The “Best of the Best” Are Pretty Bleak

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The BBC recently polled 177 film critics from around the world and asked them what the “best” films of the 21st century are. They came up with a list of 100, naturally, and the results were pretty dispiriting.

I mean that quite literally, by the way. The films I’m familiar with that made the list are, by and large, bleak and depressing slogs. Entertainment? Hardly. As Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote for Salon, “If there’s something we can all agree on, it’s that film critics sure do love unrelenting sadness.”

Mulholland Drive from 2001 was No. 1, followed by the 2000 Chinese film In the Mood for Love and the 2007’s grim There Will be Blood (one of the first movies I reviewed for Plugged In, incidentally). Things grow darker as the list goes on, with such laughfests as Children of Men, Shame, City of God and The Act of Killing landing spots. Looking for nice children’s fairy tale? Well, there’s the dreamlike Pan’s Labyrinth, an R-rated fantasy about a little girl who winds up (spoiler alert) dying. A musical perhaps? Critics liked Moulin Rouge, apparently, though the lead character in that dies tragically as well. A nice superhero flick? Naturally, The Dark Knight made the list. All you need worry about there is a nihilistic supervillain who stabs people in the head with a pencil. Comedies are as rare here as the Mewtwo in Pokemon Go.

“These are beautiful, poignant, challenging works,” writes Williams. “Also, a lot of people die in them. If you are thinking about adding ‘watch every film on the 21st century’s greatest film list, in order’ to your bucket list, I should warn you it’s going to get pretty dark as you blaze through The Pianist, The Headless Woman and Spotlight, or when you hit those double features of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and Dogville, or Melancholia and Amour.”

But the list is not all irredeemably depressing. Four Pixar films made the list: WALL-E (No. 29), Inside Out (No. 41), Ratatouille (No. 93) and Finding Nemo (No. 96). Add Hayao Miyazaki’s dreamy animated 2002 film Spirited Away (No. 4), and there are more movies that won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature (five) than won an Oscar for Best Picture (three: No. 88 Spotlight, No. 67 The Hurt Locker and No. 10 No Country for Old Men).

Also interesting: International critics tend to dig directors with the last name “Anderson.” Both Wes Anderson (who made the list with Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Inherent Vice, The Master and There Will Be Blood) earned three spots on the list, which ties both with the Coen Brothers (No Country for Old Men, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Serious Man) for the most films.

You can check out the full list here. And, if you feel so inclined, tell me what you think about it.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Posted by First Comment Guy


Inside Out and The Dark Knight are my two most all time favorite movies. IMO, they should be the top two, but hey, at least they made the list!


bobed More than 1 year ago
I don't think the list is "a slog." The fact that a movie isn't roses and unicorns doesn't make it a "slog." All the movies I've seen on that list are challenging, interesting, thought-provoking, fantastic films.
Andrew Gilbertson More than 1 year ago
Finding Nemo but not The Incredibles? Bah, a worthless list not worth the time it takes to read, then.

But in all seriousness (well, I am kind of serious about that, actually ;-)  ), I've been bemoaning this trend in films for years. Hollywood needs to pull out of its post-9/11 funk- because even if that's how our world seems, we don't need the dark, grim misery to pervade our entertainment, too. But when one looks at adventure films from the 90s (The Mummy, The Rocketeer, etc.) or even comedy/dramas (like Father of the Bride, Part II)... well, our modern film industry doesn't seem capable enough of abandoning its need for gritty suffering to make the former nowadays, nor able to divorce itself enough from cynicism for the latter. Films can't truly be lighthearted; even the zany comedies and bright adventures are tinged with melancholy and suffering.

The image I have to encapsulate the modern adventure film is a protagonist smudged and covered in soot, forearm beared, marked with bleeding cuts (because how else do you show that he's suffered enough to 'earn' a victory in modern filmmaking), pulling himself along a bare slab of rock while cinder or ash rains down around him, and heat-waves shimmer in the camera foreground. (In an urban setting, substitute broken glass and rising smoke). And that seems to be our brand of escapism nowadays; the closest we get to wide-eyed, escapist fun.

It's why I think so many modern remakes fail; filmmakers can't get themselves into a lighthearted enough mindset to actually capture the spirit of the original. Anything without a catch, a cost, a betrayal, or a murky tone of pessimism is seen as almost naive or simplistic- given a condescending pat on the head the way we look at people who used to believe the Earth was flat. Even family franchises like Superman or Star Trek (whose new TV series is talking about how many boundaries it can push without network censors and hardly sounds like a kid-friendly affair) are being yanked out of kid-friendly territory, as if some all-important-in-the-history-of-the-world generation that grew up with these franchises have dragged them into adulthood with them, forcing the properties to 'grow up' as they have (and never mind the NEW generation of kids that might want to be able to enjoy them as well). And of course, this is a trend we encourage because 'mature' (which is seldom anything of the sort) content is seen as some sort of bizarre mark of *quality*, as little sense as that actually makes.

The 21st century has been a dark, dismal seeming place as the seemingly-unsolvable problem of terrorism (which feels as if it will be a neverending siege that you can never truly know if you've actually resolved) dawns on a previously-content, post-cold-war-celebratory culture that thought it had finally seen the end of living in the shadows, and an increasingly-moral (or trying to be) populace polarizes and strains and tears at itself by moving ever-further along very differing paths that they believe represent morality yet are the anathema of morality to their neighbor... it makes sense, geopolitically and culturally why this time has been so dark. Life CAN feel overwhelming as massive trends beyond our control reshape what is seen as normal, good, safe, right, or reasonable in the world around us.

But for our entertainment to go there, too- to do nothing but reflect that, even in the most escapist fare- and for society to embrace that as a 'maturation' of the medium, something to be praised as it helps us reinforce our tailspin into darkness, is a sad and scary thing. Instead of something we can turn to to forget, movies have become a constant reminder of the darkness and violence and hopelessness felt by many; overtly in some, as subtle undercurrents in others- reinforcing fears, whispering 'Yes, it really IS that bad out there'... just generally depressing. And that's not a good thing. Even when it's not overt, you can feel it; a subtle undertone of darkness, a lack of lightheartedness that you don't even notice until you watch something older, something free of that same heavy cynicism.

Between this and content concerns, my household is increasingly turning to pre-millenium media for our entertainment... but I'd much rather see media trends reversed than simply abandoning the modern cinema entirely. It would be nice if we could have some beacons of hope, and laughter (and egads- a cultural sense of humor that's actually FUNNY again, rather than the truly pathetic shticks that pass for comedy these days), or simply escapism again... something you can turn on NOT to depress you when the news feels too heavy to watch.
bobed More than 1 year ago
The Incredibles is a great superhero movie. As for movies in general, I don't think it deserved to be on the list. Maybe it could be number 101?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Smith.

What makes a movie great? I would suggest depth, subtlety, craft, humanity -- all traits which, for the most part, elude typical escapist fare. The critics were not, in this case, looking for solid entertainment; they were asked for the very best. Escapist films were simply outclassed.

And I don't think that this is unique to the 21st century, either. All-time great escapist films (Star wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Princess Bride, etc.) were always hard to come by, particularly if one required that they entertain and nothing else. Life will often sneak into art; even the great Disney classics were shaped by the motto, 'For every laugh, a tear.'
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by Peggy Carter

Yes, it is true that there is a lot of unhappiness and darkness in modern films, and while occasionally I will take issue with it, I think that it is merely natural for the filmmakers to do so...think about it. How many of us haven't gone through hard experiences where we really wished we could take it like a hero, but simply couldn't? Suffering is real, and no one wants to watch a perfect movie where the characters never feel pain or hurt because it's simply not realistic. I know that due to several hard experiences in my own life, strange as it seems, I resonate most deeply with movies that have sad endings and tough situations.
All that being said, I do agree that some movies' darkness is unnecessary and over-the-top.
Neil MacInnis More than 1 year ago
Yes because movies like Robocop or Wrath of Kahn were so light hearted. Sorry but your comment feels similar to Clint Eastwood's comments recently about racism. The fact is we are all dark and broken people and even films before 9/11 recognized that darkness. Tim Burton's career started in the 90s post cold war pre war on terror and yet all his films are dark and slightly sinister. As a member of the millennial generation that loves old films and new you have to take it from me that I see things as they actually are from the past including The Mummy a film which can be summarized thus: An evil undead sorcerer steals organs, uses black magic to replicate the plagues and tries to bring his love back to life via magic and human sacrifice but hey there's slapstick and witty banter and no one looks horribly injured so it's a bright cheerful film. Do you see why I disagree on your perception of darkness being new in even escapist fare? The fact is it reflects our dual nature and yes in some instances we've gotten darker but in others we've gotten brighter and more cheerful. We've begun to mock the idea of the pointlessly macabre and are more involved in our mass entertainment media due to the internet. Escapism is still thriving in most Pixar movies and Dreamworks films and even some Marvel movies. I'd actually argue all Marvel movies because modern escapism is about identifying right from wrong and good and evil and having good win. Civil War being the only exemption from that rule in Marvel's movie line up.
Andrew Gilbertson More than 1 year ago
I never claimed that there wasn't dark fare; heck, I think Robocop is absurdly, unenjoyably dark, and I can't understand how anyone enjoys it. Yes, there's been brutality. Yes, there's been melancholy. My point was never that there wasn't. Neither of the movies that you named are films I would consider escapist fare.

My point is that, form my perspective, that's all we're getting. There are no 'Gone Fishin's or 'Father of the Bride's; we're too cynical, and our comedies are too saturated in sex, immaturity, and unfunny banter. There are no The Mummys or Rocketeers or Indiana Joneses- no adventures whose tone (regardless of subject matter) are light. We've traded in our fun, quippy Bond for a secret agent series that highlights torture, pain, and death. (And yeah, it's probably a good idea not to treat the taking of life so casually; but the way it chooses to dwell). we've traded our optimistic Christopher reeve Superman for a brooding, miserable Man of Steel. And even the movies you name, such as PIXAR's and Marvels, are not the same as they were. PIXAR's work is melancholic in a way that their early films weren't (arguably, the original Toy Story excepted), and Marvel... you're going to tell me that Iron Man 3, with its PTSD and electric-pole-strung corpses, and Captain America and its conspiracy plot weren't dark? Even Guardians, the 'funny one,' is undergirded with a dark, brooding visual aesthetic and tone. It's on the 'escapism' end of the spectrum, but in terms of actually recapturing the boundless enthusiasm or lighthearted cheer of previous decades' escapist movies? Doesn't even come close.

And yeah, I enjoy Guardians despite the darkness... but I'm left wanting for something whose tone, whose underlying visual aesthetic and and script's tone (apologies for using that word twice; I couldn't think of an appropriate synonym) are not, at their heart, dark and pessimistic, or at least seemingly skeptical of actual optimism and happiness and hope and success. It feels as if movies are standing there nowadays with arms crossed, scowling 'That just seems too easy.' Or 'happily ever after? Pffft. Yeah, right.' Or 'Sure, the heroes can win- but what does it COST them?' And yeah, those kinds have movies have always been around. But my point is that these days, I don't believe we're getting anything else. While those kinds of dour views have always had a share in Hollywood, it now feels like they have a monopoly. Sure, there are some films that are lighter or more optimistic than others... but the scale's been re-calibrated. There's a maximum of allowed carefreeness, of escapism... and even in the lightest movie, that level is never allowed to get anywhere near the level it reached during the 20th century. 


Look, I see from the comments that a lot of people disagree; that's fine. If you don't feel a weight of despair subtly radiating from pretty much every entertainment our society produces, a need to seem 'mature' by rejecting any too-good-to-be-true notions of optimism, then all the better. You're probably having a better decade than I. :-)   But for me, when I go back to what came out before, I can see the difference. And I do think our films- just like our culture- have taken a turn into the darkness since 9/11, and have never come back up... not to the level of peace or hope that they had beforehand.