The 21st century is less than two decades old, but its first batch of Best Picture winners already paint an extraordinary portrait of a world in flux. From a massive historical epic to an intimate digital indies — from a musical that riffs on showbiz standards to period drama that reflects on present crises — these 17 films range from “problematic” to “perfect” and hit all points in between. More than that, they illustrate Hollywood’s evolving definition of greatness, and the relationship between the film industry and the times that forge it.
Here are the 17 Best Picture winners of the 21st century, ranked from worst to best.
“Brokeback Mountain” deserved better, but the Academy didn’t know it. Paul Haggis’ painfully obvious ensemble drama about racial prejudices in Los Angeles was a smug, one-note drama designed to make white liberals feel good about themselves. (It took a decade for “Get Out” to put this recurring tendency in its place.) The spin-the-racial-wheel structure careens from a black filmmaker to a Persian immigrant to a Hispanic locksmith as it heads toward a tidy climax in which everyone’s bias comes to a head. The movie was released early in the year and gradually crept back into the conversation so the Academy’s homophobic contingency had a backup plan as “Brokeback” gained momentum. But perhaps that’s unfair: Some very reasonable people like “Crash,” which is so sincere and eager to make its purpose obvious that support for the movie was synonymous with endorsing its good intentions. It’s possible to appreciate the outlook of “Crash” while still recognizing that it’s a bad movie; unfortunately, Oscar season circa 2005 wasn’t interested in subtle distinctions. —Eric Kohn
16. “The King’s Speech“
Tom Hooper’s snoozy character study about the stuttering future King George VI’s attempt to get over his impediment and deliver a declaration of war on Germany demonstrates the worst tendencies of Oscar bait: weighty subject matter given a quirky, entertaining twist. That was the Weinstein formula in a nutshell. Colin Firth does his thing in the lead, carrying this gimmicky period piece along as well as possible, but “The King’s Speech” never manages to wrestle free of its obvious framework. At this point, as best picture winners go, it speaks to another era — when the most boring, unadventurous option is automatically the consensus choice. —EK
15. “Argo” (2012)
It’s crazy to think that, only five years ago, Hollywood awarded their highest honor to a glorified TV movie because they felt bad for Ben Affleck. And the only reason they felt bad for Ben Affleck was because they forgot to nominate him for their highest individual honor. Oscar narrative sure take on a life of their own. Of course, as is often the case, “Argo” doesn’t fully deserve the scorn it continues to receive for being an undeserving Best Picture winner; it’s a fine little historical thriller, smartly crafted and suspenseful from start to finish. There’s not much to it beyond the fun of watching the guy from “Good Will Hunting” sneak a bunch of Americans out of Iran during the Revolution, but that is fun. Affleck knows how to put a good story together, and it’s hard to regret sitting through anything that stars Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Kerry Bishé, Victor Garber, Richard Kind, and/or Clea DuVall. Still… it’s never a great sign when a movie gives the impression that it directed itself. —David Ehrlich
14. “Chicago” (2002)
Hardly the worst of the Hollywood musicals that have plagued the screen since the turn of the century, Rob Marshall’s feature debut is a rather modest little movie for something that precipitated monstrosities on the magnitude of “Les Misérables,” “Phantom of the Opera,” and “Rock of Ages.” All razzle dazzle and no real substance, “Chicago” essentially just offers you a front-row seat at a Broadway theatre; Marshall blindly embraces the cabaret vibe of Fosse’s original show, directing the adaptation like someone who got to reach for the stars but only knew how to shoot for the stage. Every exterior sequence just feels like a glorified set change, and any attempts to gussy up the story ultimately reveal how thin it was in the first place. Still, Renée Zellweger is a phenomenal Roxie Hart (“The Press Conference Rag” is a highlight), and Richard Gere is a delightfully slimy Billy Flynn. Fun fact: Not a single human being has actually watched this film since 2003. —DE
13. “A Beautiful Mind” (2001)
Ron Howard’s story of brilliant economist John Nash (Russell Crowe), whose astonishing ability to decipher Soviet code for the Pentagon is upended by his bouts of paranoid schizophrenia, was a major best picture contender even before the cameras started rolling. Howard’s involving direction, guided along by Akiva Goldman’s screenplay, gives Crowe a role ideally suited to his dazed expression — an ideas man perpetually lost in thought. None of that makes “A Beautiful Mind” a great movie, but in the pantheon of obvious Oscar bait, it’s one of the least offensive entries, a sturdy biopic that overextends its self-importance but more or less hits its emotional beats on cue. —EK
12. “The Artist” (2011)
100 minutes of empty throwback charm, “The Artist” was a lovely and innocuous little movie before Harvey Weinstein got his dirty hands on it and made the low-budget French comedy into an Oscar-winning punchline. When Michel Hazanavicius’ cute homage to silent cinema first premiered in competition at Cannes, it was rightfully seen as a crowd-pleasing bit of fluff in a lineup defined by portentous masterpieces like “House of Tolerance” and “Melancholia.” By the time it swept to the stage of the Kodak Theatre the following year, this peppy riff on “Singin’ in the Rain” had become regarded as the kind of milquetoast, masturbatory nonsense that can turn an awards season into an endless slog. Don’t blame star Jean Dujardin for that, who does a wonderful job of channeling Gene Kelly, or Berénice Bejo, a delightful ingenue who shines as a delightful ingenue; some of their scenes together are almost worthy of Stanley Donen. And don’t you dare blame Uggie, whose tell-all memoir reveals the full depth of his performance. This is just show business. —DE
11. “Slumdog Millionaire“
Is “Slumdog Millionaire” the weirdest movie to ever win Best Picture? Its triumph at the Oscars seems almost as unlikely as Jamal Malik’s on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?,” and that show was literally rigged against him (why Sony Television ever agreed to let one of their flagship programs get besmirched like that is still a mystery). How could a poor chaiwala from a Juhu slum become rich overnight and then perform an infectiously choreographed dance with the beautiful love of his life!? Such is the power of cinema. Danny Boyle’s Indian fairy tale won people over with its propulsive energy, revising classic Bollywood tropes for international audiences through a rags-to-riches story about the value of dreams (or is it destiny?) in an economy that’s fixed against you. None of it is very nuanced, and all of it is very Danny Boyle, but the colorful and vividly emotional tale caught on with even casual moviegoers, which might be the film’s greatest homage to the Hindi blockbusters that inspired it. —DE