The Greatest Films of the 21st Century


I suffer from chronic list fatigue, initially eager to scroll through the latest re-ordering of greatest hits, but inevitably collapse into a heap before I ingest the whole thing. Enter the BBC to test my illness. Yesterday they unveiled the results of their mammoth “Greatest Films of the 21st Century” poll, in which 177 critics submitted their top movies of the current century. It confirms that David Lynch’s  fractured, terrifying Hollywood fairy tale Mulholland Drive (2001) is the consensus film of the age. It has been topping lists of this ilk for years now, and I welcome a film so mysterious as our millennium-overlord. My narcolepsy is triggered not by the quality of the works cited, but the recycled nature of the discourse it elicits, which tends to ignore the films entirely for a “this-over-that” essentialism that reduces complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list. Which reminds me, now it is time for me to reduce complicated aesthetic experiences to numbers on a list! Below you’ll find my top ten films of the 21st Century that were not included in the BBC’s top twenty five, in a modest effort to expand the conversation.


The following list of the Top Ten Films of the 21st Century is presented in alphabetical order

Cry When it Happensdirected by Laida Lertxundi (2010, 14 minutes)

Or, being lonely in Los Angeles. Shot in 16mm, it opens with a shot of two women spooning each other out of boredom, followed by a bright blue sky impinged upon by a bar of sunlight. Then the shot of the sky is repeated, but now  it’s on a tube tv in a dingy hotel room, with a black bar scrolling down the frame. Imagery of boxes and enclosures proliferate. In the room, a wordless woman slowly presses her accordion and eases out a few tones. An exterior shot of the hotel finds L.A.’s city hall reflected in its windows, trapped. When Lertxundi returns to the shot of the real sky, the chorus of The Blue Rondos’ “Little Baby” plays on the soundtrack: “Little Baby/I want you for my own/I need to see you/See you alone.”  There is a yearning for escape from these boxes, and a need for human connection, expressed in the bouncy 60s Brit-pop tune. Then, a shift – the hotel TV is plopped outside a mountain range, the sky and the Rondos both enclosed behind the screen. It is freeing, but ominous. It’s like the movie turned itself inside-out, the interplay between freedom and enclosure never resolving. They need each other, after all.


The Headless Womandirected by Lucrecia Martel (2008, 87 minutes)

A comfortable middle-class mother (Maria Onetto) runs over a dog, and she is later consumed with the fear that she also killed a child. De-centered from her daily life, she is isolated by Martel in shallow focus close-ups in the widescreen frame, her family haunting the edges, fuzzy spectres present mainly through the dense sound design. The accident occurred right before a major storm, and water keeps seeping in around her, whether pouring from the sky, or intimated in the cement discovered under her lawn, which used to hold a fountain. She slowly ebbs back into consciousness, only to discover that she no longer fits, so she dyes her hair.


The Intruder (aka L’intrus), directed by Claire Denis (2004, 130 minutes)

L’intrus was inspired by a brief essay by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy on the physical and metaphysical fallout of the heart transplant he had received ten years previously. His question: ““If my heart was giving up and going to drop me, to what degree was it an organ of ‘mine’, my ‘own’?” Michel Subor plays a man whose body has rebelled against him, and whose concept of self is slipping. The film slips along with him, proceeding on an associative montage that jumps from Polynesia to Pusan to the French-Swiss border. Subor’s body is a border that has been breached, and the whole world is rushing in. My first published film essay was on The Intruder, for Senses of Cinema, and it is not entirely embarrassing. 


Mysteries of Lisbondirected by Raul Ruiz (2010, 272 minutes)

A summation of Ruiz’s work, with its nested stories, unstable identities and swirling camera movements, and one that is endlessly pleasurable.  Adapted from the 19th Century novel by Camilo Castelo Branco, it tells the circuitous story of an orphan and his parentage, one which spans lifetimes and consumes hundreds of identities. It is a a ballet where every step both reveals and conceals, Ruiz’s camera unveiling truth at one edge and a lie at the other.


Resident Evil: Retribution, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (2012, 96 minutes)

Anderson is a director-as-cartographer, obsessively mapping his post-human landscapes so whatever life-form succeeds us will know EXACTLY how to navigate the inside of the evil Umbrella corporation’s underground lair. Said lair is built for 3D, all brightly lit corridors layered with screens, the frame sliced into depths. Depth and death are everywhere, and our only hope (thankfully) is Milla Jovovich, a model-athlete who does her own stunts and is the most believable savior since Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ.


Sparrow, directed by Johnnie To (2008, 87 minutes)

A project To had been working on for three years in between his higher budgeted features. Often described as a musical without songs, it follows a group of pickpocketing brothers as they get ensnared in the web of Kelly Lin’s femme fatale, who has been forced into a union with a local crime boss. Filled with lyrical passages of a bustling HK, it then explodes into symphonically complex heist sequences. Balloons float down affixed with a safe key, criminals engage in a thieving dance underneath a downpour, with the umbrellas used in twirling Busby Berkeley-esque patterns.


Step Brothers, directed by Adam McKay (2008, 98 minutes)

Gloriously anarchic, it’s the purest distillation of the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell aesthetic, which values combative performances above all else, a kind of actorly one-upmanship. After completing the relatively large-scale Talledega Nights, McKay wanted to, as he told The Oklahoman: “do a film that was almost all about characters and dialogue — no action and no ’70s nostalgia, just straight-up, nonstop riffing.” Enamored with the improvisatory nuggets mined by the team of John C. Reilly and Ferrell on Talledega, McKay conceived of a plot that would have them together on-screen for an entire film, hence the step-brotherdom. The movie, then, is a scrim for a feature-length improvisation session, which was how Ferrell and McKay were trained: McKay at the Upright Citizens Brigade, and Ferrell with The Groundlings, before they both teamed up on Saturday Night Live.

Reilly is the outlier, the one with dramatic chops whose id was let loose by the Apatow gang. He’s quite wonderful in Walk Hard, probably the most underrated of the Apatow comedies, but there’s a peculiar sophomoric magic that occurs when he spars with Ferrell, a matter of timing and sensibility. They key off each other’s self-absorbed personas, trading insults so absurd it turns into a battle of the non-sequitur (“The last time I heard that I fell off my dinosaur.”). Their delight in performing with each other is contagious, spreading to the straighter-laced parents, played by Mary Steenburgen and Richard Jenkins. Steenburgen savors each curse word, while Jenkins turns in a performance that is close to madness. His shit-eating grin while being seduced by Ferrell’s yuppie brother Derek (Adam Scott) edges into the grotesque, while his monologue about his teen T-rex impersonations is pure Dada.

The plot disappears during the sublimely ridiculous ending, set at the “Catalina Wine Mixer”. That phrase is intoned ad nauseum until it becomes pure nonsense, a children’s game, syllables rolling around the tongue. This “nonsense” spreads through the whole sequence, incorporating dreams, fantasies, and the solid organizational structure of Enterprise rent-a-car. The film would make a great double-bill with Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business, another film which reverts to childhood. It’s critical of its adults-turned-kids, while Step Brothers revels in the pre-self-consciousness of children. But both films are unafraid to look silly for the sake of a laugh and refuse to condescend to the innocence and destructiveness of youth.


Stuck On You, directed by The Farrelly Brothers (2003, 118 minutes)

The Farrelly Brothers most autobiographical film, about two brothers from New England whose love and affection keeps them working together for decades. In the film they are conjoined twins played by Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. Damon is a goofy putz happy to be a hometown hero, while Kinnear dreams of an acting career in Hollywood. The leads are earnest and open, while the supporting parts include Jean-Pierre Cassel as a hilariously cheapjack agent who buzzes around on a scooter, and Eva Mendes in one of the finest comedic performances of the decade. She plays an airhead with sincerity and pathos, channeling Marilyn Monroe in, you guessed it, Monkey Business. Fun fact: features a (funny!) cameo from former Presidential candidate Ben Carson.


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul (2010, 114 minutes)

Set in a small farming village in the Northeastern part of Thailand, it tracks the last days of Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) during which he is visited by the curious ghosts of his relatives. It is a film of permeable borders, between Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, between life and death, man and animal. It has the same kind of space-time permeability of The Intruder, where bodies are way stations, not endpoints. 


Wolf Children, directed by Mamoru Hosoda (2012, 117 minutes)

Water is the implacable natural force that marks the moments of terrifying change in the lives of Hana and her two children, Ame and Yuki, as they grow up from little werewolf kids into ferocious adolescents. Hana had loved and lost Ookami, her werewolf husband, during a rainstorm. The film is not a love story but depicts the aftermath of one, and the tough work required of a single mother.  With a mix of line drawing and photorealistic CG, the mode is hyper-real with moments of lyrical beauty, as when Ame bounds into the forest with his fox companion, settling on a reflective pond. Hosoda will rhyme this reflective pond with that of a puddle, as Hana stands alone in a parking lot, having lost Ame to the animals and Yuki to the world outside. There are constant movement between rain squalls and tears and waterfalls as the family pushes and pulls between the cocoon of familial love and the lure of independence.




29 Responses The Greatest Films of the 21st Century
Posted By Autist : August 23, 2016 3:30 pm

A Resident Evil movie and a Farrelly brothers movie? Really?

Posted By swac44 : August 23, 2016 3:33 pm

Uncle Boonmee and Step Brothers are already in my Netflix queue, while Wolf Children is a title I had heard of, but didn’t know much about. I’ve enjoyed Johnnie To’s work in the past, but had heard nothing about Sparrow, I feel like I’ve really been missing out on what’s happening in the HK film scene in recent years, and unable to keep tabs on it as I was in the heyday of figures like John Woo, Ringo Lam and Wong Kar Wei. Clearly I need to remedy that ASAP.

Posted By robbushblog : August 23, 2016 6:47 pm

I must echo Autist: Really?

Posted By Doug Miller : August 23, 2016 8:45 pm

I like your list, although I have seen only three — great to expand the conversation. And I know you are tired of the old conversations, but can I just say that I love the BBC list! I haven’t been reading lists for quite a while, so it really was a pleasure. For example, I had just re-watched The Great Beauty, but how many people actually saw it? And it is one of about ten on the BBC list that are very different on a big screen, I would say. Those who haven’t seen the list should check it out. I’ll try to post a link here (didn’t see one above):

Posted By EricJ : August 24, 2016 12:10 am

I’m with Autist–Fellowship of the Ring makes the revised AFI 100 list, and we’re asked to appreciate the “genius” of Resident Evil 3D, Will Ferrell and an art-fanboy anime title?
Somebody’s showing off a tad, and nobody does it like the UK critics. (Who seem to have an unnatural obsession with “Monkey Business”, and not even the Marx Bros. shipboard version at that.)

I could make some very non-ironic academic arguments in favor of why the first Iron Man was “the” movie that spiritually symbolized the 00′s, and even I have too much taste to put it on a would-be century list.

Posted By EricJ : August 24, 2016 12:22 am

Oh, this is the columnist’s list! Okay, whew–Did seem a bit odd and er, subjective.

Following Doug’s link, the actual BBC choices–showoff Mulholland aside–are a little more sensible, although still artsy-gratis-artsier (ie. anything that puts Boyhood -and- Tree of Life in the top ten)

#4 – Spirited Away (now THAT’S an art-anime fanboy title that deserves the cineaste honor)
#12 – Zodiac
#17 – Pan’s Labyrinth
#19 – Mad Max: Fury Road
#29 – Wall-E
#57 – Zero Dark Thirty
#87 – Amelie
#92 – The Assassination of Jesse James

And the good news: No, they did not pick Avatar for ANYTHING, although I’d readily pick it (or Hugo) over a crappy Sony RE sequel as the representative of “Serious 3D for filmmaking’s sake, and I even walked out on the darn thing.

Posted By Sank Frinatra : August 24, 2016 7:13 am

Didn’t agree much with either yours or theirs, I must say …

How about “Jeff Who Lives At Home” in lieu of “Step Brothers” I’d wager

And I wonder when the BBC & “filmspotting” et al. will wake up & realize that neither Wes nor P.T. Anderson are anything more than mediocrities!

As for Johnnie To, I also enjoyed Sparrow — yet I can’t forgive him for ending “Drug Wars” on a note of encouraging the audience to laugh at the victims of Chinese state torture !! …

oh well guess I’m getting bitter …

Posted By Mike Watt : August 24, 2016 12:28 pm

I was surprised as well to see “Stuck on You” and the “Resident Evil” film here, but I also love when reviewers I respect offer me the opportunity to re-assess my opinions or challenge me to look at a film in a different way. It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to something – I certainly did before I read his summations. Every movie is art (provided you start with the premise that anything made by human hands is art at base). Taste is always the subjective element.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : August 24, 2016 2:09 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful comments everyone, whether or not you think I’m crazy. Just a note: I put a link to the poll in the first paragraph (click on “Greatest Films of the 21st Century”), but the blog renders links as invisible so it’s hard to know they are there.

I understand people’s reluctance to accept movies like Step Brothers, Stuck on You, or Resident Evil on lists of this type, but that was part of my intent, to broaden the scope of the discussions these lists usually provoke. They are three films that have given me more pleasure than almost any other this century, and I hope my blurbs convey a little of my reasoning. And as I noted in my intro, my list was restricted to films that were NOT on the BBC’s top 25. So I couldn’t include films I love, like Mulholland Dr., Tree of Life, and others.

Posted By xpeb : August 24, 2016 5:13 pm

I love that this list is kind of a middle finger to lists. Step Brothers is a legitimate tour-de-force of improv comedy, though.

Posted By robbushblog : August 24, 2016 6:03 pm

Wes Anderson is much better than a mediocrity. RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, MOONRISE KINGDOM, and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL are wonderful.

Posted By Emgee : August 24, 2016 6:55 pm

Wes Anderson is one of those “love or hate” directors; i don’t hate him, but think his movies are very much style over substance. If you love the style, you love his movies.

As for P.T. Anderson: There Will Be Blood is the most overrated movie of the last 15 years, and i want both my money AND those 2, 5 hours back. On the other hand: Boogie Nights, Magnolia and The Master. The defense rests.

Posted By Doug Miller : August 24, 2016 7:28 pm

Ah, but these are the kinds of conversations that this Morlock was seeking to expand. I feel bad for leading us down this double-Andersonian path. Going back to Stuck on You, couldn’t the Farrelly brothers have made a better movie by leaving out some of the more gross elements? (Can’t remember what they were, but I know there were some.) And were you just yanking our chains, or do you really think Eva Mendes has that kind of depth? What are her other performances of note?

Posted By Emgee : August 24, 2016 7:38 pm

You want to expand the discussion by going BACK to Stuck on You?
Makes sense.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : August 24, 2016 7:45 pm

Hey Doug, I am very sincere for my admiration of Eva Mendes’ performance in that film. It is open and innocent and very, very funny. She has a small but hilarious part in THE OTHER GUYS, and she is also excellent, in a very different register, in James Gray’s WE OWN THE NIGHT. Overall her talents have certainly been underserved by Hollywood.

Posted By robbushblog : August 24, 2016 8:03 pm

Eva Mendes was very good in THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES as well. She also showed comic talents in HITCH and served as a fine supporting actress to Denzel Washington in OUT OF TIME. I’ve always been a fan because she’s slightly gorgeous.

Posted By robbushblog : August 24, 2016 8:05 pm

And P.T. Anderson is great too. I am not as enamored with THERE WILL BE BLOOD as some others are, but I still liked it quite a bit. BOOGIE NIGHTS, THE MASTER, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, and INHERENT VICE are all good to great as well. The guy got a great performance out of Adam Sandler for Pete’s sake! P.T. Anderson is a genius.

Posted By Doug Miller : August 24, 2016 10:34 pm

OK, I will seek out the Ryan Gosling movie mentioned — I loved his comic timing in the recent Russell Crowe 1970s thingy. And I’m willing to listen to another argument about the Andersons (though I have heard many), if someone will explain the BBC’s omissions of BIRDMAN, THE FIGHTER, AMERICAN HUSTLE, and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. Is this the anti-Oscars? Or the anti- David O. Russell list? Maybe I’m just blind, but I read the list twice — did I miss those? I would also include Errol Morris’ documentary TABLOID. And even the bizarre I [HEART] HUCKABEES.

Posted By EricJ : August 25, 2016 5:42 pm

I wouldn’t say TWBB is THE “most overrated movie of the last 15 years”–there’s plenty of competition–but its zeitgeist has a pretty short shelf life.
TWBB is unnaturally enamored by a lot of “edgy” kids who WISH they could be Daniel Day Lewis’s Mr. Meanie as their own aspiring Oscar the Grouch role model, and drink everyone’s milkshake, especially nasty religious people’s.
Unfortunately, that’s wishfully and subjectively getting the story as wrong as PT Anderson did–For those who read Upton Sinclair’s “Oil”, the book story was in fact about the deaf son, and where -he- went when he disappeared from the picture–He goes off to observe the sad condition of oil workers, as Sinclair had written it in response to the Teapot Dome scandals, and the rise of unions and proto-Communism. The fact that Anderson could make two hours about nothing but the two obscure “missing” supporting characters sitting around having a piss-fight about religion says more about Anderson than it does about Sinclair.

Posted By Emgee : August 25, 2016 7:01 pm

I base my judgment of TWBB as THE “most overrated movie of the last 15 years” partly on the fact that it’s voted number 3 by 177 (!) film critics from around the world. That’s astounding when you see how many vastly superior movies are on that list.

I’m sure that Upton Sinclair’s book must be better than the dreary movie based on it; To quote Wikipedia: “It is a social and political satire skewering the human foibles of all its characters.” Unfortunately none of the persons in the movie has any character, apart from being either mad or evil.

Posted By George : August 25, 2016 9:17 pm

I haven’t seen any of your picks, R. Emmett. Guess I’d better get on the ball.

I would add GHOST WORLD to the BBC list. And maybe THE HATEFUL EIGHT. Any movie that pissed off as many people as HATEFUL EIGHT deserves to be watched and talked about.

Good to see the seemingly perverse choice of SPRING BREAKERS on the BBC list. It’s really a terrific movie, with a very creative performance by James Franco.

Posted By EricJ : August 25, 2016 10:06 pm

“Any movie that pissed off as many people as HATEFUL EIGHT deserves to be watched and talked about.”

By that logic, the Ghostbusters remake would crack the top ten. ;)

Posted By Autist : August 25, 2016 11:57 pm

‘“Any movie that pissed off as many people as HATEFUL EIGHT deserves to be watched and talked about.”

‘By that logic, the Ghostbusters remake would crack the top ten.’

And Batman Vs. Superman should be number 1!

Posted By robbushblog : August 26, 2016 12:05 am

I don’t know. There are still plenty of angry debates online – to this day – about MAN OF STEEL. For good reason. It’s abhorrent.

Posted By George : August 26, 2016 12:40 am

Actually, EricJ, most of the people who saw the GHOSTBUSTERS remake liked it. So did most of the critics who saw it. The hatred came from insecure fanboys who began attacking it a year and a half before it was released. That is, from the day the female cast was announced.

HATEFUL EIGHT was loathed by people who went expecting a bloody but fun “romp” like the KILL BILL movies, or a feel-good revenge melodrama (a la DJANGO or BASTERDS), and got more than they bargained for. They got a movie with nobody to root for, which seems to be unacceptable for most Americans.

Posted By George “The Animal” Steele : August 26, 2016 4:04 am

The Hateful Eight had nobody to root for? Gimme a break. I was rooting for Daisy throughout the entire thing while Tarantino tried desperately to figure out what to do with her. Hateful is a good movie, but also his worst. Yeah, I’d rather watch Death Proof any day of the week.

Posted By robbushblog : August 26, 2016 4:43 am

Those “insecure fanboys” also didn’t show up for the ROBOCOP or TOTAL RECALL remakes. The accusations about women-hating “insecure fanboys” were overblown. The new GHOSTBUSTERS made as much as it did probably BECAUSE of the manufactured controversy. The commercials and trailers made it look terrible. GHOSTBUSTERS is beloved by many people, more so than most 80s movies, and a good portion of them didn’t care to see a poor retread of one of their favorite movies. Think about what a BACK TO THE FUTURE remake might be like as well – a bomb, more than likely.

Posted By CitizenKing : August 26, 2016 2:49 pm

To me the interesting thing about the BBC list is what it tells me about my movie habits. When I look at the AFI 100 years lists, or similar lists from other sources, I usually see that I have seen at least 90% of them. (Sometimes more.) For the 21st century I have seen about 25 of the movies on the BBC list. Now, several others are on my to do list. Keep in mind some of them have only been out for a few months and I am not a rush to the theater kind of guy.

So I might be a bit out of the loop when it comes to modern movies. It takes time for someone like myself to dig into the deeper catalog. In fact, I haven’t seen any of your list of 10.

But then with respect to lists in general, I really don’t care about rankings and snubs. If any list gives me another movie to discover I am happy. So your small list succeeded on that account, as did the BBC.

Posted By George : August 26, 2016 9:43 pm

No, rob, the woman-hating fanboy reaction to the new GHOSTBUSTERS was not overblown. It went on for over a year as geeks, nerds and losers flooded message boards with hatred for the movie. They posted comments like, “Couldn’t they have hired some women with good tits?” Look at the treatment of Leslie Jones, which has been both racist and misogynist.

I had no great interest in a GHOSTBUSTERS revival, with or without the original cast. The lame, unfunny GHOSTBUSTERS II, from 1989, killed my desire for more sequels with Murray & Co. Maybe because I was over 18 when I saw the ’84 original, I never regarded it as a sacred text or a religious experience. I saw it for what it was: a silly comedy.

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