Because the critics at the New York Times have decided to list their favorite 25 movies of the 21st century, I am following suit. Their list is interesting and wide-ranging, but, to my mind, flawed. There are omissions (of course) and at least one head-scratcher. (The 40-Year-Old Virgin?!)
Anyway, you won’t agree with my list, either. There will be at least one movie you despise, maybe one or two you haven’t seen. Make your own list.
A few caveats first…
- Films on this list were released in 2001 or later. The year 2000 was a terrific year for film, but it’s actually the last year of the 20th century.
- Rankings, especially as we descend the list, are tenuous and possibly arbitrary. This is how I feel today, and likely subject to change.
- As my eyesight has declined, I have lost the ability to read subtitles. There are, I’m sure, many brilliant foreign-language films from the last decade, but I can’t read them. This is a limitation, no doubt, but it’s not my fault.
- Finally, while some of the included films were never released theatrically, they were designed as singular artistic statements and not as series.
1. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Guillermo del Toro’s “fairy tale for adults” snuck up on me. It is a film of dazzling imagery, of beauty and terror, of politics and history, of hope amidst defeat. Rooted specifically in civil-war Spain, it taps into something universal: our struggle to push beyond our fears to improve our lives. Never bombastic, never silly, never less than stunning–this is the movie I want my kids to grow up and see more than any other on this list, and that’s reason enough to give it a slight edge over the other great films here.
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Relationships are hard, and there are any number of movies that go out of their way to rake you over the coals of bad romance. What makes Michel Gondry’s film–from a script by Charlie Kaufman–unique is its structure, which allows the viewer to experience the dissolution in reverse, ending with that first rush of infatuation, when all possibilities are wide open and the future seems to offer only joy. Whether the lovers in the film ever rebuild their shattered life together is up for interpretation. What matters is the feeling that maybe, if they’re lucky, it might just happen.
3. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
I may never have a better Christmas than the one I spent in the theater with Martin Scorsese’s hilarious satire of excess in American capitalism. Leonardo DiCaprio gives his best-ever performance as a cheerfully sleazy asshole, but somehow Matthew McConaughey manages to steal the movie with little more than a cameo. There are people who say this movie is too long, or that it celebrates the debauchery it depicts. These people are not your friends.
4. Children of Men (2006)
Rarely are apocalyptic movies as hopeful as this. In a future where people have lost the ability to reproduce, one man finds a pregnant womsn and must protect her from a variety of dangers until she can give birth. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork dazzles, and director Alfonso Cuarón grounds the material in a world we can almost squint to see.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Wes Anderson’s style has its detractors. His perfect compositions and eccentric characters are easily paRodied. The naysayers somehow miss the deep well of emotion waiting just below the surface. I would point to this film’s suicide attempt scene, or to the climactic wedding-day long-take, both of which draw tears even after a dozen viewings. Gene Hackman’s flawless performance is a bonus.
6. O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Some consider this a TV miniseries, but the Academy deemed it the best documentary of last year. Let me go further–this is the best film of 2016, bar none. An incisive look at race-relations in the United States in the last 50 years, it also has the time (in its too-short 8 hours) to eviscerate the media and the legal system. A horrifying, compelling, enlightening, must-see film.
7. and 8. Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2 (2003, 2004)
Over the last two decades, the rise of CGI and the demand for PG-13 violence has led to frenetically edited action scenes that border on incoherent. Not so with Quentin Tarantino’s two-part opus, Kill Bill. A kung-fu revenge thriller with Looney Tunes inclinations and endlessly inventive storytelling, Tarantino’s saga is split neatly into two films, with each taking a different approach to the material. Volume 1 is action-packed, with an all-timer fight scene for its last chapter. Volume 2 is more reflective, bringing real heart to the narrative. Taken together, it’s the best two-parter since Francis Ford Coppola dropped The Godfather, Part II in 1974.
9. Zodiac (2007)
Less a serial killer movie than an All the President’s Men-style investigative procedural, Zodiac uses its lurid subject matter as a departure point to explore obsession. With deft sound design (particularly in the director’s cut) and striking atmospherics, David Fincher’s genre-defying masterwork rewards repeat viewings.
10. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t fuck around. Each of his films is great in its own way, but none feel quite as ambitious or quite as demanding as There Will Be Blood. This is a jagged, brutal film, made in the image of its protagonist, Daniel Plainview. Daniel Day-Lewis gives a towering performance, even by his own standards, and Paul Dano proves a capable foil.
11. The New World (2005)
One of the most openly romantic films ever made, as well as a stirring re-telling of the Pocahontas story, The New World is a perfect vehicle for Terrence Malick’s unique gifts. His lyrical, nature-focused style suits the material and, indeed, elevates it gorgeous heights.
12. Romance & Cigarettes (2005)
The 21st century’s best musical is wonderfully bizarre. James Gandolfini can barely sing, but it doesn’t matter. Writer-director John Turturro fills his movie with hilarious non-sequitars and stunning scene-stealers. Elaine Strich owns.
13. When the Levees Broke (2006)
Spike Lee has become one of American cinema’s great documentarians, and this film (originally developed for HBO) ranks with his best narrative features. It is heartbreaking to see a great city battered by disaster, but heartening to see the resolve of its citizens during Katrina’s aftermath.
14. Vanilla Sky (2001)
Cameron Crowe followed his warm autobiographical Almost Famous with this twisty psychological thriller. A remake of the Spanish film Abre Los Ojos, Vanilla Sky showcases Tom Cruisr at the end of his most adventurous period, burying his movie star face under a creepy latex mask. It polarized audiences, but in another life, when we are all cats, it will get its proper due.
15. Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
One of the best films ever made about childhood, and a model for book-to-film adaptations, Where the Wild Things Are takes the beloved Maurice Sendak book and adds strands of loneliness, betrayal, and rage to create an original vision. More filmmakers should use source material as Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers do.
16. Lost in Translation (2003)
Sofia Coppola allows her characters to develop at their own pace, and she doesn’t force them into unreal behavior for the sake of story arcs. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson are delightful as bored Americans who meet in Tokyo.
17. Murderball (2005)
Wheelchair rugby is a brutal sport, with two teams of quadriplegics battering each other. This documentary erases any preconceptions we might have about disability by following various players to the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Funny, moving, and deeply inspirational.
18. City of God (2003)
A tale of life in the favelas of Rio, this blistering film was proclaimed “one of the best movies you’ll ever see” by Roger Ebert. It is certainly one of the most vital. Shot and edited with gorgeous precision, City of God is fiction that hits with the authority of a news broadcast, bringing the slums into your living room.
19. Moonlight (2016)
The surprise Best Picture winner is a quiet film, the kind that might normally pass unnoticed by the world at large. Fortunately, Barry Jenkins’ deeply humanist tale of a timid Miami kid trying to survive his environment earned a well-deserved place in film history.
20. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Becoming a parent made this film even more heartbreaking for me. Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi Pinocchio story is often misunderstood (particularly the ending) but nearly perfect.
21. Stories We Tell (2013)
Sarah Polley’s documentary begins as a search for the truth about her deceased mother and ends up being about how our narratives define us. Polley operates with love and forgiveness uncommon in any genre, but particularly in secret-revealing documentaries.
22. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The Coen brothers’ look at a luckless Greenwich Villsge musician in the early 1960s is not an easy film to embrace. Its central character is a constant fuck-up. Every decision he makes is wrong. Liking Llewyn Davis is difficult. On second viewing, however, his flaws begin to feel like virtues and what initially felt cold about the film has become empathetic. Not to mention it gets funnier on repeat viewings. Oscar Isaac is brilliant, and so is the soundtrack.
23. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
No film I have seen in the theater has polarized audiences quite like this. Charlie Kaufman’s staggering directorial debut is a puzzle, a multi-faceted work of art that is impossible to take in with one viewing. It can be frustrating, sure, but every layer peeled back reveals more details to examine and interpret. This is the funniest sad movie I have ever seen.
24. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative is the rawest onscreen depiction of human bondage this side of exploitation. Absolutely devastating.
25. A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
“The death of an old man is not a tragedy,” Virginia Madsen’s angel informs us halfway through Robert Altman’s last film. Maybe so, but watching this adaptation of the long-running Garrison Keillor radio show might make you think twice about that.