10. “World of Tomorrow”
Yes, this Don Hertzfeldt film is an animated short, but it also packs more sci-fi goodness and intellectual, emotional complexity into 17 minutes than most films do in two hours (including many on this list). It centers on a girl named Emily who is invited on a tour of the future by her adult clone. The juxtaposition of the purity of Emily’s childlike innocence and the bleak look at what the world becomes creates a crushing layer of drama, as she’s too young to understand what we do.
Meanwhile, Hertzfeld’s deceptively rudimentary animation style is an array of colorful emotions pulsing with life. It’s impossible not to well with emotions watching this masterpiece, which tells a deeply philosophical tale that’s remarkable for its simplicity. It will be held up against Chris Marker’s “La Jetée” as one the greatest short films in the history of movies. —CO
9. “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”
©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection
What happens when you combine two of the most prolific voices in science-fiction cinema? The result might look like “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” a sci-fi epic Steven Spielberg wrote and directed that originated as a film Stanley Kubrick was developing before his death. While “A.I.” can, at times, feel like Spielberg’s sentimentality being forced into Kubrick’s cynicism, the way the ideologies of both filmmakers wrestle with one another during the film’s 146-minute running time makes “A.I.” a cinematic experiment like no other.
The film succeeds on the strength of its actors, with Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law giving life to two robot characters in mesmerizing fashion. The musings on artificial life are as expansive as Kubrick’s best work, while Spielberg’s devotion to telling a story that is primarily about the everlasting power of a mother’s life for her child keeps “A.I.” rolling along with an intimacy that epics of this scale lack. It’s science-fiction filmmaking of the highest order. —ZS
There is always something patently absurd about the premise of a Spike Jonze film, but he approaches them with such sincerity that any sense of kitschy-irony melts away. In the case of “Her,” the idea that audiences could become emotionally involved in a love story between a man (Joaquin Phoenix) and his Siri-like operating system (voiced by pitch-perfect Scarlett Johansson) would seem like a cinematic bridge too far, but instead it becomes Jonze’s most poignant and fully realized film since his 1999 debut, “Being John Malkovich.”
“Her” is Jonze’s fourth feature, and the first in which he came up with the story himself; it feels more personal and intimate than his previous work. The creation of this futuristic world, which borrows perfectly selected aspects of today’s modern cities, is rendered into one of the most grounded and visually satisfying future worlds in the modern sci-fi. —CO
7. “District 9”
Sony Pictures Releasing
There’s a tendency to downgrade this film based on how disappointing director Neill Blomkamp’s subsequent films have been, but nothing can take away from how exciting, smart, and new “District 9” felt when it hit theaters eight years ago. While the use of handheld to create a sense of realism is cinematic crutch for many genre directors, Blomkamp uses it to create a remarkably realistic sense of what it must feel like to be invaded from above.
That sense of fear is key for the film, as what the humans do in response reveals the ugliness of what we are capable of when acting out of fear. Blomkamp is from South Africa and the film is an allegory for apartheid, but its moral is universal for how fear of the other drains us of our humanity. —CO
6. “Upstream Color”
We won’t pretend to be smart enough to completely understand Shane Carruth’s examination of the science of love. Even with the proper philosophical, literary, and scientific background to grasp all the references, it might still be impossible to fully appreciate the film’s layers. Yet what is amazing about this groundbreaking work is that because it perfectly fits together in Carruth’s big engineering-trained brain — and he’s using the formal language of cinema to express himself — there’s an internal logic that keeps an open-minded audience engaged.
Made for $50,000 — which seems virtually impossible considering the film’s elegance — Carruth is the embodiment of an independent filmmaker. Not only is he free from working with Hollywood’s sense of story and film language, he also found a path to self distribute this film and build a devoted audience. In a film world where everybody is explaining how they are doing something new and groundbreaking, Shane Carruth is one of the very few walking the walk. —CO
5. “Blade Runner 2049”
©Warner Bros/courtesy Everett Collection / Everett Collection
Outside of the “Star Wars” franchise, no science-fiction universe has been etched into cinematic consciousness more thoroughly than “Blade Runner.” Ridley Scott’s definitive 1982 neo-noir offered an immersive dystopia of rain-soaked windows, shadowy buildings, and animated neon billboards, plus flying vehicles that hum through the cityscape. Scott’s cyberpunk vision remains just as alluring over three decades later, which is why Denis Villeneuve’s sequel “Blade Runner 2049” gets bonus points for refusing to coast on Scott’s foundation.
In an age where the majority of Hollywood’s sequels and remakes are content with just regurgitating the successful ingredients of their predecessors, Villeneuve goes beyond the call of duty with a lush, often mind-blowing refurbishing of Scott’s original sci-fi aesthetic that provides wholly original spectacle with the existential drama inherent in the “Blade Runner” franchise. Bolstered by Roger Deakins’ Oscar-winning cinematography and Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s ominous score, “Blade Runner 2049” is proof the best science-fiction sequels push their franchises into dazzling new directions. —ZS
4. “The Host”
Most creature films would be a better fit for a horror list, but the story origins of Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host,” which was inspired by the deformed fish in the filmmaker’s beloved Han River, makes this one of the more interesting genre films to incorporate environmental science into its genre thrills. Director Bong is not a politically subtle filmmaker, but the joy he takes in creating his symphony of not-so-bright characters is one of modern cinema’s delicacies.
Thankfully, “The Host” became the biggest box-office hit in South Korean history and led to Bong being able to uncompromisingly paint on a bigger international canvas with “Snowpiercer” and Netflix’s “Okja.” —CO
3. “Under the Skin”
What does it mean to be human? It’s an ambitious question at the heart of many of the best science-fiction films, but few answer it with the kind of evocative beauty and abstract intrigue of “Under the Skin.” Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 masterpiece studies humanity through the eyes of a seductive alien, played by a never-better Scarlett Johansson. The more humanity begins to take hold of her subconscious, the more her sense of self is rattled. This is not didactic filmmaking; it’s a full-bodied experience.
The shock and discovery of something new settles in as the alien roams Glasgow, the camera studying her from afar like a stranger in a strange land. Then, Glazer expertly realizes the inexplicable sensation that overcomes her as humanity seeps in. He creates a visual and aural understanding of what it means to discover humanity, and how warm and dangerous that can be. Glazer depicts this awakening with his own transfixing cinematic language: bursts of kaleidoscopic colors, a percussive score, and set design more akin to an art installation than traditional cinema. He forces you to confront what humanity is, and whether it’s a sin or a blessing. The ultimate discovery is cinema at its most singular and essential. It’s science-fiction at its puzzling and thought-provoking best. —ZS
2. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
There’s an ephemeral quality to the visual poetry of Michel Gondry that captures both the beauty and sadness of being alive. It’s Gondry’s nature as an artist not to stay grounded in reality or in the confines of narrative, which can result in films that are brilliant but not fully realized.
That’s why Charlie Kaufman’s metaphysical time travel script for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is such a gift for Gondry, and subsequently us. In the story of two lovers — a never-better Jim Carrey and the always-great Kate Winslet — who chose to forget each other, the sci-fi device melts away and the film becomes a visual meditation on the memories that can’t be erased. —CO
1. “Children of Men”
Deciding what would be number one was the easiest part of assembling this list. The virtuoso long-take filmmaking of director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is the filmmaking equivalent of Mozart. It’s so jaw-dropping in certain sequences that it feels like flexing, but that uninterrupted camera draws us into the film’s tensest scenes in a way that makes Clive Owens’ noble struggle against this dystopian nightmare uniquely immersive.
This authoritarian London, where women have stopped giving birth, feels all too real. Interior spaces are almost like characters themselves, which makes its bleakness so palpable, so relatable — and this film projected our current refugee crisis eight years early. The pebble of hope, and the film’s narrative drive, comes in the form of the Kee, played with remarkable grace by Clare-Hope Ashitey, a young pregnant refugee. For two hours we are right there with Owens in believing nothing else in the world matters but getting her to safety. Quite simply, it’s one of the true masterpieces of this, or any, century. —CO