Best Picture winners of the 21st century thus far ranked!

89th Annual Academy Awards, Backstage, Los Angeles, USA - 26 Feb 2017

In this time of Coronavirus crisis, it’s been a little difficult to cover movies and related news as everything is cancelled or postponed. Thus, content on this site will be filled with alternative segments: lists, reviews of older movies, and general discussions. Today, I will be ranking the first 20 Best Picture winners of the 21st century from worst to best.

It’s been an interesting two decades at the Oscars. We ended the 20th century with the top award still usually going to some of the most successful films of the year, Titanic and Braveheart come to mind as very high grossing films being rewarded by the Academy. Now, as the 21st century has progressed, there has been a relative schism in the industry between so-called popular movies and those worthy of Best Picture. Even with an expanded field of up to 10 nominees per year, the films that dominate are usually low-grossing indie festival fare airing in the later months of the year. The movies at the top of the box office are now filled with franchise entries, blockbusters that the Academy so often refuses to acknowledge as artistic.

But of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the films winning don’t gain popularity after their wins, and the films are still (mostly) high quality and deserving of their awards. Let’s just hope that as we embark on another 20 years at the Oscars, we can harmonise popular films with awards material in the eyes of moviegoers and the Academy.

Without further ado, here are the Best Picture winners from 2000-2019 ranked. Note: the year listed is the release year of the film not the year in which the Oscar ceremony took place.

20) Crash (2005, Dir. Paul Haggis)

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Also nominated: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich

Is it now a cliche to say that Crash is the worst Best Picture winner so far this century? Yes, but that doesn’t undermine the fact that it’s completely true. Paul Haggis’ ensemble drama attempted to dissect racial tension in Los Angeles but fell disappointingly flat, managing to sketch paper thin characters defined by their inexplicably obtuse opinions on race. No character exemplifies this more than Sandra Bullock’s bafflingly two dimensional racist WASP, who does nothing but complain about all the non-white people around her. The film screams misfire, yet inexplicably won the top prize of the year, beating the likes of Brokeback Mountain in doing so. This is a mistake that won’t easily be forgotten.

Should have won: Brokeback Mountain

19) Green Book (2018, Dir. Peter Farrelly)

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Also nominated: Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Roma, A Star is Born, Vice

I don’t hate Green Book, but it’s win in 2018 was a shock because of how backwards it made the Academy seem. Like Crash, the film frames racial exploration in a peculiar way, using a white man’s eyes as a lens to Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) musical tour of the deep south. While a charming buddy road trip, by the end of the film Farrelly wants you to think that racism is seemingly solved because Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Vallenlonga is no longer as prejudiced as he was at the beginning of the film. After acknowledging films like 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight this felt like a step back for the Oscars. Besides its shallow message, the film is relatively unambitious, employing uninspiring visuals to accompany a formulaic script.

Should have won: The Favourite

18) A Beautiful Mind (2001, Dir. Ron Howard)

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Also nominated: Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge!

Following the life of mathematician John Nash (Russell Crowe), A Beautiful Mind is one of the least remembered Best Picture Winners of recent memory. While Crowe is excellent in the role, the film is a rather ham-fisted exploration of Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia, and builds to a conclusion which exemplifies biopic schmaltz. It’s not a bad movie, but a wholly standard one.

Should have won: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

17) The King’s Speech (2010, Dir. Tom Hooper)

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Also nominated: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone

Before Tom Hooper made Cats, he was an Oscar winner with this biopic about King George VI and his struggle to overcome his stammer. To be fair though, this is such Oscar bait material that anyone could have directed it. It’s a story about a member of the British royal family who has a disability. It screams Oscar and predictably, the Academy couldn’t help themselves. In all, it’s a perfectly fine film, with a fantastic lead performance, but is it better than The Social NetworkToy Story 3 or Black Swan? Absolutely not.

Should have won: The Social Network

16) Gladiator (2000, Dir. Ridley Scott)

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Also nominated: Chocolat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Erin Brokovich, Traffic

This may be a controversial placement, as Gladiator is generally beloved by audiences. This isn’t surprising. It’s arguably the definitive Roman epic, featuring some of Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix’s best work to date and is beautifully directed by Ridley Scott. It’s by all means a great movie, but compared with some other Best Picture winners, it doesn’t have the creative spark or sophistication that truly makes a film the best of the year.

Should have won: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

15) The Artist (2011, Dir. Michel Hazanavicius)

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Also nominated: The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse

Who would have thought that a black and white silent movie would come to dominate the awards season of 2011? Looking back, it’s strange to think how The Artist’s Best Picture win seemed so assured, and justified. In truth, while it was extremely highly regarded at the time, it hasn’t aged particularly well. It’s a beautiful looking film with a fantastic soundtrack and some heartbreaking moments, but is it as clever as it thinks it is? Not especially, and the Academy’s embrace of it may be because it’s yet another prestige picture about Hollywood itself.

Should have won; Hugo

14: The Hurt Locker (2009, Dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

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Also nominated: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglorious Basterds, Precious, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air

The Hurt Locker’s win a decade ago is probably most notable because it was the first (and only) movie to win directed by a woman: Kathryn Bigelow. That win was arguably made even sweeter by the fact that she beat her ex-husband James Cameron to the podium, a circumstance almost poetic in the drama it gives the Hollywood trades. The film itself is a taut and tense drama, well directed and prescient in the current political climate. But it’s arguably not the best the century has had to offer thus far.

Should have won: Inglorious Basterds

13) Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Dir. Danny Boyle)

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Also nominated: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader

Slumdog Millionaire is an extremely enjoyable film, one which differs from many Best Picture winners throughout the history of the Academy. Featuring an entirely Indian cast, the story of the eponymous “slumdog’s” journey to winning India’s Who Wants to be a Millionaire is inspiring, fun but tinged with sadness all at once. It may not be a masterpiece, and the closing dance number is jarring, but it’s a solid winner.

Should have won: Slumdog Millionaire is the best among the nominees, but The Dark Knight and Wall-E both deserved recognition

12) Argo (2012, Dir. Ben Affleck)

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Also nominated: Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln,  Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty

Remember when Ben Affleck directed and starred in a Best Picture winner? Wow, 2012 must have been a strange year. All jokes aside, Argo is one of the rare unadulterated thrillers to win the award. It’s entertaining, painfully tense, but also well written enough to include a fair few laugh out loud moments. This is one of the Best Picture winners that functions effectively as a crowd pleaser as well as a sophisticated piece of filmmaking

Should have won: Argo

11) Million Dollar Baby (2004, Dir. Clint Eastwood)

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Also nominated: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways

Clint Eastwood’s second film to win Best Picture follows Maggie (Hilary Swank) as a female amateur boxer under the tutelage of Frankie (Eastwood). It’s a solid drama, one which manages to be both enjoyable as a sports movie while also being one of the saddest films ever to win the award. Without spoiling it, the ending is a truly devastating piece of filmmaking.

Should have won: Million Dollar Baby

10) Spotlight (2015, Dir. Tom McCarthy)

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Also nominated: The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room

Spotlight strikes me as the kind of Best Picture winner which benefitted from the preferential ballot voting system. It’s a movie that everyone thought was great, but looking at some of the other nominees, I doubt it got too many number one votes. The best of the year was undeniably Mad Max; Fury Road, a film which is also in contention for the best of the decade. But Spotlight is definitely a fantastic and worthy winner, meticulously chronicling the work of journalists from the Boston Globe who uncover sexual misconduct towards children amongst the Catholic clergy.

Should have won: Mad Max: Fury Road

9) Chicago (2002, Dir. Rob Marshall)

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Also nominated: Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist

Another controversial placement. For some reason too many people seem to really dislike this movie and the fact that it won Best Picture. Maybe I just love the musical too much, but for my money, Chicago is a blast. It features stunning direction and choreography, and features career best performances from Catherine Zeta–Jones and Renee Zellweger (Judy doesn’t even come close). It’s a knockout.

Should have won: Chicago

8) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, Peter Jackson)

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Also nominated: Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, Seabiscuit

It had to happen. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was one of the most financially successful and critically acclaimed franchises of all time, and the previous two films had both been nominated for Best Picture. It was inevitable that The Return of the King would take the prize. In the end, it managed a clean sweep of the ceremony, winning every award it was up for. It was well deserved. Some may hate the high fantasy of it all, but the film is a beautiful conclusion to an epic trilogy

Should have won: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

7) The Shape of Water (2017, Dir. Guillermo Del Toro)

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Also nominated: Call Me by Your Name, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, Get Out, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, The Post, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

When I first saw The Shape of Water, I thought it was one of the best things I’d ever seen. While that opinion hasn’t lasted (Get Out is probably the most revolutionary of the nominees), it truly is a unique picture, unlike anything that ever came before or anything that will come after. It’s a bizarre premise: Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor, falls in love with a fishman creature in Cold War era Baltimore. Understandably, some can’t get past the utter weirdness of it all, and while the themes are a little heavy handed (embrace individuality and difference), it’s a gorgeous film, with one of the best musical scores of all time and stunning imagery.

Should have won: Call Me by Your Name or Get Out

6) 12 Years a Slave (2013, Dir. Steve McQueen)

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Also nominated: American Hustle, Captain Philips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street

12 Years a Slave is still the best movie ever to be made about slavery because of how unflinching it is. It’s a brutal watch, filled with multiple scenes of horrific violence, but that’s exactly how it should be. Unlike some of the films of Hollywood’s past (some of which won Best Picture themselves) there is no romanticism in 12 Years a Slave’s depiction of the antebellum south, and that’s why it truly deserves to be remembered.

Should have won: 12 Years a Slave

5) The Departed (2006, Dir. Martin Scorsese)

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Also nominated: Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen

The Departed isn’t Martin Scorsese’s best film (which makes its high placement on the list even more remarkable), but it’s probably his most enjoyable. Amusingly, he mused that this was his only film with a plot, and what a plot it is. Filled with double crossing, dual identities and undercover missions, this remake of a Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs is a blast.

Should have won: The Departed

4) Birdman (2014, Dir. Alejandro G Inarritu)

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Also nominated: American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash

I don’t care what people may say, Birdman is truly a masterpiece. Directed with real ingenuity by Alejandro G Inarritu (sorry 1917 but this is the true one-shot movie), Birdman oozes style and sophistication, utilising a fantastic ensemble cast to bring notes of heightened comedy to despairing tragedy. It’s all brought together by Michael Keaton’s once in a lifetime performance as one time superhero star Riggan Thompson, who criminally lost the Best Actor gong to Eddie Redmayne’s impersonation of Stephen Hawking.

Should have won: Birdman

3) No Country for Old Men (2007, Dir. The Coen Brothers)

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Also nominated: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood

I don’t know what it is about No Country for Old Men that is so chilling, but no other movie on this list is able to create atmosphere as masterfully as The Coen Brothers’ darkest feature to date. Based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the film follows various characters embroiled in a drug deal gone wrong. The standout is of course Javier Bardem as hitman Anton Chigurh in one of the scariest roles of all time (deservedly winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). Ironically, despite being number 3, the film beat out the deserving winner of the year: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Obviously 2007 was a great year for filmmaking.

Should have won: There Will Be Blood

2) Parasite (2019, Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

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Also nominated: Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Little Women, Marriage Story, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Some may call it recency bias, but Parasite deserves its place at number 2 on this list. It’s a stunning piece of filmmaking, covering almost every genre known to man, while remaining a tightly plotted and meticulously crafted story. Director Bong deservedly won Best Director and Best Screenplay for his masterwork of patient filmmaking, and I’m delighted that it received the honour of being the first foreign language film to win the top prize.

1) Moonlight (2016, Dir. Barry Jenkins)

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Also nominated: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea

It had to be Moonlight. Barry Jenkins’ odyssey of one man’s life told in three parts is purely cinematic poetry. It’s devastating and uplifting all at once, framed using beautiful cinematography, an instantly memorable musical score and featuring some barnstorming performances. It’s a slam dunk that can’t easily be beaten.

Should have won: Moonlight

 

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