Best of the 2010s: Sci-Fi and Fantasy
What do we call this decade? The Tweenies? The Teens? The Onesies? Or simply The Tens? Whatever we call this decade, there is no denying it is coming to a close with this year. By year's end, you'll notice professional critics and bloggers looking back at the decade that was. But, being as how there's been over 2,000 films released this decade, doing a proper retrospective can be a bit daunting. Therefore, it is time for the return of my Best of the Decade series!
Every month I'm going to focus on a particular genre of film and count down the 10 Best of the Decade from that genre. This will, ultimately, lead to a 100 Best list. In addition to this, our podcast, The Movie Lovers, will have a corresponding segment monthly during the Film Faves portion of the show wherein we count down our favorite films.
This month we continue the summer season with a look at the best science fiction and fantasy films of the decade.
It's important to note the obvious caveat - the decade isn't quite over, yet. We realize this, thank you. We have been looking ahead at the forecast for this genre and there's simply no avoiding the release of noteworthy films the rest of the year: Ad Astra, Terminator: Dark Fate, Jumanji: The Next Level, and Star Wars: Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. No matter where this list is scheduled this year there's going to be something that hits theaters after. So, as with all of the other lists, keep that in mind. If something is released that warrants a mention it will be included in the 100 Best list in a few months.
So, what qualifies for this list? Anything that falls under the science fiction or fantasy genres. That includes dystopian futures, comedies with magical premises, space sagas, robots and the like, aliens... you get the picture. The only movies that do not qualify for this list are those based on comic books or graphic novels. We feel that would force us to include superhero films and we'll be covering CBMs next month. Therefore, they have been set aside. That still left room for over 100 other films to be considered for this list. Since this is one of our favorite genres it became quite the task boiling down those 100 films to just 10. Let's take a look at the result:
The Martian (2015)
In a list that could include close to two dozen films, this spot was the toughest of all to fill. I went back and forth between this film and Cary Fukunaga's Never Let Me Go from 2010. The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon as a man stranded on Mars for four years, won out. It's worth noting that The Martian is the most successful movie at the box office of Scott's entire career at $228.4 million domestic. Gladiator comes in second at $187.7 million. It's also arguably his best film since American Gangster (2007) and Thelma & Louise (1991) before that. The Martian is a perfect combination of smart and pop sci-fi where the lead character has to "science the shit" out of his situation for survival. It struck a wonderful balance that showed us that intelligent science fiction doesn't have to be inaccessible or slow-paced. It's allowed to be exciting and even funny. All of this combined, along with some stunning cinematography and visual effects, led to one of the decade's most enjoyable and popular sci-fi films.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
We go from a movie directed by Ridley Scott to a sequel to one of his most cherished classics. Nobody was confident that a sequel to Scott's 1982 film, one of the most influential science fiction films ever made, was a good idea. Having the director of such films as Enemy and Arrival didn't hurt; at the very least it could be interesting. What we were treated to was a film that not only continued the original's story, but, arguably improved on it. It's doubtful that anyone will ever claim 2049 is as influential as the original. However, its story takes ideas introduced in its predecessor and runs with it, providing us with one of the richest and most layered films of the decade. And then there's the jaw-dropping visuals, which take the template of the original and brought them up to the 21st century standards. This thing is absolutely gorgeous! The production design, visual effects, and cinematography all combine to create imagery that is just as iconic and unforgettable as those electronic billboards in 1982: the Las Vegas statues, Joi (Ana de Armas), Joi's giant-sized holographic advertisement, the flickering Elvis Presley hologram in the lounge... the list goes on. Ryan Gosling anchors the film - and his reputation as one of the decade's most versatile actors - with a supporting cast that includes Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, and more. Blade Runner 2049 is that rare example where touching a classic film can result in a product worthy of its legacy. Hollywood may be batting 1 in 20 in that regard, but when that one is a film like 2049, a show of gratitude is in order.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010-2011)
The Harry Potter series did several things unprecedented: it maintained all but one of the members of its cast (Richard Harris died after The Chamber of Secrets). It faithfully adapted its beloved source. It managed to make it through eight films without a single misstep. It put character and story above all else. And, most of all, it managed to end better than it began. The Deathly Hallows is the crowning achievement of one of the most successful series of films ever made. Watching our trio of heroes - Harry, Hermione, and Ron - grow up and deal with fascism and threats on their lives and the lives of their loved ones was more satisfying than anyone could imagine. And this final chapter, split into two largely for business reasons, recalled past characters and chapters in the series, as well as providing tremendous revelations and an incredible final battle. It is magic that can never be re-captured - just look at Warner Bros's lackluster Fantastic Beasts prequels for proof. In a decade full of franchise and series closers, Deathly Hallows remains one of the best and most significant.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)
Years after the events of the surprisingly good Planet of the Apes prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, what's left of man - devastated by a virus - and ape are secluded from each other until members of each stumble across each other. Fear breeds misunderstandings, which breed hate and violence. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with its cleverly-plotted story and misguided, even hateful characters and incredible mo-cap performances by Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbel, belongs in the conversation of greatest sequels ever made. When a studio announces a plan to revive a classic film in some way, expectations are often low - and proven. But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes went above and beyond even its satisfying predecessor, Rise. The trilogy-closer War... may not have lived up to expectations, which were then sky-high. But it's proof that Dawn is the exception, not the rule: sometimes going back to the well can result in besting the well.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Speaking of blowing expectations out of the water... Let's take a moment to remember the last Mad Max film we saw prior to 2014 featured a bungee-cord fighting rink, Tina Turner, and a bunch of Lost Boys. Director George Miller, while doing well with animal films like Babe and Happy Feet, had a history of production troubles - first with an abandoned Justice League project and then with this film, which took several years. Nobody really knew what to expect from this film leading up to it. And they sure as hell didn't expect such a mind-blowing spectacle that would also help define a decade of female empowerment. It's one thing to make a thrilling popcorn spectacle. It's another to create an era-defining film that rivals the classic Road Warrior. Mad Max: Fury Road isn't just one of the best films of its genre; it's one of the best films of the decade. Period.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
By now you're probably noticing a trend in the decade reflected in this list. There are several series-best sequels this decade. Now, there are literally thousands of people who hate The Last Jedi. Most of the time it's because of how much it upset expectations and flipped the script on the Skywalker saga. Thankfully, there are millions more who agree this is a damn good Star Wars film. And, while The Force Awakens provided pure fanboy glee (for both men and women for the first time), The Last Jedi remains a better film. In fact, I will even be blasphemous enough against conventional wisdom as to claim this Jedi is even better than The Empire Strikes Back. Before you storm off or light up your keyboard in anger let's remember why Empire is so revered. It is one of the greatest sequels not just because of its pop-culture-shattering reveal, but also for being able to bridge well between two chapters and go darker. All of that is largely plot-driven. The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film since the original to have enough thematic meat on its bone to chew on, dissect, and discuss well after each viewing. It deals with themes on hero worship, how much the past defines who we become, how failure can be our teacher and destruction, and the balance of all things. The Last Jedi took risks and refused to follow any notion of what we thought a Star Wars movie could be or what should happen next, making it one of the most unpredictable films in the series. All of this and more cement The Last Jedi as one of the greatest films of the decade.
Under the Skin (2014)
We go from one of the biggest films ever (Star Wars: The Last Jedi is among the 10 highest grossing films), to one of the smallest. Under the Skin made only $2.6 million of its $13.3 million budget, despite starring one of the decade's biggest names, Scarlett Johansson. Eerie, deliberately-paced, spell-binding and mysterious, Under the Skin is too much for most mainstream audiences. Ostensibly, it's about a woman prowling the streets of Scotland, picking up lonely men and revealing herself to be much more than she seems. Of course, it's about so much more than that. It deals with body issues while also being an empowering tale for women (she literally uses her looks as a means to kill!). It's too weird, too much of a head-scratcher, too inaccessible for so many. But the best sci-fi is sometimes vague enough to provoke discussion and thought. Under the Skin achieves that while also being one of the most beautifully hypnotic films of the decade.
On the other end of thought-provoking scale we have this film by Denis Villeneuve, a sci-fi tale that is also about more than what's on the surface. Several alien ships arrive on Earth and hover over seemingly random locations throughout the planet. Every country is trying to figure out what their intentions are. The film follows the Americans' attempts through Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner at the command of Forest Whitaker. Adams plays a linguist and one of the decade's most fascinating female characters. She breaks down for us how extensive and time-intensive starting communication from scratch can be. But it really takes things to another level with a third-act reveal that re-shapes what we know of her character and what the story is about. It's not your run-of-the-mill alien invasion film, so it isn't for everybody. However, it still managed to break $100 million from a $24 million budget and rank among the 30 highest-grossing films of its year. It demonstrates that you can make intelligent sci-fi divorced from any franchise or widely-known IP (Arrival is loosely based on a novella) and audiences will go see it. Sometimes audiences will surprise you.
Back in February I named this Spike Jonze love story the best love story of the decade. It is that. But it's also one of the best science fiction films of the decade. It's practically perfect, a masterpiece. And the best film of Jonze's career. The basic premise is a man falls in love with a woman and that woman outgrows their relationship. The science fiction of the story is that woman is an operating system voiced by Scarlett Johansson (hey, she made it on the list twice!). In an age when we might love our technology a bit too much Jonze manages to illustrate so much of the experience of love, all of the pain and bliss and everything in-between. Her is an absolutely gorgeous and extraordinary film. It demonstrates that science fiction can be stripped of epic battles, aliens, dystopias, and far off worlds, that it can do without all of the bombast and spectacle often associated with the genre and manage to be a more affecting piece of art.
There are few science fiction films this decade with as big a cultural impact as Inception. The title has become a verb that is immediately understood. The score by Hans Zimmer, with its blaring horns, is unforgettable and up there with any John Williams score's iconography. It's a film that has been parodied and referenced too many times to count. Christopher Nolan's film about a team of expert thieves-for-hire who can infiltrate a mark's dreams and endeavor to implant an idea in Cillian Murphy's mind by going within one dream after another is - on paper - one of the trippiest, complicated premises ever. The magic is how Nolan's expository-heavy script is able to hold our hand and make sense of every single thing that happens. At one point the film is cutting between reality and three different dreams - and we totally understand what's happening! Some of the credit goes to editor Lee Smith, who somehow managed to avoid getting lost in all of the footage. But Nolan has a clear eye and knows how to tell a great story. And Inception is his best original story. That's not just because of its mind-blowing visuals and concepts or its ever-so-cool cast of characters. It's because it has all of that and more than what's on the surface. It is the greatest science fiction film since The Matrix. And this decade.
Never Let Me Go (2010), Melancholia (2011), Ex Machina (2015), Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Annihilation (2014), Super 8 (2011), Looper (2012)
Those are the best science fiction and fantasy films of the decade. What do you think is the best of the decade? Comment below.
Don't forget to check out the rest of the Best of the 2010s series, including last month's action list. Next month we'll take a look at one of the most decade-defining genres of the decade: comic book movies. Marvel Studios certainly dominated the decade. Will they dominate the list? Find out in August!