A mere 16 years into a century may seem an odd time to take a critical appraisal of its movies, but do you ever really need an excuse for a best-of list?
The New York Times and its chief film critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, apparently didn’t. Or maybe their recent inventory “The 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far” was for them as it is for the rest of us: an enjoyable and engaging distraction from our crass president and a summer cinema season corpulent with superheroes and sequels and superhero sequels.
Dargis and Scott are among a Trumpianly tiny handful of film critics whose work I consider can’t-miss reading, and their list is worth checking out for their keen observations as well as for the top 25s from some estimable filmmakers. Another fine read is this rejoinder from The New Yorker’s Richard Brody; the social media responses have come too fast (and some too furious) to keep up with.
I won’t quibble with the choices by Dargis and Scott (except Yi Yi, which is wonderful but I would argue is technically a 20th century film; and also Steven Spielberg’s hollow Munich, which doesn’t earn the weight that many have attached to its final scene; and maybe Inside Llewyn Davis, which is mostly exterior and is not even the Coen brothers’ best movie of this young century). For what it’s worth (free), here are my choices for the 25 best films of the 21st century so far, in alphabetical order:
- A Single Man (2009): Tom Ford’s vibrant, pulsing take on Christopher Isherwood’s novel about grief and repressed love.
- All is Lost (2013): Like a great short story, J.C. Chandor’s tale of a man (Robert Redford) lost at sea contains few words but speaks volumes.
- Ashes of Time Redux (2008): This is my one cheat. Originally released in 1994, director Wong Kar-wai reassembled his fragmentary entry to the wuxia genre after he discovered the negatives rotting in a warehouse. The result is a romantic and richly textured swordplay saga that rewards repeat viewings.
- Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010): A boldly conceived and beautifully executed nightmare. The more I see this, the more convinced I am that it is no mere cult object.
- Caché (2006): Who’s watching whom? (And what do you see at the end?)
- Carol (2015): Dargis and Scott chose Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan-inspired I’m Not There for their list, and some readers have protested they didn’t pick his Douglas Sirk homage, Far From Heaven, but I think Carol is his best film, visually sumptuous and bursting with suppressed sensuality.
- City of God (2002): A chilling and relentlessly propulsive look at Rio de Janeiro’s drug trade in the 1970s told through a group of childhood friends.
- Drive (2011): A new generation’s Le Samourai.
- Embrace of the Serpent (2015): A small, quiet movie that confronts big questions through the story of an Amazonian shaman and two scientists/explorers he meets decades apart. Gorgeous, poignant and a touch trippy.
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004): Michel Gondry reminds us how magical the movies can be.
- The Hurt Locker (2008): War is hell; it is also a rush. An explosive dichotomy that director Kathryn Bigelow examines with the delicacy of a bomb tech.
- Let the Right One In (2008): Adolescence sucks.
- Lost in Translation (2003): What?
- Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): The best action movie ever, but so much more than an action movie.
- Millions (2004): A Christmas classic for the 21st century orchestrated with joy and imagination by Danny Boyle.
- Meek’s Cutoff (2010): Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy & Lucy, which made the cut on Dargis’s and Scott’s list, is a fine film. It is also a cinematic soul-punch that, as a dog lover, I will never be able to revisit. Reichardt’s follow-up, I think, is a more pointed and broadly appealing film.
- The New World (2005): “Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land.” Oh, what music Terrence Malick makes with the help of the masterful cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.
- The Proposition (2005): The best Western of the century thus far, bleak and bilious, bubbled up from Down Under.
- The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): Wes Anderson puts the fun in dysfunctional in what I believe is his most human and tonally cohesive film.
- The Son (2002): A subtle, sneakily powerful drama from the Dardenne brothers (Jean-Pierre and Luc, whose L’Enfant Dargis and Scott selected for their list) that plays like a thriller and hinges on the limits of forgiveness.
- There Will be Blood (2007): Drinks the milkshakes of all others.
- Waking Life (2001): Richard Linklater’s Boyhood earned a place on The New York Times list, and it is a worthy movie anchored by Patricia Arquette’s heart-wrenching performance as a mother we watch put her children before herself over the course of more than a decade then send off into the world. But to me, Boyhood lumbers a bit under the weight of its concept, and I think the probing and playful Waking Life is a more impactful and rewarding film.
- What We Do in the Shadows (2015): Brings fresh blood to the faux-documentary genre while gleefully pillaging a century’s worth of vampire movies.
- Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002): The end of youth.
- Zodiac (2007): With Seven, David Fincher reinvented the serial killer movie; with Zodiac, he flipped it on its head. Fincher uses the story of one of the most infamous serial killers in U.S. history to confront how, and why, our culture becomes obsessed with mass murderers.
Don’t be listless. What movies this century have most moved you?