The 21 Best Films of the 21st Century (Pt. 1)

Art is not a contest, and the consumption of art is largely a subjective experience.  No list is definitive, but lists are fun to read (and to write).  The growing prevalence of “listicles” and websites like Buzzfeed are, in my opinion, a blight upon our media culture, another manifestation of our dwindling collective attention span (think: The Top 18 Celebrity Selfie Malfunctions That Will Totally Change Your World).  But ranking and categorizing our favorite films, musicians and books can also give rise to healthy debate, and that’s a good thing.  

In that spirit, Moving Pictures has compiled this rundown of the 21 Best Films of the 21st Century.  The following is Part 1 only; Part 2 will follow in the next week or so.  Please tell us what you think in the comments section, and enjoy!

  1. The Comedy (2012) – Rick Alverson

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Who would have thought that a film starring the comedic duo behind Cartoon Network’s Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! could be so sad, so emotionally transgressive.  Then again, the work of Tim Heidecker (the film’s lead) and Eric Wareheim (largely relegated to the background) has always belied darker impulses.  This film isn’t much more than an episodic chronicle of the rambling excursions of a lazy, detached and often mean-spirited man-child, but its handle on the characters and willingness to go uncomfortable places allows The Comedy to act as the defining treatise on Hipsterism.  The film’s final shot suggests a fleeting glint of redemption, but one is left wondering if this character (and all he represents) is too far gone.

  1. Drive (2011) – Nicolas Winding Refn 

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There was significant mainstream backlash directed at Drive upon its release when many theatergoers discovered, to their dismay, it was neither a video game adaptation nor Fast and Furious companion piece.  What they found instead was a film unexpectedly short on dialogue, with only two car chases and a style of violence more disturbing than exciting.  The misunderstanding mattered little in critical circles; Drive earned Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn the Best Director Award at Cannes and it maintains a subtle power to this day.  The first of the aforementioned car chases could act as a veritable master class in tension-building and deftly sets the tone for everything to come.  Drive also features a bevy of stellar performances.  Ryan Gosling reinvents the strong silent type, coloring his getaway driver with shades of chivalry and psychosis simultaneously, and Carrie Mulligan builds a beautifully rounded character almost entirely with facial expressions.  Albert Brooks is cast against type as a cold blooded crime boss, and Oscar Isaac and Bryan Cranston even make appearances in meaty supporting roles.  There’s so much to like about Refn’s film, but his patience and restraint make it shine mostly for what he chooses not to do.

  1. The Master (2012) – Paul Thomas Anderson 

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There’s something about The Master that makes it more than the sum of it’s parts, impressive though those parts may be.  Shot on 70mm (basically IMAX), PTA’s very big yet very intimate film is loosely based on the genesis of the Church of Scientology (Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in his last great performance as the L. Ron Hubbard figure, Lancaster Dodd), but there’s so much more bubbling beneath the surface.  Relatively straightforward yet somehow surreal, the story utilizes a subtly disorienting structure that obscures the passage of time and blurs the lines between dreams, visions and flashbacks. Joaquin Phoenix delivers a performance for the ages as Freddie Quell, a drunken drifter who falls in with Dodd’s cultish enclave.  His twisted face, simian physicality and mumbling speech allow the actor to disappear completely into the role; an early scene depicting Freddie’s first “processing” session is among the most mesmerizing I’ve ever seen.  The Master is a puzzle of a film that refrains from revealing itself as such in any overt way.  Only with repeated viewings does one begin to grasp how far down the rabbit hole it can take you.

  1. Superbad (2007) – Greg Mottola

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I watch at least part of Superbad about twice a month, and it’s quoted in my house almost daily.  The interesting thing, however, is that the most quotable lines aren’t even funny on paper: “It’s fine, I’ll be fine.”; “Hell…yea we should get some road beers.”; “That was pimp. I feel like a pimp right now.”  It’s not the writing that makes these moments so funny and so memorable (though Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s script is top notch), it’s the delivery.  Certainly the best high-school-comedy-unfolding-over-a-single-day since Dazed and Confused, Superbad brings on the nostalgia just as hard as the laughs.  It’s hilarious, yes, but it also has heart, and the cadence and phrasing of the characters’ banter gets at the way real people talk better than 99.9% of contemporary comedies.  It rightly sits atop the Judd Apatow cannon and created bonafide stars out of Jonah Hill, Michael Cera and Emma Stone (even “McLovin” enjoyed some solid subsequent roles), but Martha MacIsaac was also fantastic as Becca.  What ever happened to her??

  1. Requiem for a Dream (2000) – Darren Aronofsky

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There are many films about substance abuse, and naturally they handle the topic with varying degrees of success.  Some are downright cartoonish in their depiction of the negative effects, others whitewash the same, focusing only on the fun, excitement and cool of it all.  The best films about this subject strike a balance, because the reality is that drugs are fun (that’s why so many people have at least dabbled), but they are also capable of shattering lives, relationships, and even whole communities.  Requiem for a Dream, the sophomore feature from director Darren Aronofsky, is a daunting viewing experience to be sure.  It’s a film that utilizes nightmarish expressionism and graphic portrayals of rock bottom, challenging the audience with the gravity of the characters’ situations.  Aronofsky’s showy and sometimes jarring direction creates the appropriate tone without detracting from the narrative, and the film’s harrowing final minutes build to a peak of such disturbing consequence that upon my first viewing I simply sat and stared at the screen in shock as the credits rolled to completion.  Why would anyone subject themselves to institutionalization, prostitution, imprisonment and horrific bodily harm for a relatively short lived high?  Requiem for a Dream answers that question with its deft setup and characterization.  It’s not just a high these people are looking for, they hope to recapture the past, to have a better life, to be loved.  Sadly, it’s one of the more aptly titled films on this list.

  1. Irreversible (2003) – Gaspar Noe 

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Certainly the most difficult film to watch on this list (maybe ever?), Noe’s sickening backward spiral of violence and vengeance punishes its audience with an onslaught of human ugliness virtually unparalleled in my experience as a viewer.  Irreversible is really a simple story of revenge and vigilante justice told backwards.  Such narrative tinkering can easily turn to gimmickry, but in this case it allows for a slow reveal of the characters’ backstories that adds richness to the performances and emotional weight to the violence.  Vincent Cassel’s fevered performance is a stand-out, but the entire cast is operating at the top of their game.  This is a film that many will struggle to get through, but if you can stick it out to the end you’ll be rewarded with the full scope of this marvelously constructed and visceral accomplishment.  Sometimes we have to be reminded of humankind’s capacity for cruelty to truly appreciate its aspirations to love.

  1. Mulholland Dr. (2001) – David Lynch

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Haunting and confounding, David Lynch’s dreamlike neo-noir/classic horror mash-up draws you in with it’s bizarre pageantry, holds your attention with its central mystery and ultimately leaves you knowing that you’ve seen something significant even as it’s full meaning proves evasive.  Mulholland Dr. explores a familiar Lynchian theme: the rot beneath the surface of the more glossy corners of our society.  Naomi Watts’ archetypal mid-western beauty, fresh off the bus with high hopes of Hollywood success, endures as her most powerful and desperate performance not only because of the depths to which her character plunges but the scope of her transformation over the film’s run-time. Theories abound on what it all means (Lynch even offers some hints on decoding the film), but it won’t immediately matter as you reach the shock-inducing crescendo.

  1. Melancholia (2011) – Lars Von Trier 

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The subversive and mercurial director of Melancholia was a founding member of the Dogme 95 movement, a collaborative of filmmakers with a fully formed manifesto: handheld camerawork only, no non-diegetic sound, shoots must be on location, etc.  The goal was to create a new paradigm in film making focused on completely unadorned storytelling, no bells or whistles of any kind.  It’s an interesting history considering that Melancholia is one of the most beautifully rendered and technically savvy films in recent memory, one in which Von Trier utilizes almost all of the techniques he once rejected to mesmerizing effect. Old-moneyed sisters Claire and Justine (Von Trier regular Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst in a Cannes Best Actress winning performance) share the focus, but the narrative crux is the latter’s crippling depression, an issue very near to the filmmaker’s heart, having experienced his own public battles.  Melancholia is gorgeously shot and superbly acted but its structural choices also contribute in a major way to its unique identity.  An eerie, tableau-like, Wagner scored intro provides a cryptic outline of the entire film, and the first half plays out in a single night within a single set piece.  This is a beautiful film about an ugly topic, and its raw, honest portrayal of a well off and well loved individual battling despair clearly draws on Von Trier’s personal experience.  Oh, it’s also about another planet colliding with Earth…did I mention that?

  1. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) – Cristian Mungiu 

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Palme d’Or winner at the 2007 Cannes film festival, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the poster film of the Romanian New Wave in cinema, and appropriately so.  Lean, tense and authentic in its depiction of life under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist regime, it tells the story of a college student’s perilous efforts to assist her friend in obtaining an illegal abortion.  Its darkly saturated cinematography and drab Eastern Block set pieces effectively mimic the mindset of the two leads, and director Cristian Mungiu’s minimalist approach leaves the audience hanging on every moment, leveraging the viewer’s knowledge to create almost unbearable suspense.  This filmmaker is clearly familiar with Hitchcock’s famous lesson that “surprise” is when two characters are sitting at a table talking and all of a sudden a bomb explodes from under the table; “suspense” is when the audience knows the bomb is there the whole time.  The film’s jarring final shot hints strongly that Mungiu has not only been deftly puppeteering his characters, but his audience as well.

  1. Sideways (2004) – Alexander Payne

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Sideways is an immensely enjoyable and endlessly re-watchable film due in large part to the breadth of its tonal range.  It’s equal parts uproarious buddy comedy/road trip film and heartbreaking study of depression and insecurity, and it’s a real feat that it works so well at both ends of this spectrum.  Paul Giamatti (in his best performance to date) plays Miles, a recently divorced middle school English teacher with a deep, aching love of wine.  His best friend and former college roommate Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is finally taking the proverbial plunge and Miles has planned a week-long itinerary of tastings, dinners and rounds of golf throughout California’s Santa Ynez Valley to celebrate his friend’s last week of freedom.  As the trip progresses (and is made more complicated by the addition of two female companions), the film explores themes of friendship, loneliness and trust.  Payne’s tasteful direction draws little attention to itself while keenly establishing a sense of space among the film’s gorgeous locations, and Rolfe Kent’s score provides a perfectly calibrated accompaniment, like a fine Pinot Noir to a funky Camembert. Sideways is more than a film about the joys and pretensions of the wine world; it’s a funny and brutally honest look at the struggle to allow others to see you as you are and, perhaps, change how you see yourself.  Aging isn’t easy, but to quote one of the film’s principal characters, when you get it right, “it tastes so fucking good.”

  1. United 93 (2006) – Paul Greengrass 

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Neither sensational nor sentimental, Greengrass’s docudrama is the definitive celluloid statement on 9/11.  The action is relegated solely to the ill-fated plane itself and the military and air traffic control rooms that feverishly yet professionally labored to make sense of the horrific events as they happened. Greengrass takes an added risk in portraying the hijackers not as evil, faceless cogs, but as conflicted human beings capable of fear, panic and uncertainty. When the credits rolled I wept.  Maybe because the events were, at that point, far enough in the past for the shock to have worn off, or maybe because I was more mature than I was in 2001, but for me United 93 crystallized this national tragedy in a way that nothing else could.

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