When it comes to "best of the year" awards and acclaim, science fiction and fantasy movies aren't dominating the conversation the way they did in 2017. Where last year's The Shape of Water won Best Picture and Get Out Best Screenplay at the Oscars, this year the big awards season face-off is between the brutal realism of Roma and the less realistic but still not technically "fantasy" of A Star is Born, with the loosely based-on-a-true-story BlacKkKlansman a potential dark horse. A couple of Disney blockbusters are making pushes for nominations, but it'd seems unlikely either of them will take home any big wins.
This doesn't mean that it's been a bad year for sci-fi and fantasy in theaters, however. Far from it. Sci-fi and fantasy dominate the box office as usual, and a few of those blockbuster hits have been genuinely transcendent. Many of the best genre films this year, however, haven't been so widely seen. There have been fiercely original independent visions. There's been a wide array of stunning animation, much of it breaking industry norms. Of course, there have been many awful films as well. We're choosing not to dwell on the films we had no hope for, but this list will make note of five films we were actually optimistic about and ended up disappointing to various extents. After we go through the biggest disappointments, it's time to count down the 15 best sci-fi and fantasy films to play in American movie theaters over the past year.
20 DISAPPOINTING: SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY
Whether you loved or hated The Last Jedi, it made you feel something. Solo: A Star Wars Movie isn't the worst Star Wars movie by far, but it's the most "nothing" Star Wars movie. There wasn't substance there and no real reason to go out of your way to see it. Based on the disappointing box office, most people didn't.
Even with news of a troubled production, the fun cast and good trailers gave reason to hope that Solo could impress. The cast is good, but they were given a weak script, with zero development for its title character and some embarassingly forced attempts to answer questions nobody was even asking.
19 DISAPPOINTING: A WRINKLE IN TIME
It hurts to dislike this movie, it really does. Ava DuVernay has proven herself a great director in the past and we want to root for her success. The cast of A Wrinkle in Time is solid, the imagery often gorgeous and the message of empowerment one which could prove extremely important for young viewers. Pity the movie's not good.
To be fair, Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time isn't the easiest book to adapt to a movie, but it should have at least been interesting. The movie adaptation cuts the book's progressive spirituality and harsh societal criticism and turns it into a bland mush. It's well-meaning and today's kids might develop nostalgic affection for it in the future, but it's boring for adults.
18 DISAPPOINTING: PACIFIC RIM UPRISING
It was good news that Pacific Rim was getting a sequel. It was less good news that Guillermo Del Toro wouldn't be able to direct said sequel. Pacific Rim Uprising isn't all bad, having a fun climactic battle and some entertainingly gonzo acting by Charlie Day, but it's the definition of a missed opportunity.
The biggest sins of Uprising are in how it mishandles most of the things people loved about the first movie. Want kaiju action? It's in short supply. How about stunning cinematography? Everything looks drabber this time. What about more Mako Mori, the first movie's stand-out character? You're not gonna like what they do with her...
17 DISAPPOINTING: HEREDITARY
Hereditary got generally positive reviews out of Sundance, but when it hit theaters, audience responses leaned more negative. Some might call this a case of audiences not appreciating dark and daring cinema, but really, those who disliked the movie had a point.
Individual elements of Hereditary deserve the praise they got. Toni Collette and Alex Wolff give incredible performances, and Ari Aster clearly knows how to direct tension. Aster's script, however, needed a lot of work. If a film is going to be as cruelly sadistic as Hereditary gets, it better have something to say, but the promising mental illness drama gets thrown to the wayside in favor of a dumb cult story that lacks metaphorical heft.
16 DISAPPOINTING: MARY POPPINS RETURNS
This one is frustrating, because the narrative fixes need to make Mary Poppins Returns good enough for the Top 15 list would be so easy! The aesthetics are practically perfect. The 2D animated scene alone is worth a ticket price. The songs are good, if not as good as the original's, and the dancing is delightful. Lin-Manuel Miranda oozes charm, and Emily Blunt's worthy of her many Best Actress nominations.
The awards attention for the movie itself, however, is kind of baffling. At its best, this sequel is an entertaining but unexpectional retread of the first movie. At its worst, it becomes weirdly uncomfortable treatise on the virtues of capitalism that contradicts the original's more trenchant messages.
And now, for the Top 15...
What a treat it is to watch a Transformers movie that actually likes its characters! Bumbleebee isn't anything particularly special or original. It's basically The Iron Giant minus 70% of the sadness and 100% of the philosophical profundity. Minus the misanthropy and crassness that characterized the Bayformers movies, though, Bumblebee finds itself highly enjoyable despite being incredibly formulaic.
Director Travis Knight brings his animation expertise from Laika to make the CG Bumblebee a more expressive character. The bond between him and his human caretaker Charlie hits all the right emotional buttons in Christina Hodson's effective screenplay. There's also a lot of great '80s needle drops.
14 MAQUIA: WHEN THE PROMISED FLOWER BLOOMS
Mari Okada is one of the more prolific and famous screenwriters in the world of anime, most infamous for her extreme tearjerkers. Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms is her first time directing, and it's almost overkill with the emotional manipulation at points, but hey, it works!
This is a well-told fantasy story with a fascination relationship at its center. You know how the story of a youthful immortal raising a mortal child is going to end up, but along the way it's continually interesting how this relationship changes over time (in ways sometimes Freudian but thankfully not too Freudian). The world-building is complex yet streamlined enough to support a self-contained feature.
13 AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
There's a difference between the biggest movie of the year and the best. Avengers: Infinity War is easily the most packed blockbuster of the year in terms of scale and scope. That it doesn't collapse under the weight of carrying so many plotlines and characters is an accomplishment worthy of praise.
Infinity War has one of the MCU's better villains and its best cliffhanger, but it's far from the most thoroughly involving film in the franchise. Ultimately this is part one of a two-part story, and the outcome of Avengers: Endgame will heavily affect Infinity War's legacy in the long term.
12 DEADPOOL 2
At this point, everyone can agree that the "fridging" plot in Deadpool 2 was a mistake. Even the filmmakers admit as such in the added Fred Savage scenes of the Once Upon a Deadpool edit. That egregious flaw aside, however, Deadpool 2 was just as much fun as the original surprise hit from 2016.
The key to the movie's success is that for all its satirical goofiness, its story actual takes the central metaphors of the X-Men series more seriously than the mainline X-Men movies have. It also contains several of the year's best jokes, the absolute stand-out being the outrageous "X-Force" sequence.
11 PADDINGTON 2
Paddington 2 is one of the only movies to maintain a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes with over 200 reviews. With the way some critics hyped this as the Second Coming, it's best to keep expectations measured. With that in mind, Paddington 2 is an extraordinarily charming, funny and artful family film.
It's more consistently great than the first Paddington (no incongruous gross-out humor here), but maybe a drop less ambitious in its message. The first one was more politically potent as a plea for the rights of refugees, while the second one is a simpler, more generalized plea for kindness. Of course, we need more kindness in the world than ever, so Paddington 2's essential moral goodness warms the heart.
10 INCREDIBLES 2
Incredibles 2 might rank a bit higher on this list if it didn't have such distinguished competition in the world of animated superhero movies this year. It has to contend with not only comparisons to the first Incredibles, but to its similarly-themed competition, and it comes up short in both cases. This comparison shouldn't diminish just how entertaining this movie is, however.
If Brad Bird doesn't reach the emotional highs of his past work, he still reminds us why he's one of the best directors in the business for exciting animated action. Most live-action superhero films just can't keep up in comparison. The characters are as lovable as ever, and the development of Jack-Jack's powers is particularly hilarious.
Paramount more or less buried Annihilation, selling it off to Netflix internationally while under-marketing it in the United States, which is kind of a shame. While not as amazing as his debut film Ex Machina, Alex Garland's sophomore directing debut effort is the sort of darkly beautiful work that lingers in the memory.
Halfway between mainstream and arthouse sensibilities, Annihilation sometimes overexplains but more often than not relishes in mysteries. It's effectively scary when it wants to be, with amazing monster designs. The final 20 minutes apparently upset the Paramount executives, but they're also an artistically astonishing sequence that elevates the movie as a whole.
8 THE NIGHT IS SHORT, WALK ON GIRL
Masaaki Yuasa is having a great year. His Netflix series Devilman Crybaby is both the best anime of the year and his biggest crossover hit, while two new feature films of his hit US theaters. Lu Over the Wall is fine as Ponyo-meets-Tex Avery eye candy, but The Night is Short, Walk on Girl is the more narratively cohesive and overall better of his features.
It's also, weirdly enough, one of his most grounded and accessible works, which is to say it only goes completely nuts about halfway through. Fans of his TV anime The Tatami Galaxy should appreciate the callbacks to that series, while non-fans willing to go for a wild romantic ride should be won over.
7 ISLE OF DOGS
Between Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson has made the strongest transition to animation of any primarily live-action filmmaker. It makes sense that a director who makes all his sets look like dioramas would be well-suited to make stop-motion movies out of literal dioramas. Every frame of Isle of Dogs is a stunning work of art.
The story's a clever little dystopian adventure, with creative use of language (the dogs speak English, the humans mostly speak Japanese without subtitles) and relevant messages about political fearmongering. Anderson clearly loves Japanese art and brought on actor Kunichi Nomura as a co-writer to help with cultural accuracy. There are legit criticisms, however, about the transfer student played by Greta Gerwig fitting "white savior" tropes.
6 ANNA AND THE APOCALYPSE
Anna and the Apocalypse is the best zombie Christmas musical ever made (no, Nightmare Before Xmas doesn't count despite containing zombies, as they're really minor roles). It might also be the only zombie Christmas musical ever made, but isn't that reason enough to love it?
It's a shame this isn't playing in many theaters, but it's certainly the sort of film that's ready made for cult classic status in the future. The songs are catchy, the actors energetic and the laughs frequent, but it also hits with surprising emotion that you wouldn't usually expect from such a wacky genre mash-up.
What a year it is when Nicolas Cage is in two of the year's best movies! Mandy, the indie sensation from director Panos Cosmatos, is maybe the ultimate Nicolas Cage movie and perhaps the only one to utilize his full range. The first half of the film is subdued, an opportunity for Cage to flex his subtle acting muscles. Then after a pivotal moment of violence, the film and Cage's performance enter extreme "rage cage" mode.
Mandy's generally classified as a horror film, but it's pretty unclassifiable. It's simultaneously a meditation on loss and a revenge film with the most "metal" visuals since Mad Max: Fury Road. It might also take place on another planet? The plot's negligible, but the style is something else entirely.
4 SORRY TO BOTHER YOU
Sorry to Bother You is entertaining enough while watching it, but what really pushes it so high on this list is the way Boots Riley's first film sticks around in one's mind long afterwards. It's a gleefully absurd sci-fi comedy with the strangest and most unexpected twist of any movie this year. It's also one of the most honest and realistic looks at life under late capitalism.
Some gags are reminiscent of those in Mike Judge's Idiocracy, but Sorry to Bother You subtitutes Idiocracy's poorly concieved semi-eugenicist backstory with actual structural analysis of the systems that lead to such a ridiculous world in the first place. Lakieth Stanfield is amazing in the lead role, while Tessa Thompson is great but underutilized as his love interest.
3 A QUIET PLACE
Sometimes it's great to just be terrified by a movie. Most of the best horror films in recent years tend to either be "elevated" stories dealing in Big Ideas about How We Live Today or more comedic takes on the genre (sometimes, as with Get Out, the two trends overlap). A Quiet Place is a reminder that horror films don't have to be either deep or silly (or even R-rated!) to be great.
John Krasinski's directorial debut takes an elegantly simple premise (the monsters will find you if you make a sound) and executes the idea for all the tension it can muster. There's something wonderful about how the year's most successful original screenplay is entirely in American Sign Language and still captivated mass audiences.
2 BLACK PANTHER
Honestly, it's so close between the top two entries on this list that it's virtually a tie. Almost a year removed from the initial celebration of its release, Black Panther holds up as an exemplar in how to make a traditional blockbuster both entertaining and meaningful. It's the new high water mark for the already high standards of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
The greatest strength of Ryan Coogler's movie might be its characters. You can point to anyone in the ensemble and make a legit case for them being the film's MVP (though let's be honest, it's Killmonger, the best Marvel movie villain). Alongside the Captain America movies, it's one of the few MCU entries with significant meaningful things to say about the real world.
1 SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE
If Black Panther is just as good the second time as the first, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse squeaks ahead by virtue of actually getting better on repeat viewing. The first time you watch it, it's easy to get overtaken by all its detail and innovation. A second viewing confirms that, yes, it is the best Spider-Man movie and among the best superhero movies ever made.
Into the Spider-Verse has opened up more visual possibilities for animated movies than anything since the original Toy Story. Storywise, it's both the purest distilation of Spider-Man's emotional ethos and the funniest celebration of the comics' outlandish mythology. It's the rare movie that can appeal equally to kids, comic book nerds and arthouse movie directors for completely different reasons.