The Universally Objective BEST Article on Film and List Making

Milos Stehlik, Facets Founder and Artistic Director, discusses the futility and necessity of “Best Films” lists.

Recently, The New York Times ran a long feature on the “25 Best films of the 21st century,” written by its two main film critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, arguably the two most influential critics working today by virtue of their platform. It is an interesting list, but not without controversy, since one could certainly argue against some of their choices and even more so, their omissions.

Here is their list:

  1. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  2. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
  3. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood)
  4. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke)
  5. Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu)
  6. Yi Yi (Edward Yang)
  7. Inside Out (Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen)
  8. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
  9. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
  10. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
  11. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen)
  12. Timbuktu (Abderrhamane Sisako)
  13. In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman)
  14. L’Enfant (The Child) (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)
  15. White Material (Claire Denis)
  16. Munich (Steven Spielberg)
  17. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
  18. Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda)
  19. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
  20. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
  21. Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reinhardt)
  22. I’m Not There (Todd Haynes)
  23. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas)
  24. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry)
  25. 40-Year Old Virgin (Judd Apatow)

Subjectivity in the “Best” 

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Understandably, all lists are subjective, and are a kind of pointless exercise. Varying taste across time and cultures makes it impossible to formulate a “best” list of anything. However, off the top of my head, I cannot help but query: Where is Bela Tarr? Where is the masterpiece Turin Horse? Of course, I can go on and on, but instead, I will provide only a short list of prominent films I feel were improperly omitted:

  1. Tree of Life (Terence Malick)
  2. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami)
  3. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Crisit Mungiu)
  4. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, or one of the other 5 Godard films made after 2000, like In Praise of Love or Notre Musique)
  5. Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer)
  6. House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, certainly more fun than Mad Max: Fury Road)
  7. Heart of a Dog (Laurie Anderson)
  8. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai)

So Where Do You Stand? 

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We are asking our readers to tell us which films they think are deserving of the “Best 25 films of the 21st century.” Send us your list as well as reasons for your choices to rentals@facets.org.

We will be publishing submissions, as well as sharing them with both A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis.

Here are three lists sent in by Facets Members:

George T’s Best Films of the 21st Century

  1. 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu)
  2. 2046 (Wong Kar-wai)
  3. The Edge of Heaven (Fatih Akin)
  4. The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda)
  5. Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)
  6. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
  7. Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
  8. In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman)
  9. Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook)
  10. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
  11. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
  12. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)
  13. No Country for Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)
  14. Paterson (Jim Jarmusch)
  15. The Pianist (Roman Polanski)
  16. Poetry (Lee Chang-dong)
  17. A Prophet (Jacques Audiard)
  18. Revanche (Götz Spielmann)
  19. The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñárritu)
  20. Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
  21. Timbuktu (Abderrahmane Sissako)
  22. Touch of Sin (Jia Zhang-ke)
  23. Two Days, One Night (Dardenne Bros.)
  24. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
  25. Zodiac (David Fincher)

Ricardo O’s Best Films of the 21st Century

  1. Hard to Be a God (Aleksei German)
  2. The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer)
  3. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron)
  4. Oldboy (Park Chan-wook)
  5. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)
  6. A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater)
  7. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee)
  8. No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen)
  9. Miss Bala (Oscar Naranjo)
  10. Werckmeister Harmonies (Bela Tarr)
  11. Spirited Away (Hayao Miyazaki)
  12. Antichrist (Lars von Trier)
  13. Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
  14. Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho)
  15. Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)
  16. Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal)
  17. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)
  18. The Road (John Hillcoat)
  19. The Incredibles (Brad Bird)
  20. Eastern Promises (David Cronenberg)
  21. Skyfall (Sam Mendes)
  22. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
  23. City of God (Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund)
  24. Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
  25. Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney)

A note from Ricardo: I’ve argued that making “good movies” is relatively easy nowadays. In my (admittedly naive) mind, there’s too much expertise and specialization to help 90% of the films coming into the market to be at least passable, some incredibly egregious exceptions notwithstanding. 

Maybe contrary to this opinion, the rise of the golden age of television has sort of undercut some of the expectations that films used to have. Talking head dialogue scenes come to mind. For all their sound and fury, the Marvel films are quite the cinematic feast they could be, especially when the entire film falls flat on its face any time any kind of extended dialogue and exposition is required.

My list is built with this in mind, namely [I chose] films that try to “do something new.” This means wildly different things from film to film, but I would say that all these films still try to take the craft of making movies as a very serious endeavor. “Show don’t tell” being that old maxim to which most filmmakers should constantly be appealing to.

Tim L’s Best Films of the 21st Century

  1. Yi Yi (Edward Yang)
  2. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  3. Film Socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard)
  4. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr)
  5. Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
  6. Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)
  7. Blissfully Yours (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
  8. Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov)
  9. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
  10. Cache (Michael Haneke)

A note from Tim: I could expand at length on this list, but it probably behooves me to wrap this up. If anything, I’ve learned that I need to watch more films by women, and more films from countries beyond the USA, Japan, and Korea. 

Understanding the Future of Film

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Naturally, the list by The New York Times has sparked a lot of debate and discussion, such as this piece from The Atlantic‘s Conor Friedersdorf, but a larger question still looms as a result of these conversations: Where, exactly, is cinema headed?

I think one of the instructive observations one can make from our Member’s lists, as well as the Dargis/Scott list, is how the high/low art barriers that existed between so-called “art” cinema and commercial film have eroded. Twenty or thirty years ago, there was the canon of Fellini-Bergman-Bunuel and then there was mainstream film that we saw for fun.

Today, these boundaries seem to have merged as pure genre films that are appreciated for their technique. The need for a “humanistic” core in films – something dominant for so many filmmakers since Italian Neorealism – seems to be less urgent than action or a strong narrative (see Eastern PromisesThe RoadSicario).

Experimentation with narrative – so much a part of many of the films of the ’60s and ’70s (think Antonioni, Godard, Bertolucci, Casavettes) – is much less prevalent with the singular exceptions of filmmakers like Godard, Bela Tarr and Sokurov (Film SocialismeGoodbye to LanguageWerckmeister HarmoniesTurin HorseRussian Ark).

Also interesting is how, despite the enormous growth in documentary filmmaking, there are so few documentaries on any of these lists. One factor here is the U.S.-centricity of the documentary. So many documentaries made outside the U.S., many of which are less character-driven, get very little to no traction here.

Overall, it is important to look towards these lists as indicators of the direction of film. What is easily seen are films which, currently, are to be preserved and pivotal for the future, and what is not seen, what is hidden in these lists, are films which are, or may be, forgotten.


Author: Facets Founder, Artistic Director and Worldview film critic, Milos Stehlik takes us on a tour of film history each week with our Member newsletter. Get advanced access by becoming a Facets Member today!

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