Science fiction is a genre dedicated to taking risks and breaking new ground, and with filmmaking technology more advanced than it's been in the history of moviemaking, sci-fi films are getting bigger and more impressive every year. Now, that doesn't always mean the films are good, but crazier tech does mean that directors and production designers can pretty much get as buck-wild as they want. We saw some truly mind-blowing stuff in 2018, from Annihilation to The Endless to Tom Hardy's Venom, but 2019 managed to push the genre forward to the edge of the known universe.
Release date: January 25 Director: Steven Knight Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Diane Lane Why it's great: Okay, so, let's get one thing out of the way: Serenity is not good. It's not even kind of good. It's pretty bad! And it might get me a one-way ticket to jail if my editor sees I've snuck it onto this list. But, after seeing it, I guarantee you, you will think about it for at least a full week afterwards, if not more. If the insane twist -- and I mean insane twist -- hasn't been spoiled for you yet, please, please, do yourself a favor and fire up the ol' TV, rent this movie from your favorite streaming service, and settle in for a long night of second guessing what it means to live in this reality. Where to watch it: For rent on YouTube, Amazon, etc.
16. The Wandering Earth
Release date: February 8, 2019 Director: Frant Gwo Cast: Qu Chuxiao, Ng Man-tat, Guangjie Li, Angel Zhao Why it's great: The Wandering Earth's premise introduces a future Earth that has been converted into a planet-sized spaceship by installing enormous rocket engines onto one hemisphere in order to drive it away from a dying sun that has become fatally cold… and then spends the entire film following a bunch of people in a truck. To American audiences, it's more of a curiosity than a vital film of 2019 -- it didn't do so hot here, but it's the highest-grossing Chinese film ever made. If that sounds interesting to you, Netflix snatched it up almost immediately after it hit theaters, so it's extra easy to find and watch. Where to watch it: Netflix
Release date: March 8 Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Annette Bening, Reggie the cat Why it's great: Dunno if you've heard, but Captain Marvel is the very first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie led by a female superhero. Finally! Sandwiched in between two universe-altering Avengers movies (we're sweating just thinking about Endgame), Captain Marvel has the unenviable task of introducing a key player a little more than a month away from the conclusion of the series' biggest and most traumatic arc, and making us fall in love with her. And boy, does it succeed. Brie Larson is a sharp, aspirational female protagonist who's as compassionate for others as she is ready to punch them with her laser fists if they stand in her way. Thanos had better watch out. Where to watch it: Disney+
Release date: April 26 Directors: Joe and Anthony Russo Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johanssen Why it's great: It's been more than a decade since Jon Favreau's Iron Man made good on Marvel's gamble and ignited one of the biggest, most all-consuming multimedia franchises ever made. Endgame, with its explosive battle sequences, heart-wrenching dialogue, and genuinely thrilling surprises is a fitting coda to this series, as well as a fond farewell to the journeys we've taken with all of its many, many characters. Where to watch it: Disney+
Release date: February 13 Director: Christopher Landon Cast: Jessica Rothe, Suraj Sharma, Israel Broussard Why it's great: The danger with explain-y sequels to movies that wrapped up quite nicely without too much explanation is that the sequel, just by existing in the first place, will sour all the meaningful messages you got in the first movie by trying too hard to expand the universe. The great thing about Happy Death Day 2U, the sequel to 2017's surprisingly good Groundhog Day-inspired Happy Death Day, is that it offers just enough new explanation for what's going on without erasing all the good stuff from the first movie. Time travel becomes parallel universes, and yet the central message -- our hero must learn to accept the life she's living instead of searching for a better one -- still contains the soul of the original. Where to watch it: HBO Go and HBO Now
12. Fast Color
Release date: April 19 Director: Julia Hart Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, David Strathairn Why it's great: With all the Avengers and Transformers and kaiju out there, it's tough for the more understated sci-fis to get their due. Fast Color, which stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a woman on the run from the law who has to deal with managing her unique set of terrifying, destructive superpowers, takes the slow route, crafting a meandering road movie out of a woman's search for her identity and for a way to live with her traumatic past. It all takes place in a not-so-far future in which water is rationed by the jug. Even the cop cars are layered with a despondent film of dust. Where to watch it: Hulu
Release date: February 14 Director: Robert Rodriguez Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali Why it's great: We've seen a lot of really, really bad live-action anime adaptations in the past few years, so to watch one that embraces the full scope of its source material while getting as weird and fun as it wants to be is such a joy. Alita: Battle Angel was originally a James Cameron joint more than 10 years ago before he got distracted by Avatar, but the sheer scope of the movie's stunning visuals prove that it was worth the wait. The phrase "hunter warrior" is said a ton of times. There are robot dogs. It's perfect. Where to watch it: For rent on Amazon, YouTube, etc.
10. Little Joe
Release date: December 6 Director: Jessica Hausner Cast: Emily Beecham, Ben Whishaw, Kit Connor Why it's great: We've all seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but not like this. Young, single mother Alice is a bio-engineer at a futuristic greenhouse whose purpose is to research and genetically engineer the perfect plant. She and her team create "Little Joe," a beautiful red flower that, if kept at the right temperature and spoken to and watered regularly, will, in exchange, make its owner happy. She secretly brings one of the flowers home for her son, but soon starts to notice an odd change. Her son still looks and talks and feels like her son, but he's somehow different, like something about him has shifted. Her fellow employees at the lab also start to exhibit strange changes, and Alice grows more and more paranoid, convinced that the plants are altering the people around her in terrifying, insidious ways. Where to watch it: In theaters, limited release
Release date: January 4 Director: Adam Robitel Cast: Deborah Ann Woll (Daredevil), Jogan Miller, Jay Ellis Why it's great: Escape Room was the first pleasant surprise of the year, a fun, tight thriller based on the party game craze that's sweeping the nation. But this time, instead of a fun knight or hacker or pirate theme, the stakes are real: If you die in the escape room, you die in real life. There is a broader and more intricate plot going on here, but, truthfully, it's the rooms themselves that really stand out, from a snowy cabin on an ice river of death to an upside-down billiards bar. Where to watch it: Starz; rent on Amazon, YouTube, etc.
Release date: May 17 Director: Chad Stahelski Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane, Halle Berry, Asia Kate Dillon Why it's great: John Wick is back again… again. After being branded excommunicado for killing a fellow assassin within the hallowed walls of the Continental Hotel, Wick is on the run, his entire arsenal of contacts and hideaways turned against him, hungry for his multimillion dollar bounty. Parabellum takes the world-expansion of Chapter 2 even further, sending Wick on a Bourne-like international chase to evade his would-be killers and pick up a few friends -- and attack dogs -- along the way, before returning him to the rainy, deadly streets of New York City once more. (Don't worry, the dogs in this one are more than fine.) Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, YouTube, etc.
Release date: October 11 Director: Ang Lee Cast: Will Smith, Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong Why it's great:Gemini Man casts Will Smith as two characters: Henry Brogan, the older, wiser former assassin who just wants to spend the rest of his days in a sleepy fishing village, and Junior, the younger clone of Henry who spends the movie trying to hunt him down and kill him after their assassin agency turns against him. It may feel familiar because the two-decades-old script had been bouncing around Hollywood since before one of the original writers, David Benioff, had ever caught a whiff of Game of Thrones, and it still retains that air of confidence and simplicity. It feels like a classic action-adventure movie because, in part, it is -- what makes it new is all the technology that finally managed to catch up with it. Where to watch it: In theaters
Release date: May 17 Directors: Pella Kagerman, Hugo Lilja Cast: Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian Why it's great: If you love existentialist outer space movies that make interstellar travel look like no fun at all, no thank you, then this one is for you. In the same vein as High Life, another masterful bleak space movie that came out earlier this year, Aniara takes place on board a spacefaring vessel whose inhabitants are doomed to live their lives in the void: a spaceship on a routine trip to Mars is suddenly knocked off course, and, unable to correct themselves, its passengers must resign themselves to living within its decks. The movie follows MR (short for Mimaroben), a young woman who mans the Mima, a large room powered by an AI whose task is to mimic the sensation of being back in the green forests of Earth. Where to watch it: Hulu
Release date: May 10 Director: Rob Letterman Cast: Justice Smith, Ryan Reynolds, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy Why it's great: Detective Pikachu was the biggest surprise of the spring, a major blockbuster movie based on a video game that's based on another video game whose main characters are a young boy and a deerstalker-wearing Pokémon that speaks English and solves crimes!! Pikachu is a detective! The movie is not just exciting and gorgeous to look at, it's also a very heartwarming story about kids and their dads with a shocking and hilarious conclusion that will also probably make you cry??? Sure didn't see that one coming! Plus, there's an interrogation scene involving a Mr. Mime that puts to shame nearly every other detective movie interrogation scene ever made. Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, YouTube, etc.
Release date: May 24 Directors: Gabriel Abrantes, Daniel Schmidt Cast: Carloto Cotta, Cleo Tavares, Anabela Moreira, Margarita Moreira Why it's great: The Southland Tales-lite aesthetic of this near-future Portuguese import charmed film festival audiences last year, and now it's finally made its way to a select few theaters in the US. Soccer -- I mean, futebol -- star Diamantino is as handsome as he is lovably dumb: He's the best player in the country, has bedsheets with his own face printed on them, and sees visions of giant fluffy dogs whenever he gets in the zone on the field. This is all in maybe the first 10 minutes of the movie. After that, it becomes a hilarious futuristic thriller, involving everything from cross-dressing lesbian detectives to murderous twins to Brexit to hermaphroditic fish to the European refugee crisis. Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, YouTube, etc.
Release date: January 18 Director: M. Night Shyamalan Cast: Bruce Willis, James McAvoy, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson Why it's great: Love it or hate it, you can't deny that Shyamalan's latest is quite possibly his most ambitious film since his own lowkey superhero origin story Unbreakable. Bringing Bruce Willis' David Dunn for a much-teased showdown with James McAvoy's The Beast from secret Unbreakable sequel Split was a crazy idea on paper, and it's even crazier to watch unfold onscreen. The main thing to know about this movie (and about Shyamalan's opinion of superhero movies in general): It's never the sound and color and fight scenes and laser light shows that matter; it's what superheroes mean to a world who so desperately needs them. Where to watch it: HBO Go and HBO Now
Release date: September 20 Director: James Gray Cast: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland, Ruth Negga Why it's great: Ad Astra is wayyyyyy more of a low-key character study than you might expect on seeing its space opera-esque trailer, but that doesn't mean it's boring. James Gray's saga of an astronaut in search of his missing father while the world is falling apart all around him mixes exciting, immersive action set-pieces with long, meditative sequences set against the vacuous black expanse of the furthest reaches of the solar system, and ends with a hopeful call to arms addressed to all of humanity. Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, YouTube, etc.
Release date: April 12 Director: Claire Denis Cast: Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth, Juliette Binoche, André Benjamin Why it's great: High Life is by no means a feel-good movie. It would be difficult to make a wholesome family film out of a plot involving a bunch of convicts sentenced to life in deep space after their home planet has nearly gone to bits, while their sexy-creepy lady doctor (Binoche) performs reproductive experiments on them with the aid of a "fuck box." But, somehow, a few of the characters in this haunting, sensual, and beautiful Garden of Eden tale -- namely Robert Pattinson and his scene-stealing baby co-star -- manage to find some semblance of love while staring into the interstellar abyss. Where to watch it: Rent on Amazon, YouTube, etc.