The 94th Academy Awards are almost upon us, giving Hollywood a chance to pat itself on the back for yet another year of filmmaking. Though, whilst this may have been the case for many decades, in recent times it appears as though the Oscars is looking to change and adapt for modern life, with the awards show going through several major milestones in the past five years alone.
Becoming the first foreign film ever to win Best Picture, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite became a critical and commercial sensation upon its release in 2019, whilst the Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao took home the same award along with Best Director for Nomadland one year later, making her only the second female filmmaker ever to win the solo award. Though it is clear that many more strides still have to be made, the Academy Awards are doing a great job in vowing for change.
As we await the winner of Best Picture in 2022, with Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog looking likely to swoop the award, we thought we’d take a look back at the modern history of the awards and assess its ups and downs. Handing out 21 Best Picture winners since the start of the new century, the Academy Awards haven’t always gotten it right, snubbing some major films, so let’s take a look back and rank every Best Picture winner of the 21st century.
Ranking every Best Picture in the 21st Century:
21. Crash (Paul Haggis, 2005)
Famously known as one of the most undeserved Best Picture winners of all time, Crash from Paul Haggis features a laboured story about race and love in contemporary Los Angeles.
Starring the likes of Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon and Brendan Fraser, though Crash was praised upon its release, with the benefit of time, audiences have come to realise the obvious flaws in its threadbare story. To make matters worse, Paul Haggis’ Best Picture winner beat out films such as Brokeback Mountain by Ang Lee and Munich by Steven Spielberg for the top award of the night.
20. Green Book (Peter Farrelly, 2018)
The worst Best Picture winner of recent years, Peter Farrelly’s whitewashed Green Book felt like a constellation nomination when it was listed among the Best Picture hopefuls, only to take home the award to everyone’s surprise.
Beating out the likes of films such as BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee and The Favourite by Yorgos Lanthimos, the victory of Green Book felt totally unjust in a year of far better movies. With a decent enough cast that includes Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali and Linda Cardellini, Farrelly’s film simply doesn’t live up to the promise that the Best Picture label promises, delivering a weak allegorical story about race that is overshadowed by modern efforts.
19. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)
The Academy Awards turned pretentious in 2014 when Alejandro González Iñárritu’s self-important drama Birdman took home the main prize largely thanks to its stuffed Hollywood ensemble cast.
With Michael Keaton, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis, Iñárritu created a film about the farce of the entertainment industry that wasn’t able to recognise its own imploding ego. Choosing the film in place of Wes Anderson’s modern masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel and Damien Chazelle’s rousing musical drama Whiplash, it’s hard to forgive the Academy for this one.
18. Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002)
Criminally beating The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers by Peter Jackson and The Pianist from Roman Polanski to the top spot, Rob Marshall’s middling Best Picture winner Chicago is an average ride at best.
We know that the Academy has a fondness for tales of American history, but this comedy, drama hybrid from Rob Marshall simply isn’t strong enough to take home the best award at the Oscars. With overblown performances from Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere, Chicago becomes an entirely forgettable Best Picture-winner that consistently surprises people when they recall that the film did indeed win the coveted award.
17. The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010)
Praised upon its release, The King’s Speech is certainly a competently made film with some terrific lead performances, but it’s also the equivalent of dangling a carrot in front of the Academy, being unashamed Oscar bait.
Starring Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, the film is a perfectly fine drama dealing with the stammer of King George VI shortly before the start of WWII. Blinded by its sheer glitz and glamour upon its release, with the benefit of time, it’s clear to see that The King’s Speech is something of an average film that wrongfully beat out other contenders The Social Network and Inception for the top prize.
16. Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)
Ben Affleck’s Argo is a terrific, thrilling romp following a nerve-shredding rescue mission to save six Americans who are held captive in Tehran during the US hostage crisis, it’s just not good enough to be awarded ‘Best Picture’.
With Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin, star of the film and director Ben Affleck crafts a truly thrilling drama that proves that a film doesn’t have to be serious and brooding to win Best Picture. When it was competing against the likes of Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty, however, you have to question just how Argo managed to walk away with the ceremony’s most illustrious prize.
15. The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)
The Artist from French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius was made specifically to win Best Picture, meticulously crafted with the exact elements to take home the award, thanks to the shamed movie producer Harvey Weinstein.
Set at the dawn of ‘the talkies’ in the golden era of Hollywood filmmaking, The Artist follows a silent film star who is forced to adapt to the transition of modern cinema. Starring Jean Dujardin, John Goodman and Bérénice Bejo, the Best Picture shoe-horn is still a thoroughly enjoyable film and was likely the best film of the 2011 lineup, bettered only perhaps by Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
14. Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
Perfectly striking that Oscar’s sweet spot of being rather dramatically average but undeniably pertinent, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight snuck in for Oscar glory in 2015 ahead of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant.
Telling the true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered a scandal of child molestation within the Catholic Archdiocese, McCarthy’s film is certainly an important one, highlighting the importance of local journalism in a time of disheartening ‘fake news’. With a rousing ensemble cast including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Stanley Tucci, this may be the first film on this list that truly deserved its award.
13. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004)
Being something of a legend in the American film industry, it’s no wonder that Clint Eastwood took home the award for Best Picture for his 2004 film Million Dollar Baby, just 11 years after his previous award winner Unforgiven.
Though Million Dollar Baby lacks the punch and significance of his 1993 Western, it remains a rousing watch, following the tumultuous life of a determined woman working to become a professional boxer. Winning Hilary Swank an Oscar for her leading performance, she is joined by Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Anthony Mackie and Jay Baruchel in this emotional sports drama.
12. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009)
Making history as the first woman ever to take home the award for Best Picture, Kathryn Bigelow was also chosen to receive Best Director on the night for her modern war film The Hurt Locker.
A compelling if an entirely patriotic film, The Hurt Locker follows a bomb disposal squad during the Iraq war, led by a maverick soldier named Staff Sergeant William James, played by Jeremy Renner. Bringing to light a frontline job that was previously unpublicised to audiences, Bigelow creates a compelling thriller that is punctuated by sharp shocks of powerful human drama.
11. The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)
Ditching his love of horror for sheer classical romance, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro won Best Picture in 2017 for The Shape of Water, a typical Hollywood love story with a fantasy twist.
Oozing with class and cinematic charm, del Toro’s film is a dark fairytale following a deaf janitor who forms a unique relationship with a mysterious amphibious creature being held in captivity in a top-secret research facility. It’s a peculiar film that feels both refreshingly original but also inextricably tied to the romance and grace of classic Hollywood, making it the perfect bait for Oscar voters.
10. A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)
Much like Clint Eastwood, director Ron Howard has also long been an industry favourite, scooping the Best Picture Oscar for his biographical drama A Beautiful Mind back in 2001.
Also winning Howard an award for Best Director, A Beautiful Mind stars Russell Crowe as John Nash, an asocial mathematician whose life takes a wild turn after he takes top-secret work in cryptography. With a supporting cast featuring Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany, Howard crafts a rousing, intellectually stimulating drama that continues to inspire to this day.
9. The Departed (Martin Scorsese, 2006)
Remarkably, Martin Scorsese’s Best Picture win for The Departed is the only film of his staggering career to ever take home the coveted statuette, with the likes of Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Raging Bull each missing out.
With an impressive ensemble cast including Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg, Scorsese’s film is a remake of the 2002 movie Infernal Affairs and follows an undercover cop in an Irish gang who’s trying to identify a police mole. Meticulously crafted, The Departed is an utterly thrilling crime drama that truly deserved its Best Picture win, even if other Scorsese flicks may have deserved the award more.
8. Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000)
The scope of Ridley Scott’s turn of the century epic can still be appreciated to this day, with the scale and visuals of Gladiator looking just as great now as they did when the film was released in 2000.
Instantly becoming an essential piece of cinematic pop culture upon its release, the story of Maximus, a former Roman General, who seeks vengeance from a corrupt emperor, Commodus, is one of epic proportions that has barely been matched since. With a stellar ensemble cast that includes Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris, Scott’s film remains his best in the 21st century.
7. Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008)
Helping to bring lead actor Dev Patel to the very forefront of modern cinema, Slumdog Millionaire was an awards sensation when it was released in 2008, hauling in a total of eight Academy Awards.
An epic coming of age story, Slumdog Millionaire is based on the book Q&A by author Vikas Swarup, following a Mumbai teenager as he reflects on his life after being accused of cheating on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. Led by terrific performances across the board and deft direction by Danny Boyle, the success of Slumdog Millionaire was long-deserved for the filmmaker.
6. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)
Emerging as one of the most pertinent filmmakers of contemporary cinema, British director Steve McQueen’s 2013 effort 12 Years a Slave was the film that would change his career and revolutionise cinema.
Encouraging a whole new focus on the stories of black cinema, McQueen’s non-fiction account of the life of Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who is kidnapped and forced into slavery, is a rousing piece of crucially important film. Made as powerful as it is thanks to its ensemble cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Lupita Nyong’o, McQueen’s film remains an essential piece of modern cinema.
5. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003)
It’s not often that fantasy epics win the award for Best Picture, particularly in contemporary cinema, so when Peter Jackson achieved this feat in 2003, The Lord of the Rings trilogy was finally noticed as the masterpiece it was.
As the final film of the blockbuster trilogy, many saw the success of Return of the King at the Oscars as a celebration of the film series as a whole that went on to redefine modern fantasy. Truly, the feats that Peter Jackson achieved in the final film is worthy of a standalone article, reinventing the way we appreciate everything from cinematography to set design, makeup, costumes and so much more.
4. Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, 2020)
Smart, subtle and utterly beautiful, Chloé Zhao’s gorgeous exploration of modern America is a modern masterpiece that once again made history, with the Chinese director becoming the first foreign female filmmaker to win the award for Best Director and Best Picture.
Starring Frances McDormand as a woman who embarks on a journey through the American West living as a modern-day nomad thanks to losing everything after the Great Recession, Chloé Zhao creates a compelling human drama that is emblematic of modern-day life. Crafted with a gentle passionate lyricism, Nomadland bypasses the futility of the American dream and accesses the very heart of the American soul.
3. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, 2019)
The first foreign film ever to win Best Picture, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is truly a contemporary classic, harnessing the attention of audiences and critics across the world with its thrilling core concept and perfect execution.
Sparking a modern interest in South Korean drama, no doubt the success of Parasite in 2019 would lead to Netflix’s monumentally successful series Squid Game released in 2021. Dabbling with themes of class warfare and the disruption of the social order, Bong Joon-ho deals with several pertinent topics with a compelling approach to drama and a subtle layering of subtext. It’s a fascinating ride.
2. No Country for Old Men (the Coen brothers, 2007)
Reinventing the modern Western, the Coen brothers crafted one of the best films of the 21st century with No Country for Old Men, a film so crammed full of cinematic weight that it’s scary.
The dramatic bookend of the Western genre that has long existed throughout Hollywood history, No Country for Old Men felt like the definitive final chapter of an epic tale, arriving with so much significance thanks to the word-perfect script from the Coen brothers. Starring Javier Bardem and Tommy Lee Jones representing two sides of American identity, both actors deliver commanding performances in a dominant cinematic masterpiece.
1. Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016)
A throbbing emotional drama for the contemporary age, Moonlight by Barry Jenkins represents a significant turning point in the history of the Academy Awards, usurping the success of shoo-in La La Land to change the film industry forever.
As crucial and pertinent in modern society as it is quite simply a stirring dramatic spectacle, Barry Jenkins crafts three parts of one whole story that lovingly unravels the life of a young black man grappling with his identity and sexuality. Earth-shattering in its emotional enormity, yet strangely contained and subtle in its execution, there is truly no film as sensational and critically important as Moonlight.