Last week the New York Times released its list of the “25 Best Films of the 21st Century (So Far),” a few of which the typical moviegoer had actually seen. Then we asked our favorite film critic, Chris Corbellini, to compile a list for us, which he did. It is far more accessible to the non-pedant and is in our opinion, simply a better list.
Because the exercise is so tempting, the MH crap staff has compiled one of our own. A few caveats and notes: Yes, Ruth, the 21st century did not begin until January 1, 2001, but we’re going to give ourselves that one more year; second, it is to us indisputable that this century has provided far superior fare in television than in films (or music). Ask us to put a list of Top 25 Films of the 1990s and we’re off like Dennis Hopper driving the bus in Speed; for this century, though, that’s a tougher task.
One reason we/I compiled this list is because our/my list does not dovetail that closely with either of the aforementioned lists. Only two films—The Hurt Locker and Mad Max: Fury Road—appear on all three of our lists. The other? I’ve got a little more “down time” (inside joke for Newsweek staffers) on my hands now.
I think Chris put it best in terms of how to evaluate what films deserve to be on one’s list: “these movies simply got to me, or wowed me on a technical level, or both. It was and should be the only standard that matters.” The “chills” standard, be it from fright or awe or suspense, matters. The best movies leave not scars but goosebumps.
This is far from an empirical list: some lauded films I simply have yet to see (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, City of God, Moonlight, Twelve Years A Slave) and others I wish I hadn’t: Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Boyhood. Has there ever been a period in film with such a plethora of self-important, charm-and/or-humor-free films? Finally, I added some docs but I don’t consider the OJ “30 For 30” a cinematic release. And that’s why it isn’t on this list.
(p.s. The “Just Missed” list is at the bottom…)
(p.p.s. An asterisk means neither previous list included this film.)
Pitch Perfect (2012) *
There’s truth in advertising, as this smart, snarky and wildly entertaining film’s title attests (I’ve added this film to the list after an oversight yesterday because, to be honest, there are not 25 more films, not even 10, on this list that I’d prefer to see again before seeing this one). From a shower duet of “Titanium” (“that’s my jam”) to the riff-off to a surfeit of funny put-downs, this film is a ca-awesome. I’m sorry I forgot to include it yesterday.
Match Point (2005) *
My heart told me to write Midnight In Paris, but my head pointed to London for this Woody Allen film of deceit and adultery. An incredibly dark film—Hannah and Her Sisters on the Thames—but a spell-binding one. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers conveys the tension of his self-induced entrapment (i.e. “unforced errors”) and ScarJo is the other woman whom Bill Murray would not have been able to resist.
Lost In Translation (2003)
So many people on this planet and so many things to do, but all most of us really yearn for is a soulmate. When Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen find one another, they realize their relationship is ephemeral, but they’ll enjoy while it lasts.
A film that begins in outer space and ends with a creature emerging from the sea and taking its first, unsteady steps on terra firma. How’s that for turning evolution on its, ear, HAL? Like Mad Max: Fury Road, this is a story revolving around a heroine and a chase for survival, but unlike that one, it is also a portrait of Mother Earth in all her grandeur. Just SEEING this film is more than half the reward.
J.K. Simmons starts out as Louis Gossett, Jr’s drill sergeant from An Officer and A Gentleman and then adds five layers of malevolence. Fully engrossing with a dynamite final scene.
Wow Moment: The dining room scene.
Argo (2012) *
Kudos to Ben Affleck for marrying a suspenseful, true-life story with some comic relief in the personages of Alan Arkin and John Goodman. The scene in which Affleck, who produced this Oscar-winning film, suggests to Arkin that he could pose as the fictitious film’s producer and is immediately shot down is some wonderful navel-gazing. Argo f___ yourself!
The Tillman Story (2010) *
The unnecessary death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan is only half of an American tragedy. The other half is how the most trusted figures in American government, such as Donald Rumsfeld, covered their asses and betrayed the very ideals for which Tillman fought. An honest, emotional film that should have you enraged and heartbroken as the lights come up. There are no other Pat Tillmans out there.
I’m not letting this entire list go without at least one Aaron Sorkin-penned film and I’ll take this over The Social Network. This may be Brad Pitt’s best role since Thelma & Louise and the script is so well-done (Update: there’s another film lower on this list that I did not realize is a Sorkin script but I should have because it’s so well-written: Charlie Wilson’s War).
Wow Moment: When Jonah Hill plays the tape of the batter falling and the crowd cheering because, unbeknownst to him, he hit a home run. Do you get the metaphor, Mr. Beane?
Syriana (2005) *
Watch it again and see how prophetic this tale of big oil, the Middle East and big government is.
Wow Moment: Matt Damon’s character explaining to the Arab prince what the rest of the world thinks of his country’s economic strategy.
La La Land (2016)
Overrated? Slightly, but the opening number, followed closely by “Someone In The Crowd,” an upbeat let’s-go-out-and-meet-Mr.-Dreamy tune that literally ends with a splash, and then a short time later by the Gosling-Stone duet, are all movie musical moments that will live forever. The story lagged as soon as John Legend and reality made their entry, but that’s okay. La La Land won me over in the first 20 minutes and I never revoked its pass.
Wow Moment: The opening number. Sunshine and bumper-to-bumper traffic are as L.A. as it gets.
Sexy Beast (2001) *
Ben Kingsley inhabits a character, Don, that is as antipodal to Gandhi as he could possibly find. Don is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious, the archduke of not giving two shits about the consequences of his words or actions. He’s profusely profane. Ian McShane is fabulous as the top gangster Teddy Bass. “Where there’s a will – and there is a fucking will – there’s a way – and there is a fucking way.”
The Great Beauty (2013)*
An impressionist painting of a film, this Italian Best Foreign Film Oscar winner is an elegy on the fleeting nature of time as well as a celebration of life and Rome. Don’t worry too much about the plot, just absorb the feeling of this film through your pores. This one definitely got to me.
Michael Clayton (2007)
In one scene, Tom Wilkinson was so captivating and surprisingly lucid (was he the template for Chuck McGill?) that he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and he might should have won. This is my favorite George Clooney performance and, as Chris previously wrote, he only left his car (and saved his own life) to see those horses in the dawn mist because he had a tiny smidge of his own soul remaining.
The Hurt Locker (2008) *
War is the drug and Jeremy Renner’s main character is our addict. The scene in which the local man is booby-trapped to a bomb and Renner realizes that he won’t be able to save him in time and that all he can do is express his regrets is a microcosm, I’d argue, of the Iraq War.
Once (2007) *
Sometimes the best love stories are asexual (or at least that’s what many women have told me 🙂 ). Glen Hansard is winning as the Dublin busker who’s given up on being happy until he meets an Eastern European muse.
Wow Moment: The scene at the recording studio as the engineer puts down his magazine, genuinely surprised and captivated by “When Your Mind’s Made Up.” More than a song, it is the sound of someone’s dream coming true.
In Bruges (2008) *
Colin Farrell has never been more sympathetic or charming and Ralph Fiennes does his best work since Schindler’s List. An idiosyncratic film in an idiosyncratic setting and a magical little story about consequences, intended and unintended.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Redefining “Bitch on wheels.” A brief prologue and then a mad thrill ride through a dystopian desert. This is NOT the type of film I normally enjoy, and yet I bought my ticket, got past the “You Must Be This Tall To Ride This Ride” screening, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. It never hurts to have supermodels as human cargo and Charlize Theron as the earth mother/heroine. Like the parched citizens of that community, you’ll need a cold shower after this one.
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) *
I was legitimately surprised that this Spanish film, a fairy tale and horror flick at the same time, made neither list. It was engrossing and terrifying and magical, all at once. I’d take this film over all three Peter Jackson hobbit films without thinking twice about it.
No Country For Old Men (2007) *
“Call it.” Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is more than a hired hit man; he is fate coming to exact its due. Who died and made him boss? Does it matter? Fair point by our friend CC that the movie loses something in that its three main characters—Chigurh, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones)——never share a scene together, not even two of the three. Still, it’s a tantalizing chase and, like death itself or one’s own shadow, it is impossible to shake Chigurh.
Wow moment: The scene at the gas station between Anton and the attendant.
Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) *
Tom Hanks’ most charming role this century and Julia Roberts is a hoot. Their sexual chemistry crackles. But it is the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as CIA operative Gust Avrakotos who steals the film with every scene in which he appears. Like Argo, a genuinely authentic look at government/foreign relations in the Carter/Reagan era.
Wow Moment: When Gust tells off his superior, played by a slimy John Slattery, smashes his office plate glass (for a second time), then asks a secretary “How was I?” as he makes his triumphant exit.
Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon (2013) *
A love story between a man and the art of living well. On a surface level, Shep Gordon is a manager of musicians and other talented artists. Beneath the surface, he is a legendary character who once shared a cat with Cary Grant and swept Sharon Stone off her feet at the height of her superstardom (and dated her for a few years). Mike Myers produced this film and you will be wowed by the extraordinary life that Shep has led. LOVED this film.
Wow Moment: In his first night in LA, Shep breaks up what he thinks is a sexual assault at the pool of the budget hotel where he is lodging. Turns out the two people involved were Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and they were making out.
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Quentin Tarantino does not write screenplays as much as he does phenomenally tense and at the same time funny scenes, which he then slaps together to make a film. The opening scene in this film, and the German beer hall scene (you have to know how to signal “3” in German or it can cost you your manhood) are unforgettably great. This film never surpasses its opening 10 minutes (the La La Land curse), but there’s no shame in that.
Mad Max, meet Mad Maximus. The special effects, particularly the opening scene, laid the groundwork for what would follow in Game Of Thrones. When this film first came out, I equated it and Crowe to the NBA playoffs and left-for-dead superstar willing his unlikely team to the NBA Finals. LeBron, this could be you in five years….
Grizzly Man (2005) *
I don’t know that any film had a greater effect on me or any character more of one than Timothy Treadwell. Is he narcissistic, delusional and manipulative (with his girlfriend, who would also die)? All of the above.
On the other hand, who is to say that he didn’t live a more fulfilling life than most of us, trapped in cubicles and hoping to do a safari or a drive through Yellowstone one day? The world is a magical and miraculous canvas of wonders, and most of us are too busy shopping at Target to pay attention. Who’s the idiot here?
Wow Moment: The closing moment, as the bush pilot sings along to Don Edwards’ “Coyotes” and we see shots from behind of Treadwell walking across a meadow trailed by a fox or down a stream bed. To this day I get chills watching it. Life is but a dream, and this man realized his.
The Hangover (2009) *
Most comedies limp to the finish line in their third act (I’m looking squarely at you, Anchorman), but this one sped to the finish as if it were trying to make a wedding in Brentwood with no time to spare. There’s not a wasted scene in this comedy, the throwaway lines (“I shoulda been a cop,” or “They gave out rings at the Holocaust”) are gold, and just when you think you’ve had enough surprises and laughs, there’s a foul-mouthed wedding singer to keep you chuckling. The Hangover wasn’t just by far the best comedy of this millennium, it’s one of the most seamless movies. And I’m more than happy to defend that “take.”
By the way, the filmmakers give us a HUGE clue as to where the missing groom is early on, but I’m venturing to say that, like me, you did not pick up on it.
Almost Famous (2000)
“So, Russell, what do you love about music?”
“To begin with…everything.”
And THAT is how you end a film that is one long thank-you letter from someone who fell in love with music at an early age and was saved by it forever. Cameron Crowe’s film is extremely quotable (“You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle”) and once again, limited doses of Philip Seymour Hoffman are ambrosia. It’s no coincidence that we title every daily entry on this blog “It’s All Happening!” (stated by a young Jay Baruchel).
Just Missed: I’m sure I forgot some film that I would want on this list, but for now: Napoleon Dynamite, The Departed, The Witch and The Imitation Game.
Footnotes: I did not see There Will Be Blood until last winter. I understand that it was well-acted, etc. but I’m not sure I was all that entertained by this Citizen Crude tale.
I’d belatedly like to add the documentary Senna as well as the F/1 film Rush to the Just Missed list. Two other films that are related that I enjoyed: Munich and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. With a few tweaks the latter could have been an excellent film. Alas, it was too confusing to really get on the first viewing.