This was a weird year for movies. The box office was weak, but also, most films didn't deserve love or hate. They were just... okay. But the genre movies that did stand out were either brilliant experiments, or horrible misfires. Here are the 10 best and 10 worst science fiction and fantasy movies of 2014.
As usual, we had a ton of candidates for both the "best" and "worst" list, and wound up arguing amongst ourselves for the past week before whittling it down to just 10 of each. Please let us know your own personal bests and worsts!
Based loosely on the fantastic Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill, this movie follows a cowardly soldier (Tom Cruise) who gets a weird superpower after getting some of an alien's blood on him. Every time he dies, he jumps back to the start of the day, alive and well. Yup, just like Groundhog Day. What's great about this film is how well it uses that conceit, both as a plot device and as a way to talk about PTSD and the endlessness of war and death. Edge of Tomorrow shows what an action movie can be: a personal journey as well as a thrilling, suspenseful ride.
This year's Studio Ghibli release is something really unusual, even by Ghibli standards. It's hand-painted and incredibly beautiful, and the linework has an expressiveness that conveys moods and character turns in an absolutely stunning fashion. Not only that, but some of the big set pieces in this film will stick in your mind for days afterwards, thanks to vivid colors but also powerful emotions. Director Isao Takahata takes a classic Japanese fable and adapts it into a powerful story of coming of age and self-discovery in the face of crazy social expectations. One of the most beautiful films we've seen in years.
Sundance produced a number of quirky genre films this year, which mixed intimate character-based stories with outlandish plot devices. But the most successful, by far, was this Australian horror film — because for long stretches of the film, you could easily imagine it as a straight-up Sundance drama about a single mother struggling with her problem child and the perfect mothers who keep throwing shade at her. And yet, as a story of supernatural possession and terror, it becomes so much more. Also great: The way the monster, the Babadook, changes its meaning over the course of the movie as we start to understand the real terror at the heart of this film.
There were a lot of superhero movies this year, and most of them were pretty good. But this Captain America film still stood apart because of its gutsy storyline and its slick-as-hell action. The first full-length movie starring Steve Rogers in the 21st century manages to make his "1940s fish out of water" schtick brand new and totally relevant, by confronting him with the worst aspects of postmodern cynicism. Plus this movie is a masterclass in using action to develop character and theme.
This strange relationship drama sort of flew under the radar because its bizarre science-fictional twist was kept under wraps. We won't spoil that twist here, but suffice to say it's a mind-blowing, weird exploration of relationship dynamics, that uses its futuristic premise to get at universal realities and human failings. Stars Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss bring incredible acting powers to this story of a couple who go on a retreat only to encounter something truly bizarre.
We've seen a lot of dystopian movies lately, and it's a genre that's feeling a bit weaksauce in general. But director Bong Joon-ho (The Host) manages to create a dystopia that's both grotesque and poignant, in this adaptation of the insane French comic. A climate disaster has plunged the entire world into a new ice age, and the last survivors of humanity live aboard a super-train which is divided along class lines, with the poorest people living in squalor in the very rear — but there's still a chance for class mobility. Like a lot of the other movies on the "best" list, it has incredibly beautiful imagery and boasts a brilliant performance by Tilda Swinton as the train's main functionary. But also, this movie is layered with tons of symbolism, that just gets deeper the further you look.
Here's another really weird relationship story, featuring Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as two vampires who have been in love for hundreds of years and are still devoted to each other. Instead of chasing drama or packing in plot twists, director Jim Jarmusch creates a sweet, weird character study of two creative people whose love is challenged by depression, sadness and the difficulty of finding clean blood to drink.
After so many movies in the past few years have stumbled through the maze of hero narratives, going from plot point to plot point without ever bothering to have fun, this movie feels like a revelation. The LEGO Movie simultaneously satirizes and perfects the "chosen hero" myth, and manages to tell a complicated story about reconciling apparent opposites at the same time. Few movies can manage to be this effortlessly fun and joyful — while also throwing a huge curveball, that somehow makes the entire audience weepy instead of disgusted. This is one of those movies we'll be rewatching for years.
When I walked out of the screening of this film, I wasn't sure if it was one of the best movies I'd ever seen, or just one of the strangest. The story of an alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, driving around Scotland and picking up men so she can steal their life essence, is incredibly beautiful and jarring, and uncomfortable to watch — especially when you realize some of the men in the film really are random strangers Johansson has picked up. But this film conveys a huge emotional arc for Johansson's character, without a single line of dialogue or signpost, and uses its dispassionate lens to show her changing vantage point on humanity. In the end, the beauty and horror of Under the Skin stuck in my mind and refused to let go, and it's become one of my favorite movies of recent years.
This movie and LEGO Movie, both starring Chris Pratt, feel sort of like bookends. They're both gleefully creative and funny, playing with heroic tropes with glorious silliness. What makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a standout isn't just its retro-80s seat-of-your-space-pants fun, though. It's the way director James Gunn uses details like Rocket Raccoon's cringing posture and Star-Lord's cheesy 1970s mixtape to convey a sense of loss and deep emotional wounds, that makes the movie's zany romp that much more fantastic. In a year where tons of famous heroes failed to capture our imagination, this movie showed how it was done.
We all agreed this movie was one of the year's best, we only disagreed about whether it belonged on a list of science fiction and fantasy movies. Birdman has a lot of trenchant things to say about our current obsession with escapist superhero narratives, and also delves into magical-realism territory through some of its weird fantasy sequences. But whether you include it in the genre-movie camp, this story of an ex-superhero movie star trying to do legitimate theater is definitely both hilarious and gut-punching.
We weren't sure whether to include this movie, given that it was a legendary disaster that nearly got released direct-to-DVD and lost its investors tens of millions of dollars. But Legends of Oz is such a horrible film, we couldn't leave it out. Boasting ugly, sometimes uncanny-valley animation, and leaden performances from Dan Aykroyd among others, plus some Bryan Adams songs added at the last minute, this is one of the most dreadful films to be released in theaters in recent years. And it's an object lesson in trying to cash in on a famous series, based on Roger Baum's weak, do-over sequel to his father's famous book.
This movie, meanwhile, felt like a huge misfire. Based on one of the greatest young-adult novels of all time, all The Giver had to do was sell the relationship between the young Jonas and his mentor, the Giver. The movie's dystopian world only really emerges as a dystopia once Jonas realizes what's missing, thanks to the long-buried memories the Giver shares with him. Instead, we got a sledgehammery message, driven home by a lecturing Meryl Streep — plus an unnecessary, shoe-horned romance.
Angelina Jolie's quite good performance wasn't enough to salvage this awful mess of an origin story for Sleeping Beauty's main villain. As an exploration of one of the all-time great animated villains, this film chose to declaw Maleficent and make her the victim of King Stefan's roofies and mutilation. And almost every element in this movie is a mess, from its inconsistent tone to its overuse of computerized cheez whiz to its plodding supporting performances. Dark fairy tales and villain origin stories are in fashion right now, but this movie is like a "how-not-to" guide to those subgenres.
There were a lot of weird reimaginings of famous heroes this year — we really considered sticking the cheesetastic Dracula Untold and I, Frankenstein on this list too. But yeesh, even among that company, this Hercules origin story is a dud. The main thing that this movie has to offer is well-oiled pecs and slow-mo, but they unfortunately come along with a completely ludicrous plot where Hercules is sold into slavery and becomes a gladiator, because they thought "Hercules" would bring in more people than "Spartacus." Seriously, just watch these four completely bonkers clips, full of people stumbling over nonsense dialogue while mostly naked.
Like The Giver, this movie was a labor of love — and just like The Giver, it was also a situation where the people adapting a classic novel didn't quite manage to capture what worked about it. Mark Helprin's beloved fairytale novel becomes a soupy mess in the hands of writer-director Akiva Goldsman, who simultaneously tries to over-explain the magical mythos and also drain it of any magic it might possess. Just like with Maleficent, the tone is all over the place, with jarring transitions that feel stuck together with masking tape. By the time a random Native American (Graham Greene) shows up to explain to cunning thief Peter Lake (Colin Farrell) why a flying white horse has befriended him, you're just shrugging at this movie's wacky nonsense. The one good scene: Will Smith's cameo.
As a movie about supernatural forces and over-arching destiny, Exodus is kind of uniquely dreadful. Director Ridley Scott fails to capture Moses, the conflicted liberator of the Jews from Egypt, as a compelling character — and he can't make the plight of the enslaved Jews resonate, either. He gets caught up in the huge pageantry and gruesome computer-animated plagues, at the expense of telling a meaningful story about an escape from bondage.
It seems quixotically masochistic to expect much from a Transformers film at this point. But there are three main reasons why the latest outing belongs on this list: First, it's a dull action movie in which the set pieces go on too long and feel half-hearted, as if everybody is trying to make an endless scene about a giant vacuum cleaner in the sky feel interesting. Second, it's the most joyless these transforming robots have ever been, with Optimus Prime, in particular, mired in depression and only able to blurt "I'll kill you" at odd intervals. But most of all, the movie's all-important human characters have never been so unlovable. The Transformers series is a clunky contraption that shows every sign of breaking down.
Yes, as bad as Legend of Hercules was, it wasn't the worst Hercules movie this year. How hard is it to make a movie about a super-strong demigod who goes around wrecking shit and wearing a lion on his head, people? Where Legend turned Herc into a demigod who bares his teeth and his abs in slow motion, this version tries to turn him into just a regular mope who just wants to be left alone or something. The Rock, as Hercules, trudges through a laundry list of tropes about Hercules training an army and leading them from defeat to victory. We had two Hercules movies this year, and neither of them had the real Hercules in them — that's got to be some kind of terrible comment on the state of movies, right there.
Where Christopher Nolan captured some amazing beauty and a lot of scientific wonder with his brilliant, frustrating Interstellar, his cinematographer Wally Pfister tried to make a movie about the rise of artificial intelligence, and stumbled. Transcendence suffers from a lifeless, unimaginative story in which there are never two valid sides to any argument, and scientists act like idiots. But that's not the main problem with Transcendence: Rather, it's a story that relies entirely on the love story between Will (Johnny Depp) and Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) — who's willing to go to insane lengths to keep Will's mind alive inside a computer. And at no point does their relationship, or anything else about them, feel convincing. Or interesting. Instead, you're left with a horrendously bland thriller about gray goo.
And finally... here's a movie that combines a lot of the problems of the other movies on this list, but with less charm or sense of fun. The big sewer-dwelling turtle dudes, with their love of pizza and their mastery of Japanese assassin techniques, are back. And this time, they're stuck in a movie that appears to be pasted together from four or five different scripts. Megan Fox's character is an aspiring journalist who wants to get the scoop on the turtles, or maybe she's their surrogate mom from when they were turtle babies, or maybe she's their girlfriend. The action in this movie is almost impossible to follow a lot of the time, and the turtles are both grotesque and boring. Even in a year where a lot of big tentpoles felt confused and ill-formed, this was an unusually slapdash effort.
Additional reporting by Meredith Woerner, Jason Shankel, Katharine Trendacosta, Cheryl Eddy, Annalee Newitz and Lauren Davis.