The myth that “they don’t make ’em like they used to” persists among many film lovers, but we challenge anyone to watch the 50 movies listed below and not come to the conclusion that cinema in the 21st century is as rich and exciting as it’s ever been. The films selected come from far and wide, including big Hollywood studio movies, indie gems, British corkers and international favourites from many corners of the globe.
The rules? Only one film per director, and each entry had to be a post-2000 release. Most importantly, each film is essential viewing to get a sense of the best of cinema today.
Let the movie marathons commence…
Director Radu Jude
Investigations into prejudice have rarely been as sweeping – or hilarious – as Radu Jude’s Aferim! A western set in feudal Romania, it follows a lawman on the trail of a gypsy fugitive. Teodor Corban’s coarse and good-humoured officer is representative of a film rife with social commentary, but affable in execution.
Appropriate Behaviour (2014)
Director Desiree Akhavan
Graduating from web comedy, Iranian-American twentysomething Desiree Akhavan follows Lena Dunham in taking audacious risks as writer, actor and director in this riotous pseudo-autobiographical snapshot of New York’s lesser-seen hipster and migrant enclaves. The random reveries and deadpan wisecracks fizz intelligently, but the biggest laughs come from the kindergarten film class and Akhavan’s bedroom encounters.
The Assassin (2015)
Director Hou Hsiao-hsien
Shu Qi’s powerful, enigmatic performance is just one of the many things to recommend this stunning film about a female assassin sent to kill a trio of men. Its narrative ambiguity, spellbinding visuals and audacious filmmaking also make Hou Hsiao-hsien’s wuxia fairytale a mesmerising and entirely unique viewing experience.
Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013)
Director Abdellatif Kechiche
While much has been made of its lesbian sex scenes – and the film is undeniably “male gazey” – Abdellatif Kechiche’s drama is actually an intimate and involving study of one girl’s journey into womanhood. Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux are outstanding as the lovers whose physical and emotional connection fuels the narrative.
Director Todd Haynes
The spaces between people – their illusions, longing and loss – are beautifully articulated in Carol, Todd Haynes’ 2015 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel. The frosty, chic Carol (Cate Blanchett), estranged from her husband, lures in a gauche young shopgirl with burgeoning lesbian impulses. Haynes’ autumnal 1950s love story is gently stirring and thoroughly sophisticated.
Computer Chess (2013)
Director Andrew Bujalski
Shot in black and white on analogue video cameras, Andrew Bujalski’s 1980s-set mock doc Computer Chess is a captivating and slyly humorous exploration of technology and spirituality. An annual competition to find the best computer chess program yields a final revelation that moves Bujalski’s already offbeat tale into the realms of the genuinely strange.
Director Anton Corbijn
Having established a career as a photographer and music video director, it seemed fitting that Anton Corbijn made the transition to feature films with this striking, monochrome biopic of tragic Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis (Sam Riley). Stylish, earthy and tender, Control was a fitting tribute to both the music and the man.
The Deep Blue Sea (2011)
Director Terence Davies
The electricity between Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston positively crackles in this period romance from veteran filmmaker Terence Davies, the pair playing illicit lovers in the devastation of postwar London. Set on the day that Weisz’s married Hester leaves her much older husband for Hiddleston’s RAF pilot, their story makes for compelling emotional drama.
Director Yorgos Lanthimos
A leading figure in the “Greek weird wave”, Yorgos Lanthimos shot to international recognition with his second film, Dogtooth. A challenging, razor-sharp and surreal drama about a couple who have kept their now adult children isolated from the outside world since birth, Dogtooth’s vision of familial dysfunction is uniquely disturbing and unforgettable.
Dreams of a Life (2011)
Director Carol Morley
Challenging documentary convention, Carol Morley melds archive footage, talking-head testimony and dramatic reconstruction to investigate how the body of thirtysomething Joyce Vincent could have lain unnoticed in a London flat for three years. With Zawe Ashton exuding vivacity and vulnerability as Joyce, this is a harrowing, heartbreaking critique of modern urban living.
The Duke of Burgundy (2014)
Director Peter Strickland
Set in an off-kilter and exclusively female world, Peter Strickland’s vaseline-lensed paean to Euro-erotica is more about atmosphere than narrative but proves to be an achingly sexy study of passion and the mechanics of everyday kink. As intoxicating as a fine perfume that lingers long in the air.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev
The socially corrosive divide between the haves and the have-nots in modern-day Russia is the catalyst for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s brooding drama Elena. When her ageing husband refuses to provide financial aid to her struggling son from a previous marriage, Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is driven to extreme measures in order to help her child.
Embrace of the Serpent (2015)
Director Ciro Guerra
It may have been shot in black and white, but Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is one of the most vivid depictions of the Amazon on film. An ethnographic voyage into the ravaged rainforest with a suitably laconic and mystical guide, it’s a poetic and psychedelic canoe ride into the heart of the jungle.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Director Michel Gondry
Michel Gondry brings his irrepressible flare to a typically thought-provoking Charlie Kaufman screenplay in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Famous for its love story, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, about trying to erase our pain, it’s sad, funny and jam-packed with inventive visuals and interesting ideas.
Director Lucile Hadzihalilovic
Fans of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin would do well to check out this eerie sci-fi/horror hybrid from French second-time director Lucile Hadzihalilovic. Like a skin-crawling siren’s call, it’s a beguiling dive into murky waters where folklore and body horror go hand-in-hand. As seductive as it is repulsive.
Fish Tank (2009)
Director Andrea Arnold
Introducing a disconcertingly raw strain of lyrical realism to the kitchen sink tradition, Andrea Arnold’s potent council estate drama makes evocative use of its Essex locations to contextualise the gobby, impulsive vulnerability that prompts a 15-year-old aspiring dancer (Katie Jarvis) to trust her mean-spirited mother’s charming Irish boyfriend (Michael Fassbender).
45 Years (2015)
Director Andrew Haigh
British filmmaker Andrew Haigh follows up his celebrated 2011 feature Weekend with another devastatingly astute look at modern relationships. This time his focus is a long-married couple (Tom Courtenay and Oscar-nominated Charlotte Rampling) facing a seismic crisis in their union. Driven by two powerhouse performances, this is character drama at its most compelling.
Frances Ha (2012)
Director Noah Baumbach
Lighthearted and sweet, Noah Baumbach’s finest film stars the irrepressible Greta Gerwig as a wayward twentysomething with aspirations toward being a dancer. Melancholy and optimistic in turns, the film nails the vagaries of life and friendship for a hipster youth in NYC.
Director Céline Sciamma
With its evocative cinematography and blistering soundtrack, Céline Sciamma’s film effectively encapsulates the modern teen girl experience through the moving story of Marieme (an exceptional Karidja Touré). Navigating her way through a depressed, male-gang-dominated estate in suburban Paris, Marieme finds salvation and hope in a new group of female friends.
A Girl Who Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
Director Ana Lily Amirpour
Hip, stylish and reversing gender roles with relish, this femme-fatale vampire film even has a title that sets out its wary feminist intentions. The debut feature from Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a generous stew of influences – including Jim Jarmusch’s stark black-and-white aesthetic and deadpan humour.
The Great Beauty (2013)
Director Paolo Sorrentino
Exquisitely dissecting a superficial society, Paolo Sorrentino’s lament for the tawdry decline of Roman decadence contains coolly melancholic echoes of Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni. Toni Servillo excels as the Dantesque dilettante pining for lost love and wasted talent. But the star of this divine tragedy is cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, whose sublime vistas expose Italy’s moral, spiritual and cultural bankruptcy.
The Hard Stop (2015)
Director George Amponsah
George Amponsah’s documentary The Hard Stop focuses on the police shooting of Mark Duggan, an unarmed 29-year-old from Tottenham, north London, whose death sparked the English riots of 2011. Following two of Duggan’s childhood friends as they navigate the aftermath of the tragedy, Amponsah’s film is urgent, humane and searingly sad.
I Am Love (2009)
Director Luca Guadagnino
Speaking in flawless Italian throughout, Tilda Swinton is characteristically effervescent as the Russian-born matriarch of a powerful Milan family whose long-dulled passions are reignited with the arrival of her son’s friend. Visually sumptuous, the camera drinking in the landscape and food as much as the performances, Luca Guadagnino’s study of uncaged desire is a sensual delight.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski
Pawel Pawlikowski’s homeland debut is an Oscar-winning road movie exposing the relationship between the Communist party and the Catholic church, and the role played by ordinary Poles in the Holocaust. Sombrely photographed in hard-edged monochrome, the journey undertaken by teenage novice Agata Trzebuchowska and her disenchanted apparatchik aunt Agata Kulesza is harrowing, humbling and haunting.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Director Joel and Ethan Coen
Boasting an instant classic of a soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett, the Coen brothers’ low-key masterpiece is the story of creative aspiration and failure set against the 1961 folk scene in New York’s Greenwich Village. Wasted talent is a commonplace tragedy, but Oscar Isaac is stellar as the self-defeating folk singer who suffers it.
Let the Right One In (2008)
Director Tomas Alfredson
Bullied 12-year-old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) has his life changed forever when he strikes up a friendship with an enigmatic new neighbour, Eli (Lina Leandersson). Set in the suburbs of early 1980s Stockholm, Tomas Alfredson’s chilly coming-of-age horror gave viewers a modern vampire tale the likes of which hadn’t been seen on screen before.
Director Jessica Hausner
Sylvie Testud, playing a pilgrim with multiple sclerosis, has a brush with the miraculous in this mischievously provocative inquiry into the role of divine intervention in earthly injustice. Juggling the devotional and the droll, director Jessica Hausner manages to be both subversive and sincere, also tackling themes such as the solace of faith, the psychological stress of infirmity and the commercialisation of spirituality.
Love & Friendship (2016)
Director Whit Stillman
Jane Austen has never been funnier on screen than in Love & Friendship. Whit Stillman may not seem the obvious choice to helm a British period piece, but his dry, sardonic wit and fascination with social mores make him the perfect fit. Kate Beckinsale is a riot – the best she’s been in years.
Maps to the Stars (2014)
Director David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg takes a scalpel to the beautiful veneer of Hollywood in this cutting satire. Here are movie stars as modern-day Dorian Grays, where the industry’s dewy-eyed nostalgia and rampant narcissism decry even the slightest imperfections and define the grotesqueness lurking beneath blemish-free skin.
Morvern Callar (2002)
Director Lynne Ramsay
Upon discovering that her boyfriend has killed himself, the titular central character of Lynne Ramsay’s arthouse drama shuns convention and opts for subterfuge and reinvention. Samantha Morton excels as the unhappy and morally flawed Morvern, who disposes of the body, flees to Spain and assumes authorship of her dead partner’s unpublished novel.
Mr. Turner (2014)
Director Mike Leigh
Boasting a transformative performance from Timothy Spall as British painter J.M.W. Turner, Mike Leigh’s characteristically unsentimental biopic reveals a man as tortured as he is talented. Focusing on his clandestine relationship with guesthouse owner Sophia Booth (a brilliant Marion Bailey), it’s a fascinating insight into both the creative process and the consuming pursuit of recognition.
A Prophet (2009)
Director Jacques Audiard
Blending Bressonian rigour and Jimmy Cagney-esque swagger, Jacques Audiard’s epic prison saga follows a young convict’s (Tahar Rahim) six-year passage under a Corsican mentor (Niels Arestrup) from naive small-timer to ruthless operator. Credible and compelling, this sobering study of the mechanics of organised crime is a damning indictment of France’s failing justice system and fomenting racial tensions.
Second Coming (2014)
Director Debbie Tucker Green
God meets the kitchen sink in Debbie Tucker Green’s intimate and mysterious social drama, Second Coming. The premise is high concept – an immaculately conceived pregnancy – but the divinity here is found in small moments and earthly relationships. It’s nuanced, utterly engrossing, and Nadine Marshall and Idris Elba are both excellent.
Song of the Sea (2014)
Director Tomm Moore
Old Celtic magic pervades every frame of Tomm Moore’s charming and deeply moving Song of the Sea. Swimming in Irish folklore, it weaves various mythic traditions together to craft a simple tale of grief and how to survive it. The already adorable brother-and-sister tale is only enhanced by Moore’s intricate, unforgettable animation.
Son of Saul (2015)
Director László Nemes
The Holocaust remains a vital topic for cinematic treatment, but it’s rare to see it tackled in such bravura fashion as László Nemes’ debut Son of Saul. A bold account of concentration camp life, the camera locks on to the protagonist’s perspective as he careers through the nightmarish industrial machine of Auschwitz. Difficult, but incredible.
Director Tom McCarthy
This best picture winner’s ensemble cast play Boston Globe reporters circa 2001, breaking open the child molestation scandal in the Catholic church. Using the steady pace of old-school investigative journalism as its backbone, Spotlight is unvarnished procedural filmmaking. It gets its thrills simply by unwedging a dirty book from a shelf full of church records.
Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Director Alain Guiraudie
Bold, provocative and expertly constructed, Alain Guiraudie’s Queer Palm winner is a taut drama about lust, loneliness and murder. Sexually explicit, tense and imbued with a black comic streak, Stranger by the Lake approaches its adult themes in a refreshingly mature fashion. In this hermetically sealed, erotic, lakeside world, desire proves to be highly dangerous.
A Syrian Love Story (2015)
Director Sean McAllister
Sean McAllister’s documentary tells of the relationship between Palestinian Amer Daoud and Syrian Raghda Hassan, who met through a hole in the wall of their adjoining cells while they were political prisoners in Syria in the 1990s. Filmed over five years, McAllister’s sensitive film is a powerful, intimate study of the human toll of modern warfare.
Director Miguel Gomes
Retreating from contemporary Lisbon into 1960s Africa and making teasing reference to silent master F.W. Murnau, this chic paean to cinema revives forgotten techniques and storytelling approaches to juxtapose nostalgia and modernity in exploring such themes as colonialism, religion, sexuality and the status of women.
Director Sean Baker
Although set in the City of Angels on Christmas Eve, the glad tidings are in short supply in Sean Baker’s bawdy neo-screwball chronicle of the misadventures of transitioning prostitutes Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. Filmed on modified iPhone 5S cameras to ensure up-close intimacy, this Tinseltown tale feels eavesdropped rather than stage managed.
The Tribe (2014)
Director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
The Tribe is a hard-hitting Ukrainian drama performed entirely in sign language and without subtitles. Not that they’re necessary for this tale of the brutal hierarchy in a deaf school, which is told with breathtaking visual economy and fierce physical performances. The premise is bold, the execution unforgettable.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Director Steve McQueen
Telling the true story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into chattel slavery in 1840 – director Steve McQueen created a work of astounding power. A deserving winner of the Oscar for best picture, it presents a harrowing account of slave life in the American south, without ever losing sight of a sense of hope and humanity.
Two Days, One Night (2014)
Director Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Marion Cotillard was Oscar-nominated for her towering performance as a young single mother who, over the course of one weekend, must convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so she can keep her job. It’s a simple idea transcended to affecting heights thanks to Cotillard’s perfect balance of desperation and determination.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)
Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul
The first film from Thailand to win the coveted Palme d’Or, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s haunting and visually stunning arthouse drama is slow cinema of the highest order. Desperately ill and readying himself for death, Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is the conduit through which Weerasethakul investigates the themes of memory, transition and spirituality.
Under the Skin (2013)
Director Jonathan Glazer
Jonathan Glazer’s decade-in-the-making sci-fi is enigmatic and sublime, multifaceted and unnerving. In a nearly-silent performance of startling power, Scarlett Johansson stalks the haunting grey-blacks of Glaswegian back roads in a transit van, using her powers of seduction to ensnare unassuming men. This feminist parable deserves a place on the list of best films of the 21st century.
Upstream Color (2013)
Director Shane Carruth
Though there was a nine-year gap between the dense and innovative time-travel head scratcher Primer and Upstream Color, it proved to be worth the wait. A narratively complex and experimental science fiction drama in which pigs, parasites and orchids play pivotal roles, Shane Carruth’s ambitious and multilayered second film cemented his reputation as an eye-catching, idiosyncratic talent.
Director Pedro Almodóvar
The team of filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and actor Penélope Cruz always results in cinematic fireworks, and Volver is perhaps the sparkiest of them all. Cruz demonstrates impeccable comedic timing as Raimunda, struggling to cope with the return of her interfering – and recently deceased – mother, played, in typically colourful style, by iconic Spanish actor Carmen Maura.
The White Ribbon (2009)
Director Michael Haneke
Chillingly subtitled “A German Children’s Story”, Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning masterpiece reveals debts to Carl Theodor Dreyer and Ingmar Bergman. It puts a sinister twist on the heimat (homeland) genre to trace the roots of National Socialism to the shocking events rending a bucolic village of the damned on the eve of the First World War.
Wild Tales (2014)
Director Damián Szifron
With tongue firmly in cheek, this Argentinian film features 12 vignettes on the subject of revenge, big and small. From spurned exes to victims of road accidents, the constraints of civilised behaviour are forgotten in exchange for ruthless payback. Whether the incidents are petty or serious, the results are hilarious and genuinely harrowing.
The Wonders (2014)
Director Alice Rohrwacher
Alice Rohrwacher’s intimate feature is a slow-burn coming-of-age story set in the rural Italian countryside. Gelsomina, played with doe-eyed freshness by Maria Alexandra Lungu, is from a family of beekeepers who live an isolated, almost out-of-time existence. When she enters her family into a local TV contest, they chafe against the mores of contemporary Italy.