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The Definitive List of Modern Classics
Modern. Classic. There’s something wonderfully hostile about those two words together. Warning! Spoilers may follow.
As fans of classic cinema (we recommend Mark Cousins’ wonderful book, The Story of Film for further reading about the beginnings of the movie industry), it’s easy to disregard anything not made more than 20 years ago of having no chance of being considered a classic. After all, modern films are often judged against so called ‘classic’ films, as if an era long since passed is still the best source of our benchmarks.
Whilst this can be true, storytelling evolves and the techniques for creating those stories evolves further. In the last ten years we have indeed been treated to films which will long outlive their creators and almost certainly be deemed classics in years to come, each leaving a very unique impact.
Below we look at ten films from the past ten years, which we feel will rank comfortably amongst the greats.
Inception (Dir: Christopher Nolan, 2010) IMDB
A dream, within a dream. This is how Christopher Nolan must view his career in film thus far. Virtually untouchable, Nolan has risen to the very top of the pile, widely regarded as the world’s best living director. What separated Inception from many other mind-muddling films is the sheer scale. The visuals in Inception create a world where anything is possible and, like our dreams, limits and boundaries are removed with disdain. To bring this to life on the big screen required a director who thrives on creating scenes that live long in the memory and a director of photography creative enough to go on the journey (in this case, Wally Pfister, who was also the DOP on The Dark Knight trilogy.)
Inception is a complex story and one of which neither time nor audiences will tire. Often films are criticised if they are too complex but Nolan’s masterpiece pulls you under, forcing you to watch again and again, desperate to hear the exposition you missed so you can claim to be one of the few who understood it.
Whiplash (Dir: Damien Chazelle, 2014) IMDB
One reason that this film will remain a classic is for the Oscar-winning performance from J.K. Simmons. A character so unlikable and, like all monsters, so malleable that at times you think he’s changed for the better, compounding his evil further when he proves you wrong. Think of Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Another reason is the film’s writer/director, Damien Chazelle and its editor, Tom Cross. The jazz music is brought to life with fluid directing, mixing macro shots with Tarantino and Wes Anderson-inspired camera movement that is further anthropomorphised by an edit that is as accurately cut as the snares and hi-hats in the film are played. The music sequences are a filmmaker’s dream to watch. Add to this a story where the stakes couldn’t be higher and it’s almost like watching a thriller set to jazz music. Seek out the short film version that was made prior to this, which was well received at Sundance and allowed Chazelle to get the funding he needed to create the feature.
There Will Be Blood (Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson, 2009) IMDB
Legend has it that when Damon Albarn of Blur was once asked what he thought about the song “Wonderwall” by fierce rivals Oasis, his response was, “I wish I wrote it.”
That’s how many filmmakers (us included) feel about Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Daniel Day-Lewis is exceptional as Daniel Plainview, the lonely oil man with a determination to see no one else succeed as he lies and cheats his way into communities solely for the purpose of stealing their resources.
The landscape is barren. There is a 17-minute opening scene where there is no dialogue. Then suddenly the film bursts into life. Daniel-Day Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance is both terrifying and relatable. A loner, obsessed with victory, skeptical of those who try to befriend him. The story may be excessive in its violence, dolloping on more drama than is perhaps realistic, but make no mistake – this is the age-old story of greed told from a seething and selfish point of view. I don’t know if this film would be on this list were it not for Day-Lewis, an actor that can do no wrong (save for the musical Nine) but it more than earns its place on our list.
12 Years A Slave (Dir: 12 Years a Slave, 2013) IMDB
A friend once said that this film was “bleak beyond measure.” And it is. But it’s also not. Bleak beyond bleak in terms of subject, based as it is on the memoirs of the real Solomon Northup, but also as an accurate and sobering depiction of a period of history that is not far removed from present day. Both in terms of the intervening time between the days of legal slavery and now, as well as continued race relation struggles in America between police and black communities. Nothing changes but the seasons, or so it goes.
It’s also a film that goes someway to removing any Hollywood romanticism, and this is welcome. It should be bleak. It should be shocking. It should disgust us. Though we don’t wish to see a woman whipped mercilessly and incessantly and without reason, or a man hung by his neck, only able to stand on his tip toes to stay alive (a static shot that lasts a harrowing 3 minutes, but feels more like 30), it is important that a filmmaker is brave enough to show the world the truth, to represent history as accurately as possible. British director Steve McQueen, picking as he does subject matter that is enthralling, does just that. It is uplifting, for we see another Brit, Chiwetel Ejiofor, take on the mantle of a leading role in a wonderful film, and excel.
Blue Jasmine (Dir: Woody Allen, 2013) IMDB
Woody Allen is a writer/director so appreciated for his beginnings, and often overlooked for his more recent endeavours. His films never quite have the publicity that other, perhaps lesser films, are afforded. Save for Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, you may struggle to name another Allen film from the past ten years. And yet he is as prolific as ever. Blue Jasmine (which is so wonderfully cast, and features a one of Britain’s finest, Sally Hawkins) is a tale of rags to riches, a story of comeuppance and a reminder that nothing is perennial. Allen’s writing allows Cate Blanchett’s character, Jasmine, to flit between wealthy socialite and down and out has-been, from scene to scene, edited as the film is between present and past. It is often said that in cinema, nobody likes to see wealthy, good looking characters succeed, and so we begin to watch as Jasmine’ seemingly perfect world begins to unravel, the clues given to us piece by piece. Jasmine tries to cling on to her past, as her future begins to look more and more desperate, and in doing so is bordering on delusional. A case can be made that her character suffers a mental breakdown, so caught up in her own web of deceit, that she knows not what is fact or fiction any longer. It’s Woody Allen proving that limelight means nothing, talent will prevail. And it’s a cast so powerful, that this story will have you too wondering what happened to Jasmine, long after we fade to black.
The Dark Knight (Dir: Christopher Nolan: 2005) IMDB
Nolan is on our list once again and for all the right reasons. Nolan took a franchise that was a series of popcorn movies and turned them into acclaimed films. He overhauled the genre and turned Batman into a gritty and realistic character, creating a world where cartoon villains had menace and purpose and vitriol.
The trilogy is a fantastic achievement, but The Dark Knight is the jewel in the crown. Heath Ledger as The Joker, a performance that rightly won him a posthumous Oscar, steals the show. He plays the character with just the right amount of humour and just the right amount of terror, balancing on a tightrope right between the two for much of the film. He is the perfect villain, needing no money and no incentive. He just wants to watch the world burn.
Prisoners (Dir: Denis Villeneuve, 2013) IMDB
Speaking as we were about classic films, there’s something Hitchcockian about Prisoners, a thriller in an era where thrillers aren’t the popular genre. They’re too easy to get wrong and quite difficult to get right. Tension is a difficult emotion to elicit from an audience, without the easy bag of tricks that comes with making a horror film (music, loud bangs, a ghost/monster/alien). Prisoners is perhaps one of the tensest films to come out of Hollywood in many years. Jake Gyllenhaal, excellent in everything he does, is a driven and reclusive cop who makes it his mission to track down a missing girl. His manner is so different from the demure characters he has played before that it feels like we’re watching the metamorphosis of a good actor into a great one. This is a classic thriller in an age when not many are being made; a film where the edge of one’s seat is never more occupied.
Her (Dir: Spike Jonze, 2013) IMDB
Her feels like a Black Mirror episode. It feels like a warning. Technology already consumes our energy and time, that much is clear. But how about our affection?
This has already begun with dating apps, chat rooms and camera shows, but Her looks slightly further ahead. As our lives become more dictated by our TVs and computers (see The Network (1976) for an even earlier warning) and we become more withdrawn, less socially-adept, and more reliant on machines, this film posits the possibility of living in a world full of people and finding love, laughter and friendship in synthetic life. Her is especially relatable to our generation and, as technology embraces artificial intelligence, it’ll continue to be for generations to come. Art imitating life, imitating art.
Under The Skin (Dir: Jonathan Glazer – 2013) IMDB
Where to begin?
This film is remarkable for its use of hidden cameras, with many characters in the film played by unwitting member of the public. On more than one occasion the film relies on these people to move the story along as Johansson stays in character, come what may.
Her portrayal of the alien is unlike anything she’s attempted before but it’s the boldness of the direction that makes this a classic. It may have polarized audiences with its story but the intention is clear and it’s executed to near perfection. Watching it a second time, knowing the techniques, knowing that many people were not complicit, is to witness the birth of a new form of filmmaking. It’s a documentary-come-film, it’s an observation of human kindness/cruelty, it’s a story of compassion at one end, and a complete lack thereof at another. Love it or hate it, it deserves our attention. And it certainly deserves to be a modern cinema classic.
The Departed (Dir: Martin Scorsese – 2006) IMDB
Classic gangster films. They don’t make them like they used to. Or, more accurately, nobody can make them like Scorsese used to. Except for the man himself.
The Departed was a refreshing reminder of what Scorsese is capable. Like a fine wine, his filmmaking capabilities have aged well and The Departed certainly ranks amongst his greatest efforts. As we previously wrote, it’s very easy to look into the past and compare this negatively against his earlier work. However, if Goodfellas, Casino et al are classics in their own right, then this must be considered a modern classic.
Scorsese’s trademarks are everywhere: long takes, hidden trivia (characters who appear near X’s in the films are destined for death), corrupt authority figures, and my favourite, the rat at the end of the film signifying Damon’s double crossing.
A classic. A film about gangsters… and it’s modern. Only Scorsese.
Inside Llewellyn Davies (Dir: Joel Coen – 2013) IMDB
The Coens are perhaps the most consistent filmmakers alive. Film after film, they create a completely unique world. And film after film, it is received well. A testament to originality and artistic integrity.
In Llewellyn Davies they have created a desperate character, one who exists solely for our enjoyment. Yet it’s not funny (or at least, not overridingly funny). To watch a man on the cusp of success only to find himself slightly too late – or too early – on the folk scene is heart breaking, time and again. He’s a solo musician with a grudge against the world, forced to take jobs his talent doesn’t deserve whilst travelling the country trying to sell himself, a box of unsold vinyls in tow. We’ve all been there.
The cinematography must receive special mention, for each scene paints and repaints his mood and the stifled time period in which he is stuck, unappreciated, undervalued and unlucky. This truly is a contender for the best film the Coens have ever made.