This year promised a number of great original science fiction movies from Hollywood, and then it turned out most of them weren’t even good let alone great — the sort that left us with way too many unanswered questions regarding their plot holes. Meanwhile, in the fantasy genre, we continued to see the studios churning out one YA adaptation after another in the hopes of it being the next Hunger Games (or still the next Harry Potter or Twilight or even Star Wars in the case of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) and ironically having no clue how to find the *magic* in the appeal of these kinds of stories. And of course there’s the ever-growing subgenre of superhero movies, which really only disappointed this year because they arrived in the wake of 2012′s The Avengers, not simply because most of the output was sequels (Iron Man 3; Thor: The Dark World; The Wolverine) that were merely okay rather than totally awesome.
As I’ve noted in the past, I don’t consider Gravity to be sci-fi (even after learning that some tech in the film doesn’t exist yet), but I’ll let it be known that if I were to qualify the outer space thriller, I’d put it in the number 6 slot on account of its gripping visual storytelling and little else. As for another popular choice (one that made a few FSR staffer’s best of lists, as well as our democratically voted top 10), Pacific Rim might have made this list if it went to 15, as there are a few scenes I like amidst the dumb, clunky spectacle. And it was still better than Oblivion, After Earth and maybe even Elysium. And definitely better than Star Trek Into Darkness. Regarding other omissions, I haven’t seen About Time, which seems unfortunate after realizing how much of this year’s best sci-fi involves love stories. I also haven’t seen any of the animated features that might qualify. Of course, lists like these aren’t meant to be set in stone. Maybe there’s an obscure foreign fantasy film out there that technically was officially released on DVD in the U.S. and could have made the cut.
Hopefully some of my choices are unfamiliar to you, and you go and check them out. I want to encourage smart, creative and visually stunning sci-fi and fantasy movies, because otherwise one day we’re just going to be stuck with garbage like Sharknado.
13. Beautiful Creatures
The one surprisingly decent YA adaptation this year was the one that didn’t seem to be trying to ape the hits of the past. Sure, there is something Twilight-esque in there being a romance between a fantasy creature — this time a witch — and a mortal human, but whatever, that’s a scenario going back many millennia to the dawn of storytelling. Written for the screen and directed by Richard LaGravenese (who also scripted Behind the Candelabra this year), Beautiful Creatures is more like a relic from the ’90s, when everyone was slipping in copies or mentions of Vonnegut, and Tim Burton was still enjoyable. But the real delight is in the performances, from the campy Southern Gothic charms of Emma Thompson, Emmy Rossum and Jeremy Irons to the more grounded Alice Englert, who is a tremendous new talent and is worth watching this movie solely for that reason.
It’s quite the norm for Westerns (including the Eastern samurai variety) to be reworked into sci-fi stories. Just throw the situations into outer space and you’ve got a whole new movie. This third installment in the Riddick franchise is only sci-fi for the fact that it features hover bikes and unfamiliar “alien” creatures in place of horses and Native Americans. Otherwise, it belongs on the list of best Westerns of 2013. One thing I really love about the movie is that it feels like a transitional piece yet it isn’t necessarily. Riddick (Vin Diesel) is stranded on a strange planet and it doesn’t matter how or why (though the explanation is given). The only objective is for him to survive and find a way off. And he survives and finds a way off, dealing with obstacles of different sorts along the way. The ending is not a cliff hanger but it does promise a continuation in a fashion that doesn’t require another film so much as it feeds our imagination. If it wasn’t so inappropriate for young viewers I could see a movie like this inspiring kids to further the adventures of Riddick on their own in their backyards.
11. The History of Future Folk
One 2013 release about folk singers is the best fiction film of the year (Inside Llewyn Davis), yet it doesn’t have aliens and laser guns and a threat to the human race, so really it could have been better. Fortunately we also got the theatrical run of John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker‘s original indie sci-fi flick, which many discovered and fell in love with at Fantastic Fest 2012. It’s about a pair of soldiers from the planet Hondo who’ve been tasked with destroying the present Earth dwellers so that their kind can re-inhabit the planet. But they discover music and realize that humans can’t deserve extinction. Also, they become a cult favorite in the NYC folk music scene. It’s not a big expensive movie but it also never feels cheap or in need of greater production value or special effects. And as the two leads, Nils d’Aulaire and Jay Klaitz have a lot of charm and chemistry. I’d watch them in a sequel or in something else, maybe anything declined by Simon Pegg and Nick Front that would be better with a much tamer duo.
10. Man of Steel
I came into this reboot worried about how much it was going to rehash a lot of the material from Superman and Superman II, both of which are among my favorite superhero movies of all time. What made it a new entity most for me is in the way writers David S. Goyer and Christopher Nolan focused on the sci-fi elements of Superman’s origins and his existence on Earth as an extraterrestrial. The opening sequence on Krypton is some of the best otherworld-building space adventure sci-fi action material we’ve seen in at least a decade. And once we get to Earth — specifically Smallville and Metropolis — it’s an alien invasion movie not unlike The History of Future Folk. One guy wants to wipe out the humans and terraform the planet for Kryptonian settlement while the other guy wants coexistence among the people of Earth. However, this one is expensive and filled with lots of effects and it is a marvelous, epic blockbuster. Exciting from start to finish. And if you have any issues with some of the choices in the third act, you’re probably taking it too seriously.
And another alien invasion movie. This one is of the very familiar sort of a small town being overrun with creepy creatures from outer space. The model, with its mix of comedy and horror and sci-fi, very rarely gets old, and if everyone got excited about its recent return in the UK with Attack the Block they should be into this one as well. Directed by Jon Wright (who is now working on a bigger movie involving robots and Ben Kingsley), Grabbers is entirely based on an Irish stereotype joke by centering on squid-like aliens who feed on human blood, but only if the blood doesn’t have a lot of alcohol in it. So the big standoff involves all the townsfolk getting hammered at the local tavern. It works because the joke is just background for a sweet and funny story of the two cops who save the day and fall in love. Also, I love the wordplay employed with the aliens needing to stay wet but “dry” and the people needing to stay dry but “wet.”
8. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Related to what I like about Riddick, there’s something about a middle installment of any trilogy that offers a sense of existential enjoyment. It’s not the beginning nor the end, and looked at on its own it’s representative of what fantasy adventure stories are all about: grand, continuous storytelling with little importance in origins and conclusions. Aside from the moral fables, early mythological stories were about the bracketed chapters of an ongoing odyssey, and that’s how The Desolation Smaug comes across more than any other Tolkien installment from Peter Jackson. The proof is in the isolated thrills of the river escape sequence or the giant spider attack or the inconsequentially failed plan to cover a fire-breathing dragon in molten gold — all fabulous on their own. Smaug ends with a sudden cliff-hanger meant to have us needing to return to the story in a year, but I’m thinking I’d prefer to pretend like that third part doesn’t exist. It certainly doesn’t matter.
7. Ender’s Game
Forget the connotations of this being a YA adaptation. It’s from a book from a time before the YA explosion. And even if now on the page the story feels like nothing more than Harry Potter in space, Gavin Hood has centered on the most important themes of this tale of kids tasked with wiping out an entire alien race. Tackling such things as video game violence, drones, child soldiers and genocide, it’s a smart address of where warfare is headed and how much it depends on technology that desensitizes and distances us from the enemy. On top of that, this is a movie that looks amazing and is shockingly well-directed given that it’s Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) at the helm. Also, Asa Butterfield is phenomenal, surely a movie star in the making. I can’t say I’m surprised this didn’t do well given that it’s about a lot more than spaceships and aliens and explosions, and even then the distance of Ender from the action probably left audience not caring about the mission. I do really hope they make a sequel, though, but it does seem unlikely.
There’s technically no fantasy elements in this retelling of the Snow White story set in 1920s Spain, unless you count the final shot. And even then it’s a maybe. But I tend to accept classic fairy tales within the confines of the fantasy genre, and this bullfighting twist on the Grimms’ work definitely has an aura of magic and wonder, even if a lot of that has to do with the magic and wonder of cinema. Pablo Berger‘s silent film throwback is often cliche and cheesy for what it’s aiming to replicate but it’s still an enchanting and engrossing little film about a young woman continuing her father’s legacy under threat from an evil stepmother.
5. Upstream Color
At least with Primer, the foundational concept of time travel was familiar and exciting to audiences. For his long-awaited sophomore effort, Shane Carruth stuck with the complexity level of his debut while also offering a very confusing concept of a parasitic life cycle. Whether you get it or not, though, this is one of the most hypnotizing films in years. Every step of the way is stunning, both visually and narratively. Amy Seimetz is an extraordinary presence as a young woman who serves as our guide in the mystery of, well, just more mystery, and she’s especially magnetic in the first part of the film, when she’s more of the centerpiece before Carruth joins her on screen. Like a number of films on this list, Upstream Color is a love story that screws with everything that we know about love stories. I have to admit that I went from really liking this movie to really hating it to respecting it to wanting to re-watch it over and over. I think it might have somehow implanted a worm into my brain that has me forever intrigued by everything on screen.
4. Europa Report
Disregard any stigma attached to the found footage idea (even though this film makes the best reasoning for that idea since the climactic fight in Chronicle), and Europa Report is an easily enjoyed and constantly chilling interplanetary mission movie about a crew traveling to the titular moon of Jupiter, where there seems to be signs of life. This smart, modestly budgeted yet perfectly realized effort should be the antidote for all who hated Prometheus (I love both, actually), as well as to all the bloated sci-fi movies we got from Hollywood this year (including another co-starring Sharlto Copley), but it still doesn’t seem to be catching on as the sleeper hit it ought to be. Having been a fan of director Sebastian Cordero for a while, I can only wish this is at least a stepping stone to him becoming the Ecuadorean Alfonso Cuaron. Very interestingly, The History of Future Folk co-director Jeremy Kipp Walker was a producer on this very different kind of sci-fi film.
3. The World’s End
Edgar Wright finished out his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with another bang-up job, his take on the alien infiltration invasion film that ended up being surprisingly more Douglas Adams than Jack Finney. Extremely quick-witted and speedily plotted, The World’s End follows a group of men seeking nostalgia in the form of a pub crawl, which turns ugly when they discover the townsfolk are almost all pod-people robots from another planet. It not only has one of the most interesting sci-fi plots of the year — in spite of its initial familiarity and the fact that the plot doesn’t kick in for a really long time — this is also probably the funniest movie of 2013 and the one that we will look back upon and remember as the moment we realized Nick Frost is actually a very talented actor.
Spike Jonze‘s near-future tale of a man who falls in love with his operating system is the most perfect look at where we are seriously headed as a culture since Children of Men. No, since Minority Report. Or Gattaca? Regardless, it joins the few prophetically minded sci-fi masterpieces with its address of social media and how artificial intelligence would lead us from our current obsessions with our computer devices. Also the fashion. I’ve never applauded the costuming of a sci-fi film so much, not even The Fifth Element. It doesn’t matter that it’s so much like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that it winds up being sort of predictable (with good movies, though, I like to use the term logical rather than predictable) because it’s not so abstract or based on an unlikely premise. And also because its whole speculative set up is based on what’s reasonably predictable about us and our self-involved desires. Her is the first movie I’ve seen, I think, that I felt deserved to be immediately named to the National Film Registry for being a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” film. It’s all three, already.
1. Mr. Nobody
Jaco Van Dormael, one of the most underrated visionary filmmakers of the 1990s, finally delivered his third feature in 2009 following a 13-year absence. It took another four years for me to finally see it, and it was well worth the wait. Mr. Nobody tells the epic story of a man named Nemo Nobody (which basically means Nobody Nobody), played by Jared Leto, who is the last mortal man alive in the year 2092 (everyone else is now immortal) and who has trouble recalling exactly how his life went from the time of his parents’ separation during his youth. There are three different courses we see him potentially following, each one involving a different love interest and career and location, and it’s like the greatest adaptation of a Kurt Vonnegut book never written. This isn’t a film for everyone. It’s rather long at more than two and a half hours, it’s even less linear than Cloud Atlas and it all builds up to a statement about chance and choice, which is probably what appeals to you in the first place if you do find yourself diving in and making it that far. It’s a tremendously dense film but it never comes off as being too heady or pretentious or concerned with much else besides characters moving on a course that may not have been the right one for them to take — even though one point of the movie is that all courses are the right course. As a bonus, Mr. Nobody has a special connection to my very favorite film of the year, Sarah Polley‘s documentary Stories We Tell, which she basically started thinking about while acting in this film — she even tells the story of working on this and getting the call that set the other film in motion in that film. The two would make an interesting double feature about love and memory and life choices. If you see this or don’t see it, you’ve made the right decision, but I recommend you give it a shot.