After hearing the amazing story of how the film The 11th Hour helped to save an ancient rain forest, I realized the power that films have both as political tools and as cultural influencers. So I turned to environmentalist and media expert Harold Linde to help develop a list of the top 10 environmental films of all time. Some will disagree with the selection and others with the ranking (in order of importance). Please feel free to argue with me and put forth your own suggestions and rankings in the comments section below. 

So here it goes ... I hope this gives you some good ideas for your Netflix queue.

10. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

Directed by Godfrey Reggio and scored by Philip Glass, this film was an epic, wordless exploration of the Hopi phrase Koyaanisqatsi, which means "life out of balance." It superimposes spectacular imagery of nature with the frenetic comings and goings of a modern-day megapolis. The film is an almost Buddhist meditation on our environment, both found and constructed. Tedious at first, but once you get into the zone, it is amazing.

9. An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

Depending on who you talk to, this was either the most important or the most damaging film for the environmental movement. It presented the scientific case for global warming in no uncertain terms, but it seemed to polarize the nation on the subject. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine what the climate advocacy movement would be without Al Gore at the podium. It also was historically important in opening up funding for the documentary genre, proving that even a dry Powerpoint presentation could rake in $50 million.

8. The Day after Tomorrow (2004)

The perfect feature film companion to Al Gore's climate slideshow, this film takes the audience on a disaster roller coaster as a sudden arctic melt wreaks havoc in New York City. The ultimate "what-if" epic starring Jake Gyllenhaal begs a number of important questions -- What would you do? How far would you go? What would you risk?

7. Whale Rider (2003) & Winged Migration (2001)

Tied for 7th place are two films -- one fictional, one documentary -- which changed the way we think about nature by providing an intimacy with the animal kingdom never before caught on film. Whale Rider tells the story of a girl destined to break the confines of her culture by becoming the chief of her Maori tribe. And Winged Migration (using trained birds, planes and gliders) captures the sensation of flying with the flock.

6. FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992)

Someone put up this perfect mashup of Fern Gully & Avatar on Youtube to prove just how closely Avatar follows the Fern Gully story. This just adds to my point that Fern Gully, though you may think of it as just a silly kids' film, really is one of the most important environmental films ever made. It framed for a generation of kids (who are now in their 20s) the archetypal conflict between man's hunger for resources and the fragile rain forest environment. In the end of course, nature wins.

5. Avatar (2009)

James Cameron's 3-D epic just broke the $1 billion barrier in just over two weeks, setting a new record. Read Harold Linde's great piece which asks the question on everyone's mind: Is Avatar radical environmental propaganda? 

4. Chinatown (1974) & Soylent Green (1973)

Read my piece on these two seminal murder mysteries which defined a new era of filmmaking, summing up a generation's angst over a threatened environment and the nefarious elements that put us all in peril: 1973: The year environmental filmmaking was born.

3. China Syndrome (1979)

Read Harold Linde's accounting of The original inconvenient film, China Syndrome, which eerily presaged the meltdown at 3 Mile Island just 12 days after the release of the film, galvanizing the anti-nuclear movement in the United States.

2. Erin Brockovich (2000)

I put this crowd-pleaser at #2 because it is a rare and important example of the "cross-over" environmental film. Thanks to a great script and a perfect performance by Julia Roberts, the film was a smash success and many of the millions of moviegoers who saw it were scarcely aware they were watching a piece of environmental advocacy. Why? Because the story was just so damn good. If only we could have more films about evil corporations polluting local water supplies that are this entertaining.

1. WALL-E (2008)

WALL-E is our #1 choice — amazing, visionary, hilarious and sad — Walt Disney managed to paint the picture of an apocalyptic future dominated by endless landscapes of garbage and completely devoid of life (save a lovable cockroach) and make it entertaining. Despite the fact the Pixar downplayed the environmental message in the media (lest they turn off GOP-voting parents) it is clear that the last robot on earth, though mute, does indeed have a message.

Also check out MNN's guide to the Top 10 environmental documentaries of 2009 and Huffington Post's Must-see Environmental Movies of the Decade.

See also:

Environmental movies: The best of 2010

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