevin James, Steve Buscemi
Dracula, traumatised by the loss of his wife and the birth of their daughter Mavis, creates a five-star hotel where monsters can be themselves and Mavis will be safe forever. Except she’s just turned 118 and wants out…
Genndy Tartakovsky’s unique design style is all over the movie, and the Hotel is a joy to spend time in, crammed full of secret packages, rooms with talking door knockers and a swimming pool that, of course, has a huge plug in the bottom. It’d be easy to give him all the credit, but Adam Sandler’s voice performance and Peter Baynham and Robert Smigel’s script can’t be faulted either. There are some wonderful, smart jokes in here (Zombie Beethoven is fantastic), and Sandler brings a real charm and intensity to the role as well as playing an amiable undead dad.
It’s sweet-natured without being sickly and Sandler, Steve Buscemi (as the world’s most put upon Wolfman), Cee Lo Green (as Murray the Mummy) and Kevin James (as Frankenstein) are a hugely entertaining set of central characters. It’s constantly inventive, very funny, frequently beautiful and there’s a Twilight joke in the last ten minutes which makes the entire movie worthwhile all by itself. One of the year’s real gems.
19 The Lorax
Directors: Chris Renaud and Kyle Balda
Cast: Danny DeVito, Ed Helms, Zac Efron, Taylor Swift
If you love Dr Seuss you'll love The Lorax , although you'll probably be wondering how such a flimsy story could ever be padded out to film length. The team behind Despicable Me don't let us down, thankfully, and while The Lorax is sometimes a muddle of flashbacks, it's also an interesting, often daring tale of eco-friendliness and “love the Earth” ideology.
Wait! Come back! Sure, the film's message is a simple environmental one: “Don't chop down all the trees, you'll regret it.” But it's not enough to make you puke. Plus it's told in a bonkers, carefree way that will appeal to true kids (young or old) everywhere, in a world of colourful candyfloss trees, singing forest critters and showtunes about doing the right thing.
Actually, now we've written that, it does sound a bit trite, doesn't it? And it probably is. But pah! If you're willing to let the colours, tunes and singing bears wash over you, you'll find yourself absorbed in a gloriously simple and imaginative fantasy. If you're feeling a bit of a Grinch, it's not for you. But hey, you're a Grinch, so there's no hope for you anyway.
18 The Woman In Black
Director: James Watkins
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciarán Hinds, Janet McTeer, Mischa Handley, Liz White
Though the revived Hammer had already popped its head up with the US-set Hilary Swank shocker The Resident , it wasn’t until the more clipped British tones of The Woman In Black arrived in cinemas that we could say a proper hello again to the world of Hammer horror.
Refreshingly old-fashioned in its cinematic sensibilities, this was a tight, effective retelling of Susan Hill’s 1983 novel. Daniel Radcliffe may not yet be a Day-Lewis or an Oldman, but he’s far better than eight Harry Potter films and not much else would suggest, ably acquitting himself as the widowed lawyer Arthur Kipps.
Part of why The Woman In Black felt so bracing was that it was an attempt by Hammer to embrace its gothic horror past, and James Watkins’s restrained direction lent this adaptation a rousingly grown-up feel. The fact that it quickly became the highest grossing horror film in Britain for 20 years suggests that public appetite for the genre may be more with the kind of films Hammer used to make than with the new-school shocks of The Resident .
17 Cockneys vs Zombies
Director: Matthias Hoene
Cast: Rasmus Hardiker, Harry Treadaway, Michelle Ryan, Alan Ford, Honor Blackman
I could be accused of being biased when it comes to Cockneys Vs Zombies , because I was in it, spending two days on set as an extra (keep your eyes peeled when the robbers come out of the bank – I’m the zombie in the red and black check shirt). That explains why I didn’t review either the cinema release, or the DVD release: I’m too close to it!
Not that it made a spot of difference. Both of SFX ’s reviewers (for the film and DVD release respectively) adored Cockneys Vs Zombies – probably a bit more than I did, in fact. This high rating (pretty impressive for a low-budget British indie which got only a limited theatrical run) proves that they weren’t alone.
Not seen it? Three words of advice: ignore the title. It’s hard not to feel that Cockneys Vs Zombies may have shot itself in the foot there, putting off as many punters as were attracted. Sure, it tells you the basic premise, and its cheeky simplicity prepares you for something comical. But it also puts you in mind of the rubbish mockney gangster flicks that came in the wake of Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels , and the low-grade direct-to-video zombie flicks that now seem to come out every month. And it’s far, far superior to that kind of thing.
Starring ex- EastEnder Michelle Ryan, it sees a bunch of Lahndahn types robbing a bank to find the funds to save their grandfather’s old people’s home. Unfortunately for them, the job takes place at exactly the same time as a zombie infection starts spreading through the East End, and they emerge to find the streets crawling with the undead. Cue a frantic struggle to get across London and make sure that their hardnut pater familias is safe.
It’s not quite perfect. The motivation of the protagonists is a little hard to swallow (can you really save an old people’s home with a bag of stolen loot?). The, “We’re family, we stick together,” message is arguably hammered home a little unsubtly. And veteran Alan Ford’s performance as the head of the family is more shouting than acting.
But there are some truly hilarious moments, including the unforgettable sight of a doddery Richard Briers machine-gunning the undead as he leans on a Zimmer frame, and if there’s ever been a more triumphant use of the theme from Grandstand, we’ve yet to see it!
More importantly, Cockneys Vs Zombies is a movie with real heart, possessing believable characters that you can care about (even if some of them are a bit on the dopey side) – something that’s pretty rare when it comes to films about the undead apocalypse. That’s why it’s the zombie film of the year.
16 The Amazing Spider-Man
Director: Marc Webb
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan, Chris Zylka
For a helping of hearty superhero fun down the ol’ multiplex there’s little else that’s quite as reliable as a dose of Spider-Man. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s brilliant creation, 50 years young, is perennially the superhero kids want to be and the wider public want to watch.
This summer’s The Amazing Spider-Man didn’t let any of us down. A tough act to pull off after Sam Raimi’s thrilling trilogy (yes, this writer holds a big torch for the third one too), it could have bombed and bored, but it didn’t. Let’s be eternally thankful they didn’t go down the wearisome “dark and darker” route, because that really wouldn’t have suited such an effervescent, youthful superhero as our wallcrawler. Yes it wasn’t quite as “’60s comic strip” as Raimi’s films but it still had oodles of fun with Peter Parker and the bully, with Spidey and the Lizard beating each other senseless, with Spidey and the street criminals he “sneezes” his webbing at, and lots more.
The special effects were terrific, the performances uniformly good and the 3D intelligently utilised. Plus, it also had what may be Stan Lee’s best ever cameo.
Directors: Sam Fell, Chris Butler
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Anna Kendrick, Tucker Albrizzi, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Stop motion zombies.
You need to hear any more?
Okay then. ParaNorman is a children’s film that opens with the word, “Braaaaaiiiiiinnnnnsssss!!!!!” as its young central character, Norman, watches zombie horror films with his dead Grandma next to him on the sofa. His best friend at one point turns up wearing a Friday The 13th Jason mask.
Hang on, is this sounding like the most subversive film ever?
It’s not. It’s actually quite sweet, and though there are moments of deliciously black humour (there’s a ghost bird which has clearly been killed by getting its neck caught in those discarded plastic lager can holders) it’s the slapstick fun and colourful characters you recall with most fondness.
And the zombies…? They’re not really after your brains. In fact, you end up sympathising with them as the townsfolk of Blithe Hollow go all flaming-torches-and-pitchforks on them. It’s a clever inversion.
They do look marvellous though. Zombies are made for stop motion.
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
Cast: Kelly MacDonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane
Never has fake hair looked this damn good. Seriously, if we were Donald Trump we’d be hiring the Pixar gang to furnish us with a new ’do based solely on Princess Merida's mane, which is a thing of magnificent follicular beauty.
But enough about the hair and more about the bear! After all, this is the story of what happens when a bad choice of spell turns one of Merida’s loved ones into a grizzly... and the slapstick antics that follow are a right royal treat. While not quite in the same comedic league as something like Pixar stablemate Monsters, Inc , Brave 's still bloody hilarious, using the kind of physical comedy you'd see in a West End farce interspersed with truly pretty magic and gorgeous landscapes.
Brave isn't going to go down as one of Pixar's greatest films – and it certainly didn't set the box office alight – but it's still miles ahead of most other ’toons. It also features a rare thing indeed: a heroine in a children's fairy tale who isn't looking for her prince, but living life on her own terms. If that's not an inspiration to little girls, then we're a big, shaggy bear.
13 Rise Of The Guardians
Director: Peter Ramsey
Cast: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman, Isla Fisher
Hats off to whoever it was who thought, “Hey, let's call Hugh Jackman's agent to see if he'd like to play the Easter Bunny!” The rabbit in question, voiced in his native Aussie twang by Wolverine himself, is the highlight of this kiddie flick, doing all sorts of funny-bunny things while being effortlessly, Jackman-ly cool at the same time.
Bunny is only one of the great things about this feelgood tale, which also boasts Alec Baldwin as a burly Russian Santa (complete with battered worker Elves) and Chris Pine as Jack Frost. Oh, and Jude Law smarms his way through the film as villain Pitch, clearly enjoying the fact he gets to scare the nappies off smaller kids (although who doesn't?).
The action does tend to rush at times and there's so much crammed into the plot that by the end you're feeling a tad dizzy, but it's a small price to pay for what is, thankfully, a highly entertaining ensemble piece about a group of superpowered heroes saving the world (who aren't Avengers).
Just don't call Bunny a kangaroo. He doesn't like that.
12 The Hunger Games
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Lenny Kravitz
It looked like the successor to Twilight , a film franchise aiming to insinuate itself into the hearts of tweenage girls everywhere once the last set of Robert Pattinson-themed hair straighteners had been sold (no, seriously, they exist , and they even sparkle). But there's much more to The Hunger Games than an angst-filled love triangle between a pouty brunette and two brooding boys. Although, yes, there is that too.
The Hunger Games was incredibly – perhaps surprisingly – good. Jennifer Lawrence was a charismatic lead, but the whole cast threw themselves into the mythology of Panem with aplomb. Woody Harrelson hasn't been this fun since Zombieland , Stanley Tucci and Donald Sutherland added some gravitas to proceedings, and who knew Lenny Kravitz could act? Admittedly, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are unlikely to be the most interesting elements of the film to anyone outside of their target demographic, but they weren't actively bad, more overshadowed by more nuanced performances and more interesting characters.
Accusations that the film was derivative have some merit. As well as Twilight comparisons (sadly only likely to get worse as the love triangle story deepens and the film producers split books into multiple films to milk as much money from the franchise as possible), there were echoes of Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Battle Royale . But they're two visually striking and emotionally impactful films to be borrowing from, and while The Hunger Games didn't reach the heights of either it was a solidly good film, much better than you might have expected from the trailer or the premise.
11 The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Sylvester McCoy, James Nesbitt, Richard Armitage
“Have you got any chips?” Oddly, we don’t remember that line from JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit . Nor about 75% of the rest of the film…
Not that it mattered. Many critics became hung up on the fact that Peter Jackson was making a trilogy out of a 300-page book, but that was missing the point. Jackson wasn’t really making an adaptation of The Hobbit ; he was making a prequel trilogy to The Lord Of The Rings . Sure, he could have just stuck to The Hobbit , and made one lean, to-the-point movie in the light, children’s fantasy adventure tone of the book, but he knew that’s not what fans actually wanted; they wanted more Lord Of The Rings .
And he gave them that by expanding the book using appendices from The Lord Of The Rings and parts of the Silmarillion to expand The Hobbit and set it in the wider world and mythology of Middle-earth. The result: a prequel that felt like a prequel.
Admittedly, the straightforward, linear plot structure of the book gives the film a little of the feeling of getting the hors d'oeuvres after the main course. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t quite as good as any of the Rings films. But the Rings films were stunningly brilliant. Being slightly less than stunningly brilliant is okay in our book.
While the film has some stand-out action sequences, it’s at its best in its less frantic moments, when its stellar cast are required to act. Martin Freeman is superb as Bilbo and Ian McKellen is possibly even more fun to watch than he was in the Rings trilogy. The “Riddle In The Dark” scene is absolutely perfect, and the Dwarves (including some of the sexiest Dwarves ever seen on screen) are a loveable bunch.
Sometimes the action goes a little too video-gamey, and the 48fps version may not have been to everybody’s taste (we’re not sure that’s just a case of “the shock of the new” so much as a filmmaker being a little overambitious with new technology before working out how to take the best advantage of it) but the quibbles are minor. This is a worthy continuation of the movie Middle-earth tales, and one that was well worth the wait.
10 The Cabin In The Woods
Director: Drew Goddard
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchinson, Fran Kranz, Richard Jenkins, Amy Acker
The Avengers may have taken all the cash, but for many Joss Whedon fans, this was the better flick. The irony? Whedon didn’t direct it. That role fell to Cloverfield writer Drew Goddard. The result of this collaboration was one of the year’s most original and exciting movies.
To say too much about the plot would spoil it for newcomers, so we’ll leave it at this: five teens go on holiday to a remote cabin. They are not alone. Bad things happen. The film’s genius lies in the way that it both subverts and celebrates this clichéd setup and the genre that spawned it. We experience all the traditional horror thrills (Death! Boobs! Gore!) while the film probes deeper and asks questions about cinema, and about society itself. It's meaningful stuff.
Whedon called the movie a “very loving hate letter” to the torture porn flicks that ruled at the start of the decade ( Cabin was originally due for release in 2010). Some have taken that as a stab against horror in general, but nothing could be further from the truth. Watch the sequence in the basement, or the reveal of what exactly is in the cubes, and it's clear that this is the work of two fanboys having the time of their lives. It's riotous fun. At times it feels like the great horror film Quentin Tarantino is yet to make. It's funny, tragic, heartwarming and frightening all at the same time. And it features a unicorn.
9 Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Cast: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Gina Montana
With a title that whiffs of being a nature documentary, a cast of unknowns – including a small child in her first film, the horror! – and a budget that would be just enough to whip up three minutes of something like The Hobbit , Beasts Of The Southern Wild really shouldn't be this good.
But it's good. Very good. And it's absolutely unforgettable to boot.
It's a beautiful, yet often visceral, fairy tale and social drama combined, set in the swamps of the American Deep South just before the ice caps melt away and the entire land floods to nothing. Six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) and her volatile father Wink (Dwight Henry) live an existence on the edge, struggling to survive both everyday life and each other's presence. But when the waters finally rise, the burden falls on Hushpuppy to seek out her dreams...
Young Wallis was a mere five years old when she made the film, yet her acting style is so natural and fluid she makes Meryl Streep look like a panto dame. She had great material, though; this is the kind of messed-up, disturbing story the Brothers Grimm would be writing today, but with a socio-political edge that grounds it in reality. Dark, blistering, supernatural Southern magic.
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris
So how did Skyfall do it? How did the 23rd Bond movie become a bona fide phenomenon, trousering the kind of silly money usually only obtained by threatening the UN with an orbital laser platform?
Let’s not rule out the simple power of patriotism – this summer saw Her Majesty’s secret servant recruited for security detail at the London Olympics (with Her Majesty herself on comic relief duty) and a little of that red, white and blue bulldog buzz undoubtedly attached itself to the film’s release.
But Skyfall has taken a staggering $952,207,818 worldwide (at time of writing). This is a global smash, edging Ian Fleming’s superspy into the dizzying, high-altitude realm of Avatar and The Lord Of The Rings . The Bond brand has a half-century advantage at the box office, of course, and the franchise’s golden anniversary undoubtedly triggered a groundswell of appreciation and affection for the old boy – but that doesn’t quite explain it either. And Skyfall does an awful lot of things that, on the surface, screw with the time-honoured sacraments of a Bond film: the new Q brings a snotty hipster attitude to the cherished gizmology of yesterday, there’s no grand world-threatening scheme, Dame Judi Dench becomes the de facto Bond babe and, in a sense, our hero fails.
But, in the broader creative sense, Bond triumphs. Skyfall is a juggernaut because it’s built on some mighty talents: Sam Mendes, transitioning from arthouse to blockbuster mode but keeping his core emotional values intact; Javier Bardem, making the Bond villain be an outsized, crowdpleasing turn again; cinematographer Roger Deakins, painting the East as some shimmering fever dream; Daniel Craig, finally allowing glimmers of wit and irony to puncture his hard man shell. Plus, it has komodo dragons. And komodo dragons rock.
By the end of Skyfall it feels as though the house of Bond has been rebuilt from the foundations up, completing the mission begun by Casino Royale in 2006. We’re back in business, and reporting for duty.
7 Ruby Sparks
Directors: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas
If you didn’t know better you’d swear that Ruby Sparks was a Michel Gondry film. In look, feel, tone, attitude and theme Ruby Sparks resembles the quirky, oddball oeuvre of the Gallic weird-meister. It even starts off sweetly, then takes an eerie, freaky turn towards the end.
It’s a high concept film: what if you could write your ideal partner into existence? What makes it slightly chilling even from the start is that the fictional ideal partner here, the eponymous Ruby Sparks, has no idea she isn’t real. And the social misfit author who creates her, Calvin, can keep rewriting her, so that if she decides that the relationship isn’t going anywhere, he can make sure she changes her mind.
So what starts out as whimsical comedy (“Let’s make her talk French!”) rapidly becomes a deeper tale about free will and obsession. It’s the kind of thing you need to watch with a mixed-sex group so you can all argue about it afterwards. Entertaining and thought-provoking – what more could you want from a film?
Intriguingly, the film is not only written by Zoe Kazan – the actress playing Ruby – but Kazan has also been dating the film’s star, Paul Dano, for five years. Knowing that somehow makes the film operate on a whole other meta level.
6 Holy Motors
Director: Leos Carax
Cast: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue
There was nothing else like Holy Motors this year. In terms of giddy self-knowing lunacy and sheer audacity, nothing even came close. Suffice to say, director Leos Carax really broke the mould with this one.
Following the exploits of Monsieur Oscar, a chameleonic actor who is ferried around Paris to various appointments, Holy Motors is an artistic examination of the masks we must wear everyday, that retains an incredible sense of fun and experimentation.
Denis Lavant gave one of the performances of the year as the actor, and whether eating a supermodel’s hair as the grotesque Mr Merde or performing an erotic dance for a strange computer simulation, he brought a commitment and physicality to the role that marked him out as a master of the craft.
More than anything else released this year, Holy Motors was highly affecting. Scenes of supreme sadness rubbed up against exuberant musical performances and beautifully-detailed character studies, shocking imagery quickly punctured by belly laughs. It didn’t just stay with you after you left the cinema; it infected your consciousness, making it one of the most memorable and downright impressive films of the year, hands down.
Director: Pete Travis
Cast: Karl Urban, Olivia Thirlby, Lena Headey, Wood Harris, Domhnall Gleeson
Finally, a screen version of the 2000 AD character fans can respect. It gets to the heart of the comic we've loved for 35 years – it isn't about the width of Dredd's Lawmaster tyres, it's about his attitude and the way he enforces the law no matter what preposterous situation he encounters.
Karl Urban simmers as the badass lawman and although his world is even grimier than we were expecting, every performance in the film is note perfect.
It's also beautifully brutal; slow-mo action scenes linger on every punctured body part, the hyperreal colours and editing giving the action scenes a balletic edge. Short, punchy and containing a few well-placed nods to the source material, ultimately Dredd is a deceptively simple cop-buddy drama.
What a shame nobody went to see it and we won’t get a sequel!
4 The Dark Knight Rises
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman
Even Christopher Nolan couldn’t top The Dark Knight . He knew it. We all knew it. But rather than let The Joker have the last laugh, Nolan and his screenwriter-brother Jonathan delivered a very different breed of bat with The Dark Knight Rises .
Instead of a battle of wits, Rises is a physical war of attrition. Bruce Wayne is a physical wreck, Bane is a force of nature and the action is more muscular than ever before. Nolan keeps the action grounded while still allowing this threequel to be the most comic-booky of the trilogy, bringing the themes of the first film full circle in the process.
But it isn’t the heavy-duty set-pieces that impress the most – it’s the emotion.
Women have been short-changed in Nolan’s Bat-verse to date, but not so here. Anne Hathaway’s sassy Selina Kyle is the highlight of an already spectacular ensemble. Her budding love affair with Bruce is the light at the end of the tunnel for the billionaire playboy, but the real love story is between Bruce and the men in his life – Alfred and Gordon. We defy even hardened cinemagoers not to feel a lump in their throat when Batman reveals: “A hero can be anyone, even a man doing something as simple and reassuring as putting a coat around a little boy's shoulder to let him know that the world hadn't ended.” Or the moment Alfred’s dream becomes reality in a Florence café.
The Dark Knight Rises has its fair share of problems and plot holes, but the sublime final 20 minutes, when Nolan fully realises the mantra he established at the beginning of Batman Begins – that as a symbol Batman can be everlasting (with a little help from Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake) – goes a long way to obliterating any misgivings about what comes before.
Bane’s peculiar voice, Hans Zimmer’s powerful score, Wally Pfister’s stellar cinematography… there’s little about The Dark Knight Rises that doesn’t scream class, and how often is that the case in blockbuster cinema, let alone the superhero genre? No-one will ever top Nolan’s bat-trilogy on the big screen, and while this might not be the best of the three, it easily ranks among the best of the year.
3 Avengers Assemble
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johannson, Samuel L Jackson
Over the past twelve months, we’ve seen Christopher Nolan complete his Batman trilogy, Peter Jackson return to Middle-earth and Andrew Garfield rejuvenate Spidey. But have no doubt: 2012 belonged to the Avengers.
It’s easy to see why. Joss Whedon is a genius, we all know that, and he brought together Marvel’s mightiest like the genre-striding colossus that he is. Herding superheroes like he’d been doing it all his life, Whedon produced a sparkling script full of instantly quotable one-liners and city-shattering action.
Somehow, Avengers was better than anyone had dared to hope. For the first time in the Marvel movie universe, multiple big-name superheroes clamoured for our attention on the screen, an embarrassment of riches when you consider the cast and characters involved. Robert Downey Jr, now firmly settled as the brightest star in the big screen Marvel firmament, dazzled as usual, alongside a supremely sultry Scarlett Johansson and a simply sublime Mark Ruffalo. Yes, Joss even got the Hulk right – who’d have thought it was possible?
The Avengers movie most of us never thought we’d see, it confirmed Marvel’s ascent to big screen dominance and had us all panting for more. The second instalment can’t come quickly enough.
Director: Josh Trank
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B Jordan
Chronicle achieved the impossible; it was so good that nobody cared it was a found-footage film. In fact, any criticism leveled at the film tended to be about how ludicrous it had to be to stretch credulity to justify the found-footage conceit at times. Few moaned about having to stretch credulity to believe that a slacker teen could fly.
That’s because Chronicle is exquisitely written, directed and acted. And while ostensibly it’s a film about three teenagers who discover they have superpowers, from the very first scene – with socially awkward Andrew making a video diary in his bedroom as his drunken, abusive dad beats on the door and swears at him – you realise that this is going to be more, so much more than a low budget X-Men . It’s a film about relationships. Broken ones, mainly.
While the film has many grim moments, it also has moments filled with an intoxicating joie de vivre, especially when Andrew and his friends are learning to fly. Amazingly for a low-budget production, it has some of the most believable and exhilarating "you’ll believe a man can fly” scenes ever committed to film. This possibly has less to do with the FX and more to do with the performances and direction.
Chronicle also boasts a stunning final battle. It’s pure comic strip action, underpinned by raw emotion and a sense of tragedy. The Avengers ’ finale may have been more spectacular, but Chronicle ’s somehow has just as much impact.
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels, Noah Segan, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo, Garrett Dillahunt
In a year dominated by prequels, sequels and trips to long-established worlds, Looper scores points simply for being set in an entirely new universe. Far more important, however, is the fact it’s also the brainiest, most inventive and most tightly-plotted sci-fi film of 2012.
Rian Johnson’s previous movies, Brick and The Brothers Bloom , had marked him out as a writer/director to watch, and he puts his considerable storytelling talents to brilliant use here. Working with the highest of high concepts – a hitman employed to kill victims sent back from the future misses when his older self is the target – Johnson packs the film with time travel, action, family drama and loads more, not to mention a couple of dramatic curveballs.
As with all time travel movies, Looper doesn’t make sense if you analyse it too closely, but that doesn’t matter, because Johnson has a Back To The Future -like knack for keeping his logic consistent. Besides, the time travel is a tiny part of the story, essentially just a cunning ruse to get the excellent Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a room with his older self (a similarly ace Bruce Willis). It’s unashamedly complicated, but with Johnson to hold your hand – every plot twist feels totally organic within the flawless whole – it’s one hell of a ride. An instant classic.
Oh, in case you’re interested, the bottom 10 films were (with worst at the top):
1 The Devil Inside
2 Piranha 3DD
3 The Darkest Hour
4 House At The End Of The Street
5 Love Bite
6 The Watch
7 Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance
8 Wrath Of The Titans
9 Chernobyl Diaries
10 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter