Watch any one of the below 21 films with family and loved ones for a jolly good Christmas.
Christmas is just round the corner! Christmas is an awesome time to get together and enjoy each other’s presence. What better way to do so – besides having a Christmas dinner – than to cozy up and watch films together?
But what exactly makes a film tick? What kind of films captivates one’s soul and leaves us wanting more? Is it an epic, timeless plot that inspires? Is it by purely awesome acting? Is it the beautiful visuals and cinematography? Or is it the film score that deals the home run?
For me, a good film has to possess all – or at least most – of these qualities in order to cement its position as one of 21st century’s greatest, most captivating films. But beyond that, the beauty of these films lies in the fact that you can watch them again and again, and not tire of it. Below are 21 of the most captivating 21st century films to watch over this Yuletide season.
Do note that as there are simply too many films that ‘should have’ made the list, some of your favourite films may not appear in it. Also, every reviewer has his own bias, and may not have watched every single film, hence his choices subjective. Nevertheless, these 21 films are in my opinion, some of the most beautiful and captivating films in the past 15 years. Enjoy!
#21. The Hundred-Foot Journey
Displaced by a political dispute back in India, the Kadam family finds an abode and eatery business in a little town in Midi-Pyrénées, France. They don’t receive a welcome from Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), the proprietor of Michelin starred Le Saule Pleureur. An epicurean war erupts between the two establishments until they find common ground in Hassan Kadam (Manish Dayal), the talented chef.
Everything about The Hundred-Foot Journey was delish and on point. I love the cinematography, acting, film pacing and score. Some may call The Hundred-Foot Journey pretentious and disastrous, I like it that the 2014 film is one that celebrates diversity in culture, love, and kinship. I do find the third act (spoiler alert in 3,2,1: where Hassan goes to Paris) too draggy, anti-climatic and unnecessary.
The Hundred-Foot Journey is based off Richard Morais ‘ 2010 novel of the same name and is scored by A.R. Rahman.
“I didn’t know where I was going until I got there” uttered Cheryl Strayed. These words would resonate with just about every human being that has gone through hardship – that makes all of us, I guess.
Reese Witherspoon plays recently divorced Strayed who goes on a 2,650 mile hike off America’s Pacific Crest Trail despite her lack in hiking experience. Healing in that process, Strayed deals with the divorce, grief from losing her mother, and her own self-destructive behaviour.
Give your soul a much-needed vacation, and watch Jean-Marc Vallée’s 2014 biographical drama film. Wild is based off Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
#19. Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer tells of the story of a boy with a supernatural sense of smell, who set out on a bizarre journey to create the ‘perfect perfume’. He found his answer in the scent of women and started his quest to perfect the perfume by collecting the scent of thirteen women – after killing them.
Gripping and haunting, the 2006 German film concludes with a twist that nobody would expect. I chanced upon this film by pure coincidence on local television and was immediately spellbound by the plot. The film is based on Patrick Süskind’s 1985 novel titled Perfume and whose hauntingly ear worm score scored by Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek and Tom Tykwer.
#18. Inside Out
Once in a while, screenwriters come out with really good and independent scripts that’s not taken from a book. That is found in Pixar’s Inside Out. Riley is your average teenager who moves to San Francisco away from her friends. Riley’s emotions (Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger and Fear) tries to help her navigate through this tough period but things goes south when Joy and Sadness gets sent to the far-reaches of Riley’s mind.
Personifying emotions into characters was ingenious. What better way to explain how we deal with challenges than through how we deal with our innate emotions? Inside Out hits you hard on the feels and leaves you all warm and fuzzy on the inside. After all, emotions is something we can all identify with. It’s no wonder it’s a big hit with both children and adults.
Inside Out is directed and co-written by Pete Docter who got the idea for the film when he noticed changes in his own daughter’s personality as she grew up. The 2015 film is scored by Michael Giacchino.
#17. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
What if you could grow young instead? Brad Pitt plays Benjamin Button, a freak grandfather-child who grows younger with every day that passes by. One may think that growing younger (and looking more dashing) is the dream, but with it also presents its own set of difficulties.
Button weathers through many of life’s challenges but realises he is not destined for a normal family life because of his condition. Ironically, Button matures into an infant while developing dementia, losing awareness of the life he’s lived like that of an elderly man.
The 2008 romantic fantasy film is directed by David Flincher and loosely based off a short story by the great F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is scored by Alexandre Desplat.
#16. The Pursuit of Happyness
The most strongest material on the earth isn’t Wolverine’s adamantium but something we all possess; the human spirit. If there was a film that exemplifies that, The Pursuit of Happyness is it. Will Smith plays Chris Gardner, a homeless salesman-turned-broker who succeeded in an unforgiving San Francisco by sheer determination and willpower.
We all know Will Smith as the goofy guy in Man in Black or the smart-ass bloke in Independence Day. But for me, Smith delivers an award-winning performance portraying the downtrodden father. Was it the scene where the broken Gardner and his (real) son locked themselves up in the subway toilet for a place to stay, or the sweet intimate moments shared by the father and son?
Ultimately, The Pursuit of Happyness reminds us that come what may, we can reach a state of happiness as long as we don’t give up in pursuing it. The 2006 film is loosely based off the life of successful broker, Chris Gardner, directed by Gabriele Muccino and scored by Andrea Guerra.
Hollywood continues to push the envelope of science fiction cinema, dabbling with concepts such as space, time and even dreams. Corporate thieves Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) extracts information from their targets using an experimental military technology that allows them to infiltrate minds via shared dreaming.
The film gets a little crazy as the duo assembles a team to perform the (almost) impossible task of inception; planting an idea in a person’s subconscious. The most difficult tasks for today’s filmmakers is to develop a compelling story plot that glues audiences’ attention but isn’t overly complicated to comprehend. Inception casts a spell on us viewers with its complex narrative that both confuses and intrigues.
The 2010 film by director Christopher Nolan went viral and created a social media firestorm as viewers debate over DiCaprio’s totem and dream state at the end of film. Inception is also written by Nolan and is scored by legendary composer Hans Zimmer.
#14. The Grand Budapest Hotel
There is this charm in candy-coloured The Grand Budapest Hotel that I can’t put a finger on. Implicated for a crime he did not commit, Monsieur Gustave H. escapes with his lobby boy Zero Moustafa while in pursuit by a ruthless assassin.
The cinematography is simply gorgeous and I love the use of candy colours throughout the film. The Grand Budapest Hotel is one multi-layered cupcake-of-a-film that keeps you entertained and in awe for a long time. The 2014 comedy film is directed by Wes Anderson and it’s whimsical score scored by Alexandre Desplat.
#13. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
There is an apt saying that “Old is gold”. 2012’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel make difficult themes like growing old (and death) look a thousand times more uplifting. A group of British pensioners travels to a retirement hotel run by eager beaver Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) where they found that the hotel isn’t the best and exotic hotel it claimed to be.
In that process, the pensioners finds gold in the form of companionship and love. I like how director John Madden and screenwriter Ol Parker breathes new life to the theme of growing old through the powerful connoction of love and comedy. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is bound to be one of the timeless classics that will charm your socks off though I can hardly say that of its sequel. Scored by Thomas Newman.
“Because, this might be an adventure! And I’ve never had one before, not outside of books at least. And I think we should be very… clandestine”, utters Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Those words captivated my heart. 2011 British-American film Hugo represents the beauty of cinema-watching; for a good’ol adventure.
Orphan Hugo sets out on a quest with the toy-shop owner’s goddaughter to repair and unlock the secrets of a broken automation, the last legacy left behind by his decreased father. The film pays tribute to pioneer filmmaker and illusionist Georges Méliès.
It’s a real pity Hugo didn’t do quite well in the box office. Hugo is directed by Martin Scorsese, scored by Howard Shore and is based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
#11. Spirited Away
Spirited Away is undoubtedly one of the best and most important animated film with the best music in animated film history. For a film so rich in symbolism from egoism, good and evil, Spirited Away hides a not-so-pleasant meaning; prostitution and children’s early exposure to sex in Japan (click here to read more).
In the film, Chihiro Ogino is trapped in a magical world where she slogs for a bathhouse under a new name (Sen). She meets Haku, deals with a spirit that sought to bribe her and almost cause her parents to be slaughtered. Ogino must save her parents and remember her name – an act of recovering her innocence – in order to escape the magical world.
The 2001 animated fantasy film is written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and its haunting music composed by Joe Hisaichi.
It’s hard to argue with the internet saying that ‘Pixar told a better love story than Twilight in 8 minutes’. Up is the atypical feel-good story of widower Carl Fredricksen, an elderly man who sets off on a journey with his house – attached with tens of thousands of helium balloons.
He is accompanied by an unexpected visitor, Russell a young Wilderness Explorer who made helping the elderly Fredricksen his mission. The duo is met with adventure beyond their wildest imagination.
The 2009 animated film is directed by Pete Docter and scored by Michael Giacchino.
#9. The Theory of Everything
James Malsh’s 2014 biographical romantic drama film is less about science than it is a love story. Eddie Reymayne plays the immensely talented Stephen Hawking opposite love interest Jane Wilde Hawking (Felicity Jones).
Cambridge University astrophysics student Hawking has it all; a good family, bright future, and a newly-acquired love interest. This would have been the classic love story but alas, things don’t always work out our way does it? At age 21, Hawking discovers that he suffers from an early onset of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that left him with a life expectancy of two years.
Despite pushing everyone away including his love, Jane convinces Hawking that they will be happy together. Putting aside her own studies to focus on Hawking, Jane takes care of his every need and that of their three children while Hawking pushes on with his theories.
The Theory of Everything reminds us that love is really a silly idea but is also the very thing that makes life worth living. Ironically, I thought that the film also made Hawking a jerk for betraying Jane after all that she had done for him.
The Theory of Everything is adapted from the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane, and beautiful music scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson.
#8. Ilo Ilo
Whew! A Singaporean film made it on this list! 2013 family film Ilo Ilo depicts the life of the Lin family and their new domestic helper Teresa (Angeli Bayani) in wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Father Lin (Chen Tianwen) loses his job, Teresa bonds with the Lin’s only son Jia Le (Kor Jia Ler) thus invoking the jealousy of mother, and the family struggles to make ends meet.
While Ilo Ilo chronicles the typical life of many Singaporeans in search of a better life, it also reveals the difficulties and stereotypical bias many Filipino (and foreign) domestic helpers faced in working in foreign country. Work isn’t work anymore when you’re at it 24/7.
As the maid and the family grows closer, the relationship between the two transforms from boss-employee to something much more intimate. ‘Nudity’ is portrayed in the film with a scene of Teresa bathing Jia Le, making that moment a poignant one. Ilo Ilo is directed and written by Anthony Chen.
#7. Life of Pi
Is there a film that could make you ‘believe in God’? The Life of Pi makes a good contender for the position. Pi Patel is a victim and sole human survivor of a shipwreck catastrophe stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Ironically, the dynamics between him and Parker is the very thing that keeps Patel alive for the 227 days that he is stranded at sea.
Exploring themes on spirituality and faith, checked. Stunning visuals of whales and calm seas, checked. Extremely realistic and lifelike CGI Richard Parker, checked. There’s so much going on in The Life of Pi that you need to re-watch it to gain a greater appreciation and understanding. Never mind that the ocean at times doesn’t seem to have any waves at all, the cinematography and visuals are simply gorgeous. I’m lapping in every drop of it.
2012’s Life of Pi is the triumph for every film adaptation, reflecting not only the author’s content but his imagination. The film is directed by Ang Lee and is based off Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same name. Scored by Mychael Dyanna. To read more about the themes explored in the film, click here and here.
#6. How to Train Your Dragon 2
The sequel film was set five years after the vikings have made peace and domesticated the dragons. While exploring new lands, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless finds love in his once-presumed-dead mother, new dragons, and an enemy that could destroy everything that they have hold dear.
Immensely darker than the previous film, DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon 2 was a gamble that paid off. Unlike other animation films (for kid audiences), Hiccup was a damaged character in which he lost a foot and had to deal with (spoiler alert) the loss of kin. But I love how director Dean Deblois did not shy away from presenting hard issues even to his young audiences.
I’m not a big fan of animation but the film restored my faith. The world isn’t all cotton floss, but you can still find strength and hope in spite of it. The 2015 film How to Train Your Dragon 2 is based on the book series by Cressida Cowell and scored by John Powell.
#5. Ex Machina
In filmmaker Alex Garland’s morbid but very-plausible near future, artificial intelligence not only attains self-awareness, but has the ability to love, to manipulate, and to overwrite the three laws of robotics (sorry I, Robot).
In the film, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) interacts with Ava (Alicia Vikander), an artificial intelligence humanoid prototype and has to determine if Ava passes the Turing test; a test to evaluate the AI’s ability to exhibit human intelligence.
A film almost exclusive to pure dialogue, Ex Machina dazzles even without the usual explosions and pyrotechnics present in just about every other science fiction film, making it one of the foremost Sci-Fi film of all time.
The 2015 film is written by Garland himself and music composed by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow.
#4. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The traveller in me connects with every frame of the 2013 adventure fantasy film. Ben Stiller plays Walter Mitty, a negative assets manager who goes on an epic transcontinental journey to find O’Connell and the missing 25th negative.
Mitty almost gets himself killed twice in that process – by an erupting volcano in Iceland and a shark attack off Greenland. As absurd as it is, The Secret Life of Water Mitty reminds us audiences not to view life through a lens, but to experience it for oneself. I like that Mitty uses a external frame backpack rather than the more convenient internal framed one. It’s like he’s making a subtle point.
“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is directed by Stiller himself and is loosely based from James Thurber’s novel of the same name. The film’s epic score is composed by Theodore Shapiro and features Swedish singer José González.
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down, and worry about our place in the dirt.” Space is the final frontier and Interstellar reminds us of all its wondrous possibilities.
Widowed former NASA pilot Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) lives in a world that was degenerating. Taking a chance, Cooper leaves behind his family to travel through a supermassive black hole in search of a new place to safeguard humanity’s survival.
Science fiction films especially those on ‘space’ are a tricky theme to tackle because of the technicality which scientists always seem to find fault with. Interstellar manages to tread through difficult waters, delivering quite a stellar performance that checks out fine with scientists and has the dramatic narrative that doesn’t bore us viewers.
I like how space-time paradox is brought into the mix through space-time singularity. The final moments quite literally left me in the edge of my seat.
The 2015 film is directed by Christopher Nolan and scored by none other than Hans Zimmer.
#2. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
How often do you want to live in the world of the film you’ve just watched? I will choose Narnia anytime. Evacuating London due to the German bombings during World War II, the Pevensies arrives in the country home of Professor Digory Kirke where they find a magical wardrobe leading them to another world.
Betrayal arises, war erupts, and the Pevensies must muster their every courage to battle evil. Very seldom can you feel the ‘magic’ in watching a film, but The Chronicles of Narnia does just that right from the moment that Lucy steps into the snow-covered winter wonderland.
Accompanied by the enchanting music composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, watching the 2005 film is akin to opening a box of Turkish delights which I will savour to the last bit.
I’m ready for Narnia, take me there Aslan. The first of the fantasy film series, the film is based off the children’s book series of the great C.S. Lewis.
#1. Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas is one mammoth-of-a-film, combining 6 different story plots of 6 completely distinct eras into a 3-hour film. The earliest timeline begins in 1849 with the last era taking place in post-apocalyptic 2321.
In each of the timelines, the protagonist(s) of the period experiences moral dilemmas and crises that could result in cataclysmic repercussions, affecting either a few people, countless many, or even generations to come. As the protagonists of each timeline reaches the climax, each must make their decision which may be at a personal expense. “My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?” said Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) from 1849 timeline.
What’s also interesting is that the characters who appear across different eras could be a hero in one, a villain in another. Exploring the threading of human kindness and action in hindsight, Cloud Atlas is by far the boldest film adaptation to grace the silver screen.
The 2012 film was directed by Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer and Andy Wachowski and is based off David Mitchell’s 2004 novel of the same title. Cloud Atlas was scored by Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil and features the devilishly captivating Cloud Atlas Sextet which is easily the greatest song ever composed in my book. RW