Every year I start off by exploring some of the most notable films celebrating a certain milestone or anniversary and, oh boy, does 2021 have quite the class of films turning an astounding 20 years old this year.
This list is going to make a lot of people, myself included, feel very old. The year was 2001 and little did we know at that time that we were seeing the dawn of a decade filled with franchises and iconic features that would define a generation, many of which debuted in only the second year of a strong ten-year stretch. In 2001 we saw two of the most legendary fantasy film franchises make their debut on the big screen, a green ogre give Disney a run for its money, Pixar bring its own iconic monsters to the screen, a heist film about fast cars launch one of the most successful action franchises ever, Denzel Washington win an Oscar for challenging King Kong and a dark loner named Darko inspire a whole new generation of pretentious film buffs just to name a few.
So today I’m going to celebrate the 20th anniversary of these memorable films which also happen to be among the most iconic features to come out of the 2000s and would go on to redefine not only viewer expectations, but the entire industry for years to come. They’re not really in any order other than based on their lasting cultural impact and individual legacy. Let’s turn back the clock! These are the Top Ten 20th Anniversary Films of 2021.
While it’s not Christopher Nolan’s first movie this was the feature that put the soon-to-be iconic director on the map introducing audiences to his creative visual style and approach to storytelling. The narrative follows a man with short term memory loss trying to solve the death of his wife, tattooing new discovering and clues onto his body every day to preserve his findings. The non-liner and timeline-based storytelling would become a staple of Nolan’s career. While it technically debuted in 2000 at the Venice Film Festival, it made its major market debut in March of 2001 and qualified for the 2002 Academy Awards where it earned nominations for its screenplay and for film editing. “Memento” has only gained respect in the years following its release due to Nolan’s increased celebrity serving as a great introductory film for newcomers to his unique approach to filmmaking.
9. “The Fast and the Furious”
The original “The Fast and the Furious” movie was definitely a product of its time. Hot babes, fast cars, and an early performance by Vin Diesel helped make this a hit in 2001 for viewers seeking escapism entertainment. The narrative introduced the world to Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner, a cop tasked with hunting down the culprits in a string of vehicle hijackings led by Diesel’s Dominic Toretto, arguably the most iconic character in what would become a franchise. The reason it’s lower on this list is the first movie hasn’t aged very well and wasn’t initially build to spark the franchise that resulted, but it’s what followed over the next 20 years, now reaching its ninth main installment in 2021 and tenth film overall grossing almost $6 billion to date, that has cemented it in film history. While subsequent films have been better, louder and more entertaining it’s hard to deny credit to the movie that started it all way back in 2001.
If you ask even casual viewers about foreign films from the 2000s “Amélie” is likely to be one of the first movies they mention. A French film, “Amélie” is described as “a whimsical depiction of contemporary Parisian life” and tells of the titular character who deals with her own isolation while also trying to change the lives of those around her for the better. “Amélie” has carved out quite the legacy for itself remaining to this day the highest grossing French-language release of all time and one of the biggest success stories in international film. As a result it has also become one of the most iconic foreign language pictures in mainstream cinema inspiring a musical and even serving as an inspiration for the 2007 ABC American TV show “Pushing Daisies”. The film further cemented its legacy with five Academy Award nominations in 2002. Today it remains among the most celebrated and recognizable foreign films in modern cinema.
7. “Training Day”
This famous crime thriller won Denzel Washington his second Oscar for acting and first for Best Actor and produced numerous memorable moments and one iconic line where Washington’s character challenges King Kong’s supremacy. Focusing on two LAPD narcotics officers (played by Washington and Ethan Hawk who also earned an Oscar nod) during a 12-hour period where one officer’s corruption is put front and center, “Training Day” has become a staple of 2000s pop culture with its reputation as an iconic crime film lingering into the 2010s resulting in a TV spinoff and greenlighting a yet-to-be-filmed prequel about Washington’s character. It also acted as a quotable springboard for the both Hawke and Washington to continue their successful careers into the 2000s for a new generation and sparking the relevance of Director Antoine Fuqua and writer David Ayer who also wrote the screenplay for the aforementioned “The Fast and the Furious”.
6. “Donnie Darko”
One could say “Donnie Darko” revolutionized the artistry of filmmaking introducing the world to a whole new level of psychological science fiction, but nobody can deny its importance as an independent film. Richard Kelly’s 2001 mindbender has become one of the most notable cult classics of the 2000s and despite being shunned by audiences early in its existence it has gone on to be called one of the best independent films ever spawning endless theories into its unanswered questions and symbolism. It also made Jake Gyllenhaal a superstar thanks to his performance as the titular character who helped an entire generation of cynical young adults feel understood, or at least feel accepted as being misunderstood. For two decades now this movie has divided people between it’s importance or its pretentiousness, kind of like any form of fine art these days. Regardless, everyone who has seen it has an opinion and it’s an easy conversation starter in cinephile circles even today.
5. “Monsters, Inc.”
Believe it or not in 2001 Pixar, now the leading animation studio in the industry, was still looking to stake its claim on the medium. After two successful “Toy Story” films sandwiching “A Bug’s Life” which many still believe to be one of the studio’s more forgettable products, Pixar released what would become its second franchise feature in “Monsters, Inc.” revolving around monsters that make a living gathering energy from the screams of young human children. It was a huge financial hit and a critical darling even becoming one of the first three nominees ever for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Pixar has since become an industry giant with numerous franchises and accolades and while “Toy Story” can be credited for helping start Pixar’s relevance, “Monsters, Inc.” proved the studio wasn’t a one-franchise-wonder and was not only here to stay but was destined to revolutionize animation as an art form.
4. “Ocean’s Eleven”
Now we’re getting into the bigger franchise starters that littered 2001. “Ocean’s Eleven” sparked a trilogy of films that dominated the 2000s bringing together an ensemble cast led by George Clooney to pull off a heist in Las Vegas. What’s more, it was a remake of a Rat Pack film and yet it earned an identity all its own and helped further popularize Steven Soderbergh as a capable director beyond the independent film scene. “Ocean’s Eleven” went on to become the fifth highest grossing film of 2001 and in more recent years has found new relevance thanks to a female-driven reboot/spinoff/sequel “Ocean’s 8”. Its chaotic and yet still easy to follow narrative structure and thrilling depiction of heist planning and execution have made it incredibly rewatchable and influenced the heist and comedy genres endlessly since its debut.
Speaking of big franchise starters, “Shrek” took the world by storm in 2001 not only going on to win the first every Best Animated Feature Oscar the following year but also becoming the fourth highest grossing film of 2001 behind my top two entries and Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.”. The film gets the higher nod on this list because the franchise it spawned (now four films deep) dominated the 2000s with “Shrek 2” becoming the highest grossing animated film for some time and even bled into 2010s establishing DreamWorks as THE prominent competitor to Disney and Pixar through the decade and beyond. What truly solidifies “Shrek’s” place near the top of this list though is that in 2020 it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry making it the first and only non-Disney related animated film to earn preservation. It’s also the ONLY film from 2001 to date to receive this honor.
2. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”
The year 2001 saw the debut films of two of the most celebrated fantasy series of all time. One of those franchises was “The Lord of the Rings” which saw “The Fellowship of the Ring” kick off Peter Jackson’s epic Oscar-winning trilogy and becoming the second highest grossing film of the year. The movie of course explored the beginning of the Fellowship and their attempts to get the One Ring to Mordor bringing to life numerous now iconic characters and redefining the fantasy genre forever in the process. “Fellowship” would be overshadowed by the sequels that would come but the overall legacy of these three movies, which were all filmed at the same time in a strategy never before attempted, changed the way movie’s were planned, marketed and designed to this day. “The Fellowship of the Ring” went on to earn four Oscars from thirteen nominations including best picture and while it gets credit for sparking such a legendary trilogy, it was bested in 2001 by another franchise-starting fantasy that created a media empire.
1. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (Philosopher’s) Stone”
The first film in the multi-billion dollar “Harry Potter” film series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”, or “Philosopher’s Stone” for many outside the US, kicked off what would become a media empire composed of the books, sequel films, spinoff properties, theme park attractions, merchandise and more establishing a fanbase unlike anything any film on this list has ever accomplished. While it didn’t go on to become the Oscar favorite “Fellowship of the Ring” became (although still earning three nominations) “Sorcerer’s Stone” proved to be a solid starting point for a series that quickly became a yearly tradition for fans and a goldmine for Warner Bros. In 2001 alone it became the highest grossing movie of the year and empowered other studios to explore adapting young adult novels creating a whole new fad that has since died down but surely would not have been as prominent without this franchise. The year 2001 brought us a lot of franchise starters and iconic films, but few have had the lasting ripple effect and impact as the very first “Harry Potter” movie.