Best SF&F Film?

speculative fiction other than books

Best SF&F Film?

Postby DavidTate on Monday, 17 November 2008, 12:26 pm

Since nobody else has started any discussions here...

What are the best SF&F films of all time? When I say "best", now, I mean "best" according to the same criteria Eric uses for rating authors and works at this site. Star Wars(sorry, I refuse to call it "Episode IV: A New Hope") is an amazingly entertaining film -- I saw it 11 times in its initial run -- but it's not a great film the way Casablanca or How to Steal a Millionor Witness is a great film.

I'm not a film expert, and I'm particularly weak on films of the last decade or two. But I'll happily get the ball rolling by throwing out a few nominations. In keeping with Eric's guidelines for the site, I am not including horror films, which is why films like The Changeling (*)and The Terminator(**) aren't eligible.

Let me start by reproducing the Portland Oregonian's purported list of the top 50 SF films of all time, from which I have removed the horror titles. This list was ostensibly compiled by a team of SF writers and film buffs:

Blade Runner (1982)
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Metropolis (1927)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Star Wars (1977)
The Matrix (1999)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Alphaville (1965)
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Brazil (1985)
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)
Solaris (1972)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Testuro: The Iron Man (1988)
Things to Come (1936)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Mad Max (1978)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Back to the Future (1985)
The City of Lost Children (1995)
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Akira (1988)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Farenheit 451 (1966)
Repo Man (1984)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
12 Monkeys (1995)
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Delicatessen (1991)
Fantastic Planet (1971)
The Fly (1986)
Jurassic Park (1992)
Silent Running (1971)
Return of the Jedi (1983)
The Brother From Another Planet (1984)
The Fifth Element (1997)
Dark City (1998)
Pitch Black (2000)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Starship Troopers (1997)

Wow, is that a bad list. Words fail me. There's some real dross there, even from a sheer entertainment point of view. Return of the Jedi??? Ouch. Most of these films are bad by any standard.

On the other hand, there are a couple of gems that I had forgotten. Brother from Another Planet is one; Brazil is another. The other few from the list that I might wish to include in my own nominations are Metropolis, A Clockwork Orange, Bladerunner, and 2001. I haven't seen or read Solaris, so I can't judge.

The Guardian has a top 10 list, too:
1. Blade Runner
2. 2001
3. Star Wars / The Empire Strikes Back (cheat!)
4. Alien (horror)
5. Solaris
6. Terminator / T2 (cheat! and horror)
7. The Day the Earth Stood Still
8. The War of the Worlds (1953)
9. The Matrix
10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Better, but still -- The War of the Worlds? Why not The Blob, as well?

The most glaring omissions, from my point of view, are

1. Dr. Strangelove, or How I Came to Love the Bomb and Stop Worrying. The "doomsday device" makes it SF; the script and acting and direction make it a classic. One of the great films of all time, of any genre.
2. The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension. Probably the best campy SF parody of all time, with the only really fine performance of Peter Weller's career. (Though I'm surprised that RoboCop didn't make the Oregonian's list, given what else is on it.) John Lithgow is perfect as Dr. Emilio Lizardo.
3. Dark Star. John Carpenter's student film project. Very uneven, but the Cartesian dialogue with the smart bomb has earned it immortality.
4. The Truman Show, which I think qualifies as SF.
5. Soylent Green. I agree that it hasn't aged very well, but then neither has Metropolis.

And, of course, these lists ignores fantasy. For fantasy films, finding a credible list is even harder. (Hint: any list that includes either Willow or The Beastmaster must be ignored.) Here are a few nominees that might make the cut, without comment:

The Lord of the Rings
The Princess Bride
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Watership Down
The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen
The Lathe of Heaven (1980 PBS version)
The Seventh Seal
It's a Wonderful Life
Harvey
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
Topper
The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (Wilder, not Depp)
Edward Scissorhands
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Groundhog Day
The Wizard of Oz
Lost Horizon

OK, that has to be enough fodder for controversy. Discuss!


(*) You've probably never seen The Changeling; very few people did. It's a ghost story, starring George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, and Melvyn Douglas. Lots of suspense, no gore to speak of.

(**)Yes, I would classify The Terminator as horror.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby Jeroen on Wednesday, 19 November 2008, 7:25 am

That's a lot to discuss in one topic! Perhaps you should make another topic to discuss why it seems that films lack in quality in comparison to books. I don't have the time to go into that at the moment, unfortunately.

But I have some recommendations for quality sf/f films:

Pan's Labyrinth (Laberinto del fauno, El), 2006

Quoting a reviewer whose comments are in agreement with my own:

A fey, beautiful and dark masterpiece. Set during Franco's mopping up exercise after the Spanish Civil War, Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is a wonderful, dark fairy tale that, in a metaphor for Spain itself, teeters on the edge of nightmare dreamscapes of corruption, violence and the death of innocents.

This film is definitely not for young children. Although the fantasy sequences are gorgeously realised, and are fairy tales in the truest sense (in that they are dark, fey, dangerous and violent), most of the story (about three quarters of it, in fact) exists outside of the dreamland, in the even more frightening (and sometimes shockingly violent) world of a real life struggle of ideas and ideology.

People will watch Pan's Labyrinth in a way that most won't watch Land and Freedom. In doing so, they will also discover a world of fairy tales which existed before Disney sunk its claws into them: a dangerous world, where nothing is as it seems and every step is a possible death – a place which may leave even adults shivering under the duvet, part in terror, part in wonder. And all this backed up by the finest cinematography I've seen.

Gattaca, 1997

Gattaca is a brilliant under-rated piece of cinema that the not-too-distant future will, in retrospect, see it as one of the more outstanding movies of the nineties. It is prolific, stylish, thought-provoking, and one of the few recent science fiction movies that totally foregoes special effects and does it well.

The film that Gattaca most reminds me of is Blade Runner. They are both about genetic engineering gone very wrong but Gattaca takes a very different approach. The problems are more subtle in Gattaca involving our own desires for success for ourselves and through our children. Amazingly, Gattaca is a good science fiction film with a small budget, few special effects and mostly filmed in existing modern buildings.

Big Fish, 2003

Werewolves, giants, witches, siamese twins, bank robbers, hidden cities, sirens, etc. are all present in the fantasy, but they seem unremarkably to be part of the life of an otherwise ordinary traveling salesman. Whether they really are or not is never made completely clear, but that's the rub.

And what about all the wonderful animated fantasy? If you put watership down on the list, why forget:

The Iron Giant
The Nightmare Before Christmas

All the work of Hayao Miyazaki?

edit: and Pixar
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby DavidTate on Wednesday, 19 November 2008, 12:18 pm

Thanks for adding some more recent films to the discussion list, Jeroen. I have heard good things about Gattaca, but I haven't seen it (nor any of the other films you mention). Pan's Labyrinth sounds intriguing; do you consider it (dark) fantasy, as opposed to horror?

I have mixed feelings about anime. I haven't seen much, but most of what I've seen is... not good. I don't know Miyazaki, but I know that many fans of Diana Wynn Jones were pretty upset about what he did to Howl's Moving Castle.

And speaking of animated SF&F films, I should probably have included Fantastic Planet on my original lists.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby Jeroen on Thursday, 20 November 2008, 1:31 pm

DavidTate wrote:Pan's Labyrinth sounds intriguing; do you consider it (dark) fantasy, as opposed to horror?


I would definately consider it (dark) fantasy, as opposed to horror. The fantasy-world is presented as dangerous not to scare people, but to make it more 'real'. We experience the fantasy through the eyes of a child, but we are on her side in believing. It doesn't matter where you are, in the real world or the fantasy world, because both a equally dangerous, but the fantasy world has wonder on its side and the real world just offers more tragedy.

DavidTate wrote: I have mixed feelings about anime. I haven't seen much, but most of what I've seen is... not good. I don't know Miyazaki, but I know that many fans of Diana Wynn Jones were pretty upset about what he did to Howl's Moving Castle.


I know what you mean. Anime isn't always what people make of it. Yet Miyazaki made some heartbreaking fantasy. Howl's Moving Castle is a bit unconventional in its narration in the sense that it is closer to the Japanese way of telling a story, often without much explaining and with letting the actions speak for themselves. Some recommendations: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no tani no Naushika, perhaps my personal favorite, reminds me a bit of Dune), Laputa; Castle in the Sky (Tenkū no shiro Rapyuta, great density of ideas), My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro), Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime, probably his best) and Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, this one got a lot of press and was recieved very well but feels a bit overdone).

I feel that the definitions of fantasy apply differently to film than to literature. Many films that do not feel like fantasy have fantasy-elements at their core, like superhero-movies, or animated talking animals. Is Spiderman a fantasy film? Is Dombo a fantasy film? I don't know.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby owlcroft on Thursday, 27 November 2008, 7:57 am

Jumping in: I don't watch a lot of movies--my cinematic heart is in the possession of folk like The Marx Brothers and Myrna Loy--but from a combination of personal experience and what seems like an informed consensus of reasonably reputable critical sources, it seems to me that some of the highlights would be these. Where I am less sure, I have tagged on a parenthetical query mark (?):

12 Monkeys (?)
2001
A Clockwork Orange
Alphaville
Beauty and the Beast
Beetlejuice
Black Orpheus
Brazil
Charly (?)
Dark City (?)
Dr. Strangelove
Edward Scissorhands (?)
Excalibur (?)
Hogfather
Jabberwocky (?)
Labyrinth (?)
MirrorMask (?)
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Orphée
Pan's Labyrinth
Solaris (not sure which--I believe the earlier was supposed to be the better)
The 10th Victim (?)
The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen
The Fisher King (?) [and is this really fantasy?]
The Illusionist (?)
The Last Starfighter
The Last Unicorn (?)
The Man in the White Suit
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Nightmare Before Christmas (marginally)
The Prestige (?)
The Quiet Earth
The Seventh Seal
Time Bandits
X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes
Yellow Submarine
Young Frankenstein

I'm sure I have omitted much good work, but there are some thoughts.

I was tempted to list separately "eye candy" films--things like Lord of the Rings--but decided the list would get out of hand and be too subjective.

Finally, I'm not sure if any film version of Alice in Wonderland was any good: I just can't recall them.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby owlcroft on Friday, 28 November 2008, 6:35 pm

I don't know how I managed to forget that little gem "Carnival of Souls". Add it to the list.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby DavidTate on Sunday, 30 November 2008, 11:02 am

Just a couple of comments on some of the films Eric mentioned:

12 Monkeys (?) -- I haven't seen it, but it does seem to get a lot of favorable commentary.

Beauty and the Beast -- The 1946 Cocteau version? I haven't seen that in ages, but I remember it as surreal and intriguing.

Beetlejuice -- No. Zero stars, at best. Most enjoyable when the title character is nowhere to be seen.

Charly (?) -- The Cliff Robertson film of "Flowers for Algernon"? I tend to automatically discount films that are much less than their original book/play.

Labyrinth (?) -- I don't remember being all that favorably impressed, though others remember it fondly. David Bowie directed by Jim Henson... I think many people prefer Henson's The Dark Crystal.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- A triumph of comedy, but a failure as fantasy, I'd say.

The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen -- This was much better than I expected it to be. The famous Robin Williams scenes are among the weakest, and they aren't bad.

The Last Starfighter -- I don't think so. Memorable for 3 reasons only: (1) The first major use of pure computer-generated video; (2) Robert Preston in a role that recalls the blessed memory of Professor Harold Hill, and (3) the cute plot idea that an arcade video game might actually be a recruiting station for starfighters.

A better film from about the same time was "Enemy Mine", a 1985 sci-fi morality play with Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. derived from a Barry Longyear novella.

The Man in the White Suit -- Yes! I'd forgotten this one. Alec Guinness at his Ealing Studios best. I would crawl through broken glass to hear Joan Greenwood's smarmy, sexy voice from those days.

The Man Who Fell to Earth -- More David Bowie. I saw it in college, and thought it muddled and pretentious. Your mileage may vary.

Young Frankenstein -- Another comedy triumph, but little value as SF&F per se. For great comedy that is also decent SF (and parody of Golden Age SF), I prefer Buckaroo Banzai.

I'll throw in another vote here for Brother from Another Planet .

I also think any consensus list has to include Blade Runner, which is cited as the top SF film of all time by many of the critical lists I've seen. I've never read the Dick original ("Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"), so I can't compare it.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby MarkJH on Sunday, 30 November 2008, 12:55 pm

Although I know it is much maligned and fans of the books take issue with it (I've never read them myself) I have to admit to being an admirer of David Lynch's 'Dune'. It has a strange kind of grandeur that appeals to me and a wonderful cast. The music is terrific too!
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby DavidTate on Sunday, 30 November 2008, 3:19 pm

MarkJH wrote:Although I know it is much maligned and fans of the books take issue with it (I've never read them myself) I have to admit to being an admirer of David Lynch's 'Dune'.
Books? There was only one book, Dune. Just like there was only one Highlander movie, and only two Star Wars movies. Rumors of sequels are the work of the Evil One.

(And, alas, I'm one of those who finds the movie to be a grotesque parody of the book.)
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby owlcroft on Sunday, 30 November 2008, 7:35 pm

Comments on the comments:

First, on many of those, I am going by repute rather than personal experience, which is always terrifically dangerous. Most, but not all, of those I marked with query marks.

Beauty and the Beast: yes, the Cocteau version. Not only literally wonderful eye candy, but a reasonably good approach to the actual tale.

Beetlejuice: While not possessed of greatness, better, I think, than just zero or -1. I do agree that the supporting cast (including some of the minor roles) make the movie. On the other hand, given that Beej is simply a focal point for the action, I'm not sure what much more could have been done with him; what is done seems about right.

Charly: Going by rep only, and also never read the book (skimmed the last few pages once). The relation between book and movie is a perennial problem. I don't think any visual medium can ever do anything close to justice to a good book, for numerous and mostly obvious reasons. I suspect that the criterion has to be what a civilized viewer who had never read the book would feel about the movie (or teleplay, as may be). That is, they have to be judged as independent entities--not an original insight, but nonetheless one I think needs to be kept in mind. Lord of the Rings failed as a movie for me not because it was such a travesty of the book in all the important ways--though it was--but because as a dramatic whole it was just fairly schlocky stuff (notably in characterization) cannily hidden under a mountain range of special-effect eye candy.

Labyrinth: Reputation-only again. This is one of the few unseen ones in the list that I'd really like to take a look at.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "A triumph of comedy, but a failure as fantasy"; I'm not sure I understand that. It's a tale in a fantastic setting, hence its placement in the category, and it was a pleasing film to watch in ways not intellectually contemptible. If it was not "fantasy" in the sense of being plausible. so also are numerous other works, from Oz onward. So I'm confused . . . .

The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen: Remarkably good. Robin Williams as an actor really, really needs a firm directorial controlling hand. His shtick here was way OTT. (But, as you say, still not that bad.)

The Last Starfighter: I'm not going to go to the wall on this one, but for me, at least, it has a delicate charm. It walks a tricky tightrope: a fall to one side lands in pompous, trivial sci-fi action, while a slip to the other side produces sappy, saccherine quasi-comedy. Instead, the characters manage to retain a decent amount of dignity. All in all, I think the wanted word is "charming", but that's why they race horses.

The Man Who Fell to Earth: reputation-only again. I have the book backed up on my clogged "to-read" shelves.

Blade Runner: I kept asking myself "Where's the beef?" Granted that I think Dick is way over-rated anyway, I have to believe that the book was better than this. It was a slow-motion trip to nowhere, living entirely on a sort of moody mediocre special effects that looked better in the too-short-lived Max Headroom TV series.

As to Dune, I found the movie as good as the book. Which is not a compliment to either.

Oh, and as to Carnival of Souls, I speak of the original, the $33,000 1962 B&W production (I see that there was a dreadfully bad re-make in 1998). If you don't mind spoilers, Wikipedia has a decent article on the movie. Though it has been a long time since I last saw it, I remember it as a real grabber.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby MarkJH on Thursday, 11 December 2008, 5:16 am

I am a big fan of Highlander but have no time for the sequels. It seems that most people who had read Dune (and the other books in the series) didn't like Lynch's film version.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby owlcroft on Thursday, 19 February 2009, 9:43 am

OK, I have now acquired and viewed a copy of Pan's Labyrinth. Brrr . . . .

Taken all for all, I'd call it a pretty good movie, but not quite great. Its defect, minor but enough--for me--to keep it from greatness, is that it strains a bit (and, worst, needlessly) for its emotional effects, rather heavy-handedly stacking the emotional deck. The cast was magnificent, though, not a false note anywhere. It's awe-inspiring to think that Doug Jones did not know a word of Spanish.

I find it amazing in reading reviews and comments that there are people who question whether the fantastic elements are supposed to be real or merely Ofelia's escapist imagination. Dear me.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby thepaladin on Sunday, 22 February 2009, 9:35 pm

Is it correct to say “I to am not”? Well, I to am not a real film or movie buff. I am much of the same mind as Eric in that I doubt we’ll ever see the like of the Marx Brothers again... I find myself wondering what Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks might have done with a light saber...oh well.

I was glad to see someone include Dark City in the list as it tends to get short shrift (in other words no one seems to have noticed it). The problem is that so often as the special effects improved, the quality of the movies themselves....well faded. We can look at examples of “so called” remakes also. I loved the Thing with James Arness in his sentient vegetable suit...the remake was dismal. I love the old Body Snatchers (1955) version...hate the later attempt. For early special effects and fair story telling I don’t think you can beat Forbidden Planet (loosely based, very loosely base or as they say, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest).

There are good modern movies (Dark City already mentioned) but too often I find now there are good ideas that end up being poor movies. My wife likes Mimic and when the adds for the movie were out I thought it looked good. A genetically altered roach is released into the sewers to combat a plague that is attacking children. The plague is being spread by the uncontrolled roach population... It looked like a movie about would go into the “just because science can do it should it be done (not a new theme by any means). But in execution it was just another “giant bug” movie (and not nearly as good as Them even if the “bug” looked more “realistic”). It was more a “B” horror movie in the end than a scifi effort.

I know...I sound negative, sorry. I do love The Lord of The Rings trilogy of movies, I missed what they couldn’t include, but I still liked the films.

I’m probably going to have rocks thrown at me here, because the science is actually off kilter in the movie, but I like Serenity. It didn’t make near the money I believe it should have and I believe it did better in the UK than the US. What I love about it are (most) of the characters. Ok, we have the obligatory extremely thin barely out of her teens heroine (or should that be “female hero”?) who can outfight the rest of the ship’s crew together...but we had have to remember...it’s a product of Joss Whedon of Buffy fame. Still I liked the movie, and the series it sprang from.

By the way, I also agree about the Last Star Fighter. It captures the secret dreams of so many young people, especially those denigrated as nerds or geeks, and does it without falling over the “silly line”. It’s probably a matter of taste, as in the end are all books and movies.

I thought about going into other movies, but I’m in danger of sounding like I just enjoy the sound of my own electronic voice...so I’ll close off now and maybe comment more later if the conversation goes on.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby UnpublishedGuy on Monday, 23 March 2009, 12:13 am

owlcroft wrote:Comments on the comments:
Blade Runner: I kept asking myself "Where's the beef?" Granted that I think Dick is way over-rated anyway, I have to believe that the book was better than this. It was a slow-motion trip to nowhere, living entirely on a sort of moody mediocre special effects that looked better in the too-short-lived Max Headroom TV series.


The novel was better than the movie, but the book and novel were quite different. The movie's screenplay went through at least one major rewrite. One writer rewriting what the previous writer had done. As a result the movie barely resembles the book, and as usually happens with film adaptions, much nuance is lost. However, the movie did inject an interesting subtext of its own based on William Blake poetry.

An article appeared on Slate a couple years ago that provided some interesting insight into the movie.

Maybe, I just like slow motion trips, since I would select 2001 from the list as the best (my favorite, anyway) SF movie. Here again, more style than story.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby Estraa on Monday, 17 August 2009, 9:11 pm

DavidTate wrote:Dark City (1998)

An absolutely brilliant film.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby owlcroft on Tuesday, 08 September 2009, 5:07 am

I just watched the Flash Gordon movie on DVD, with some extras (the best being Lorenzo Semple's comments), and I would add this to the list. The cheap and easy categorization is "campy", but I don't think that quite does it justice. The music by Queen, the eye-boggling designs, the wonderful casting (from Brian Blessed to Max von Sydow, and a Sam J. Jones who is to Flash what Adam West was to Batman) combine for, well, just more sheer fun than the proverbial barrel of monkeys.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby Jeroen on Wednesday, 28 October 2009, 6:08 am

The recent movie District 9 will probably become a future SF classic
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby NatalieSmith01 on Sunday, 16 January 2011, 5:53 am

owlcroft wrote:I don't know how I managed to forget that little gem "Carnival of Souls". Add it to the list.


"Carnival of Souls" is a real gem indeed. It's my favorite.
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby drewwilliam on Friday, 22 July 2011, 12:52 am

I have a few all-time favorite movies 300, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc., but I was wondering if there are any great sci-fi or fantasy movies that I could get easily obsessed with?

fantasy movies
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Re: Best SF&F Film?

Postby charleshudgen on Wednesday, 16 May 2012, 10:11 pm

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was a funny, scary and totally involving of the film.On the first hour of the film it has a smooth introduction of the Middle earth. I must say that everybody love this film and it's a best sci-fi film.
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