We’re beginning to wrap up the past decade, and to celebrate that, I have decided to make lists of the best films of the decade by genre . These ten genres will ticked-off the list one at a time, and we’ll see one article a month between now and December, each month celebrating the best films of the genre this decade. I do realize we have all the films of this year left, and so I’ve tried to plan these lists out in a way that new releases can be added to or dropped from the list as new films come out.
I’ve decided to start with a combination of the science fiction and fantasy genres because while both genres had a lot of good films in the decade, neither one by themselves had enough top-tier films. It’s a bit of a challenge to take two genres that have many similarities, yet have several distinct differences, and throw them into the pot together. Nonetheless, I have ten films down, but I can list a few honorable mentions as well.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi Episode VIII of the Star Wars franchise might have torn the internet, fans, and audiences down the middle, but I appreciated how original it was. For the eighth movie in such a large franchise to take the risks that it did is something to be commended.
Gravity The seven-time Academy Award winning film from Alfonso Cuaron sure made an impact on the box office. The opening 13 minute shot alone is brilliant, but unfortunately, it’s a movie that’s kinda downhill from there once the actual story kicks in.
First Man Damien Chazelle knocked his first two movies out of the park, and his third film features some great performances from Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy. There are some slow spots throughout the 140 minute epic, but the moon landing sequence is spectacular.
Ready Player One Steven Spielberg and the writers on the film really blow the roof off of the nostalgia factor with this adaptation of the novel of the same name. Sure, the love story is contrived and Ben Mendelsohn’s villain is all over the place, but the opening car race and the Shining sequences are among some of the best scenes of the decade.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Matt Reeves did a spectacular job with the follow-up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Not only great work on the visual effects and Andy Serkis’ performance, but also two great villains with Gary Oldman as Dreyfuss and Toby Kebbell as Koba.
Now we’ll move onto the list.
The Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy Movies of the 2010s
10. The Martian (2015)
Ridley Scott delivered a very funny, yet always entertaining movie with The Martian. The “it’s Cast Away on Mars” comparisons are very accurate, but if you re-watch Cast Away, you’ll notice that it gets over-dramatic at times. The Martian, on the other hand, really does pull you in as you watch and always has a funny bone to tickle.
A couple of elements that get overlooked in the film are Matt Damon’s performance as marooned astronaut Mark Watney, which strikes the perfect emotional core. When he discovers something or makes a breakthrough, we cheer with him. When he does something stupid and almost kills himself, we laugh with him (and at him, too), and when he misses his crewmates and his home, we forget about the silly stuff and also want him to get back.
Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Sean Bean are also lots of fun as the NASA crew back on Earth trying to get Watney home safely. I do agree that the rest of the Martian crew that leaves Watney behind are kind of given the shaft for fun moments (they’re mainly dramatic scapegoats) but I felt the same way when I read the novel by Andy Weir. We have to remember they’re not the focus; Watney is, and he sure is the center of attention.
9. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
The strongest entry in the Hunger Games franchise, Francis Lawrence stepped on board after the first film, and delivered a very entertaining, action-packed and thrilling film. The second chapter has great work from the cast, including arguably Jennifer Lawrence’s strongest portrayal of Katniss Everdeen. Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are great, too, and we finally see why a legend like Donald Sutherland was cast in the villainous role of President Snow.
I always remember the “Games” portion of this movie the most. The way the different obstacles are presented, the competitive atmosphere, and the sacrifices taken are all great. While the first Hunger Games presented the actual Games as an extreme version of Survivor, this time it’s more of a puzzle, mixed with knowing your friends from your enemies, and then throwing Survivor on top of all that.
While the other entries in the franchise never quite carried over the spark that Catching Fire has, it’s just fine for the second film in a series to stand out as the best. It’s a darker chapter in the story, and as The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan have all proven, sometimes going darker and getting more intimate with your characters and their relationships pays off in spades.
Easily the best of the Disney live-action remakes sweepstakes, Jon Favreau took the basic concept, memorable scenes, and classic characters from the original animated film and perfectly adequated them to the live action format. There’s an argument, too, that this version is superior to the animated classic, and I can’t disagree.
I love the casting choices in this film. Idris Elba is a very threatening Shere Khan, Christopher Walken rules as King Louie, and Ben Kingsley is a fabulous Bagheera. However, the crème de la crème is Bill Murray as Baloo. Murray’s naturally sarcastic nature shines through the work, and adds an extra level of dimension to the character. There’s nothing lacking or wrong with the original versions of Baloo, but this updated take is a very welcome addition.
On top of all this, the film offers some of the greatest looking special effects of the decade. The jungle settings are a wonder to look at, the animals are all convincing, especially the wolves, and after a while you forget that the only real thing on the screen is young Neel Sethi as Mowgli. That’s the true testament to how well done the film is.
7. Hugo (2011)
Martin Scorsese seemed to be taking a large risk with a children’s film. The traditionally hard-edged director, however, knocked us all off our feet with a wonderous, breath-taking and often emotionally satisfying fantasy film. There is a lot of great work in the film, from the cinematography to the effects, costumes and sets, and nothing is lacking here.
The movie also delivers on performances. Sacha Baron Cohen is a lot of fun as the bumbling inspector, always on the verge of the next pratfall. Ben Kingsley is truly magical with his performance as early film legend Georges Melies, and the whole ensemble of regulars at the train station all fit their roles. Of course, there’s a lot of credit given to Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz as the young heroes of the story, Hugo and Isabelle.
While I enjoy the first two acts of the movie just fine, the third act is where the film transforms from a fun children’s film to a brilliant love letter to the very earliest days of the cinema. The closing scene at the theater where Melies works is shown for the first time in years is a joyous ending to a spectacular film. And it all comes from one of the greatest directors, and one who is not afraid to extend his filmmaking boundaries.
Why is this film so hated? This wonderful, heartwarming, jaw-dropping, action-packed, hilarious, charming, and ultimately emotionally satisfying romp? While I gave J.J. some crap earlier about his Star Wars work, I give him nothing but admiration for this one. While it does borrow heavily from E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a few other Spielberg classics from the 80s, it feels appropriate considering the setting and characters.
That’s where I really love this film and where I think other people have problems. The film is told from the kids’ perspectives. If this feels like a rip-off of Spielberg, well, that’s because Spielberg films were making money in 1979, when Super 8 is set. The script doesn’t steep to the level of constantly making references to films, but instead tells its own story and doesn’t look back.
We get some great work from Joel Courtney as Joe, Riley Griffiths as Charles, and Kyle Chandler as Joe’s dad Jackson, but it’s Elle Fanning as Alice who steals the show. Right from her first scene, we can see a young star being born. There’s a lot of promise with her no-nonsense attitude, but then we’re thrown for a loop with her rehearsal scene on Charles’ film. Without even knowing her family situation yet (we do learn later), we get the sense of the brokenness in her bonds between father-and-daughter, and the effect of a non-existent mother-daughter relationship. Joe also has this same problem, and the wrap-up to that plot point is one that makes me reach for the Kleenex box.
Now you want to talk about cool? How about that train crash scene? It’s a great “holy shit” moment of the decade. Sure, you could read it as overly-bombastic, but I love every second of it. I also have to give some love to the Michael Giacchino score. It pulls right at the heart and isn’t afraid to leave the audience teary-eyed.
The kids are a really fun group, and all of them have memorable traits that make them stand out. You have the bossy Charles, the insecure Joe, the vomiting Martin, the fireworks enthused Cary, and the always-worried Preston. Alice really does carry a lot of these same attributes, but she’s also unstable, reckless, fearless, and vulnerable. And caring about all these kids along their journey goes a long way toward how much I love this movie. You know what? I have the balls to say it: Stranger Things, eat your heart out. Super 8 beat you to the punch.
5. War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)
While Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was the best movie of the Apes franchise since the original, when I left the theater after watching War, I had to question if this one was better than the original. It’s that good. Everything that Matt Reeves brought to Dawn is pumped up to an 11 in War. We have more struggles (though they’re more outward than inward) and a few great action scenes, but we also get a maturation of the ape species, especially with Caesar. But there’s more to the film than that.
I’ll get straight to it: Woody Harrelson as the evil colonel has a lot to do with why this movie works so well. While we had two great villains in Dawn, in one monologue, Harrelson puts them both to shame. Since it is a more recent one, I won’t spoil every last detail here, but the way he casually talks about the things he has done is bone-chilling. This is Woody at his finest.
We also get great work from the young actress Amiah Miller as Nova, a mute human child who carries more ape attributes than human. This was a great turn on the classic Nova character (and much less sexist, if you think about it), and was a perfect symbol for how much of the human has been drained from humanity, yet there’s still some left in the coming generation. If they’re raised well, there can be a co-existence between ape and man.
While these two performances are rock solid, Andy Serkis outdoes himself this time around as Caesar. He’s not joking around, and the mourning scenes shake us to our core, the anger scenes make us hope that he exacts his revenge, and his final scene really does bring an emotional satisfaction to this closing chapter. Serkis is perfect, hitting the right notes every time. Alongside Serkis’ performance, the effects once again outdo the predecessor. I don’t know if we’ll see any visual effects in the next five years that pass up the work on the apes.
The movie not only works as a sci-fi entry, but also as a prison drama. While it’s a devastating watch to see the apes treated so badly, we see the flip-side with the comedic Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn. It’s a welcome relief from all the hard-hitting drama. Again, Michael Giacchino composed the score, and it’s haunting, riveting, and downright heartbreaking at times. The way I feel about the music matches how I feel about the film it accompanies. I was left very satisfied with the conclusion of the best trilogy of the decade.
Now we take a turn toward a more realistic science fiction avenue, and one we may see pop up in real life in the next decade: AI. Alex Garland’s directorial debut is a shockingly brilliant masterpiece, one that leaves audiences questioning just what it means to be superior in a battle between machines and man, and if we really are superior.
The small cast does a great job. Right from her first scene, we could all see how great a star Alicia Vikander was going to be, and she delivers a performance that is stoic, but very appropriately so. As Ava, Vikander haunts us, captivates us, and eroticizes us, either physically mentally, or both. Sonoya Mizuno also deserves a lot of credit for her work as another AI robot, Kyoko. Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleeson are perfect foils for each other, maybe not in the traditional sense of what a foil is, but their competitive nature is well executed.
What really makes Ex Machina stand out, though, is the quality of the writing. All of the spot-on references to Turing, Pollock, and other past geniuses make Isaac’s character of Nathan feel like a modern-day genius. The film slips into a pattern of Caleb having a session with Ava, then figuring out something terrifying about the AI or about Nathan, then he has to counter that with an act of pretending to know less than he does. Again, credit to the actor, Gleeson. Plus, I have to give it up for the creepiest, yet most awesome dance scene in any film this decade.
Of course, though, the most memorable scenes happen in the third act, and while there’s one exchange between Caleb and Nathan that I would have changed (it kind of clues us in to what happens in the end), when the most haunting, depressing ending we can imagine happens, we get hit pretty hard. We’re forced to watch just how real the relationships between machine and man really are. There’s a very matter-of-fact execution to the end that leaves a massive impact. While the future is unknown with how big a role AI will play, I know one thing for sure: don’t keep them locked up.
3. Life of Pi (2012)
Ang Lee’s epic adaptation of the novel by Yann Martel is nothing short of inspirational filmmaking. While I haven’t been able to read the novel as of yet, I can say that the film it’s based on is nothing short of brilliant filmmaking. Lee’s Oscar-win for the film was well-deserved, and like Scorsese, we see that all the great directors are not afraid to take the challenge of trying out new genres.
A large part of why Life of Pi works so well is the realistic relationship that forms between Richard Parker (the tiger) and Pi. On paper, that sounds impossible. A full-grown tiger forming a bond with a skinny young boy? Well, the survivalist part of the story and the reliance they have with each other work together so well that we can’t help but feel that the moment when Pi pets Richard Parker, it’s earned.
There’s also a lot of credit that goes to the musical score by Mychael Danna, the beautiful cinematography by Claudio Miranda, and the impressive work by the special effects team. Technically speaking, this is one of the sharper films of the decade. There isn’t one element or shot that feels out of place, out of sync, or should be replaced.
I also really like the scenes between the older Pi and the journalist who is writing his story. The first time you watch the film, you almost feel like this older man might just be telling a tall tale, and like the journalist and the insurance agents at the end of the film, we feel like the story is too spectacular to pass up.
Many list Christopher Nolan as the greatest director of our time. I don’t know if I can agree with that. Sure, he kicked ass with the Dark Knight trilogy, but I personally found both Interstellar and Dunkirk to be disappointing. However, there was absolutely no disappointment to be had with Inception, which I consider to be his best film.
Not only does he play with the idea of dreams and reality, but he crafts a story that pulls us right in. Leonardo DiCaprio has given better performances, but as Dom, he’s a perfect entry character to follow: one who knows all the rules, is charismatic, but is also damaged, and knows all the risks of the tricky and dangerous world he lives in. The rest of the cast is also great: Ellen Page as Ariadne, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Arthur, Tom Hardy is a lot of fun as Eames, and Marion Cotillard is a very threatening villain as Mal, Dom’s deceased wife.
Iconography has had a fair amount to do with this list, too. We remember the train crash from Super 8, and we admire the technical work that makes virtually every scene from Life of Pi memorable, but the dream sequences of Inception are on a whole new level. Whether it’s the opening scene, the rain-filled city, the hotel, or the mountain finale, Nolan gives us great settings as well as creative action scenes and thrills to go along with them. Each setting has its own texture and feeling that slicks the film up, and makes us question what’s going to come up next.
I love the score to the film as well, and lots of others consider this one of Hans Zimmer’s best. The famous horn from the trailer became an iconic sound effect for the rest of the decade, and the use of “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien” in the film forever changes how I feel and what I think about if I hear the song in other movies or in life.
I can’t really think of any nagging parts of the film that bother me. Every character serves a purpose, every action taken has a consequence or a reasoning behind it, and while the world created in Inception may be hard to follow the first time around, it stands up as perfectly logical on repeat viewings. In summary, it’s a wholly creative idea from a very creative mind, and I’d like to think that all great sci-fi and fantasy films share some stock in that.
1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
This is where my age comes into play. Having grown up with the Harry Potter franchise, I have to reserve the top spot for the closing film in that series. While there’s a lot of great moments from the seven films that come before this one, there’s nothing quite as extraordinary, spell-binding, or marvelous as the concluding film about the titular boy wizard.
David Yates accomplishes a lot with some of the early scenes in the film. The Gringotts robbery scene gets the movie started off right, and there’s a lot of comedic relief when Harry, Ron and Hermione reunite with the students at Hogwarts. But the Battle of Hogwarts becomes the best battle scene of the decade. It’s on the same level as the Battle of Minas Tirith from The Lord of the Rings.
While the action scenes and comedy really work, the movie takes a big turn with the ten minute stretch where we learn the backstory of Severus Snape. I remember seeing this for the first time and being caught up in all the emotion, seeing why Snape acted the way he did. It’s truly a disgrace that the late Alan Rickman was not properly noticed for his work here. Re-watching this scene after his passing only makes it more powerful.
While I know that a lot of fans have problems with the final minutes of the film, especially the epilogue scene, I felt like it was a perfect wrap-up to the series. When the John Williams score kicks in and we see Harry’s journey end in the same place it began in The Philosopher’s Stone (or Sorcerer’s Stone, depending on where you live) at King’s Cross Station, I can’t help but get a lump in my throat.
I feel that’s the reason why the eighth chapter in the film franchise is the best. It knows exactly how to mix the big spectacle scenes with comic relief, but then also grab you with emotions. While the Fantastic Beasts franchise may well drive the Harry Potter fanbase off a cliff, fans can always go back to Hogwarts with this wild, fantastic ride.