21st Century Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked
10. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – 2004
The other nominees: Lost in Translation; Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World; Mystic River; Seabiscuit
As referenced in this list’s Gladiator entry, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King marks the last mainstream box office hit and cultural phenomenon to have earned the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Released close to two decades ago, the third instalment of Peter Jackson’s fantasy trilogy adaptation of the famous novels by J.R.R. Tolkien was the ultimate in wish fulfilment. Coming just a few years after the 9/11 attacks, Return of the King was a noteworthy moment in the film landscape, offering a story that is ultimately about good overcoming evil, albeit through the guise of wizards, hobbits and elves. It was the kind of narrative the world wanted at the time, the kind of narrative the Academy could get behind, and because it was the final movie in the trilogy it had the added benefit of gaining legacy votes (those being votes placed on a film for the culmination of works outside of the singular text, in this case the first two Lord of the Rings movies). As was the case with Gladiator before it, The Lord of the Rings was a big earner of votes across all branches of the academy but particularly the costuming, hair & make-up, and score categories.
It is perhaps a combination of legacy, popular appeal and particular interest from the above mentioned branches that pushed Return of the King beyond its competitors at the 2004 awards, the spectacular conclusion to the trilogy not often considered by fans of the movies to be the best of the bunch, but its position at the end of a practical effects-driven, otherworldly cinematic era, and its achievements across the board, making it an all-time memorable film nonetheless.
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9. The Departed – 2007
The other nominees: Babel; Letters from Iwo Jima; Little Miss Sunshine; The Queen
The Departed is a superb thriller from one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of the American form, but it is best remembered more as an example of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ ineptitude than it is a deserving and beloved Best Picture winner. The reason: director Martin Scorsese had been working for close to 40 years by this point and had made plenty of other films widely acknowledged as being better than this one, yet had never won a Best Director or Best Picture nod before.
It’s the kind of narrative choice that makes The Academy so predictable, but one in this case that points to The Academy’s failures from the past and is therefore forever attached to that rather than its own qualities.
As far as its qualities go, The Departed is a typical Scorsese picture in how it balances a large number of character arcs and narrative strands almost effortlessly. Adapted from the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs, Scorsese’s version is no doubt more Hollywoodised than the original (including an all-star cast headlined by Academy favourites Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Jack Nicholson), and it is perhaps typical that The Academy would hand Scorsese an Academy Award for an adaptation as opposed to one of his originals, but the combination of Scorsese’s own unflinching presentation and some superb performances (and all the ad-lib that comes with them) makes for a constantly engaging and ultimately deserving Best Picture winner that surpasses the films already listed by the virtue of its tight presentation, minute-after-minute thrills, and standalone appeal.
8. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – 2015
The other nominees: American Sniper; Boyhood; The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Imitation Game; Selma; The Theory of Everything; Whiplash
Arguably the most expressive and art-house-adjacent film to be awarded Best Picture this century, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) took the concept of the stage play on screen and elevated it with modern technology, shooting each act in what seemed like one continuous shot for each, and getting intimate with its many star players through the uses of steady cam and fish eye lenses.
In casting former Batman star Michael Keaton as the lead, Birdman had the modern edge of self-reference and fourth-wall-breaking appeal, whilst also fundamentally attaching itself to Keaton’s real-life comeback story. The star, who had been almost completely absent from any kind of mainstream or critical hit for way over a decade, would of course prove himself worthy, his performance earning both himself and Birdman the fervour of The Academy, who had been proven to eat up a good comeback story.
It would be the first of back-to-back years of Oscars dominance for Keaton, who earned a Best Actor nomination here and who would go on to star in Best Picture winner Spotlight in the following year. Co-star Emma Stone would also earn the first of her Oscar nominations for this film, winning for La La Land just two years later and then being nominated again two years after that for The Favourite. Perhaps most impressively however, Birdman would be the first of back-to-back Oscar wins for director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who would win in their respective categories in the following year for The Revenant.
This combination of talent at the very top of their game, and the era in which they came together, makes for a simply magnificent Oscars Best Picture winner; one that may be more attached to its era of release than other more timeless films to come on this list, and may not have spoken of the issues of its time like a lot of The Academy’s choices over the years, but remains unmissable nonetheless.
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7. American Beauty – 2000
The other nominees: The Cider House Rules; The Green Mile; The Insider; The Sixth Sense
There are few films that have come to exemplify the times in which they were released better than American Beauty. This suburban drama, brought to the screen by one of the most exceptional and unforgettable feature directorial debuts of all time from UK-born director Sam Mendes, captured the discomfort of the affluent middle class families of the US in the late 1990s, presenting a world of financial stability and excess but dictated by paranoia, a lack of personal fulfilment, and the questioning of each and every little part of a relatively untroubled existence.
As a time capsule, American Beauty remains an exceptional example, its cinematography, score, themes, presentation and cast each representing the era perhaps as decisively as any other film released between 1995 and 2000. To this day, it’s easy to feel swept into a bygone era on the cusp of what we now consider normal, and it remains a fantastic example of the high quality and important filmmaking that at one time made up the bulk of Oscars Best Picture winners.
In viewing the film 20 years on from its release, there are a few glaring issues, the most obvious of which is the starring turn by Kevin Spacey and all of the negative feeling that comes with that. Similarly, there’s something odd about watching American Beauty two “once in a lifetime” financial crashes, a disastrous presidency for the middle classes, and a war on terror later – it really is more difficult than ever to sympathise with some of the issues highlighted in this film.
Nevertheless, Sam Mendes and company made one of the defining films of its generation, and though its Best Picture competition was exceptional in 2000, you would be hard-pressed to find a more deserving Best Picture winner in this list.
6. The Shape of Water – 2018
2018 Oscars Best Picture Nominees Ranked
The other nominees: Call Me By Your Name; Darkest Hour; Dunkirk; Get Out; Lady Bird; Phantom Thread; The Post; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
There was something inexplicably feel-good about The Shape of Water winning Best Picture in 2018. Perhaps it was that the Oscar acted as the culmination of the awards season campaign that had seen director Guillermo del Toro celebrated for being an artist working for the betterment of each of us within an industry of money-driven men in suits? Or maybe it was more simply that The Shape of Water was a film of imagination, inspired by the classics and brought to life in such a remarkable way? In any case, it was facing stiff competition, and yet it seems to be a film more than deserving of its accolade.
Films like this – aesthetically remarkable fantasy movies of the fairy tale variety – only seem to burst into the mainstream once a decade, and when they do they are so rarely celebrated by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Often, these are the kinds of films that come to be cult hits and influence countless other filmmakers in the decades to come – del Toro himself being the figurehead behind the overlooked but hugely influential Pan’s Labyrinth, released just over a decade earlier in 2006. In 2018, the lovable misfit from south of the border made his dreams come true, earning Best Director to tie in with his film being named the best of the best for that year in cinema; it seemed like the kind of story Hollywood itself would write.
The escapist fantasy that is The Shape of Water, and the ways in which its allegories and metaphors can be applied to the lives of each of us watching, makes for a quite remarkable watch even now, even upon multiple viewings. It is soft, warm, welcoming, and encouraging of the good in each of us. It promises heart and delivers it in spades. It’s not the most openly political of the Best Picture winners, or the best example of the time in which it was released, yet vitally it feels like a voice for good, for kindness and for acceptance, which is as impactful now as it was in 2018 during an era of heightened volatility, division and suffering. The Shape of Water was therefore not only a timely Best Picture winner, but a timeless one too – a film that has become known for preaching timeless values in a unique, exceptional and memorable way.
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