Best Indie Sci-Fi 1997-2019 V1.7.7: 64 Must-see Films, Plus 64 Moreby emvan | created - 20 Mar 2015 | updated - 4 days ago | Public
List Status Report!
Real life has intervened (not entirely unpleasantly) and is stopping the planned V1.9 a third of the way to the end. This update adds must-see 2019 film See You Yesterday. Time of the Wolf and 2019 films Diamantino, Fast Color, I Am Mother, and City of Last Things should follow in March and complete a substitute V1.8. (See the end of this intro for plans beyond that.)
In this interim V1.7.x, drafts of each film's entry (complete with preliminary rankings) are being appended to the end of the list, as I see them.
So far this process has yielded eight new must-see films, two from this year but the other six older. Those additions are not so much a surprise as a hope fulfilled, as I'm starting, naturally, with the most promising of the ones I missed.
Other additions are a should-see 2019 film and a trio of films for the final, 'could-see' section -- two that should have been included originally and one that I checked out before it checked out of Netflix.
V1.7.3 reset all of the older status flags (*, +, ++, and ^) in anticipation of another round of director-activity updates in V1.9.
Q: How Good Are These Films?
A: Only two of the top 15 films here were distributed by a major or mini-major studio. Each recieved Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (even though it was both directors' debut film), Best Adapted or Original Screenplay, and Best Actor / Actress for the lead role (even though one was unknown and the other had never acted before).
That's how good.
Some well-known, well-loved, and terrific films are ranked surprisingly low simply because there are a bunch of films almost no one has seen that are just as good or even better. There has never been a more fabulous time to be a sci-fi film fanatic.
Q: How Are They Ranked?
A: I love cinematic artistry just as much as I love science fiction. I enyoy bursting the brains of cinephiles by revealing that my two favorite directors are Ingmar Bergman and Christopher Nolan. My all time top-ten favorites list includes The Rules of the Game and A Separation alongside Donnie Darko and The Prestige (and of course 2001: A Space Odyssey, which pegs the needle on both).
I've tried to create a ranking for people like me. The films are thus ranked as science-fiction films. A brilliant piece of cinema like Melancholia that's scientifically stupid is thus well down the list. I do try to give information to guide viewers who are primarily arthouse cinema fans and for sci-fi lovers with an arthouse allergy.
That's the idea. See below for the nuts and bolts of the methodology (if you care).
Q: What's Included?
A: Which is to say, what's "sci-fi?" What's "indie?" And why start in 1997?
A #1: What's sci-fi? A main difference between V1.0 and the revisions is that my definition of what's "sci-fi" or "sf" has been expanded to make the list considerably more inclusive. (The notes to the films use those terms consistently -- "sci-fi" uses familiar tropes, which is often a good idea, while "sf" strives for originality.)
"Slipstream" is a term invented by SF critics to embrace everything on the interesting borders of sf, especially narratives with non-fantastic elements that don't fit comfortably into either sf or fantasy. If the notes to a film explain why I included it, it's slipstream in this broad sense. Most of the older films added since V1.0 fit this description.
"Slipstream" is also used more specifically for a genre of narratives that refuse to commit to a genre, and are meant to make roughly equal sense whether interpreted as some or all of sf, fantasy, surrealism, or realism (with hallucinations or delusions). When I use the term below, I mean this "slipstream proper."
Finally, I've coined and use the term "metaphysical fantasy" for stories set in the present with a fantastic element that is fundamental to reality, original (at least in part), and substantively developed. These films feel exactly like sf, and I think appeal more to sf fans than fantasy fans -- so I think they clearly belong here.
A #2: What's indie? My original criterion was that a film had to be either independently distributed (in the U.S.) or independently produced. As a proxy for the latter, films needed to be made for US $15M or less (inflation-adjusted to the end of 2014. Most films fit both criteria, of course.) That happens to produce a fairly thorough list of worthy sf films that have escaped wide notice, but it's not what I think film buffs really want, which is a complete list. So after some thought, I decided that the revised versions of the list should include all other films that had a U.S. limited release, regardless of budget. And that does the trick.
(It turns out that nearly all of the added films (i.e., major studio films costing more than $15M) were made for an adjusted $35M or less, which is also a limit that encompasses a set of great major-studio wide releases like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Her. These mid-budget films form a recognizable stylistic class, so I've noted which films belong to it.)
A #3: Why 1997? After three years that produced just two original sf films of any budget worth seeing (Twelve Monkeys and Strange Days), 1997 brought us Gattaca, Face/Off, Men in Black, Contact, The Fifth Element, and #5 on this list. It's the start of the modern golden age of sf cinema. (I have a list of 64 indie-ish sci-films from 1968 to 1996, but I've only seen 18, nearly all of which need to be rewatched. That looks to be a two-stage project between V2.0, V3.0, and V4.0 of this list.)
Q: What's All That Info At the Start of Each Note?
A: Info about the entry itself, about the derivation of the ranking, about the film's distribution and budget, and about its critical reputation.
First, before the note is the IMDB Plot Outline, and they vary from terrific to bad to absent (the rambling ones that end with ... are Plot Summaries). I'm working on them and have already supplied 9, 27, 39, 58, 71, 73, 76, 79, 83, and 86.
At the start of an entry: * marks films added since the previous major revision, while ^ indicates a film that's been bumped up in the rankings.
+ and ++ indicate, respectively, notes that have been tweaked and substantially expanded. Most of the tweaks are added information about directors and sources (the latter now with links).
Next are three separate 0-100 sub-scores which are combined to give the film's ranking.
"All" is the rating from critics and general film buffs, weighting the Rotten Tomatoes Average Rating and IMDB User Rating equally, and scaled to match the next score. (V2.0 will give them both; in the meantime you can subtract 5 from "All" and divide by 10 to get the average of the two scores, and estimate the RT score from the IMDB score in front of you.)
"Fans" is from the average ranking of Netflix users with tastes like mine (their prediction for me), and counts double (yes, I'm proposing that I'm the paradigmatic consumer of smart sf films!).
And the third, "Me," is also scaled to match "All" and counts double compared to everyone else when I like a film better, and as little as 40% when I like it less.
I then give the total score; they run so close together that the precise ranking is almost arbitrary (and has sometimes been tweaked by instinct). A final 0-100 number at the end gives the film's popularity or notoriety (for films in V1.0 only; V2.0 will update them all).
After the subscores, $ indicates a mid-budget film (> $15M) and $$ a big-budget (> $35M) one; Maj indicates a major or mini-major distributor and Wide a wide release.
Finally, I give two rankings that report the film's reputation among film critics, directors, and scholars, for the films that have acquired one. The first, C10, is how well the film performed on year-end top 10 lists according to the invaluable CriticsTop10.com. The second, TSP is where the film ranks at the main and 20th Century Lists at the equally invaluable They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?. In both cases, the rank is among these films. I find these very interesting: for instance, the top two films here are the top two films in both rankings if you count only films that are primarily science fiction; the top of both lists is dominated by films where the sci-fi is secondary, but after that such films are rare.
Q: What's Next?
A: One major element of the V1.7 / V1.8 update was the discovery of another 56 movies to add to the watchlist. I have now finally replaced the epic rundown of these films at the end of the list with two lists like this one, totaling another 191 (!) films (excluding those remaining for V1.8).
Once V1.8 is completed, I'll update it with the films I see from 2020, appended at the end. These will be incorporated into V1.9, of course. This strategy will be used for all further updates.
The V1.9 additions will now consist of the other 32 films originally planned for it; these consist of the cream of the unseen, plus a handful of random others. It will also include the significant 2020 films that I missed, and the best previously unknown films that cross my radar (if any). It should begin next September, and after taking October off for the baseball playoffs, should resume in November and finish by year's end.
The first major revision, v2.0, will follow perhaps a year later, and will re-rank all of the films (including all those I've pegged for a rewatch), separate the "All" score into critics vs. film buffs, and derive new and updated Popularity scores. It will also include the 46 next most promising films on the watchlist plus all the unseen solid or better films that arrive in the meantime. And it may migrate to its own website!
Another year should bring V3.0, adding the next 53 most promising films.
All of these 131 films (and the 6 remaining in V1.8) are listed in Best Indie Sci-Fi 1997-2019: Watchlist #1
Best Indie Sci-Fi 1997-2019: Watchlist #2 lists 60 films for V4.0.
All of these lists will be expanded before I get to them, as I discover more older films and add new ones .
- Instant Watch Options
- Movies or TV
- IMDb Rating
- In Theaters
- On TV
- Release Year
1. Donnie Darko (2001)
R | 113 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi
A troubled teenager is plagued by visions of a man in a large rabbit suit who manipulates him to commit a series of crimes, after he narrowly escapes a bizarre accident.
Votes: 714,312 | Gross: $1.48M
All 84, Fans 92, Me 100 = 96. TSP = 3. One of the three greatest sf puzzle films ever (the other two being The Prestige and the next entry) and one of the greatest troubled-teen drama / comedies ever, a combination that has earned it a spot in the IMDB Top 250 (the only such film here). You can watch the original cut for its beautiful Lynchian ambiguity, but you should know that it was not intended by Kelly but only emerged when Jake Gyllenhaal urged him to cut reams of clumsy expository dialogue. I strongly recommend the 2004 director's cut (133 min), which adds significant character and thematic depth and solves the exposition problem, clarifying what has always been a thrilling and profound exploration of the nature of free will. Kelly next did #49 His new script has attracted serious buzz; fingers crossed. (60 popular, the highest here.)
2. Upstream Color (2013)
Not Rated | 96 min | Drama, Sci-Fi
A man and woman are drawn together, entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism. Identity becomes an illusion as they struggle to assemble the loose fragments of wrecked lives.
Votes: 29,571 | Gross: $0.44M
+ All 78, Fans 89, Me 100 = 95. C10 =7; TSP =8. The most challenging sf puzzle movie ever, with clues buried in nearly every shot; I figured something out on my 8th viewing (and it seemed obvious once I got it). Miraculously, it's also one of the great all-time arthouse-style cinematic experiences, with great cinematography (by Carruth except for the scenes where he's the male lead), great editing (by Carruth with David Lowery of Ghost Story acclaim), and a tremendous electronic score (by Carruth. He produced and distributed it, too). Like Donnie Darko, one of my six favorite films of all time, a moving examination of personal identity, autonomy, and community. Carruth, who began with #4, signed up a stellar cast for the (non-sf) The Modern Ocean three years ago; he recently announced that he'll do one further major film (which may or may not be that) and then quit the business. (12 popular.)
3. Get Out (I) (2017)
R | 104 min | Horror, Mystery, Thriller
A young African-American visits his white girlfriend's parents for the weekend, where his simmering uneasiness about their reception of him eventually reaches a boiling point.
Votes: 443,870 | Gross: $176.04M
All 86, Fans 92, Me 95 = 94; Maj, Wide. C10 = 1; TSP = 7. The most critically acclaimed film of 2017 won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and scored nominations for Picture, Actor, and Director, and was also a Hugo Award nominee. It's known for scares, grim laughs, and huge smarts about racial identity (see it between the comparably brilliant Dear White People and Blindspotting), but all of that is built on a pure sci-fi premise. Sean McKittrick, one of Peele's two fellow producers, started his production career on #1. Their team's Us, like this one, smartly grounds its horror in sci-fi, but with a $20M budget just misses being indie as I define it. At present, it would rank 19th here if it were.
4. Primer (2004)
PG-13 | 77 min | Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Four friends/fledgling entrepreneurs, knowing that there's something bigger and more innovative than the different error-checking devices they've built, wrestle over their new invention.
Votes: 92,654 | Gross: $0.42M
All 73, Fans 89, Me 98 = 93. TSP = 12. If you somehow don't know this, try to avoid descriptions. Carruth's first film is famous for being shot for $7000, for its realistic absence of expository dialogue, and for complexity so brain-bursting it leaves some people giddy. If you've seen it and don't think it belongs somewhere near the top of this list, you may need to make up your own. (23 popular.)
5. Open Your Eyes (1997)
R | 117 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi
A very handsome man finds the love of his life, but he suffers an accident and needs to have his face rebuilt by surgery after it is severely disfigured.
Votes: 61,133 | Gross: $0.37M
(US 1999). All 81, Fans 87, Me 95 = 92. This Spanish original is so good that I've never bothered to see the remake, Vanilla Sky. One of many films on this list with a strong Philip K. Dick flavor, and that's always a win. Amenabar next had a huge horror success with The Others but has not since returned to the fantastic. (17 popular.)
6. Sorry to Bother You (2018)
R | 112 min | Comedy, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
In an alternate present-day version of Oakland, telemarketer Cassius Green discovers a magical key to professional success, propelling him into a universe of greed.
Votes: 51,165 | Gross: $17.49M
All 81, Fans 94, Me 93 = 92; Wide. C10 = 11; TSP = 19. Begins as a sharp observation on racial identity and, as it reveals the details of its alternate reality, morphs into what might be the most cutting and insightful satire of capitalism in cinema history, with DNA from Putney Swope and O Lucky Man!. Riley, who spent 25 years fronting acclaimed hip-hop act The Coup, is at work on another film.
7. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
PG-13 | 93 min | Adventure, Drama, Fantasy
Faced with both her hot-tempered father's fading health and melting ice-caps that flood her ramshackle bayou community and unleash ancient aurochs, six-year-old Hushpuppy must learn the ways of courage and love.
Votes: 78,693 | Gross: $12.80M
+ All 83, Fans 86, Me 95 = 92; Maj. C10 = 3; TSP = 9. This deserved Oscar nominee (Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress) is built on a near-future sf element -- rising sea levels from global warming -- that is small, undeniable, crucial, and almost completely overlooked. It then, remarkably, adds a pure fantasy element (Hushpuppy makes the aurochs absolutely real with the power of her imagination) that provides a transcendent message about the power of story. Zeitlin's followup, Wendy, reimagines Peter Pan and opens February 28.
8. The Lobster (2015)
R | 119 min | Comedy, Drama, Romance
In a dystopian near future, single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into The Woods.
Votes: 197,059 | Gross: $8.70M
(US 2016). All 79, Fans 92, Me 93 = 92. C10 = 9; TSP = 18. Devastating deadpan satiric black humor that is ultimately directed at bigger targets than the initial and obvious, as you'll see if you go with the flow of the film's unexpected second half. Lanthimos and his collaborator earned a deserved Best Original Screenplay nomination. Their next film, the horrific fantasy The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is darker and even deeper (and still somehow funny), and Lanthimos' (non-fantastic) The Favourite won an Oscar and was nominated for 9 others, including Best Picture.
9. Frequencies (2013)
Not Rated | 105 min | Mystery, Romance, Sci-Fi
In an alternate reality, children learn how lucky they will be (their "frequency"), knowledge which shapes their destiny. The unluckiest boy must parse the mysteries of free will in order to pursue his forbidden love of the luckiest girl.
(US 2014 VOD). All 74, Fans 87, Me 95 = 91. Almost no one's seen this yet except for Netflix users who got to stream it (as OXV: The Manual), but I think it's so good as to be hype-proof. In terms of puzzle and challenge, it's more Darko-esque than Carruthian, and so I think it has a chance to earn a sizable following if it's ever released on disc. (6 popular).
10. Colossal (2016)
R | 109 min | Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Gloria is an out-of-work party girl forced to leave her life in New York City and move back home. When reports surface that a giant creature is destroying Seoul, she gradually comes to the realization that she is somehow connected to this phenomenon.
Votes: 54,678 | Gross: $3.02M
(US 2017). All 73, Fans 88, Me 95 = 91. Kaiju fans expecting something straight are sorely disappointed. But the giant creatures here are an astonishingly well-crafted metaphor for people leading monstrously damaging lives, and the story is funny, then surprisingly dark, and in the end empowering. Vigalondo's followup to #55 and #73 is sci-fi because of its tropes; no rationale for the fantastic element is given -- or needed.
11. Predestination (I) (2014)
R | 97 min | Action, Drama, Mystery
For his final assignment, a top temporal agent must pursue the one criminal that has eluded him throughout time. The chase turns into a unique, surprising and mind-bending exploration of love, fate, identity and time travel taboos.
Votes: 235,219 | Gross: $0.07M
(US 2015.) All 77, Fans 90, Me 93 = 91. I'm so familiar with the classic Robert A. Heinlein story that it's based on ("'--All You Zombies--'") that I had to watch it twice in the span of four nights to figure out how good it is, on its own merits. Answer: tremendous. In particular, the justification for the commercially necessary extra action element is via a plot addition that Heinlein would be jealous he hadn't thought of. And like so many other films here, it's in part about the natures of free will and personal identity. It appears to be the only film by the directors remotely of this caliber, and Hawke (encountered serendipitously on the streets of Brookline, MA) confirms the suspicion that he helped rewrite the screenplay, together with Snook. (17 popular.)
12. The Endless (I) (2017)
Not Rated | 111 min | Fantasy, Horror, Sci-Fi
As kids, they escaped a UFO death cult. Now, two adult brothers seek answers after an old videotape surfaces and brings them back to where they began.
Votes: 26,539 | Gross: $0.27M
+ (US 2018) All 76, Fans 88, Me 94 = 91. Although it stands perfectly well on its own, it's that much richer as a sequel to #34, which committed viewers should see first (others can start here and go back if suitably impressed). This one broadens the scope and raises the quality of execution (especially the visuals) significantly. The sci-fi content serves simultaneously as a metaphor for lives, memories, and invented stories; I can't think of a film that can match its combination of cool, creepy weirdness and thematic depth. Benson and Moorhead's new sci-fi film, Synchronic, is iplaying festivals and looking for distribution.
13. Marjorie Prime (2017)
99 min | Drama, Mystery, Romance
A service that provides holographic recreations of deceased loved ones allows a woman to come face-to-face with the younger version of her late husband.
Votes: 5,171 | Gross: $0.18M
All 75, Fans 88, Me 94 = 91. This adaptation of Jordan Harrison's Pulitzer Prize-nominated play begins as a beautifully written, acted and shot dysfunctional family drama; the sf element serves as a tool for its probing examination of memory and grief. By the end, the sf element is raising deep questions on its own. Slow and a bit, yes, stagey on first viewing; on a re-view the choice of pace seems perfect. Almareyda is in pre-production of a Tesla biopic starring Ethan Hawke. Tonight at Noon, his adaptation of the Jonathan Lethem story "Five Fucks," was shot in 2005 with a stellar cast but, IMDB notwithstanding, was not recently completed (per Lethem). See #90 for a previous film.
14. Pi (1998)
R | 84 min | Drama, Horror, Mystery
A paranoid mathematician searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature.
Votes: 163,930 | Gross: $3.22M
All 79, Fans 84, Me 94 = 90. Pi is quintessentially "slipstream "(see the intro), the options being sf, surrealism, and realism with hallucinations. The sf side is strengthened by the character Sol, whose speculations on consciousness are well-informed. Aronofsky went on to do ... well, you know.
15. Mr. Nobody (2009)
R | 141 min | Drama, Fantasy, Romance
A boy stands on a station platform as a train is about to leave. Should he go with his mother or stay with his father? Infinite possibilities arise from this decision. As long as he doesn't choose, anything is possible.
Votes: 204,655 | Gross: $0.00M
(US 2013.) All 78, Fans 89, Me 92.5 = 90; $$. Made in Belgium in English, barely released in the U.S., and now a sizeable success on disk. It makes the differences between alternate, forking timestreams so visceral and emotionally charged it seems as if you lived them all yourself. It'll take a second viewing to see how much the frame story adds to that. Van Dormael's recent fantasy The Brand New Testament is high in my queue.
16. Snowpiercer (2013)
R | 126 min | Action, Drama, Sci-Fi
In a future where a failed climate-change experiment has killed all life except for the lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, a new class system emerges.
Votes: 263,673 | Gross: $4.56M
+ (US 2014.) All 81, Fans 94, Me 90 = 90; $$, Maj. C10 = 8; TSP = 17. Bong's followup to #72 is based on a French graphic novel and is mostly in English. A sci-fi premise that you don't need to take seriously sets up the eponymous train as one of the most obvious metaphors in all of sf, in this case for income inequality. It's then used to ground a tense action thriller; this shouldn't work at all, but does gloriously. Bong's followup, the big-budget Netflix streamer Okja, is just as radical and maybe even better, while his latest, Parasite, is one of the best-loved films of the century.
17. Under the Skin (I) (2013)
R | 108 min | Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi
A mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. However, events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery.
Votes: 119,960 | Gross: $2.61M
^ (US 2014.) All 75, Fans 87, Me 93 = 89. C10 = 2; TSP = 4. This stripped-down adaptation of Michel Faber's novel is exquisite, mesmerizing cinema, and subtle enough as thought-provoking sf that I missed it completely the first time. It's very largely about seeing the world through alien eyes, which it accomplishes to an eerie degree once you grasp the point of the film's editing rhythms. And once you understand the POV, the straightforward story acquires real metaphorical depth. Note that the 75 "All" score" represnts one of the most extreme critics vs. audiences splits in cinema history, so this one is definitely Arthouse Only. (19 popular.)
18. Train to Busan (2016)
Not Rated | 118 min | Action, Horror, Thriller
While a zombie virus breaks out in South Korea, passengers struggle to survive on the train from Seoul to Busan.
Votes: 124,639 | Gross: $2.13M
All 81, Fans 86, Me 92 = 89. To call this surprisingly low-budget Korean import either "Snowpiercer with zombies" or the best zombie film since Romero's first two -- which it is, by a mile -- is to sell it short. With nonstop thrills, biting social satire, and genuine heart, it forces me to recognize that zombie films that provide an sf rationale belong here, too. Actually a sequel to an unavailable animated film and due for both a remake in English (by the French studio Gaumont) and a sequel. Yeon next did Psychokinesis, set for V2.0.
Not Rated | 95 min | Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
Returned home to his long-estranged mother upon a request from her deathbed, a man raised by his parents in an orphanage has to confront the childhood memories that have long haunted him.
Votes: 3,252 | Gross: $0.23M
(US 2007). All 82, Fans 94, Me 91 = 89. Netflix's algorithm (the "Fans" score) knows I love cult director Maddin's brand of weirdness, so I've docked it a point, but I think this is a good Maddin starting place for sci-fi lovers. His M.O. is to take tropes from old genre movies and exaggerate them (both narratively and visually) in a way that is comic and yet amplifies their latent psychological force rather than diminishes it. Like his masterpiece My Winnipeg, this one claims to be autobiographical (the mother characters are very close), which adds significantly to its appeal (if that's the right word).
20. PK (2014)
Not Rated | 153 min | Comedy, Drama, Fantasy
An alien on Earth loses the only device he can use to communicate with his spaceship. His innocent nature and child-like questions force the country to evaluate the impact of religion on its people.
Votes: 147,253 | Gross: $10.62M
All 86, Fans TBD, Me 90 = 89. An Indian import that was immensely popular there. The sci-fi element is negligible, but the satire on organized religion is delicious, and there's a romantic side story which is allowed at various points to take over the film, with completely rewarding results. Be sure to blink while watching (Khan's alien never does, and I found myself doing the same!)
21. Ex Machina (2014)
R | 108 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi
A young programmer is selected to participate in a ground-breaking experiment in synthetic intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a highly advanced humanoid A.I.
Votes: 443,881 | Gross: $25.44M
All 85, Fans 99, Me 79 = 88; Wide. C10 = 6; TSP = 13. Terrific, thrilling cinema (earning a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Garland and an upset win for Best Visual Effects, as well as a Hugo Award nomination) undercut by two related flaws. Like at least two of Garlands's previous scripts (#51 and the big-budget Sunshine), it has some third-act problems; in this case, sketchy character motivations lead to arguable plot holes. More importantly (to me or anyone into it), all the science is either underdeveloped or just plain wrong, rendering the plot nonsensical. We are told nothing about what fundamental behavioral algorithm Ava has been designed to (or is believed to) have; depending on that algorithm, the test she is given could in fact be passed by a robotic intelligence with nothing resembling consciousness or even a deeply human intelligence. However, by understanding the “Mary the color scientist” thought experiment, she does in fact demonstrate she is conscious. So, umm, what was the point? I’m sure it succeeds in being thought-provoking to the naïve viewer, but anyone taken by the movie who decides to dig deeper is, alas, going to end up only with the thought that Garland’s research into consciousness and AI seems to have consisted of looking them up on Wikipedia (and not reading the entire articles). The good news: Garland's second film as director, the bigger-budget Annihilation, has a transcendent third act and would rank 4th here if it qualified.
22. The Frame (2014)
127 min | Crime, Drama, Fantasy
Two strangers find their lives colliding in an impossible way. Alex is a methodical cargo thief working for a dangerous cartel. Sam is a determined paramedic trying to save the world while running from her past.
(US VOD.) All and Fans TBD, Me 92 = 88. The thematic similarities to #9 Frequencies are startling, and this may be the deeper, more thought-provoking film. Like his #62, it's a metaphysical fantasy (see the intro), and given the popularity of its predecessor, it's gotten amazingly little attention in terms of reviews. Nevertheless, a potential cult classic. (1 popular. Seriously.)
23. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
PG-13 | 103 min | Drama, Horror, Mystery
After getting in a car accident, a woman is held in a shelter with two men, who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack.
Votes: 273,453 | Gross: $72.08M
All 79, Fans 86, Me 90 = 88; Maj, Wide. C10 = 21. The title (which indicates what other movie's universe it's set in) reveals that it ends as sci-fi, but for the most part it's a brilliantly executed locked-room psychological thriller. A story written in the margins of a bigger one; we're still waiting for a sequel to take us there.
24. Midnight Special (2016)
PG-13 | 112 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi
A father and son go on the run, pursued by the government and a cult drawn to the child's special powers.
Votes: 70,571 | Gross: $3.71M
All 75, Fans 81, Me 91.5 = 87; $, Maj. C10 = 20. Promises more sense-of-wonder than it can deliver with its budget, but the payoff was never the point. The puzzle-box plot is plenty gripping enough, and provides an insightful and moving metaphor for parenthood, alongside a thought-provoking examination of religion and belief. Barely promoted by the studio, I think it has legs once it finds a better audience. Nichols intended this as a proof-of-capability for genre tentpoles; no word yet as to what's next for him.
25. The Skin I Live In (2011)
R | 120 min | Drama, Horror, Thriller
A brilliant plastic surgeon, haunted by past tragedies, creates a type of synthetic skin that withstands any kind of damage. His guinea pig: a mysterious and volatile woman who holds the key to his obsession.
Votes: 129,243 | Gross: $3.19M
All 80, Fans 89, Me 88 = 87; Maj. C10 = 12; TSP = 14. The first entry on the list that's simply a great film by a great director that happens to be sf -- even if it's usually considered just as horror. Back when this was made, Almodovar professed his love for sci-fi and vowed to make a more obvious entry; we're still waiting. (23 popular.)
26. The Congress (2013)
Not Rated | 122 min | Animation, Drama, Sci-Fi
An aging, out-of-work actress accepts one last job, though the consequences of her decision affect her in ways she didn't consider.
Votes: 16,587 | Gross: $0.14M
(US 2014). All 72, Fans 81, Me 92 = 87. This loose adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel is, I think, the best and most moving exploration of the idea of "escape" (from the real to the imaginary) in all of cinema. There is a sudden transformation in style at the end of the first act (it becomes animated) that has an sf *explanation*; folks missing that because of inattention and/or lack of thought seem to be dinging the response. And given the extrapolated future, there are some plot holes, so how well this works for you very much depends on how much the characters grab you. (6 popular.)
27. Extracted (2012)
R | 85 min | Drama, Sci-Fi
A scientist who has invented a technology to construct virtual realities from people's memories finds himself in a perilous situation, after he reluctantly allows it to be used for a purpose he never imagined.
(US 2013 DVD.) All 72, Fans 83, Me 91 = 87. Given its budget and the underwhelming reviews and IMDB rating, I had to watch this one twice within five days to see whether I hadn't somehow hallucinated its excellence. I hadn't. Especially impressive are the human side of the story and the performances from the largely unknown cast. (9 popular.)
28. Vanishing Waves (2012)
Unrated | 124 min | Romance, Sci-Fi, Thriller
A neuron-transfer scientist experiments with the thoughts of a comatose young woman.
(US 2013 DVD). All 77, Fans TBD, Me 90.5 = 87. This Lithuanian film is pure arthouse, with stunning visuals, and more than enough sf to satisfy. Be careful with the trailer, which spoils a climactic moment in its second half. (2 popular.)
29. I Origins (2014)
R | 106 min | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi
A molecular biologist and his laboratory partner uncover evidence that may fundamentally change society as we know it.
Votes: 108,786 | Gross: $0.33M
All 72, Fans 81, Me 91.5 = 87; Maj. Cahill's emotionally potent followup to #56 is the best examination of the relationship between science and the "spiritual" in sf cinema. Those who are convinced they are necessarily in conflict tend to misread this and not like it much (regardless of which side they favor), but the film argues (correctly) that they can be not just reconciled, but combined. (12 popular.)
30. Coherence (2013)
Not Rated | 89 min | Drama, Horror, Mystery
Strange things begin to happen when a group of friends gather for a dinner party on an evening when a comet is passing overhead.
Votes: 95,772 | Gross: $0.07M
(US 2014). All 77, Fans 87, Me 87 = 86. (Yes, 22 of the top 29 films were released in the U.S. from 2013 on.) This is actually much more head-scrambling and Primer-ish than the sub-scores would lead you to believe; the broad appeal comes from it being so entertaining scene-by-scene. It perhaps sacrifices a bit of depth in the process (I'm open to arguments to the contrary, though). (9 popular.)
31. 2046 (2004)
R | 129 min | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi
Several women enter a science fiction author's life over the course of a few years, after the author has lost the woman he considers his one true love.
Votes: 48,195 | Gross: $1.44M
(US 2005.) All 80, Fans 79, Me 89 = 86; Maj. C10 = 5; TSP = 5. Technically, this sequel to Wong's arthouse masterpiece In the Mood For Love (see that first by all means) isn't sci-fi, but it devotes a large chunk to visualizing a sci-fi story written by its lead character, and rather brilliantly so. (17 popular.)
32. Sleep Dealer (2008)
PG-13 | 90 min | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi
The near future. Like tomorrow. In a world marked by closed borders, corporate warriors, and a global computer network, three strangers risk their lives to connect, break through the barriers of technology, and unseal their fates.
Votes: 6,212 | Gross: $0.08M
(US 2009). All 65, Fans 79, Me 91 = 86. This Mexican film takes an all-too plausible sci-fi technology, smartly extrapolates three different uses for it, and knits them together in a moving and socially relevant story. I suspect that the overlap between fans of hard sf and folks interested in the film's social concerns (immigration and labor policies) is just too small, but if you're in that intersection, this is just great. Rivera co-directed the immigration documentary The Infiltrators, which just earned raves at Sundance. (7 popular).
33. The Bad Batch (2016)
R | 118 min | Drama, Horror, Romance
In a desert dystopia, a young woman is kidnapped by cannibals.
Votes: 23,231 | Gross: $0.18M
+ (US 2017.) All 62, Fans 69, Me 92 = 86. Marketed as a "cannibal romance" when the former plot element disappears after the opening and the latter barely surfaces near the end, it's thus become a serious contender for the single most misunderstood and underrated film of all time. I've weighted the "Me" score extra and bumped it up two points and 9 spots. If you want to know why, read my full review (spoiler-free as always). Armirpour, who made a memorable arthouse horror debut with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is in post-production on another genre pic that may or may not prove to be sci-fi, Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon.
34. Sound of My Voice (2011)
R | 85 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi
Two documentary filmmakers attempt to penetrate a cult who worships a woman who claims to be from the future.
Votes: 19,928 | Gross: $0.41M
(US 2012). All 73, Fans 87, Me 87 = 86; Maj. The second-film co-written by Marling (again, see #56). One or two of its puzzles may be in fact insoluble at present, since it's reportedly the first of a planned trilogy. But there's more than enough that does fit together to give it a ferocious kick. Marling and Batmanglij went on to do mini-series The OA, which should show up here in V2.0. (9 popular).
35. Resolution (III) (2012)
Not Rated | 93 min | Horror, Mystery, Thriller
A man imprisons his estranged junkie friend in an isolated cabin in the boonies of San Diego to force him through a week of sobriety, but the events of that week are being mysteriously manipulated.
(US 2013.) All 75, Fans 76, Me 91 = 86. A film so perfectly "slipstream" (see the intro) that it actually specifies which genres it might belong to. It's a meta-genre film like The Cabin in the Woods and Tucker and Dale vs Evil, but it's not quite horror, as no characters ever fear for their lives or become terrified, and instead of satire, there's a genuine exploration of why we like profoundly creepy, unsettling stories like this one. While the other films lose steam when they finish their plots, this one has a great ending that slingshots into #12 The Endless (note the titles).
36. Moon (2009)
R | 97 min | Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi
Astronaut Sam Bell has a quintessentially personal encounter toward the end of his three-year stint on the Moon, where he, working alongside his computer, GERTY, sends back to Earth parcels of a resource that has helped diminish our planet's power problems.
Votes: 321,066 | Gross: $5.01M
All 82, Fans 90, Me 82 = 86; Maj. C10 = 14; TSP = 16. I'm not sure the sci-fi scenario underlying the story makes any sense, but the story is as good as its considerable reputation (it's the only Hugo Award winner here), and I intend to revisit it. Jones went on to do Source Code, but Moon's earlier-written thematic companion, Mute, tanked so badly in 2018 that it's in my queue for V3.0. (40 popular.)
37. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
R | 99 min | Comedy, Horror
A man's uneventful life is disrupted by the zombie apocalypse.
Votes: 487,396 | Gross: $13.54M
All 84, Fans 84, Me 86 = 85. C10 = 13; TSP = 6. My rule for zombie films is that they have to include a sci-fi rationale, and this one, deservedly beloved as it is, pointedly leaves one out. However, it's the only zombie narrative I know that makes the single most important scientific point about zombies! And that easily earns it a spot. Not only is there no apocalypse, the zombie outbreak is put down in a single day. In fact, the living outnumber the newly dead 25,000 to 1, so only if there's an incredibly virulent zombie virus, as in #51, do zombies pose much of a problem.
38. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
R | 100 min | Animation, Crime, Drama
An undercover cop in a not-too-distant future becomes involved with a dangerous new drug and begins to lose his own identity as a result.
Votes: 103,106 | Gross: $5.50M
All 74, Fans 86, Me 87 = 86; Maj. C10 = 14; TSP = 20. This rotoscoped adaptation of Philip K. Dick's masterpiece doesn't quite capture all of the book's heartbreak and philosophical depth, but it hits almost all of the high points spot-on, and earned a Hugo Award nomination. (31 popular.)
39. Fish Story (2009)
112 min | Action, Comedy, Music
Several seemingly unrelated but surprisingly connected tales explain how a Japanese band that independently invented punk rock in 1975 will, 37 years later, ultimately save the world from destruction by comet.
(US 2011 DVD). All 79, Fans 88, Me 85 = 85. (Note that the content of my original note is now in the plot outline above!) This adaptation of a Kotaro Isaka novel is a different sort of puzzle film: it's a multi-threaded story like Philip K. Dick's early 60's novels, Magnolia, or Babel, but the intersecting threads are happening at different times. We therefore know from the start that certain causal relationships must exist, but how they might happen remains a mystery until very late. It's also, like That Thing You Do, a film whose plot requires a song that actually has to be great -- and succeeds. Used U.S. DVDs are fetching $120, but DVD.Netflix still has it. You're going to join, right? (3 popular.)
40. Attack the Block (2011)
R | 88 min | Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi
A teen gang in South London defend their block from an alien invasion.
Votes: 96,211 | Gross: $1.02M
All 75, Fans 82, Me 87 = 85; Maj. TSP = 15. Our heroes (led by Boyega's pre-Star Wars breakout) start off unsympathetic and have to earn our affection, to great effect. Cornish went on to co-write Ant-Man and write and direct fantasy The Kid Who Would Be King; his longtime passion project, an adaptation of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, is apparently still alive at Amazon. (20 popular.)
41. The Untamed (2016)
Not Rated | 98 min | Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi
A couple in a troubled marriage locate a meteorite, initiating an encounter with a mysterious creature. Their lives are turned upside down by the discovery of the creature, which is a source of both pleasure and destruction.
Votes: 4,041 | Gross: $0.03M
(US 2017.) All 72, Fans TBD, Me 88 = 84. Most thoughtful sf works via metaphor, but sometimes it just adds an sf trope to the actual human situation and turns it up to 11. This Mexican film is a very well crafted and disturbing arthouse psychosexual drama that features the best low-budget creature I've ever seen. See it on a triple bill with two other even better 2017 films: fantasy Thelma and horror Raw.
42. Upgrade (2018)
R | 100 min | Action, Horror, Sci-Fi
Set in the near-future, technology controls nearly all aspects of life. But when Grey, a self-labelled technophobe's world's turned upside down, his only hope for revenge is an experimental computer chip implant.
Votes: 126,495 | Gross: $11.98M
All 79, Fans 84, Me 85 = 85; Wide. Reviewers who knew that Whannell wrote the first three screenplays for both the Saw and Insidious franchises have hugely understated the very satisfying twistiness of the plot. The open question is whether the resulting holes (some very large) can be filled in on repeated viewings; if so, this could move up. In the meantime, it's plenty smart enough to engage viewers not automatically smitten by its terrific-for-budget action sequences and body-horror SFX.
43. The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)
R | 111 min | Drama, Horror, Sci-Fi