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Best sf films since 2000


So Shaun Duke says Interstellar is one of the best sf films of this century and I’m like no way and he’s like way and so he challenges me to produce my own list of top ten sf films of the last fourteen years… And it’s actually quite difficult as I can think of two dozen off the top of my head that are better than Interstellar, but I have to whittle it down to only ten. Which I did. And here they are…

1 Cargo, Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter (2009) I’m surprised this film isn’t better known. Perhaps it makes a little too free and easy with some well-known tropes, but this Schweitzer Deutsch production puts them to excellent use, and still manages to ring some changes.

2 Avalon, Mamoru Oshii (2001) A Japanese film made in Poland with a Polish cast. It looks amazing, and the VR game plot with its layers of realities seriously messes with your head.

3 Primer, Shane Carruth (2004) Probably the best time travel film ever made. And it’s impossible to work out the plot.

4 Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013) An improvement on the book. Shot guerilla-style in Glasgow, with Scarlett Johansson as an enigmatic alien.

5 John Carter, Andrew Stanton (2012) Commercially a flop, but there’s much to like in this tentpole blockbuster – it looks gorgeous, the script is far smarter than the material had any right to expect, and the cast all play good turns.

6 Sky Captain and the World Of Tomorrow, Kerry Conran (2004) A CGI-fest which makes perhaps too much of a feast of its source material – while the pulp production design looks wonderful, the pulp narrative didn’t sit well with modern audiences.

7 Dredd, Pete Travis (2012) Who knew an art house version of the Mega City One lawmaker would work so well?

8 Upstream Colour, Shane Carruth (2013) Elliptical and even more of a mind-fuck than Primer.

9 Timecrimes, Nacho Vigalondo (2007) More time paradoxes than you can shake a reasonably large Moebius loop at.

10 Sound of My Voice, Zal Batmanglij (2011) A  clever study of the cult mentality, with Brit Marling as a “prophet” from the future.

Honourable mentions: Apollo 18 (2011), amazingly accurate rendition of an Apollo mission, with monsters; Gravity (2013), not quite as accurate, no monsters either; Possible Worlds (2000), odd and under-stated many worlds thriller; Natural City (2003), frenetic Korean cyberpunk actioner; Time Of The Wolf (2003), Haneke does post-apocalypse.


42 thoughts on “Best sf films since 2000

  1. I know that this is really a matter personal taste but there’s in no way Cargo (which is ok but nothing special – very VERY derivative in fact), Sky Captain (which is awful) and Apollo 18 (which is just meh) are better than Interstellar.

    • They’re on my list because they are better than Interstellar. Cargo did so many things right that Hollywood gets wrong every time, and accusing it of being derivative is a bit rich if you’re singing the praises of a Hollywood film. Perhaps you have to be an Apollo junkie to appreciate how well Apollo 18 was put together. And Sky Captain’s only failure was in using the story patterns of its inspirations, and not just the aesthetic.

      • I think antihippy is entirely correct on Sky Captain. I’ve only seen Cargo once, though. I liked it, but I didn’t recall it being anything special. A second viewing may be a good idea, though.

        • The reason Cargo is so good is because it hardly puts a foot wrong. The story is tight, the special effects look really good, the central premise has all the goshwow you want, it passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours… If some of the ideas in it are a little secondhand, that still doesn’t mean it isn’t a really well-engineered piece of sf cinema.

  2. With the greatest of respect, Ian- and I do mean with the greatest of respect – I do feel that any ‘best of’ list that includes such an utter turkey as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow essentially auto-invalidates itself, as does the suggestion that it might in some way, thanks to its (entirely hidden to me) inherent virtues, be a _better movie_ than Interstellar, a movie I personally enjoyed despite its – relatively minor – flaws.

    • Interstellar didn’t have minor flaws, it had major ones – like, for example, the point that the entire plot doesn’t actually work. Sky Captain, otoh, failed only in being too true to its inspirations – it looked gorgeous, its story was pure pulp, and it was made with a level of rigour most directors would do well take note of.

  3. I’m surprised to see as big a flop as John Carter on the list. I have struggled to enjoy it, especially with it’s lengthy false starts. Still, I would probably place Southland Tales on such a list, and it’s hardly well regarded.

    Unexpected choice of Avalon over GitS: Innocence as well, but I am inclined to agree. Avalon manages a lot with a deceptively thin plot. And you’re right that the aesthetic is brilliant.

    Not exactly science fiction, but I think it’s hard not to argue for the inclusion of the Jodorowsky’s Dune doc. It’s pretty much perfect, and really revitalised my enthusiasm for the genre when I was getting bored of Hollywood’s (mis)use of SF aesthetics in otherwise non-SF stories. Yet to see Interstellar, but it looks like more overly sentimental gunk along those lines…

    • That’s one of the reasons I think John Carter is so good, because of its cleverly nested narratives, with the double pay-off. Not to mention the big emotional bomb when he fights the Warhoon, caused by delaying the reveal about his family.

      I’ve seen Southland Tales a couple of times but I can’t get into it. And while I’ve seen Ghost in the Shell, I’m not much of a fan of anime and much prefer live action.

      I really want to see the Jodorowsky documentary, but it’s not been released in the UK, and US Blu-rays are hideously expensive. I’m not sure if it’s region-locked, but my Blu-Ray player is only region-free for DVDs.

      • I suspect you’d love the hell out of Jodorowsky’s Dune. But I wouldn’t include it on a science fiction list, since it’s an obvious documentary about a movie that doesn’t exist. I would include it on a list of best documentaries, though, because it’s really quite exceptional.

  4. obviously a tongue in cheek list

  5. Thank you very much for including John Carter. Very underrated film.

  6. I’m not familiar with #1 or #2…but there is a lot on this list to love.

    A bit shocked by John Carter…which is very good, but I am not sure its top ten good.

    Glad to see Sky Captain get some love though–I suspect Pulp only works for a very few things (Indiana Jones, the 1999 Mummy) and otherwise falls flat (Phantom, Shadow, Sky Captain, Rocketeer…)

    • Given that I initially thought of around two dozen sf films since 2000 I considered better than Interstellar, picking a top ten wasn’t easy. But I’ve always maintained John Carter is a much, much better film than most people think. It’s very cleverly structured, it’s turned its basically reactionary source material into something progressive, and the production design is gorgeous. The worst that can be said of it is that there are a few longeurs.

    • I’m with Ian here. I don’t think John Carter would make my top 10 list, but I do this it is severely underrated.

  7. Interesting list, especially as I’m not familiar with many of them, so it will make for a great source of reference for what to watch when I get a spare weekend. I quite enjoyed Under the Skin, but found the disparity between the wobbly van-cam and the highly polished (and disturbing) CGI scenes jarring, and the Predator-style plot was of limited appeal. Top of my list since 2000 would probably be Troll Hunter, or Metropolis if we’re talking Animé.

    • I’m not sure I’d classify Trollhunter as sf, though it does treat the trolls like cryptozoology. Had I been a little more flexible, I’d probably have included Norwegian Ninja, as alternate history of often considered a branch of science fiction…

  8. No, maybe it’s not quite SF, but it’s probably better than any SF film I’ve seen in the past 15 years, and has SF elements as you say. Although it’s a few years out of contention here, there’s something about Gattaca I love too – for me it’s the best SF film of the past 25 years.

  9. I really liked Sky Captain – mainly for the look of it, I suppose. Fabulous imagery, a mix of 1930/40s pulp, 1960s war comics, Tintin, Thunderbirds, and old sf films. Marvelous stuff. I hadn’t had any warning or info about it, except fir suddenly seeing cinema trailers, which looked great. Not much in the way of “science” in the fiction, but it didn’t pretend to and anyway I wasn’t expecting that going in; as far as I recall, I was expecting massive tentacled death-ray robots, WW2 propeller fighters that could fly underwater, and a Cloudbase affair. Which I got.

    I missed John Carter as the advance buzz was muted, the trailers didn’t look at all inspiring and the reviews were poor, but then I read a positive Michael Moorcock review somewhere (which I can’t now find) and I now wish I had seen the film when it came out (I don’t like watching films on TV, so if I miss it in the cinema, that’s generally it).

    And I suppose I would like to have seen Apollo 18 now I see how you talk about it, as I have followed and read up on Apollo stuff since I was 11 in 1969 (I recently counted & listed them – I have 237 non-fiction books on various aspects of US and Russian spaceflight). If it is as technically accurate in its depiction of a moon flight as you say (bar the monsters) then it would have been interesting to see. But again the trailers put me off, and the monster/horror/found footage elements. And the “secret mission” aspects put me off too, reminding me of moon-hoax stuff… Not having seen the film, I don’t know how they found the footage or kept a Saturn 5 launch secret. Perhaps space ennui and general boredom did the trick.

    Incidentally, I learned about the band Anathema from you, so that’s good!

    • The first time I watched Sky Captain, I was initially disappointed as the story didn’t appear to match the sheer genius of the visuals. But then it occurred to me that the entire movie was a pastiche of pulp serials – and seen in that light, they way Conran told his story makes sense. There are so many borrowed shots and story links from serials in Sky Captain, I now find it impossible without seeing it as an extended pulp serial.

      John Carter I saw in 3D IMAX and it was fabulous. I generally ignore advance reviews – they said Interstellar was good, for example – and usually wait until people I know online have seen the film. I’d initially dismissed Dredd but was persuaded to see it by friends on Twitter – and I’m glad I did. I’d originally planned to see Guardians of the Galaxy at the cinema – I’ve always liked the comic; yes, the original GotG comic 🙂 – but then I started hearing bad things about it, so I decided to wait for the DVD.

      There’s a glaring plot-hole in Apollo 18 – it’s a “found footage” film, but there’s no mention of how the footage was found – especially since you’d imagine it’d still be up there on the Moon. The rock monsters are silly, but the Apollo hardware is spot-on, the integration of real Apollo footage for the launch and EVAs is cleverly done, and the sudden appearance of the LK is brilliant. I like Apollo 18 better than Gravity, possibly because its makers decided it was a straight monster movie but chose to make the setting as accurate as they could.

  10. An interesting selection, including a couple of offerings new to me which I will simply have to check out.

    Comments touch upon the usual with such a ‘best of’ list as criteria vary with individual.

    We (at SF2Concat) do have a ‘Best Films’ of the previous year every January but include a couple of linesof what it is (because, for instance, some – such as many Hugo nominators – like Hollywood) but link to trailers so folk can get a flavour of what they are like. (Something that would be better — if you don’t mind the suggestion — than a link to tax dodging, publisher squeezing, bookshop undermining, dubious employment practicing Amazon.)

    Our best of for 2013 is here

    We also do a British Isles top ten box office (which is cinema sales) for the 12 months to Easter (we used to publish a print edition at the Eastercon in 1980s and ’90s) but the more interesting offerings we cite are below this in an ‘other worthies’ section.

    Last year’s here

    Anyway, thanks for this piece.

    • I’m not sure that linking to Hollywood studios is any better than linking to Amazon, and I would dearly love to link elsewhere than Amazon – but I’ve yet to find an online retailer with an affiliate scheme as easy to use or as good as Amazon’s.

      Thanks for the link to your list – I’ll admit I’ve not seen quite a few of them. I have, for example, managed to avoid the hobbit films so far…

  11. Add Europa Report. To my mind a better version of Apollo 18 type story.

    • I didn’t rate Europe Report all that highly. Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets did a much more impressive job of it. Also, the non-chronological narrative didn’t work – Sharlto Copley just sort of vanished halfway through the film and it was a while before you learnt why.

      • The CCTV video nature of the narrative made it sketchy and I liked that aspect. It created an original way to tell a story that doesn’t always add up. There weren’t answers to everything. How could there be? Certainly not a Hollywood film by any stretch

        • I can’t recall if Europa Report explained how they’d retrieved the found footage – I know Apollo 18 didn’t, and it was a flaw. Certainly it wasn’t a Hollywood film – many of those on my list aren’t 🙂

          • It was transmitted back, as I recall from the circling mother ship. The ground crew on Earth pieced it back together to create continuity. Of course, I imagine that in reality scientists wouldn’t edit quite so neatly and they’d show a 100 hours of raw footage. But we can forgive that, I suppose.

            • Ah right. I had a feeling they either received a feed or it was transmitted at the end. Have you seen Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets? It was a BBC mini-series. Made a much better fist of an interplanetary mission.

  12. I haven’t seen the Space Odyssey. I’ll have to get hold of it.

  13. Interesting list. I love the inclusion of John Carter, definitely an under appreciated film. I would personally include both Moon and Sunshine, if only for aesthetic reasons. Those were great looking films. Have not seen Sound of My Voice yet, but I would actually be tempted to put Another Earth on my own list.

    • I didn’t take to Moon at all. Something about the plot didn’t add up, and the model work struck me as substandard Meddings. And I really didn’t like Sunshine, which started out silly, got sillier, and then turned into a dumb monster movie.

      Another Earth felt too much like a film school project to me. Sound of My Voice is a much tighter and better-written film. But Brit Marling is definitely a talent to watch.

  14. I have a good deal of affection for Melancholia, Lars von Trier’s film about the Earth being destroyed by a planet-sized metaphorical representation of depression.

    • I will admit it looked gorgeous, but it also looked wildly implausible. I’d have preferred it if the metaphor weren’t so clearly unbelievable that it could only be a metaphor.

  15. Looking at your list, some of the other suggestions in this discussion thread our various film lists (worthies 2011, 2012, 2013… and best films 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013) , many of the titles come up again and again.


    Conversely, look at what gets nominated for the Hugo Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form? (Some years one struggles to find a good SF title…) Depressing.


    Anyway, all this ground got discussed at a panel in the main hall of the 2011 Eurocon (Sweden), so there are SF film aficionados out there.


    • I could only choose films I’ve seen, and while I’ve seen a lot in those lists you link to, I didn’t rate many of them. (And some of them are fantasy or horror, and so not eligible for my list.)

  16. We watched Primer on your recommendation. Unfortunately it wasn’t about preparation of paint surfaces as I’d hoped but some hopelessly incomprehensible cock and bull story about time travelling Weebles. The evening got even worse as we also watched Ender’s Game (not on your list thankfully)! 🙂

  17. For what it is worth we have just posted our selection of best SF/F films of 2014

    This includes links to YouTube trailers so you can get a feel for them.


    Happy New Year

  18. Pingback: 5 Films to Complement Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet | Totally Pretentious: A Podcast About Great Movies

  19. Pingback: 5 Films to Complement Ian Sales’ Apollo Quartet

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