Since there are only a few great movies in 21 century thus far, almost one for each year, a brief explanation of the reason of their inclusion in this list will be attempted here. The films are listed temporally by the year they have been released, not by ranking or significance.
Amores perros (2000, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexico)
Amores perros (“Love is betrayal”) is the first chapter in González Iñárritu’s “Trilogy of Death”, succeeded by “21 grams” and “Babel”, three distinct stories connected by the themes of the inequality of classes, lack of trust and betrayal of love, cruelty and violence of humans towards both animals and other humans, showing how humans may live dark or even hideous lives. This deep contextual film is beautifully portrayed in an ambiance of sexual, thrilling and action process, all in a perfect fast and enthralling tempo that ordinary audience will enjoy it the same as the sophisticated ones. In brief, the due to Cinema has been done in this modern classic at the dawn of the new century, perhaps as a message that this art medium has not yet died!
In the mood for love (2000, Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)
From Mexico to Hong Kong, our second great film of this century, in the same year 2000, is also about love, but not on its betrayal, but its secret, innocence and tenderness. The film has an original Chinese title of “the age of blossoms” or “the flowery years”, to convey the fleeting time of youth, beauty and love. This film is also a part of a trilogy, second to the first “Days of being wild” (1991) and “2046” (released in 2004). The film telling the secret cross love affair of a married couple, leaving door to door in a small building, to the surprise of audience, at least the western ones, does not lead to a sexual but platonic love relationship, like two children or young teenagers. Captivating with its classic Chinese, Latino, and English soundtracks, edited well into the shots and fit perfectly to the camera moves, the film elegantly tells this story of unspoken but well expressed love in “secret”. This flowery years’ innocent love that could not be shared with anyone else or even united by the two lovers, leaving behind a sorrow, that only in the Chinese culture could be shared with a hollow in a tree by whisper in the secret and cover it with mud.
Kandahar (2001, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran)
The next film in our list, Kandahar or “Journey to Kandahar”, alternatively known as “The Sun Behind the Moon” released in 2001, is a tale of the rescue of a sister left behind in the war torn Afghanistan, before her plan on committing suicide on the last “solar eclipse” of the millennium. A rare and true documentary film in a narrative context, stunningly colorful, visionary and poetic, leaves the audience with an awe impression of Afghanistan never seen before.
Werckmeister harmonies (2011, Béla Tarr, Hungary)
The film adapted from a 1989 novel “The melancholy of resistance”, is a black-and-white film, of only 39 long and sluggish shots, telling the story of Soviet occupation of Hungary at the end of the Second World War. It also shows the journey among helpless citizens as a dark circus with its star performer, “The Prince” comes to a desolate small town casting an eclipse over their lives. The title refers to the baroque musical theorist “Andreas Werckmeister”, and his harmonic principles in music, that is a metaphor in the film in the search of the utopian harmony for a society, that has never been so for Hungary before or after the war. The film is really a manifesto of reviving Cinema once again as a medium for visionary poetry and while entertaining, being enlightening and conveying ideology and concepts.
Samsara (2011, Ron Fricke, USA)
This film is a documentary celebration of mesmerizing and wonder images from around the word in 25 countries, shot in 70 mm format, by Ron Fricke, originally a cinematographer as a sequel to his earlier “Baraka” in 1992. The film like “Man with a movie camera” is an extraordinary experimentalism on the silver screen, to show the audience the beauty and haunting images all around us in the nature and our cosmopolitan livings, without narratives or even interpretations, leaving all to us for enjoyment and judgment.
Russian Ark (2002, Alexander Sokurov, Russia)
Like Samsara, this film is a celebration of imagery, but within a narrative of tale telling of 300-years of the “Winter Palace” of the Russian State Hermitage Museum. But like Samsara, the film appears documentary-like as the unnamed narrator or the man behind the camera wanders through the palace and time, passing by people over ages like a ghost, and interacting at times, still invisible. The film other than its grand imagery, rarely seen on the screen, has been filmed all in one single long shot of 96 minutes, another rarity in Cinema.
City of God (2002, Fernando Ferreira Meirelles, Brazil)
The film depicts the growth and war between the organized crime in the “Cidade de Deus” or “City of God”, suburbs of Rio de Janiro, between the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1980s. Most of the actors were, in fact, the residents of “Favela”, “Cidade de Deus” and a few other nearby towns. The film is partly based on the true events of organized gangs of the suburb of Rio, during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 in Brazil. Only a few miles away from Rio with its beautiful beaches, nightclubs, parties and all other extravaganzas, the poor children of “City of God” for survival and a better life, succumb first to petty theft then grow into major robberies and finally killings. Part of this organized crime that in the beginning had some Peter Pan’s type of goodwill or social ideology, over time evolve to pure crimes, arms and drugs trafficking, unequal to anywhere else in the world, and still to this date ongoing. The film is quite shocking and put any other gangster organizations on film and in reality as less significant, as crimes in the “City of God” run not by adults, but by the kids!
Oldboy (2003, Park Chan-wook, South Korea)
Oldboy from South Korea, is actually based by the same name Japanese novel, is a mystery, thriller and neo-noir film, the second in “The Vengeance Trilogy”, preceded by “Sympathy of Mr. Vengeance” and followed by “Sympathy of Lady Vengeance”. The film right away put every critic and filmmakers in surprise awe, including “Quentin Tarantino” and many American thriller, action and revenge films in shame. The film has already had an American adaptation or remake by Spike Lee, starring Josh Brolin in 2013. The film according to Roger Ebert is a “powerful film not because of what it depicts, but because of the depths of the human heart which it strips bare”.
The aviator (2004, Martin Scorsese, USA)
This film is the only American narrative film in our short list of the great films of the 21st century thus far, for quite a few reasons. The subject of the film, “Howard Hughes”, an aviation pioneer and filmmaker, and the process of depicting his life story on the screen is quite a drama on its own. Howard Hughes’ involvement in many creative aviation projects and relationship with many Hollywood stars such as Catherine Hepburn and Ava Gardner (also played in this film) and finally his struggles with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) has been himself the subject of several film projects over years. First in 1970’s “Warren Beatty” planned to make such a film and had the same project on his mind until most recently this year, 2016 that finally released “Rules don’t apply” on the life of “Hughes” but with a quite different take than “The aviator”. In 1990 “Beatty” approached “Steven Spielberg” to direct such a film that never materialized, then “Brian De Palma” with acting of “Nichols cage” between 1997 and 1998 failed, so the promise of “Johnny Depp” playing “Hughes”. “Leonardo DiCaprio” who has done his best performance on the screen in this film after dedicating hundreds of hours working to better acting “Hughes” and his OCD, was first supposed to be directed by “Michael Mann”! But the chance fell on “Martin Scorsese” who made quite a different film than his usual gangsters types and in fact better than his rest!
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, Guillermo del Toro Gómez, Mexico)
This fantasy, fairly tale film is unlike other such types and “Harry Potter” kinds, channels between the clean world of fantasy and the dark world of real life full of wars, atrocities and injustice. The story takes place in Spain in 1944, one year before the end of the second world war, and five years after the country’s Civil War, now torn and tortured under the dictatorship of General Franco. The main character, the young “Ofelia” escapes such cruel real world of the time and his falangist stepfather, Captain Vidal, enters the “Pan’s Labyrinth” and interacts with “Faun” creatures. Dreaming of helping her ill pregnant mother and save her to be soon born brother, and stopping the killings of the cruel “Captain Vidal”, “Ofelia” who cannot do so in real world, seeks refuge in the underworld of “Labyrinth” requesting help from its kingdom. While she fails in real life to save his mother and many revolutionary fighters who all die by Captain Vidal, she succeeds to rescue his newborn brother, but at the cost of the loss of her own life. But drops of her blood falling on a staircase opens the altar to the golden throne room of the underworld where the king and the queen welcome their daughter or princess Moanna (or Ofelia) to her kingdom to be “visible only to those who know where to look”!
The Reader (2008, Stephen Daldry, Germany/USA)
“The Reader” is a German-American film based on the same name German novel by “Bernhard Schlink”, directed by the British director, Stephen Daldry, the last film produced by Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack who both died prior to the release of the film. Kate Winslet in her best life career performance, plays Hanna Schmitz who in the late 1950’s while in her 30’s falls in a romantic relationship with a teenager boy, Michael Berg. The first half of the film is a romantic and sexual adventure, between the pair depicted better than “The Graduate” or anything alike. Then on a sudden twist, all the pleasure and happiness, like the life itself, are blasted away and the truth of the darkness and wrong behind the surface, creeps out. Years later Hanna with a few other women, accused of war crimes as guards in the Nazi concentration camp are in trial. Michael who is now a law student attends the hearing as a part of his teaching with his professor and classmates, when he sees Hanna among the defendants. All the other accused claim that Hanna has had a major role in selecting Jewish women for extermination and it has been her to write a report on a church fire. Hanna refuses to provide a handwriting sample to the court, so receives a life sentence, but Michael realizes a life long secret she is hiding that is her illiteracy and that cannot read or write. Since Hanna’s wish is to keep her secret, Michael respects that and she will remain in prison for many years until in 1988 when she receives amnesty, but on the day of release when Michael comes to receive her with flowers, he finds her dead by hanging in her cell! The film unlike many other Nazi’s crime movies, takes us behind the facades to show the victims on both sides of the wrong and darkness, the mass murder of the Jews and the forcing of the ordinary Germans to work in the concentration camps and select the victims for extermination! Such depiction of life beyond the Nazi’s, Jews and wars, with all its ebbs and flows, love and lust, trust and lies, honors and dishonesty, and at the end guilt for all, has rarely this beautifully been shown on the silver screen.
We are many (2014, Amir Amirani, England)
This brave documentary about the “February 2003 global day protest” against initiating war against Iraq, is astonishing and eye opening for everyone around the world. The players are all the people of the world from Africa, Australia, Asia, Europe to North and South America. The largest humans protest in history with up to 30 millions marching in more than 600 cities all around the world on the same day certainly needed to be depicted on the screen. Although such a huge seas of people, famous and unknown at the end failed to stop the hungry war machines, the root of imperialism was seriously shaken, the history was recorded, and the future for war crimes tribunals were founded. The media owned by the war machines, all over the world specially in the western lands, on that day of February 15, 2003 chose not to show this historical moment to their people. But it took more than 10 years for an Iranian/British documentary maker to depict this historical triumph onto a film and show it to the world. The film is tremendously great, perhaps the greatest on this short list, not for being very inventing and technical, but for the courage and dedication to show what needs to be shown. This is a great lesson to all filmmakers, critics, festivals and award agencies that documentaries could not be ignored and that the great films are only narratives. Some of the greatest films of all time are pure documentaries such as “Man with a movie camera” and other greats such as “Battleship of Potemkin” and “Birth of a Nation” are basically documentaries in the format of some narratives. Even in this short list of great films of the 21st century thus far, that is only 12, four of the films are documentaries, “Kandahar”, “Samara”, “Russian Ark”, and “We are Many”. Therefore if no great art work on the screen wants to be missed, documentaries need to be included in the major category as feature films in competition for any awards!