Having identified their favorite sci-fi films, our film critics are now tasked with coming up with a definitive top 10 of the many great films in existence. Do their lists agree? Who’s really right? Read and see how you measure up and how many you’ve seen. And maybe you’ll walk away with some recommendations for your next screening.
Jason’s Top 10
1. Shutter Island
This movie gets better every time I watch it because of the many meticulous details Martin Scorsese carefully added that go so easily unnoticed. Psychological thrillers are right up my alley, and I feel that Shutter Island has the most beautifully constructed script. Upon first viewing, Shutter Island was so thought-provoking because of the way the characters expressed their emotions, that it controlled my thoughts for weeks. After seeing the movie’s ending, you are able to realize that it’s more than a mystery film: it’s an unsettling way of showing a man’s struggle to find his true self. After guessing for 2 hours, it pays off in the most satisfying way.
A movie that makes me feel like I can cast my eyes up to the stars and wonder about the endless unknown possibilities out in space, this film proves that the knowledge the human race already has is insignificant compared to the knowledge we don’t have. I’ve never been so invested in or fallen in love so quickly with a movie (even before I reached the quarter mark), Interstellar immediately caught my interest and never let me down. The movie’s score by Hans Zimmer is one of the best I’ve ever heard, and it adds to the unknowing nature of the film. It’s so very similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey as a fantastic sci-fi film that received mixed reviews (Interstellar is sitting at a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes – one reason why I don’t trust that website at all) which is criminal for how good a movie it is.
Although I needed to watch Inception many times to fully understand its complex plot, I find this to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It’s simply impossible for someone to understand everything the first time through, and I still notice new pieces of the puzzle that fall into the plot with each new viewing. The plot itself was enough to keep me engaged, but the CGI effects, Hans Zimmer’s score, and stunning acting were what made this one of my favorites. I’m just happy that Inception was able to make me feel like I was actually caught up in an intense dream, as Christopher Nolan was especially able to do so through clever editing. An absolute masterpiece.
4. Fight Club
In a generation that is especially connected to a consumerist lifestyle, Fight Club is so refreshing in the sense that it acts as the opposite: your stuff doesn’t own you any more. Fight Club is an exaggerated way to deal with the most frustrating aspects of society with the line, “It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” the central theme to the movie. There are so many subtle details in the movie that director David Fincher claimed that every scene has at least one Starbucks cup. Also, before the movie plays, this screen (below) pops up for a brief moment right after the actual warning.
5. Mulholland Drive
Mulholland Drive is the first movie in my list that didn’t receive mixed reviews from top movie critics from Rotten Tomatoes (although I still hate and don’t trust that website). All of the movies I’ve listed above had amazing endings that changed the way I viewed the film, and Mulholland Drive is nothing short of that, and may have the best ending out of any of them. For this movie, you must be patient: it’s like waking up from a dream without much memory of it, but over time you slowly recall more and more details. The filming techniques and character development are what got me so interested in this artsy 2001 film.
Going into this movie, all I knew was that it was a great sci-fi movie. If I knew it was about our first contact with aliens, then I probably wouldn’t have even seen it due to the overproduction of corny alien Hollywood movies. Good thing I didn’t know, because this movie, like the others, offered more to me than I thought possible. Much like Interstellar, Arrival takes a macroscopic idea and uses a personal story to tell it. Arrival especially emphasized intimacy, which gave me an incredibly thematic experience while watching it. It was incredible that the film’s director, Denis Villeneuve, was able to incorporate all of those ideas while we simultaneously learned more about the first contact that made the world stop.
7. The Social Network
The Social Network was able to perfectly capture many relevant ideas, making it one of the most topical movies of the century. It captures our world of rapid technological advances as well as the motives behind our interactions on social media. Jesse Eisenberg was able to not only demonstrate the nerdy, cocky, and witty nature of Mark Zuckerberg, but also exhibit the erosion of face-to-face communication that we can apply to our own lives today in light of our technology. Although the film is based on a lawsuit with a well-known ending, the fast paced journey of Zuckerberg’s corruption is a thrill to watch.
8. A Beautiful Mind
Another movie that I knew the end to before I started watching it but still turned out to be a thrill, and similar to The Social Network, A Beautiful Mind is about an eccentric genius who is unable to behave normally in social situations. If you don’t know about John Nash, then watch right away and don’t do any research, because you will get a better experience from this film. The film was able to make the complicated topic of schizophrenia into something accessible. Russell Crowe plays Nash in a way that never made me question the authenticity of the genus who suffers from it.
9. The Shawshank Redemption & The Dark Knight
I grouped these two movies together because they are two of the most well-liked movies and are frequently on the top movies lists. That they are both well-respected and have huge followings is not a fluke. Shawshank has zero faults and ended up an uplifting classic. Morgan Freeman delivered his most affecting narration at a time film narrations didn’t seem overused. The film was able to use scenes of horror alongside some beautiful scenes, such as my favorite: the Mozart opera played on the speaker system. Although the film is set in prison, the characters are depicted as real people who made mistakes and are now sentenced to an inescapable setting. The Dark Knight is yet another fantastic Nolan movie that is impossible not to enjoy from the first minute. An unhinged Heath Ledger skillfully juggles unpredictable mind games and plots carefully thought out schemes against Gotham. His maniac Joker transcended the typical villain and perfectly stood for the polar opposite of Batman.
This micro-budgeted, little known, quickly shot film made me prepare for the worst but totally caught me by surprise. I went in the right way: with as little knowledge as possible, and it paid off as soon as I realized that the title of the film is incredibly ironic, since the film is anything but coherent. The film leaves you in a confused but un-frustrated state, because the characters perfectly share the same confusion as the audience. The film was able to develop great characters and story, smart dialogue, and an intimate use of the camera. Even though the storyline was way ahead of the curve by using a newly introduced theory in physics, I approached this movie with an open mind and ended up feeling a sense of magic by the end.
Nathan’s Top 10
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
About halfway through the movie, I realized that Dr. Strangelove was my favorite movie of all time. Stanley Kubrick’s unique satirical style achieved its maximum potential while mocking the incompetence of higher government authorities and bordering on the downright absurd and insane during wartime. I highly recommend the movie, especially to those who are interested in history and appreciate satire as well as Kubrick’s style of directing.
2. The Shawshank Redemption
Currently rated number one of all time on IMdB, Shawshank is arguably the perfect movie. Following a crew of prison inmates and their experiences during their jail time, you easily get engaged in the story and are heavily rewarded at the end. Everyone should allow themselves, at least once, to be exposed to this true cinematic masterpiece.
3. Cinema Paradiso
Cinema Paradiso is a movie for film lovers. Set in Italy, the movie follows a young boy and how he falls in love with movies at his village’s local theater. The story is amazing and powerful, showing how. in the past, movies were a cultural hub in some communities and were experienced together. It appeals to film advocates, especially as they see themselves in the little boy, but can appeal to all in the sense that it tells an amazing story while being emotionally powerful.
4. American Beauty
American Beauty is one of those rare movies that have the ability to change your perspective on life. During the course of the movie, Kevin Spacey, who is fantastic in his role, transforms from a husk of his old self into a man with meaning in his life when he becomes infatuated with his daughter’s friend. The movie is as much a character study as it is an exploration of what makes things “beautiful.” Regardless if you’re looking for a movie that shares a unique perspective or not, the message and theme are enough to leave any moviegoer astounded, leading to a lot of afterthought.
5. The Dark Knight
I have probably watched The Dark Knight nearly 30 times and it is still as amazing as the first time I saw it. In my opinion, it’s the best superhero movie ever while none have even come close in matching it. The acting is tremendous, and there are no words to describe Heath Ledger’s role as the Joker other than mesmerizing and remarkable. The sub-textual symbolism found throughout the movie plays strong into the theme of good vs. evil, and like I said before, the film just can’t be beat.
6. Her & Lost in Translation
Both of these movies are thematically brilliant. I grouped them together because of how profound they both are. Her is the story of a recently divorced lonely man and his attempts to find love in a technological-heavy society. The theme is fantastic, the use of color is masterfully manipulated to establish scenes that portray powerful emotions, and the cinematography is gorgeous, and is all capped off with a powerful ending. Lost in Translation bears a unique and constant melancholy tone making the commonly used wide shot more powerful. Without a lot of dialogue, the lack complements the tone, creating a melancholy feeling in the audience because it all meshes together so perfectly.
Casablanca is often identified as the “perfect movie,” representing the emergence of the noir genre using stylistic techniques to exemplify the genre. The story arc follows an old expatriate who encounters a former lover and how their interaction sets of a large amount of difficulties in their safe haven, Casablanca. With great acting and an even better story, I purposely remain vague so as to not reveal much in the hope that my recommendation encourages people to watch this true piece of classic and timeless cinema.
Heat is the epitome of the perfect blending between an older film genre and new modern elements. This “neo-noir,” as it is referred to, follows detective Al Pacino and heist man Robert De Niro with their struggle for power in besting the other. The acting is incredible and the story is easy to follow. Ultimately, it’s the blending of one of my favorite genres, noir, with modern influences, making it one of the best crime movies in the past century.
*Should be noted that this film is NOT The Heat, the cop movie with Melissa McCarthy.
9. Spirited Away & Alice in Wonderland (1951)
I am of the most unpopular opinion that Disney movies just aren’t as good as they used to be. I find myself becoming more frustrated over live action remakes and sequels that don’t need to exist but exist only as a money grab. Alice in Wonderland is a throwback in time when Disney movies, made by Walt Disney himself, were at their peak. Rant aside, the film is pure chaos, and I revere it. The characters are unmatched in their madness and humor, as well as the unlikely pairing of the two. I laughed at the nonsense of a movie made 60 years ago, showing the timelessness of Disney’s best work, which is far better than anything recently released. I also have a most unpopular opinion that some Japanese animation, with the exclusion of Alice in Wonderland, is far better than any Disney animation. Spirited Away is amazing. It is everything animation should aim for: great storytelling, plot, unique and interesting characters, and powerful messages. For fans who think Disney is the best animation studio out there, I challenge them to watch Spirited Away. They’ll soon realize the prowess of Studio Ghibli and their impressive and highly rated movies (Spirited Away is currently ranked the 28th best movie of all time on IMdB, with the next closest Disney movie being The Lion King at 49th).
10. Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now is dark. Really dark. Apocalypse Now’s dark and absurd nature is what draws me and many other fans to the movie. Set during the Vietnam War, an army captain (Martin Sheen) is sent out to exterminate a rogue Colonel (Marlon Brando) who presides over native land in Cambodia. The story follows the army captain on his trek along the Nung river and the atrocities and absurdities of war he encounters. For any fans of war movies that enjoy some philosophy on the side, I highly recommend it.
Nolan’s Top 10
1. The Dark Knight
It’s Batman and Christopher Nolan. I mean come on, it doesn’t get any better than this.
2. The Social Network
An all timer for me. The Social Network is one of the best of the 2000’s. It’s the work of two men in particular that really makes this movie what it is: Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher. Screenwriter Sorkin takes a real-life narrative and transforms the story into one of intrigue and betrayal, all the while maintaining his signature fast-paced, quick-witted dialogue. Fincher also does something quite incredible: he makes it visually interesting by using set frames and fluid tracking shots to create a perfectly sterile world for his characters to inhabit. This style fits perfectly with a movie that essentially boils down to rich white guys sitting in courtrooms arguing about lawsuits. Fincher is a great director, and this movie just reinforces that fact. Also, Andrew Garfield is awesome in this.
3. Blue is the Warmest Color
A modern epic spanning a total run time of three hours, Blue is the Warmest Color is a contemporary classic of French cinema. A Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, it’s the first film in which the lead actresses were honored for the award along with the director. Spielberg, a judge at the competition, commented, “If the casting had been even 3% wrong, it wouldn’t have worked in the same way. All of us felt we needed to invite all three artists to the stage together.” It’s a beautiful movie about love that doesn’t shy away from the graphic nature of life, portraying it as such.
A commentary without commentary is probably the best way I can describe this film. Samsara is a movie without dialogue, and yet, it’s probably the most poignant movie on my list. Shot in 25 countries over the course of 5 years, Samsara is an exploration of the Hindu belief of cyclical life. This film delivers its spiritual message of cyclical rebirth and impermanence through the most beautiful shots put to film coupled with an editing style that allows the audience to clearly understand this wordless story.
5. City of God
A multi-story film in the same vein as a Tarantino movie, City of God is based in the city of Rio de Janeiro and how it grows and evolves through the years. What makes City of God such a great movie is how lived-in the environment feels. The story is told through the eyes of a singular protagonist, Rocket, but he doesn’t feel like the main character. The city is a real place with real people living in it, each with their own unique story that this movie tries to tell. This seamless transition from character to character makes Rio feel like a character in itself and creates a sense of realism rarely expressed in cinema.
6. Scott Pilgrim vs the World
Scott Pilgrim is an awesome movie. If you like action, you’ll like this movie. If you like comedy, you’ll like this movie. If you like video games, you’ll like this movie. Scott Pilgrim vs the World was made by the genius that is Edgar Wright and is the perfect blend of pop-culture and Wright’s comedic style of directing. This movie also has exceptional dialogue. Based off of an even better comic that the screenplay takes heavy cues from, the dialogue in Scott Pilgrim is a series of quick and humorous back and forths similar to The Social Network, but funny.
Another French film, Love is directed by one of my personal favorite directors, Gaspar Noё. His use of tracking shots and oversaturation of colors leads to an intense atmosphere rarely observed in cinema. He is known for shocking and explicit imagery, but what I enjoy about Love is the quiet moments he chooses to include.
8. The Fall
Directed by Tarsem Singh, The Fall is the only movie on this list that can match the beauty captured in Samsara. Shot in a number of countries as well, The Fall is the fictional story of a paralyzed stuntman telling a story to an adorable little girl who is stuck in the same hospital as him. The story that the paralyzed man (played by Lee Pace) tells plays out in over 20 countries throughout Asia and Europe. The lack of CGI adds even more wonder to this movie as you consider how they could possibly produce some of the shots without digital enhancement. The DP of this movie deserves credit for producing such immaculate imagery. Colin Watkinson is a genius.
9. Wolf Children
An anime film by Mamoru Hosoda, Wolf Children is both a touching story about a family learning to adapt to their situation and a coming-of-age story. Hosoda’s direction is the usual family-friendly style that he uses in most of his movies, and it really aids the messages he’s trying to convey through this story. I really like what he does as a director, having enjoyed most of his work, and would recommend also checking out Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt through Time. Wolf Children just happens to be my favorite movie of his, and I hope you take the time to find out which yours is.
10. Days of Heaven
Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is an achievement in indie cinema. With an expressive score that covers a wide range of instruments and styles that match the ethereal images of the Midwest, Days of Heaven is the best Malick film yet. Centered around a love triangle on a wheat farm, this tragic story delves into a wide range of cathartic emotions that Malick expresses well. This movie also has one of my favorite shots of all time, as all the farmers stare at their damaged crops in the wake of a locust infestation. The scene is beautifully haunting and reason enough to watch this movie.