The 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix

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The 25 Best Sci-Fi Movies on Netflix

The last time we looked at Netflix’s best sci-fi movies, we lamented how the selection was mostly filled with recently released-to-VOD micro-budget titles. But the streaming service has upped their game when it comes to science fiction and now includes more than a dozen of our 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time, plus several recent Marvel movies that we didn’t consider for that list.

There’s still a dearth of classic sci-fi with the exception of Close Encounters, but you can stream some of our favorite 21st-century indie titles like Under the Skin, Her and Ex Machina.

For other genres and types, check out Paste’s many, many Best Movies lists, and then make your way through the following.

Here are the 25 best sci-fi movies on Netflix:

untitled.jpg 25. Hellboy
Year: 2004
Director: Guillermo del Toro 
If you were making a list of comic book film adaptations that truly understood their source material, that accurately capture the tenor of the comic, then you’d have a hard time keeping Hellboy off the top of the list. Mike Mignola’s epic comic is one of the best sequential graphic stories of the ’90s and 2000s, and leaving its adaptation to the loving hands of Guillermo Del Toro turned out better than fans could have dared hope. Hellboy is by no means an easy story to commit to film, but it benefits hugely by the perfect casting of Ron Perlman in the role he was born to play—the irascible but goodhearted Anung un Rama, the demon “fated” to bring about the end of the world. Naturally, the perpetually stubborn Hellboy has some differing opinions on the nature of free will. What follows is a joyously vivid, fast-paced feature, full of Lovecraftian monsters but none of the author’s pomp and circumstance. Del Toro’s take on Hellboy crackles with the unabashed energy and enthusiasm of an old-time adventure serial—call him a devilish Indiana Jones, with only a shade less charm. —Jim Vorel


death-race-2050.jpg 24. Death Race 2050
Year: 2016
Director: G.J. Echternkamp
The first official sequel to Paul Bertel’s Death Race 2000—43 years later—the almost mathematically sound Death Race 2050 is almost worthy of inheriting its predecessor’s cult lineage, but can’t quite get an insightful enough bead on the many issues it attempts to skewer. It’s dumb, and it knows it’s dumb—knows that it should be dumb—but it doesn’t actually want to be dumb, which is probably where it goes from sci-fi action romp to dour thriller and pushes to a climax that literally burns everything to the ground. Just as our country deserves. Still, director G.J. Echternkamp—who’s on Netflix five times, twice as the director of the documentary and the film based on the documentary about his dysfunctional parents—knows how to squeeze every drop of insanity from an already-strangled budget, which makes the scope of Death Race 2050 even more impressive. It’s a big dumb movie about a future cross-country race in which killing innocent people is rewarded and mass destruction a given, but it’s also a Marxist screed against a dystopic future in which the means of labor are taken from us and society is subdued by virtual reality fantasy, as well as the best representation in over a decade of Malcolm McDowell at his purest: puerile, pompous and entirely game for whatever. —Dom Sinacola


doctor-parnassus.jpg 23. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Year: 2009
Director: Terry Gilliam 
The premise of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a perfect vehicle for Gilliam’s imagination, which has remained wonderfully bizarre through the years. Christopher Plummer plays Dr. Parnassus, an ancient carny with a magical mirror that transports people inside their own imaginations. He’s pitted against that most notorious of gamblers, the devil, played by Tom Waits, who proves yet again that he’s just as fine an actor as he is a singer or songwriter. A stranger named Tony (Heath Ledger) joins the traveling troupe in Ledger’s final performance before his death, a third of the way through filming. Gilliam’s decision to use Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to portray Tony inside the mirror, was a clever work-around, but Plummer and Waits steal this show, anyway. Their epic struggle, we learn, has been going on for centuries, but the further we get into the film, the more confusing the battle becomes. On one side, we have story and imagination. On the other, temptation? Selfishness? Ease? Like Michel Gondry, Gilliam is adept at creating visual splendor and is capable of creating a masterpiece when the story is there to back it up. Unfortunately all the lovely threads Gilliam follows never quite weave together, but the film is worth watching for its individual moments of movie magic. —Josh Jackson


turbo kid poster (Custom).jpg 22. Turbo Kid
Year: 2015
Directors: François Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell
Turbo Kid is a joyous experience, the kind of insane indie wish-fulfillment that I can only imagine inspires other indie filmmakers to say “Well if that guy can pull off this movie, then I need to make a movie of my own.” It’s a gloriously absurd ode to ’80s era kids movies, apocalypse fiction and gore-centric horror, full of neon colors and exploding heads. The hyper-bloody ultraviolence in particular is insanely impressive, on a level rarely seen outside the likes of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. Add a twist of Michael Ironside playing a ham-fisted parody of his villain roles in movies like Scanners (talk about exploding heads…) and Total Recall, and you have a serious cult classic in the making. Turbo Kid sells itself on its premise and iconography, but it’s far better than it truly has to be. —Jim Vorel


serenity.jpg 21. Serenity
Year: 2005
Director: Joss Whedon 
We may have never gotten a Season 2 of Firefly, the much beloved alien-free space-travel show from Joss Whedon, but at least we got a movie. Part futuristic Western, part political satire, Whedon’s vision of the future is full of wit, great storytelling and frenetic action. The Serenity crew of Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), Zoe (Gina Torres), Wash (Alan Tudyk), Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and Kaylee (Jewel Staite) may have gotten one last adventure together, but it’s River Tam (Summer Glau) who really stretches her legs on the big screen, kicking the asses of all kinds of Alliance baddies. Browncoats everywhere rejoiced. —Josh Jackson


the-endless-movie-poster.jpg 20. The Endless
Year: 2017
Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Brotherhood’s a trip. Just ask Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, the horror filmmaking duo responsible for 2012’s Resolution, the “Bonestorm” segment in 2014’s VHS: Viral, and, in the same year, the tender creature romance Spring. Their latest, The Endless, is all about brotherhood couched in unfathomable terror of Lovecraftian proportions. The movie hinges on the petulant squabbles of boys, circular arguments that go nowhere because they’re caught in a perpetual loop of denial and projection. Brothers Aaron and Justin Smith (played, respectively, by Moorhead and Benson, who gel so well as brothers that you’d swear they’re secretly related) were once members of a UFO death cult before escaping and readjusting to life’s vicissitudes: They clean houses for a living, subsist primarily on ramen and rely so much on their car that Aaron’s repeated failure to replace the battery weighs on both of them like the heavens on Atlas’ shoulders. Then, out of the blue, they receive a tape in the mail from their former cultists, and at Aaron’s behest they revisit Camp Arcadia, the commune they once called home. Not all is well here: Bizarre bonelike poles litter Arcadia’s outskirts, flocks of birds teleport from one spot to another in the time it takes to blink, Aaron and Justin keep having weird déjà vu moments, and worse: There’s something in the lake, a massive, inky, inexplicable presence just below the surface. Woven through the film’s eldritch dread are Moorhead and Benson. Their characters are locked in a cosmic struggle with a nameless adversary, but the narrative’s gaze is focused inward: On the Smiths, on brothers, on how far a relationship must stretch before it can be repaired. Intimacy is a staple element of Moorhead and Benson’s filmograpy. Here, the intimacy is fraternal, which perhaps speaks to how Moorhead and Benson feel about each other. They may not be brothers themselves, but you can’t spend your career making movies with the same person over and over again without developing an abiding, unspoken bond with them. —Andy Crump


april-extraordinary-world-poster.jpg 19. April and the Extraordinary World
Year: 2015
Director: Christian Desmares, Franck Ekinci
Keeping real life global history straight in narratives that leapfrog across decades and centuries is tough enough—making sense of alternate history when it’s articulated at breakneck speed throughout multiple eras of European cultural advancement is just downright strenuous. Think of April and the Extraordinary World as an intense workout for your brain, during which the film shapes a surrogate Earth in the span of mere minutes and fires off salvos of detail, visual and aural alike, in the pursuit of recalibrating the past. The inattentive and unimaginative need not apply. Good news for diligent viewing types, though: April and the Extraordinary World is pretty great, a compact exercise in world building without handholding that rewards a patient, observant audience. If you can keep pace with the film’s plot deployment, you’ll be in for a wonderful ride littered with talking cats, fabulous steampunk backdrops, rollercoaster excitement and terrific characters, all drawn through the fundamental beauty of cel animation. April and the Extraordinary World reminds us of the aesthetic value of traditional animation and the necessity of human ingenuity, all without treating its audience like idiots. —Andy Crump


batteries-not-included.jpg 18. *batteries not included
Year: 1987
Director: Matthew Robbins
Old people and aliens partner to fight gentrification for the crowd-pleasing win! Spouses both on and off the screen, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn play a couple who are among the low-income residents of an apartment building at odds with The Man, who goes so far as to hire a local gang to vandalize the couple’s downstairs diner and further drive out the tenants. As luck would have it, a pair of friendly flying saucers dubbed “the Fix-Its” are in town, and squat on the top of the building while repairing anything and everything there in miraculous time. Oh, and the UFOs aren’t just do-gooding Fix-Its, they’re fertile, family-minded Fix-Its at that. Exec produced by Steven Spielberg and co. and with a script co-penned by Brad Bird (his first feature screenplay), *batteries not included is smart and cute, in the best sense of that term—the Fix-Its are positively adorbs. The cast (which also includes Elizabeth Peña) is pitch-perfect, especially the sprightly Cronyn. There’s a childlike innocence to the whole thing, and darned if it doesn’t charm you. —Amanda Schurr


the-lobster.jpg 17. The Lobster
Year: 2016
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to international break-out Dogtooth ditches that film’s knotted familial pathology, but refuses to be any less insular. Instead, it expands, even bloats, Dogtooth’s logic as far as it’ll stretch. I know: That doesn’t make much sense, but stay with me—which is exactly how Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou (who also co-wrote, unsurprisingly, Chevalier) assume the audience will approach The Lobster, starting with the familiar, inviting visage of Colin Farell, gone full dad-bod for a role that is debatably the actor’s best example for his still unheralded genius. With a remarkable dearth of charm, Farrell inhabits David, a man who, upon learning that his wife has cheated on him and so must end their relationship, is legally required to check in to a hotel where he has 45 days to find a new mate, lest he be transformed into an animal of his choosing. David easily settles upon the titular namesake, the lobster, which he explains he picks because of their seemingly-immortal lifespans, the creatures like human ears growing and growing without end until their supposed deaths. At the hotel, David tries his best to warm to a beautifully soul-less woman, but the depths to which she subjects his resolve eventually encourages him to plan an escape, through which he matriculates into an off-the-grid conglomerate of single folk, led by Léa Seydoux. There, of course, against all rules he falls in love with another outsider (Rachel Weisz). The world of The Lobster isn’t a dystopian future, more like a sort of mundane, suburban Everywhere in an allegorical alternate universe. Regardless, Lanthimos and Filippou find no pleasure in explaining the foundations of their film, busier building an absurd edifice over which they can drape the tension and anxieties of modern coupledom. In that sense, The Lobster is an oddly feminist film, obsessed with time and how much pressure that puts on people, especially women, to root down and find someone, no matter the cost. If you’ve ever had a conversation with a significant other concerned about the increasing dangers of becoming pregnant in one’s late 30s, then The Lobster—and its ambiguous but no less arresting final shot—will strike uncomfortably close to the home you’re told you should have by now. —Dom Sinacola


guardians-galaxy-vol2-movie-poster.jpg 16. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Year: 2017
Director: James Gunn
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, James Gunn shows that “second verse, mostly same as the first” can serve the viewer (and, inevitably, the box office) well, especially when one has most of the Marvel universe to pull from. To a large extent, GotG Vol. 2 follows the playbook from its predecessor, though now, with the entire cast familiar faces to the audience, Gunn skips introductions and goes right to the funny. In this case, that means an opening credits sequence featuring the entire team and what amounts to a highlight reel of character traits meant to amuse: rapid banter from Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), humorous ’roid-rage from Drax (Dave Bautista), quiet bad-assitude from Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and an extended cute-Groot frolic. During this sequence and throughout the movie, the comic elements of this particular space opera feel as if they have been ratcheted up, but, though he doesn’t seem to want the audience to have too much time between laughs, Gunn also seems determined to match the increased comic volume with more heart. The audience is unlikely to feel they’ve seen anything that different from Vol. 1, but it’s clear that Gunn and company knew exactly what qualities made the first film so enjoyable, and what they needed to do to make sure this particular sequel was worth the wait. —Michael Burgin


moon.jpg 15. Moon
Year: 2009
Director: Duncan Jones
First-time director Duncan Jones is overt about his stylistic appropriations of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to the sweeping orchestral music that frames the opening shots of the titular satellite and Earth. Yet where Kubrick tapped into existential fears about human extinction and the future of civilization, Jones hypothesizes the logical conclusion of that dark vision: a world where the need for more energy has rendered humanity a manufactured cog of multinational corporations whose reach now extends beyond the boundaries of Earth. The film’s plot centers on Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the only human on a lunar mining facility that harvests Helium-3, a clean fuel that can meet a near-future Earth’s ballooning energy demands. Base computer system GERTY (Kevin Spacey) is his sole companion on Sam’s three-year caretaking mission, since a supposed satellite failure means he can only send and receive pre-recorded messages. When an accident nearly kills Sam, he’s saved by a clone of himself and begins to unravel the sinister nature of the base, and his existence. Moon cribs heavily from the retro-futuristic look of ‘60s and ‘70s sci-fi for its claustrophobic and sanitized depiction of the moon base. But this high-tech eye candy is only the backdrop to a larger morality tale about humanity’s ever-shrinking position within a technologically-saturated society: when the human experience can be synthesized (and thus made disposable,) does such a thing as “humanity” even exist? There’s a host of challenging philosophical threads throughout—cloning, masculinity, energy, corporate power—but those individual issues complement rather than engulf the larger narrative. Moon is a superlative example of science fiction that hearkens to the genre’s roots: social commentary on the human condition, without the easy catharsis of overblown special effects and space opera. It’s the ultimate rarity in modern cinema: a mature, engaging and thoughtful sci-fi movie, and proof that there’s life yet left in the genre. —Michael Saba


rogue-one-210.jpg 14. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Year: 2016
Director: Gareth Edwards
Gareth Edwards’ venture into a galaxy far, far away is the Star Wars film we never knew we needed. It’s a triumphantly thrilling, serious-minded war movie that is incalculably stronger for the fact that it’s NOT the first chapter in a new franchise. Rogue One is a complete film in a way that no other Star Wars movie other than A New Hope is capable of being. It doesn’t “set the stage” for an inevitable next installment, and its characters are all the realer for the fact that they’re not perpetually sheathed in blasterproof Franchise Armor. It is, so help me, a satisfyingly complete story, and I had no idea until I watched the film how refreshing that concept would be. Our protagonist is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a plucky young woman whose brilliant scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) has been controlled throughout her life by the Empire and coerced into designing superweapons of the moon-sized, planet-killing variety. Forced into a young adulthood on the fringes of the Rebel Alliance, she’s assembled a Jack Sparrow-esque rap sheet and, as the film begins, finds herself in Imperial prison on various petty charges. What Rogue One is, most accurately, is what it was sold as all along: a legitimate war movie/commando story, albeit with some familial entanglements. —Jim Vorel


thor-ragnarok-movie-poster.jpg 13. Thor: Ragnarok
Year: 2017
Director: Taika Waititi
Sixteen films and nearly a decade into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)—and in the midst of renaissance/deluge of superhero movies in general—it’s not unusual to encounter some grumbling about both the genre and the MCU. You’ll find plenty of folks who bemoan its formulaic approach to plotlines, the overall weakness of its villains and lack of female heroes getting their due. Starting with Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant-Man, there was also the rapidly accepted conventional wisdom that Marvel Studios was not the place for any director wishing to put his or her stamp on a franchise. Then along comes Thor: Ragnarok. The third film in the arguably least-loved franchise of Kevin Feige and company’s box office-melting enterprise, it’s also the liveliest, funniest and “loosest” film of the bunch (and that includes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2). Much, if not all of this can be credited to director Taika Waititi, who seems determined to mine every ounce of comedy—be it physical, situational or conversational—from a tale that’s both rollicking buddy movie and retelling of the least uplifting tale in all of Norse mythos. Given the source material and the director’s track record, I’m not surprised there was plenty of ammo for Waititi or how well he used it—I’m just shocked and delighted he was allowed to use it in the first place. —Michael Burgin


district-9.jpg 12. District 9
Year: 2012
Director: Neill Blomkamp 
Let’s begin with a number: 30 million. That’s how much money Neill Blomkamp spent to make District 9, a movie small in scale but great in ambition, look like it cost four times that amount. Years later, Blomkamp’s career hasn’t realized the full promise shown in District 9, but here, he looks like a guy knows what he’s doing all the same. A genre stew blended from varying measurements of Alien Nation, Watermelon Man, Independence Day, The Fly and RoboCop, District 9 treads familiar territory in an unfamiliar place, through an unfamiliar lens, splicing documentary-style filmmaking together with stomach-churning body horror and, by the end, high-end action spectacle. Nine years ago, the end results of Blomkamp’s mad sci-fi cocktail felt revelatory. Today they feel disappointing, a remark on what he could have been and where his career might have taken him if he’d not lost himself in the morass of Elysium or turned off even his more devoted followers with Chappie. All the same, District 9 remains a major work for a first-timer, or even a third-timer, polished and yet scrappy at the same time; the film tells of an artist with something to say, and saying it with electric urgency. —Andy Crump


okja-movie-poster.jpg 11. Okja
Year: 2017
Director: Bong Joon-ho
Okja takes more creative risks in its first five minutes than most films take over their entire span, and it doesn’t let up from there. What appears to be a sticking point for some critics and audiences, particularly Western ones, is the seemingly erratic tone, from sentiment to suspense to giddy action to whimsy to horror to whatever it is Jake Gyllenhaal is doing. But this is part and parcel with what makes Bong Joon-ho movies, well, Bong Joon-ho movies: They’re nuanced and complex, but they aren’t exactly subtle or restrained. They have attention to detail, but they are not delicate in their handling. They have multiple intentions, and they bring those intentions together to jam. They are imaginative works that craft momentum through part-counterpart alternations, and Okja is perhaps the finest example yet of the wild pendulum swing of a Bong film’s rhythmic tonality. Okja is also not a film about veganism, but it is a film that asks how we can find integrity and, above all, how we can act humanely towards other creatures, humans included. The answers Okja reaches are simple and vital, and without really speaking them it helps you hear those answers for yourself because it has asked all the right questions, and it has asked them in a way that is intensely engaging. —Chet Betz


evolution-2015-poster.jpg 10. Evolution
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic
Year: 2015
Hadžihalilovic’s gorgeous enigma is anything and everything: creature feature, allegory, sci-fi headfuck, Lynchian homage, feminist masterpiece, 80 minutes of unmitigated gut-sensation—it is an experience unto itself, refusing to explain whatever it is it’s doing so long as the viewer understands whatever that may be on some sort of subcutaneous level. In it, prepubescent boy Nicolas (Max Brebant) finds a corpse underwater, a starfish seemingly blooming from its bellybutton. Which would be strange were the boy not living on a fatherless island of eyebrow-less mothers who every night put their young sons to bed with a squid-ink-like mixture they call “medicine.” This is the norm, until Nicolas’s boy-like curiosity begins to reveal a world of maturity he’s incapable of grasping, discovering one night what the mothers do once their so-called “sons” have fallen asleep. From there, Evolution eviscerates notions of motherhood, masculinity and the inexplicable gray area between, simultaneously evoking anxiety and awe as it presents one unshakeable, dreadful image after another. —Dom Sinacola


last-jedi-movie-poster.jpg 9. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Year: 2017
Director: Rian Johnson
The Last Jedi, unlike its predecessor, has the freedom to be daring, and perhaps the most thrilling thing about it—and there are many, many thrilling things—is how abundantly it takes advantage of that freedom. If The Force Awakens was basically just Star Wars told again in a new, but familiar way, The Last Jedi challenges the audience, challenges the Star Wars mythos, even challenges the whole damned series itself. It blows the universe up to rebuild it; it is a continuation and a new beginning. And more than anything else, it goes places no Star Wars film has ever dreamed of going. In a way, the success J.J. Abrams had with The Force Awakens, particularly how decidedly fan-servicey it was, laid the groundwork for what The Last Jedi is able to pull off. That movie reminded you how much power and primal force this series still had. This movie is an even more impressive magic trick: It uses that power and force to connect you to something larger. Not everything in The Last Jedi works perfectly, but even its few missteps are all founded in the desire for something new, to take risks, to push an American myth into uncomfortable new directions. —Will Leitch


children-of-men.jpg 8. Children of Men
Year: 2006
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
We remember the dread most—the sense of relentless, inevitable doom, from its literally explosive opening moments to its breathlessly ambiguous final seconds, the whole of Children of Men shot through with dismal grayscale, as if the human race were still coming to terms with its combustion though everyone waded through the ashes. In 2027, beleaguered former activist and current bureaucrat, Theo (Clive Owen), wanders amongst the increasing civil unrest fueled by British armed forces clamping down on refugees fleeing the rest of the world’s civilizational decline. Cynical and cornered by death at every turn, Theo can’t help but assist his estranged ex wife (Julianne Moore), taking on the protection of Kee (Clare Hope-Ashitey), a Virgin Mary figure and the last known pregnant woman on Earth. Theo’s odyssey takes him through the last vestiges of a broken world, director Alfonso Cuarón staging terrible spectacles—an assault on a car, a nightmarish refugee camp, a wartorn urban battlefield—often in long takes (or digitally edited to appear as long takes) and weighted with unbelievably visceral stakes. Yet, despite all of Cuarón’s technical bravura, what remains long after Children of Men’s ended is its refusal to resolve Theo’s journey, to ascribe to what he’s accomplished any hope, hopeful that there is still time, but hopeless that there’s anything left we can do. The apocalypse has never felt so immersive. —Dom Sinacola


5-best-so-far-2015-Ex-Machina.jpg 7. Ex Machina
Year: 2015
Director: Alex Garland
While popular science-fiction films have taught us that, no matter what we do, robots that become self-aware will eventually rise up and kill us, recent advances in artificial intelligence in the real world have confirmed something much seedier about the human imperative: If given the technology to design thinking, feeling robots, we will always try to have sex with them. Always. Alex Garland’s beautifully haunting film seems to want to bridge that gap. Taking cues from obvious predecessors like 2001: A Space Odyssey and AI—some will even compare it to HerEx Machina stands solidly on its own as a highly stylized and mesmerizing film, never overly dependent on CGI, and instead built upon the ample talents of a small cast. The film’s title is a play on the phrase deus ex machina (“god from the machine”), which is a plot device wherein an unexpected event or character seemingly comes out of nowhere to solve a storytelling problem. Garland interprets the phrase literally: Here, that machine is a robot named Ava, played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, and that nowhere is where her creator, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), performs his research and experiments. Ava is a heavenly mechanical body of sinewy circuitry topped with a lovely face, reminiscent of a Chris Cunningham creation. Her creator is an alcoholic genius and head of a Google-like search engine called Bluebook which has made him impossibly rich. Enter Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who is helicoptered in after winning a lottery at work for which the prize is a week at Nathan’s house. Nathan also intends to use Caleb to conduct something of a Turing test on steroids with Ava to determine if she can truly exhibit human behavior. In fact, Ex Machina seems designed around the performances of its excellent mini-ensemble; it’s an awfully attractive film, appropriately seductive. No doubt it was intended to provoke conversations about the morality inherent in “creating” intelligence—as well as whether it’s cool to have sex with robots or not. —Jonah Flicker


4.EternalSunshineOfTheSpotlessMind.NetflixList.jpg 6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Year: 2004
Director: Michel Gondry
In what might be Charlie Kaufman’s finest script, boy meets girl, unaware that they might be living out a doomed eternal recurrence. A brain-wipe firm allows its clients to erase choice people or events from their memory. Turns out, Joel (a repressed Jim Carrey) and Clementine (a vibrant Kate Winslet) have done this before. Technology is the Great Enabler and, perhaps, a secret destroyer—except that the science fiction aspect of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is just an auxiliary to the core relational dynamic. Stripped of fantasy, the film’s theme is no Luddite cautionary tale but rather just a melancholy observation of human relationships. This is how it’s always been. We’re quite accomplished at failing each other…and ourselves. There’s nothing so condemnatory as that statement in Eternal Sunshine, a film that watches and weeps at a whimsical circus breaking down. It immerses us in Joel’s mind, Gondry’s in-camera effects and nearly experimental editing taking us tumbling through the increasingly tragic process of removing Clementine. When I first saw this film in the theater in 2004, I swore I would never do the thing that Joel does to try to heal himself, but I’ve lived some life since then and now I’m not sure I can say the same. I’ve deleted phone numbers and pictures on Facebook, had about a month where I was vigilantly untagging myself; I’m sometimes scared to even look at my feed. It doesn’t matter what the social environment is, humans will use whatever’s available to mitigate pain, especially emotional pain. But sometimes we need the thing we want to be rid of; there’s no actualization without vulnerability, risk, and, inevitably, hurt. The final shot of Eternal Sunshine lingers in my memory, always on loop: Joel and Clementine, stumbling in play away from the camera, on a snowy beach in Montauk. It seems like an extrapolation of the final shot of The 400 Blows: “Stuck in stasis” has become “stuck in repeat.” And, yet, in that shot is acceptance, possibly even hope. There are no spotless minds, but perhaps some still can shine. —Chad Betz


close-encounters-third-kind-movie-poster.jpg 5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Year: 1977
Director: Steven Spielberg 
Close Encounters was the personal project Spielberg wanted to pull off when he was able to establish himself as a Hollywood power player. The massive success of Jaws gave him the opportunity to realize his character-based, big budget, special-effects-driven science-fiction tale about humanity’s place in the galaxy, a rare optimistic and benign chronicle of first contact. The story of a father (Spielberg alter-ego Richard Dreyfuss) abandoning his family through obsession allowed Spielberg to deal with the inner demons related to his career, his own family and his upbringing by looking outward, boundlessly exploring the cosmos with outsized awe. —Oktay Ege Kozak


her.jpg 4. Her
Year: 2013
Director: Spike Jonze 
Spike Jonze’s colossal talent was far too great to remain trapped in MTV’s orbit; that became immediately clear when his breakout feature-length debut, Being John Malkovich, earned him an Oscar nod for Best Director. Following that minor postmodern masterpiece, he and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman continued their journey into solipsism with the hilariously unhinged Adaptation. As challenging, yet fun and accessible as Kaufman’s screenplays are, Jonze’s Her answers any lingering questions of whether those two movies’ (well-deserved) acclaim sprang solely from the power of Kaufman’s words. Retaining the sweetest bits of the empathetically quirky characters, psycho-sexuality and hard-wrung pathos of Malkovich, Her successfully realizes a tremendously difficult stunt in filmmaking: a beautifully mature, penetrating romance dressed in sci-fi clothes. Eye-popping sets and cinematography, as well as clever dialogue delivered by a subtly powerful Joaquin Phoenix, make Jonze’s latest feature one of the best films of 2013. It also serves as confirmation that—much like Her—the director is the complete package. —Scott Wold


iron-giant.jpg 3. The Iron Giant
Year: 1999
Director: Brad Bird
Brad Bird’s feature debut championed traditional hand-drawn art at a time when computer animation was gaining in popularity, released by studio folk who didn’t realize just how special of a film they had on their hands, putting little to no marketing behind it. Luckily, The Iron Giant received its due recognition on home video. Set in the 1950s and drawing off of nuclear fears of the time—as well as Bird’s personal tragedy regarding gun violence—The Iron Giant incorporates the hallmark of the era’s science-fiction—a giant metal robot—into a touching coming-of-age story. Bird effortlessly moves between riotous comedy (such as young Hogarth’s efforts to hide his enormous new robot friend from his mother), high-spun action and poignant moments of fear and friendship. —Jeremy Mathews


under-the-skin-poster.jpg 2. Under the Skin
Year: 2013
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Under the Skin is unified in purpose and in drive. It is a biting examination of sexual politics and a dissertation on the bodies we inhabit—how those bodies create a paradigm of ownership. Scarlett Johansson plays the alien avatar, the predator, the cipher whose weakness is her awakening humanity. When she looks in a mirror, lost in a gaze at her own body, it’s a reminder to us to find some remove from our weary familiarity with ourselves, to think, “Golly, what strange things we are.” The film’s tragic conclusion is an assertion that we achieve some positive ideal of what it is to be human when we accept a state of vulnerability, when we forsake the power position in our sexual communication. When we allow for the reality of our frailty, we can care for the frailty in all around us—and this is a very dangerous thing to do. Especially in a world riddled with corruption and malice that seeks to press its advantage. Under the Skin shows us these truths with images that are impossibly beautiful, terrifying and ultimately haunting. There is no exposition, only voids which suspended shells of victims float in, laser sharp lights piercing darkness, menacingly stoic bikers, snowflakes falling into lenses. There is a scene on a beach that plays out like a Bergman or Haneke set-piece and is just as heartbreaking as that would entail. Under the Skin is a soul-crushing work and yet, somehow, the film reiterates that we must continue working towards finding our souls. An artful cascade of multiple exposures of random people, about midway through the film, would seem to symbolize the birth of empathy in Johansson’s femme fatale, and while this is the beginning of the end for her, it can’t help but resonate in Under the Skin with all the radiance of beatitude. These are scenes, statements, questions that are only possible within the framework that the film’s science fiction aspect provides, for these are not the thought processes bound by what is real, but what could be. —Chad Betz


black-panther-poster.jpg 1. Black Panther
Year: 2018
Director: Ryan Coogler
 Black Panther might be the first MCU film that could claim to most clearly be an expression of a particular director’s voice. We shouldn’t go so far as to call it auteurist, because it’s still a Disney movie and (perhaps ironically) a part of that monopolizing Empire—i.e., eat the rich—but Black Panther’s action scenes, especially, feel one with Coogler’s oeuvre. Look only to an early scene in a South Korean casino, in which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurire) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) plan to intercept a deal between Klaue and everyone’s favorite CIA milquetoast, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, lovable) for a vibranium-filled artifact which Klaue stole from some colonizer-run museum with Killmonger’s help. We’re introduced to Klaue through the surprising spryness of his violence—Andy Serkis, too, freed from mocap, is still an amazing presence, even as a gangster shitbag—and Coogler gets on his wavelength, carving out the geography of the casino in long tracking shots, much like he convinced us to love stained, shitty-seeming Philadelphia gyms in Creed by helping us to comprehend the many crevices and corners of each hole in the wall. When the casino brawl breaks out into the streets, morphing into a death-defying car chase (slow motion thankfully kept to a minimum), we feel as if we know exactly what these characters—and this wonderful director—are capable of. His vision for Wakanda—shot by recent Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison as an Afrofuturist paradise—rightly draws its inspiration from an omnibus of natural sources, just the a casino scene affords Morrison the chance to go full Deakins (James Bond references all over this thing), imagining the world of the MCU as Steven Soderbergh might have scoped out Traffic, developing a fully sensual visual language to define the many locations of this world-hopping adventure without resorting to sterile maps or facile borders. If T’Challa’s whole narrative arc concerns the need for him to realize the importance of bringing Wakanda into our globalized world, of revealing its riches to a world that probably doesn’t deserve them, then the vastness of that world, the many different kinds of people who populate it, must be felt in all of its ungraspable diversity. —Dom Sinacola

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