5 Lesser Known SF/F Cold War Films

It seems Ian Sales and I are playing a list challenge game, and this list is sure to disappoint him this round.  Why?  Because I'm pretty sure two of the options on my list don't actually qualify except in my head.  But we do what we can, no? This time around, I was challenged to come up with a list of 5 lesser known Cold War films that fit roughly in the sf/f genre.  The rules were as follows:
  • The film must be sf/f-ish (duh)
  • The film must be set in the historical period called the Cold War OR
  • The film must directly engage with the Cold War via alternate or future history (metaphors and obscure allegories do not count)
  • The film must be "lesser known" based on my interpretation of that phrase
Now for the list: Read More

The 10 Best Science Fiction Movies Since 2000

I recently challenged Ian Sales* to name 10 films since 2000 that were better than Interstellar (2014).  OK, that's not entirely true.  I challenged him to create a top 10 list of the best SF flicks since 2000; for Ian, they're basically the same thing. He's already released his list here.  It contains some interesting choices, to say the least.  While I disagree quite strongly with some of his selections, I do have to give him credit for not creating another boring "usual suspects" top 10 list; sadly, I'm probably going to disappoint people on that front.

My list will only contain feature length productions, as short films should probably be discussed on their own.  I've made no other distinctions with regards to format (live action, animated, adaptation, etc.) or delivery method (theater or straight-to-DVD).

Alright, here goes:
  1. Inception (2010)
    This film continues to haunt me. Though its concept may not be original (Duck Tales, FTW), its clever use of the heist format to tell a dream-laden scifi action thriller with an ambiguous ending left me clamouring for more.  Inception forced me to rethink about the soundtrack's engagement with the narrative, too; the collaboration of Hans Zimmer and Christopher Nolan has produced some of the most experimental scores in blockbuster cinema (listen to the film next time you watch it; really listen).  Through and through, this is my favorite movie from this period.
  2. Children of Men (2006)A beautiful, yet grungy examination of an infertile human culture struggling to survive.  Much like the other films on this list, Children of Men examines humanity's variant responses to catastrophe.  Alfonso Cuarón's direction, however, gives this one an edge over other dystopias.  The single-shot chase scene is easily one of the most impressive moments in SF film since 2000.
  3. The Place Promised in Our Early Days (Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho)(2004)
    Makoto Shinkai's alternate history allegory for the Cold War remains one of my favorite animated films of all time.  Crafted with a certain minimalist style in terms of its characters, PPOED's teenage protagonists are nuanced sides to a coin resting on its side.  Even the science fiction premise -- an experimental tower which has the ability to re-map our Earth with the landscape of an alternate, barren one -- gives the film a beautiful symbolic resonance that I cannot stop thinking about (which may explain why I published a paper on this flick).
  4. Interstellar (2014)
    I contemplated placing this higher on the list, but the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that Interstellar fit the #1 SF film since 2000 rubric. Regardless, the epic character drama and visual spectacle that is Nolan's almost-magnum-opus will continue to resonate with me for years. McConaughey's performance alone is enough to break your soul, and the concentration of themes, though heavy-handed at times, left me physically affected.
  5. Cloud Atlas (2012)
    Easily the most ambitious film on this list, Cloud Atlas is as much a theme-movie as Interstellar.  The Wachowski brothers managed to take a complicated, almost unfilmable novel and translate it into a multi-layered, multi-themed dramatic epic.  Though the film may have taken a misstep in its racial presentation, the overall product is a thing of beauty that will probably be forgotten -- a great tragedy of our time. 
  6. Her (2013)
    Of the films on this list, Her is probably the most character-oriented of them all.  This nuanced examination of near future Millenials interacting with their AIs takes pains to give us an honest look at what that might mean.  How would our relationships progress?  Could you love an AI?  Could an AI love you?  The film's ending provides an almost somber answer, demonstrating the real violence inherent in artificial intelligence:  that they might abandon us entirely.
  7. The Dark Knight (2008)
    Heath Ledger's performance deserved its Oscar; here, Nolan strips Batman completely from his comic book roots (something I think Batman Begins failed to do) and injects the gritty reality of larger-than-life crime into a franchise that had for so long been about visual spectacle (of the Gothic variety).  From the Joker's social experiments to Bruce Wayne's questionable actions, The Dark Knight offers a landscape within which we should think about the interaction of morality and law.
  8. Sunshine (2007)
    The first Danny Boyle film on this list, Sunshine is one of those films which gets a lot of flack for its "twist ending."  I, however, love the ending if only because it resonates with the film's opening shots of Cliff Curtis "communing" with the Sun.  Personally, I am a fan of films which can bring a little philosophical depth to an otherwise standard "save the world" narrative.  Boyle delivers with a diverse cast and a whole lot of gorgeous shots of space.
  9. Pacific Rim (2013)
    The only CGI festival blockbuster on this list, Pacific Rim is the kind of film that you love unless you're someone with bad taste or a desire to be punched (I kid).  Guillermo Del Toro's mecha vs. giant monsters spectacle gave me everything I had hoped for in a film of that type, but then layered on a decent character-oriented plot to give the film a little bit of soul.  Unlike other giant robot movies which shall not be named, this one seemed to care about the main cast and their trials rather than giving all of the attention to overblown action sequences with no purpose other than to make our eyes bleed.  I've seen this film multiple times now, and I'd see it again in a heartbeat.
  10. 28 Days Later (2002)
    A novel engagement with an otherwise tired horror concept. The opening scenes of Cillian Murphy wandering the dilapidated streets of London are chilling, but it is the terrible cost of humanity which makes 28 Days Later my favorite zombie-themed film of all time.  There is a certain beauty in Boyle's direction, which may explain why he appears twice on this list.
Honestly, the ranking is meaningless.  I don't think I'd put things in the same slots if you asked me to look at this list in a year.  So do with that what you will.  It's also worth noting that only one film from this year appears on the list, and that's for a good reason.  Films need time to sink in, to find their place within the SF field; they also need time to get away from their hype or anti-hype.  I feel weird about including Interstellar here before it has had that time, and if you asked me later whether I'd still include it, I'd probably tell you "no."  Not because I don't love it (I do), but because I don't feel I can actually assess the film outside of the context of its release.  But Ian and I disagreed about how good Interstellar was, and so I had to include it on this list.

In any case, you're free to disagree with me in the comments.  If you think I missed something, let me know!

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*Ian Sales is the author of the exceptional "Adrift on the Sea of Rains," which I've been meaning to review since I could walk.  I'm a terrible reviewer who deserves no love...That said, you really should read that story (and the ones that follow it).

Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy Anime Movies

I've been sitting on this list for months because I didn't think I'd seen enough anime movies to warrant the creation of a list.  Turns out I was wrong.  When I did a bit of searching, I discovered I'd seen quite a lot of anime films, many of them viewed at 1 AM on some random satellite station my grandma had a decade ago.  I still don't know which station played anime at 1 AM, nor do I remember all of the films I saw (Black Magic M-66, which does not appear on the list below because it's not that great, is one for which I am particularly nostalgic).

So here I am with a list of 10.  Don't hesitate to tell me what you think in the comments (or share your own lists).  Here goes (in no particular order):

Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (Yutaka Fujioka)

Flying beds, nightmare kings, magic scepters, flying squirrels, and dreams!

The Place Promised in Our Lonely Days (Makoto Shinkai)

Alternate realities, Cold War analogues, rebellion, and homemade jets!

And I'm presenting a paper on it at the 2014 International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts in Orlando!  *dances*

Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki)

Talking flames, animalistic transformations, mystical castles, and Miyazaki's classic genius.

Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki)

Mythology, modernity vs. the old world, giant spirit animals, and muskets!

The Cat Returns (Hayao Miyazaki)

Talking cats in tophats, kitty kingdoms, and magic transformations!

Oh, and the English-dubbed edition, which is surprisingly good, features Cary Elwes, Anne Hathaway, Kristen Bell, Rene Auberjonois (from DS9!), Peter Boyle, Elliot Gould, and many more.  That's one hell of a cast, no?

Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo)

Do I really need to explain this one?  It's a beautiful, mess-with-your-head kind of film.  And it's a classic.  At this point, you should have seen it already...

Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii)

What happens if a human mind merges with an artificial one?  And are cyborgs still human?  A cyberpunk classic.

Ghost in the Shell 2 (Mamoru Oshii)

Can you really trust cyborgs when their ability to exert free will is always in question?  Nothing like a little cyberpunk to tackle the tough questions!

Macross Plus (Shoji Kawamori & Shinichiro Watanabe)

Jet battles, artificial intelligence, mass hypnosis, and Robotech!  Yeah!

Patlabor (Mamoru Oshii)

Mecha in everyday society + hackers + mecha police = greatness.

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P.S.:  I really wanted to include the OVAs for Samurai X in this list, but they are technically episodic in format, rather than proper films like the ones listed above.  That means I'm going to have to write a whole new list about my favorite SF/F anime series!


Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies Since 2010 (Thus Far)

This is just the beginning.  I'm going to make an announcement about this very topic after I pass my PhD candidacy exams in September.  For now, however, I'd like to offer a list of films I consider to be "the best" in the SF/F category for the years 2010-2013 (thus far).  By "the best," I mean "films I think are good movies as movies."  A lot of these films were quite popular when they were in theaters, but I'm not concerned by popularity here.  I'm only concerned with what I think are well-written and/or well-produced films.  A film with a thin plot can still be great if it does something more than just throw lots of action at the audience to hide its flaws (this is why you will see no Michael Bay films on the list).

And on that note, I will shut up.

The following are the top 10 SF/F movies released since 2010...for now (this list will change as I start to watch things I missed):
10.  Chronicle (2012)
While I'm not a huge fan of the found-footage film form, occasionally they are done right.  Chronicle is one of those times.  The semi-diary-format superhero story coupled with a narrative about the psychological impact of parental abuse and death stuck with me after I saw it in theaters.  I connected with the main character almost immediately, in part because I've had similar experiences (minus the super powers).  The director also does a pretty damn good job cobbling together the fictive pieces of the main character's film diary, gaps and all.  That earns it a spot on this list.

9.  John Dies at the End (2012)
This movie is weird.  Really weird.  But it's also the kind of brilliant mix of camp and horror that one expects from Don Coscarelli, Jr.  If you haven't seen the film (and like Coscarelli's work), I recommend watching it on Netflix.  I can't describe it to you.  It's, as I said, really freaking weird, and relentless in its descent into insanity.  It's sort of what I'd expect someone who just saw Cthulu to dream as they slowly fall to pieces.  Only John Dies at the End is hilarious, surreal, and dark.

8.  Pacific Rim (2013)
You can learn all about my love for this film here.

7.  Pumzi (released in the U.S. in 2010)
The only short film of this list, Wanuri Kahiu's incredible dystopian film Pumzi took academic circles by storm in 2010.  For such a short work, it manages to bring a lot to the table:  a thoroughly African setting (I suspect there are cultural clues specific to Kahiu's native Kenya, but I know too little about that nation to say for sure); a fascinating post-apocalyptic "green utopian" society; and some interesting uses of technology.  I'd say the film is cliche, but the semi-mystic undertones and the ambiguous final vertical panning shot over a seemingly threatening climate on the other side of the mountains make this one of the best films released in the last three years, if only because I've had some intense discussions about that ending.

6.  Another Earth (2011)
While action and straightforward SF films are wonderful when done right, sometimes a character drama in an SFnal universe can make for exceptional cinematic experiences.  Brit Marling and Mike Cahill's Another Earth uses its SF premise (a planet that looks suspiciously like our own earth appears suddenly in the sky) to provide an extended metaphor about second chances.  The interaction between Rhoda (Marling) and John (William Mapother) as they both come to terms with the horrors of their connected pasts (unbeknownst to John, whose family was killed in a car accident caused by Rhoda) had me captivated all the way through.  And like all good character dramas, the ending provides an ambiguous solution to the primary conflict in the narrative.  It's just a damned good film.

5.  Elysium (2013)
You can find out what I think about this movie here.  I'm likely to write several blog posts about the film, though.  I think it's actually quite an intelligent film, despite all the critics who call it propaganda, stupid, pointlessly utopian, and so on (it is neither of these things).

4.  Hugo (2011)
The only children's film on this list, Hugo's charming story about family and French cinema deserved a lot more love than it got when the awards season came around.  Asa Butterfield's exceptional performance as the title character, along with equally strong performances by Ben Kingsley and Chloe Moretz, added depth to an already exceptional and brilliantly-imagined film.  It most certainly belongs on a top ten list for children's films from the last decade!  For now, I've stuck it here.

3.  Never Let Me Go (2010)
I'm a sucker for Carey Mulligan films, I guess.  This low-key dystopia centralizes the personal growth and development of a trio of clones who will one day have their organs harvested by the British state.  I saw this film for the first time with my sister, and I recall the feeling of dread and horror that arises in the final moments -- feelings that just wouldn't exist without the direct focus on these three characters as characters.  It's not a film for everyone, but I think it's easily one of the best SF/F films ever made.

2.  Cloud Atlas (2012)
This one shouldn't surprise anyone.  The Wachowski sibling's adaptation of David Mitchell's epic novel of the same name didn't get a lot of love from the traditional SF crowd, but I wasn't surprised by that in the slightest.  More critics and viewers loved Prometheus than Cloud Atlas; I think it's fair to say that the former is a steaming pile of glittering shit stained with oils made from petrified dinosaur crap (here's what I really think about that movie...).  Cloud Atlas, however, is an incredible journey into the interconnected lives of individuals existing across various time periods.  Every time I see the film, I make new connections between characters, discover new ambiguities and symbols, and get lost in the lives of its various characters.  I don't know how else to say this, so I'll just be blunt:  Cloud Atlas is the best film of 2012, rivaled by nothing else whatsoever.

1.  Inception (2010)
What?  He picked Inception for his #1?  How typical!

Yes.  Yes I did.  Why?  There are a lot of reasons, really:

  1. It's actually quite an amazing work of SF.  The multiple layers (literal and figurative) of the narrative and the almost haunting examination of the human subconscious are part of why this film got the attention it otherwise deserved.
  2. It seemed like people couldn't shut up about this film.  Sometimes, the mark of a great film is found in its influence on the conversation surrounding film in general.  Blog posts and articles were consantly being written about the meaning of the symbols (such as the top at the end) in Inception.  Academics were up in arms about all the layers.  For a solid three or four months, this film was all people could talk about.  And rightly so, because...
  3. The film is amazing on almost every level (see #1).  Even the music was incredible!
If you want to see more extended thoughts on this film, you can see my posts about it here, here, here and here.

And that's it.  What do you think I'm missing from this list?  Do you disagree with a selection?  Leave a comment!

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Note:  It's entirely possible that some films have been left off this list because I haven't been able to see them yet.  And how could I?  There have been something like 200 SF/F movies released in the U.S. alone.  Imagine all the Japanese, Chinese, Indian, etc. films we've all completely missed out on!

Flavorwire “SF/F Films Everyone Should See” Meme: How many have you seen?

The fine folks at Flavorwire recently released a list of 50 SF/F films they think everyone should watch (technically, there are 63 titles on the list, since they counted series as one).  I figured it would be fun to turn it into a meme.  So here you go:


BOLD = You've seen it!

  1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  2. Pan's Labyrinth
  3. Moon
  4. The Fellowship of the Ring
  5. The Two Towers
  6. The Return of the King
  7. The Princess Bride
  8. Labyrinth
  9. Men in Black
  10. Edward Scissorhands
  11. Mad Max
  12. Princess Mononoke
  13. Spirited Away
  14. Gattaca
  15. Primer
  16. Blade Runner
  17. Fantastic Planet
  18. The Wizard of Oz
  19. The Secret of Roan Inish
  20. Dark City
  21. The Matrix
  22. Time Bandits
  23. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
  24. La Jetée
  25. Brazil
  26. Metropolis
  27. Big Fish
  28. Solaris (original)
  29. Jurassic Park
  30. Alien
  31. Aliens
  32. Orpheus
  33. Dark Star
  34. 2001:  A Space Odyssey
  35. Avatar
  36. Back to the Future
  37. Star Wars IV:  A New Hope
  38. Star Wars V:  The Empire Strikes Back
  39. Star Wars VI:  The Return of the Jedi
  40. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  41. A Clockwork Orange
  42. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  43. The Fountain
  44. Sleeper
  45. City of Lost Children
  46. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
  47. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  48. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  49. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  50. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  51. Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince
  52. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt.1
  53. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt.2
  54. The Day the Earth Stood Still (original)
  55. Donnie Darko
  56. Invasion of the Body Snathers (original)
  57. Ghostbusters
  58. Being John Malkovich
  59. Akira
  60. The Terminator
  61. Terminator 2
  62. Strange Days
  63. Serenity

I count 49.  That's not bad, methinks...  How did you do?

Star Trek Movies and TV Shows: Ranked by Me

On August 11th, Badass Digest released a Trekkie-voted ranked list of all the Star Trek movies to date (plus Galaxy Quest, for some reason).  It's a strange list, to say the least.  Why is Galaxy Quest on there?  Other than the fact that it's a mostly-direct parody of Star Trek, it isn't actually a Star Trek movie.  And why did they stick Star Trek Into Darkness at the end, when it's obviously not the worst film on the list?

OK, so I have a good answer for that last question.  We talked about this a little in a recent Shoot the WISB episode.  Basically, the reversal of the Khan narrative probably came off as a slap in the face to Trekkies.  I even think it smelled disgusting, even though I kind of like the idea of switching things around.  After all, Spock isn't supposed to be an emotional man, so the idea that he'd break down after the supposed death of Kirk adds some weight to the moment.  But...it wasn't handled well.  There wasn't enough character development; the death of Kirk was handled in the way you'd expect a comic book to handle it:  he's dead...wait, no, not really, here's some magic *poof.*  At least in Wrath of Khan, Spock died.  He was dead dead dead.  The film never says "hey, we'll magic him into existence...right at the end."  If you've never seen Search for Spock, you really do think the guy has friggin died.  And that's a big deal.  The audience sometimes needs that slap in the face.

But I digress.  Prepare to be pissed off.  The following is my ranked list of Star Trek movies, minus Galaxy Quest:

12.  Star Trek (you can see why I still hate the film here and here)
11.  Star Trek:  Insurrection (the villains just didn't do it for me; it felt too much like an unnecessarily extended episode of the regular show, and the absurdity of the plot never seemed to gel or follow through for me, despite some nifty action sequences in the end)
10.  Star Trek V:  The Final Frontier (I want to like this film, but too much of this film's central elements are ridiculously underdeveloped; for example, both Sybok and the "god" thing at the end are given almost the same amount of characterization, despite the fact that the latter is only in the film for maybe seven minutes -- we never really know who Sybok is, except that he's kinda nuts)
9.  Star Trek:  Nemesis (there are certainly a lot of problems with this film, most notably in the convoluted plot; however, Tom Hardy does a fantastic job as Shinzon, and Captain Kirk really does almost get sucked dry like a character in a vampire movie, which seemed pretty cool to me)
8.  Star Trek Into Darkness (though I quite enjoy this sequel to Abrams' first ST film, it certainly suffers from reboot-idis; case in point, the fact that the writers could not include Khan in this version of the universe without making annoying and poorly conceived references to the original Wrath of Khan.  More on my thoughts, along with some others, here)
7.  Star Trek:  Generations (I think if I watched this movie again, I'd like it a lot less than I do in my memory; that said, I love the continued development of Data as a character, let alone the fact that this film really does give a lot of closure to the original TNG series -- plus, saucer separation = awesome)
6.  Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock (the one thing the original ST movies did well was comedic development between the principle cast; having Spock's katra, or soul, trapped in McCoy's body pretty much makes for comedic gold.  Add in Christopher Lloyd as the villain and you've got a pretty decent ST film)
5.  Star Trek VI:  The Undiscovered Country (while the villain doesn't have quite the prowess of Khan, his obsession with Shakespeare adds a certain creep factor to this otherwise straightforward political assassination thriller -- overall, I thought it did pretty damn well for itself, particularly considering the political implications of an alliance between the Federation and the Klingon Empire)
4.  Star Trek:  First Contact (the Borg are probably my favorite villain species in the entire ST franchise; the best part of this film, however, involves seeing humanity make that first stretch to the stars and all that comes with it)
3.  Star Trek:  The Motion Picture (I know a lot of people hate this movie, but I've always found it infinitely fascinating; it kept with the original narrative of exploration at the heart of the show, and the discovery itself was so cool)
2.  Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan (you all know why this is in the top two slots; everyone loves this movie)
1.  Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home (my grandma loved this movie, and so she made me watch it...a lot.  Obviously, it still has a special place in my heart, and it played a crucial role in my childhood love of whales and the ocean.  Also:  the movie still makes me laugh)

And here's my ranked list of Star Trek TV shows:
6.  Star Trek:  the Animated Series (it exists, and that's good enough for me)
5.  Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine (there are aspects of this show I really like, but the fact that it takes until season two for anything interesting to happen and that some of the actors are just horrible makes me unable to move this higher on the list)
4.  Star Trek:  the Original Series (it's classic, I know, but I didn't grow up on the original series, so I can only put it in the #4 slot because of its classic nature -- don't kill me)
3.  Star Trek:  Enterprise (everyone hates this one for some reason; I liked the attempt to have a single narrative riding through everything and the focus on humanity as the new kid on the proverbial block.  I'm also in agreement with one of my professors, who suggested that what makes this series so interest is the fact that humanity basically gets its ass handed to it...a lot.  That makes for a lot of interesting narratives)
2.  Star Trek:  Voyager (Captain Janeway is my favorite starship captain in the entire ST franchise; I also love the use of the Borg later in the series...and Neelix makes me happy.  There are certainly some plot issues here or there, but there are some fascinating explorations of the consequences of war and other social issues in this series.  I loved it when it was on the air in my younger years)
1.  Star Trek:  the Next Generation (the series introduced us to the Borg, who may be the greatest ST villain ever, and it was a damn good anthology-style series, with some cool stories and characters; it was also the first ST series to give us a genuinely non-humanoid character who had to grow piece by piece from start to finish -- oh, and there's a great episode where Geordi basically falls in love with a computer simulation...without brain manipulation)

And that's my list.  You're free to threaten death in the comments.