The Top 25 Films of the 21st Century (2001-present)

With a New York Times article last month detailing their staff’s picks for the 25 best films of this century thus far, many others online have felt the need to return the favor and list their own picks. So I thought why the hell not? Let’s do this. After a lot of deliberation, reflection, and setting of a few restrictions for myself(Kept it to one per director, try to include one from every year and as many genres as possible). Also, since 2000 is still technically part of the 20th century Amores Perros, Code Unknown, Memento, and Traffic don’t count but all would’ve been here had they been released just a year later. Hey, it allows me to talk about other movies from later years. Sorry, straight comedies, I do enjoy a lot of them just not enough for this listing. The titles listed below are wide-ranging in human scope and emotional gravitas, some are grand riddles of cinema that continually confound and challenge their audiences. Many of these I can credit as helping me to open my eyes to be inspired and sincerely moved by cinema as a whole the first time I watched them. Enjoy the countdown, and please do seek out the ones you haven’t seen or heard of where ever that might be, they’re more than worth it, trust me.

Honorable mentions: It’s Such a Beautiful Day, The House I live In, The Piano Teacher, Russian Ark, and Silence

And without further delay, here are my picks for the best films of this century. Discuss, enjoy, and debate the following entries at your leisure.

25). United 93 (2006, dir. Paul Greengrass)

Released five years after 9/11 the calls of “Too soon!” were perhaps unavoidable but this docudrama would prove it came out at just the right time. With the tragedy having been overly politized in the years following what was lost is the human story of that day, and the filmmakers sought to depict it in truly stunning and resonating fashion. Recruiting some of the real-life people to act as themselves who were involved that day added a certain heightened authenticity to the work as was casting no big-name actors to play the passengers and crew of United 93 with the last 30min or so in real time as a harrowing recreation of the final moments of the doomed flight. It is a defining historical moment given careful and respectful important posterity by way of film.

24). Burma VJ (2008, dir. Anders Østergaard)

The documentary art form has morphed from decade to decade since the first non-fictional films in the early 20th century today daring filmmakers utilize the visual medium to bring to light stories that shimmer underneath public awareness and oppression around the world. Sneaking footage from inside the then military-dominated Burma these brave freedom fighters used camcorders as their weapon of choice against a tyrannical regime to show the world their terrifying stories of violent repression. A glimpse of the daring new frontier and possibilities for the powerful visual medium.

23). Atonement (2007, dir. Joe Wright)

Atonement is one of those movies that you know it’s good while watching it, you know it’s great by the time the credits roll but you’re afraid it’ll get lost in the shuffle in your mind as one moves on to the next in your watch queue. That was not the case with me and this romantic epic as it’s impact hasn’t lessened one bit since I’ve first seen it. A fantastically performed, scored and shot war-time Romance that’ll leave you breathless in its flawless execution from start to finish.

22). The Best of Youth (2003, dir. Marco Tullio Giordana)

Including a six-hour long Italian mini-series drama may be a questionable choice but it was released state-side as a pair of 3hr movies and its impact emotionally is certainly not questionable. Documenting the lives of two brothers and their family from 1960’s to present day Italy the filmmakers tell a story of a generation through historical events, tragedy, and personal relationships. An emotional epic of powerful and resonating scope that you’ll be wanting even more of the story even by the end of the sixth hour, and some forty years story-time, with these characters.

21). The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001, dir. The Coen Brothers)

Arguably, the most consistent, stylized and iconic working pair of American filmmakers in film history comes in with their most underrated work. A playfully stark neo-noir centering on Billy Bob Thorton’s Bob Crane as a small-town barber caught in the middle of murder, blackmail, and other sordid activities. Shot by the great Roger Deakins in gorgeous black and white 35mm adds to the mysterious atmosphere as the duo portray their unique characters as only they can. Cruel ironies, eccentric roles, and their signature dark humor highlight this enigmatic and underrated outing for them.

20). Boyhood (2014, dir. Richard Linklater)

Linklater’s dedicated masterpiece of time, family, and coming-of-age provides a glimpse into a ‘normal’ upbringing in order to show the inherent drama of figuring it all out one day at a time in those ever important adolescent years. The process has been well-documented over its 12-year production, what doesn’t get as much notice is the effortless pacing of the editing by Linklater’s longtime editor Sandra Adair gently leading us from one age to the next with sheer fluidity. Showing the nature of time as a constant companion through life’s adventures big and small.

19). Persepolis (2007, dir. Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi)

An adaptation of Satrapi’s fantastic graphic novels depicts a coming-of-age during the Islamic Revolution in Iran spanning bloody wars, socio-political upheavals, and personal tragedies. An engaging personal story of growing up done beautifully in the style of the autobiographical source material. Balancing the turmoil of a single family unit with the social strife of an entire nation in crisis. A powerful work that allows understanding from a viewer by making us see through the eyes and experience of another. An invaluable gift bestowed from the cinema going experience.

18). The Pianist (2002, dir. Roman Polanski)

Reflecting on both Wladyslaw Szpilman’s and the director’s own experience with the Holocaust proves to be a stunning and staggering journey into the true horror of the event. Focusing on one man’s unimaginable suffering but sheer willpower to forge ahead conveys an important and powerful first-hand perspective into the sheer toil of the atrocity. A historical epic that pulls you in and never lets up as we walk along with this poor soul through inhumanity on Earth.

17). The White Ribbon (2009, dir. Michael Haneke)

Depicting the strict upbringing of the early 20th-century German generation that would grow up to become the Third Reich the Austrian filmmaker deftly crafted a haunting portrait of childhood trauma, angst, and contempt that would manifest itself in the ultimate evil just a few decades later. Not making us sympathetic to these people by any means, rather it’s conveying a certain level of empathy in showing us the dire consequences of growing up in a terrifying, hypocritical, suffocating, and cruel environment.

16). Ida (2013, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

Having the distinction of being the shortest film on the list it is no less resonating and powerful in its impact than any other on this list. When the titular character leaves her Christian Polish Convent to look for her estranged Aunt she is told about her family’s history and seeks to know more as her Aunt drives her to Ida’s birthplace. A quietly powerful road trip movie that reveals itself slowly and methodically as we along with the main characters reveal a wrongfully forgotten family history.

15). The Tree of Life (2010, dir. Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick. How many times can I praise the man’s work? With Tree of Life being perhaps his most personal and autobiographical the maestro creates a symphony of emotions with an awe-inspiring introspective and universal scope. A fantastical journey of the soul that gave the auteur an expanded reach, widening his audience awareness being able to show more people his own vision of a beautifully profound and truly poignant world.      

14). 2046 (2004, dir. Wong Kar-wai)

The Hong-Kong Auteur has dazzled audiences world-round for over 20-years now, but his greatest cinematic riddle might very well be his follow-up to his seminal In The Mood For Love. Focusing on a Sci-fi writer, played by the great Tony Leung, held up in a Hong Kong hotel and his attempts to work on his next book. Recanting his escapades with women and how they influenced his work the filmmakers seemingly embrace the concept of the inescapable loneliness of a self-imposed exile from the rest of the world. Showing empirically that how we deal with ourselves is really the only way we know how to relate to others.

13). The Master (2012, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

Charting the inception and rise of a Scientology-like cult in the aftermath of WWII, the filmmakers here craft a battle of wills unlike any other. With two pitch-perfect performances from Joaquin Phoenix and the dearly missed Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the irascible Freddie Quell and magnetic Lancaster Dodd respectfully, the two start a follower/cult leader relationship after their paths cross accidentally that is absolutely transfixing. Much like the process depicted in the film itself, based on the concept of Scientology Auditing. My favorite film from the first year (2012) I started this blog holds up even better five years on and I venture will only age even better in the coming years.

12). Children of Men (2006, dir. Alfonso Cuarón)

An eerie through the looking glass vision of a bleak future where some elements of this dystopian setting depicted here are starting to look all too frighteningly familiar. Featuring documentary-like world-building Cuarón gives all the exposition needed for this world in the production design, indeed the background settings play as a constant dialogue letting the audience know how this time and place came to be. As dark and unforgiving as the movie gets an audience engages with the material on a visual level helping to immerse them in the timely story of the glimmer of hope in times of ultimate darkness.

11). Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir. Ang Lee)

I try to single out something from each of these movies that they did above and beyond the rest, for Ang Lee’s magnum opus its the flow of the passage of time. A perfect rendering of the time cowboy’s Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Ennis (Heath Ledger) spent together and apart for the entirety of their intimate relationship together. A romance that makes you feel the passionate longing and affection shared between two people truly in love but heartbreakingly unable to have a life together. The defining bittersweet romance for our time.

10). City of Life and Death (2009, dir. Chuan Lu) 

The single hardest watch I’ve had with a movie made this century, perhaps ever, is the grueling, unrelenting, unforgiving recreation of the notorious Nanking Massacre in 1937 committed by the Japanese Expeditionary Forces in WWII. As stark a war-drama has ever gotten Chuan Lu spent four years getting the film made for good reason, the sheer depths the filmmakers go to would be too much for a regular film schedule. As oppressively bleak as any war film that has been made this century with a truly disturbing and unflinching vision of the atrocity, but as unforgettable and emotionally draining an experience as any film listed here.

9). Mulholland Dr. (2001, dir. David Lynch)

Casting his unique spell over TV audiences now with his revival of the seminal Twin Peaks TV series (how about that episode 8) the surreal auteur put his unmistakable stamp on the Hollywood dream. Noami Watts is effervescent as Betty an aspiring actress who falls into the dark underbelly of the City of Angels through Laura Harring’s Rita. Forboding, sublime, and surreal the unique auteur crafts his finest work to bring to light the very nature of dreams in the city that was born to recreate them for audiences to see on the silver screen. As always with the director working in the sub-conscience the strange twists continually confound and befuddle. It’s a mystery box with no definite answers, as is always the case with the filmmaker’s most acclaimed work.

8). 25th Hour (2002, dir. Spike Lee)

Daringly expressing the feelings in the aftermath of 9/11 on the citizens of New York City 25th Hour encapsulated the overall nationwide mood after the unimaginable tragedy. Done to one of the best scores of the century by Terrence Blanchard, Lee paints his hometown in physical and emotional recovery mode through the eyes of Edward Norton’s Monty character, a drug dealer sentenced to seven years behind bars, as he throws a “going away” party for himself with his childhood friends. The fate of one man has repercussions for numerous people in and around his circle of friends and family. Portraying the effect one person can have on another human being, a crucial lesson in the wake of tragedies, large and small.

7). The Act of Killing (2012, dir. Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn)

As stated previously with Burma VJ, the documentary form has morphed into new territory in recent years, with every new filmmaker taking chances with new ideas. However, none have been more experimental than Oppenheimer’s staggering and shocking work detailing his efforts working with former Indonesian death-squad leaders who committed mass murder in unspeakably brutal ways to reenact the events for the camera. What follows is the very epidemy of evil, outlining the vile, inhuman, and sociopathic minds of these men. No easy sit to be sure, but like with every great filmmaker listed here, Oppenheimer has a clear purpose that reveals itself in its own time and rest-assured you will never forget it when it does.

6). Shame (2011, dir. Steve McQueen)

Michael Fassbender, really what else needs to be said? One of the best actors this century gives his single best performances of this, or any, century playing sex-addict NYC businessman Brandon suddenly dealing with his impulsive and outgoing little sister Sissy played by Carey Mulligan. McQueen’s flawless direction brings ahead the problems with self-imposed isolation brought on by the feelings of utter loneliness. The downward spiral that ensues as Brandon tries to finally satisfy his carnal desires is as harrowing a sequence committed to film as any other this century. A shocking and graphic (appropriately rated NC-17) masterpiece that looks into the deepest depths of a lost soul serving as a mirror to reflect our own vices back at us.

5). Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003, dir. Ki-Duk Kim)

Meditative, deliberate, thought-provoking and simply gorgeous this hidden gem from South Korea represents the very best of the Korean New Wave that began surging through the film world in the 2000’s continuing to right of the moment. A deeply spiritual journey of the power of belief and how it is lost, regained and redefined from person to person and one generation to the next. Rarely brought up when the Korean New Wave is discussed but be assured this is a rare special kind of film of supreme quiet power.

4). Spirited Away (2001, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

An anime fairy-tale that only the legendary director and studio could produce with such unique grand awe-inspiring vision. A wondrous and fantastical journey of the strange, sublime, terrifying, meditative, and mystical. The filmmaker’s boundless imagination on full display. A new-age modern update on The Wizard of Oz with creature designs, magical elements, and sets that wouldn’t be impossible to create in live-action, but then again why bother? It is perfectly rendered here in crisp colorful 2D animation as a story of learning patience, understanding, and resourcefulness when suddenly faced dealing with a new strange unfamiliar world of pitfalls, obstacles, and wonder.

3). Certified Copy (2010, dir. Abbas Kiarostami)

After fantastical coming-of-age tales, horrifically bleak war-time period-pieces, and haunting intense character studies it comes down to two people (The always amazing Juliette Binoche and accomplished Opera singer turned actor William Shimell) sharing an extended and complicated debate on the nature of originality vs. a copy in the Art world. Credit the late great Iranian filmmaker with crafting dual resonating character studies as the two figure one another out through their day traveling around in Tuscany. Simple but completely captivating in the two’s mannerisms and inflections as their interactions continue on. A strange sort of relationship gradually reveals itself as it seems the two knew each other previously, but in what capacity? Why are they acting like this? These questions are never answered directly and that is what the great filmmaker leaves to us the audience to discover for ourselves on our terms.

2). Upstream Color (2013, dir. Shane Carruth)

A wondrous mystery warped in an enigma inside of a riddle would probably be the best single sentence description for this completely original and fascinating work of sci-fi. Shane Carruth made his name at Sundance in 2004 for his wildly innovative, micro-budgeted, and complex time-travel movie Primer,  with Upstream Color he has crafted as fine a Sci-fi movie that has ever been made. Meticulously shot in shallow depth of field compositions, scored with an immersive sound, and acted beautifully especially by indie darling Amy Seimetz. I could give my complete thoughts on what everything in the film means but hey, “…everything eventually flows downstream”    

 1). City of God (2002, dir. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund)

If I ever lay my eyes on another film with as much ferocious energy, stunning geographical and human scope, and true insight I’ll be praising it to no end to whoever will listen. For now, City of God is one of my favorite films of all-time and an outright perfect masterpiece of this century in so many ways. From its no-holds-barred frantic pace, engagingly violent characters, to the ingenious story-telling elements this is kinetic cinema. Goodfellas in Brazil is an apt comparison in more ways than one. The place (and main character) is the favelas of Rio De Janeiro where everyone is just trying to survive from one day to another. Some join gangs, pick up guns, steal, kill, others try their best to have an honest living but you learn from a young age that it is a dog-eat-dog world your job is to be the last one standing day to day. Influences of Scorsese, Tarantino, and De Sica are apparent but this is a wholly unique beast in and of itself. The filmmakers’ uncompromised vision fills all the scenes at every instance so there is barely any time to catch your breath as you are plunged head-first into these streets and slums with these kids. A feat of filmmaking that I completely adore to no end giving me a first-time viewing experience that still resonates with me to this day.

And there you have it, lots of more than worthy films were considered but these are my cherished picks. Here’s to this list getting modified and updated in the near and far future with new releases and those I have passed over for too long.

About Jeff Stewart

Film fanatic, movie buff, film enthusiast whatever you want to call it I have it and have dedicated my writing to showing my appreciation of all things movies here on Just My Take...

2 thoughts on “The Top 25 Films of the 21st Century (2001-present)

  1. July 7, 2017 at 2:42 pm

    Great list. Many of these would be on my list as well. I really need to see 2046 again. Only saw it once with certainly isn’t enough.

    And obviously, I love that Shame (one of my top 10 of all time) and Upstream Color are ranked so highly here.

    1. March 1, 2018 at 1:10 am

      Was so hard to widdle down the list to only 25, luckily I realized that 2001 was still in the 20th century otherwise three slots would’ve been taken up. 2046 is such a wonder from the Wong Kar-Wai really loved his depiction of self-imposed loneliness and the effects thereof.

      Of course both Shame and Upstream Color would up there, two films that helped me really see the wonder of cinema. And I can be more grateful to the films and you for opening my eyes to this wonderful mystical world.

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