Remember the golden age of Hollywood? Back when cinemas weren't stuffed with commercialized films that appeal to the masses?
Decades ago, Hollywood had a knack for putting out films with a grand sense of purpose without even trying. Today, movie theaters are full of superheroes and blockbusters that are more for escapism and raw entertainment—which isn't, of itself, a bad thing.
The kinds of movies that get pumped out today aren't always the same as what got made decades ago, but if you look around enough, you'll find that there are plenty of excellent modern films—ones that are even challenging—that stimulate the grander questions of life.
Here are my picks for modern films from the 21st century that we believe will come to be seen as masterpieces.
8. Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Ang Lee's movie about two cowboys who meet on a rural cattle job and fall in love with one another is more than just a story of two homosexual men being represented in cinema.
Brokeback Mountain is a deeper story of regret, repression, and the guilt that comes when you live a way of life that leaves no room for two men to love one another.
The two leading performances by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal stay with you long after the credits roll, with Ledger's Ennis Del Mar an example of one of the finest performances in cinema history.
Next to them stands Michelle Williams' electric performance as Alma Del Mar, who eventually finds out the secret truth behind her husband's interactions with Jack Twist.
Brokeback Mountain is already recognized as a masterfully made film, but in the years to come it'll be remembered as a film that anchors a pivotal moment in the history of LGBTQ+ storytelling.
7. Drive My Car (2021)
Here's the first Japanese film to win an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture at the 2022 Oscars. Drive My Car garnered international acclaim for its deep story and raw emotion beneath its surface.
It follows the story of a great theater director who loses his wife, taking us through his experience in directing a new play while being driven around by a young woman who surprises him with her dedication to her job.
The bond that forms between the two is spellbinding, as are the complications of their lives. Ryusuke Hamaguchi's film is the work of a master auteur, and Drive My Car will come to shine for generations as an example of excellent 21st century filmmaking.
6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Already considered a masterpiece of the modern age, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has endured two decades and still remains one of the most complex films about how deeply one can feel for another.
The tale of Joel and Clementine is a narrative that's been imitated many times since its release but hasn't been equalled. As Joel's memories of Clementine are removed from his brain, the film's strength rests in the emotion at play in Charlie Kauffman and Michel Gondry's story.
They aren't star-crossed lovers. They don't make a good couple. But a love does exist between Clementine and Joel, one that's engrained deeper within them than just the mind—and it's that connection that keeps them coming back to one another.
The concept and premise of this film are ageless. It's completely human, which is why it'll always be a classic.
5. Inside Out (2015)
Pixar retained a team of psychologists while working on Inside Out to make sure that Riley's emotional state came across as wholly realistic.
The result? Inside Out is a stunning achievement in human psychology and a story of one's loss of youth amidst the confusion of growing up.
As Riley loses the ability to feel joy in her life—thanks to an error in her emotional core—she begins to break down as a person. She misses the home she's left behind and the friendships that have been an intricate part of her childhood.
In the years to come, Inside Out will attain the same level of status as Spirited Away, which is an immovable milestone of animation history, a nexus point that changed the perception of the storyform.
We dare say that Inside Out is an achievement on the same scale—one that will show other animators in the future how to properly convey human turmoil amidst a fantasy plot.
4. Interstellar (2014)
Christopher Nolan's Interstellar met with an overwhelmingly positive connection with general audiences, even if its critical reception endured a more muted embrace.
As a film that conceptualizes the end of life on Earth and the need for a team of astronauts to find a new home elsewhere, the depth of plot and science fiction should've been confusing... but it wasn't. Interstellar was simple enough to follow yet still challenging.
Whenever there's a film like this—one that meets strong reaction from the general public but shaky reception from critics—we can expect a critical reevaluation to come in the near future.
In the case of Interstellar, when that moment of reevaluation arrives, I really think it'll come to be seen as a wholly original expression of sci-fi and a film that attempted to be unique in a homogenized age.
3. Parasite (2019)
Bong Joon-ho's film Parasite has a strong case for being the best film made this century. It upends the idea that a film must adhere to one or two genres; instead, it blends many contrasting themes into a complete story that makes a bold statement about class structure.
When an impoverished-but-clever family work their way into becoming the help staff for a wealthy family, Parasite begins to unravel the dark secrets of their beautiful house and to expose the dark humor to be found in the details of the twisted story.
The way Parasite moves through its themes with intensity has an effect that isn't commonly found in modern cinema. It shows the way forward for complex moral questions in movies, and it's an achievement that will only be emphasized in decades to come.
2. The Tree of Life (2011)
The Tree of Life has a fully rounded concept that epitomizes how director Terrence Malick sees the world. It's the clearest indication of what Malick wants the audience to feel when watching his work.
Starring Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life showcases the struggles of Jack O'Brien and his upbringing under the watchful eye of his punishing father and his warm, embracing mother.
But The Tree of Life is more than that. It also explores the birth of the universe, the beginning of time as we know it, using that imagery as a tool to explain the life of a suburban Texan family in the 1960s.
As a filmmaker, Malick has proven himself able to find true meaning in the finer aspects of everyday occurrences—and with The Tree of Life, he expands on his thoughts of life, youth, and adulthood with a film that's as profoundly beautiful as a film can possibly be.
1. Your Name (2016)
Your Name is a film that has come to symbolize the modern art of anime. It takes inspiration from works that came before it, all while discovering new avenues to explore in its own way.
As two teenagers from different places realize that they've started swapping bodies multiple times per week, they work out the lives of the other using their different genders and worldviews. However, they quickly realize that they're also falling in love.
The fantasy element of the film draws out the emotional experience with a strong potency while keeping the narrative gripping until the final shot.
Makoto Shinkai's film is everything that's great about Japanese anime: wondrous, dark, beautiful, emotionally enthralling, without shying away from adult themes.
In the years since it released, Your Name has only grown in stature, proving itself to be more than just an anime film. It's a cinematic masterpiece that has inspired viewers all around the world.