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Analyzing the New York Times’ List of the Best 25 Films of the 21st Century

June 19th, 2017

Recently, The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott published their list of the 25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far.

It’s a fascinating list, and well-worth your checking out.

My own list would certainly be very different, but I was surprised and delighted that this list highlighted some movies from the past fifteen-ish years that I have dearly loved, and did not expect to see highlighted on a Times list.  These include:

Spirited Away at number two?  Wow!  I’ve actually only seen Spirited Away once, but it was on a huge screen in Boston when the film was first released in the U.S., and I adored it, blown away by its beauty and its weirdness.  This is a film I’ve been meaning to rewatch for years now, and its inclusion on this list reminds me that I need to hurry up and do that already.  The Times article includes an interview with Guillermo del Toro, who waxes poetic about this film.  It makes perfect sense to me that Mr. del Toro is a big Miyazaki fan, and of this film in particular.  The man loves his weird, wistful monsters!

I recently rewatched Inside Out, and I was once again dazzled by the genius-level insight of Pixar’s magical film, so I was happy to see it listed as number seven on this list.  (I’m impressed with the respect that Ms. Dargis and Mr. Scott’s list gave to animated films!)  The film is a wonder: very funny and painfully sad, tackling complicated emotional and psychological issues with a depth and tenderness that staggers me.  If you don’t weep at Bing Bong’s final moments, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.  Inside Out made #5 on my list of my favorite films of 2015Click here for my original review.

Boyhood at number eight?  Dynamite!  Richard Linklater’s extraordinary achievement, filmed a few weeks a year over the course of twelve years, was my #1 favorite film of 2014.  It’s a profound accomplishment, capturing a boy’s development into manhood in a way no other film has ever done.  Both times I’ve seen it I was entranced by every minute of its nearly three-hour run-time.  Click here for my full review.

I’m pleased a Coen Brothers film made the list, and while, if I had to choose only one from this century, my choice would have been A Simple Man, I can’t really argue with Inside Llewyn Davis, which clocks in at number 11 on the Times list.  It’s a spectacular film, an overlooked masterpiece from the Coens.  I love the circular structure of the film (a stylistic device that perfectly fits with the film’s themes), the music is incredible, and Oscar Isaac delivers a star-making performance that still blows me away.  The film is a heartbreaking look at the anguish that so often accompanies the attempt to create art.  Click here for my full review.

I was also delighted to see Steven Spielberg’s Munich on the list at number 16.  This is another overlooked masterpiece, one of the finest films of Steven Spielberg’s career.  It’s an emotionally devastating look at the Israeli-Arab conflict and the ripple effects of violence and vengeance.  Eric Bana turns in some of the finest work of his career, and the ensemble that surrounds him (including Daniel Craig, Ciaran Hinds, Geoffrey Rush, and Ayelet Zurer) is magnificent.  And that final shot of the film — what a punch in the gut.  Click here for my full review.

My eyes about bugged out of my head when I saw number 19.  Mad Max: Fury Road?  Wow!!  Yet another one of my very favorite films makes the list!  Fury Road was my #1 favorite film of 2015.  Ever since I saw it I have been evangelical about this film.  There’s a reason the title of my original review was: “Holy Shit!  Mad Max: Fury Road!!”  I still feel that way.  That a seventy-year-old George Miller gave us this astounding action spectacle boggles my mind.  Fury Road is a triumph, a guts-gripping thrill-ride filled to overflowing with extraordinary visual inventiveness, absolutely bonkers insane action, wonderfully compelling characters with rich emotional arcs, humor and horror and fun all wrapped up together in a breathtaking cinematic package.

Number 20 is Moonlight, yet another film that I dearly adore.  I didn’t get to see Moonlight before writing my Best Films of 2016 list, but if I had, it would have been in one of the top spots.  I’ve seen Moonlight twice and loved it even more the second time.  (Mr. Scott hits it right on the nose in the Times article when he notes the magic of the film lies in the way that it leads audiences to forming an intense and intimate affection for the film, and for its main character Chiron.)  Barry Jenkins’ film has some big things to say, but it delivers that message through a grippingly personal character study.  I love this movie so much.  Click here for my full review.

Number 24 is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, yet another film I dearly love (and need to find time to watch again, pronto).  I think Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is my favorite Charlie Kaufman film (I also have a sweet spot for Adaptation) but I have a lot of affection for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.  It’s such a weird concept yet it sings because of the lovely, melancholy (broken) love story at its heart.  Jim Carrey and Kate Winsley are perfection together, and let’s not forget Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo, Kirsten Dunst, and Tom Wilkinson.

The Times lists wraps up with The 40-Year-Old Virgin at number 25 and once again I was surprised and pleased by the choice.  I’d been a fan of Judd Apatow starting with Freaks and Geeks (and whenever Freaks and Geeks is mentioned let’s be sure to give Paul Feig all the credit he is due!!) and Undeclared, and when The 40-Year-Old Virgin arrived it felt like the perfect distillation of everything I’d loved about Mr. Apatow’s work on TV.  The film is fall on the floor funny.  It made Steve Carell a star (deservedly so) and also helped launch Seth Rogen’s career.  And let’s bask in the glory of the other members of the ensemble: Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd, Jane Lynch, Elizabeth Banks, Leslie Mann (I know some people don’t like her work in Mr. Apatow’s later films, but her one scene here in Virgin kills, don’t deny it), Kat Dennings, Jonah Hill (talk about a film launching a career!!), Mindy Kaling, David Koechner, and so many more.  I love that the Times recognized this profane, joyous comedy.

My only real disagreement with the Times’ list was their ranking of Million Dollar Baby at number three.  I think Million Dollar Baby is a fine film.  It’s one of Clint Eastwood’s strongest directorial efforts of the last two decades, and Hilary Swank is terrific.  But wow, I can probably think of a hundred films I like a heck of a lot more.

There were several films on the list that I’d never seen; the article’s detailed descriptions made me very interested in tracking down every one of the films I hadn’t yet seen.  I am particularly interested, based on this article, in seeing Yi Yi, Three Times, and In Jackson Heights.  And I’ve been wanting to see Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There ever since it came out; I need to get to that without delay.

After publishing the list, reader reaction was so strong that the Times published a follow-up article that listed a sampling of the response and various reader suggestions for films they felt should have made the list.  The suggestions I most agreed with were Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, David Fincher’s Zodiac, and Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund’s City of God.  But while the follow-up article focuses on readers’ complains with the list, I must say that I was fascinated by the choices made by Ms. Dargis and Mr. Scott, and I thought that over-all it was a strong list.

Also, any excuse to talk about great movies is always OK by me!

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