Since Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water scored a rare win for science fiction and monster movies at the Oscars, there’s been more crossover between the movies dubbed awards-worthy and those defined by genre. Our list at SuperHeroHype used to stand proudly in defiance of the typical crop of prestige dramas on other lists. These days, though, a given movie is almost as likely to appear on a mainstream newspaper’s critic’s list as on this one. Perhaps it’s a generational shift. The first Star Wars kids are in their fifties, and still pissed that Annie Hall beat it out.
So what qualifies for our list? Anything featuring superheroes, science fiction elements, or fantasy. That can get tricky around the margins, so let’s qualify some of the choices. Beau Is Afraid was arguably fantasy, but since it predominantly plays like a waking nightmare, it feels more like horror and did not make the list. Is John Wick any less of a superhero, substantively, than Batman and the Punisher? Had the list gone to 20, it might have been a harder choice, but since we cut off at ten, there’s no need to make that call. Poor Things, while not necessarily promoted as sci-fi, is 100% a Bride of Frankenstein riff set in a fantasy world, and did make the cut. While the calls can be subjective, the top ten are tough to dispute, though we know at least one will prove divisive, as it already has.
A potent reminder that Marvel movies can still be great from the guy about to run DC films. Gunn’s as comfortable with MCU-style ironic humor and quips as the next guy, but he can intersperse them with real emotional stakes. Finally giving Marvel a genuinely loathsome villain with no redeeming qualities who tortures and kills cute animals for fun and faith (in dubious science), Gunn also made explicit the inescapable tragedy of Rocket’s backstory, delivering a traumatic moment fit to stand alongside Bambi’s Mom and Old Yeller’s death in the halls of cinematic childhood ruination. Our heroes all survive, but in ways that show they’ll never be the same again, even as the cycle continues. An apt metaphor for the parent company.
9. The Flash
If it weren’t for, well, you know, we’d probably be talking about Ezra Miller’s dual role as Barry Allen and younger, stupider Barry Allen as one of the year’s great performances. But that’s another reality. In this one, their behavior shot the speedster’s cinematic incarnation in the metaphorical foot so many times it’s a wonder he can still run at all. It’s too bad, because the Barry’s really are great as an onscreen team — so much so that the viewer forgets it’s just one person acting opposite nothing.
In addition, the movie is crazy ambitious: it makes a nice swan song for Michael Keaton’s Batman. The Batfleck chase sequence is the best comic-styled, broad-daylight Batman crime-fighting sequence ever, the falling babies scene plays hilariously dangerous and mean, and the final gag’s an appropriately weird way to match the Snyderverse’s end with that of the Burton-verse years earlier. Clooney has become death, the destroyer of Bat-worlds!
8. The Creator
Gareth Edwards, used to working with restrictions either budgetary (Monsters) or franchise-imposed (Rogue One), finally got the budget to make a big original sci-fi movie that could showcase his imagination in full, and it’s pretty great. Blending influences like The Terminator, A.I., Willow, The Golden Child, and more in an epic adventure that amps up Star Wars’ Vietnam war metaphor to a level impossible to miss, it’s fundamentally a great and exciting sci-fi adventure — one with more to say, sometimes awkwardly, about the futility of war and eternal tendencies of governments to overreact to the wrong things.
We’ve seen many, many, many incarnations of the TMNT before, but never in an animation style that combines 3D models with rough sketch outlines and crazy colorful characters who brown out under the drab lighting of a major metropolis. Plus, the turtle teens actually act and talk like teens, and for the first time, April is every bit the inexperienced adolescent that they are. Learning ninjutsu from VHS tapes feels a little suss, but the way the gang gradually grow into their classic theme-song-defined roles is not. Bring on the turtle high-school comedy the ending promises!
This ought to have been a new classic. Maybe, like The Princess Bride, its extremely moderate initial success will build into a cult following that ultimately makes everyone a member. Funny without undercutting its sense of jeopardy, this tale of an adventuring party has each individual represent different ways to play the RPG, and unlike prior adaptations, has at least one dungeon and dragon as well as an expansive world with a nice shoutout to the old cartoon series. Its relative commercial failure likely means the brand isn’t strong enough with young viewers any more to merit a mega-budget, so let’s just enjoy the miracle that this exists at all and turned out as well as it did. And sorry, Maestro, but this really did feature the best Bradley Cooper performance of the year.
5. Poor Things
Yorgos Lanthimos has explored sci-fi and fantasy concepts before in movies like The Lobster, but Poor Things finally allowed him to go full Terry Gilliam/Wes Anderson in creating a fantastical alternate reality from the ground up. The book it’s based on suggests an unreliable narrator, but not so in the movie — an elaborate Bride of Frankenstein riff with Emma Stone as the resurrected body of a dead women with her baby’s brain, one which learns the ways of the world in record time. Willem Dafoe answers the eternal “Was Frankenstein the monster or the scientist?” by being both, a creation of vivisection and experimentation who also brilliantly revives corpses. In the boldest performance of the year, Stone suggests the quickness with which naivete can become a low tolerance for the accepted B.S of the world and that her Bella Baxter can convincingly use her knowledge of both to take charge of simpler men who never learn.
Like Masters of the Universe, it depicts a blond, perfectly bodied toy that arrives in Southern California from another dimension. Like the LEGO movies, it interrogates the differences between the way kids and adults perceive their beloved toys, and how (most) girls play differently from (most) boys. Like Toy Story, it has them wonder about their purpose. So there’s some precedent for Barbie beyond the art movies and classics cited by director Greta Gerwig as inspiration, even if she had a bigger challenge ahead: How do you define the personality of an object meant to reflect everyone who buys one? By using multiple actors, naturally.
Barbieland is no less a classic fantasy world than Eternia or Cybertron, but it’s been one with very informal parameters — something the Kens of that world finally put to the test. While how you play, or not, with Barbie and Ken may be individually specific, the movie manages to encompass most of that spectrum and define a generation that grew up with poseable, playable plastic avatars their entire lives.
It only took seven decades, but cinema’s most iconic giant monster finally delivered a masterpiece and the first Godzilla movie nobody has to make excuses for. From hardcore cinephiles to kaiju fanatics, anyone could appreciate this reboot, which combined the best aspects of everything the giant radioactive lizard has ever represented. Nuclear fears and war trauma? Check. Satire of military and bureaucratic inefficiency? Absolutely. Cities getting stomped on good? Unapologetically. Actual characters you’d rather not see get crushed? Refreshing. We’re so inclined to like Godzilla as a character and protector that making him legitimately scary again is a task that has befuddled many directors over the years. By going back to what worked in 1954, and augmenting it with what can be done much better now, Takashi Yamazaki pulled off a monstrous miracle.
2. Backwards Faces
There’s always one on the list that you’ve never heard of, but here’s a new movie well worth the $1.79 rental on Prime Video (as of this writing), and it’s only an hour and eight minutes long. Many of our entries engaged in maximum spectacle, so here’s one made on a minimal budget with an excellent script both smart and snappy. A little like Everything Everywhere All at Once if that movie were set in a single one-bedroom apartment and had only two actors, it’s the story of the day after a one-night stand. One featuring the revelation that “My bathroom is a unique structure that links disparate points in space time.”
Newcomers Andrew Morra and Lennon Sickels stay on their toes and keep us on ours as multiple versions of their characters, with physics and philosophy infusing the dialogue in ways that actually might make you think, the best proof in a long time that good science fiction is about ideas more than effects. Hollywood: let writer-director Chris Aresco do anything he wants next
Undoubtedly the most movie of 2023, the sequel to Into the Spider-Verse had a lot to live up to, and did so by cramming at least five distinctively different movies into one, each with their own audio-visual aesthetic. In some cases deliberately more raw and unpolished than the relatively uniform style of the first film, Across the Spider-Verse represents a true comics multiverse by using completely different art styles and rules of reality for each in a way that live-action couldn’t. Perhaps more radically, its anti-gatekeeping theme managed to be subtle enough to get past the knee-jerk gatekeepers who always complain about messaging and canon. It reminded us that some considered even Miles Morales an unacceptable political statement when first introduced. He prevailed, and continues to prevail, because he does his own thing.
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