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 (opens in new tab) , 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.