On June 9, The New York Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott listed their 25 best films of the 21st century so far. Other critics, including J. Hoberman and The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, have since weighed in, or crashed the party, as Hoberman put it. It’s not just a party, it’s a heavy gauntlet to pick up—and an irresistible game. Here’s my list, ranked from 25th to 1st, followed by a brief commentary.
25. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)
24. Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, 2014)
23. Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, 2016)
22. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006)
21. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)
20. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2005)
19. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
18. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)
17. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005)
16. Margaret (Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
15. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
14. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai, 2004)
13. Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)
12. Citizenfour (Laura Poitras, 2014)
11. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2012)
10. Norte, the End of History (Lav Diaz, 2013)
9. Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)
8. Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002)
7. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)
6. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2011)
5. Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, 2014)
4. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
3. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
2. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
1. Mulholland Dr. (David Lynch, 2001)
I once asked the film critic Pauline Kael if she ever distinguished between great films and films she enjoyed for pleasure. She said she did not—that they were one and the same to her. I cannot share her opinion. Some masterpieces can seem dull or dour; some films that are trash are thrilling.
Sections of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sacrifice (1986) and Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (number six above) seemed interminable to me, even tedious, yet I knew I was being enriched by drinking in the stoicism and suffering of their characters. When the tone shifts in those films, or when seismic events occur, it seems as if the world beyond the film, or one’s perception of it, has changed irrevocably.
This is a way of saying that film isn’t just about entertainment, or, at least, that entertainment is best when it’s enlightening. Violence and sensuality are vital ingredients in cinema, but when they’re delivered mindlessly, you can feel you’ve wasted your time.
There is a lot of ravishing imagery, excitement, and art for art’s sake in the films listed above, but there is also violence, paranoia, and real-life dread. The two documentaries, The Act of Killing and Citizenfour, are especially painful to watch—and salutary. Hopefully, it’s a balanced selection.
Fun? Check out Denis Lavant (with Eva Mendes… and Kylie Minogue!) in Holy Motors, Carey Mulligan “effing and blinding” in Inside Llewyn Davis, and Philip Seymour Hoffman cavorting like a satyr as he sings “Maid of Amsterdam” in The Master.
I also considered the 61 films below when making the list. Some are here because they brought me “epiphany moments,” among them Bright Star, Children of Men, A Field in England, The Forbidden Room, Red Road, and The Miners’ Hymns.
When the desert-island-bound raft with the portable DVD player arrives on my doorstep, it’ll be tough deciding which films to leave behind.
Adaptation (2002), The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu (2010), Birth (2004), Bitter Money (2016), Bright Star (2009), Caché (2005), Café Lumiere (2003), Cemetery of Splendor (2016), Children of Men (2006), A Christmas Tale (2008), A Dangerous Method (2011), Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), The Deep Blue Sea (2011), Demonlover (2002), Dogville (2003), The Edge of Heaven (2007), L’Enfant (2005), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), A Field in England (2013), Flight of the Red Balloon (2007), The Forbidden Room (2015), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), A History of Violence (2005), Hunger (2008), Ida (2013), Inherent Vice (2014), In the Cut (2003), The Invisible Woman (2013), Julieta (2016), Keane (2004), The Kid With a Bike (2011), Lady Macbeth (2016), The Last of the Unjust (2013), Lincoln (2012), The Look of Silence (2014), Lost in Translation (2003), Match Point (2005), The Measure of a Man (2015), Meek’s Cutoff (2010), The Miners’ Hymns (2010), Moonlight (2016), Museum Hours (2012), Mystic River (2003), No Country for Old Men (2007), A Prophet (2009), Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), A Quiet Passion (2016), Red Road (2006), Russian Ark (2002), The Saddest Music in the World (2003), Spirited Away (2001), Still Life (2006), Summer Hours (2008), Synecdoche, New York (2008), 25th Hour (2002), White Material (2009), The White Ribbon (2009), The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), Yi Yi (2000), Zodiac (2007).