The BBC recently released a list of the “greatest films of the 21st century.” This kind of list immediately raises hackles and heckles all over the place.
Unsurprisingly, a conventional kind of “safe,” respectably middlebrow cinema dominates the top 100.
There are some exceptions. Mulholland Drive, which tops the list, is one of David Lynch’s best films and one of the most devastating explorations of the art of cinema in the medium’s history.
Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning The Act of Killing (number 14), Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (no. 24), and Lars von Trier’s sentimental but effective Melancholia (no. 43) similarly deserve a place. Likewise, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (no. 59), and The Pianist (no. 90), which marked a return to form for legendary director Roman Polanski.
I was perhaps most pleased to see Harmony Korine represented on the list. His delirious Spring Breakers (no. 74) is, I would argue, the best film of the 21st century.
It is certainly far more stimulating, both intellectually and viscerally, than several films that featured higher on the list. This includes pretentious and laboured “indie” films like Boyhood (no. 5) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (no. 21), typical “Oscar” films like The Social Network (no. 27) and There Will Be Blood (no. 3), and flat, unimaginative action films like The Dark Knight (no. 33), Mad Max: Fury Road (no. 19) and Zero Dark Thirty (no. 57).
In comparison to 20th century, pre-digital cinema, the most provocative aspect of 21st century films is in their engagement with and thinking about contemporary economies of spectacle and mass-mediation.
Thus, my 21st century top ten would include:
- Spring Breakers (2012). Korine’s film is a fascinating, libidinous analysis of spectacle in digital culture.
- Kill List (2011). Ben Wheatley’s at times unwatchably brutal nightmare seamlessly combines kitchen sink social realism of the Ken Loach variety, British gangster cinema, and the occult horror genre. This is one of the strangest and most disturbing films I’ve seen.
- The Girl Next Door (2004). This homage to the “smart” teen comedies of the 1980s plays like a virtual remake of Paul Brickman’s Risky Business (1983), with porn substituted for prostitution as the obscene underside of the upper middle class American suburb. A brooding, deeply introspective – and funny – Bildungs-film.
- Shooter (2007). Directed by Antoine Fuqua, this uncompromising revenge film successfully affirms a seductive and mythical vision of rugged American individualism. A suitably paranoid, anti-establishment narrative supports a muscular, hard-boiled lead performance by Mark Wahlberg.
- Old School (2003). Todd Phillips’ frequently hilarious revision of college raunch comedies like Animal House (1978) and H.O.T.S. (1979) significantly revitalised comedy for the 21st century.
- Snowtown (2011) offers a brutal, mean-spirited vision of life in Australia’s destitute suburbs. A superbly low-key film that deserves multiple viewings, Snowtown is arguably the best Australian film of recent years.
- Gamer (2009) is a sleazy, over-the-top study of neoliberal capitalism set in a (near) future obsessed with media spectacle. Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor offer a cynical class critique of sorts – perhaps the only kind possible in the “post-ideological” 21st century.
- Mulholland Drive (2001). Lynch’s surreal vision of the underside of Hollywood’s glamorous screen culture is one of the most beautifully shot and scored films of the 21st century.
- Excision (2012). Richard Bates’ horror film gained notoriety in the US after it was banned from Wal-Mart. It is alternately funny and horrifying and contains some genuinely off-putting sequences.
- Nightcrawler (2014). Buoyed by a star performance from Jake Gyllenhaal as a ghoulish “stringer” who chases accidents and crimes in order to capture gruesome footage to sell to local news networks, Nightcrawler offers the most effective critique of mass-media since Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976).
What else would feature in my list?
The Hunt (2012), a brilliant film by Dogme 95er Thomas Vinterberg, would be near the top, as would Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000). Snowpiercer (2013), Bong Joon Ho’s eco-thriller, and Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) would similarly appear high on the list. Rampart (2011), a true crime neon-noir thriller written by James Ellroy would be in the top 50, as would the “man-boy” comedies Step Brothers (2008) and Role Models (2008), Jim Mickle’s chilling retro thriller about a 1980’s Texan snuff film ring, Cold in July (2014), and the charming and witty teen comedies Mean Girls (2004) and Easy A (2010). Tarantino’s blood ballet, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), and Mike Binder’s hokey but sweet The Upside of Anger (2005) might also make it.
In any case, this kind of project of canon formation rightly raises questions such as “according to whom?” and “so what?”
It is critical to interrogate the motives underpinning any such presentations in the “best of” format, including my own. Aesthetic decisions are, after all, always (by definition) a matter of taste, and “taste” has contributed throughout history to the justification of all kinds of atrocities, colonial and otherwise.
What kinds of power formations are privileged by assertions of canon? It’s perhaps worth remembering the religious connotations of the word…
Of course, within certain aesthetic regimes, films can be objectively compared to the extent that they realise and commit to a form, style, or concept. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), for example, is an excellent film according to the conventions of 1970s and 1980s American horror cinema. It compares favourably with its sequels, and the films of several other horror “franchises.”
It would similarly be difficult to argue that Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) isn’t a superb example of film noir, on the basis of its commitment to exploring an idea and style – that is, the darkness generated through the failing of American optimism in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the atrocities of World War Two. The same could be said for Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) and its post-Vietnam War blood-soaked version of American cynicism.
The decision in the first place regarding which genres, ideas, and milieus to privilege and which to discredit – social realism is, for example, typically privileged over fantasy in middlebrow cultural criticism – is an act of assertion on the part of the critic, and thus reflects broader regimes of social power.
Such canonical lists ultimately reflect little more than the desire of the viewer-critic regarding his or her interactions with cinema.
Therefore you should ask yourself the following questions before buying into someone else’s canon.
Do you hope to be shocked into a heightened state of sensitivity? Do you crave exposure to a new, exotic aesthetic ecology? Do you want cinema that offers sustained and measured conceptual explorations? Or do you, like most of us, merely desire efficient pharmacological reprieve from the brutal exigencies of day to day existence?
Answers to these questions will help you determine your own canon.