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 they are, the top 25 movies of the 21st Century (so far):
25. Carol (2015)
Synopsis: Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) spots the beautiful, elegant Carol (Cate Blanchett) perusing the doll displays in a 1950s Manhattan department store. The two women develop a fast bond that becomes a love with complicated consequences.
24. Inception (2010)
Synopsis: Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a thief with the rare ability to enter people’s dreams and steal their secrets from their subconscious. His skill has made him a hot commodity in the world of corporate espionage but has also cost him everything he loves. Cobb gets a chance at redemption when he is offered a seemingly impossible task: Plant an idea in someone’s mind. If he succeeds, it will be the perfect crime, but a dangerous enemy anticipates Cobb’s every move.
23. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Synopsis: The sequel to the Golden Globe-nominated and AFI Award-winning “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” follows the continuing quest of Frodo (Elijah Wood) and the Fellowship to destroy the One Ring. Frodo and Sam (Sean Astin) discover they are being followed by the mysterious Gollum. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), the Elf archer Legolas and Gimli the Dwarf encounter the besieged Rohan kingdom, whose once great King Theoden has fallen under Saruman’s deadly spell.
22. Wall-E (2008)
Synopsis: WALL-E, short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class, is the last robot left on Earth. He spends his days tidying up the planet, one piece of garbage at a time. But during 700 years, WALL-E has developed a personality, and he’s more than a little lonely. Then he spots EVE (Elissa Knight), a sleek and shapely probe sent back to Earth on a scanning mission. Smitten WALL-E embarks on his greatest adventure yet when he follows EVE across the galaxy.
21. Spotlight (2015)
Synopsis: In 2001, editor Marty Baron of The Boston Globe assigns a team of journalists to investigate allegations against John Geoghan, an unfrocked priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys. Led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll and Sacha Pfeiffer interview victims and try to unseal sensitive documents. The reporters make it their mission to provide proof of a cover-up of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.
20. The Lives of Others (2006)
Synopsis: In 1983 East Berlin, dedicated Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), doubting that a famous playwright (Sebastian Koch) is loyal to the Communist Party, receives approval to spy on the man and his actress-lover Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Wiesler becomes unexpectedly sympathetic to the couple, then faces conflicting loyalties when his superior takes a liking to Christa-Maria and orders Wiesler to get the playwright out of the way.
19. Sideways (2004)
Synopsis: Struggling writer and wine enthusiast Miles (Paul Giamatti) takes his engaged friend, Jack (Thomas Haden Church), on a trip to wine country for a last single-guy bonding experience. While Miles wants to relax and enjoy the wine, Jack is in search of a fling before his wedding. Soon Jack is sleeping with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), while her friend Maya (Virginia Madsen) connects with Miles. When Miles lets slip that Jack is getting married, both women are furious, sending the trip into disarray.
18. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Synopsis: As 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) answers questions on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” flashbacks show how he got there. Part of a stable of young thieves after their mother dies, Jamal and his brother, Salim, survive on the streets of Mumbai. Salim finds the life of crime agreeable, but Jamal scrapes by with small jobs until landing a spot on the game show.
17. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Synopsis: With their beloved Andy preparing to leave for college, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), and the rest of the toys find themselves headed for the attic but mistakenly wind up on the curb with the trash. Woody’s quick thinking saves the gang, but all but Woody end up being donated to a day-care center. Unfortunately, the uncontrollable kids do not play nice, so Woody and the gang make plans for a great escape.
16. The Artist (2011)
Synopsis: In the 1920s, actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is a bona fide matinee idol with many adoring fans. While working on his latest film, George finds himself falling in love with an ingenue named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) and, what’s more, it seems Peppy feels the same way. But George is reluctant to cheat on his wife with the beautiful young actress. The growing popularity of sound in movies further separates the potential lovers, as George’s career begins to fade while Peppy’s star rises.
15. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Synopsis: In the 1930s, the Grand Budapest Hotel is a popular European ski resort, presided over by concierge Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Zero, a junior lobby boy, becomes Gustave’s friend and protege. Gustave prides himself on providing first-class service to the hotel’s guests, including satisfying the sexual needs of the many elderly women who stay there. When one of Gustave’s lovers dies mysteriously, Gustave finds himself the recipient of a priceless painting and the chief suspect in her murder.
14. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Synopsis: The future of civilization rests in the fate of the One Ring, which has been lost for centuries. Powerful forces are unrelenting in their search for it. But fate has placed it in the hands of a young Hobbit named Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), who inherits the Ring and steps into legend. A daunting task lies ahead for Frodo when he becomes the Ringbearer – to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged.
13. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Synopsis: While out hunting, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) finds the grisly aftermath of a drug deal. Though he knows better, he cannot resist the cash left behind and takes it with him. The hunter becomes the hunted when a merciless killer named Chigurh (Javier Bardem) picks up his trail. Also looking for Moss is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who reflects on a changing world and a dark secret of his own, as he tries to find and protect Moss.
12. Avatar (2009)
Synopsis: On the lush alien world of Pandora live the Na’vi, beings who appear primitive but are highly evolved. Because the planet’s environment is poisonous, human/Na’vi hybrids, called Avatars, must link to human minds to allow for free movement on Pandora. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed former Marine, becomes mobile again through one such Avatar and falls in love with a Na’vi woman (Zoe Saldana). As a bond with her grows, he is drawn into a battle for the survival of her world.
11. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
Synopsis: In 1944 Spain young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and her ailing mother (Ariadna Gil) arrive at the post of her mother’s new husband (Sergi López), a sadistic army officer who is trying to quell a guerrilla uprising. While exploring an ancient maze, Ofelia encounters the faun Pan, who tells her that she is a legendary lost princess and must complete three dangerous tasks in order to claim immortality.
10. There Will Be Blood (2007)
Synopsis: Silver miner Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) leads a hardscrabble life with his son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier). When he hears about oil oozing from the ground near the Western town of Little Boston, Daniel takes his son on a mission to find their fortune. Daniel makes his lucky strike and becomes a self-made tycoon but, as his fortune grows, he deviates into moral bankruptcy.
9. Spirited Away (2001)
Synopsis: In this animated feature by noted Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, 10-year-old Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and her parents (Takashi Naitô, Yasuko Sawaguchi) stumble upon a seemingly abandoned amusement park. After her mother and father are turned into giant pigs, Chihiro meets the mysterious Haku (Miyu Irino), who explains that the park is a resort for supernatural beings who need a break from their time spent in the earthly realm, and that she must work there to free herself and her parents.
8. A Separation (2011)
Synopsis: When Nader (Payman Maadi), a bank employee, refuses to leave Tehran, his wife, Simin (Leila Hatami) sues for divorce in the hope that she can make a better life for their young daughter abroad. Needing someone to care for his senile father while he’s at work, Nader hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat), a married woman whose chador hides her pregnancy. One day, after becoming angry with Razieh, Nader shoves her, and she has a miscarriage, leading Razieh’s husband to take Nader to court.
7. The Dark Knight (2008)
Synopsis: With the help of allies Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), Batman (Christian Bale) has been able to keep a tight lid on crime in Gotham City. But when a vile young criminal calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) suddenly throws the town into chaos, the caped Crusader begins to tread a fine line between heroism and vigilantism.
6. The Social Network (2010)
Synopsis: In 2003, Harvard undergrad and computer genius Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) begins work on a new concept that eventually turns into the global social network known as Facebook. Six years later, he is one of the youngest billionaires ever, but Zuckerberg finds that his unprecedented success leads to both personal and legal complications when he ends up on the receiving end of two lawsuits, one involving his former friend (Andrew Garfield). Based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires.”
5. Boyhood (2014)
Synopsis: The joys and pitfalls of growing up are seen through the eyes of a child named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his parents (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke) and his sister (Lorelei Linklater). Vignettes, filmed with the same cast over the course of 12 years, capture family meals, road trips, birthday parties, graduations and other important milestones.
4. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Synopsis: Former cinema superhero Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) is mounting an ambitious Broadway production that he hopes will breathe new life into his stagnant career. It’s risky, but he hopes that his creative gamble will prove that he’s a real artist and not just a washed-up movie star. As opening night approaches, a castmate is injured, forcing Riggan to hire an actor (Edward Norton) who is guaranteed to shake things up. Meanwhile, Riggan must deal with his girlfriend, daughter and ex-wife.
3. Gravity (2013)
Synopsis: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission. Her commander is veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), helming his last flight before retirement. Then, during a routine space walk by the pair, disaster strikes: The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Ryan and Matt stranded in deep space with no link to Earth and no hope of rescue. As fear turns to panic, they realize that the only way home may be to venture further into space.
2. 12 Years A Slave (2013)
Synopsis: In the years before the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Subjected to the cruelty of one malevolent owner (Michael Fassbender), he also finds unexpected kindness from another, as he struggles continually to survive and maintain some of his dignity. Then in the 12th year of the disheartening ordeal, a chance meeting with an abolitionist from Canada changes Solomon’s life forever.
1. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Synopsis: The culmination of nearly 10 years’ work and conclusion to Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy based on the timeless J.R.R. Tolkien classic, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” presents the final confrontation between the forces of good and evil fighting for control of the future of Middle-earth. Hobbits Frodo and Sam reach Mordor in their quest to destroy the ‘one ring’, while Aragorn leads the forces of good against Sauron’s evil army at the stone city of Minas Tirith.