The Best Picture Oscar winners from the 1970s were a decade of groundbreaking films in an age of American cinematic renaissance. The 80s were more uneven, heavy on the epics, and the 90s, despite having some all-timers win BP, were full of losing films that have withstood the test of time better than the winners themselves.
Which brings us to the latest complete decade of Best Pictures. The 2000s were all over the map, with epics and small films winning, lousy movies beating better work, and one of the strongest Best Picture nominee fields of all time.
Let’s take a look and arbitrarily rank ’em…
Paul Haggis’s hamfisted examination of xenophobia in Los Angeles has become shorthand for the Oscars getting it wrong. The power of Harvey Weinstein, and the unshakable social fear of old white Academy voters, handed Best Picture to this drivel over And Lee’s seminal tragic romance, Brokeback Mountain. Even if Lee’s film hadn’t been there, Crash would still be the most absurd Oscar winner in the Academy’s history. Every beat is obvious and lazy, and the performances are just this side of full-on soap opera melodrama.
A Beautiful Mind
Like Braveheart before it, the historical accuracy of A Beautiful Mind has kept the backlash strong over the years. John Nash, played by Rusell Crowe, had a much more problematic life than the one depicted on screen. But again, I don’t go to the movies for history lessons. Crowe’s Oscar-noninated performance is still strong, and the drama in Ron Howard’s direction is confident. But still, it doesn’t quite land those emotional haymakers in 2017 the way it did back in 2002.
Okay, there’s nothing really wrong with Rob Marshall’s stage-to-screen adaptation of Chicago. It’s just like the rest of the films in the middle of this list… it’s fine. Catherine Zeta-Jones is electric, Renee Zellwegger is prickly and fun, and even John C. Reilly delivers a solid supporting performance. Richard Gere certainly feels like an ill-fitting part. The set design and energy of the numbers are fine. But for a Best Picture winner, we can do better. Of course, 2002 was a lean year for nominees and the escapist musical hit the spot a year after 9/11, but something about the picture just doesn’t stick.
Million Dollar Baby
Here is another Best Picture winner that time and distance (and a heavy dose of American cynicism) has decided to slot as melodramatic junk. Clint Eastwood’s boxing drama is more than that, if for no other reason than it involves a female boxer. Hilary Swank is terrific as Maggie, the white-trash girl from nowhere who sees boxing as her only way out. And Eastwood’s direction is sure handed, and arguably his last real great work behind the camera. Million Dollar Baby may not have attached itself to the collective unconscious in pop culture, but the emotional beats of the story are still often devastating.
Danny Boyle’s Indian drama is a vibrant, eclectic work of art that had too much momentum for any film to beat back in 2008. And still, like so many of the films of the 2000s, it’s footprint on pop culture has faded significantly in the last eight or nine years. Dev Patel is pitch perfect as Jamal, a Mumbai teen competing on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Surprisingly brutal at times, consistently sharp-witted, Slumdog feels like the one film currently on the back burner the will see a resurgence as we near it’s 1year anniversary.
This is where a bit of separation creeps into the list. From here on out, these Best Picture winners have withstood time better than the rest. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator toes the line between dismissive critiques and epic greatness. While it may be a sideways remake of Spartacus, Scott’s world-building prowess is on full display here. Russell Crowe is ferocious as our hero, and Joaquin Phoenix is a seething weasel of a villain. The recreation of Rome is worth the price of admission alone, and the action set pieces in the coliseum are unrivaled in their scope and kinetic thrills.
The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King
I will admit, Peter Jackson’s directing style and The Lord of The Rings never grabbed me. Personally, I don’t really care about these movies, and I know that will make some of your heads explode. But I do understand the grand, epic scope and technical mastery on display in Jackson’s trilogy. The Return of The King dominating Oscar night felt like an awards ceremony celebrating the entire three-film journey, and rightfully so.
The Hurt Locker
Kathryn Bigelow’s searing war drama was the first truly great Iraq War film. It introduced the world to Jeremy Renner, to Anthony Mackie, and perhaps the greatest thing it did for us all was it beat James Cameron’s ridiculous Avatar on Oscar night. It’s gone through the typical popular/overrated phase that so many Best Picture winners go through, but it might be time to reappraise. Bigelow’s direction is nothing short of amazing, and her brutal grimness gives the film a tactile, undeniable resonance.
The typical diss of Martin Scorsese’s one and only Best Picture winner in his legendary career has always been “it’s not his best movie by a mile.” That’s probably true. It’s no Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas, but saying it’s not as great as three masterpieces is a little short sighted. The Departed grabs hold of you from the opening scene and never lets go, and the intricacies of the plot are still wonderful to simply watch unfold. Leo DiCpario and Matt Damon’s cat-and-mouse game is a masterclass in suspenseful storytelling, and Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg are having a blast embracing their broadly-drawn characters.
No Country For Old Men
The list of 2007 Best Picture nominees is one of the all-time greats. Juno, Michael Clayton, and Atonement are all terrific films, but the race in 2007 came down to Paul Thomas Anderson’s seminal Western epic There Will Be Blood (still my personal preference), and The Coen Brothers’ minimalist, Texas Noir. No Country For Old Men is one of the Coen’s true, unwavering masterpieces, a slinking, quiet specter of cinematic dread lurking across the West-Texas desert. And Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is and always will be one of cinemas finest villains.