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Lawrence Person’s Top Ten Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films of 2000-2010


Locus has asked Howard and me to offer up our respective Top Movies lists for science fiction, fantasy and horror films of 2000-2010 (i.e., The Noughties).

But before I get into the meat of my list, I want to make clear what I am (and am not) covering. First off, I’m going to limit my recommended list to feature films that had an actual theatrical release, which rules out Direct-to-DVD releases, TV movies, miniseries, compiled story arcs, movies released directly to the web, etc. (Had I not done so, I might have found room for things like the Futurama DVDs, the Battlestar Galactica miniseries, the short film version of 9, etc.) Second, when it comes to “fantasy” I’ve made an executive decision to exclude “Talking X” films (where “X” means animals, toys, etc.) from my definition. So, no Toy Story 3, no Finding Nemo, no Kung Fu Panda, no Most of Dreamworks’ Output That Wasn’t Even As Good as Kung Fu Panda. That has not stopped me from considering actual SF/F/H animated films, and you’ll see a Pixar film comes in right at the top of my list. I was willing to consider superhero films, but only one made the cut.

Finally, realize that though I’ve seen many of the SF/F/H films that came out this decade, I certainly haven’t seen all of them (there are only so many hours in the day), especially those to which I had a personal aversion or that looked just plain stupid. So I haven’t seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Wall-E, or Dances With Smurfs.

So here’s the top ten films I did see, with links to the original Locus reviews where applicable, and the IMDb otherwise.


1. The Incredibles: The Incredibles is that rare movie that was great the first time you see it, and gets better on every subsequent viewing. Far and away the best superhero movie in an era known for superhero movies, The Incredibles is both a wonderful adventure movie and a heartfelt paean to the American nuclear family, and just about every scene in it is pitch-perfect. Brad Bird has not only directed Pixar’s best film, and the best SF film of the decade, he’s directed possibly the best film of the decade, and one of the best of all time.


2. The Lord of the Rings: There were (at a minimum) about a hundred things that could have gone wrong with a movie version of The Lord of the Rings, and only four or five actually went wrong. Though flawed, director Peter Jackson does an amazing job of fitting Tolkien’s sprawling story into three epic films, maintaining the source material’s original elegiac tone, that of duty in the face of implacable odds and the melancholy of realizing that, even in victory, much of world the characters have known is doomed to pass away. Though Jackson has altered a thing or two here and there, and The Scourging of the Shire is much missed, it’s more faithful to the original than any fan could reasonably expect Hollywood to produce. There are even a few key scenes (Gandalf’s battle with the Balrog, Sauron’s burning eye, and the final shot of Mordor at the end of The Two Towers) which were actually better than the version in my mind’s eye, something that almost never happens.


3. The Prestige: Christopher Nolan has a pretty good claim as best director of the decade, and this is his best film of the decade. A dark, complex, and clever tale of a rivalry between two 19th century British stage magicians that becomes (literally) self-consuming. I actually think the film is better than the Christopher Priest novel it’s based on.


4. Donnie Darko: I said all I had to say in the review, but it remains an intriguing, compelling, frustrating, imperfect, brilliant film.


5. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: The story of a technology to erase unwanted memories, and the complications that ensue. By turns it’s surprising, amusing, and unnerving, with a clever idea and an understated script. Along with The Truman Show, it goes a long way to prove than Jim Carrey is a perfectly adequate actor when he isn’t in a Jim Carrey film. And Kate Winslet looks really, really good with red hair.


6. Inception: Oddly enough, what the setup of this movie most reminded me of was Isaac Asimov’s robot stories. Not only is an imaginary technology postulated, but the rules underlying that technology are explicated, and the entirety of the action depicted comes about from the application of those rules. The amazing thing is how fully formed the movie seems. Yes, it’s a big budget action film with amazing special effects, but Nolan has rendered a very complex idea with impressive lucidity (no astute viewer should be confused by the elaborate but explicitly delineated frames of the various dream levels). It’s no half-hearted, tentative exploration of new territory, but a coherent, convincing whole. Though not perfect (Ellen Page’s character exists only to uncover the backstory of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character), it features impeccable direction and a script clever enough to carry off its complexity. It also features DiCaprio doing some of his best acting (Nolan gets a better performance out of him than Scorsese did in The Departed), and if it’s not Hans Zimmer’s best score (he’s done a lot of great scores, though “Time” is probably among the best “uplifting closing movie themes” ever recorded), then it’s certainly the one where his talents were most needed to provide thematic continuity as the film cuts between different dream levels. It works remarkably well either taken at face value, or as extended metaphor.


7. The Mist: An extraordinarily faithful adaptation of the Stephen King short novel, one that balances the menace of monsters outside a besieged grocery store with the breakdown of civilization within it.


8. The Host: One of the best monster movies of recent memory and, unlike Cloverfield, one in which you actually care what happens to the characters.


9. Spirited Away: While a bit more uneven than My Neighbor Totoro or Princess Mononoke, this Hayao Miyazaki film is still an exceptionally engaging fantasy.


10. Primer: If you don’t know what this one is about, do yourself a favor and pick up the DVD of this low-budget science fiction gem and see it. It starts as a simple tale of a garage startup, and then unfolds into a work of dizzying complexity. Makes your mind hurt in all the right ways.


Honorable Mentions:

* Dog Soldiers: British soldiers run into werewolves on maneuvers in the Scottish highlands. The best werewolf film of recent memory.

* Let the Right One In: This Swedish tween vampire film is bit overrated, but is still a solid, surprising work.

* Pan’s Labyrinth: I’m not quite as sold on this as some critics, but Guillermo del Toro’s tight direction and arresting imagery give this WWII-era Spanish fantasy impressive heft.

* Monsters: A rich, subtle, understated and character-driven movie that will have a place on my Hugo ballot this year.

* Corpse Bride: Some of Tim Burton’s best work, though marred by unnecessary plot holes.

* Forbidden Kingdom: Essentially a big-budget Hollywood version of the classic Hong Kong supernatural action film genre (complete with Jackie Chan and Jet Li), and actually a pretty good example of the form.

* Iron Man: Probably the best of the live-action superhero movies.

* Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith: The best of the second trilogy, but you still can’t buy Anakin’s story arc.

* Children of Men: This tale of a world devoid of children is quite effective when it’s not ponderously unsubtle about its own weightiness.

* Planet Terror (from Grindhouse): A hoot and a half as a big-budget exploitation film.

* Bubble Fiction: Boom or Bust: This Japanese movie, where the female protagonist travels back in time to just before the collapse of the Japanese Bubble (in a time machine made out of a washing machine) is an amusing romp deserving of wider attention in the U.S.

* Cloverfield: Gimmicky and with paper-thin characters, it still presented a compellingly visceral experience of what would be like to be stuck in a city during a monster attack. And speaking of monsters:

* Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack: Laugh if you want, but this is possibly the best Godzilla movie since the original.

The Worst of the Worst

Now that I’ve told you what’s worth watching, here are the SF/F/H films that came out over the same period you should avoid:

* The Wicker Man: The worst film I’ve ever paid money to see in a theater.

* Skyline: Intriguing idea ruined by idiotic characters who make the callow yuppies in Cloverfield look sympathetic by comparison.

* Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter: With a name like that, how could it go wrong? Sadly I found out; it’s a joyless, incompetent and lifeless film. It even fails as an exploitation film, as the plot supposedly involves vampires preying on lesbians, and yet there’s no sex or nudity in the film. As a fan of Joe Bob Briggs, I was profoundly offended…

* Exterminator City: The worst film I’ve ever seen. Imagine someone trying to make a robot slasher film… and failing. The robots are played by puppets on coat hangers, all evidently voiced by the same (incompetent) person. The futuristic buildings are cardboard boxes with holes cut out. The flying cars are toys tossed past the camera. The same 45 second loop of lousy music is repeated over the entire length of the film. The robot slasher puppet never actually appears in the same scene as the woman it’s supposedly killing. The naked breasts of several notable scream queens are on display, and it’s still the worst film ever made.

* Finally, please note that a film called After Last Season (which I have not seen) is considered by all who have seen it as possibly the worst theatrically released film of the last quarter-century, and may theoretically be science fiction. But when a movie comes out on the losing end of comparisons with Plan 9 from Outer Space, Battlefield Earth, and Manos: The Hands of Fate, you know you’re in a pretty deep level of Cinematic Hell. Let the viewer beware.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen’s Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and Slashdot.org, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Comments

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Time February 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm

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Pingback from Best sffh films of the last decade « Sean May
Time February 24, 2011 at 9:57 pm

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Comment from Robert Nowall
Time February 25, 2011 at 5:29 am

If you haven’t seen WALL-E, you’ve missed plenty, buster. It’s SF in the way Pohl and Kornbluth wrote SF…and for the first forty minutes I was ready to pronounce it the best stop-motion animated movie ever made—that’s how convincing the CGI of it was.

Comment from James Wynn
Time February 25, 2011 at 9:34 am

The Mist made the list? And I have to confess that I am apparently immune to whatever charms Donnie Darko has. I would have put “Let the Right One In” on the list well before these and others, and I would have put Primer right at the top. The Prestige is okay when you see it but gets progressively better the more you think about it, which is probably why is underrated. Spirited Away might be the most broadly appealing of all Miyazaki’s films, but it is that door in “Howl’s Moving Castle” that I can’t get out of my mind. I really want one.
By the way, I know this is a feature film list and not a TV mini-series list, but in my opinion “The Lost Room” is the Sci-Fi/Fantasy sleeper of the decade.

Comment from bnrtn
Time February 25, 2011 at 5:48 pm

Bubba Ho-Tep should have gotten an honorable mention!

Comment from David Marshall
Time February 25, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Interesting choices, many of which I endorse. It’s a shame that you are victimised by the distribution policies adopted by the US movie industry. So you have not seen either the anime The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or the equally interesting live action sequel Time Traveller (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1614408/). You refer to Hayao Miyazaki whose work is good but cannot get to see work like Piano no Mori by Masayuki Kojima (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1119194/) which I think better. Similarly, you list Forbidden Kingdom as an honorable mention. Frankly, I find it embarrassingly bad when you compare it to films like Detective Dee (http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0178319/) which has flair even though it’s also flawed. As a leading site for promoting SF, fantasy and horror, it would be good to see Locus trying to bring pressure to bear to improve the distribution of foreign movies in the US.

Comment from Leah T.
Time March 1, 2011 at 5:21 pm

Two things:

- Where is District 9!?!?!?!
and
- WHERE IS MOON?!?!!?!


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