My Opinion of the Best Films of the 21st Century
When I heard my colleague and “movie boyfriend” Dave Verhaagen was compiling a list of the best films of this century, well … I just had to compile my own list. I’m confident that several films will show up on both of our lists. But I am curious to see how he ranks his films. I have not seen his list but I predict two things:
- He’ll have the final Lord of the Rings film ranked extremely high.
- He’ll have at least two Christopher Nolan films on the list. I am also convinced my list highlights more animated films and foreign films.
It pains me to leave so many worthy films off this list. I now recognize how vast and rich the 21st century has been for cinema. So without further ado, here is my list of the best films of this century.
Almost Famous, Memento, Sexy Beast, Mulholland Drive, Donnie Darko, The Royal Tenanbaums, Black Hawk Down, The Pianist, The Station Agent, Sideways, Brokeback Mountain, A History of Violence, Letters From Iwo Jima, Zodiac, Black Book, The Dark Knight, Inception, Tree of Life, We Need to Talk About Kevin, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, The Spectacular Now, Birdman
17. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Apologies to Peter Jackson, but Ang Lee kicked off the new century with the best fantasy film so far this century. The fight scenes are lyrical, epic, and intimate. But what elevates the pulpy material into something poetic and transcendent is Ang Lee’s focus on the unspoken love between Chow Yong-Fat’s Li Mu Bai and Michelle Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien. The tension between love and duty makes the film bittersweet and tragic.
16. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Wes Anderson and Roald Dahl are a match made in heaven. I always have found Anderson’s world-building and sense of humor to be cartoonish but not in a pejorative sense. Mix into the equation stop-motion animation, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is Anderson’s most tender and fully realized film. George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray, and Willem Defoe all take advantage of this rare art form to create an unforgettable film for the entire family. I love Wes Anderson’s films, but I adore Fantastic Mr. Fox.
15. The Raid 2 (2014)
Most people have not seen the greatest action and martial arts film of all-time. The Raid 2 is an Indonesian martial arts action–crime drama film written, directed and edited by Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans. It is the Godfather of action films, both in its scale and story of organized crime. But the choreography of its action sequences are a marvel to witness and will leave you exhilarated.
14. No Country For Old Men (2007)
The Coen brothers make films that speak to my cinematic sensibilities. But they never depicted a character quite like Anton Chigurh, the epitome of evil. Credit also goes to author Cormac McCarthy and actor Javier Bardem. The suspense and terror of this film is palpable to the point where I almost could not bear it. No Country For Old Men is a contemplative film on mortality, aging, the nature of evil, and fate vs. free will.
13. Borat: Cultural Learnings of (2006)
No film has shocked me more than when I walked into the theater to watch Sasha Baron Cohen’s explosive film. I laughed, felt guilty for laughing, and witnessed comedy brilliance. Sasha Baron Cohen has never come close to achieving the same comedic heights, but that doesn’t diminish the comedic genius of Borat.
12. Grizzly Man (2005)
It may be unfair to compare and rank a documentary against fictional films, but Werner Herzog totes the line between documentarian and auteur. Grizzly Man is the only film on this list that I have only watched once and have no desire to see again. It is both a compelling and horrifying piece of cinema.
11. Moonlight (2016)
Barry Jenkins’s film was my second favorite film of 2016. Set in three different time periods, Moonlight is a transcendent coming-of-age story about a boy named Chiron. The film explores the age old question of “who am I?” Moonlight follows a young black boy trying to stay afloat as the storm of life rolls in. The autobiographical elements from Barry Jenkin’s and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s childhoods only adds to the devastating impact of Moonlight.
10. La La Land (2016)
La La Land is an ambitious and joyous homage to Hollywood, pursuing your dreams, and the musicals of past eras. Chazelle toiled for six years to make the film that has echoes of Singing in the Rain and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You see its influences on screen, but it’s never pastiche. La La Land will drag the viewer through a wide canvas of emotions before its beautiful and bittersweet ending.
9. Up (2009)
I’ve argued in the past that The Incredibles is the best Pixar film, but on an emotional scale, Up is the crowning achievement of Pixar Studios. The set-up is what makes Up such an emotionally satisfying film. Watching Carl and Ellie Fredricksen meet, fall in friendship, fall in love, make a home, tackle disappointment, and grow old together without a word spoken is one of the most powerful sequences in all of cinema. Without the first 10 minutes of Up, the rest of the film would come across as trite and ludicrous. With it, it’s a celebration of adventure, love, and fulfilling promises in life.
8. Whiplash (2014)
Damien Chazelle announced his presence with a tour-de-force film. A lean, muscular film that builds tension and fear until its majestic climax. Whereas many films suffer third act problems, Whiplash showcases Chazelle’s knack for creating powerful movie endings, which he demonstrated again with La La Land’s bittersweet musical climax. J.K. Simmons’ Oscar win was well deserved.
7. Dunkirk (2017)
I’ll admit I may be victim of “prisoner of the moment” syndrome, but I believe Dunkirk merits a place on the best films of the 21st century. I’ve previous written about its cinematic merits. Dunkirk subverts the tropes associated with “war films,” “blockbusters,” and “event cinema.” Nolan’s film transcends its critical and commercial aspirations to become something extremely rare in cinema these days – it is a work of art.
6. Spirited Away (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is the only animated film from Japan to win the Best Animated Film Oscar. In doing so, many casual filmgoers were introduced to Japan’s majestic Studio Ghibli. I debated including Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises or Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya. But Spirited Away curates all of Miyazaki’s themes into one sweeping, epic film and has had the biggest cultural impact of the three films.
5. The Lives of Others (2006)
The 2007 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s masterpiece is a case study of restraint found in a performance that is largely internalized. A secret police agent (sublimely portrayed by Ulrich Mühe) eavesdrops on a successful writer in East Germany in 1984. The dedicated Stasi officer becomes increasingly fascinated by the man’s life and politics. Mühe tragically did not live to experience all the accolades the film and his performance generated. He died in 2007 of stomach cancer.
4. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson has created a filmography that will be studied in film school for years to come. But his 2007 masterpiece encapsulates the two grand American themes of capitalism and religion. Daniel Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview epitomizes the obsessed American man and how the American dream drives men mad. Day Lewis’s performance is a tour-de-force that is frightening and captivating. A high point in Anderson’s filmography, the director is one of the greatest auteurs working today.
3. Boyhood (2014)
I’ve written extensively of my love and affection for Richard Linklater’s magnum opus, exploring the cinematic and psychological depth of the film in three parts (part 1, part 2, part 3). It is sublime in its simplicity, its depth, and the film’s editing. Boyhood taps into our fixation with time by showcasing in three hours how quickly childhood passes and adulthood and responsibility comes calling. Filmed (or documented) over the span of twelve years, Boyhood captures the profound and mundane moments of everyday life.
2. Children of Men (2006)
Alfonso Cuarón is the Billy Wilder of the 21st century. He has tackled blockbusters (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and sci-fi (Gravity), but his crowning achievement is this dystopian film that tackles infertility, immigration and totalitarian regimes with some of the greatest pure filmmaking ever captured. I was not anticipating a masterpiece when I first watched Children of Men, but my respect of this film has only grown over time.
1. The Social Network (2010)
When I first heard the premise of The Social Network I remember thinking, “who would ever want to watch a film about the origins of Facebook?” But then I saw the trailer, which used Scala and Kolacny Brothers’s version of “Creep” and I got chills. And then I realized David Fincher was directing an Aaron Sorkin script, and I immediately knew that Fincher and Sorkin was a cinematic marriage made in heaven. Add into the equation a transcendent score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the rest is history. The Social Network is the best film this century because of the heights it attains in all the cinematic categories of acting, writing, editing, score, and direction.