The 25 greatest films of the 21st Century… Thus Far

Blame Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott. They drew first blood.

A couple of weeks back, the NY Times critics published an essay called “The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century…So Far.” It was a pretty good list, but cineastes and film fans that despise the word “cineaste” the world over began compiling their own, more enlightened versions. Without further introduction, here’s mine (in chronological order).

Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

I am not an animation guy. But this is so exquisite that I am willing to make an exception. Number 2 on the Times list.

Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)

Let’s get this out of the way up front. The number one movie on the Times list, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, is not on my list. It was close – one of my three final cuts, and if I didn’t leave five spots for documentaries (spoiler alert), it would be here. Instead, I am choosing a different Daniel Day-Lewis epic. I do this fully appreciating that there are a million things wrong with Scorsese’s movie. Neither DiCaprio nor Diaz are credible opponents for Day-Lewis. The drastic editing makes certain parts of the second half incoherent. I get it. But it has one of the greatest opening sequences in film history, and Day-Lewis’ Bill “the Butcher” Cutting is one of the all-time great characters in American film.

Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002)

Let’s get this out of the way. I don’t have The Departed on my list. I figure I’m OK with that since I just got through telling you a different Scorsese movie is here. Instead of The Departed, I have the Hong Kong original on which it was based, a sensational procedural and character study which would spawn two sequels in addition to that American Oscar winner.

Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)

Cinema’s greatest revenge thriller. Period.

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)

It is offensive and in the poorest of taste. Sacha Baron Cohen, who wrote, produced and starred, has failed dismally trying to recapture the irreverent magic. But it remains among the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. And please keep in mind, however offensive it may be to Kazakhstan, at least it comes off better than asshole Uzbekistan.

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckl von Donnersmarck, 2006)

I often think of this as a companion piece to Borat. OK, that was a joke. This profound, moving portrait of one man’s small rebellion against government oppression is on the shortlist for the greatest movie of the 21st century.

United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

Drama and suspense do not get more visceral than this. This is a hard thing to watch, but it is utterly riveting from beginning to end.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days ((Cristian Mungiu, 2007)

It was the first Romanian movie to win Cannes (though another strong contender for this list, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, took the Un Certain Regard honors two years before). The drama is never forced. Mungiu knew that simply trying to get an abortion under the Ceausescu regime provided more than enough drama without resorting to any cinematic clichés.

Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)

Judd Apatow has been the dominant force in American film comedy in the 21st century and this Jonah Hill star-making turn features the best blend of hard R humor and genuine heart in the entire Apatow universe. And McLovin too.

You the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007)

Andersson’s wry and gentle comedy is an acquired taste. But it is well worth acquiring. Sad, funny, and strangely beautiful in turns. The 2014 sequel, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, is almost as good.

About Elly (Asghar Farhadi, 2009)

An Iranian Big Chill, only with less whiny characters. Farhadi is as good as it gets in the early 21st century. More from him shortly.

Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, 2010)

A deeply affecting character study of what gives meaning to life blended with some crime/morality/suspense. Yoon Jeong-hee had not acted in more than fifteen years when she created the memorable Yang Mi-ja, in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and struggling to see the beauty that she knows remains veiled in a cruel and sad world. It is among the best performances of the new century.

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

There are those who do not like Jesse Eisenberg and those who do not like Mark Zuckerberg and those who do not like Facebook. But Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin did the near impossible here – crafting a gripping and funny story about computer programming, while maintaining an aura of mystery and even sadness.

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011)

Told you there’d be more Farhadi. A simple problem. An everyday dispute. A profound tragedy. No one spins more compelling drama out of the normal rhythms of life than Farhadi.

Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap, 2012)

An epic, massive crime story, divided into two sections, from the most important voice in the new Bollywood. Kashyap’s career was on the verge on failing just five years earlier when his Stephen King adaptation No Smoking confused the hell out of critics and audiences alike. But some fans saw a bold new voice re-blending the traditional masala. Since then, he has grown more and more assured, with Wasseypur standing as a vital step forward for Indian cinema.

Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)

Some were put off by what they perceived as the prurient subject – the disappearance of two young girls. If that kept you from seeing this, you missed out on a gut-wrenching examination of what it means to act decisively without being sure of your facts. The title does not refer to the missing girls, but to the adults who are trapped between certainty and doubt.

99 Homes (Ramin Bahrani, 2014)

The Big Short did a marvelous job of humorously dramatizing the financial collapse of 2008. Bahrani takes a more restrained look at the tragedy and delves deep into the American character that created such a disaster. Michael Shannon is among the most realistically grounded monsters you are apt to find.

Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)

One of the reasons I left the really excellent There Will Be Blood off this list is that I remember Zvyagintsev’s story more clearly. And though their respective plots have little to do with each other, both deal with the individual’s struggle to overcome enormous odds and find success in the face of larger, often hidden powers. Leviathan’s story is smaller and more personal, yet it manages to achieve an epic sweep.

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)

Chazelle is still very early in his career, but all three of his feature films have concerned themselves with the cost of high artistic achievement. Whiplash is simultaneously terribly sad and triumphant, much like the lives of the driven artists it reveals. No twenty-first century movie has left me more exhilarated leaving the theater.

Land of Mine (Martin Zandvliet, 2015)

It seems that World War II movies will never go out of style. (Elmo Nyuganena’s 2015 Estonian movie 1944 was one of my final cuts.) Storytellers are always looking for new ways to examine this ugly chapter in modern civilization. Zandvliet found his angle by turning to the days immediately following the war, when young German soldiers were conscripted to remove thousands of land mines left in Denmark by the German army. It has the suspense of Wages of Fear while asking serious questions about responsibility and forgiveness.

I rather arbitrarily reserved five spots for documentaries to get to twenty-five. And they are…

The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003)

Robert McNamara reviews the lessons learned from a lifetime of involvement on international affairs, high stakes corporate culture, and war. Morris’ camera and editing, and strong help from Philip Glass’ music make this a profound lesson in humanity.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About his Father (Kurt Kuenne, 2008)

It began as a passion project for Kuenne about the murder of his friend Andrew Bagby. It turned into a stunning true-life crime story that has stayed with virtually everyone who has seen it.

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)

The horrific violence carried out by Indonesian authorities against communists and other “subversives” in the mid 1960s is the basis for the most audacious, and quite possibly the best, documentary I have ever seen.

The Square (Jehane Noujaim, 2013)

A brave and harrowing portrait of the Egyptian protests in Tahrir Square in 2011. This has all the immediacy and cultural relevance of the very best drama or war film.

Tower (Keith Maitland, 2016)

I am not an animation guy. But this look back at the University of Texas mass shooting is so compelling that I will make an exception. It was released fifty years after the event. Mass shooting was horrific and new. Today, they are horrific and commonplace.

 

Ms. Dargis, Mr. Scott – see what you have done.

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

12 thoughts on “The 25 greatest films of the 21st Century… Thus Far

  1. Thank you for a shrewdly intelligent list of films — and for reminding me of some I should not have forgotten.
    Rick

    • I’m sensing disapproval. Call it a guilty pleasure if you like. I’d rather watch Superbad than any other recent comedy I can think of. That doesn’t make it the “best” but it gets a place in my list. Were I to drop a movie because I suddenly realized I totally forgot something, I don’t know for sure what I’d drop, but it wouldn’t be Superbad.

      And by the way, I should drop something because I suddenly realized Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past should be on my list.

      • The Man Without A Past! Now, that’s a choice I can support. So stoic, those Finns. So unemotional.
        ‘Olaf – while you were away, your wife ran off with the postman. And your house burnt down.’
        (Olaf take a drag on his cigarette, sweeps his misfortune away with a wave of his hand).
        I put Superbad in the same category as The Blues Brothers. It gave me a couple of laughs, but as the credits rolled I was left wondering what all the fuss was about.

        • It does kind of beg the question, doesn’t it? Is there a place for comedies on a “best” list and if so, is there only space for Lubitsch and Wilder, or can Mel Brooks or Jerry Lewis have spots too.

  2. Thanks Nancy. Among the movies you asked about, No Man’s Land was the only one I actually wrote down. Diving Bell never appealed very much to me – maybe because I find the subject matter terrifying, and I haven’t much cared for most of Almodovar’s 21st century output (though I think Talk to Her is pretty interesting since it was the first time he ever really dealt primarily with men.) If I were doing a list of best performances, I suspect Michael B. Jordan would be on that list. And Amores Perros — totally forgot about it. It wouldn’t have replaced anything on my list, but I would have certainly thought about it.

  3. I won’t try to defend Borat against charges of cynicism. And if you didn’t laugh, then the movie failed for you. I will disagree that it is lazy. I think the most serious charge that I can level against it is that it is condescending in much of its humor. But I consider that a double-edged sword, since one of the things it sets out to mock is the very nature of the condescension.

    I would have chosen Magnolia had it been released two years later, but when I was thinking about There Will Be Blood, I think it just comes down to the fact that whereas I think I would have a blast hanging out with Bill Cutting, I can’t say the same about spending an evening with Daniel Plainview. Not the best criteria on which to judge a movie — but as you say, it’s all highly subjective.

    Thanks for weighing in.

  4. So glad to see you included two of my absolute favorite films of all time: Spirited Away and The Lives of Others. Spirited Away is the most imaginative vision I have ever seen on a screen and The Lives of Others is the most politically astute and morally profound movie I have ever seen. And that last line of the film–those simple three words: It’s for me. Best. ending. ever.

    Also found Social Network and 4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 Days. to be eminently worthy.

    I thought Gangs of New York was a mess–Hugo and The Departed would be my Scorcese choices from the last 17 years (best ever is Goodfellas).

    Sadly, I haven’t seen most of the rest. Whiplash, Separation, About Elly, 99 Homes, and Prisoners are all on my list based on your recommendations.

    (I suspect despite all the praise that I would hate Oldboy and Superbad with a vengeance so thanks but no thanks.)

    Just curious: Did Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Amores Perros, No Man’s Land, Fruitvale Station, Slumdog Millionaire, Spotlight and any of the Almodovar (Talk to Her, Volver) movies come close to making your list? I think those would all be on mine, but I have seen so many fewer than you. I also adored Nicole Holofcener’s Friends with Money, but know it wasn’t one of your favorites. (Francis McDormand’s character in that movie remains a personal role model for me but I haven’t had the guts to completely stop washing my hair. . .)

    Finally, I’m glad that There Will Be Blood didn’t make the cut. You can be boring, you can be depressing, you can be far too long, or you can have utterly unlikable characters and still be a good movie but I just don’t think you can do all four. Yes, the acting and cinematography were great, but who cares? Boring, depressing, too long, characters that ranged from dull to slightly evil to dully evil. I already knew the oil barons were vipers–no surprises there. I was disappointed because, although I never saw Magnolia, I actually liked Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love because they were so entertainingly off kilter. There Will Be Blood was just
    mean. . .

  5. An interesting list, Jon, and I was surprised that I have seen and enjoyed no less than 15 of those from your selection. I haven’t seen ‘Superbad’, but cannot imagine it featuring in any list I might ever compile. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.

  6. There Will Be Blood – the absolute best film so far, in my opinion.

    I’d also include documentaries such as Grizzly Man, Blackfish, and Stranded: I’ve Come From A Plane That Crashed on the Mountains.

    The Grand Budapest Hotel, too. District 9. It’s all subjective, though, to some extent! I’m sure someone out there would think an Adam Sandler film deserves a spot on here (Punch-Drunk Love if there has to be one).

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