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The 10 Most Emotional Movies of The 21st Century

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

5. The Hunt

the hunt

As directly mentioned earlier on the list, The Hunt manages to make Mads Mikkelsen, an actor with an already sinister face, excelling at fully capturing the harrowing natures of various antagonists including the iconic Hannibal Lecter, in which his portrayal surprisingly rivalled that of the great Anthony Hopkins, feel extremely convincing as the gentle kindergarten teacher, Lukas.

The film is perhaps the most terrifying tale on mob mentality. Mikkelsen’s character, Lukas, a hapless teacher was accused of sexually abusing one of his students, a lie emerging from childlike ignorance, a lie that snowballed into extreme proportion, a lie that absolutely ruined him. It’s an extremely emotionally draining experience for the film to set up the world as a tightly knit community which holds Lukas in high regard, showing audiences his friends and family and their bond together before making that same group of people turn on him and absolutely ruin him over the course of the next hour.

Seeing a once gentle and well-loved man slowly deteriorate to a broken shell of his former self, abused both emotionally and physically, makes the whole experience seem much akin to a horror film, considering how ridiculously easy and more importantly, realistic the whole chain of events was.

Though not a horror film in a conventional sense, The Hunt is probably as effective as The Omen in keeping adults away from children, and of course, inciting fear into the hearts of the common man.


4. Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen Brothers have always been known for crafting the most thought-provoking yet hilariously entertaining films, with films like The Big Lebowski and Fargo hilariously satirise well-known crime subgenres. Which is why it came as a pleasant surprise how Inside Llewyn Davis, an intimate character study of a failing folk musician quietly alleviated to one of, if not their best work of all time.

Though the film was a pleasant surprise, it is nowhere near “pleasant”, considering the depressing atmosphere it carries, even the entire film is colour graded with a soft blue hue. The film follows the titular Llewyn Davis as he struggles to make it in the music scene amidst the backdrop of the 60s, a known breakthrough era for musicians. Llewyn Davis is not one of those musicians.

The film depicts his struggle, both externally with financial and peer pressure, and internally, fighting back his realistic and egoistic thoughts. Though the film is similar to other character study films in its depiction of internal and external struggles, what’s different about this film is that unlike other protagonists, Llewyn Davis is not a sympathetic one, in the sense that he is, for the lack of a better word, an asshole.

He’s rude, he’s selfish and he’s egoistic, but despite all of these flaws, there’s something to his character that makes us genuinely care. We forgive his shortcomings and empathize with his situation, we feel the cries behind every haunting song he sings. Maybe we all have a little bit of Llewyn inside of us, an arrogant tortured artist, trudging through the desolate snowscape, begging for some form of validation, from others and ourselves.

This film also goes to show the versatility of the Coen brothers, writer-directors known for their uniquely profound comedies, they still maintain the capability to craft intense crime thrillers such as No Country for Old Men and of course, the lesser known and arguably better, Inside Llewyn Davis.


3. Dancer in the Dark

Dancer In The Dark

Lars von Trier is perhaps the most influential figure in the cinema of the avant-garde, constantly finding innovative ways in telling a unique story. Dancer in the Dark is one salient example of which, being a musical that abandons the whole idea of hopefulness in favour of pessimism, in other words, a depressing musical.

The final instalment of the Golden Hearts trilogy, a trilogy of films exploring, in von Trier’s own words, “good women overwhelmed by a bad world”, Dancer in the Dark follows Selma, masterfully played by Icelandic singer Bjork as she struggles with a troubling son amidst her impending blindness as well as her low income. This description alone would already be enough to suggest an emotional experience, but Dancer in the Dark is so much more than that.

Von Trier’s destructive style of editing, with his penchant for jump cuts packing the film’s actions tightly together, showing only what he deems to be important. This essentially intensifies the emotions, constantly buffeting audiences with beat after depressing beat.

Though Bjork had recently came out in an interview hinting at von Trier’s alleged abuse on set of Dancer in the Dark, it’s no denying that however unethical, the performance that stemmed from her, a musician by trade is absolutely gut-wrenching, with the final song she sang being as emotional as any song sang by Inside Llewyn Davis, fighting back tears and forcing a smile awaiting the unknown.

With that being said, however depressing, Dancer in the Dark is still inherently a musical, and as do any other musical, the film is not entirely free from heartfelt moments of joy, with experimental music numbers on the mundane complete with Bjork’s unique voice providing us with much needed breathing spaces, hinting to us the importance of finding beauty in the little things in life, a mantra held true by Selma all the way until the end despite her predicament.


2. Bleak Night

Bleak Night

Perhaps the most obscure on this list, Bleak Night is a South Korean indie coming-of-age film that depicts the relationship of three best friends.

Though the film feels very lacking and amateurish on a technical standpoint, the story is absolutely phenomenal. The way information is revealed to the audience is done in such a way that’s both innovative and subversive, playing our own perspectives (also a major theme in the film) and ideas surrounding the whole concept of suicide, bullying and conventions of the coming-of-age genre.

Though leaning towards the dangerous alley of melodrama, moments in the film always felt earned and warranted. It is very much a character-driven film, each character has their own distinct personalities and more importantly, distinct weaknesses, cracks amidst their cocky, angst-driven teenage personas.

It is through these cracks that the film explores the idea of friendship, which the film challenges and uses as a tool for emotional response, and of course, more importantly, the aforementioned idea of perspective. The film opens with a bullying, and then, a suicide.

As information is slowly presented to the audience, we learnt that the suicide is not the victim, but the bully, an extremely peculiar piece of information which would of course, draw audiences into the world of the story, and with this bit of information, we analyse the bully’s story arc with greater scrutiny, again with the idea of perspective, with each character, despite all being close friends, having their own unique perspectives on different situations, be it situations regarding themselves or others.

This film is extremely effective in exploring such ideas, reflecting society’s inherently selfish attitude, how we as people generally only look at one another on the surface, disregarding the emotional turmoil building underneath, even if it stemmed from seemingly miniscule things, and it would honestly come as no surprise if your perspective on bullying were to change after seeing this hidden gem.


1. Shame

A brilliant character study of a man addicted to sex but afraid of love, Shame is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.

The film chronicles Brandon, brilliantly played by the fantastic Michael Fassbender, whom throughout the film, we see the extent of his sex addiction, and how depraving and disgusting it is, how completely detached from reality. We see how such a seemingly ridiculous addiction affects his life and people around it. We as the audience are only presented with the effect of his addiction, never the cause, and like other addictions, we view it with scrutiny, the film illustrates all the explicit details of his deviant sexual endeavours.

What’s particularly poetic about Shame however, is the fact that while most other erotic dramas concern themselves far too much in illustrating sex, resulting in filmmaking void of intent, resulting in well-made pornographies and mediocre films, the fact is that Shame manages to impact audiences on a deep emotional level, despite being an erotic film.

Every detail feels extremely meticulous, nothing short of the brilliant mind which brought films like Hunger and 12 Years a Slave to the world with so much powerful subtext hidden behind every shot and every word, it’s almost as if if we could hear the thoughts of the characters.

Fassbender’s Brandon is sublime. Through his performance, we see the cracks in his stable façade, the cracks which are in fact, not reflecting his banal desires, but rather, his urge to break free. He wants to change, deep down. He knows fully well as we do or probably more than he has to break free from this aberrant private life he’s leading, but as with any other addiction, nothing is ever that simple.

It’s no easy feat to bring audiences on the verge of tears, that calls for an extremely moving character study piece, and considering the fact that Shame’s central character is a man addicted to sex, a man whose only real apparent conflict is with himself and finding true love, a man who constantly has sex with beautiful woman, a man that’s otherwise extremely relatable and an otherwise sympathetic individual.

A film able to not only breathe life to such a complex character but invoke a deep emotional response truly speaks wonders for its reputation, and considering the fact that Steve McQueen has only directed 3 features and 1 prior to this, and all of which rose to overwhelmingly critical acclaim, it’s riveting to anticipate what projects he would undertake in the near future.

Author Bio: Zach Wee is a film student from Singapore. Apart from being an aspiring filmmakerr, Zach has a strong passion for cinema and manages the website of his school’s film club, where he edits and also submits weekly film reviews.



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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 !