Why The New York Times felt the need to take this moment to reflect on the best cinema of our still-young century is anyone’s guess. My suspicion is that they are just starved for content during the summer months, traditionally the worst time for serious-minded moviegoers, although there are some promising films on the horizon, including the long-awaited U.S. release of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Poesía sin fin, a year and change after its premiere at Cannes. In any event, film critics and fans have been chiming in with their own lists of the best 25 films from the first 17.5 years of the new millennium. (For math geeks, that comes out to 1.43 films per year).
Great films abound on the Times list drawn up by chief film critics A.O. Scott and Manola Dargis, but the selection is insistently middle-of-the-road and predictable. The critics seem to mistake diversity for quality, casting a large net that falls over indie favorites, art house fare from the world over, and even Hollywood blockbusters. You can almost imagine Tony and Manola going down a check-list: Computer animated film? Check! Goofy comedy that is nevertheless really really good? Check! High octane blockbuster? Check! Oscar films that actually deserved to win? Check check and check! Spielberg, the Coen Brothers and P.T. Anderson? Present and accounted for. It’s a list with wide appeal, since there’s a high probability that readers of The New York Times, The New Yorker and New York Review of Books have seen or at least heard of most of the titles, expecting the Asian or Romanian entries.
Richard Brody of The New Yorker soon riposted with a list of his own, which is far more personal and less obvious than the Times’ list. Since he emerged from the shadows with the launch of newyorker.com, Brody has made little secret of his quirky, eccentric taste. I disagree many of his choices, but can’t help but admire such an unexpected and wide-ranging list. A similar impulse for inclusiveness seems to guide Brody’s selections, which are on balance far more creative, individual and refreshingly different than what Manola and Tony agreed on (an odd choice in an of itself, for two independent critics to find common ground in a single list): American Sniper, for example, instead of The Hurt Locker; and Chi-Raq instead of Moonlight. And who else would think to draw up an index with Josephine Decker and Ronald Bronstein balanced out by Judd Apatow and Jared Hess: a list that still finds room for Scorsese and Eastwood alongside Godard, Varga, Lanzmann, Kiarostami, Jia Zhangke and Hong Sang-soo, without forgetting Sophia Coppola (although I think it’s best to forget her), Wes Anderson or Kenneth Lonergan.
List-making, for all its fun, ranks high among life’s most pointless exercises. While I find some of his choices absolutely baffling (Darjeeling Limited?!), I side with Brody in his insistence on a fiercely individual selection that makes no claim to being exhaustive or definitive, nor which tries to establish a canon or sorts (both of which, I suspect, are goals of the Times’ list). With that in mind, here is my own list of the 25 Best Films of the 21st Century, a register of films that have lingered with me for their artistry, their humanity, their beauty or their mystery. They span a huge range in terms of subject, style, tone and provenance. The only common denominator is that they are all utterly unique. To try and put these in any sort of order would be a fool’s errand.
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)
Leviathan (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
Mulholland Drive (David Lynch)
Talk To Her (Pedro Almodovar)
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel)
American Hustle (David O. Russell)
The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke)
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke)
Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)
Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes)
Faust (Aleksander Sokurov)
Dogville (Lars von Trier)
Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade)
We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)
The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai)
I’m Not There (Todd Haynes)
The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry)