Sunday, 17 April 2016

Top 20 Films of the 21st Century

There's a big difference between something that is the best and something that is your favourite. For example, the best television show I have seen is Breaking Bad, a conclusion I come to very easily and without much deliberation. However, my favourite television series is Modern Family, a conclusion I came to equally as easily. I find both shows excellent, and can categorically say that Breaking Bad is a better constructed series, yet my personal tastes lie more akin to Modern Family, and the show is thus preferable for me. The same can be said for film. The following twenty films are not necessarily what I believe to be the best films of the century, but they are, indeed, the ones that I happen to enjoy the most. Simply put: Some of these films have flaws, yes, but if someone forced me to restrict my DVD library to just twenty options, these would be the ones that I'd keep. Enjoy. Oh, and there will be spoilers.

20. Avengers Assemble (2012) Dir. Joss Whedon

Is Marvel's Avengers a perfect film? No. But is it a gloriously entertaining, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink superhero thriller that represents mainstream cinema at its most giddily enjoyable? You're God damn right it is. It's even more impressive, then, that Whedon's film relies on thoroughly fleshed out characters and a script that seamlessly juggles both humour and drama, creating a film that's as fun as it is dramatic. Avengers Assemble is a film that knows exactly what it wants to be and exactly what it should be, and smashes the two together. This is blockbuster entertainment at its most enjoyable. 

19. Stardust (2007) Dir. Matthew Vaughn

Much like Avengers, Stardust is not a perfect film, but I don't need it to be in order to love it unequivocally. Pacing is not the film's strongest suit, but it packs a plethora of wonderful characters and highly memorable sequences, and tells a magical story that never forgets its human roots. Matthew Vaughn is a personal favourite director of mine (his name will be popping up again in this list, keep an eye out), and Stardust was the first film of his that I saw. The film is silly and strange and maybe a bit too camp for its own good, but it all comes together to form something quite special. I could watch it for days on end.

18. Hot Fuzz (2007) Dir. Edgar Wright

Even after countless viewings (I seriously have lost count), Hot Fuzz makes me laugh more than any other film I can think of. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost can make almost anything exciting (I say "almost" because I remain unconvinced by Shaun of the Dead), and Hot Fuzz is their crowning achievement. Gloriously fast paced and stylish to a fault, the film packs in more laughs per minute than some comedies manage in a whole hour. By the time Olivia Coleman whacks a shop worker with a wet floor sign before cackling out "Love a bit of girl on girl!" it's clear that this is a wholly original affair, and it's all the better for it. The only thing missing? A great big bushy beard.

17. Wall-E (2008) Dir. Andrew Stanton

Wall-E is probably the most avant-garde that mainstream animation can be. By far Pixar's most ambitious film to date, Wall-E tackles themes of consumerism and environmental issues, yet scarcely utters a word in its entire first act. It becomes less groundbreaking as it goes on, but the film remains beautifully rendered and powerfully told, with a lovable protagonist that can't even pronounce his own soulmate's name correctly. Wall-E is, quite frankly, an utterly adorable film that has a hell of a lot more to say than any other animated film in history, and it's certainly not very often that those two claims can be made about the same film.

16. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) Dir. Dean DeBlois

This, folks, this right here is how you take an exceptional film and develop an even better sequel. Tackling similar themes but in an appropriately more grown up fashion, Dreamworks' Dragon 2 was a bold step for the company, simply due to how dark and intense it was prepared to become. After a relatively light-hearted predecessor this sequel developed its characters even further, pushed the animation to breathtaking new highs and racketed up the emotion by the bucket load. Dreamworks could very easily have churned out a simple, by the books sequel with little more on its mind than a profit, but director Dean DeBlois ensured that the franchise stayed firmly on the right tracks, and what a job he did. Bring on film three.

15. Interstellar (2014) Dir. Christopher Nolan

Perhaps Amelia Brand does have a minor character crisis in the second act. Perhaps the script does go over the rules a few too many times. Perhaps it didn't really need to be that long. Perhaps none of this really matters and Interstellar is phenomenal film making. I'm going to stick to the latter and try my best to ignore all that I said before it. Interstellar finds Christopher Nolan at his most fundamentally human, but also at his most head-spinningly conceptual. It's a stunning film both visually and thematically, and it packs one hell of an emotional punch in the final act even if you've lost track on what on Earth is actually going on once the film starts theorizing on "what could be" rather than "what is scientifically proven". Interstellar is a big film with big ideas. Not all of them work, but you can't help but admire the ambition of it all.

14. It Follows (2015) Dir. David Mitchell

Acting as David Mitchell's directorial debut, It Follows is a masterful achievement for the man. Horror has lately become a genre that is mostly redundant besides two or three exceptional exceptions each year. It Follows was one of last year's greatest films, if only due to its originality. It's not the film's only strong attribute - it's also terrifically acted, excellently scored and very effectively framed - but originality is so rare in the horror genre of today that it's hard to think of the film without the word "unique" rocketing to the front of your mind. The icing on the cake? It's as heart-poundingly terrifying as it is original. Seriously, what a debut.

13. Black Swan (2010) Dir. Darren Aronofsky

Part human drama, part psychological thriller and part horror, it's almost impossible to categorize Black Swan into any genre. Led by an outstanding performance from Natalie Portman, Aronofsky's nightmarish feature is as much an endurance test as it is a film. It portrays Nina's descent into an almost feral state of insanity perfectly, but it's the film's countless horror-esque sequences that place it so highly in my rankings. Nina unintentionally peeling the skin above her nail back down her entire finger; Nina's skin growing feathers while her legs violently snap backwards to reflect the shape of a swan's; Nina brutally stabbing a wheelchair bound co-worker in the face without realising what she's doing. On first viewing the film is far too intense to register what is real and what isn't, making Black Swan one of those exciting films that desperately requires repeated viewings to understand it all further.

12. Sicario (2015) Dir. Denis Villeneuve

After an opening sequence that could put the healthiest of viewers into cardiac arrest, Sicario simply refuses to give in until the credits roll. Emily Blunt's performance is exceptional, as are those from Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, but the film's script is its greatest asset. Much like Kate, the viewer is kept in the dark as to what is actually taking place until the very final moment, by which it's far too late for the protagonist to change anything about the dire situation she finds herself in. Sicario never takes the easy option, it consistently forces the viewer to endure gripping set pieces and sequences of delirious intensity, all depicted through Roger Deakins' superb cinematography. The film isn't for everyone, it's far too gritty to entertain the masses, but those who want to be tested by something unlike anything else they'll have seen before, Sicario is simply essential cinema.

11. Room (2016) Dir. Lenny Abrahamson

Room only came out a matter of months ago, but it's a film that sticks in the back of your mind for a very long time. I can't think of any other film that had me invested in its characters so early on, or any other film that had me on the verge of tears from emotional intensity by the end of the first act. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay give superlative performances in a film with a script so beautifully written that it could melt even the coldest of hearts. As the film fades to black briefly at the end of its exceptional first act, all of the audio fades away with it, and the cinema I saw this film in - a sold out cinema, at that - was silent. Two hundred people, and not one person felt unaffected by the film enough to even shuffle in their seat. That alone says more than any adjective I could put in this section.

10. Kick-Ass (2010) Dir. Matthew Vaughn

Kick-starting the top ten is Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn's greatest film to date. Besides a sequel so terrible that I really cannot talk about it (a sequel not directed by Vaughn), there is nothing not to love about this film. It is gleefully fast paced, rocketing through its original narrative at lightning speed, and boasts an action style unlike anything the superhero genre had seen before. Again, this film isn't for everyone (its reliance on excessive violence and profanity is likely to turn many heads in the wrong direction), but Kick-Ass is a delightfully funny, fist-pumpingly exciting adventure into a small scale superhero world populated with both likable and unique characters. It wouldn't rank anywhere near as high on a list of films I think are "the best", but I can't deny the giddy smile it puts on my face every time I watch it.

9. Whiplash (2014) Dir. Damien Chazelle

Who would have thought a drumming solo could be as deliriously intense as the final act of Whiplash? Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons give superlative performances here, in a film that flies through two hours faster than most viewers can pick up a drumstick. But what keeps Whiplash so gripping is its intricate character work; Teller's Andrew is so dedicated to his career that he doesn't realise he's hurting the people around him, while Simmons' Fletcher - despite his absurd teaching methods - shows vulnerability in a number of key points during the film. Neither of the central characters slip into rote stereotypes, and the film thus has the ability to take this story wherever it pleases. It all culminates a final act more intense that it has any right to be, but the second the film cuts to black you'll just want to hit rewind and relive it all over again.

8. Up (2009) Dir. Pete Docter

If Up remained as devastatingly emotional throughout it's entire length as it is in its opening sequence, this would be a film too upsetting to talk about. Released the year after Wall-E was snubbed a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards, Up became just the second animated film in history to gain such a nomination - Pixar then repeated this accolade with Toy Story 3 one year later. It's easy to see why Up is such a fantastic film: it leaves behind all traces of normality and offers a boundless imagination like all animated features should; it presents two immediately lovable protagonists with genuine lives that we can feel and understand outside of the film's run time; it's gorgeously animated; it's packed with raw, honest emotion, and it's beautiful. Pixar's crowning achievement to date, Up is a breathtaking feature that knows no boundaries, and tells a simple story in the most imaginative ways possible. It's just lovely.

7. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Dir. Wes Anderson

I saw this film twice in the cinema, and I've watched it at least three more times since it was released on DVD. It's the kind of film that begs for repeated viewings simply due to how fast the dialogue is; it's almost impossible to pick up every comedic flourish on the first, second, or even third viewing. Boosted by its willingness to toy around with aspect ratio, and technically impressive with its production design and centrally aligned cinematography, Wes Anderson's film is a masterpiece of how to combine both art-house cinema and mainstream comedy. Ralph Fiennes steals the film with his delicate but hilarious turn as Gustave, and he is immediately recognisable as a character that you'd follow to the edge of the world and back, simply to spend more time learning what he thinks about everything there is to think about. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one of very few films that is as enjoyably entertaining as it is technically sublime.

6. The Dark Knight (2008) Dir. Christopher Nolan

Widely considered the greatest superhero film of all time (an attribute I agree with one hundred percent), Nolan's journey into the world of Gotham City hit its peak in the middle of the trilogy. Heath Ledger's frighteningly good performance as the Joker elevates a film that is already destined for greatness, and The Dark Knight more than achieves this. Darker and grittier than the first installment in the trilogy - but in all the right ways - Nolan's sequel offers up an almost incomprehensible amount of plot to get through, but succeeds largely due to how much the film's script relies on its audience to fill in the blanks. This is the rare superhero film that isn't just out to be a crowdpleaser, but has political thoughts on its mind and wants to make a statement whilst thrilling the masses. It's as bold as the superhero genre has even been or ever will be.

5. Inglorious Basterds (2009) Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Far and away Tarantino's greatest film yet, Inglorious Basterds is a masterpiece of interconnected storytelling with a climax that more than lives up to the two hours of build up that comes before it. Christoph Waltz' enjoyably evil performance is the film's greatest strength - I could watch three hours of Hans Landa sorting through thumb tacks - but Inglorious is packed with sequence after sequence of superb performances and exquisite writing. After a multitude of separate plot lines converge in the film's finale it was possible that everything would fall flat, but Tarantino accomplishes the impossible: he delivers an excellent final act to a film that set up far more than it should have. The film ends with the line "I think this might just be my masterpiece", and it's difficult not to feel that way about the director, too. Quentin Tarantino, I think this just might be your masterpiece.

4. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Dir. George Miller

Arguably the greatest straight-up action movie ever made, Fury Road delivers on every last one of its promises. Its high octane, rip-roaring action keeps the film entertaining throughout, but it's the tight hold that Miller has on his characters and their thematic framework that boosts the film into classic status. With a breathtaking visual design and excellent cinematography, Mad Max works perfectly fine for those viewers who want little more than a two hour car chase, yet those prepared to think more about the film and delve deeper into its seamless world building and compelling thematic ideas will come away with a far richer experience. George Miller had all odds stacked against him with this film, but he ignored everyone's concerns and delivered the best film of yesteryear, and one that I could watch over and over again and never lose even an ounce of admiration for what I'm seeing.

3. Gravity (2013) Dir. Alfonso CuarĂ³n

When I first saw Gravity in the cinema, I was convinced that the mind-blowing experience of the film wouldn't transfer well when watched at home. I was wrong. Gravity is dismissed by many as a film that lacks story and character development, but I could not disagree more. Gravity's story is simple, but it is told exceptionally well through arguably the greatest use of special effects cinema has ever seen. Sandra Bullock is transcendental as Ryan Stone, a powerful character focused on her will and determination to survive due to her memory of her young daughter. Packed with powerfully metaphorical images - Ryan falling into the foetal position in the circular air lock acting as her rebirth inside the ship, while her stumbled first steps back on land represent the entirety of human evolution in one breathtaking shot - and perfectly edited (that 13 minute opening shot didn't write itself), Gravity is a cinematic experience so strong that even when watching on an iPod screen, you feel the world around you disappear.

2. Boyhood (2014) Dir. Richard Linklater

Writing this list has made me realise that I have a strong fondness for films with simple stories told well. Boyhood is the absolute pinnacle of that variety of film making. It lacks a plot entirely, opting instead to simply show Mason's journey from boyhood to adulthood, using the same cast filmed over a twelve year period. The result is a knockout. The film is loaded with an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, and it's beautifully simple script works wonders for it. Not one line in this almost three hour film feels misplaced, and every character beat feels perfectly thought out in regards to where the story goes. Boyhood is a film for the ages, but perhaps it resonates most strongly with parents and people the same age as me - the film does, after all, show the journey from childhood to adulthood over the same years that my generation experienced the same journey. Boyhood ends when Mason leaves for College, and his mother (played expertly by Patricia Arquette) breaks down over how fast life has sped before her eyes. It's a delicate moment handled perfectly, and creates a suitably emotional end to a film so straight forward yet so unbelievably moving.

1. Inception (2010) Dir. Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan is my favourite film maker, and Inception is my favourite film. There are personal reasons why Inception is my favourite film (namely that it is the film that drew me to the film industry as a career option and ultimately shaped my life in the right direction), but it couldn't have done this if it wasn't a superlative film in its own right. Inception has a somewhat damaging reputation of being confusing due wholly to the fact that it is more ambitious than the average blockbuster, and therefore viewers who watch it now are likely to be disappointed by the fact that it is relatively simple to follow. It is the execution of this story that makes Inception such a masterpiece.

Firstly, it's edited to perfection. The film crosscuts between three dream-states without ever leading to confusion, and it portrays Dom's powerful journey excellently well. His character develops wonderfully across the film as we learn more about his past and how he became the damaged man that he is at the film's beginning, before culminating in a cliffhanger that both leaves everything wide open and acts as a perfection resolution. Dom places his totem on the table to test whether his world is real or not, yet he walks away when he sees the faces of his children and the screen cuts to black before the viewer knows whether or not his totem will fall. But it doesn't matter. Inception is not a film about whether or not its protagonist is dreaming, it's a film about what its protagonist would do to see the faces of his children again. In that beautifully executed conclusion, his children run into his arms. Does the totem fall? It doesn't matter. Whether it does or it doesn't, it's difficult to fault the mind-bending, heart-pulsing journey to that final shot and all that it represents.

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