In the 2010s, it seemed like science-fiction (and fantasy) dominated movies, and it was sometimes hard to find wide-release movies that weren’t sci-fi. So being the “best” at what was–by far–the most popular genre of movies is no small feat. It would be a little bit like being the “best” Western movies of the 1950’s or 60’s.
Honorable Mention: “The Adjustment Bureau”…I’m not really sure you’d consider this “Science Fiction” since it might be more magical realism or the very first “Bureaucratic Fantasy.” Still, whatever you want to classify it as, this is a thought provoking, nuanced romance that’s probably a lot better than you remember it being.
But seriously, would this count? “Tree of Life”…This is another one that can’t really be called science-fiction, but is so close (it’s scenes of an after-life certainly feel closer to sci-fi than outright fantasy) that it’s still worth mentioning. What other intimate family drama contains full-on depictions of the Earth’s creation, evolution, and an allegory between nature (Brad Pitt’s hard-nosed “father”) and nurture (an ethereal Jessica Chastain as “mother”).
I’m as confused as you: “Jodorowsky’s Dune”…This is cheating a little bit since this is a documentary about a science-fiction movie that never got made. Whatever you’d like to classify it as, it’s still awesome. One of the best movies ever made about a failed movie (a surprisingly vast genre) and the creative projects that might as well exist because they’re alive that vividly in our own heads.
One last “maybe” movie: “First Man”…Long time Alabama Liberal readers know I love vast, semi-realistic space epics, and so I couldn’t resist including a very non-science fiction docudrama that’s actually a gritty, factual take on Neil Armstrong’s journey to the moon. This movie may seem too downbeat and maddeningly aloof at first (it’s definitely not the space age nostalgic romance many were hoping for), and I didn’t totally enjoy it the first time I watched it. But once you start to get what “La La Land” writer-director Damien Chazelle is actually doing–truly getting you inside the audacity of what that first trip must’ve felt like, when death seemed more likely than not–you begin to love the movie’s originality.
12. “Elysium”…”District 9″ isn’t eligible since it came out in 2009 (along with a few other sci-fi movies like “Avatar” or “Watchmen” that people may be looking for on this list), but director Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore feature is almost as good. There may be some problems with the last third (waaaay too much Sharlto Copley) but the movie’s vision of the future couldn’t be timelier. You could almost see the Jeff Bezos and Elon Musks of the world actually doing this and leaving us all behind on a wasted, overcrowded Earth overseen by humorless droid cops.
11. “The Congress”…This is one of the most depressing movies I’ve ever seen (and that’s saying something) but is also a “can’t miss.” Unfortunately, many people have missed this vision of the future, which is–in my opinion–the single most likely outcome. Robin Wright gives a career best performance (that’s also saying something), and I don’t even want to give much of a synopsis because I’d love for most of this movie to be a surprise. All I can tell you is, be patient during the slower first half, because the ending is worth it.
10. “Midnight Special”…Writer-director Jeff Nichols is one of the most underrated directors alive (seek out “Take Shelter” or “Loving” immediately), and many might have missed this lower-key sci-fi gem. It’s both a tense, realistic thriller and an extremely touching father-son drama.
9. “Gravity”…I went nuts for this movie in theaters, and I still think it’s excellent. The only real downside is that it really, truly needs a big screen to be as good as I know it can be. This is not a movie for smartphones or even small televisions. It’s more of an “experience” than any other movie on this list. No weighty themes here, just pure survival, and that experience can’t suck you in nearly as well at home as it did when I saw it in IMAX.
8. “Snowpiercer”…As close as you can get to “The Matrix” of the 2010s: a mind-blowing film that has a lot to say about revolutions, the trap of what you think you know, and some truly inspired action sequences.
7. “Rogue One”…The only truly great (or even very good) “Star Wars” movie since Disney took over the franchise and easily the best one since “The Empire Strikes Back.” Like “Snowpiercer,” it’s also about a revolution that appears to be stalling out or fraying at the ends, and even though we know the ultimate conclusion, it’s amazing how much this prequel film gets us to care. When Forest Whitaker says “Save the rebellion. Save the dream” my eyes welled up as he just as easily could be talking about living in 2016 (the movie opened a month after Trump was elected). Also, the ending is excellent.
6. “Her”…Spike Jonze is one of the best directors alive (“Being John Malkovich,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “Adaptation”). This is the only fully live action movie he’s made that’s not scripted by Charlie Kaufman but shows he’s more than capable of doing great work without him. [I’m not sure the reverse is true.] This movie has so much to say about how maddeningly lonely modern, tech-heavy life can be that it might be required viewing during the pandemic.
5. “Annihilation”…The closet thing to a horror movie on the entire list and its scenes of terror will blow your mind just as surely as anything else on this list (a crocodile/shark hybrid, slithering intestines, and especially a “ghost bear” attack that still gives me the creeps). By the time we get to the film’s stunning climax in a lighthouse, you’re watching an R-rated “Alice in Wonderland” or all-female “Wizard of Oz” that’s every bit as memorable as classic fantasy.
4. “Cloud Atlas”…Arguably the most misunderstood and underrated movie of the entire 2010s. “Cloud Atlas” proves the Wachovski siblings have not lost it since the original “Matrix” in a tale of reincarnation that takes patience to blow your mind. Once you begin to realize what the movie is trying to say (that beneath race, language, or even gender, good people and bad people keep echoing out, like Hugh Grant’s 17th century pro-slavery nobleman eventually becoming a corrupt energy executive and then a far future cannibal), you can begin to see how people who were arguing against interracial marriage in the 50’s probably would argue against gay marriage now, and that things are just echoes of past battles. That is one original theme for a three hour sci-fi opus, and it also helps that certain sections of the movie take turns being hilarious, thrilling, and heartwarming.
3. “Blade Runner 2049”….I’ll admit that this movie is an acquired taste (it feels like two people dislike it for every person that likes it), but I love every frame of it. Director Denis Villeneuve somehow makes a movie that possibly works even better than the beloved original.
Not only is the look and style breathtaking, but there’s real substance beneath it. Meaty themes about automation, what constitutes as humanity, digital love (this is Ana De Armas’s breakthrough role for a good reason), parenthood, and ownership are all explored, but there’s also Jared Leto’s villain–who is the first time I’ve ever seen “womb envy” explored in a movie. I’m hoping you’ll fall in love with this movie as much as I did, although the viewing experience I had was in a movie theater.
2. “Ad Astra”…Greek tragedy meets space exploration in this sci-fi drama that juggles the intergalactic and the intimate (father/son drama) in a way few movies can pull off. Brad Pitt delivers a career-best performance as the repressed son of a renegade space commander who’s been tasked with trying to contact him on the far side of Neptune. Too many actors play “repression” as emotionally shutdown, but Pitt is able to let you see the torment bubbling right underneath the surface (his delivery of the line “I know dad” is perfect). After the excellent opening scene, we’re treated to moon pirates, deranged space baboons, shuttle shout-outs, and a journey to Neptune that might’ve looked like ridiculous in a different director’s hands, but James Gray makes it look effortlessly believable.
Winner: “Interstellar”…To be honest, this one could be tied with “Runner” and “Astra” as I believe them all to be equally excellent. Still, Christopher Nolan’s spacefaring masterpiece takes the top spot mostly because it focuses science-fiction on climate crisis in a way I see too few movies doing these days.
Matthew McConaughey may have had some performances that are technically “better” (“True Detective” especially, possibly some villainous movie roles like “Killer Joe” or “Magic Mike”), but this is definitely my favorite. He’s affecting and root-able in every scene as he sets out to literally save the world. Sure, that may be the plot of many big-budget movies, but Nolan grounds his movie in such realism that you actually feel it this time. Just try not to be moved at his gradual connection with Anne Hathaway or–in particular–the scene where he sees his daughter (Jessica Chastain) grow up before his eyes after he’s been stuck near a black hole that makes time tick differently.
“Interstellar” showcases the believable truth that the potential end of the world will bring about the best and worst of humanity, and combats the anti-exploration theme of our age. This movie has been unfairly dismissed and criticized since it came out, and it’s time to change that view. Hopefully, this is a start.