Bringing the list to a close, here are the top twenty five finest films of the 21st century so far! From lowest to highest, by the way (including the numbers makes the page start to form in… strange ways.
The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004)
The first of many M. Night Shyamalan inclusions on this list, The Village is a phenomenal thriller about a blind woman living in a nineteenth century village when it is attacked by monsters. Featuring what might be the single best Shyamalan twist to date (the one that has the largest impact on what precedes it, rather than altering a character or a relationship, the twist here makes the entire film completely different in such an arresting way), and maybe his finest cinematography too, this is one of his greatest achievements. It’s certainly not to be missed.
Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)
Michael Mann may just be the best director currently working, and to say that Public Enemies is one of his lesser films and is still one of the best of the last two decade just makes the argument even stronger. Public Enemies is massively admirable to me primarily for the way it presents its hero – a gangster. Rather than the typical representation as a cold, harsh man, Mann and Depp collaborate and bring John Dillinger’s character to life as a person before anything else, humanising him to the extent of making him truly sympathetic which then creates this great conflict within the audience when seeing him committing these atrocities. It’s an excellent film, Mann’s digital cinematography against the 1930s Depression era setting is also just incredibly effective. A phenomenal film.
Runaway (Kanye West, 2010)
Okay, admittedly, the chances are that my endless admiration for Kanye’s work in general has a knock-on effect on how I perceive this, but beyond the music, this film is just so incredibly visually expressive, with such rich colours and gorgeous lighting. The Runaway sequence is one of the most beautiful and disturbing in recent memory at the same time, fitting the song it’s set to perfectly, and going beyond My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (and forgiving Kanye’s choppy acting), it’s one of the most enchanting films of all time, a truly unique vision brought to life by the music and the surrealism. The use of black and red is just gorgeous, and considering the minuscule runtime, this is ridiculously memorable.
Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
Another major sensory experience – no surprise coming from David Lynch – and a film that also leaves one hell of a mark on the mind specifically, Inland Empire is one of Lynch’s weirder films. This is mainly because of the narrative fragmentation, but also because of the general lack of resolution in any moment, Lynch consistently cuts away from conversations unfinished, scenes unresolved, etc. It’s wonderfully enigmatic, also no surprise, and one hell of a film.
Miami Vice (Michael Mann, 2006)
Anybody who has been here for a while will remember my excitable rambling about this film specifically in my Michael Mann retrospective essay (available on this blog!), talking about my innocent discovery of this film is something I may never stop doing, but to keep it short and concise, it’s a film of major importance to how I came to learn to appreciate any kind of film, and that’s not to say that the quality of the film alone doesn’t earn it a high spot. This is one that opens itself up more and more with each viewing, as if it wasn’t impressive enough the first time. More of Mann’s crippling humanisation of characters so often glossed over in film, and more of his stunning digital photography.
Hereafter (Clint Eastwood, 2010)
I’ve spouted about Clint Eastwood a silly amount on here already, but a little more won’t hurt. Hereafter is far and away his weirdest film, or at least, it’s the one you’d least expect to be helmed by Eastwood. It would appear that fifty years of being tough finally wore off, and so, he takes the logical step to making one of the most overwhelmingly beautiful spiritual films ever made. It’s sprawling, enchanting and… kind of ridiculous all at the same time. This isn’t one I can recommend to anybody, however, if it sounds like something you’d enjoy based on the synopsis, do watch it.
Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, 2015)
With Spike Lee honing in on racism and gun crime in Chicago, but furthermore deciding to combat this through the lens of a surrealist comedy, Chi-Raq is one of his Lee’s finest films. It seems that I have quite the affinity for Lee’s comedy work, with this and Bamboozled being two of my favourites of his films (and hell, I even think that She Hate Me is great… and no one seems to really enjoy that one) – but what is really impressive here is this merging of ideas and the way that Lee decides to execute them. As many will know, gun crime has been high in Chicago for years (something touched on mostly by Kanye West, as far as artists go – “Just last year, Chicago had over six hundred caskets…”, for example), and Lee choosing to tackle this through a bizarre dystopian comedy is baffling… but it works nonetheless. It’s a stunner of a film, and talking in any detail about it is surprisingly difficult without ruining it, so I won’t go any further – just see it.
24 Frames (Abbas Kiarostami, 2017)
The final film from Iranian master director Abbas Kiarostami, 24 Frames is… exactly what it says it is. A series of different frames. Sounds boring, but Kiarostami makes them move, gives movement to the still in the most beautiful and poetic of ways. This is another one that is surprisingly difficult to really describe through language, another one that simply demands to be experienced in the most raw way possible. It’s a film to be quietly embraced, and it knows it. The approach it has is gentle. Consuming, but quiet.
Deja Vu (Tony Scott, 2006)
As previously mentioned, Tony Scott really transformed at the end of his career into something special, something we may never see again in mainstream cinema. DeJa Vu may be his best film, even if Domino is more extreme and experimental in its form, starring Denzel Washington as a Federal Agent who starts using time-travelling surveillance to help work on his investigation of an explosion on a Ferry. Channeling post 9/11 paranoia, experimental genre-blending, insane superimposition and cinematography to make even Stan Brakhage’s eyes pop out of his head and perhaps the single greatest use of digital cinema to date, DeJa Vu is just a towering work, one constantly impressive, endlessly involving and pure cinematic joy to observe.
Platform (Jia Zhang-ke, 2000)
It’s a shame that only one Jia Zhang-ke film made the list, especially considering that I would be more than likely to put him in the five best directors currently working. However, one is certainly better than none, and few films deserve a spot hear more than Platform does, with it’s mesmerisingly grand scale, a big film disguised as a small(ish) one if ever I’ve seen it. The performances are stunning, the scope of the film is completely unfathomable. It’s just a ridiculous work. A total must see in a way that few films are.
Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, 2000)
Somehow pre-dating the explosion in popularity for superhero dramas (particularly the work that Zack Snyder would go on to do with Man of Steel, turning the superhero into a much smaller, more intimate character and taking away from the image of superheroes as Gods… right up until he decides he’s bored of that, at least.), M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable looks at the superhero genre in a way only later equalled by another one of his own films. Reversing the typical representation of heroes as God figures and simply making them men with extraordinary abilities gifted to them by chance, and focusing on how they grapple with this feeling of difference when compared to the rest of the world (Mr Glass sees his difference as a detriment, which is why he ends up as the villain, David Dunn sees his as a blessing and a way to do good – M Night’s endless optimism, something easily found in every film he has made save for maybe The Visit, clearly points to mindset as an instigator of power, something John Singleton would be proud of). It’s absolutely stunning, a slow moving and mature film looking at a genre that tends to feel the same in a completely unique way, even Glass feels quite different, but more on Glass later.
Pasolini (Abel Ferrara, 2014)
Abel Ferrara really wasn’t playing games in 2014, releasing two of his greatest films in the same year. Pasolini, unsurprisingly, follows Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini during the last few days of his life around the time of the release of his most notorious film, Salo (or the 120 Days of Sodom). Played by the always brilliant Willem Dafoe in what must be his finest performance to date, the film follows Pasolini with great intimacy, detailing his actions and his conversations and his ideals beautifully. Ferrara films with so much love and respect for Pasolini, and it shows clearly through the way that his camera moves, the framing of Pasolini, the subtleties in his craft. It’s just incredibly affecting stuff, no surprise coming from Ferrara.
Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
One of the few times that the Oscars have really got it right with their selection for best picture, Barry Jenkin’s breakthrough feature Moonlight follows the story of a young, gay black man as he grows up surrounding by not only the pressures of society dragging him down, but furthermore the issues that come with where he lives and the situations he is forced into by circumstances he has no control over. Cut into three different chapters, ‘Little’, ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black’, the triptych style of storytelling quickly becomes consuming, especially when matched with such powerful performances, such memorable characters and such a stunner of a score from the phenomenal Nicholas Britell (for my money, maybe the best composer currently working on primarily in film, his work is always fantastic), and the emotion crafted by the form is so indelibly persuasive that it’s difficult not to fall for Moonlight completely. A tender, carefully told story of pain, trials and tribulations and how people try to adapt to overcome that brings to mind the work of Claire Denis (who is equally tender with her camera) will probably always be pretty impressive.
Bamboozled (Spike Lee, 2000)
Not his first appearance and certainly not his last, Spike Lee returns again with Bamboozled, maybe his strangest and most vitriolic film with one exception. A satirical comedy following a TV producer who jokingly suggests a twenty first century blackface comedy show to his superiors, only for them to agree to it, and the show to become a great success, is a plot only Lee could make work, and boy does he! With anger more thundering than ever before (up to this point, anyway), Lee’s story explodes onto the screen, viciously degrading the film studios, the industry and the audiences with no forgiveness. It’s just a merciless film, with an ending montage so strong it might just be the best single scene of the century up to this point (right alongside a prison sequence in another film further up on this list). Not many people have seen this one, so I won’t touch on it any further to avoid spoiling it, but do see it. It is one of Spike’s three finest works.
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (Spike Lee, 2006)
As previously mentioned when talking about Bamboozled, there is one angrier Spike Lee film… When The Levees Broke is a beastly four hour documentary (8 hours if you watch the follow up documentary If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, which I do recommend – you can split the time up into four parts, so don’t be too alarmed.) about the lead-up to and gutting aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Huge in scale, Lee somehow manages to find all of the perfect archive footage, all of the perfect interviewees and furthermore, manages to edit it all together perfectly (I don’t want to imagine how long this took to edit, or how much footage there was to sit through), weaving together this deafening cry for all of the victims of one of America’s worst tragedies. If Katrina wasn’t enough devastation by itself, Spike’s relentless coverage of the following mess that was the government trying (or more their lack of trying) to figure out how to fix the problem, and often only making it worse. It’s a film that would make the calmest man on Earth blaspheme with anger, a genuinely revolutionary piece of documentary filmmaking that still hasn’t been seen nearly as much as it needs to be. It’s an essential, all emphasis on my recommendation here as I feel anyone could find the quality here.
Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
I’d probably call this Clint Eastwood’s smartest directorial work, and probably his finest too, even if it isn’t my favourite film of his. Just because another film a little higher up on this list makes me far more emotional, I did admittedly feel bad putting this lower. It’s important to note that the power of this film is doubled when watching Flags of Our Fathers beforehand, the two working as a kind of thesis/anti-thesis pairing that makes each film stronger. Flags works as this celebration of America in World War II, looking at them as the heroes of the battle with Japan, sympathising with them for the effects that the war, and their being forced into it, as well as the effects that the following praise as ‘heroes’ (when the characters feel like anything but), and Letters From Iwo Jima is the perfect contrast point that essentially takes those who loved Flags of Our Fathers to one side and gives them a good telling off. Leave it to a director as strong as Eastwood to juxtapose a colourful American celebratory film with a black and white, Japanese, almost 150 minute long depressing ride about the Japanese slowly being cornered and killed off. It almost plays like a depressing slasher film, just knowing that so many of these characters are going to die in front of us, and surely enough, they do. It’s gutting in a way that very few films are, an incredibly intelligent work in terms of the context of Eastwood’s career as well as in and of itself.
Glass (M. Night Shyamalan, 2019)
Shyamalan’s final entry to the list, and his most recent film, Glass is a complete culmination of his work up to this point. Filled with his bittersweet optimism from start to finish (but especially with the gutting jaw-dropper of an ending) and finally bringing together the Eastrail 177 trilogy (Unbreakable, Split and Glass) with the send-off it deserved, it’s a film that feels massively important, and the messages it has to send definitely back this up, looking at this war between authorities who try to limit people and how these people can band together to become more. Not only is it Shyamalan’s most taut film, but it is also his most hopeful, looking at how by working together, people can accomplish even more than alone. It’s a film that just has to be seen to be believed, I’m stepping on a ridiculous amount of eggshells trying to explain why this one is so powerful without touching on the many twists and turns within the narrative that add so much too said power.
Norte, The End of History (Lav Diaz, 2013)
Having only gained an interest in the cinema of Lav Diaz quite recently, Norte came as one hell of a surprise. Admittedly, I went in with middling expectations – I wanted to admire Diaz so much, but the one film of his I had seen prior to this one was The Woman Who Left, which did next to nothing for me (other than give me a vague curiosity to see how his other films may compare), and I knew by the middle of the film that I had fallen completely under its spell. Norte is one of the most involving films I have ever seen, using its long runtime to slowly sucker the audience in and consume them in its world – which is a brutal one – and holds them there until the bitter end. It’s almost inexplicable, as with any Diaz film really, because the length and the way that Diaz controls his narrative is so careful and specific to what cinema can do rather than what can be expressed in words, but I feel like calling it a masterpiece should be praise enough for some of you to want to check it out, if you haven’t already.
A Visit to the Louvre (Jean-Marie Straub & Daniele Huillet, 2004)
I remember going into this one with my expectations middling, not sure what to expect from what I had read about it. Starting it up, I was quickly immersed and from them on, completely encapsulated by the film, which is mostly a series of shots of various artworks with narration over them, describing in detail the effects that they have, the intricacies of the work and what they enjoy so much about each one. It may sound quite dry, but the reality of it is something else entirely. Achingly beautiful, intimate and personal, and for such a simplistic work, the effect it has is incredible.
A Century of Energy (Manoel de Oliveira, 2015)
Manoel de Oliveira’s last film, and perhaps the single greatest short film ever made, A Century of Energy is about… exactly what the title infers, the changes to the world over the last hundred years, all of which Oliveira was alive to witness. Mixing archive footage, stunningly beautiful dance sequences and shots of nature, the film is pure beauty from start to finish in a way that very few others are, a kind of pure experience that is damn difficult to explain effectively. It’s available on YouTube, so give it the fifteen minute investment that it deserves (tenfold).
Blackhat (Michael Mann, 2015)
Mann’s final entry to the list, and maybe his best film overall (Heat makes it tricky to say with any real clarity), Blackhat is a surprisingly divisive film about a hacker freed from prison to help the authorities deal with an online threat after a terrorist attack in Asia. Starring Chris Hemsworth in the lead role as the mysterious hacker who falls into a brief romance, and with some of the best digital cinematography and sound work of the century so far, Blackhat is a spine-breaker of a film about twenty first century insecurity and paranoia embodied by these hackers who become involved way over their head in terrorist activity. With one of the best finales in action film history, as well as some of the most interesting post-9/11 discussion in cinema, Blackhat is a must see for its dynamic and exciting action alone, turned to a masterpiece for the ages by the incredible subtext at play throughout.
Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004)
Quite possibly Eastwood’s most popular film, and deservedly so, Million Dollar Baby is about Maggie Fitzgerald, a woman with dreams of becoming a boxer, and her trainer, Frank Dunn (played by Eastwood, who also composes one of my favourite film scores here, if not my absolute favourite) as Fitzgerald trains and eventually enters the boxing world. With the most gutting finale put to film probably ever, so carefully controlled by Eastwood’s direction – every piece of form contributes a great deal to the overwhelming emotion this film manages to present – and performances so staggering in their portrayal of heartbreak and gradual delve into complete hopelessness due to their previous buying into the American Dream (this deserves to be held right at the top alongside the likes of Of Mice and Men for stories on the failings of The American Dream, it’s just painful). It’s a film you never really expect to get you anywhere near as much as it does, an underdog in a similar way to Fitzgerald, and by far the best boxing film ever made. There’s just no competition even close to being on this level.
Melancholia (Lav Diaz, 2008)
Featuring the single greatest, most shocking plot twist of all time, which I promise I won’t spoil, Melancholia is one of the most impressive films ever made. Clocking in at almost eight hours, filmed in Diaz’s trademark black and white (with mostly static long takes), Melancholia follows the story of a prostitute and a pimp living in the Philippines struggling to stay afloat. It’s really difficult to get into the impact of this one without ruining anything, so I will just have to say that this is truly enveloping, truly immersive in a way that very few films can match because of both the runtime and the way that the story is told so carefully and acted out so poignantly. It’s just incredible work, so unique and genuinely towering both emotionally and in narrative.
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara, 2014)
So, ending on the highest note of them all, Abel Ferrara’s crowning achievement, Welcome To New York. Just typing out the name made me shudder a little, I admit. Starring Gerard Depardieu in the leading role as the despicable politician Devereaux in a story inspired by the French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Welcome to New York is essentially a film about power, and how power can blind others to faults, how power can lead to corruption, but furthermore it’s about how things can be hidden by power. How power can deceive, but also how being stripped of power (especially after having had a great deal of it) can be so destructive. It’s just flooring, Ferrara’s camera more patient than ever before here, observing these events in a detached light and allowing the audience to simply feel it. It’s a film that prods and stings and quietly cackles at the viewer’s discomfort in seeing the events unfold, it’s a film that smirks wickedly knowing that the point it makes will leave an everlasting mark on its audience, and a film that manages to make its points to eloquently and so harshly that it’s just unforgettable, completely indelible. The prison cell sequence is one of the best ever filmed, and the entire film just goes to prove the capabilities of film as a form. It is absolutely ridiculous work, hard to find and equally hard to sit through, but so massively rewarding that it demands to be seen anyway.