Pop(corn) Art: 20 Artful 21st Century Blockbusters

Popular films don't need to be brainless or unambitious. To mark our pop issue, here are 20 artful blockbusters from the 21st century that pushed the envelope, delivering inventive filmmaking and thought-provoking ideas alongside their popcorn thrills

Article by Film Team | 11 May 2023
  • Artful Blockbusters

Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019)

Brad Pitt in Ad Astra.

Marketed as a sci-fi adventure starring Brad Pitt, Ad Astra was heralded as a masterpiece by some critics, but audiences were distinctly less impressed by Gray’s serious-minded drama about an astronaut wrestling with daddy issues. Half space thriller, half psychodrama, Ad Astra is a far cry from the spectacle of Apollo 13 or First Man, with Gray instead using his blockbuster budget to probe deep into the outer reaches of the male psyche. [Patrick Gamble]

Birds of Prey (Cathy Yan, 2020)

As far as recent superhero movies go, Birds of Prey holds the title for the most daring. Cathy Yan’s fabulous fable of female rage centres on Margot Robbie as a berserk Harley Quinn and she’s clearly loving every minute. A confetti-filled time bomb that could go off at any minute, Birds of Prey owns its unhinged woman narrative to craft an action-packed sisterhood story (still a rare occurrence in mainstream comic book adaptations), and it’s a genuine blast. [Stefania Sarrubba]

Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, 2019)

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever.

Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut tells the story of two bookworms who resolve to attend at least one party before they leave high school. Booksmart sets itself apart from the raunchy comedies of earlier in the 2000s by refusing to surrender to judgemental mockery, instead celebrating the diversity of its characters and their values. Wilde builds towards a truly chaotic and cathartic climax, coaxing stunning performances from an absurdly talented roster of stars in the making. [Nathaniel Ashley]

Cloud Atlas (The Wachowskis, Tom Tykwer, 2012) 

Tom Hanks and Halle Berry in Cloud Atlas.

The Wachowskis laugh in the face of the 'unfilmable', and together with Tom Tykwer, they mounted a mega-scaled adaptation of David Mitchell’s splintered-timeline opus, a story about stories, an ode to connection. The decision to cast actors in multiple parts doesn’t work in every instance (especially when white actors are made up in yellowface), but there’s a full-bodied embrace of scope and vision that’s at times overwhelmingly powerful. [Rory Doherty]

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)

A still from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

A refreshingly human but fiercely compelling depiction of one species out-evolving another in real-time, Matt Reeves demonstrated his keen blockbuster storytelling language years before he was handed the keys to Gotham. Part of an unofficial 20-year campaign for motion-capture performances to be considered a legitimate and awards-worthy artform, Andy Serkis one-upped his Gollum portrayal with a trilogy of simian woundedness – but this middle chapter remains a highlight. [RD]

Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012)

‘Set-in-a-tower-block’ could be held up as a subgenre that encapsulates sci-fi/action filmmaking, post-Matrix. It’s useful shorthand for a marriage of slick violence and social commentary. What sets Dredd apart from the rest is its commitment to the bit. Somewhere between the dour heart of High Rise and the knowing smugness of Attack the Block, Dredd delivers pulpy setpieces and old-school one-liners from characters who never even crack a smile. [Louis Cammell]

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)

Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow.

Tom Cruise’s reluctant soldier relives the same day over and over in Doug Liman’s smartly conceived alien invasion actioner. Obviously an extra-terrestrial twist on Groundhog Day, the movie also draws from the experience of playing video games as it mines its set-up for humour and existential dread. Add in Emily Blunt’s ultimate warrior, some canny editing, and a slick script, and you’ve got a superior blockbuster. [Tom Grieve]

Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, 2019)

The cast of Hustlers.

Ever since Ray Liotta told us he always wanted to be a gangster, filmmakers have been trying to recapture the propulsive energy and seedy glamour of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Trading in the suits and ties for red bottoms and chinchilla furs, Hustlers might just be the true heir to that throne. Its loud moments are riotously fun, its quiet ones are shockingly moving. In a better world, J.Lo would have won the Oscar for her endlessly-charismatic performance. [Ross Mcindoe]

Nope (Jordan Peele, 2022)

A still from Nope.

Jordan Peele’s latest draws heavily on retro sci-fi and western tropes, but Hollywood’s most familiar genres become unnerving and unfamiliar through arresting, unnatural geometries and soundscapes. Setting numerous key scenes at night – masterfully lit by Hoyte van Hoytema – increases the uncanny juxtaposition of film tropes with sickeningly imaginative twists. Yet despite a tonal cynicism, the artistic button is Michael Abels’ score, which heroically revels in movie mythos. [Carmen Paddock]

Ocean's Twelve (Steven Soderbergh, 2005)

For this follow-up to his smash-hit heist thriller Ocean's Eleven (2001), Soderbergh fused the slick mainstream glitz of the first film with the unbridled experimentation of his oddball meta-comedies Schizopolis (1996) and Full Frontal (2002). Yes, Ocean's Twelve might be an entry into a major Hollywood franchise and feature some of the world's biggest stars, but make no mistake – at its heart, it's an audacious, postmodern marvel. [Alex Barrett]

Oldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)

Choi-Min sik in Oldboy

Park Chan-wook's gnarliest tale of revenge boasts one of the greatest action set pieces in cinematic history. In a claustrophobic, sickly green-lit corridor, one single dude – Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) – fights off dozens of crowbar-wielding gangsters; the camera lurches horizontally across screen, weaving a viscerally beautiful tapestry of violence from left to right. The unforgettable corridor scene is currently on display at the V&A in London: Oldboy will always be famous. [Xuanlin Tham]

Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013)

Pacific Rim owes itself to a thousand other films – and in some ways, this makes it the ultimate blockbuster. With direction from Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro, a multinational cast, and an aesthetic inspired as much by Japanese tokusatsu cinema as Hollywood action aesthetics, it’s a truly transnational piece of popular cinema that takes its artistry from all over the globe. [Zoe Crombie]

Pitch Black (David Twohy, 2000)

Before the Riddick franchise got ridic’, there was Pitch Black. It’s hard to look back on this unblemished by its overblown sequels, but David Twohy's film is a perfect ensemble-survival thriller. The fat-free plot sees a motley crew crash land on a planet where the sun keeps deadly nocturnal creatures at bay... just in time for a massive solar eclipse. The colour grading does most of the work, but this is how you do psychedelic visuals that actually serve the story. [LC]

RRR (S. S. Rajamouli, 2022)

The most expensive Indian film ever, RRR is a gargantuan tale of friendship, an anti-colonialist homoerotic-tinged bromance, with Bollywood musical dance set-pieces, and action sequences that would make John Wick weep. This story of two polar opposites turned joined-at-the-hip revolutionaries has a man throwing a flaming motorbike with his bare hands, the best God-sent glow-up in history, and a title card drop 40 minutes into the movie!!! [Tony Inglis]

School of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2004)

Though ostensibly a mainstream comedy vehicle for actor and musician Jack Black, School of Rock bears all the hallmarks of Linklater's best work: a gentle pace, a focus on character over plot, and an anti-authoritarian, stick-it-to-the-man, slacker aesthetic. The soundtrack genuinely rocks, and the script by Mike White, creator of The White Lotus, offers plenty of laughs. Warm, generous and inclusive, watching it feels like a hug. [AB]

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

That a loving, geeky homage to the horror blockbuster could become a blockbuster in itself is exactly the type of scrappy underdog story beloved by British cinema – and if you were making that movie, you wouldn’t find a better cast for it than this one. Plus, Shaun of the Dead still brings the thrills nearly 20 years on. Whatever happened to that Edgar Wright kid? He should make more films. [LC]

Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi, 2016)

Probably the finest Godzilla entry since the 1954 original, this is a surprisingly mature drama about urban disaster response and the failure of bureaucracies to react quickly to evolving catastrophes: a perfect updating of the atomic bomb metaphor in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Despite being made for less than a tenth of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film, Shin Godzilla – with its visceral horror and knotty satire – towers above its slicker, sterile American cousin. [Christopher Machell]

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013)

A still from Snowpiercer.

Through determination and clever fibbery, Bong Joon-ho ensured his cut of Snowpiercer made it to cinemas instead of Harvey Weinstein’s truncation. The result – an imaginative survival tale set on a train through a frozen world – is a huge boon to film fans. Each car reveals new gnarly horrors as a band of rebels progress through knives, fish, and hedonistic parties to bring down the train’s elite masters. [CP]

The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, 2020)

Leigh Whannell’s re-imagining of H.G. Wells’ classic horror tale takes the central idea of the story – a man who no-one else can see – and re-centres it around the person most likely to find that prospect terrifying: the woman trying to escape him. It’s a clever conceit, backed up by (yet) another devastatingly raw performance from Elisabeth Moss and Whannell’s sadistically precise direction. A perfectly engineered piece of horror cinema. [RM]

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

WALL-E is one of the world’s most widely beloved animations, and it’s the universality of its visual language that truly makes it great. Blending cutting-edge CG visuals with a silent film sensibility that can be traced back to the earliest films ever made, the Pixar masterpiece remains both timely and timeless. [ZC]