What does this list really represent? Well, let’s start with the easy bit—the modern. The classics have been written about, talked about, even sung about, but what about modern films? It can be tough to predict which new-age films will stick around long enough to be considered classics in the future, and that’s exactly what I’ll avoid here. While this list certainly includes some of the greatest post-2000 movies that have been made, these movies represent something else.
Let’s draw up a scenario. Let’s imagine that an alien landed in your backyard. You feed him and befriend him, only to learn that he has a disease that’s killing him, let’s call it the E.T. disease, or ETD. His last wish is to be introduced to modern film, a collection of films that represents post-2000 movies as a whole. What would you show him and why? Well, for me, I would try to cover a variety of genres, styles and feelings. I would look to cover the most experiential films, as well as those films that stray from the ordinary in their method of storytelling. Now, since we don’t have an alien, you will be mine. You’re dying, and this is my list. The 14 Modern Movies to See Before You Die.
I think that we walk a fine line with how we classify this movie, so I’ll try to walk it carefully. It’s painfully obvious that all-female casts have struggled to capture Hollywood’s audiences and bankbooks. Even in films with female leads, it is often men who do the majority of the talking. The voiceless woman has been present in stories for over 2000 years, but when Bridesmaids touched down, it showed the studios and modern audiences that not only do female comedies work, but they work well. The success and the hilarity of Bridesmaids proved to Hollywood that audiences don’t need a man’s voice to connect to on screen. This movie is not simply groundbreaking; it’s one of the best modern comedies out there.
13 Pan’s Labyrinth
This one is commonly described as a fairy tale for adults, and that about sums it up. The images, sounds and themes are all very reminiscent of children’s fairy tales, but darker, more realistic and less hopeful. It gives us an interesting perspective of a story that feels familiar to us. But even though it feels as if a cloud is over your head while you watch it, there is still magic and wonder there that lightens the mood, so it isn’t just unbearable gloominess. All in all, Pan’s Labyrinth is a masterpiece of storytelling and film making, a film that will keep fairy tales relevant for adults for a long time yet.
What makes Inception so great isn’t in any one thing. Really, there’s nothing in it that makes it an instant classic. The premise is neat, the acting is great, the score is memorable, the special effects powerful, but none of these are necessarily the best or even near the best in film, but the movie is less about its successes and more about its flaws, in that it doesn’t have any. Or, at least, the flaws it does have are insignificant and forgettable. What Inception represents for me is near perfect execution—creating tension early and never releasing it until the credits have rolled. This movie is about understanding how modern audiences tick and using that knowledge to build something incredible.
11 The Babadook
Horror fans have been waiting for the next stage in the evolution of the genre for a while. Where is the next Hitchcock, Carpenter or Romero? Who will take over for Polanski, Cronenberg or Craven? Well, there have been a couple of moments in modern horror that have moved us forward, others have caused us to take leaps. The Babadook is one of those momentous films that change the way we view the genre. A mix of atmospheric tension, mystery and mistrust, The Babadook toys with its audience and generates one of the most powerful feelings of unease that I can remember in my lifetime. For me, there is no question about if The Babadook will play a part in rejuvenating the horror genre, only how and where will it lead us.
10 Mulholland Drive
Ever since we were children, we have been taught to see things through to completion. Our riddles have answers and our puzzles have solutions. Yet, because of this need for answers and finality, we tend to overlook the obscure or the incomplete. David Lynch’s films very often don’t have answers; their explanations don’t fit into neat little boxes, and this can be troubling for audiences. Well Mulholland Drive, for me, is the gateway for Lynchian films, the most approachable of his collection. Yet, in saying that, it’s also a crash course on surreal films, a dreamlike film that needs to be experienced before it’s interpreted. Like all Lynch films, the need to interpret can often get in the way of appreciation, so leave the answers for the end, or the second, third or even fourth viewings, and simply sit back and enjoy the show.
9 Inglourious Basterds
I think that more than any one of his films, Quentin Tarantino is best experienced as a collection of films. That being said, this list is made up of individual and standalone films, so I needed to choose one that captures his essence as best as possible. Tarantino is a master of character, dialogue and suspense but, with most of his movies, the violence is sometimes interpreted as unnecessary, or, even worse, misinterpreted as the primary incentive. Yet Tarantino’s violence is almost always an extension of his characters. He deals with hate, blind rage, conviction and more. The characters in Inglourious Basterds don’t need to hum and haw over morality issues because his audiences will be the ones doing that. And, like his characters, there is almost always two feelings for every Tarantino movie, the one that people discuss openly and the one that people hide inside, keeping to themselves.
8 Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy
Raise your hand if you can quote more than one line from Anchorman. The influence of Anchorman is so pervasive that it is actually easy to overlook. Its influence is not only seen in film, but it’s in comedy in general; it’s in the way that the general public speaks and delivers jokes. A little bit of the character of Ron Burgundy, which is another way of saying Will Ferrell, is in everyone. That may be high praise for a movie you haven’t watched in a while. You may not even enjoy Ferrell comedies anymore. But without Anchorman, the modern comedy looks a lot different and likely a lot worse than it does today. Next time you here someone deliver a joke, a comedian or a friend, it doesn’t matter, if you listen really closely, you might just detect a little Burgundy influence there under the surface.
7 Requiem for a Dream
Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is a tattoo for any film goer. It might slip out of sight or memory for a time, but every once in a while you’ll catch a glimpse of it, and you’ll remember that it’s part of you, whether you like it or not. The film is difficult to confront; its issues and its images are hard to stomach, but its power is less in the grotesque, and more in its subjective presentation. The movie is about being consumed by something, how it happens, how it compels us, and this movie is consuming.
6 Donnie Darko
More than any other film, Donnie Darko gives me the most difficulty when trying to write about it. I don’t quite know why this film impacts audiences the way it does, but I can’t deny it. At one point, I thought that the Richard Kelly modern classic was a perfect introduction to psychological surrealism. I thought it gave people just enough of the genre to enjoy it without confusing them beyond the point of comprehension. But that can’t be right. Others have employed that better without the same impact. Maybe it’s like the words “cellar door,” which Drew Barrymore’s character describes as the most beautiful words in the English language; there’s something simple and magical up front about it, as well as something powerful underneath that is more than words and really quite unexplainable.
5 Mad Max: Fury Road
While I intentionally avoided movies that had and required sequels or prequels to best understand them, I don’t think that rule should apply with Mad Max: Fury Road. While it might be fun to know the backstory of the Mad Max character, it is not essential at all. What Mad Max represents is the ultimate, if not perfect, high octane action film. There is almost no downtime, the effects are fantastic and the experience as a whole is like nothing that has ever been done before. Not only do I think this movie will long be considered a gem, I think, when we look back 50 years from now, that this movie might be thought of as the best action movie ever made, and you can quote me on that.
Filmed over the course of 12 years, Boyhood is a movie that has had everyone talking. The brilliance of this film is that it captures the minutiae of a family’s life, the growth, the change, the beauty and the challenges. These moments aren’t the typically cinematic moments; they’re chosen because they appear small, even insignificant if you blinked, but, in the grand scheme of things, they’re really packed with significance. The movie presents different and changing perspectives from within and invites the audience to change along with it. Not just a novelty, Boyhood is a powerful film that will definitely stand the test of time.
3 Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Written by the great Charlie Kaufman, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is sometimes forgotten about in the world of great films. It’s not that the movie isn’t beloved because it is, but, with all its subtleties, it has a way of lingering just out of the touch of memory. ESOTSM is the touching, and sometimes challenging, look at love and life with another person. Similar to Boyhood, ESOTSM uncovers how people influence, signify with and change with another and because of them; however, with ESOTSM, we explore it backwards, slowly stripping off the layers of influence and memory of another person. All together, this is one of the better character and relationship studies ever made.
While I would never go back to the days of silent film, I do think that just because we can talk in films, we don’t always need to. There is an art in communicating a message without words that many filmmakers have lost or never learned in the first place. This lost art, however, is fully on display in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, and it is most definitely worth the price of admission. A movie that is less about the plot and more about on-screen chemistry of its characters, Drive begins with a man who is nothing more than his job, a driver (both in name and career), who slowly evolves into something more. A minimalist film with an excellent soundtrack and beautiful cinematography, Drive is a must-watch for both cinephiles and general audiences.
1 Cabin in the Woods
When Scream introduced the masses to meta-horror, there was a period of time where it seemed like there was nowhere else that that style of film could go; Wes Craven and Scream had essentially covered all the visible ground that there was. But then others started to creep out, films that explored the inner workings of other films and genres. Horror films, more than any other genre, have stuck to their traditions and expectations. Because of these hard and fast traditions, understanding the deconstruction of horror is available to everyone. Even the most general of audiences can understand the basic elements of horror, and that’s why Cabin in the Woods is so important. It not only demonstrates how horror films work; it establishes the necessity for the conventions through a quality movie plot. It’s intelligent, hilarious and an integral piece to the canon of horror and slasher films.