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.
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:
- 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.
- 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…
- The film is amazing on almost every level (see #1). Even the music was incredible!
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!