“They don’t make ’em like they used to,” people often decry, citing the lack of ideas in modern movie making. And that’s a fair criticism of some circles (see the ouroboros of the Hollywood machine, where big bucks outclass big ideas too often). But there’s plenty in modern cinema worth celebrating. Here then, are 100 examples of great cinema in the 21st century, spanning all genres and sensibilities, from popcorn action flicks to art house exploration of form.
Placing these in any order supposed to indicate superiority seemed totally redundant. Instead, they are presented – simply – alphabetically. This is the first of five posts. Let’s get to it. What to watch, and why…
13 Assassins (2010, Takashi Miike)
The Gist: In 19th century Feudal Japan, samurai Shinzaemon Shimada (Kôji Yakusho) gathers a ragtag band of fellow samurai to perform a seemingly futile mission to assassinate a sadistic lord.
Watch It For: The collision of two strands of director Takashi Miike’s masterful capabilities; the brooding austerity of the first hour… the crazed carnage of the second.
25th Hour (2002, Spike Lee)
The Gist: New York drug dealer Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton) has one day to tie up his loose ends before going to prison, and decide whether his long-term girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson) ratted him out.
Watch It For: New York in the grips of post-911 PTSD; Norton and Dawson at their best; Lee on top form.
About Schmidt (2002, Alexander Payne)
The Gist: A sad widower (Jack Nicholson) goes on an expedition in his Winnebago to sabotage his daughter’s wedding, believing that the groom is not good enough.
Watch It For: The quintessential distillation of director Alexander Payne’s tender love affair with middle America, even if his observations are sometimes a little scathing.
The Act Of Killing (2012, Joshua Oppenheimer)
The Gist: Unmissable documentary in which a seemingly remorseless man responsible for horrendous acts of genocide in Indonesia is given the opportunity to recreate his atrocities for film, in the process coming to terms with what he has done.
Watch It For: The sheer audacity of the project; the gut-punching final scenes; as a primer for Oppenheimer’s equally important The Look Of Silence.
Adaptation. (2002, Spike Jonze)
The Gist: Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) struggles to adapt Susan Orlean’s factual novel The Orchid Thief following the success of his breakthrough hit Being John Malkovich.
Watch It For: Proof positive that, when he puts his mind to it, Cage can impress like the best of them; Kaufman’s writing at his most meta… and most human.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg)
The Gist: In the near future, a robotics company designs a mechanical child who, when separated from his human mother, ventures on an odyssey to come a ‘real’ boy.
Watch It For: The strangeness of a Stanley Kubrick project in the hands of Spielberg; it’s disjointed but fascinating three separate acts; all of the production design.
Amélie (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
The Gist: A shy young Parisian woman (Audrey Tautou) who lives to help others finds her emotions in a swirl when she falls in love with a man (Mathieu Kassovitz) who catches her curiosity.
Watch It For: How utterly charming, unspeakably French it all is; Jeunet firing on all cylinders; the rich colour palette; the romance.
Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy (2004, Adam McKay)
The Gist: In the late 70’s, an idiotic news anchorman (Will Ferrell) and his team struggle to come to terms with the newest member of their team… a woman.
Watch It For: The sheer, wonderful, stupidity; Ferrell and co at their improvisational best; Baxter.
The Assassin (2015, Hou Hsiao-Hsien )
The Gist: In 7th century China, a skilled female assassin (Shu Qi) thought flawed for her compassion is dispatched to kill a political leader whom she shares a connection with.
Watch It For: Qi’s incredible presence; the contemplative stillness; some of the most immaculate photography in modern cinema.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominick)
The Gist: Renowned outlaw Jesse James (Brad Pitt) accepts a strange, hopeful new member into his gang; Robert Ford (Casey Affleck). However, hero-worship turns bitter as James’ paranoia turns his friends against him.
Watch It For: The best Western of the last 25 years; Roger Deakins’ generous cinematography; Affleck’s itchy performance.
The Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call – New Orleans (2009, Werner Herzog)
The Gist: After injuring his back in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a corrupt detective (Nicolas Cage) sinks into a spiral of drug addiction and erratic behaviour.
Watch It For: The last great Cage performance; Herzog’s willful craziness; it’s wise metaphor for the US’s response to Katrina; those iguanas…
Battle Royale (2000, Kinji Fukasaku)
The Gist: In an effort to control it’s young populous, near-future Japan’s government compels an unruly class of school students to fight one another to the death on an island; the last one standing will get to leave.
Watch It For: The subversive central conceit; Takeshi Kitano’s spirited turn at the helm; so much punk-spirited ultraviolence.
Before Sunset (2004, Richard Linklater)
The Gist: Nine years after the events of Before Sunrise, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) have a chance encounter in Paris, and a second opportunity to make things work.
Watch It For: The leads; Linklater’s light touch in a charming setting; an in-road to the equally fine Before Midnight which appeared a further nine years later.
Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
The Gist: An aspiring and repressed ballet dancer (Natalie Portman) becomes desperate to perform the leading role in a new production of Swan Lake, but the experience becomes one of nightmarish transformation.
Watch It For: Aronofsky sneaking a horror movie into the arms of the Academy in the guise of a prestige romance drama; Portman’s best performance.
Brick (2005, Rian Johnson)
The Gist: When his ex-girlfriend disappears, high-schooler Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) uncovers a seamy underbelly of juvenile crime in an effort to find her.
Watch It For: The language of film noir transposed to teenage millennials; a look at Johnson’s early work – he’s been busy of late directing the next Star Wars.
Capturing The Friedmans (2003, Andrew Jarecki)
The Gist: While making a documentary about a working clown, director Andrew Jarecki stumbles across a suburban nightmare surrounding a strange family and accusations of paedophilia.
Watch It For: The malleable nature of truth; each jaw-dropping revelation; the sensation of watching a car crashing right in front of you.
Carol (2015, Todd Haynes)
The Gist: In the 1950s, an elegant suburban housewife (Cate Blanchett) and a young female shop assistant (Rooney Mara) grow inexorably attracted to one another, against the conventions of the era.
Watch It For: The swooning, sad romance; Blanchett and Mara’s incredible performances; the washed-out depiction of the era; Carter Burwell’s sweeping score.
Clerks II (2006, Kevin Smith)
The Gist: Now working at a roadside fast food restaurant, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) continue to waste away their lives, but their friendship is threatened by the prospect of Dante’s impending wedding and his complicated relationship with their boss Becky (Rosario Dawson).
Watch It For: A lot of dumb, gross-out humour; ideal hangover viewing; the last really enjoyable Kevin Smith film.
Dancer In The Dark (2000, Lars Von Trier)
The Gist: A Czech immigrant working in a factory, secretly going blind (Bjork), is falsely accused of murder as she tries to protect her son. Oh, and it’s a musical.
Watch It For: Bjork’s uncanny, breathtaking central performance that earned her justified acclaim at Cannes; those appropriately inappropriate musical numbers; Von Trier bating his audience (as usual); a thoroughly miserable time.
The Dark Knight (2008, Christopher Nolan)
The Gist: Gothan City is terrorised by an unpredictable villain who calls himself The Joker (Heath Ledger); a crazed individual who may prove to be Batman’s (Christian Bale) greatest challenge yet.
Watch It For: The superhero movie compressed through the mold of a searing Michael Mann thriller; Ledger’s towering, iconic performance; one of the most enduring blockbusters of a generation.
To be continued…