Picking the year’s most worthwhile films is always a challenge. Here is a list of the dozen film from a range of genres, with something for everyone.

All is lost   
Directed by J.C. Chandor     
Starring Robert Redford
    

This must be the best role Hollywood veteran Robert Redford has ever played. He is the only actor and in the entire 106 minutes says almost nothing. But the film is absolutely gripping. He plays the amateur skipper of a small boat circumnavigating the globe who strikes one disaster after another: a leak, a storm, no radio, no mast, sharks… But he struggles on. Oscar material, for sure.

Captain Phillips   
Directed by Paul Greengrass    
Starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi
   

This riveting thriller is based on an incident in 2009 when Somali pirates boarded the Maersk Alabama. As in many of his films, Tom Hanks radiates a serene nobility despite the enormous stress of negotiating with the pirate captain. Nail-biting tension and superb acting.

The Conjuring
Directed by James Wan   
Starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor

Malaysian-Australian director James Wan has delivered one of the scariest films you will ever see. A couple buy an isolated house in New England for their young family of five daughters. When things start going bump in the night they call in a Catholic couple who specialise in researching exorcisms. Diabolically frightening.

Gravity  
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón    
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
   

Possibly the movie of the year. Sandra Bullock gives a magnificent performance as an astronaut stranded in space after a catastrophic accident. It is an enthralling film about resilience in the face of disaster but it has deeper meanings, too, about religion and reliance upon technology.

A Hijacking  
Directed by Tobias Lindholm      
Starring Søren Malling
       

A year before Captain Phillips, Danish producers released this tense psychological drama which may even be the better film. The focus here is negotiations with the ship’s owner back in Denmark rather than action heroics. He is a master negotiator, but he is playing for higher stakes than he has ever played before.

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug     
Directed by Peter Jackson  
Starring Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom

The critics are a bit mixed in their opinions of the second instalment of The Hobbit trilogy. But nothing critics say will keep fans from watching it. And, to tell the truth, it is non-stop thrills, with the familiar characters of Bilbo, Gandalf, and various dwarves and elves. Everyone agrees that it is a big improvement on part 1.

Monsters University   
Directed by Dan Scanlon   
Voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi
   

This year was a crowded year for animated films, with Monsters University, Planes, Despicable Me 2, Frozen and The Croods competing for honours. All of them are technically accomplished but none are terribly original. But we had to select one to showcase, and it’s the continuing adventures of Mike and Sulley at the world’s leading tertiary institution for turning monsters into genuinely scarey critters. 

A Simple Life     
Directed by Ann Hui   
Starring Andy Lau, Deanie Ip
   

Inspired by the true story of Hong Kong producer Roger Lee and his servant, the film depicts the relationship between a young executive and Sister Peach, a woman who has worked for four generations of his family. This is a beautiful, sensitive drama about the challenges and rewards of looking after the elderly.

Wadjda   
Directed by Haifaa al-Mansour
Starring Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdulrahman al-Guhani

This is a special film, not perfect, certainly, but an astonishing insight into the social life and psychology of Saudi Arabia – which turns out to be very similar to the West’s in many ways. It is the first Saudi feature film to be directed by a woman – actually it is the first-ever Saudi feature film. It is a simple story of a boisterous 10-year-old girl who competes in a Qu’ran recital so that she can buy a bicycle.

What Maisie Knew   
Directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel   
Starring Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Onata Aprile, Joanna Vanderham, Alexander Skarsgård
   

Hollywood has updated a famous 1897 story by the American novelist Henry James about a childish and selfish couple with a charming, innocent six-year-old daughter caught in the middle of a bitter custody battle. Not a great advertisement for divorce, but a compelling drama.

White House Down   
Directed by Roland Emmerich   
Starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal
   

Two films trashed the White House this year, White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen. Neither are Oscar material, but they are both perfect for popcorn and pizza nights at home. White House Down has the edge because of its comic side and snappier dialogue. A head-spinning group of nasty mercenaries seize the White House and hold the President for ransom. Little do they know that one man has survived the carnage and is ready to take them on…. In the end, the White House is a smoking ruin, but the President survives and the world is safe for peace. Yay!

Zero Dark Thirty
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Starring Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton

We missed placing this impressive film which was nominated for five Oscars on last year’s list. It is based on the CIA’s hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the US Navy Seals raid in which he was killed. The focus is a woman named Maya who has spent her whole career searching for the architect of 9/11. Finally, after years of sifting through paperwork, interviews and information provided through torture, she discovers where bin Laden is hiding. A very tough, realistic film.  

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.