The Conversationalist: Which 21st Century Films Are The Classics Of Tomorrow?

By Spencer & Sumeet. In this week’s Conversationalist, Spencer and Sumeet get into a little modern film history with a discussion about which films of our generation will be the ones that really matter.

Spencer: Distance offers perspective. So the closer in time you are to a piece of art, the harder it may be to judge its lasting worth. Sometimes you need years or even decades to appreciate a film, whether that’s because it was a work that was ahead of its time, or whether its just that the longer it resides in your memory, the more it stands out in comparison with what came next. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the list of Best Picture winners over the past few decades. How many movies on this list are utterly forgettable with the benefit of hindsight? The King’s Speech. Crash. The English Patient. The Last Emperor. Oliver. How Green Was My Valley.

Meanwhile, here’s some films that lost the Best Picture Oscar (or weren’t even nominated): Saving Private Ryan. Pulp Fiction. Goodfellas. 2001: A Space Odyssey. Vertigo. Chinatown. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. F—in’ Citizen Kane!

So I recognize that in 20 or 30 years the movies we discuss here might seem laughable. But we’re far enough into the 21st century that I think we can at least start to ask the question: what are the films from 2000 onwards that, when we look back, will be the most historically important? The ones that are the most memorable, the most influential, the ones that will live on while others are forgotten — the “best” films, for all the ambiguity that term contains?

I’ll give you first crack at the question, Sumeet. What are two or three of your nominees, and why do you think these ones will stand the test of time?

Sumeet: I made the mistake of trying to jog my memory by searching the interwebs for various lists of top movies of the 2000s. This wasn’t a great idea because it only pointed out how difficult a task it is to choose just two or three. Ultimately, I decided to just go with the first three movies that popped to mind when I heard the word “best,” acknowledging that I’m ignoring a series of blockbuster movies that in many ways defined the past franchise-centric decade of filmmaking (X-Men, Spider-Man, The Dark Knight, Iron Man, Harry Potter, and — possibly most offensively — The Lord of the Rings). I’ve also realized my list ignores pretty much every Best Picture winner of the 2000s, but I’ll hazard that speaks more about the modern Academy than about me (Chicago and Crash, really?). Without further ado:

Memento_posterMemento (2000). There aren’t many movies that truly stretch the boundaries of storytelling technique, but Memento is certainly one of them. Christopher Nolan took everything in the modern filmmaker’s toolbelt — flashbacks, color/black-and-white, every camera shot imaginable, and even voiceovers — and turned it into a time-twisted, character-driven thriller that could be a movie textbook in and of itself. I won’t say too much because everyone should see it for themselves. The first time working through the mystery was one of the most enjoyable movie-watching experiences I’ve ever had but the fact that it’s still immensely rewatchable after knowing its twists and turns speaks to just how brilliant and inventive Memento was. You can also add in the historical importance — for superhero movies at least — of putting Christopher Nolan on the map in time for the Dark Knight trilogy.

HLposterUSA2The Hurt Locker (2008). While I can’t say I enjoyed The Hurt Locker more than some other Best Picture winners of the 2000s, I still believe it was the best of them and likely to be the most historically important. Not only did Kathryn Bigelow become the first woman to win Best Director (a well-deserved prize), but I believe The Hurt Locker will end up being the movie that defines the second Iraq War for future generations. I didn’t enjoy watching it as much as other Oscar-winners precisely because of how well it captures the grittiness of the desert and fills it with this uncomfortable IED- and PTSD-driven tension (sadly, I think those two acronyms are two of the major legacies of our most recent war). Without getting too political, it’s also just an incredibly performed war movie all around.

l_1049413_0faf87e5Up (2009). Spencer, I know you’re going to hate this because of your feelings towards animated movies, but even if it’s just a kids’ movie, Up is a work-of-art. The dialogue-free first ten minutes are perfect visual storytelling. Ed Asner is a national treasure who voices a wonderful, sweet old curmudgeon. And watching him interact with a house floating on balloons, a slightly annoying kid and a squirrel-obsessed talking dog is just fun. Pixar at its best is better than almost anything else out there, so I’m gladly giving them my third spot. Do your worst but I’m standing by this one.

Spencer: I’d maybe go the opposite way on your first point: a Google search only hits home how few classics we’ve really made in the 2000s. While independent filmmakers are producing works that rival any era, those movies are small and aren’t seen by many — which, I feel, hurts their case as truly historic films. Meanwhile, mainstream moviemaking has declined into an embarrassing mediocrity. I think this is why the Oscars have lost so much appeal. Mainstream Hollywood isn’t offering up any Forrest Gump’s or Schindler’s List’s that are suitable for widespread consumption, so the Academy has gotten in the habit of showcasing films that, while they may innovate, seem to have little chance of being remembered in the decades to come. That’s precisely why I find this question so interesting.

So moving on to your nominees so far, let me start with The Hurt Locker, because it’s a prime example of what I was just talking about. I saw The Hurt Locker and thought it was a fine, suspenseful, well-directed film. The subject matter was timely and important. It gave us a great actor in Jeremy Renner and made us pay attention to a long overlooked directing talent in Kathryn Bigelow. And yet I feel completely confident in predicting that we’ll barely remember it in the end. The main reason? It’s not the kind of movie you watch more than once. Rewatchability is, to me, a key component in our equation.

As for Up, I haven’t seen it, so my comments will be minimal. But based on reputation alone, I don’t disagree with you for including it. If you’re looking at animated movies, I think an even better case could be made for The Incredibles, which was hugely influential on both animation and action films. (In fact, I still think it was a huge missed opportunity that Star Wars Episode VII was given to J.J. Abrams instead of Brad Bird. I worry that Abrams is going to give us an overthought, convoluted plot like he did with the last two Star Treks, while Brad Bird would have just focused on making these movies fun again.)

I’m right there with you on Memento, because it’s one of my absolute favorite movies, though I will add a bit of a qualification. It definitely possesses the quality to be a classic, and I think a lot of us who consider ourselves to be more than casual movie fans have seen it and will remember it fondly. But it was a bit of a cult film, and other than setting up Christopher Nolan for his groundbreaking work to come, I’m not sure what influence it will have on other films.

dark_knight_ver12_xlgWhich brings me to the first of my own nominees: The Dark Knight. This one, I think, covers all the bases. It made comic book movies into art thanks to its complex moral questions and the Oscar-winning performance of Heath Ledger. It changed the way comic book movies are made, shifting the tone from whimsical to deathly serious (a change some would lament, but I enjoy, at least as an alternative to the more fun-filled Marvel pictures). And literally everyone saw it. I have no question that, years from now, it will still be watched the same way you or I watch Star Wars or Jaws or Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

You mentioned The Lord Of The Rings in passing, but I think those films (considered as one work, perhaps) should most definitely be on our list. They check all the boxes. Huge audience and big-time rewatchability. Artistic flair and strong direction. Innovative visual effects that won’t look hokey or dated over time. An Oscar-winning pedigree. Any particular reason you feel that blockbusters like LOTR or TDK don’t fit the bill of what we’re looking for?

Sumeet: I will say I was very tempted to put The Dark Knight on the list, or even just “Christopher Nolan.” For starters, I think people underestimate the importance of Batman Begins, which should get credit as really setting the stage not only for The Dark Knight, but also for Casino Royale, Iron Man, and the now-standard model of at least attempting to have a richer, grittier, more cerebral superhero movie. Captain America 2 was a commentary on government surveillance for crying out loud! With that said, The Dark Knight is the best manifestation of the modern superhero movie and Heath Ledger as The Joker is one of the all-time great performances. You know I love TDK and I’m happily willing to concede its place on the list.

I’m not sure I feel the same way about The Lord Of The Rings. Before I move there though, I’ll just briefly restate that my struggle was coming up with movies I felt would truly be “classics” — with the level of gravitas that term implies. Memento, even with its cult status, seemed to fit the bill. I liked The Hurt Locker because I think it’s a movie that — in part due to its subject matter — could at least be more appreciated with age. In terms of the animated features, this may not quite be the right criteria for “best,” but I’d choose Up to share with my future kids over The Incredibles any day. Even though the latter is genuinely a lot of fun and may relate more to the action blockbuster arena (I wouldn’t overestimate its power here though — MI-4 is a great popcorn flick but will be forgotten), Up is simply better moviemaking.

The_Fellowship_Of_The_RingNow, to LOTR. As alluded to, for my choices generally, I tried to lean a bit more towards predicting historical importance than focusing too strongly on rewatchability. In other words, The Dark Knight and Lord Of The Rings are of the same ilk as Raiders Of The Lost Ark, but are they like Citizen Kane? Citizen Kane was not financially successful in its first run (or at the Oscars) and even today is generally only watched and enjoyed by the most committed film aficionados. However, it’s also widely accepted as revolutionary in its technical and artistic achievement and as possibly the most influential movie ever produced. While certainly not at that level, there’s an argument to be made — for the reasons you pointed out — that The Dark Knight represents an important and influential artistic achievement (at least within its genre). I don’t see it with The Lord Of The Rings though. The LOTR movies didn’t feature brilliant performances or establish the next Harrison Ford. They had an expansive vision and even bigger special effects budget, but they didn’t utterly change the rules of the game in terms of storytelling or technical filmmaking. They are ultimately just a better production of the same mousetrap. As much as I like them, I have a hard time casting them as one of the all-time “best.” I also have a hard time believing anyone in a younger generation will ever sit through 3-4 hour movies, but that’s another thing….

Spencer: Okay, let’s go ahead and throw The Dark Knight in there. As for LOTR, I see where you’re coming from now — but I do think you’re underselling the historical importance of the film. Part of that importance is that I’m referring to it as “a film” and not three films. This is a single movie, split into three parts, and it achieved something on a scale that no other film had done before. It redefined “epic.” It made us rethink how we look at movie franchises; now the idea is increasingly to have one seamless story rather than a series of one-off, unrelated installments. (LOTR didn’t invent that, obviously, but I think it did it at a higher level than any movie series before it). And I do think that future generations are going to watch these movies the way we watched Star Wars or even The Wizard Of Oz.

O_brother_where_art_thou_ver1Now that we’ve discussed the mainstream blockbuster side of the equation, let me turn to a few prestige pics that I think will stand the test of time. One is O Brother, Where Art Thou?. There are certain technical reasons it was influential (most notably that it was the first movie to use computer-generated tinting to modify the color scheme into this sort of hyper-reality that is now fairly commonplace in movies). But its tone and subject matter are also unique, yet influential. I think it broke the doors open for the kind of “quirky” indie movies that are now routine — for better or for worse. Again, it wasn’t the first, but it was a turning point.

There_Will_Be_Blood_PosterAnd what about There Will Be Blood? I struggle with whether it belongs on this list. As art, I think it’s nearly unparalleled among the last two decades of movies. I think critics will always love it, the way they love the works of Ingmar Bergman or Jean-Luc Godard. Which is to say, I wonder whether regular people will remember it? I think maybe Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance will be the decisive factor. But maybe that’s wishful thinking just because I’m particularly fond of this movie?

Now let me offer up a few other nominees that I don’t think meet the test. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is an amazing film, and usually loved by those who have seen it. But I also don’t think anyone goes back and watches that movie now, much less a few decades from now. No Country For Old Men seems to have aged badly, due in large part to the unsatisfying ending; I think a lot of people have sour memories of it. Children Of Men is Alfonso Cuaron’s best movie, and made the best-of-the-decade lists for nearly every critic I’ve come across — but I know so few people who have even seen it (which is a damn crime, because it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen — period). And Almost Famous, while it’s another personal favorite of mine, seems to have already fallen out of popular memory.

Sumeet: Glad we could firmly agree on at least one for our list! I see where you’re coming from on LOTR and I won’t harp on it much longer because I actually do really like them as movies. I’ll just say its very nature as a franchise epic might make it feel worn out down the road the way things are trending (see The Hobbit) and — though this could just be my personal bias — as much as I like the movies while I watch them, they just don’t have the classic compelling characters or scenes of other epics like Star Wars that I remember much more vividly. But that’s perhaps an unfair comparison; in the epoch of the 2000s, LOTR is definitely upper tier.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a choice I really like, though from what I gather from friends who have seen it (or rather those who have not), it’s very much a cult classic. I agree it brought a lot of originality and popularized a new style for the indie scene, but it’s sadly probably going to be “remembered” more through movies that imitate it than by folks who actually watch it. I unfortunately can’t comment on There Will Be Blood, though it’s on my short list of movies to see next, along with Children Of Men. For the latter, I agree it’s more of a critic favorite but I’ve at least had more than a few people I know tell me it’s one of their favorite movies of all time. That could just be the crowd I hang out with, but if it’s any gauge, it might mean Children Of Men could benefit from a revisiting and a resurgence in the years to come.

children_of_men_ver3_xlg no_country_for_old_men_xlg Eternal_sunshine_of_the_spotless_mind_ver3 almostfamousThe other three you mention (Eternal Sunshine, No Country For Old Men, and Almost Famous) I fully agree fit the category of close-but-no-cigar. I liked No Country For Old Men for taking a sort of Western movie plot and giving it an eerie, violent tone (epitomized perfectly in Javier Bardem’s performance), but that very emphasis on tone also makes it pretty inaccessible and hard to watch more than once. Eternal Sunshine and Almost Famous were kind of the inverse; in their own different ways they both captured feelings that resonated profoundly with our generation. I place Garden State in this boat also, which is a movie I think almost everyone our age saw and went gaga for within a few years of its arrival, but for which the excitement has died down considerably since then. It’s a really interesting subset of movies that I think will be fondly remembered without being rewatched or carried over to future movie watchers.

Well, I think that about covers my choices and thoughts on best movies of the 2000s. Now that we’re closing, I will send a joking shout-out to Fast Five because it’s absurd and I love it, but as far as realistic “best” movie choices go, I’m going to give us a pat on the back for coming up with a strong selection to talk about. We’ll just have to wait and see what time (and perhaps a few commenters) say about our picks….

10 thoughts on “The Conversationalist: Which 21st Century Films Are The Classics Of Tomorrow?

  1. Great discussion, Sumeet and Spencer. As I was reading through the conversation, “Inception” immediately came to mind as a possible nominee. It certainly seems to fit the criterion of rewatchability for the obvious reason that the plot itself demands a second and third review. With this being said, however, after you’ve exhausted yourself on the plot, I’m not sure there is much “classic” material left over. After the movie first came out, I know I spent a significant amount of time debating the finer points of the plot with those who’d seen it. This generated more debate than the vast majority of movies I’d seen in a while, but I tend to agree with Sumeet that there is something more necessary to reach the level of “classic.” I’d be interested in your respective thoughts on where “Inception” falls.

    • I actually thought about including Inception. Why didn’t I? For one thing, we’d already done Memento and The Dark Knight, and I didn’t want this to be a complete Christopher Nolan fest (thought maybe it should’ve been — if nobody else is stepping up to the plate, why not reward the guy who is?). I think Inception is fantastic — it’s one of my favorite movies of the decade, no doubt — but if there’s an argument to made against including it here, it’s that I think the movie hasn’t had the same staying power. I know few people who still talk about it now that the initial shock of it has worn off. I kind of want to go back and watch it again now, though. Every time you see it, you notice something new.

      Also, FWIW, I was just reading from someone who claims to have seen a rough cut of Interstellar (Nolan’s next pic, with Matthew McConaughey, coming out in November) that it’s Nolan’s best movie yet. I’m drooling at the thought of that….

    • Yeah, I was pretty serious about “Christopher Nolan” being a reasonable answer to the question. When “The Prestige” is the worst movie you’ve made, you’re operating at another level (“The Prestige” admittedly is likely to be forgotten down the road but still an interesting watch and fundamentally sound movie). I agree with everything that’s been said about “Inception.” It’s a fantastic movie, one of my favorites, and one of Nolan’s best, but now that I’ve gone through it a few times, I find the best way to watch it is with people who haven’t seen it–or who have only seen it once–so I can latch on to their initial excitement and start the debate all over again. The ending “what happened?” question is brilliant and I can still argue about it for hours, but the twist doesn’t necessarily make the movie itself more rewatchable once you have down the major plot points. So perhaps it’s best viewed as a niche classic from a great director, like a lesser known Hitchcock film (I make this analogy without knowing a good example of a lesser known Hitchcock film to use, but you can fill in the gap).

      I also can’t express how excited I am about Interstellar. Cerebral Christopher Nolan taking on time-twisting space travel…I will be there opening night!

  2. @Sumeet – I think Inception is more than just a niche Nolan film, so as the resident Hitchcock expert, I’ll offer up what I think is the best analogy within his filmography: The Birds. It’s iconic, it’ll go down as one of his best, but it remains just a hair behind his true masterpieces (Psycho, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Rear Window), in part because it’s just a little more disposable as flashy entertainment rather than artistic statement. If you want to stick with your niche assessment (which I think slightly undervalues Inception) in future conversations, though, and want a Hitchcock example to back it up, maybe go with Suspicion or Dial M For Murder — films well-received upon their initial release, but which faded from memory a little more when compared with his other works.

    Oh, and there’s no debate. The top kept spinning.

  3. One other option which we only mentioned in passing, but which maybe belongs on our list, is the Harry Potter series. Any doubt that those ones are rewatched for generations?

    • @Spencer, “niche” may not have been the right word (especially considering Nolan pretty much only directs movies intended for summer release), but “not most iconic” is what I was going for. I think you got the idea though with your Hitchcock references.

      Harry Potter will most certainly be rewatched and they’re definitely some of my favorite movies. My one problem with calling it a classic movie (which may also explain my bias against LOTR) is that much of the fandom is tied to the popularity and excellence of the books. Harry Potter movies are great entertainment in their own right and do a really good job of capturing the essence of the books, but still ultimately kind of pale in comparison. That said, they’re still going to be watched and there are easy examples of things that ended up being both classic movies and books (e.g., To Kill a Mockingbird). Harry Potter isn’t quite on that scale artistically, but it’ll stick around as a set of movies worth remembering and rewatching.

  4. My classics have to be character/dialogue driven. I enjoy great action but that is not what brings me back to repeat viewings. When I think about current classics I think of directors because if I hear one of my favorite directors has a new one coming out I get as excited as a Cavs fan yesterday. These 5 directors have done some great work in the 00’s and I feel you could call a number of their works as instant classics. ( I’ll just pick one from the 00’s)
    Wes Anderson (Royal Tenembaums, but Grand Budapest is right up there)
    Cohen Brothers (O brother where art thou)
    Alexander Payne (descendants or sideways)
    Clint Eastwood (Gran Turino)
    Edgar Wright ( Hot Fuzz)
    I’d add Nolan but you guys got him covered
    Also Paul Thomas Anderson ( punch drunk love)
    A last shout out to high fidelity one of my all time favorite movies

    • We didn’t really get into Wes Anderson, and I think he’s one of those love-’em-or-hate-’em type directors. Personally, I love him. Rushmore (arguably his best) was from the 90s, so it’s disqualified, but I think The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom are both fine films.

      Alexander Payne is seriously underrated. I missed Nebraska, but Sideways is one of the great forgotten movies of the 2000s.

      Where you lose me is Paul Thomas Anderson. Obviously we included There Will Be Blood, which is just a masterpiece, but the rest of his 2000s work was, in my mind, lousy. He substitutes pretentiousness for meaning. He just tries too damn hard. Punch Drunk Love, Magnolia, and worst of all, The Master — every scene feels like it’s dripping with purpose, except it’s not. It’s all meaningless. It’s the facade of art without anything underneath.

      • I don’t have much personal knowledge on either Anderson, but from what I do know I have to agree with Spencer. Wes appeals strongly to some, but is just too quirky to a lot of other people (I’m caught somewhere in between but I’m remembering mainly Darjeeling Express–too quirky–and Moonrise Kingdom–loved it). The only Paul Thomas Anderson movie I’ve seen so far was Punch Drunk Love and I found it somehow both extremely boring and nauseating at the same time (I may have been too young to appreciate it though).

        I really do like Alexander Payne though. Nebraska was a bit much, but The Descendants and Sideways are amazing. Unfortunately, it seems like his popularity is limited mainly to critics and filmmakers, but his movies still certainly have the potential to break into being remembered as some of the “best” in future generations.

  5. I saw punch drunk love in the theater and LOVED it. Something about it just spoke to me the whole love being able transform even the most awkward of men. I probably should not have included PTA because I don’t love everything he’s done but Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood are two great movies of this current decade or two. No love for Edgar Wright? Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, even Scott Pilgrim was damn good in my eyes.
    Also if you have yet to see Grand Budapest Hotel you need to do so immediately!

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