21st Century Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked
Oscars Best Picture winners represent the very height of cinema for any given year. To win a golden statue determining your movie as the very best of the best is to write your film’s name into history, and to be remembered for all time. Whether the choice of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences is a good or a bad one, a wholly agreed upon choice or a much maligned one, everyone remembers a Best Picture winner, and if they don’t they can easily find a list of them on the pages of the internet, or can access them on home video release or via streaming. To win the Oscar for Best Picture is to become a marketable commodity for all of time, a representation of cinema’s height from whichever year such a title is bequeathed, and in turn to become a time capsule for the filmmaking preferences, fashion choices, popular music nuances, and political leanings of an era.
In the 21st century, 23 films have thus far won the glamourous Oscar for Best Picture, each of which have gone on to become synonymous with film history; whether made for $3million or $300million, whether seen by millions of people worldwide or just a small handful in relative terms. This largely American-made and almost exclusively English-speaking collection of films has reflected to us – not only the English-speaking westerners amongst us, but the global film-watching populous that watches the Oscars in numbers that top out at one billion – our great fears, or deepest anxieties, and our most lofty ambitions, and has thus highlighted our collective abilities to empathise with the lives of others on a mass scale.
In this edition of Ranked, we here at The Film Magazine have looked back at every winner of the Best Picture Oscar from The Academy’s 23 21st century Oscar ceremonies to judge each in terms of quality first and foremost, but also longevity, relevance, popular consensus, critical appraisal and contextual importance, to see which of the films released 1999-2021 is the best and, first, which is the worst…
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All films are listed in the year they were awarded (eg, CODA is listed as “2022”).
23. The King’s Speech – 2011
The other nominees: 127 Hours; Black Swan; The Fighter; Inception; The Kids Are All Right; The Social Network; Toy Story 3; True Grit; Winter’s Bone
It’s not easy being the ruler of so much as one third of all humanity…
The King’s Speech is like a fashion show of rotating period tropes that request you chuckle along at the absurdity of old fashioned sexism and outdated customs, nod as you recognise the name-dropping of Queen Elizabeth or the recreation of the old Wembley Stadium or the reading of the most obvious line of Shakespeare (“to be or not to be”). It’s a bland and uninspired mess that made it to the Best Picture finish line because it was backed by the awards season manipulators of the 90s and 00s, the Weinstein Company (yes, that Weinstein company).
Tom Hooper knows how to cast actors good enough to carry his acting-focused movies, but beyond period appropriate sets and costumes his films are as bland and unimaginative in all cinematic terms as can possibly be imagined, The King’s Speech being a never-ending barrage of British heritage references presented as if a stage show. Through the eyes of contemporary audiences, finding sympathy for an all-powerful ruler who has to tackle a speech impediment is nigh on impossible and would be laughable were it not for the film’s earnest approach. The sheer ignorance of this film’s final act being one framed as a triumph and celebration of perseverance is nothing short of insulting, the fact that King George VI sends an entire nation (and consequently the world) into World War II being framed as insignificant in comparison to the achievement of overcoming a stammer to speak on the radio.
Few films have felt so hopelessly out of touch and as evidently aimed at a privileged group of unknowing and uncaring people as this one, its Best Picture win speaking to the absurdity of the formulaic and frankly terrible “Oscar-worthy” formula of the day.
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22. Crash – 2006
The other nominees: Brokeback Mountain; Capote; Good Night, and Good Luck; Munich
By reputation Crash is the worst Best Picture winner of all time, and it’s easy to see why…
Directed by Paul Haggis and starring an ensemble cast led by Don Cheadle (who also acted as producer), Crash suffers from the same issue as The King’s Speech in that it is aimed at a very select group of privileged people, the sort of liberal white folk that make up The Academy and, specifically to Crash, live in Los Angeles.
Set in California’s largest city – and the home of Hollywood let’s not forget – Crash cycles through everyday issues such as racism, violence, prejudice, police brutality, relationship drama, sexism, stereotyping, and so on, its ensemble cast adding gravitas to what are shallow and barely developed stories that interweave throughout its runtime. Crash is the archetypal Oscars “issues” movie in that it appears to be saying a lot without it actually saying much at all; it highlights issues whilst reinforcing the status quo.
To its credit, Crash moves at a quite rapid pace, and by modern standards it can be considered refreshing to see so many flawed characters (some would say that not a single character in this film is likeable), but a Film of the Year it is not, and a stain on the Oscars it remains.
21. Green Book – 2019
2019 Oscars Best Picture Nominees Ranked
The other nominees: Black Panther; BlackKklansman; Bohemian Rhapsody; The Favourite; Roma; A Star Is Born; Vice
Green Book is by no means a bad film from a technical perspective. It is photographed beautifully, with every shot being sublimely lit, graded and focused; the performances are each fantastic too, with Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali transformed and Viggo Mortensen trustily strong in the lead role; the period appropriate costuming, sets and music all functioning to create an immersive experience that highlights the best of the acting and photography. The issue is the message, and perhaps even more importantly the timing.
As Jacob Davis said in his article “Green Book’s Win Says More About the Academy Than Society“, “Society changes at a rapid pace in the social media age, yet The Academy is experiencing some kind of cultural lag”. As was the case with Crash and The King’s Speech, Green Book was precisely the kind of “message movie” that only the very select group of privileged white Academy members could associate with; issues of race and unity as told through the eyes of the white man.
In Green Book, racism is quite literally a thing that happened in the past, and as each racist stereotype is used to cause a small character quibble or is regurgitated for laughs with no thought as regards the possible wider impact that doing so may have on its audience or the volatile cultural conversation of the time, and the narrative focuses more and more on the lessons of its white lead, it becomes apparent that this Best Picture winner is an ignorant take on racism that seems to make the prehistoric suggestion that so long as a black man is able to provide outstanding service (in this case through music) he can be on the level of a lowly white criminal.
Fifty or more years earlier, Green Book may have been heralded as forward-thinking and interesting, but in a year of race-fuelled violence and cinema that directly tackled the issues of racism and promoted the values and inclusion of black people (BlackKklansman and Black Panther each being Best Picture nominees from black directors), Peter Farrelly and his almost all-white team of filmmakers centring a “based on true events” story about a noteworthy black artist on the white man who escorted him through the south seemed… out of touch.
Recommended for you: Green Book’s Verdant Views on Race Allow Inherent Contradiction
20. CODA – 2022
2022 Oscars Best Picture Nominees Ranked
The other nominees: Belfast; Don’t Look Up; Drive My Car; Dune; King Richard; Licorice Pizza; Nightmare Alley; The Power of the Dog; West Side Story
2022 Oscars Best Picture winner CODA wasn’t even close to being the film of the year. A glorified coming-of-age film complete with all the trappings of run-of-the-mill teen dramas, CODA was heavy on exposition and narrative/character conveniences but light on technical prowess. Its selection as the Best Picture of 2021 seemed like the choice of an academy looking to create an important moment, the crowning of its full-hearing crew proving to highlight how shallow that choice may have been.
Telling of a child of deaf adults (a CODA) played impressively by Emilia Jones, Sian Heder’s film no doubt had potential as a moderately discussed teen film that led with empathy and taught positive ethics, but a run at the Oscars seemed laughable upon its release on Apple TV+ in the summer of 2021 and its eventual win only seemed to come into view in the few weeks ahead of the final votes being cast.
The 2022 Oscars Best Picture race was a dirty one, and that’s important to recognise in relation to CODA’s victory. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza was heavily criticised for an apparently racially insensitive joke, seemingly putting the latest film from that particular Academy favourite out of contention, while Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story held similar potential for controversy having cast alleged abuser Ansel Elgort in the lead role. The Academy will no doubt be relieved to have kept King Richard from this award given the controversies surrounding Lead Actor winner Will Smith on the night, while early awards season favourite The Power of the Dog was seemingly met with the ire of more conservative Academy members, A Star is Born actor Sam Elliott among its most vocal critics at the start of 2022. Apple saw their opportunity to take advantage of a fractured race and put their financial clout and heavy sway with a number of academy members (courtesy of their investments across multiple studios regarding technology, share ownership and so on) to good use, ensuring that it was an Apple film that became the first ever direct-to-streaming Best Picture winner.
In the years to come it may be the case that CODA is looked back upon as an important Best Picture winner that opened doors for deaf talent to cross into the world’s most accessible visual realm, and it may even be considered warmly amongst the less inspired and more offensive choices in Oscars history, but a classic of the silver screen it is not nor shall ever be. CODA was a victor courtesy of circumstances and power plays, a Best Picture that doesn’t even come close to mirroring the quality of what is to come on this list.