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The 11 Best Music Videos of the 21st Century — IndieWire Critics Survey

We asked a panel of critics to name the best music videos of the last 20 years, and the responses ranged from Childish Gambino to… Slipknot?

“This Is America”

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

Last week saw the surprise (or at least short notice) release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “ANIMA,” a 15-minute “one-reeler” that serves as a glorified and glorious music video for three of the tracks on Thom Yorke’s new solo album.

This week’s question: What is the best music video of the 21st century?

“Bad Cover Version” (Pulp)

Ethan Warren (@EthanRAWarren), Bright Wall/Dark Room

The music video for Pulp’s 2001 track “Bad Cover Version” is unorthodox in several respects, but mainly one pretty significant one: rather than using the album vocals provided by frontman Jarvis Cocker for this song of lackluster imitators—be they new romantic partners or “a later Tom & Jerry when the two of them could talk”—the song is here performed by a cavalcade of professional imitators in a sort of “We Are the Bizarro World,” each of them taking the spotlight for a line or two of caricatured glory. As a bellowing Tom Jones crowds around the mic alongside a comically staccato Bjork, and an outrageously shoddy Kurt Cobain who sings like a man with a throat full of lit cigarettes, it’s impossible not to be charmed by this uncanny valley sugar-rush time capsule of turn-of-the-millennium pop. The result is less a traditional video than a one-of-a-kind short film that literalizes the song’s themes alongside endlessly charming interstitial footage that shows the imitators affecting rock star cool while munching donuts and posing for group photos, trying and failing to downplay the giddy thrill of the entire oddball operation.

“Before I Forget” (Slipknot)

Joey Keogh @JoeyLDG (News Editor for Wicked Horror), freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Vague Visages, The List

The first time the world saw Slipknot without their masks, it was at a press conference following the untimely death of bassist Paul Gray. Eight big, hairy, tattooed metal-heads sat and wept in front of the world’s press while trying to choke out condolences for their fallen brother. Prior to this moment, the nine members of the scariest band in metal kept their identities tightly under wraps (er, aside from while playing in Stone Sour, which for some reason didn’t count). The music video for hit song “Before I Forget,” released in 2004, playfully teased hardcore fans (lovingly called “maggots” because they feed off the band’s music) by showing just enough of Slipknot’s feet, arms, elbows, and hair as they thrashed out the track in a recording studio.

It helps that the song’s an absolute banger, but the concept is genius, simultaneously keeping us guessing while giving more of a look at less high-profile members like Sid or Craig than we’d ever seen before. The thing is also beautifully shot which, while not unusual for a metal video, is surprising for Slipknot whose gritty, nuts and bolts aesthetic powered them through the likes of “Left Behind” or the mighty “Duality,” which saw a deluge of giddy maggots destroying a property while watching the band play an impromptu gig (“Why would you rent a house to Slipknot?” the group mused in an interview).

There’s a playfulness to “Before I Forget” but the video also showcases what each member of the band contributes to create their wild, unhinged sound. Flying in the face of accusations that one or more of them are just there to dance, all nine dudes are given their moment to shine with their individual masks hanging tantalizingly next to their equipment as they do so. It’s a clever representation of what makes this band so great, and why they’ve endured so long as a unit. 15 years later, it still packs a powerful punch — even though, by now, we know what they all look like.

“Come into my World” (Kylie Minogue)

Daniel Joyaux (@thirdmanmovies), freelance contributor for Vanity FairThe VergeMovieMaker MagazineFilmotomy

The best music videos are the ones that work most perfectly as both an accompaniment to their music and as works of film art in and of themselves. That’s why the answer is Michel Gondry’s video to the Kyle Minogue song, “Come Into My World.” In addition to just being visually interesting enough to gaze at for a few minutes, a great video has to embody both the song’s lyrics and sonic palette. For a top-notch Kylie Minogue song, embodying the sonic palette means being wildly joyful yet highly repetitive, and fairly pedestrian but utterly entrancing. And with a song called “Come Into My World,” the video better damn well present a world the viewer wants to escape to.

Gondry nails all of these goals, despite the dueling nature of some of them. In a true feat of choreography (both human and camera), Gondry presents a one-shot video of Kylie walking a loop around a street corner, encountering various people going about their day. It takes Kylie a little over a minute to complete her path, at which point she gets back to her starting spot, and the video loops. The camera and the initial Kylie keep going, while everything from the first journey around is there once again, now doubled. The timing is perfect, so each time Kylie gets back to the beginning, the chorus is just starting anew, and the lyrical invite of coming into her world accompanies the entrance of yet another Kylie. There’s an easy, lulling fascination to watching these dupes increase in number on a steady revolution, as each new chorus has you bopping along. Kylie’s world keeps growing, and so does its pull on you. As a work of technique and execution, the video has to be seen to be believed.

“Girl Walk // All Day” (Girl Talk)

David Ehrlich (@davidehrich), IndieWire

Calling Jacob Krupnick’s “Girl Walk // All Day” a music video is a bit of a stretch (for several reasons), but I’ll take any opportunity to turn people on to this feature-length masterpiece.

“Hey Ya!” (Outkast)

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects/One Perfect ShotBirth.Movies.Death. 

Before there was “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” there was “Hey Ya!,” into the Andre-Verse. As all of us (Outkast included) know, the only thing better than one Andre 3000 is eight Andre 3000s. Performing as bassist, drummer, keyboardist, lead singer, rhythm guitarist, and a three-person chorus in the titular band The Love Below, the brilliant, quirky, genre-defying Three Stacks performs “Hey Ya!” on an Ed Sullivan-esque stage with a St. Patty’s Day color palette both in costume and production design. The characters he embodies on stage range from long-haired ladies man to derby jockey to smooth beatnik to faux-academic to topless king.

Career music video director Bryan Barber is fantastic behind the camera, though it feels like nearly every idea expressed in the music video is too strange to have come from anywhere but the mind of Andre Benjamin himself. The video just captures the band performing, spliced with footage of the Beatle-mania-like crowd shrieking at the top of the their lungs and shots of a black and white TV with the concert on screen, which we’re to assume someone is watching on their couch. It’s visually straight-forward, but Andre 3000’s energy, eclecticism, and expression are so singular, it feels like an immersive music video experience that can’t be topped. Not to mention, it’s a damn good song.

Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages, Screen Rant, RogerEbert.com

Directed by Bryan Barber, Outkast’s “Hey Ya” channels the pop culture mania of the 60s British invasion while underlining a modern Do-It-Yourself aesthetic. As a whole, Andre 3000 drives the production with his charisma and star appeal as the lead singer “Ice Cold 3000,” thus stabilizing the flipped script premise: an American invasion of Great Britain. But the music video’s brilliance emerges through the character framing and editing transitions, along with the personas for the seven other band members, all portrayed by Andre 3000.

The Love Haters still crack me up after all these years. Before the back-up singers receive their first close-up, Barber sets the stage with a wide shot that shows each member of The Love Below. For the first “Hey Ya” lyric, the camera pans from left to right, with The Love Haters enthusiastically twirling their fingers while belting out the chorus. From this point forward, at least one of The Love Haters always keeps an eye on the others, and always with an OMG smile; one of many subtle comedic touches, reminiscent of Harry and Lloyd from “Dumb and Dumber.” We’re really doing it, man!!!

In “Hey Ya,” the constant performative motion establishes a hypnotic effect, and the editing/pacing highlights small personality traits for each bandmate. The crowd shots are perhaps the weakest aspect of “Hey Ya,” but the collective visuals complement the inherent surrealism. And the final-minute “Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture” sequence is simply transcendent, with The Love Haters stealing the show once again. “Hey Ya” is poetry in motion; a concept that emerges from a 3 a.m. lucid dream, or a deep focus brainstorming session. Green is a strong visual motif.

“Lazy Sunday” (The Lonely Island)

Courtney Howard (@Lulamaybelle) Freelance for Variety, SheKnows, FreshFiction.tv

The Lonely Island’s “Lazy Sunday” changed the face of both Saturday Night Live, which, back in late 2005, was in dire need of a revival, along with YouTube, which was in its fledgling stages. The song featured cast members Andy Samberg and Chris Parnell doing a hardcore style rap about a very wholesome weekend afternoon eating Magnolia Bakery cupcakes, spending $10 bills, and catching a matinee of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Fresh, fierce and funny, it deservedly garnered national attention immediately. The landmark music video, shot and assembled quickly, was the beginning of the show’s “Digital Shorts” series and was an overnight sensation. Not only did it change the ways in which we consume content, but it also changed how SNL created and packaged it, enlarging the scope of the show’s accessibility.

“The Odyssey” (Florence + the Machine)

Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), The Wrap, MovieMaker, Remezcla  

Marrying music, cinema, and dance in a stunningly ambitious package, Florence + The Machine’s long-form music video “The Odyssey” is as much a medium length film (48 minutes) telling a story of heartbreak, as a visual representation of nine songs from the album “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” joined by connecting scenes that flesh out a nearly transcendental experience.

Directed by Vincent Haycock across the U.K., the U.S., and Mexico, the project sees Florence Welch give an impassioned and emotionally raw performance embedding each intensely choreographed sequence (courtesy of Ryan Heffington and Holly Blakey) with explosive force.  Manipulating dazzling natural light of the Scottish countryside and Merida, Yucatan, as well as the urban glow of Los Angeles and London, Steve Annis’ cinematography adds a dreamlike quality to a piece already inspired by Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno.”

There’s something ethereal and quasi-divine about chapters like “St. Jude” and “Queen of Peace,” which contrasts with the ravishing power of “What Kind of Man” and “Ship to Wreck,” the album’s lead singles. As a unified artwork, “The Odyssey” acts as a musical rollercoaster that travels across pain, desire, and grief, to land in the healing redemption of its final segment, “Third Eye,” a track that serves as personal letter through which Welch tells herself that at the end of the treacherous journey she will still be alive, a beautiful imperfect, “flesh-and-blood” being.

“Take me to Church” (Hozier)

Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc), Teen VogueMs. MagazineBonjour Paris

Effective confluence is an impressive feat, and that’s what occurred in the merging of ballet dancer Sergei Polunin’s performance with Irish singer Hozier’s mighty and soulful “Take Me to Church” in the music video for the song. Polunin, a Ukranian-born ballet phenom who made his mark at London’s Royal Ballet, dances in the music video with the elegant and precise technique typical of an Eastern European-trained dancer. Shirtless and clad only in nude dance tights with ballet slippers and his trademark tattoos, he flies through the air with allégro “choreo” from choreographer Jade Hale-Christofi in sync with Hozier’s lyrics, in step with the song’s crescendos.

The precision and passion behind his pirouettes and fouetté turns are the stuff of legend. Directed by David LaChapelle, the 2015 music video’s marriage of a widely-liked song and a world-renowned ballet dancer not only garnered more attention for Hozier, but in the process, it awoke the video’s viewers to the relevance and power of ballet. This centuries-old art form is sometimes regarded as stodgy, stiff, and dated – when, in actuality, it is anything but; “Take Me to Church” is a welcome reminder of its relevance.

“This Is America” (Childish Gambino)

Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse

There are many music videos that are famous enough to stand alongside their songs in terms of notability, but fewer that seem to become part of the song’s identity in a more fundamental way—that is, you can’t think of the song without the video, and the video feels like an inherent extension of the music. However, I’d argue that a recent example of this accomplishment is the video for Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” an indelible short film that underlines and emphasizes the song’s powerful messages about racism and violence in the United States, from the start of the nation’s history to the present day.

To that end, many lengthy articles have been written about the video, analyzing the numerous cultural and sociopolitical references that simultaneously access contemporary events and reach back centuries. The effect is a sprawling work in only four minutes; though it has so many individual components and elements that have been extensively discussed, it moves as one flowing experience taken together, demonstrating its great artistry.

“Weapon of Choice” (Fatboy Slim)

Joel Mayward (@joelmayward) Cinemayward.com

I’m going with Fatboy Slim, “Weapon of Choice,” directed by Spike Jonze. Absolutely transcendent. Though it could have used more cowbell.

Clint Worthington (@clintworthing), Consequence of Sound, The Spool

There are a lot of great candidates here, but in my heart of hearts, I have to give it up to Spike Jonze’s bright, cheeky video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” – a meme before memes were memes. It’s one of the O.G. viral videos, a beautifully bizarre combination of an old character actor doing wacky things with an entirely straight face — it was perfect fodder for Web 1.0 Google searches. As for the video itself, it’s a dreamlike joy, Walken’s stoic businessman suddenly activated by the record-scratching beats of Slim’s track to suddenly burst into a soft-shoe odyssey through an abandoned hotel. It’s a dazzling reminder that Walken started life as a dancer and musical theater actor before moving on to gritty gangsters and haunted Vietnam vets; even in his late fifties, Walken kick-ball-changes with energetic grace. It’s as if the song itself is transporting him back to youth.

As for the song itself, it’s reasonably catchy, a blippy artifact from the early aughts when the big beat genre was in its last years of life. (I love me a Dune reference, though, so “walk without rhythm/ and you won’t attract the worm” still tickles today.) But this is a case in which the music video eclipses the song itself and takes on a life of its own, and for that, it should be celebrated.

“You and I and You” (The Dig)

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

The primordial music-video director is Busby Berkeley, who discovered the difference between merely depicting performances and transforming them. The music video, whether as a commercial for a record or as a part of a movie, is a crucial subset of the history of cinema, and the filming of music is a touchstone of directorial artistry. The best one I’ve seen in this century is by one of the best current filmmakers, Terence Nance, for the song “You and I and You,” by The Dig. With choreography, costuming, shifting points of view, metaphorical history, the blend of actors and effects, the fusion of family melodrama with mythopoetic fantasy, and the fundamental matter of the position of the camera that creates complex textures and vectors from simple actions, it condenses and intensifies Nance’s imaginative power into what is not only a great music video but one of the great short films of the century.

Q: What is the best movie currently playing in theaters?

A: “Toy Story 4” & “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (Tie)

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