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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
*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).