The first decade and a half of the 21st century has brought a lot of changes to the landscape of film. The advancement and sophistication of computers has made realistic computer generated effects a mainstay in both big-budget and small-budget films. The internet and streaming technologies have given big Hollywood new competition in films produced independently and by non-traditional means. We went from purchasing films on yards of tape to plastic disks, and now we can simply upload them to the cloud. Advertisements for films have reached a higher, more ruthless level where generating hype through trailers and teasers is crucial for a film’s commercial success. Movie attendance has fluctuated along with the economy, but that hasn’t stopped films from breaking box office records, including having films gross more than $1 billion on a regular occasion. Finally, as technology has developed, so too has a worldwide appreciation of film. No longer is a film’s commercial success dependent mainly on the North American market. Asian markets especially have become a major source of business for film studios worldwide. Also consider that easier access to film has created an appreciation for films of foreign countries and cultures.
To reflect on all the changes that film has gone through over the past 15 years, we’ve chosen the 100 best films of the 21st century (so far). These are films released in theaters or independently in the years 2001-2015 (the 20th century century ended in the year 2000, not 1999). To create this list, we reviewed several hundred of the best-received films of the last fifteen years. An algorithm was generated to create rankings based on a number of important criterion for all of these films. These criteria include a film’s impact on filmmaking, society, and pop culture. We looked at box office earnings to determine commercial success, and awards nominations and wins to determine critical success. We compared ratings from popular movie websites such as Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic, and IMDB which combine audience and critic opinions. Finally, we included a bit of our own preferences in order to come up with the final ranking of movies you see here. For films that have come out recently, we’ve taken into account the incompleteness of their box office results, critical reviews, and awards nominations/wins by making predictions as best we could based on previous years. For films released earlier during this time period, we took into account the effect of inflation as well as the growth of information technology and the impact this would have on everything from website ratings to number of awards nominations.
Note that we have decided to leave off documentary films. There are plenty of fantastic documentary films that have been released over the last 15 years, some of them among the best films released in a particular year. But the truth is that a documentary is difficult to compare to a traditional film for purposes of ranking when taking into account the criteria mentioned above.
Here are our picks for the 100 best films of the 21st Century (So Far), Part 1 #100 – 76:
100. Mystic River (2003)
Synopsis: When the daughter (Emmy Rossum) of ex-con Jimmy Marcus (Sean Penn) is murdered, two of his childhood friends from the neighborhood are involved. Dave (Tim Robbins), a blue-collar worker, was the last person to see her alive, while Sean (Kevin Bacon), a homicide detective, is heading up the case. As Sean proceeds with his investigation, Jimmy conducts one of his own through neighborhood contacts. Eventually, Jimmy suspects Dave is the culprit and considers taking the law into his own hands.
99. American Splendor (2002)
Synopsis: Underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar, portrayed by Paul Giamatti but also appearing as himself, is the subject of this inventive biopic. Much of the film focuses on the eccentric Pekar’s day-to-day life in Cleveland, particularly his relationship with his patient wife, Joyce Brabner (played by Hope Davis and also appearing as herself). As Pekar’s musings are brought to the screen in this unique and engaging production, the movie playfully incorporates comic book-like panels.
98. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Synopsis: A dark-haired woman (Laura Elena Harring) is left amnesiac after a car crash. She wanders the streets of Los Angeles in a daze before taking refuge in an apartment. There she is discovered by Betty (Naomi Watts), a wholesome Midwestern blonde who has come to the City of Angels seeking fame as an actress. Together, the two attempt to solve the mystery of Rita’s true identity. The story is set in a dream-like Los Angeles, spoilt neither by traffic jams nor smog.
97. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Synopsis: Thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire, the galaxy faces a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order. When a defector named Finn crash-lands on a desert planet, he meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough scavenger whose droid contains a top-secret map. Together, the young duo joins forces with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to make sure the Resistance receives the intelligence concerning the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last of the Jedi Knights.
96. The Fighter (2010)
Synopsis: For Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), boxing is a family affair. His tough-as-nails mother is his manager. His half-brother, Dicky (Christian Bale), once a promising boxer himself, is his very unreliable trainer. Despite Micky’s hard work, he is losing and, when the latest fight nearly kills him, he follows his girlfriend’s advice and splits from the family. Then Micky becomes a contender for the world title and he — and his family — earns a shot at redemption.
95. Brooklyn (2015)
Synopsis: An Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) in 1950s New York falls for a tough Italian plumber (Emory Cohen), but faces temptation from another man (Domhnall Gleeson) when she returns to her homeland for a visit.
94. Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
Synopsis: The lives of Julio and Tenoch, like those of 17-year old boys everywhere, are ruled by raging hormones, intense friendships, and a headlong rush into adulthood. Over the course of a summer, the two best friends, while living out a carefree cross-country escapade with a gorgeous older woman, also find connection with each other, themselves and the world around them.
93. The Master (2012)
Synopsis: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled, boozy drifter struggling with the trauma of World War II and whatever inner demons ruled his life before that. On a fateful night in 1950, Freddie boards a passing boat and meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a religious movement called the Cause. Freddie tries hard to adhere to Dodd’s weird teachings and forms a close bond with his mentor, even as other members of Dodd’s inner circle see him as a threat.
92. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Synopsis: Brash space adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finds himself the quarry of relentless bounty hunters after he steals an orb coveted by Ronan, a powerful villain. To evade Ronan, Quill is forced into an uneasy truce with four disparate misfits: gun-toting Rocket Raccoon, treelike-humanoid Groot, enigmatic Gamora, and vengeance-driven Drax the Destroyer. But when he discovers the orb’s true power and the cosmic threat it poses, Quill must rally his ragtag group to save the universe.
91. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Synopsis: Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) continues his international quest to uncover his true identity. From Russia to Europe to northern Africa to the United States, he must stay one step ahead of those who would capture or kill him before he has a chance to discover the truth.
90. Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)
Synopsis: Long-buried missives from the island reveal the stories of the Japanese troops who fought and died there during World War II. Among them are Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic champion; and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), an idealistic soldier. Though Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) knows he and his men have virtually no chance of survival, he uses his extraordinary military skills to hold off American troops as long as possible.
89. The Babadook (2014)
Synopsis: A troubled widow (Essie Davis) discovers that her son is telling the truth about a monster that entered their home through the pages of a children’s book.
88. Oldboy (2003)
Synopsis: Dae-Su is an obnoxious drunk bailed from the police station yet again by a friend. However, he’s abducted from the street and wakes up in a cell, where he remains for the next 15 years, drugged unconscious when human contact is unavoidable, otherwise with only the television as company. And then, suddenly released, he is invited to track down his jailor with a denouement that is simply stunning
87. Tree of Life (2011)
Synopsis: In this highly philosophical film by acclaimed director Terrence Malick, young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is one of three brothers growing up as part of the O’Brien family in small-town Texas. Jack has a contentious relationship with his father (Brad Pitt), but gets along well with his beautiful mother (Jessica Chastain). As an adult, Jack (Sean Penn) struggles with his past and tries to make sense of his childhood, while also grappling with bigger existential issues.
86. Gone Girl (2014)
Synopsis: In Carthage, Mo., former New York-based writer Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and his glamorous wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) present a portrait of a blissful marriage to the public. However, when Amy goes missing on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick becomes the prime suspect in her disappearance. The resulting police pressure and media frenzy cause the Dunnes’ image of a happy union to crumble, leading to tantalizing questions about who Nick and Amy truly are.
85. Shrek (2001)
Synopsis: Once upon a time, in a far away swamp, there lived an ogre named Shrek (Mike Myers) whose precious solitude is suddenly shattered by an invasion of annoying fairy tale characters. They were all banished from their kingdom by the evil Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow). Determined to save their home — not to mention his — Shrek cuts a deal with Farquaad and sets out to rescue Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz) to be Farquaad’s bride. Rescuing the Princess may be small compared to her deep, dark secret.
84. Casino Royale (2006)
Synopsis: After receiving a license to kill, British Secret Service agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) heads to Madagascar, where he uncovers a link to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a man who finances terrorist organizations. Learning that Le Chiffre plans to raise money in a high-stakes poker game, MI6 sends Bond to play against him, gambling that their newest “00” operative will topple the man’s organization.
83. Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Synopsis: The Hoover family — a man (Greg Kinnear), his wife (Toni Collette), an uncle (Steve Carell), a brother (Paul Dano) and a grandfather (Alan Arkin) — puts the fun back in dysfunctional by piling into a VW bus and heading to California to support a daughter (Abigail Breslin) in her bid to win the Little Miss Sunshine Contest. The sanity of everyone involved is stretched to the limit as the group’s quirks cause epic problems as they travel along their interstate route.
82. The Wrestler (2008)
Synopsis: Aging wrestler Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is long past his prime but still ready and rarin’ to go on the pro-wrestling circuit. After a particularly brutal beating, however, Randy hangs up his tights, pursues a serious relationship with a long-in-the-tooth stripper (Marisa Tomei), and tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood). But he can’t resist the lure of the ring and readies himself for a comeback.
81. The Martian (2015)
Synopsis: When astronauts blast off from the planet Mars, they leave behind Mark Watney (Matt Damon), presumed dead after a fierce storm. With only a meager amount of supplies, the stranded visitor must utilize his wits and spirit to find a way to survive on the hostile planet. Meanwhile, back on Earth, members of NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring him home, while his crewmates hatch their own plan for a daring rescue mission.
80. Django Unchained (2012)
Synopsis: Two years before the Civil War, Django (Jamie Foxx), a slave, finds himself accompanying an unorthodox German bounty hunter named Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) on a mission to capture the viscous Brittle brothers. Their mission successful, Schultz frees Django, and together they hunt the South’s most-wanted criminals. Their travels take them to the infamous plantation of shady Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), where Django’s long-lost wife (Kerry Washington) is still a slave.
79. Hero (2002)
Synopsis: In this visually arresting martial arts epic set in ancient China, an unnamed fighter (Jet Li) is being honored for defeating three of the king’s most dangerous enemies. When Nameless recounts his battles with the assassins — Broken Sword (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk) and Moon (Zhang Ziyi) — the king begins to question some of the details. As Nameless goes on, the king challenges the tales, interjecting his own take on these perhaps suspect version of events.
78. Leviathan (2014)
Synopsis: A Russian fisherman (Alexey Serebryakov) fights back when a corrupt mayor tries to seize possession of his ancestral home.
77. Talk To Her (2002)
Synopsis: Male nurse Benigno (Javier Cámara) becomes infatuated with a complete stranger when he watches dancer Alicia (Leonor Watling) practicing from the anonymity of his apartment. After being injured in a car accident, Alicia is brought to a nearby hospital, where Benigno serendipitously happens to be her caregiver. When wounded bullfighter Lydia (Rosario Flores) is brought into the same ward, her companion, writer Marco (Darío Grandinetti), begins to bond with Benigno.
76. Up in the Air (2009)
Synopsis: An idea from a young, new co-worker (Anna Kendrick) would put an end to the constant travel of corporate downsizer Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), so he takes her on a tour to demonstrate the importance of face-to-face meetings with those they must fire. While mentoring his colleague, he arranges hookups with another frequent-flier (Vera Farmiga), and his developing feelings for the woman prompt him to see others in a new light.