Top 15 Films of the 21st Century… So Far
When we look back on the history of cinema, everything is viewed through a nostalgic lens with film buffs growing fonder of older films, making it even harder for newer movies to be considered great. See, the 20th century gave us what are considered to be ‘great’ films, ‘classics.’ The Classical Hollywood era gave us the likes of Casablanca and Gone with the Wind and It’s a Wonderful Life. Then the fears brought on by Nixon’s Presidency and the Vietnam War in the 1970s gave way to grittier, more experimental cinema: The French Connection, Apocalypse Now, and Taxi Driver. And then the 1990s saw a rejuvenation in independent film that gave us Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, and The Big Lebowski. These are the classics. Anything beyond 2000 is simply called a ‘modern classic,’ considered too recent to hold up against the ilk of Raging Bull and The Conversation. Everything became increasingly digital and commercial and designed by committee, so that’s how it’s been branded. Plus it’s too soon to be nostalgic. But the 21st century has given us some truly great films; movies so great that they are comparable to the greats of the Golden Age of Hollywood. In fact, dare I say, some might even be better. Here are 15 films that will surely be considered classics when enough time has gone by for them to be nostalgic.
The screenplay of Taken cannot be studied for deeper meaning or nuances in the same way the screenplays of The Godfather or Chinatown or Annie Hall can. The reason for that is the same reason the finished film is included on this list. It’s not trying to be The Godfather. It’s not trying to be Annie Hall. The guys who made the movie Taken want you on the edge of your seat, captivated, watching Liam Neeson shoot first and ask questions later… and they succeeded. Boy, did they succeed. They spent the first act introducing us to the main characters and gave us just enough to get us to care before plunging us into the deep end and refusing to relent for the next hour or so until the movie is quite done gripping you by the throat and holding a gun to your head. It’s a great film!
14. Team America: World Police
Listen up, Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (director/writer of Scary Movie and Spy Hard): this is how you make a parody. Team America, created by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, combined real-world political satire with pop culture parody. It filters action movie melodrama through Thunderbirds-style puppets, which immediately makes a monologue about being raped by the cast of Cats as a teenager hilarious. The film also uses the United States’ willy-nilly military action along with the left-wing activism of Hollywood celebrities and North Korea as targets for comedy, making the satire politically neutral. There’s no agenda, because Parker and Stone don’t really subscribe to an agenda – they find a way to make fun of every agenda – and it makes for one of the best comedies of all time. Plus, at a pivotal emotional moment, there’s a musical number dedicated to how much Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor sucked. Truly a one of a kind movie.
It would be easy to label Sideways as an arthouse version of The Hangover, and in many ways, it is. It’s a small film about a booze-fuelled bachelor party, but rather than strippers and Mike Tyson in Vegas, it’s a week-long road trip through wine country. This might sounds boring on paper, but what makes it a truly great movie is the character development. The bachelor party isn’t just a setting for the plot – it’s a last-ditch opportunity for Thomas Haden Church’s character, Jack, to cheat on his bride-to-be. And Paul Giamatti’s character, Miles, isn’t just a funny fat guy, he’s a flawed, three-dimensional human being. His ex-wife is getting remarried, his novel isn’t getting published, he’s stealing money from his mother to get by, and he simply feels stuck in his life. Can’t we all deeply relate to that? And of course there are debauched antics, but those are secondary, and that is what’s so great in this film.
The 21st century has given us many superhero movies. So why is one of the most recent ones, Logan, the best one? Well, that’s simple. It’s not a superhero movie; it’s a movie about superheroes. It’s a real movie. It’s raw. It’s violent and profane and relentless – just as a Wolverine film should be. But it also rises above these labels to become something more: a beautiful drama about a broken man. Logan is not a film that underestimates its audience. James Mangold mines the tragedy of his characters for drama, rather than simply seeing what set-pieces can be mined from their powers. Charles Xavier is losing his mind while coming to terms with killing all the X-Men. It doesn’t get more real than that. Mangold has crafted an emotional send-off for two beloved characters, and their stories couldn’t have asked for a more touching end.
11. Brokeback Mountain
The beauty of Brokeback Mountain is that it confronts the struggles faced by gay lovers in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s – and still today, and I might add – without being an ‘issues movie.’ It’s simply a romance story that just happens to be about two men. However, it’s not a political movie. It’s not trying to be about something larger than two people being in love, and that’s where its power lies. Ang Lee directs with such vision, such striking visuals, but the reason it’s so great and the reason it’s on this list is really its love story. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performances as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist are so tragically powerful and they are so convincingly in love with one another that even the most staunchly homophobic bigot could watch Brokeback Mountain and by the end of the movie, be rallying for gay rights.
10. Captain Phillips
Paul Greengrass is the undefeated king of the modern thriller film. He swooped in on the Jason Bourne franchise when it was in dire need of an identity (no pun intended). He shook the camera and cut the sequels faster than the speed of light, and today’s permutation of the thriller genre was born. On hiatus from making Bourne films, Greengrass tackled the true-life tale of Richard Phillips, a sea captain whose ship was hijacked by Somalian pirates. Greengrass deftly directs the suspense and tension needed to tell this story, but it’s really Tom Hanks’ performance as Phillips, a man trying to calmly control a situation that terrifies him, that makes this a film a true work of art. The subtlety of Hanks’ craft shows he’s scared without showing it. And being such a likable and relatable guy, Hanks makes us root for Phillips all the more. This film is fantastic.
9. The Departed
Many see Martin Scorsese’s Best Director win for The Departed as more of a lifetime achievement award, with the Academy finally awarding a director who made many Oscar-worthy films throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, but somehow always eluded victory. But I believe The Departed is a fantastic film with an impeccable, dense plot. William Monahan’s screenplay masterfully operates on two fronts. It covers the separate stories of an undercover cop infiltrating the mob and a dirty cop working for that same mob, each trying to find each other and coming so close but not quite close enough. It also tackles a larger exploration of the criminal underbelly of Boston, as well as getting to know these characters as people. It’s a marvellous movie that has Jack Nicholson playing his most memorable and nefarious role since Jack Torrance (The Shining). It also has a soundtrack to end all soundtracks.
8. The Nice Guys
Lethal Weapon creator Shane Black, gave us a new mismatched pair of crime-fighters to fall in love with in The Nice Guys. While their characters are mismatched, Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe couldn’t be better matched actors to play these roles. Gosling’s wacky, lovable sensibility works perfectly with Crowe’s surprisingly funny performance as the straight man. The story is secondary to these private eye characters, who are reluctantly working together on an investigation which opens us up to many comical situations and action sequences. Black noticed that since his ‘80s heyday, action films have become too serious. So he swooped back in to inject some fun where it was sorely needed, and he hired the perfect duo to do it. It’s a shame the film didn’t reach the audience it deserved and we will probably never see a movie sequel.
7. Mad Max: Fury Road
Has there ever been another director in film history whose comeback was greater than George Miller’s? The guy made a little dystopian movie called Mad Max with an unknown named Mel Gibson and it became the most profitable movie of all time. It wasn’t until the second sequel that critical reception turned sour and Miller disappeared into the ether. But, exactly 30 years later, he came back with a vengeance with Fury Road; a semi-reboot/sequel starring Tom Hardy as Max, surrounded by a supporting cast of strong, independent women led by Charlize Theron’s furious Furiosa. It’s basically just non-stop action for throughout the film. But that’s not why it’s one of the greatest action films ever made; the said action isn’t just a Michael Bay-style orgy of CGI, it’s practical effects mixed with dangerous, intricate stunts. You feel the raw intensity and it’s just a fantastic film.
Shrek takes a basic fairy tale structure with two minor twists – the ‘handsome prince’ is an ugly ogre who hates everyone because he’s been ostracized from society, and the ‘beautiful princess’ is an ogre who hides her true self. In the end, Shrek learns to love and Fiona learns not to be ashamed of who she is. What an uplifting note to end on. Add to that, the perfectly matched comic geniuses of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy who riff off each other hilariously making it a joy to watch Shrek and Donkey have conversations. Do you have any idea how rare it is for an audience of children to be captivated by a conversation? Shrek is a lovely movie, that is fun and enjoyable for audiences of all ages. It’s got heart, humor, thrills, frights, and a moral message. What else could you want in a film?
5. Get Out
One of the greatest films of the century – and of all time – was released just a few months ago. Who would have thought that Jordan Peele, the man behind Meegan and Puppy Dog Ice-T, would be the one to revitalize the oversaturated horror market with a thrilling, engaging, socially conscious masterpiece? For years before Get Out, horror films had merely been predictable, derivative found footage Blair Witch ripoffs. And then Peele’s film came out and sparked conversations about race presenting a whole new understanding of how white people treat the African-American community. And not just the backwoods, Confederate flag-waving rednecks. Peele is too smart to attack stereotypes with stereotypes. Instead, he held a mirror up to society, combined movie horror with the horrors of racism, and made a thriller that means something. A fantastic film.
Birdman is a dark comedy about a washed-up movie star trying to gain some credibility with a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story. But it’s about so much more than that. It’s about reaching a certain age and realizing you’ve wasted your life. It’s about having a mid-life crisis and trying to give your life some meaning and being surrounded by haters and naysayers who want nothing more than to crush you. Watching this film is a cathartic experience. No wonder it won Best Picture. We watch Riggan Thomson, who sees himself as nothing more than the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question, desperately trying to get himself out of the gutter while surrounded by people who are desperate to keep him there. We laugh at him, because we relate. The fact that Michael Keaton lost Best Actor to Eddie Redmayne is a crime. See this movie.
3. Shaun of the Dead
In terms of structure, storytelling, character development, everything about Shaun of the Dead is perfect. Paying homage to the zombie genre through the lens of a Richard Curtis romcom (which doesn’t sound like a combination that would work, but it does), Edgar Wright masterfully applies literary techniques like foreshadowing to this film and they work like a charm. The movie Shaun has stood the test of time; the jokes never get old. The same team even managed to catch lightning in a bottle a second time with Hot Fuzz a couple of years later, but Shaun is the greater film because it is structurally tighter and faster paced – you can watch it twice successively and you won’t be bored for a second, which is something that can’t be said for almost anything. It’s a slice of fried gold!
2. Django Unchained
Django Unchained gives us Quentin Tarantino on an epic scale. You get a scope most films dream of just from the sheer amount of beautiful footage Tarantino shot. He blew through a $100 million budget like it was nothing, and most of it ended up on the cutting room floor. We get the crème de la crème of the Django shoot. The film is a prime example of perfectly combining style and subject. It’s a western movie heavily influenced by specific western filmmakers like Sergio Leone, using his camera angles and editing techniques. But it’s not about the West or that era. It’s about an entirely different chapter in history. It was revolutionary. Tarantino created an entire genre just so he could make one totally unique film. There’s nothing else like it. It might be inappropriate to do a movie about slavery in this style, but that doesn’t make it any less of a masterpiece.
1. Midnight in Paris
Where do I begin? Midnight in Paris is a truly wonderful movie. Despite the array of famous characters, from Ernest Hemingway to Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, it’s Owen Wilson’s portrayal of Allen that owns the show. He gives a lovable lead performance as a West Coast Woody Allen surrogate and brings his own nuanced, James Stewart-like acting style to a typical neurotic Woody character. Plus, Allen’s brilliant, Oscar-winning screenplay combines everything he’s best at: it’s sweet, funny, romantic, and relatable. And let’s get back to those perfect, searing portrayals of true-life figures like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot etc. Allen captures their voices perfectly. Much credit also goes to the actors playing them, from Corey Stoll as Hemingway to Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali. Darius Khondji’s beautiful cinematography captures the magical aura of Paris both now and in the 1920s. Midnight in Paris isn’t just Woody Allen’s best film in years; it’s quite possibly Woody Allen’s best film ever.
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