The Twenty-Two Best Films of the 21st Century

· Films & Video Games

The “Movies of the Century – Year by Year” can be found here.

And now the second list to end the year 2022; Merry Christmas to all!

This is the list of the century’s best and most significant films, separate from my own list of subjective preferences, but perhaps not entirely so.  This list will live on in perpetuity, and will be re-published and updated every year with one additional film.

If you saw last year’s list, you’ll note many similarities, but I can promise that no list will ever be identical. The premises and qualifiers from before remain the same. The Lord of the Rings is the honorable mention, and if decades were in competition, the 00s are still winning by a landslide.  In this case, just to avoid the impression that I’m just lazily repeating myself for a new entry, the films will be represented this time by their posters and in chronological order of their release, as well as with a blurb for each that are always my favorite things to write.

22 films to be listed out in honor of the closing of 2022; here we go.

#1: “Unbreakable” (November 14, 2000) (Dir.: M. Night Shyamalan)

Quentin Tarantino once suggested that this film would have done better at the box office if it was advertised with the tagline: “What if Superman was here on Earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?”  I don’t disagree, but it’s too cheap to simply lump it in with the now-ubiquitous superhero genre just because you can look back on it and see an indestructible person discovering his powers to his quiet abject horror. With Bruce Willis’s career greatest performance and Shyamalan’s psychological thriller instincts honed to peak perfection and firing on all cylinders, especially for that pool scene, Unbreakable eclipsed and answered nearly the entire superhero genre before it took its first baby steps into the century.

#2: “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” (June 29, 2001) (Dir.: Steven Spielberg)

The misanthropic imagination of Stanley Kubrick and the humanism of Steven Spielberg combined here beautifully as the creative force to make what is far and away the most interesting science fiction epic of the century.  It’s even better now that two separate Pinocchio remakes and adaptations came out in 2022, and neither of them is as good as this. It’s also better now in the age of both the surge and suspicion of Silicon Valley, where the volume of content directly relates to the dehumanization that follows. All of that is in A.I., and so much more.

#3: “Minority Report” (June 17, 2002) (Dir.: Steven Spielberg)

The second best science fiction film of the century, conceptualized and written years before 9/11, and then recreated almost from top to bottom after it. Spielberg would spend much of the 2000s decade artistically responding to both the attacks themselves and the responses thereafter, which produced some of the most interesting films of his entire career, and there is almost no scene in the entire century thus far that is as cerebrally thrilling as watching Agatha navigate a shopping mall.

#4: “Femme Fatale” (November 6, 2002) (Dir.: Brian de Palma)

There is a reason no one else has dared to update the timeless legacy of Alfred Hitchcock, and you need look no further than this film to see it. It is the culmination of de Palma’s fascinating career leading up to it, and a landmark moment in and of itself that has no equal in its sexual thrills. Contrary to what popular culture might have led you to believe, just because more nudity and debauched behavior can be found in films today than before, and just because porn can have higher definition than films that in their day inspired millions to sign up for war, doesn’t mean we actually understand what we’re seeing. Hitchcock understood that.

#5: “Catch Me If You Can” (December 25, 2002) (Dir.: Steven Spielberg)

Another film by Spielberg, whose recent films (West Side Story and The Fabelmans) have left something to be desired largely due to the shallow way they retread his old footprints. But spoiler alert: he is still the winner of the century. Catch Me If You Can bears the last of Spielberg’s most profound mythological illustrations of his own familial and childhood experiences, and also reflects upon the ambitions and intensity of a generation known for its drug-addled laziness. It’s the only movie on this list that can’t be dismissed with “ok boomer.”

#6: “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (March 19, 2004) (Dir.: Michel Gondry)

A recurring theme in this list is the fact that there are certain notable and popular genres that were dead before the century began, and if the list included them, the film in question would have to have in some small way brought it back to life. Should you need proof that the romantic comedy was one of those genres, quick: name the Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock of today. Yeah, I couldn’t either. Maybe it’s cheating that the winner of that genre makes this list because of a sci-fi concept on which the story hinges, but if you’ve known anything that even loosely resembles romance before, it’s impossible to watch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind without being deeply personally affected by it.

#7: “Kung Fu Hustle” (December 23, 2004) (Dir.: Stephen Chow)

Yes, the story of two bumbling idiots trying so hard to become evil that they accidentally become kung fu masters and heroes of the community does to the martial arts genre what Blazing Saddles once did to the western – ripping it open by way of the belly and reveling in the absurdity in a way that somehow supersedes the director’s prior masterpiece Shaolin Soccer. Martial arts movies of this century that aren’t made by either Zhang Yimou, Wang Kar-Wai, Prachya Pinkaew, or Gareth Evans are almost universally forgettable and dead before they release. Kung Fu Hustle is more or less the reason for that. It’s pretty hard not to hear Looney Tunes noises in your head after seeing a movie like this.

#8: “Munich” (December 23, 2005) (Dir.: Steven Spielberg)

I mentioned earlier that Spielberg spent much of the 2000s decade making films that in various ways respond to 9/11. None more so than this. There are a lot of films on this list that I am absolutely sure are among the decade’s greatest and most significant because of how strongly they are received by the people who saw them when they released. But do I really expect even half of them to remain on future editions of this list in twenty years? No, I do not. But Munich will be. Not just because I like the film; and not just because my parents liked this film, though that’s quite the understatement. I remember my parents leaving me and my brother home alone so they could go see the film. They came home visibly shaken, which wasn’t something I was used to seeing. There is no other film on this list I would bet on with more certainty than this if I had to pick an entry on this list to point to as proof that the stories you can tell with film, and the experience of watching one, can be in and of itself a conscious journey. It is a journey into the depths of human darkness with affection and empathy for even the most twisted souls at the center of the witnessed conflict. A hundred million movies could be made between now and the end of the century, and I will be damned if even a handful of them can match its dramatic and spiritual power. Not because there won’t be some great films made throughout. Munich is simply that good.

#9: “The New World” (December 25, 2005) (Dir.: Terrence Malick)

In my review of Mutiny on the Bounty, I noted the parallels between a ship’s departure from its country’s shores in the 1700s and watching a space shuttle launch today.  The New World shows us, from the perspective of both sides, what it must be like to land on an alien planet.  If that were all it did, it would not make the list.  Nor would it do so if it were merely the most mature version of the Pocahontas story after the trivial Disney treatment.  Rather, the film is about the fascination of the alien.  It’s about being fascinated with discovering an alien world and interacting with aliens among you, the fascination with being yourself an alien to someone else’s home, and how worlds meet and collide one individual and love affair at a time.  In this sense, the Pocahontas story is not extraordinary by way of any uniquely heroic quality but notable in being a genuine historical reflection of human contact.  A Terrence Malick film making a list like this is almost obligatory, but the feeling within it cannot be found or substituted elsewhere.

#10: “Apocalypto” (December 8, 2006) (Dir.: Mel Gibson)

The previous entry doesn’t need a prequel.  But it has one, at least in spirit, with Apocalypto, which features not the beginning of a new stage in human interaction, but the experience of being in the middle of one and not knowing it’s all about to come to an end.  Mel Gibson, like Sam Peckinpah before him, is too frightening a figure for many, but there has yet to be a twenty-first century filmmaker bold enough to rival the authenticity he attains here.  Not with pandering platitudes about the supposed nobility of a people who cannot speak for themselves with the voice they once had, but by embracing their darkest and most foreign qualities exactly as they were and telling a story that makes them familiar to anyone who has any kind of visual understanding of a food chain.

#11: “Hot Fuzz” (March 14, 2007) (Dir.: Edgar Wright)

Either the most or second most hyperactive movie on this list, and perhaps the most re-watchable of all of them.  Edgar Wright made genre satire fun again.  If Dan Harmon wasn’t influenced by Wright, then he really is an original genius because just about everything funny in any movie or TV show made in the 2010s onwards can in some way be traced back to Wright’s masterstroke both here and in its Cornetto Trilogy predecessor Shaun of the Dead.  Rapid-fire montage storytelling refined for the modern age.

#12: “Ratatouille” (June 29, 2007) (Dir.: Brad Bird)

“Oh come on, Vivek.  You had to include at least one Pixar film, you could’ve gone with Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles, or Toy Story 3, but instead you chose the cooking mama?”  Yes.  Don’t even try to disagree with me because you can’t.  It’s far and away the most interesting and engrossing of the bunch, and the allegory for the creative struggle is unmistakable.  Brad Bird is the only animator capable of shaking off the standard Pixar formula (a deceptively stable but flawed status quo is upended by the arrival or the rise of an interloper whose disturbing presence exposes underlying problems necessitating a journey of reconciliation that ultimately improves everything) and reworking the tired magic in a way that mines sumptuous depth from it.  Eat your ratatouille.

#13: “There Will Be Blood” (December 26, 2007) (Dir.: Paul Thomas Anderson)

How much are you willing to bleed to get what you want?  As it turns out, this is not quite the same question as asking how much of your soul you’re willing to sacrifice to get what you want.  Almost everyone will answer the latter question with “none,” but certainly the former question can be answered with some nuance.  Maybe you don’t want a broken leg, but surely if the cost of attaining vast fortunes was akin to a mere paper cut, you would pay it.  Only two major films in this century have demonstrated a willingness to consider these questions by turning to face directly into the sadistic, punishing hearts of people who pursue their dreams.  The other one is Whiplash, and as good as that film is, it lacks the social critique that There Will Be Blood imparts from the muckraking origins of the story.  It’s a fascinating, if isolating, experience of consequential ambition that makes the destroyed soul cry out in agony because the soul being destroyed is your own by way of the experience watching it happen.

#14: “The Dark Knight” (July 18, 2008) (Dir.: Christopher Nolan)

This is the century of superheroes and of the superhero genre blockbuster.  As we get overloaded with capes, powers, origin stories, and boss fights, each blander and stupider than the one before, the rare few of actual merit become elevated for how far above they sit above the rest.  There were certainly more than two very good superhero movies made in this century (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy deserves respect), but to warrant recognition is to have layers and depth of interest that goes beyond the superficial and supernatural.  The Dark Knight is the best of them all and an unrivaled triumph of the genre, urbanizing and updating our social understanding of the relationship between civilization and its saviors, infusing abject terror as a kind of test of endurance, and for giving one of the three most popular heroes of all time a social context with immaculate reality.  Otherwise, what else is there to say?  This film speaks for itself.

#15: “Incendies” (September 17, 2010) (Dir.: Denis Villeneuve)

Before he became the greatest sci-fi director of the 2010s, hitting three home runs in a row with Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, and DUNC: Part One, Denis Villeneuve made a modern Greek tragedy that does more to “solve” the identity and coexistence crises in the Middle East than any platitude from any politician ever could have. I would sooner spoil the twist in Unbreakable or Minority Report before telling you any more than that.

#16: “The LEGO Movie” (February 7, 2014) (Dirs.: Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

As a general rule, any movie with too forceful a meta narrative doesn’t reach lists like this with a ten foot Lego pole, especially when the released product is so obviously corporate that its artistic intent can’t be taken seriously. The LEGO Movie makes it anyway for how equally forceful the satirical efforts of Lord/Miller override the commercialized premise. Somehow, in a great stroke of irony, their critiques against conformity and consumerism would be less effective and instantly felt had the film not also been itself a toy company cash cow. “Everything is Awesome” and “You are the Special” start out in the film as sheer mind control, and then end up being perhaps the most generationally uplifting depression curatives of any line or song in any movie made in this entire century so far.

#17: “Sully” (September 2, 2016) (Dir.: Clint Eastwood)

What distinguishes this film from other procedural dramas is how it centers its core drama on the bureaucratic corruption and inhumanity of the procedure itself.  Clint Eastwood explored this theme in the 21st century with three different films – the other two being Changeling and Richard Jewell.  But Sully is on a level above them all for having one of Tom Hanks’s quietly greatest performances in his entire career, and for the infusion of mythology in everything from the water landing itself to the John Henry parable.  Even when he intends critique, Eastwood’s ideal hero is the guy who shrugs off or cringes when met with the praise he deserves, as was evident in American Sniper before this, but Sully transcends the procedural, the personal, and the political with the bold ways in which it connects all three.  It’s biased in favor of the Captain, but also soars because it dares to be so.

#18: “Dunkirk” (July 21, 2017) (Dir.: Christopher Nolan)

We will one day reach a point where Batman will no longer mark the exact center of Christopher Nolan’s career.  When such a time arrives, it is almost inevitable that audiences will return to his landmark war epic here and revel in the depth and intensity, which was an experience I consider myself truly fortunate to have witnessed on the biggest screen.  Anyone can make a procedural drama.  Dunkirk uses Christopher Nolan’s time-layer framework to bring back to life the memory and experience of being there with immediacy – even the immediacy of grueling waiting periods, and no other film on this list is more effective at anything than this one is at doing exactly that.

#19: “Brawl in Cell Block 99” (October 6, 2017) (Dir.: S. Craig Zahler)

Of all the films on this list, this is the one likely to have been seen by the fewest.  I promise you that it’s no less worthy for it, and not just because it’s a chance to see Vince Vaughn adopt the truth of his actual physically imposing form by scrapping the metal off a car with his bare hands and scuffing the brain matter of others off his shoes on the concrete floor.  Just as Femme Fatale represents the sexual power of cinema otherwise forgotten by its overuse, Brawl does something similar with its animalistic pulp fiction, putting violence back into prison where it belongs without forgetting how human it really is to be drawn to it.

#20: “Shadow” (September 30, 2018) (Dir.: Zhang Yimou)

If you’ve ever seen a black & white film in the 21st century, you have seen a pretentious film.  The closest thing there is to an exception is Shadow, which is not actually in black & white, but certainly looks as though it is for lengthy stretches of its time.  Film noir plotting with political fascination; it is perhaps the most visually complete film on this list.  Color deliberately gives way to clarity, particularly of the conflicting emotions notable in nearly every frame, and that’s before you get to the violence.  It has to be seen to be believed.

#21: “They Shall Not Grow Old” (November 9, 2018) (Dir.: Peter Jackson)

There are only two war films that made the list because after Apocalypse Now and Saving Private Ryan, the war film genre was done.  It still is, which is why the number of unreservedly great war films made in this century can be counted on a single hand.  The war films on this list earn their place not simply for having depicted and narrated the experience of war well, but for having done so in a way that uplifted the entire medium.  World War I is almost impossible to dramatize, as nearly every film made after 1930 learned the hard way.  The unique centurial tragedy of that war and the public’s willing re-education of past wars by way of films in the ensuing decades resulted in the Great War’s quiet erasure from vivid memory.  With They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson resurrected not only the beauty of what would become No Man’s Land, but the faces of the faceless men who suffered upon it.  No one from that generation lived long enough to see his dignity restored by this film.  But Jackson did his part for them.

#22: “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” (July 26, 2019) (Dir.: Quentin Tarantino)

And so the list ends where it began – with a reference to Quentin Tarantino. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is his greatest film. Yes, it’s better than Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction, and its esteem only increases as time marches on. Finally a film where Tarantino’s immature vengeful energy is given a direction that reflects maturity and understanding of the cultural gravity of the moment; it is also a film that reconsiders the unchanging ethics of the business through the experience of hanging out with two co-dependent guys driving around old Hollywood looking for something interesting to do.

Not a single one of the films featured on this list is perfect. They are selected not only for the heights they reached at their moment in time, but also because of how they endured. When I first saw Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, I scoffed at it to my future personal embarrassment, as I also did A.I. and Kung Fu Hustle. I didn’t see Munich or The New World until nearly a decade after their time in theaters had passed. I’ll always regret that. Meanwhile, I consider myself one of the luckiest Americans ever to have seen not only Dunkirk but also Shadow in theaters. All of these films had an impact on me, even if I only saw them once, as I did There Will Be Blood, Incendies, and They Shall Not Grow Old.

As hard as I try to be objective, this is also my own list based on my own experiences, which can’t possibly be identical to anyone else’s. So if you disagree with any movie on this list, or you have your own markedly different one, that’s okay! Let’s talk about it.

Here’s to a new year of movies to come, and the hopes that one or more of them will be worthy of inclusion on a future list like this.

– Vivek

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