Ask any 10 different geeks what their top dozen or so geeky movies are, and you’ll get ten different answers. While there are certain titles that top everyone’s lists, the totality of what can broadly be considered “geek canon” is terrifyingly huge. These fifty films barely scratch the surface of what’s out there, but you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t believe they all belong.
For much of the world, Akira was when anime first became something worth taking note of. Prior to its release, only the most hardcore of geeks had any sort of knowledge of japanese animation, but then along came Akira, and blew everyone’s socks off. This movie arrived with tumultuous applause, a brilliant and dark take on a future filled with secrets and powers beyond the understanding of its everyman hero Tetsuo. While much of the original manga had to be cut for screen time, the resulting movie was nonetheless a stroke of brilliance, and did much to push anime into the mainstream.
While Kurt Russell’s Guile-like haircut may turn away many viewers, the original Stargate film was a remarkably fun and entertaining flick. James Spader’s turn as nerd Egyptologist Daniel Jackson was a role model to my nascent history geek mind, proving that just because you had glasses, allergies and no organizational skills didn’t mean you still couldn’t save the day and get the girl (as long as she didn’t really understand what you were saying). Stargate went on to spawn a number of relatively successful TV shows, some of which took the characters down rather strange paths.
Spaceballs is one of Mel Brooks’ finest, a blistering send up of the entire science fiction genre, and Star Wars in particular. It was him at his peak, and while not as overtly political or topical as many of his other films, it was a classic. While geeks tend to have a reputation of being fiercely protective of their sacred cows and putting up staunch resistance to being mocked, Spaceballs proves that when it’s done well and by someone who’s actually funny, we embrace it. Spaceballs poked relentless fun at the movies we love, but did it so well and with such wit and love that it became a nerd classic in and of itself.
Gattaca could have been a very bland standard science fiction story, but under the helm of director Andrew Niccol, it gained an incredible neo-noir look and palette that helped magnify this story of genetic engineering in a plausible near future to a completely different level. He took what could have been trite and cliché and instead crafted it into a moving story of a man willing to push back against everything society tried to hoist on him in order to reach his dreams. A scathing social commentary on the possibilities of pre-natal engineering, it under-performed at the box office, but became a cult classic.
46. Office Space
There are few films that have ever managed to capture the infinite loathing most of us have for our jobs as well as Office Space did. Everyone hates their jobs, but there’s a special level of hatred that exists solely for working in a tedious office, and the utter banality it entails. I’ll freely admit my forays into large offices have been only as a struggling writer working as an office temp, but that was enough to make me feel like I’d want nothing to do with it on a long term basis. Office Space perfectly captured the utter tedium and horror of these jobs, and the impotent rage we feel against them, in a way that no other film has.
45. Fight Club
I can’t help but feel that like many other cult classics, many viewers missed the point of Fight Club. Much like with Taxi Driver, the violent anti-hero isn’t meant to be seen as a figure to be emulated, but somehow that’s what many seem to have taken from it. Tyler Durden isn’t a role model, yet it appears that many a young man came out of Fight Club feeling like that was how they should try and live their life, and that Project Mayhem was a noble goal. While the anti-consumerist stance is still a laudable one, the story’s really about coming to terms with a world that doesn’t give a damn about you and your desire to be a precious little snowflake. The violence in Fight Club isn’t to glorify violence, but rather so that people will actually feel *anything* in a society that otherwise isolates and renders numb.
44. Run Lola Run
1998’s Run Lola Run it an excellent and surprisingly experimental film considering how well it performed internationally. It’s the same premise played out three different ways. In every section, Lola has 20 minutes to find 100,000 German Marks to save her boyfriend’s life. Each of the “runs” starts with that same premise, but plays out in different ways with characters she interacts with being affected differently. It’s an interesting take on the “butterfly effect” of how minor differences in the way life plays out can have immense effects on the outcomes of our lives, leading to wildly divergent endings. Run Lola Run performed admirably in the theaters, eventually being nominated for dozens of awards.
Memento was another film that played with linearity in an incredibly exciting way, and in doing so managed to capture a great amount of critical acclaim. While most non-linear films descend into impossible to follow tripe, Memento worked because it forced the audience into the brain of the main character, a man who could not form short-term memories. So as the movie played out backwards, what was new to him was new to us, but not to those around him. Wonderful because of it, the film required viewers to put together the pieces of the puzzle inside their own head, rewarding them for correctly understanding what was happening. The DVD release has an option to watch the film in chronological order, and you know what? It’s a pretty average thriller if you do so, which goes to show the power of editing.
Zach Snyder’s film of Frank Miller’s graphic novel had a lot going against it. It’s an adaptation of a relatively poorly known book without any major stars behind it, plus it was pretty racist. Even so, Snyder managed to capture much of what made 300 so great, relentlessly blurring the boundaries between the page and screen. Much like we’ll see with Sin City below, often times frames from the book were recreated perfectly in the movie, but Snyder took it one step further, slowing down the action at these points to an almost freeze frame to make the match. Brutal and thrilling, if you look past its obvious flaws, 300 is a hell of a movie.
Nobody thinks High School was a pleasant time, and more than just about any other movie, Lucas captures that eternal feeling of not being able to fit in, of falling for the wrong person, of being utterly alone in the world — especially as a young geek. Lucas is your steroetypical nerd attempting to woo a cheerleader, who in turn has a crush on a jock. While it’s a story that has been played out a million times before, the film managed to infuse it with a heart and freshness that carried what could have been a trite and tedious production — even if the happy ending felt weird and out of place.
40. Sin City
When Robert Rodriguez adapted Frank Miller’s Sin City into movie form, he did it with a level of love and dedication to the original source material that had never before been seen in a comic book movie. Most attempts to make film versions of comics only loosely follow the plots of the original, but this was different. It took three of the stories from the comics, and lavishly told them, following individual frames cue for cue from the books. Dark and incredibly dynamic, it capture the blood splattered noir of Basin City in a way no one thought possible.
39. V for Vendetta
V for Vendetta shows off just what I was talking about with Sin City. Where Sin City was a love tale to its source material, V for Vendetta was often radically different, changing much of the content and tone. While the original comic was about the promise of a true anarchist government, the film was instead an admonishment of neaconservatism run amok. While different from its roots, it was nevertheless an excellent film, with some incredibly emotionally powerful scenes. The whole arc of Evey in the prison camp especially was executed absolutely perfectly.
38. 28 Days Later
28 Days Later arrived on the film scene when zombies were at their lowest point. Where now every form of entertainment is saturated with the undead, in 2002 they were considered played out and boring. 28 Days Later changed that by introducing a new and truly scary “zombie” — everyday people infected with a virus that rendered them into insane killers. There was none of the slow shambling Romero zombies, these things sprinted after you, forcing you to truly, truly run for your life. While many disliked the bizarre turn the movie took in the final act, it remains an excellent and creepy film, one which started a new zombie craze.
37. Battle Royale
To this day, I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a Hollywood attempt to remake Battle Royale as seems to be the case with so many Asian cult hits (see: Old Boy). This wildly popular Japanese movie takes place in the near future when High Schoolers are forced into mortal combat with their classmates in order to control the violent teen population. Each classmate is given a bag with supplies and a weapon — some as useful as firearms, many are all but useless. The film was immensely controversial when it debuted, but nonetheless extremely successful on the cult circuit, making its way around the world.
36. 12 Monkeys
Terry Gilliam is something of a cursed director, forever bound by the weight of his art to create artistically incredible but financially destitute films, with one exception: 12 Monkeys. With stars Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, and a story involving an attempt to stop a virus engulfing the world, it sounds like it should have been an action classic, but instead what Gilliam delivered was a dark and post-apocalyptic story about the vagaries of fate, the immutability of time travel, the strangeness of memory, and questioning our own perceptions. By far the most successful of Gilliam’s movies, it’s one of the few he can claim to have done well in the theaters, despite its artistic and bizarre style. Here’s hoping he eventually hits that jackpot again.
Blade did something no one thought possible — it removed the taint of the truly awful Batman & Robin from the minds of moviegoers. See, for years Batman & Robin was what everyone thought of when they thought of comic book movies. Campy and horrible, it was a disaster. Blade, on the other hand, took a minor Marvel character, and crafted an utterly badass and gritty action movie. Blade’s success (especially Blade II) kicked off the comic book movie revival, and lead directly to the creation of the X-Men movie, which caused an explosion of comic movies. Some have been great, others less so, but it’s good to see them hit the big screen one way or another.
34. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry was a man best known in America for his music videos, which were wonderful and surreal, for artists like Björk, the Polyphonic Spree, Daft Punk, The White Stripes, The Chemical Brothers, and more. He created the “bullet time” technique which later blew everyone’s minds in the Matrix, but his films never made it big in the USA until Eternal Sunshine. A beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on memory, it’s the story of two lovers who decide to get their memories of one another wiped to lighten their breakup, but are then plagued with memories of their unknown former relationship. Proving again the Jim Carrey is best in dramatic rolls, it saw Gondry’s unique style take center stage in the American box office.
33. The Crow
In the mid-90s, The Crow was a milestone for a generation of disaffected goths, a group of people maligned by the mainstream who felt abandoned by much of popular culture. While there are a few goths still around, the subculture has massively constricted in the last couple of years — which makes it hard for us now to understand what a big deal this movie was when it came out. First, it was a comic movie from an indie hit. Second, it starred a major star. And third, it was apologetically gothic, both in dress and tone. The fact that Brandon Lee died during shooting only drove home its connection and power to the goth world.
32. Shaun Of The Dead
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost together are two of the funniest men on screen. They have an incredible wit and repartee, and it was Shaun of the Dead that introduced much of the world to their genius. For those who hadn’t seen them in Spaced, the slapstick and tongue-in-cheek camaraderie between the pair was genius. Thrust into a stereotypical zombie setting, they don’t care about saving the world, or even how the disaster happened. They just want to get to the pub.
The other of the two big zombie comedies in recent years, Zombieland does a remarkably good job of showing what every geek wishes would happen during a zombie apocalypse — namely that their incredible knowledge of all things zombie would mean they survived the craziness and got the girl. The Zombieland Rules are pretty much gold standard for what to do if the shambling undead ever do make their way into your life, so combine it with the Zombie Survival Handbook, and you’ll be just fine.
Yeah, there are a lot of comic movies on this list, but to be fair they all deserve to be here. Hellboy and its sequels were adaptations of an incredible series of comics by Mike Mignola, which were steeped in world-ending magics and dark terrors pushing at the edge of the cosmos. While comic fans weren’t huge supporters of Hellboy being changed into a whiner and Abe Sapien suddenly becoming all but useless, the special effects alone made these movies totally worth it. Watching Guillermo Del Toro going completely all out with creature effects is always a stunning time.
29. The Big Lebowski
While the Coen Brothers have made some truly mediocre movies, they’ve made a number of really, really good ones, and none have survived the ravages of pop culture time better than the Big Lebowski. Such a huge indie hit that there’s an annual festival held in its honor (not to mention a Shakespearian adaptation of the story), the trials of ultimate stoner/slacker The Dude have endured since the movie was released. As always with Coen Brothers films, it’s filled with incredible characters, stunning one-liners, and dubious moral lessons — namely that often it’s better to do nothing than to take action.
28. Being John Malkovich
It’s hard to think of a more bizarre mainstream movie than Being John Malkovitch, and we have to thank the eternally weird Charlie Kaufman for bringing this film into existence. With director Spike Jonze at the helm, the story of an office in-between levels of a high-rise building that houses a secret doorway into the mind and body of John Malkovich, it was a truly weird and wonderful film. It features a number of a-list actors who are all but unidentifiable in their rolls, and such a disturbing and out there plot that it’s astonishing it did as well as it did. With a less well written script, poorer director, or worse actors it doubtless would have flopped totally.
By all objective views, Highlander is a horrible movie, and all its sequels are even worse. That doesn’t stop me from loving it with every fiber of my being, a love that blossomed when I first saw it on basic cable in the mid-90s. Immortal swordsmen from around the globe gather in an enormous duel, lopping off each other’s heads in a bid to become all powerful. Couple that with a Queen soundtrack, and you have an awesome, awesome movie, even if it really was bad. Hell, Christopher Lambert didn’t speak English and is just about unintelligible through the entire thing. Doesn’t make it any less incredible.
WarGames was one of the first real hacker movies — by which I mean movies that portrayed hackers as the heroes, without any real understanding of what they do. A young Matthew Broderick hacks into a military computer, and accidentally starts a countdown to thermonuclear war, and no one will believe him on how to stop it. Fundamentally a kids vs adults story, it captured the imagination of a generation of young geeks, telling them that it’s ok to be smarter than the grown ups.
25. Army of Darkness
There are few movies more eminently quotable than the Army of Darkness films. While the first entry tried to be a serious horror movie, parts two and three moved into comedy, and exposed the cult movie circuit to the wonder that is Bruce Campbell. Campbell has since more or less built his career on these geek hits, and his one liners as Ash have become part of the geek canon.
24. Seven Samurai
Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is probably his most famous film in the western world, and even among his incredible, incredible legacy of films it stands out as one of the greatest. The story of a band of samurai brought in to protect a village from bandits is simple in its premise, but truly masterful in execution. Each of the seven ronin is a fully realised character, expertly rendered by Kurosawa’s magic. It’s also one of the few films to have a number of really good remakes, including the superb Magnificent Seven.
I’m torn on the Dune movie. I loved the books, and David Lynch is a fantastic director, but the film version of this sci-fi masterpiece is a bizarre and unlikely beast. It adds totally unnecessary changes to the novel, dwelling on weird plot points and bizarrely visceral additions. Yet, at the same time, it captures the tone and darkness of the novel in a way that none of the later attempts to film the novel have managed to do. Part of me still wishes the insane Jodorowsky could have been made, but the Dune film that exists is nonetheless an extremely interesting movie.
Another Terry Gilliam film, Brazil is probably the most iconic of the director’s works. It captured his love of insane sets and bizarre dystopias into a film that was an utter, utter flop. Strangely retro-futuristic, the story of one man’s desperate attempt to escape the insane torturous bureaucracy that surrounds him is a futile and heartbreaking one. The true ending of the film is a remarkably dark and sad one, but the original American release was re-cut with a happy finale slapped on the end by Universal. Luckily, later editions had the proper one put back on.
Who doesn’t love a good heist movie? In my mind, Sneakers is the film that bridges the gap between the classic heist films of the original Ocean’s 11 and the Italian Job, to more recent takes on the genre. That’s because it’s the first to really embrace the idea of computers and computer hacking as a key point in modern security. Every heist film since then has had to have a computer guy, someone who can do all the digital dealings. Remarkably forward thinking for its time, Sneakers perfectly melded what was then the exciting and futuristic world of computers and encryption with the physical breaking and entering of a classic heist.
20. Revenge of the Nerds
Remember how in the 80s, you could show topless women and still get a PG-13 rating? And now you can show bloody decapitations, but the slightest hint of a nude human and you get bumped up to an R? Ah, but I digress. Yes, it’s another 80s frat comedy, complete with panty raids, revenge plots, pointless stereotypes and lots of drinking, but for once the nerds are the heroes rather than victims. And while the titular nerds may be borderline offensive caricatures, we all rallied behind their actions, willing them to come out on top.
Ah, Hackers. What geek in 1995 didn’t wish learning how to use message boards and write little scripts would let them bed Angelina Jolie? It’s a rare film that glorifies and completely misrepresents hackers as much as Hackers did, and while every geek on the planet acknowledges it was the worst representation of anything computer related until Operation Swordfish came along, that hasn’t stopped anyone from absolutely freaking loving it. It’s got action geeks everywhere, insane outfits, gorgeous people, and was a world that we all wished being a geek was really like.
18. The Alien Franchise
The Aliens series has had its ups and downs. The first two films were excellent, though very different, and as bizarre as the third film was, it at least had some conceptual merits. The less said about everything after the third the better, as they’re universally horrible. But those first two movies? They were incredible. Alien pioneered the genre of space horror, crafting a monster out of HR Giger’s demented designs, a horrible creature that lurked in shadows, far more terrifying for almost never been seen. Aliens switched gears to action-horror, empowering the humans but still keeping the scares.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a silent masterpiece, one of the first science fiction films, and the pinnacle of the early expressionist movement. Its art deco urban dystopia was astonishingly iconic, and imagery from this film survives in popular culture almost a century later. Unfortunately, soon after its premier, the film was cut for time, and much of the original footage thought lost. Yet in 2008, a longer cut was discovered in Argentina, which lead to the release of the longest modern cut to date, which was shown after painstaking restoration in 2010.
Robocop was one of those films which a younger me completely missed the point of. I never saw the satire of consumerist culture and police militarization in it, instead focusing on the badass action, and the cyborg cop who went around brutally slaughtering miscreants. It wasn’t until later viewings that I saw what Paul Verhoeven was actually doing. While the later films and shows completely missed the themes of the media, capitalism, and human nature, the original stands out as far more than the bloody action film it appears at first glance.
Primer is an intelligent movie. It’s not pretentious, but it requires viewers to put an absolutely incredible amount of thought into following the plot. It’s one of the most realistic and tight time travel films ever produced, and one that rewards multiple watches. It can be almost impossible to follow on a first viewing, but by watching it over and over, you can pick apart what happens — the movie is notorious for not holding the hands of the viewer at all. So grab one of the many online timeline helpers for the film, and spend a weekend watching and rewatching it. You won’t regret it.
Darren Aronofsky is a mad genius, and his 1998 paranoid thriller Pi proved that to the world. Filmed entirely by small donations from friends and family, it tells the story of a man who attempts to understand the inherent randomness in the world by breaking it down into numbers. Like all of Aaronofsky’s films, it’s a meditation in obsession, as the main character starts hallucinating and experience impossible headaches, but begins to crack the code behind the stock market. The film dips into Kabbalah, advanced number theory, and madness. Dark and terrifying, it’s a powerful film.
13. Ghost in the Shell
Long before transhumanism became a buzzword in the early day of the 2000s, Masamune Shirow was playing with those concepts in this work, flirting with what it meant to be human in a world of cyborg and robots, but doing so with huge amounts of cheesecake. When his ludicrously successful Ghost in the Shell manga was adapted into an anime, it did something remarkably rare, it improved on the source material. By focusing down the plot and cutting the fat, the movie was intense and action packed, but still able to touch on incredibly important aspects of humanity.
12. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
I was unsure of choosing Life of Brian or Holy Grail for this spot, but when it comes down to it, Holy Grail is just that much more quotable, and even with its bizarre non sequitur ending, it’s a comedy classic. Holy Grail is Python at their peak, gloriously irreverent, intelligent, and side-splittingly funny. Watching the troupe try and hold together a single plot as opposed to their usual skits is marvelous, and Holy Grail rightly retains its position as one of the most quotable comedies of all time.
What do you even say about Ghostbusters? This movie and its equally excellent sequel were both truly exceptional 80s-era comedies, ones met with equal critical and commercial success. The story of a group of ghost catchers operating in New York City and attempting to fight the paranormal was hilariously funny, and became cultural milestones. They spawned a number of cartoons, and an entire cottage industry of accessories, including toys, snacks, and drinks (Hi-C Ecto Cooler, anyone?)
Tron truly was a revolutionary movie. While its plot was thin, it was one of the first major uses of CG in a film, and considering it was made in 1982, the graphics were mind-blowingly cutting edge. Unlike the CGI of the 90s and early 2000s, the blocky outlines and simple shapes have aged remarkably well, and while Tron performed poorly when it debuted, it became entrenched into the geek psyche. Who hasn’t wished they could enter a computer game? Eventually Disney tapped this potential for the special effects extravaganza that was Tron: Legacy, but it didn’t have the heart and soul of the original.
9. Batman / The Dark Knight
While Blade proved that comic book movies could be good and turn a profit, Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman proved they could be cinema. His take on the Batman mythos has been at times contentious, but hands down are the best comic book films of all time. His work is always thematically dense and shot with an unparalleled attention to detail and nuance. Plus his action scenes and set pieces are astonishing. With the final entry in his Batman series set to be released next year, expect Bane to be the costume of next Halloween.
8. Princess Bride
There’s something about the Princess Bride that makes it utterly timeless. It’s one of the ultimate geek movies, a chick flick that guys love, it’s filled with romance, swashbuckling, action, excitement, monsters, miracles and more. But more than anything else, it’s filled with heart. It’s a movie about love, be that between a man and a woman, between a grandfather and a grandson, or between a giant and a swordsman. So while the film may be old, you can bet that every geek will show it to their kids for generations to come.
7. Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix trilogy makes it this high on the list solely on the strength of the first film. While the latter two were dreck, the first was an utterly compelling and ground-breaking action science fiction film. It pioneered special effects that blew the minds of watchers, and went into a plot that was complex and labyrinthine, but without ever lagging or ignoring the importance of action. Just about every scene became an instant cultural milestone, and many of them are referenced to this day.
6. Lord of the Rings
With the first of the Hobbit movies set to come out next year, I’m awfully tempted to watch the LotR trilogy again. Extended cut, of course. After all, what could be a better way than spending 12 hours than watching three enormously long films back to back? Lord of the Rings was famously considered unfilmable, thanks to the incredible locations and immense battles, yet somehow Peter Jackson convinced the world he was able to do it — and even more incredibly he pulled it off. Each of these three movies are excellent in their own right, but together they rightly deserve the label “epic”.
5. Blade Runner
It’s hard to find something to say about Blade Runner that hasn’t already been said. It pioneered the world of cyberpunk neo noir, and was one of the greatest science fiction movies ever created. Ridley Scott’s take on the dystopian future heavily generations of filmmakers, writers and artists, and its look and feel are found in projects being made to this day. It also holds the honor of being one of the first titles released on DVD — even if it was a crap version. With more than seven different versions of the film available, each with a different cut of the footage, how you view the ending and the story’s ambiguities really depend on which version you’ve seen.
On its own merits, Serenity doesn’t really deserve to be this high up the list, but when coupled with Firefly it’s a unique story that touched a huge number of geeks deeply. This is hardly the place to extol the virtues of Firefly, which have been dealt with in-depth in other places on the internet, but when Joss Whedon scraped together the funding to create a final story for his characters, a movie to close out their tale, Serenity went out with a bang. Whedon’s writing is at its peak in this movie, and he tugs emotional heartstrings with wild abandon, forging relationships and breaking them with equal aplomb. It’s a fantastic film, and a fitting end to a wonderful series.
3. 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001 has proved to be a tricky movie in the years since its debut. While universally lauded for its incredible artistic achievements — not to mention that it was written in conjunction with the novel of the same name — its slow pacing has turned off many viewers. Frankly, it’s their loss. While 2001 may feel slow, every shot is there for a reason, and is created with Stanley Kubrick’s eternal eye for detail. What some view as slow is deliberate, a pacing designed to make you feel the isolation and dragging nature of travel through space. Iconic and incredible, it remains a work of art to this day.
2. The Star Trek Franchise
It’s impossible to talk about the Star Trek movies individually, they have to be considered as a whole. They’ve run the gamut from incredible (Wrath of Khan) to miserable (Nemesis) to reboot (the new Star Trek). Even with a full half of the movies being sub-par, and a whole they form a major part of one of the two fundamental pillars of sci-fi geekdom. Sometimes wonderful, sometimes miserable, but always at least entertaining, the Star Trek movies belong this high on the list.
1. The Star Wars Franchise
But frankly, there’s nothing greater than Star Wars. Even with Lucas’ constant tinkering with the original trilogy and the effects laden and underwhelming prequels, Star Wars remains as the greatest set of geek films of all time. Everyone on the planet can quote it, even the most obscure of characters are instantly recognizable, and soon a generation will come of age that watched the prequels before the original series, which will change the fandom dynamic even further. So as much as we bitch and moan that Star Wars has changed from when we saw it, we can’t deny it’s a cultural juggernaut and the biggest and best geek movies of all time.