Hobbits, superheroes and brain-bending trickery: Week in Geek's top five films of 2012

It's been a vintage year for science fiction and fantasy cinema, with some real oddballs among the usual mix of comic book movies and space operas. It's a tricky job to pick five favourites from a crowded field

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We live in an era where big, bold and brash film-making is the model for Hollywood studios hoping to make megabucks by commissioning the next The Dark Knight or Avatar. For those who prefer intimate movies, this is a cause for dismay; for those who unashamedly like their cinema loud, bombastic and wedded to preposterous fantasy, mind-bending glimpses of the future and/or synapse-searing adventure, 2012 has been a vintage year.

Yes, the studio system continues to deliver expensive yet soulless brain-batterers such as Battleship and Total Recall – but in the last year alone it provided the funds for weird and wonderful big budget productions like Ang Lee's offbeat, visually explosive Life of Pi and Laika's wonderfully Phillip Pullmanesque ParaNorman. It pumped $250m into the nailbitingly ambitious first-ever film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars fantasy series (and looked on in horror as most of it disappeared down the toilet). It gave us Prometheus, Ridley Scott's confused-but-thrilling return to the Alien universe, a movie which would have been worth the price of admission had it featured nothing more than two hours of Michael Fassbender's Teutonic android terror David shooting hoops.

None of these movies are on my list of the top five fantasy, science fiction films of the year, but they are well worth a mention because they have only been made possible by what remains a much-maligned current film-making climate. And hey, at least we got a welcome reprieve from Michael Bay's ongoing quest to batter filmgoers into mewling submission with clattering, jarring spectacle in 2012.

Before I begin, let me make a few things clear: this is not a list of the top five films of the year - for that, let me point you to Guardian Film's recent rundown. It is a list of the top movies covered by this column, the scope of which I have detailed above, over the past 12 months. I have not considered outright horror movies but I would happily include so-called "dark fantasy" fare such as the Twilight films or Tim Burton's Dark Shadows. Had I thought them worthy.

So counting down from fifth place, Week in Geek's best films of 2012 are:

5. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

A still of Gollum from Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
A still of Gollum from Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Photograph: PR Photograph: PR

Almost all reviews of Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth have focused on its flaws, and they are many. But those of us who went out and bought the extended versions of all three Lord of the Rings movies can only blame ourselves for encouraging an approach to film-making which tends towards the expansive. In any case, there are so many fine scenes in the first instalment of the Hobbit trilogy that a little padding is entirely forgivable. The "riddles in the dark" segue in which Bilbo Baggins meets and outwits the creature Gollum is unmatched by anything in Jackson's entire fantasy canon, and while many of the book's other great chapters - the journey through Mirkwood and Bilbo's encounter with the great wyrm Smaug - are yet to come, the debut film's final frame still came too soon for me. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey remains an example of the kind of good-hearted, warm and bracing film-making that only Jackson is capable of. And contrary to what you may have been told, it looks fantastic in 48 frames per second - gloriously hyperreal in the frenetic action scenes, if perhaps a little bright and sparkly in the early Shire sections.

4. Dredd

Rough justice … Karl Urban as the eponymous Judge in Dredd
Rough justice … Karl Urban as the eponymous Judge in Dredd Photograph: Public Domain

It bombed in north America but was a hit in the UK; something we Brits should all pat ourselves on the back for. Wiping out memories of the appalling 1995 Sylvester Stallone depiction of 2000AD's taciturn future lawman, Alex Garland and Pete Travis's Judge Dredd movie was as furrow-browed and humourless as its central protagonist (something of a pity given that a closer reading of the comic book might have given birth to a bombastic, satirical Paul Verhoevenesque take). Nevertheless, it had drive and conviction in spades, as well as several standout effects-laden 3D sections like nothing seen before on the big screen. Rather than simply telling us that a new drug, Slo-Mo, had taken over the streets of Mega City One, Garland and Travis attempted to build refracted visions of the effects of the substance into the very fabric of the film itself, resulting in a magnificent reimagining of cinema as mind-expanding experience – LSD for the eyeballs, asi it were. The film-makers are rumoured to have fallen out over the final cut: whoever got it managed to fashion something entirely original and unexpected while delivering a cinematic Dredd that fans of the comic book would be more than satisfied with. What a pity Karl Urban's pitch-perfect, Eastwoodesque take on the character is unlikely to get a second run out.

3. The Dark Knight Rises

Bane in The Dark Knight Rises
Bane in The Dark Knight Rises Photograph: Allstar/WARNER BROS./Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar Photograph: Allstar/WARNER BROS./Sportsphoto Ltd./Allstar

Christopher Nolan's fond, surprisingly sentimental farewell to Batman was a fitting conclusion to the most impressive comic book trilogy ever seen on the big screen – even if it could not quite match its predecessor for firepower or playfulness. Tom Hardy's Bane made for a perfectly serviceable villain, and the caped crusader's against-the-odds comeback to rescue his beloved Gotham from the forces of evil gave Christian Bale the chance to deliver perhaps his iconic performance of the series. While the absence of the late Heath Ledger's Joker left a huge gap, the final film's storyline managed to make sense of the three movies as a perfectly-formed triptych, even if the thematic furniture required to do so occasionally felt a little clunky. Despite all these caveats, we may never see a Batman as good as this in the cinema again, and that is something Nolan can be duly proud of.

2. The Avengers

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow in The Avengers Assemble
Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow in The Avengers Assemble. Photograph: Disney/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar Photograph: Disney/Sportsphoto Ltd/Allstar

In which director Joss Whedon put to rest forever the idea that superhero movies must necessarily be "dark" in order to work in the modern era. Marvel studio had been building up to The Avengers ever since the first Iron Man film in 2008, but the much-hyped denouement in which Tony Stark came together with the Hulk, Thor, Captain America and various other minor heroes might easily have been a bloated, tangled mess. In the end, Whedon's genius was to turn a negative into a positive by zeroing in on the inevitable clash of egos likely to emerge when a platoon of self-important, superpowered demigods came together for the first time. Never mind the real enemy (a rather forgettable bunch of reptilian extra-terrestrial interlopers named the Chitauri), the true battle for supremacy centred on which Avenger could deliver the greatest bellylaughs: Stark with his description of a showdown with Thor as "Shakespeare in the park" or The Hulk with his tendency to smash everything in sight, friend or foe. Humanising his cast of colourful titans with that legendarily sharp ear for a smart line, Whedon gave us a movie that was fun without being camp, gripping without being doom-laden. The fact that the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly is now likely to have millions of greenbacks thrown at him by Hollywood for future (likely rather less orthodox) projects is a very welcome side-effect.

1. Looper

Smooth riders ... Joseph Gordon-Levitt (foreground) and Paul Dano in a scene from Looper. Photograph: Alan Markfield/AP/Sony Pictures Photograph: Alan Markfield/AP/Sony Pictures

It was billed as this year's The Matrix, but ended up feeling rather closer to Christopher Nolan's cerebellum-twisting Inception. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, whose stylish high school neo-noir Brick brought Joseph Gordon Levitt to the attention of many in 2005, this unorthodox yet wholly original vision of the future's only slight mis-step was to use the year's breakout star as a prosthetically-enhanced younger version of Bruce Willis's jaded hitman. Elsewhere it was all on-button stuff: Johnson posited a tightly-wound world in which the invention of time travel had become a tool for mobsters to dispose of the bodies of their enemies, a nightmarish, wired and hopeless dystopia where China led the world financially and the only Americans with money were the killers waiting at the end of a time vortex for their next victim to be delivered on a plate. The movie's genius was the sudden twist - signposted early, but difficult to spot except via repeated viewing - that seemed to send the whole film into an unsettling tailspin before righting itself at the very last and flying true all the way to the final frame. Like a conjurer who distracts the audience with his left hand while his right carries out the vital intervention, Johnson left us awestruck and dumbfounded by the intricacies of his magic trick and the verve with which he delivered it.

Honourable mentions this year must go to The Hunger Games, even if subsequent instalments are likely to have us wishing we'd never delved into this particular dystopia, and Brave, a beautifully-drawn Pixar instalment that oozed with hearty Scots charm. On the indie front, Benh Zeitlin's outrageously leftfield vision of life down on the flood-threatened Louisiana bayou, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is well worth a look, and I also liked Leos Carax's sublime and mesmeric sci-fi piece Holy Motors.

Which movies top your "best of" list of fantasy, sci fi and comic book fare for 2012, and which should be allowed to sink into the mire of celluloid history? All thoughts below.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

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