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20 modern movie masterpieces - contemporary classics, revealed

A fistful of unmissable movies from this century

20 modern movie masterpieces - contemporary classics, revealed
Jon Mundy
31 March 2024

You often hear talk of the movie greats. We’re talking about those films that have carved their names in stone as timeless reference points for the medium – think Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia.

Anointing films to the cinematic pantheon is a lot easier with the distance of time, of course. You only need to glance back at the full list of Best Picture Oscar winners to see that not every highly regarded movie stays the course of critical and popular opinion.

However, there are some films that convince you of their greatness from the off, and which only seem to grow in stature as the years tick on and repeat viewings confirm their legendary status. These modern masterpieces are likely to be part of the conversation in 40 years time.

You can argue the toss about what ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ means within this context. We’ve gone with any film released in the past 20 years for the sake of clarity. Bad luck, class of 2003.

Which of the following films most deserves to go down as a modern movie masterpiece? Be sure to have your say by voting below.

20 modern movie masterpieces

20 modern movie masterpieces

1. The Dark Knight (2008)

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In the early days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, before the world grew tired of its CGI punch-fests and endless quips, the potential for the superhero genre seemed limitless. In 2008’s The Dark Knight, we even got the genre’s very own gritty masterpiece – a film that bore closer resemblance to Michael Mann’s Heat than to Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. Christopher Nolan paints a vivid picture of a modern city beset by violence and corruption, as Christian Bale’s caped crusader confronts a devilish new agent of chaos. Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker is one of the true greats.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

2. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Watch now at Disney Plus

Wes Anderson films can often feel like beautifully ornate evolutionary dead ends, with a highly mannered sensibility and pristine aesthetic that marks them apart while simultaneously limiting their emotional scope. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) is a rare example that gives you the full Anderson – diorama-like scenes, an evident love of European culture, quirky characterisation, arch dialogue – whilst also managing to connect on a human level. This tale of a fabulous European hotel set during the interwar period is arguably Anderson’s best film, with Ralph Fiennes confidently steering the ship as a coolly courageous concierge.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

3. Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Stream now at Studio Canal

Guillermo del Toro may have won Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for The Shape of Water, but it’s the Mexican director’s 2006 debut that stands as his enduring masterpiece. During the Spanish civil war, ten-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) discovers a labyrinth inhabited by a mystical faun, who informs her of her grand destiny. Pan’s Labyrinth’s genius is in the way it contrasts this disturbing fantasy world with the brutal ‘real’ world outside, and has you questioning if and how they intersect. Pan’s Labyrinth is a dark fable that leaves an indelible impression.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

4. Children of Men (2005)

Alfonso Cuaron’s last three films are all masterpieces in their own way, but it’s 2005’s Children of Men that arguably hits hardest. Set in a near-future England beset by impending economic and social breakdown, it tracks Clive Owen’s disaffected office drone as he is forced to engage with mankind’s imminent demise – and ultimately to entertain hope. Featuring a couple of the most bravura single-shot takes in the director’s library (which is really saying something), it’s a film that manages to squeeze all the beauty and ugliness of the human experience into a two-hour sci-fi thriller.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

5. Interstellar (2014)

Films like Interstellar don’t come along very often. Sure, we get our fair share of serious-minded sci-fi flicks packed full of grade-A talent, but completely original productions on the scale at which Interstellar is operating? There aren’t many. Christopher Nolan’s film asks all the big questions about meaning, hope, and love in a big cold universe, and it does so with occasionally operatic bombast. No one here is holding back, from Nolan’s widescreen direction and stunning effects work, to Matthew McConaughey’s emotional performance as an astronaut who must leave his family behind to save an ailing world.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

6. No Country For Old Men (2007)

Watch now at Paramount Plus

As we referenced in the intro, Best Picture Oscars aren’t necessarily an accurate indicator of a movie’s long term standing. However, when your film goes up against There Will be Blood – and wins – you have to take notice. The Coen Brothers created just about as perfect an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel as it’s possible to conceive, with all of the sudden brutality and unresolved tension of the source material. Tommy Lee Jones has arguably never been better as weary sheriff Ed Tom Bell, while Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh joins the top ranks of legendary cinematic bogeymen.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

7. Zodiac (2007)

David Fincher’s adaptation of a book on the real life Zodiac killer case from the 1970s expertly picks apart the labyrinthine details of the case, as well as capturing the paranoia of the time and the destructive obsession of those attracted to this still-unsolved spate of killings. Political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), crime reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), and Detective Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) all find themselves impossibly ensnared by an evasive killer’s haunting coded messages. It’s a film that leaves you feeling as uneasy as you are impressed.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

8. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Watch now at Apple TV Plus

George Miller’s first two Mad Max Films were brilliantly distinctive slices of independent post-apocalyptic fiction, with a pronounced antipodean flavour. The third film (Tina Turner and all), not so much. Even so, nothing could have prepared us for the otherworldly automotive carnage or the practical effects-driven majesty of Fury Road, which saw the series return after a 30-year absence. It came at a serious cost, with a pair of bitterly warring leads contributing to a production process beset by difficulties, but the result is one of the finest action movies ever shot. The prequel, Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga, has a lot to live up to.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

9. Parasite (2019)

Watch now at Netflix

As the first – and thus far only – non-English-language film to win the Best Picture Academy Award, Parasite is something of a trail blazer. It’s also an absolutely fabulous film that speaks to our modern times, and could serve pretty effectively as a time capsule for the early 21st century. It sees a poor yet industrious South Korean family struggling to make ends meet before spotting a devious opportunity to better their situation and upgrade their humble living arrangements. Bong Joon-ho’s class-conscious satire is by turns funny, tragic, and thrilling, but it’s never less than relatable.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

10. Paddington 2 (2017)

Watch now at Studio Canal

It might lack the award-winning heft of other films on this list, but you just try and name a more perfect family film from the past 20 years. We can wait. Written and directed by Paul King, and starring a predominantly British cast, Paddington 2 rewrote the rule book for movies that set out to charm kids and adults alike. In many ways resembling a (mostly) live action Pixar film, it displays a multi-layered sense of humour, magical effects, stacks of heart, and a worthy central message – all whilst managing to remain just the right side of cloying.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

11. Get Out (2017)

Jordan Peel made one of the strongest cinematic debuts in recent memory with Get Out. Part extended Twilight Zone creep-out, part biting social commentary, it sees Daniel Kaluuya’s black photographer visiting his white girlfriend’s family in Upstate New York – and discovering too late that dark plans are in motion around him. As keenly observed as it is entertaining, and with a couple of shots that have already entered into the wider popular culture, it’s the kind of film that’s set to be a reference point for decades of genre-splicing to come.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

12. Ratatouille (2007)

Stream now at Disney Plus

The noughties was arguably Pixar’s golden era, with the Disney-owned computer animation pioneer turning out one generation-bridging smash hit after another. We could probably have picked from two or three for this list (shout out to Wall-E and The Incredibles), but Ratatouille stands as something special. Its premise of a gourmet rat sneakily cooking up a storm in a faded Parisian restaurant feels almost understated compared to the showier films around it. Yet the sheer verve and style of its execution, underpinned by a heartfelt and class-conscious central message, elevates it above its peers.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

13. There Will Be Blood (2007)

In prospector Daniel Plainview, Daniel Day-Lewis created a character worthy of any Hollywood era. Ruthless, blunt, and scarily driven, Plainview perfectly personifies humanity’s fateful obsession with oil. Indeed, this larger-than-life strongman character has only become more relatable in the years since the film’s release. This is no mere Day-Lewis acting showcase, either. Paul Thomas Anderson’s laconic screenplay and austere direction, Robert Elswit’s stunning cinematography, and a haunting atonal score from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, all combine to make There Will Be Blood into the discombobulating assault on the senses that it is.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

14. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Watch now at Netflix

Steve McQueen’s brutal retelling of the life of Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery mid-way through the 19th century, well and truly earned all three of its Academy Awards. Chiwetel Ejiofor injects his subject with heart-breaking pathos, as initial outrage and disbelief gives way to fear and despair, culminating in little but a quiet determination to survive. All throughout, the director portrays the visceral horrors of slavery without flinching, yet also avoids the trap of exploiting or wallowing in the evident misery. It’s quite an achievement, from whichever angle you bring yourself to view it.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

15. The Social Network (2010)

Watch now at Prime Video

Scripted by Aaron Sorkin and directed by David Fincher, The Social Network’s expert skewering of subject Mark Zuckerberg seems to grow more relevant by the year. It tracks the Facebook billionaire from his college days, during which he (allegedly) begged, borrowed, and stole his way to success in the fledgling social media business. The Social Network tells us everything we need to know about the stunted man-babies who seem to seem to set the rules in Silicon Valley – and thus also, to a lesser or greater extent, the wider world.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

16. Nebraska (2013)

Alexander Payne’s gently inspired black and white road movie features a career-best role for Bruce Dern as Woody, the cantankerous elderly father to Will Forte’s put-upon son. These two mournful men set off on a road trip to Woody’s home town in Nebraska. Along the way old wounds are opened, disappointments are aired, and precious little is resolved. Plenty is learned, however, which helps both characters come to at least a partial understanding of one another. In such a bravely unsentimental (yet always amusing and heartfelt) film, this hard-won progress feels like a revelatory breakthrough.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

17. Boyhood (2014)

Watch now at Prime Video

Boyhood might tell a particularly gentle coming-of-age story, but its unique form and structure make it one of the most ambitious pieces of filmmaking ever. Richard Linklater’s movie follows its young protagonist, Mason Evans, from childhood in 2002 to the cusp of college in 2013. The key twist in all of this is that the entire cast remains the same throughout, including Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the parents, with Linklater filming intermittently across the entire 11-year span. No mere gimmick, Linklater’s patient storytelling conceit results in a domestic drama of uncommon poignancy.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

18. Roma (2018)

Watch now at Netflix

It might lack the visual fireworks of Gravity and the virtuoso camerawork of Children of Men, but Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma gains its masterpiece status on different terms. This is a quiet, elegiac, and semi-autobiographical recounting of the director’s childhood in a middle class Mexico City home, shot in rich monochrome hues. All is not well within this privileged household, as marital infidelity disrupts the peace for four pampered kids. Really, though, the movie belongs to Yalitza Aparicio’s Cleo, the family’s young live-in maid, who has to juggle her duties with her own far more pressing personal problems.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

19. Call Me By Your Name (2017)

Watch now at Netflix

With a screenplay from James Ivory of Merchant Ivory fame, adapted from a novel by André Aciman, and directed by Luca Guadagnino, Call Me By Your Name oozes sensuous appeal from every pore. Set during one hazy ’80s summer holiday in the life of a privileged young French-Italian boy (Timothée Chalamet), it sees Armie Hammer’s carefree archaeology graduate breezing in and sweeping our protagonist off his feet. It might concern matters of the heart, but Call Me By Your Name zooms in on the fine detail of first love and sexual awakening with consummate precision.

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20 modern movie masterpieces

20. Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight follows young Chiron from a tough upbringing in Miami through to a misbegotten adulthood dealing drugs in Atlanta. Along the way we learn how Chiron’s complicated family life, a childhood beset by violence, his closeted sexuality, as well as a handful of key positive relationships have shaped the way he is. Writer-director Barry Jenkins has produced a beautiful film here, aided by three outstanding performances from the actors representing each stage of our protagonist’s life. Mahershala Ali richly deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar award for the role of Chiron’s understanding mentor.

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