The Best Sci-Fi

I just stumbled upon this list, compiled last year, of the best 25 sci-fi/fantasy movies of all time. Considering that I just said that 2009 had four great entries into the genre, I thought I’d lay out my thoughts.

Here is their list:

25. Starship Troopers – I’ll be honest; I’m not a big fan. The battle scenes suffer from Veerhoeven’s strange decision to abandon the mech suits of the novel. The drama is reduced to 90210 in Space. But at least it provoked the ignorant cries of “fascism” from the usual corners. My IMDB rating: 6/10

24. Pan’s Labyrinth – This should be rated much higher. It’s one of the best movies of the last decade. The final scene makes my eyes water in a manly way. 10/10

23. The Princess Bride – My opinion waned on this, then waxed again. I can’t wait until Abby is old enough to enjoy it. It wears its cheesiness like a badge of honor. 8/10

22. Akira – I couldn’t get into this one and found it confusing; I should watch it again. Everyone tells me it’s brilliant; I just don’t see it. 7/10

21. Edward Scissorhands – Hard to think that this belongs here. It had a stronger appeal to me when I was younger and less cynical. Johnny Depp carries this movie. Danny Elfman’s score helps. 7/10

20. The Day the Earth Stood Still – This was the pinnacle of the Golden Age of Sci-Fi Movies. It’s still enjoyable and infinitely better than the remake. 7/10

19. Dark Star – Haven’t seen this one.

18. Lord of the Rings – Obviously one I’m a big fan of. 10/10

17. Brazil – While I like this Brazil, I think it’s a bit over-rated. The grimness drags me down after a while. I wish Gilliam would make more movies. 7/10

16. Planet of the Apes – Another film that is slightly less than the sum of its iconic moments. 7/10

15. Back to the Future – I like this more than I should, but what do you expect? I was a lonely 13 y/o nerd when it hit theaters. I was George McFly, only I never got the girl. 8/10

14. Alphaville – Have not seen it

13. The Matrix – I still feel a thrill when I watch it and even after ten years and many imitators, no one has quite matched it. The sequels were OK. Everyone got angry because they weren’t great. They could have been, if they’d followed the fan theory I linked below (as “All of these are awesome”). 9/10

12. Terminator/Terminator 2 – The first was kind of a shock in the mid 80’s — a sci-fi feature that was more of an action film but still had ideas and heart. The second was more popular, but hasn’t aged as well since the CG graphics aren’t as eye-popping as they once were. 8/10 and 7/10.

11. Close Encounters of the Third Kind – As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to like this more. I simply love it’s approach to the subject of alien contact — wonderful, mysterious and optimistic. Francois Truffaut elevates this movie to greatness. 9/10

10. King Kong (the original) – I actually haven’t seen the original. The 1976 version, much despised, is a guilty pleasure of mine. It was on the air constantly in the 80’s and I grew to like it. Peter Jackson’s version was simply excellent. 7/10 for the Bridges/Lang version, 8/10 for the Watts/Brody one.

9. Star Wars – I’ve blogged before about the prequels, which I regard as good but flawed. Their biggest problem was that they simply had an amazing act to follow. Star Wars was such a revolution, I still remember it hitting the theaters even though I was 5 at the time. When I saw it again in 1997, it was still better than 90% of the crap out there. Empire was the best of the series but Star Wars broke the mold. 10/10

8. Spirited Away – This was the first Miyazaki film I ever watched and it quickly made me buy the entire canon. It is one of the best animated films ever made — touching, dramatic, mysterious and beautiful. The scene in which Haku remembers his name is magic. 10/10

7. ET – For some reason, this movie has fallen out of favor. I don’t know why, since it is one of the best distillations of Spielberg sentiment (OK, maybe that is why). But I still love it after almost thirty years (what?! Thirty years. No fucking way. It’s been like … holy shit, almost thirty years!) John Williams’ magnificent score is a big reason I like this film so much. 8/10

6. Solaris – I have not seen this one, although the Clooney remake was not bad.

5. Wizard of Oz – I rediscovered this recently by showing it to my daughter. It is a wonderful movie and Margaret Hamilton created one of the best villains of all time. It’s interesting to read about Hamilton, who was apparently an extremely nice lady who loved children. Maybe that’s why she was such a good villain. 9/10

(Aside: when I was younger, I hated musicals with a fierce passion. As I’ve gotten older, I’m come to enjoy them again. I could write a whole book figuring out why. I short, I think I’ve just become far less self-conscious.)

4. Alien – I rate both it and the sequel a 9/10 even though they are very different films. Alien is a wonderful haunted house of a picture, built entirely on suspense, Weaver’s gripping performance and the raw Freudian angst of the final scene. Aliens is a roller-coaster of an action film that shows Cameron at his full powers.

3. Blade Runner – The director’s cut elevates this from good to great. Roy’s final moments on the rooftop are the reason we watch movies. 9/10

2. Metropolis – Very few people have seen this. I first saw it in the 1980’s with a pop music score. I was delighted to find out that a complete copy of this masterpiece was recently discovered. I is one of the highlights of the silent film era. When watched with the original score, it’s breathtaking and visionary; decades ahead of its time (if a bit long). 8/10

1. 2001 – Is is the best sci-fi movie of all time? Kubrick’s meditative masterpiece certainly has to be in the discussion. The opening sequences is especially amazing. And for this astronomer, it’s a delight to see space travel portrayed realistically. 10/10

So what’s missing from the list? Here are a few I’d shoehorn in there.

Children of Men is a remarkable film whose climax contains one of the most uplifting scenes I’ve seen in a film. It also features some incredible bravura camerawork. I’m mystified as to how it can be left off this list. 9/10

Beauty and the Beast: Either Cocteau’s luminous 1946 edition (8/10) or Disney’s pinnacle of princess movies (9/10), which borrows more than a little from Cocteau.

Inception: Postdates this list but probably be on it now. 9/10

A Clockwork Orange: Kubrick’s most disturbing film. 9/10

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: I’ve been in love with Kate Winslet since Heavenly Creatures. So the appeal of this one is both emotional and intellectual. Its ideas are great. And Jim Carrey gives his best performance this side of The Truman Show (itself a good 8/10 sci-fi film). 9/10

District 9: I’m still digesting this one almost two years later. There’s a lot to love about it. 8/10

Men in Black: There wasn’t a shitty sequel to this delightfully cheeky film was there? 8/10

Avatar: Original? Not really. Spectacular and ambitious? You betchya. We need more movies with this kind of vision. 8/10. Yes, that’s four James Cameron films on my list. And you can throw in the Abyss as well at 8/10.

Star Trek II: The best of the Trek movies. I rate a number of them (I, VI, VIII) as 8/10, but Khan stand above the others and probably deserves a 9.

City of Lost Children: I have not seen Delicatessen and should. But City is a wonderfully artistic film with some great acting performances. It’s one of those films that is just spectacular to watch. 9/10

Minority Report (8/10) and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (8/10): Yeah two more Spielberg films and two that are closely linked in my mind. Minority Report has gotten its deserved accolades. But AI may be one of the most under-rated and misunderstood movies of the last two decades. Roger Ebert added it to his Great Movies list recently but I still don’t think he gets it. The point of the film, IMHO, is to ask if there is really a difference between a robot “programmed” to love and someone who really does love. And the ending, both bleak and hopeful, has the futuristic mechas trying to understand the emotions of the creatures that made them. Pay particular attention to what William Hurt says in an early scene about God creating man “to love him”. That holds the key to this visionary film.

2046: Wong-kar Wai’s wonderful and odd motion picture is a must-see, especially if you’ve seen his excellent In the Mood for Love. This is a great film with some stunning visuals. 9/10

Gattaca: What is it with me and thoughtful films with great cinematography and compelling scores? 8/10

The Seventh Seal: This has to be a fantasy film, right? Long ago, I coined the Ingmar Bergman Rule: a critic’s review of an Bergman film often tells you a lot more about the critic than it does about the film. 9/10

WALL-E: One of Pixar’s best. 8/10

The Harry Potter films probably belong on there. I realize they’re a different animal but I’d rate all of them at least 8/10 with Prisoner earning a 9. I’m told Bride of Frankenstein belongs on here too but I have not seen it. And although it wouldn’t make my top 25, Dragonslayer is a guilty 7/10 pleasure. Same with Dark City (8/10), which I probably over-rate because of Jennifer Connolley, Serenity (8/10) which I probably over-rate highly because I’m a fan and Jurassic Park (8/10).

So thinking on it, here is my rough top 25. I’ve grouped a few things together when they are clearly one long saga, rather than related movies.

1. 2001
2. Lord of the Rings
3. The Star Wars Trilogy
4. Pan’s Labyrinth
5. Harry Potter series
6. The Matrix
7. Blade Runner
8. Children of Men
9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
10. Spirited Away
11. Inception
12. City of Lost Children
13. Alien
14. The Seventh Seal
15. A Clockwork Orange
16. Aliens
17. Revenge of the Sith
18. The Wizard of Oz
19. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
20. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
21. Star Trek II
22. E. T.
23. Metropolis
24. Minority Report
25. WALL-E

Honorable Mention: AI, The Abyss, Excalibur

Ask me next week and I’ll probably move a lot of those around. But the list wouldn’t change too much.

Looking over the list and going through the next 25 or so titles, I can see certain names showing up again and again: Spielberg, Cameron, Lucas, Jackson, Gilliam, del Toro, Cuaron, Scott, Kubrick, Nolan. That list includes some of the more visionary directors of the last half century. Is there something about sci-fi and fantasy that draw the more creative talents out there? Well, yeah. Sci-fi and fantasy are liberating for truly creative minds, allowing them to shed the boundaries of ordinary film and explore a world of pure invention. It’s no surprise at all that great directors keep returning to the well over and over again. And the result is a very large canon of great movies.