The ‘classics’ of the early 21st century: Where will we be in 100 years?

Future classics are unlikely to be on celluloid, but does that make them any less great?

When I think of the word ‘classic’ in relation to film, my mind is drawn to films like Gone With the Wind, Singin’ in the Rain, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Streetcar Named Desire, and later, The Graduate. We often picture black and white flickering screens, corny one-liners, enviable (or indeed, tragic) love affairs. Iconic soundtracks (cue Simon and Garfunkel) are the norm, historical significance (All Quiet on the Western Front) is often decisive, and, more often than not, classics originate from successful pieces of literature. And then we have the classics of the later twentieth century, perhaps moving away from nostalgic romances (that we self-indulgently like to enjoy with a box of chocolates and tissues…) towards more complex and, often, darker pieces – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Clockwork Orange.

So, what are classic films? They might be indicative of their era and technological advances therein, yet they are also defined by their ability to transcend time and trends, boasting a quality of acting and cinematography that can be equally appreciated decades after their releases. But at what point does a film stop being a product of its time, and become canonised as a classic? The Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction – would these count? For the sake of this article, at the very least, I might suggest that these examples have already become partially classicised, especially by our generation. So I ask, what next? In a hundred years, which films will pinpoint the beginning of the twenty-first century? I propose that a film cannot outstrip the destructive qualities of time solely on account of its success during its release. A classic is not simply an old blockbuster. It isn’t just a ‘really good’ film. Rather, it is a masterpiece that continues to hold relevance to a large selection of people – whether nostalgic, relatable or informative – despite potentially vast developments in culture and technology. With such conditions in mind, I would like to suggest some examples of recent (and completely varying) works that I believe might just survive the test of time.


Whilst the same underlining feature might apply to past and future classics – namely their capacity to overcome the barriers of time – the type of classic that we think of today is likely to drastically alter over the next century, thanks to increasingly advanced skills in moviemaking. Black and whites might characterise the successes of the early 20th century, but the early 21st film industry is similarly exemplified by increasingly impressive special effects, particularly the wonders of 3D and fresh ways of experiencing film. Whilst I’m not particularly a fan of Avatar – or sci-fi flicks in general – it became the highest-grossing film of all time for a reason. In some senses, Avatar can be seen as a 21st century classic based solely on its technical feats, creating an optical masterpiece of nature and beauty that absorbed its vast audience regardless of potential plot slips. James Cameron’s success in pushing the boundaries of film-making, pioneering the field of motion capture, and consequently stimulating a novel cinematic experience has been nothing short of revolutionary for the film industry – both behind the scenes and on the screens. It is a surely a transitional moment in film that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.


A film which, although recently hitting the screens, has been innovatively prepared for over a decade, Boyhood is illustrative of a ground-breaking accomplishment completely different to Avatar – but one that is equally inspiring. Classic both in technical and narrative scale, we witness a story that has been beautifully carved over twelve years of life of both actor and character, resulting in a seamlessly and tragically nostalgic portrayal of the human condition. An idea never communicated in filmmaking before, the intrinsic interlinking of reality and performance blends together to craft something that can neither be set aside as documentary or film in their usual sense. Detailing real-time events since 2002, Boyhood follows not only the evolution of a family but that of 21st century society, referring to iconic moments and noughties’ cultures from Harry Potter and Britney Spears, to Obama’s 2008 election campaign. Boyhood is a visual masterpiece that is likely to stand the test of time – both because of its poignant reflection on society and humanity, and because of its claim to an astonishingly distinctive style of filmmaking.


Classics are also often classics due to an ability to channel significant historical effects and true stories in an exceptional manner. Twelve Years a Slave is an example of one of these successes. Portraying pre-Civil War America in a way that had never been done before, Steve McQueen and his crew tell the story of a Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who finds himself sold into slavery. His consequent struggle for survival and freedom takes us through an emotional whirlwind, yet Twelve Years a Slave will not be remembered for its remarkable ability to bring tears to our eyes (you need look no further than The Notebook for that). In fact, the film’s unflinchingly brutal depiction of slavery, racism and ultimately, humanity, impressively surpasses hollow sentimentality and forces us to reflect on an indisputable stain in 19th century world history. It is not just a film that will be remembered in a hundred years, it is a film that must be.


A rather more light-hearted suggestion, but nevertheless a cinematic masterpiece, The Grand Budapest Hotel is the epitome of Wes Anderson’s distinctive narrative and visual style that marks a unique strand of 21st century cinema. Through a journey that is both artistically and colourfully stylistic yet also deceptively thought-provoking, we follow the adventures of Gustave H., a celebrated concierge at the (once) Grand Budapest Hotel, with his sidekick and lobby boy, Zero Moustafa. Hilariously engaging, visually stunning and complete with a fantastically fitting soundtrack, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a rare example of a film that will be remembered mostly because it really is just excellent. Anderson creates a multi-faceted storyline that resembles more an art piece or theatrical performance than simply a film, and in integrating the delightfully silly with truly moving moments, we are left with a performance that can only be described as a classic.

These are just some of my suggestions and by no means an extensive list. I have missed out some of the obvious classics (I doubt the many Harry Potters or Lord of the Rings will be forgotten any time soon…) but as you can see from the variance of pieces chosen, the term ‘classic’ is not an exclusive genre. Open to interpretation, such films do not have to go hand-in-hand with an immediate liking for a film – but rather an appreciation that such works are likely to be remembered. Whether due to their historical significance, memorable style of filmmaking, reflection on 21st century culture and politics, or simply a story that is worthy of memory, contemplation on the ‘classics’ of the 21st century is testimony to the importance that the role that film plays in our lives – both as a cultural carrier and as a method of historical remembrance.

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