Honestly, 2023 was the worst year for sci-fi in a long time. Even the marquee sci-fi film of the year from an acclaimed director, The Creator, wasn’t the instant classic we’d hoped for. Usually, quirky indies bear the weight of the year (that was certainly the case for sci-fi films in 2022), but even many of the smaller sci-fi movies of 2023 weren’t too great. We’ve tried to collect the best of the year, but frankly, some of the sci-fi films presented here are just very good movies, not masterpieces — except for some excellent comedies with sci-fi premises.
Fortunately, fantasy films stepped up and got the job done. This may be due to the fact that it’s kind of difficult to nail down just what fantasy is. A bit of fantastic magic was sprinkled over a variety of films within other genres, so in separating best-of lists by genre, we’ve decided to focus on the films that are certifiable fantasies and not include fantastical movies that predominantly belong in other categories. Beau Is Afraid is more of a horror-comedy; All of Us Strangers is more of a romance; Barbie is more of a comedy; Birth/Rebirth is more of a horror film; Polaris is an action thriller.
Additionally, we’ve ruled out all superhero flicks from 2023, which have their own list. We’ve also ruled out 2023’s best animated films, most of which are fantasies anyway (Nimona, The Boy and the Heron, Wish, The Canterville Ghost). All that being said, here’s our collection of the best science-fiction and fantasy movies of 2023, based on their conceptual ingenuity, visual and aesthetic brilliance, memorable characters, and emotional effect.
23 The Pod Generation
The Pod Generation is a quirky sci-fi comedy with a lot of insight into relationships, technology, and a common dichotomy many women may face in life — have a career, or have a child? The film follows Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in a high-tech future where the two decide to have a child using an artificial, egg-like womb. Rachel is able to pursue her demanding career while the baby grows in the polished egg, something which quietly creeps Alvy out. He grows real plants in his atrium, a stark contrast from the techno-womb.
Deep Questions and Quiet Humor
Director Sophie Barthes poses a lot of provocative questions in The Pod Generation, milking the premise for everything it has. As she said in our interview, “Science fiction is the best genre to explore philosophical ideas in a playful way without lecturing the audience. You get to stretch your muscles as a filmmaker and writer, explore strange ideas.” As such, the film explores surrogacy, gender roles, the definition of motherhood, and what we sacrifice for technological convenience. Rent or buy on digital platforms like Prime Video, Vudu, YouTube, and so on.
22 Relax, I’m from the Future
A lackadaisical comedy that captures the kind, goofy spirit of star Rhys Darby, Relax, I’m from the Future follows a very unprofessional time traveler who heads to the past and is pursued by a kind of time officer seeking to prevent the consequences of his actions. He stumbles upon a kind but bitter leftist activist named Holly (Gabrielle Graham), who takes him in. Of course, he uses his foreknowledge and powers to make some easy money.
A Charming Film About Hope
Time travel stories often center around the common human desire to change the past and create a better future. There’s a lot of hope in that, which is exactly what Holly needs. She’s representative of so many people who are disillusioned with politics and our global situation; “It feels like way too much work to do something that actually matters,” she says. The film explores this sense of resignation and nihilism, and how to combat that and actually create meaning in the world. It’s a loose, wacky little movie that’s hardly as heavy as its themes. Rent or buy on digital platforms like YouTube, Prime Video, and Apple TV. You can go behind the scenes of the film in our video below:
Exclusive: Rhys Darby Discusses His Optimistic Vibe and Love of Whimsy with Relax, I’m from the Future
The Our Flag Means Death star speaks to MovieWeb about his fun sci-fi comedy, Relax, I’m from the Future.
21 The Creator
- Release Date
- September 29, 2023
- 2hr 13min
Gareth Edwards is the director of 2010’s marvelous Monsters and the very good remake of Godzilla that kickstarted the MonsterVerse in 2014; with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story he proved that he could take a big budget and make a massive box office success that’s also critically acclaimed. So you would think that giving him free rein with $80 million would result in one of the best films of the year. Unfortunately, The Creator is not that, but it is a good sci-fi film. Taking a more unique approach to sentient artifical intelligence than other films, The Creator explores a world caught up in a war over AI, and one U.S. Army sergeant who gets stuck in the middle of it.
A Visually Superb and Hopeful Study of ‘The Other’
Despite The Creator‘s countless tropes, it is a true epic with excellent visual effects, some of the year’s best. The stunning CGI action sequences and the imaginative design of the AI simulants make the film stand out, as does its surprising optimism about artificial intelligence, which becomes an allegory for any ‘other’ in society. As Gareth Edwards told us, “A lot of science fiction is allegorical. It’s not so literal. It was really about people who are different, and how we always sort of fear them and treat them with suspicion, and ultimately, they become the enemy.” Stream on Hulu and rent or buy on any digital platform. You can check out a clip from the film below:
20 The Mountain
Thomas Salvador’s The Mountain is a mysterious movie that slipped by the radar of many cinephiles and critics this year, which is unfortunate because it’s very beautiful and extremely strange. The film follows a man who suddenly quits his job and drops out of life to camp out in the snowy Alps near a ski lodge. He develops a relationship with a chef there, but feels compelled to wander deeper and deeper into the mountains, eventually discovering something very bizarre lurking beneath the icy surface.
A Glowing Romantic Fantasy
There’s already an inherent fantasy in films about people who abandon their mundane lives to do something very different, but The Mountain goes further by including a mysterious and mostly unexplained glowing substance hidden in the mountains that can withstand a range of allegorical interpretations. The scenes in which our protagonist explores this fantastic secret in the Alps are hauntingly beautiful, as is the romance and incredible visuals of the film. Stream on Strand Releasing and through Prime Video, and rent or buy on digital platforms.
- Release Date
- November 3, 2023
- Christos Nikou
- 1hr 53min
Another romantic film within the confines of a sci-fi narrative, Fingernails is another polished and interesting Apple TV film with big-name actors that didn’t get much attention. The film is set in a near-future where a technology has been developed to test the veracity of love; couples can take the test and measure how much they love each other and how well the relationship will work. Jessie Buckley continues her streak of remarkable performances as Anna, a woman who has passed the test with her boyfriend but still experiences doubts. She secretly takes a job at the Love Institute to learn more about the technology, and falls for her co-worker, Amir (Riz Ahmed).
A Fleshed-Out Thought Experiment
Essentially, Fingernails is a thought experiment turned into a film; like most science-fiction, it takes a conceptual premise and fleshes it out. In this case, it becomes a well-built world where the effects and consequences of the concept are felt. That helps make Fingernails a more realistic film, and it’s further grounded by the excellent performances from Buckley, Ahmed, Annie Murphy, Luke Wilson, and an especially soulful and entrancing Jeremy Allen White. The excellent cast dynamics keep us invested in the romance and the technology, and the film has us questioning our own definitions of love. Stream on Apple TV.
18 The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future
Magical realism is a wonderful fantasy subgenre that takes grounded soicopolitical situations like war and poverty and shines a new light on them through the lens of fantasy; think The Spirit of the Beehive and Pan’s Labyrinth. The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future is a worthy successor to the style, combining enigmatic and dreamy fantasy with a very naturalistic story of a poor rural family missing their matriarch.
A Beautiful Dream
The film follows an environmentally ravished area in Chile where the Cruces River has been seriously polluted. Amid the many dead fish floating on the surface, a woman rises from the river after being dead for years. She returns home to her family as an ethereal presence which disturbs the artificial technologies in this natural environment.
Mía Maestro is perfectly in tune with the tone of the film, giving a great performance as the resurrected mother. It’s all very dreamy and beautiful, not just visually but also emotionally. The film doesn’t explain everything, and instead uses an emotional narrative to drive the plot rather than a more literal storyline, which works wonderfully if you have the patience for it. It’s a special film for dreamers. Rent or buy on digital platforms like Prime Video, YouTube, and Apple TV.
17 Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves
One of the most surprisingly, well, good films of the year, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is an anomaly — the game adaptation was critically acclaimed but a box office disappointment, something which usually goes the other way around. It’s an extremely fun fantasy adventure that’s relentless in its pacing but edited in a cogent and clear way so that even D&D haters can understand what’s going on, from prison escapes and gladiatorial games to zombie armies and fat dragons.
A Great Cast Puts Fun Back in Adventure
An endlessly charismatic Chris Pine leads the way in Honor Among Thieves, but is supported by an all-in supporting cast including Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, Bradley Cooper, and Hugh Grant. Everyone is committed to bringing humor and joy to this elaborately built world so that the film is more about characters than plot, a very wise choice that makes this one of the most purely fun mainstream adventure fantasies in a decade. Stream on MGM+, Paramount+, and Prime Video, and rent or buy on other digital platforms.
- Release Date
- March 12, 2023
- Colin West
- 1hr 41min
Comedian Jim Gaffigan delivers a tremendous performance in the sci-fi dramedy, Linoleum. The film follows an everyday man who never really realized his dreams despite having a good, normal life. He’s the host of a science show for children and has a wife, daughter, and good home, but when a rocket crashes in the backyard of that home, the man decides to pursue his childhood dream of building a rocket and going to space, creating a different meaning for his life.
Jim Gaffigan’s Search for Meaning
Gaffigan and co-star Rhea Seehorn are great in Linoleum, creating a realistic marriage that is suffering from a midlife slump. Filmmaker Colin West throws a lot of curveballs in the film, from doppelgängers and conspiracies to a heartbreaking twist, but ultimately the film is grounded by the desperate search for meaning we all experience. Stream on Hulu and rent or buy on digital platforms.
15 Smoking Causes Coughing
If you’re familiar with filmmaker Quentin Dupieux (aka Mr. Oizo), you know what to expect from one of his films — absurdity, digressions, and meta deconstructions of pop culture and genres. Smoking Causes Coughing is his wacky take on superhero films and Japanese tokusatsu titles, following a Power Rangers-type superhero group called Tobacco Force as they’re forced to go on a communal team-building retreat. It’s about as nuts as you’d expect.
Scatterbrained, Bonkers, and Brilliant
A film that is defined as much by its detours and digressions than its actual plot, Smoking Causes Coughing is a hilariously droll work of true surrealism that dares you to interpret it. Whichever way you spin it, though, the colorful imagery, deadpan acting, and retro sci-fi technology is eccentrically funky and enjoyable. From melancholic fish recounting tragic tales to oversexed rats barking orders through green goo, the movie is an unforgettable sci-fi comedy filled with quirks. Stream on Hulu and rent or buy on digital platforms.
14 Moon Garden
A fantasy film that dives into real horror like a mixture of Legend and Coraline, Ryan Stevens Harris’ dark indie Moon Garden is woefully underrated. Like the great fantasy films Tideland and The Fall, Moon Garden follows a child who retreats into the epic stories of her mind. In this case, she’s comatose, which is probably why her dream world is more disturbing than most other films.
A Demonic Post-Industrial Nightmare
The visual landscape of Moon Garden is terrifying and incredibly constructed considering the relatively small budget. The girl is trapped in a steampunk forest hell with strange lighting and disturbing creatures, including a demonic force that wants to eat her tears. Harris’ filmmaking ingenuity, Michael Deragon’s menacing score, and Wolfgang Meyer’s lo-fi cinematography all combine to create a nightmare that transcends narrative. Rent or buy on digital platforms like YouTube, Apple TV, and more.
- Release Date
- December 15, 2023
- Paul King
A much better film than most people expected, Wonka takes the Roald Dahl story as inspiration to create a big, broad prequel with huge musical numbers. Timothée Chalamet gives one of his best performances as the heartfelt Willy Wonka, who travels to a fabled European city and ends up becoming an indentured servant. He grandly plans to escape and become the candy king and spread delicious cheer, but the chocolate cartel will thwart him every step of the way.
A Genuinely Sincere Chocolatier from Paul King
Paul King is one of the few directors today who can create authentically sincere and uplifting films without descending into cheesy clichés or saccharine stupidity. He mastered this with the Paddington films, and continues to prove his skill with Wonka, while also creating a delightfully fleshed out world. There’s also a surprisingly anti-authoritarian streak throughout the film, with Wonka fighting against powerful institutions like the police, the church, and the corporate elite in order to make a positive change in the world. To have all that in a big mainstream film is a Christmas miracle. In theaters now.
12 No One Will Save You
A tense sci-fi thriller that combines home invasion with alien invasion, No One Will Save You is a breathless Hulu original film that never lets up. Kaitlyn Dever is a one-person force of nature in the film, essentially its only real star; it’s truly incredible to consider how honest her performance is given the fact that she’s so often interacting with CGI effects. She plays a young woman ostracized for her community after a tragedy, and when aliens visit the town, she fights to stay alive without any help.
A Woman Fights to Survive Aliens and Herself
For what was likely a considerably small budget, the effects and action sequences in No One Will Save You are exceptional. Dever’s character is a guilt-ridden lonely woman, obsessed with something horrible she did in the past, and through her fight for survival she ostensibly finds a way to cathartically deal with that trauma and maybe forgive herself. In the process, the film is darkly thrilling, and ends with a tremendously haunting ending. Stream on Hulu.
11 The Gravity
No, it’s not Sandra Bullock in space 10 years later. The Gravity is a French film that follows two brothers in an urban Parisian neighborhood who reunite with an old friend as the planets strangely align and disrupt the natural order of the planet. Meanwhile, the three friends get mixed up with an angry gang and prepare for war.
A Wild Ride with an Epic Finale
The Gravity is an extremely stylish and culturally specific slice of life film with epic genre elements, and feels a lot like the somewhat small UK sci-fi movie, Attack the Block. It offers a similar look into the lives of people in the margins and gives them the chance to be heroes, while using every cent of its small budget wisely to create excellent visuals. The last half an hour of The Gravity, with its kickass fight scenes and natural disasters, is the kind of fist-pumping entertainment that will leave you applauding. Rent or buy on digital platforms like YouTube, Vudu, and Prime Video.
From drama to comedy and everything in between, the world of ‘foreign film’ has produced the most amazing movies of 2023.
10 The Mill
While it may not be the most stylish film of the year, The Mill is incredibly underrated; this is possibly the greatest film about capitalism in recent memory. That’s partly because it has a simple and familiar plot as an entry point — a man wakes up in a strange environment without knowing how he got there. He works for a futuristic behemoth of a corporation (like if Google and Amazon merged) which apparently sends underperforming employees to the titular Mill, where they perform a meaningless but grueling task in competition with other ’employees.’
Lil Rel Howery Leads a Brilliant Allegory
Lil Rel Howery had an excellent year, from his great guest role on Poker Face to playing Santa in Dashing Through the Snow. He’s at his best in The Mill, essentially a one-man show for more than an hour. He struggles to make the company happy and escape, but slowly reaches the disturbing realization that performing well for a corporation only means that they know you’re a workhorse and can do more. It’s a terrifying film because it’s so realistic. Stream on Hulu.
9 Infinity Pool
- Release Date
- January 27, 2023
- 1hr 57min
Brandon Cronenberg’s disturbing and extreme meditation on privilege, emasculation, and tourism is a cold, sick nightmare with some of the year’s most unforgettable scenes. Infinity Pool follows a couple on vacation in a strange country; they’re ordered not to go beyond the gates of their fancy resort. But when they befriend a quirky couple, they engage in some dark and dangerous games for which there are no consequences.
The Rich Are No Longer Culpable
The country in the film has extremely strict laws and a harsh prison system, but because it’s such a beautiful place, they’ve developed a horrifying cloning technology. Rich tourists can do whatever they want and fulfill their sickest fantasies, and then pay a hefty sum to create a double to take the punishment for them. The result is a sci-fi horror about the meaninglessness of ethics, law, and culpability when ruthless economic systems allow exorbitant privilege. It’s also a downright nasty and weird body horror film. Stream on Hulu and rent or buy on digital platforms.
8 Mami Wata
Mami Wata comes from the Republic of Benin in West Africa and gorgeously translates culturally specific folklore into cinematic fantasy. The patient slow-burn is a mesmerizing black-and-white film about a matriarchy in a state of unrest, with its citizens questioning the authority of the priestess who oversees the land. When a mysterious man washes up on their shore, the political situation is only exacerbated. The Sundance hit is one of the ghostly movies of the year.
A Haunting Force Reaching Out from the Past
There’s something deeply unsettling and melancholic about Mami Wata, and not just because of the stunning cinematography from Lílis Soares. The film is a tone poem of sorts about an old way of life falling apart — the priestess who can supposedly hear and interpret the will of the gods is being questions and even her own family begins to wonder about their way of life. Ultimately, this is a minimalist political thriller deconstructed and retold as a kind of ancient myth, and it’s impossible to look away. Not yet on streaming, but considering it’s Nigeria’s submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film this year, one imagines it will become available.
7 Dream Scenario
- Release Date
- November 10, 2023
- Kristoffer Borgli
- 1hr 40min
A trippy film that tackles a lot of cultural themes, Dream Scenario is arguably more misunderstood than most films this year, other than the Barbenheimer pair. The fantasy comedy stars Nicolas Cage as an unassuming college professor who suddenly starts turning up in people’s dreams. There’s a kind of celebrity which surrounds him as more and more people collectively dream about the same person, leading to major comical complications in this man’s life.
Cancel Culture and Dreams of Memes
In its own allegorical way, Dream Scenario poses questions about cancel culture and the difference between fictional art (dreams) and real people (Cage’s character). If the professor does something horrible to you in your dream, how do you still feel about him? Whose responsibility is it? The film also explores meme culture and how images get decontextualized in the cultural zeitgeist and change according to different perspectives, which is fitting for a film that could be interpreted in many ways. The themes of Dream Scenario are fascinating, the filmmaking is vivid and colorful, and Cage is having a blast in this unique comedy. Rent or buy on digital platforms like Apple TV, YouTube, and Google Play.
An extraordinarily inventive found footage film, LOLA blurs the lines between pretty much every genre — it’s a funny sci-fi film about war and romance with a lot of thrills. The movie chronicles the home video recordings of two brilliant orphaned sisters in England at the beginning of World War II who have created a time machine of sorts. It can’t transport people through time, but it can transport electromagnetic waves. They use the device to help the military avoid the worst tragedies the British experienced at the hands of the Germans.
Delirious and Serious
LOLA becomes pure cinema through its kaleidoscopic editing and realistic camerawork (with director Andrew Legge using cameras from the 1930s and 1940s like the Bolex and the Newman Sinclair, solely with 16mm and 35mm film). Combined with both archival and artificial newsreels, the film feels like a document from the 1940s in an alternate reality, and actors Emma Appleton and Stefanie Martini sell it all the way as the charming sisters, even to the surprisingly serious end. Stream for free on Tubi and rent or buy on digital platforms.
With star-studded casts led by talented directors, these comedies kept audiences laughing all throughout 2023.
5 They Cloned Tyrone
- Release Date
- July 21, 2023
- Juel Taylor
- 2hr 2min
They Cloned Tyrone didn’t receive nearly as much acclaim as it deserved when it came out, possibly because the SAG-AFTRA strike began right after the film premiered on Netflix, sucking up a lot of attention in mid-to-late July and beyond. That’s a shame though, because the film is such an inventive and distinct combination of retro sci-fi and gut-busting humor with some real Blaxploitation Power. John Boyega, Jamie Foxx, and Teyonah Parris are perfect as a drug dealer, a drug-using pimp, and one of his sex workers, respectively.
The Great Replacement of Tyrone
Director Juel Taylor’s clever film takes the absurd racist conspiracy of ‘The Great Replacement Theory’ and uses it to fuel a hilarious satirical narrative about how society views Black people and how sadly expendable people of color and in poverty are. The madcap antics of the film and its immediate cult classic nature make it one of the best comedy films of 2023. Stream on Netflix. Check out our interview with John Boyega and Teyonah Parris below:
4 Once Within a Time
The great filmmaker Godfrey Reggio returns two decades after the conclusion of his legendary Qatsi trilogy. Cinephiles will already be familiar with his legendary debut, Koyaanisqatsi, and its expansive follow-ups, Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. Those wordless films used innovative camerawork and iconic Philip Glass scores to create mesmerizing meditations on global culture and what we’re collectively doing to the planet. With Once Within a Time, Reggio works with Naqoyqatsi‘s editor, Jon Kane, to direct a new experimental masterpiece with a Philip Glass score.
The Future Is Weird
Once Within a Time arguably has more of a narrative than any other Reggio film, though that’s obviously not saying much. Instead, it’s a stunning visual marvel that will make you ask, “How the hell did they do that?” Using a collage-style stop-motion animation, likely with rotoscoping and some digital effects, the filmmakers paint a picture of a techno-apocalypse in which our technology and addiction to it leads to our ruination, leaving a small generation of new children to create a better world. Not currently streaming, but you can check out the trailer below and watch this space for more information about its wider release:
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