Spielberg leads the charge

'War Horse' may take some beating but the year ahead offers some other wonderful apparitions – such as 'Frankenweenie' and Sean Penn as a Goth

Four legs good! If 2011 was the Year of the Goat – thanks to Italian rural masterpiece Le Quattro Volte – we can look forward to the future being equally quadruped, but equine.

Under starter's orders for 2012 are Steven Spielberg's War Horse, his version of the Michael Morpurgo favourite, and, from Hungarian gloomster extraordinaire Bela Tarr, The Turin Horse. Inspired by the nag that reportedly drove Nietzsche mad, this exceptionally downbeat drama out-Becketts Beckett – the punchline is effectively, "I can't go on. No, I really can't go on". National Velvet it ain't.

As well as the Spielberg, notable January releases include Steve McQueen's Shame, starring Michael Fassbender as a sex addict in New York, with Carey Mulligan putting in a ferocious performance as his troubled sister. Alexander Payne's brittle Hawaiian drama-comedy The Descendants proves that, when it comes to playing beleaguered middle-aged Everyman at his most vulnerably human, George Clooney is currently without peer. Also to watch for: The Nine Muses, a superb docu-essay from the British film-maker John Akomfrah on migration, memory and Homer's Odyssey.

In February, we get American comedy at its most cynical and sophisticated in Young Adult, from the Juno team of Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, with Charlize Theron as a jaw-droppingly rebarbative anti-heroine. The bad behaviour continues in Roman Polanski's Carnage, with Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster, and A Dangerous Method, in which patient Keira Knightley is caught between Jung and Freud (Fassbender again, and a wonderfully dry Viggo Mortensen). The film also features a ferociously bearded Vincent Cassel, who models the exact same facial hair later in the year as The Monk, an exotic but austere take on an English Gothic classic; Dominik Moll (Harry, He's Here to Help) directs.

March brings a title that should, for my money, have won the Palme d'Or in Cannes last year. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is the latest from Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the Turkish writer-director of Uzak and Climates. A sombre slow-burner about a police investigation that takes place largely by night, Ceylan's film unfolds at leisure to present us with a series of intimate character portraits and a philosophical inquiry into crime, truth and authority. Simple, stark and humane, the film has a novelistic depth that confirms Ceylan as the nearest that contemporary cinema comes to having its own Dostoevsky (with banter about yoghurt).

An April highlight is This Must be the Place, from Italy's Paolo Sorrentino, whose eccentric output includes The Consequences of Love and Il Divo. Sean Penn plays a reclusive rock star – bearing an uncanny resemblance to The Cure's Robert Smith – who goes on a Nazi-hunting road trip. As barmy as they come, with outré visual invention, Sorrentino's film is an exotic treat, and even proves that Penn has a sense of humour. All this and music from David Byrne.

Unusually active this year is Tim Burton, who returns to characteristic haunts, as it were, in Dark Shadows, based on an American TV vampire series of the 1960s. Johnny Depp, Eva Green, Michelle Pfeiffer and the indispensable Helena Bonham Carter will all be palely loitering. Nothing could be more Burton-esque – except perhaps the forthcoming Frankenweenie, which sees the bedraggled maestro expanding his early animated short about an unholy hound.

Expect a torrent of prominent Euro-releases, including some belated arrivals from last year's Cannes, notably the Dardenne brothers on top form in The Kid with the Bike, their first film to feature a legit star (Cécile de France, last seen in Clint Eastwood's Hereafter), and Finnish jester Aki Kaurismäki's laconically joyous (and very political) French outing Le Havre. Other auteur titles further down the line include a new offering from Michael Haneke, Love, working again with his muse from The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert; and Foxfire, in which Laurent Cantet (the director of the Palme d'Or-winning schoolroom drama The Class) gets down with da kids once more in an adaptation of the Joyce Carol Oates girl-gang novel. A particularly hotly awaited title will be Rust and Bone, the latest from the A Prophet director Jacques Audiard: expect brutality, boxing and, apparently, Marion Cotillard as the survivor of a killer whale attack.

And if that's not dark enough for you, there's always Stoker, the English-language debut by Korea's Park Chan-wook, whose bloodthirsty revenge drama Old Boy became instantly notorious for its octopus-noshing scenes. Park's latest stars Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska in a family drama that may or may not involve vampirism; its seafood content is, as yet, unknown. It could well be the most hair-raising film of the year, unless that proves to be Martin McDonagh's follow-up to his priceless In Bruges; the irresistible title is Seven Psychopaths. Not to be confused with the Farrelly Brothers' forthcoming The Three Stooges – but that's another story, and one I dread to contemplate.

Watch out for...

The US actress Nicole Beharie is rivetingly watchable in Steve McQueen's Shame; Shailene Woodley impresses as George Clooney's problem daughter in The Descendants; and don't be surprised if the Filipino director Brillante Mendoza leaps up the auteur ladder when his Captive, with Isabelle Huppert, premieres in Berlin.

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