Hollywood Reporter Critics Pick the 50 Best Films of the 21st Century (So Far)
Over the course of a few months, several Zoom meetings, and countless emails, six THR film critics came together to hash out, and rank, what they consider the greatest films since 2000.
Why now? Why not?
Sure, we’ve yet to hit the quarter-century mark, when these sorts of lists tend to start landing. But we’ve arguably already lived through 100 years’ worth of upheaval, progress, pain, destruction, hope and heartache in the world — not to mention the film industry — since 2000. We thought it as good a time as any to look back at the films that have, to us, stood the ever-unfolding test of time.
In the spirit of transparency, our methodology went something like this: We all offered up titles we thought were worthy of consideration (an initial list of well over 100 movies). Everyone voted “yea” or “nay” on each of those titles. The films with the most yeas — about 80 — advanced to the next round. Everyone scored each title from 0 to 3. We tallied up the points, and then hashed it out from there. Countless emails and a few long Zoom meetings later, we had our list.
Our only parameters: All six of us had to love, like or at least respect every film on the list. And we did not consider anything from 2022; it just felt too soon (translation: after the forever-long awards season, we needed a breather from talking about Tár, Everything Everywhere All at Once and the rest of ’em).
Picking the movies we love the most, while being mindful of variety and inclusivity, significance and staying power, was difficult (we know: world’s smallest violin). We wanted our list to reflect the breadth of world cinema and of our tastes, but we also didn’t want to placate or pander or allow fear of Film Twitter or Outrage Twitter (or any Twitter) to weigh on our process.
That doesn’t mean we weren’t plagued by doubts along the way. What are we missing? Who are we leaving out? Why this movie and not that one? We know certain omissions and selections are bound to incite eye rolls, grumbles and maybe a shriek or two.
But we tried to stay true to our love of movies, these movies, and others that didn’t make the cut. (Remember, it’s only 50!) The final list is a reflection of that love, but also of a system that favors certain stories and storytellers at the expense of others. If the list is not a model of representational balance, call us out — we can take it — but also continue to call out an industry that hasn’t given us a more diverse landscape of voices to love, hate and argue over.
The most conspicuous, surprising (including to us) and, surely to some readers, infuriating, thing about our list is how many masters are missing. After all our deliberating, point tallying, reconsidering, revoting, retallying and re-deliberating, none of the following directors cracked the top 50 films or 15 honorable mentions: Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Terrence Malick, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant, Jean-Luc Godard, David Cronenberg, Michael Mann, Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Alexander Payne, Jim Jarmusch, James Gray, Jia Zhangke, Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Asghar Farhadi, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Ditto polarizing though prolific auteurs like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Lars von Trier.
This wasn’t the result of any kind of “out with the old, in with the new” intention. In some cases — Scorsese, Spike, Godard — we felt their best work was pre-21st century. In Spielberg’s case, there were several films that had love (including Minority Report and West Side Story), but none that united all six of us in full-throated enthusiasm. In other cases, as in Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, Malick’s The New World and The Tree of Life, and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there were ardent supporters but also just-as-ardent detractors.
In other words, we didn’t reverse-engineer the list by starting with great directors and pulling from their filmographies; we allowed the titles to emerge organically, via memory and good old-fashioned brainstorming. (Five directors — or six if you count the Coens separately — ended up with two films apiece on the list: Jane Campion, Joel and Ethan Coen, Alfonso Cuarón, David Fincher and Richard Linklater. For more stats and specifics about the results, read this breakdown.)
Straight-up studio comedy, action, sci-fi and horror are largely, though not entirely, absent from our final selections (cue the cries of film-critic elitism). We love those genres, we swear! Movies like Borat, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Collateral, The Bourne Ultimatum, Master and Commander and, yes, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy were all in contention at one point or another. But the scarcity of this type of entertainment on our list reflects what we see as a certain creative impoverishment in those genres over the past few decades. The lack of risk-taking in mainstream filmmaking, the sameness and safeness of so much of that “product,” results in few of those movies lingering in the mind for longer than their runtimes.
We could go on and on about the shortcomings of our work here — not enough animation! — but that’s what we count on you for! Without further ado, here are what we consider the 50 best films of the 21st century so far.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005); The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008); L’Enfant (The Child) (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2006); Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012); The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009); Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011); Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, 2019); The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2002); The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001); Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas, 2009); There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007); Under the Sand (François Ozon, 2001); Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014); Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004); Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
Heady but grounded in pragmatic reality, ecstatically romantic but marbled with sobering veins of melancholy, Andrew Haigh’s immersive account of a steamy hookup between two gay Nottingham men unfolds over 48 hours in what feels almost like real time. Tom Cullen and Chris New’s performances evolve with supple modulation from mutual desire to an unexpected emotional connection and wrenching acceptance of unaccommodating circumstances. As remarkable for its naked sensitivity as its sexual candor, this is an intoxicating queer odyssey of great chemistry and terrible timing, capturing one of those brief but unforgettable encounters destined to spark a lifetime of wistful “what if…” reflections. Haigh’s subsequent work in both film (45 Years, Lean on Pete) and TV (Looking) has confirmed him as one of the major new-generation talents to emerge from Britain.
'Black Panther' (2018)
Navigating the Marvel Cinematic Universe — or is it a Multiverse now? — requires, for many of us, a certain tolerance for green or LED screens, mass destruction, snarky dialogue and cosmic shtick. There are a few notable movies in the canon, but distinguishing one from the other isn’t always easy — which is what makes Ryan Coogler’s stirring and majestic Black Panther all the more of a standout. In some ways, the 2018 blockbuster follows the MCU template in terms of style and story, but it also introduces something bold and new: a superhero saga where Black power is the subject both behind and in front of the camera. To populate the film’s Afrofuturist world of Wakanda — a place where Black beauty, intelligence and fortitude can thrive without oppression — Coogler brought in a wealth of talent, including the late, and very great, Chadwick Boseman, who made the titular character truly feel like a king.
Garrett Bradley’s documentary observes the brutality of the American carceral system from an uncommon vantage point. The filmmaker jettisons the expository soundbites of talking heads and the contextual support of charts and numbers, choosing instead to construct an impressionistic portrait of one family’s specific experience. Combining original footage with nearly two decades’ worth of home videos recorded by Fox Rich for her imprisoned husband, Robert, the film loosely chronicles Rich’s fight to secure clemency for Robert. But from its very first moments, Time makes clear that it’s operating in a singularly intimate register. With Rich’s voice and perspective guiding us, Time is that rarity in nonfiction filmmaking: a project that trusts its subject — a Black woman, a mother, an abolitionist — to tell her own story.
'Bright Star' (2009)
It’s the story of an unconsummated love affair in the final years of John Keats’ short life. Catnip for English majors? No question. But Jane Campion’s fine balance between the sumptuous and the trenchant will seduce even the sonnet-averse. In Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish’s elegant, deeply felt performances, the attraction between Keats and Fanny Brawne plays out across drawing rooms and the sunlit heath, in stolen kisses and fevered letters. As Keats’ ultra-protective friend, Paul Schneider injects jolts of full-throated snark, stooping to the 19th century equivalent of social media flaming as he baits the fashion-forward Fanny for her perceived superficiality. She feels the swipes, but, as one of Campion’s most resilient heroes, stands her ground. With a keen eye for the period’s oppressive social conventions, a vigorous rejection of the precious and fusty, and a rapturous embrace of the countryside, Campion conjures nothing less than the screen equivalent of Romantic poetry.
Dee Rees’ breakthrough is a rare gem among coming-of-age films: a potent and sobering yet hopeful narrative about a young Black lesbian’s journey to self-acceptance. For that alone, the film — whose director recently became the first African American woman and queer woman of color to get a Criterion release — is well worth seeing. What lifts it onto this list is one of the century’s most stirring and unforgettable performances: Adepero Oduye as Alike, or “Lee,” a 17-year-old Black Brooklyn girl struggling to navigate her identity within the strictures set by her religious and socially conservative parents. Oduye radiates warmth and unshakable realness — an authenticity, deepened by Bradford Young’s intimate camerawork and Rees’ nimbleness with tone, that maintains a hold on our hearts right up to the film’s quietly triumphant end.
“Finally, a film that lets women be funny!” was the word on the street upon the release of Paul Feig’s movie about a 30-something (Kristen Wiig) who spirals way, way, waaaaay out of control when her BFF (Maya Rudolph) gets engaged. There’s truth to that take, but Bridesmaids was also just the most satisfying, richly realized and consistently laugh-out-loud-hilarious comedy in years — and has yet to be dethroned. With an inspired screenplay by Wiig and Annie Mumolo — there’s barely a line or gag that doesn’t land — Feig’s generous touch, and an A+ ensemble (Melissa McCarthy, MVP), it’s a seamless blend of gross-out humor, rom-com and gal-pal flick, fueled by one of the great passive-aggressive rivalries in film history (Wiig’s Annie vs. Rose Byrne’s trophy wife from hell, Helen). Not to mention a pair of sublime comic set pieces that deserve a spot in Film Studies textbooks: the dress fitting felled by food poisoning (“It’s coming out of me like lava!”) and a plane ride thrown into chaos by Xanax chased with scotch.
'Things to Come' (2016)
Up until her quietly heartbreaking fifth feature, French director Mia Hansen-Love was something of a specialist in stories about young people experiencing life-changing events, whether breakups, the deaths of loved ones or careers cut short by failure. In Things to Come, she tackles the same themes from the perspective of a much older character, and the result finds her reaching an impressive new level of maturity. Isabelle Huppert stars as Nathalie, a 50-something philosophy teacher who’s suddenly dumped by her longtime husband and forced to start all over again. She goes through the doldrums, and then some, but eventually finds her footing in a movie that never panders to easy sentiments or offers pat answers to life’s toughest questions. What it does offer is one of Huppert’s finest, most deeply intelligent performances in a career already full of genius — and the thrill of seeing a French filmmaker take her place among her country’s greats.
'Grizzly Man' (2005)
Werner Herzog has always insisted there’s no real difference between his documentary and fiction films. His subject in Grizzly Man, one of his greatest works, is environmental activist Timothy Treadwell — and indeed, he is as much a profoundly flawed, charismatic dreamer as the protagonists Klaus Kinski played in Herzog’s features Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Treadwell was killed in 2003 by one of the bears he spent many summers observing, filming, interacting with and obsessing over. A troubled man-child given to anthropomorphizing the carnivores around him, Treadwell comes across as at once ridiculous, likable and tragic in footage he shot himself, edited together with interviews Herzog shot for the film. Profoundly at odds with Treadwell’s sentimental worldview, Herzog is at his lugubrious best here, especially in incisive voiceover: “In all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.” Richard Thompson’s superb guitar score at least offers some consolation as we join Herzog in looking into that abyss.
'Never Rarely Sometimes Always' (2020)
The pandemic shutdown hobbled the theatrical release of Eliza Hittman’s third feature but not its artistic impact — confirming the writer-director as a major talent in American independent cinema. Tracing a Pennsylvania teen’s odyssey through the bustle and cacophony of New York to end an unwanted pregnancy, the film is steeped in a naturalism that’s low-key yet electrifying. It introduced film watchers to two exceptionally gifted actors who etch an indelible portrait of friendship — Sidney Flanigan as the resilient high schooler who needs the procedure, and Talia Ryder as the cousin who goes to heroic lengths for her. In her readiness to meet a charged issue head-on, and her agile melding of civic alarm with a beautifully observed coming-of-age narrative, Hittman took the American abortion drama to places it had never before gone. The resonance of this quiet film of knockout moments exceeded its intimate scale even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Against a fraught landscape for reproductive rights, that’s even truer today.
'Pan’s Labyrinth' (2006)
A filmmaker of limitless imagination, Guillermo del Toro took the exciting marriage of fantasy and political allegory in The Devil’s Backbone several steps further with this tonally audacious and visually beguiling dark fairy tale set soon after the Spanish Civil War, during the early days of the brutal Franco regime. The mainframe narrative of a 10-year-old girl, her pregnant mother and her new stepfather, a sadistic army officer hellbent on eradicating rebel freedom fighters, runs parallel to the child’s forays into an elaborate mythical underworld, the domain of mysterious creatures that lead her to an abandoned labyrinthine garden where she must pass a series of tests. The movie’s intricate storytelling, bracing originality and stunning technical accomplishment would fling open Hollywood doors for del Toro to continue creating fantastical worlds on a larger scale.
'Summer of Soul' (2021)
“Do you remember the Harlem Cultural Festival?” For most Americans, the answer to the question posed by Questlove at the start of his vital and intoxicating documentary would probably be no. Dexterously edited by Joshua L. Pearson, Summer of Soul isn’t just a concert film about “Black Woodstock.” It’s a paean to American music culture, a testament to the power of archives and a relic of a bifurcated nation, marked by the tensions of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Questlove rescues the almost forgotten footage filmed by Hal Tulchin in 1969, expertly weaving the recordings of a powerhouse lineup — Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, B.B. King, Mavis Staples, Mahalia Jackson and Nina Simone — into the fabric of a story about a country on the brink of change. The film vibrates with ecstatic energy and historical urgency.
'I Am Not Your Negro' (2016)
Many great documentaries have been released since the turn of this century, but none has shaken the rafters and shibboleths of political discourse with such potency as Raoul Peck’s searing film. A crucial contribution to the rediscovery of James Baldwin, a writer of blistering clarity and prescience, the doc plumbs American complexities far deeper than us-vs.-them electoral divisions, as Baldwin did in his dissections of race and identity and his warnings, fueled by love and rage, about “moral apathy, the death of the heart.” Peck’s starting point and main text is a manuscript left unfinished when Baldwin died in 1987, and his film is a bracing immersion in the insights of an incomparable intellect, in his own words, via archival clips and voiceover narration by a rarely better Samuel L. Jackson.
'Children of Men' (2006)
Dystopian sci-fi has become one of 21st century cinema’s most over-trafficked subgenres, but Alfonso Cuarón’s disturbing entrenchment in a war-torn fascist future where humanity’s fate hangs in the balance is striking because the world he so vividly creates is all but indistinguishable from our own. Peppered with technically dazzling set pieces and startling images that represent the redoubtable Mexican director’s collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki at its best, the riveting thriller casts Clive Owen as the dogged protector of a young Black refugee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) who’s pregnant. Given that women have lost the ability to reproduce naturally, her survival becomes imperative to the creation of a new society in a powerful story fueled by equal parts despair and hope, very much in sync with the prevailing anxieties of our time.
'Wendy and Lucy' (2008)
Persuasive arguments could have been made for other post-2000 Kelly Reichardt works, like Old Joy and First Cow, which might be considered companion-piece reflections on male friendship. But we settled on this fine-grained portrait of an American underclass drifter as the perfect distillation of the director’s slow-cinema austerity, her intimate gauge of character and indelible sense of place. Chronicling an almost penniless young woman’s heart-stopping search for her beloved dog, this poignant study of loneliness and struggle also epitomizes everything that’s unique and emotionally penetrating about two of the key collaborations of Reichardt’s uncompromising career — with actor Michelle Williams and Pacific Northwest writer Jon Raymond. That three-way association continues to bear fruit in the wonderful upcoming comedy-drama about creating art amid chaos, Showing Up.
'Lovers Rock' (2020)
The best of the five films in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, Lovers Rock pulses with pleasure, proving that the skilled British director doesn’t only peddle in austere and muscular depictions of brutality. Contrary to his Oscar-winning 12 Years a Slave or genre foray Widows, this film is loose, limber and animated by an intangible joyousness. The romance between Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn) and Franklyn (Micheal Ward) unfurls over the course of a balmy London night in the 1980s, beginning on the dance floor of a house party (the title of the film refers to the romantic subgenre of reggae) and deepening into the daylight hours. The relationship between sound and body reigns supreme in Lovers Rock, which revels in the way torsos sway and limbs entangle, finding sanctity in sweaty devotions to rhythm. It’s perhaps McQueen’s slenderest work — which is not to say it’s his slightest.
'The Favourite' (2018)
With his gift for combining pathos, acid comedy and absurdism, writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos has made a few of the great art house originals this century. The Favourite is his most accessible, but also arguably the richest in feeling and most dazzlingly performed, as well as chock-full of cruel ironies and caustic wit. Olivia Colman won an Oscar for her brilliant portrayal of Queen Anne (1665-1714), a woman haunted by the loss of 17 children in infancy or through miscarriage, and who was afflicted with gout and possibly bipolar disorder or severe depression. When Abigail (Emma Stone), a gentlewoman so down on her luck she’s working as a maid, arrives at court, she schemes to supplant the queen’s lover/adviser/best friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz). The dialogue blends modern colloquialisms with mock-17th century turns of phrase and a liberal sprinkling of Anglo-Saxon cuss words. That bracing mix of old and new courses throughout this feast of a film, from Robbie Ryan’s digital cinematography, with its fish-eye lens, to Sandy Powell’s stylized but period-accurate costumes.
'The Social Network' (2010)
Ever since Silicon Valley billionaires became our generation’s robber barons, there have been attempts to dramatize their lives on both the big and the small screen. But nothing compares to David Fincher’s blistering, darkly comic chronicle of Mark Zuckerberg’s rise from Harvard undergrad to creator of the world’s most popular social media website — a tale told less as a hagiographic success story than as a coming-of-age thriller where the antihero loses his soul in order to win big. Working off Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant screenplay, Fincher captures the icy textures of a saga whose greatest battles were fought in corporate boardrooms, white-shoe law firms or on laptops, presaging an epoch where the virtual would replace the real. And yet what makes The Social Network such an indelible movie is the very human “asshole” at its core, played peerlessly by Jesse Eisenberg in a role he seemed destined for.
'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' (2019)
French writer-director Céline Sciamma’s film — among the most formally assured, emotionally devastating romances of the past several decades — is set in the late 18th century and revolves around women who have few options beyond marriage or domestic service. And yet part of its power is how profoundly personal it feels. The drama revolves around artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and her subject Héloïse (Adèle Haenel, once Sciamma’s own partner), who must marry a man she’s never met (the portrait is meant to be a guarantor of her beauty for him), as they create a tiny Eden of love over the time it takes to finish the work. The parallel with filmmaking is obvious, but the movie doesn’t over-egg the pudding, staying grounded in period-accurate realism and the combustible chemistry of the leads. The last shot of Héloïse, listening to a Vivaldi concert years later, her heart breaking all over again, is (along with the final shot from number 25 on this list) one of the all-time great long takes of an actor seemingly doing nothing but showing every flicker of feeling with the subtlest shifts of expression.
'The Return' (2003)
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s debut feature, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, is perhaps his most Andrei Tarkovskian film — dense with obliqueness and mystery, with an unknowable, sometimes cruel patriarch at its center. Two brothers, 15-year-old Andrey (Vladimir Garin) and younger Ivan (Ivan Dobronravov), go on a camping trip with a man (Konstantin Lavronenko) who is supposedly their father, although he’s been missing since Ivan was a baby and no one dares ask where he’s been. His authoritarian parenting style soon rubs Ivan the wrong way, but the brothers have no real choice when he compels them to row out to a remote island in the far north. Taut as a bow, this painterly study in blues and grays offers a piercing portrait of boys and men unable to love or even trust one another. It’s one of the most exciting and influential Russian films of the quarter-century, spearheading a resurgence of the country’s cinema that sadly declined as Putin’s regime stifled artistic expression in more recent years.
'Manchester by the Sea' (2016)
Time collapses in Kenneth Lonergan’s devastating, deeply compassionate portrait of a man ravaged by trauma. The memories that haunt Lee (Casey Affleck), a Massachusetts handyman, flash across the screen in fits and spurts, barely discernible from the drudgery of life without his wife, who divorced him, and his kids, who died in a tragic accident for which he bears responsibility. Manchester by the Sea wrestles with Lonergan’s ongoing interests in the shades of guilt, the complexities of innocence and narratives chiseled out of hard materials: loss, despair, grief. When Lee becomes the legal guardian for his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges), he’s forced to return — both physically and mentally — to the site of his trauma. We love all three of Lonergan’s features to date. But with its rich dialogue, robustly realized characters and suppleness of tone and texture, we think Manchester is the playwright and director at his sharpest and most generous.
'Marie Antoinette' (2006)
Few directors can match Sofia Coppola’s ability to access the inner lives of young women, a gift evident from the start in The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation. Her bold, brilliant third feature remains both divisive and undeniably influential in its giddy mashup of opulent late 18th century historical drama with defiant 21st century attitudes, ushering in the French Revolution with a kick-ass post-punk soundtrack that plucks from The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Adam and the Ants, New Order and Bow Wow Wow, among others. As the doomed queen who seeks refuge from a cold husband and constricting society in extravagant distractions and female friendships, Kirsten Dunst has seldom been more fiercely spirited or more tragically vulnerable.
'The Death of Mr. Lazarescu' (2005)
The burgeoning Romanian New Wave leapt into the international limelight with this deadpan gem, announcing the arrival of a thrilling new current of world cinema whose unsentimental realism would prove a force to be reckoned with in major international fests and art house theaters. Set in a purgatory of Bucharest emergency rooms and spiked with doleful absurdity, it’s often described as a black comedy; director Cristi Puiu prefers to call it a film about “the extinction of an anonymous human being.” He exposes a dehumanizing bureaucracy and presents a damning indictment of modern health care, but what makes the movie profound rather than merely topical is the unforgettable way Puiu infuses the everyday with the existential, not to mention Luminita Gheorghiu’s remarkable turn as a paramedic who becomes a kind of guardian angel to the hapless title character.
'A Serious Man' (2009)
A Torah x Jefferson Airplane mashup for the ages, Joel and Ethan Coen’s devilishly adventurous comic drama begins by hitting you in the solar plexus with its wild composite of ingredients: a schtickel of Yiddish fable, a ferocious blast of Grace Slick, the surreal treeless expanses of postwar suburbia, a yammering household within the orderly grid. And it keeps upping the ante. The sibling writer-directors mine autobiography with an atypical directness, setting their tale of a modern-day Job in a Midwestern Jewish neighborhood not unlike the one they grew up in. In his first major film role, Michael Stuhlbarg is a revelation as mild-mannered Larry, under barrage from all sides and drawing no consolation from the learned men he consults: the lawyers with their fee structures, the rabbis with their pointless allegories. The Coens’ piercing look at the good, the bad and the sanctimonious is, like all great jokes, a gutsy declaration of vulnerability rooted in a bottomless well of fear and loathing.
'At Berkeley' (2013)
At 93 years old and with more than 40 features under his belt, Frederick Wiseman — a true American treasure — has been tirelessly documenting institutions since the late 1960s. His lengthy films contain no interviews or voiceovers, but rather let the subjects speak for themselves via a fly-on-the-wall approach that brings out the drama in everyday working lives. Wiseman’s four-hour chronicle At Berkeley stands out among his late work as a magisterial portrait of both the promise and the pitfalls of American higher education. Plagued by state budget cuts, one of California’s — and the country’s — premiere (and public) universities, shown here in all its beauty and prestige, finds itself facing dwindling resources and a slew of compromises, with faculty and students working hard to keep things afloat. They are the true stars of a documentary that’s inspiring, foreboding and unexpectedly suspenseful, revealing what happens on the ground when a country hesitates to sufficiently invest in future generations.
'Y Tu Mamá También' (2001)
Possibly the steamiest film on our list, Alfonso Cuarón’s exhilarating fourth feature is sex-positive in the most endearing way (as well as beadily honest about the disconnect between the horny boasts of teenage boys and their actual bedroom skills). Two best buddies from Mexico City — middle-class Julio and wealthy Tenoch (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, respectively, their real-life friendship shining through) — go on a road trip with a slightly older woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdú). Luisa has just had some life-changing news and is determined to wring maximum pleasure from their adventure; the guys just want to party. But they catch glimpses of Luisa’s sorrow, while the omniscient narrator notes evidence of tragedies along the road and speaks ominously of things to come. The juxtaposition of the mostly carefree bubble within the car and the turbulence just beyond it — the year is 1999, a time of protests, insurrections in Mexico’s provinces and political change — is almost unbearably poignant. Although nothing exactly earth-shattering happens to the trio during the trip, none of them will ever be the same.
'Call Me by Your Name' (2017)
Rarely has the experience of falling in love — the gnawing, vertiginous mix of desire and embarrassment, elation and torment — been captured as ravishingly, and as acutely, as in Luca Guadagnino’s masterwork about a brainy, brooding 17-year-old (Timothée Chalamet’s Elio) and his summer romance with the golden-boy grad student (Armie Hammer) staying with his family in Italy. Adapted by James Ivory from André Aciman’s novel, it’s one of those films that felt like an immediate classic, its greatness palpable in Chalamet’s brilliantly alive performance; in the playful sensuality of the direction, reflecting the ripeness of the story’s emotions, bodies and — yes — fruit; in the monologue Elio’s dad (Michael Stuhlbarg) delivers at the end, inspiring a generation of well-meaning moviegoing parents to step up their game; in that shattering, Sufjan Stevens-accompanied final shot. And, above all, in the immeasurable tenderness with which the film conveys the transformative potential of first love, sexual awakening and heartbreak — their power to reveal ourselves to ourselves, to help forge our identities, to simultaneously imprison us and set us free.
A surprise Oscar-nominated art house hit by a director whose work was relatively unknown in the U.S. beforehand, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu is a devastating look at religious extremism and its effects on a small city in Mali when it falls prey to a band of violent jihadis imposing Shariah. Told in a style at once frontal and distant, artful and polemical, the film never shies away from the most brutal sides of Islamism while shining a light on the more tolerant form of Islam practiced by the city’s besieged inhabitants. Winner of multiple César awards in France, including best picture, Timbuktu finds a way to channel contemporary tragedy through a series of memorable images and vignettes — including an opening sequence in which a gazelle is chased across the desert by a band of hunters wielding black flags and Kalashnikovs, and a game of soccer played with an imaginary ball.
'35 Shots of Rum' (2008)
While Beau Travail (1999) is Claire Denis’ dazzling tour de force, this quiet film is a masterwork in its own right — a finely tuned, minor-key drama that packs a subtle but lingering punch. Inspired by Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, the movie follows widowed father Lionel (Alex Descas) and his daughter, Joséphine (Mati Diop), in a working-class suburb north of Paris. Their laconic but loving relationship is upended when Josephine falls for their neighbor, Noé (Grégoire Colin), and Lionel must accept his daughter’s inevitable departure. Staging the action against a mundane banlieue backdrop (commuter trains, public housing projects, dive bars), Denis embellishes the quotidian with moments of melancholic beauty — most notably in a dance sequence, set to the Commodores’ “Nightshift,” that has rarely been surpassed in modern cinema.
'Before Sunset' (2004)
For all the improvisational quality of many of his films, Richard Linklater is a formalist who loves to create a rule for himself and see how that shapes the outcome. Having made Before Sunrise, about a couple in their early 20s — American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Céline (Julie Delpy) — who meet on a train, spend a day and night together and maybe fall in love, Before Sunset limits itself to an even more restrictive time frame: Jesse and Céline meet again 10 years after the events of the previous film and, over 80 minutes of real time unfurled in long, beautifully lit takes, they walk, talk and discover that the spark they felt is still there. The dialogue was workshopped by Linklater and his leads, but sounds like they’re making it up as they go along. Tiny gestures hark back to the first film, like the heartbreaking moment Céline reaches to touch Jesse’s head and then hesitates. The last minutes, set to Nina Simone, are so unabashedly romantic you might cry with joy.
There’s no shortage of films and TV shows satirizing the demise of the ruling class these days, but few rise to the level of Bong Joon Ho’s unsettling stunner. (The slyly constructed black comedy/thriller masterpiece even managed to circumvent the allergy most Americans have to subtitles, winning the best picture Oscar after snagging the Palme d’Or at Cannes.) Tracing the intersecting domestic dramas of the impoverished Kims and the ultra-wealthy Parks, the film unspools a restrained first act before entering increasingly farcical territory when the former family’s plans to infiltrate the other household hit an unpredictable snag. What begins as a droll study of the relationship between employee and employer takes a series of shocking turns as Bong, a master orchestrator of shifting tones and perspectives, coaxes out the latent horrors of capitalism’s social contracts.
'Far From Heaven' (2002)
Todd Haynes’ ravishing homage to 1950s “women’s pictures,” particularly the lush melodramas of Douglas Sirk, might have been merely high-style pastiche — or, worse still, camp — in less skilled hands. But the meticulously crafted design elements, the saturated colors and wraparound score here serve a probing consideration of gender, race, sexuality, class and female sacrifice. That thematic mix plays out in a quietly devastating performance from Julianne Moore, channeling her porcelain fragility into a Connecticut housewife whose well-heeled, seemingly perfect life begins to unravel when, after discovering her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay, she seeks comfort in the companionship of her Black gardener (Dennis Haysbert). The first-rate cast is further enhanced by strong support from Patricia Clarkson, Celia Weston and Viola Davis. As an elegant excavation of queer subtext in mid-century Hollywood entertainment, the film has few equals.
'Drive My Car' (2021)
Taking a sliver of a short story by Haruki Murakami as his foundation and folding in Chekhov’s brooding examination of wasted lives, Uncle Vanya, Ryusuke Hamaguchi shaped a deeply resonant reflection on work and art as tools with which to manage — or defer — grief. Over three symphonic hours that build steadily to a shattering emotional release followed by a whisper of hope and healing, the film observes the growing connection between an unforthcoming, recently widowed experimental stage director and the even more taciturn driver assigned to him during his preparations for a Hiroshima theater festival production. Those roles are played, respectively, by Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in symbiotic performances of such churning depths that, had it not been for the usual blindness regarding non-English-language work, would have been major award contenders.
When he made this sublime and wrenching ensemble piece, the fifth Japanese film to win the Palme d’Or, Hirokazu Kore-eda was already a consummate mapper of the human condition, peering at a cruel or indifferent world through the cracked prism of family. The auteur reached a career pinnacle with his story of a ragtag, scrabbling, petty-larcenous clan of Tokyo fringe-dwellers who rescue — or, if you want to be technical about it, kidnap — an abused 5-year-old. The precise relationships among the multigenerational residents of their cramped ramshackle house remain a mystery for much of the running time and, once revealed, take the drama into stirring emotional terrain. At the center of the superb cast, Lily Franky and Sakura Ando are achingly great as a long-married couple rediscovering their capacity for kindness and joy. The intricately woven stunner is alive with grit, offhand humor and fumbling tenderness, and its final 10 minutes are a miraculous crescendo of confessions and farewells that will tear your heart out.
'Talk to Her' (2002)
This exquisite mille-feuille of melodrama, black comedy and whimsy marked a summit for writer-director Pedro Almodóvar. Talk to Her has the queer insouciance of his campy early work, but the wildness is tempered by maturity, an interest in what makes love tick that goes deeper than his previous studies of beauty, lust and familial feeling. The plot braids together the stories of two men, both in love with women in comas. One is nurse Benigno (Javier Camára), who tends to comatose dancer Alicia (Leonor Watling). His advice to lovelorn journalist Marco (Darío Grandinetti), who visits dreadfully damaged bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores) on the same ward as Alicia, is to talk to the woman he loves even if she can’t respond — a metonymic call for the kind of emotional openness straight men often struggle to achieve on the daily with conscious women. But Benigno is hiding a secret that upends the story’s geometry of sympathy with a shocking reveal that probably would have been quashed in development as too controversy-generating had the film been made today. Luckily for us, it wasn’t.
'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' (2004)
Infatuation, obsession, comfort, boredom, disgust, rejection and inconsolable grief — the seven stages of romance’s bloom and wilt have never been brought to the screen with such dynamic inventiveness as in this grungy-luminous drama. The second teaming of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry (after Human Nature) is an unequivocal love connection, a lo-fi sci-fi fantasy with brilliant cinematography by Ellen Kuras and a pulsing heart to match its twisty metaphysics. As ex-lovers who undergo a memory-erasure procedure to forget each other forever — a form of brain damage, its inventor (Tom Wilkinson) concedes — Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet created gorgeously flawed characters. He accessed the previously untapped melancholy behind his comic mania, and she laid waste to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl before it was even a thing. Whether or not you consider their love story, which begins on a wintry beach, a riposte to such Prozac-era notions as personality reconstruction, it winds up somewhere more honest, hopeful and scary than most romantic features dare go.
'The Power of the Dog' (2021)
It seems less a departure than an expansion that Jane Campion, a director who came to prominence with needling examinations of the female psyche, returned to features after a 12-year absence with this brilliantly uncomfortable chamber piece about corrosive masculinity fed by sexual repression. Adapted from the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, the film — which ranks near the very top of Campion’s filmography — casts Jesse Plemons as a gentlemanly Montana cattle rancher who brings his fragile widowed wife and her awkward beanpole son (beautifully played by Kirsten Dunst and a revelatory Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live in their gloomy family mansion, stoking first the cruelty and then the vulnerability of his hard-hearted brother. A never-better Benedict Cumberbatch makes that character a figure of vicious aggression but also a tragic victim of his own macho behavioral codes in a psychodrama whose epic scope is echoed in its majestic landscapes.
Pixar’s output has been so excellent over the years that it’s tricky to establish a consensus on which film is the best. We agreed that Wall-E — the story of a lonely robot fulfilling his prime directive to clean up trash on an arid, abandoned, litter-heaped future Earth — has just the right blend of pathos, technical craftsmanship, topicality, joyfulness and batshit-crazy originality to give it a tiny edge. It’s a film buff’s film in a way, partly because of Wall-E’s passion for Hello, Dolly!, viewed on a cruddy VHS tape, and partly because it’s half a silent film, nearly dialogue-free and told just through visuals for its first 40 minutes. But who needs dialogue with a protagonist who can express so much with just the tilt of his big camera eyes? Eventually, he finds love with Eve, a sleek, more advanced robot programmed to find any sign of vegetable life on Earth, and the way he croaks her name, struggling to use a voice box that’s been dormant for hundreds of years, is all the talk you need.
A formidable craftsman and storyteller whose movies manage to slowly but surely devastate the viewer, Lee Chang-dong has made only six features since his 1997 debut, Green Fish, but each one has him perfecting his voice. In the masterful Burning, adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, a wayward young novelist (Yoo Ah-in) crosses paths with a childhood friend (Jeon Jong-seo) and eventually falls in love with her — until she’s suddenly swept away by a charming rich kid (Steven Yeun, giving a fascinating unsolvable riddle of a performance) who may, in fact, be a serial killer. On its surface, this is a hypnotically slow-building thriller with a real mystery at its core, but what makes Burning so memorable is Lee’s piercing depiction of class envy and thwarted desire in contemporary Korea. It’s a voluptuously enveloping viewing experience that brings us deep inside a world in which outward appearances obscure something darker and quite possibly deadly.
It’s hard to speak of Barry Jenkins’ stunning sophomore feature without resurrecting memories of its best picture win — a surreal mishap of mixed envelopes, hurt feelings and too-short speeches. But one hopes for the day they will be decoupled, because the film is an event all on its own. Based on a shelved play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jenkins), Moonlight is a profound and heartfelt study of Black boyhood, masculinity and queerness. Who could forget the subtle shadings in the performances by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes playing protagonist Chiron as he finds, loses and finds himself again over the years? Or the rifts and grooves of his tender relationships with Juan (Mahershala Ali), Teresa (Janelle Monáe) and Kevin (played over the three acts by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland)? These powerful turns harmonize with Nicholas Britell’s haunting score and James Laxton’s lush visual language, resulting in a work of art that overachieves on every level — and crowned its director as one of the best of this century.
The high point so far of a wonderfully rich and varied career, Richard Linklater’s sui generis project traces the Texas childhood and adolescence of its young protagonist — played with tender authenticity by Ellar Coltrane — from ages 6 to 18. The passage of time is made real by the film’s 11-year shooting schedule and a script developed throughout that period, contoured around Coltrane’s actual experiences. A coming-of-age drama and contemplation of marriage, parenting and family, this is a work laced with observations so achingly true you inevitably find yourself plunged into personal memories. As the mother watching her son go off to college and listing the milestones of her life, Patricia Arquette (who won an Oscar for her gorgeous work here) says through anger and sadness: “I just thought there would be more.” If you’re over a certain age and don’t recognize that feeling, you’re probably lying to yourself.
'Get Out' (2017)
When Jordan Peele’s brilliant directorial debut premiered at Sundance in 2017, America was in an anxious state. Talk of change and progress was drowned out by chants to make the nation “great” again. Hard-won civil rights were suddenly coming under threat. Get Out’s portrait of liberal hubris — characterized by quotable lines like “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could!” — doubled as a deft critique of those who saw the 2016 election as an anomaly instead of an inevitability. Peele upends a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner-style plot to pierce the hopeful post-racial bubble of the Obama era. Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams play, to perfection, Chris and Rose, an interracial couple whose visit to Rose’s parents’ house in upstate New York takes an uncanny turn when Chris realizes the family’s sinister intentions. While Get Out famously inaugurated the now-overplayed social horror genre, the power of its legacy lies in its narrative acuity, visual stylishness and introduction of a fiercely sharp writer-director who proved that accountability and entertainment aren’t mutually exclusive.
'4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' (2007)
Twenty-four breathless hours in the lives of a college student seeking an illegal abortion and the dorm mate selflessly helping her near the end of the Communist Ceaușescu dictatorship, Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning international breakthrough is equally effective as a nail-biting thriller and a hard-hitting social drama about the alarming realities faced by women who are denied control over their bodies. The influence of this visceral gut punch — rigorously naturalistic, morally complex and without an ounce of narrative fat — can be seen in similarly lucid and empathetic “abortion dramas” like Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always (number 42 on this list) and Audrey Diwan’s Happening. A masterwork of consummate control and unflinching focus, the film stands alongside Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (number 29 on this list) as one of the galvanizing works of the early-2000s Romanian cinema renaissance.
'In the Mood for Love' (2000)
Wong Kar Wai’s rapturous evocation of romantic yearning and missed opportunity is a sustained swoon of a movie that ushered in the new millennium on a dreamy wave of seductive imagery, poetic storytelling and roiling emotional currents. Its stylistic influence has never waned in the years since. Set in Hong Kong’s Shanghai community at a transitional moment in 1962, the transfixing drama unfolds predominantly in the tight corridors and snug spaces of an apartment building where neighbors, played with exquisite restraint by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, pass each other in fleeting moments. Their encounters shift from reserved formality to slow-burning intimacy when a discovery about their spouses puts them on common ground. Expertly molded to the liquid rhythms of Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-bin’s cinematography, Michael Galasso and Shigeru Umebayashi’s score and William Chang’s editing, this is a film whose aesthetic beauty and sensual atmosphere work together in hypnotic concert.
'Brokeback Mountain' (2005)
Ang Lee’s exquisite adaptation of the Annie Proulx short story (opened up masterfully in Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana’s screenplay) tends to be reduced, in the cultural memory, to fragments: the “gay cowboy movie” label; a shocking best picture loss to Crash; a magnificent, revelatory lead turn by Heath Ledger, who tragically died just a few years later; snippets of derisively quoted dialogue (“I wish I knew how to quit you!”). But the bigger picture is that this is, quite simply, one of the greatest — purest, saddest — of screen love stories, as well as a piercing examination of the wreckage wrought by the pressures of prototypical American masculinity. Lee’s graceful restraint in tracing the decades-long hidden relationship between the repressed Ennis (Ledger) and the more openly yearning Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal at his soulful best) proves the perfect contrapuntal match for the emotional and physical sweep of the narrative — its mounting crush of pent-up feelings and majestic Western backdrop. The final 15 minutes are a quiet gut punch like no other, leaving an ache that lasts and lasts and lasts.
'Spirited Away' (2001)
Every animation fan has a favorite Studio Ghibli movie, and, as with Pixar (whose work was clearly inspired by the Tokyo-based animation house), it tends to be a film that makes you cry and think at the same time. Of the many glorious features made by Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is probably the one that captured the most hearts and minds, and for nearly two decades it remained the highest-grossing Japanese film in history. Set in a vivid netherworld of ghosts, demons and other phantoms who make nightly visits to a ginormous bathhouse run by an evil witch, Miyazaki’s alternative universe is so original and artfully created that it feels more real than waking life. Stuck in the middle of it is a young girl, Chihiro, who, while trying to make it back home, learns that death is not an end, but a beginning.
'Mulholland Drive' (2001)
It’s hard to imagine that David Lynch’s sexy, surreal and scathing take on Hollywood was originally meant to be a primetime series for ABC. Lucky for us, the network canceled it at the pilot stage, leaving the director to salvage Mulholland Drive as a spellbinding feature film that, typical of Lynch, starts off somewhat classically and veers into thrillingly WTF territory midway through. In a breakout role — and still her best performance to date — Naomi Watts plays an aspiring actress who crosses paths with a mysterious femme fatale (Laura Harring), leading to a love affair and a case of corporal transference (or something like that). From there things grow even more sublimely weird, but it’s useless to sum up the film by its plot. One needs to experience it firsthand, plunging into a world of beauty and decay, fame and murder, movies and the mob that could only be Los Angeles — or at least Lynch’s haunting, iconic interpretation of it.
David Fincher was no stranger to darkness (Se7en, Fight Club, Panic Room) when he took on the story of the hunt for a Bay Area serial killer known as Zodiac. But he conquered new territory with this true-crime masterpiece, working with cinematographer Harris Savides to spin subliminal menace into an atmospheric pressure that seeps into every frame. Zodiac is a newspaper story, a haunting mystery and a tripartite character study, at its center a trio of impossibly charismatic actors in peak form: Mark Ruffalo (as a whip-smart detective), Robert Downey Jr. (a preening reporter) and Jake Gyllenhaal, as the squeaky-clean cartoonist whose interest in the case becomes an obsession on the order of Richard Dreyfuss’ in Close Encounters. The chain of false leads, dead ends and ghoulish suspects is all the more unnerving for the film’s breathtaking restraint. With this mesmerizing slow-boil thriller, Fincher didn’t so much shatter genre molds as sneak up on them in the thick of night, his maneuvers as deft as they are methodical.
'The Gleaners and I' (2000)
Toward the beginning of this enthralling cinematic essay, the tour de force with which Agnès Varda kicked off the millennium and the final, immensely imaginative phase of a prolific and influential career, she enthuses over tech breakthroughs. “These new little digital cameras are fantastic,” the septuagenarian declares, and sets off across France to trace an age-old tradition — the salvaging of other people’s discards — into the present day. Heart-shaped potatoes, flea market finds, food waste and economic disparity are just a few of the matters she explores with deceptive lightness. A lyrical meditation on time, aging, usefulness, and the square pegs that make the world go round, Gleaners struck such a chord with audiences that Varda — who kept working until her death in 2019 at 90 — revisited the topic two years later. This is first-person nonfiction filmmaking at its most poetic and exhilarating, the gleaner’s craft in full flower.
'Inside Llewyn Davis' (2013)
Showbiz is not the magic-tinged meritocracy that Hollywood movies often want us to believe it is, and while the Coen brothers aren’t the first to dismantle the myth, the way they pull this off makes for their richest, most affecting feature to date. In a happy paradox, their story of stardom denied made a star of Oscar Isaac, who delivers a performance of magnificent subtlety as a musician in 1961 New York who can’t catch a break. Set adrift by his folk-duo partner’s death, and seemingly trapped in the Broadway Danny Rose circle of entertainment-industry hell, Llewyn excels at self-sabotage. Still, his sarcastic jibes at corny careerists are usually well placed, the exhaustion in his gaze is heart-stopping, and the way he carries a handsome house cat through Manhattan speaks volumes. The substance of Llewyn’s story rests in the beauty of his voice: You hear the passion that brought him to these melodies of lament, and, unbearably, you hear that passion fading. The Coens’ wit and weirdness are expected; what feels revelatory for them is this flawless film’s wallop of aching sympathy.
'Yi Yi' (2000)
Although it was completed in 1999, Edward Yang’s magnum opus didn’t premiere until the spring of 2000. The film’s immediate success, including a best director award at Cannes, sealed the director’s reputation as a major figure of a Taiwanese New Wave that had emerged a decade or so earlier, and whose other auteurs include Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-liang. What makes Yang’s rise all the more remarkable is that he shot his first movie, at age 36, after a career spent working in software in Seattle. He died prematurely from cancer in 2007, which meant Yi Yi would be his last work, and one that now serves as his testament. Its epic three-hour portrait of a multigenerational Taipei family in the midst of a crisis is filled with humor, romance, quiet rage and despair, transforming modern lives into material worthy of a great novel, and captured by Yang in his masterly elliptical style. As a brilliant snapshot of its time, Yi Yi ushered in the 21st century with pessimism and promise. And as a prime example of an artist using his visual and narrative powers to draw you into a world, to fill you with empathy without ever pushing, to allow you to see through the eyes of others, it earned its spot atop our list.
(Read Drive My Car director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s reaction to Yi Yi topping this list here.)