Wednesday Listicles: Travis’ Top Ten Films Of The 21st Century

As I posted yesterday, the BBC has released a list of the Top 100 Films of the Century. Some of them were great (love for my favorite films, etc.), while others were infuriating (no Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, love for Synecdoche, New York). However, as I also mentioned yesterday, the question of the best films of the century is one I’ve actually been interested in exploring for quite some time. Sure, there’s only been sixteen years to choose from so far, but that’s what makes it so exciting: figuring out who’s on the right track for the future, and who isn’t. And I figured that the best thing to do for today’s Wednesday Listicle is to provide a look at what MY Top Ten would look like, were I given the chance to vote.

The question of how to compose this list proved extra challenging. Should I try to pick one of each genre? Would the list be voided if I didn’t have a comedy, or an animated film? And how should I rank these? Is this a list of my favorite films from this century, or the best? Because there are some expertly made films, like Zero Dark Thirty, that are near-perfect, but leave me cold inside, and there are some laugh-out-loud comedies, like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, that make me laugh but are a bit flawed in the technical department. How should I properly construct a list to sum up 192 months of film?

Eventually, I decided to make this list the way I do all lists: a balance of the two. The films needed to have an innate entertainment value, but they also needed to be expertly crafted artistic statements. So, while Everybody Wants Some!! may be one of my Favorite Films of All Time, I couldn’t, in good conscience, put it on this list. That being said, it is the only one of my favorite films released in the window to NOT make the list, and one of them inevitably took #1.

I looked at a lot of films to make up this list, and not all of them could make it. However, here are a few honorable mentions, to give you a grasp of what kinds of films I was looking at. The first thing I looked into were foreign films, in an attempt to show my range to the viewers. The two that made the shortlist were Argentina’s political thriller The Secret in Their Eyes and Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy epic Pan’s Labyrinth. I also looked into comedies, as I didn’t want to seem too joyless or cold. While one true comedy made the cut, and two dark dramedies were also included, some just missed out, like the aforementioned Anchorman and Everybody Wants Some!!, as did Mean Girls. I looked at a lot of animation, and found three true contenders in the flawless Finding Nemo, the gorgeous Fantastic Mr. Fox, and the tearjerker Up. The action scene is covered by Quentin Tarantino’s incredible Kill Bill, while the biopic thriller United 93 just missed out. Speaking of biopics, The Social Network really deserves a spot on this list, but I just couldn’t make it fit. The same applies to Almost Famous, which I thought would make this list for sure, but also just missed the cut (nevertheless, I want to watch this one again quite soon, and you should too). However, the three that came the closest to the Top Ten that I’m still kicking myself over are Joe Wright’s incredibly well-made Atonement, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash-the best edited movie of all time-and, of course Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (I consider these to be one complete film that fluidly runs 12 hours, but if you ask me to pick just one, I’d have to go with The Fellowship of the Ring, although the Battle of the Hornburg is the zenith of Jackson’s filmmaking).

And with all that settled, let’s jump into The Top Ten Films of the 21st Century.

  1. Boyhood

*Puts in 8-track of Family of the Year’s Hero, turns up the speakers to 11*

boyhoodThere was never any doubt that Richard Linklater would make this list, it was just a matter of which one. School of Rock is light comedy at its best, Everybody Wants Some!! is the perfect college movie, and Before Sunset/Before Midnight are artistic masterpieces. However, I think that, as hard as the decision was for me, there was no other choice than Boyhood. Filmed over twelve years to accurately depict a young boy growing up and becoming a man, it summed up a decade, pushed artistic capabilities, and featured realistic and heartwarming/breaking performances from Ellar Coltrane, Lorelai Linklater, Ethan Hawke and especially Patricia Arquette. It’s a testament not only to what it means to be a boy coming of age in modern America, but what it means to be a human being, period. While I have some friends who felt that it meandered, featured obnoxiously pretentious dialogue and lacked a clear direction, for me, that’s what makes it a great film-life isn’t a series of plot points, it’s a seemingly random series of events that make up the act of living, and that’s the type of story that Linklater excels at.

  1. Best in Show

best in showThis is the only true comedy I have on this list, but it is the most deserving. Arriving in 2000, it was the third film by the cast and crew behind the birth of the mockumentary, This is Spinal Tap, and the second to be directed by Christoper Guest focused on an absurdly specific topic (following Waiting for Guffman). And wouldn’t you know it, this one just may be their crown jewel. Following five families preparing to compete in the Mayflower Dog Show, the film shows the effects that the event has on their lives and relationships, in the most hilarious ways possible. Guest’s redneck bumpkin is a standout, as is Eugene Levy, who must help his dog compete despite having two left feet (literally) and is constantly bombarded by men that his wife (Catherine O’Hara) had slept with in her youth, and the duo of Parker Posey and Michael Hitchcock, two yuppies who blame their “beloved” dog for the fact their relationship is a nightmare. The event is covered by moronic commentator Fred Willard, who gives a career best performance. It’s one of the funniest films I have ever seen, and it’s impossible not to laugh at least once during its entirety. The mockumentary, as a genre, is everywhere now, but no matter how many new versions we get each year, none have topped Best in Show.

  1. Drive

driveBefore the Cannes Film Festival in 2011, few people had heard of Nicholas Winding Refn, and no one had heard of his sixties thriller throwback Drive. So it was a complete shock when, coming out of the festival, it was all anyone could talk about. It’s an ultraviolent and downright nasty film, but it’s filled with a heart, soul and style that you can’t help but love. Ryan Gosling’s unnamed Driver is the second coming of Steve McQueen-cool, quiet and unafraid to turn violent if he needed to. The stylistic tones of neo-noir pervade each gorgeous scene, and you are swept in to the beauty of each shot-even if that shot is Gosling crushing a man’s head in an elevator. Combine all this with a sweet performance by Carey Mulligan and a absolutely sinister performance by usual funnyman Albert Brooks, and you not only have the best film of 2011, but one of the best films of all time.

  1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

jesse james 2Many people believe that the Western is dead. And based on how much this film grossed, they’re probably right. But the interesting thing about the films of 2007 is that, despite making little to no money, it was an artistic renaissance. It was sort of like the late sixties and early seventies all over again. And one of the best examples of these artistic feats is Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (that’s a mouthful). The film is long, slow, and melodic, almost like an opera, as it follows the last few years of James’ life, his first meeting with his young protégé Bob Ford (a never-better Casey Affleck), the execution-style hit job Ford commits, and the aftermath as Ford fades into obscurity. The film uses the West to explore America’s current fascination with star culture, painting James, a common criminal who should in no way be idolized, as an early rock star, played with appropriate swagger by Brad Pitt. Affleck plays Ford like an early rendition of fanboys, and watching his idolization turn into anger when James doesn’t live up to the hype, and the anger turn into obsession. He hopes to find fame by killing a legend, but all that does is further his target’s legacy while hindering and destroying his own. And if the rich themes weren’t brilliant enough, throw in some of the greatest cinematography of all time, just to liven things up. Yes, Roger Deakins puts in career best work here, capturing the beauty of the west and the lyrical nature of the story, and an early train robbery scene proves itself to be one of the most gorgeous sequences in the history of film (and a rendition of this is a current prospective logo for this site, stay tuned). It’s a unique take on the Western, but that’s what makes it so exciting, and why it will live forever as one of the greatest films this century, or any century.

  1. Adaptation.

adaptation.God, Adaptation. might be one of the weirdest films I have ever seen. One of Spike Jonze’s earliest films (and most certainly not his last film on this list, hint hint), the movie explores the idea of creation. Written by Charlie Kaufman as an adaptation of The Orchid Thief, the film follows, um, Charlie Kaufman, as he attempts to adapt The Orchid Thief. He finds the task impossible, and begins to doubt himself as a writer. Meanwhile, his twin brother, Donald, is becoming a hugely successful screenwriter due to his recent script, titled The Three (and features the most clichés in a film possibly ever). Both are played by Nicolas Cage, and it is as weird a dynamic as it sounds. As this drama is playing out, the film jumps over to explore the actual content of the book, author Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep) and the book’s hero, John Laroche (Oscar-winner Chris Cooper, unrecognizable in his performance). The film adds layer upon layer about the ideas of writing, filmmaking, literature and, overall, humanity, and it all builds to one of the most bizarre and fascinating climaxes I have ever seen on film-so bizarre that I am completely amazed that Kaufman and Jonze weren’t sued for what they were doing. It’s hard to explain, and it takes multiple viewings to truly appreciate it, but for what it’s worth, there are no other films like it, and that earns it a spot on the list of greatest films this century.

  1. The Hurt Locker

hurt lockerThere might not be a better film to sum up the 2000s than The Hurt Locker. A character study about living in the 21st century, a treatise on war as seen through the most controversial war in recent history, without any hint of bias or opinion, and directed by a woman, a rarity in Hollywood and an even bigger rarity in the war genre. However, Kathryn Bigelow shows no fear as she captures the daily goings-on of troops engaged in combat in Iraq, led by Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie in two fantastic performances. The editing is tight, the direction sharp, the script (written by Mark Boal) taut and the tension so thick you need to cut it with a knife in order to breathe. It’s one of the greatest war films in history, and truly captures the current era, filled with tension, complexities and human decisions. It’s one of my favorite films of all-time, and I feel confident in saying it is one of the most flawless films I have ever seen.

  1. The Dark Knight

dark knightLook, there was no way I was going to not include Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It is a game changer. Sure, on its surface, it’s just a dumb superhero movie, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a crime epic, it’s a gangster drama, it’s a character study, and it’s a treatise on terrorism and surveillance in the 21st century. In fact, if I were to strip away the costumes, the film doesn’t sound that different than a 70s cop thriller. A psychopath is wreaking havoc on the city, so a rogue figure of justice must push his ethical and moral scruples to their limit in order to protect society. There’s enough existential drama to fill multiple tomes about our current society, but I’m going to stick to the filmmaking-which, make no mistake, is brilliant. The colors perfectly contrast the darks and lights, the sound and special effects are brilliant, and the acting is sharp. I have some criticisms about Christian Bale’s performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman, but he still plays the role effectively, bringing a pathos to Batman we don’t often see, and properly displaying the difficult realities of what he is morally allowed to do (is it ok to spy on everyone if it is for their own good? Should he kill The Joker if it is in the best interest of Gotham? Are his violent actions helping, or just creating a more insane evil? That last one is especially timely as we reach a point where our constant attempts to help stabilize the Middle East have created a vacuum for a completely senseless system in ISIS. Blame who you want, these are the questions we need to ask ourselves). Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart strengthen the side of good (or the “good man gone bad” in Eckhart’s case) in the face of unrelenting evil. And they’ll need it, as that evil is the indelible sociopathy of Heath Ledger’s Joker. It’s a performance filled with such unhinged evil and charisma that you can’t take your eyes off him, and I’m not sure that we’ll ever see a character that lives up to the hype of the late Australian actor (looking at you, Leto). The film isn’t necessarily flawless, but the attention and skill that went into making it cannot be overstated, and must not be ignored.

  1. Zodiac

zodiacThis is the second one of my All-Time Favorite Movies to make this list, and the first film by David Fincher. I’m sure most people would expect to see The Social Network or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button take the Fincher Slot on this list, and both those films are quite excellent, but for my money, I’ve got to give it to Zodiac, another example of a perfect film. On its surface, it’s just another David Fincher “Serial Killer” movie, not unlike Seven or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. However, there is so much more to it than that (a common theme with this list). The film takes one particular event in history (specifically the Zodiac Killer) and then chooses to explore how it effects the people of a community. The film uses three different styles to tell its story-the serial killer horror film, the thriller, and the police procedural-as well as a killer soundtrack to show the passage of time. However, most importantly, the cast is all at their artistic peak for the film, showing the stress and the obsession that goes along with a mystery of this magnitude. Jake Gyllenhaal gives Robert Graysmith a desperate and obsessive edge that, while the audience’s true protagonist, also alienates him from the rest of society. Mark Ruffalo brings a quiet frustration to the detective who pursued the case for almost twenty years. And an untested wild card named Robert Downey, Jr. gives his best performance ever as Paul Avery, the reporter covering the case who is directly targeted by the Zodiac Killer. The ending is one of the most sobering and heartbreaking I’ve ever seen, and it provides the icing on an already perfect cake. The studio left this film for dead because it “wasn’t what they expected or wanted,” and Paramount should be put through the ringer for that travesty, but luckily history has helped to restore the legacy of one of the greatest films of the century.

  1. There Will Be Blood

there will be bloodPaul Thomas Anderson is the ultimate artistic indie director, and possibly the one true heir to Stanley Kubrick’s legacy. Having made two high concept and excellent films at ages 26 and 28 (Boogie Nights and Magnolia), and one highly underrated film in Punch Drunk Love before taking a few years off from the craft. He made his triumphant return in 2007 with There Will Be Blood, a true saga covering the story of America, and eventually crafting what can best be summed up as Stanley Kubrick’s take on Citizen Kane. The film follows the battle between a capitalistic oil baron and a charismatic young preacher, as they fight over an “important” piece of land. They leave in their wake a trail of destruction that could include the baron’s adopted son. The script, direction and cinematography are each rich, and each fraction of a second provides the viewer as much information and symbolism as a hundred pages of a John Steinbeck novel. Obviously Daniel Day-Lewis is absolute perfection in his performance as Daniel Plainview, and it’ll go down as one of the best performances of all time, but not nearly enough attention is paid to Paul Dano, the most underrated actor in Hollywood, who plays both preacher Eli and twin brother Paul Sunday, bringing a savvy business sense to the latter and a crazed, yet shady energy to Eli, as we watch greed consume both. The overall message is the corrupting nature of greed on the two most important American Institutions, Capitalism and Religion. But even if you couldn’t care less about symbolism and themes, there’s enough to this film to make it a memorable classic for years to come. In a hundred years’ time, we will be speaking of this film in the same league as Citizen Kane, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Godfather.

  1. Her

herIf you know me at all, you would not be shocked that Her topped my Top Ten List, as it is one of the greatest stories of our time. Let’s ignore the science fiction aspect, or the themes of technology’s effect on society, and just focus on the pure nature of the story. It’s about someone closed off to love in pursuit of a real connection with someone, anyone, that he can experience love with. That’s the most human story around. Add to that a satirical edge about our growing love of technology, and the presence of an alluring Artifical Intelligence system voiced by Scarlett Johansson’s dulcet tones, and you have one of the cleverest films of all time. Spike Jonze taps into something real and human in his film, something that can only have come from his real life pain after divorcing Sofia Coppola, and isn’t afraid to go from serious emotional drama to absolutely stupid teenage comedy (like Kristen Wiig’s phone sex scene. CHOKE ME WITH THE DEAD CAT!). However, while the comedy is shrewd yet childish, the romance is where the film truly shines. Joaquin Phoenix provides a truly human romantic protagonist that hit closer to home than I could have ever imagined, and his interactions with Samantha (his O.S.) are sweet, smart and borderline human. It’s a film that works for any generation, but speaks directly to our times. It’s a film that explores the emotions of humanity, but isn’t afraid to make jokes about us. And it’s a film that takes itself seriously, but isn’t afraid to go for the stupidest punch line possible. In short, it’s a perfect film that has already achieved the greatness that most filmmakers only dream of, and it not serves as the Greatest Film of the 21st century, it also is the Greatest Film About the 21st Century.

And that’s how I would have voted were I allowed to make an entry to the BBC Top Films of the Century list. Some agreements, some disagreements. But what matters most is that this is an excellent way to educate audiences on films that truly matter. And I hope that’s something I achieved today.

  1. Her
  2. There Will Be Blood
  3. Zodiac
  4. The Dark Knight
  5. The Hurt Locker
  6. Adaptation.
  7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  8. Drive
  9. Best in Show
  10. Boyhood

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