Anyone who thinks originality in film is dead needs to take another look around, and at least spare us their absurd assertion. Groundbreaking films with unforgettable stories and characters can be found in every year we’ve endured across the 21st century. It’s not that people are stupid. I just think we forget that finding movies with something to offer us, even if it’s only pure entertainment, sometimes takes a little work.
Yes, even in this allegedly glorious age of algorithms that know us better than we know ourselves. Even then, it is still important, if you want to avoid becoming a pure cynic about movies, to challenge what you are willing to watch. I realize that’s no easy feat, particularly since we seem to have less free time than ever. Still, it’s worth trying to get out of your comfort zone sometimes. How you choose to define that is far more flexible a concept than you might think.
This chronological ranking of the 15 best movies of the 21st century was difficult to assemble. When you cast a net over the past 19+ years of film releases, you wind up with a much greater range of titles than you ever realized. Franchises and/or superhero movies may rule theaters right now, but that doesn’t stop remarkable films from being made. This specific list barely had to leave North America to come up with 30 viable contenders, which was then cut down to the 15 we’re going to talk about today. If you don’t mind subtitles, I promise you the 21st century has enough new movies (new to you) to keep you invested and devastated for however much longer this century is going to go with us around.
If you need a suggestion right the hell now, here’s hoping you’ll find something among the next 15 movies.
The 15 Best Movies Of The 21st Century
1. Spirited Away (2001)
Supported by an outstanding English translation and dubbing (the original Japanese audio is excellent, as well), Spirited Away established a stunning benchmark for not only feature-length animation, but for Anime itself. Written and directed by industry icon Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is a bold, unique, and sprawling fairytale that continues to appeal to just about anyone who sees it, including people who would swear to you that animation is just for kids, or that Anime has no artistic value. Many would argue this story of a young girl trying to rescue her parents from a magical world’s curse is far and away Miyazaki’s masterpiece.
Watch if: You want to be absolutely charmed by a universe and its characters Avoid if: You just can’t accept that animation is for everyone, and not just children
2. Mulholland Drive (2001)
As far as the BBC are concerned, David Lynch’s surreal masterpiece about 2 women who befriend one another, as various forces of good and evil swirl around them, is the best movie anyone has made in the 21st century thus far. I don’t know about that, but it is certainly one of the most stunning, terrifying worlds anyone has ever committed to film. Mulholland Drive is a movie that suggests you can figure out everything that happens, which is a lot. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Few movies demand the act of surrendering logic and expectations as compellingly as this film will. Just go with that. The less you demand, the more weird fun you’re going to have.
Watch if: You want to say “The hell did I just see?” for months afterwards Avoid if: You need your movies to make at least a shred of sense.
3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Even people who are pretty much over that Wes Anderson guy will tell you The Royal Tenenbaums is good stuff. With the possible exception of 2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel, this may well be Anderson’s best work to date. The Royal Tenenbaums is essentially a family story with odd comedic tones and surprisingly impactful moments of somber sorrow and disappointment. It features some of the best work ever done by the likes of Gene Hackman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Luke Wilson, Danny Glover, Bill Murray, Ben Stiller, Anjelica Houston, and others. Its style and atmosphere are quite frankly irresistible, and there’s something about its comments on family that seemingly most of us can relate to.
Watch if: You like movies about weird families Avoid if: You’re already sick to death of your own weird family, and you have little time for someone else’s
4. City of God (2002)
When this Brazilian crime epic was released in 2002, everyone pretty much lost their minds. City of God is an incredible achievement on every possible level. Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, the movie will hit just about every mark you could ever expect from a film. It has grandeur. It has the energy of its time, place, and culture, running through the DNA of this movie’s style at a pace that must be seen to be believed. It has a story of friendship that spans decades and various lives of varying importance. It is a perfect viewing experience from start to finish.
Watch if: You want to be completely swept away by a movie’s story, characters, and atmosphere Avoid if: Non-English movies make you frustrated and sleepy
5. Lost in Translation (2003)
Lost in Translation is more than just the movie that more or less cemented Bill Murray’s comeback as a film actor. That part is important, sure, and Lost in Translation does benefit tremendously from what will probably be the best performance of his career. With a surprising lack of pretension, given that the movie is about two well-off, lonely people discovering one another while in Japan for different reasons, Lost in Translation is a beautiful tribute to Tokyo backdrop. The movie’s depiction of that loneliness by writer/direct Sofia Coppola, as well as through the performances of Murray and Scarlett Johansson, is more than just an artful portrayal.
Watch if: You like male-female friendship stories that don’t feel like it has to end in sex Avoid if: You prefer movies that get to the damn point
6. Oldboy (2003)
Few stories of revenge, and the consequences of dedication to such a thing, will leave you in the state you’ll be in, by the time Oldboy has finished. Supported by pitch-perfect performances by the likes of Choi Min-sik, Yoo Ji-tae, and Kang Hye-jung, this neo-noir classic from Park Chan-wook has a presence that marries style to substance in one of the most unique fashions you will ever see. If you like action, there are sequences to be found here which are still inspiring filmmakers to this day. If you want a deep, dark psychological study of humanity, Oldboy will accommodate you on that front, too.
Watch if: You want to see a story of rage that will leave you speechless Avoid if: You like happy endings
7. Grizzly Man (2005)
Documentaries really deserve their own list. In the meantime, Grizzly Man remains one of the most incredible stories that also has the benefit of being completely true. While director Werner Herzog is known for fiction features, particularly his long-time collaboration with actor Klaus Kinski, he has proven repeatedly that he is just as proficient as a documentarian.
Grizzly Man is the story of Timothy Treadwell, a somewhat-well-meaning idiot who spent repeated summers living among grizzly bears. Not surprisingly, that ended when one of the bears killed and ate him (as well as his girlfriend). The documentary doesn’t make light of this, and it also allows for discussions that cover such subjects as whether or not Treadwell’s endeavors created more danger for the animals than the non-existent threat of poachers. It is a weird, unforgettable life story, nonetheless presented in such a way as to let you make up your own mind.
Watch if: You want to meet a truly unique individual in the late Timothy Treadwell Avoid if: You have a low threshold for needlessly reckless narcissists
8. Persepolis (2007)
Persepolis is more than one of the best animated movies of the 2000s. It also a flawless adaptation of the equally-brilliant graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. Despite losing the Best Animated Feature Oscar to Ratatouille (which is also very good), Persepolis remains a vibrant, essential story of a young girl’s coming-of-age in Tehran from 1979 onwards. Plenty of history to be found in the backdrop of this story, which covers humor, horror, outrage, and love with a steady hand. If you don’t care about the history, that’s too bad, but you’ll probably still love this directorial effort from Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud all the same.
Watch if: You want a story about youth that is steeped in historical context Avoid if: You still somehow believe movies can’t or shouldn’t be political
9. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Joel and Ethan Coen obviously aren’t the first ones to adapt a Cormac McCarthy story. They just happened to do one of the best anyone could ever hope to create. No Country for Old Men is a dizzying noir story of crime, desperation, and supreme, perhaps cosmic punishment. The story is far-reaching, and it may not end in a way that satisfies your needs for things that are neat and tidy to the unspectacular end. It will however thrill you with a deep, intense story, as well as performances from Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, and Kelly Macdonald.
Watch if: You like stories of chaos and deteriorating circumstances Avoid if: You demand clear-cut conclusions before the credits roll
10. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Paul Thomas Anderson still hasn’t written or directed anything quite on par with this sweeping, emotionally-charged story of an 1890s oil man (Daniel Day-Lewis) who sacrifices everything to feed the “competition” that apparently exists within himself. There Will Be Blood takes a long road to suggest that redemption is not available to us all. Yet the journey, as well as the destination, constitute one of the most profound, electrifying experiences you will ever get from a movie. Paul Dano as a snivelling, somewhat-sadistic minister creates one of the film’s most harrowing conflicts, which is saying something.
Watch if: You want to finally get that “milkshake” reference Avoid if: You want to maintain a certain faith in people
11. The Dark Knight (2008)
A cynic would tell you that Heath Ledger had to die to win an Oscar for playing The Joker in the second of writer/director Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies. The cynic is probably right, but who honestly cares? Ledger’s untouchable performance as Batman’s most famous villain is the centerpiece for what might just be the most universally-liked superhero movie of all time. Even the goobers who bitch about Marvel movies had nice things to say about The Dark Knight, which presents a very satisfying Batman story, combined with some interesting comments on subjects like authoritarianism and the dangers of being consumed by desire. Christian Bale’s actual Batman isn’t great, but the movie is so strong and engaging in so many ways, it doesn’t really matter if his Batman is barely intelligible at times.
Watch if: You want a Batman story that truly feels like an epic Avoid if: You need a Batman who doesn’t sound like he has throat cancer
12. Boyhood (2014)
Filmed over a staggering period of twelve years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is one of the most impassioned childhood stories in contemporary film history. The concept of using the same actors to tell a story that spans a decade and change can strike you as a little gimmicky. It’s more about using that approach to draw our attention to the circumstances that shape us in our formative years.
Linklater uses more than a clever, patient storytelling device. He fills this story and its unique style with believable, beautiful characters. As it simultaneously gives you these things, Boyhood inevitably forces you to consider your own youth. I have no idea what that will be like for you.
Watch if: You want to see one of the very best movies about childhood Avoid if: You hate kids, and you definitely hate stories about kids
13. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is probably the only Iranian Vampire Spaghetti Western anyone will ever make. That’s fine. It is difficult to imagine anyone topping the scope and ethereal beauty of this movie’s style, characters, story, and energy.
Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour reminds us here that vampire stories and horror movies can encompass more than just blood and discussions about death in its many forms. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is also a love story. However, that element goes beyond what we experience with our young protagonists, played masterfully by Sheila Vand and Arash Marandi.
Watch if: You like vampire movies with style and personality to spare Avoid if: Black and white movies seem like such a silly idea in the 21st century
14. Moonlight (2016)
While Moonlight is another movie about childhood, it certainly isn’t going to be confused for Boyhood. Both movies deal in children, but Moonlight goes in a direction that is steeped in regret and loneliness. It is a movie that blasts the heart with stunning moments of humanity in all its fascinating components. It is also a depressing story about what happens when we deprive ourselves of crucial needs like the need for affection. Or at least the need to know we matter somewhere to someone. Moonlight implies that eventually, it might get better. One can only hope.
Watch if: You like movies that change the way you see the world Avoid if: You’re unfamiliar with empathy and longing
15. Mandy (2018)
Time will obviously tell if Mandy, directed and cowritten by Panos Cosmatos, is truly going to remain on any list of the best movies of the 2000s. I’m banking that it will. Mandy is pretty entertaining in the very specific sense of watching Nicholas Cage get crazier than we ever imagined possible. Yet the movie will inevitably demand more of you than just appreciating that one element of its singular cinematic DNA.
Mandy is a glorious, enveloping nightmare of sights and sounds. It puts an enormous amount of trust in Cage to be an audience surrogate with his own set of expectations and fears. Even as we descend deeper into this truly deranged story, Cage is both our guide, and the only one who can destroy the magnificent evil that surrounds his world. Going on the trip amounts to one of the most powerful film experiences in recent memory.
Watch if: You want to see some crazy evil Avoid if: You’re not a big Nicolas Cage fan