The 21 Best Films of the 21st Century (Pt. 2)

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 listing-making 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.  

In that spirit, Moving Pictures has compiled a list of the 21 Best Films of the 21st Century.  The following is Part 2 of the list; if you missed Part 1 you can check it out HERE.  Please tell us what you think in the comments section, and enjoy!

  1. Under the Skin (2014) – Jonathan Glazer

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Under the Skin is a film that few people saw and probably even fewer enjoyed.  I don’t think that’s right, but it’s certainly understandable.  It’s a challenging film to be sure; scarce on dialogue, it utilizes a B movie-style narrative conveyed through a schizophrenic combination of cinéma vérité and painstakingly manipulated imagery.  It works, and amazingly well, for two reasons, the first being Scarlett Johansson’s transformative, otherworldly performance.  The second is the unique and uncompromising way in which director Jonathan Glazer approaches the potentially pulpy material.  This filmmaker’s dedication and command of craft, just as much as his artistic style itself, evoke the term “Kubrickian” perhaps more appropriately than anything else I’ve seen since the death of the genuine article.  Under the Skin took ten years to make, but it should (and hopefully will) be remembered for ten times that.

(Read the full review HERE)

  1. Grizzly Man (2005) – Werner Herzog 

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The image above is an appropriate representation of what Timothy Treadwell was all about: not simply observing the natural world but becoming a part of it, and indeed, in many ways, forsaking the human world for it.  As it’s divulged in the opening minutes of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, it’s no spoiler to say that his quest ended in tragedy.  In some sense a found-footage documentary, the film largely consists of material Treadwell shot himself, of himself, over 13 summers in the Alaskan wilderness tracking and studying wild grizzly bears.  It is not, however, a nature documentary.  Though Herzog, a giant of cinema in his own right, crafts a bizarre yet successful framework with artfully staged interviews and his own signature narration, the German filmmaker clearly struck gold with his true subject, Treadwell himself.  A man of heartbreakingly childlike wonder and sadness, Treadwell bears his soul (no pun intended) to a camera on a tripod in the middle of nowhere, and many of the moments captured are as real and as human as movies can get.

  1. In the Mood for Love (2000) – Wong Kar-Wai

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In the Mood for Love is the most recent film I’ve seen on this list, just within the last few weeks, and given its pedigree I’d expected to see something special. To say I was not disappointed would be a gross understatement.  Yes, In the Mood for Love is dazzlingly beautiful and formally rich, though these strengths ultimately exist to serve its heartbreaking and universal story of unfulfilled love.  A friendship forms between neighbors Chow and Su when they discover their spouses are carrying on an affair, and that friendship quickly becomes a close and complicated bond.  Director Wong Kar-Wai’s script plays with the idea of repetition throughout, replaying musical themes and even the same interactions to fascinating and hypnotic effect.  The subject of identity, too, is explored; not just in general terms of the characters’ pairing within the film’s conservative social context, but also directly in the form of recurring exercises where the two rehearse conversations and confrontations with their unfaithful partners.  The final sequence is breathtaking; the ancient setting, the significance of the act, the cello weeping through it all.  In the Mood for Love is also the most recent film on the Sight and Sound list, a towering institution, and as innovative as it is, it’s a work that also draws on many of the time-tested sensibilities that make it an obvious addition to the cinematic canon.  Mood has the quality of a memory: elemental and fragmented, but something you nonetheless can’t shake.

  1. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) – Abdellatif Kechiche

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Controversy swirled around Blue is the Warmest Color even before it took the top prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival (accusations of mistreatment of the cast and crew, backlash from the source material’s author, and of course, the extremely long, graphic sex scenes).  All of this ultimately became a distraction from the fact that Blue is one of the best coming-of-age stories in recent memory, if not ever.  While the film’s main focus is the romantic relationship between a young French woman named Adele, and Emma, a hip art school student several years her senior, it is just as much about Adele’s life before and after the relationship as it is about the relationship itself. Indeed, their connection carries so much weight because we spend those small, quiet moments with Adele both leading up to and in the aftermath of her time with Emma (in fact, the French title of the film is The Life of Adele – Chapters 1 & 2).  That structural choice, coupled with a beautifully naturalistic and emotionally raw performance from Adele Exarchopoulos, makes the nearly three hour film a deeply immersive experience.  Lea Seydoux, as Emma, hits all the right notes as the mature, nurturing lover and the increasingly distant artist, and the entire supporting cast creates a lush tapestry of characters that deepens the world created by Kechiche.  But one really cannot say enough about Exarchopoulos.  A relative unknown prior to filming, she is utterly convincing at every moment, whether chatting with friends, teaching a class full of second graders, making passionate love or eating a plate of spaghetti. Blue is the Warmest Color is a film about a particular relationship, yes, but ultimately it is about how love shapes our lives, how it does not always conform to our plans and responsibilities, how we can learn from the pain we experience, and how some people will always matter to who we are.

  1. Lost in Translation (2003) – Sofia Coppola

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Bill Murray is one of American comedy’s greatest ambassadors, able to create characters of heartwarming silliness (What About Bob? was a staple in my home growing up and remains the most frequently quoted film by far) or caddish cool (see Stripes and the Ghostbuster movies).  Since the late 90s, however, many of his roles have taken on a sense of subtle melancholy that displays the true depth of Murray’s range.  Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation is the zenith of that phase, the story of a has-been actor and the young wife of a distant workaholic (a 19 year old Scarlett Johansson), both caught adrift amidst the flashing lights and frenzied pulse of Tokyo.  The film is built around a series of small moments as the two explore the city together.  Coppola’s script is meticulous in its pacing, toying with the nature of the relationship (Paternal? Comradely? Romantic?) for much of it’s runtime.  Murray is at his most genuine while still providing big laughs as an unlikely straight-man.  But Lost in Translation proves to be an even more critical milestone for Johansson, here establishing herself as a serious artist with serious chops.  Its memorable, though muted, climax shows powerful restraint (the director’s choice to obscure Murray’s parting words is a masterstroke) and offers one of the most sweetly sad moments ever filmed.

  1. Caché (2005) – Michael Haneke

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The inspiration of endless debate and at least as much head-scratching, this enigmatic thriller from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke is a beautifully constructed and gripping film, but it’s also a brilliantly conceived viewing exercise that invites collaborative engagement from its audience.  When an upper class Parisian family starts receiving anonymous VHS tapes of a static video feed from outside their home, along with ominous, childlike drawings, suspicion and deceit seep into domestic relationships as a mother (Juliette Binoche), father (Daniel Auteuil) and teenage son struggle to make sense of the bizarre happenings.  Though material like this could easily be handled as cheap horror, Caché focuses on the impact rather than the action, holding a level of tension that defies the very concept of release, let alone resolution.  It also maintains a rich social subtext, adding yet another layer beneath the puzzlebox narrative.  A key clue (not to infer that there is necessarily a singular “answer”) is held in the film’s very last shot, so watch closely.  There will be much to talk about after the credits roll, so definitely watch this one before dinner.

  1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – Michel Gondry 

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Eternal Sunshine has been in my life for a long time.  I was in high school when it was released and it was the first time I saw a film in the theater that ended up being something truly indelible, a new classic.  It’s prompted many intense conversations, as well as many “let’s leave this on” afternoon half-viewings. There’s not a lot to say about Michel Gondry’s film that hasn’t already been said.  Its Wikipedia page calls it a “romantic science-fiction comedy-drama”, and the fact that that’s not a mischaracterization is amazing unto itself.  Under Gondry’s direction, Charlie Kaufman’s Oscar winning script commands a tonal alchemy that allows its dealings in routine memory erasure and surreal mindscapes to blend seamlessly with its tale of love gained and lost, and gained (and lost?).  I’ll refrain from delving into the particulars and assume you’ve seen it; if you haven’t, you should go in free of expectation.  It’s undoubtedly a superlative film: Gondry’s best, Kaufman’s best, certainly Jim Carrey’s most vital contribution to motion pictures.  Kate Winslet’s Clementine is one of the best written and acted female character’s in recent memory; her mix of traits, both challenging and endearing, is a captivating amalgam for both Carrey and the audience.  And the supporting performances (Ruffalo, Dunst, Wood, Wilkinson)!  And the music!  And the English actors doing perfect American accents!  It’s all a revelation, a cinematic mic drop, period.  

  1. Y Tu Mamá También (2001) – Alfonso Cuarón 

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Y Tu Mamá También is many things.  It’s a road trip film, a frank examination of teenage sexuality, a commentary on Mexican society.  It’s a film about many things: friendship, class, youth and aging, time and impermanence.  It’s long been a favorite film of mine but I’ve had a hard time pinpointing exactly what about it hits me so hard.  The plot is rather slight: best friends Julio and Tenoch (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna), on the cusp of college years and with girlfriends absent on a trip abroad for the summer, embark on an impromptu excursion through the Mexican countryside with thirtysomething Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the ex of an older cousin.  But this simple premise showcases a heady brew of ideas and choices from director Alfonso Cuarón. The handheld camerawork, prevalent use of long takes and the lack of close-ups and traditional “two shots” creates a powerful sense that the viewer is watching real people, eavesdropping on real conversations.  On the other hand you have heavily utilized voiceover by a faceless, omniscient, off-screen narrator; obviously not a naturalistic technique, but nothing in this film is technique for technique’s sake.  What this combination does is allow the performances to focus on interactions without needing to waste time adding depth with exposition.  And beyond the principals, it goes much further by fleshing out characters on the fringe, delving obliquely into the sociopolitical undercurrents of the setting. This whole approach is supported throughout by fabulous performances; Luna, especially, shines (his range of emotion during the hotel room fight is stunning).  If this all weren’t enough, there’s a reveal of information in the film’s conclusion that completely reframes one character, but the technique is an enrichment rather than a distraction.  I suppose this is all to say that the true success of Y Tu Mamá También is its ability to marry these seemingly divergent concepts in a way that’s provocative, beautiful and entertaining instead of just busy.  Less is usually more, but if done correctly, more can also be more.

  1. Before Sunset (2004) – Richard Linklater 

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Richard Linklater’s trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight is among the grandest and most skillfully realized of cinematic endeavours.  Before Sunset is the most exciting installment of the trilogy partly because of its urgency.  It unfolds in real time: 80 minutes, no ellipses.  Before Sunrise breathed vibrant life into these intelligent and complex characters and Before Midnight provides a realistic, well-earned conclusion, but in Sunset we witness the real moment of truth: when we find out if Jesse and Celine will, finally, become Jesse & Celine.  These characters are older and in many ways wiser, and the same can be said for the actors portraying them.  While Before Sunset is the second installment in the series, it’s the first that was co-written by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and the ease with which words tumble and burst from their mouths make us feel like we’re witnessing an authentic and intimate conversation rather than watching a performance.  These three films taken as a whole are a grand, ambitious and sublimely successful experiment, possibly the most comprehensive study of the life cycle of love ever committed to film.  Each piece lends greater perspective to the last, but like other classic trilogies The Godfather and Star Wars, “Part 2” is the most essential.  I’ve asked myself why this has emerged as a pattern in film trilogies, and my only answer is that perhaps the freedom from resolution coupled with the benefit of backstory creates the closest approximation of real life.

  1. There Will Be Blood (2007) – Paul Thomas Anderson

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My god, what can’t this film do?  Iconic performances, a story both timely and timeless, breathtaking cinematography, a brilliantly experimental score and a diamond cut script; check, check, check, check, check.  This epic yet subtle study of greed and antisocial behavior in the context of America’s westward expansion is PTA as Kubrick, but with more emotional heft.  The elegantly fluid camerawork and scarcity of dialogue, carried by a mesmerizing and unsettling score from Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, lull the audience into a trance punctuated only by the film’s bursts of physical and emotional violence.  Daniel Day-Lewis, in an Oscar winning performance (if you thought he was good in Lincoln…), creates one of the most disgustingly fascinating characters in American film history, at once powerful and pathetic, a living, breathing embodiment of humankind’s most base impulses masquerading as progress. He is Charles Foster Kane; he is Colonel Kutz; he is Ahab.  Understanding Daniel Plainview is a way of understanding American history and the personalities that forged our present, and like much of said history, it’s not pretty.  Simply put, There Will Be Blood is the crowning achievement of America’s newest best filmmaker.

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