The last decade and a half has seen some of the best Best Picture winners in the Oscars’ history. It’s also seen some of the worst, thanks in no small part to the early few years of the millennium and a writer’s strike which undercut several more promising films. What’s amazing, in some instances, are the films that came in second place (I’m looking at you, 2005). Before we anoint another BP this Sunday for the 2015 year, let’s look back at what we’ve gotten in the 21st Century…
15. Crash (2005) – One of the more embarrassing nights for the Oscars came in 2006, when the power of Harvey Weinstein – and the lingering fear of homosexual themes in mainstream cinema – pushed the sublime and heartbreaking Brokeback Mountain to the side in favor of an overwrought, obvious Magnolia ripoff. You know all those things we use when we talk about racism in broad cliches? This film shows those things to us. Paul Haggis’s Crash is about as subtle as a punch in the solar plexus, an examination of xenophobia that a teenager could have written with more nuance.
14. Chicago (2002) – I don’t particularly dislike Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Chicago. The musical numbers are fine, the overall product is okay. It’s just not anywhere near one of the best pictures of 2001 or any other year. It makes sense however, that in the months after 9/11, a musical would win BP. It’s pure escapism, devoid of any reality, no matter how mediocre it may be.
13. The Artist (2011) – A charming look back at the silent era of film, The Artist is another okay film that picked up steam ahead of the ceremony in 2012. Oh, and it had a cute, funny dog. Much like Chicago, the film itself is fine, the performances are succinct, it’s competent. But tell me, when was the last time you thought about The Artist or sat down and watched it again?
12. A Beautiful Mind (2001) – At the time, A Beautiful Mind was a powerful experience. The story of John Nash (Russell Crowe, compelling) was an intriguing story despite the fact most of the darkest demons in the real Nash’s life were left on the cutting room floor (or omitted altogether). Time has watered down Ron Howard’s film significantly, with the notes of melodrama outweighing anything else. Regardless, I still admire the craftsmanship on display.
11. Million Dollar Baby (2004) – Much like A Beautiful Mind, in its day Million Dollar Baby was a compelling, insightful drama. Clint Eastwood’s direction was still strong (stronger the year before with Mystic River), and Hilary Swank captured the nuance of her dirt-poor dreamer. It remains a heartbreaking film, but like so many of these early 21st Century films, time has pushed the melodrama to the forefront, masking what we all remembered at the time.
10. The King’s Speech (2010) – Can we all admit now that this film wasn’t that great? It may have more heart and truth in it than the previous four films on this list, but in 2010 Tom Hooper’s film was unjustly anointed as the greatest thing to come along in years. The King’s Speech is dreary, narrowly-focused, and forgettable. Another one of those BP winners nobody bothers to revisit.
9. Argo (2012) – Ben Affleck’s true story is a thrilling survival tale capturing the essence of the Middle East in the late 70s. The story itself is fascinating, and Affleck nailed all the right notes to tell a thriller. The emotional side of things fell a little flat, but it was still a worthy nominee and winner. Over time, Argo may appreciate more than the other films around its time.
8. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – Slumdog Millionaire is one of Danny Boyle’s most kinetic and complete films, a rags-to-riches story full of magic realism that the Oscars eat up. Time may have diluted the impact this film made back in 2008, but it’s most certainly worth a revisit.
7. The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King (2003) – This one will surely get fanboys up in arms. I respect the Lord of the Rings films, I admire the incredible craftsmanship and dedication it took to get this trilogy up and running. But, much like actors sometimes winning Oscars based on their career and not necessarily the performance for which they’r nominated, The Return of The King felt a little like a make good. I get the allure surrounding these films, they just aren’t for me.
6. Birdman (2014) – The backlash against Alejandro González Iñárritu and his relentless campaign surrounding The Revenant has begun running downhill, all the way to his previous work. It’s hip to dismiss Birdman these days as too on the nose and aggressively thematic. I suppose it is, but does every film have to be a mystery wrapped inside an enigma? Michael Keaton gives it his all in the lead role, and the cast surrounding him is funny, touching, and yes… aggressively on the nose. So what? It’s entertaining and re-watchable. Sometimes that’s fine.
5. Gladiator (2000) – Like Birdman, Ridley Scott’s Roman epic is another film that’s hip to toss aside. I’ve never understood this sentiment. Gladiator is a pretty much a Spartacus remake at its core, but Scott’s world-building prowess is in full force here. His Ancient Rome is beautiful. Russell Crowe is convincing and a pure badass, and for some reason we all forget the reptilian greatness of Joaquin Phoenix’s villain. Sometimes snark blinds us all.
4. The Hurt Locker (2009) – 2009 was an important year for the “little guy” in Hollywood. Best Picture came down to the biggest movie in ever (until recently), Avatar, and a small independent film about the troublesome pathos polluting our soldiers in The Hurt Locker. Thankfully, the Academy chose the correct path and handed Kathryn Bigelow’s taut, focused, thrilling war drama the BP statue that night. The Hurt Locker remains as captivating as it did back in 2009, and it didn’t even have to use one giant blue person.
3. The Departed (2006) – Ok, ok, The Departed isn’t Raging Bull or Goodfellas or Taxi Driver, films in Martin Scorsese’s catalogue more deserving of BP. Can we move past that now? Those films weren’t nominated in 2006, and Scorsese’s double-crossing crime drama was. And it is a fantastic film in its own right, an energetic and fluid thriller with what is, for my money, Leo DiCaprio’s finest performance. It might be easy to remember The Departed as minor Scorsese, but go back and watch it again and tell me you still think the same.
2. No Country for Old Men (2007) – As brilliant as No Country for Old Men is, my personal pick for the BP of 2007 was Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. Which came in second at the ceremony that year. 2007 was a great year for nihilistic drama and the Coen Brothers, Cormac McCarthy, and especially Javier Bardem among a cavalcade of powerhouse performances, created a seamless and beautiful thriller about the nature of violence in the hearts of men. One of the best.
1. 12 Years a Slave (2013) – The snark police haven’t gotten ahold of Steve McQueen’s slavery drama yet, but I feel like it’s a matter of time. When the undue backlash brigade sets its sights on 12 Years a Slave, I will defend it to my dying day. This is a heartbreaking, sometimes brutal, often times ferocious look at one of the darkest eras in American history. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o captivate, and the final scene is one of the more emotionally cathartic experiences I have ever had in all my years watching film.