[Editor’s Note: This list was originally published in May 2016 and has since been updated.]
So…what is sci-fi? It’s not the easiest question to answer when “sci-fi elements” permeate so many of the biggest blockbusters: thought-provoking genre concepts flattened into one-size-fits-all franchise fodder that make countless titles “feel” and, on occasion, even look the same.
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Yes, science fiction is rooted in profound origins, examining humanity’s deep-seated fear of itself and the intimidating possibility of worlds unknown. But the last two decades have seen a metaphoric rush on sci-fi storytelling that’s left the once niche subgenre a supersaturated movie market. On the one hand, that’s produced an onslaught of sci-fi(ish) titles that aren’t always up to snuff. But on the other, it’s prompted some of the best sci-fi films ever made. Masterworks like “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Nope” both arrived this year, and top our list at number five and number eight respectively.
Simply put: In determining the best sci-fi movies of the 21st century, you must draw a line in the sand — even if that’s the sands of Arrakis. To that end, a few rules have been set.
No fantasy-centric superhero movies will appear here, and the same goes for those space-borne fantasy franchises “Star Wars” and “Star Trek.” For an action, horror, or animated movie to make it onto this list, it needs to be firmly rooted in sci-fi origins and make notable use of the tropes and themes therein. Further (just to get this out of the way): These films are regarded at IndieWire as some of the very best of the century, but did not qualify for this list: “Gravity,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Holy Motors,” and “Battle Royale.”
Without further ado, here are the 62 best science fiction movies of the 21st century — including newcomers “Color Out of Space” and “The Vast of Night.”
Kate Erbland, Samantha Bergeson, Christian Blauvelt, David Ehrlich, Ryan Lattanzio, Noel Murray, Chris O’Falt, Zack Sharf, Graham Winfrey, and Christian Zilko also contributed to this list.
62. “Color Out of Space”
“Color Out of Space” is remarkable as a triumphant return for a filmmaker whose directing career seemed to end before it ever began. The movie is the fourth feature-length directorial effort of Richard Stanley — and his first after he was notoriously fired during the troubled production of 1996’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau.” Stanley continued to direct short films and wrote screenplays for some features, but “Color Out of Space” was the first time he came back to the director’s chair for a feature since the “Dr. Moreau” debacle. Over 20 years later, he proved he hadn’t lost a step.
Adapted from Lovecraft’s short story of the same name, “Color Out of Space” focuses on Nathan Gardner (Nicolas Cage), who moves his family to his late father’s farm right before a bizarre meteorite lands on the property. What initially seems like just a pretty, glowing, pink rock turns into a nightmare for the family when bizarre visions drive them to madness and a multicolor energy begins to alter them physically. The cast is committed to the extreme weirdness of the film, and Stanley proves an expert in handling the wild special effects (the titular color is both gorgeous and horrifying) as well as in escalating the story from slow boil to full-on nightmare. The film is the proposed first in a trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations that Stanley hopes to make, and its excellence makes the next two enticing propositions. —WC
61. “The Vast of Night”
An extremely confident first feature, Andrew Patterson’s “The Vast of Night” went underseen in 2020 when it was released on Amazon with little fanfare. Fashioned like a throwback to the days of iconic ’50s sci-fi, the film follows two teenagers (Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz) working as a switchboard operator and a radio host during their high school’s big basketball game. With everyone else in their small town preoccupied, they discover a bizarre audio transmission that seems to be coming from outer space. It’s a simple set-up executed superbly, thanks to the likable performances from McCormick and Horowitz and the tight control Patterson has as a director, filling the movie with dazzling tracking shots and cracking, eerie audio. Not since “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” has alien contact been so awe-inspiring. —WC
60. “The Creator”
In the current climate of SAG and WGA strikes, making a film where artificial intelligence is a persecuted class is certainly A Choice, but “The Creator” doesn’t dwell much on the difference between man and machine. Gareth Edwards’ sci-fi movie is set in a futuristic 2055, where the U.S. government has outlawed robots following a terrorist attack in Los Angeles, and now wages war on “New Asia” in order to wipe out all A.I. in the world. John David Washington plays Joshua, a military sergeant recruited for a stealth operation to destroy the A.I.’s creator. But when he discovers a powerful A.I. child (Madeleine Yuna Voyles) with the ability to control technology, he ends up her protector, and the experiences provide him with a new perspective on the bloodshed between the two cultures. A somewhat clumsy Vietnam War pastiche, “The Creator” has several issues — a rote screenplay, a vacuous performance from Washington — but Edwards’ direction and the breathtaking visuals transport you to the film’s gritty and grimy world, and certainly make Joshua’s journey one worth taking. —WC
59. “Another Earth”
Before she created and starred in weirdo Netflix classic “The OA” with Zal Batmanglij, Brit Marling got her start as the writer and star of “Another Earth”: Mike Cahill’s small but soulful drama that uses an audacious sci-fi conceit as a way to explore intimate themes of grief and regret. Marling is Rhonda, a brilliant teen prodigy who destroys her life after accidentally killing the family of John (William Mapother) in an accident. As Rhonda grapples with the guilt following her prison sentence, she also tracks the news of a duplicate Earth discovered by astronomers and makes plans to visit it in order to find a new life. The film’s ambitions aren’t always met by its languid pacing, but “Another Earth” is a fascinating, sad film about another planet that is grounded in real-world emotion. —WC
58. “The World’s End”
After putting their stamp on zombie films and buddy cop comedies, the power trio of Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost concluded their informal “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy with an alien invasion flick. “The World’s End” follows a group of five friends, led by the self-absorbed Gary (Pegg), as they attempt to recreate a pub crawl in their hometown they failed as teenagers. The attempt exposes fractures and divides in the friend group, but the revelation of an alien invasion occurring in town winds up forcing them all back together again. A bit darker and less comedic than Wright’s earlier efforts, “The World’s End” nonetheless carries all of the director’s trademarks, from ambitious camera work to razor-sharp jokes. And Pegg and Frost are at their best in the film — with their icy, decaying friendship cutting to the bone so hard that the aliens end up feeling like a bit of an afterthought. —WC
57. “Asteroid City”
When it comes to science fiction, “Asteroid City” is very light on the “science” but certainly heavy on the “fiction” portion of the genre equation. Wes Anderson’s warm triumph focuses on the titular small town and its annual Junior Stargazer event, during which teen geniuses and their families descend upon the desert to share their scientific findings. The event is disturbed by the presence of an alien, but the focus is very much on the wacky interpersonal drama of the quirky, troubled loners involved with the event. And that’s only half of the film, as the other half focuses on a TV special production of a play about the events we just saw. It’s an ambitious conceit that digs into how sci-fi as a genre works and how its heightened reality can speak to our real-world personal and creative lives. —WC
56. “A Scanner Darkly”
1977’s “A Scanner Darkly” is one of science fiction’s most indelible works, but it took almost three decades for Philip K. Dick’s novel to receive a proper adaptation. And when the story of a man whose mind is split into two by powerful narcotic Substance D made it to theaters in 2006, it came in a form that wasn’t available when Dick first wrote it. For the film version, Richard Linklater opted to use the rotoscope techniques of his previous film “A Waking Life,” shooting his cast of actors (including Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, Winona Ryder, and Rory Cochrane) digitally before animating the film by tracing over the frames. The medium fits the subject of “A Scanner Darkly” like a glove, creating a slippery, queasy world in which reality feels permanently on the verge of breaking down. —WC
55. “Into the Dark: Culture Shock”
Hidden among Hulu’s “Into the Dark” horror anthology (a holiday-themed film collection of varying quality), director Gigi Saul Guerrero’s 2019 sci-fi gem combines familiar futuristic concepts with thoroughly modern political commentary.
When the pregnant Marisol (Martha Higareda) attempts to cross the Mexico-U.S. border for the second time, her harrowing survival story as an undocumented immigrant morphs into a colorful “Stepford Wives” fantasy. But that so-called American Dream can’t last, and Marisol soon finds herself desperate to escape the country she’d once planned to call home.
Ranking among IndieWire’s Best Horror Movies to Watch on the Fourth of July, “Culture Shock” not only boasts an inventive plot (with one heck of a twist), but it uses that brilliant framework to make searing, salient points about human rights. —AF
With one room and $50,000, director James Ward Byrkit showed there are no limits to what’s possible in the sci-fi genre. A filmmaking lesson in activating offscreen space and building mystery into the unseen, the story centers around eight friends gathered for a dinner party when a comet swooshes overhead, kills the electricity, and opens up a portal for the dinner guests to pass into other realities, which take the form of nearby houses that mirror the one they are in (low-budget problem-solving 101).
Byrkit keeps the rules of his world digestible: They don’t interfere with our involvement in the drama, which does a great job of presenting the characters with existential questions that you can’t help but ponder for yourself. —CO
53. “Safety Not Guaranteed”
Sci-fi rom-com isn’t a phrase used often enough. “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a quiet take on both genres, as Jack Johnson and Aubrey Plaza star as two journalists assigned to investigate a curious classified ad seeking a partner to go back in time with. Mark Duplass is the scientist who invented the supposed time travel device. A quest to uncover past loves, while dodging government inquisitions over the time-bending tactics, grounds the Sundance award-winning feature despite its heady premise. And “Safety Not Guaranteed” also heralded the trend of indie filmmakers scoring tentpoles off the buzz of their micro-budget indies. Three years later, director Colin Trevorrow would head up the “Jurassic World” sequel based on this ambitious feature alone. Kristen Bell, Jeff Garlin, and the late Lynn Shelton also starred in the critically acclaimed film. —SB
52. “Source Code”
Reimagining “Groundhog Day” as a high-tech, high-stakes mystery, the impressively taut and snappily paced “Source Code” integrates science-fiction elements into a thriller that feels more of-the-moment than futuristic. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Captain Colter Stevens, an Army pilot who keeps having his consciousness sent back in time, where he re-experiences the last eight minutes in the life of a Chicago-bound commuter before his train explodes. Stevens has been told by his superiors to track down the bomber, but of course, there’s more to it than he is initially allowed to understand. Director Duncan Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley smartly keep their audience locked onto a protagonist who doesn’t always know what’s going on, so we get to figure everything out along with him. They also create a whole little society about that train, which becomes a kind of refuge for the hero, even though he knows he lives in a world where those moments of peace can’t last. —NM
Mike Judge’s sci-fi satire seemed cursed from the moment 20th Century Fox abandoned it at the last minute, making the film an inevitable box office bomb. But despite all of that, the film has persisted and worked its way into American pop culture purely on the strength of its depressingly accurate predictions. “Idiocracy” envisions a futuristic America where everything is dumbed down by a combination of anti-intellectualism, bland commercial entertainment, and the phenomenon of smart people simply not having children. The result is an idiotic populace that is completely incapable of getting through the day, let alone governing itself. This leads to plenty of funny moments, but with each passing year the film seems like less of a comedy and more like intelligent dystopian sci-fi. While the film’s prediction that America would devolve into a kakistocracy may have seemed too bleak in 2006, it now seems like the film’s biggest flaw is not going far enough. —CZ
50. “The Matrix Resurrections”
Arriving almost two decades after the last Matrix sequel, “The Matrix Resurrections” lived up to its name by breathing new life into the classic sci-fi tale of Neo (Keanu Reeves) and the Machine War. Directed by Lana Wachowski — this time without sister and co-creator Lilly Wachowski – the 2021 sci-fi epic returns audiences and Reeves to the Matrix for a new adventure that puts fan-favorite Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, on the frontline of battle.
Although Laurence Fishburne does not return as Morpheus (outside of clips from the old movie used in the new one), he’s replaced, in a new iteration, by the just as dazzling Yahya Abdul-Mateen II. Abdul Mateen is joined by fellow franchise newcomers Jessica Henwick, Jonathan Groff, Priyanka Chopra, Neil Patrick Harris, and more. Jada Pinkett Smith reprises the role of Niobe. —AF
49. “Infinity Pool”
Writer/director Brandon Cronenberg swings big in his third feature film, “Infinity Pool”: a dystopian, anti-capitalist, clone-centric horror show caught somewhere between an underbaked “Black Mirror” episode and an especially brutal season of “White Lotus.” Alexander Skarsgård stars as James Foster, a man traveling with his wife (an underused Cleopatra Coleman) to the seaside resort of Li Tolqa. There, he meets Mia Goth’s viciously unpredictable Gabi, another guest with a knack for stirring up conflict, and learns of a stomach-churning local law that leaves him, his wife, Gabi, and the rest of their trouble-making tourist pack staring into an existential abyss. Goth is deliciously deranged in this uneven, but decidedly worth-seeing outing from the guy behind “Antiviral” and “Possessor,” No. 36 on this list. —AF
Christopher Nolan’s palindrome of a film divided critics, boggled audiences, and single-handedly challenged streaming during the COVID-19 era. What starts as an espionage film quickly turns into a sci-fi head-scratcher as a CIA agent (John David Washington) learns how to manipulate time to prevent a future attack that threatens to implode the present world. Robert Pattinson stars as the handler and token time-travel explainer, while Kenneth Branagh and Elizabeth Debicki are the targets for the CIA mission — for a crime that they haven’t committed yet. “Tenet” might be most memorable for explaining time travel, backwards, and then proceeding to capture what it would be like if, perhaps, you would ever need to drive backwards — and that does not mean in reverse — to save the world. —SB
47. “The Endless”
Indie whiz kids Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead had already impressed audiences with their captivating, inventive, and DIY-feeling features like “Resolution” (a sci-fi twist on the addiction drama) and “Spring” (a sci-fi twist on the whirlwind romance) before they went whole-hog sci-fi wild with 2017’s thrilling “The Endless” (a dramatic twist on an alien abduction drama, inverting their own obsessions with wondrous results). Playing brothers — named, amusingly, “Justin” and “Aaron” — the film picks up years after the duo has escaped what’s described as a “UFO death cult,” though their interpretation of the group’s motives still differs, even with its presence seemingly long behind them.
Sharing (maybe?) a universe with “Resolution,” the multi-hyphenates journey back to the group, as inspired by the arrival of a creepy videotape (classic), a trip that forces them to reconsider not just their time with the group, but their entire lives, hell, the entire universe. Time loops abound, a dark entity reveals itself, and an extra moon appears in the sky, but the film’s most exciting explorations are internal ones, as Aaron and Justin grapple with what it means to really believe in something. —KE
46. “Palm Springs”
A lush-toned desert wedding you have to experience over and over and over again? Well, at least there’s an open bar. Sundance breakout (and record-setter as one of the biggest buys in the festival’s history) “Palm Springs” stars Andy Samberg as Nyles, a reluctant wedding guest reliving his own breakup and nuptials from hell alone for the rest of eternity. That is, until sister of the bride Sarah (Cristin Milioti) ends up trapped in the same time continuum as him. It’s “Groundhog Day” for the Instagram era, and as Nyles and Sarah question the purpose of life through their 30something existential crisis, their loveable chemistry gives way to a full-fledged romance, one that gives both of them purpose outside of their suicidal tendencies. —SB
There’s a screenwriting adage that when creating a world, the writer needs to have all the rules clearly defined while not explaining them to the audience; characters should tell us through their actions. For Rian Johnson’s somewhat complicated time-travel film, it almost feels like there are too many disparate threads to be tied into a satisfying whole and the film can feel unnecessarily convoluted.
But as the film evolves and we settle into its central drama — can Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s protagonist bring himself to kill his future self (Bruce Willis)? — the emotional core of the film emerges. With Johnson, who was in the process of taking the reins of the “Star Wars” franchise when this list was first published, it’s clear he’s a thoughtful cinephile from which an original voice and point of view emerged. Kathleen Kennedy chose wisely. —CO
44. “Ad Astra”
IndieWire senior film critic David Ehrlich hailed James Gray’s “Ad Astra” as an “interstellar masterpiece” in his A review, adding the film is “one of the most ruminative, withdrawn, and curiously optimistic space epics this side of ‘Solaris.’ It’s also one of the best.” Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances as Roy McBride, an astronaut who sets out on a mission to Neptune in order to solve the disappearance of his father (Tommy Lee Jones).
The narrative allows Gray to project the intimate struggles between father and son on a canvas as massive as the cosmos. As Ehrlich wrote, “‘Ad Astra’ is an awe-inspiring film about the fear of male vulnerability and the fait accompli of becoming your own father — whomever he might be. Despite a blockbuster-sized budget, Gray’s largest film is light years removed from the crowd-pleasing likes of “Gravity” and “The Martian.” This is spare and mythic storytelling; the more expansive its vision gets, the more inward-looking its focus becomes. —ZS
After decades of unearned sequels that failed to capture the magic of the Schwarzenegger-led original, the “Predator” franchise was not exactly a hot commodity in 2022. But the beauty of a series whose entire mythos can be distilled to “these monsters are large and they suck” is the relatively blank canvases they can provide to creative filmmakers. Dan Trachtenberg’s “Prey” moved the franchise away from its trademark ’80s machismo and took the action back to 1719. The film follows a young Comanche woman (Amber Midthunder in a star-making performance) who has to kill a Predator with nothing but an arsenal of 18th-century weaponry and her killer hunting skills. The fresh reimagining of the genre is a reminder that there are still a multitude of historical periods that genre films have yet to explore. —CZ
42. “Upstream Color”
We won’t pretend to be smart enough to completely understand Shane Carruth’s examination of the science of love. Even with the proper philosophical, literary, and scientific background to grasp all the references, it might still be impossible to fully appreciate the film’s layers. Yet what is amazing about this groundbreaking work is that because it perfectly fits together — and he’s using the formal language of cinema to express himself — there’s an internal logic that keeps an open-minded audience engaged.
“Upstream Color” was made for $50,000 — which seems virtually impossible considering the film’s elegance. Not only is he free from working with Hollywood’s sense of story and film language, he also found a path to self-distribute this film and build a devoted audience. —CO
41. “Minority Report”
Steven Spielberg isn’t the first director you’d imagine for a Philip K. Dick adaptation, but the alchemy on this film is near perfection. There is no director alive who can more precisely and efficiently synthesize exposition, complicated action, and character by knowing exactly how to stage and shoot a scene.
That efficiency pays off in the film’s first 20 minutes, quickly establishing the depth and complexity of Dick’s world as we dive head-first into the film’s story. “Minority Report” features some of Spielberg’s best action set pieces, inspired by the cars and future technology to come up with new tricks. Production designer Alex McDowell’s vision of a high-tech future is visionary without being inhuman, and the film achieves surprising depth in framing how the surveillance-versus-safety question applies to our post-9/11 world. —CO
40. “Midnight Special”
Jeff Nichols’ remarkable filmmaking career has been marked by deeply felt, refreshingly sincere films that place human experience and emotion at the forefront. On the surface, a sci-fi feature like “Midnight Special” might not sound like the right vessel for such work, but Nichols’ film uses the best tropes of the genre to tell a new story that feels richly lived in and very satisfying.
Featuring his frequent leading man, Michael Shannon, “Midnight Special” evokes classic sci-fi features like “Starman” and “Close Encounters,” all mixed up with road outings and an added dash of supernatural mystery. Shannon plays devoted dad Roy, who has recently liberated his gifted son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) from a religious cult that’s built its beliefs around his very special powers. The pair go on the road with an old friend (Joel Edgerton) and Alton’s mom (Kirsten Dunst), in an attempt to reach a very special destination and, oh yeah, escape the scads of government officials that are after them. It’s tense, taunt, and emotional, with a creative sci-fi bent that speaks to an ever-evolving genre. —KE
After “Dead Silence” and “The Conjuring,” James Wan’s ability to make movies about creepy dolls was beyond reproach. But “M3GAN,” which he co-wrote with Akela Cooper, took his mastery of the genre to ridiculous new heights. Gerard Johnstone’s sci-fi thriller stars Allison Williams as a toy designer who accidentally brings indescribable evils into the world when she makes an AI doll to keep her orphaned niece company. The runaway hit initially went viral for the murderous doll’s impressive dance moves, and the film delivered on the hype with a charmingly violent story about the amount of chaos that an evil toy can deliver. January moviegoers couldn’t have asked for a more ridiculous good time. —CZ
38. “Fast Color”
Despite its quick logline — it’s a superhero movie about a Black woman! — Julia Hart’s winsome and wise “Fast Color” hardly fits into the superhero movie mold that the MCU and DCEU have hammered into place over the past two decades. Instead, it’s really, as IndieWire’s own Eric Kohn put it in his review, “an allegorical story about generations of Black women who are forced to suppress their strengths, and the mounting courage they find in finally taking charge.”
The superhero stuff might be cool (and it is), but the film is less a “superhero movie” than it is a sci-fi-inflected, incredibly earnest exploration of seizing your own power and using it, truly, for good. Bolstered by a class act cast that includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ruth (our primary heroine), Lorraine Toussaint, Saniyya Sidney, and David Strathairn, Hart ably turns a heartfelt family drama into a soaring sci-fi feature that’s built on real ingenuity. —KE
37. “High Life”
Claire Denis had worked for years with novelists Nick Laird and Zadie Smith to concoct this exactingly precise sci-fi chamber drama, but ultimately creative differences resulted in Denis working with her longtime screenwriter Jean-Pol Fargeau. A spaceship full of prisoners sentenced to death is on course to rendezvous with a black hole: there, the prisoners will attempt to extract energy from the singularity, even though the radiation is guaranteed to kill them. And there’s a mad scientist (Juliette Binoche) performing experiments on them too. Rarely has a film taken place in a more antiseptic setting and been more focused on humans’ animal nature: people are the sum of flesh and fluids in “High Life,” and Binoche’s mad scientist steals the semen from one prisoner (Robert Pattinson) to artificially inseminate another (Mia Goth).
What ultimately develops is a tender, father-daughter love story, despite Denis intentionally working with an airless exactitude — and an “And There Were None” meets “The Thing” plot where the crew is offed one by one. Every shot seems planned with Xacto-knife perfection, the kind of rigor astronauts would have to live up to for real, where any miscalculation, no matter how small, can mean certain death. —CB
A queasy and intriguing horror-inflected techno-thriller that gets lost somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle between “Mandy,” “Inception,” and “Ghost in the Shell,” Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor” is so drunk on its own sick potential that it doesn’t have the time (or the balance) required to realize most of it. Although set in an alternate 2008 that’s a touch more analog than our own world (a low-key tweak that imagines what the 21st century would look like if we kept the ’90s alive on life support and built the future in Trent Reznor’s image), “Possessor” throbs with recognizably urgent concerns like gender, privacy, and the sins of corporate hegemony.
All you really need to know is that our hard-edged, body-hopping heroine (Andrea Riseborough) is on the vanguard of some violent business and that every assignment seems to leave her increasingly unsettled in her own skin. “Possessor” is at its best when viscerally peeling a soul out of its body, and Cronenberg is in full command of the material whenever he can visualize the absolute mindfuck of two ghosts competing for control over just one shell. —DE
35. “Beyond the Black Rainbow”
The feature directorial debut of Panos Cosmatos is one of the most audacious and mind-bending pieces of 21st-century science fiction. The story takes place in a futuristic version of 1983 where a young woman is forced to fight through heavy sedation in order to escape from a secluded commune.
Some viewers may knock “Beyond the Black Rainbow” for being an incoherent audiovisual extravaganza for its own sake, but Cosmatos succeeds in thrusting the viewer into the subjective sensory overload of his protagonist. The filmmaker’s vision is a wacky, carefully designed, and totally inscrutable science fiction puzzle that defies logic in favor of a hypnotic rhythm that is impossible to resist for those paying close attention. —ZS
34. “Sunshine” (2007)
How does one evaluate a film whose ending undercuts what is one of the most original, exciting, and little-appreciated sci-fi films? Starring Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, and Chris Evans, the third collaboration between writer Alex Garland and director Danny Boyle tells the story of a group of astronauts sent on a seemingly one-way mission to save humanity and a dying sun with a nuclear fission bomb. A criminally underseen gem cut from the “2001” cloth in the way it ponders man’s place in the greater universe, but contains sharp onboard drama that keeps that film from ever feeling overly ponderous. Brilliant, but flawed. —CO
Few sci-fi films have packed so much science into 77 minutes as Shane Carruth’s 2004 feature debut, “Primer.” Carruth was working as an engineer when he wrote the script about four aspiring entrepreneurs who accidentally use electromagnetic weight reduction to build a time machine, and he didn’t simplify technical details for the sake of the audience. As the characters make more and more brief trips back in time, it becomes increasingly difficult, if downright impossible, to follow all the “timestreams.”
Still, the discussions about scientific theory that serves as the story’s foundation make it feel like you’re watching the real thing. “Primer” also deals with a number of philosophical and moral questions that add hefty emotional weight. Made for just $7,000, “Primer” won the grand jury prize at Sundance as well as the Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize for Carruth, who also played one of the lead roles, edited, and composed music for the film. —GW
32. “10 Cloverfield Lane”
A spiritual successor to Matt Reeves’ “Cloverfield,” Dan Trachtenberg’s “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a claustrophobic psychological thriller that may or may not be set against the alien apocalypse.
After flipping her car off the road in a terrible accident, a young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) awakes in a bunker with a strict older man, Howard (John Goodman), and his friendly adult son, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who claim to have abducted Michelle as their only means of saving her from intergalactic intruders. Whether that timing was lifesaving or a little too convenient makes up the meat of the movie: a relentlessly entertaining nail-biter somewhere between “Room” and “War of the Worlds.” —AF
“Moon” is a story of Rip Van Winkle in outer space, one that fully captures the maddening loneliness of space — a key aspect of the genre that is rarely done right as it requires so much access to internalized thoughts and feelings. The film is a self-assured mood piece as much as it is a strong sci-fi movie. The delicacy and light touch required to hit these elements is not synonymous with first-time feature filmmakers, which is why writer-director Duncan Jones was able to quickly blow past being known as David Bowie’s son.
In one of the best performances of his impressive career, Sam Rockwell plays as a man sent on an extended mining assignment on the moon, and with the help of his computer GENTRY, sends resources back home to help Earth’s power problems. What happens when he realizes he’s not the first person to undertake this mission leads to a thrilling, often very emotional inner exploration. —CO
Call it the Wong Kar Wai multiverse. It’s a concept so de rigueur in multiplexes now that it’s starting to lose currency, but on the arthouse side, Wong was ahead of the game with his heady, lushly melancholic drama “2046.” The 2004 film revisits the places and characters established in “Days of Being Wild” and “In the Mood for Love,” with Tony Leung reprising his role as Chow Mo-wan, now in the fallout of his failed affair with Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) in 1960s Hong Kong. An ever-looping timeline coalesces around the number of the film’s title: it’s a date, a place, and the number of a hotel room next to Mo-wan’s own, from which doomed loves will come and go.
Amid the film’s ambitious sprawl is a retro-futuristic sci-fi short story of its own, where a passenger played by Takuya Kimura falls in love with a humanoid woman (played by Faye Wong) on a train to or from nowhere and filled with yearning. The cyberpunk-inspired visuals make for one of Wong’s biggest leaps, in terms of both scale and time, and invite dreams of what else Wong could do with the sci-fi genre, even though this movie is perfect as is. —RL
29. “Crimes of the Future”
David Cronenberg’s eight-year hiatus from feature filmmaking — which lasted from 2014 until the release of “Crimes of the Future” in 2022 — came at a rather eventful time for humanity. The world changed so quickly that by the time the “Videodrome” auteur came back, his distinct brand of body horror no longer seemed as dystopian as it once did. “Crimes of the Future” might take place in a future where surgery has replaced sex and performative organ removal has replaced pop culture, but Cronenberg seems bullish about humanity’s ability to find new methods of intimacy as technology renders our old ones obsolete. Viggo Mortensen and Lea Seydoux star as a pair of performance artists whose ability to grow and remove decorative internal organs has turned them into celebrities — and the top targets of the draconian National Organ Registry. The forbidden romance that unfolds between them is sweet and perverse in equal measures, with Cronenberg using his stunning visual skills to offer a roadmap for remaining human in a synthetic world. —CZ
28. “Attack the Block”
Set in South London and cast with young local actors, “Attack the Block” may one day be best remembered for discovering “Star Wars” lead and soon-to-be Hollywood star John Boyega. If ever there was a film begging to be rediscovered with the potential to reach a much wider audience, it’s this one.
Edgar Wright’s writing partner Joe Cornish slips into the director’s chair for the first time and delivers a film that’s fast, fun, and smart. Built around the simple premise of “What if aliens invaded the wrong part of the city?” Cornish shows a remarkable ability to direct action and maintain the film’s energy. The film also has a socio-political side that gives it a distinctly smart “Get Out” vibe. —CO
In typical Weinstein fashion, the story of the release of this highly anticipated film became about Harvey being Harvey (delays stemming from a demand of cutting 20 minutes, shifting from a wide release to a last-minute cockamamie VOD strategy) rather than how Bong Joon Ho’s first English-language film was visionary. Yet as the Korean director’s body of work continues to evolve, the greatness of “Snowpiercer” seems to be catching on.
The film relishes its conceptual lunacy: a train travels around the world after a failed climate-change experiment has killed off everyone else. Director Bong has an Almodovar-like playfulness about cinema and performance — Hollywood stars being yet another tool he knows exactly how to use — but delivers sharp insight into class divisions, with his signature tinge of political bleakness. —CO
26. “Donnie Darko”
A blindingly original mash-up of sci-fi, horror, and dark comedy, “Donnie Darko” stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled teenager in 1988 who’s visited at night by an imaginary friend named Frank, a haunting figure in a terrifying and quite large rabbit suit. Frank tells Donnie that the world will end in 28 days, six hours, 42 minutes, and 12 seconds, and when Donnie returns home, he learns a jet engine has fallen out of the sky onto his bedroom. It’s at this moment that the film’s unexpected shift into sci-fi takes hold of the viewer, never letting go until the movie’s mind-bending conclusion.
Richard Kelly’s feature debut had a disastrous premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, where audiences didn’t know what to make of the bizarre story, but after flopping at the U.S. box office, “Donnie Darko” became a hit overseas, eventually achieving its much-deserved cult status. The supporting cast includes Gyllenhaal’s sister Maggie, Patrick Swayze, and Oscar nominees Mary McDonnell and Katharine Ross. —GW
If you’re one of the people who got lost somewhere in the middle of Christopher Nolan’s two-and-a-half-hour sci-fi epic “Inception,” you’re not alone. The film follows an “extractor” named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who steals secrets for corporate espionage through the use of dream-sharing technology that allows him to penetrate the minds of his targets. Things get particularly tricky when he’s assigned a more experimental form of mind control, called “inception,” which involves planting ideas into the mind of another person. Cobb’s objective is to induce the heir to a corporation (Cillian Murphy) to break up the company he’s soon to inherit, a tall order that may or may not be possible.
It’s easy to get lost in the dreams within dreams that take us deeper into the make-believe worlds of the characters, but Nolan’s limitless imagination is too awe-inspiring for us to look away. The stunning visualizations of cities folding on themselves and action sequences that break the rules of space-time plunge us into cinematic territory that not even “The Matrix” could conjure. It’s a world few filmmakers could bring to life without buckling under the weight of their own imagination, and Nolan is up to the task. —GW
24. “Hard to Be a God”
Late Russian director Aleksei German put one of the better arthouse twists on the sci-fi genre with a film that dared to ask, “What would you do in God’s place?” A group of research scientists is sent on a mission to a planet nearly identical to Earth, but where the inhabitants live in an oppressive society that invokes the Middle Ages. As scientists, the men are forbidden to interfere, but when Don Rumata (played by great Leonid Yarmolnik) is recognized as a futuristic god, he’s driven by a need to save a group of local intellectuals from a murderous tyrant.
German created a bleak world (even by Russian standards), but it’s also a wandering, visually rich, and cinematically exciting journey that takes advantage of sci-fi’s ability to ask some deep questions and deliver devastating political commentary. —CO
Set in the year 2805, “Wall-E” follows a friendly, curious robot who’s all alone on Earth. The human race didn’t die out, they merely abandoned the planet after overcrowding it with too much stuff. Wall-E stands for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter — Earth Class,” and he spends his time rooting through old junk, until falling hard for a shiny robot named Eve who visits Earth with an unmanned spacecraft. Wall-E’s attachment to Eve causes him to follow her back to the human starship Axoim, where the charms of this sweet, robotic love story are tested by more nefarious forces. Endless automation has turned humans into obese, sedentary blobs who rely on machines for everything.
The revelation that plant life still exists on Earth, however, triggers a chain of events that could see humans return to their home planet to recolonize it. Though “Wall-E” depicts a dystopia in which humans’ ugly obsession with technology and consumption has banished them to space, this brilliantly imaginative sci-fi tale manages a last-minute course correction that proves the human race always has the capacity for redemption. —GW
22. “The Fountain”
Ambition has always been one of Darren Aronofsky’s biggest strengths, but even fans of the “Requiem for a Dream” director find “The Fountain” to be just too ambitious for its own good. Aronofsky has called “The Fountain” his version of a Rubik’s cube, which is an apt comparison for a movie that is forced to bottle up centuries-spanning ideas on love, religion, and mysticism into 96 minutes.
Many fans are convinced there’s a director’s cut of “The Fountain” out there that’s a true winner. And yet, “The Fountain” that was released in theaters remains so fearlessly original in its blending of horror, science-fiction, and romance that it deserves reconsideration as one of the boldest sci-fi love stories of the century. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz play three different characters in three stories set centuries apart, but in each, a romance forms between them that suggests their souls are experiencing second and third lives. Aronofsky cuts all three narratives together with match cuts that erase the constraints of time and place. For as ambitious as “The Fountain” aims to be, it wholly succeeds in telling an epic story about how the relationship between love and mortality defies all scientific logic and religious spirituality. —ZS
21. “World of Tomorrow”
Yes, this Don Hertzfeldt film is an animated short, but it also packs more sci-fi goodness and intellectual, emotional complexity into 17 minutes than most films do in two hours (including many on this list). It centers on a girl named Emily who is invited on a tour of the future by her adult clone. The juxtaposition of the purity of Emily’s childlike innocence and the bleak look at what the world becomes creates a crushing layer of drama, as she’s too young to understand what we do.
Meanwhile, Hertzfeld’s deceptively rudimentary animation style is an array of colorful emotions pulsing with life. It’s impossible not to well with emotions watching this masterpiece, which tells a deeply philosophical tale that’s remarkable for its simplicity. It will be held up against Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” as one the greatest short films in the history of movies. —CO
Satoshi Kon isn’t widely known, so many cinephiles may not realize that the animator’s 2010 death (from cancer, at 47) represented a profound loss. Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky have been inspired by his cinematic inventiveness; the roots of “Inception” can be found in Kon’s final film, “Paprika,” about a device that permits therapists to help patients by entering their dreams.
But where Nolan needed to take pause in order to let his audience catch up with dialogue-driven exposition, Kon’s film effortlessly slips through levels of consciousness by creating his own totally understandable sense of time, space, dreams, and reality. If you’re unfamiliar with exactly how next-level Kon was as a filmmaker, Tony Zhou’s video essay about his cutting patterns is extremely well done. —CO
19. “Edge of Tomorrow”
In Doug Liman’s snazzy spin on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s smart light novel “All You Need Is Kill” imagines Tom Cruise as a public relations officer killed filming an awe-inspiring alien invasion, but who finds himself in a time loop that sends him back to the day preceding the battle every time he dies. (Hence the film’s original title, “Live Die Repeat.”) Cruise teams with a special forces expert (Emily Blunt) who attempts to train him in the hope that he can survive and discover how to defeat the overwhelming forces. The narrative structure becomes like a satisfying video game, in which Cruise and Blunt must learn to unlock the trick to making it to the next level.
The film follows the familiar Tom Cruise story arc — smarmy man in crisis discovers what really matters — but because of its “Groundhog Day”-like narrative structure, “Edge of Tomorrow” becomes almost a meta-examination of Cruise’s star persona that is immensely satisfying. Yet, the soul of the film belongs to Blunt. Her character is cut from the Western tradition of a cowboy who carries a deep emotional scar in a stoic strength, and Blunt crushes in the role. Studying this film should be mandatory for every befuddled studio exec who can’t see past the woman being more than a love interest to the action film’s male protagonist. —CO
18. “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”
By the time the extremely promising “War for the Planet of the Apes” is released this summer, concluding Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) trilogy, the series will likely go down as Hollywood’s smartest franchise reboot. What began with director Rupert Wyatt’s fantastic, character-driven origin story, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” evolved into Matt Reeves’ profound and heart-pounding masterpiece.
Reeves plants his flag as one the best directors of action in what is essentially a war film, but beneath the battle scenes is Caesar’s struggle about what to do with the plague-ravaged human population. That Caesar is one of the most captivating characters in recent Hollywood films speaks to the groundbreaking mo-cap technology and performance (can we please give Serkis some awards attention!) that has gone into making this trilogy. —CO
17. “District 9”
There’s a tendency to downgrade this film based on how disappointing director Neill Blomkamp’s subsequent films have been, but nothing can take away from how exciting, smart, and new “District 9” felt when it hit theaters eight years ago. While the use of handheld to create a sense of realism is a cinematic crutch for many genre directors, Blomkamp uses it to create a remarkably realistic sense of what it must feel like to be invaded from above.
That sense of fear is key for the film, as what the humans do in response reveals the ugliness of what we are capable of when acting out of fear. Blomkamp is from South Africa, and the film is an allegory for apartheid, but its moral is universal for how fear of the other drains us of our humanity. —CO
As the first act of Alex Garland’s mind-bending sci-fi horror feature “Annihilation” unfolds, a group of five scientists prepare to head out into an uncharted and uninhabited disaster zone known only as “Area X,” a trip tinged with fear and trepidation. It’s an expedition that’s been launched before, though never with good results. As the film tells us, Area X has been cast in a strange bubble called “The Shimmer” since some sort of object crash-landed on its shore years ago, and the space underneath that bubble has never been quite the same. Teams have been sent in to explore before, but only one person has ever come back from the trip alive (and he’s not in great shape).
It’s already a weird enough mission, but this time holds a special significance: No women have ever participated in an expedition before, and this one’s exclusively comprised of them. “All women,” one of the characters notes as she surveys the group assembled around her, before physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) adds: “Scientists.” Josie’s not caught up in the gender implications of a crew that includes roles for actresses like Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and Tuva Novotny; she’s just concerned with their professional bonafides. Garland’s film is rife with such intriguing twists that poke at our concept of what a sci-fi adventure can look like, and rooting it in hard science only helps its more jaw-dropping narrative kinks truly (and literally) blossom. —KE
The rare sci-fi outing that wears its heart firmly on its spacesuit sleeve, Denis Villeneuve’s emotional and rich adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story uses alien arrival to reveal what it means to be human. Amy Adams is the marquee attraction, running through a true gamut of emotions that never cease to be believable, even when the situation is fantastic.
Much like “Contact,” the film is ultimately about an internal journey and the need for communication between (all kinds of) beings, though “Arrival” doesn’t skimp on showing off massive spacecraft and introducing us to a pair of extraterrestrial friends who scarcely resemble what we’ve come to expect from big-screen alien life. A small story writ large, “Arrival” is all about the journey. —KE
Sometimes Hollywood just succeeds, and the entertainment institutions that cinephiles have rightly been losing faith in come together to make something spectacular. That was certainly the case with “Dune,” a $165 million science fiction epic based on one of the most beloved science fiction novels of all time. Frank Herbert’s book was considered to be borderline unfilmable, but Denis Villeneuve’s clear passion for the material was enough to pull off the impossible.
After assembling a star-studded cast and a truly elite crafts team, he brought Herbert’s desert planet of Arrakis to life with a stunningly immersive vision that arguably rivals Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” worldbuilding. The film sticks to the large beats from the novel, losing some of its complexity while maintaining the most important themes. The result was a masterclass in adapting difficult novels, succeeding both at the box office and with Oscar voters while setting itself up for a climactic Part II. —CZ
Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” blows right past sad and plummets into the limitless depths of existential despair. As an ominous planet passes by Earth, a depressed bride (Kirsten Dunst) contemplates the unknown with her sister (Charlotte Gainsbourg), brother-in-law (Kiefer Sutherland), and their young son (Cameron Spurr) against the backdrop of a lavish wedding in shambles. With wondrous, painting-like visuals and a moving classical score, the 2011 Cannes favorite wraps its severe, cynical underpinnings in a diaphanous cloak of beauty just distracting enough to keep you questioning von Trier’s intention til the bitter end. —AF
12. “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”
What happens when you combine two of the most prolific voices in science-fiction cinema? The result might look like “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” a sci-fi epic Steven Spielberg wrote and directed that originated as a film Stanley Kubrick was developing before his death. While “A.I.” can, at times, feel like Spielberg’s sentimentality being forced into Kubrick’s cynicism, the way the ideologies of both filmmakers wrestle with one another during the film’s 146-minute running time makes “A.I.” a cinematic experiment like no other.
The film succeeds on the strength of its actors, with Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law giving life to two robot characters in mesmerizing fashion. The musings on artificial life are as expansive as Kubrick’s best work, while Spielberg’s devotion to telling a story that is primarily about the everlasting power of a mother’s life for her child keeps “A.I.” rolling along with an intimacy that epics of this scale lack. It’s science-fiction filmmaking of the highest order. —ZS
There is always something patently absurd about the premise of a Spike Jonze film, but he approaches them with such sincerity that any sense of kitschy irony melts away. In the case of “Her,” the idea that audiences could become emotionally involved in a love story between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his Siri-like operating system (voiced by pitch-perfect Scarlett Johansson) would seem like a cinematic bridge too far, but instead, it becomes Jonze’s most poignant and fully realized film since his 1999 debut, “Being John Malkovich.”
“Her” is Jonze’s fourth feature, and the first in which he came up with the story himself; it feels more personal and intimate than his previous work. The creation of this futuristic world, which borrows perfectly selected aspects of today’s modern cities, is rendered into one of the most grounded and visually satisfying future worlds in modern sci-fi. —CO
10. “Blade Runner 2049”
Outside of the “Star Wars” franchise, no science-fiction universe has been etched into cinematic consciousness more thoroughly than “Blade Runner.” Ridley Scott’s definitive 1982 neo-noir offered an immersive dystopia of rain-soaked windows, shadowy buildings, and animated neon billboards, plus flying vehicles that hum through the cityscape. Scott’s cyberpunk vision remains just as alluring over three decades later, which is why Denis Villeneuve’s sequel “Blade Runner 2049” gets bonus points for refusing to coast on Scott’s foundation.
In an age where the majority of Hollywood’s sequels and remakes are content with just regurgitating the successful ingredients of their predecessors, Villeneuve goes beyond the call of duty with a lush, often mind-blowing refurbishing of Scott’s original sci-fi aesthetic that provides wholly original spectacle with the existential drama inherent in the “Blade Runner” franchise. Bolstered by Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning cinematography and Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s ominous score, “Blade Runner 2049” is proof the best science-fiction sequels push their franchises into dazzling new directions. —ZS
9. “After Yang”
As humans become more isolated from each other and technology usurps a larger role in each of our lives, there will be more and more films made about replacing human relationships with AI ones. But few have threaded the needle between acceptance and concern as smoothly as “After Yang.” Kogonada’s second film stars Colin Farrell as a man whose android has broken down, but his grieving process resembles something closer to the death of a loved one than a laptop breaking. But the film never judges him, even if it raises questions about the kind of world we want to live in.
While films about humans having close relationships with AI once seemed dystopian, the technology’s seeming inevitability has created a need for more empathetic art about the subject. Kogonada fills that void with a beautifully subtle touch, resulting in a film that feels just as human as the “technosapiens” in it. —CZ
Jordan Peele’s third feature film boasts Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Steven Yeun among its top talent. That’s always a good sign, but it’s especially important here since the domineering sci-fi presence of “Nope” hits near “Lawrence of Arabia” levels of grand and a cast any less talented could be swallowed by its larger-than-life presence. But all of the stars of “Nope” — aliens included — more than hold their own in this delightfully freaky flick.
After Hollywood horse trainer OJ Haywood (Kaluuya) sees something strange in the sky, his media-minded sister Emerald (Palmer) embarks on an age-old quest: to deliver definitive proof of aliens to humankind. —AF
7. “Mad Max: Fury Road”
George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” isn’t just a post-apocalyptic war epic: The Oscar winner rebooted an entire franchise, and arguably, redefined it. Tom Hardy stars as the titular Mad Max, who helps rebel soldier Furiosa (Charlize Theron) free five women from sex slavery — told you it was memorable — at the hands of insidious dictator Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne).
The 2015 film was the fourth installment in the “Mad Max” world, the first sans former lead star Mel Gibson. “Fury Road” was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and rightfully landed the title of “best action movie of the year” from IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. Yet it’s the haunting struggle for survival as shown in the dust-covered costuming, desperately washed-out makeup, and tattered vehicles that charges the sci-fi pulse of “Fury Road,” revving into an environment where water is scarce and peace is unimaginable. —SB
6. “Ex Machina”
As Quentin Tarantino aptly pointed out, there always was a tension in the collaboration between great sci-fi screenwriter Alex Garland (“28 Days Later,” “Sunshine”) and director Danny Boyle. Not that they didn’t get along, but Garland’s distinct worlds weren’t a perfect fit for Boyle’s more prestige-driven vision. That’s why the prospect of Garland directing “Ex Machina” was so exciting: Garland unfiltered! That he would arrive a fairly fully formed filmmaker was a bonus we couldn’t have expected.
“Ex Machina” is one of the more assured and satisfying films about artificial intelligence, as programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) and his brilliant and eccentric boss (Oscar Isaac) test if their android (Alicia Vikander) can pass as human. The cast has a blast with their roles and none more than Vikander, who gets to play a seductress that messes with her owners’ heads. The real joy, however, is the way Garland unfolds a mounting sense of paranoia that envelops this world. —CO
5. “Everything Everywhere All at Once”
Writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert blend absurdism, comedy, and poetic brilliance in the triumphant “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” The 2022 sleeper hit conquers the unwieldy narrative power of multiple universes with a fearless cast, including Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jenny Slate, and more.
“Here is an orgiastic work of slaphappy genius that doesn’t operate like a narrative film so much as a particle accelerator — or maybe a cosmic washing machine — that two psychotic 12-year-olds designed in the hopes of reconciling the anxiety of what our lives could be with the beauty of what they are,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich in his review of the film. “It’s a machine powered by the greatest performance that Michelle Yeoh has ever given, pumped full of the zaniest martial arts battles that Stephen Chow has never shot, and soaked through with the kind of “anything goes” spirit that’s only supposed to be on TV these days.” —AF
4. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
There’s an ephemeral quality to the visual poetry of Michel Gondry that captures both the beauty and sadness of being alive. It’s Gondry’s nature as an artist not to stay grounded in reality or in the confines of narrative, which can result in films that are brilliant but not fully realized.
That’s why Charlie Kaufman’s metaphysical time travel script for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is such a gift for Gondry, and subsequently us. In the story of two lovers — a never-better Jim Carrey and the always-great Kate Winslet — who chose to forget each other, the sci-fi device melts away and the film becomes a visual meditation on the memories that can’t be erased. —CO
3. “Under the Skin”
What does it mean to be human? It’s an ambitious question at the heart of many of the best science-fiction films, but few answer it with the kind of evocative beauty and abstract intrigue of “Under the Skin.” Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 masterpiece studies humanity through the eyes of a seductive alien, played by a never-better Scarlett Johansson. The more humanity begins to take hold of her subconscious, the more her sense of self is rattled. This is not didactic filmmaking; it’s a full-bodied experience.
The shock and discovery of something new settles in as the alien roams Glasgow, the camera studying her from afar like a stranger in a strange land. Then, Glazer expertly realizes the inexplicable sensation that overcomes her as humanity seeps in. He creates a visual and aural understanding of what it means to discover humanity, and how warm and dangerous that can be. Glazer depicts this awakening with his own transfixing cinematic language: bursts of kaleidoscopic colors, a percussive score, and set design more akin to an art installation than traditional cinema. He forces you to confront what humanity is, and whether it’s a sin or a blessing. The ultimate discovery is cinema at its most singular and essential. It’s science fiction at its puzzling and thought-provoking best. —ZS
2. “The Host”
Most creature films would be a better fit for a horror list, but the story origins of Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host,” which was inspired by the deformed fish in the filmmaker’s beloved Han River, makes this one of the more interesting genre films to incorporate environmental science into its genre thrills. Director Bong is not a politically subtle filmmaker, but the joy he takes in creating his symphony of not-so-bright characters is one of modern cinema’s delicacies.
Thankfully, “The Host” became the biggest box-office hit in South Korean history and led to Bong being able to uncompromisingly paint on a bigger international canvas with “Snowpiercer” and Netflix’s “Okja.” —CO
1. “Children of Men”
Deciding what would be number one was the easiest part of assembling this list. The virtuoso long-take filmmaking of director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is the filmmaking equivalent of Mozart. It’s so jaw-dropping in certain sequences that it feels like flexing, but that uninterrupted camera draws us into the film’s tensest scenes in a way that makes Clive Owens’ noble struggle against this dystopian nightmare uniquely immersive.
This authoritarian London, where women have stopped giving birth, feels all too real. Interior spaces are almost like characters themselves, which makes its bleakness so palpable, so relatable — and this film projected our current refugee crisis eight years early. The pebble of hope, and the film’s narrative drive, comes in the form of the Kee, played with remarkable grace by Clare-Hope Ashitey, a young pregnant refugee. For two hours we are right there with Owens in believing nothing else in the world matters but getting her to safety. Quite simply, it’s one of the true masterpieces of this, or any, century. —CO
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