The Best Films of the 21st Century

Last month, the BBC enlisted a bevy of international film critics to compile a list of “The 21st Century’s 100 Greatest Films.” The selections, as per usual, sparked an ardent conversation among my friends and I, as well as other cinephiles, about what said films should and shouldn’t be represented. It goes without saying that opinions varied wildly, which speaks to both the spectrum of greatness the past seventeen years has served us and contrasting personal tastes that often times feel no obligations to present an “objective” estimation of the period. Any given ballot from a critic says as much about what their interests are than it does any perceived state of impersonal reality.

I can assure you the same can be applied to my list. I like to think that I have a wide swath of films and filmmakers that excite me, particularly in this contemporary climate. Much has been made in recent years of TV’s ascension to an artistic place that equals or exceeds the products of the multiplex. More than a few shows (Mad Men, The Sopranos, The Leftovers, Louie, and even a recent debut like FX’s Atlanta) have felt as vital for me as anything competing for Academy Awards come February. This perception is not helped by what feels like an unceasing barrage of superhero and science fiction spectacles that have forced work that would have made for a surprising mid-budget film to retreat to the likes of HBO or Netflix. However, when the dust settles year after year, there are still at least a dozen films that prove that miracles can still be found at the movies. For me, these ten films represent the best of the best for cinema’s young but promising second century.

Some quick caveats: I chose only to include films I have seen more than once, which unfortunately causes me to leave Selma, The Act of Killing, and O.J.: Made in America off my list. I recall all three being terrific films but hope to revisit them in the future to provide further interpretation. Also, I decided to only include one film per director[1], which excluded Inside Llewyn Davis, Interstellar, Memento, and Inception (yes, I’m a bit of a Christopher Nolan fan). Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention a few other honorable mention of films that just nearly missed my list: A Most Violent Year, Inside Out, Toy Story 3, Carol, and Traffic. All right, on with the list…


  1. Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, 2002)

Though Spider-Man 2 often gets the nod as the definitive take on everyone’s favorite web-slinger, I still contend the original maiden voyage, Spider-Man, is as pure as the character is likely to look on the big screen. Tobey Maguire may be a hint too old for the part but his boyish charm and confusion with his new found abilities spoke to generation of angst ridden adolescents, including yours truly. Also, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, like Jack Nicholson’s Joker before it, is an over-the-top delight that also finds ways to revel in moments of genuine horror. Finally, I would be a fool to neglect Maguire and Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane sharing of a rain soaked kiss while the superhero is suspended upside down. As pure and inspired a romantic gesture as I have ever seen.

 

  1. Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001)

David Lynch’s magnum opus of love, obsession, and failure are at once his most accessible and esoteric work. It’s impossible not to see Mulholland Drive as a cinematic interpretation of Lynch’s long held frustration with the creative process in the midst of such poisonous concerns like commercial viability and ownership. The latter is one the director has been quick to thrust upon his audience when it comes to discerning the terrifying puzzle of madness, shunning questions directed at him regarding the meaning(s) of the film. We should count ourselves as lucky that such a work from such an idiosyncratic voice was even allowed to exist at all.

 

  1. The New World (Terrence Malick, 2005)

Leave it to Terrence Malick, perhaps the most challenging artist Hollywood has encountered in the modern era, to take a myth as complicated as Pocahontas and the Jamestown colony as his follow up to the long gestating (yet superb) World War II epic The Thin Red Line. Never one to shirk ambition, Malick steers The New World away from being a frank history lesson into a romantic tragedy that only deepens with subsequent viewings. One could argue that the film rambles and doesn’t particularly go anywhere but the same could be said for our existence in the ruination of the “New World” both promised to the privileged and robbed of nameless others.

 

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  1. Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2000)

It’s not hard to see why critics were confounded by the willfully unhinged antics of Wet Hot American Summer, a film that sparked a cringe worthy review from the great Roger Ebert that mimicked hokey campfire novelty tunes of the past. The foundation of the film’s comedy is laid under a similar conceit: the line between whether we laugh at or with its characters. Director David Wain, with his co-writer David Showalter, never particularly show their hand, forcing the audience to decide for themselves where they risk crossing the line or if there are any real “lines” to begin with. The film has aged terrifically thanks to a cast that has gone on to do much bigger (but rarely any better) things.

 

  1. Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)

Though the top four films on my list are mostly period pieces that don’t necessarily reflect the “zeitgeist” of our young century, Her (and my next entry) feels entirely born of the moment. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Theodore Twombly is rooted in such a strong desire for connection without the abilities to nurture it, a quality he carries to nearly all of his terrific work. The ungraspable beauty and power of Scarlett Johansson are made all the more frustrating by her strictly aural presence in the film. All of Spike Jonze’s films take the weighty theme of loneliness in the modern world as their chief narrative question and Her feels like his most succinct answer yet.

 

  1. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

For all of its arresting beauty, Children of Men is perhaps the least re-watchable film on this list, thanks in no small part to its relentlessly bleak forecast of our present and near future. Of all the moments that fill up the film’s nearly two hour running time, the most haunting for me continues to be the opening shot, where a mass of anonymous characters congregate around a TV screen that alerts them to a catastrophic tragedy, in this case the murder of the youngest male on the planet. In a world threatened by infertility and ever intrusive wars, you can see why such a revelation is horrifying. But our hero isn’t one of the paralyzed viewers but of the active, if cynical, Theo (played by Clive Owen). Theo’s adoption of hope in a pitch black world gives us a vague safety of hope for our own future, as long as we rid ourselves of passivity.

 

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  1. The Prestige (Christopher Nolan, 2006)

It’s cliché to call the medium of film itself a magic trick since that easily applicable labeling fails to describe just how collaborative and ever evolving the production process is. Films are marketed on their stars and filmmakers but the years of precedent, struggle, and pain fit a lot less snugly on the poster. Very few movies take as brutal and honest a look at the creative process as The Prestige. Christopher Nolan followed up his first Batman film with a structure much more elusive than one allowed in a comic book adaptation. Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman make for a terrific rivalry as dueling magicians desperate to one-up each other. By the end, both resort to self-destruction for the sake of their art, which turns out to be much more fleeting than they could’ve predicted.

 

  1. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2007)

For thirty years now, the Coen Brothers have found a way to operate with their signature style while still reinventing themselves for whatever the story and scenery demands. Though No Country for Old Men finds itself in territory familiar to Blood Simple and Fargo, its more contemporary themes of post-Vietnam and Watergate depiction of violence and institutional decay resonated greatly in 2007, which saw the height of a troop surge in Iraq and an incoming financial recession. But even if No Country for Old Men is strong enough to support these heavy ideas, we mustn’t forget what it is first and foremost: a textbook, perfect thriller that’s ability to leave you on the edge of your seat borders on the supernatural.

 

  1. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson has stated that The Master was borne from numerous sources: anecdotes from Jason Robards on his life in the Navy during World War II, unused material from early drafts of There Will Be Blood, as well as the early days of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, the religion the writer created. All of these antecedents can be seen in The Master but the film remarkably transcends the sum of its parts, focusing less as an expose of Scientology than as a narrative of a deeply damaged individual that could fall into and out of such a promising belief system. The most rewarding aspect in re-watching The Master is its elliptical use of editing, which takes us to various times and places with minimal information to tell us when or where we are. The film, in its own way, is a “choose your own adventure” story that inevitably leads viewers to the same location, even though the interpretations will wildly vary along the way.

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  1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

If you’re looking for great things to say about There Will Be Blood, the film offers you more examples than you’re likely to notice. The wordless twenty-minute opening, Daniel Day-Lewis, Jonny Greenwood’s assaultive score, Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano’s shrill performance, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit’s formalist camera work. Did I mention Daniel Day-Lewis? The esteemed actor added even more to his mythic persona in his portrayal of Daniel Plainview, a dramatic creation that bears more than a few similarities to Charles Foster Kane, another cinematic antihero who represented the American Dream run amok. Paul Thomas Anderson’s best film has turned out to be the best film of the century so far. Here’s hoping the intervening years can measure up to There Will Be Blood’s demented brilliance.

 

[1] You’ll notice I made notable exceptions with my top two entries.

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