If you’re a character in an independent film, “Coherence” is another shining example that the last place you want to be is a dinner party. An ill-timed gathering of friends becomes a breeding ground for simmering tension with the overhead passing of a harbinger comet and the arrival of an enigmatic box of trinkets. James Ward Byrkit’s script is a mini-delight, doling out tantalizing, left-field details that still feel traceable. Figuring out the mechanics of what this small group has stumbled into (it would be a crime to say any more, even though the film’s inclusion on this list might be a slight hint) is simplified enough to follow along, but the real reward is seeing the changes in the group dynamic at every revelation. It’s cosmic storytelling with careful specificity, all told within a neighborhood scope and with the propulsive energy of gripping detective work. Just watch it with friends you trust. – SG
A few years later, it’s the details within “Her” that remain memorable, the way director Spike Jonze draws a vivid future world without firm outlines but with enough specificity to keep things feeling grounded. “What is real?” is at the core of this virtual love story, as Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) moves through car-less, tech-rich Los Angeles in a haze of loneliness until his new artificially intelligent OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) changes his life forever. Despite the fact that Samantha is never more than a voice in Theodore’s ear, their romance is as nuanced as anything that might happen between two human characters. The end result is a perfect balance of science and fiction, finding beauty in moments both raw and profound. — LSM
Modern movies have long struggled to translate the experience and enjoyment of video game playing to the big screen, but Doug Liman’s 2014 actioner did exactly that with ease (oh, and without actually being based on an existing video game). The Tom Cruise- and Emily Blunt-starring war film takes a snappy idea — call it Live. Die. Repeat., as the film’s tagline does — and blows it out to amusing, clever extremes, all aided by some wicked humor and two lead performances that are all-timers for their very talented stars. The film uses smart shorthand to telegraph exactly what’s going down in Bill Cage’s (Cruise) increasingly looped life, handily smoothing out time-travel issues while also delivering a banger of a war movie. Sure, the final alien battle is a little out of place (they need your…brain? each other’s brains?), but everything that leads up to it is so good, so smart and so clever that the end result is still aces. — KE
An anachronistically brilliant bit of studio filmmaking that combines the scale of a mega-blockbuster with the grace of a refined art house drama, Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” is a monster movie for the 21st Century. No, the human characters aren’t particularly interesting — especially Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s blank lead, who has less emotional range than a prehistoric lizard — but that almost works to the film’s advantage, as this is ultimately a story about mankind’s shriveled sense of place in a world where they were no longer the most dangerous game. The patience and vision with which Edwards allows this story to unfold does more than just give the King of the Monsters his good name back (have a seat, Roland Emmerich), it restores a sense of genuine awe to the spectacle of special-effects. Finally, 60 years after Godzilla first made his screen appearance, we figured out a way to improve on the sight of a guy in a rubber suit stomping on a miniature model of Tokyo. — DE
Core human values are always at the center of great science fiction, and nowhere is that more true than Alex Garland’s mesmerizing directorial debut “Ex Machina.” A character-centric morality play moonlighting as a sci-fi drama about artificial intelligence, this knockout thriller speaks volumes to the ways in which sexuality and gender can be shaped and manipulated for personal gain. Domhnall Gleeson plays a young tech worker who must run a Turing test on his CEO’s startlingly lifelike new robot. Everything, of course, is not as it seems, but Garland keeps his themes running with such ferocity that each (you-know-one-has-to-be-coming) twist adds an organic punch that enhances the story and the themes tenfold. The actors all mesmerize, too, most notably Alicia Vikander as the alluring robot with shapeshifting motives that constantly surprise. Take one look at her and you’ll fall under her spell. She’s downright sensational. — ZS
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