The Top 100 Films of the 21st Century, Part 1

I’m not sure when or where it began, but the online film community has recently become obsessed with debating the best films of the century so far. Perhaps the discussion began when the BBC published a massive critics poll. Then the New York Times did one. And then everybody started doing it. I joined in on a the fun a few nights ago, half-inebriated, on twitter, sharing a quickly made top 25 list.

I immediately hated myself for my exclusions. A top 25 list of films since the year 2000 is impossible for me given to how much content the global industry puts out now. So I changed my list and extended to 100, figuring I’d leave some commentary on my choices here. I still hate myself. There are countless films I love and consider to be damn near perfect that I had to omit. But whatever, this is just for shits and giggles.

And for the sake of making this easier on myself, I’m not including documentaries or animated features.

This is part 1.

#100) The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)

Skillfully navigating the potential pitfalls that often accompany sports and addiction dramas, the film focuses on community and family. It’s carried by exceptional acting across-the-board, most notably from the always-dedicated Christian Bale, who finally won an Oscar for his work.

#99) Dogville (dir. Lars von Trier)

Experimental in its literal staging, Lars von Trier’s bold parable of inherent human misery is oddly hilarious, thoroughly thought-provoking, and arguably anti-American. Added bonus, it features Nicole Kidman at her very best.

#98) Martha Marcy May Marlene (dir. Sean Durkin)

Behind a bravura turn from Elizabeth Olsen, Durkin’s film intends to disturb. It also shows off a filmmaker in complete control, utilizing visual and narrative tricks that could seem gimmicky in a film school sort of way if not for the haunting psychological subtext beneath every scene.

#97) Creed (dir. Ryan Coogler)

So much better than it had any right to be. Ryan Coogler’s subtle touch and mastery of naturalistic dialogue turn what should’ve been a campy cash grab into crowd-pleasing tale of various loves hiding behind the guise of one of Hollywood’s iconic franchises.

#96) The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt)

One of the great conversation films ever made, and a treat for any David Foster Wallace fan. Ponsoldt’s understated direction is perfect for this interviewer-interviewee story. Jason Segel knocks it out of the park as the late, aforementioned author.

#95) The Prestige (dir. Christopher Nolan)

Nolan’s attempts to bend your mind often work to the detriment of his films, but here, thanks to a genuinely captivating story that fits his ambitions, all those Nolanisms feel right at home. It’s also a beautiful film, complete with expansive period detail and more great work from DoP Wally Pfister.

#94) Hot Fuzz (dir. Edgar Wright)

Edgar Wright’s films play like they’re made by an eccentric movie geek trying to riff on his genre favorites, because that’s exactly what they are. But his writing never allows that love be mistaken for cynicism. Hot Fuzz is strongest of his “trilogy”.

#93) Punch-Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

We don’t deserve PTA, a former wunderkind who’s more than lived up to our gargantuan expectations. Maybe Punch-Drunk Love is a minor work from him, but it’s a cute and hilarious rom-com unafraid of embracing its weirdness. A real treat and testament to Anderson’s ability.

#92) Mystic River (dir. Clint Eastwood)

Eastwood’s mystery is much like Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone in its attempt to show a Boston community through a grisly crime. Both come from the same author, actually. Eastwood’s reigns supreme though thanks to the strength of its leads and ability to keep you guessing.

#91) District 9 (dir. Neil Blomkamp)

The allegory is hardly subtle, but it needn’t be. The film is a poignant and visually inventive sci-fi drama that lands all of its punches. Blomkamp hasn’t topped it yet. I doubt he ever will.

#90) Where the Wild Things Are (dir. Spike Jonze)

Maybe not the adaptation that the kids (or Warner Bros) wanted, but it’s gorgeous to look at and the melancholic tone actually lifts up the source material. Spike Jonze was given a lot of money to make a film about childhood. The result is astounding.

#89) Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

You can feel how personal of a film this is for Chazelle by the details he chooses to emphasize. It’s a sharply edited collage of scenes showing relentless dedication and the issues it can cause. J.K. Simmons won a much-deserved Oscar, but it’s young Miles Teller’s nuanced turn that carries the film.

#88) Memories of Murder (dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Bong Joon-ho’s crime drama is every bit as stylized and beautifully perverse as you’d expect from the auteur. He loves playing with the audience and finding captivating images in unexpected places. I am so grateful for his weirdness.

#87) Shutter Island (dir. Martin Scorsese)

Scorsese pulls out all the genre tricks he usually avoids to craft this carefully paced thriller. It’s so much more than just a twist ending. It’s a major filmmaker stepping far outside his usual bounds with a gripping piece of commercial entertainment. Robert Richardson’s photography is mesmerizing.

#86) The Wrestler (dir. Darren Aronofsky)

A welcome return to form for Mickey Rourke; the film finds serious emotional weight despite the narrative clichés. It’s wisely cut together in a way that emphasizes the thematic contrasts between the lead character’s professional life and personal life.

#85) Road to Perdition (dir. Sam Mendes)

The cinematography is staggering throughout, and it’s very fun to watch Tom Hanks play a hitman. This is a generally joyless film about fathers and sons stylized as a pulp-noir. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

#84) Monster (dir. Patty Jenkins)

It’s hard to put into words just how exceptional Charlize Theron is in this movie. More than just the jaw-dropping physical transformation, she communicates her character’s dark anxieties through glares. Jenkins perfectly handles a character impossible to love but hard to consciously root against in the timeline of the film.

#83) Gosford Park (dir. Robert Altman)

A study of post-WW1 the English class and peerage systems disguised as a dinner party murder mystery, Altman’s film loves its characters; all of them. The camera moves smoothly and functions as a character itself. This is remarkable filmmaking on every level, a testament to Altman as one of the all-time greats.

#82) Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

It made for one of the great in-theater experiences I’ve ever had. And beyond the technical mastery, it’s a strong survival story. Sandra Bullock gives what had to be difficult performance. This is the type of risk I wish studios would take more often.

#81) 3:10 to Yuma (dir. James Mangold)

Mangold’s action-packed remake is irresistible. The performances are so much fun, and the action sequences are staged in a loud, fast manner that’s never really been done in a Western before. It’s a joy throughout.

#80) Carol (dir. Todd Haynes)

Haynes’ camera understands human emotion so much. It knows that a simple gaze can say much more than a line of dialogue. And there may not be two better actresses at selling emotion through gazes than Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

#79) Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Leave it to Charlie Kaufman to create one of the most wholly human films ever out of stop-motion animation. The film’s brand of melancholy is as hilarious as it is creepy. It’s a story about apathy, and the infamous sex scene is perhaps my favorite ever.

#78) Y Tu Mamá También (dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

Erotic and funny and more aware of its social ideas than it was originally credited for, Cuaron’s often explicit road movie upends the genre. Who knew teenage hedonism set amidst socioeconomic issues in turn of the millennium Mexico could make for such a fascinating story?

#77) In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh)

You’ll laugh out loud, hate yourself for laughing, and then laugh some more. Such is the writing of Martin McDonagh, a man who’s a blend of Wilde and Tarantino. This is a fun and at times genuinely moving film, an exciting directorial debut that reaffirmed the idea that McDonagh’s stage work could transition to the screen seamlessly.

#76) Birth (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

An ominous film, maybe even a film bordering on sadism. But it’s so artfully done. Kidman’s performance is one of her very best, the minimalist cinematography is striking, and the film takes its time rather than going for the easy horror thrills its premise could’ve allowed for.

#75) Casino Royale (dir. Martin Campbell)

A reinventing of Bond. Daniel Craig gives the character more nuance than thought possible. The film also includes some of the the best action sequences in any Bond. Eva Green and Mads Mikkelsen make the Bond girl and villain more than archetypes.

#74) Traffic (dir. Steven Soderbergh)

Soderbergh’s crime epic lets its various subplots play out in distinctive visual ways, and refuses to place simple moral judgements on its characters. The ensemble cast is fantastic. And nobody does hand-held camerawork better than Soderbergh.

#73) Minority Report (dir. Steven Spielberg)

A unique aesthetic thanks to Spielberg’s visualization of Philip K. Dick’s future and DoP Janusz Kaminski’s experimental take on a noir look by bleach-bypassing the film negatives. The story is also engaging and well-paced; consisting of some inventive action sequences.

#72) The Hateful Eight (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Tarantino’s latest experiment is perhaps his most mature film. A gimmick-free and leisurely paced whodunnit capable of finding tension in every frame. The cast is great, and Tarantino’s unapologetic handling of racial tension has never had more depth or historical awareness.

#71) Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (dir. Chan-wook Park)

The strongest in Park’s trilogy (and yes, that includes Oldboy), this film shows off the director’s exquisite tastes when it comes to cinematography and production design. Like its sister films, it’s rather violent and twisted, but this one actually has some interesting ideas about violent revenge as an idea.

#70) Inception (dir. Christopher Nolan)

It’s not the complex mindfuck some pretend it is. Rather, it’s a thoroughly entertaining blockbuster filled with visual grandeur and strong performances. There are some incredible set pieces as well, proving that Nolan didn’t need the backdrop of Batman to create stimulating commercial entertainment.

#69) Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie)

It is perhaps the best prison film ever made, a bleak and sober character piece featuring exceptional performances from Jack O’Connell & Ben Mendelsohn. There’s some subtext about rehabilitation and the British penal system, but everything comes back to a rather moving short story about a father and son.

#68) Capote (dir. Bennett Miller)

Benefiting from a timeless turn by Philip Seymour-Hoffman as the titular author, Miller’s film is complex enough to look beyond the murder sensationalism, to look at a man who wanted to be (and thought he was) better than everyone else at what he did. Was Capote’s peculiar personality required to write something like In Cold Blood? That’s what the film explores, and wisely refuses to answer.

#67) We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

Lynne Ramsay is a filmmaker who refuses to put all her cards on the table too early. This is an eery film throughout, but its nonlinear narrative builds slowly to a climax that begins to feel inevitable. That doesn’t make it less powerful, however, since the most disturbing moments are simply gazes from Tilda Swinton. Ramsay and her team even work in horror tropes, creating a unique style that fits the subject matter perfectly.

#66) Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)

What a pleasant surprise this was. A smart sci-fi film that uses a time-travel premise to the benefit of its characters and world, rather than for cheap conflict. It also works well on the simplest of action movie terms. I now believe Rian Johnson can do anything.

#65) Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

Garland’s film is much more than simple artificial-intelligence ponderings; what does it mean to be alive and all that jazz. It’s actually a film about male sexual fantasy just as much as it is a film about technology. A trio of great performances and a sleek visual style aided by strong color contrasts and fun production design make it hard to look away from. Its ending lacks real payoff, but that’s intentional.

#64) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn)

Gunn’s sequel will age well. It’s funnier, contains more emotional heft, and is more bonkers visually than its predecessor. His irreverent style is essential to this offbeat group of characters. A perfect director-intellectual property match.

#63) Elephant (dir. Gus Van Sant)

Gus’ Palme d’Or winning is so sparse, refusing to stylize really anything. Given that the film concerns a school shooting, the directorial choices have a powerful impact. Many films that try to condemn violence do the opposite by making it extremely cinematic. Elephant does no such thing.

#62) Bamako (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako)

A thrilling courtroom drama on one hand, and on the other a detailed look at everyday life for various people in the titular Malian capital. Sissako would deservedly go on to receive serious international attention for Timbuktu, but this remains his best work.

#61) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (dir. Peter Jackson)

The entire trilogy is a marvelous technical achievement that inspired millions, but it’s this middle chapter that shines brightest as a standalone film, thanks to wise editing choices with its various subplots that culminate in perhaps the greatest battle in cinematic history.

#60) The Intruder (dir. Claire Denis)

It’s perhaps Denis’ most original film thanks to its story, which says a lot considering she’s a wildly original filmmaker whose camera loves to focus on bodies and emphasize sounds. It also features a powerhouse lead turn from Michel Subor.

#59) Moneyball (dir. Bennett Miller)

Within this story of changing schools of thought in baseball, Miller made a delicate film about personal perseverance. Brad Pitt gives one of his very best performances, and Sorkin’s script surprisingly finds the human element within Michael Lewis’ book.

#58) Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

It’s strangely haunting, dabbling in magical realism as it shows a man putting quite literally everything into his work. It feels a bit meta for Kaufman, but never becomes too self-absorbed thanks to Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead. It has fun with its at times trippy visuals as well.

#57) Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

You’re not supposed to really be able to follow what’s going on in Inherent Vice. It’s a film about a good-natured but perpetually stoned P.I. struggling in a turn-of-the-decade world that’s mostly left his counterculture ideals in the past. It’s much heavier thematically than it was given credit for, and it’s easily PTA’s funniest film, a subtle treat that rewards repeated viewings.

#56) Prisoners (dir. Denis Villeneuve)

It’s a very heavy and depressing film. But Villeneuve can manufacture tension on a dime and with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal he found two actors capable of aiding him in that. Roger Deakins’ photography is also perhaps the most impressive work of his legendary career. Prisoners was never going to have a happy ending. There’s nothing wrong with that.

#55) John Wick (dir. Chad Stahelski)

This is almost a prestige action film. It’s framed and lit like something experimental with European roots. It’s incredible action choreography is gun-fu to the beat of electronic music. The film also manages to build its own interesting criminal underworld. What a pleasant surprise this was. I hope we get five more.

#54) United 93 (dir. Paul Greengrass)

Greengrass’ documentarian style here is essential in a film about regular people thrust into a tragic situation and then displaying true heroism. A more classically cinematic take would’ve played cheesy. But Greengrass, and his all-world editing team, never allow that to happen.

#53) A Seperation (dir. Asghar Farhadi)

Farhadi’s masterpiece is a complicated film about a relationship, for starters. As many of the finest Iranian films do, it cleverly navigates censorship rules. It’s also impeccably performed all around and gorgeously filmed, surprisingly intense as well throughout. An original gem worthy of all the awards it got.

#52) Margaret (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

It’s a bit bloated and extremely miserable, but it’s stuffed with fascinating ideas and moments. Lonergan’s sheer ambition is admirable, his ability to execute an atmospheric film from that ambition is remarkable.

#51) The New World (dir. Terrence Malick)

Another masterpiece from Malick, a beautiful and poetic take on the Pocahontas story whose messiness should not be confused for lacking in focus. It doesn’t claim to know about everything going on. It just throws image after image at you, letting you respond to those images however you please.

Check back soon for Part 2.

 

 

 

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