The 100 Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time

These films are fearless in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own.

Blade Runner
Photo: Warner Bros.

“The [sci-fi] film has never really been more than an offshoot of its literary precursor, which to date has provided all the ideas, themes and inventiveness. [Sci-fi] cinema has been notoriously prone to cycles of exploitation and neglect, unsatisfactory mergings with horror films, thrillers, environmental and disaster movies.” So wrote J.G. Ballard about George Lucas’s Star Wars in a 1977 piece for Time Out. If Ballard’s view of science-fiction cinema was highly uncharitable and, as demonstrated by the 100 boldly imaginative and mind-expanding films below, essentially off-base, he nevertheless touched on a significant point: that literary and cinematic sci-fi are two fundamentally different art forms.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a visionary depiction of a near-future dystopia, is almost impossible to imagine as a work of prose fiction. Strip away the Art Deco glory of its towering cityscapes and factories and the synchronized movements of those who move through those environments and what’s even left? It’s no accident that some of the greatest cinematic adaptations of sci-fi novels bear only a passing resemblance to their source material. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, for example, simply mines some of the concepts from Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? about human-looking androids, using them as the raw material for a haunting urban future-noir that owes more to visual artists like Moebius and Antonio Sant’Elia than it does to Dick himself. Then there’s Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which transfigures Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s briskly paced novella Roadside Picnic into a slow, mesmerizing journey into an uncanny space.

Ballard may have been right that literary sci-fi has provided all the interesting themes and ideas for which sci-fi in general has become known, but he failed to grasp how cinema has expanded our understanding of sci-fi by pricking at our collective visual consciousness. The titles on our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies of all time have shown us utopias, dystopias, distant planets, and our own Earth destroyed. Some of these depictions are humorous, others haunting. Some rely on complicated special effects, others use none at all. But they’re united by their fearlessness in breaking down boundaries and thrusting us into worlds beyond our own. Keith Watson

Altered States

100. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

Ken Russell’s psychedelic Altered States examines one man’s egregious deflection of paternal responsibility in the name of scientific innovation. Fantasy and self-indulgence are the most powerful narcotics in the film—drugs that allow Harvard scientist Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) to flirt with an increasingly volatile dream state where, as he puts it, “time simply obliterates.” Consumed by religious repression and self-guilt regarding his father’s painful death from cancer decades ago, Eddie becomes addicted to medicating his own primal urges through lengthy self-deprivation experiments. The theme of escape dominates the film, especially during Eddie’s visit with a native tribe from Central Mexico where a peyote session causes Eddie to hallucinate, visualized by Russell as a nightmarish dreamscape of striking imagery. It’s an incredibly subjective sequence, placing the viewer inside Eddie’s headspace during a lengthy and jarring slide show from hell. Lava flows, sexual acts, and animal disembowelment all crash together, images that take on even more symbolic meaning later in the film when Eddie begins to evolve physically into a simian form. Glenn Heath Jr.

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea

99. Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea (Jindřich Polák, 1977)

A film as brilliantly constructed as it is titled, Jindřich Polák’s Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea is a swinging comedy about a secret cabal of Nazis who’ve discovered the secret of time travel and are intent on using it to go back to World War II and supply Hitler with an atomic bomb. The plot also involves a pair of twins, mistaken identities, and anti-ageing pills, and yet, despite having to keep all these narrative balls in the air, the film never feels convoluted or over-stuffed. Instead, it’s a delightfully wacky farce that treats its potentially terrifying premise with cheerfully irreverent humor, exemplified by the film’s opening credits, which feature archival footage of Hitler manipulated to make it look like he’s boogieing to disco music. And if all that’s still not enough, Polák’s film also offers a nifty showcase of some of the grooviest low-budget futuristic production design the ’70s Soviet bloc had to offer. Watson

Flash Gordon

98. Flash Gordon (Mike Hodges, 1980)

A gleefully cheesy throwback to the sci-fi serials of yesteryear, Mike Hodges’s Flash Gordon is as pure a camp spectacle as you’re likely to find. A glitzy—at times garish—extravaganza of brightly colored sets, skin-baring costumes, and otherworldly vistas that wouldn’t seem out of place in the gatefold of a Yes album, the film is silly and cartoonish in the best sense of those terms. Featuring such outlandish characters as the fu manchu-sporting villain Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed, bare-legged and sporting giant metallic wings), and the blank-eyed beefcake at the center of it all, Flash (Sam J. Jones), the film is very much in on its own joke. Produced by Dino de Laurentiis to cash in on the post-Star Wars mania for space-opera flicks, Flash Gordon ultimately has more in common with tongue-in-cheek cult musicals like Phantom of the Paradise and Xanadu than it does with George Lucas’s action-packed monomyth. That’s thanks in large part to the rip-roaring soundtrack by Queen, whose spirited pomposity seamlessly complements the film’s flamboyant comic-strip visual delights. Watson

The Invisible Man

97. The Invisible Man (James Whale, 1933)

James Whale’s anarchically playful The Invisible Man is an outlier among Universal’s line of classic monster movies. More of an inventive mash-up of black comedy and sci-fi than true horror, the film is an incendiary piece of speculative fiction that counterbalances its cautionary-tale tropes by perpetually reveling in the chaos its megalomaniacal protagonist stirs up, even as his intensifying violent impulses shift from harmlessly prankish to straight-up lethal. This pervasive sense of moral ambiguity is only strengthened by Whale’s decision to keep Claud Rains’s Dr. Jack Griffin invisible until the film’s closing seconds and elide his character’s backstory altogether. Griffin’s unknowability and cryptic motivations are mirrored in his literal invisibility, allowing his corruption and unquenchable thirst for power to take on a universal quality that implicates the audience even as it as it entertains them. Derek Smith

The Brother from Another Planet

96. The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)

A gentle-hearted satire on race and the immigrant experience, John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet follows an unnamed mute extra-terrestrial (Joe Morton) who, after crash-landing in the Hudson River, navigates life in the Big Apple. The hook, of course, is that while this “brother” hails from a far-off planet, to the people of New York, he looks like just another black guy. This premise, which could’ve been mined for easy laughs or obvious platitudes about racism, is instead, in Sayles’s hands, a sensitive, socially observant fable about the difficulties of assimilation. The brother is, in all senses of the term, an alien: far from home, isolated from those around him, unsure how to navigate local social interactions, and, ultimately, unsure if he belongs in this world at all. Bolstered by Morton’s soulful lead performance—few have ever made the act of listening so compelling to watch—Sayles’s film is science fiction at its most succinct and humane. Watson

Days of Eclipse

95. Days of Eclipse (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988)

Aleksandr Sokurov’s Days of Eclipse opens with a majestic birds’ eye view tracking shot of a desolate desert landscape. As the camera speeds up, it descends from the heavens, violently crashing into the ground in a poverty-stricken Turkmenistani community. The shot invokes a metaphorical image of invasion, and after a hard cut, we’re offered a blistering glimpse of that invasion’s impact: a landscape neglected to the point of decay, crumbling amid the oppressive heat and other inexplicable natural phenomena. Alternating between drab sepia tones and more vividly colorful footage, Sokurov films a multicultural community through the disoriented, foreign eyes of Malyanov (Aleksei Ananishnov), a Russian physician sent on a vague mission to bring modern science to the village. But Malyanov remains a stranger in a strange land, unable to commune with the shell-shocked villagers, whose trauma and desperation has rendered them alien to all outsiders. Like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, both also based on novels by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Days of Eclipse transforms an ordinary landscape into something mystical and otherworldly. And in this film in particular, it perfectly embodies the unbridgeable disconnect between colonizer and colonized. Smith

Voyage to the End of the Universe

94. Voyage to the End of the Universe (Jindřich Polák, 1963)

While some Czech New Wave filmmakers in the 1960s explored the interconnected social and political foibles of people in their home country, Jindrich Polák’s effects-laden Voyage to the End of the Universe trades the oppressed Soviet-ruled Czech Republic for the outer reaches of the cosmos. The journey of the starship Ikarie XB-1 in searching for life on another planet isn’t without the Czech New Wave’s notable playfulness when detailing how travelers cope with the monotony of space travel (here’s looking at you, dance party sequence), though Polák expresses a darkly fatalistic worldview as well. If the haunting sequence of Ikarie XB-1 crew members finding a doomed ship that went on a similar mission is any indication, Polák suggests that sheer advancements in innovation and searching for a new life-sustaining planet is ultimately an exercise in futility, since human life, in both the individual sense and as a species, will end at some point. It seems we might as well, like the film’s bored cosmonauts, just simply let go and dance the night away. Wes Greene

The Thing from Another World

93. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)

Legend has it that The Thing from Another World was helmed not by its credited director, Christian Nyby, but by producer Howard Hawks. The film certainly provides ample evidence to suggest that such a covert switch occurred, as the its controlled atmosphere of dread and abundant rapid-fire repartee between the primary players seem to have been molded according to Hawks’s trademark template. Regardless, what remains most remarkable about the film is its continued ability to function as both a taut science-fiction thriller and a telling snapshot of the Cold War paranoia beginning to sweep the country in post-WWII America. The story, about the battle between a group of stranded military personnel and an alien creature fueled by human blood, is a model of economic storytelling. The conflict between Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) is one between Force and Reason, and represents a debate over whether America should cope with its Soviet adversaries through military confrontation or intellectual and diplomatic study. Given the ’50s political climate, it’s no surprise that the film’s climax answers such a question by painting the sympathetic Carrington as a danger to mankind and the violent Hendry as a heroic warrior. Nick Schager

The World’s End

92. The World’s End (Edgar Wright, 2013)

Edgar Wright wrapped up his Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with The World’s End, a rollicking alien-invasion ode to boozing up and moving on that bests even Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz in its comingling of hilarious buddy humor, aesthetically electric action, and genre shout-outsmanship. The story of a group of high school friends reunited to complete a famed pub crawl at the behest of their once-great, now-pitiful leader (Simon Pegg), only to find that their sleepy rural England hometown has been turned into a picture-perfect haven for extraterrestrial cyborg pod people, Wright’s film is a blistering barrage of contentious one-liners and CG-ified mayhem. Staged with the director’s usual high-wire dexterity and bolstered a cast that handles whip-crack dialogue with giddy aplomb, it’s the filmmaker’s most exciting, inventive, and purely entertaining mash-up to date—not to mention, in its alternately sympathetic and critical portrait of a man-child navigating the literal and figurative pitfalls of growing up, also his most heartfelt. Schager

Liquid Sky

91. Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)

The world of Slava Tsukerman’s cult classic suggests the neon-tinged flipside of Warhol’s Factory. Anne Carlisle memorably plays dual roles: as Jimmy, a male model with a raging drug addiction, and Margaret, a bisexual girl who could easily pass for Aimee Mann during her ‘Til Tuesday days. Otto von Wernherr (Madonna enemy and early collaborator) plays a German scientist chasing after an alien spacecraft that visits the Earth in order to feed off the opium-producing receptors inside the brains of heroin users. During sexual orgasm, these receptors produce a sensation similar to the feeling produced by the brain during the absorption of heroin. The film’s aliens (visually represented using negative film stock of a blood-shot eye) feed off of this pleasure principle, spontaneously combusting humans as they engage in sexual intercourse. Aliens, drugs, clubs, orgasms, and big hair! On its crazed surface, Liquid Sky is a celebration of the ’80s counter-culture. But more than three decades after its release, the bad behavior and paranoia depicted here seemingly foreshadows both the ramifications of said culture’s sexual indiscretions and a nation’s political naïveté. Ed Gonzalez

Edge of Tomorrow

90. Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)

Edge of Tomorrow is an intelligent, self-reflexive blockbuster with an eye for castigating proliferate franchise mentalities. Doug Liman uses the film’s premise against itself, wearing down any sense of expository propulsion by whittling Major Bill Cage’s (Tom Cruise) plight to an affective, existential joie de vivre, where the prospect of death is, paradoxically, the prospect of life. Make no mistake, Liman is using that plight to question how knowledge through repetition only works if said knowledge ultimately breaks from the previous mold. Thus, when Cage eventually contemplates living through the day, as a relinquishment of his power, we should understand a correlative assessment of how big-budget filmmaking has placed itself in a similar, despondent predicament. Thus, Liman short-circuits these problems through an array of spirited genre elements, perhaps most suitably allowing Cruise and Emily Blunt to enter screwball terrain during an extended training sequence that consistently ends with Blunt’s Rita putting a bullet in Cage’s brain. Liman plays this purely for its pop pleasures, harnessing the physical charisma and chemistry of his stars to ends that engage the characters’ mutual sexual attraction, with each trying to one-up the other by proving their worth. Clayton Dillard

Demolition Man

89. Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993)

With its comic-book aesthetic and gleeful penchant for wanton destruction, the appropriately named Demolition Man has more on its mind than it initially appears. Echoing the libertarian space operas of Robert Heinlein, Marco Brambilla’s film presents two alternate dystopias to drive home its underlying thesis that a truly desirable society must find a way to balance the often-contradictory goals of security and freedom. First, we’re shown mid-’90s Los Angeles, which has devolved into a war zone where psychotic warlords like Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes) carve out their own fiefdoms through a combination of terrorism and guerrilla warfare. After Simon’s imprisoned by supercop John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) and frozen in a cryoprison, the film jumps forward in time to 2032 and lands in San Angeles, a seemingly utopian, crimeless megacity where all vices have been outlawed in the interest of public safety and wellbeing. In reality, San Angeles is run by a smiling, ruthless philosopher king, Dr. Raymond Cocteau (Nigel Hawthorne), who brooks no dissent from his autocratic rule. As Phoenix and Spartan battle over the soul of the future after being unfrozen, Demolition Man becomes an unlikely paean to the virtues of ugly freedom against the dangerous allure of clean, conformist authoritarianism. Oleg Ivanov

Galaxy Quest

88. Galaxy Quest (Dean Parisot, 1999)

Proudly embodying the truism that you can only parody what you love, Galaxy Quest targets the goofy attributes of Star Trek with laser precision, from Tim Allen’s Shatner avatar insistently rolling into action or taking his shirt off for no reason to Sam Rockwell’s Guy worrying that his status as an expendable red shirt on a fictional sci-fi show dooms him to real death in the interstellar war into which the cast gets drafted. The performances are superb, reckoning with thespian self-loathing for stooping to a pre-prestige TV paycheck (Alan Rickman never stretched each syllable with defeat more than he did here) or with the garish sexism of ostensibly progressive shows (sci-fi feminist icon Sigourney Weaver, reduced to repeating updates from a talking ship computer). Yet the film’s most impressive accomplishment is how its send-up of Star Trek is so carefully drawn that it could easily function as a Star Trek film in its own right, and the fact that its conflict is resolved not by the actors but the show’s impassioned, studious fans is a wonderful tribute to the true legacy of Gene Roddenberry’s cult universe. Jake Cole

Resident Evil: Retribution

87. Resident Evil: Retribution (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2012)

Only a few values seem to concern Paul W.S. Anderson: endless pleasure through endless bone-crunching mayhem, balletic ass-kicking, abstract visual design, and photographing his wife and muse, the always extraordinary Milla Jovovich. The long, three-stage passage that opens the necrotically beautiful Resident Evil: Retribution exudes a kind of anti-story hostility on the order of maladjusted Japanese master Seijun Suzuki. By this point in the franchise, Anderson was content to alight the saga on a perpetual rewind loop, ever-ending, ever-rebooting, all subsidized by his nonpareil compositional sense, and the good sense he has to quash his own dialogue (which, let’s not kid, he’s no Ibsen) with nonstop movement and fury. He’s cast aside even the pretense that closure is forthcoming, opting instead for the zombie world without end, forever and ever, amen. And who can blame him, when his conditions produce loving portraiture of death goddess Milla, and you’re never five minutes in any direction from a pitched battle between the immovable Alice and the irresistible army of the mutant undead? Like the new self-aware-computer-controlled Umbrella, the series became with this film self-powered, and its spiral momentum is perpetual. Jaime N. Christley


86. Gattaca (Andrew Niccol, 1997)

A throwback in many ways to sci-fi’s cinematic golden age in the 1950s, Gattaca’s elegant, minimalist art design employs modernist architecture and the futuristic cars and fashions of post-WWII America to envision a sleek, utopian future barely concealing its social oppression. Cleverly playing with the idea that discrimination and privilege are often invisible, writer-director Andrew Niccol portrays a post-racial world where people’s professional and therefore socioeconomic success in life depends solely on their DNA structure. Vincent (Ethan Hawke) is born without genetic modification, rendering him “invalid” for any but the least desirable careers. Resorting to black-market technology to achieve his dream of becoming an astronaut, Vincent passes as a “valid” until a murder threatens to expose his true identity. Niccol’s attention to detail, from the omnipresence of DNA surveillance to the various little gadgets and tools that Vincent needs to game the system, makes for an unnervingly plausible future. But it’s Gattaca’s thoughtful presentation of the eternal question over whether nature or nurture determine human fate that makes the film feel so timeless. Ivanov


85. Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018)

Many modern film adaptations of popular novels are slavish to their source material. Admirably, writer-director Alex Garland doesn’t so much adapt Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 sci-fi bestseller Annihilation for the screen so much as he riffs on the novel’s trippy happenings, creating something almost entirely his own. Garland has the genre bona fides, and the writer of Sunshine and writer-director of Ex-Machina handles Annihilation’s hallucinatory setting with an appropriate and compelling sense of shifting unreality. The characters who enter the alien-terraforming Shimmer in the film are all people who’ve lost the will to live, yet their survival instincts compel them to self-defense against the horrors thrown at them by the film’s creepy elements. The Shimmer responds in kind, folding the terrors of characters about to meet their deaths into the flora and fauna that form out of corpses and sport gnarled looks of frozen anguish. And in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, after watching a colleague “live on” in the mutant screams of the bear that killed her, Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson)—tacitly suffering from depression and knowing the odds of her survival—decides to leave a calmer imprint of herself on this alien region. Her blissful walk into oblivion is the film’s sole moment of quietude, and perhaps the most gorgeous display of justifiable suicide ever depicted on film. Henry Stewart and Cole


84. Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973)

The sort of high-concept comedy Allen would abandon by the late 1970s, Sleeper is, plainly, a master class in comic riffing. The film, co-written by Allen and Marshall Brickman, is pockmarked with parodies of various works of science fiction. Allen plays Miles Monroe, another take on his trademark nebbish, who finds himself cryofrozen in 1973 only to wake up 200 years hence. The comedy comes not, as you might expect, from the fish-out-of-water’s stunned reactions to the advancements of the future, but rather to the future-world’s bafflement over this curious Manhattanite dweeb. It’s a brilliant twist, replete with genre-upturning lunacy and moments of inspired bathos. Calum Marsh

Dead Man’s Letters

83. Dead Man’s Letters (Konstantin Lopushansky, 1989)

Even in a subgenre as noted for its gloom and severity as the post-apocalyptic film, Konstantin Lopushansky’s Dead Man’s Letters stands out for its complete and utter grimness. A nuclear bomb has reduced a city to little more than a heap of rubble strewn with corpses, and the few survivors have taken refuge in underground bunkers. One of them, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Professor Larsen (Rolan Bykov), spends his time in the basement of a museum writing letters to a son who will almost certainly never read them. A protégé of Tarkovsky, Lopushansky favors long, ruminative tracking shots that allow us, as in Stalker, to feel as if we’re actually part of the film’s uncanny reality. Everything here is bathed in an eerie yellow glow, a constant reminder of the contaminated environment the characters inhabit and a potent visual metaphor for the air of despondency that hangs over this world. While the film ultimately closes on a slightly hopeful note, what really hits home is Lopushansky’s despairing vision of a species seemingly intent on its own destruction. As one character puts it, “The whole history of mankind is a story of a slow suicide.” Watson

The Crazy Ray

82. The Crazy Ray (René Clair, 1924)

In René Clair’s The Crazy Ray, a man (Albert Préjean) and a group of friends are in an airplane on their way to Paris when a scientist’s experimental device freezes every Parisian in place. Unaffected, the friends deplane to find that up close the bustling French capital looks exactly as it does from above: immobile, timeless, asleep. The film’s English title refers to the beam emitted by the scientist’s device, but the French title (Paris Qui Dort, or “Paris Sleeping”) refers to the modern, technologically mediated impression of Paris that the film allegorizes. From the vantage point of an airplane or a high rise, or in a photograph, a major metropolis can seem surreally still and lifeless. The real-world technology equivalent to the scientist’s “crazy ray,” then, is the cinema, which manipulates and transforms our impression of reality—in which live things can appear dead and lifeless things can be (re)animated. Clair plays around with montages of empty streets and frozen images, and delights in the fantasy of the un-frozen group’s hijinks, as they hedonistically raid a bar and do handstands on the beams of the Eiffel Tower. Clair’s surreal comedy reminds us that the true subject of science fiction is our modern world, and that truly wondrous technologies already at our fingertips. Pat Brown

The Nutty Professor

81. The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis, 1963)

It’s interesting that The Nutty Professor is the follow-up to The Errand Boy, given that the earlier film saw Jerry Lewis damn near drawing up a referendum against the effortless falsehoods and emotional tactics that Hollywood orchestrates to sell stars and rebottled narrative formulas. Of all his films, The Nutty Professor may be the closest to achieving an unfussy plea for pathos. Lewis achieves this smooth expressive stroke by splitting his brassy-but-benign cinematic alter ego down the middle, with Dr. Julius Kelp, the noodly collegiate chemistry professor, embodying nothing but qualities of innocence, physical maladroitness, and the desire to only be accepted by society at large, to simply blend in. Though many of his films end with an overtly voiced moral, of sorts, many of them can’t help but sound hollowly platitudinous amid Lewis’s thematic free-for-alls. The Nutty Professor’s supreme triumph is that when Kelp, heartbroken and emotionally naked in front of what might as well be the world, admits that “if you don’t think too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?,” it’s not only a tear-jerking TKO, but also places Lewis’s own fascination with the ravaging effects of his self-inquisitive ego probes into a plain and urgent context. Eric Henderson

The Bed Sitting Room

80. The Bed Sitting Room (Richard Lester, 1969)

The title of Richard Lester’s post-apocalyptic black comedy, The Bed Sitting Room, refers not to a place but a person. Specifically, Lord Fortnum (Ralph Richardson), who fears the nuclear fallout from the shortest war in history (which lasted two minutes and 28 seconds) is mutating him into the titular apartment. Such is the surreal, eminently British sense of humor that infuses Lester’s adaptation of the popular one-act play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus. Little more than a string of loosely connected vignettes, the film features a treasure trove of clever gags, such as a rewrite of “God Save the Queen” to honor her majesty’s closest living relative, Mrs. Ethel Shroake, of 393A High Street, Leytonstone. But Lester’s eerie visuals, which depict London as little more than a barren garbage heap, highlights the essential pessimism of Milligan and Antrobus’s screenplay. Even in this desiccated, pulverized ex-city destroyed by human stupidity, people can’t help but cling to the pointless everyday absurdities that defined their life before the bomb. Watson

The Iron Giant

79. The Iron Giant (Brad Bird, 1999)

As far back as the marvelously old-fashioned The Iron Giant, Brad Bird was envisioning nostalgia-rich universes rich in wit and moral inquiry. Hogarth, a B-movie-obsessed, coffee-drinking latchkey kid from 1950s Maine with a Pee-wee Herman bike, sees his sci-fi dreams come true after a big metal giant crash-lands in his hometown from destinations unknown. Bird doesn’t intend the film as Cold War allegory (the kids at school tellingly ignore a cutely alarmist newsreel about atomic warfare), but as a toothy commentary on the sometimes perilous consequences of our fear of the other. The finale is heartbreaking for its spiritual sense of two becoming one: Hogarth’s eyes lighting up when he hears about the robot for the first time inside his mother’s diner and the many shots of the giant’s eyes absorbing and registering life. “You are what you choose to be,” says Hogarth during a crucial scene, to which the giant responds, “Hogarth.” The Iron Giant is many things, above all else a poetic fairy tale about our essential goodness and friendship as a ritual of communion. Gonzalez

Upstream Color

78. Upstream Color (Shane Carruth, 2013)

As Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color builds toward its third and most exhilarating suite, a nearly wordless passage of images and music in which a family seeks a resolution, the film drifts further and further into veiled allegory, relying less on conventional narrative devices than its capacity to suggest and evoke. An early climax involving, of all things, a sack of newborn piglets is astonishing for how lucidly it articulates a very real pain through metaphor, capturing the devastation of loss and the protectiveness of parenthood better than a more straightforward expression could have. This is a film about many things (our compulsion to narrativize personal tragedy and explain away abstraction, the inexplicability of desire, the transformative effective of a relationship, the gradual blurring of self-identity when one becomes too close to another), but one thing it’s clearly not about are thieves that hypnotize people by drugging them, other than in the most basic and uninteresting sense. That’s precisely why the details, obscure though they often seem, are ultimately irrelevant. What matters is aesthetic, sensual, and deeply felt. What matters is what’s real. Marsh

Planet of the Apes

77. Planet of the Apes (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1968)

Planet of the Apes addresses racial animus with a boldness unusual for a Hollywood entertainment produced in the strife-torn America of 1968. Of course, the film became a blockbuster because it’s cannily crafted, in part, as a ripping adventure yarn, director Franklin J. Schaffner staging a long desert trek for survival by stranded Earth astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his two surviving shipmates in the opening half-hour, a brilliant “hunt” sequence with gorillas pursuing the human brutes as targets and trophies, and a lengthy chase sequence where the escaped spaceman leaps and dodges past hairy denizens of church, museum, and marketplace. The action set pieces are an essential complement to Taylor’s ongoing, futile argument for his right to survival with the wizened ape theocrat Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans). Schaffner’s largely savvy, serious approach, highlighted by a persuasive monologue of despairing solitude from the caged Heston, gives the film a forcefulness that’s survived the fever of its 50-years-past phenomenon. Its concluding scenes, with McDowall intoning from ape scripture, “Beware the beast Man, for he is the Devil’s pawn,” as Heston and his new mate go searching for the planet’s last mystery on horseback along a rocky shoreline, is given mythic heft by a celebrated fadeout. Bill Weber

Jurassic Park

76. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Even detached from the fuzzy flow of nostalgia, Jurassic Park’s splendor remains firmly rooted in a fixed set of attributes, particularly the way Steven Spielberg girds his high-flown fantasy within a context of concise, carefully constructed filmmaking. It’s this combination of flashy thrills and solid fundamentals that makes for what’s perhaps the most perfect distillation of the Spielberg brand, with its giddy embrace of the fringe possibilities of special effects, its blending of swashbuckling adventure with overtones of genuine terror, the fondness for small personal stories couched within impossibly large narratives. While even his best films involve a certain measure of hokey schmaltz, he should be equally noted for the precise craftsmanlike qualities that turn them into uniquely rewarding experiences, his insistent focus on assembling worlds from the ground up, accounting for visceral details, no matter how ridiculously fantastical the story may be otherwise. In Jurassic Park this means building an outlandish dream kingdom on a bedrock of scientific detail, on a narrative level, and mixing still-shaky CGI effects with more large-scale models, on a visual one, qualities which help make that grandiosity tactile. Jesse Cataldo

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future

75. Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (Leonid Gaidai, 1973)

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future is a canny sci-fi comedy about an obnoxious Soviet building manager, Ivan Vasilevich Bunsha (Yuriy Yakovlev), who gets sent by a time machine to medieval Russia and trades places with none other than Ivan the Terrible. Yakovlev plays both characters, and the ensuing foibles of mistaken identity allow the film to mock standard targets of Soviet satire: the monarchy, aristocratic mores, incompetent bureaucrats, and socioeconimic parasites. But it also sneaks in subtle critiques of communist government and society. Inventor Shurik (Aleksandr Demyanenko) is forced to work on his groundbreaking research on time travel in his apartment, where he’s constantly harassed by the meddling Ivan, a party activist. And when the machine breaks, Shurik has to buy the replacement parts on the black market because the state stores are either closed or short of supplies, an implicit criticism of the chronic shortages that plagued the U.S.S.R. The communist Bunsha also has a far easier time adapting to the role of an autocrat than the czar does to that of a party activist, hinting that communist belief among Soviet citizens is only skin deep, a troubling thought for a society whose entire foundation and existence was predicated on its unquestionable political ideology. Ivanov


74. Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

From Monsters, Inc. through Up, Pixar’s formula throughout the aughts remained nailed down, on point, and irresistible to children, parents, and critics alike. But none of their movies hit the sweet spot quite as majestically as 2008’s galactic ecology fable, a secular Left Behind in which a button-cute robot janitor enamored by Jerry Herman showtunes and a hair-triggered lady iPod learns to value others’ prime directives. Call it Children of Men, for Children. WALL-E goes beyond inviting comparisons to E.T., Number 5, R2D2, even Chaplin’s Little Tramp. The Waste Allocation Load Lifter relies on them, for writer-director Andrew Stanton understands this robot janitor as a study in memory and inheritance. The last surviving bot of a failed program meant to clean up after our bad habits, WALL-E learns about desire from a movie musical we left behind and bides his time creating buildings from our compacted trash—totems that give expression to his hunger for purpose in the same way the pyramids attest to the ancient Egyptian race’s human possibility. The robot’s loneliness is palpable not only in those soulful eyes, one of which he has to replace after it incurs great injury, but in his dogged, workaday need to clean and assemble, no doubt hoping that one day someone might notice that WALL-E Was Here. Henderson and Gonzalez

War of the Worlds

73. War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005)

The apex of what critic Matthew Wilder astutely pinned as the summery popcorn movies finally wrestled with the aftermath of 9/11 (along with Land of the Dead and Red Eye), Steven Spielberg’s relentless update of H.G. Wells’s creaky, pre-Cold War property often feels like a regression into the cheap safety of a zero-relativity “Us vs. Them” mentality. Which is exactly why it still seems like the most upsetting mass entertainment in Spielberg’s entire career. Stuffed with all the brutally efficient mayhem of Jaws, Poltergeist, Gremlins, and Jurassic Park put together, War of the Worlds is a mirror held up against the nation’s sense of festering shock. But for all the sympathetic shots of people running for their lives with grimaces of terror on their faces, you can’t help but wonder if Spielberg’s ultimate disaster movie isn’t also smuggling in criticism about the nature of our worst collective fears. Henderson

Space Is the Place

72. Space Is the Place (John Coney, 1974)

A virtuosic musician who combined boundary-pushing innovations with chintzy sci-fi theatrics and far-out ideas about the black man’s place in the cosmos, Sun Ra was a truly unique figure in the history of 20th-century music. Equal parts blaxploitation thriller and experimental, John Coney’s Space Is the Place, in which the musician stars as himself, mixes together all of Ra’s obsessions—including flying saucers, ancient Egyptian mythology, glittery, over-the-top costumes, and, of course, blistering avant-garde jazz—into a heady Afrofuturist stew. The narrative, which is loosely assembled around a card game to determine the future of the black race, anticipates the techno-utopianism of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther while offering a far more incisive critique of the power dynamics working against black communities. That it does so with a plot that involves an all-black space colony, racist NASA assassins, and a corrupt pimp overlord known as the Overseer (Ray Johnson) speaks to the film’s singular mix of seriousness and self-satire. Watson

The Host

71. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)

Scott Wilson’s deliciously hammy presence as the American captain in the opening scene indicates that Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is, in the broadest sense, a politically charged diatribe against both American and Korean political cover-up machinations of misinformation. But that aspect is rather bland in comparison to what else the film has to offer. For, like any great monster movie, this isn’t a film strictly about a monster—or, for that matter, the monstrous countries that spawned it—but about something else: the significance of sustenance. That is, The Host is a film chiefly concerned with food: who, how, and where we get it from, what it is we choose to eat, and why we eat it at all. Ryland Walker Knight

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

70. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)

Each iteration of Invasion of the Body Snatchers speaks to its contemporary zeitgeist. In Don Siegel’s film, the corrosion of conformity represented by the affectless pod people cuts both ways: a free-floating metaphor readable either as an indictment of communist groupthink or as a condemnation of HUAC’s anti-communist witch hunts. Any way you cut it, Siegel infuses the material with a shadowy noir sensibility, doubling down on canted angles and low-key lighting as the film unfolds, and shoehorning his two leads into increasingly close quarters, culminating in the unforgettable reaction shot where the sheen of sweat on Kevin McCarthy’s face cascades over the upturned lens like a cataract. Budd Wilkins

Things to Come

69. Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936)

From first to last, Things to Come was intended to bear the unmistakable stamp of H.G. Wells’s personal vision. Adapted by the legendary science-fiction novelist from his nonfiction book of “future history” entitled The Shape of Things to Come, both book and film are earnest attempts to foretell the future, extrapolating from current conditions in the 1930s the course of human events over a 100-year period. William Cameron Menzies’s visual aesthetic is characterized by angular compositions dominated by massive sets that tend to dwarf the actors, consigning them to their impersonal margins. The spectacle of disaster seemed to come naturally to Menzies, and he no doubt took great delight in building up the gargantuan set representing Wells’s anonymous British Everytown, only to demolish it through aerial bombardment and successive waves of devastation and deterioration. As a result of these and other creative tensions, Things to Come is riddled with fascinating ambiguities that deepen and enrich this already visually dazzling production. Wilkins

The Matrix

68. The Matrix (Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, 1999)

The Matrix achieved so much by embracing an atmosphere of secrecy, rendering its thrilling, action-drenched tableaux completely in the service of its more thrilling plot. It convincingly implied an entire universe while brilliantly leaving key portions of it to our imagination; by setting most of the story inside the Matrix, which is meant to simulate reality, it gave the illusory facets of the concept a healthy origin in a familiar, believable world. There’s an undeniable exuberance at its core, perhaps emanating from the film’s utmost confidence that its fusion of East and West, high and low, would be embraced as joyously as it was. It was a movie made by filmmakers who were desperate to impress, and willing to work hard to do so. Chuck Rudolph

The Brood

67. The Brood (David Cronenberg, 1979)

At the center of The Brood is the power struggle between Nola (a fearlessly feline Samantha Eggar) and Frank (Art Hindle), and the effects of their severance upon their shell-shocked little girl, Candy (Cindy Hinds). Set in deepest Canadian winter, juxtaposing harsh brutalist exteriors against scarcely less inviting cinder-block and wood-panel interiors, the film gives off the impression—as most David Cronenberg films do—of a neat, clinically surgical procedure, that despite the mealy horror set pieces, its auteur is in supreme command of his communiqué. Nothing could be further from the case, and the results are vital. As diminutive killer homunculi begin targeting everyone close to him, Frank, the director’s bland stand-in, launches a one-man investigation into Raglan’s methods, seeking out unsatisfied customers, all of them men, all of them scarred. The implication that to confront one’s emotions—as Nola, and implicitly women en toto, very much can—is tantamount to playing with fire clashes spectacularly with the kind of white-rage mindset that could stage a scene as shockingly bonkers as the murder of a preschool teacher in full view of her weeping students. Even Cronenberg himself closes his twisted excoriation of marriage as a polluted procreative transaction despairingly unsure of how the cycle can ever be unbroken. Henderson


66. Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004)

Shane Carruth’s low-budget Primer is a marvel of plotting, a neatly enfolded set of turns and reversals based in cinema’s most internally consistent theory of the cascading paradoxes of time travel. Aaron (Carruth) and Abe (David Sullivan), two small-time engineers, accidentally invent a device that loops time. When the device is activated, it effectively becomes a portal to the moment in time it was switched on, as long as the prospective traveler waits for an entire cycle. Soon, both of them are crawling into the “box” to travel to their own recent pasts, where they can play the stock markets they’ve already observed. While initially the young scientists carefully draw out a guideline to non-interference in their own timelines, both their desire for mastery over their lives and plain curiosity gets the better of them. Carruth’s ingenious film is at once a riveting thought experiment—if reality, like a recording, could be set on loop, wither our sense of reality and self?—and a parable about callous greed in even the humblest tech startups. Brown

Born in Flames

65. Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden, 1983)

A certain level of incoherence is part of Born in Flames’s coherent understanding of the multitudinous channels of communication bred by competing political rhetoric. In one of the film’s several montages, always accompanied by Red Krayola’s title track, Lizzie Borden cuts between radio and television broadcasts, interspersed with speeches at various rallies, continuing to overlay message upon message, with little indication or instruction as to which course of action should be privileged over the other. Not that she lacks a radical political viewpoint. Quite the contrary, especially as the consistent binary opposition for the Women’s Army as “Terrorists or Revolutionaries?” troublingly suggests neither term to be a functional diagnosis for group actions within a consistently reshaping socio-political milieu. The film also uses the conflicting terms to suggest that media outlets only highlight oppositional actions to sell ambivalence and fear to consumers in the first place. Born in Flames, like some of Spike Lee’s best work, thrums with an emblazoned interest in addressing ongoing human rights concerns through zeitgeist-infused pop, though Borden’s approach omits explicit references to actual events, placing in its stead more philosophical rhetoric that hangs over the film like a darkened cloud that has the potential to explode at any moment with thunder and lightning. Dillard

Attack the Block

64. Attack the Block (Joe Cornish, 2011)

More Bloody Kids than Super 8, more Assault on Precinct 13 than Jumanji, and, in the end, more Be Kind Rewind than Adventures in Babysitting, Attack the Block distinguishes itself from its genre compatriots by prizing theme and place over referentiality and hip, out-of-the-box grindhouse-ness. Hidden beneath the surface of a highly effective theme-park ride is a plainspoken evocation of life lived by idle teens in Brixton, the sci-fi storyline extending directly from the directionless minors’ desire to be a little heroic, a little bit powerful, and to be noticed for once. Picture Cloverfield played out in and around Mike Leigh’s egg-crate flats in All or Nothing, only replace privileged Manhattanite yupsters with the kids from The Goonies. Christley

Repo Man

63. Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)

The utter weirdness of Alex Cox’s remarkable debut—a document of L.A.’s hardcore punk scene that’s also an ode to its car culture, a critique of the American middle class, and a kind-of sci-fi comedy about a radioactive Chevy Malibu—would seem to preclude its existence. And yet here it is. More than 30 years later, the film is no worse for the wear. Not so much ahead of its time as outside of it, the film’s L.A. punk particularities have broadened over the years. Its ennui has endured not just as a portrait of a certain generation of angry adolescents, but as one of angry adolescence writ large. Bland white-and-blue cans labeled “lite beer” and “yellow cling sliced peaches” may seem like blunderingly flagrant critiques of capital, but their blatancy is only commensurate with the brazenness of capital itself. Like the sunglasses in Carpenter’s film that magically demystify the existent authoritarian infrastructure by stripping it to its scaffolding, peeling the flesh from the well-dressed power bloc and paring down mock-complex billboards to marching order edicts like “CONSUME” and “OBEY,” Repo Man’s extra-barefaced signposts are in place to productively hail a generation that’s been beaten down under the boot heel of obviousness. John Semley


62. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Spike Jonze’s Her begins with a love letter—a misdirect. It’s a billet-doux by proxy, ghost-authored, dictated to a machine. We open on the wide-eyed mug of Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), seeming to speak from the heart, recalling fondly a first love that proves, with the reveal of an incongruous anniversary, to belong to somebody else. So the “handwritten letters” of beautifulhandwrittenletters.com are merely approximations of the form: our near-future’s phantom memorandum. But what matters here is that the love is real. Theodore’s letters, in a sense the film’s emotional through line, are never less than deeply felt, swelling with earnest affection. That he’s talking through and to another can’t reduce the depth of feeling in the sentiments. The genius of Her is that it doesn’t ask you to believe in the truth of its speculative science fiction so much as it does the truth of its romance, which is to say that Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) means more as metaphor—for a hard-won connection, long-distance or otherwise remote—than as a prediction of future tech. Her is about “the modern condition,” but not, importantly, in the strictly satirical sense: It tells us less about how we live than how we love. Marsh

Back to the Future

61. Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1986)

Long before Robert Zemeckis re-envisioned the 1960s as the era America gave itself over to stupidity (to the delight of Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads nationwide), he blasted the 1980s back into the 1950s with Back to the Future. Or, rather, he blasted the 1980s specifically for its return to a 1950s-reminiscent moral and political agenda. Looking back on it with the same sense of from-the-future assurance that informed the movie’s own creation, Back to the Future is a logistically beautiful but almost inhumanly perfect confluence of internal logic and external forces. It stands up on its own as a well-oiled, brilliantly edited example of new-school, Spielberg-cultivated thrill-craft, one that endures even now that its visual effects and haw-haw references to Pepsi Free and reruns seem as dated as full-service gas stations apparently did in 1985. Its schematic organization of what Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) need to accomplish and its steadily mounting series of mishaps demonstrating how they can go wrong represent probably the most carefully scripted blockbuster in Hollywood history, but the film’s real coup (and what separates it from the increasingly fluent pack of Spielberg knockoffs) is in how it subtly mocks the political pretensions of the era—not the 1950s, but rather the 1980s. Henderson

World of Tomorrow

60. World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt, 2015)

In the vibrantly colorful and dizzyingly surreal World of Tomorrow, Don Hertzfeldt depicts an isolating, emotionally vacant future where generation upon generation of clones carry the uploaded memories of their human primes. Hertzfeldt’s typically neurotic musings on humanity’s inescapable fear of death and his own anxieties over the increasing sense of solitude and disconnection fostered by a society intent on boundless technological innovation are cleverly counterbalanced by his caustic wit and pitch-perfect deadpan humor. In pitting the adorable, hilariously oblivious toddler Emily Prime (voiced by Hertzfeldt’s four-year-old niece using candid audio recordings), who’s replete with all the naïveté and unfettered joys of youth, against a future where technology has completely divorced people from their humanity, Hertzfeldt encourages us to cherish the profound beauty and joyous absurdities of existence while we can. As the elder clone reminds young Emily, “Now is the envy of all the dead.” Smith


59. eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999)

eXistenZ is a dark fable about the pleasures and pains of media interface. As the title indicates, it’s not exactly reticent about establishing clear “game = life” parallels. Not to mention, David Cronenberg accomplishes the whole “levels of reality” narrative shtick with far more aplomb than 1999’s other sci-fi mindbender, The Matrix, and with far fewer bullets. Cronenberg has long been a master at constructing scenes that unspool slightly off-kilter (mannered dialogue, affectless reaction shots abound), and here that disconnect works perfectly to first delineate and then obfuscate the various levels of gameplay until neither the film’s viewers nor its characters can be entirely certain where simulation ends and so-called reality begins. Cronenberg also gleefully amps up the ick factor, even if eXistenZ is comparatively light on gore: Highlights include Jennifer Jason Leigh lasciviously tonguing Jude Law’s spinal-tapped bio-port, as well as the scene in the Chinese restaurant where Law pieces together an “organic gun” while devouring a platter loaded with slimy stir fry. Wilkins


58. Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

Satoshi Kon trains his thematic sights on collective societal madness in Paprika, an anime dream noir (based on a popular novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui) that plays as a 99-proof distillation of his brilliant TV series Paranoia Agent. Kon trusts brazenly in dream logic to support his inquiry into the increasingly blurred lines separating man and machine. His hyper-realistic drawing style lends itself well to the film’s edgeless wonderland, especially in a bravura pre-credits sequence where Paprika, the peppy dream-detective alter ego of the cold-as-ice Dr. Atsuko Chiba (Megumi Hayashibara), guides the tortured Detective Toshimi Konakawa (Akio Ohtsuka) through a series of recurring nightmares—one of which manages to out-Malkovich the id-ruptured stylings of Spike Jonze. Though his films are visual stunners (see especially Paprika’s chaotic recurring set piece: a confetti-laden parade of home appliances overseen by a massive mound of dead-eyed porcelain dolls), Kon is more obsessively concerned with the psychological triggers that make his characters tick. In Kon’s world, action is an afterthought, a necessitated prerequisite that cloaks his true, arguably more profound intentions. Keith Uhlich

Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America

57. Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (Craig Baldwin, 1991)

Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America is a frenetic meta-conspiracy collage of everything from flying saucer sightings to doomsday prophecies to C.I.A. covert actions in Latin America. The film’s satirical narration (read by Sean Kilcoyne) adopts the language of right-wing nationalism, twisting the history of U.S. intervention in Central and South America into an outlandish narrative about a righteous war against space aliens intent on the destruction of the white race. Composed of clips from hundreds of sci-fi cheapies and industrial films, Tribulation 99 is 48 minutes of sensory and information overload. But beneath all the weird B-movie clips and intentionally ludicrous theories about Fidel Castro being an unkillable replicant lies a ferocious anger at the horrifying realities of American imperialism: political assassinations, Contra death squads, military invasions, all carried out or supported by the United States. If the opening all-caps, screen-filling “WARNING” (“THIS FILM IS NOT FICTION—IT IS THE SHOCKING TRUTH!”) at first seems like little more than a jokey riff on the hokey marketing language of B-movie hucksters like Ed Wood, by the end of the film, one finds that caution against its explosive truths is all too warranted. Watson

High Life

56. High Life (Claire Denis, 2018)

It’s no backhanded compliment to say the hype surrounding Claire Denis’s High Life will and must run aground of the film itself. Given the participation of celebrities like Robert Pattinson, industry types couldn’t help but wonder if Denis was planning to perform an art-house subversion on the sci-fi genre and deliver something mainstream-friendlier than her prior work. But the most subversive thing about High Life is probably that it exists in the first place; it’s a vision of the future as bleak and feverish as her 2013 thriller Bastards, which depicted a man’s man’s man’s world whose concentric cycles of patriarchal abuse offered no relief. Much like Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke thought better than to try aestheticizing alien life in 2001: A Space Odyssey, High Life leaves the story of Earth’s degradation for the viewer to imagine—as much an exercise in tactical minimalism as it is in ducking the cosmic-voyage paces we’ve all been through a million times before. Steve Macfarlane

Punishment Park

55. Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1973)

The federal authorities in Punishment Park have detained anti-establishment hippies and draft-dodgers deemed to be a threat to internal security, putting them before a tribunal that passes out their lengthy prison sentences, with the option of a full pardon if they participate in a law enforcement training exercise called Punishment Park. The dissidents are required to cross a desert terrain under brutal conditions, with police teams aggressively pursuing them. The rising temperatures and so-called righteousness of law and order lead to a savage violence that’s familiar from the history books. Looking back on history reminds us of the differences and similarities between then and now, and Peter Watkins serves up a time capsule from 1971 that, in a historical context, shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Punishment Park isn’t a documentary serving up fact (and some could argue it shows the falseness of documentary filmmaking). It’s an extreme, incendiary allegory stirring up deeper truths. Jeremiah Kipp

A Trip to the Moon

54. A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)

Against a lunar landscape built from multi-tiered studio backdrops, Georges Méliès stages a series of theatrical tableaux which find the “astronomers” grappling with any number of menacing obstacles. Drawing on the full range of his technique—multiple exposure, animation, stop-motion editing—Méliès creates images that, while neither believable as cinematic illusion nor as scientific possibility, when taken on their own terms, thrill with the sense of having sprung to life through the sheer force of invention. In the end, as the men of the astronomical society return to earth in triumph, all dangers overcome, the mysterious phenomena of the universe no longer register as sinister, ungovernable forces, but as objects of delighted contemplation. Andrew Schenker

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

53. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)

As omniscient as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is about the bond a lonely young boy shares with the alien he all-too-briefly calls his best friend, some of the film’s most pitch-perfect moments subtly suggest how children regard the inscrutable behavior of adults, especially parents. The film, among other things, pulls grown-ups back into the vortex of feelings they’ve either repressed with age or have allowed to break toward bitter instead of sweet. Steven Spielberg in his prime was so adept at reflecting the innocent simplicity of childhood feelings that his talent seems to draw out the worst suspicions among life’s lost souls, those to whom the concepts of purity and simplicity have somehow become weapons in the mind’s battle with the heart. E.T., a visitor whose biological makeup ensures his stay on Earth won’t be for long (which he realizes when he makes the tear-jerking decision to sever the bio-rhythmic tether between him and Henry Thomas’s Elliott), is something of an abstraction for the grief Elliott feels upon his father’s abandonment. His departing aphorism, “I’ll be right here,” is sage advice for someone who understands profoundly the loss Elliott feels and the capacity for him to forgive. Henderson

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

52. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

Throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers, one of the subtlest and most extraordinarily fluid of American sci-fi horror films, Philip Kaufman crafts textured scenes, rich in emotional and object-centric tactility, that cause our heads to casually spin with expectation and dread. Kaufman and screenwriter W.D. Richter fuse paranoia, eroticism, and flippancy to arrive at their own distinctly flakey yet intense genre-movie style. The filmmakers have gone out of their way to devise scenes which are set in places that have rarely hosted a horror-movie set piece before, such as a dry-cleaner’s shop, a book store, and the creepy swamp-colored spa that provides their film with one of its shock centerpieces. The soundtrack is particularly unnerving when we get a prolonged glimpse at how the pod people hatch out of the flowers blooming all over the city, which Kaufman stages as a simultaneous birth and rape. Chuck Bowen

Strange Days

51. Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)

The web was still in its infancy in 1995, though Kathryn Bigelow’s visualization of the co-mingling of cinema and violence as a designer drug—a pervading occupation of her career—now suggests online videos, particularly pornography. In Strange Days, snuff footage can be uploaded into the mind, allowing a viewer to experience taboo sensations from a safe distance, and we’re told this technology arose from an experiment in refashioning body cameras for police, which leads to the unendingly relevant concept of the suppression of people of color by militarized law enforcement. The L.A. riots, which exploded out of the acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, cast a long shadow over Strange Days, indirectly anticipating the similar concerns of racial caste and power that fuel Detroit. Bigelow brilliantly envisions the near-future city as having devolved into a casually endless wave of violence. Portions of this film achieve a total realization of Bigelow’s sensually fluid aesthetic of aggression: Tableaux of streets engulfed in revelers as people of color are shackled and beaten are among the most disturbing and astonishing moments of her career, punctured with blasts of simulated snuff that merge the filmmaker’s predilections for first-person perspectives with sculpted tracking shots. Bowen

The Incredible Shrinking Man

50. The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957)

There are B sci-fi films, and then there’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. Its premise, in which a 1950s average Joe is exposed to radiation that causes him to shrink, might suggest that the film is one of those assembly-line escapist yarns that studios were pumping out at the time. And yet director Jack Arnold and writer Richard Matheson display an intelligent artistry that takes the visual, narrative, and philosophical implications of the material to its thrilling and though-provoking fullest extent. In the span of 80 whirlwind minutes, Arnold and Matheson capture Scott Carey’s (Grant Williams) humorous emasculation when he first shrinks down to the size of a child; lightly satirize ’50s domesticity when Scott eventually moves into a doll house; and create surreal, indelible images such as Scott exhaustively battling a spider when he becomes the size of an insect. These episodic moments lead to the film’s rightly famous concluding monologue, where the miniscule Scott philosophically ruminates on his existential acceptance of his unique predicament. In its final sequence, The Incredible Shrinking Man transcends its modest genre origins to become downright profound in its spiritually poignant consideration of the value of a single, microscopic life. Greene


49. Kin-dza-dza! (Georgiy Daneliya, 1986)

If Samuel Beckett had written and directed a sci-fi film, it might look something like Kin-dza-dza! Georgiy Daneliya’s 1986 production concerns two Soviet citizens who are accidentally sent to the desert planet of Pluke, located in the galaxy Kin-dza-dza, where they meet two vaudevillian alien hobos with a barely functioning spaceship who proceed to alternately help and bamboozle our heroes as they attempt to return to the U.S.S.R. The film is Soviet cyberpunk in the era of late communism. As the protagonists struggle to adjust to the unfamiliar customs, social hierarchies, and linguistic practices of their strange new world, their experience mirrors the contemporaneous social and economic upheaval caused in Soviet society by Gorbachev’s reform policies of glasnost and perestroika. Audiences who saw the film at the time of its releases must have surely identified with the heroes’ plight, suddenly forced to adapt to a way of life different from the one they had known their entire lives. Life on Pluke might at first seem wholly alien to the protagonists’ egalitarian homeland, with its segregated society divided between high-status “chatlanins” and low-status “patsaks” and a language where all but 16 words are expressed by the term “koo.” Yet by the end, the two don’t seem so different after all. Ivanov

The Face of Another

48. The Face of Another (Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1967)

Many films made in postwar Japan cinema concerned themselves with the country’s identity crisis, specifically the role of the individual within a drastically changing society. Perhaps no film of the era articulated this more chillingly than Hiroshi Teshigahara’s The Face of Another, which finds the severely burnt (and slightly psychotic) Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) acquiring and wearing a high-tech, lifelike mask to wear in order to stop sympathetic souls from feeling sorry for his Invisible Man-esque bandaged face. Sci-fi is given an invigorating jolt of idiosyncrasy by Teshigahara, from the exquisite visuals (Okuyama’s mad doctor’s office is designed in a style that may be described as “B-movie modernism”), to the characters’ many and protracted discussions on how identity is perceived by others. This latter aspect even provides the film a clinical didacticism that effectively evokes Okuyama’s alienation from his own people. Like the film’s Japan, which we see to be increasingly influenced by Western culture, Okuyama drastically changes under the influence of the mask, in his case for the worst; Teshigahara exposes the slippery and fragile nature of identity, and that it’s less in our control than we’d like to believe. Greene

Children of Men

47. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

Alfonso Cuarón and his small army of screenwriters drop us in London with no interest in rationalizing a society’s downfall, perhaps understanding what most of us either know or refuse to admit: that this downfall is already playing out. Soon after agreeing to secure a young immigrant black woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), with the necessary papers for her to leave the country, Theodore Faron (Clive Owen) will learn that she’s pregnant and that the birth of her child may change the face of a world whose youngest person is, after the assassination of a Brazilian teen, an 18-year-old girl. Beginning with the very unexpected death of one of the film’s main characters, in a scene that exudes the we-can-make-it panic of a Zack Snyder zombie attack, Children of Men builds and builds, like a rollercoaster rising uncertainly to the heavens, to a visionary battle sequence. This final leg, during which the sounds of war defy the screams of a newborn child and Cuarón’s camera takes on the point of view of a dog of war, chasing Theodore, Kee, and a spastic gypsy woman through the streets and buildings of a crumbling immigrant ghetto, exudes a voluptuous energy rarely seen in the movies. Cuarón’s virtuosic vision is laced with magical-realist touches (look for Kee in the playground of one scene, glimpsed through teardrop-shaped glass) and reflective of the constant flux that is the bane of so many refugee and immigrant lives. Gonzalez

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

46. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)

The Road Warrior is a poetic action sonata of cars and leather that’s rich in beautifully composed wide shots that are designed to tickle the eye, climaxing with an awesomely inventive act of demolition-derby warfare. The last third of the film’s running time consists of a series of interlocking action stanzas that cumulatively yield one massive, astonishingly coherent set piece, yet it’s the little ceremonial details one remembers most. Particularly the prolonged shot of a leather-clad psychopath screaming as he pulls an arrow out of his arm, staring at Max (Mel Gibson) as he does so, while Brian May’s operatic metal score intensifies the mood of sadomasochistic nihilism. George Miller’s a stickler for detail and tactility; he drinks in his apocalyptic vehicles before they jump into action, charging up and circling one another, as the filmmaker understands that a fight of any sort must be reveled in, built up, transformed into theater. Breathtaking landscape shots are populated with gonzo warriors who steer their prehistoric insect-like vehicles into elaborate parades and promenades that include the flipping of switches, the clinking and clanking of chains and firearms, the beating of drums, and the elaborate assemblage of ludicrously amazing war-crafts. Bowen

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

45. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

In normalizing the scientifically possible but sociologically irrelevant notion that there’s more to life than Martin Scorsese’s mean streets or Irwin Allen’s man-made destruction impulse, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is both the last great gasp of ’60s hippie ethos and the first masterpiece of what would become an increasingly technocratic ’80s movie-house takeover. In other words, for a film in which a man spends so much time not knowing what he’s doing or why, it’s got a lot to answer for. And though Spielberg is often thought of as the most American of directors, since when has America endorsed such strident naïveté? Or been inclined to tender trust in the unknown? In the final rapturous stretch, the spectacle doesn’t come from the scope of the mothership or the sonic density of the tonal language that the aliens share with the gathered humans, but from the sweet and unexpected reward of total trust: the scientists’ trust in the pursuit of knowledge, the common man’s trust in a greater purpose and heavenly reunion, and our trust in a filmmaker flexing his utter command of the medium. On many levels the least fashionable American touchstone of the 1970s, Close Encounters is also arguably among the few that truly offered any hope of transcending its era. Henderson

The Empire Strikes Back

44. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back refines the humor, romance, and turmoil of George Lucas’s Star Wars. It also moves the visual storytelling of its predecessor significantly forward, and not just in terms of visual effects. Cinematographer Peter Suschinsky stunningly renders the action across the film’s fantastical environments, the shiny contours of high-tech surfaces clashing with soot, smoke, snow, and foliage. The lensing of the climactic lightsaber duel between Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Darth Vader supersedes phallic, good-versus-evil sword-thrusting to becomes a practically avant-garde show of saturated colors leaping out of shadows and smoke. The infernal spectacle mirrors this stage in the journey of Hamill’s Jedi, who’s not only literally disarmed by Vader, but endures the existential insult to injury with the revelation that this glossy and evil machine-man is Luke’s long-lost father. Of course, there will be another sequel where wrongs will be righted and disorder resolved, but as Luke howls in response to Vader’s revelation, resigning himself to an uncertain free fall into a void, The Empire Strikes Back conveys despair that’s rarely felt in a mass-marketed summer blockbuster. Niles Schwartz

T2: Judgement Day

43. T2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)

The slick, digitized T-1000 to the 1984 original’s grungy, analogous exoskeleton, Terminator 2: Judgment Day set the standard for modern Hollywood’s F/X-driven mega-productions and cemented James Cameron’s dystopian vision as modern science-fiction’s saga par excellence. The 1991 sequel is best remembered for the groundbreaking CGI and puppetry work that brought its liquid metal villain to life, but all that cybernetic glamour would be for naught without the film’s overreaching humanitarian concerns: the insistence that, even at the brink of self-induced extinction, mankind is still worth saving. Replicating the chase-movie structure of its predecessor (and brilliantly echoing that film in many telling details), the equally breathless T2 suggests a maestro at the helm of a full orchestra, conducting the whole exhilarating piece without a single note out of place. The film itself is something of a perfect machine, albeit one with a beating, bleeding heart to go along with its relentless apocalyptic swell, the central, unlikely nuclear family anchoring the action with genuine emotional heft, saving the world and earning our tears in the process. Rob Humanick

The End of Evangelion

42. The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno, 1997)

When Hideaki Anno ended Neon Genesis Evangelion, his elaborate analogy for his own untreated depression, with a moment of calming, redemptive group therapy, the backlash he received from fans who wanted a cataclysmic climax was overwhelming. In response, Anno crafted this theatrical alternate ending, in which he brutally and unsparingly gave fans all the nihilistic chaos they could ever want. If the anime series’s finale was a psychological breakthrough, End of Evangelion is the relapse, an implosion of self-annihilating revulsion and anger rendered in cosmic terms. Religious, sci-fi, and psychosexual imagery intersect in chaotic, kaleidoscopic visions of personal and global hell, all passing through the shattered mind of the show’s child soldier protagonist. Its finale is the most fully annihilative visualization of the Rapture ever put to screen, a mass death rendered as cathartic release from the hell of existence that, in a parting act of cruelty, leaves the broken, suicidal protagonist alive to bear witness to oblivion. Cole

Dark City

41. Dark City (Alex Proyas, 1998)

Dark City uses its whodunit plot to explore questions about the fundamental nature of human subjectivity. John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell), for allegedly committing a string of murders, is being pursued by the police and a mysterious group of bald albinos in black trench coats and fedoras known as the Strangers. Murdoch tries to discover his true identity by chasing his childhood memories to their source at the idyllic seaside community of Shell Beach, a haunting vision of a sunny paradise that every resident of the eponymous metropolis has visited but to which none can return. The film, like the city that gives it its title, feels like a not-so-distant kin of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Indeed, Dark City and Metropolis are black and gray Art Deco wonderlands, though the former is a place of almost never-ending night, only occasionally punctured by sudden bursts of color, like a worn postcard of Shell Beach or a shimmering green dress silhouetted against the body of John’s impossibly seductive wife (Jennifer Connelly). While proudly wearing its influences on its sleeve, Dark City manages to be a wholly unique sci-fi noir, mining every trope of the genre to craft one of cinema’s ultimate dark nights of the soul, unraveling memory and desire to discover what makes us truly human. Ivanov

Forbidden Planet

40. Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956)

A riff on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Forbidden Planet is one of the great sci-fi stories about the relation of humans to their thinking machines. When Commander J.J. Adams’s (Leslie Nielsen) starship lands on the barren planet of Altair IV to investigate what became of a colony established there 20 years earlier, he and his crew are met by its sole survivors: Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon); his beautiful daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis); and their robot, Robby, a construct more advanced than even these 23rd-century men have encountered. They gradually discover that the doctor hasn’t, like The Tempest’s Prospero, harnessed the power of mystic natural forces, but accessed a vast subterranean technological network left by a long-dead civilization. Forbidden Planet can be rightly critiqued for its icky gender politics, but the subplot involving the space-farers’ manipulative sexual pursuit of Altaira ties into the film’s point that, for humans, at least, there’s no getting rid of the id, of escaping from our bodies into an electronic world. The film presents a still-haunting diagnosis: that the human psyche is now the weak link in the human-technology feedback loop, unable to achieve the rationality its machines demand from it, and therefore destined for breakdown. Brown

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

39. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)

Introverted nice guy Joel (Jim Carrey) hears of an experimental procedure to erase troubling memories, and dives right in when his impulsive girlfriend, Clementine (Kate Winslet), washes her brain clean of their love-shattered relationship. Joel’s memories go backward in time from the last gasp of their love to their initial spark, but there are sideways detours along the way that take him to infancy and memories of his first childhood humiliation. James Joyce might have applauded this Phil Dick-caustic/Gnostic rendition of his Nighttown from Ulysses, with Clementine as Joel’s face-changing Penelope/Molly Bloom. Joel attempts to fight the erasure in his own mind, and the film admits early on that it’s a fight he cannot win. That he keeps on fighting anyway is the crux of Eternal Sunshine, and a breakthrough for Charlie Kaufman—writing about the human condition more than questioning our lives as self-made fictions. The fantasies of the film are more “real” than anything he’d written before, because they define who we think we are. Joel rediscovers his love for Clementine through fantasy, which is to say through his clouded memories of her. Such things are precious, and Gondry revels in that world in all its fleeting, flickering, ever-mutating joys. Kipp

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

38. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1985)

Set in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, centuries after the decline of industrial civilization, Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is one of the Japanese master’s most rousing adventure films, shrewdly balancing its environmentalist and anti-war convictions by presenting them as different sides of the same coin. In a world overrun by giant insects and exotic, poisonous plants, humanity is its own worst enemy, caught up in an eternal cycle of endless wars that only further accelerates the degeneration of the natural world. As fiercely determined and boundlessly compassionate as any Miyazaki heroine, the young Princess Nausicaä endures as the film’s moral compass, refusing to negotiate with either side in the human conflict, instead forging her own path to address this crisis by carefully tracing its root causes to humanity’s widespread negligence. As thoughtful as it is thrilling, Miyazaki’s classic is ultimately most radical for the way it advocates revolutionary action over incrementalist compromise. Smith

Ghost in the Shell

37. Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii, 1995)

Mamoru Oshii’s adaptation of Masamune Shirow’s manga certainly wasn’t the first cyberpunk film to grapple with the existential quandaries of androids, but few films so thoroughly embody the hollow despair of a world increasingly run by androids mechanically performing their assigned tasks while increasingly wondering why they do them. There are firefights galore in Ghost in the Shell, but Oshii stages them with an eerie calm rooted in the detached, robotic perspective of the film’s protagonist, android secret agent Major Kusanagi. The slack pace reflects the mounting ennui brought on by mankind’s self-obsolescence and the budding emotional awareness of their synthetic offspring. Deepening the film’s unnerving inertness is Kenji Kawai’s score, a future-primitive work of shamanic minimalism that arrhythmically juts and ebbs with the characters’ hollow functions. Cole

A Scanner Darkly

36. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006)

After using rotoscope animation to depict the world of dreams in 2001’s Waking Life, Richard Linklater returned to the format five years later for his only foray into sci-fi terrain in A Scanner Darkly, an adaptation of the autobiographical Philip K. Dick novel. The visuals render Linklater’s vision of a near-future, drug-addled Southern California with breathtaking surrealistic gusto, practically evoking how the film’s collection of paranoid addicts perceives this world. Most remarkably realized by Linklater is one of sci-fi cinema’s neatest gadgets, the “scramble suit,” a full-body uniform worn at times by undercover cop Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) that constantly changes appearances. But it’s ultimately Linklater’s unfailing empathy for these characters, no matter how troubled they are, that matches the film’s technical prowess. While the film doesn’t shy away from a grim futuristic vision of an America that’s lost the war on drugs, Linklater’s detailing of the toll of addiction and indifference of the powers that be expresses an uncommon compassion for the casualties of such a war. Greene


35. Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)

For its thematic richness alone, John McTiernan’s Predator outmatches almost ever other Hollywood sci-fi action film of the 1980s. Upon first seeing the lethal, translucent creature that brutally murdered and flayed their friends and fellow soldiers, Dutch (Arnold Shwarzenegger) and the men on his elite military team unleash a flurry of heavy gunfire into the jungle, destroying much of the surrounding vegetation. It’s a powerful image, evoking the all-consuming force of American military might, and it plays, like so much of the film, on the collective fear of the unknown. The unbridled machismo of the era pervades the entirety of Predator, amplified in the form of muscular handshakes and legendary quips like “I ain’t got time to bleed,” but the mysterious, oft-invisible enemy handily deflates all that masculine energy. It’s telling that as the Predator and Dutch inevitably go mano a mano, the only lines spoken are when both ask the other “What the hell are you?” Smith


34. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

With Aliens, James Cameron swapped out the timeless lethargy of Ridley Scott’s space and the sweaty, stultifying boredom of life on an intergalactic freighter with a striking freneticism. Metal takes over, and dominates the look and sound of the film. Sigourney Weaver’s wonderful, resourceful Ripley doesn’t just continue the tough-woman role, but transforms and refines it until she out-Rambos Rambo, succeeding where the military cannot. Throughout, Cameron enjoys giving us Kubrick references: reverse tracking, especially long corridors; a kid riding a three-wheeler; human talks in alien environments; and sidewise tracking cameras discover characters and events around corners; scenes are introduced and enhanced by drums. We’re also won over by an android as logical and as humanly fallible and wistful as HAL. Aliens also shares Kubrick’s atmosphere of a desensitized future, except here feelings aren’t deadened, only heightened. It’s more Clockwork Orange than 2001: Everyone is edgy, resentful, suspicious, abusive, and their only humor is of an insulting kind. This is the ’80s, the era of The Road Warrior and dozens of other junkyard futurism films in which human behavior has been stripped to the essentials and human emotions reduced to raw-edged anger or screaming terror. Robert C. Cumbow

Minority Report

33. Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002)

Minority Report straddles disparate temporalities and sensibilities. It’s a film built on contrasts: between glassy surfaces of Pre-Crime and grimy atmospheres of the Sprawl; between a daughter’s loss of a mother and a father’s loss of a son; between a classicist and chaos aesthetic; between certainty and doubt, dreams and reality, the implausible and the believable. The film lives on these divides, where it conjures sweeping visions of life undone by simulation and addiction while institutional infrastructures continue to thrive. Its many allusions to sight recall both the power and simple beauty is the ability to see. But the most notable achievement of Steven Spielberg’s film is how it coalesces the threads of past and future and harbors a firm grasp on the space between that is the present. At a time when commercial narrative-making increasingly leans on mythology and leads you to wonder about what isn’t there, Minority Report leaves you thinking about all that is there, even as it causes you to wonder: “Is it now?” Ted Pigeon


32. Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988)

Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, based on his own 1982 manga, updates the lingering Japanese anxiety about nuclear annihilation for the cybernetic era, as the superweapons in 2019 Neo-Tokyo turn out to be gifted children whose telekinetic powers have been enhanced by a secret government program, rather than nuclear warheads. The images of mass destruction that bookend this stylish but haunting animated action film speak to a fear not only of a social apocalypse, but a human one. The transformation of the “esper” Tetsuo (Nozumu Sasaki) into a transcendent consciousness comes with a painful and gruesome transmogrification of his body into a fleshy, unruly monstrosity; Otomo infuses the sci-fi trope of the rebirth of the human, optimistically presented even in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Lovecraftian horror. Between the film’s two apocalypses is an adventure that plays out in the intricately detailed world of Neo-Tokyo, perhaps the most iconic of all cyberpunk cityscapes. As Tetsuo’s motorcycle gang races through the sinews of Neo-Tokyo’s complex of highways, past its flickering screens and neon lights, we get the impression of a world—not too far removed from the real 2019—in which the proliferation of technological networks has paradoxically led to social atomization, inequity, and aimless discontent. Brown


31. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004)

Wong Kar-wai’s 2046 is a relentlessly meta, wild patchwork of references and vignettes that swirl in a vibrant color wheel around the same story that Wong Kar-wai has been telling over and over again throughout his career—a story of missed connections, longing and desire, unresolved dramas. The title and sci-fi trappings of 2046 make it seem like the number refers to a futuristic year and a futuristic Hong Kong, but in fact the title refers to the number of the room where Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) shared their most memorable moments together. As the film’s voiceover says, in room number 2046, nothing ever changes, and nobody has ever come back from it, because 2046 is the past, is memory. Chow writes a science fiction story where 2046, the room where he spent the bulk of his most intimate time with Mrs. Chan, is a place that is always frozen because it’s a disconnected moment in time, a cherished but painful memory where he can relive, over and over again, the same doomed romantic story. 2046 picks up on the past tense perspective of In the Mood for Love and expands it into a collage of memories and imaginings. This film is haunted by other movies just as Chow is haunted by memories of his past. Ed Howard

A Clockwork Orange

30. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is about uninspired moral negligence, and about its hero tuning into violence as entertainment and institutions using violence and brainwashing as a means of control. It’s Kubrick’s most prescient work, more astute and unsparing than any of his other films (and he had more where that came from) in putting the bleakest parts of human behavior under the microscope and laughing in disgust. It was made right after his other high watermark, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as he returns to Earth from his mind-blowing brush with the cosmic, it’s a sort of sequel about our planet rotting away from the inside. As a drunk says to Alex (Malcolm McDowell) right before taking a vicious beating: “I don’t want to live anyway! Not in a stinking world like this! Men on the moon and men spinning around the Earth, and no attention paid to earthly law and order no more!” One could say this was ripped straight from the headlines, only nowadays one could argue there’s no attention paid to anything, be it outer space or earthly matters, just an endless feeding to audiences who have developed a voracious taste for, as Alex would say, “the [good] old ultra-violence.” Kipp

Fantastic Planet

29. Fantastic Planet (René Laloux, 1973)

Produced during the tail end of the Panic Movement, the Topor-designed Fantastic Planet could easily have been staged on the same land that held Salvador Dali’s melting clocks. In actuality, it takes place on the planet of Ygam, whose desert-like topography contains illogical outgrowths such as gleaming crystal succulents, multi-limbed and seemingly sentient foliage, and hilly outcroppings with vacuum-like mouths. The inhabitants that call this landscape home are no less quizzical: enormous cyan humanoids with lidless crimson eyes and flappy scales for ears, and who go by the cryptically Norse-sounding designation of Draag. Fantastic Planet’s blend of straightforward, almost elementary storytelling with heady themes and eroticized imagery marks the film as a relic of an era with much looser standards around the dichotomy of the children’s film and the adult drama. With the exception of a few jolting zooms, the “camera” in Fantastic Planet is a cold, stationary observer, which only emphasizes the otherness of this world. René Laloux and Topor’s most enduring achievement is in yoking this disorientating effect to familiar horrors; by the film’s conclusion, it’s hard to feel comfortable with similar episodes on our own imperfect planet. Carson Lund


28. Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966)

A beautiful x-ray of middle-aged existential crisis, Seconds is a dark science-fiction fable of a man assuming a new identity via regenerative surgery and obliteration of his old life, performed by the ominously shadowy Company. While ostensibly a thriller, albeit one pulling fewer overtly political strings than Frankenheimer’s The Train or Seven Days in May, here the suspense is muted in favor of an almost suffocating aura of despair, and the central everyman changeling is defined by his silences—explicitly observed by his wife in a third-act monologue. The tour de force of the film’s opening act is driven by the spectacular black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe, utilizing fish-eye lenses, canted camera angles, and a variety of Manhattan locations and studio interiors that run the visual gamut from documentary-like spontaneity to claustrophobic and agoraphobic effects, evoking The Trial and the work of Orson Welles in general. With its strings-oriented, sometimes hairy score by Jerry Goldsmith and inevitably bleak, cautionary ending, Frankenheimer’s film has been somewhat lazily, but not baselessly, compared to a glistening feature version of The Twilight Zone, with that series’s sizeable humanist streak most evident in Tony Wilson’s (Rock Hudson) unauthorized visit to his “widow” and former home. Weber

World on a Wire

27. World on a Wire (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1973)

Based on Simulacron-3, a 1964 novel by American writer Daniel F. Galouye, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s made-for-TV World on a Wire explores the psychological, philosophical, and existential uncertainties underlying the use and abuse of virtual reality. While it’s difficult to dissociate VR from the context of mainframes and monitors, it was first used by the surrealist playwright Antonin Artaud in his treatise on art and artifice, The Theater and Its Double. Both theatricality and reflexivity, naturally enough, abound in the film. Fassbinder surrounds his naturalistic lead, Klaus Löwitsch, with flagrantly histrionic acting styles and still-life tableaux, and fills his mise-en-scène with endlessly reflecting mirrors, bouncing the image back and forth until viewers have scant idea which side of the looking glass they occupy. World on a Wire’s “levels of reality” storyline anticipates an entire cycle of films ranging from the bullet-time ballyhoo of the Matrix trilogy to the disconcerting low-fi dystopia of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, while its future-noir aesthetic clearly presages the moody atmospherics of Blade Runner. Wilkins

The Day the Earth Stood Still

26. The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)

The quintessential alien visitation tale of its era, The Day the Earth Stood Still was mythically embedded in the minds of the pre-Spielberg generation that first saw it in childhood. If not the first science-fiction film made by a Hollywood studio for adults (a distinction Stanley Kubrick always claimed for his 2001), it marked a leap past bug-eyed-monster serial juvenilia and attempted to defuse Cold War paranoia via anti-authoritarian wit and somber reckoning with Atomic Age danger. It’s a thinking kid’s movie, yet its crafty fun stays in balance with its self-consciousness as a prestige message picture. Released in the midst of the Korean War and the prime of McCarthy, the film achieved a unique relevance for a “spaceman” movie by unambiguously advocating for peace and grounding its pulp story in social reality. Beside the then-state-of-the-art effects and an indispensable, theremin-laced score by Bernard Herrmann, director Robert Wise and screenwriter Edmund North establish the anxiety and xenophobia of a Soviet-fearing populace as easily transferred to the messianic Klaatu (whose pseudonym is the Christian-tinged “Mr. Carpenter”). Weber

On the Silver Globe

25. On the Silver Globe (Andrzej Żuławski, 1988)

Started in 1976 as an epic adaptation of a turn-of-a-century philosophical sci-fi trilogy by the director’s great uncle, production on Andrzej Żuławski’s On the Silver Globe was abruptly stopped by Poland’s communist ministry of culture in 1977. Officially too expensive to continue, the film was in fact too politically incorrect to handle. It wasn’t until 1987 that Żuławski was allowed to tinker with the incomplete footage and assemble it into what it currently is: “a stump of a movie,” per his off-screen opening remark. The film presents itself both as a narrative and an essay upon its own making. The literal plot, having to do with a group of space travelers discovering a new planet and building a civilization from scratch, is juxtaposed with documentary footage of the crumbling failed experiment that was communist Poland. On the Silver Globe is immensely rich as an act of philosophical inquiry. Its dialogue full of expertly disguised nuggets borrowed from the likes of Norman Mailer and Karl Marx, the film is a desperate meditation on the human hunger for religion, as well as our shared need of submitting ourselves to figures of authority. As such, it’s probably the bravest Polish film ever made. Michał Oleszczyk

The Man Who Fell to Earth

24. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)

Adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis, Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth finds the alien in alienation. The novel and film are melancholy studies in social estrangement and the depredations of alcoholism, loosely attired in the trappings of science fiction, that recount the disastrous attempts at earthly assimilation by an ambitious visitor from another planet. If anything, Roeg and screenwriter Paul Mayersberg enlarge upon the tragedy of ersatz human and eventual billionaire Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie, perfectly cast as the ungainly space oddity), playing up the desperate plight of his extraterrestrial family, slowly dying on a planet devoid of water. The film is exceptionally allusive, replete with references to painting, literature, and cinema. Like its source material, The Man Who Fell to Earth invokes the myth of Icarus in ways subtle and overt—from its very title to a prominently displayed coffee-table book that pairs W.H. Auden’s poem “Museé des Beaux Art” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. Roeg weaves snippets of imagery and dialogue (first glimpsed on Newton’s proliferating bank of TV sets) taken from Billy Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon and Carol Reed’s The Third Man into scenes where they provide thematic, albeit ironic, counterpoint, knowingly foreshadowing acts of infidelity and betrayal. Wilkins

Total Recall

23. Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990)

An imaginative expansion of the brisk Philip K. Dick short story, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” this film about fake memories and a real interplanetary crisis now stands redolent with nostalgia, both for its time, as well as for itself. Beneath its show of smoke and mirrors, mercenary babes, and treacherous holograms, Total Recall is a story about a man who must choose between two possible, contradictory realities. In one timeline, he’s an earthbound schmuck; in the far less likely one, he’s a hero who must save an oppressed people on a faraway planet. He can’t afford to waver, but it’s our privilege to do so. As viewers, we’re welcome to consider the persistent motif of walls collapsing, subterfuges dissolving, and rugs being pulled out from still more rugs. The film now exists in a twilight of an era in which factory-produced entertainment could still serve as a keyhole into a dimension of weird, through which we might glimpse the otherworldly, and contemplate fondling the third breast. Christley

The Terminator

22. The Terminator (James Cameron, 1985)

James Cameron’s influences include all manner of science fiction, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ray Bradbury to Star Wars, but the film’s true creative counterpart might be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Religious, if not outright spiritual, The Terminator is, at its core, a meditation on mankind’s thirst for progress and the likely fallout that results from a lack of self-regulation, extinction being the ultimate punishment for the sin of creation without moral consideration. As in its thematic successor, The Matrix, the man-versus-machine dynamic might be too outwardly dramatic to be truly prescient (in reality, we’ll probably get something closer to a WALL-E/Road Warrior dystopia when the shit hits the fan), but the film’s pulp trappings—or rather, here, tech noir—reach a modestly operatic intensity that more than justifies the metaphorical frankness of the proceedings. The film’s understated, workmanlike artistry suggests both the quotidian and the extraordinary, particularly when paired with the robotic emotion of Brad Fiedel’s synth score. It erupts in your consciousness and takes flight like a dream. Humanick


21. Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)

Through its wildly comic, furiously creative, and intensely moving façade, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil ponders a future made to sustain a draconian past molded by inequality. Overrun by communicative ducts, coated wires, cement and metals, and magnified, miniature computer screens, the future conjured up by Gilliam averts the familiar prophecy of an anaesthetized, plastic world overrun by rampantly advancing technology. Besides the obvious Orwellian elements, the filmic pedigree of Brazil is richly layered, potently evoking The Third Man, the Marx brothers, Battleship Potemkin, Star Wars, Kurosawa, Casablanca, 8 ½, Modern Times, and, most vibrantly, Metropolis, among others. Such tremendous artists and films depicted both the harshness and necessity of reality, as well as the enveloping power and ultimate intangibility of imagination and expression, and Brazil is a glorious ode to that essential dichotomy. Gilliam presents an utterly singular vision of a world where the cold, exacting actions of an all-powerful plutocracy are at once fighting against and employing fantasy, where the individual can be eaten alive and erased by pieces of paper. Chris Cabin

Je T’aime, Je T’aime

20. Je T’aime, Je T’aime (Alain Resnais, 1968)

A literal attempt to physicalize the past is the subject of Alain Resnais’s early, often overlooked fantasy, Je T’aime, Je T’aime. In their fascination with emotional tactility, Resnais and novelist turned screenwriter Jacques Sternberg, both formalist radicals who’re often too ambitious to settle for ordinary linear narratives casually pioneered a way in which the fantastic and the banal intermingle. Like Billy Pilgrim, Claude (Claude Rich) becomes unstuck in time, in the tradition of heroes metaphorically obsessed with themselves and their lost opportunities. The narrative, which concerns an experiment in time travel, is emotionally involving, staged with Resnais’s customary resistance to flatulent sentiment—often misconstrued as a “cold” sensibility when showed it actually represents a passion so great as to resist platitude. But the film’s soul truly emerges through its incredible editing syntax, which anticipates the formal grammar of mysteries such as Don’t Look Now and Mulholland Drive. Moments are layered in fashions that never entirely reveal themselves. Truth is allowed to be simultaneously plain and porous, subject to impenetrability—a conscious result of Resnais’s mixing of the otherworldly and the ordinary. Bowen

Hard to Be a God

19. Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German, 2013)

Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God proceeds from an immediately incongruous setup: a science-fiction film set in the murky recesses of a Dark Ages nightmare, its apocalyptic vision of the future looking backward instead of forward. It’s within this seemingly counterintuitive concept that German, whose death toward the end of the film’s production confirms this as his capstone opus, finds the most perfect expression of a career-long fascination with the contact points between civilization and chaos. The film’s imperious protagonist is an astronaut with an unorthodox mission, sent to a planet on the cusp of a renaissance to nurture the growth of a more equitable world. But as so many leaders embarking on the forcible democratization of unprepared societies have recently learned, the conceit that guidance from one advanced culture will foster another easily falls apart under scrutiny. Our sophisticated hero is thus reduced to one warlord among many, his habitual bloody noses tapping him into the collective stream of nasty fluids that flows throughout this amazingly grotesque film, cementing him as just another corrupt figure in the pitch-black Rabelaisian saturnalia that results. Cataldo


18. RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

RoboCop set the tone for much of Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven’s career in America, and not just because of Kurtwood Smith’s curt command “Bitches leave!” It was a relatively low-budget, high-concept satire in the guise of a relatively high-budget, low-concept trash-a-thon. Corporate backstabbing and a remarkably strong-willed newbie cop combine in the right place at the wrong time to allow the creation of a secret human-robot hybrid. Verhoeven juxtaposes RoboCop’s (Peter Weller) faint pulse of self-recognition against the backdrop of a dehumanizing socio-economic nightmare. But he also couples his skilled filmmaking vulgarity with a very literal vulgarity. When RoboCop comes to the assistance of a poodle-headed woman about to be sexually assaulted in a back alleyway, his keen trigger finger manages to take out the would-be rapist’s crotch by carefully shooting the bullet through the victim’s skirt—right between her thighs. Never has a gesture of chivalry seemed more…icky. Verhoeven’s best and most vulgar American work was still in front of him, but RoboCop still stands as one of the most rude-tempered, rollicking gobs of spit in the face of 1980s politics this side of John Carpenter’s They Live. Henderson

Mad Max: Fury Road

17. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)

Pulling off a genuine Trojan-horse maneuver of cinematic subversion within the cloak of a beloved franchise, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road stands as a statement on how even the most stringently managed of studio properties can be massaged to produce miraculous results. Moving up from the unfocused weirdness of Beyond Thunderdome into new heights of inspired madness, this innovative vision from a familiar apocalyptic wasteland retains the series’s general outlines while also further reducing its titular hero to a mythical supporting character. Yet for all the implicit progressive politics and outsized metaphoric constructions, the film is most successful as a blunt expression of impassioned force, its strident stands on a variety of hot-button issues used as fuel to stoke a cacophonous combustion of energy and noise. Structured around the spectacle of a single extended chase sequence, it spins out a Keaton-esque carnival of dodgy practical effects, ingeniously tactile set pieces, and equivalently creative CG. Subtlety and contemplation have their place, but Fury Road scratches a different sort of atavistic itch, satisfying the compulsion for genuine awe and amazement so often neglected by modern tent poles, exhibiting its ultimate allegiance toward the viewer rather than the monolithic dictates of the brand. Cataldo


16. Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)

Alphaville, a dystopian sci-fi noir set in an Orwellian world of omnipresent surveillance run by a malevolent artificial intelligence, sounds at first blush like a large-scale work filled with the sort of macro world-building one typically sees in blockbusters. But Jean-Luc Godard, working with next to no resources, captures the oppressiveness of totalitarian government through the claustrophobic conditions of repressed citizens. Ordinary Parisian streets and buildings are captured as they are, though in inky shadow, so that a certain kind of present-day dilapidation comes to suggest futuristic social decay. In mixing elements of noir and sci-fi, Godard doubles down on the existential horror of both genres, emphasizing their common emotional detachment through a narrative involving a supercomputer, Alpha 60, that rules over a realm, Alphaville, in which human emotions like love are punishable by death. That premise anticipates future tech-noir features like Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, and the rapport between Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), so grizzled but still full of longing, and a thoroughly brainwashed, deadpan young woman, Natacha (Anna Karina), has the same kind of mutually dispassionate but compelling quasi-romance that Harrison Ford and Sean Young shared as androids performing love in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Cole

Under the Skin

15. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

Under the Skin’s extraterrestrial seductress, Laura (Scarlett Johansson), shrinks in stature as the film progresses, from an indomitable, inviolable man-eating ghoul to an increasingly fragile woman suffering from the psychic trauma wreaked by her own weaponized sexuality. It’s a heartbreaking process to witness, one that flips a sleek, mysterious sci-fi thriller into a singular melodrama focused on the unlikeliest of protagonists. Establishing an atmosphere in which each new intrusion of feeling delivers another blow to the character’s once-steely exterior, director Jonathan Glazer spins out a maelstrom of dread as Laura simultaneously contracts and expands, adapting to the frailty of her assumed human form. Mirroring this development, the film’s polished style comes into sharp conflict with the tangled complexity of empathy and emotion, a clash embodied by the alluring dissonance of Mica Levi’s shrieking score, the stunning gloom of the film’s Scottish landscapes, the strange, wounded beauty of men pickled in their own putrid desire, and the poignant spectacle of a monster barred by circumstance from becoming anything more. Cataldo

They Live

14. They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)

A streetwise drifter (Roddy Piper) discovers a pair of sunglasses which allow him to see subliminal messages hidden behind every billboard, newspaper, and TV commercial in America, as well as the true faces of the masked aliens walking among us, intent to dominate our world in secret. They Live’s anti-consumerist message is so apparent in the action on screen that it doesn’t even qualify as subtextual. But this sort of obvious explication functions, cleverly, as a deliberate ideological misdirect, as the ultimate goal of John Carpenter’s as a work of satire isn’t for us to acknowledge that our world is being taken over by nefarious aliens from outer space, but rather that such a fantastic idea of hypnosis and control is credible only because commercial culture is designed to function in exactly that way. The point, in other words, isn’t that we ought to be concerned about aliens, but that we don’t need to be concerned about aliens. Advertising and television and the entire world of corporatized control is already so fucked up that science fiction couldn’t imagine a fate for us any more preposterous or, frankly, any worse. Marsh

The Fly

13. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

A beautifully poignant tale of love and heartbreak cocooned in the outré trappings of its maker’s distinctive splatter-punk aesthetic, The Fly represents the apotheosis of David Cronenberg’s early obsessions. The story of scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum), who, in a fit of drunken jealousy, tests his new teleporter only to find himself fused with a housefly, the film is a testament to the elastic properties of genre as metaphor. Cronenberg reappropriates the original’s schlocky damsel-in-distress plot as the delivery system for a thoughtful, witty, and literate consideration of his pet preoccupations: sex, death, technology, biology. It’s tragedy pitched at an operatic scale, body horror at its most visceral, pop philosophy at its most insightful. Insect politics for a blockbuster age. Abimanyu Das

A.I. Artificial Intelligence

12. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (Steven Spieleberg, 2001)

A.I. Artificial Intelligence is alien in so many ways to Steven Spielberg’s canon of moral certainty. The film’s deceptive darkness stems from its treatment of childhood trauma, the fear of abandonment, and panic over losing one’s identity. It envisions a futuristic world on the verge of collage, a landscape of blinding hues and smooth textures obsessed with both momentary rejuvenation and collective destruction. A.I. is all about texture, specifically the contrasting surfaces of a technologically advanced world losing its need for emotional connection. Spielberg’s tight compositions reveal characters seemingly trapped by their own reflections, destined to whither under the pressure of artificial happiness. Janusz Kamiński’s fluid camera pins “super toy” David (Haley Joel Osment) and Gigolo Joe (Jude Law) behind obstacles of all kind: the Flesh Fair bars, between Rouge City’s numbing rows of signs, and finally frozen in time under water at Coney Island, mere inches away from the fabled Blue Fairy. Like every essential moment in A.I., the walls are closing in on David, and Spielberg’s hypnotic templates of neon light and shading add up to a stunningly personal nightmare about the way innocence unmasks the hidden doubt in others. Heath

Starship Troopers

11. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)

It seems fitting that it took stumbling upon an obscure Soviet-era concept for me to feel like I had the vocabulary to talk about Paul Verhoeven with any degree of accuracy. That concept is stiob, which I’ll crudely define as a form of parody requiring such a degree of over-identification with the subject being parodied that it becomes impossible to tell where the love for that subject ends and the parody begins. And so there, in 32 words, is the Hollywood cinema of Paul Verhoeven. Starship Troopers then has to be a bad movie, insofar as that means that the acting is not dramatically convincing, the story is hopelessly contrived, the special effects are distractingly garish in their limb-ripping and bone-crunching, because the point isn’t to do better than Hollywood (that would run counter to Verhoeven’s obvious love of these cheap popular forms), but to do more of Hollywood, to push every element to its breaking point without caving to the lazy lure of ridicule. The result is a style that embraces a form as fully as possible only to turn it back against the content, and one of the greatest of all anti-imperialist films. Phil Coldiron


10. Godzilla (Ishirô Honda, 1954)

More than 60 years of sequels, tag-team monster mash-ups, and shitty Hollywood remakes haven’t blunted the sheer cinematographic force, let alone metaphorical heft, of Ishirô Honda’s 1954 classic. Rarely has the open wound of widespread devastation been transposed to celluloid with greater visceral impact. Put another way, Godzilla is the Germany Year Zero of monster movies. The impetus for the film was a series of undeclared H-bomb tests conducted by the U.S. military at Bikini Atoll in March of 1954, into which maelstrom a lone Japanese fishing boat, christened with terrible irony Lucky Dragon 5, sailed unawares. Exposure to clouds of irradiated fallout, dubbed “death ash” by the sailors, led to the swift demise of at least one crewmember. The still-fresh notoriety of that incident, restaged as the opening sequence of Godzilla, would have alerted Japanese audiences from the get-go that they were in for more than just another creature feature. Add to that frequent mention of matters of wartime survival, whether the firebombing of Tokyo, or the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it becomes something of an open secret that Godzilla represents American military might in all its blind destructiveness. Wilkins

The Thing

9. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

For all of the Grand Guignol overload of its special effects, The Thing is first and foremost an atmospheric film, one predicated on the claustrophobia and paranoia generated by its remote Antarctic-base setting. It’s there that a scientific crew discovers, then falls prey to an alien that can assume the form of any living being it touches, forcing the men stationed at the base to question the true identities of those around them. This is fitting material for director John Carpenter, who ironically used his biggest budget to return to the kind of small-scale, inward-looking horror of Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween. But if the physical scope of the film is narrow, its tone is one of vast, cosmic terror, influenced in no small part by H.P. Lovecraft. Camera movement, with the exception of a few rushing point-of-view shots, is stately and patient, as cold as the base’s frigid surroundings. Carpenter’s clinical atmosphere offers a bedrock of visual calm that only makes the amorphous, reason-defying nature of the alien threat all the more disruptive. Instead of reflecting the mania of the characters, the camera is an objective viewer, which casts a nihilistic pall over The Thing by telegraphing the hopelessness of the characters’ situation. Cole


8. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1971)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s philosophical space romance is striking by virtue of its immanence. Solaris may be set in the future, on a spacecraft far from Earth, but throughout the entirety of its 170 minutes it feels like the setting is right here, right now. Its dreamlike uncanniness is perfect for this story about a widowed cosmonaut, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), whose dead wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), materializes out of thin air. This transpires as Kelvin explores the strange, extraterrestrial planet of Solaris, which seems to generate projections from the unconscious of individuals venturing close to it. Kelvin, a scientist, understands as much. And yet, especially when conversing with Hari, it’s not so easy for him to use logic to dismiss the presence of someone he’s loved and lost. The film, whose languorous rhythms feel as if they’re sinking us into our subconscious, becomes a quiet meditation—or prayer even—of longing, and to elude the blankness of reduction. Beleaguered in lonely torpor on earth with his memories of Hari, Kelvin can’t dismiss this phenomenal experience as mere illusion. Tarkovsky invests Solaris with the unbearable heaviness of time passing, the resounding ache of loneliness in the unlimited expanse of space turned inward. Schwartz


7. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

A film whose shadow looms darkly over subsequent decades of horror and sci-fi, Ridley Scott’s Alien is a master class in the evocation of escalating dread. Made forever distinctive by H.R. Giger’s visual rendering of psychosexual horror and biomechanical hellscapes, not to mention the unusual foregrounding of working-class and female characters, Alien is still—at its core—a prototypical haunted-house picture. It just happens to be one of the most artful, flawlessly executed examples of that type, the rationed-out shocks underscored by groundbreaking creature effects, jarring sound design, and the talents of a magnificent ensemble. It’s the stuff of primordial nightmare, mapping the infinite reaches of human anxiety—about everything from sexuality to technology—into two agonizing hours. Das


6. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

This hard, sleazy riff on a famous Marshall McLuhan quote (“the medium is the message”) is one of the great visionary horror movies, and potentially the most prescient. It marries disconcertingly erotic images with Cronenberg’s great theme of misleadingly frivolous technology as an insidious initiator of ambiguous new evolutions. Though TV is the medium under consideration, all of the film’s observations can be adapted, with chilling ease, to suit the ongoing proliferation of laptops, cell phones, the Internet, you name it. Dialogue regularly appears to be piped in from the future, such as an observation—that we will all have special names for our personas on television—that bridges Warhol’s “15 minutes” quotation with the rise of a multiple-username culture that renders specificities of identity and humanity moot. The ghastly, daringly sexualized special effects are, eerily, Videodrome’s one quaint gesture, as they imbue technology with a disgusting yet comforting tactility that’s rapidly disappearing from a culture that’s slipping into a cloud of ever-shifting soft data. Bowen

Blade Runner

5. Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

The dying Earth of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reeks of pathos, dust, and decay, but it seems functional—beset by entropy, but functional all the same. The grunge and rot of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, by contrast, owes a sizable debt to the legacies of film noir and steampunk: a future defined by overdevelopment, underregulation, hubris, and greed. The film is fueled by iconography: icons that don’t always need to point outside the text but have a self-sustaining power of their own. That’s why Roy (Rutger Hauer) is the titanic antihero, whose sheer magnitude as a synthetic being embarrasses the ineffectual Deckard (Harrison Ford), the ex-flatfoot whose character arc is a slender thread of fuck-ups and accidental victories. Nearly a minor character in the book, almost on the level of some expendable Dragnet hoodlum, Roy is transformed into the film’s evil superhuman, a universal adaptor capable of being fixed with any major philosophical lens (Nietzsche, Kant, Descartes, etc.). No one mourns in the film, except in a stolen moment (when Roy discovers Daryl Hannah’s defeated Pris), and Scott uses a reliable surrogate for tears to pay respects, on our behalf, when Roy’s spirit finally takes flight. Tears in the rain, indeed. Christley

La Jetée

4. La Jetée (Chris Marker, 1962)

Cinematic time traveler Chris Marker’s reflection on time and memory and nuclear holocaust recounts (or recalls) the story of “a man marked by an image of his childhood,” a man whose “vision of peacetime happiness” is so obsessive, he’s thought to be the only soul in humanity’s post-apocalyptic underground hideout whose mind can retain the sort of focus necessary to travel back in time without going insane. The specter of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo hangs over the most celebrated shot of the film: the one that moves. Just as James Stewart’s Scotty spends the second half of Vertigo trying to breathe life into a dead woman, Marker conveys the intensity of his protagonist’s memories by literally tearing a hole through his own mise-en-scène. The series of lap dissolves leading up to the shot are comparable to the Bernard Hermann music accompanying Hitchcock’s climactic “Scene D’Amour,” even if the spell of La Jetée is such that afterward you ask yourself if the glance actually happened or if your memory is playing tricks on you. Henderson


3. Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

The original sci-fi blockbuster, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a high-water mark in the late silent era. Released in 1927, the same year as the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, it’s a parable of class struggle, foregrounding issues that obsessed 1920s audiences and that have persisted through the present: the oppressive scale of modern cities, the exploitation of the lower classes by the powerful, and the allure of technology, which is presented by Lang as something akin to dark magic. Beyond any of that, Metropolis is eye candy, bankrolled by its studio, UFA, in hopes of dazzling audiences the world over, and perhaps giving German film some traction in the coveted U.S. market. Lang, among the most sadistic of movie visionaries, led hundreds of designers and craftspeople and tens of thousands of extras to push analog filmmaking to its conceptual limits, and his insistence on doing dozens of takes of certain scenes pushed his collaborators to their physical limits. Metropolis was the most expensive film made up until that time, but as studio bean counters still say, every penny (or Deutsche Mark) is on the screen. Matt Zoller Seitz


2. Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1968)

Subscribing to the belief that the eyes are the windows to the soul, Andrei Tarkovsky locates Stalker’s spiritual center in his protagonists’ weathered countenances. One of cinema’s greatest portraitists, he offers up a gallery of masterful close-ups: some dipped in sepia-toned bronzes; others cast in the harsh light of a cloudy morning; several obscured by dank, dark shadows. No two alike and all stunning in their formal composition and expressiveness, Tarkovsky’s visages—from the large, sorrowful eyes of Alexander Kaidanovsky and the anguished expressions of Anatoly Solonitsyn to the heart-rending candor of Alisa Freindlikh—form the emotional backbone of his heavily metaphorical tale. In aggregate, the film’s various artifacts, objects, and narrative events ultimately capture something akin to the essence of what man is made of: a tangled knot of memories, fears, fantasies, nightmares, paradoxical impulses, and a yearning for something that’s simultaneously beyond our reach and yet intrinsic to every one of us. Is that thing hope? Faith? Or, as implied by the masterful climactic monologue from Stalker’s wife, is it simply devotion? Perhaps Tarkovsky summed it up best when he wrote about Stalker, “In the end, everything can be reduced to the one simple element which is all a person can count upon in his existence: the capacity to love.” Schager

2001: A Space Odyssey

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)

Central to the profundity of 2001: A Space Odyssey is the notion that few things are more meaningful than a child’s first steps, the emotive impact of this scenario manifest in every one of the film’s dizzying set pieces, albeit multiplied to epic proportions. At its core, the film is a journey, a summarization of those questions that are both the simplest in their inquisition and most profound in their answers: Who are we, where do we come from, and where are we going? The film exists as an exploration of these timeless themes and the existential weight that accompanies them, probing our growth from passive eating machines subject to the unforgiving elements, to conquerors of the world and pioneers of space, awaiting only a helping hand from a superior force to reach the next level of existence. Just as the ape-men in the opening act must learn to use the tools around them to survive, so, too, must man learn to walk again when subjected to zero gravity, captured here with a gravitas that suggests a celestial being waxing philosophical. Humanick

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