Was this a good year for science fiction and fantasy movies? Well, let’s see: there was an abysmal Terminator installment (and that’s harsh coming from me, because I really enjoyed the last couple), a frustratingly popular yet mediocre Jurassic Park sequel, a weak and sloppy Avengers sequel and a Fantastic Four reboot that shockingly was worse than Roger Corman’s version.
Jupiter Ascending was mostly a disaster, Tomorrowland was mostly a disaster, Chappie was mostly a disaster, Pan was mostly a disaster, Pixels was a total disaster, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 was a total disaster, Frozen Fever was just an embarrassment, Self/Less was a bore and so were all the YA dystopia franchise entries – your Divergents and Hunger Gameses and Scorch Trialses.
However, we did get new Mad Max and Star Wars sequels, and one of them exceeded our expectations while the other at least met them. Thirteen other releases this year are, if not perfect, worthy of recommendation to the most hardcore or most casual of genre fans. Among them can be found FSR’s picks for movie of the year, scene of the year and performer of the year.
One of them could even be the movie that finally gives sci-fi a Best Picture win at the Oscars.
15. The Visit
Not to be confused with M. Night Shyamalan’s new (disappointingly not sci-fi) movie of the same name, the latest documentary from Danish filmmaker Michael Madsen (Into Eternity) is technically science fact, only it speculatively concerns things that haven’t happened yet. The feature, subtitled “An Alien Encounter,” interviews people from NASA, SETI, the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs and other places housing experts on what will happen when extraterrestrials finally arrive on Earth. Some of the talking heads address the camera directly, as if they’re talking to the interplanetary visitors, while others simply express the various reasons why any such encounter will surely turn out bad.
In a year surprisingly light on superhero movies, Marvel’s smallest entry yet, fittingly featuring its smallest character yet, easily beat out the other two. That’s not saying much, and Ant-Man sure doesn’t look like it cost even the mere $130m it’s reported to have been budgeted at, but it’s one of the more entertaining MCU installments regardless of timing. Most of the credit goes to Michael Pena, whose comic relief overshadows the fact that the movie’s hero (Paul Rudd) is himself a jokester. It’s also easily enjoyed independently of its mega-franchise connections as simply a sci-fi heist film about a guy who can become miniature thanks to a special suit.
13 and 12. The Good Dinosaur and Inside Out
Both of Pixar’s feature releases this year are just barely qualifiable as sci-fi and/or fantasy. The Good Dinosaur is alternate history set on an Earth where the dinosaurs didn’t become extinct – though there doesn’t seem to be any reason why its story couldn’t work without that idea, just with anything else in place of the human character (or with him, since it’s just a cartoon). And Inside Out imagines our minds are full of little creatures representing our emotions running the show – but of course, none of it’s supposed to be taken literally a la Meet Dave. Each of these very dissimilar movies has its charms and each has its faults, and together they show us the animation studio is still brimming with brilliance, and the genius is not all uniform. Speaking of which, an honorable mention has to go to the new Pixar short Sanjay’s Super Team.
Rounding out a quartet from the Mouse House is Disney’s unnecessary but ravishing live-action remake of its own 1950 animated classic. The songs have been discarded, which allows us to focus more on the scenery, particularly the costumes, as well as Cate Blanchett chewing that scenery with old school Hollywood glam. She’s the best thing about the fairy tale feature, but while there’s not much else that really stands out there’s almost nothing to complain about with the largely safe but still magical effort. I don’t buy that Kenneth Branagh brings anything of depth related to his knack for Shakespearean adaptation to this version of “Cinderella.” It’s just a very good family film.
If you think the time-travel paradoxes of the Terminator franchise are crazy, wait’ll you get a load of this, our obligatory mind-bending sci-fi movie for 2015. Its twisted narrative comes mostly from the 1959 Robert Heinlein short story “All You Zombies,” and if you’re not familiar with its plot then you should just go in cold. Written and directed by the Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers), the movie stars Ethan Hawke, who made his debut with a fun sci-fi feature 30 years ago, Explorers, and ought to do more of it. There are parts of Predestination that may remind you of Gattaca, in fact, by way of some weak overarching window dressing that’s clearly there to distract us from realizing how much our brain is getting fucked.
9. Crimson Peak
This inclusion is definitely not to make up for leaving Pacific Rim off the list two years ago. While hardly a perfect movie, Crimson Peak is nevertheless Guillermo del Toro’s most satisfying cinematic experience since, well, maybe ever (Hellboy II: The Golden Army gets points off for having to follow the first Hellboy). Sadly, the ghosts that qualify it to be here are the weakest part, but the rest is a visual treat and features two more unforgettable performances from the always enchanting Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain. Plus, with his supporting role here, Charlie Hunnam does make up for being in Pacific Rim two years ago.
8. When Marnie Was There
As someone who doesn’t always love the bigger, more surreal efforts of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli overall, this quieter film from the company by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty) easily won me over. And as someone who watches a lot of documentaries, the animated feature surprised me by feeling more real at times than anything else I saw this year. Strange, as it’s centered around the story of a little girl and a friendly ghost. When Marnie Was There is also a bittersweet ending for Studio Ghibli – well, except they have a co-production in the works, so it’s not totally over for them – given that it’s not been more appreciated.
7. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
If you love the original Star Wars trilogy, it’s hard not to love this event movie to end all event movies. The highly anticipated sequel, which offers redemption for the Star Wars prequels by pretty much being a remake of the beloved first film, is not going to change the world (except to buy the Marshall-Kennedy family another silo filled with gold). It is at least a blast, entertaining on nostalgic and non-nostalgic levels, and an amazing achievement to satisfy so many people in spite of the seemingly impossible expectations. It may not be the best sci-fi movie of the year, but it does have more of our favorite new characters, all of whom we look forward to seeing in more and more and maybe even more Star Wars installments.
6. The Martian
Twentieth Century Fox Film Coroporation
The one movie on this list that could change the world, and not because of its box office success or its Best Picture chances. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andrew Weir’s tech-focused novel is enough of a patriotic propaganda puff piece for American space exploration that it’s likely already had a significant impact on current and future members of NASA (also on President Obama, who named this his favorite movie of the year). It sciences the shit out of an entertaining rescue story, and vice versa, giving us the kind of optimistic sci-fi that Tomorrowland wanted to be (and is, just less successfully). If only it could have had more dramatic tension, and more Michael Pena.
5. Hard to Be a God
Terry Gilliam should have had a cameo in this, instead of in Jupiter Ascending, though even he might have found its dirty depiction of the Dark Ages to go overboard with its scatological filth. Based on the novel by the Strugatsky Brothers (who also wrote the source for Tarkovsky’s Stalker), Hard to Be a God is a three-hour black-and-white tale of a scientist from Earth who, along with many more, is stranded on a planet similar to ours except that it’s permanently stuck in the time before the Renaissance. It’s hard to watch but also hard not to watch, not always easy to follow yet always easy to get. It’s the final film of Aleksei German, who died as he was finally finishing the decades-in-the-making feature, and it’s literally full of shit. And piss and snot and blood and other body fluids. To put it in a perspective a lot of our readers will understand, it makes Game of Thrones look like Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. And it’s not as obscure as you’d think: you can currently stream it on Netflix.
4. Ex Machina
Alex Garland’s directorial debut is the best movie of the year starring Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson and the best movie of the year featuring our performer of the year, Alicia Vikander, and the best movie about A.I. since A.I. It is somewhat frustrating how the third act goes precisely as expected, but this isn’t a movie to be cherished for its plot, which seems to be an adaptation of the Turing test. The performances are primarily the draw, and that includes the too-brief dance number. Isaac’s portrayal of a robotics genius who has built intelligent robots for all the wrong reasons might be the most perfect bit of acting in all of 2015. The fact that audiences would rather see Avengers: Age of Ultron and Terminator Genisys for stories involving the same subject matter makes me wonder if scientists should be concentrating on natural intelligence before the artificial kind.
3. What We Do in the Shadows
Just when you thought there were too many movies about vampires, the funniest film of the year comes along and manages to find a coffin’s worth of fresh material for the undead creatures. What We Do in the Shadows, which is written and directed by Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, who also star, keeps mockumentary alive beyond the tiring sitcom trend, too. An announced sequel that will focus on werewolves (plus a possible spinoff series), can’t come fast enough, especially since Waititi is now busy with Marvel movies and Disney animated features thanks to his increased acclaim. If Thor: Ragnarok winds up being even a tenth as great as this, it will be the best MCU installment yet. Unfortunately, i’ll probably be more like a twentieth.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road
All science fiction movies should be this simple at their core. George Miller’s return to his breakout Mad Max franchise is basically just a movie about a bunch of people driving in one direction and then turning around and driving in the opposite direction. It’s a mad, mad, mad mad post-apocalyptic world, filled with crazy spectacle involving mashup vehicles, cosplay-fueling getups and incredible stunt work. Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is the greatest woman action hero since Ellen Ripley, while Nicholas Hoult gives the most underrated performance of 2015 as Nux, the War Boy with a change of heart and allegiance. And as great as those characters are, if we never see them in another movie ever, I will be very satisfied. The Doof Warrior needs to be in everything, though, not just Mad Max movies.
1. World of Tomorrow
If you’d have picked any other movie to top this list, you haven’t met Emily. And her clone from the future. This animated short by Don Hertzfeldt (Oscar nominee for Rejected) has everything you could want in a sci-fi movie, including time travel, space travel, robots, aliens, romances with rocks, romances with fuel pumps, you name it. The filmmaker’s young niece unknowingly provides the innocent voice of the main character, a little girl who meets her identical descendent, as has always been the case. They go on a little adventure involving technology and art, love and death, living and remembering. Short film is overpopulated with sci-fi stories lately, most of them apparently serving as calling cards for bigger things. With World of Tomorrow, Hertzfeldt has hopefully also moved onto something bigger, specifically a bigger audience for his genius.
Related Topics: Science Fiction