Our pick of films for 2012

After consulting our reviewers, we've settled on our list of the best films of the past year.
Michael Cook | Jan 2 2013 | comment  

You can never get complete agreement on movie lists. In this annual feature, we've tried to select films which are worthwhile, entertaining and reasonably family-friendly. If you would like to nominate others, please make a comment. It's interesting to see how many excellent foreign-language films have positive messages about human dignity. There's more to life than popcorn! The films are listed in alphabetical order, not ranked in order of excellence. 

Directed by Feng Xiaogang  
Starring Zhang Jingchu, Chen Daoming, Lu Yi, Xu Fan, Zhang Guoqiang, Li Chen

In 1976, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, a powerful earthquake struck the city of Tangshan, killing between 240,000 (government figures) and 650,000 (later estimates) people . The terrifying moments of disaster come in the opening moments, but the film is really about the strength of family ties and respect for life. Unsurprisingly, because it is in Mandarin with subtitles, it was hardly reviewed in the Anglosphere when it appeared in 2010. But in China Aftershock ((Tangshan dadizhen) became the biggest-grossing Chinese film ever made. A wonderfully humane movie with an unexpected pro-life message. (This was released in 2010, but only made to the video shops recently.)


Marvel’s The Avengers    
Directed by Joss Whedon   
Starring Robert Downey, Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson

Here they are, in just one movie (saves time!), all of Marvel Comics greatest superheroes: The Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Iron Man and I’ve probably forgotten a few. Marvellous fun, even though it doesn’t make much sense. Lots of gadgets, acrobatics, special effects and snappy dialogue.


Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman   
Starring the voices of
Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane     

Pixar goes to the Scottish Highlands in this entertaining animated film about a feisty young princess who rebels against her mother’s arrangements for marriage. Kids will love it.


Directed by Ralph Fiennes   
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, Paul Jesson

Visceral and visually striking, this version of one of Shakespeare’s historical plays is electrifying entertainment. It has a peculiar relevance in a time when questions hover over the glorification of war, the legitimacy of democracy, and demagogic politicians.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey     
Directed by Peter Jackson   
Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis

The critics have been kind but not enthusiastic about the first of three instalment of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel. But the technical excellence, the lively acting and the charm of the story make it irresistible viewing.  


Directed by Martin Scorsese    
Starring Asa Butterfield, Ben Kingsley, Chloë Grace Moretz, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Jude Law, Christopher Lee

This wonderfully inventive fantasy by a masterful director won five Oscars last year. Twelve-year-old Hugo lives in the Gare Montparnasse railway station in Paris where he furtively takes care of the station’s clocks and tries to avoid the busybody policeman who would send him to an orphanage in the blink of an eye. It’s a gorgeous depiction of a slightly surrealistic city where everything is mechanical and above all a celebration of the early days of cinema. Hard to describe but a treat to watch.


Le Havre  
Directed by Aki Kaurismäki  
Starring André Wilms, Kati Outinen, Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Blondin Miguel

This tremendously appealing film tells the story of a shoe-shiner who tries to save a boy who is an illegal immigrant from Gabon in the French port city Le Havre. Kaurismäki, one of Finland’s leading directors, does a brilliant job of highlighting the virtues of kindness, heroism and solidarity.


Directed by Steven Spielberg    
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones

Spielberg has turned Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller Team of Rivals into a compelling film with the help of a brilliant portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis. It covers the final four months of Lincoln's life, focusing on his efforts to get Congress to pass an amendment banning slavery. The New York Times called it “among the finest films ever made about American politics”.  A profound celebration of the finest flower of American democracy and an engaging narrative.


Monsieur Lazhar  
Directed by Philippe Falardeau   
Starring Mohamed Fellag, Sophie Nélisse, Émilien Néron, Danielle Proulx, Brigitte Poupart, Jules Philip

This Oscar nominee is a superb film about teaching and growing up and the mystery of suffering. In the opening scene a sixth-grader opens the door of a classroom to discover that his teacher has hanged herself. The school has deal with the trauma and to hire a new teacher – an Algerian migrant who makes himself loved but who has his own secret trauma.


A Separation 
Directed by Asghar Farhadi   
Starring Leila Hatami, Peyman Moaadi, Shahab Hosseini

This emotionally wrenching film from Iran gives an insight into this complex country and at the same time asks universal questions about family, law, justice and religion. It opens with a middle-class couple disputing before a judge about a divorce prompted by tension over the husband’s father who has Alzheimer’s disease. But the plot – almost a legal thriller – expands to take in a poor, deeply religious woman who takes a job as a carer, her brutish husband, and a trial for murder. A tough but immensely humane film. 

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

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