15. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
The Force Awakens provided a remedy for the near-terminal Prequel-itis of fans. J.J. Abrams and company accomplished this act of restorative cinema primarily through a return to the “dirty future” aesthetic that made the Original Trilogy feel so real (no matter how absurd the dialogue being delivered by the characters). That’s not to say CGI is lacking, but whereas budget and technology constraints helped the first three films and an overabundance hurt the next three, the balance between practical and special effects in The Force Awakens feels near perfect. I say “primarily” not to take away from other factors, such as casting. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver are all solid, and Oscar Isaac brings a palpable vigor to his role. Ultimately, The Force Awakens just feels right in ways the Prequels never did. —Michael Burgin
14. Ex Machina (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 Her—Ex 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. Vikander especially finds the perfect balance between prosthetic personality and genuine empathy, enhanced by the film’s own teetering between some wonderfully titillating and creepy moments: Caleb watching Ava disrobe over a monitor, revealing her metal and circuitry; Nathan and his other sex-bot performing a jarringly synchronized disco dance; and Caleb losing his shit and questioning his own humanity with the help of a razor blade. It’s an awfully attractive film, too, appropriately seductive—no doubt designed 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
13. High Life (2019)
Director: Claire Denis
High Life begins with a moment of intense vulnerability, followed immediately by a moment of immense strength. First we glimpse a garden, verdant and welcoming, before we’re ushered to a sterile room. There we realize there’s a baby alone while Monte (Robert Pattinson), her father maybe, consoles her, talking through a headset mounted within his space helmet. “Da da da,” he explains through the intercom; the baby starts to lose her shit because he’s not really there, he’s perched outside, on the surface of their basic Lego-piece of a spaceship, just barely gripped on the edge of darkness. They’re in space, one supposes, surrounded by dark, oppressive nothingness, and he can’t reach her. They’re alone. Next, Monte empties their cryogenic storage locker of all the dead bodies of his once-fellow crew members, lifting their heavy limbs and torsos into space suits, not because it matters, but maybe just because it’s something to do to pass the time, as much a sign of respect as it is an emotional test of will. Monte looks healthy and capable, like he can withstand all that loneliness, like he and his daughter might actually make it out of this OK, whatever this is. High Life lives inside that juxtaposition, displaying tenderness as graphically as violence and anger and incomprehensible fear, mining all that blackness surrounding its characters for as much terror as writer-director Claire Denis can afford without getting obvious about it. Pattinson, flattened and lithe, plays Monte remarkably, coiled within himself to the point that he finishes every word deep in his throat, his sentences sometimes total gibberish. He doesn’t allow much to escape his face, but behind his eyes beams something scary, as if he could suddenly, and probably will, crack. He says as much to Willow, his kid, whispering to her while she sleeps that he could easily kill them both, never wanting to hurt her but still polluting her dreams. He can’t help it, and neither can Denis, who, on her 14th film (first in English), can make an audience believe, like few other directors, that anything can happen. Madness erupts from silence and sleep, bodily fluids dripping all over and splattering throughout and saturating the psyches of these criminal blue collar astronauts, the overwhelming stickiness of the film emphasizing just how intimately close Denis wants us to feel to these odd, sick fleshbags hurtling toward the edge of consciousness. —Dom Sinacola
12. Black Panther (2018)
Director: Ryan Coogler
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
11. Evolution (2015)
Director: Lucile Hadžihalilovic
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
10. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Director: Doug Liman
Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) spends his days in the film’s near-future setting spinning the armed forces’ ongoing efforts against a hostile alien race (dubbed Mimics) without ever setting foot on a battlefield. At least until a gruff general (Brendan Gleeson) sends him on a particularly dicey mission. The result is Cage’s death, but the story doesn’t end there. Instead Cage awakes at the beginning of the day he died with his memory intact, and quickly discovers the resurrections will recur every time he dies. His only hope of escaping the endless cycle lies with super-soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who knows from experience exactly how Cage might be able to use this new ability to help humanity win the war of the worlds.
Based on the manga All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka and adapted for the screen by Christopher McQuarrie (Cruise’s current go-to director completely in sync with his physically-defying action spectacle) and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Edge of Tomorrow recalls other notable time loop sagas, including Groundhog Dayand Source Code in the witty and engaging way it moves its story forward piece by piece. As Cage relives the same day over and over again, he also learns how to become a true soldier, trains with (and falls for) Rita, discovers how the aliens function and ever so patiently formulates the perfect plan of attack. Like a videogame hero with infinite lives, Cage has the opportunity to refine and correct every mistake he makes along the way. However long Cage is on that journey, Edge of Tomorrow is a blast, and Cruise carries the surprisingly amusing action like a pro—his skill with deadpan comedy proving even more valuable than his infamous enthusiasm for sacrificing his flesh over and over and over. —Geoff Berkshire
9. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (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
8. World of Tomorrow and World of Tomorrow – Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts (2015; 2017)
Director: Don Hertzfeldt
In the first part, in 16 minutes, Don Hertzfeldt lays out humanity’s destiny: a vastly interconnected age of barely functional connections. In stick figures, impressionistic smatterings of vibrant color, geometric arrays, a snippet of a Strauss opera and the perspective of one little girl, Emily (Winona Mae), World of Tomorrow makes all science fiction to come before feel limited, not far-reaching enough—not enough. In 16 minutes. In any of the subjects that keep us up at night, that define us through our calamities—mental degradation, the loss of memory, nostalgia, cloning, AI, robotics, time travel, immortality, death, the incomparable loneliness of the universe—in Hertzfeldt’s deceptively simple animation, all is boiled down to an essence, a “yes” or “no” question: Why does simply being human push us farther and farther away from each other? Further and further away from ourselves? In the case of Future Emily falling in love with a mining robot, Hertzfeldt doesn’t want us to take it seriously so much as feel the pain, any pain, of Emily inevitably abandoning the robot to its long, blank eternity without her. In the case of hundreds of thousands of botched time travel missions killing time travelers by stranding them in an unknown time, or, worse, depositing them into the thinnest outer reaches of our atmosphere so their bodies fall back to earth, a beautiful nighttime show of falling stars, Hertzfeldt expects you to find this all pretty funny, because he knows you are using laughter to bury the urge to scream hopelessly into the indifferent void about just how meaningless your existence truly is. In 16 minutes: All of this—including a moment that will make your heart skip a beat because, in 15 minutes, you’ve become irrevocably attached to this little girl, Emily Prime, and you can’t bear the thought of leaving her, this little stick person cartoon, to face the universe alone.
Episode 2, a headier, longer (22 minutes) and altogether more ambitious continuation of the first film’s story of the endlessly replicating entity beginning with Emily Prime, revolves around a realization, uttered by Emily-6, a clone of the clone Emily Prime met in the first film: “If there is a soul, it is equal in all living things.” Emily-6 is more vessel, more of a vestigial being, than individual human, created as a backup for Emily’s memories, and so serving no functional purpose. She once again travels to the past to walk with Emily Prime, this time through Emily-6’s own psyche, hoping Emily Prime will be able to offer some context, some meaning, for everything she’s storing. At once, Hertzfeldt captures that disorienting distance between our memories and our sensation of inhabiting them, a distance that only grows wider and weirder with time, to the point that we may even doubt their veracity. And yet, these memories are the key to our immortality. Are our memories what make us human? What make our souls? Revisiting a moment in Emily’s life in which she kills a bug, realizing that bug is dead, no clones to replace it, just gone forever, Emily-6 grasps the futility of her own design. If there is a soul, she has one different from Emily Prime, different from the version of Emily upon which she’s based. The empathy of this moment, as is the case with so much of what Hertzfeldt’s accomplished in barely half an hour, is heart wrenching. —Dom Sinacola
7. Her (2013)
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
6. Arrival (2016)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Your appreciation of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival will hinge on how well you like being led astray. It’s both the full embodiment of Villeneuve’s approach to cinema and a marvelous, absorptive piece of science fiction, a two hour sleight-of-hand stunt that’s best experienced with as little foreknowledge of its plot as possible. Fundamentally, it’s about the day aliens make landfall on Earth, and all the days that come after—which, to sum up the collective human response in a word, are mayhem. You can engage with Arrival for its text, which is powerful, striking, emotive and, most of all, abidingly compassionate. You can also engage with it for its subtext, should you actually look for it. This is a robust but delicate work captured in stunning, calculated detail by cinematographer Bradford Young, and guided by Amy Adams’ stellar work as Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist commissioned by the U.S. Army to figure out how the hell to communicate with our alien visitors. Adams is a chameleonic actress of immense talent, and Arrival lets her wear each of her various camouflages over the course of its duration. She sweats, she cries, she bleeds, she struggles, and so much more that can’t be said here without giving away the film’s most awesome treasures. She also represents humankind with more dignity and grace than any other modern actor possibly could. If aliens do ever land on Earth, maybe we should just send her to greet them. —Andy Crump
5. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Director: Denis Villeneuve
The debate between what makes something “real” or not has become a staple of adult-minded sci-fi fare in the three-plus decades since Ridley Scott made one genre masterpiece after another dithering over the same debate, but the strength of Blade Runner 2049 is in how intimately Villeneuve (and writers Hampton Fancher and Michael Green) attempt to have us experience this world through the unreal eyes of a Replicant, K (Ryan Gosling). Ideally, we are forced to think about what “humanity” is when empathy—caring for these robots—is the natural result of the filmmakers’ storytelling.
Revisiting Blade Runner, one may realize that there isn’t much of a story there. The same could be said for Dick’s novel, as well as many of his novels: There is breathtaking world-building, impressive use of language and speculative ideas expanded and thought out to thoroughly conceived ends, but our characters are just people existing in this world, and Blade Runner is really just the story of a cop hunting down four dangerous criminals. 2049, despite its heavy themes and heavier exposition, is about a cop who must find a very special robot before the evil mega-corporation does. The brilliance of Blade Runner, and now its sequel, is that the majesty of the imaginations behind them—the sheer sci-fi magnanimity on display—is enough to bind us to these characters. To care about them.
Blade Runner 2049, then, is undoubtedly the most gorgeous thing to come out of a major studio in some time. Roger Deakins has inculcated Jordan Cronenweth’s lived-in sense of a future on the brink of obsolescence, leaning into the overpowering unease that permeates the monolithic Los Angeles Ridley Scott built. The scale of the film is only matched by the constant dread of obscurity—illumination shifts endlessly, dust and smog both magnifying and drowning the sense-shattering corporate edifices and hyper-stylized rooms in which humanity retreats from the moribund natural world they’ve created. There is a massive world, a solar system, orbiting this wretched city—so overblown that San Diego is now a literal giant dump for New L.A.’s garbage—but so much of it lies in shadow and opacity, forever out of reach. What Scott and Cronenweth accomplished with the original film, placing a potboiler within a magnificently conceived alternative reality, Villeneuve and Deakins have respected as they prod at its boundaries. There’s no other way to describe what they’ve done other than to offer faint praise: They get it. —Dom Sinacola
4. Annihilation (2018)
Director: Alex Garland
Annihilation is a movie that’s impossible to shake. Like the characters who find themselves both exploring the world of the film and inexplicably trapped by it, you’ll find yourself questioning yourself throughout, wondering whether what you’re watching can possibly be real, whether maybe you’re going a little insane yourself. The film is a near-impossible bank shot by Ex Machina filmmaker Alex Garland, a would-be science fiction actioner that slowly reveals itself to be a mindfuck in just about every possible way, a film that wants you to invest in its universe yet never gives you any terra firma on which to orient yourself, a film hoping you’re as confused and terrified as the characters you’re watching, these characters played by big stars (Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh) backed by a big movie studio, a film that becomes more confusing and disorienting as it goes along. In this, it is unquestionably successful. Garland mesmerizes with his visuals, but he wants you to be off-balance; like the alien (I think?) of his movie, Garland is not a malevolent presence, but simply an observer of this world, one who follows it to every possible permutation, logical or otherwise. It’s difficult to explain Annihilation, which is a large reason for its being. Loss, and regret, and the sensation that the world is constantly crumbling and rearranging all around you every possible second: The world of Annihilation feels familiar, but only at first. Reality is fluid, and ungraspable. A little like our current reality in that way. —Will Leitch
3. Under the Skin (2014)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
It’s a rare feat for a film to successfully convey the voice of the Other. Especially when that voice is an Other to everyone else here on Earth. Loosely based on Michel Faber’s book of the same name, director Jonathan Glazer’s take on Under the Skin finds greater fascination with translating an otherworldly perspective than with the novel’s rather transparent “meat is murder” didactic. It not only makes for a more interesting story, it takes the form of an experience that reminds one of why the medium of film is so special. Taking place in present-day Scotland, both in and outside Glasgow, Under the Skin follows the alien-hijacked visage of a woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she stalks and separates men from the herd, luring them back to her lair to meet an oily doom. That’s merely the premise, though: Glazer’s film slowly emerges as a deeply curious meditation on what it means to be human. It might be a bit hyperbolic to consider it an apt companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it surely touches upon a similar investigative theme, only in reverse. And, wow, like Kubrick’s touchstone, Glazer’s movie, too, is a visual knockout, thanks to the stunning mixture of stillness and claustrophobic disorientation captured by cinematographer Daniel Landin. And as primal and affecting as the film’s imagery is, its score and sound design is more than a fitting match. Of course, any film whose story relies on a single actor—regardless of any other of its competencies—can still stumble and not recover if that actor’s performance falls flat. But Scarlett Johansson again proves she’s not merely another pretty face, even if that pretty face is an awfully useful tool in portraying a lethal seductress. Along her character’s journey from dispassionate serial killer to vulnerable human sympathizer, Johansson hits her marks with chilly precision. The casting of Johansson, too, proves additionally inspired; just as with David Bowie’s Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the very nature of their iconic presence further distances the notion of mere actors-cum-aliens—they’re already elevated above the clouds in their stratospheric fame. —Scott Wold
2. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
there are, rarely, films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where ingredients, execution and imagination all come together in a manner that’s engaging, surprising and, most of all, fun. Directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey, writer-director Rodney Rothman, and writer Phil Lord have made a film that lives up to all the adjectives one associates with Marvel’s iconic wallcrawler. Amazing. Spectacular. Superior. (Even “Friendly” and “Neighborhood” fit.)
Along the way, Into the Spider-Verse shoulders the immense Spider-Man mythos like it’s a half-empty backpack on its way to providing Miles Morales with one of the most textured, loving origin stories in the superhero genre. It also provides simultaneous master classes in genre filmmaking. Have you been wondering how best to intersperse humor into a storyline crowded with action and heavy emotional arcs? Start here. Do you need to bring together a diverse collection of characters, nimbly move them (together and separately) from setting to setting and band them together in a way that the audience doesn’t question? Take notes. Do you have an outlandish, fantastical concept that you need to communicate to the viewers (and characters) without bogging down the rest of the story? This is one way to do it. Would you like to make an instant contemporary animated classic? Look (and listen).
Ultimately, this particular intensely collaborative endeavor clicks on all cylinders in a manner even the MCU could learn from. As a result, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse vaults into consideration as one the best Spider-Man films ever. —Michael Burgin
1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Director: George Miller
Thirty years is a long time to wait for a sequel. If not for the passage of time, though, then George Miller’s career trajectory since 1985 may have initially been reason enough to regard the latest installment in the dystopian Mad Max series with caution. The new film stars Tom Hardy as Max Rockatansky with Charlize Theron as his co-lead, a casting coup that earned goodwill from intrigued onlookers when first announced. When Miller showed San Diego Comic-Con attendees footage from the unfinished product in 2014, any and all initial doubt turned to buzzing fervor. Early apprehensions weren’t misguided. They were just misplaced. If it takes a movie three decades to galumph into theaters, the least you can hope for is that it ends up being good.
Every single dollar of Mad Max: Fury Road’s reported $150 million budget is in the frame at all times, but Miller is so unpretentious that you won’t catch the price tag. Real people cruise in real vehicles across real expanses of desert. When the film does lean on computers, it’s to fill in the margins or summon the occasional dust storm. Miller defines his aesthetic through physical texture, tells story through action, and shows no interest in the routine of contemporary Hollywood spectacle. He’s made a two-hour Star Wars cantina scene stuffed to the gunwales with insanity. Immortan Joe’s vanguard includes a car mounted with piles of speakers and a nutjob wielding a double-necked guitar that belches fire. It’s both the most and the least demented idea the movie has on tap.
Hardy and Theron both lend muted gravitas to their roles—she has more spoken dialogue than him, if only just—and act through gesture and expression more than anything else. It’s clear, though, that this is her movie more than it is his, a huge accomplishment in light of the film’s intrinsic masculinity. Mad Max: Fury Road is an inclusive effort that invites us to join its heroes in breaking down gender dichotomies. Miller has made a phenomenal action film with a righteous cause, a movie that layers smart commentary atop jaw-dropping set pieces. May he ride eternal, shiny and chrome. —Andy Crump