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The 10 Most Emotional Movies of The 21st Century

30 October 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Zach Wee

One of the most profound aspects of any art form is to provoke thought, to not only entertain audiences but to give us something to ponder over for hours, perhaps days after a short 90-minute experience. With that being said, ultimately, a filmmaker’s greatest aim and goal with their films is in fact, to not provoke thought, but emotion, to speak to the densest of audiences at a deep emotional level.

Despite this obviously being no easy feat, and a true testament to a filmmaker’s ability, in the 21st century alone, there are countless films released with the very ability to evoke powerful emotional responses from a mass audience.

This list aims to highlight 10 such films, these films are by no means essentials, neither are they some compilation of obscure foreign films, but rather, a healthy blend of the two, aiming to hopefully reaffirm the status of some of the modern classics and hopefully introduce you to a few lesser known ones. These are 10 emotionally impactful films released in the 21st century.


10. Fat Girl

One of the more unique coming-of-age films ever put to cinema. More often than not, sex is a very common driving force of films of the genre, Fat Girl explores just that, two girls, siblings, one beautiful, and one, well fat, struggles with the whole idea of sexuality and their virginity, as well as their own relationship dynamics.

Fat Girl offers audiences a realistic portrayal of love, be it love between lovers, siblings or mother/daughter. What would otherwise be initially perceived as a flaw in terms of the pacing is actually intentional, with the filmmaker wanting to illustrate love in a way that’s personified but above all else, truthful.

The relationship between the two siblings seem unrealistic, rotating between love and hate in sometimes in the same conversation. This isn’t reflective of an unrealistic, bad flow, because the filmmakers behind Fat Girl clearly had a strong intent, rather, they wished to personify sibling love, dramatise the whole concept of love/hate relationship. The girls are constantly at odds, but they’re constantly there for one another, the same goes for the girls’ parents (though they don’t accept this as a fact). That’s the beauty of it all.

In addition to this seemingly dysfunctional family dynamics, we have the stock coming-of-age love story between two youths. What’s particularly well done about this love story is how information about the two characters are slowly revealed, traits that we didn’t already know or even expect- vulnerabilities, banalities, innocence. All these going on with the titular Fat Girl in the background as an afterthought, self-reflecting alongside the lovebirds, providing some sort of a grounds for the mania which is her arc for the rest of the film.


9. Nobody Knows

Nobody Knows (2004)

Koreeda’s dramatisation of poverty and abandonment manages to be both heartwarming and heartfelt, quirky and gritty, more importantly, meticulous and exhaustive.

The film examines the lives of 4 half-siblings, left to fend for themselves after their mother’s abandonment, forcing the eldest son, Akira into pseudo-parenthood. The film explores the aforementioned theme of parenthood and poverty, as well as the generalised coming-of-age themes like adolescence and love. However, what’s particularly interesting about Nobody Knows as a coming-of-age film is the fact that almost every aspect of that genre is seen as an afterthought, at least in Akira’s eyes.

He is still at the end of the day a child, a child with no chance to explore the wonders of childhood, a child thrust into the horrors of reality just a tad too early, so much that when presented with a moment of immaturity in the form of same aged peers, it stuck out distinctly like a sore thumb to audiences. He’s a kid trapped in an adult living in a kid’s body and he constantly struggles not only with external threats but very elusively, with himself. That’s what this film aims to illustrate, a realist take on the whole genre, failing to grasp tropes instead of subverting them.

Though realist reimaginings of stock genres is nothing too original, with the coming-of-age genre already seeing masterpieces like Eureka (which is film is alarmingly similar to), Fat Girl and the later Kid with a Bike by the Dardenne Brothers, what’s done exceptionally well in Nobody Knows is the fact that the film knows when to let loose and embrace the hedonism that comes with the genre with literally half the film consisting of heartfelt moments of joy with the film’s characters having fun with one another, making it very apparent that Koreeda is a filmmaker concerned with worldbuilding and immersion beyond anything else. He wants audiences to believe the world presented to them, a fact apparent in almost every scene.

A norm in arthouse cinema is the presence of long wides, Nobody Knows has just that but with so much depth in the frame, be it movement, clutter, background actions that the world seem very visceral – living and breathing, and not just a simple setpiece, which is something unique to take away from his filmmaking.


8. Biutiful


Biutiful, as the title aptly suggests, is what it is, a beautiful and poetic piece of filmmaking. Javier Bardem pulls an extremely heartfelt and incredible performance, making the world forget the monster he played just a few years prior in No Country for Old Men almost akin to what Mads Mikkelsen achieved in The Hunt. For an actor to demonstrate such a drastic range certainly reflects his mastery of the craft.

Aside from Bardem’s performance (and the rest of the amazing cast), the film’s sound is genuinely one of the best in recent memory. The very fact that something so unnoticeable and subtle is being alleviated to a level that’s powerful enough to notice but not bordering on blatancy is truly exceptional.

The cacophony of guilt, forced empathy and overall emotions experienced by Bardem’s character is truly brought to life with the film’s sound, everything from whispers to murmurs to heartbeats to simple atmospheric sound feels extremely well executed. On top of that, Gustavo Santaollala’s score is phenomenal as usual, but more so in Biutiful, feeling less of a complementary, but rather, a fundamental part of the film. Very rarely would a film’s score and sound design in general impact audiences beyond just the superficial emotion that it sounds amazing.

The innate theme of death is something recurring in Iñárritu’s filmography, with literally every single one of the films dealing one way or another with the whole concept of death. Biutiful is perhaps the most human and relatable of his entire filmography, chronicling the experiences of a single man as he attempts to get his affairs in order before he passes.

The situations he encounters and the way they develop is done in a way thats both realistic to his plight and emotionally draining, with the theme of empathy being extremely apparent in the film as well, with Uxbal having the supposed supernatural ability to see the dead.

This alleviates the sense of empathy he would have for his loved ones in the various unfortunate situations, and in turn, our own sense of empathy with the character, seeing his life slowly crumble apart with every minor action he does, sometimes with good intention, trigger a butterfly effect which ultimately worsens the situation.

It is criminal for the general population and critics alike to view Biutiful as Iñárritu’s worst, because aside from its considerably slower pace compared to the rest of his work and some scenes bordering on melodrama, which is honestly warranted considering the subject matter, this is nowhere near a bad film.

It’s a beautiful one.


7. Mommy

Mommy (2014)

Xavier Dolan is perhaps one of the more interesting young filmmakers emerging in the film scene, having directed a half dozen films, all of which being of an extremely high standard. Mommy, his fifth feature, is undoubtedly his magnum opus, netting him the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, an award shared with Jean-Luc Godard, perhaps one of the greatest and most notable filmmakers in the history of cinema.

Cannes, like any other awards ceremony, often have the reputation for awarding its prizes to otherwise undeserving and underwhelming films, Mommy is not such a film. Though the film’s biggest selling point is its unconventional 1:1 aspect ratio, the inherent story of the film is extremely heartfelt, telling an intimate story depicting a mother’s love for a troubled child, the love in which the film constantly questions and challenges.

Thrown in the mix is their neighbour, herself a former mother, and the relationship that ensues between the three is genuinely one of the most heartfelt put to screen in recent memory. Dolan essentially makes audiences fall in love with them despite their shortcomings, making every moment that would otherwise question their bond ever so impactful, even if it does come across as a little melodramatic.

Without going into much detail, the film’s unique aspect ratio also makes for surprisingly beautifully composed shots, which more importantly aid the story in narrowing audience focus down on character emotion, making us essentially care for them so much more. All in all, a powerful love letter to the whole idea of maternal love and a unique cinematic experience both visually and emotionally.


6. The Pianist

Adrian Brody The Pianist

Films surrounding the background of the Holocaust always manage to do a decent job in pulling at the heartstrings. It’s almost a free pass in terms of making an emotionally impactful film, just consider films such as Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful and Sophie’s Choice, all of which netted critical acclaim and earned rightful places in film history. So did the 6th film on this list, Polanski’s The Pianist. Though it’s no denying that Polanski has netted extreme controversy due to his previous actions, the work that he continually produces is undeniably brilliant, even if he isn’t as a person.

The Pianist tells the story of the titular pianist, Wladyslaw as he struggles to stay alive across the horrors of WWII. Despite being an epic, with the film’s timeline spanning from the War’s infancy to its twilight, The Pianist’s focus as a harrowing personal tale never faltered. It literally follows the endeavours of a single man throughout the whole ordeal, experiencing almost every tragic facet of the war firsthand, without seeming too overtly hyperbolic or preachy.

The film also featured a distinct lack of dialogue for close to half of the film, with Wladyslaw being, for the most part, left to his own devices, struggling in an almost Anne Frank fashion to stay alive amidst the war-torn background of Poland while still maintaining his sanity.

Overall, The Pianist is an extremely harrowing war epic that stands out in a subgenre of films already known for powerful images and ideas. The film also features one of the best performances of all time by Adrien Brody. Any actor whom managed to beat the likes of Daniel Day Lewis at the Oscars is certainly extremely methodical and of course, undeniably brilliant.



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  • Zwei

    Two Lovers (2008)

  • Ricardo Correia

    Synecdoche New York

  • Sergio Forero

    Precious (2009)

    • Alice Olivia


  • David

    Biutiful is a pretentious and self-indulgent piece of crap, pretty much like every Inarritu film.

    • lamarkeith

      I’m in that camp as well. Indeed, as his filmography grows, it almost seems like Iñárritu had encounters with dumb luck when he made Amores perros and 21 Grams (particularly the latter). Nothing else he’s put out in-between or since has even come close to the pathos and inspiration found in those two films. It actually seems like his work has just gotten more shallow and sophomoric since 2003, especially in this current decade.

      It’s extremely rare that I will actually “give up” on a director — I actually can’t think of an example where I have off-hand — because the thought voids appreciation and criticism, but Iñárritu is pushing me pretty close to that point, unfortunately. I really think it would make a world of difference to me if he ended this recent pattern (i.e., partnership) where Lubezki masks Iñárritu’s thematic shortcomings by turning his films into superficial, AMPAS-pleasing shells of what the photographer achieves much more coherently with Terrence Malick (or even with Cuarón). I think he’s in far too much danger of risking Lubezki as a crutch, and ending collaborations would (hopefully) force him into a creative epiphany — but seeing how Lubezki is yet again attached to the upcoming Flesh and Sand, that separation doesn’t seem likely just yet. 🙁

      Oh well. At least he still isn’t at the ridiculous, “Poptismism’s darling”-level of Christopher Nolan yet, so he has that going for him. I’m even beginning to think that Denis Villeneuve might beat Iñárritu to the punch on that one, ha.

    • That is my least favorite film of Inarritu as I found it to be very sluggish in its pacing and extremely heavy despite Javier Bardem’s performance which I did enjoy.

    • grootrm

      I always chuckle when I read non-directors saying real world directors are “pretentious”.

      So cliché

      • Brandon Thompson

        Innaritu’s films are pretentious. Where’s your chuckle now?

      • lamarkeith

        Although I responded to David below saying that I share negative feelings towards Iñárritu, I also resolutely agree that using “pretentious” to describe film (or a director’s general style) is egregiously misguided. It’s practically impossible for someone to actually specify a supposed promise or claim a director has made — the basis for said “pretense” — which means it’s impossible to specify how they failed to follow through or deliver on that claim.

        Any attempt to say “well its how the photography is handled” or “it’s ‘trying’ to be ‘too deep’ when it’s not” is inherently tied to subjective view (which is a nice way of saying “our conjecture” and “projecting insecurities” if we’re being honest”). Pretense is an objective trait — you can mark it in a person by their literal, immediate actions and the way they are directly treating you (overtly condescending, “above it all”, et. al). Film doesn’t behave that way, nor does any other art form. It doesn’t judge its audience directly or immediately; the audience judges the film based on self-reflection. You call a person “pretentious” because its defined by their literal words and behavior, not because of how their word or behavior “made you feel”.

        “Pretentious” is a word that needs to be wiped from the film buff’s vocabulary with bleach. It’s nothing but an empty one-liner that is offered up as a poor substitute for an actual argument.

  • lamarkeith

    Solid list. Nice to see some less-common picks here.

    My personal faves, in no specific order (multiple choices are for polyptych works):

    1. Love Exposure (2008) – Sion Sono
    2. I’m Going Home (2001) – Manoel de Oliveira
    3. The Dance of Reality (2013) and Endless Poetry (2016) – Alejandro Jodorowsky
    4. The Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder (2012), Knight of Cups (2015), and Song to Song (2017) – Terrence Malick
    5. Her (2013) – Spike Jonze
    6. Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (2004) and The Dust of Time (2009) – Theo Angelopoulos
    7. Syndromes and a Century (2006) – Apichatpong Weerasethakul
    8. Starlet (2012) – Sean Baker
    9. Toni Erdmann (2016) – Maren Ade
    10. Our Little Sister (2015) – Hirokazu Kore-eda

    • Ricardo Correia

      Lovely to see I’m Going Home right there

      • lamarkeith

        If I did multiple picks from directors that weren’t part of a series, you better believe de Oliveira would have one or two more appearance in that list, haha. It still blows my mind that he made such incredible films like The Strange Case of Angelica, Gebo and the Shadow, and Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl when he was over 100 years old. A magnificent filmmaker.

        • Ricardo Correia

          As a portuguese I can say you most of us when get to half his age are already tired of working, he is a great example

          • lamarkeith

            Haha yeah, same here (though i’m not Portuguese). But then again, most people don’t even see those years to be honest.

            Also, now that I think about it, Portugal’s film output hasn’t gotten nearly enough love. That country has given us some of the strongest directors of the 20th and 21st centuries — de Oliveira was still putting out masterpieces in the 2000s; Miguel Gomes got everyone onboard with Tabu and then dropped on of the best film sequences of the century with Arabian Nights; friggen Pedro Costa the legend; João César Monteiro gave us beautiful work in the 80s and 90s, and so far another João (Pedro Rodrigues) has been put out great stuff this century. Teresa Villaverde has been steadily cranking out awesome stuff. And then of course guys like Antonio Ribeiro and Fernando Lopes.

            Man, love all of those filmmakers but I never realized until now just how many incredible artists Portugal has given to film. Gonna start being more aware of it now haha.

    • Vincenzo Politi

      I love your number 3 🙂
      But… I hate your number 4! 🙁

      • Mortimer

        Malick rocks !

      • lamarkeith

        That’s unfortunate to hear 🙁

    • Arsenije Štimac

      Love your number 1! Have you seen any recent (post 2011) Sion Sono films, do you have any recommendations?

      • lamarkeith

        Oh yeah! Himizu (2011) is up there with Love Exposure as one of his masterpieces IMO, if you haven’t seen that one yet, and so is Guilty of Romance from that same year. Land of Hope (2012) is okay, not really his greatest stuff but it’s worth watching it because he finally relaxes with a film for bit. Why Don’t You Play in Hell (2013) is super fun, but even more fun is Tag (2015), which might be up there in my top favorites of his post-Exposure catalogue, even if the ending does drag it out a little.. (I believe the latter is streaming on Netflix unless they removed it already.)

        Tokyo Tribe (2014) seems to be very divisive, but I really enjoyed it because of how campy and different it felt with the combo of contemporary music and feudal-type characters. It might still be on streaming on Netflix too. One Sono film I haven’t seen mentioned as much is 2015’s The Whispering Star — Again, it’s not his greatest effort, but I can’t think of a Sono that actually isn’t worth watching to be honest. He’s one of the best of the past 2 generations. I ALMOST got to watch Anti-Porno (2016) on my buddy’s Plex server, but he didn’t have any subtitles for it 🙁

        Also, if you liked Exposure a lot and haven’t seen Jodorowsky’s recent stuff (or his older stuff too, actually), then you’d probably really enjoy it — particularly his most recent 2 films. As well as Terrence Malick’s recent tetralogy: Tree of Life (2011) through Song to Song (2017), though they definitely arent as thematically playful as Sono’s film, but more philosophically ominous.

        Sono basically (and expertly) combined the best of both of those directors’ style to make Love Exposure: Malick’s signature photography, pacing, and music, and then Jodorowsky’s absurd surrealism and social commentary in his classic coming of age, fantastical adventure. And there’s clearly some Anime influence, haha, as well as Sono’s singular heavy hand that makes it definitively his.

    • Lal Narendra

      solid list ! great job. I’d try to fit in memories of matsuko too

  • LP

    Mysterious Skin by Gregg Araki

    • Vincenzo Politi


  • oscarseason

    lol Shame? really?

    • Mortimer

      What’s wrong with ‘Shame’ ?

      • oscarseason

        It’s just a sex addiction movie that isn’t particularly insightful or emotional

        • Ricardo Correia

          I mean he doesn’t give any solutions, nor does it try, but gives so many details about that problem and asks so many questions thatot is very powerful
          Really well acted and directed, although a bit cliche in some points

  • Camilo

    No “Amour”?

    • lamarkeith

      I thought about Amour at first as well, but quickly remembered how incredibly isolated Haneke’s style is — even though the situation of the film is highly emotional, it’s presented in such a stone-faced manner that the emotion is held back from affecting the viewer (at least, personally speaking). That’s the impression I’ve gotten from nearly all of Haneke’s films, especially in how he frames the characters and rooms — a forced detachment. It’s a recurring motif in his work ever since the late 80s. (And dear god the last 30 or so minutes of The Seventh Continent the most raw form of that style — so thankful he refined it a bit more later on, ha.)

      I will say that the one Haneke film that actually broke through that emotional block was Code Unknown (also my favorite, coincidentally), and I’d actually should’ve included it on the list in my other comment. Unsurprisingly, it’s also shot very differently than most of his others: lots of invasive close-ups during meaningful dialogue, and even some forward movement towards characters in distress or tears, rather than static shots of their struggle.

      But you and others could’ve wept over Amour and I would understand, haha. Just saying how I received it and his other work 🙂

      • Camilo

        Good points, I agree about Haneke’s detached style. I just think that usually, Haneke’s films are intelectually challenging, but Amour is the only one of the ones I’ve seen (I haven’t seen Code Unknown though) that was also challenging on an emotional level, and in what way.

        • lamarkeith

          Yeah I can understand it being emotionally challenging, especially if you’ve seen loved ones go through that firsthand (which I, along with millions of others, have). I didn’t feel any direct emotion until a couple parts in the 3rd act where she’s deep in the woods — and that response was solely due to memories of my grandparents when they acted the same way.

          I guess my non-emotional response to the film was because I watched it as he intended his others, typically focusing on different social scenarios involving violence, to be watched — a Brechtian paradox where the film is essentially pointless, but forcing that truth on the audience is also the point. He’s written a lot about his philosophy and what his films represent, and he clearly takes a lot from Brecht’s philosophy by believing that isolating the audience even in the most violent or emotional situations forces them to disconnect with the characters and think critically (or theoretically) about what’s in front of them. Only this time, with Amour, instead of overt, senseless violence, it’s dealing in death, loss, and love. I think it was an interesting (and much needed) thematic change from him, and his identical treatment towards the new subject matter is quite provocative.

          But you should definitely check out his other work though. A few of his films from get a lot of publicity because of the 2 Palmes, a Regard, and another high win I can’t remember at the moment — not to mention the controversial Funny Games and the redux — though his less-recognized works shouldn’t be overlooked, because some of them are just as good as the rest.

  • Lal Narendra

    Nice selection !
    Memories of Matsuko can be added in this list, i feel !