This has been a trying year for movies, with the closing of cinemas in the pandemic, and a pivot by many filmmakers and stars to streaming service projects. As we wait for the boom times to return once a Covid vaccine establish herd immunity and movie theaters fill again, it seemed worthwhile to reflect on what a great first quarter the 21st century has been for movies. Deadline’s Pete Hammond, Todd McCarthy, Joe Utichi and Mike Fleming Jr accepted the challenge to choose the most influential so far.
This is an impossible task. We’ve limited ourselves to live-action films and leaned into pictures that allowed for discussion of the output of directors. So, while 2007’s Paranormal Activity isn’t here despite hatching a slew of low-cost, high-gross found-footage and genre movies, you will find here Get Out, the Best Picture Oscar-nominated culmination of Jason Blum’s genre dynasty formula that began with Paranormal Activity (even though he was tossed off the Paramount lot shortly after). We struggled with the films of Christopher Nolan and other filmmakers, and pictures starring great actors like Denzel Washington, whose work this century towers above just about any other actor in Man on Fire, Fences and other films.
Despite excluding films we love — Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is another groundbreaker — we still failed the Sophie’s Choice test here: If you are determined to go beyond your New Year’s countdown and actually number the films below…well, we went over by two. But we sure tried.
There was certainly nothing terribly original on the surface about another DC comic book movie. From Superman to Batman to Justice League to Aquaman we have seen numerous iterations of the properties. We’ve seen the arch villain Joker played over the years by actors from Cesar Romero to Jack Nicholson, Jared Leto to Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, proving the character is turning out to be the Hamlet of its time for actors. But Todd Phillips had an idea: an origin story of Joker aka Arthur in a movie that transcended its genre and became a darkly hypnotic and chilling psychological profile of an emerging killer. And in the hands of his chosen star Joaquin Phoenix, it was not only fascinating to watch but also a combination of inspirations that went beyond Batman and into Taxi Driver and King of Comedy territory. The origins of this Joker went deep into the human mind, so much that it courted pre-release controversy for fear its depiction of anarchy might spark violence. Luckily that didn’t happen; tying the Batman villain mythology to a troubled character instead became an undeniable box office smash. The film earned over $1 billion — the first and only R-rated film to do that — and made a remarkable run through awards season beginning with an unexpected Golden Lion at Venice, on to 11 Oscar nominations including Best Picture. The Best Actor Oscar was awarded to Phoenix, putting his own indelible stamp on a movie that emerged from a comic book to become a frightening comment on our own dark times, proving the genre from which it came is capable of being taken very seriously indeed. – PH
In the past decade the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been making big strides to go global and embrace diversity, increasing international membership to much larger numbers than ever before in the organization’s long history. But it took a South Korean film phenomenon to perhaps seal the idea that Oscar is a man of the world now. Bong Joon Ho represents a major force in Korean cinema as well as around the globe, but beginning in Cannes 2019 he broke through to a new level with Parasite, a story about haves and have nots, about what makes a family, and about the divides in our lives that are universal no matter where you live. Bong’s wildly acclaimed film revolving around a poor family who find ways to each become employees of a wealthy family and thereby infiltrate their household followed a Palme d’Or at Cannes by barreling through awards season. That began at Telluride and by the time it was over, Parasite made history by becoming the only other film since the Palme d’Or began in 1955 with Marty to also go on to win the Best Picture Oscar. It also won for director, original screenplay, and the appropriately-renamed Best International Film (previously called Foreign Film) prize, the first time one film has taken that distinction along with the Academy’s top honor. On a budget of just about $11 million, the film has grossed over $258 million worldwide, South Korea’s biggest ever. Most importantly Parasite, a brilliant mix of black comedy, drama, terror and rebirth, was a story that resonated well beyond the borders of its own country to become a prime example of a film that at its heart is uniquely human and touches moviegoers wherever they may live. – PH
Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood (2019)
Quentin Tarantino further cemented his unique hold on the universe of motion pictures in the new millennium with one success after another including Kill Bill I and II, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, each dipping into specific genres (martial arts, war, Westerns) and turning them on their head. But perhaps no other film in his career hit all its marks quite like 2019’s Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. It is Tarantino’s self-described fairy tale to a passing golden age of Hollywood, his most optimistic and wistful film ever, focusing on a fading TV cowboy star named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose career is now making Italian programmers. With his faithful stuntman/sidekick — Brad Pitt in an Oscar-winning turn — it is set against an alternative vision of Los Angeles and the infamous Charlie Manson murder spree in the summer of ’69. This is perhaps the ultimate movie aficionado’s ultimate look at the industry that shaped Tarantino’s own dreams growing up. Exquisitely made in every way at nearly three hours in length, the film is an undeniable gift to movie lovers, and fans of Sharon Tate, who is beautifully portrayed by Margot Robbie. The result? One of the most richly entertaining films of the past two decades, and confirmation, if it was needed, that Tarantino is a master of the art form. It may not be the way it was, but it’s nice to believe it could have been, at least in the happily ever after of an epic fever dream that only QT could have crafted. – PH
Black Panther (2018)
The coming generation of Marvel Studios superhero films lean heavily into diversity. The proving ground for that bold move came on Black Panther, the first freestanding movie on a Black superhero since Wesley Snipes’ Blade, who at one time was attached to play T’Challa, king of the fictional African country Wakanda. By the time Marvel was finally ready to make the films, superhero hits were earning the bulk of gross overseas. Here was a chance to challenge the notion that films made by Black filmmakers and featuring Black actors and themes did not travel well. Black Panther shattered every one of those preconceptions, because director Ryan Coogler didn’t make a movie where a superhero clobbers villains, as much as a world-creation exercise on the order of The Lord of the Rings or Avatar, one grounded in African mythology and slavery that gave Blacks worldwide a sense of pride and identity. The film was anchored by Chadwick Boseman, whom Marvel’s Kevin Feige and his storyteller team smartly introduced in the 2016 blockbuster Captain America: Civil War, laying out a storyline that begged for its own movie. Coogler brought back as T’Challa’s nemesis Michael B. Jordan, with whom the director collaborated in his first two films, Fruitvale Station and Creed. Rather than some stereotypical villain, Jordan brought righteous rage and pain to his role as Killmonger, a rival to the throne. His character added to T’Challa’s conflict over whether to keep invisible to most the lush and resource-rich nation of Wakanda. The script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole was solid as was a cast that included Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright and Daniel Kaluuya.
From the moment Marvel began showing Black Panther, it was clear this would be more than another superhero film. It became a global sensation, grossing $1.3 billion, the most ever for a film by a Black director, and it was the first from a superhero canon to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, winning three of its seven nominations. Perhaps the best evidence of its place in the cultural zeitgeist came with the global mourning that followed the death of Boseman this year from colon cancer at age 43. Coogler had been well into readying a Black Panther sequel expected to go into production by the middle of next year. Disney announced it will not recast the role with another actor. – MF
Roma may not have been Netflix’s first attempt at treating one of its originals as an Oscar qualifier, but it certainly did become the standard bearer for the debate about whether a film designed for streaming could ever be considered cinema. A year after French exhibitors protested Netflix’s place on the Croisette, the film was denied a berth at Cannes, and premiered instead at Venice. There, it blew away those expecting modest “home entertainment” production values by making full use of the event’s state-of-the-art screening facilities and its immersive Dolby Atmos sound system. And what got lost in the debate was just how impossible Roma would have been to make within the traditional theatrical landscape: this autobiographic and deeply personal film from Alfonso Cuarón was also epic and expansive. And shot in black-and-white, all of these factors undoubtedly barriers to entry for legacy studios. But even viewed at home on a small screen, it was hard to deny how sumptuously cinematic it was. The film earned Netflix its first Best Picture Oscar nomination — Universal’s Green Book took top prize that year, effectively deciding the battle. And yet, the steady flow of directors to Netflix and other streaming players ever since, combined with a pandemic year in 2020 that firmly ripped up the rule book, suggests that Cuarón’s beautiful film was the opening salvo that might eventually win the war for the streamer. – JU
Get Out (2017)
How many films, let alone a micro-budget Blumhouse horror entry, premiere to an ecstatic Sundance Film Festival Midnight Movie crowd in January and hold that momentum right through to the following year’s Oscar season? A rare genre breakout, Jordan Peele’s directing debut did that and proved prescient about the simmering social unrest of 2020, with its story of an easygoing African American photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) who stumbles on a terrifying secret during a weekend trip with his white girlfriend to visit her wealthy, liberal parents. Ingenious and satirical, Get Out created a platform for Peele as a successor to The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling as America’s premier alchemist of the wild and weird. And it firmly proved the Blumhouse formula, that rolling the dice on untested filmmakers with manageable budgets could result not just in huge profits (a $255 million worldwide gross against a $4.5 million budget) but also in the arrival of a new breed of storyteller. – JU
The Shape of Water (2017)
Since movements such as #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite emerged, the Academy faced overdue criticism for the lack of diversity in the makeup of its voting body. While this necessary course correction continues to pay dividends—see Parasite—it does also overlook an extraordinary run for non-American filmmakers in the Best Director races of the 2010s, when the “Three Amigos”—Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman, The Revenant), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Roma) and Guillermo del Toro—won no fewer than five of the decade’s Oscar helmer awards between them. A tribute to Hollywood monster movies dressed as a heartfelt and lushly subversive ’50s romance, del Toro’s The Shape of Water was the strangest and most surprising of them all. Completing the Best Director hat trick for the Three Amigos, the film achieved a Best Picture win that must surely have surprised a director whose lifelong love affair with monsters never seemed like the sort of thing Academy voters would embrace. – JU
A quizzical, arched eyebrow was all it took to precipitate the biggest Oscar upset in living memory: failing to pick up on co-host Warren Beatty’s economic body language after the legend was handed the wrong envelope by a star-struck Pricewaterhouse accountant distracted by tweeting backstage photos and not paying attention to his job of handing out the name of Oscar’s top prizewinner, Faye Dunaway misread the card he’d given her and promptly announced La La Land the Best Picture winner. Except it wasn’t; the real winner was a film that had slowly and quietly galvanized a fan base of its own during the festivals that followed its Telluride debut. A sometimes gritty, sometimes achingly romantic coming-of-age story, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight shook up the entire concept of independent cinema in the 21st century, not only heralding the arrival of a powerful new talent in Jenkins, but also offering a ray of representation to marginalized communities of Black and gay cinemagoers. That it connected with people far beyond those communities gave short shrift to the notion that storytelling reflecting the diaspora of human existence could somehow alienate the white, hetero-normative audiences, an idea that had dominated motion picture decision-making for a century. – JU
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
James Bond may remain the most durable film franchise ever invented, but for sheer kinetic excitement and full-throttle cinematic action, nothing beats what George Miller has delivered in four films over the course of 41 years with his Mad Max series. No other franchise has consisted of so few films spread across such a long period of time, but the Australian maestro arguably topped himself with this most recent entry, Fury Road, in 2015.
No one’s done post-apocalyptic better than George Miller. To watch the original 1974 Mad Max today is first to be startled by how simple and threadbare the production was, and its thoroughgoing Australia-ness. The accents sported by the actors — including Mel Gibson — were considered so incomprehensibly thick by the American distributor, Sam Arkoff’s American-International Pictures, that the very low-budget film was re-dubbed for U.S. audiences. As a result, the film didn’t initially muster a significant following in the U.S.
That all changed six years later when Mad Max 2 – retitled The Road Warrior by its American distributor Warner Bros, wowed the world. The evidence of something special up on the screen was incontrovertible to an industry becoming more attuned to big, bloody action, and Miller was already outdoing Hollywood with his stupendous kinetic sequences and the creation of a masterful and sexy man of action. In his black leather garb, sawed-off weaponry and kick-ass car, Gibson became the greatest screen anti-hero to arrive in Hollywood since Clint Eastwood. The follow-up that arrived four years later, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, was an undeniable disappointment, one arguably occasioned by the death in a helicopter accident of Miller’s valued 33-year-old producing partner Byron Kennedy. It felt as if Miller’s heart wasn’t in it anymore; he ultimately persisted and got it done, but it’s the only film in the series that feels creatively short-changed and not very interesting to revisit.
It took another three decades for Miller to resurrect Mad Max, when he reappeared in the form of the ferocious but tightly harnessed Tom Hardy, along a large retinue of young ladies in the Namibian desert that actually weighted the film significantly in the direction of its women, led by a relentless Charlize Theron as Furiosa. By this time, the world was primed and got what it was looking for and more; every frame is packed with imagination, from the detailed wild makeup to the costumes, vehicles, costumes and weapons and the fantastically kinetic way in which the virtually non-stop action was staged and shot. It’s an unparalleled two-hour speed rush that audiences roundly concurred was worth the wait. Mad Max has fully achieved iconic status and more is promised by another installment, Furiosa, that is actively in the works. – TM
The Revenant (2015)
Since his directorial debut on Amores Perros, has another director had a better quarter century than Alejandro González Iñárritu? He followed that film, which felt like a close cousin to Scorsese’s Mean Streets, with 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful, the Best Picture Oscar winner Birdman and then The Revenant and the acclaimed virtual reality short Carne Y Arena. He won Best Director Oscars for The Revenant and Birdman, and another Oscar for co-writing the Birdman script. The accomplishment of The Revenant was something to behold; he and his DP Chivo Lubezki along with his cast — Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio starred with Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson — weathered brutal weather and cold to tell the survival story of a frontiersman in 1820 who is mauled by a bear and betrayed by the fellow hunters assigned to protect him. The dialogue in the Mark L. Smith script is spare, and the struggles behind the screen as tense as what is on camera, as the budget rose. González Iñárritu hasn’t made a movie since, but word is it will be something with similar level of difficulty for the uncompromising filmmaker. – MF
The Social Network (2010)
Hollywood has always been erratic when it has tried to be relevant by trying to reflect the zeitgeist, but it hit the bull’s eye in 2010 with The Social Network. It would have been completely understandable if there had never been a narrative film about the creation of Facebook, given that at the center of it all was a cranky oddball misfit without wit, social grace or physical attractiveness. Who would want to watch this little creep, with no friends, zip around Harvard in the vague hope of becoming more appealing or acceptable? A project that easily could have gone astray in so many different ways miraculously ended up in the right hands at the right time: Aaron Sorkin’s script cut through to the essence of the privileged young Harvard nerds who converged at the right time, launched something that changed the world, and then fought over its ownership. It’s widely acknowledged that Sorkin strayed widely from actual events, but in the end this is a prime case of, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” In this instance, the legend entails a loner student being motivated to create his social media site in the face of romantic rejection; Mark Zuckerberg has stated that this was not the case. But the way, Sorkin—and eventually, director David Fincher—reshaped the story, it’s an enthralling, if at times creepy, revenge of the nerds tale on a grand scale. One enhanced with terrific wit, behavioral insight and sensitivity to diversely gifted young men who, unknowingly at first, entered the realm of great social, professional and behavioral importance.
The film makes the viewer feel that one is being let in on the real—if not entirely true—story of the creation of a world-changing socially unifying enterprise, one that involves gifted, uncouth characters at odds with one another from almost the very beginning. On the basis of how they’re presented here, these are people you too probably would have gone out of your way to avoid in college. But on the screen they become objects of great fascination, in an atom-splitting moment. Cinematically, The Social Network is a rush of Sorkin’s words and almost constant movement put onscreen by Fincher with crisp precision and an appreciation that the oddballs and disenfranchised of the world are often the ones who create the biggest waves. However unlikely it might have initially seemed, this was clearly an essential film from the moment of its birth and will always remain one, by virtue of how it marked a major turning point in the world. I can’t imagine a film of this century that I could less do without. – TM
After setting the all-time box office record with Titanic, James Cameron expected to quickly follow with Avatar, his futuristic sci-fi epic set on 22nd century Pandora. A lush world inhabited by the blue-skinned Na’Vi, a tribe standing in the way of a motherlode of a substance that will solve Earth’s energy crisis because it is a room-temperature superconductor. The Na’Vi won’t give it up easily, and a paraplegic war vet takes a Faustian bargain to immerse himself in an avatar so he can infiltrate the tribe. His loyalties are soon conflicted when he meets and falls for one of them and sees the purity of their civilization.
Nothing is easy for Cameron, who famously battled studios in mega-budget world creation films from Terminator 2 to Aliens, Titanic, True Lies and The Abyss. So advanced was his Avatar ambitions that he had to wait as filmmaking technology caught up to his ambition, helping the cause with his own recorded deep-sea diving ventures and 3D technology pioneering. It was clearly worth the wait; Avatar surpassed the global gross of his Titanic and held the all time record until Joe and Anthony Russo broke it with Avengers: Endgame.
Fellow event filmmakers from Peter Jackson to Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann and others came early to see Cameron’s work to see if they could incorporate the technology into their work. While Martin Scorsese did that in Hugo, the pricey film lost money and the 3D movement never took off. The film is memorable for its nine Oscar nominations, and Cameron will do his best to make sure Avatar has a long tail: he has directed four sequels, spending a reported $1 billion in production funding. Those sequels were mentioned as a major reason Disney acquired the assets of Fox. Releases are planned for late 2022, 2024, 2026 and 2028, and the results will be a major factor in how Disney fares over the next decade. But who’s going to bet against Cameron? – MF
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Director Danny Boyle’s 2008 critical and popular sensation Slumdog Millionaire swept through awards season after a game-changing debut at Telluride and on to a Best Picture Oscar in addition to seven more Academy Awards. However the film itself might best be called Slumunderdog Millionaire because of its unusual path to success whose odds were as long as those facing the film’s protagonist. That would be the young teen (Dev Patel) from the slums of Mumbai who goes on to win big in the Indian version of the gameshow Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, shocking people and answering every question correctly. He recounts his life story for police after being forced to prove he didn’t cheat. While Boyle was a respected director, the film had no marquee names. That it grossed $377 million to date worldwide is a shocker when you consider it almost went straight to DVD after its North American distributor Warner Independent was shut down by Warner Bros. A sale to then-emerging Fox Searchlight Pictures, including domestic distribution rights, saved it. Slumdog became the top grosser ever for the specialty division, starting an awards streak for Searchlight (now at Disney) that continues to this day.
Slumdog’s significance during this century cannot be overstated. It became a near-victim of a major studio losing faith in releasing smaller independent films, but sparked a renaissance of prestige films that included The Artist to 12 Years a Slave, to Moonlight, to Parasite. Would such a thing be possible in today’s streaming age? – PH
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Hollywood has recently placed a premium on hiring female directors. Back when Kathryn Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker, she was largely alone. She shot The Hurt Locker from a script Mark Boal wrote after he embedded with an Army squad in Iraq. It was a gritty, high-testosterone drama about a group assigned an unimaginable task: to run toward an explosive and try to defuse it before it blew up all in its vicinity. Jeremy Renner played a bomb de-fuser so obsessed with his work that he kept a locker of devices under his bunk and could not reintegrate with his wife and child back home because he was so addicted to the rush. Bigelow shot in Jordan, wanting to be as close to a war zone as possible, and Renner braved the 120-degree heat in a bomb suit that weighed over 80 pounds. Bigelow’s intention was to show Iraq from the vantage point of the soldiers in danger there, and the feeling of fear and adrenaline were palpable.
The Hurt Locker was a David vs Goliath, a $15 million film that prevailed in the Oscar race against Avatar, a film that cost near $300 million and became the highest-grossing film ever. Hurt Locker had little fanfare by comparison in awards season. While the film drew a 10-minute standing ovation in its 2008 Venice premiere and a rousing reception in Toronto, distributor appetite was lukewarm because of the failure of Iraq War films like Stop-Loss and especially Lions For Lambs. Summit Entertainment bought it for a song, and gave it a quiet release the following summer. This was a success story driven by the passion of film critics who wouldn’t let it go. Even as the film’s $17 million gross made it one of the lowest ever among Oscar contenders, the film was atop most critical lists. The impossible seemed real when Bigelow became the first woman to win the Directors Guild of America prize, and then the first and only woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director. Boal won for his script and The Hurt Locker won Best Picture. Bigelow and Boal seemed headed toward Oscars for their next Middle East war drama, Zero Dark Thirty, a real-time drama about the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Those chances were snuffed when U.S. senators John McCain, Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin publicly excoriated the picture in awards season for conveying that valuable intel on bin Laden’s whereabouts were gained by waterboarding during an interrogation. – MF
Iron Man (2008)
While elevated storytelling had been part of superhero movies from the Bryan Singer-directed X-Men to the Batman trilogies of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan, the B-list superhero Iron Man was the most influential in headlining the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and setting the template for Marvel’s record-breaking decade-long run under Kevin Feige. The notion of wrapping the heart condition-challenged playboy tech mogul Tony Stark in a metallic flying suit had been a cult favorite, and Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage and others flirted with the role. Pic finally became real when Jon Favreau became its director, and the key was who would play Stark. Favreau firmly believed in Robert Downey Jr, but he was a long shot. Marvel was understandably wary as the gifted actor emerged from a downward spiral of drug abuse. Actors like Sam Rockwell were touted, but once Downey screen tested, it was clear only one actor could play the part. Downey identified with the enigmatic Stark character drawn by Stan Lee and all his pitfalls, and recognized the opportunity for a second act and outlet for his out-sized acting skills.
The film channeled his electric wit – which would help distinguish Marvel movies from the grim vision of DC’s Batman and Superman movies. Downey’s Stark character became the North Star for Marvel’s superhero aspirations and the success fueled a $4 billion sale of the entire company to Disney. It made the actor arguably the highest-paid Hollywood star over a decade through three Iron Man films, as well as cross-pollination performances in Spider-Man, Captain America and especially the Avengers movies. It ended with the Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Endgame becoming the biggest-grossing film of all time. But the entire run started with Downey. – MF
Borat — full name Borat: Cultural Learnings of America to Make Benefit Glorious Nation off Kazakhstan — proved an unlikely box office juggernaut when it was unleashed on the world in 2007. One of many alter-egos of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, he played a fictitious Kazakh journalist whose travels across America brought him in contact with real unsuspecting people who couldn’t imagine what they were in for with this hilarious mockumentary. Beyond the sheer audacity it took to pull this off, Baron Cohen uses the format of mixing real and unreal not only for laughs but also to make some strong political points, which caused the government of Kazakhstan to denounce the film in no uncertain terms; most Arab countries to ban it; and some unwitting participants to sue. It hardly mattered: the film grossed $260 million worldwide, and opened the opportunity for a sequel this year released by Amazon Studios. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm was shot in secrecy during the pandemic, and was made by Baron Cohen in order to directly affect the outcome of the American presidential election. And perhaps it did, depicting President Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani and others in their thrall in spectacularly unflattering light. A modern-day Peter Sellers in many ways, Baron Cohen’s comedy and social commentary make a great cocktail. Comedy isn’t usually acknowledged by Oscar, but Baron Cohen and company won a Best Original Screenplay nomination and a Golden Globe the first time around. Let’s see what happens with the sequel, the rare streamer movie that captured the zeitgeist. – PH
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The name Upton Sinclair will be familiar to admirers of David Fincher’s Mank as the writer-politician whose 1933 gubernatorial run for the state of California ends up radicalizing Herman Mankiewicz from drunken apathy to become the feckless antihero who shared the Best Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane with Orson Welles. What may be less well known is that Sinclair’s late-1920s novel Oil! served as the wellspring for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, an altogether more brutal story of American greed in the birthplace of Hollywood.
Precision-honed to deliver Daniel Day-Lewis his third Oscar, it stars the method-acting legend who channels the voice and manner of John Huston to play oil prospector Daniel Plainview, a conniving, venal businessman with no scruples and no soul. It is the high-water mark of the 21st century for Paul Thomas Anderson, whose work has been consistently singular since his debut with 1996’s Hard Eight. His untitled upcoming release, starring Bradley Cooper and Joseph Cross, is surely one of 2021’s most anticipated pictures. – JU
No Country for Old Men (2007)
No Country for Old Men is an easy choice for most influential films of the century. It was recognized from the outset as a brilliant adaptation by the Coen Brothers of one of Cormac McCarthy’s most impressive (and filmable) novels. It rode the accolades wave from its Cannes debut in May 2007 to Oscar glory nine months later. Creatively and commercially, this was among the crowning achievements of Miramax, a heyday now besmirched by the sordid behind the scene misdeeds of fallen mogul Harvey Weinstein.
No Country played a significant role in what turned out to be a temporary place for films honored by the Academy even though they were not the more genteel, middle-of-the-road films that dominated the 1980s and ‘90s (Gandhi, Out of Africa, Driving Miss Daisy, The Lord of the Rings, et al.). This was decidedly edgier non-studio fare: No Country’s Oscar triumph was followed by the even further-afield Slumdog Millionaire and The Hurt Locker. The success of No Country represented a rare supreme triumph for what could be called auteurist, indie-style filmmakers bringing home the bacon while still being completely true to themselves. The Coens actually accomplished what so many young filmmakers dream about but so rarely manage: Making precisely the films they had dreamed of creating, without compromise and on their own terms, that pleased both the cognoscenti and the public.
The source material was rough and brutal, borderline too extreme for mainstream consumption. But the Coens, after more than 20 years in the game, had learned just how far they could push things. And here, they went pretty far; the scenes of violence and cruelty perpetuated by Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh are taken to the limit, and the Coens’ sensibilities remained very much in the indie realm while leaving the door open just enough to invite more widespread audience acceptance. No Country can be held up as a rare example of a perfect overlap between artist-controlled creation and commercial elements: a heart-stopping tale of ordinary folks up against a brilliant twisted mind, told by filmmakers at the top of their game who know as well as anyone how to visualize—and dramatically maximize—a suggestive literary text. Such a perfect match between material and filmmakers doesn’t happen all that often, so the occasion must be celebrated when it does. – TM
The Departed (2006)
Was it better than say, Goodfellas, Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, films on which Martin Scorsese was famously snubbed by the Academy? Maybe not, but The Departed was the one that brought Best Director and Best Picture honors for a work by the iconic filmmaker. It was also part of a 21st century output where Scorsese stepped into larger movie vehicles with bigger budgets, with memorable results. That output includes Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Shutter Island, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, Silence and The Irishman, to go along with the swarms of documentaries and concert films he directed and/or produced. In The Departed, Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan cleverly melded the Hong Kong drama Infernal Affairs—about double agents in the police department and a mob syndicate—with the legendary criminal exploits of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger. The cast was incredible; Jack Nicholson as the South Boston Irish mob boss who uses his status as FBI informant to eliminate rivals, Matt Damon as the mole the mobster places in the Boston police department, and Leonardo DiCaprio as the honest cop who goes undercover, with Vera Farmiga as the cop psychologist between them; add Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Mark Wahlberg, Ray Winstone in the mix and there is not a dull moment as law enforcement and the mob race to uncover the identity of the “rats” that are hobbling both their operations. This leads to a signature Scorsese-esque fusillade of violence in the third act, some of which was jaw-dropping shocking.
For this, Scorsese received his first, long overdue Best Director Oscar, presented him by fellow legends Francis Ford Coppola (who wanted Scorsese to direct The Godfather Part II), Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Scorsese shows no signs of slowing down, planning an adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon at a $180 million-plus budget, finally teaming DiCaprio with Robert De Niro in the period film for Apple TV+ and Paramount. – MF
Casino Royale (2006)
James Bond could never be beaten, and the same now seems true for the ongoing series of James Bond films after Daniel Craig’s Bond reign. Ian Fleming’s secret agent has now been thriving on the big screen continuously for nearly 60 years—essentially half the length of the history of the cinema—something no other character can claim. To be sure, the series has had its ups and downs, but in recent times Bond has been thriving in films sporting gigantic budgets which are warranted by the worldwide, and multi-generational, audiences that reliably turn out. He’s long since become a character for the ages—and all ages.
The late, great Sean Connery will always stand as the definitive Bond, but if there was a crisis moment, it came after Pierce Brosnan abdicated and Craig was chosen to replace him. Some felt the journeyman actor might not be up to the task, but Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson smartly went back to basics. They dusted off Fleming’s very first Bond novel, Casino Royale. The book had never before been properly filmed (an hourlong Americanized 1953 television version starring Barry Nelson as Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre can be viewed online at Internet Archive). It proved the right vehicle for the perfect actor to re-inject 007 with some real macho stones again, with a romance and betrayal with Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) that allowed Craig to give his Bond emotional vulnerability not seen in past 007s, and blinding rage when he is betrayed. For the first time in three decades, Bond felt elementally right and relevant again, with one foot in Fleming’s old world and the other in one that felt more current. Films that followed include two directed by Sam Mendes including Skyfall, the first Bond film to crack the $1 billion gross mark.
The upcoming No Time to Die, which pre-Covid was to have been released in November after several postponements, marks the 25th official Bond film, and Craig’s last. What happens from here on remains to be seen. Could Bond actually retire? More likely, those producers and MGM will have to find their next secret agent. How will they respond to the clamor that it be a Black actor, or even a woman? – TM
The Passion of the Christ (2004)
It’s a film you never hear about anymore—I wonder if it’s still popular within conservative Christian circles—but Mel Gibson’s personal passion project The Passion of the Christ was certainly a most anticipated film nearly 17 years ago. Several years after winning multiple Oscars for his mightily successful epic Braveheart, the famously Catholic Gibson announced that he was going to make a film about Jesus, in Hebrew, Latin and reconstructed Aramaic dialects. On its face, this sounded like a personal vanity project, with no blockbuster aspirations.
Armed with his own money and grand vision, Gibson shot the film in Italy with a no-name cast. When no American distributor bit, Gibson hired distribution pros and the result were astounding. On a February 2004 opening weekend in the U.S., the film took in $84 million, and went on to generate $370 million at the domestic box office and $612 million worldwide. The world had never seen anything like it. What was onscreen was nearly as startling. Beautifully made, Gibson’s Passion was also exceedingly violent and bloody, with reams of religious dialogue (accompanied by subtitles) mixing with astonishingly explicit and prolonged sequences of gruesome torture, agony and pain. Gore fetishism and overkill were common accusations. But when Gibson offered a softened up edited version some time later, nobody came.
Gibson had identified and connected with a seldom-served audience that wanted to be reminded of the core of the Catholic faith: the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ. His film was passionate, serious, very well made and spoke to viewers in a powerful way. It confounded Hollywood; who knew this public was out there and ready to patronize a film that could register so strongly with the masses? It hasn’t happened again.
It’s easy to dismiss the success of Passion as an anomaly, a combination of timing and luck, and a strong connection with a little-known audience starving for something that spoke to it directly. But it was also unsettling in the sense that it showed Hollywood that Gibson knew something about the public that the industry didn’t. That’s no doubt an unspoken reason the powers-that-be weren’t there for him when he had his own problems in the years that followed. Gibson has shown he can be his own worst enemy, and it’s easier for many to ignore him and look the other way when he has problems. But what he pulled off with his passion project was startling and rare, a Hollywood prince putting his own money on the line to make a film he really believed in and felt compelled to make, and then seeing the gamble pay off when so many were moved by the film he made. – TM
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
While it won Best Picture and five of seven Oscar noms including Best Director, I really needed this film to frame a discussion question. What first-rank filmmaker has directed more films in the current century than any other? And of this select group, which of them has made the most first-rate films? Maybe some hack out there have actually directed more; the most active directors I have in mind are three who, throughout their entire careers, have turned out films at roughly a pace of one per year, and sometimes more. This is less than some of the big-league filmmakers of the old studio era used to manage, but more than most top-tier directors tend to make these days. Woody Allen made at least one film per year for decades and despite his current career difficulties and age (85), he has still managed to maintain that pace. He’s written/directed 20 films in the last two decades and by my count there are maybe three that rank as anything resembling vintage Woody.
Having maintained a similar pace for decades, Steven Spielberg has slowed down a bit in his 60s, completing 15 features over the same period, including the Covid-delayed West Side Story. There is the comparatively younger Steven Soderbergh, known for shooting quickly, who emerged from self-imposed retirement to direct 22 features over the past 20 years, including the pandemic-prescient Contagion. And then there is Clint Eastwood, a man who has been at it longer than anyone else and at 90 is indisputably the oldest person to ever direct and sometimes star in major studio films. Eastwood just wrapped his latest, Cry Macho, for Warner Bros. under Covid conditions, also playing the leading role.
Eastwood has directed 18 films in the new century, an impressive number for any director and far more so from a guy whose first three film credits, in 1955, were Tarantula, Francis in the Navy and Revenge of the Creature. Eastwood’s career is one of tenacity, endurance and good looks, to be sure, but also a serious dedication to learning as he went along, especially from two key mentors, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. During this prolific past two decades, Eastwood has made three of his very best films—Million Dollar Baby won him his second directing Oscar; Letters from Iwo Jima, which was performed in Japanese and was in black and white; and the sensationally successful American Sniper. A few others, including Mystic River, Gran Torino and Sully were solid. It’s hard to think of a more exemplary big-time movie career than the one Eastwood has enjoyed. He could easily have remained just an actor, but instead became one of the major director-producers of multiple eras. That stretches from the TV Westerns depicted by Quentin Tarantino in his last movies, to the studio salad days when he and Burt Reynolds were the top movie stars, to the current moment when everything concerning the future seems uncertain. Clint rides tall, above it all. – TM
The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003)
The statistics speak for themselves. One of the greatest rolls of the dice in motion picture history, the three films in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy—The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King—together account for $2.98 billion in worldwide box office receipts. The trilogy earned 30 Oscar nominations and 17 Academy Awards. The Return of the King finale went a staggering 11 Oscar wins out of 11 nominations. That included Best Picture (after two previous nominations). This was the culmination of a herculean task that started with untangling the rights to the J.R.R. Tolkien books, as David Lean to Stanley Kubrick had toyed at one time or another with the franchise. Jackson and wife Fran Walsh saw it through, but not without challenges along the way. Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax controlled the rights, but he could not convince his Disney boss Michael Eisner. Asking a draconian 5% of first-dollar gross with a tight deadline, Weinstein gave Jackson a chance to pitch a two-film adaptation elsewhere, with the understanding the director would exit if it didn’t happen, and Weinstein would try to tell the sprawling story in a single film.
On Jackson’s last stop, New Line owner Bob Shaye listened, and said he would stake Jackson in three films, shot consecutively. So was born one of the greatest gambles in Hollywood history. Jackson and Walsh, who built state-of-the-art VFX and soundstages as they cashed LOTR checks, turned Tolkein’s The Hobbit into a prequel trilogy, and without them, Amazon is launching a TV series set in Middle Earth. But the way the original trilogy came together is a story for the ages. – PH