Here then are the final twenty in this alphabetical look at some of the finest films to have appeared between 2000 and, well, right now. You’d have thought 100 would be enough, but frankly what’s struck me most are what I’ve found myself omitting. Narrowing it to the selections made was tough, and this is by no means definitive. But next time you’re stuck for something to watch and you’re scrolling through your Netflix or whathaveyou, come back here, browse these five pages of recommendations for inspiration. My hope is that you won’t be disappointed.
Secretary (2002, Steven Shainberg)
The Gist: A shy young woman named Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), recently released from a mental institution starts working for a small legal firm, where she is drawn into a loving sadomasochistic relationship with her boss Mr Grey (James Spader).
Watch It For: Gyllenhaal and Spader; the luscious production design; a far healthier, caring and sexier depiction of BDSM than you’ll find in other more popular material aimed at such a market.
Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay)
The Gist: A dramatisation of the events of 1965 in Selma, Alabama, in which Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) led a protest march in the hopes of pushing through voting reform in the southern states.
Watch It For: Oyelowo, who gives one of the great screen performances of recent years; the timely subject matter; DuVernay announcing herself as a serious player; the film Oscar chose to forget.
A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi)
The Gist: A married couple struggling to maintain the health of an elderly relative with Alzheimer’s are pushed to their limits by a malevolent accusation when a woman is injured in a fall.
Watch It For: The central argument, which spirals out in expert fashion allowing the viewer to play armchair detective.
Shame (2011, Steve McQueen)
The Gist: Lonesome control freak Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a sex addict living in New York, whose life is turned upside down when his free-spirited sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up on his doorstep.
Watch It For: Fassbender’s steely committed turn; Mulligan’s scene-stealing rendition of “New York, New York”; McQueen continuing a thus far unbroken run of searing, confrontational work; a depiction of isolation in one of the world’s busiest cities.
Short Term 12 (2013, Destin Daniel Cretton)
The Gist: Grace (Brie Larson) works at a short term foster care facility. A change in her personal circumstances and her emotional investment in some new intakes promise for a combustible few weeks.
Watch It For: Larson, who her demonstrates that her recent success in Room was not totally out of left field; a range of sharp up and coming talents; tight, almost-too-perfect scripting; a good cry, probably.
Spirited Away (2001, Hayao Miyazaki)
The Gist: A young girl gets separated from her parents at an abandoned amusement park and finds herself transported to a fantastical other world of bath houses, monsters and dragons.
Watch It For: A gateway into Studio Ghibli; Miyazaki’s final film The Wind Rises is arguably the better film, but this one captures a lot of the great elements that help virtually all Ghibli films to endure.
Sympathy For Mr Vengeance (2002, Park Chan-Wook)
The Gist: A young deaf man and his terrorist girlfriend plot to kidnap a rich man’s daughter in order to ransom her for money to pay for an operation, but their actions trigger a change reaction of tragedy and violence.
Watch It For: A crueller, meaner vision of vengeance than the one presented in the more frequently celebrated Oldboy.
Synecdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman)
The Gist: Believing himself a consistent failure, theatrical director Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) uses an arts grant to stage a ridiculously ambitious new play, recreating his life in a vast studio.
Watch It For: Kaufman’s introverted, paranoiac mind devouring itself; one of the most audacious and crushing directorial debuts to come out of America in the 21st century; Hoffman, as ever.
Take Shelter (2011, Jeff Nichols)
The Gist: Curtis (Michael Shannon) is a husband and father living through the recession, who starts having traumatic dreams and hallucinations of a terrible apocalyptic storm which he feels compelled to start preparing for.
Watch It For: Nichols’ understated, compelling, utterly believable style; Shannon, who makes the film and the role his own; a sequence of palpable tension once the family are ‘safe’; “There is a storm coming…”
There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Gist: An oil magnate (Daniel Day Lewis) comes to a small Californian township to drill and becomes embroiled in a power play with a young local minister (Paul Dano).
Watch It For: Anderson at the peak of his powers; Day Lewis at the peak of his; really every aspect of production in this menacing, propulsive epic that feels like a stone cold instant classic.
Timbuktu (2014, Abderrahmane Sissako)
The Gist: With Jihadists in control of the city of Timbuktu, cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed) finds his life and family threatened after a regretful act of violence. Meanwhile, elsewhere across the city, people try to defy the will of their imposing rulers.
Watch It For: Quiet, dignified fury at an unjust regime; disarming naturalistic performances; the football-less football game in the centre of the film which perfectly encapsulates the spirit of defiance.
The Tree Of Life (2011, Terrence Malick)
The Gist: A fluid depiction of American family life in the 1950’s, framed through the memories of one of the young sons as an adult, and against the birth of the universe.
Watch It For: Mallick’s pure visual poetry; the inordinate sense of grace; a film constructed in the editing room.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasthakul)
The Gist: In Thailand, an aging man slowly dies of kidney failure. As his family care for him, he recalls his past lives and is acquainted with the spirit of his son.
Watch It For: Weerasthakul is one of the most accomplished directors on the world stage; the unique and wholly transfixing tone, which is mesmeric and unusually relaxing.
Under The Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
The Gist: An alien being posing as a seductive woman (Scarlett Johansson) prowls the Scottish towns and countryside looking for men she can lure back to a dark lair, but, as her work progresses she starts to feel contaminated by humanity.
Watch It For: Glazer’s astonishing, controlled vision; artistic cinema that asks for your participation; provocative ideas; Johansson’s deceptively intense performance; Mica Levi’s eerie, at-times terrifying score; basically everything – it’s perfect.
Upstream Color (2013, Shane Carruth)
The Gist: Two strangers who have experienced the same traumatic and bizarre mode of identity theft are inexorably drawn together, while a mysterious pig farmer known as The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) may hold the key to unraveling the mystery of what happened to them.
Watch It For: Carruth’s control-freak filmmaking yielding staggering results; cinema of ideas and imagination; fluid, exposition-free storytelling; Amy Seimetz, who has been an unsung force on the independent scene for too long.
Wendy And Lucy (2008, Kelly Reichardt)
The Gist: Wendy (Michelle Williams) is travelling to Alaska to find work when her car breaks down and she loses her dog, Lucy. Suddenly, Wendy finds that the smallest setbacks have the most significant ramifications.
Watch It For: Another example of Reichardt’s plaintive style; a quiet, pointed examination of life on the poverty line in America; Williams, who is understated and heartbreaking.
The White Ribbon (2009, Michael Haneke)
The Gist: In the years before World War I, a small German town experiences a spate of hateful crimes with seemingly little motive and a mystery surrounding the persons responsible.
Watch It For: A crisp, haunting black and white cinematography; the austere Haneke making a case for the social events that preceded the rise of Nazism in Germany; vile people doing vile things to one another.
The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)
The Gist: Expelled from their frontier home for their pious religious practices, a family tries building a new life in a clearing in the woods only to become pray for malevolent forces both within and without.
Watch It For: Horror that broods and builds, relying on tone and sustained dread rather than cheap tricks; Eggers’ dogged fidelity to the language of the time period; performances across the board; Black Phillip.
You’re Next (2011, Adam Wingard)
The Gist: A well-off family’s reunion is brutally interrupted by a trio of would-be intruders, however they haven’t bargained for Erin (Sharni Vinson), a house guest who is more than prepared for their assault on the property.
Watch It For: Director Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett are a duo to watch and this is their career-making calling card (watch out for The Woods later this year); Vinson who kicks serious butt playing Erin; horror that has a brain and isn’t afraid to play with the rules and invite you to have fun at the same time. Seriously underrated.
Zodiac (2007, David Fincher)
The Gist: A recounting of the events surrounding the ‘Zodiac’ killings that took place in San Francisco during the late 60’s and through the 70’s, focusing on the journalists reporting on it and the police investigation.
Watch It For: Fincher’s maniac, obsessive attention to detail; his most mature film; a trio of great central performances (Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo) backed by an encyclopedic supporting cast of great talents.