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The 15 Best Sci-Fi and Fantasy Movies of 2021

Time-loops, clones, a King Shark, and a big green knight are just some of the things you’ll find on our annual spotlight on the year’s speculative fiction films.
Best Scifi Fantasy Movies
By  · Published on January 5th, 2022

5. Petite Maman

Petite Maman

Céline Sciamma’s follow-up to Portrait of a Lady on Fire is another exquisite work. It’s also deeply sentimental and totally adorable. Petite Maman is a kind of time-travel fantasy in which an 8-year-old girl, Nelly (Joséphine Sanz), befriends another 8-year-old girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz), who happens to be Nelly’s mother when she was that age. The film doesn’t go into any of the science or magic of what’s going on (rather than say she’s from the future, Nelly simply says she comes from the path behind Marion). It’s more like a dream narrative, though Marion isn’t merely imagined nor is she a ghost so it fits on this list.

4. Dune

Dune Chalamet
Warner Bros.

While not the first movie I saw in a theater this year, Dune was the first movie I felt I had to see on the big screen. There was no way I’d appreciate it just watching on HBO Max. Indeed, the immensity of the spectacle and the enveloping soundtrack made me feel like I was there on the desert planet of Arrakis alongside Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his warrior buddy Duncan Idaho (Jason Momoa). Actually, these top four titles on this list were among the rarities I managed to screen theatrically, and surely that says something about the best way to experience these genres. I figure Memoria would be on here had I seen it on the big screen.

The thing that keeps Dune from ranking higher is that I mostly loved the experience of watching it but haven’t really thought about it any deeper since then. The story doesn’t interest me, and I admit I didn’t always know what was going on, in detail. Fortunately, this adaptation isn’t too concerned with those details. They’re important, sure, but you can still enjoy the core narrative through Denis Villeneuve’s competent visual storytelling even if you’re having trouble paying attention to all of the whos and the whats and the whys.

3. The Suicide Squad

The Suicide Squad
Warner Bros.

The single comic book movie on the list this year is a movie that stands out on so many levels. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is like no other DC movie before it, and Gunn’s own Guardians of the Galaxy movies feel like child’s play in comparison, and I mean that in terms of quality as well as content with regards to the writing and directing. Yes, the R rating helped with a lot of the visual and verbal humor, but even without all the swears and the gore, this is a surprisingly mature effort that perfectly blends what the director has apparently learned from both his Troma and his Marvel experiences.

You can feel the love Gunn has for the material, especially for all of the outcast characters he’s chosen to make up this incarnation of the supervillain and antihero team-up. The movie is as heartfelt as it is bloody, allowing us to empathize with everyone and everything from an uber-conservative vigilante to a man-eating shark person to an anthropomorphic weasel to a giant starfish from outer space. And, of course, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is still wonderful, and yet she’s neither the best thing this time around nor is she ever really overshadowed either. There’s so much balance, so many surprises, so much hilarity, I just can’t get over how well it all works.

2. A Quiet Place Part II

A Quiet Place Cillian Murphy
Paramount Pictures

The original A Quiet Place made my list for 2018, where it ranked third. Does ranking the sequel higher mean I like it more? Not necessarily, but I am pleasantly surprised that A Quiet Place Part II at least lives up to the first movie. Returning as director and now the sole credited screenwriter, John Krasinski delivers a follow-up that never rehashes and instead again offers some of the most original and intense situations of sci-fi-horror-action we’ve seen and/or heard in decades.

Maintaining its intimate focus on character rather than on the aliens and their invasion, the sequel winds up an excellent showcase for Millicent Simmonds, who sort of receives a promotion here in the heft of her role and who holds her own very well opposite her subplot companion, Cillian Murphy (who is as great as ever). I also love that the movie can seem so plot-driven at times and then ultimately conclude without a definite ending, and that feels true to the story and its inhabitants rather than coming off like a setup for another franchise installment. This is pure sci-fi storytelling fit solely for the medium of cinema, and it’s breathtaking.

1. The Green Knight

The Green Knight

I’ve only seen The Green Knight once, which means I haven’t really seen The Green Knight. Who knows how many times it’ll take to watch David Lowery’s latest to feel entirely finished with it? There’s just so much to it, visually, aurally, thematically. You could spend different viewings focused on its philosophical or political or historical elements, or just let it be a sensory experience. It appeals broadly, and yet it’s also an esoteric art film.

An adaptation of the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the movie loosely follows the Arthurian legend in a way that feels both faithful and personal. Dev Patel stars as Gawain, who is himself a green knight, on a journey to meet his fate following an unfortunate trick performed by the titular villain. Will he manage to defeat the Green Knight and save his own head? That’s not the point. Death is inevitable anyway. As is a fade to black followed by a credits sequence.

More viewings of The Green Knight should only further my appreciation of the film and everything it has to convey about the natural world, the human condition, history and myths, existential reflection, and more. But I already know it to be the best sci-fi or fantasy movie of the year. It’s just a timeless masterpiece of writing, cinematography, score, production design, etc. Further appraisement will just extend the gap between the number one and number two entries (and everything below) over time.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.