40. “Never Let Me Go” (2010)
A difficult, chilly film with a placid exterior hiding a vein of deep feeling, “Never Let Me Go” is one of the saddest films of the last decade and a remarkably sustained mood piece that grows more and more with each viewing. Adapted by future “Ex Machina” director Alex Garland from Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel and directed by Mark Romanek, it follows three children in a grim Britain being raised in a remote boarding school who discover that they are clones being raised for the purpose of organ donation and are unlikely to live conventional lives. Some audiences couldn’t deal with the lead characters’ quiet acceptance of their fate, but it feels utterly appropriate to the quietly-fucked world that Romanek builds, and brought out by remarkable, deeply human performances by his three leads, Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley, delivering among their best work. It’s a deeply haunting film.
39. “Signs” (2002)
Many’s the argument we’ve had, much is the ridicule we’ve suffered, but we’ll say it again: M. Night Shyamalan‘s widely derided “Signs,” starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, is great. However, since this film uses the oldest sci-fi trope (an alien invasion) to pry open faultlines of guilt, grief and lost faith within one fractured family, it’s easy to see where Shyamalan disappointed large swathes of his audience. While the film does feature a trademark 3rd act reveal (which is either strangely moving or dumb as hair), it’s not the destination but the journey that is the point here. A lot of the alien stuff does not work, but the story of an ex- preacher whose faith died with his wife and who is trying to protect his family from an invasion shows an admirable ambition to contend with the conundrum of life after death that rings true, sincere and peculiarly hopeful.
38. “Hard To Be A God” (2013)
Well over a decade in the making (production began in 2000) and having only premiered after the death of its director Aleksei German, “Hard To Be A God” is unlike any film you’ve seen before, a truly magnificent wallow in the filth of humanity. Based on a novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (also authors of “Roadside Picnic,” which Andrei Tarkovsky turned into “Stalker”), the film sees a group of scientists having traveled to a distant Earth-like planet that becomes stuck in an anti-intellectual Dark Ages, with one of their number (Leonid Yarmolnik) now serving as a God-like ruler tasked with starting a Renaissance there. Positively swimming in mud, shit, blood and offal, and with extended tracking shots immersing the viewer in a Bruegel-like landscape, but as bleak and near-nihilistic as its view of the human race might be, the film doesn’t quite feel oppressive. Even at three hours, it’s a must-see.
37. “Star Trek” (2009)
There is some irony in J.J. Abrams avowedly relaunching the ‘Star Trek‘ franchise by making it as though it should have been a ‘Star Wars‘ movie. But that doesn’t detract from just how much fun “Star Trek” turned out to be, largely keeping the deeper, philosophical bent of series like “The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine” in the background in favor of an old-fashioned, getting-the-team-together yarn, with a little time travel thrown in because… JJ Abrams! But if that sounds dismissive, it shouldn’t: Abrams assembled a terrific cast for the new-look movie —Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Anton Yelchin (RIP), John Chu, Karl Urban and Simon Pegg— and Kurtzman & Orci‘s script gave every individual character their moment in the sun. Also including a touching cameo from Leonard Nimoy, it’s such an enjoyable kick-off that we almost forgive the slapdash sequel, especially now that early word on Justin Lin’s third installment is so positive.
36. “The Mist” (2007)
You have to tip your hat to Frank Darabont: having given us a hall-of-famer happy ending with his most beloved Stephen King adaptation “The Shawshank Redemption,” he then delivered one of most ballsy and outrageous downer finales of all time with his take on King’s “The Mist.” But the film is a lot more than just its ending, an enjoyably grimy creature-feature B-movie in which a small town is menaced by beasties unleashed by sinister government forces from another dimension, whose arrival is cloaked in mist. Unfolding largely in one grocery store where a group of townspeople hole up, beyond the jump scares, it’s also marked out by terrific performances especially from the great Marcia Gay Harden as the hyper-religious End-Is-Nigh type, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones and a rubble-jawed Thomas Jane as the would-be All-American hero whose subversive fate it is to make such a terrible error of judgement in those closing minutes.
35. “The Prestige” (2006)
For a long time, perhaps because of its period setting, “The Prestige” remained the least well-known of Christopher Nolan‘s post-breakout films. But gradually it seems people have cottoned on to the fact that it’s one of his most interesting, and that it includes many of his recurring themes about identity and doubling, and the difference between someone’s public face and their private heart. Based on the brilliant book by Christopher Priest (Nolan adapted it with his brother Jonathan), it also boasts a massive cast, with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman playing rival magicians in the early 1900s, Scarlett Johansson, Piper Perabo and Rebecca Hall as their variously doomed lady loves, talisman Michael Caine and Ricky Jay as the “magical engineers” who design tricks and even David Bowie in a coup of perfect casting as Nikola Tesla. Intricate, mindbending and ultimately deeply melancholy, this is everything that Nolan does best.
34. “Monsters” (2010)
He’s about to head to a galaxy far, far away with “Rogue One,” and understandably so: Gareth Edwards made one of the most ambitious and striking directorial calling cards in recent memory with “Monsters.” Small in budget but huge in scope, it’s set in a world where alien creatures have made much of Central America a no-go area, and where an American (Scoot McNairy) is hired to find a wealthy young woman (Whitney Able) and bring her home. A low-key, intimate romance of unexpected feeling then unfolds, amid a backdrop of devastation, and if the script feels a little lacking sometimes, the chemistry between the leads (who married in real life), and Edwards’ kinship with the strange creatures leads to something that transcends the ‘Before Sunrise With Giant Aliens’ elevator pitch. It culminates in an ending that’s among the most strange and beautiful things we’ve seen on screen in recent years.
33. “A.I: Artificial Intelligence” (2001)
Given that it saw beloved director Steven Spielberg taking over a project from one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the history of the medium, the late Stanley Kubrick, it was inevitable that some would be disappointed by “A.I,” and it took a relatively long time for the film to be greeted as anything other than a missed opportunity. Fortunately, it’s now won a fair chunk of cinephiles over, and is certainly seen as, if not Spielberg’s most lovable work, one of his most interesting. Riffing loosely on “Pinocchio,” the film (which features Spielberg’s first sole screenplay credit since “Close Encounters”) follows Haley Joel Osment’s child ‘mecha,’ rejected by his real parents and heading out in search of a way to become a real boy. Misread and misinterpreted by critics on release, it now stands as a perfect meld of the two visionaries behind it and one of Spielberg’s most meticulous, complex, and haunting works, and one well worth revisiting if you rejected it first time around.
32. “Interstellar” (2013)
Perhaps one of the most hotly contested films, sci-fi or otherwise, in recent memory, Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” received a host of polarizing and emotionally hot reactions, with some finding it baffling, impenetrable or saccharine (among the barbs thrown at it). But while debate still rages, we find that the film’s grown in the couple of years since it landed: still messy, still imperfect, still a dazzling, ambitious vision of love, time, space, and some deeper, perhaps fuzzier elements of the universe. It’s the place where the heart and quantum physics meet. While that might admittedly be a bit of an awkward intersection, its love-letter sincerity to humanity inspired by Nolan’s own children is at least visually awe-inspiring and occasionally breathtaking, and should finally rid people of the idea that Nolan is a cold, emotionless filmmaker. What initially felt like his greatest misfire may one day be seen as his greatest moment.
31. “Edge Of Tomorrow” (2014)
Taking “Groundhog Day” and giving it a sci-fi twist (more effectively than Duncan Jones’ “Source Code” a few years earlier), Doug Liman’s excellent blockbuster “Edge Of Tomorrow” picks up Tom Cruise’s dickish PR guy and drops him in the midst of a D-Day-style battle against an impossible alien threat, then makes him live it (and perish in it) over and over again. The film was the best use of Cruise’s star persona in aeons (serving almost as a metaphor for the redemption of his own stardom), but the secret weapon, aside from a cunning evocation of video game tropes, the best alien warfare since “Starship Troopers,” and crystal clear direction from a back-on-form Liman, was Emily Blunt as the “full metal bitch,” making a strong case that she deserves to be the biggest star in the world. The film didn’t find the theatrical audience it deserved at the time, but more and more people seemed to catch on after.