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10 Best SF Films of the Decade

Posted on Dec 21, 2009 by billsimmon in Joss Whedon, movies, SF, Star Wars, the nerd life | 14 Comments

Man, people on the interwebz are crazy about their top ten lists, especially when years, decades and centuries end. I’d just like to remind everyone reading that decades (that is, periods of ten years) are ending all the time. For example, the decade that began at 2:50 P.M. on December 21, 1999 just ended a minute ago. Where’s the fireworks? Remember people: dates are arbitrary conventions of human culture, nothing more.

With that said, here is my own list of the top ten science fiction movies of the last ten years. For the purposes of this list, I’m allowing myself a fairly broad interpretation of “science fiction” (i.e. I won’t disqualify a film for having wonky physics at work) but I’m specifically omitting comic book superhero movies (e.g. The Dark Knight) and pure fantasy films (e.g. LOtR). Movies on the list must be premised on a specifically science fictional conceit. Here goes…

09 Avatar (James Cameron, 2009). Yes, Avatar makes this list, though it’s at the bottom. It’s possible a little additional hindsight will alter my estimation of the film (moving it higher on the list or taking off the list altogether), but as a science fiction film, it’s got a lot going for it — in particular the depiction of the moon of Pandora. See my review from a couple of days ago for more of my thoughts on the film.

08 Minority Report (Stephen Spielberg, 2002). This is Spielberg’s best SF film, hands down (sorry E.T.). I think it’s underrated by SF fans because it’s a Tom Cruise film but it succeeds despite that handicap, and the supporting cast (Colin Farrell, Max Von Sydow, Tim Blake Nelson, Samantha Morton, Peter Stormare) is outstanding. It’s also one of the precious few good Philip K. Dick film adaptations out there.

07 WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008). The film that (hopefully) created millions of SF fans. The message is good, the look is beautiful, the characters are charming and it’s pure SF. Love it.

06 Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005). The decade didn’t really have a lot of space opera (outside of the woefully disappointing Star Wars prequels, two of which were in the last decade and are notably absent from this list), but Joss delivers. If I was including TV shows on this list, Serenity/Firefly would likely rate higher up as a set.

05 Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009). The best nostalgic franchise reboot since Casino Royale. This was a sacred cow of mine and I thought Abrams did right by the spirit of Trek. Plus it’s balls-out action awesomeness.

04 District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009). Expect great things from this Neill Blomkamp character. District 9 could have been at the top of this list had it not degenerated into a run-of-the-mill sci-fi action movie in the third act.

03 Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009). Quiet, internal, spooky, existential SF at its best. Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar. So does Duncan Jones.

02 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). This one often gets left off of SF lists but it’s totally science fiction. It’s also the best performance of Jim Carrey’s career. I’d like my Christmas present to be Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry promising to make more films together.

01 Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006). I still think this is a film that’s going to have a rich SF history and may be one that serious critics are talking about decades from now. If this was a list of the most important SF films of the decade, Children of Men would be in the top slot without question.

00 Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004). I watched this film twice all the way through in the same night and then watched it with Emily the next day. The film took the top prize at Sundance and a peek at Shane Carruth’s IMDb page suggests that despite the honor, he’s been unable to make another film since. It’s a science fiction masterpiece but it’s utterly unmarketable. It does everything wrong from an audience-building standpoint. There are no stars, it’s incomprehensible on a single viewing and the real payoff only comes after much post-film cogitating. It’s easily the best SF film of the decade. It’s possibly the best SF film of all time. Too bad nobody will ever know about it.

Looking at the list, one thing becomes clear: 2009 was a pretty amazing year for genre films. Four of the top ten SF films of the decade were from this last year. And this list doesn’t include films like Coraline, Watchmen, Zombieland or The Road. It’s like it’s 1982 all over again!

Feel free to take my list apart in the comments.

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  1. Hmm…as someone who loved Firefly, I’ve always been a Serenity skeptic. I had the same problem with it that I had with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which is that neither movie really much captured what I liked about the show. I suppose that was inevitable, since what I liked about both shows were usually the least cinematic parts of them (slower pacing, sly humor, epic puzzles). Both of those films had their moments, but I think both lost something pretty key in their respective translations.

    In the case of Serenity, I didn’t much care for the look and feel of the film, nor the tone, all of which didn’t feel much like the show. If it somehow worked I wouldn’t have minded, but it just kind of felt like generic “dark” sci-fi that equates pessimism with insight. And the libertarian themes were quite oppressive in the movie, more so than in the show, where they were present but not slammed in your face the whole time. Kind of felt like a South Park episode, in that respect. The movie itself was fine, smart enough to be engaging, but extremely plotty. This isn’t to say that the filmmaking wasn’t good, or that the cast did poorly, but just that I didn’t get that “wow” feeling from the movie that I did from some episodes of Firefly. Aside from my brother I can’t really find too many other people who agree with me on this, but it is kind of one of my little bugbears.

    Other than that, I compliment you on your choices. I heartily second Primer as a damn fine movie. The production values were incredibly strong, too, for something that cost a few thousand bucks to make. Compare that with The Room, which allegedly cost $6 million, and it’s just nowhere on the screen.

  2. Nice list. I haven’t seen Primer, Moon, District 9, or Avatar yet, so my own personal list would include the following instead:

    Donnie Darko, the non-director’s cut, even though it is less explicitly a science fiction film than the director’s cut.

    A Scanner Darkly. Even more “Dickian” in its paranoia than Minority Report.

    Paprika, a mind-bending SF anime from Satoshi Kon, whose movies just keep getting better.

    Iron Man, which despite being a superhero movie, is all about futuristic technology, not magic.

  3. Oh, and I agree with Lev about Serenity. I’ve seen it many times because I am a fanatical browncoat, but it lacks something compared to the TV show.

  4. I have yet another comment after watching Primer via Netflix’s “watch instantly” service this evening: it’s definitely not one of my top 10, and I am burning to know why you consider it a masterpiece.

  5. On December 21, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Therem, Donnie Darko has SF elements for sure, but I don’t think it’s predicated on an SF premise, in that I’m not sure we’re supposed to take the things that happen to Donnie literally. But yeah, good call. A Scanner Darkly — I’d actually forgotten about that one. Another good call. I Haven’t seen Paprika – Iron Man is as close to SF as comic book superhero movies get, I suppose, but if I allow that, I have to consider Spider-Man and the X-Men film b/c technically, they have SF premises too. Gotta draw the line somewhere.

  6. On December 21, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Oh, and go get Primer!!! Moon and District 9 aren’t on disk yet and you should see Avatar in digital 3-D but you have no excuse to not see Primer!

  7. On December 21, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Wait! District 9 comes ut on DVD and Blu-Ray tomorrow! Come over on New Year’s Day and we’ll watch it!

  8. I like the sound of that!

  9. Minority Report is nice and moody but the story completely falls apart in the third act. And several of the main plot devices are laughably unbelievable:

    * he uses his old eyeballs to get in to the HQ — like they wouldn’t have remembered to remove him from the whitelist

    * he escapes from the cops by having a car built *around* him in a factory — like he wouldn’t get hit by a stray rivet or laser weld

    * his wife just walks in to the country’s equivalent of a supermax prison and what, I can’t even remember how she overcomes the single guard on duty to release her husband — like they’d even let her near the place

    That said, the morose cinematography and pacing were pretty nice, and the “let’s take the precog to the mall” scene was undeniably brilliant.

  10. would A Scanner Darkly have made it if Keanu Reeves was a better actor? heh

  11. On December 26, 2009, Rob said:

    Alex is right on about Minority Report. Star Trek is pure popcorn fluff for the masses. District 9 doesn’t have a single believable character.

    The rest of your list sounds good.

    The Man From Earth, A Scanner Darkly and The Island would be my replacements.

    Cloverfield, The Chronicles of Riddick and I AM Legend even beat out the aforementioned.

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