10. “Holy Motors” (2012)
Perhaps this completely spellbinding Leos Carax mindfuck doesn’t wholly qualify — it’s certainly more described by the “laws” of pure fantasy than any single high-concept thought experiment. But since our recent Fantasy feature leaned more towards orcs and dragons, and since there are many segments within this multifaceted phantasmagoria of weirdness that merit being called “sci-fi,” we’re putting it here. But mainly, we’re including “Holy Motors” because we’re never going to pass up the opportunity to talk about its utter genius: a kind of mad picaresque following the great Denis Lavant through a variety of personas and scenarios (peppered with memorable turns from Eva Mendes and Kylie Minogue) as his Mr Oscar is driven to different mysterious assignations by his loyal driver Celine (Edith Scob). By turns crass, hilarious, sad and gross but defiantly inexplicable always, it has enough bristling energy to fuel a hundred films, boiled down to into one highly potent, concentrated shot of pure hallucinogen.
9. “Primer” (2004)
Made for a fraction of pretty much every other movie here (just $7,000), Shane Carruth’s directorial debut, “Primer,” is a startling and incredibly complex picture that completely re-energised the time-travel movie and immediately leapt to the forefront of the genre. The endearingly lo-fi picture sees a group of engineers accidentally create a device in their garage that can send them back in time, before falling out in spectacular fashion. Of course, that barely scratches the surface of the plot: it’s a dizzyingly dense film, to the extent that it can feel impenetrable at first, but as if mirroring the journey of its characters, it becomes more and more rewarding as you travel back for a second, third, or fourth go. Shot on 16mm (with enough stock that he could only shoot each scene once, which might explain why it’s a little rough around the edges in places, though that only adds to its chilly charm for us), it’s an uncompromising, completely fascinating picture, and that Carruth’s other sci-fi classic (more of which in a moment) is so wildly different is a testament to his immense talents.
8. “Timecrimes” (2007)
That said, “Primer” isn’t quite our favorite time-travel picture of the decade: that honor instead goes to another low-budget spin on the conceit, Spanish filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo’s twisty, twisted “Timecrimes.” The set-up sees Héctor (Karra Elajalde) go out to investigate a nude neighbor when his wife leaves the house, only to be stabbed by a mysterious bandaged figure, and then discovering that a scientist has built a time machine that can send him an hour back in time. A devious, tighly plotted, and frequently surprising little picture leavened with a sly sense of humor, it sees Vigalondo juggle tones and genres with a confidence that belies his status as a first-time filmmaker (although he’d been Oscar-nominated for his short film “7:35 de la Mañana”). In its low-budget ingenuity, it follows not just something like “Primer,” but also films like “Memento,” “Pi,” and even “Dark Star,” giving the film a scope and scale that belies its limited setting and cast, but more than anything, it’s just enormous fun to unpack and puzzle over.
7. “Moon” (2009)
Every generation has a low-key cult sci-fi debut or two that simply have the feel of future classics, and the 21st Century has had several, though none as satisfying and as worthy of revisiting as Duncan Jones’ brilliantly conceived, perfectly executed “Moon.” The spartan story of a lone astronaut (Sam Rockwell) manning a mining station on the far side of the moon, with only the station’s computer, voiced by Kevin Spacey, for a companion, who discovers he’s not as alone as he thought, (although perhaps he’s ultimately even more so), the film goes through subtle shifts in mood, from droll to creepy to all-out uncanny. It all orbits around Rockwell’s performance, though, and he is superb at wrangling depths and subtleties from a role that has him often alone and wordless, projecting the intense, almost existential weariness of a man so very far from home. Jones stayed with sci-fi for his follow up, “Source Code,” but while it’s a fun, twisty thriller take on the genre, it didn’t come anywhere close to matching the shimmery, enigmatic atmosphere of his supremely controlled debut space oddity.
6. “Her” (2013)
Proving once again that some of the greatest sci-fi happens when the genre cross-pollinates with another, or several others, Spike Jonze’s lovely, intimate film is just as much an indie love story and a journey of self-discovery as it is a traditional sci-fi movie. Starring a tremulous Joaquin Phoenix in one of the finest and most sympathetic performances of an already stellar career, it also features voice acting work from Scarlett Johansson that is so evocative we remember the Operating System she plays (Samantha) as being as real as she is to Phoenix’s Theodore — one of the only times we really recall considering a voice-only performance as potentially awards-worthy. There’s a quiet intelligence to Jonze’s probing of our relationship with our machines, but mostly it’s a film marked out by its unusual grace in recognising how, in the face of our growing dependence on technology, we are somehow more fallibly human than ever.
5. “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015)
George Miller’s fourth movie in his post-apocalyptic franchise, and the first in nearly thirty years, was literally the best action movie in decades, and a tremendous sci-fi film too. A chase movie in the same way that Buster Keaton’s “The General” is a chase movie, i.e. it’s the chase movie as poetry, as symphony, as head rush, as fever dream — “Fury Road” barely ever stopping to catch a breath while building a fascinating sci-fi dystopian world through side-details. The director gifted us all with an adrenaline shot of pure, unfiltered cinema, one that returned grace and beauty to the summer blockbuster. One that wasn’t afraid to get weird, like the blue-tinged section in the mudlands that feels almost like a Tarkovsky movie. One that stealthily put a woman at the heart of a testosterone-filled, gas-guzzling actioner. One crafted at a level that suggested that 95% of movies simply aren’t trying hard enough.
4. “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind” (2004)
We’re already firmly on the record with our endless adoration for Michel Gondry’s superlative investigation of love, regret, and memory. While the warmth and sorrowful humanism of the film are what stays with you, its intelligence and the elegance of its plotting can’t be overstated either. Giving Gondry’s lively visual imagination a license to play to its eccentric, practically-achieved strengths, Charlie Kaufman’s script nonetheless has the kind of focus and tightness that many of the director’s other features have lacked, and Jim Carrey’s against-type performance as the brokenhearted man desperately chasing after the memories of his relationship with Clementine (Kate Winslet) makes this a career high for all three, and a devastatingly beautiful, funny and melancholy film to boot. It’s the rare movie that has as much heart as it has creative smarts, and maybe twice the wisdom.
3. “Upstream Color” (2013)
One of only three directors to have two entries on this list (and the budgets for both of his titles combined could comfortably fit 50 times over into those of most all the others), Shane Carruth followed up his spectacularly brainy “Primer” with the spectacularly brainy “Upstream Color,” which broadens its scope, and therefore its reach, to warp the heart as well as the mind. A very, very, very offbeat love story, it follows a man (played by Carruth himself) and a woman (Amy Seimetz) who fall for each other helplessly but discover their mutual attraction is at least partly to do with a symbiotic link to a herd of pigs, the biology of a mutant strain of orchid, the poetry of Walt Whitman, and a bizarre hypnosis/heist scheme. Full of wonder and scientific curiosity at the uncanny nature of love, and investigating it so minutely that its mathematics themselves become beautiful, we may not be able to answer definitively what it all means, but the film’s pervasive mood and lingering sustain (down to the polyglot Carruth’s gauzy cinematography and self-composed ambient score) means it’s a pleasure to continue puzzling it out, even all this time later.
2. “Under The Skin” (2013)
We were first spellbound by Jonathan Glazer‘s unctuous slow-drip nightmare three years ago and it hasn’t quite left our system yet. Simply one of the undeniable masterpieces of this new millennium, the chilly otherworldly vibe of Glazer and Walter Campbell‘s adaptation of Michel Faber‘s novel is completely immersive and bewitching, told with a Kubrickian attention to detail that does indeed feel like it acts subcutaneously, intravenously. Featuring a brilliant performance from Scarlett Johansson (kicking off a stellar run, incidentally) the film might be the best-ever evocation of an alien’s-eye perspective on the our world, with slivers of the prosaic reality of grey, damp Scotland interrupting the creeping horror that unfolds in the black ooze below. It’s the charge between the ordinary and the deeply uncanny that chills you to the core, like the unforgettable image of a woman dragging a body past an abandoned baby crying on a stony beach.
1. “Children Of Men” (2006)
Not just the best sci-fi movie of the last 16 years, but one of the best movies period, Alfonso Cuaron’s bravura dystopian masterpiece cemented the Mexican helmer’s status as not just a fast-rising star, but as one of our very, very best. Based on P.D. James’ novel, it’s set in a world where no children have been born in two decades, and society has collapsed as humanity waits to die out. Theo (Clive Owen) is entrusted with transporting a young immigrant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who is pregnant, the first person in a generation to be so. Aside from its central premise, everything about “Children Of Men” is chillingly plausible, and Cuaron’s vision is brought to life seamlessly with subtle VFX and the never-bettered docudrama-ish photography of Emmanuel Lubezki (including two of the greatest extended shots in cinema history). The cast, including Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Peter Mullan, and Danny Huston, is impeccable, it’s disarmingly funny, deeply sad, enormously exciting, fiercely political, and endlessly inventive, and people will be stealing from it for decades to come. Though many dismissed it on release as being too bleak (and everything from the Zika virus to Brexit is proving it to be all to prescient), that was to miss the point: “Children Of Men” is a film about hope, and in the 21st century, we need all the hope we can get.
Honorable Mentions: Even expanding this list to 50 left room for mucho heartache. We were contrarianly delighted wth ourselves for having the Wachowskis‘ widely hated “Cloud Atlas” up there for a long time, but late additions meant something had to go. And as last time, we felt that Superhero movies are borderline, but we ultimately decided to skip them, especially since they get lists of their own and really do not need any further exposure.
So what else nearly made the cut? John Hillcoat’s “The Road,” Guillermo del Toro‘s “Pacific Rim,” JJAbrams’ “Super 8” were under discussion. We also considered “Hunger Games” sequel “Catching Fire,” offbeat experiment “The Man From Earth,” megahit “Avatar,” and underrated B-movie “Reign Of Fire.”
There was also Steven Spielberg’s “War Of The Worlds,” international indie “Europa Report,” Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky,” Brad Anderson’s semi-rom-com “Happy Accidents,” Alan Moore adaptation “V For Vendetta,” Vincenzo Natali’s “Splice,” Mike Cahill’s “I Origins,” Duncan Jones’ “Source Code,” “Josh Trank’s “Chronicle,” Colin Trevorrow’s “Safety Not Guaranteed,” Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla,” Luc Besson’s “Lucy,” Irish sci-fi comedy “Grabbers,” Swiss movie “Cargo” and recent surprise hit “10 Cloverfield Lane,” though we felt having its putative forbear on here was enough.
As ever, there are about a thousand other titles that will be someone’s “But where the HELL is [film]” so if yours isn’t mentioned, call it out below. And maybe we’ll get to it in a couple years’ time when we bring this list to 100.