30. “Battle Royale” (2000)
The premise of kids killing each other in a government-supported game has now been popularized to billion-dollar effect with the “Hunger Games” franchise, but the real deal comes with “Battle Royale.” The final film from Kinji Fukasaku sees a class of high school students fixed with explosive collars and forced to kill each other as part of a scheme intended to curb teen disobedience. Lean, bloody, and with terrific action sequences (Quentin Tarantino called it his favorite film of the previous two decades), it’s also more than a mere genre piece: the students, and even their teacher (a smartly-cast Takeshi Kitano) are sensitively and three-dimensionally drawn, and its power as metaphor, both examining the power of violence and the demonization of youth, elevates it far above the tales of Katniss & co. Indeed, it cut a little too close to the bone for many – it wasn’t released in the U.S. for eleven years.
29. “Melancholia” (2011)
We’d suggest that Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” is the best of his recent run of work, in part because he’s less concerned with shocking his audience or busting through taboos. Apparently sparking from a bout of depression that the filmmaker suffered from, it echoes both its near-contemporary “Another Earth” and Don McKellar’s “Last Night,” telling the story of a bourgeois family attempting to deal with the end of world, that will be caused by a newly-discovered planet crashing into Earth. It’s emblematically a Lars Von Trier film, with all that entails, but there’s a maturity and a humanity that can sometimes be forgotten beneath his provocations, and a new influence of Altman and Chekhov that makes it feel richer than the short shark shop of “Antichrist.” New collaborators in Kirsten Dunst and DP Manuel Alberto Claro bring out the best in him too, adding up to a film that while bleak, is utterly, utterly beautiful.
28. “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” (2014)
After Tim Burton’s dreadful 2001 version, few had high hopes for the second reboot of the classic “Planet Of The Apes” series in a decade when Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” arrived. But the film was a quiet, unexpectedly moving triumph, and was then exceeded on every front by Matt Reeves’ follow-up, one of the few sequels that trumps the original. Picking up after the ape-pocalypse, as Caesar (Andy Serkis) is forced to confront humanity again, as well as a new threat closer to home, the movie, even more than its predecessor, takes full advantage of the stunning performance-capture technology, which reaches something of an apex here. Beyond that, it’s also simply a remarkably well-told story: a rare summer blockbuster in which you actively root against violence taking place, with a borderline Shakespearean arc for its non-human hero, and Reeves’ stylish-but-unshowy filmmaking chops steering things beautifully.
27. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Revitalizing the “Star Wars” franchise, that took such a massive body hit with the prequels, may seem “merely” a matter of not-screwing-up but it’s actually semi-miraculous that with so much at stake JJ Abrams & co managed it. ‘The Force Awakens’ is new but also old, progressive but also traditional, nostalgic but also optimistic, and the sense of wide-open adventure that it shares with the original trilogy is exhilarating and infectious. Bringing prior cast members Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill back for a victory lap, really it works as a baton-pass to the next generation, irresistibly embodied by John Boyega and Daisy Ridley. Casting those actors as the new “Star Wars” stars might be as obvious a nod to modernity as it’s possible to make, but getting to finally watching a girl and a black guy tossing a light saber to each other while trying on blockbuster heroism for size is so very much not nothing either.
26. “Beyond The Black Rainbow” (2010)
An instant trippy midnight movie favorite, and constructed entirely with the intention of being exactly that, “Beyond The Black Rainbow” does for mind-bending ‘70s sci-fi what “Berberian Sound Studio” or “Amer” did for giallo, paying homage and bringing it crashing into the 21st century. Directed by Panos Cosmatos, the son of “Rambo: First Blood Part II” and “Tombstone” director George, the plot, which loosely sees a new age scientist interrogating a young girl with telepathic powers who he’s kidnapped, is essentially beyond the point: this is a film of mood, atmosphere, and imagery, its meditative pace and hypnotic visuals making you feel like you’re on something strong even if you went in sober. It’s certainly style over substance, and you could argue that it wears its influences a little too strongly on its sleeve, but in our opinion, in drawing on everything from Jodorowsky and “2001” to Michael Mann and George Lucas, it adds up to something beautiful, fascinating, and a damn sight more interesting than 95% of genre fare out there.
25.”The Clone Returns Home” (2008)
As several other examples on this list prove, when well-judged “slow cinema” meets arthouse sci-fi, the results are often spectacular. But rarely has it worked as well as in Kanji Nakajima‘s shockingly underseen gem: a film that breaks your heart in its first half and breaks your mind in its second. But gently, oh so gently and with infinite patience, which means it is no film for the short of attention. It follows a young astronaut Kohei (Mitsuhiro Oikawa) who dies while on a mission and who is then cloned per the unusual life-insurance policy insisted upon by his employers. The first clone, however, has a defect where his memories fixate on the death of Kohei’s twin brother as children, and so a second clone is made… It’s deliberately confounding and diffuse, with the strands of reality, memory, dream and near-death hallucination all unravelling in DP Hideho Urata‘s exquisitely still, dwarfing landscapes, but its Tarkovskian calmness also gives it uncanny sustain.
24. “Sunshine” (2007)
After the success of “28 Days Later,” and before he became an Oscar-winner, Danny Boyle went into space for a bold vision that, while it isn’t entirely successful, is so transcendent when it hits that it more than deserves a place on this list. Following an international crew on a desperate expedition to try and reignite the sun, it has one of the best ensembles in the genre in recent years (Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Cliff Curtis, Hiroyuki Sanada, Mark Strong, et al), and then surrounds with arguably the most stunning, eye-searing imagery that Boyle’s ever produced. On first viewing, the film’s mix of more familiar genre tropes with more psychedelic, mind-bending, “2001”-ish elements doesn’t quite gel, but it’s a movie that grows deeper and richer on every viewing, especially when you turn up John Murphy and Underworld’s seminal score. The superficially similar “Interstellar” was arguably more polished and satisfying, but the fiery passion of “Sunshine” was too great for it not to show up here.
23. “Wall-E” (2008)
Does “Wall-E,” Pixar’s most notable entry into the sci-fi genre to date, ever quite match up to its opening, essentially silent section, maybe the most purely perfect thing the studio have ever done? No. Is it a terrific movie throughout, even in its sometimes-dismissed second half? Absolutely. Andrew Stanton’s miraculous picture, about a weary-old trash collecting-robot on an earth abandoned to ecological disaster, who falls in love with a sleek, hi-tech droid and ends up saving humanity, draws on everything from Chaplin to “Stalker,” and while the poetry of its opening is the high point (with near photo-realistic visuals in part thanks to consultant Roger Deakins), it remains energetic and entertaining to the very end, and a reminder that in the hands of a master like Stanton, animation can do things that no other medium could do. Shame about the Peter Gabriel song at the end, though.
22. “Donnie Darko” (2001)
Amazingly, it’s been nearly 15 years since Richard Kelly’s indie genre-bender arrived, and though its legacy has been tarnished by an inferior Director’s Cut and the helmer’s questionable follow-ups, the film remains as original and enjoyable a creation as ever. Melding John Hughes, David Lynch, and Albert Einstein into an ’80s-set tale of a troubled teen (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a star-making role) who receives visits from a sinister rabbit who may be trying to convince him to travel through time, it’s rich, funny, swooningly romantic stuff with a very fine cast (Patrick Swayze and Katharine Ross got well-deserved comeback roles, there’s a great cameo from producer Drew Barrymore, and keep an eye out for a young Seth Rogen as a bully), and a surprisingly melancholy tone. Kelly, just 26 when the film was released, handles things with real flair (and a great ear for song selection), and while the Director’s Cut only makes the mythology more impenetrable, it’s a fascinating sci-fi puzzle-box on top of everything else.
21. “Ex Machina” (2015)
Having had his hand in some of the most distinctive genre movies of the last couple of decades, writer Alex Garland (“Sunshine,” “28 Days Later,” “Dredd,” “Never Let Me Go”) exceeded himself with this, his directorial debut. A wire-taut, ever-shifting three-hander about a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who’s invited down to the remote Alaskan hideaway of his genius boss (Oscar Isaac), only to discover he’s there to administer the Turing Test to an AI. It’s a tricksy little picture, starting off as an examination of the creation of sentient life and ending up as a parable of the terrible ways that men treat women, but that shouldn’t suggest that Garland ever lets the film out of his control. Neither his script or his direction stray off the path he intends, and he plays the audience like a fiddle as a result. Complete with three stellar performances and an unforgettable dance scene, it already feels like it’s settled into ‘classic’ territory, barely a year after it hit theaters.