Three months after I tried and failed to do a proper list of the best science fiction and fantasy movies of 2018’s first quarter, things are looking a little better for the speculative fiction genres. Part of that is thanks to the start of the blockbuster movie season, though a lot of tentpoles, including works from Marvel and Pixar, failed to meet my expectations to the fullest.
Yeah, I’m a tough critic. But for me, sci-fi and fantasy are genres with high bars. There’s still only a few exceptional works among the bunch below, but the rest are definitely recommended. If there’s anything worthy that I’ve missed, send me a note and I’ll consider it for the next pass. I should point out, though, that yes, I’ve seen most of the big releases you might think I’ve overlooked. Except for Upgrade. That one came and went before I could catch it.
For now (and let’s hope it continues getting even better), here’s my ranking of the best 10 sci-fi and fantasy movies released through the end of June.
Korean filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho follows up his breakout 2016 film Train to Busan and its animated prequel, Seoul Station, with a lighter and slighter effort that’s still thoroughly enjoyable. This time Yeon tackles the superhero genre with a rather small-stakes story. Psychokinesis stars Ryu Seung-ryong (Miracle in Cell No. 7) as a man who gains powers in a way that’s unimportant. It’s what he does with them that matters. He doesn’t try to save the world or fight crime. He tries to patch things up with his estranged daughter (Shim Eun-kyung), who is having trouble battling real estate developers. The combo of disbelief and cynicism that superpowers are met with here is uniquely amusing, while the movie ends with quite the kicker.
9. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
I really don’t get the negative reception of Fallen Kingdom, especially in relation to the other Jurassic movies. Director J.A. Bayona and D.P. Oscar Faura deliver the most stylish installment of the franchise, and their execution of what’s admittedly a goofy story (frankly, the original isn’t scripted that well either) contains the best thrills and peril and adventure since Jurassic Park 1. And when it gets kinda dumb, even for a Jurassic movie, whether or not it’s intentional, Fallen Kingdom plays almost like one of Joe Dante’s horror comedies. It’s more entertaining and affecting and thematically rich in its ethical quagmire than critics are giving it credit for.
8. Deadpool 2
More of a comedy than a real superhero movie (it’s also on my list of the best comedies of the year so far), the Deadpool sequel goes a little too far with the amount of plot it wants to throw at the wall here. But when it’s not trying too hard to give us the convoluted introduction of Cable, Deadpool 2 is another very funny spoof of the superhero genre. And of time-travel movies. It’s also got some terrifically directed action sequences, care of former stuntman David Leitch, and Zazie Beetz is sensational as Domino in those sequences that are illustrating her power of luck.
7. Fahrenheit 451
There’s an irony to any movie adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” but the story remains essential in any format, just as the content of the contraband books of its plot still function and matter the same when uploaded to the internet or memorized by the rebelliously erudite. HBO’s new version manages to keep the gist of the work it’s based on while seeming like it’s been significantly updated. It’s maybe more relevant than ever given the Tower of Babel that is the increasingly divisive media making the variety of content actually seem bad because of the decrease in media literacy. The actors and story around the theme are a little flat, but they’re a functioning vehicle for the more considerable aspects of the adaptation.
6. Solo: A Star Wars Story
Certainly not the best Star Wars movie, but Solo is a good ride. The space Western prequel spinoff looks into the origins of an iconic character but should be appreciated as a more isolated adventure of its own, with Alden Ehrenreich making the role his own. Still, he is the least interesting part of his own tale, which is populated by wonderful new characters plus the freshly inhabited Lando, smooth and suspect as can be as played by Donald Glover. Not everything works, but it leaves you wanting to spend more time in its worlds and with those worlds’ inhabitants. Is it necessary? Of course not, and neither have been any other Star Wars movies after the first one.
5. Isle of Dogs
Oh boy, does Wes Anderson’s latest stop-motion animated feature have problems. The cultural appropriation and naive racial insensitivity are not to be ignored. That said, neither can be the artistry and storytelling of Isle of Dogs, and Anderson’s loving tribute to things he loves, including Kurosawa and Miyazaki films, never came across to me as fetishization or exploitation. There are creative works that can be appreciated and criticized in equal measure, and this often clever and funny dystopian adventure story filled me with wonder and joy even as and if I (mostly later) recognized its offenses. One thing we can hope for: Anderson has learned from his errs.
Featuring some of the most stunning visuals of the year, this mix of sci-fi and fantasy is a metaphorical monster movie that doesn’t shy away from going full-on surreal. It’s pretty cold as far as emotionality goes, in the spirit of other recent genre favorites of mine, Under the Skin and A Ghost Story, but Natalie Portman does a good job of selling her character’s heart and soul at least. And when it gets frightening, it’s blood-curdling. When it gets weird, it’s mindbending. It doesn’t matter if you see and accept that the film is all about cancer, just enjoy the trippy trip with a fabulous female cast into a restricted, reality-altering zone, and don’t worry if your mouth is agape most of the time. It’s just competing with your eyes in a contest of which one can go wider.
3. Black Panther
Marvel Studio’s best effort yet isn’t so much a superhero movie as it is a smorgasbord of cultural celebration honoring African heritage while delivering a classic political story. Some of the action could be executed better, but it’s an improvement on many others, and that stuff is all just obligatory filler anyway, while the true spectacle is in the design of the movie. And the empowering characters and complex performances and complicated themes of the narrative more than outweigh any faults. Almost everyone and everything in Black Panther is inspiring in some way, and there hasn’t been a more enticing fictional world since Shangri-La.
2. A Quiet Place
Who knew John Krasinski had it in him? The guy best known as Jim from The Office basically created a silent film (maybe the best sci-fi silent feature since Metropolis?), all apt in purpose not just for narrative reasons (the alien monsters have an exceptional sense of hearing) but also for thematic reasons. And it’s engaging enough that we barely realize that we’re watching something that, given its lack of dialogue, is so incredibly abnormal. The fact that there’s so little speech isn’t the only way it’s unique, either. Most movies that would use an alien invasion story as a way of exploring parenthood would be talky in their explanation. A Quiet Place is visual in its explanation, and its action and horror are perfectly realized to boot.
1. Paddington 2
Do the Paddington movies count as fantasy? Talking bears aren’t real, of course, and while anthropomorphic animals aren’t common to the world of this franchise, the title character also isn’t looked at too strangely. It’s not fantastical for the people in the movies, that’s for sure. But as long as it’s impossible, and it is, Paddington 2 not only qualifies but tops this list — and most other lists, too, including the best comedies of 2018 so far. It’s an impossible story but it’s a hopeful one. The world of Paddington 2 is more utopic than even Wakanda. I wish all the movies on this list and for all time could be Paddington sequels. Well, maybe not really, but I wouldn’t complain at all if that was the case. More whimsical and honorable and wonderful than the first movie, the follow-up makes me more excited for the future of Paul King’s career and anxious to see if we do get a Paddington 3.