Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Last 15 Years

Our staff and readers have voted on the best science fiction films to hit theaters (or streamers) in the last 15 years!

Best Sci-Fi Movies of the Last 15 Years

Fifteen years is a long time. We at Den of Geek can certainly attest to that as we’ve seen the industry change and grow, embrace streaming, and pivot toward intellectual property. Yet even as our present stays in a constant state of flux, our fascination with the future remains unwavering.

What dreams may come in 15 years? Or 30? Or a hundred as technology evolves and its relationship with humanity is renegotiated?

If you told a room full of geeks in early 2007 that 2022 would be a world filled with smartphones and tablets, social media-shaped democracies, and something called “TikTok,” they might think you’d written a sci-fi movie. Still in that upheaval, we saw some pretty good science fiction stories come out in their own time, both Hollywood blockbuster big and intimately indie; iconic and underappreciated.

It’s why we’ve polled our complete staff, along with thousands of reader votes, to determine what are the 25 best sci-fi movies to be released during our first 15 years.

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Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place

25. A Quiet Place (2018)

The old adage “children should be seen and not heard” has never been more true than in John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. It isn’t a dismissive complaint from annoyed grownups; it is the key to survival against alien invaders. The first sound we hear in the film is a happy one, a kid’s toy space shuttle beaming waves of sonic joy on a bridge in the woods. It is the last noise the child will ever hear, and his helpless parents can’t even gasp in shock, or they will also be dragged into the fatal unknown. The silence is almost deafening in the 90-minute film, which only has about five minutes of dialogue. The first words are spoken about 40 minutes into the film.

Krasinski forces the audience to sharpen its focus by limiting the most visceral sense to express horror or relief. We are never told where the aliens came from or why they are attacking. We only know they are blind, and hunt by sound. The Abbott family has been communicating nonverbally for 89 days. This makes for pure motion picture storytelling, amplifying character development while muting the anguished distress. The film is about protection and survival.

Krasinski’s real-life wife Emily Blunt plays Evelyn, and together they bring a deeper fear to the movie than most science fiction thrillers. They are parents, their kids are in danger, she is pregnant, babies cry. Millicent Simmonds, who plays their daughter Regan, is deaf, which brings an emotional grounding in the film, making it somehow more immersive, subversive, frightening, and real. – Tony Sokol

Best Sci-Fi Movies Moon

24. Moon (2009)

Duncan Jones sure knows how to make an entrance. Jones’ 2009 directorial debut is a bleak exploration of loneliness and what it means to be human. Sam Rockwell turns in a brilliant performance as Sam, the sole operator of a lunar mining facility who finds himself suffering from unexplained visions. As it turns out, there’s a lot for Sam to question about the state of his reality, and Moon explores it with a kind of tense, neurotic glee.

Without getting into spoilers, Moon is virtually a one-man showcase for Rockwell with most other characters appearing on monitor screens and as disembodied voices. Like John Carpenter’s Dark Star, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, until the moments when it does. It’s an unmissable film if you haven’t seen it, and one that, despite its heavier moments, is endlessly rewatchable too. – Mike Cecchini

Chris Evans and John Hurt in Snowpiercer

23. Snowpiercer (2013)

Forget about upstairs versus downstairs drama. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho brutally encapsulates the caste system of capitalist societies with one of the best social allegories in this century. And it’s all about those who get to ride at the front of the train… and those who are consigned to the back. Prior to his Oscar winning Parasite, which removed the genre trappings Bong previously couched social commentary in, the director made a pair of terrific sci-fi movies in the West: Snowpiercer and his underrated indictment of the meat industrial complex, Okja (2017). In the former’s case, he imagines a post-apocalyptic future where the last dregs of humanity survive a frozen wasteland by traveling around the planet at super speeds on a decadent train powered by the “Holy Engine.”

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At the front of the train live the rich and leisured who had the money to buy a first class ticket when they let the world burn (or freeze). In the back resides almost everyone else: the working poor told they should be grateful they get to shovel the coal that makes the Holy Engine go while eating their own recycled waste. Among them is Chris Evans (a smart Marvel leading man who used his superhero clout to bet on artists like Bong). He believes if he can lead a revolution, things will change when they’re at the front of the train. But standing between his band of idealists and the fat cats are the middle class bureaucrats, including a wonderfully scenery-chewing Tilda Swinton. Violence ensues, as does the cold realization that nothing ever changes as long as there needs to be a top. As long as someone gets to ride upfront. – David Crow

Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis in Colossal

22. Colossal (2016)

Sometimes Gloria (Anne Hathaway) is a monster when she’s drunk. Simultaneously, an actual Kaiju-sized monster terrorizes the citizens of Seoul, South Korea. This is the hook for Nacho Vigolondo’s comedy sci-fi which is a whole lot more emotional and nuanced than it looks at first glance. Hathaway’s Gloria is a woman who’s having a bit of a life hiccup when the story starts, returning to her hometown to sort things out. There, she hangs out in a bar with a former friend of hers, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), eventually getting a job at that old watering hole. For a time, life is sweetly on hold, but when things begin to grow toxic with Oscar (hard to believe that Ted Lasso can play an a-hole, but he really can), the aforementioned Kaiju also starts causing mass devastation in Seoul.

Gloria soon discovers that if she stands (drunk or otherwise) on a certain playground at dawn, she can control the monster. Her bad choices have been made manifest. Thus begins Colossal’s true sensitive study of casual alcoholism with cracking central performances and the eye of a vastly underrated director. – Rosie Fletcher

Weird god in The Endless

21. The Endless (2017)

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s third low budget sci-fi horror offering was a hit with critics when it first emerged in 2017 and quickly became an instant cult classic with many fans of the genre. An unassuming and surprisingly funny film, The Endless follows two brothers (played by Benson and Moorhead) who return to a cult they used to be members of when they were kids after they receive a strange video in the mail and fear that the cult may be on the verge of a mass suicide.

Needless to say, things are not quite as they seem, and the film slowly unwraps the mystery at the heart of this unique community by exposing the brothers to the kind of strange phenomena and rituals that will propel them toward a truly unexpected future. A must-see. – Kirsten Howard

John Boyega in Attack the Block

20. Attack the Block (2011)

The sci-fi film that put future Star Wars star John Boyega on the map is also arguably his very best. Boyega stars as Moses, the leader of a South London street gang that’s out to cause some trouble on Guy Fawkes Night. And oh, do they find trouble when a meteor comes crashing down in their neighborhood. And this is no ordinary meteor, either. When an alien pops out and attacks Moses, the gang chases down and kills the creature, celebrating their victory over its flayed corpse. This is a huge mistake.

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Attack the Block turns into a full-blown action thriller from the point on, as Moses, Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones), and Biggz (Simon Howard) are thrust into the middle of an alien invasion and have to work together to defend their apartment complex from the creatures that have come to kill them all in an act of brutal revenge. A pre-Doctor Who Jodie Whitaker and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead) also join the fight. As you might expect, the film turns out to be about a lot more than simply defeating those pesky alien invaders, with director and writer Joe Cornish tackling issues of race and inequity in London’s oft-forgotten communities. The film certainly provides the incredibly talented Boyega with deeper, more meaningful material than the Sequel Trilogy ever did. – John Saavedra

Scarlett Johansson and Alien in Under the Skin

19. Under the Skin (2013)

Sometimes sci-fi is the perfect place to explore strange new worlds, alien races, and future technology. Under the Skin does the opposite. In viewing humanity through the eyes of Scarlett Johansson’s murderous extra terrestrial, it’s us who are strange. Jonathan Glazer’s unique arthouse masterpiece, based on Michel Faber’s novel, was almost 10 years in the making. Shot around Scotland, Johansson plays a mysterious female who seduces men, luring them into her van. Many of the men she entraps weren’t actors, but civilians caught on hidden cameras in the van and only told they were in a movie afterward. The process lends a realness that adds to the movie’s inherent strangeness. We’re not looking at how we think we might behave, but how real people actually do behave.

Under the Skin is rich and complicated, and it’s an astonishing accomplishment, a movie that captures the idiosyncratic beauty of humanity through beans on toast and Tommy Cooper, and the tragic and illogical nature of love through a harrowing sequence on a stormy beach, and the cruelty that humanity is capable of through a final brutal beat.  Never has the familiar felt so truly alien. – RF

Ana de Armas as Joi in Blade Runner 2049

18. Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

By rights, Blade Runner 2049 shouldn’t exist. It’s a sequel to one of the sacred texts of sci-fi cinema; a cult classic so classy in its noir style that at a certain point Warner Bros. thought audiences would want more via this pricy “legacy sequel.” Given the box office of Blade Runner 2049 that turned out not to be the smartest gamble. Nevertheless, director Denis Villeneuve took full advantage of this opportunity to craft an arresting and entirely credible extension of Ridley Scott’s previous 1982 vision.

If Scott’s original movie is famously rain-soaked, Villeneuve’s film is of colder stuff—it’s literally snowing for much of the movie. He takes a similarly chilly disposition with a protagonist who knows he’s a replicant. Ryan Gosling remains adept at portraying a calm surface above a tidal wave of inner conflict. But it’s his relationship with a hologram played by Ana de Armas (who may or may not really love him) that gives 2049 a new level of despair. At a certain point in the future, even the androids have created castes of sentient A.I. One machine looks down on the race of another until they all merge and converge in the uncanny valley of ugly humanity. – DC

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

17. Gravity (2013)

Sometimes it feels like folks have forgotten about Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 sci-fi flick which won seven well-deserved Oscars, including for directing, cinematography, and visual effects. Maybe that’s because Gravity played so extraordinarily well in cinemas as an immersive spectacle that it simply needs to be seen on the big screen, and in 3D no less! And unlike so many other movies that were part of the 3D craze in the early 2010s, Gravity‘s 3D actually worked, leaving audiences feeling like they had to duck behind the next row of seats to escape flying debris.

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But Gravity also brought plenty of substance to go along with that style. A career-best performance from Sandra Bullock as an astronaut stranded in orbit and forced to improvise through one harrowing life-or-death scenario after another is suitably captivating, as Bullock carries the film almost entirely on her own. But then there’s also a perfectly cast George Clooney as her crewmate, bringing his typically wry sense of humor to the infinitely cold and merciless void. It’s a masterful pairing in a similarly masterful film. – Mike Cecchini

giant robot in Pacific Rim

16. Pacific Rim (2013)

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is, quite simply, the most gorgeous giant robot vs. Kaiju movie you’ll ever see. Take a little Godzilla, a little Ultraman, throw in some Robotech and Gundam for good measure, and then season it with del Toro’s quirkily beautiful style, and you get Pacific Rim, a blockbuster so strange and wonderful that it’s almost hard to believe that studio executives actually allowed it to exist in the first place.

Set in a near-future where Kaiju have been ravaging the world for the better part of a decade, Pacific Rim tells of how humanity fights back via mentally-powered, heavily armed giant mechs known as Jaegers. If this hasn’t sold you already, well, maybe Pacific Rim isn’t for you. On the other hand, it’s perhaps the ultimate evolution of the Toho, Toei, and other purveyors of Kaiju and Tokusatsu fare aesthetic, trading “man-in-suit” ridiculousness for some of the best special effects of the 21st century and treating a concept usually dismissed as inherently silly with reverence and love. – MC

Cast of Guardians of the Galaxy

15. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Throughout the wildly successful run of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 27 films, very few directors have been given free reign to execute an especially stylish vision. The MCU is about telling stories well and efficiently, but “style” is occasionally sacrificed on the altar of “story.” Then along came James Gunn with the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, a film so vastly different from the rest of the MCU’s output that you almost wouldn’t believe it was part of the same franchise.

Gunn gave fans a genuine, old-fashioned space opera with the kind of lived-in sci-fi aesthetic beloved by fans of the original Star Wars trilogy and Tom Baker-era Doctor Who with more than a dash of color that wouldn’t have felt out of place in Mike Hodges’ Flash Gordon. As if that weren’t enough, Gunn put together one of the most memorable soundtracks of recent years, full of AM radio staples, power pop, and glam rock…and made sure there was an in-story reason for these songs to be playing on the interior of spaceships. Sure, it’s packed to the brim with Marvel Comics characters, locations, and concepts, but before this film, Groot, Rocket, Gamora, Drax, and Star-Lord weren’t exactly household names. Well, they sure are now, all thanks to this wonderful slice of sci-fi, with nary a superhero in sight. – MC

Felicity Jones in Rogue One

14. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Before we had a proper term for “legacy sequels” in 2012, Disney was busy bringing Star Wars back to the big screen. The studio’s plan? Return to the franchise roots established all the way back in 1977. The result was 2015’s The Force Awakens, a movie that felt like something of a retread of A New Hope at the time, and only glaringly more so by the end of the Sequel Trilogy. And for its follow-up next trick, Disney once again revisited the A New Hope well, but this time with a prequel film, 2016’s Rogue One, the story of the rebel agents who stole the Death Star plans, aka the MacGuffin from the original film. Overall, it’s a much better movie and arguably does a better job at celebrating George Lucas’ legacy than the carbon copy from 2015.

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Although designed to evoke familiar territory, the film directed by Gareth Edwards, and with a helping hand from filmmaker Tony Gilroy, still felt like a serious gamble at the time. Could Rogue One, a movie set mere days before A New Hope, step out of its predecessor’s shadow and do something new with the franchise?

Well, by its shocking third act, it had. Billed as a true war movie set in the galaxy far, far away, Rogue One presents a grittier vision of this universe than we’ve ever seen before where rebel spies like Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor can exist along morally gray lines as opposed to the black and white morality of the Original Trilogy. The result is a movie that’s more layered and complex than your usual Star Wars fare, anchored by an emotional performance by Felicity Jones as unlikely hero Jyn Erso and Donnie Yen as the Force-worshipping Chirrut Imwe. And while the film drags a little in the middle, the third act wraps things up with a huge battle in space and on land that both recaptures the spirit of classic Star Wars battles and showcases some new sights and sounds. – JS

Natalie Portman in Annihilation

13. Annihilation (2018)

By the time writer and director Alex Garland turned his camera’s attention to the Jeff VanderMeer novel of the same name, he had already solidified his place as one of Hollywood’s great sci-fi filmmakers with his directorial debut Ex Machina, as well as for his writing of 28 Days Later and Sunshine. If Ex Machina was built on the age-old story of machines rebelling against their creators, Annihilation went for a completely different sci-fi trope: the scientific expedition gone terribly wrong. The film follows an all-women team of scientists as they journey into the mysterious Area X, a quarantine zone in the U.S. where biology has begun mutating after a meteor crashed into the region. As the movie opens, we learn that no other expedition has ever returned from Area X, giving the whole affair a sense of doom before the mission’s even started.

In truth, the movie is vastly different from the novel it’s based on, and has more in common with “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft and the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker. As you’d expect from that excellent mix of influences, Garland’s film is imbued with an overwhelming sense of dread, as the scientists get closer to the cause of this biological anomaly where nature has evolved into something almost wholly alien. Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh lead the cast as two scientists with much deeper motivations for wanting to enter Area X than simple scientific discovery. In fact, it’s through them, as well characters played by Oscar Isaac, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Tuva Novotny, that the movie explores one of the story’s central questions: What drives someone to partake in a suicide mission in the first place? The answer, like the film’s chilling third act, may very well terrify you.  – JS

Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper

12. Looper (2012)

Five years before he wrote and directed modern Star Wars: The Last Jedi, filmmaker Rian Johnson established his sci-fi bona fides on a smaller scale with Looper, which is fit-to-bursting with pure love for science fiction and all of its speculative potential. Joe (fittingly played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a contract killer, or looper, for a 2044 Kansas City crime syndicate. Since tracking technology in the future makes disposing of bodies impossible, the 2074 version of the syndicate sends victims back to 2044 for Joe to take care of. It’s a simple gig, save for that one catch where the 2074 loopers are sent back to be exterminated by their past selves, effectively “closing their loop.”

Joe’s future self is played by Bruce Willis and when it’s his turn in front of the blunderbuss shotgun, he has no intention of going quietly. That’s a strong enough setup for any sci-fi concept, but Looper isn’t satisfied to settle for merely the “would you kill the future version of yourself for a bunch of money” hypothetical. The movie sprawls out into unexpected and fascinating directions, incorporating advanced human biology bordering on the supernatural and making room for a superb Emily Blunt performance. – Alec Bojalad

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Matt Damon in The Martian

11. The Martian (2015)

Ridley Scott was back at the top of his game with this highly believable story of an astronaut stuck on Mars. The film is based on Andy Weir’s novel of the same name, and it features Matt Damon as Mark Watney, the astronaut abandoned on the red planet when his team assumes he died following a disaster. Now Watney must get a signal to Earth to show he’s still alive and find ingenious ways to survive long enough for a potential rescue mission to reach him.

There’s lots of fascinating science here, including explorations into how things would actually work in the atmosphere of Mars, and NASA was consulted in order to get elements of space travel correct. The detail is fascinating but the resilience of the human spirit is at the heart. It’s an old-fashioned story of resourcefulness and bravery, and we are with Watney through all the highs and lows of his quest to survive, while to his team mates trying to save him and the public back on Earth he’s a symbol of hope. It’s a clever, at times funny, and extremely emotionally satisfying  film with a career best performance from Damon. – RF

robot in WALL-E

10. WALL-E (2008)

Imagine, if you will, a future techno-capitalist hellscape. The Earth is trashed. The human race bums around the universe on an antique luxury star-liner run by a misanthropic Autopilot. Touchscreens hover over our corpulent, reclined bodies as we cycle through mindless entertainment options until the fake sun goes back down. Welcome to the grim world of… PG animated family film, WALL-E.

2008’s WALL-E is another win for venerated studio Pixar and a surprisingly scathing social critique. The premise of the movie is simple. What if humanity left Earth and forgot to turn the last robot off on our way out? That question gives way to a remarkable sci-fi adventure story. Amid all the future dystopia is the dogged determination of a little robot with a job to do. Simply by clocking in, crushing his trash into cubes, and being himself, WALL-E makes a compelling case that humanity deserves a second chance. If we can make loveable robots like WALL-E and his sleek love interest Eve, then we really can’t be all that bad, can we? – AB

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

9. Her (2013)

Spike Jonze’s fourth feature as a director (and first as a solo screenwriter) is a gentle, melancholy yet incisive look at human relationships in an age of encroaching technology. Introverted Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, perfect) whose job is composing personal letters for people who are unable to do so themselves, is depressed and lonely after the end of his marriage with Catherine (Rooney Mara). When he installs a new operating system at home, a virtual assistant which he names Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is programmed to evolve on its own, and soon Theodore and Samantha begin an intimate relationship, even as Samantha begins to advance beyond human comprehension.

More relevant than ever, Her presents Theodore and the other humans in the story (including Amy Adams and Chris Pratt, among others) as lost, unable to connect emotionally with each other in a world where technology continues to keep us isolated. The love story between Theodore and Samantha (with Johansson doing excellent voice work) is believably developed, and Samantha’s final stages of development hint at unknown realms of consciousness we can only guess at. This is a marvelous, sad, and moving work of original science fiction from a filmmaker who’s been absent for too long. – Don Kaye

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Sharlto Copley in District 9

8. District 9 (2009)

South African writer-director Neill Blomkamp literally came out of nowhere (after working as a special effects artist for a decade or so) with his debut feature, which was produced by Peter Jackson and based on a short that Blomkamp had made a few years earlier. In the film, the inhabitants of an alien spaceship that appears over Johannesburg are confined to an internment camp called District 9. Plans on both sides–by the government to relocate the “prawns” and by the aliens to return to their ship–go awry as the inept bureaucrat (Sharlto Copley) leading the government operation inadvertently begins mutating into a “prawn” himself due to exposure to alien fuel.

Shot in a semi-documentary fashion and relentlessly intense from start to finish, District 9’s reputation as one of the best sci-fi films of the 2000s is well-earned. As with all great sci-fi, the film uses its premise to touch on racism, xenophobia, human (or otherwise) rights, and segregation, with South Africa’s own shameful history of apartheid lurking in the background. Copley, also an unknown until this, gives a superb performance as the tragic Wikus while Blomkamp’s handling of the material is sharp and focused all the way through. It’s a pity he’s never done anything nearly as good since. – DK

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow

7. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Time loops are nearly always a character goldmine for the sci-fi genre, and Edge of Tomorrow is no different as it forces U.S. Army Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) into refining his mental and physical strength over countless loops in the midst of a futuristic battle to save the Earth from crafty aliens. Doug Liman’s risky movie ended up being a cult hit from the pen of Christopher McQuarrie, and while the movie’s conclusion was written during filming and is often considered the most underwhelming part of what is otherwise an action-packed sci-fi gem, it’s a treat to see Cruise playing against type as the hapless Cage, with Emily Blunt’s heroic Sgt. Rita Vrataski relentlessly putting the screws on him until he’s worthy. – KH

Timothee Chalamet in Dune

6. Dune (2021)

Readers’ Choice!

Dune has long been regarded as one of those “unfilmable” books, with Frank Herbert’s classic novel about humanity’s far future considered too dense and complex to truly translate to the screen. And indeed, it took three tries to get it right: following David Lynch’s disastrous 1984 feature and a 2000 Sci-Fi Channel miniseries that was okay but ultimately disposable, director Denis Villeneuve has finally gotten it right with his epic big budget film, an ambitious movie that captures both the vast cosmic scope and eerie personal mysticism that has made this material so compelling for nearly 60 years.

Working with an incredible cast that almost all fit their roles to a tee, Villeneuve has created a film that is largely faithful to the first half of Herbert’s book while bringing it to the screen with jaw-dropping visuals that seem to leap off the page. Splitting the book into two parts was both a wise decision and a risky one, as the hero’s journey hinted at in the first half gives way to something much darker in the second (not to mention Herbert’s sequels). How Villeneuve handles that remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Dune is a glorious, often stunning adaptation of a science fiction landmark. – DK

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Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

5. Ex Machina (2015)

A machine achieves sentiency. It’s one of the pillars of the science fiction genre since at least Metropolis. Yet it’s arguable no sci-fi has gone to the lengths of imagining the difficulty of achieving (and thereby proving) artificial intelligence that Alex Garland’s Ex Machina embarks on. Practically a parlor room drama between a programmer (Domhnall Gleeson), a mad tech bro genius (Oscar Isaac in one of his grooviest roles), and his creation, Ava (Alicia Vikander), this movie strips its elements down to the narrative basics and reaches back to an era where mood and aesthetics outweighed plot or special effects.

To be sure, Vikander’s Ava is still a technical wonder. She’s encased in an Oscar winning design by Andrew Whitehurst that is both feminine and frightening. But it’s her performance that invites true scrutiny and debate, much as Gleeson and Isaac’s modern day Prometheuses argue over the merits of AI. It’s in those long conversations, and the pregnant pauses between them where the full implication of an AI future is considered, that Ex Machina burrows under the skin and makes you wonder if there is bone or metal beneath. – DC

spaceship and black hole in Interstellar

4. Interstellar (2014)

Finishing higher on this sort of list than many might have expected in 2014, there’s a strange haunting quality to Christopher Nolan’s space epic that lingers on nearly a decade later. As its enigmatic filmmaker’s most heartfelt and sentimental movie, Interstellar bends time and gravity itself—and even educated millions about the theory of relativity—in order to talk about the love between fathers and daughters.

There’s of course more going on in Interstellar than just that. This is a secular end times myth which imagines a future where humanity is forced to save itself by adapting to life among the stars, and crafts that idea in an old-fashioned adventure that would do Jules Verne proud. Here we have a collection of scientists who are steeped in the scientific research of our day (the film even correctly predicted what a black hole would look like) going on a wild quest where their kids get older but they stay the same age. How fitting Nolan cast Matthew McConaughey.

Also, that Hans Zimmer organ score wrapped in religiosity is still one of the best filmic symphonies in this century. – DC

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception hall scene

3. Inception (2010)

Christopher Nolan’s other great sci-fi film from the last 15 years, Inception is less concerned with the hard science that exists about its subject of choice—lucid dreaming—than it is with using “dream logic” as a backdrop to craft one of the most satisfyingly knotty crowdpleasers in recent memory. At the end of the day, Inception is a heist movie that plays with narrative form and structure to fold in on itself, not unlike the cityscapes of Paris during one famous scene.

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Something of a cinematic manifesto for Nolan, Inception provides an allegorical mission statement about how a director puts together a crew in order to implant ideas into your little head. The magic of the film, then, is that such airs never feel pretentious or heavy handed. Rather they fade to the background of an otherwise thrillingly robust action movie that never talks down. This one favors to instead ask the audience to keep up as it uses “dream infiltration” to weave a labyrinthine adventure that can be as dizzying as it is visceral whenever a train manifests on a city street or a hotel hallway rotates on a 60-degree axis. – DC

Arrival Communication

2. Arrival (2016)

Based on the Ted Chiang tale “Story of Your Life,” Arrival details the first contact between human and alien life through the science of linguistics. Language professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is recruited by the government–after a dozen massive ships appear around the globe–to attempt to decode the aliens’ tongue, find a way to communicate with them, and learn what they want. But Banks, haunted by memories of a terrible tragedy in her life, discovers that the aliens’ language unlocks her own mind in ways that she couldn’t have foreseen.

Once again, director Denis Villeneuve (working with a script by Eric Heisserer) displays his knack for taking cerebral, literary sci-fi and turning it into a compelling, thrilling, and ultimately deeply moving theatrical experience. Arrival adds a few cinematic wrinkles–some action, a world “crisis” surrounding the appearance of the aliens–but stays true to its mind-bending premise and incredibly profound themes of loss, memory, grief, and life choices. Filmed science fiction has rarely been better. – DK

Furiosa in Mad Max- Fury Road

1. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

The Mad Max movies are often thought of as action films, and with good reason. But it’s worth noting that they are also a remarkable series of stories set in a fully developed, consistently engaging post-apocalyptic world as imaginative as anything we’ve seen in films more often referred to as sci-fi. All of which makes the franchise not just one of the great action properties but also one of cinema’s best sci-fi sagas. 

That is why director and co-writer George Miller’s return to the world of Max Rockatansky was so highly anticipated; here is one of the rare directors who gets the combination of action and sci-fi right. And make no mistake, his long-awaited fourth film in the cycle, Mad Max: Fury Road, was a triumph in every way and a towering masterpiece in both genres. It expanded both the world and journey of Max (now played by a taciturn but still magnetic Tom Hardy), added a relevant, impressive and multi-dimensional new character in the form of Furiosa (a magnetic Charlize Theron), and delivered one stunning sequence after another, right up to its mind-blowing final chase.

Mad Max: Fury Road is genre fare, to be sure, but it’s a magnificent example of the kind of immersive, senses-enveloping, imagination-stretching storytelling that blockbuster cinema and a director like Miller can do best. Its themes, particularly about the patriarchal traps always placed around women, its imagery, and its sheer kineticism never get old or mundane, and its artistry nearly transcends itself. There’s a reason–many, in fact–why this tops the list, and will likely continue to do so in years to come. It’s a stone cold classic. – DK

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