This was a pretty good year to be a fan of genre movies. More and more low-budget movies had the courage to tackle science fiction and fantasy themes, and meanwhile Hollywood seemed to step up its game a little. But at the same time, there were still tons of boring sequels and prequels, and mountains of crap.
Here are our picks for the year's best and worst science fiction and fantasy movies. Let the debate begin!
10. Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell's centuries-spanning novel, with its six interlocking stories, poses a nearly impossible challenge for a movie adaptation. But the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer found a way to create a complex structure in which the six time periods dovetail together and create resonances and harmonics, almost like the piece of music that gives the movie its name. The theme of oppression and liberation comes through powerfully, and by the end of the film you see how the past informs the future, and how it's all one fabric of loss and struggle. (Disagree with this assessment? Scroll down!)
9. Safety Not Guaranteed
There's a reason the rumor mill was taking director Colin Trevorrow seriously as a candidate to helm Star Wars: Episode VII: His debut film was full of heart and keenly observed character moments. This concept, about a group of reporters investigating a newspaper ad from a man with a time machine, would have been a snarky self-aware comedy in most people's hands. But somehow, Safety Not Guaranteed instead became a beautiful, insightful look at the meaning of time, and the ways in which just returning to your old home town can be a way of returning to the past. And if the final moment of the film doesn't make you cheer and fist-pump, that makes us sad.
8. The Dark Knight Rises
Very few movie trilogies manage a satisfying third installment, that takes all the themes of the first two films and brings them to a rousing conclusion. But Christopher Nolan pulled it off with his third Batman film, in which the fate of Gotham City and the nature of Batman as symbol are finally resolved. Sure, TDKR has plenty of flaws, and might be the weakest of the three films — but it's still a magnificent dystopian epic in its own right, that doesn't shy away from exploring big political questions alongside its thundering explosions. Batman performs one last great illusion to save his city from the one thing that's worse than the second film's raving anarchist: a demagogue.
There's nothing about this film that you haven't seen a million times before: the "found footage" camerawork, the story of people who get uncanny mental powers and abuse them, the downward spiral, etc. But this film still felt amazingly fresh, because of some really clever storytelling choices and some amazingly strong performances. It was also really refreshing to see a movie conveying superpowers in the brisk, matter-of-fact way this film does. Most of all, though, Chronicle creates fully realized teen characters with real emotional lives, and uses its mysterious psychic powers to tell a great story about the nightmares of high school social life.
6. The Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard worked together on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they bring the same kind of self-aware humor mixed with knife-twisting tension to this weird-ass spoof of horror cliches. Cabin in the Woods lays out its cards in the first few minutes — we know the teens going to the house in the middle of nowhere are just pawns in some strange game, controlled by dweebs in a bunker — and then turns around and peels back further layers of insanity. Until you get to one of the best third acts of any movie, ever. This movie turns a critique of rote storytelling into something larger and more existential, to the point where it actually earns its massive conclusion — but it also manages to imbue all of these poor saps with life and reality before tossing them into the abyss.
5. The Hunger Games
Gary Ross' movie version was never going to capture the interiority of Suzanne Collins' dystopian novel, in which the gap between Katniss Everdeen's performance and her innermost thoughts is the most fascinating part of the story. So instead, Ross chooses to pull back a bit and give us slightly more of a glimpse into the workings of Panem — both the Dustbowl-esque District 12 and the glitzy Capitol. And he doesn't skimp on the brutality and ruthlessness of the titular teen death match. Despite some lamentable shaky cam, the visuals in the film are frequently stunning, and convey that we're watching a televised spectacle. Most of all, Jennifer Lawrence single-handedly makes the film an emotionally grueling experience rather than an emo teen spectacle.
A lot of this year's best movies played with genre, but Looper's combination of noir gangster tropes and time-travel tropes made for one of the most canny and inventive genre mash-ups we've seen in years. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis are terrific as a man meeting himself, and between the two of them they manage to create a really complex character who evolves over the course of the film even as he butts heads with himself. But this film also gains a lot of urgency thanks to some truly intense violence and body-horror, that uses time travel in a way that's probably never been done before.
3. Beasts of the Southern Wild
There were lots of huge apocalypses in recent movies — but this film gave us an apocalypse in miniature, as a tiny community faces destruction and a girl faces her father's mortality. The most eye-catching part of the film is its recurring image of the Aurochs, prehistoric beasts who stalk the young Hushpuppy — but the whole movie is full of intense visuals and powerful moments. Hushpuppy's journey feels mythic and powerful, and everything around her feels huge and mystical. This is magic realism of the best kind: personal as well as epic.
2. The Avengers
This movie accomplished several heroic feats, including bringing together wildly disparate characters and giving them all a worthy storyline — but its biggest accomplishment was probably just recreating the joy and urgency of a great superhero comic on the big screen. For the first time ever. The interpersonal conflicts, the punching, the non-stop action — all of a sudden, our superheroic fantasies are happening in front of us, in live action, in two and a half dimensions. But also, this film has a lot to say about heroism and being a monster, which all culminates beautifully in Tony Stark's final brush with death. There are more "holy crap" moments in this film than in several other tentpole films put together, but it still has a giant heart.
1. Robot & Frank
Like Safety Not Guaranteed, this is a tiny indie movie — and like Safety Not Guaranteed, this film takes its science fiction tropes seriously while using them to explore deep personal questions. But this film, which soars thanks to an unforgettable performance by Frank Langella, also manages to comment directly on our relationship with technology. Langella plays Frank, a former cat burglar who's grappling with dementia and sparring with the annoying hipster who wants to take the books out of his local library. Frank's son gives him a helper robot, which ostensibly doesn't have a mind of its own but which becomes more than just an extension of Frank's personality. Watching Frank and his robot become partners in crime is delightful enough, but it's even more amazing to see the relationship between the cranky old man and his robot friend evolve.
Runner up: ParaNorman
We couldn't quite fit this movie into the top 10, but it was definitely one of the movies that moved us the most this year. (Also a strong runner up: Dredd.) This stop-motion animated film has so much sweetness and good humor, you're almost not prepared for how dark and intense the heart of its story is. More than any other animated film this year, ParaNorman takes all your preconceptions and turns them on their heads — with a grace and naturalness that make you forget you're watching a stop-motion animated film.
10. Cloud Atlas
God, what a mess. Adapting David Mitchell's sweeping novel, with its historical and far-future settings, wasn't challenging enough — the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer had to add a totally insane additional element, having the same troupe of actors play different roles in each storyline. Which means one thing: hideous, claw-your-face-off makeup, including white actors playing Asian roles. But also, it means allowing a supercharged Tom Hanks to turn in not one, but several hammy performances. Some of the chances the three directors take pay off handsomely — but others overshoot their mark wildly, like a flying car going soaring before crashing in a massive, noxious-smelling bonfire. (Disagree with this assessment? Scroll up!)
Expectations for Ridley Scott's return to science fiction were so high, we were probably bound to be disappointed. But still, this film... sigh. Ever since we saw it, we've been debating: Is Prometheus a genuinely terrible film, or just kind of a fun space monster movie that works okay if you don't think about it too much? The visuals sure are lovely. But after months of reflection, we've come down on the "Prometheus is a genuinely terrible film" side. The "idiot ball" plotting, the bland characters, the shoehorned daddy issues, and the huge philosophical questions that are raised only to be coated with drool... it's just a giant ball of stupid. The only really memorable character is the android David, and we wind up with less insight into him at the end of the film than at the beginning. And for all Scott's feverish insistence that this film isn't an Alien prequel, any true storytelling potential is hobbled by the OCD need to connect every last dot with Alien.
8. The Bourne Legacy
There were a lot of pointless sequels this year — we couldn't find room on this list for Resident Evil 5, but it comes to mind — but this might actually be the clearest case of sequel-itis. The first hour of this movie is just a re-tread of the Bourne Ultimatum, complete with clips from that far superior Matt Damon film. Edward Norton does nothing but stand around discussing obscure plot points from the first three Bourne movies. And meanwhile, Jeremy Renner's storyline as an enhanced superspy who's rushing to hold onto his pill-endowed super-intelligence never quite takes off or achieves any urgency. This film is more interested in establishing its ties to the Matt Damon movies than it is in launching Renner's character as the new hero of the franchise. And it all culminates in one of the least thrilling final action sequences we've seen in recent years. Jason Bourne couldn't remember who he really was, but this new hero doesn't have any identity to discover.
7. Paranormal Activity 4
Speaking of utterly pointless sequels... as long as the Paranormal Activity films can be made for couch change and can make tentpole money, we're going to see one of them every year. Considering that PA4 was made by the same directors as the actually-quite-decent PA3, we had moderately high hopes for this one. But the fourth outing was criminally boring and horribly stupid. Having run out of things to do with the old "found footage" gimmicks, this movie resorts to trying to use the Xbox Kinect to achieve some cheap thrills. As dull as PA2 was, this is the first PA movie where the rules don't even make sense and the characters don't respond believably at all.
6. The Watch
This movie's concept had a ton of potential — four bored guys form a neighborhood watch, only to stumble on an alien invasion in suburbia. Except for two things: 1) The movie never manages to be funny, even with some of the low-hanging fruit that premise offers. 2) The aliens are never really used that much, nor do we ever really care about their supposed invasion plan. Mostly, this film is an excuse for Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill to hang out and trade dick jokes in tones so deadpan they start to seem bored. Which, honestly, they probably were. This film could have been another Ghostbusters or Back to the Future, if it had committed to its premise and brought comic energy to the characters. Instead, it's closer to being another Pluto Nash.
5. Mirror Mirror
Neither of this year's dueling Snow White movies was particularly great, but Mirror Mirror was definitely the worse of the two. Tarsem Singh brings the same over-the-top visuals that made Immortals so memorable, but this time it's married to Julia Roberts' insane "mean girl" performance as the Evil Queen. The film really belongs to Armie Hammer as the prince, who embraces his "damsel in distress" role with insane levels of campiness. There's nothing wrong with an over-the-top fantasy comedy, but not when it's this joyless.
4. Wrath of the Titans
We actually liked Clash of the Titans remake a fair bit — and then, this. WTF. This movie is like a tutorial in how not to do a cheesy fantasy epic. Sam Worthington substitutes valium for valor. The "swordfights" consist of people falling on their heads and grunting. Even the copious amounts of monster attacks are dull and unengaging, and the final set piece falls utterly flat. This film even manages to make Pegasus boring. PEGASUS! Seriously. Instead of the first movie's straightforward heroic-quest plot, this film does a weird and boring riff on Tarsem Singh's Immortals, packed with dreary daddy issues. The heroes of this film are shackled to a rock with chains of contractual obligation, and it shows.
3. Men in Black 3
We love a time travel romp — in fact, there are few things we love more than a time travel romp. But this bloated, unfunny sequel manages to leech all of the fun out of time travel, just as it also drains all joy from its "buddy comedy" tropes. (Although it must be said, Rick Baker's practical creature effects in this movie are a thing of pure wonderment.) There are a few genuinely funny or clever moments in this film, but they're massively outweighed by long stretches of Will Smith going through the motions while Josh Brolin, as the younger version of Agent K, tries valiantly to inject some joie-de-vivre into the proceedings. There's so much dullness and badness: the Chinese restaurant scene, the funeral scene, the Andy Warhol gag, the "we have to put this device on a rocket even though we have access to a million spaceships" scene, and so on. The film is ostensibly about learning why Agent K is such a curmudgeon — but the final reveal is both nonsensical and doesn't answer the question at all. In a year of terrible, cash-grab sequels, Men in Black 3 is the worst and the cash-grabbiest.
The best thing you can say about Battleship is, it may actually have killed the trend of terrible movies based on toys and board games. Everything about this movie is utterly contrived, from the alien invasion that isolates a few ships during a Naval training exercise, to the fact that the aliens go from unbeatable to pathetic in a couple hours. Following the well-honed formula of the Transformers films, this movie asks us to spend 45 minutes caring about the dull personal problems of Taylor Kitsch's character before shit starts blowing up at all. And the depiction of naval warfare is as poorly thought out as the alien attackers, who sport bony goatees and won't attack any human who doesn't appear to be attacking first — even though the aliens attacked first in their ship and killed tons of humans who meant them no harm. The whole thing is flimsy, and worse yet, dull. Even Rihanna with a massive gun can't save it.
1. Dark Shadows
A lot of the films on this "worst" list suffered from camp overload, going through the motions, or an inability to commit to their premises — and all of those problems afflicted Tim Burton's nostalgic attempt to recreate the classic soap opera about a vampire patriarch, Barnabas Collins. But more than anything else, this film suffers from an excess of reflexive irony. Burton and his screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith are so keen to let us know they're in on the joke, they forget to include a joke for them to be in on. This film has no characters to identify with, no story to invest in, and nothing else that would ground its comedy in any way. It's gothic in the most pro-forma, stylized manner, and silly without any joy or inventiveness. This really is Exhibit A for why nostalgia is the death of art, unless it's charged with the spirit of anarchy and invention.