AFI Nominees: The best sci-fi and fantasy films?

The American Film Institute has released its nominations for “AFI’s 10 Top 10,” a the top ten films in ten different genres, including Science-Fiction and Fantasy. The final winners will be revealed on a television special to be broadcast on CBS this June. The AFI makes a habit of churning out these lists. Past examples include “100 Years…100 Movies,” “100 Years of Film Scores,” “Greatest Movie Musicals,” plus many others devoted to Movie Quotes, Songs, Heroes & Villains, Thrills, Laughs, etc. As with any list of this type, the AFI’s selections leave ample room for argument. The titles tend to be a hodge-podge of the obvious and the popular: established classics rub shoulders with recent blockbusters, while many high-quality films are overlooked if they do not bear the imprimatur of the mainstream critical establishment, which means that disreputable genres like Horror tend to be grossly under-represented.

The AFI 10 Top 10 should have been a counterweight to this imbalance, but that possibility was immediately destroyed by the absence of Horror from the genres under consideration (leaving room for such dubious classifications as Sports and Courtroom Drama, which could have been squeezed into other, established genres). Now that we can see the nominees, the list suggests that the 10 Top 10 has the potential to be an absurd debacle, with a handful of worth title surrounded by movies of meagre merit if not outright awfulness.

Some of the choices are so dubious that one suspects the voters had not seen the films – at least not recently – but were relying on descriptions in film history books or vague memories of half-remembered childhood viewings. Read on, and we will give you a rundown…

NOTE: Cinefantastique favorites are designated with a asterisk. 

Science Fiction:

  • A.I ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (2001). A drear, lifeless film from perennial AFI fave Steven Spielberg. The film never explains why a distraught mother would want a robot child that would never grow up.
  • *ALIEN(1979). One of the all time greats. More horror than science-fiction, but you take what you can get with these AFI lists.
  • *ALTERED STATES (1980). A fascinating film, full of astounding special effects, that mixes science-fiction with an almost mystical sense of wonder, a la 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
  • THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN (1971). A tense thriller about a fight to put down an alien virus. Nicely done but not necessarily an all-time masterpiece.
  • BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985). Fun but frivolous, this should probably be in the Comedy category.
  • THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS(1953). This is the best science-fiction effort from stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen. A nice, moody effort, it holds up decades later, but it has been upstaged by its unofficial Japanese remake GODZILLA (1954).
  • *BLADE RUNNER (1982). Dismissed in its own time, this film has built a formidable – and well-deserve relationship – during the decades that followed.
  • *CHILDREN OF MEN (2006). A brilliant example of cinema using its full potential.
  • *A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). The scathing satire of Stanley Kubrick’s nightmarish vision of a fascist future retains its knife-sharp edge decades later.
  • CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). Steven Spielberg’s feel-good UFO opus is enjoyable but over-rated, with an uneven pace and vague plot points.
  • COCOON (1985). More feel-good fantasy disguised as science fiction.
  • CONTACT (1997). An interesting film, but it builds up to a sappy ending with a trite message (aliens think Earthlings have great potential).
  • *THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL(1951). One of the great films of any genre, a warning to mankind about putting aside nationalistic differences for the good of the planet.
  • DESTINATION MOON(1950). A dull pseudo-documentary, historically important for its serious approach but lacking dramatic interest.
  • E.T. – THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL (1982). More feel-good aliens from Steven Spielberg, this one is even more over-rated than CE3K.
  • ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981). An enjoyable exploitation film with a decent budget. Lots of fun, but one of the ten best sci-if ever?
  • ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004). The AFI hands out a nod to current flavor of the month Charlie Kaufman, whose work has yet to equal the accolades that have greeted it.
  • FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966). A visually impressive trip through the human body, without much in the way of drama or intelligence.
  • *THE FLY(1986). Probably David Cronenberg’s best film, a traditional sci-fi tale turned into a convincing human tragedy.
  • *FORBIDDEN PLANET(1956). Despite some dated cornball comic relief, this is one of the best and most imaginative sci-fi films from the ’50s.
  • *FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Great but not really science-fiction, except that it has a “mad scientist” in it. Should have been in the Horror category, but…
  • *THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957). An amazing story, brilliantly realized on celluloid.
  • INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996). Stuff blows up real good, but is that enough to qualify as one of the best?
  • *INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956). A masterpiece of ’50s paranoia.
  • *THE INVISIBLE MAN(1933). Like FRANKENSTEIN, this is a classic Universal Gothic horror film that earns inclusion in the sci-fi genre by virtue of its Mad Scientist.
  • IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953). An enjoyable artifact from the era’s brief 3D craze, this film is badly dated and filled with obvious special effects flaws (like the wire suspending the meteor that shoots out at the audience). Definitely not a contender in this category, except for nostalgic value.
  • *JURASSIC PARK(1993). Widely dismissed as an empty special effects show, this film deserves recognition for its convincing computer-generated depiction of dinosaurs, brought to life with awesome clarity and edge-of-your seat suspense.
  • MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (1985). Hard to imagine what this is doing here. ROAD WARRIOR is the best of the MAD MAX movies.
  • *THE MATRIX (1999). The best virtual reality movie ever made.
  • MEN IN BLACK(1997). This tongue-in-cheek sci-fi adventure tale is a lot of fun, but not all its cracked up to be.
  • MINORITY REPORT(2002). Another overdone sci-fi tale from Steven Spielberg, in which the run-and-jump story pushes aside what could have been some interesting ideas.
  • *PLANET OF THE APES (1968). A great idea pulled off with conviction.
  • *REPO MAN(1984). More of a cult comedy with a sci-fi MacGuffin, this is still a great movie.
  • *ROBOCOP (1987). Can’t argue with this one.
  • ROLLERBALL (1975). A cult favorite, this one is rather boring except when the titular game is being played.
  • SILENT RUNNING (1972). Has its heart in the right place, and the robots are cute, but really…
  • SOYLENT GREEN(1973). Impressive in its day, but once you know that “Soylent Green is [....]” you don’t necessarily need to see it again.
  • STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982). The Trekkie’s favorite film, but THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY was probably the best TREK feature.
  • *STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE (1977). Is it sci-fi or fantasy? Either way, this ranks among the great crowd-pleasers ever made.
  • STARMAN (1984). Hard to imagine what this is doing in the list. John Carpenter tries to channel Steven Spielberg, with Jeff Bridges filling in for E.T.
  • THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975). A nice idea bogged down in some dull storytelling. Once you know the surprise ending, this is not a film you ever need to revisit.
  • *TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY(1991). $100-million worth of high-class action film-making. What more do you want?
  • *THEM! (1954). A true classic of the giant monster movie sub-genre, this film features solid storytelling and a wonderfully eerie sense of menace, particularly in the early scenes.
  • *THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD(1951). Another undisputed classic, this archetypal alien-invasion film features a wonderfully convincing face-off between a monster and the military in an isolated post near the North Pole.
  • THE TIME MACHINE (1960). Colorful and entertaining, but no match for producer George Pal’s earlier THE WAR OF THE WORLDS.
  • TOTAL RECALL (1990). Impossible to fathom why this would be on the list but not the original TERMINATOR.
  • TRON(1982). A silly, unconvincing film, historically noteworth only for its early use of computer animation. Its inclusion here is an embarassment.
  • *2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Cinefantastique founder Frederick S. Clarke’s favorite science-fiction film, this is an amazing cinematic achievement that practically reinvents storytelling structure in its tale of human evolution and mankind’s quest into outer space.
  • *THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). Over 50 years old, this is still better than INDEPENDENCE DAY.
  • WESTWORLD (1973). A memorably enjoyable romp, this is a good popcorn movie but not much more.


  • *BABE (1995). A delight.
  • BATMAN(1989). Tim Burton proves he is no action director; this is far from his best work.
  • BEETLEJUICE (1988). The kind of film wherein the good parts almost sustain you past the lulls.
  • BEING JOHN MALKOVICH (1999). An overrated emperor with no clothes, filled with characters who are not only unlikable but – far worse – uninteresting.
  • BIG (1988). A sentimental favorite that is actually rather cornball.
  • BRAZIL (1985). Terry Gilliam’s fantasy film is an impressive achievement, but its reputation is probably based at least as much as his struggle with the studio as on the quality of the film.
  • BRIGADOON (1954). Who are we to argue with the inclusion of this classic?
  • THE CANTERVILLE GHOST (1944). See above.
  • THE CHRONCILES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (2005). Glossy and slick but not particularly imaginative, this is a long way from deserving consideration beside something like WIZARD OF OZ.
  • CLASH OF THE TITANS(1981). This is not the best special effects showcase from stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, but it does have the biggest budget and the most stars.
  • CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). An unintentionally funny attempt to take Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery hero seriously. One suspects AFI voters must have been channeling their inner 14-year-old boy when voting for this one.
  • A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT (1949). Another acknowledge classic that we dare not contest.
  • THE DARK CRYSTAL (1982). Some great fantasy characters courtesy of Jim Henson’s Muppet Shop, but this enjoyable film hardly ranks among the best.
  • THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941). Yet another established classic.
  • *EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990). One of Tim Burton’s best films, magical and enchanting.
  • FIELD OF DREAMS (1989). More of a drama than a fantasy, but wonderful nonetheless.
  • GHOST(1990). A nice combination of different elements (comedy, romance, mystery, supernatural), this is a real crowd-pleaser but not necessarily a masterpiece.
  • *THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947). The kind of film that raises the grading curve, reminding you that other titles on the list may be good – but not good enough to stand beside this one.
  • GROUNDHOG DAY (1993). A charming romantic-comedy built around a fantasy premise: Bill Murray re-lives the same day over and over.
  • HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (2004). The best of the Potter films, but that is not saying much.
  • *HARVEY(1950). This is more of a comedy about a man with a delusion, but the closing sight gag justifies inclusion in the fantasy category, and the quality of the film cannot be denied.
  • *HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (1941). A classic film with an almost indefinable sense of magic; like GHOST AND MRS MUIR, this is one that sets a standard few others on this list can match.
  • I MARRIED A WITCH (1942). It’s funny, but is it great?
  • IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). A charming classic that is probably a bit over-rated; there is something almost grim about the way the film celebrates the hero’s life, which consists of throwing away his dreams to help the losers in his small town.
  • *JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963). Probably Ray Harryhausen’s best fantasy film.
  • *KING KONG (1933). Absolutely the best monster movie ever.
  • LABYRINTH (1986). More Muppets but with a muddled story. A disappointment that should not be on the list.
  • *THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (2001). The first and best of the RINGS trilogy.
  • LOST HORIZON(1937). One of those Hollywood classics you cannot argue with.
  • THE LOST WORLD (1925). Historically important for its use of stop-motion to render dinosaurs in a feature-length movie, this silent film is, unfortunately, slow-moving and dull until it reaches the titular isolated plateau where the prehistoric beasts dwell.
  • MARY POPPINS (1964). A delightful Disney fantasy filled with amazing visual treats, this film is marred by an extended animated fantasy sequence that does little to advance the story but does offer the studio animators a chance to strut their stuff.
  • THE MASK(1994). Sure, Jim Carrey is a load of laughs here, but let’s not get carried away.
  • MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947). Technically, this is not a fantasy (it’s about an old man who thinks he’s Santa Claus), but it’s so wonderful that we don’t want to complain.
  • MR PEABODY AND THE MERMAID (1948). This is also not a fantasy. The mermaid is a delusion on the part of Mr. Peabody, who is undergoing a mid-life crisis. Intermittently amusing but ultimately disappointing, this should not have made the list.
  • PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED(1986). A lesser film from Francis Ford Coppola, kind of like BACK TO THE FUTURE but without the excitement; its point, if any, is elusive.
  • *PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003). So good that you can forgive it for the two awful sequels – and that’s really saying something.
  • PLEASANTVILLE (1998). Ridiculously overrated film telling us (stop the presses!) that old TV sitcoms presented an old-fashioned image of family life.
  • PORTRAIT OF JENNIE (1948). A nice romantic fantasy, with more emphasis on the human emotions than the genre element, which is mostly a plot device.
  • THE PRINCESS BRIDE(1987). More of a storybook tale than an outright fantasy (no magic or wizards here), this is too good to complain about.
  • THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985). This Woody Allen movie has a great premise (a movie character steps off the screen into reel life), but it is far from his best work.
  • THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD(1958). A delightful adventure, filled with Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters, but Harryhausen topped this with JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS.
  • SPIDER-MAN 2 (2004). Absolutely incomprehensible why the AFI would select this over the first SPIDER-MAN. The means by which Peter Parker loses his superpowers is handled with unforgivable neglect.
  • SPLASH (1984). A romantic comedy about a mermaid, this is sweet but sappy.
  • SUPERMAN(1978). Not quite perfect (the jokiness goes too far at times), this is nevertheless a wonderful epic approach to the Man of Steel – the best of his big screen outings.
  • THE THIEF OF BADGAD (1924). Hard to imagine why the AFI would select this over the sound remake.
  • TOPPER (1937). An entertaining comedy about two ghost who must do a good deed before moving on from Earth, this bogs down midway through; it may be one of the first films in which the special effects upstage the story, paving the way for the CGI excesses of decades later.
  • *WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (1988). An amazing combo of live-action and animation, served up as a comedy-mystery thriller period piece. It can seem a little overdone, but it is wonderful.
  • WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY(1971). An interesting musical interpretation of the Roald Dahl novel, but considering it as one of the ten best ever seems a little generous.
  • THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). You absolutely cannot argue with this one.

Having gone through these lists, the fact that stands out most remarkably is th inclusion of so many Ray Harryhausen titles. Harryhausen’s films were always loved by fans for their wonderful effects work, but they tended to be somewhat dismissed because the scripts were often structured to showcase his stop-motion monsters, sometimes at the expense of the story. Yet despite this critical carping, Harryhausen landed four films among the nominees in the two lists: BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS; CLASH OF THE TITANS; JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Not bad at all.

NOTE: If you are wondering why there are no foreign language titles in either list, keep in mind that this is the American Film Institute, so they limit their selections to American titles. Sometimes the definition is somewhat stretched: for example, FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING was filmed overseas by an New Zealand director with an English cast, but it qualifies as “American” because of the production company, New Line Cinema.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

One Response to “ AFI Nominees: The best sci-fi and fantasy films? ”

  1. [...] on 01 Mar 2008 at 03:51 pm | Tagged as: Interviews, Movies Last month, we ran a list of the American Film Institute’s nominees for the best Fantasy and Science-Fiction Films of all time. Many readers were angry over the exclusion of horror from the genres under consideration; some [...]

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