[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Update: Added John Klima’s response.
2010 is drawing to a close and the inevitable ‘Best of 2010’ lists have started to appear. But it’s also the end of the first decade of the 21st Century (we all know there was no year 0 so a decade starts with 1, right?) so we thought we’d go an order of magnitude better. We asked our panelists this question:
Here’s what they said:
I’ll confine myself the best five or so:
Lord of the Rings Trilogy. The first movie came out in 2000, but I’m hereby declaring that year to be part of our decade. (Don’t worry – I won’t include 2010 in our decade. So I’ll at least be consistent.) Back to the LOTR Trilogy – like many trilogies (Godfather and both of the Star Wars trilogies come to mind) – the first movie in the trilogy was the second best, the second was the best, and third was third best. Actually, all three were superb in this trilogy, but scenes and sequences in the second were the best I’ve ever seen in any movie. The immortal Elves risking and sacrificing their lives in defense of Helm’s Deep still rends my soul.
Star Wars: Episode 2: Attack of the Clones. I can’t bring myself to include 1999 – which is when SW: Episode 1 was released – in our current decade, otherwise I would have listed the whole Star Wars 1-3 Trilogy. But it’s not the end of the world. Because although 1 and 3 were excellent, 2 was sheer brilliance. The last 45-minutes of the movie has more provocative action than any other I can thinking of – from Padme jumping on that animal behind Anakin, and kissing him on the head (heart-warming) to the slaughter of children Jedi (deeply bone chilling), the story here is pure, unbridled adrenalin.
Frequency is another 2000 entry, permissible by my interpretation. Frequency may be the second or third best time travel movie ever made (first is Twelve Monkeys and second is Back to the Future Trilogy, in my opinion). Frequency actually deals not with travel but communication through time (or better, communication that goes back and forth through time, in contrast to what you’re doing when you’re reading this blog, which is reading something that I sent through time from now, when I’m writing this, to you, when you’re reading this, the good old-fashioned non-paradoxical way). It’s a speciality of time travel not often enough explored, and Frequency does it in a riveting, believable way, that respects rather than ignores the paradoxes of breaking through time.
Deja Vu is indeed about traveling not communicating through time, and is tad less superb than Frequency, which is to say it is superb indeed. Also respectful of the paradoxes, Deja Vu has them animate a first-rate police and romance story to boot. Had me panting to understand what was going on until the very end – a state I enjoy being in when watching a movie – and provided an ending which was sad, hopeful, and satisfying all at the same time.
District 9 is in a class by itself – a schlep of a movie about rag-tag aliens on Earth that had me laughing out loud at times (the aliens complaining about the depredations they’re being subjected to) and cheering at others (as in the ending). About as low-key, ungrand and yet profound as you’ll ever find in a first contact movie, and that’s exactly what makes it so good.And there’s that twist of a yeah! ending, too.
My top list? I’m not a movie critic or reviewer. My fundamental criterion for a science
fiction or fantasy film is love. Does my hand leap to it when I go to the DVD shelf? Do
the characters and story resonate in my mind when I’m not watching? If so, it made my
- Titan A.E. (2000) – In one of my novels, I did attempt to name a planet “Bob.”
- Evolution (2001) – Our go-to gigglefest.
- Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) – It blew us away at the time, and still satisfies.
- Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone (2001 and sequels) – I love the British take on fantasy, and was thrilled to see it almost take over the world.
- Kate & Leopold (2001) – It’s romantic and light-hearted, and something I pull out for those who “never watch that SF and F stuff.”
- The Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring 2001, The Two Towers 2002, Return of the King 2003) – These are my favourite movies. They’ve also raised every novelist’s expectation for what could be accomplished on screen with their work by those who love and understand it to astonishing heights. Thank you Peter Jackson and Co!
- Pirates of the Caribbean (2003 and sequels) – What great fun! Pirates!!!
- The Day After Tomorrow (2004) – Cautionary SF that actually caught public attention when it was necessary.
- Serenity (2005) All hail Joss Whedon! (We so miss Firefly, but you gave us a conclusion.)
- Batman Begins (2005) – The dark knight rose again!
- Corpse Bride (2005) – Lovely, dark, and romantic.
- Lion, Witch, Wardrobe (2005) – Great to see the Narnia books I loved start to hit the screen.
- The Prestige (2006) – Science fiction like a stab to the heart.
- Transformers (2007) – Loved it — and there was some terrific nostalia among our household to boot.
- Stardust (2007) – A perfect fantasy, suited to any audience.
- Iron Man (2008) -What a hoot! Joy and fun from start to end.
- WALL-E (2008) – Brought SF to the younger generation!!! (And we liked it too.)
- Inkheart (2008) – Another wonderful classic fantasy, understated, well told. I recommend it every chance I get.
- Star Trek (2009) – As a confirmed fan of all things Trek since the first airing of the Classic TV series, I confess with joy that I LOVE this movie. Even more, I love how it’s brought new fans flocking.
Having made my list, I find I want to hug all those who created these wonderful movies.
You’ve not only entertained me, but you continue to bring science fiction and fantasy to
the world at large. The more of us — the merrier!!! Live long and make more movies!!!
Counting the decade from 2001 to 2010, unfortunately puts outside the range of the question the film I consider the best both as a film and as an SF film, namely, Dark City directed by Alex Proyas.
My tastes are simple. What I like in a speculative fiction film are the same thing I like in a muggle film, except with speculation, or, rather, a sense of wonder added in.
1. A good film has convincing acting, memorable characters, a coherent plot, well-crafted direction, and a theme that touches on something deep.
2a. Thoughtful speculative fiction is fiction that takes a counterfactual idea, a speculation, and draws out unexpected but realistic consequences. A well thought out science fiction tale leaves the reader with a sense of surprised recognition, slapping palm to forehead and saying, “Well, of course, it would be that way if such-and-so were the case. I should have thought of that!” When the Invisible Man of H.G. Wells has to doff his clothing to be invisible, we realize with surprise that is must be that way, because his clothing is not invisible. Any tale that successfully convinces my brain that the implications of the unreal idea are real is thoughtful science fiction.
2b. The fantasy films I find the most enchanting and mesmeric have no element of this speculation to them. Fantasy is a matter of mood and theme. Any film that successfully convinces my heart that the dreary daylight world of mankind and our machines is not the only world there is, such a tale is magic.
3. Good Speculative fiction films, whether science fiction or fantasy, have an added dimension. In addition to being thoughtful speculation, it has to include eye-dazzling spectacle. Films are for the eye: a good SF film has to look good. Good SF for me means good SFX.
So my tastes are simple, but my standards are complex, because I can like a film as a well-directed film, but think it is poor speculation; or like the speculation but think it is not much spectacle; or like the spectacle, but think it is not a deep film.
Now, a glance over the last decade of SFF films will tell us one thing immediately. We live in the golden age of science fiction filmdom. Long gone are the days when SF films were cheap flicks about giant insects. We live in a time when anything imagined can be brought to life in full color before our eyes.
Because of this wealth, I cannot select a top film without arbitrarily eliminating a large number of films from consideration. Therefore I will not consider superhero movies, even though these my favorites, since superheroes are not necessarily science fiction, more like daydreams than speculations: men from the planet Krypton or Thanagar do not seem like space aliens to me, not in the same way a Vulcan or a Pierson’s Puppeteer does. I will not consider horror movies even if they have a SFF background, or vampire movies, and I will especially not consider movies with sparkly vampires.
So allow me to eliminate the films that were good films but bad SFF:
A.I. — this movie had both a deep theme, it was about a mother’s love, and an arresting look or spectacle to it, but I conclude it was a failure as speculation, as if the film-maker could not decide whether the robot-boy protagonist was really a little boy or merely an appliance.
Signs — this movie was one of the best directed and scripted of the decade, and, as a film, I thought it both moving and profound. It was about faith. But the science fiction was laughable, since the aliens dissolve like the Wicked Witch of the West when damp, and yet their alleged motive was to harvest organs from human beings. (Who are, after all, mostly water). This would be like NASA raiding Venus, a planet of iron-melting temperatures whose clouds drip sulfur, in order to get heart and liver transplants from critters whose veins run with sulfuric acid.
Let me eliminate movies that were good spectacle but bad writing:
Matrix Reloaded/Matrix Revolution— this sequel if anything were even more visually splendid than the first film, with special effects to make one’s jaw drop even farther, if possible. You haven’t seen real spectacle until you have seen Morpheus parry an automobile with a katana, or Neo whup a chateau-full of ninja werewolves with his slo-mo wire-fu. In my humble opinion, this includes the best fight scene ever captured on celluloid. But the plot was so wandering and senseless that the viewer was left feeling cheated.
Star Wars Attack of the Clones/Revenge of the Sith — Visually, these films are a masterwork of modern civilization, a symphony, a cathedral. Plotwise, they suffer from a low mitocloridian count. Never have I seen such gorgeous and impressive set-pieces played out against such wooden acting and such mind-numbingly stupid and dull plot-action.
Let me eliminate the films that were good film making but bad speculation:
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow — My daydream of stepping into the covers of Thrilling Air Wonder Stories and seeing the flying machines and robots come to life about me was satisfied by this impressive live-action animation. But there was no real speculation to the film; it was space-opera physics.
Serenity — My favorite television show was Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and the fact that it was handled contemptuously by the network and cancelled stillborn convinces me that Man is fallen and life is a valley of tears. This movie was a partial consolation, since Whedon brilliantly tied together his major dangling plotlines, while writing a movie a newcomer could also enjoy. However, making a science fiction old western, a space opera horse opera, automatically puts the story outside the realm of sober speculation. We are not going to fly to Mars or the Moon and don our dusters and sixguns and mount up on stallions and ride the ranges of Mare Imbrium. The movie itself had a rather pointed and powerful speculation about the implications of state-sponsored social engineering, but there was no moment of “Of course.” The science was merely for atmosphere.
Let me also eliminate movies that were top notch science fiction, but not visually impressive.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time — I must mention and praise this under-rated and under-appreciated gem. It is a Japanese animation about, well, a girl who discovers that she can leap through time. She uses her time travel powers, for the most part, harmlessly, but finds she cannot face the scene when a boy becomes her boyfriend, and so she replays the scene to give it a different ending–but this has more complex consequences than even a time-leaper can handle. It is good science fiction, and one of the best time travel stories I have ever seen, but it does not win my number one spot merely because the look and spectacle of the film are not visually arresting.
Inception — This is my pick for the number two best SF film of the decade, and it barely slips out of first place merely because (except for one zero-gee fight scene in a hotel, or one shot of a dreamer bending the cityscape into a box) the setting, as befits a psychological thriller, took place mostly in the mind. Compare and contrast the visual spectacle in this film with The Cell, directed by Tarsem Singh, which had a similar plot idea of diving into someone else’s mind. The writing and acting were superior, the implications or the dream-reading technology were draw out cleverly, and made central to the plot, and the theme of uncertainty about whether reality is real is perfectly executed even to the last ambiguous frame of the film.
I have to emphasize that I am only using the rather shallow “not enough special effects” criterion to eliminate what would otherwise be an overcrowded field. If the question had been to pick my top five or ten of the decade, I could have ignored this criterion.
So what is my top film for the last ten years? I cannot narrow it down to one. Fantasy and science fiction have a slightly different appeal, and are judged by slightly different criteria.
Here is my top SF film:
Wall-E — this Pixar film made me laugh a laugh and made me weep a tear, it had perfectly cromulent science fictional speculation as one of the central plot points (microgravity causing bone degeneration), and the visuals were pure magic. Any story that can tell you about the deepest parts of the human heart through the silent-comedy antics of a pantomime robot, can tell you about responsibility and the human spirit almost without a word of dialog, such a story is inspired by genius. There is a sequence during the credits where the earthmen replant and replenish the Earth that was almost Hayao Miyazaki in its craftsmanship. Speaking of which….
And here is my top Fantasy film:
Spirited Away — Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi — This film by Hayao Miyazaki most perfectly captures that uncapturable thing all fantasy tales attempt. It uses magic to show something of the real magic in the human heart. Some of the true horror and majesty and bravery of old fashioned fairy tales is here, not to mention the magic of a child coming of age, and learning of her own inner strength of spirit. With eyes of wonder we behold the world, a place of witches, soot-spites, giant babies, flying river-dragons, the bathhouse of the gods, and steam-engine train peopled by shadows that rides across the waters in eerie beauty. Also, it has pigs. What more can anyone ask?
I think the blockbuster movies that have been most satisfying in the last decade are the Lord Of The Rings films, which manage to combine respect for the text and the needs of popular movie-making in a very satisfying way. The writers’ commentaries on the DVDs (and how often does one get those?) speak volumes about care, craft and selection of material. I also find it very pleasing that, in recent years, Hugo Award voters have been able to choose between increasingly adept films of genuinely SFnal content. Special effects now being an offhand choice for movies has led to audiences being challenged and delighted by the likes of Inception, Moon, District 9, Minority Report (a *very* good SF movie that doesn’t get enough respect), Solaris, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, A Scanner Darkly, Paprika and Primer.
It turns out that mainstream audiences not only accept, but enjoy, to the point of huge box-office, precise the same mind-bending immersive thrill as genre fans. It’s like Philip K. Dick did something to alter reality. (Who knows, maybe he did.) I’d like to mention specifically
the work of director Mamoru Oshii, whose Avalon and Sky Crawlers (and to a lesser extent his Ghost in the Shell sequel) have both been masterpieces on the same subject as many of these films: the nature of reality. Both look beautiful on the surface, one live action (though often messed with), one animated, both are set in timeless, iconic Europes of the Japanese imagination, both stare for ages at blank human faces and seek clues from body language and habit. We’re living in a bit of a golden age of serious SF movies, the like of which hasn’t been seen since just before Star Wars. And this boom has continued for much longer.
When the question was put to me, my mind went blank. SF and fantasy movies in the last decade? There were some, I know it–and some were good, I think–but what were they? The same thing happens whenever someone asks me to name my favorite science fiction novels. Instant static, from memory overload. Too many, too many to name!
Thanks to Wikipedia, I soon had lists of films from the decade. How could I forget all those great movies? I was surprised how many I haven’t seen yet. I was surprised how many of my favorites were fantasy, not SF–and of those, how many were animations. (It surprised me because I write SF, not fantasy; and mostly, I read SF in preference to fantasy.)
So which were my top ten? In no particular order…
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – I’ve always felt that the first couple of Harry Potter movies were the best, and truest to the novels–both in the details and to the spirit of the novels.
The Lord of the Rings – I know, it was three movies–but it wasn’t three stories any more than the books were. If you pinned me to the wall, I suppose I’d list Fellowship first. Despite my raising it to the top ten, I have mixed feelings about the LOTR movies. What the writers and director got right, they got brilliantly right. The look and feel of Middle Earth. The hobbits. Gandalf. Gollum. The Shire, Moria, Mordor: all brilliant. What they got wrong, they got wrenchingly wrong. Mostly it was where they departed from Tolkien’s characterizing of several major players: Faramir, Saruman, Galadriel, Gimli. Subtlety of character, unfortunately, was not in the playbook–and the cheap horror look of the orcs was unfortunate. All that said, the movie altogether was a stunning achievement, and I look forward to The Hobbit.
Monsters, Inc. – No depth of character here, but I grinned and laughed all the way through. This one I picked simply because I enjoyed it so much.
Howl’s Moving Castle – The Miyazaki magic all the way.
The Incredibles – What I said about Monsters. A film I’ve rewatched several times, just for fun.
Batman Begins – I’ve always loved Batman–Batman as he was in the comics when I was a kid, not as he seems to have become in later times. Prior to this film, only the Michael Keaton effort came close to bringing Batman as I knew him to life. And then this: the dark edge, but not over the line into psychopathology. And Michael Caine as Alfred? What more needs to be said? I long for a Superman movie this good.
Children of Men – I couldn’t possibly list this as enjoyable; but for its sheer, devastating power, I couldn’t not name it. I don’t ordinarily list downers among my favorites, but this was just too good.
Stardust – Magical. A pure delight.
Iron Man – Another one that’s just plain, unadulterated fun. Perfect characters played by the perfect actors, perfect timing to the humor. I’ve never read the comic; clearly I didn’t need to. A guilty pleasure.
Avatar – Pure visual genius coupled with a story that was compelling in spite of being totally derivative, from multiple sources. Special effects can’t substitute for real characterization and storytelling; but this is a rare case where the special effects became a critical component of both. One of the few I saw twice in the theater.
And eleventh, a special award to Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries. I didn’t feel I could include it because it wasn’t, strictly speaking, a movie. But on DVD, the difference is semantic. I may be biased, because I wrote the novelization after the fact, but I found the production (based on an original series I disliked!) a remarkable storytelling achievement.
I’ve got a whole bag here of titles I cut painfully from my list (The Prestige, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, A Scanner Darkly, Up, How to Train Your Dragon, Moon, and lots more). But I suspect I’ve said enough.
Wow, a decade is a long time. Just trying to remember all the films I’ve seen was difficult (especially as my blogging record only extends back to 2004), narrowing them down to a manageable list was even harder. I had that eternal struggle over what best actually means. Does it mean most influential? Most enjoyable? Most thought provoking? Highest grossing? Films I’d want to watch repeatedly? The last seemed to be a sensible criteria, however some of my best films are uncomfortable viewing. So in the end it’s just a gut feeling. A feeling about which films I’ll still be talking about in another ten years, or the ones I’ll always watch if they’re on TV, or the ones I’d recommend to my friends.
In no particular order:
Attack Of The Clones – Yes, the howling fanboys in the internet clammered for something darker (and got it in Revenge Of The Sith), but I prefer Attack Of The Clones. It’s not perfect, the romantic thread is clunky and Anakin is unconvincing, however there’s plenty to enjoy. There’s the crazy Jedi-at-his-peak chase through Coruscant, there’s the origin of Stormtroopers and the origin of Boba Fett, there’s the start of The Clone Wars, there’s Yoda fighting and there’s the amazing sight of a hundred Jedi charging at a robot army. Great fun.
Lilo & Stitch – It’s a Disney film, but you wouldn’t know it. It’s a story about a renegade destructive alien who escapes to Earth and is befriended by a small girl (who thinks he’s a dog). The animation is funky and distinctive, the story is witty and charming, there’s cool spaceships and lots of Elvis songs. Yes, an alien impersonating Elvis. Like all the best kids films, it’s brilliant for adults too.
Primer – A low budget, mind boggling, time travelling story. Told in a naturalistic way, the first time I watched it the result was so unexpected I couldn’t help but laugh. Brilliant.
28 Days Later – I don’t like horror films. They scare me. 28 Days Later terrified me. Zombies that can run. ARGGGHHH! Danny Boyle and Alex Garland took Day Of The Triffids, mixed with pseudo zombies and brought the whole thing screaming into the 21st century. Wonderfully apocalyptic. And scary. And rejuvenated the zombie genre in one swift move.
WALL-E – It’s well documented that Pixar produce genius films. I could have perhaps chose The Incredibles, or Toy Story 3, but WALL-E is the most SF. From the opening twenty minutes which is a silent film portrayal of a deserted Earth, to deep spacel, shiny spaceships and the future of mankind: it’s funny and charming and uplifting. I could watch it endlessly.
A Scanner Darkly – A Philip K. Dick book done right. It’s one of my favourite PKD books that I’ve read (I haven’t read them all yet), and the film is a true and valid adaptation. The rotoscoping of the film adds a visual interpretation of PKD’s literary style, odd and a bit trippy. It feels like a grimy, unpleasant, but utterly believable future with a message that we need to listen to now as much as in the sixties.
Children Of Men – Dark, unrelenting, depressing and believable. Children Of Men never sugar coated the grim future and never backed down in its vision. The long tracking shot in the refuge camp is a mastepiece. I don’t really want to ever see it again, but I recommend seeing it once, after which it will haunt you.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – Jim Carey and Kate Winslet are magnificent in an odd, heartwarming story about memory wiping. The Science Fiction is unexpected, yet somehow inevitable. Another film which demands subsequent viewings.
Moon – Another low budget film, which takes a SF trope and grasps it with both hands. I was so happy that it didn’t back out, instead it delivered and went beyond my expectations, producing a great speculative story of a misused technology. Proper Science Fiction.
Inception – Maybe it’s too early to tell whether Inception is a classic yet. It is however, an intelligent Science Fiction thriller that didn’t dumb down and still drew the crowds in throngs. Proof that Hollywood didn’t need to produce stupid blockbusters and that the film going public had an appetite for intelligent films. Great fun, stunning visuals and an ending to cause endless debate.
Some films that didn’t quite make my top ten, but are worth a mention: Serenity, Star Trek, The Prestige, The Incredibles, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 3, Sunshine.
This decade was — to put it mildly — odd for me, since I wrote a lot. From my perspective, sideways and looking at it through the movies I got to watch — which can be a very odd slice of what’s available, having more to do with when I have time to watch it and what my family wants to see now — it seemed like both a crowded and a barren decade for sf/f movies.
Crowded, because an awful lot of science fiction and fantasy movies got done, barren because a lot of them were either continuations of existing franchises (a lot of them based on comics, one on a Disney ride and two on a … toy brand?) or a “more of the same.” It also seemed to me that perhaps for the first time the distribution of sf/f was in line with the literary market — I.e. Fantasy movies both outnumbered and outsold science fiction movies. (Perhaps this means the literary market is getting ready to flip
Taking in account my uniquely skewed perspective, I’d like to nominate a “best movie” for each of several categories that seemed to roughly encompass the offerings of the decade.
For superhero movies, my favorite was by far and above The Incredibles. I’m perfectly willing to admit that this might have been because my kids were then attending a school where the principal believed and enforced the belief that “everyone is gifted.” Or it might have been the whole bit with the cape. Whatever it was it’s a movie I still turn to when I’m depressed, and my kids have become used to the cheering of “come in second, come in second!”
For “continuing a franchise” — though not really — my favorite by far is the rebooting of Star Trek. I thought everything had been said that needed to be said in the series, but this movie managed to humanize Kirk and make him more one of us. The rebellious hero who makes good harks back to fine American traditions in both prose and movie, and I found myself watching it twice in theaters, something I rarely ever do with any movie. In this one Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull comes in a distant second. My kids tell me The Dark Knight blows the doors off both, but I haven’t been able to see it, yet.
For movies based on an sf/f book, I’d like to nominate Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If nothing else, it’s notable for being the first movie I complained about being too faithful to the book. (This category of too faithful to the book might well include Twilight, but I haven’t got around to reading the book and the cringe-worthy special effects put me completely off the movie.)
In the “in its own right” I’m assured by friends, acquaintances and total strangers on the street that Serenity is the best science fiction movie of… ever. Perhaps it is. I didn’t exactly dislike it, but it seemed to me to have a curiously retro-feel, perhaps for its resurrection of so many of the tropes of 70s written science fiction. So, while I enjoyed it and can see how it shines in an otherwise more conformist decade, I find it difficult to remember it really was made in the last ten years. (in fact I consulted IMDB, as I was sure it must have been made in the 90s, perhaps earlier.)
For an unexpected surprise — Pirates of the Caribbean, the Curse of the The Black Pearl was much, much better than I expected. The series seemed to lose focus and character definition as it continued, though.
I realize this might look like a view from another dimension. First of all, having grown up without a television and not having seen a movie till I was 14, movies are never a major part of my entertainment. My family loves baffling me by discussing actors, since I can never remember who played what in where. Added to that, my view is weird and skewed by what I actually got to see. On the good side, I’ve already promised my husband to spend more time in this universe in the future, so the good news is that if I’m asked this question in 2020 I should sound more coherent.
I have to confess that at the invitation to list my top science fiction and fantasy movies of the decade, my mind immediately turns to the worst. Not the obvious turkeys like The Core and 2012, but rather the stealth turds such as Children of Men, War of the Worlds and Minority Report. Movies whose stench may be obscured by the perfume of smart production values with great acting and brilliant direction, but as narrative vehicles they’re execrable nonetheless. I’m curious to see how many others include them amongst their “best ofs.”
There were excellent genre films released this past decade, and among fantasy films, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003) has to be included on any legitimate list. A triumph when released to theaters, they were improved immeasurably when extended editions came out on DVD. And yet… as much as these films soar, their missteps–usually when Jackson and company impose “improvement” on the narrative–are all the more glaring. The Two Towers suffers the most from this (moving the Shelob cliffhanger to the third film? Really?).
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) is, for my money, the best film in the series (and best book too, for that matter). Director Alfonse Cuarón injected a creativity into the film as well as a real menace, lifting it above the adolescent wish-fulfillment of the previous installments.
An overlooked gem is Disney’s Bridge to Terabithia (2007). The coming-of-age story is sold by stellar performances Josh Hutcherson, AnnaSophia Robb and Robert Patrick, but the real show stopper is the fact that the tragic climax of the book remains intact. Seriously, how often does that happen in this age of Hollywood endings?
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) from director Guillermo del Toro is a coming of age story as well, but a brutally beautiful one that is as visually stunning as it is emotionally devastating. Fascist Spain in 1944 has that effect.
The genius that is Pixar places two fantasy films on my top list for the decade, in UP (2009) and The Incredibles (2004). The former is a high-flying, Zeppelin-infused riff on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World concept, featuring decidedly non-traditional protagonists, while the latter is simply the greatest Fantastic Four superhero story ever told. Looking beyond the great characters, clever plotting and stunning animation it becomes clear that Pixar no longer makes children’s movies adults can enjoy, but adult movies that appeal to children. Bravo.
My pick for the top fantasy film of the decade, though, is Hayao Miyazaki’s sublime Spirited Away (2001). Everything about this masterpiece sings, from the surreal Japanese spirit world to the fable-like structure of the narrative to the lush, lush, lush animation. Every scene is a work of art, literally transporting the viewer to another world. Miyazaki has made more than his share of classics, but none are superior to Spirited Away.
Science fiction releases were dominated, as usual, by a flood of big-budget spectaculars that dazzled the audience with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of special effects. I found the smaller-scale films more engaging, though. One film I’m certain will turn up on most lists is the surprisingly effective District 9 (2009). Adapted from the gripping short film “Alive in Joburg,” the movie effectively disguises a gory, bombastic action flick by framing it as allegorical tale of racism directed at alien refugees.
For gore, however, few films topped 28 Days Later (2002) which recast the zombie movie as a genetically engineered viral apocalypse that devastates England. This is bleak tragedy on an epic scale, made all the more poignant by the desperate everyman characters. Note: This is not a sequel to the Sandra Bullock vehicle 28 Days.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) wasn’t based on a Philip K. Dick story, but it should have been-it’s a damn sight better than any official adaptation of the man’s work. It’s either a great date movie, or a great anti-date movie, but either way, Jim Carey and Kate Winslet turn in gripping performances as dysfunctional lovers who decide to wipe their memories of each other.
Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) is my second-favorite SF film of the decade, succeeding through sheer force of mind-bending sensawunda. An incredibly low-budget time travel yarn, the stakes grow higher and higher for the increasingly recursive time travelers. Films this inventive are exceedingly rare, and like 2000’s noir deconstruction Memento, viewers are either going to love it or hate it.
I’m a big fan of 70s science fiction films. They didn’t always succeed, but in the post-2001-pre-Star Wars period, there was a genuine effort to inject social commentary and relevance to the genre, lifting it above escapist adventure. Duncan Jones’ Moon is a throwback to that kind of filmmaking, and is by far my favorite science fiction movie of the decade. Sam Rockwell turns in the performance of his career as Sam Bell, the sole human on a lunar mining colony who discovers himself, near death, during a routine repair excursion. Yes, there are some gaps in logic here and there that are dismissed with hand-waving, but the forlorn sense of isolation and abandonment that permeates the lunar environment of this film sticks with the viewer long after the credits roll.
When JP Frantz asked me to list my 10 favorite SF/F movies, I readily agreed and chose my eclectic list. When I reread JP’s email, I realized that I should be disqualified–he’d said favorite movies of the past decade. Oops. Well, for your interest, here they are, spanning not 10 but 50 years of science fiction:
Fahrenheit 451: this is a powerful Ray Bradbury classic delivered in a sweeping avant-garde style by Francois Truffaut in 1966. The story examines free will, the effects of television and mass media on the reading of literature, and the terrible consequences of censorship. Viscerally influenced by the Nazi book burning in Opernplatz, Bradbury fashioned a simple story of one man’s awakening from his technological utopia of quiet oppression. The main character is a fireman who burns books (and sometimes houses of subversives) in a society where reading is a subversive act. Recalling the early stages of the genesis of Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury said, “When Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh. Mind or body, put to the oven, is a sinful practice.” It brings to mind a quote by Heinrich Heine who wrote, “where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.”
Solaris: Steven Soderbergh’s stylish psychological thriller, released November 2002 in the United States by 20th Century Fox, and based on Stanislaw Lem’s brilliant 1961 book, is an intelligent, introspective drama of great depth and imagination that meditates on man’s place in the universe and the mystery of God. Not particularly palatable to North America’s multiplex crowd, eager for easily accessed answers, Solaris appealed more to those with a more esoteric appreciation for art. Some critics called Soderbergh’s Solaris pretentious, boring and devoid of action and intimacy. I strongly disagree. It is simply that, as with Lem’s original story, Soderbergh’s Solaris did not surrender its messages easily. You had to intuitively feel your way through the fluid poetry, free to interpret and ponder the questions. This is what I think good art should do. Soderbergh’s movie did this with enthralling brilliance.
Star Wars (original trilogy): Scoffed by literary snobs as space-opera fluff, this allegorical 20th Century myth of the late 1070s dramatized the eternal struggle of good versus evil. Lucus’s modern myth resonated earlier myths such as Siegfried, King Arthur, Odysseus, David and Goliath, and a host of others. Lucus took elements of these ancient classics and stirred them up with technology into a retro-punk-rock cyber-tale that explored every facet of faith. Star Wars is a classic “hero’s journey of enlightenment” and portrays a rich tapestry of images and metaphor that portray the hero’s classic struggle of paired opposites: love vs. hate; compassion vs. fear; forgiveness vs. retaliation; grace and humility vs. vain-glorious hubris.
Alien: I was blown away by the “otherworldly” imagery and world-building in this elegant 1979 science fiction horror movie directed by Ridley Scott. I don’t normally watch horror films but this one, which did have the trappings of one, was both visually stunning, well cast and written, and appealed to the ecologist and biologist in me. The alien was very intriguing and the whole movie was one giant trip. I watch anything directed by Ridley Scott.
Metropolis: Fritz Lang masterfully portrayed a world dominated by technology and heartless greed in this classic 1927 dystopia. I remember being mesmerized by Lang’s compelling opening scenes of workers puppeting their duties as if choreographed by some giant machine-intelligence. Lang’s Metropolis is a world whose “heart” is missing between its “brain” and its “hands”. Lang’s imagery was elegant and his message obvious if not prescient and equal relevance today as when he made it over 50 years ago.
2001: a Space Odyssey: Kubrick’s 1968 epic treatment of Arthur C. Clark’s book about humankind’s evolution was the first of its kind to show the vast realism of space exploration and travel. Kubrick’s cinematic genius created a stunning classic in all its facets from grand prehistoric opening to drug-tripping end.
District 9: Largely overlooked by the Academy Awards for 2009 films, District 9 exposes the very worst in human nature with an unforgiving gritty quasi-documentary realism about aliens stranded on Earth. It is not a story of humanity’s triumph. District 9 is a powerful allegory that deconstructs post-colonial costs and asks unsettling questions about colonial powers. It is subversive science fiction that viscerally grapples with the ghosts of the past, particularly that of South African apartheid, and projects them into a plausible scenario. Its dark vision of humanity suggests that horrifying things hang over the world of men and women who perform utterly irrational acts of prejudice and injustice in the name of safety and rationality.
Contact: this 1997 motion picture by Time Warner examines the moral, social and religious implications of our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence through the personal journey of astronomer, Eleanor (Ellie) Arroway (played impeccably and sensitively by Jodie Foster). While the motion picture received mixed reviews at best, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality Practice said something that resonated with me: “Robert Zemeckis has fashioned a truly awesome movie that celebrates the spiritual practices of listening, wonder, love, and zeal. It affirms that there are times and places where reason must yield to mystery.”
Red Planet: This 2000 film about a botched scientific mission to Mars explores our humanity and relationships with humor, depth and compassion in a scientific/space thriller. I thought the script was clever and the characters complicated, spanning a wide range of “heroism”. There were no good guys and bad guys in this one; just people trying to do what’s right; sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, like we all do. This was a great adventure with depth.
The Golden Compass: I really enjoyed this 2007 film as an alternative to the insanely popular Harry Potter fantasies (to which Philip Pullman’s trilogy has been compared), Pullman’s tale offers a bracing change. Here’s why: even though it has very obvious fantasy elements such as magic and witches and talking bears, it doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a fantasy because it draws upon scientific knowledge and theory, which pushes it into SF. However, like other good fantasy, Pullman’s tale is also strongly interwoven in myth. Milton’s Paradise Lost forms the basis of Pullman’s overarching theme, woven by a rich fabric of setting and characters, each journeying toward their own sense of purpose and final destiny on this world. This is a book of great scope, unfolding, aptly, through the eyes of a child.
I’ve noted a few times that I am a poor genre media fan. In general I do not watch genre television or movies, and when I do, I trend towards fantasy over science fiction. There are many science fiction films from this past decade that I have not seen and have no interest in seeing, like Avatar, The Road, Star Trek, Serenity, Cloverfield, Sunshine, and The Fountain. There are a handful of films I haven’t seen that I want to see like Moon, Children of Men, and Idiocracy. And there’s a few films I’ve seen that I hated including Donnie Darko, The Prestige, The Illusionist, Minority Report, Primer, and every superhero movie (which are genre films of a sort). But there are some films that surprised me that I genuinely liked. In roughly the order in which I like them (from most to not as most):
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – The whole concept of a service where people can selectively remove unwanted memories is intriguing, and Charlie Kaufmann’s script expertly investigates the problems that can arise from that. As the movie progresses, you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not. Much of the story takes place in Jim Carey’s character’s mind and his memory, and as he removes memories, the story becomes more disjointed. In addition to Carey’s stirring performance, Kate Winslet is moving as his love interest. I know that most of us have gone through that pain of a relationship ending, and who hasn’t said, “I wish I never met that person!” This movie makes you think about and whether it would be a good idea to get rid of the memory of that person.
District 9 – The only thing I knew about this movie was that it was an allegory of the apartheid horros of South Africa moved into a science fiction setting. I had no idea how moving it would be, and how much I would care for a “prawn.” An alien spaceship becomes stuck floating above South Africa, and its inhabitants are sequestered into slums in the city, specifically District 9. Now the city’s residents need the space that’s occupied by District 9 and they’re going to move the aliens to a new place. A historical side note, there was a district 6 in Cape Town that was re-zoned as “whites only” and some 60,000 residents were relocated. The amazing thing the director and actors did was to take the easy xenophobia you feel towards ugly, distorted alien bodies and make you empathize with their plight.
Night Watch & Day Watch (Russian) – These are hard to summarize, but I’ll try. There are Others (wizards, witches, vampires, demons, angels, etc., it’s pretty all encompassing) and some of them are proponents of the light and some of the dark and they battle constantly. Hundreds of years ago they realized they were equally matched and entered in a truce. The Night Watch are light Others who work at night to make sure the dark Others behave. The Day Watch are the opposite: dark Others who work during the day to make sure the light Others behave. I had heard a bunch of good things about these Russian movies–and had seen the books that the movies came from everywhere. For some reason, when I got Night Watch, I expected a low-budget film. Boy was I wrong. These movies are stunning. Even the subtitles are stunning. I kept thinking, these are the types of movies that Hollywood should be making, something with style and substance. I don’t buy many movies and I own these. I really like blends of things. I like fiction that combines multiple genres, and I like films that do it, too. These films are a great blend of mystery, science fiction, horror, action, and a little something more. It’s a little chaotic–and the movies get more so as they go on–but it all works. I personally enjoyed Day Watch more than Night Watch, but you can’t watch Day Watch without seeing Night Watch first. Using new Other Anton as a narrator, the audience moves along with him, learning about the world as he learns about it. Anton is a light Other and joins the Night Watch to enforce the truce during the night. In Night Watch, you need Anton as a guide. There are so many different things combined together in this film a guide is necessary. In the second film, Anton is fully entrenched as a member of the Night Watch and you have to work to keep up.
Shrek – You have no idea how many times I’ve seen this movie. There was a year or so in my daughter’s life where she watched this movie every day. Literally. Every day. I’ve seen it hundreds of times. And still, every time it’s on, I sit down and watch. I still laugh at its jokes. I like the jabs at Disney and its princess movies. I like Shrek as the anti-hero, who isn’t what he appears on the outside. The sequels have gotten progressively worse, but the first one was really well made. There’s a good story, and so much of your typical princess/damsel in distress movie is turned on its head that I still find this movie really compelling.
A Scanner Darkly – I didn’t know anything about this movie before I watched it other than: I like Philip K. Dick movies and I like Robert Downey, Jr. I’ve been burned before on both counts, but they’ve also both worked often enough for me to risk trying them again. And to have them together, well, that seemed like something I had to try, right? Thank goodness I did. Keanu Reeves plays an undercover police office investigating a group of drug users in order to find suppliers. Reeves becomes a heavy user himself during the course of his investigation and the movie spirals downward from there. The movie is rotoscoped, so it looks animated. Since, like many Dick pieces, some major themes are drugs and paranoia, and the animated effect adds to the unsettled feeling of the movie. Downey, Jr. gives an inspired performance among a set of solid performances. A lot of people missed this movie and of everything else in my list, if you’ve missed this one, go get it right away.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – This is not my favorite of the films–that would be 2004’s Prisoner of Azkaban –but given how much I’ve enjoyed the books (which I owned but did not read until after I saw this movie) and the movies, I feel that I have to cite the first film as the one from the series over any others. And unlike The Lord of the Rings (see below) I don’t think it’s appropriate to list them as a series; for one, they weren’t finished in the decade we’re talking about, and two, they weren’t written as a single manuscript as LOTR was. Still, this is the one that started it all. These books and these films have become one of the rare pieces of genre that my wife and I enjoy together. Genre is a pretty big part of my life, and it’s rare to find something we both like. Harry Potter has led into other genre things for us, and that’s pretty cool in my book.
The Lord of the Rings – (all three films considered as one)
I remember hearing that Peter Jackson was going to direct The Lord of the Rings (LOTR). I was aghast. Peter Jackson? The director of Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, and Dead Alive was going to direct the film version of the most popular fantasy series/novel of all time? I had a bad feeling about this. Then I remember seeing trailers for the first movie and it felt like Peter Jackson had reached back in time into my pre-teen mind and removed my images of Middle Earth and put them on screen. These movies were everything I wanted in a film version of LOTR. It was interesting watching with my wife who hadn’t read the books. There were flaws and weirdisms in the narrative that I overlooked since I knew what was coming. She was so disgusted with where the first film ended she almost didn’t watch the other two films.
WALL-E – Who knew that an animated film with almost no words could carry such a heavy message? And who knew that a children’s film could present us with such a frightening, and realistic, future? Poor, little, robot WALL-E lives like so many people, toiling and toiling day after day at an unfulfilling job, but not knowing any different. Then one day that new person comes into the office, in this instance another robot EVE, who shows the routine for what it is: pointless. This new person is exciting and different, and you’ll do anything to impress them. WALL-E is a trash compactor, but has gone a little awry in that he saves some of the trash aside into a collection. When he finds a green plant one day, that’s when his life goes haywire. In my bleaker moments (i.e., a normal day) I see the future of WALL-E as the future we are certain to achieve. As was recently pointed out online, my faith in humanity is pretty poor. I would like nothing more than to be proven wrong. I hope half the people who saw this movie decide to change their lifestyle so that it won’t happen. I really like the work that Pixar does, and I think the message of this movie is vital to our future.
I’ll close with a movie that most people absolutely hated, but that I had fun watching: Reign of Fire. The movie is ridiculous, but like I said, I had fun watching it. I may have laughed at it more often than the filmmakers would have liked, but that’s life. I think the thing I like best is how earnest Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey act in the movie when they should really know better.