The 21st Century’s Best Films So Far

From 'There Will Be Blood,' 'Ida' and 'Youth' to 'Solaris,' 'The Dark Knight' and 'Leviathan,' the 2000s have been packed with phenomenal films, which are presented here in groups to recognize thematic and philosophical trends.

click to enlarge The 2013 film 'Ida' already might be one of this century’s best. - Photo: Opus Film
Photo: Opus Film
The 2013 film 'Ida' already might be one of this century’s best.

Recently, the BBC polled film critics, soliciting choices for the 10 best films of the 21st century. Since it seems the email inquiry to me somehow got lost en route, I figured I would just go ahead and make my selections public for CityBeat readers, who are already quite used to the annual navel-gazing I do to evaluate the best of the hundreds of films I see each year.

I believe there is a greater service to readers and film fans than just ranking my favorites. That is why, you will note, I packaged my responses as blocks of films. That is a means of recognizing thematic and philosophical trends that were exerting influence over my choices.

With that in mind, here is the first group: There Will Be Blood (2007); No Country for Old Men (2007); Memento (2000); 12 Years a Slave (2013).

I surprised myself with the ease of these first four selections. The titles sprang up without thought, as if recalled via muscle memory. But with the heavy lifting required to then utilize those critical muscles, the connective tissues among these films were revealed. There were the sinewy bonds between There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), No Country for Old Men’s Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), Memento’s Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), and 12 Years a Slave’s Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). These were all men of great will and perseverance, each distinctly American.

The next four are these: Blue is the Warmest Color (2013); Children of Men (2006); Melancholia (2011); Youth (2015).

It is strange, the common (and uniquely current) concern of being a prisoner of “the moment.” That’s a phrase you hear quite often voiced by sports analysts, because they find themselves enamored by the skill and prowess immediately before them to the extent that they neglect to factor in the greats who came before. 

But what happens when film reveals something greater than “the moment”? When it addresses the naked beauty and purity of love, the redemptive power of hope, the soul-stirring sadness in the face of inevitable death and the enduring nature of inspiration? Recognize that the universality of “the moment” is timeless, people.

The third group: Force Majeure (2014); Punch-Drunk Love (2002); Leviathan (2014); Ida (2013).

Humanity often seems to demand an embrace of weakness, frailty and our innate fallibility. Sometimes we fail to live up to our potential in the most intimate moments and on the grandest scales. But these four films speak to our continuous striving. At our best, we never stop trying.

The fourth group: Solaris (2002); Upstream Color (2013); Collateral (2004).

Great filmmaking embraces a willingness — a need — to dream and then bring that vision to life. Director Steven Soderbergh (Solaris) scans through a multiverse of intimate frames in his dreams, and when he then opens up a window, souls breathe. Shane Carruth (Upstream Color) renders the dreams of alternate souls. Michael Mann (Collateral) transforms digital frames into a spiritual X-ray.

A group of two: Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013); Man on Wire (2008).

The genius of the documentary form is the subject. In this group, filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and tightrope walker Philippe Petit (Man on Wire) are more than just kindred spirits — they each tap into more than their fair share of the collective creative well of bravery available to humanity. Fortunately, what they do with it sets an example for us all.

The final three: The Dark Knight (2008); Dirty Pretty Things (2003); Sexy Beast (2000).

It seems unfair for a critic compiling a list of great movies to save those with darkness for the end, but maybe it would be better to work from a different critical perspective than one that sees “darkness” as a bad thing.  

We’ve got many more miles and years to go. I wonder how history will judge this list at the twilight of the 21st century. I can only hope and pray for a bit of kindness from my fellow denizens of the dark movie houses of the future.

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]

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