Settled Dust Expanded Edition: My Top 25 of the 21st Century

By James Kenney. Originally published at

The New York Times just did it.  Film Twitter is doing it!  So, ergo, I must chime in and set the record straight and let you know what 25 films really have made this century bearable for me (and yes, like everyone else save the Times, I cheat and provide slightly more than 25)!  And, producers, a film starring Chiwetel Ejiofer, Olga Kurylenko, Clive Owen and Kate Winslet would clearly be odds-on favorite for my “Best of [Insert Current Year Here] since they show up in multiple titles below.  Get cracking.

Summer Hours   (2008, Olivier Assayas ) A perfect, lyrical film, in its truthful, humanistic, dignified look at a Parisian family dealing with loss and the passing of time.  A noiselessly stunning success, faultlessly performed and nuanced.  There’s grandeur in Hours’ modulation; it gets us to see the things people don’t speak about.

Settled Dust

Bread and Roses  (2000, Ken Loach) Ken Loach’s short sojourn to the States did him well, resulting in this authoritative look at the role of the illegal-immigrant in the U.S. featuring two Mexican sisters who have come to America looking for opportunity and the well-meaning union organizer (played by the consistently great Adrien Brody) who politicizes one.  One stunning, unexpected scene, where Elpidia Carrillo unburdens herself to her younger, more idealistic sister played by Pilar Padilla, is still the most powerful piece of filmed drama of this young century.

Dirty Pretty Things  (2002, Stephen FrearsStephen Frears is the most reliably excellent (and undervalued) filmmaker of our time.  This film, about illegal immigrants in London is vexing, droll, moving and memorable, and filled with believable, likeable characters; it rightly made Chiwetel Ejiofer an instant star.

Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2  (2003-2004, Quentin Tarantino) While I 1000% agree with the necessity of more women and people of color helming movies of all stripes, Uma Thurman’s Beatrix “Black Mamba” Kiddo is the REAL Wonder Woman. Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, carved up in two magnificent halves, is as good now as it ever was. The first is focused on balls-to-the-wall action, the second on unusually witty and absorbing conversation, filled with brilliantly drawn-out sequences, building to an astonishing climax between Beatrix and David Carradine’s note-perfect Bill that could have gone on a half-hour longer, no complaint from me.  Nobody makes a better sandwich while acting than the late Carradine.

In the Mood for Love & The Follow (2000, 2001, Wong Kar Wai)  Wong-Kar-Wai is the king of cinema when it comes to romantic nuance, solitude and yearning, and In the Mood for Love is gloriously quixotic  from its first moment to last. Let me use this space to shout out for his relatively little-seen BMW Hire series film The Follow, a remarkably evocative ten minutes of cinema that uses Clive Owen’s concentration, Adriana Lima’s splendor, and Mickey Rourke’s sleaziness to faultless effect, boiling down Wong’s characteristic themes in 10 gorgeous minutes; it must be seen by any fan of his (which should be any fan of cinema).

Munich  (2005, Steven Spielberg) The fact that no one talks about this much these days and that it made many people grouchy upon release might signal how astonishing and unclassifiable this utter surprise from the ever-skillful Steven Spielberg is.  Detailing the Israeli response to the murder of its athletes at the 1972 Olympics, it is consistently nuanced and heartbreaking, with several astounding, haunting sequences.  It is a masterpiece.

Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, Wes Anderson) Some run hot and cold on this, but it gets better every viewing for me.  Life Aquatic touches upon real emotional issues of remorse and disillusionment, but plays like the ultimate Max Fischer players production. Filled with madcap comedy, appealing whimsy, rousing and absurd action sequences, and occasional moments of profundity, the jaunty Life Aquatic is touching and feloniously underappreciated.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind  (2004, Michael Gondry) Imaginative and unique, with lots of filmmaking and storytelling pizazzz grounded by emotional archetypes that will haunt anyone who has loved and lost.  Not discussed much these days, but it, and its lead performances from Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey, are as good as they ever were.

Haywire  (2011, Steven Soderbergh) Soderbergh has made a lot of worthy stuff this century, but by making a straight-forward international action thriller with a woman as its protagonist, introducing Gina Carano (which I guess has proven a mixed blessing) alongside supporting turns by Michael Fassbender, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Channing Tatum and Ewan McGregor that is long on humor, suspense and action and short on pretense and bloat, he has made the definitive action film of the century so far (save the above-it-all inspired lunacy of Kill Bill Volume One).

Million Dollar Baby  (2004, Clint Eastwood) Not a surprise now that the New York Times heralded it on their top 25-list of the century list, Clint Eastwood’s relatively forgotten masterpiece is equal parts inspiring and harrowing, with Hillary Swank’s lead performance worthy of every bit of acclaim it got.  The ending is devastating, its sentiment earned.

Rachel Getting Married  (2008, Jonathan Demme) The late (and missed) Jonathan Demme’s emotionally overwhelming, unflinching, yet hopeful look at an alcoholic (Anne Hathaway) making a shambles of a family wedding is all too relatable.  Demme, the great humanist American filmmaker, always looks for the best in people, even serial killers, and enables his actors’ imaginations to flourish.  Here, in his penultimate fiction film, he breathes wonderful life into characters that could have been unbearable in other hands.

A Perfect Day  (2016, Fernando Lleon De Aranoa) It is rare to pull off a film about man’s inhumanity toward man in as easygoing and subtly humorous style as A Perfect Day, and Fernando Leon De Aranoa’s film works in small ways that count; the film’s tragicomic tone is its own, not belligerent, forced or self-satisfied.

A Christmas Tale (2008, Arnaud Desplechin)– Family dysfunction at Christmas, French-style; elegant and droll, with both piquant contemporary and vintage flavofrs, this unruly tale of Christmas woe and redemption clicks on all cylinders.

Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuarón) A harrowing look at a dystopian future that kinda looks like it’s sooner-than-later. Thrilling cinema, particularly the bravura one-take climax.

Breaking News   (2004, Johnnie To) Johnnie To proudly holds the mantle of Hong-Kong action in the 21st century.  He has several great films under his belt; this is still my favorite, with a wild one-take action sequence that rivals the above-mentioned Children of Men.

Russian Ark (2002, Alexander Sokurov) The entire film is one long, gloriously choreographed shot, as an unseen narrator explores Russian History as he explorees a museum; while computers have made such camera trickery much more commonplace, Ark‘s aesthetic purity is just as impressive now as it was upon release.

4:44 Last Day on Earth  (2011, Abel Ferrara) Abel Ferrara’s typically funky rumination on how people would act if they knew the world was ending is, like Michael Haneke’s film just below, surprisingly optimistic in its despair.  Love conquers all, you know; even Abel goddamn Ferrara believes it.

Time of the Wolf (2003, Michael Haneke )It figures Michael Haneke’s end-of-society film would also be his most strangely optimistic film.  His exploration of an all-too-likely future is realistic and frightening, but rather pragmatic and not utterly nihilistic.  Less talked about than other films of his, for my dollar it’s his best alongside the Piano Teacher (which is unreservedly nihilistic).

Silence  (2016, Martin Scorcese) — sometimes Scorceses’s self-conscious efforts at making great, non Italian-America based, cinema is, well, self-conscious.  Silence is beautiful, ruminative, and alarmingly unseen.

The Dressmaker (2016, Jocelyn Moorehouse)  Jocelyn Moorehouse’s feminist-spaghetti western in the Outback is funny, sad, and strange. A great movie.

Fast Food Nation (2004, Richard Linklater) Linklater has done plenty of superior work this century, and Boyhood with its 12-year shooting schedule is indeed more technically impressive, but this mosaic perfectly captures all that is wrong in our culture today, while finding moments of grace and beauty.  Ambitious and truly educational, the film, not one of his most discussed, is a must-see.

War, Inc. (2008, Joshua Seftel) John Cusack’s Grosse Point Blank persona returns in this spiritually wounded satire detailing the U.S.’s efforts to destabilize and destroy regimes so that it can capitalize on the rebuilding process. Watch Summer Hours, this, Children of Men, 4:44 Last Day on Earth and Time of the Wolf in sequence to foresee a plausible end of our culture and then our world, if you dare.

To the Wonder (2012, Terrence Malick) I love women, and so does Terrence Malick, in this meditative, eccentric tone poem that marked his turn to ever-more non-linear and non-dramatic storytelling.  Beautiful from the first frame to last, making superlative use of striking landscapes and gorgeous women.

Locke (2014, Stephen Knight) A one-character driving-in-the-night tour de force, you couldn’t think it would be pulled off, but Knight (the brilliant screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, among other quality works) creates an utterly compelling yet earthbound scenario, and Hardy gives a performance for the ages, one more reminder that the best special effect is a quality actor.

Mistress America (2015, Noah Baumbach) Noah Baumbach is generally a willfully sour filmmaker, and much of his oeuvre is not for me.  This oddball, screwball comedy had me off guard from the beginning, and it only gets better as it progresses.  Greta Gerwig’s most appealing  performance is found here (she cowrote the film as well), and I sense some of Peter Bogdanovich’s amiable, quirky, humanistic influence on Baumbach here.

Fitzgerald Family Christmas (2012, Edward Burns)  Who knew after a relatively uneventful 21st century, steadfast Edward Burns would come up with his most emotionally assured and complex movie in 2012?  Funny and real, this one needs to get its head of steam with audiences, as it’s a real sleeper and worthy of attention, and features the great character actor Ed Lauter in his last performance.

Peter Bogdanovich’s Squirrels to the Nuts, his original version of 2014’s She’s Funny That Way, will hurtle right into the upper echelon of this list when it is reissued in its proper Director’s Cut, hopefully in the near future. Until then, a taste to wet your appetite!:

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