You know the feeling when someone claims to have a super-cool list of the best-of-the-best-of-the-best, sir! (with honors!), and all you can think about is what your list would look like? When it is me, I immediately start composing my very own list before even reading the original. It’s partly for comparison, and partly just to get a feel for exactly how challenging putting together these kinds of lists can be. Imagine my delight when I heard that the BBC had crafted a list of the Greatest 100 Movies of the 21st Century! By compiling the rankings of 117 critics from around the world, the BBC came to a “consensus” of what kinds of films would be seen as “modern classics” in a few decades from now. It was with that spirit that I set down with a few sheets of paper and my own personal Google machine and attempted my own version of the list, truncated to a mere 21 films (because that’s the century it is currently).
The most fun part about lists is all the bickering that certain choices inspire. I hope there is plenty of that with my list, as well. But first, a little description of how I compiled the list. The first thing I did was take between five and seven films from each year of this century (not counting 2016 because we are still mired in it). Then, I assigned each movie to a “tier”: Tier 1 was what I thought were the very best movies, easily. Tier 2 were a step below those, maybe these films had a couple of problems. And finally, Tier 3 were the films that I liked, but probably wouldn’t be thought of in the same breath as the higher-rated films. From here, I methodically went through and ranked the films, sometimes jostling movies back and forth until I was reasonably happy with where everything went.
That’s how we got to the following list. Obviously, I will be going in reverse order to built the suspense, and at the very end of the piece I will replicate the entirety of the list (perfect for sharing on your Chapsnats!) We’ll start with a few honorable mentions to get your blood boiling:
Honorable Mentions: Whiplash, Spotlight, The Dark Knight, Mad Max: Fury Road, Toy Story 3, and Synecdoche, NY
Listen, 21 is a pretty small number, especially since we are drawing from 15 years of films. All of these films deserve honorable mentions because I absolutely love them and recognize their respective achievements – but they just don’t do enough to crack the list. Whiplash and Spotlight are wonderful dramas with an amazing amount of excitement and pace considering their subject matters. The Dark Knight and Mad Max may be the poster children for their particular genres (Superhero and Action), but they still have issues that hurt them. Toy Story is clearly great, but it gets edged out by other animated films that are more innovative or thematic in nature. And Synecdoche, NY is my exact kind of artsy-fartsy wonderfulness, but I admit it suffers from pacing problems and getting lost up its own ass. Regardless, these are all wonderful films. Now here’s 21 better ones:
#21: In Bruges
This movie is awesome. You have the picturesque city of Bruges as a fantastic backdrop, two hit men played by Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, and Ralph Feinnes calling his wife an inanimate fucking object. Plenty of nice Irish accents and casual use of “cunt” go a long way towards providing this film with a charm, but mostly I am always surprised by just how funny and heartwarming the movie is. The acting is impeccable, there is some fantastic plotting, and Colin Farrell is just perfect (thought I’d mention that again, also go watch The Lobster).
#20: Ex Machina
Recent entry! Ex Machina deserves its spot on this list for its wonderful combination of high-concept science fiction, outstanding acting from its three leads, and the overall feel of a television bottle episode. It is a very small film, but delights anew with each viewing. Those interested in discussing the underlying thematic and philosophical material introduced by the film could likely chit-chat for days. Plus, years from now people will look back on Ex Machina and say, “Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Issac and Alicia Vikander were all in the same movie!?!?” and then the smartest among us will say, “Oh, you haven’t seen Ex Machina? Sit down.”
#19: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The first foreign-language film on this list (but not the last!), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon deserves its spot for a collection of feats. First, the film is gorgeousness and gorgeousity at once (to borrow a line from a droog of mine). It is so bright, colorful, and imaginative in its palette that you are dazzled by the cinematography from the get-go. Then they start fighting. The martial arts choreography in this film is almost without peer from this century, and Crouching Tiger did a lot of trail-blazing for subsequent films. Finally, I think we give a bit of an edge to this flick for being so good that we dumb Americans actually sat down to read subtitles for once. It remains the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever, with a domestic cume more than double the next-closest film($128M vs $57M for Life is Beautiful – and great, now I am crying again).
#18: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Admittedly, this one comes down to taste. This list has to contain at least one Wes Anderson flick, and I feel like it belongs here. You could pick The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Moonrise Kingdom, or even The Royal Tenenbaums and I wouldn’t be too angry with you. But for me, this is just the Wessiest that Wes has ever Wessed. I absolutely love the bookended non-linear storytelling mechanisms with Jude Law and the very old Zero, which is then extended to the young girl reading the book in the park. Then when we get to the actual story, we’re treated to dozens of intriguing, hilarious characters. The leads of Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori are fascinating enough, but even the ancillary characters are just wonderful. In particular, I enjoy Jeff Goldblum’s lawyer, but the sheer amount of fun from all the Wes Anderson regulars makes this movie easy to enjoy.
#17: Inglourious Basterds
Just like the previous entry, this list just feels wrong without some Quentin Tarantino film on it. I go crazy for the use of language in this movie, but also just love the character work done by the actors, chief among them the performance from Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa. Brad Pitt also continues to show that he is a highly-proficient character actor, and maybe even best when he isn’t playing leading roles. Now, some may say that this film coasts off of the strength of three or four incredibly powerful scenes (and I would agree with that). But, I think there is enough filmcraft to push it to the very top of Tarantino’s filmography, at least in this century. Mind the closing line, my friends, it’s Quentin breaking the fourth wall with his own estimation of the film!
Spoiler alert: You’ll find no more Christopher Nolan films on my list. It seemed reasonable to reveal the emptiness of the ending right here at the beginning of the Memento entry. Spoiler Alert again. Millions of people will trip over themselves to anoint Inception, The Dark Knight, or (God help us) Interstellar as the strongest Nolan film, but none of these challenge linear storytelling, characterization, and thematic material to the height that Nolan did with Memento. Guy Pierce is fantastic as the tattooed man, and though I know this movie sticks in a lot of people’s respective craws because there aren’t really any likeable characters, that’s kind of the point. He is robbed of the very concept of memory and has no ability to provide context for his experiences. The foundation upon which understanding of his world rests is rotten. Memento is a fascinating look at how fragile our comprehension of reality actually is: remove a single thing that we take for granted like memory and it all falls to pieces. Plus, he does this whole thing while perfectly crafting a complex mystery thriller in reverse. Brilliant.
#15: In the Bedroom
My appreciation for this little-known film is well documented. Mostly, it boils down to the wonderful performances from literally everyone in the film. But Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek are especially notable as husband and wife struggling through a tragedy. This is a raw, uncomfortable film, but it steeped in reality. I also appreciate how the story keeps you guessing throughout, and doesn’t really leave the viewer with easy answers at the very end. It grey areas through and through, and we’re not even really sure if everything is going to turn out okay for our main characters. This is just a fantastic family drama with superb pacing, acting, and writing to flesh everything out.
This was the first film I ever reviewed here on Plot and Theme, and I still feel like it is my favorite film from Alejandro González Iñárritu. I completely dig the subject and thematic material being discussed in the film. The obsession with acclaim and the state of Hollywood is certainly interesting, but I feel like I am even more drawn to the concept of an inner voice, a “Birdman”, who is always encouraging you to take the easiest, most whim-fulfilling path towards “happiness”. Furthermore, I absolutely love the camera tricks which create the illusion that the entire film is a single shot. There are other visual symbols throughout the film as well, especially some really cool mirror work. And finally, there are undoubtedly solid performances from all involved, from the lead Michael Keaton all the way to the supporting Zack Galifianakis.
David Fincher is the only director with two films on my list, and the first of those is the serial killer procedural thriller Zodiac. Though it clocks in at 2hrs 42 minutes for the director’s cut, this film flies by (and don’t worry, you softies can opt for the 2hr 37 minute version). There is such energy and forward momentum to the narrative that nothing ever feels bogged down, and there are surprises around every corner. Like a lot of films on my list, I also appreciate that we don’t get a hand-wrapped answer at the end (or even a definitive one). Zodiac is also packed with great performances: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey Jr. are all show-stoppers. The film also rewards re-viewings, and somehow each time you watch it you feel that it might have a different ending. Finally, the intersection of obsession, conspiracy, cryptography and journalism is just right up my alley, so I always find something to come back to in this film.
#12: 12 Years a Slave
Just in case you weren’t aware, Steve McQueen is a treasure of a human being, and his talents are never quite as apparent as when you’re watching the gut-wrenching feel-bad of a flick, 12 Years a Slave. Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays the real-life Solomon Northup, who was a free black man in New York when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War era. Though he is an educated man, and an accomplished musician, none of this matters amid the brutal racism of southern slavery, and he struggles to maintain his dignity and keep his spirits up. Along the way, his run ins with a horrible plantation owner (Michael Fassbender) and a slave woman the owner tortures sexually (Lupita Nyong’o, in an Oscar-winning role) add terrible detail to his journey. When he is rescued at the end due to the intersection of unbelievable fortune and kindness, it is almost like you feel a literal weight lifted off your chest and you can finally breathe again. This is a stunning film, and though it is hard to watch, it is incredibly important.
Let’s keep this sadness train rolling! Prisoners is the Denis Villeneuve movie where two young girls are abducted during Thanksgiving, and in order to get them back, Hugh Jackman creates a torture chamber for a mentally-handicapped Paul Dano. This movie is so haunting, subtle, and circuitous that every time I finish it I want to plan out my next viewing because now there’s something else that I have to pay more attention to. It just now occurs to me that I have lots of movies about vigilantes on this list, so maybe that is something I need to watch out for in my own life. Anyway, despite the difficult subject matter, there’s so much depth and complexity to Prisoners that I feel everything is worth it. There are about seven distinct performances that are astounding, and Villeneuve and his cinematographer Roger Deakins are doing things with color tones that I can’t even begin to comprehend.
#10: Good Night, and Good Luck.
I don’t know exactly what it is about this George Clooney film, but I absolutely love it. David Straitham and company deliver some amazing performances, and I am a sucker for anti-McCarthy stories, but it goes much deeper than that (and it better have in order to crack the top 10!). The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous, and helps to hint that whatever your opinion on communism, McCarthy, and the virtues of television, freedom of speech is an either-or issue. The screenplay is also bookended by an awesome speech by Edward Murrow, and loosely organized into 23-minute segments (the length of a standard TV bradcast) by the jazz music. The film also hints at the seeding of a cynicism towards entertainment, journalism, and media in general that has only grown since its release. This is simply a perfectly-crafted film.
#9: Pan’s Labyrinth
The principal power of Pan’s Labyrinth is its ability to completely blur the line between reality and fantasy, and then exploit the fluid result for thematic gain. Set amid Franco’s Spain, the film ping-pongs between a young girl’s life at a rural farm and her whimsical journey through a world of mysticism and fantasy. Such a technique may not have worked had director Guillermo Del Toro not delivered on his peculiar aesthetic by creating absolutely amazing fantasy beasts and settings. But, don’t worry about that – it is ten years later and we are still discussing this film as one of the best visual feasts of all time. Add in the incredibly weighty themes involved in portraying the growth of fascism in Spain, and you’ve got the weight to make this something more than abject escapism. And that’s how you make a masterpiece.
#8: The Social Network
Fincher #2. Many may balk at this film’s high spot on my list, but The Social Network is like a gigantic ship-in-a-bottle. It has perfectly encapsulated the entire zeitgeist of the new millennium and set it up for permanent display. The highly-technical entrepreneurial spirit runs rampant throughout this film. The nascent social media scene and the concept of “going viral” is in a proto stage, and the concept of eschewing “real-life” kindnesses in favor of more money, more subscribers, and a higher friend count has only become more prescient since the film’s release. You also have to appreciate the peculiar non-linear, flashback heavy structure of the screenplay as Zuckerberg faces two separate lawsuits. To top it all off, Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Armie Hammer, and even Justin Timberlake are all wonderful. Tip your hat to Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, also.
#7: Inside Out
It’s animated film corner, and I am fairly comfortable saying that Inside Out is the greatest synthesis of technical achievement, world-building, and thematic power that we have ever seen at Pixar. Inside Out also deserves accolades for take a fairly high-concept subject and making it more accessible without sacrificing the enjoyment of the overall story. Look, I’ve gushed plenty on this film already, so I’ll just move on.
#6: Spirited Away
As good as Inside Out is, the best animated film of the new century is this masterpiece from Hayao Miyazaki. All the hallmarks of a Studio Ghibli production are here, from the wayward main character to the bizarre world-building and trippy visuals. But underneath all of it is a weirdness that reminds of stories like Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and things like Pinocchio – all the while being fraught with hidden meaning. As a meager example, Miyazaki himself has explained that Chihiro’s parents transforming into pigs is symbolic of out-of-control consumerism. Finally, in addition to great characters and a poignant plot-theme, Spirited Away is perhaps the last true 2D hand-drawn masterpiece. The animation is simply breath-taking, and may in fact be peerless in its imagination and execution.
#5: City of God
Another film that does a mind-bogglingly good job of capturing a slice of reality, this Brazilian movie beautifully depicts the horrors of poverty, gang culture, and city life. It covers a fairly long scope of time, and can be challenging to watch at times, but it is a fantastic glimpse into a world that I will probably never experience. Each time I re-watch City of God, I am also startled to remember just how entertaining the movie is and how the protagonists’ struggles are championed at every turn. This is the rare film that seems to transcend genre: there’s crime/gangster thriller, coming-of-age, drama, action, and even comedy. Finally, it is certainly a visual spectacle, whether it is attempting to cloister the viewer in the urban jungle of the favela, or display the iconic beauties of Brazil.
#4: No Country for Old Men
There are days when I cannot handle how good this Coen brothers film is. There’s cat-and-mouse tradecraft for days. Iconic characters exist on both sides of the law, and Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) may be the best villain in a film from the 21st century. He’s cold, calculating, and frighteningly skilled at what he does (which is killing people). Further, he has a stark ethical code (like Omar!) and follows it through to the absolute T. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is similarly awesome, and watching these two characters battle wits and Wessons is pretty spectacular. Some folk object to the abrupt ending of the chase (especially how it happens off screen), but I appreciate it for the way it depicts that life’s obstacles don’t always come from the direction we are looking. Hey – Chigurh has to deal with something similar, too. I might have something there. Anyway, this movie is absurdly good.
#3: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
I adore this film to pieces, and will forever carry its flag as a memorial for how Jim Carrey is actually a talented dramatic actor. The screenplay by Charlie Kaufman won an Oscar, and it has that wonderful mixture of whimsy and heartache that seems to be right in his wheelhouse (see: Synecdoche, NY and last year’s Anomalisa). The structure of the film practically begs a re-watch (or five) just to appreciate all the moving parts. Kate Winslet is a delight as always, but we’ve also got fine performances from Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Tom Wilkinson, and the aforementioned Jim Carrey. The science fiction element is a perfect way to address the concept of erasing memories and a reasonable application of such technology. Finally, while I appreciate that many consider this film a huge bummer (because the leads hated each other, and maybe will again), I interpret the film as a more optimistic look at love and how, even given concrete evidence that it didn’t work last time – it is still worth trying for.
#2: There Will Be Blood
I am struggling not to just type “Daniel Day Lewis” over and over again. I guess I could also type Paul Thomas Anderson a few times, too. Something about rampant materialism crashing up against self-important mysticism would be smart. Oh, and Paul Dano is a supporting beast yet again. The music! Sometimes I forget that the first 20 minutes of this film is without dialogue, and then I start it up and get so excited! Dear reader: I may have a problem.
This is a good movie, is all.
#1: Children of Men
Every single time I watch this, I just end up blurting out, “Holy shit this movie is good”, to no-one in particular, about every ten minutes. Yeah, I’m not much fun to be around. Alfonso Cuaron is an absolute force of nature behind the camera, and Emmanuel Lubezki shows us that he has always been kicking ass. It is apparent from the opening sequence in the coffee shop all the way to the floating dinghy at the end. This film crafts a near-future dystopia that is so believable it keeps me up at night sometimes. And in that world we are barraged by themes ranging from the importance that hope plays in building the future all the way to the exploitation of immigrants. Julianne Moore and Clive Owen are spectacular, and oh, look, it’s Chiwetel Ejifor absolutely crushing it yet again. We are also randomly treated to an urban combat sequence that is perhaps the best and most realistic that has even been put to film – and all in one extended take. In the last 16 years, it has not been better than this.
The Entire List:
21. In Bruges
20. Ex Machina
19. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
18. The Grand Budapest Hotel
17. Inglourious Basterds
15. In The Bedroom
12. 12 Years a Slave
10. Good Night, and Good Luck.
9. Pan’s Labyrinth
8. The Social Network
7. Inside Out
6. Spirited Away
5. City of God
4. No Country for Old Men
3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2. There Will Be Blood
1. Children of Men