The Top 10 Greatest Films Of The Modern Age

In our selection of films representing the best of the last 30 years, we’ve taken into account things like commercial success (although I must state here and now that a film’s box office receipts are not the major indicator for its inclusion) as well as artistic merit, pop-culture longevity and whether or not a film reached the zeitgeist of cinematic iconic-ness. I think you’ll find the list below includes films worthy of being in a top 10 list, although the order may vary, and you may come up with alternatives as well.

In the hundred or so years since film was invented and turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, plenty of ink has been spilled over lists and articles about just who has been the best – the best director, the best actor, the best musician – like humanity can’t get enough out of figuring out the most superior of our own self-importance. The Hollywood awards season seems to last the entire year, with a multitude of industry-based awards shows dominating the blogosphere and newsprint each and every month, culminating in the very pinnacle of cinematic artistic achievement, The Academy Awards. Each year, golden gongs are handed out to those folks judged by others folks to be the best in their category at what they’ve done that year. Whether those awards are warranted or not isn’t the point of this article; here, we’re going to spotlight the very best of the best – the best Actors and Actresses, the best Directors, the best Films, even the best cinematic advances of the Modern Age. What do I mean by Modern Age, you ask. Simple. Hollywood’s boom times of the 30’s and 40’s, at least prior to the War, are known today as the Golden Age, and the three decades after that could be termed the Bronze Age – with a shift into color film, multi-channel stereo and the re-invention of the Hollywood “blockbuster” away from biblical epics and sweeping melodramatic romance. The 80’s, however, when you look at films produced at that time in a reflective mood, represents a shift both artistically and stylistically in the medium of film to such a degree that I think a new “age” of Hollywood could be coined: the Modern Age. An epoch of cinema between 1980 and 2010, 30 years of both massive successes, and epic fails. The Greatest of the Modern Age series attempts to distill the best of the Modern Age into a series of opinion-based lists, and we hope you enjoy (if not disagree with) our work.

30 years is a long time by Hollywood standards; the average marriage lasts about three years, while the theatrical run of a major release has shrunk from 12 months, to 6, to something approaching five minutes. In our selection of films representing the best of the last 30 years, we’ve taken into account things like commercial success (although I must state here and now that a film’s box office receipts are not the major indicator for its inclusion) as well as artistic merit, pop-culture longevity and whether or not a film reached the zeitgeist of cinematic iconic-ness. I think you’ll find the list below includes films worthy of being in a top 10 list, although the order may vary, and you may come up with alternatives as well. If you do, feel free to list them in the comments below!

Here, for the criticism of all, are our choices for the ten best film which represent 1980-2010 best of all. Links to our reviews of each film, where possible, are available by clicking the logo for each.



Personally, I was astonished and disappointed when Saving Private Ryan lost the Best Picture Oscar in 1998 to Shakespeare In Love. I, like many, couldn’t understand how a romantic-comedy could snag the gong over one of the most realistic, powerful and harrowing depictions of war ever captured (at that point) on film. It affected me like no other film had ever done – or has ever done since – and remains one of the pivotal cinema-going events of my life. What it also did was reinvent the War Film for the Modern Age – even filmmakers such as Ridley Scott used Spielberg’s rapid-shutter technique to deliver their own version of how war feels on-screen.

The middle film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, The Dark Knight featured one of the great acting performances of our generation in Heath ledger’s portrayal of Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker. It also featured a grim, gritty, melancholy and utterly compelling take on the Batman character, thanks largely to Christian Bale’s wonderful performance. When Heath Ledger died prior to the film’s release, it could have spelled the end of the film’s success due to potential maudlin undercurrents. As it stands, The Dark Knight is probably Nolans and Legder’s defining cinema moment – and one of the greatest comic book movies ever made.

Some might argue that Ridley Scott’s eerie sci-fi epic Alien, of which Aliens is a bigger, louder sequel, is far more intelligent and insightful than James Cameron’s work, but I’d say there’s a silent majority who would disagree. Where Scott’s slow-burn thriller eschewed raucous action for darkness and shadow, as well as an ever-present sense of dread, Aliens took the pathway of least resistance – a thousand alien creatures, a bunch of soldiers with guns, and yet another “we’re stranded with no escape” plot device. However, instead of being a by-the-numbers sequel that ruined an otherwise solid first film, Aliens was an enormous success, and became even more popular than its originator – heck, Sigourney Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for her work as Ellen Ripley in this – and contains a large number of pop-culture reference points which have become ingrained in the minds of an entire generation. Aliens might not be as simple as Alien was, but it’s for sure a more entertaining thrill-ride.

The sequel to 1977’s Star Wars (retitled later as A New Hope) came midway through the 80’s, riding on the back of other Lucasfilm success stories such as Willow and the Indiana Jones franchise. Star Wars had been such a massive success, a sequel was inevitable, and where the first film tended towards light and hope, Empire went in the opposite direction – hell, the title gives it away, really – with Darth Vader’s search for the Millennium Falcon, and Luke Skywalker’s search for Yoda and the path to becoming a Jedi, ensuring that audiences were taken on an entirely new journey with familiar characters. Roundly regarded as the best of the Star Wars films (even including the Prequels), Empire Strikes Back is, when you examine it, a really well made, well told story with people who are actually real, not just caricatures. Plus, Empire had one of the first modern “twists” within it – the revelation of Luke’s parentage was a well kept secret even from those acting in the film, and it caught moviegoers by complete surprise. Well played, George Lucas. Well played.

While some would argue that Cameron’s original Terminator is the most powerful, thanks largely due to its budgetary constraints and economy of story, the master of the Modern Blockbuster proved once more that Bigger is usually Better when it comes to James Cameron. Taking the small-budget Terminator concept and throwing twenty times the money at it, coupled with a terrific new villain and a teen-centric apocalpytic fable, Terminator 2 not only revolutionized CGI and effects, but it also took lead actor Arnold Schwarzenegger into the Hollywood stratosphere – even though you could say he was already there. Terminator 2 remains one of Cameron’s defining films, outshining (and out-gunning) the original and becoming one of the Modern Age’s most enduring sci-fi classics.

The granddaddy of all modern action films, Die Hard re-set the bar for an entire generation of action-junkies and gave the genre a shot in the arm of fresh, zippy potential. Bruce Willis made a perfect archetypal hero – something he’s pretty much continued to do ever since – and John McTiernan’s direction, editing and sense of comedic interplay gives Die Hard its timeless appeal. Sure, technology might have moved on, and audiences expectations changed, but re-watching Die Hard again it remains just as enjoyable the 100th time as the 1st.

I know, this is cheating a bit, but like many fans I fell that Peter Jackson’s trilogy is best viewed as one long, nine hour film (or 12 hour film, if you’re watching the Extended Editions). In that regard, the triumvirate of fantasy films, perhaps the greatest modern cinematic feat in all of cinema, remains well within the top 10. As a complete story, anchored by Tolkein’s detailed and unforgiving texts, Lord Of The Rings is without parallel and, at least until we all witness the film version of The Hobbit, without equal. To fail to include Lord Of The Rings in a top 10 list of this type is to fail as a serious film journalist.

I’m not going to wax lyrical about Babel like I normally do – it was nominated for Oscar, but sadly did not win the Best Picture gong – but you can read my review of it here. My thoughts on Babel haven’t changed in the years since it blew me away; the ensemble cast are superb, the film is well made, and the direction is exemplary. If you haven’t seen it, can the fact I’ve included it on this list propel you to doing so, because you really haven’t seen a great film until you’ve seen Babel.

Shawshank in at number 2? iMDB might say otherwise, but we think there’s still a better film than the story of one man’s attempt to break out of prison. Based on the Steven King novella, Frank Darabont’s pitch-perfect film version distills the very essence of the original narrative into a cohesive, moving and altogether superb adaptation, the likes of which we’ve not seen since. Special mention to The Green Mile, an equally high-quality film which sadly fails to find a spot here today.

Undeniably the single greatest film event of the last 30 years, The Matrix revolutionized science fiction in 1999 in a similar manner, and with a similar cultural impact, to the original Star Wars in 1977. The Wachowski Brothers venture into territory unknown in cinema – the very concept of the Matrix and the world in which it exists surely confused a whole heap of studio suits, most of whom must have shrugged and said “well, at least they know what they’re doing!”…. The Matrix, and its impact in cinema on both audiences and the film industry in general, cannot be overstated. As a film, it’s a work of art, and as a story, it’s a definitive masterpiece.

Right, so we know you disagree with us; whatcha gonna do about it? You’re gonna let fly in the comments section below – perhaps put down your own top 10 if you think we’re so crap at it!!

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15 thoughts on “The Top 10 Greatest Films Of The Modern Age

  1. You've convinced me, I shall commit myself to acquiring Babel and give it a thorough watching!

  2. That must have been very tough to narrow it down! Can't argue with most of your picks (except maybe Babel and i'm not a big LOTR fan). I haven't seen Terminator 2! Need to get my hands on that.

    1. Tough doesn't even begin to describe putting this list together. For every film I thought should go in, there were three just as good that could ALSO have made the cut. Like Dan says above, I could have made this list a top 50 and still not have kept everyone happy. That's the fun thing about film, I guess: everyone's got different views on what makes a film "great"….

  3. Brave to tackle a list like this Rodney. Even if we are only considering the last thirty years it is still so difficult. That said I find myself agreeing with many of your choices apart from the big surprise – Babel. I can understand why you've put it in the list from your assessment of it but it doesn't have the enduring qualities of the films featured elsewhere on the top 10. I remember liking elements of the film but I haven't returned to it for a second viewing which perhaps suggests it didn't blow me away.

    If I was to put a similar list together I would have to include some Scorsese, probably Goodfellas, and I think I would have to find room for Pulp Fiction and possibly Seven. Silence of the Lambs would also be a consideration. And, although I'm not a huge fan of the film, the phenomenon that was Titanic would also have to be a consideration.
    My recent post “Make Me Happy” Films – 80′s Edition

    1. I'm nothing if not brave in my choices of cinema, Dan! Thanks for dropping by. Scorsese could have easily made an entry in here, and I agree with you on Seven – darnit, I never got a Tarantino flick into the list either – but as I mentioned above, it's entirely likely about forty other films could have made this list and not seemed out of place…

      Cheers man!!

        1. Thanks mate. Care to make a list like this of your own over at Top 10 Films??? I'd wager yours would be vastly different than my own!

  4. I'm more of an Alien man than Aliens. For all of the blockbusters on here, I thought for sure Jaws would be on here too.

    Your inclusion of Babel is a fascinating one, I've never heard anyone say a good word about it. I'll definitely give your review of it a read.

  5. Ha, curious list indeed, like all bold lists to poke the reader in the eye and ask, "what say you?". I can't argue with most of them, though I'd be pretty hard pressed to even approach a list like this, spanning the decades, all the possibilities and the lesser ones, the easy ones. The one that sticks out to me is Babel. I see your points and they make sense enough, even as I disagree, even going so far as to recommend a "miss it" on my blog, Above The Line. Full text here

    Quick thoughts – yes, Matrix stands the test of time both in terms of technical brilliance and originality, easily a game changer across the board. Shawshank continues to impress with subsequent viewings, the ease with which the story unfolds and the characters invite you in, share conversations like with old friends, the ravages of the prison system, the triumph of the human spirit.

    I'll have to ruminate over the others. Good job, cool read, as always.

    1. Thanks mate – I understand how some might find my not-quite-blockbuster selection of Babel a bit of a shocker, but I really do think it's one of the best films I've seen in the last 30 years. It's terrific. As Dan mentions below, there's a swag of other films that could have easily slotted into this list and not seemed out of place – some Scorcese, perhaps – but I think I got the mix just right. I'm heading over to ATL to check out some of your stuff right now, actually.

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