The 15 Best Sci-Fi Movies of 2022

Movies Lists best of 2022
The 15 Best Sci-Fi Movies of 2022

The best sci-fi movies of 2022 had a lot to live up to this year. Not only is Avatar: The Way of Water sci-fi, its very creation seems like sci-fi. It’s like how we invented countless things just trying to get to the Moon. But apart from James Cameron’s technological feat of production and product, science fiction was back on the multiverse beat. One of the year’s biggest movies was an indie featuring a universe with talking rocks. Another did something similar…only with Beavis and Butt-Head. Another was a creature feature dense with references to lights and cameras—action! As these movies got big and added in horror, comedy, action and melodrama, it was in the smaller entries where sci-fi enthusiasts could find solace in esotericism (a bastion of sci-fi nerdiness if ever there was one). In these small-scale films, you can find the auditors of dreams, time travelers who can only see two minutes into the future/past, musical masterminds plotting radical techno-revolutions, and clones that steal your shitty life. Classic concepts, modernized or bastardized—always in ways that made us laugh, cry or, especially, think.

Here are the 15 best sci-fi movies of 2022:

15. Strawberry Mansion

The intangible logic of our subconscious minds is what fuels Strawberry Mansion, a dazed and dreamy jaunt through nostalgic reverie and existential anxieties. Co-directed by Albert Bimey and Kentucker Audley (who also stars), the film is an exercise in creating a dreamscape by way of capturing texture—a venture that renders enthralling, gorgeous and unsettling images as a result. Not only is Strawberry Mansion a genuine feast for the eyes, but its plot is far more cohesive and calculated than most dream-like narratives care to strive for. This ensures that none of the audience falls into their own movie-induced slumber while also serving as a boon to the project’s ethos—one that desperately urges us to pay close attention to the details and potential meanings of our dreams, as they might just be the very key to our survival. Set in the not-so-distant future, Strawberry Mansion follows James Preble (Audley), an auditor who works for a governmental agency that regulates “dream taxes,” a result of ads being projected into our most intimate mental moments. When he arrives at a sprawling Victorian abode with a magenta exterior, he believes he’s simply making a routine house call to address unpaid back taxes. An eccentric older woman named Bella (Penny Fuller) answers the door, and says she’ll only allow the tax man inside if he complies with her code: “To enter, you must lick the ice cream cone.” A bite-sized scoop of strawberry ice cream sits atop a small sugar cone—and though he’s reluctant at first, James eventually relents and licks the ice cream cone, a decision which effectively begins his odyssey of wading through thousands of VHS tapes containing Bella’s dreams. While he’s officially meant to be viewing these in order to collect data, he begins to fall in love with the younger version of Bella (Grace Glowicki) that serves as her constant avatar in dreamland. In fact, the auditor is so smitten that he hardly realizes the conspiracy he’s unwittingly landed himself within, spending all day in a clunky headset instead of piecing together the significance of how advertising and unpaid taxes converge. Always engrossing yet never laboriously abstract, Strawberry Mansion creates a delectable realm of reverie that’s easy to get lost in—though it can also feel tensely labyrinthine at times. Musing on the human capacity for love, greed and tenacity, it’s likely to make one misty-eyed during certain (sparse) moments of tranquility and personal peace, reflecting the beauty in realizing our own aspirations and impulses instead of blindly accepting what we’re told to be and do. The life that best suits us might be far-flung from the life we’re currently living, and sometimes it takes a ridiculous situation to unmoor us from the constraints of routine and ritual. Just remember: When in doubt, always be sure to lick the strawberry ice cream cone.—Natalia Keogan


14. Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe

More than 25 years ago, Mike Judge’s vision of the U.S. was one of unmitigated sowing, absolutely no reaping whatsoever, and Beavis and Butt-Head (also Judge), teenage boys whose whole American way of life has evolved their bodies into top-heavy monstrosities where the pituitary gland stores hormones like a camel’s hump (heh) stores water, were the ageless expressions of that pioneering curse. More than 25 years later, and Judge’s vision remains pretty much the same. As a legacy sequel, then, it’s hard (heh heh) to imagine Beavis and Butt-Head Do the Universe doing anything better. Written by Judge and Lew Morton (with story help from Guy and Ian Maxtone-Graham, all adult animation and/or SNL vets), little has changed for Beavis and Butt-Head, including the passage of time. Just as in Do America, puns provide all the story motivation Judge needs to get Beavis and Butt-Head anywhere—in this case it’s space, then through time, then eventually to college and jail, all while pursued by the government (who thinks they’re aliens, even after capturing them, because they look so inhuman) and astronaut Serena Ryan (Andrea Savage) and versions of themselves (“Smart Beavis” and “Smart Butt-Head”) from another reality. Toward the end of the film, Smart Butt-Head must remind Beavis of everything they did—“You also went to college…and jail”—only reinforcing how obligatory and episodic (heh) it all is, how every legacy sequel just aimless tosses IP (heh, “I pee”) at the wall, seeing what sticks, never really attempting to forge anything new. Just rehashing the same story over and over. Judge sarcastically bakes that lousy truth into the DNA of his own legacy sequel, making a movie that stubbornly refuses to have its characters ever change, exposing the creative dearth at the heart of most of these reboots. Then again, Beavis and Butt-Head not changing is inherent to Beavis and Butt-Head. Were they to ever learn from their mistakes, they would not be Beavis and Butt-Head. A legacy sequel that does nothing to revitalize its characters, expand its canon, extend (heh) its mythos, or even really tell a new joke. I laughed through the whole thing.—Dom Sinacola


13. Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes


Junta Yamaguchi’s 71-minute, no-budget sci-fi gimmick, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes plays out like watching a point-and-click game’s Let’s Play. Elements and characters around a café are used to impact (or is it that they inherit impact from their inevitable usefulness?) a temporal delay that a schmuck (Kazunari Tosa) discovers. A screen upstairs shows what will happen two minutes into the future, from the perspective of a screen downstairs. The logic isn’t that important; it’s a different breed of mumblecore than Primer, and better for it. Filled with silly slackers trying to understand the central, clever conceit and filled with even sillier ideas about what to do with it, Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes has shades of One Cut of the Dead: The faux one-take construction, the small cast’s dedicated energy, the inept and nearly slapstick sense of humor. But it’s not even as slick as that horror film, the scrappiness growing on you as the plot starts to poke and prod at its own premise. As its narrative seeds arrive, grow and pay off in small yet satisfying ways, it’s hard not to feel pleased that this little troupe pulled the thing off—if only, in some small way, because you start to sense that Future You will have already been won over by their DIY spirit.—Jacob Oller


12. Lightyear

Pixar’s trade is in time. Its hardest-hitting stories push kids, and the parents that take them to the movies, to consider our impermanence. To see the sand trickling down our hourglasses. Their signature bittersweetness slips through alongside the coarse grains. Lightyear teleports this surefire poignancy into a pulpy sci-fi adventure. Its strapping hero flies full speed ahead when confronting the passage of time, accelerating to an enjoyable but decidedly finite success. Opening text sets the tone and clears up the confusion of Lightyear’s own IP-forward making: This is the in-universe film that served as inspiration for Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear figure. Got it? No? This time he’s supposed to be a guy, made of hair and skin and bravado, instead of a toy made of plastic, electronics and bravado. Beyond that initial bit of corporate absurdity, Lightyear is, for the most part, easy to wrap your head around. It doesn’t give you time to mull its meta-premise over: We crash-land straight into Star Command’s Buzz (Chris Evans) and his BFF/commander Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) exploring an uninhabitable alien world. They’re vine-cutting, insect-blasting throwbacks to huckster magazine covers; Amazing Stories, Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories already supplied all the adjectives I could ever need. The 105-minute movie zips at the same clip as a flashlight-lit, under-the-covers page-turner. As Lightyear brings up both sci-fi history and the history of its own company, mining the very origins of Pixar, it sees the auteurish animation house take a new genre past the limits of homage. But the film also establishes itself as a step in an endless progression of creative collage, a historical marker built to augment its inspirations and carry them towards a future movie. Lightyear is a beautiful starship with precious genre cargo, functional and direct in its simple mission to carry on. —Jacob Oller


11. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever boasts the same director in Ryan Coogler (and the same writing team of Coogler and Joe Robert Cole), who have again created a story whose conflicts and character arcs go deeper than the average MCU fare. Of equal importance, Wakanda Forever again features the Oscar-winning talents of Hannah Beachler (production design) and Ruth E. Carter (costume design). Wakanda remains a vividly realized Afrofuturist cityscape (even in mourning), and the MCU’s newest kingdom, Talokan, though markedly less flashy than James Wan’s Atlantis in Aquaman, feels as real and wondrous as a fictitious Aztec/Mayan underwater realm should. The cast is mostly the same, with Michael B. Jordan’s scene-stealing antagonist Erik Killmonger replaced by Tenoch Huerta’s similarly compelling and cleverly reimagined anti-hero Namor (who is much more integral to Marvel Comics—and likely the MCU—than Killmonger). But how keen the loss contained in that word—“mostly.” Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of T’Challa was a magical piece of casting alchemy on par with Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers. Coogler confronts the loss directly in Wakanda Forever in a beautiful opening tribute to both actor and character. T’Challa’s funeral is a reminder of just how strong the cast is overall, providing Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira some grief-themed scene-chewing of their own. Where Thor: Love and Thunder felt like a lighter, sloppier version of its predecessor, Wakanda Forever feels like a well-considered, necessary next step for a franchise rocked by loss. It’s a tad overstuffed—an entire sub-plot involving Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) feels more like Feige fiat to ensure certain characters and developments are sufficiently presaged—but that only serves as a reminder of the fine line between “laying groundwork” and overpacking. Despite the daunting challenge faced by Coogler and his team, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever feels like the surest step taken in the MCU since Thanos was reduced to ash. It’s both an impressive achievement and a promising development, especially when considers the strong comic book connections between Namor, mutants (he is one), and a certain fantastic foursome on the MCU horizon.—Michael Burgin


10. Something in the Dirt


Poke around online for any amount of time and you’ll inevitably stumble upon a strange corner promoting one oddity or another. Even if you promise only to follow friends on social media, to read trusted sources, to avoid all but the most wholesome memes, strangeness—and those pushing it to make a buck—will find you. That might take the form of an algorithm recommending some flat-Earther nonsense after you looked up a flatbread recipe, or of a random LinkedIn message from a half-remembered co-worker who’s fallen into something that doesn’t call itself a cult but avoids doing so almost conspicuously. And that’s not even touching QAnon, COVID deniers or the History Channel. Capitalized conspiracy surrounds us. Half mock-doc, half sci-fi two-hander, all bone-dry L.A. satire, Something in the Dirt takes a bemused look at those all too happy to exploit phenomena and each other—with the typical small-scale charm of an Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson project. Delving into their own DIY careers, filmmakers Moorhead and Benson respectively play John, a religious wedding photographer, and Levi, his new bartender bum neighbor, who decide to make a documentary together after seeing a freaky bit of unexplainable floating and shining in the latter’s apartment. Enamored by the levitation and refracting aura of an irregular glassy prism (alongside a swollen closet door that won’t shut into its equation-covered jambs), the pair of oddballs dig into all the strange explanations for what might be going on. Is it geography? Geology? Ghosts? Whatever the case, they naturally also discuss how much a quick-and-dirty doc about their investigation might net them after a sale to Netflix. It’s L.A., after all. The pair of indie all-stars have made some of the best genre films of the last few years (seriously, go watch The Endless right now), so it makes sense for them to integrate self-reflection into this uncomfortable semi-spoof. When you make a movie—especially when you make them like Benson and Moorhead—you live in your own little world. Something in the Dirt’s silly, strange and unnerving depiction of this process judges the sanity of those willing to do so while explaining why, for some people, it’s the only thing that makes sense.—Jacob Oller


9. Neptune Frost

Neptune Frost is a powerful film, clean and digestible while it traffics in metaphors and deploys poetry and philosophy. Directed by Anisia Uzeyman (a Rwandan actress and playwright that also directed photography) and Saul Williams (an American musician and multimedia artist who also wrote the screenplay), Neptune Frost is extensively musical without ever being exhausting. It’s clear in its theses, demanding equity and decency for workers, for citizens of the Global South generally and Rwanda specifically, and for intersex and queer Africans subjected to discrimination and marginalization born from the same colonial traditions that rob nations of their wealth. It’s elegantly shot and engages with traditions of science fiction and anti-colonialist magical realism to frame an alternatingly rough and ornate Afrofuturist aesthetic. Calling Neptune Frost art with a purpose feels like damning it to the pile of things that are “good” because they are “important.” Neptune Frost is valuable because of the creative and organic way it delivers its messages: Questioning colonial legacies and demanding change through a moving, musical script while displaying speculative imagery that requires audiences’ imaginations as well as their eyeballs. Neptune Frost is about colonialism’s consequences—patriarchal heteronormativity, economic exploitation and resource extraction—punishing ignored masses. We need to pay attention; workers’ well-being is the price of our luxuries. In Rwanda, as in other parts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, South America and the Caribbean, the wealth of the West costs lives. But we’ve known this since Cien Años de Soledad, since Candide. It’s a reminder that there are no countries in Africa destined to be deprived of development, only countries who’ve had their wealth taken from and, often, weaponized against them. To that end, the poetry of the script, the clarity of the messages, the beauty of the music and the earnestness of the performances combine to make Neptune Frost a powerful film. Art can’t change the world on its own, but people—moving in solidarity and coalition, speaking up for and out against exploitation—can call upon one another to change it.—Kevin Fox, Jr.


8. After Yang

In After Yang, the sophomore narrative feature from video essayist-turned-filmmaker Kogonada, the near-future boasts a familiarity that is both comforting and disquieting. The idea that humanity continues to thrive despite the threat of imminent cataclysmic disaster certainly provides solace, but this seemingly idealistic alternative turns out to have its own distinct failings. In this timeline, childcare is virtually handed off to a class of “techno-sapien” laborers, purchased as programmable live-in nannies for children. Though it might meander at times, After Yang—based on Alexander Weinstein’s short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang”—is always emotionally intelligent and artfully prescient, showcasing Kogonada’s penchant for sparse storytelling even if the narrative throughlines don’t always feel as rewarding as the film’s aesthetic splendors. We’re introduced to one such future family in perhaps the most entertaining way possible. The film’s title card appears during a virtual dance competition, featuring families from around the world competing via synchronized choreography. Jake (Colin Farrell) and his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) wear matching unitards with their daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) and her android brother Yang (Justin H. Minh), the family of four performing with nimble accuracy and an appropriate hint of playfulness. As such, it’s surprising when they’re eliminated for being out of sync—until they realize that Yang is robotically repeating the same dance move on a loop. Clearly having suffered a major malfunction, Jake resolves to find a way to fix Yang. Krya, however, sees this as an opportunity to let go of their robot nanny and finally step up for Mika as proper caretakers. Yet Mika can’t help but genuinely mourn the absence of her older brother, unable to understand how someone so integral to her life could simply cease to function merely as the result of planned obsolescence and “certified refurbished” scams. Jake and Mika effectively team up to search for a way to save Yang—the pursuit of which teaches Jake about Yang’s hidden interiority, and Mika about the precious (if fleeting) gift of love and connection. After Yang manages to weave together tender truths concerning grief and the delicateness of human connection while also making astute, sober insights on the future of corporeal autonomy and consumer-based surveillance systems. Sharply stylistic and acted with a whole lot of heart, After Yang may not surpass the solemn beauty of Columbus, but this cerebral sci-fi departure for Kogonada definitely delivers.—Natalia Keogan


7. Everything Everywhere All at Once

Everything Everywhere All At Once follows Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a jaded, middle-aged laundromat owner who may or may not be involved in some minor tax fraud. Her tedious, repetitive life is thrown into total pandemonium, however, when her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan)—or at least a version of him—alerts her to the existence of the multiverse on the elevator ride to an IRS meeting. He then explains that a powerful villain named Jobu Tupaki is in the process of constructing a universe-destroying force that only Evelyn has the ability to stop. And so Evelyn reluctantly plunges headfirst into the multiverse. The facts: There are an infinite number of universes that exist simultaneously, containing just about anything you could possibly imagine. The rules: To acquire different skills, you must picture a universe in which you inhabit that skill, whether it be inhumanly strong pinky fingers or a mastery of knife-fighting. (If you can think it up, it exists.) What follows, then, are roughly 140 frenetic minutes filled to the brim with dense, complex science, colorful setpieces and scenes that feel like they’ve been pulled straight out of dreams far too abstract to describe. As you can probably gather, Everything is not dissimilar to its title—and a lot to wrap your head around. If all this sounds intimidating (which, let’s be honest, how could it not?), rest assured that Everything is grounded by an effortlessly simple emotional throughline. Indeed, the film contains as much emotional maturity as it does cool concepts and ostentatious images (yes, including a giant butt plug and raccoon chef). At its core, it is a story about love and family, carried by the dazzling Yeoh in a subtle and unsentimental performance. Where Everything’s emotional throughline is Evelyn’s relationship with her family, its visual thread manifests as a series of hypnotic, vertiginous action sequences, choreographed like a ballet by Andy and Brian Le. As a bonus, these sequences recall Yeoh’s iconic role in Ang Lee’s wuxia film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The directors do not shy away from the use of dizzying flashing lights, or rapidly shifting light sources that disorient the viewer. They also aren’t afraid to implement over-the-top images, like a person’s head exploding into confetti or a butt-naked man flying in slow-motion toward the camera. At the same time, movement between ‘verses feels seamless through Paul Rogers’ meticulous editing, as does the effortless fashion in which different aspect ratios melt into one another. If Everything Everywhere All at Once can be boiled down to one, simple question, it would be reflexive of its own title: Can you really have everything everywhere all at once? Whatever the characters’ answers end up being (I’ll let you discover that on your own), I am certain that the Daniels would say yes, of course you can.—Aurora Amidon


6. Prey

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Filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg’s Predator prequel Prey succeeds by daring to embrace what prior sequels did not: Simplicity. The basics of Predator cinema boil down to skull trophies and rival combat, but most of all, the thrill of an uninterrupted hunt. With brutal ease, writer Patrick Aison translates Predator codes to hunter-gatherer dichotomies in Native American cultures. There’s nothing scarier than the laws of natural hierarchies on display in their most elemental forms, and that’s what Prey recognizes with menacing regard. Trachtenberg understands what Predator fans crave, and executes without mercy. Set in the Northern Great Plains of 1719, Prey pits a Predator challenging any species’ alphas—wolves, bears, people—against a Comanche tribe. Taabe (Dakota Beavers) leads other boys on hunts while his sister Naru (Amber Midthunder) practices her deadliest skills in secrecy. She’s dismissed by most for her gender, but not by Taabe. Naru’s chance to defeat a lion (thanks to Taabe) and earn her warrior’s rite of passage fails when a Predator’s alien technology distracts from afar—which no one believes. Only Naru can protect her family and tribespeople from the unknown Yautja threat since no one will listen, which will be the warrior-wannabe’s ultimate test. Prey is inarguably the best Predator since the original. The film gets so much right, paying homage to John McTiernan’s 1987 masterwork—through cigars and direct quotes that it’ll have fans hooting—and adding Indigenous representation with real cultural strength. Trachtenberg and Aison keep things simple, and that’s the special sauce. The performances are tough-as-nails, action sequences absurdly gory and intensity streamlined like a high velocity arrow. By going back to beginnings, Prey sheds pounds of franchise dead weight for a leaner, meaner Predator prequel with all the spine-tearing, one-liner-spouting gladiatorial conquest that fans desire—computer-generated or not. —Matt Donato


5. Crimes of the Future

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Sharing a title with Cronenberg’s second film, the latest from the body horror auteur is a return to (de)form after two decades of more dialed-back drama. Digging into the art world’s juicy guts and suturing it up as a compelling, ambitious sci-fi noir, Crimes of the Future thrills, even if it leaves a few stray narrative implements sewn into its scarred cavities. The dreamy and experimental Crimes of the Future (1970) sees creative cancers develop in a womanless world ravaged by viruses. New organs are created (and sometimes worshiped) in a broken society now run by fetishists and hurtling towards a dire, damnable biological response. While Cronenberg’s 2022 do-over on the subject of organic novelty in a collapsing society isn’t a remake by any stretch of the new flesh, it addresses the same pet interests that’ve filled his films since the beginning. Thankfully, it does so with new subtextual success and a far more straightforward and accessible text (despite the full-frontal nudity and graphic autopsies). Unlike Cronenberg’s early work, this movie has color, diegetic sound and movie stars. It embraces traditional dramatic pacing and supplements its perversion with cutting-edge effects. And at least now the characters speak to each other—in that detached, psychology-textbook-meets-FM-2030-essay style—while the camera dives deep into the guts that fascinate us. Specifically, the guts of Saul Tenser (Viggo Mortensen). He and Caprice (Lea Seydoux) are performance artists whose medium is the generation and removal of neo-organs. Saul builds them up, Caprice slices them out. Our destruction of the world, filling its oceans with plastic and its air with pollution, allowed this to happen. Humanity is now literally numb. People slice each other with knives at clubs, or in the street. Recreational surgery is commonplace. Many can only feel real pain while asleep. This unconscious suffering is just one of many sharpened sides of Crimes’ metaphor. Art is evolving to meet this nerve-deadened world on its terms. Humans are too, literally. That’s why Saul’s able to squeeze out nasty new lumps of viscera and why National Organ Registry investigators Wippet (Don McKellar) and Timlin (Kristen Stewart), as well as radical transhumanist Lang (Scott Speedman), find him fascinating. The trio help narratively blend the dystopian bureaucracy and thriving, subversive multimedia generated by Cronenberg’s nihilistic predictions. When we eventually ruin things, there will just as surely be new cogs in old machines as there will be new rebels in old resistances. Erudite and exploitative, gory yet gentle, Crimes of the Future shows the new kids on the chopping block that an old master can still dissect with the best. But Crimes of the Future’s more meaningful impact is in its representation of a trailblazer finally seeing the horizon. Cronenberg’s view of the future understands that the true death of an artist and the death of society at large result from the same tragic failure to evolve—even if that innovation is simply renovation.—Jacob Oller


4. Avatar: The Way of Water

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Avatar: The Way of Water is a promise—like the titular Way as described by a beatific, finned Na’vi fish-people princess, the film connects all things: the past and the future; cinema as a generational ideal and one film’s world-uniting box office reality; James Cameron’s megalomania and his justification for Being Like That; one audience member and another audience member on the other side of the world; one archetypal cliché and another archetypal cliché; dreams and waking life. Avatar’s sequel can be nothing less than a delivery on everything Cameron has said, hyperbolic or not, he would deliver. What’s less clear is exactly what Cameron’s intending to deliver. The Way of Water’s story is a bare bones lesson in appealing to as many worldwide markets as possible, the continuation of the adventures of Bostonian Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, who’s spent the past decade trying not to sound like an outback chimney sweep) as he raises a Na’vi family with like-warrior-minded Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña, screaming from inside her golden prison) and realizes that Earthlings aren’t going to stop colonizing Pandora just because they had their shit kicked in a lifetime ago. The Way of Water’s true achievement is that it looks like nothing else but the first Avatar, unparalleled in detail and scale, a devouring enterprise all to itself. Watching The Way of Water can at times feel astonishing, as if the brain gapes at the sheer amount of physical data present in every frame, incapable of consuming it, but longing to keep up. We believe that this film will redefine box office success because Cameron presents it—making the absolute most of high frame rates, 3-D, and IMAX, normalizing their use, acclimating our brains in ways Ang Lee could only wish—as the next evolutionary step in modern blockbuster filmmaking. This is immersion for its own sake, moviegoing as experience vaunted to the next level, breathtaking in its completely unironic scope. After so many hours in Pandora, untroubled by complicated plot or esoteric myths, caring for this world comes easy. As do the tears. The body reacts as the brain flails. Avatar has consumed James Cameron; it is his everything now, the vehicle for every story he wants to tell, and every story anyone may want to tell—the all-consuming world he’s created is such a lushly resourced aesthetic wonder that anything can be mapped onto its ever-expanding ecosystems. Pandora is a toolbox and ready-made symbol. No film will ever be this beautiful in my lifetime, at least until the next Avatar.—Dom Sinacola


3. Belle

Belle explodes onto the screen with a bombastic concert in a virtual world. Known simply as U, it’s the ultimate virtual community where users can become entirely different from their dull real-life counterparts. Among them is one singer that has captured the love and adoration of billions. As the starlet Belle begins belting out her opening number, center stage on the back of a giant whale, it’s easy to be swept into this vibrant world. Thankfully, Belle has enough substance to back up this spectacle. The crux of writer/director Mamoru Hosoda’s latest film is a reimagined Beauty and the Beast mixed with teenage adversity in a digital wonderland. It’s a potpourri of hormones, misunderstandings and animation styles that recall his 2009 breakthrough Summer Wars. Belle even relies on the family dynamics seen in some of his later movies—like the lone outcast Ren in 2015’s The Boy and the Beast or the wolf siblings in 2012’s Wolf Children. Hosoda’s children have always had to endure great tragedies. It’s within this combination of family struggles and virtual reality that Belle finds its groove. Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a 17-year-old high school student who lives in the countryside with her father (Koji Yakusho). Although a few years have passed since the death of her mother, Suzu is still traumatized. She’s shut out the world around her, her despair sapping her of her joy and love of singing. Her relationship with her father is nonexistent, and she’s a certifiable pariah at school. Suzu takes the plunge and joins the world of U. This new world—free of the pressures of reality—allows Suzu to pursue singing once again. That’s until trouble arises in the form of a violent avatar known as “The Dragon.” Belle’s most spellbinding sequences come from inside the virtual world of U. Colorful 3D figures float through a kaleidoscope of colors and towering structures. The biggest setpieces in the movie take place here: An epic concert for billions of eager spectators, a battle through a castle—these are only a few of the memorable sights and sounds of U. To get an idea of what it sounds like, Nakamura’s contributions are like a mixture of rap and pop that becomes an instant earworm like on the opening title, “U.” The song brings in a wild rhythm while Nakamura races to keep up with the beat. It’s the perfect introduction to this futuristic virtual world. Other songs, like the ballad “Lend Me Your Voice” and the soaring anthem “A Million Miles Away,” are more traditional pieces that build up to crescendos that will have your hairs standing on end. Not only is it an intriguing retelling of Beauty and the Beast, it’s also a moving story about overcoming grief and seeking help when everything seems lost. Though it tackles a little too much, Belle is a triumph.—Max Covill


2. Nope

Among his most amusing directorial quirks, Jordan Peele appreciates the melodrama of a good biblical citation: 2019’s killer doppelgänger vehicle Us tirelessly invokes Jeremiah 11:11 and his latest effort Nope opens with Nahum 3:6: “I will cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile, and make you a spectacle.” It’s that last clause which perfuses Nope, a shrewd, tactile yarn about a brother-sister rancher duo in pursuit of video evidence of a UFO circling their home. Though Peele routinely prods at the Hollywood machine and its spectacles, here he unlades it all: Image-making as brutality, catharsis, posterity, surveillance, homage, indulgence. Six months after a freak accident killed their father, siblings OJ (Daniel Kaluuya) and Emerald Haywood (Keke Palmer) have taken over “Haywood’s Hollywood Horses,” Agua Dulce’s intergenerational horse-wrangling business which specializes in equine showbiz. Working in beautiful contradistinction, Kaluuya plays OJ as stoic and reticent—the true older brother type—and Palmer’s Emerald is prodigiously magnetic and full of puckish chatter. After a series of strange happenings—blackouts, agitated horses, pained noises emanating from the canyons—OJ observes what appears to be a flying saucer gliding through the inky night sky. The next day he spots a cloud that doesn’t move an inch. Suspecting a connection between the saucer and their father’s death, OJ and Emerald enlist the help of gawky, unstable techie Angel (Brandon Perea) and renowned documentarian Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott, excellent rasp) to obtain proof of the UFO, with intent to profit off of the footage. In a sense, the Haywoods want to make a movie. This is Peele rescripting the American film canon, asking what it means to engage with such an exclusionary medium. Shot in IMAX by Dutch cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema—a Christopher Nolan regular, responsible for the slick, beautified landscapes of Interstellar, Dunkirk and TenetNope configures a world of sweeping, dusty landscapes and bloodied dwellings. Steven Spielberg is less a point of reference here than he is the emotional roadmap. The Close Encounters of the Third Kind comparisons write themselves, but notionally, Nope is more like Jaws in the sky. Parts neo-Western, family drama, sci-fi and cosmic horror, Nope sees Peele balance more throughlines here than ever before: Aliens, Muybridge revisionism, undigested grief, chimpanzee carnage, a punctilious documentarian chasing the impossible. Nope is indisputably one for Peele—a spectacle in the least derogatory sense; a palimpsest of nostalgic blockbusters and Peele’s deservedly self-assured vision of Hollywood’s future; but mostly, a solution to and an undertaking of modernity.—Saffron Maeve


1. Dual


In Dual, everyone talks like they’re a robot. Perhaps that’s because they want to better integrate new Replacements, clones made of terminally ill or otherwise on-their-way-out people, into the world. Maybe it’s because the delivery is supposed to be as dry, strange and winning as the low-key sci-fi itself. Regardless, this idiosyncratic acting choice by writer/director Riley Stearns is just one of many over the course of his third and (so far) best movie. The world of Dual is near-future, or present-adjacent but in another dimension. Its video chat is Zoom-like, but texting has more of a coding aesthetic. Its minivans still run on gas, but you can make a clone out of spit in an hour. Its people still love violent reality TV, but its shows sometimes involve government-mandated fights to the death between people who discover they’re no longer dying and their Replacements. It’s the latter situation in which Sarah (Karen Gillan) finds herself. After puking up blood, creating a clone to take over her life and receiving improbable good news from a scene-stealingly funny doctor, Sarah finds that she has a year to prepare for the fight of (and for) her life. Stearns shoots the film in grim, hands-off observations sapped of color and intimacy, but with amusing angles or choices (like a long take watching characters do slo-mo play-acting) that add visual energy to the bleakness. As we see this unfurl, we root for Sarah’s success not because we want her to get her old, sad life back, but because the training process has opened her up to life beyond those walls. It can be read as a redemptive allegory representing a life-shaking break-up or other crisis, but Stearns’ deadpan script and wry situations rarely give you enough distance to consider Dual beyond the hilarious text in front of you. Gillan goes beyond a cutesy Black Mirror performance to find tragedy, obscene humor and warmth even in her relatively stoic roles, but the shining star of the show is Aaron Paul, who gets the biggest laugh lines as her intense combat instructor. Somewhere between a living instruction manual and the “Self-Defense Against Fresh Fruit” Monty Python sketch, Paul’s character is a riot as he attempts to familiarize Sarah with weapons and desensitize her to violence. His performance is just as committed as his serious scene partner’s, but when the two are in the groove together, Dual transcends to such big-hearted, surreal silliness that I had a hard time calming my laughter down as the film reminded me that death was on the line. Stearns’ work has always been a bit of a specific flavor, a little like that of Yorgos Lanthimos where if you’re not in on the dark joke you can feel ostracized from the universe of the movie, and Dual is both his most successful and most eccentric yet. But if you’re blessed with matching taste, where you’ll put up with a bunch of over-literal, stiff-backed oddballs dealing with a clone crisis, you’ll find a rewarding and gut-busting film that’s lingering ideas are nearly as strong as its humorous, thoughtful construction.—Jacob Oller

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