Best of the Aughts – Science Fiction & Fantasy Films

I’m not a sci-fi guy. So why am I doing the list? No, I didn’t draw the small straw. Let me rephrase. I’m not a sci-fi guy in the hardcore sense. I don’t list Jedi as my religion and I don’t go up to random strangers trying to administer the Vulcan Neck Pinch.

I picked this category because the two genres have produced so many quality films this decade – much to my surprise I later found out. I figured this project was going to be a breeze; with plenty to choose from how hard could it be? But the more I looked at the genres, the more I became stumped. Do I dare include Avatar even though its presence this decade is but a month?

Actually, 2009 was a very strong year for science fiction, and at least three films from that year could have made my list. This only added to my frustration, making me reorder it at least a half dozen times before deciding on one I could live with (fingers crossed).

Those reading this feature hoping to find Mission to Mars, Supernova, Ultraviolet, or any Harry Potter films, I’m sorry, but you’re just wasting your time. For everyone else who hasn’t clicked away, buckle up we’re about to go ludicrous speed!

10. Frequency (2000)
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Gregory Hoblit is a director that has rarely ventured outside the thriller genre. Frequency, which arrived in 2000, is one of his thrillers but with the added facet of time travel. Thanks to the Aurora Borealis and a ham radio, a son in 1999 (Jim Caviezel) is able to communicate with his dead father (Dennis Quaid) in 1969. The physics of time traveling provide the film with several inconsistencies, but it’s the bond between father and son, even if they are decades apart, that’s the clincher for me. Frequency is probably the weakest of my ten choices, and I could have easily substituted another film, but the father-son dynamic and the alteration of the time-space continuum (not to mention a sub-plot about a series of decades-plus old serial killings) makes this a memorable sci-fi flick from the early part of the decade.

9. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
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Remember that big campaign about America’s “war on drugs”? Well, in Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel, which arrived eight years after President Nixon first used the term, he wrote that the war had been lost. By 2014, habitual drug use had spread across the country like a disease. To stop the spreading, the government develops a system of surveillance used to infiltrate cells of drug pushers. Director Richard Linklater using the process known as “rotoscoping” (see also Waking Life) created a mind-bending science fiction film that was one of my faves of 2006. It is a cautionary tale about drug addiction and paranoia that is fueled by constant surveillance, either by undercover agents or tapped phone conversations. The film’s biggest highlight (other than the animation) is the comments made by supporting star Robert Downey Jr. He even has one that film-goers could apply after seeing a movie with a bad leading star: “Your life and watching you live it is like a gag-reel of ineffective bodily functions.”

Read my DVD review here

8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
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I was hesitant to include this Charlie Kaufman-scripted comedy-drama, because frankly I was unsure if it constituted as science fiction or fantasy. This is a film that I’ve only visited a few times after its release in 2004, but plan to revisit soon. For anyone who’s gone through a nasty breakup, many of the ideas presented in the film provide much discussion. When Clementine (Kate Winslet) hires a New York firm to erase her memories after she had a big fight with her boyfriend, Joel (Jim Carrey), Joel also undergoes the same procedure. But what happens when your subconscious rebels to the erasing of memories and wants to hold on to them? Eternal Sunshine is an unconventional look at love, which tries to show that even selective amnesia to get over a broken heart isn’t always the answer.

7. Renaissance (2006)
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This is the second film on my list to feature the rotoscoping technique, and it is also a film that many reading have never heard of. Film Noir in a digital age, Renaissance may not be a “renaissance” movement in the medium of science fiction, but it is a remarkable film. From its distinct look to the characterization of Karas (who is voiced by Daniel Craig), the film probably would have had a hundred million times more success if it were live action and in color. Still, it builds from a kidnapping story to become a film that is very much different from the norm. Which is definitely a good thing.

6. Moon (2009)
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Duncan Jones’s debut feature, Moon, is more in the tradition of hard science fiction, where thoughts and emotions and ideas drive the film, instead of action or special effects. Sam Rockwell puts on an acting clinic as Sam Bell, a solitary contractor at a lunar base on the moon. He’s two weeks away from completing his three-year contract of extracting helium-3 for clean energy back on Earth. Soon hallucinations start and then he starts to see another version of himself. Translation: WTF?! Moon is a small film (only $5 million) but the subject is a “bridge between science fiction and science fact,” as Jones puts it. I wholeheartedly agree; it explores morality and what it means to exist like few science-fiction films this decade have done.

5. Spirited Away (2002)
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Up until a few years ago I had never watched a Hayao Miyazaki film. Then I saw Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Porco Rosso, and The Cat Returns within days of each other. Then I saw Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which was the second film to ever be awarded an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. I was totally blown away by the animation and the story. Beautiful and moving, here we have a coming-of-age story about a spoiled girl named Chihirio who finds courage after getting separated from her family in the “spirit world.” Very reminiscent of Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Spirited Away is an animated film that doesn’t pander to kids, making it easily accessible to children and adults.

4. Children of Men (2006)
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If someone told you that in the future women would be infertile how would you react? In this adaptation of P.D. James’s novel, the world is dying. The inability to bear children is accompanied with terrorism, collapse in society and deforestation. And in the middle is Clive Owen trying to find safe passage for an African refugee who is (miraculously?) pregnant. She is the hope that drives our hero and the film, and because of her we see the best and worst humanity has to offer. How Alfonso Cuarón wasn’t recognized for his direction with an Oscar nomination, I’ll never know. Having helmed three literary adaptations already (A Little Princess, Great Expectations, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Cuarón directs with a purpose, incorporating a number of single-shot sequences: the most impressive is one involving Owen being captured, escaping and dodging bullets as he runs into a building. The four-minute sequence may be supported by small CGI effects in some cases, but it doesn’t diminish the complexity of the scene that is staged.

3. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
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Guillermo del Toro has always been strong on fantasy visuals (see Hellboy or its sequel) but not as a storyteller (see Blade II). But with Pan’s Labyrinth he finally gets it right. Here the creatures are again beautiful, but the story has depth that his earlier features lacked. Del Toro again infuses the horrors of the Second World War with fantasy. Pan’s Labyrinth is set just before and after D-Day and it is an allegory about a young girl named Ofellia wanting to escape a cruel stepfather named Vidal, who is a military captain. Discovering an ancient labyrinth, Ofellia learns of her ancestry and how it pertains to the underworld. Exquisite set design; special effects and story all combine to make a fairy tale for the adult audience. Just don’t expect something as kid-friendly as The Wizard of Oz.

2. Minority Report (2002)
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This is the second film on my top 10 to meld science fiction with film noir. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was not only my favorite film of 2002, it is also one of the director’s greatest cinematic achievements next to Munich this decade. And it holds up remarkably well on repeated viewings. The premise involves an experimental police force in the year 2054 known as Precrime, which utilizes the visions of three genetically-altered humans (known as Precogs) to stop murders before they happen. (I bet Gil Grissom is hoping such technology never comes to fruition – he’d be out of a job.) But when the lead investigator of the Precrime taskforce, Jon Anderton (Tom Cruise) is predicted that he’ll be committing a murder within 36 hours, even though he doesn’t know the man he’s predicted to murder, he tries to solve his own precrime. With whiz-bang action and solid direction, Minority Report is supported by a strong story that allows viewers to ponder many questions afterward. The greatest discussion is the paradox of free will vs. determinism. Do we possess free will or are all of our actions predetermined?

1. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2003)
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If The Return of the King winning an Oscar for Best Picture was an award by proxy for the entire trilogy, then my number one pick is the same. Yes, they are individual films, but you need the entire trilogy to see the story from beginning to end. I have to commend then-studio New Line Cinema for giving Peter Jackson the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to make the trilogy. Jackson began storyboarding back in 1997 and the trilogy ended theatrically in 2003. Not since the original Star Wars trilogy have we seen a film – or films rather – that take us to a fully realized universe that feels as if it has a pulse all its own. The books had a profound effect on the counterculture movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s; but the films broke through the glass ceiling of legitimizing the fantasy genre cinematically, both as critical and commercial art. If you go by the numbers, the films cost $285 million and were shot consecutively, and a different editor oversaw each film. 1,100 miles of film were edited down to total run time of 11 hours and 23 minutes (if you go by the lengths of the Extended DVD running time). That’s 683 minutes combined: or, 30 Minutes Longer than #’s 5 Through 10 on My List! Take that, high school algebra!

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