Recent studies conducted here and throughout the internet have led to a shocking conclusion: People like lists. We know this, because you’re reading one right now. Despite there reductive nature, there is something simultaneously unifying and dividing about putting the best or worst people, objects, places or moments in a descending order. There’s drama inherent, as the countdown serves the same purpose as it would a nuclear device in a Hollywood movie. The list can create or resolve tension, serve as a springboard for the unheard masses to speak out with their own additions with a terse, “What, no love for…?” or “You totally forgot…” or “How could you leave out…”
Being a list-enthusiast and occasional film critic, I was especially excited when the BBC released a list of the 100 best films of the 21st century (so far). The British news organization polled 62 critics, paring down their answers and assigning them an appropriate rank.
Here at TheRichest, we don’t have the resources to speak to 62 critics worldwide, but we do have access to a guy who writes goofy stuff while sitting on his IKEA bed (a post-post-modern critic, if you will): me.
I have expressly avoided choosing films that began a movement or rising trend, but rather focused on the individual works. So, without further ado, here are the 20 best films released since the year 2000.
20. Almost Famous (2000)
Gus Van Sant‘s biopic of civil and gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk borrows heavily from the 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, but benefits from a never-better Sean Penn performance and a realistic, nut-and-bolts dramatization of local politics. By approaching it from such a grounded, working reality, the tragedy of Milk’s death is all the more affecting. Van Sant manages to hit what would otherwise be mandatory biopic scenes with a deep sense tenderness and affection. Even the film’s central antagonist, Dan White (Josh Brolin) is portrayed with a deep pathos without ever demonizing or providing unqualified medical diagnosis.
18. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
The 2000s were and still are the era of the comic book film, beginning in its first year with Bryan Singer‘s X-Men. Today, they still dominate the box office. Every few years, a new trend within the genre emerges, be it gritty, light or more comic book-y. But the closest a film ever came to a live action comic book was Sam Raimi‘s 2002 sequel. His stylistic sensibilities (with some shots cribbed directly from previous horror efforts like Evil Dead 2) gels so perfectly with panel-to-panel shorthand. Raimi stages some impressive set-pieces, but also gets to the heart of what it means to be Peter Parker while adding on layers of depth never before explored. Even the much-lambasted dance sequence in the third film is in line with some of Parker’s sillier graphic outings.
17. A Serious Man (2009)
The Coen Bros. seemingly most-personal film (though it’s hard to tell given how little they offer of themselves) is a hysterically funny modern-fable. It’s a richly detailed period piece that wrestles with questions existential, epistemological and moral. Though set in the 60s, Man could just as easily be a modern Minnesota suburb. Critics have poured over it with affection and scrutiny, searching for meaning much in the way the main character does. Yet all the sound and fury still may signify nothing. Just a couple of Columbia records, marijuana and Jefferson Airplane.
16. Adaptation (2002)
Charlie Kaufman‘s neurotic id plays out as an eccentric dual Nicolas Cage performance, as he struggles desperately to adapt a book that can’t be filmed. Adaptation is an immensely frustrating film, as it viciously deconstructs the workings of modern American storytelling while at the same time being so effective at it. Even after we’re in on the joke, director Spike Jonze executes them so well the audience can’t help but become emotional. A masterwork in manipulation, Kaufman and Jonze can’t help but make you fully aware those moments in films where your eyes start to well up are orchestrated precisely so. Jerks.
15. Primer (2004)
The very definition of a shoestring budget, Shane Carruth’s sci-fi cult classic refuses to talk down to its audience – almost to the point that repeat viewings are required to untangle the smartly executed story. Most films featuring time travel as a plot device leave a vast array of unanswered questions. Primer makes your head spin as it answers them clearly, but not with a heavy hand. Carruth has only made two films so far (the underseen Upstream Colour), both years apart. Though lovers of intelligent science fiction are always waiting for what the imaginative filmmaker is concocting next.
14. Far From Heaven (2002)
Todd Haynes’ beautifully shot Douglas Sirk-riff maturely confronts the issues of the era in which its set. Race, gender and sexual politics of the 50s are delivered with lush, gorgeous photography equalled only in the frankness of the issues. The discord between the melodramatic style and brutal subject matter could have come off as condescending, perhaps even exploitative, but Haynes directs with such compassion and sincerity – it makes it all the more compelling. Featuring a lovely performance from Hayne’s then-muse Julianne Moore, as well as an excellent Dennis Quaid, it never shies away. What a movie.
13. The Ghost Writer (2010)
Roman Polanski‘s airport novel thriller hearkens back to his glory days of the 70s, with an intricate, timely plot involving torture and the unnamed writer (Ewan McGregor) slowly putting the pieces of a murder together on a remote island. Like Polanski’s earlier works, it’s a cynical, bleak look on worlds both past and current, with the answers to the film’s mystery more above the surface than anyone is truly comfortable with. Subtext aside, Writer is an terrific exercise in potboiler thrillers, with expertly staged chase scenes and a classic “whodunnit” that draws you in while simultaneously, and very gradually, pulling the rug from under.
12. There Will Be Blood (2007)
It’s hard to understand how some audiences considered Paul Thomas Anderson‘s epic a slowly paced effort. It’s a film that moves at its own, ceaseless rhythm right along with Jonny Greenwood’s penetrating score and Daniel Day-Lewis‘ monstrous performance. There’s no denying the power of the performance, nor Paul Dano’s terrific false prophet. The cultural impact of the film’s final scene (and unfortunate t-shirt meme) seems to have removed some of its power, but the engrossing first two-thirds are just as brutally unforgiving. The very nature of capitalism is on trial, from every sickening way it penetrates and perverts the can-do American spirit.
11. War of the Worlds (2005)
Steven Spielberg‘s take on the classic H.G. Wells novel is already receiving a critical re-examination today, with many hailing it for the misunderstood masterpiece that it is. Re-contextualizing the alien invasion tale in a post-9/11 world (with some of the earliest, most striking imagery after the event) allows Spielberg his sandbox of typical father-son tropes and disconnected families. It’s almost the perfect alien invasion film, set very firmly in the world we live now – where anyone can pick up a gun and walk into a club in Florida, or bomb a wedding in Egypt. We once fantasized as children about alien and zombie invasions. Now they just hit close to the American family. And Spielberg bluntly ratchets up the tension – if not completely the reality – of such a nightmare.
10. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The only filmmakers to appear twice on this list, The Coens have explored the many facets of Americana in the past 20 years – from the depression-era south in O Brother, Where Art Thou? to the stark Southwestern landscapes of post-Vietnam in No Country For Old Men. Llewyn Davis is as funny and bleak as the rest of their work, but it taps into a time and spirit of artistry that otherwise we only glimpse in documentaries (or the sentimentality of baby boomers like the aforementioned Crowe). The Coens’ take on the counter-culture of the 1960s portrays a world where often romanticized struggling artists are bitter about the merging of art and commerce, a world dead set on leaving them behind. Today, art and commerce have merged so successfully it’s difficult to know the difference. Oscar Isaac’s Davis embodies the remnants of an artist for whom there was no longer any room. The soundtrack doesn’t hurt, either.
9. Inglourious Basterds (2009)
It’s hard to choose a Quentin Tarantino film of the five he’s made since the millennium. His work is often criticized for being indulgent and wrongheadedly accused of being immoral or void of substance. The opposite couldn’t be more true. However, if we’re talking about entertainment, Basterds ranks the highest on just how much damn fun it is. His style has been refined and perfected over and over, and Tarantino is firing on every cylinder. His dialogue sparkles, his casting choices (not just the Academy Award-winning “Jew Hunter” played by Christoph Waltz) are endlessly entertaining, and his retelling of World War II with more disregard for historical accuracy than a History Channel Hitler and the Occult marathon is both inventive and delightful. Try finding another World War II film for which you can easily drop the word “delightful” when describing.
8. Oldboy (2003)
Admittedly, this list is fairly void of foreign films, but Park Chan-Wook’s effective, hard-boiled mystery is equal parts intriguing, tragic and moving. It’s off-beat storytelling manages to pack such a guttural punch you never see the machinations at work until they’ve already left you breathless. It’s also sadistically unapologetic in dealing out plot points, going places you may not want to go – but the ride is so engrossing that you’re too exhausted to fight against it. That’s as much that can be said about Oldboy without spoiling the experience – simple buzz words and vague descriptions. It’s best just to let it happen.
7. The Cabin In The Woods (2012)
Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s deconstruction of modern horror conventions is so lovingly crafted, it’s impossible to tell where the send up begins and the horror film ends. It’s funny without condescending its core audience. Set at the titular cabin with stock horror movie characters that it loves and loves to torture, the Whedon-esque charm first utilized in Buffy The Vampire Slayer is on full display here. There’s a momentum that endures through the varied twists and turns it takes, with Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins relishing their roles has hapless bureaucrats forced to dole out a particularly ghoulish day job/audience surrogates. It winks knowingly, but never panders.
6. The Royal Tennenbaums (2001)
Wes Anderson has a lot to answer for, in particular the slew of indie-film imitators that pale and irritate in comparison. What they’re missing isn’t Anderson’s quirky approach to filmmaking, but his heart and genuine interest in cinema beyond his own navel-gazing. Tennenbaums – expanded to include more sincere character work at actor Gene Hackman‘s request – is his most endearing work, with a dysfunctional ensemble both charming and tragic. It’s also Anderson’s funniest film to date. Hackman’s outdated, superficial patriarch is a wonderful performance, wandering through the remnants of what once was a great family. He’s desperation is troubling and heartfelt. Independent filmmaker’s take note: like the best stand up comedian, beyond your eccentric characters and your stilted dialogue, it doesn’t matter if the premise doesn’t mean anything.
5. 25th Hour (2002)
The first 16 years of the millennium have been largely defined by the brutal attacks of September 11th – in politics, art and even comedy. No one hasn’t had that moment at a Starbucks listening to some self-satisfied American tell their “Where were you on 9/11?” story. It’s our Kennedy assassination, replete with the requisite absurd conspiracy theories. No film has every captured the mood and nightmarish frustration of that tragic day more accurately than Spike Lee‘s intense drama, released just slightly a year after the attacks. Using the shining lights of Ground Zero as a haunting, allegorical backdrop for the story of a man whose life is beyond complete repair, whose sins may never be redressed, forced America under the microscope not offered by the administration at the time (nor, since Rudy Guiliani‘s re-animated corpse is still making television appearances, may it ever).
4. Hot Fuzz (2007)
Edgar Wright had already perfected his cinematic shorthand for storytelling in 2004’s excellent horror comedy Shawn of the Dead – a language he began experimenting with on the cult BBC hit Spaced. By Hot Fuzz, he and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost had already made a name for themselves not just in comedy, but also filmmaking. Their homage to police dramas may poke fun at films like Bad Boys 2 and Point Break, but there’s a clear, genuine affection for such films at work. It also serves more than one master, with an equal love afforded to British horror classics such as The Wicker Man (even casting that film’s lead as one of the cultish townsfolk). The absurdly violent, hysterically funny climactic shootout is one of the most satisfying moments of the fresh century.
3. A History of Violence (2005)
David Cronenberg’s multi-layered examination of the culture of violence in modern America begins with the title – itself a play on the psychological and legal term as well as a title for an academic paper. It’s a specific case study of a simple, small town man that echoes a tale with which we’re all too familiar. Cronenberg’s muse, Viggo Mortensen, delivers a quietly unsettling performance as the American everyman as serial killer. And it leaves no violent stone unturned – in work, in child’s play, in sex, in defense, in family, even in comedy, expressed by William Hurt‘s one-scene Oscar-nominated performance as a mob heavy with brother issues. It ends on a provocative open question, one that the film answers many times over, yet is still worth further exploration.
2. Zodiac (2007)
No other director but David Fincher could have helmed a film obsessed with obsession. He’s known for shooting up to 70 takes of the same scene, not satisfied until he gets the perfect moments he desires. Zodiac is our generation’s All The President’s Men, delving into the specifics of newspaper reporting and police investigation – each of which are excessively detailed. It may never satisfactorily discover the answer to the murder mystery at its core, but that was never the intention. What’s driving the characters to investigate further is the same personality quirk that drives the filmmaker. It also manages to be a thrilling, frightening experience.
1. Mullholland Dr. (2001)
It’s hard to disagree with the 62 critics the BBC polled. Mullholland Dr. is the most interesting, challenging work of the last 16 years, arguably even longer. It’s a haunting dreamscape of Los Angeles, it’s a murder mystery without a murder, it’s a case of mistaken identity. It’s all and none of these things. Every note of standard Hollywood filmmaking, dating back to the golden age, is hit with dreamy, thematic resonance. It’s an especially difficult film to write about as, much like David Lynch‘s direction, sentences come across as a series of cohesive vignettes. It’s a film that audiences can attempt to interpret how they will, but quite simply, it’s a masterpiece.