Recently filmmakers, critics and bloggers were asked to name their top 25 favorite movies of the 21st century so far. Obviously, we have a long way to go before the century reaches its close, and unless God has some remarkable plans for me, I probably won’t be around to engage in a full century review, so I thought I’d jump on the bandwagon and give my two cents worth. After all, I’m a total list FIEND!
Obviously, lists like these can change year by year, month by month, sometimes even week by week when we are fortunate enough to catch a truly brilliant motion picture every once in awhile. But as of this writing, these are the 25 that have really spoken to me since 2000.
Regular readers will certainly recognize some of these titles from previous posts, but there are a lot of movies below I’ve never had the chance to discuss. Hope you enjoy this look back over the last 17 years or so.
For your reference, I’ve listed the 25 movies here in alphabetical order and then individual short reviews follow.
Top 25 Movies of the 21st Century
- Bad Education
- Best in Show
- Big Fish
- Black Swan
- Brokeback Mountain
- Capturing the Friedmans
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
- Far From Heaven
- 45 Years
- The Hours
- Julie and Julia
- Kill Bill Vol. 1/Kill Bill Vol. 2
- Little Children
- Lost in Translation
- Notes on a Scandal
- Rachel Getting Married
- Requiem for a Dream
- The Royal Tenenbaums
- A Single Man
- Super Size Me
- You Can Count on Me
Top 25 Films of the 21st Century
1) ADAPTATION (2002)
One of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, director Spike Jonze and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman brought to screen a fictional account of Charlie’s attempt to adapt the 1998 novel “The Orchid Thief” by Susan Orlean into a cohesive screenplay.
Nicolas Cage as Kaufman and his fictional twin brother Donald, Meryl Streep as Orlean, and Chris Cooper as horticulturist John Laroche all received Oscar nominations, with the latter winning for his unforgettable portrayal of the man who inspired Orlean’s book. The film takes a surprising 180-degree turn in the final act, as we are bludgeoned with car chases, shootings, drug use, and violent death. Some may see this as the filmmakers compromising their vision; I see it as the ultimate practical joke. Viewers will have to judge for themselves. This is certainly one of the most original movies ever made.
2) BAD EDUCATION (LA MALA EDUCACION) (2004)
Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodavar is without a doubt my favorite foreign director, and although he has plenty of movies worthy of consideration on such a list, this one has remained my personal favorite since the first time I saw it.
Several intersecting story lines jump back and forth between past and present, reality and fiction, revenge and religion, and everything comes together seamlessly and cohesively at the end. Shocking revelations, mistaken identities, blackmail – this is basically the ultimate cinematic soap opera. And an absolutely irresistible cinematic experience! Gael Garcia Bernal gives one of the great performances of the 2000s and very capably carries what could have been an overly melodramatic eye-roller. A second and maybe even third viewing may be required to take in all the twists and turns.
3) BEST IN SHOW (2000)
I reamin optimistic that director/star Christopher Guest’s series of film “mockumenatries”, of which this is one of the very best, will go down in motion picture history along with Charlie Chaplin and Mel Brooks as comedy gold.
While WAITING FOR GUFFMAN remains my ultimate favorite of Guest’s films, this movie chronicling several participants and their pooches hoping to win the Mayflower Dog Show is undeniably funny, fabulously entertaining and affecting, and certainly one of the great comedies of the last 20 years. Guest and his repertoire company have a remarkable way of walking the fine line between ridicule and affection. It would be so easy to make fun of these characters, but instead there is a certain love the actors convey while ably illustrating their idiosyncrasies and often downright nutty behavior. And Fred Willard is the greatest “color commentator” in movie history.
4) BIG FISH (2003)
Tim Burton, genius he is, can sometimes let the scope of his vision get in the way of the heart of his story. Although filled with amazing visuals, larger than life characters, and incredible effects, at the heart of this film is the story of a son trying to understand his father. Pure and simple.
A magnificent cast led by Billy Crudup, Albert Finney, Ewan McGregor, and Jessica Lange bring humor, intelligence, and poignancy to this retrospective of a man whose dreams were usually bigger than his reality. By the emotional ending of the movie, one has to re-evaluate everything that has just happened. I can’t decide whether I like this or EDWARD SCISSORHANDS more, but both movies brilliantly highlight Burton’s magic as a filmmaker as well as his beautiful way of telling a story.
5) BLACK SWAN (2010)
Without a doubt one of the great movie going experiences of my life, Darren Aronofsky’s confusing, disturbing, complicated and downright brilliant piece of cinema is probably the best film I’ve seen this decade and will likely end up being one of my favorite films of all time.
One of only a handful of films that have made me literally gasp in exhilaration, this is a movie lovers dream. A description of the plot is neither necessary nor beneficial. Just buckle up, suspend reality for a couple hours, and go along for the ride. Natalie Portman is phenomenal and more than deserved her numerous Best Actress citations.
6) BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)
Groundbreaking on many levels, director Ang Lee’s overwhelming shoulda-been Best Picture winner accomplishes something rather extraordinary – it makes us forget the particulars of the story we are watching and makes us realize, regardless of our beliefs and prejudices, that at the heart of the matter, love is love is love.
The fact that Heath Ledger died so young only adds to the poignancy and pain of watching this film. His performance here is nothing short of transcendent and will be remembered and studied for decades to come. Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Williams also excel brilliantly in their Oscar-nominated roles. This films contains one of the great satisfying yet heartbreaking endings you’ll ever see, and your heart may never fully recover.
7) CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (2003)
This is my favorite documentary of all time and proof positive that truth is stranger than fiction. Filmmaker Andrew Jarecki had every intention of doing a movie about children’s circus clowns but, based on a single interview, ended up instead making a devastating, sometimes almost too intimate to watch portrait of a family in crisis when two of its members are accused of a horrendous crime.
What makes this such an extraordinary experience is that much of the actual footage shown was taken by family members themselves. We hear and often see screaming matches, discussions across the dinner table, and even moments of levity to distance themselves from the horror of their lives, if only for a fleeting moment. Truly unforgettable!
8) DOUBT (2008)
The strict Mother Superior of a Catholic school has reason to suspect one of the priests of inappropriate behavior with a student. A young nun who originally brought the potential offense to the Mother Superior’s attention becomes increasingly uncertain and finds herself caught between these two forces of nature.
Based on the Pultizer Prizing winning play by John Patrick Shanley, this is screen acting of the highest caliber, and you won’t find a better ensemble of performances in any recent film. A rather shocking scene between Meryl Streep and Viola Davis is particularly memorable. There are no answers provided, and discussion afterwards is mandatory!
9) ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004)
Possibly the most original romance ever put on screen, this is a movie virtually impossible to categorize. A dash of drama, a pinch of comedy, even a dollop or two of science fiction, this is another movie that requires multiple viewings to absorb all of its wonderful qualities and truly appreciate the extent of its accomplishments.
Is it better to have loved and lost than to never remember having loved at all? This is undoubtedly Jim Carrey’s finest hour, but the heart and soul of this film is Kate Winslet’s unforgettable Clementine, a daffy character that should drive us crazy insane but ends up breaking our hearts.
10) FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002)
The true genius of director Todd Haynes’ vision here will best be appreciated by those who remember the Douglas Sirk films of the 1950s such as ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and WRITTEN ON THE WIND. Haynes retains the characteristics and propriety of those melodramas while presenting story lines and occurrences that would never have been addressed decades ago. As a result we have our eyes opened in a new and stirring way to prejudices we hear about all the time but to which we have in many ways grown accustomed.
Julianne Moore is a miraculous actress, and she is at the top of her craft in this movie. I also want to make special mention of Dennis Quaid, criminally overlooked at awards time for his brave and daring performance here. The production values are magnificent, and the film seems to bathe in warm tones and hues that give it a very individualistic feel.
11) 45 YEARS (2015)
Watching this film was one of those very rare and wonderful experiences when you know little or nothing about the movie you are about to see and walk away 90 minutes later feeling like the earth has shaken under you. There are no lavish production values here, no special effects, and a good chunk of the movie consists of a husband and wife talking back and forth. But the words are palpable and multi-dimensional, and there is one particular scene of quiet devastation that pretty much leaves you breathless.
Charlotte Rampling was 69 years old when this came out, earning her first Oscar nomination, and it is one of the most quietly persuasive and magnificent performances of the century. Whenever I think of this film, I tend to remember the very end. It’s just a dance between a husband and wife, and Rampling goes through a dozen or so emotions without saying a single word, but they speak volumes as to where these characters have been and where they are going from here.
12) THE HOURS (2002)
Stephen Frears’ masterpiece, based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, is my official choice for THE BEST film of the 21st century so far. In my eyes this is as close to perfection as movie-making can be, and it’s one of those rare experiences seeing a movie when you feel like you may have become a better person for having watched it. Some may complain about a depressing film filled with depressed characters, but there is nothing depressing to me about good movie-making, regardless of the subject.
The film intersperses three stories: writer Virginia Woolf in the early 1900s, battling depression as she works on her latest novel; 1950s housewife Laura Brown, who is reading said novel while trapped in an unfulfilling marriage and family life; and 21st century book editor Clarissa Vaughn, basically a modern day version of the main character in Woolf’s novel, who is striving to find meaning and purpose in a life she considers to have been somewhat frivolous. Absolutely spellbinding with incredible editing and music!
13) JULIE AND JULIA (2009)
The late, great Nora Ephron’s slick, crowd-pleasing film juxtaposing modern day blogger Julie Powell and legendary chef Julia Child is one of those films where you find yourself smiling from the opening credits to the final fade out. And dying to have a gourmet meal when you’re done.
As the larger than life culinary genius, Meryl Streep gives one of the most joyful, effervescent performances I can remember seeing. Streep obviously has been impressing us for decades with her talent, but there is something about this performance that is markedly different, a certain joie de vivre that is absolutely irresistible. I’d also like to recognize Stanley Tucci as Julia’s husband Paul who matches Streep step for step. One of the best times I’ve had at the movies ever!
14) KILL BILL VOL. 1 (2003) and VOL. 2 (2004)
OK, I’m cheating here a little. Of course, these are two different films that came out in two different years; however in my mind, I think of them as one four-hour movie separated by the longest intermission in cinema history.
Quentin Tarantino is probably one of the more divisive directors working today, and the level of blood and violence and obscenities in his films can often be disturbing. That being said, on a purely cinematic level, this is filmmaking by someone who obviously has a love for what he’s doing and a love for what has inspired him to do what he’s doing, and that is absolutely contagious for the viewer. Uma Thurman as our indestructible heroine seems to be having the time of her life, and there are dazzlingly choreographed fight scenes here that are almost like works of art.
15) LITTLE CHILDREN (2006)
Based on the novel by Tom Perrotta, this is the type of movie that I absolutely love – the secret lives of people behind the seemingly perfect facade of the white picket fences that surround their perfectly manicured lawns and beautifully painted homes. This is dysfunction at its finest but done in such a way that leaves you a lot to think about and discuss afterwards. There are choices made and actions taken that may seem questionable but are certainly understandable. It’s lots of gray and not a lot of black and white, just like life.
The most fascinating storyline in the movie is also the most uncomfortable and controversial, concerning a pedophile who lives at home with his mother. Jackie Earle Haley gives an astonishing performance, making us almost sympathetic for him in one scene and downright hateful toward him in the next. The acting is uniformly excellent, and this is a movie that sticks with you days and days after seeing it.
16) LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003)
Director and Oscar-winning screenwriter Sofia Coppola’s almost hallucinogenic tour through Tokyo is most certainly not going to be everyone’s idea of a good time. Some will be bored and some will consider it pointless and meaningless. If you’re on board with it, however, you’ll realize that those feelings are what I expect Coppola is actually trying to convey.
Without much of a discernible plot, we follow the bond that grows between a middle-aged actor in town to film a commercial and a much younger newlywed in town with her celebrity-photographer husband. Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson create the most unlikely oddball pairing one could imagine, but through one of those miracles of movie-making, the relationship works. And at the very end, when Murray whispers in Johansson’s ear, our disappointment in not being able to hear what he’s saying is overtaken by the realization that it doesn’t matter. It’s a scene – and a movie – that needs to be seen to be believed.
17) MARGARET (2011)
Most readers will likely have never heard of this movie. Its backstory is almost as remarkable as the film itself. Originally made in 2007, the film sat on the shelf for four years as filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan and studio Fox Searchlight Pictures were entangled in multiple lawsuits over final cut of the film. It’s a miracle that it ever saw the light of day. It’s an even bigger miracle that it was every bit worth the wait, a truly memorable work of art.
A teenage girl goes through a crisis of humanity when she distracts a bus driver resulting in him running over a pedestrian. After unsuccessful attempts to reconcile her feelings through discussions with the bus driver and the pedestrian’s best friend, she finds herself in a downward spiral, basically damaging every relationship in her life and causing her to question life in general. It’s a fascinating story, and the most wonderful aspect of Anna Paquin’s performance is how she makes her character Lisa very hard to like at times, very unsympathetic.
18) MONSTER (2003)
There have been some remarkable transformations actors have gone through for their movies, but Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos has to top any legitimate list. Her amazing Oscar-winning performance is the basic raison d etre of director Patty Jenning’s brutal and unflinching biography.
Wuornos was one of the first females to be executed since the Supreme Court restored capital punishment in 1976, and Theron’s performance is eerily accurate for anyone who has seen video of the real-life serial killer. Remarkably, she also brings out a bit of Aileen’s humanity and there is a certain level of sympathy for her by the end of the film. The motion picture itself is totally reliant on the success or failure of the leading lady, and when you have a performance this phenomenal, the film itself is raised to a higher bar. This is a hard movie to shake!
19) NOTES ON A SCANDAL (2006)
This totally enthralling and captivatingly scandalous film about a teacher who has an affair with one of her students and a fellow teacher who uses the knowledge of said affair to her advantage builds such an air of tension and suspense and unpredictability that it puts most psychological dramas to shame.
What really takes this from headline fodder to marvelous storytelling are the performances of Cate Blanchett and most especially Judi Dench, who has never given a finer performance than this one right here. She could easily come across like the mother of Alex Forrest from FATAL ATTRACTION, but Dench imbues the character with a certain pathetic nobility that make her human and three-dimensional. While her actions are as deplorable as the woman she is basically blackmailing, they are generated from a sense of loneliness and wanting to be loved. This makes her more complex and relatable then your average movie villain. That being said, the scenes where she loses control are truly disturbing.
20) RACHEL GETTING MARRIED (2008)
Easily one of the best dysfunctional family movies ever made, and easily the best performance Anne Hathaway has given on film, this is a sparkling drama that feels so authentic and so real that you’re almost tempted to believe that director Jonathan Demme set up his cameras in the home of a real family. Hathaway’s Kym, recently out of rehab, comes home for her sister’s wedding, and before too long we see behind the fake smiles and awkward embraces to the core of what basically led the family to fall apart.
Demme makes the unusual but ultimately affecting decision to let scenes run much longer than normal, allowing us to share the discomfort and claustrophobia of what the characters often feel. This is sincere, truthful, unapologetic filmmaking, sometimes almost uncomfortable to watch. Hathaway and Debra Winger, as her mother, have one particular scene of startling intensity and truth telling that is truly electrifying and one of the great scenes of any film I’ve seen in recent years.
21) REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000)
I am simultaneously mesmerized and repelled by Darren Aronofsky’s second film to appear on my list. There are scenes of such horror and disgust and unflinching reality that keeping my eyes on the screen was almost impossible. Characters suffer fates so horrible that your average horror film pales by comparison. That being said, the filmmaking is so undeniably brilliant and the performances so searing, the movie lover in me was close to nirvana.
While all the actors succeed admirably, I can’t remember seeing a performance quite like Ellen Burstyn’s ever before. She absolutely breaks your heart in two as a lonely widow whose desire to fit into her red dress leads to consequences that one could never imagine. Love him or hate him, Aronofsky’s powers as a filmmaker are indisputable, and he is at the top of his game here. I can’t imagine anyone ever wanting to come close to any drug – not even aspirin – after watching this movie.
22) THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001)
Director Wes Anderson tends to be an acquired taste for some, as his film are usually filled with quirky characters and unusual circumstances that leave some viewers rolling their eyes. This film, about a family of estranged geniuses who reunite upon the unexpected arrival of their father, is my favorite of his oeuvre, filled with just the right levels of humor, drama, pathos, and unique characters and performances.
Anderson’s humor is based more on the absurdities of life and people in general than anything subltle or overly realistic. I find his work fresh and satirical, and while some of his films can be fairly accused of being overly unconventional for uncovention’s sake, the tone here is sublime. From the way he chooses to introduce the characters, to the charming way in which Gene Hackman’s long lost father bonds with the rather unusual grandchildren he’s never met before, it becomes a remarkably fun experience and surprisingly moving by the end.
23) A SINGLE MAN (2009)
Horribly grief-stricken after the death of his partner, a college professor makes plans to commit suicide. As he goes through his daily routines and make his preparations, he has encounters with colleagues, students, and an old friend which may effect his eventual decision.
This is a quietly powerful, observant, and subtle character study which ultimately packs an unbelievable punch in the gut. I can’t say enough for Colin Firth in this role, as his regression from grief slowly eats away at his very soul. It’s not a performance of yelling and screaming and histrionics; rather a performance of quiet moments, silent looks, and soul-baring honesty. The scene toward the beginning of the film when he learns of his lover’s death is a master class of acting. Firth does nothing but sit in a chair and talk on the phone, but the variety of emotions that swim over his face is awe-inspiring. This is a great, unheralded film that deserves to be revisited!
24) SUPER SIZE ME (2004)
There’s nothing overly remarkable or earth-shattering about Morgan Spurlock’s comedic documentary about the effects McDonalds can have on the average American, but I have rarely been so entertained, and rarely have I found a film so imminently rewatchable. While his experiment is obviously a bit extreme, what he sets out to prove is certainly relevant, and I firmly believe that every young person should watch this film as they prepare to get older and make their own choices about food consumption.
What elevates this film for me and makes it worthy of inclusion on this list is Spurlock’s look at other topics besides the effects on himself individually. He takes a look at the failure of our public school system in providing healthy and decent lunches for our children, he looks at the questionable way in which animals are treated when being prepared for food, and he gets opinions and feedback from doctors, nutritionists, and other learned professionals. And finally, he takes what could have been a boring health class video topic and turns it into something fresh, funny, and highly entertaining.
25) YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000)
Kenneth Lonergan makes his second appearance on my list, and I obviously consider him one of the finest filmmakers working today. He doesn’t work very often, so when a film of his is released, it becomes something of an event. Lonergan’s debut as a director was this wonderfully funny and touching film about the reunion of a brother and sister.
A deceptively simple story is given credence and heft by the remarkable acting of Mark Ruffalo and the crazy-good Laura Linney. They create one of the great brother-sister teams in motion picture history, and there wasn’t a second when I didn’t fully believe and accept them as siblings. Subplots involving Ruffalo’s relationship with his nephew and Linney’s affair with her boss prove to illustrate that he’s not the total scoundrel everyone believes him to be and she’s not the perfect angel everyone believes her to be. There’s not a false emotion to be found.
What are some of your favorite movies of the 2000s?
Please share below. I’m always looking for good suggestions.
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