A few years ago I stumbled across Charlie Jane Anders' list of best and worst sci-fi/fantasy movies of the year on io9. It reminded me that no matter how hard I might try, there's always going to be a bunch of hidden gems (and even blockbuster) I miss watching throughout the year.
That also kicked off a new tradition for me. As each year wrapped up since, I've gone back and hunted down and watched what are supposed to be the best sci-fi and horror movies of the year — the more esoteric, the better. Though that didn't preclude some big hits as well.
This year, Susana Polo and Julia Alexander were kind enough to let me publish a list of what I found to be the best of those, here on Polygon.
I hope you find something you've not heard of, or watched yet, and that this list ignites in you, as Anders' did in me all of those years ago, a newfound respect for the world's annual glut of films.
One note on my own personal set of rules: I typically consider a movie "released" when it gets a theatrical release in the U.S. Some of these films hit their native countries, or popped up at film festivals, prior to 2015. I also do check out mainstream movies (like the new Star Wars); their absence just means I didn't think they were as good as what is on this list.
Creep is a slow and steady burn, a movie that starts with the most mundane of stories but delivers a delightfully heinous ending.
The story, delivered as a sort of found-film tale, opens on Aaron, a young videographer, traveling to a nearby mountain town to answer a Craigslist ad. When he arrives he meets Josef, a man who wants Aaron to spend the day with him shooting video for a short biography made for Josef's unborn son.
The day-in-the-life video capture quickly becomes bizarre, then unsettling and then dangerous, as Aaron tries to rid himself of Josef's attentions.
The movie's entire buildup is focused around a series of conversations between Josef and Aaron, and the reaction that the former seems to be seeking from the latter. Much of the film's early moments, where you're still learning about the two, was shot in multiple takes with a lot of ad-libbing, the result in a thoroughly believable, thoroughly uncomfortable movie.
The sudden, almost unexpected slide into danger comes out of the blue and results in a breathtaking finale.
Science fiction loves a good time-traveling yarn, and this is a great one.
True to the nature of time travel, this movie starts out in the middle of the story. We watch as a time travel agent attempts to disarm a bomb, only to be horribly disfigured when it goes off. Years later, and years before, the story slowly unwinds as a tale told to the same agent (now pretending to be a bartender and no longer disfigured) by a customer at the bar.
The film hops adeptly back and forth between times, places and characters, somehow managing to deliver a staggeringly complex storyline without confusing the viewer or missing a beat.
It's a rare gem of a tale that uses time travel as a device to explore more complex ideas and, of course, to completely blow your mind with its ending.
A bonus, perhaps, is that the movie is loosely based on Robert A. Heinlein's short story "All You Zombies." I found that the movie did a much better job of telling its story, and certainly of developing its characters, than did the short story, but without Heinlein you wouldn't have the story's amazing premise and the ending that's just … wow.
I'm a big fan of self-aware smart horror; the kind of scary movie made popular with Scream (and let's not forget April Fool's Day). As someone who has seen a lot — like, a lot a lot — of horror movies, it's fun to feel like a movie is recognizing my trivial knowledge of gore and slasher flicks.
The Final Girls does this in a way that both delivers a sort of wink to big fans of the genre, and still remains accessible enough for novice horror fans to get.
Another dark comedy, this story revolves around Max Cartwright, the daughter of a relatively recently deceased scream queen who made a name for herself in the '70s as one of the victims in the slasher flick Camp Bloodbath and its sequel.
Pressed into going to a Bloodbath double-feature, Max and friends find themselves somehow magically transported into the movie, forced to either make their way through the entire plot or remain forever trapped in a loop of bad acting, cheesy music and yellowing film.
While the movie never really gets that scary, it has plenty of humor and lots of action. It also has an interesting subplot that has Max trying to reconnect with her dead mom's character in the film.
The whole thing does a great job of dissecting the tropes of slasher franchises like Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, both through its deliberately ham-handed plot and Max and friends' attempts to derail the inevitable sex-means-death formula.
While The Final Girls never really scares, it does make you think and, most of all, laugh at what might have scared you years ago.
OK, imagine a mockumentary about a flight (is that what you call a bunch of vampire?) of vampire living in one small house in New Zealand in modern times. OK, now imagine that they're, like, the worst vampires ever, and at one point they accidentally turn a hipster into a vampire. Got it? OK, now keep in mind that this dark comedy comes from one of the folks behind Flight of the Conchords.
The film was written and directed by Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) and Taika Waititi (Boy), who worked together as the comedy duo The Humourbeasts in New Zealand in the '90s, and captures a sort of off-the-cuff feel that you find in stand-up or reality shows.
What We Do in the Shadows is one of my favorite comedies of 2015. It does a splendid job of poking fun at just about every vampire movie and book out there, all while delivering a compelling, hilarious story of its own.
The constant jokes, sight gags and odd behavior make for the sort of movie you're going to want to watch and rewatch.
There aren't many big, mainstream movies that made my list.
That's mostly because a lot of those movies feel too filtered, watered down, homogenized, commercialized to outweigh the value and power I see in the lesser-known movies I've come to love.
But The Martian's delivery of action, drama and, yes, occasional comedy, mixed with some heavy science, won me over.
Where Mad Max: Fury Road was all action and little plot, The Martian is sort of the opposite.
Sure, there are plenty of dramatic moments, but really this is a movie about a castaway; one man's fight to stay alive, not to escape or be the film's hero, but just to survive until help happens to arrive. Or at least, that's the initial premise.
The ups and downs of the movie, the genuinely surprising and clever solutions to astronaut Mark Watney's seemingly never-ending challenges, are what make this movie work. Coupled with Matt Damon's amazing performance and some great special effects, The Martian is easily a must-watch for 2015.
Thirteen years in the making, Hard to Be a God is Russian director Aleksei Yuryevich German's last film. He died while finalizing seven years of edits — after a six-year shoot.
The film, a mashup of medieval realism and science fiction, is a brutal, unblinking look at the pointlessness of life, the triviality of death and the monstrous nature of humanity.
The movie is based on a novel by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (whose many other works include Roadside Picnic, which heavily influenced the video game series STALKER) and takes place in the Noon Universe, a setting for a dozen or so of the brothers' books. In this particular story, which is four books into the collected works, a group of Earth scientists travels to an alien planet that is nearly identical to Earth. The chief difference between the two is that the Renaissance never took place on that planet; instead, it was brutally suppressed by religion and a fear of superstition. All of the scientists must blend in with the inhabitants and study them. One of those scientists is tasked with helping the planet's society progress, but can't get directly involved in politics, technology or culture.
It is a hard movie to watch, but only for the best of reasons.
The backstory of the film is never completely explained to the viewer; instead you are left to piece it together as you watch characters dig through human shit, wallow in mud and kill one another at the slightest provocation. Even without the underlying plot of one man's seemingly impossible task of elevating an entire civilization, Hard to Be a God is a nihilistic masterpiece. It tears down anything you might have envisioned as noble in the Middle Ages, and then moves on to effectively dismantle the notion of the value of possessions, nobility, intellect and beauty. But where the movie really sets its sights is against the terrible power of religion, and against any idea that human progress can be obtained gracefully — without a mud-caked, blood drenched brawl with the filth of humanity.
It is a hard movie to watch, but only for the best of reasons.
The cinematography perfectly captures the sense of futility that this world, these characters, the universe soaks in.
Spring is both beautiful and tragic; it's an enchanting, sometimes horrific, love story. It teases you along with earnest moments of romance, and shocks you with its monstrous transformations.
In Spring, a young American man named Evan decides to take an unplanned trip to Italy to figure out his life. During his trip, he rediscovers himself and falls in love with Louise, a student working on a study in a tiny Italian town.
While the movie is inescapably tied to horror, especially in its second half, what makes Spring so alluring is its treatment of young love and the interplay of the two main characters in this charming Italian village. The director deftly cranks up the sense of foreboding as the two continue to fall deeply in love and viewers begin to see the darker edges of Louise and her mysterious affliction.
The moment of true discovery — the horror in this horror movie — and how the two deal with it offer much less to the viewer than the character study that gets you to care about what happens to them. That said, I found the movie delightful, especially in how easily it seemed to blend the two seemingly opposing genres of romance and horror.
I love thinking movies, movies that chill, movies that force me to reexamine myself — but sometimes, sometimes I just like to see shit blow up.
Mad Max: Fury Road is the perfect summer blockbuster. Free of the entanglements of deep plot and meaningful character development, George Miller creates a two-hour chase packed with weapon-bristling vehicles; tornadoes that spawn other tornadoes and spit out lightning; a cacophony of bizarre, freakish character design; and lots and lots of shooting at things and blowing stuff up.
I'm not being glib. None of this is meant to take anything away from Fury Road or Miller or Charlize Theron or Tom Hardy — all of whom created something masterful, fun and unforgettable.
There is a plot of sorts.
And I suppose there is a plot of sorts.
Immortan Joe, the jawless, blister-backed leader of an oasis, has his harem of supermodels stolen by a one-armed badass played by Theron. It just so happens that Max (one day to be, or perhaps previously Mad) was recently captured by Joe's warboys and is used as a human bloodbag as they chase after Theron's character, Imperator Furiosa. Then car chase, slight plot twist, more car chase and ta-da, the end.
Light on plot or not, I could watch Fury Road over and over again just to marvel at the set design, the spectacle of real effects hardly touched by computer graphics and those wonderful, wonderful characters.
I mean, name one other movie that has a man with bullets for teeth, a cannibal businessman and an organic mechanic.
This is pure Mad Max, the only sort of movie that could have satisfied all of those years of waiting to revisit a post-apocalyptic Australia governed by gun-loving revheads.
Sure, it introduced a new important character in Furiosa and completely confused everyone with its use of Max Rockatansky in what is most definitely a reboot, remake, prequel or sequel.
But the thing that put asses in seats were the explosions, the fire-spewing, guitar-playing marvelous absurdity of anything and everything mashed together in a sublime Aussie spectacle.
Fashioned as a sort of urban legend come to life, It Follows is about a sexually transmitted curse. I know, I know, it sounds like the sort of premise that could only result in a terrible, terrible late-night Skinemax T&A slasher flick. And I suppose that's part of the genius of this movie: It takes an absurd, overtly sexually charged plot and turns it into something smart — devious, even.
The movie opens with a tidy warning of what happens when It stops following and actually catches up. Soon we find ourselves along for the ride after a teenager has sex with a new boyfriend and then wakes up to discover — while strapped to a chair — that she is now cursed to be perpetually followed by a deadly force that can assume any face.
While sex is the crux of this curse — both the only way to be cursed and the only way to rid yourself of it — the movie seems more about the prevailing anxieties that come with the blossoming of sexuality.
It Follows takes place in a sort of bubble free from anything but the most vague representations of adults or parents, of time, of year. It's as if the whole thing is a sort of fever dream born of the fear of sexually transmitted disease, of unwanted pregnancy, of one's own sexuality, of gender. It's a movie that takes place in the gloom of burgeoning adulthood.
the movie becomes a death march
After its dark opening, after the curse has settled in, the movie becomes a death march of sorts: a mix of Oedipal tragedy, sexual self-harm and a relentless following to a seemingly inevitable end. The latter half of the movie's complete lack of parental figures only helps to augment the fear with a strong sense of strangers in a strange land; young figures trying to fend for themselves against an overwhelming, deadly force.
There's also so much off-kilter in the settings and props — like that weird e-reader one of the characters is always using and the odd '70s vibe — that I could spend this entire write-up talking about just that.
But the most impressive thing about the entire movie is "it." Never really clearly identified, the eponymous "it" is just the right touch of horrifying and believable to deliver the sense of horror that propels this movie to its ultimate, chilling, happy, tragic — I don't even know — ending.
I find that the best movies, the best creative works, are just the beginning of the experience intended by their creators. It's that blend of eudaemonic gratification and enticing conversation starter that had me thinking and talking about Ex Machina long after seeing it.
Ex Machina tells the story of a programmer winning a week's vacation with his reclusive genius boss Nathan, the CEO of an all-powerful tech company (a sort of melding of Facebook, Apple and Google), at his remote home in the middle of massive forests and verdant mountains. The programmer soon finds out that the trip was really a ruse to get him to perform a Turing test on Ava, an artificial intelligence built into a female android.
I talked with some of those involved in making the movie for a feature I wrote last year. You can read much more about my thoughts on the movie there. But here's a snippet:
On its most evident level, the film Ex Machina is about escaping a glass box.
But packed inside that transparent prison, alongside the stunning, perhaps living, thinking technology of an android wanting to free itself, is a wellspring of important ideas and questions.
While Ex Machina may allure with almost distracting special effects, it captivates with its questions about the human consciousness and sexuality; about freedom of thought and the loss of privacy.
It is, as first-time director Alex Garland (writer of novel The Beach, movie 28 Days Later and game Enslaved: Odyssey to the West) told me after a screening in Austin, a Swiss watch story: a film about ideas carefully constructed to provoke the viewer to thought, but maybe not answers.
"This is supposed to be a movie about ideas," he said. "We talk about this stuff a lot. We test it on each other constantly. It's there to provoke a conversation."
That's it, my personal top 10 of 2015. In creating the list, specifically in numbering it, I watched plenty of other movies that I'd highly recommend checking out. I won't go into the details for each, but here's my sort of runners-up list.
Goodnight Mommy's take on parenthood is macabre and frightening. Watch Bone Tomahawk for that one death scene and then maybe curl up in a ball and cry for a bit. White God is essentially every sad movie about a dog dying, but as a revenge flick ... from the point of view of the dogs. (Also, all of those dogs, all 250 of them, are real.) The Hollow is a solid classic scary movie about dangerous faeries and a creepy forest. The Harvest delivers a fantastic twist to a moody teen friendship flick. We Are Still Here would have easily made my top 10 had it not been for that terrible, terrible, terrible ending. Seriously, go watch it and then come and commiserate with me. Unfriended is basically I Know What You Did Last Summer on Skype. Its clever use of technology to deliver the entire story both makes and breaks it.