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The 25 Best Movies of the 21st Century (So Far)

26 June 2017 | Features, Film Lists | by Shane Scott-Travis


So far the 21st century has been an exciting, variable, and unpredictable period for cinema. While we’ve been seeing less and less movies being shot on 35mm in favor of now ubiquitous and widely accessible digital formats, the following list doesn’t really delve into these trends and it also eschews the gimmicks and populist movements that have been dominating multiplexes as of late (3-D everything holds no footing here and there’s an absence of the enjoyable but often tedious Marvel movies, and while I love Harry Potter and Middle Earth, too, those films can be read about on another list).

The films on this list show a wide-ranging assortment which includes auteur-driven films, influential movies, astonishing international fare, a few blockbusters, plentiful arthouse gems, genre films, and many magnificent female-led projects, too (that’s truly been one of this century’s best progressions), each of which represent the very best of the cinematic artform.

PLEASE NOTE: While listing a mere 25 films means that many worthwhile films and filmmakers had to be left by the wayside, there is a lengthy honorable mentions section at the end of the list.Additionally, the following list does NOT include non-fiction films. A best documentaries list will be forthcoming.

And now, with all that said, here are the best films the 21st century has seen so far. Enjoy!


25. Caché (2005)


Caché, the eighth film from Michael Haneke (and by the way, both 2009’s The White Ribbon and 2012’s Amour also rank with the century’s finest) uses surveillance and voyeurism as mechanisms for anxiety and suspense. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) Laurent are the middle-aged upper-class French couple under attack by unseen forces out to intimidate them.

As Caché unfolds and the Parisian family at its center weather the storm, a superbly crafted and at times extremely upsetting psychological endurance test results, and one that salts the wounds of Western contempt for the Muslim world as the unseen stalker in the Laurent’s lives may well be an abused figure from Georges past. Or is it? Haneke leaves ample clues for the viewer but he obscures them, too. It’s rare that a film takes an almost hostile attitude towards the audience by manipulating, provoking, teasing, and then revealing so little.

The plot becomes riddled with ambiguities and bourgeois guilt mid the dismay of modern identity. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s even harder to forget, and ranks among very Haneke’s finest works.


24. Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)


Eve (Tilda Swinton) is one part of an incurably cool vampire couple whose husband, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is having self-harming thoughts in Jim Jarmusch’s chic shocker, Only Lovers Left Alive.

Tough-as-nails and fiercely romantic, this vampire film is full of leitmotifs involving fear, exhilaration, alienation, isolation, creativity, art, music, literature, life, and death. Its mixture of classic Gothic sensibilities, jets of blood, moments of mortal fear, piercingly sad genuflections, and painfully poignant ruminations on unending love are immensely atmospheric and all but impossible to shake.

As ever, Jarmusch displays a rather outré appetite for beauty in desolation and this tugs sweetly at the film’s terrified suggestion of fractured, disconnected lives, making for a kinetic experiment.

More visual than it is verbal, this elegiac and eerie film displays, amongst other things, the wraithlike dissolution of Detroit, the unearthly otherness of Tangier and many amusing and macabre tableaus of the undead, their uncanny mores and their outlandish dwellings. Only Lovers Left Alive is a visual spree detailing the haunting harmony of ageless sweethearts in perpetual midnight.


23. Upstream Color (2013)


Shane Carruth’s inspired sci-fi follow-up to 2004’s Primer (itself a pocket-sized pearl), Upstream Color, is an otherworldly experience that will make the right kind of adventurous audience absolutely ecstatic and frequently fighting tears of joy and wonder when not wholly hypnotized by its visual versification and bold narrative.

On the surface Upstream Color might sound peculiar and unnecessary as its premise could potentially be mistaken for pretentious experimental odds and ends, but truthfully it works best, perhaps, as a bridge between Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and early Terrence Malick, in the best possible way.

Amy Seimetz shines as Alex, our put-upon protagonist who finds herself brainwashed into emptying her bank account by a thief (Thiago Martins) who uses a combination of drugs, parasites, and bizarre hypnogogic neuro-linguistic-type programming to dupe her. Alex eventually regains herself and learns she’s not the only one who has been manipulated in this way to similar dubious ends.

Drawn to Jeff (played by Carruth), the two are similarly uncertain of what they lost through their mind-meddling ordeal but, as their lives spiral and entwine, the film, like an amorous Möbius strip, outshines itself, and its heart reaches a hard fought and rather miraculous crescendo.

The artistry on hand is wondrous, with sequences of such aching, ingenious elegance I really wonder how Carruth even dreamt it all up, for it really is the stuff of dreams. Upstream Color ranks high as one of the most transformative and spellbinding cinematic experiences you’re likely to have. Only Carruth’s second film and already he has a pièce de résistance.


22. Zodiac (2007)


David Fincher’s Zodiac, arguably his first real masterpiece, confounds audience expectation by presenting a tale utterly lacking closure, and yet is still incredibly gripping throughout.

Based on the true story of the ill-famed serial killer and the protracted manhunt he roused that ultimately lead nowhere, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a San Francisco Chronicle political cartoonist––upon whom’s non-fiction book of the same name the film is based––who may just have figured out a way to crack the encrypted letters that the Zodiac has been taunting police and media with, pertaining to his past and future crimes.

Gyllenhaal is mesmerizing as Graysmith, and leads a strong ensemble cast that includes Robert Downey Jr. as crime reporter Paul Avery and Mark Ruffalo as SFPD Inspector David Toschi (also in the A-list cast are Brian Cox, Elias Koteas and Chloë Sevigny).

For all its shaggy-dog digressions, and misleads, Fincher shows an amazing amount of stylish restraint in what adds up to a startling, discomfiting, and troubling tour de force.


21. Lost in Translation (2003)

Lost in Translation

“Melancholy is a topic I’m interested in more than something I deeply feel,” said Sofia Coppola during her press junket back in 2003 for her breakthrough picture, Lost in Translation, adding: “There is indeed some form of melancholy in me, but I’m not the kind of girl who spends her afternoon looking out the window with a sad gaze.”

Lost in Translation is a film about mondaine ennui and alienation, and it netted Coppola a richly deserved Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Having grown up on film sets––is there anyone out there who doesn’t know that her pop is Francis Ford Coppola?––maybe it isn’t such a shocker that Coppola’s budding auteur status is well founded for such a gifted writer-director.

Lost in Translation’s jetlagged kindred spirits are a conflicted newlywed named Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and an aging international movie star Bob Harris (Bill Murray), who together navigate the excited, feverish, and frequently surreal landscape of contemporary Japan.

Their shared stretch in the Land of the Rising Sun is punctuated with platonic explorations including meals, sightseeing, intimate conversation, and the requisite karaoke occurrence. And just when has the delicious fuzz of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s anti-involvement anthem “Just Like Honey” been used so effectively and dismally cool?


20. A History of Violence (2005)


Canadian iconoclast David Cronenberg tackles and takes apart violence, human nature, and the valued American mythology around self-reinvention in this masterful and messy psychological thriller, that’s also one of the best films of the 2000s, hands down.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a small-town family man who runs a diner and who proves startlingly efficient at deadly force when two sadistic thugs (Greg Bryk and Stephen McHattie) turn up at his eatery looking for trouble.

His lethal reprisal suggests a secretive past; his loving wife Edie (Maria Bello), his teenage son Jack (Ashton Holmes), and his daughter Sarah (Heidi Hayes) suddenly see him with new eyes; and there is unwanted attention from the national news media––and from a formidable Philadelphia gangster, Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris), with one hell of an ax to grind.

Cronenberg’s most universally-acclaimed film, A History of Violence also received Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay (Josh Olson) and Best Supporting Actor (William Hurt)––and truthfully it deserved plenty more.


19. A Field in England (2013)

A Field In England

Blurring the lines between dream and reality is a right-hand aspiration for Ben Wheatley, and his fourth feature, the incomparable A Field in England, exemplifies this to the nth degree.

A black comedy masquerading as an arthouse horror film set in mid-17th century England, it’s a movie that sobs and squirms like the bastard child of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) and Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), but even those comparisons don’t do the film much justice. It’s so much more than either of those films but you need to start somewhere if you’re to compare such a singular and startling film as this.

Amy Jump outdoes herself with a literate and completely corrupt screenplay that follows Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith) as he absconds from a demonic alchemist named O’Neill (Michael Smiley) amidst a bloody English Civil War battle. Cursed and accompanied by a trio of deserters this ill-starred crew, high on psilocybin mushrooms, are soon at the mercy of O’Neill.

Cinematographer Laurie Rose shoots a monochrome world of creepy close-ups and other odd and ominous tricks as the trippy pastoral mise en scène mutates into a Grand Guignol chamber of horrors. It’s an inspired, utterly loopy, psychotropic Möbius strip that embraces moral ambiguity, resists tidy resolutions, and is more lively and enjoyable than it perhaps ought to be. It’s also the perfect midnight movie if you’re brave enough to visit it.


18. Fish Tank (2009)


English filmmaker Andrea Arnold (Red Road, American Honey) has a terrific track record of vibrant, uncompromising and wonderfully realized films, but perhaps none are as disquieting, emotionally rich and utterly raw as Fish Tank. Here writer-director Arnold proves an astonishing talent in a story which, in just a few words, tells of fifteen-year-old Mia’s (Katie Jarvis, genius) fragile world turning on its ear when her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing) brings home a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender).

Fish Tank, arguably Arnold’s best film to date, is a youth-in-trouble masterpiece that is clearly and miraculously demonstrative of Arnold’s keen, clear, and uncanny observations of working-class realism; a bleak and melancholy milieu shared by the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, Arnold’s spiritual forebears.

An incredibly muscular film on every level––Arnold’s characters especially feel energized and authentic, and you want nothing but the best for them––with a sharp cinéma-vérité vibe, a self-improvised spirit that would make Cassavetes cheer, and an elusive and expansive feeling of innovation and fatalism that puts the film into the upper echelon of world cinema. So few films are this staggeringly sublime and intensely realized. Easily one of the best films of the 21st Century by a visionary and formative filmmaker.



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  • Teitur Guðmundarson

    Why tf is City of God neither on the list nor the honorable mentions. Are you fucked in the head?

    • Gilles Ello

      It’s very derivative of Goodfellas, anyone who doesn’t think so is definitely fucked in the head.

  • Deepesh

    I would rank Cache #1.
    2. The Turin Horse
    3. In the Mood For Love
    4. There Will Be Blood
    5. Son of Saul

    Once Upon a Time In Anatolia, Tabu, Hero, A Prophet, Martyrs, Confessions, Post Mortem, El Aura, Oldboy, Holy Motors to name few.

  • Mach Mer

    Holy Motors, The Great Beauty, Shame, City of God, Oldboy, El Abrazo de La Serpiente, ad infinitum

  • bd

    Half of this list is commendable, while the other half is laughable. The most disappointing aspect though is the lack of films from the non-Western parts of the world, as well as so many other films that are leagues ahead of most things on this list.

    • Would you care to give us an example, recommendation?

      Would you like to expose your taste so that we can judge you, as you have done with the writer of this list?

    • Felmmando

      Clearly the #1 pick would have been non-Western if the author didn’t have a Eurocentric bias.

  • Hal Jordan

    Mostly movies in honorable mention are better than the movies on the main list.

    • Gilles Ello


  • colonelkurtz

    I think you need to watch more foreign films.

    • Gilles Ello

      Only 13 of the 25 are American. Considering America/Hollywood dominate the industry what did you expect?

    • Normand Lamour

      I think you need to watch more alien movies.

  • Gilles Ello

    Great list! Definitely one of the best things Taste of Cinema has published in quite some time. These are all amazing movies!!

    • Mortimer

      Carol is missing on this list and it’s very surprising because it was his favorite film of 2015 and now isn’t even in honorable mentions ? Very disappointing. It’s better movie than I’m Not There or Far From Heaven.

      • shane scott-travis

        I’m a huge Todd Haynes fan. I’m Not There is his masterpiece (along with Safe).

        Honestly, didn’t expect this from Mortimer (whoever that is).

        • Mortimer

          But please, explain to me – Carol your No.1 movie on the “Best movies of 2015” list and The Revenant is twenty-something. And here, The Revenant is mentioned in honorable mentions and Carol not. You know, that’s some big, drastic change of opinion. It doesn’t make sense.
          Btw, I’m regular user here and commented on your lists many times because you’re one of the best writers on ToC. That’s one reason more why this list (read – no Carol) is very disappointing for me.

          • shane scott-travis

            I don’t owe you any explanation but I’ll humour you. I love Todd Haynes (my forthcoming ranking of his filmography and my Pulling Focus column devoted to Safe testify to this, as does my affection for Carol).
            Of his work I prefer I’m Not There (his masterpiece), Safe, etc.,. to Carol, but it’s really just apples and oranges.
            In this list I didn’t want to list more than a couple by any one director to avoid repetition and redundancy. Rather than list 3 of Haynes films I narrowed it to 2 and allowed space for other filmmakers such as Iñárritu.
            My criteria here wasn’t just personal preference, among other things it was technical skill, cultural impact, aesthetics, longevity, etc.,.
            You’re welcome to make your own lists of course, and formulate your own opinions. Hopefully they change and fluctuate as your understanding of cinema grows. Consider contributing your own writing here, and don’t be so quick to make assumptions or display entitlement. I appreciate you reading my work and having some familiarity and I urge you to peruse my Pulling Focus column (under the ‘Reviews’ tab if you want more insights into my favourite filmmakers).

          • Gilles Ello

            Very gracious of you to answer him. I wouldn’t have.

          • Mortimer

            Oh please,
            you really don’t need to play watchdog (with some moral superiority) here all the time. Whenever someone here criticize his list or some of his choices you almost always attack that person in a very aggressive manner, calling them names. It looks ridiculous. You offended user ‘Amazing Amy’ without any reason a month ago, not to mention a few others.

            As I said above, Shane is one of my favorite writers on this site and generally, I always agree with his lists and taste in movies but today I didn’t – so what ? I just asked him a legitimate question. He responded me and it’s Ok. No bad words, no quarrel, nothing. You know, people here can ask questions to clarify something, it’s a freedom of speech.

            And seriously calm down.

          • Gilles Ello

            Calmer than you are. 😉

          • Mortimer

            Of course you don’t owe me any explanation, I just asked honest question because compared to your previous lists some ranking here didn’t make much sense. OK, I understand your decision not to include more films of the same director for list such as this.
            Btw, I already wrote a few lists on this site and you probably enjoyed them (I know Gilles was a fan) and, yes I like your Pulling Focus series (I asked you once if you can do Antonioni retrospective there).
            No problem, I’m waiting for your new Todd Haynes list ( ranking probably won’t be in my taste but what can I do; I’ll respect your opinion).

          • shane scott-travis

            Cool. I’ll check out your articles. Cheers.

  • With the exception of A Field in England (which I haven’t seen), I can stand by this list as I’m happy that it feature my all-time favorite film in Lost in Translation and include another favorite in Morvern Callar.

    • Vincenzo Politi

      You MUST see A Field in England. Like, right now. Because I say so.

      • YES SIR!

        • Vincenzo Politi

          LOL! 🙂 Let me know what you think of it…

    • The Tremendous

      This the first time I see another person who says that Lost in Translation is their favourite film. I everything about it.

  • Matthew Sutton

    This is a solid list though there certainly must be more Japanese, Chinese, or Korean films that would merit a mention.

  • This page is so obsessed with ‘Under the skin’ and this is by far, one of the shittiest list i have ever seen!
    Make a list of 100 best movies of the 21st century and still you will get it all wrong, i tell you.

    • Mortimer

      Under the Skin deserves place on list like this but at the same time, yeah it’s incredibly overrated on this site.

    • Gilles Ello

      Holy shit are you insufferable

    • Gilles Ello

      Wow. You must have terrible taste in film. Sucks to be you.

      • Thanks, I will take that as a compliment. This page has started its downfall when they hired new kids to make the lists. I didn’t say Under the skin was bad. But, i can easity put 50 films from the last 17 years before this. Prove me wrong.

  • Andrey Koshmar

    Dogville and Caché – No. 1 and 2.

  • Mortimer

    You forgot Carol ? It was by far your favorite movie of 2015 and now suddenly isn’t even in honorable mentions ?

    • Gilles Ello

      Hey Mort,
      Please provide your 25 picks so I can tear them apart. Thanks!

      • Mortimer

        Enjoy my list Gilles (DTrain). And please, tear them apart, it would be a special honor to me if you do this, I always respect your opinion on this site 😀 Thanks in advance !

        01. There Will Be Blood
        02. Mulholland Drive
        03. The Tree of Life
        04. The Master
        05. A Separation
        06. Children of Men
        07. Carol
        08. No Country For Old Men
        09. Inside Llewyn Davis
        10. The White Ribbon
        11. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
        12. Oldboy
        13. Her
        13. The Social Network
        14. Lost in Translation
        15. Pan’s Labyrinth
        16. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
        17. The Lives of Others
        18. 12 Years a Slave
        19. Holy Motors
        20. Black Swan
        21. Cache
        22. Talk to Her
        23. Zodiac
        24. Under the Skin
        25. Amores Perros

        • shane scott-travis

          I was surprised that the NYT list didn’t include Children of Men.

          • Mortimer

            I was surprised by many things in NYT list 🙂 Especially their including of Million Dollar Baby. While it’s a nice movie it’s not even best Eastwood’s entry in this century in my opinion (that honor goes to Mystic River). And also – no place Mulholland Drive, Children of Men, No Country for Old Men etc but 40 Year Old Virgin is there ? Eh…
            And I think Munich and The Hurt Locker also didn’t belong there.

  • Ricardo Correia

    Synecdoche is the best imho

  • Kosta Jovanovic

    This list is interesting, while all movies I’ve seen here have great qualities, some I can hardly see being even close to the top 50 of the century

  • Arnaldo Fernandez

    I can’t believe “Under the Skin” is on the list.

    • Gilles Ello

      It’s a brilliant film. Can’t believe you don’t think so.

      • Lesia Umanets


  • Andreas P.

    Solid list, but with some notable omissions. I would keep about 10-12 films of your list (to be more specific, these would definitely be “Cache”, “Mulholland Dr.”, “Yi Yi”, “There Will Be Blood”, “The Tree Of Life”, “In The Mood For Love”, “Children Of Men”, “Melancholia”, “Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind”, “Lost In Translation”, and maybe a couple more), and replace the other ones with some of the following…

    “A Separation”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “Nebraska”, “Oslo, August 31st”, “El Secreto De Sus Ojos”, “City Of God”, “The Return”, “Four Lions”, “Winter Sleep”, “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”, “The Squid And The Whale”, “La Vie D’Adele”, “The Dark Knight”, “Up”, “Birdman”, “Timbuktu”, “In Bruges”, “Les Triplettes De Belleville”, “4 Months, 3 Weeks And Two Days”, “Spotlight”, and a comedy by the Wright/Pegg duo.

    P.S: In cases like this, it’s better to go 1 movie per director, that’s why I wouldn’t put “The Salesman” or “About Elly” by Mr. Farhadi, too, although all three are equally great movies.

  • How is Lost in Translation so low in the list?

  • Milo Ricketts

    Most of it was fair I would have put There will be blood and No country for old men a little higher

  • Epidii

    Dear Americans, ‘based on’ not ‘based off of’ and please don’t tell me you ‘could care less’. Good day.

  • Epidii

    What, where’s Revenge of the Sith?

  • Pingback: 21世紀の映画上位25作品(途中経過) – ASAuP()

  • John Yu

    I think Avatar should be on the list

    • Gilles Ello

      You better be joking.

  • Pedro Rabaçal

    Finally a list which is not composed only by Hollywood´s movies! 🙂

  • FredGonk2

    Yôjirô Takita’s “Departures” belongs on this list as well — I’d put it number one myself…

  • Roberto

    you forgot the social network, the departed, city of god, almodovovar’s talk to her is also a good choice

    • Gilles Ello

      The Departed is truly one of Scorese’s weakest films. It’s still good but not an exemplar of his work.

  • Milo Ricketts

    There will be blood for no 1

  • Eve Shaw

    OMG I do not agree with any of this. Written by someone with their head up their arse I reckon. There are so many fantastic films not on this list.

  • Ekraj Pandit

    Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)
    Blissfully Yours (2002)
    As I Was Moving Ahead … (2000)
    No Home Movie (2015)
    Like Someone in Love (2012)
    Gleaners and I (2001)
    Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)
    Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
    Tie Xi Qu: West of Tracks (2002)
    The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)
    Platform (2000)
    Uzak (2002)
    The Son (2002)