Academy Awards Retrospective: 21st Century Best Pictures

“We’ll know how good this film was in fifteen years,” said George Stevens, winning Best Director for A Place in the Sun fifty years ago. As the date for the 87th Annual Academy Awards draws nearer, it felt like a good time to look back at all of the winners of Best Picture in this century. I’ll be discussing each film’s individual merits and flaws, coupled with alternative picks from the other nominated films, in addition to adding films that weren’t even nominated in their respective years. Enjoy, and feel free to disagree.

 

2000 – Gladiator

Did It Deserve to Win? No

Gladiator was the first Best Picture winner of the new century, and heralded a brief return of the classical Hollywood epic that had all but been demolished following the disaster of Cleopatra in 1964. While the film has its merits, among which include breathtaking art direction and visual effects, in addition to Russell Crowe’s commanding performance as Maximus, it ultimately falls short of true greatness, hampered by its overtly simplistic theme and the relative lack of complexity with the rest of its characters. It’s certainly a very well made and fashioned film, but I’m not sure it was completely worthy of winning the top prize.

Alternative Pick – Traffic

Not Even Nominated – Amores PerrosAlmost FamousWonder Boys

 

2001 – A Beautiful Mind

Did It Deserve to Win? No

Only Ron Howard can turn complexity into complete audience manipulation. A Beautiful Mind won the Best Picture Oscar for 2001 and though it features a solid, if underwhelming performance from Russell Crowe, the rest of the film lags and ends up pulling at the emotional heartstrings whenever it finds the chance. Ron Howard has modeled himself as the Frank Capra of his generation, but he is far behind when trying to deliver honest emotion which ends up coming off as forced and rarely genuine.

Alternative Pick – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Not Even Nominated – Memento

 

2002 – Chicago

Did It Deserve to Win? No

Don’t get me wrong, Chicago is a finely produced piece of musical pizzaz and I like Bob Fosse as much as the next guy. The fact is that Chicago is strictly an entertainment, a throwback of sorts to movie musicals of the 1960’s while infusing a bit of Fosse’s cinematic style from the 1970’s. All of the performances are good, but unremarkable. Ultimately, it was a nicely made genre piece but lacked any kind of depth resulting in a formula all too common in contemporary Hollywood: all style and no substance.

Alternative Picks – The Lord of the Rings: The Two TowersThe Pianist

Not Even Nominated – Adaptation, Y Tu Mama Tambien

 

2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King

Did It Deserve to Win? Yes

Peter Jackson’s magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, was honored with the Best Picture of 2003 and rightfully so. This mammoth of a film was the culmination of a trilogy that Jackson had labored over for the better part of a decade, and the Academy’s award was a tribute to that achievement as a whole. A genuine cinematic triumph, The Return of the King is an exceptional work of epic cinema, combining breathtaking photography and art direction, with exceptional editorial pacing, a well adapted screenplay bolstered by committed, believable performances, coupled with stunning visual effects and sound design. Finding the balance between the massive and the intimate, Jackson’s trilogy is a genuine landmark in cinema history, and the Academy rightfully awarded this conclusion.

Alternative Pick – Mystic River

Not Even Nominated – City of God

 

2004 – Million Dollar Baby

Did It Deserve to Win? No

Clint Eastwood has become something of a staple nominee for the Academy Awards, and with Million Dollar Baby he took his second Best Picture winner following 1992’s Unforgiven. The film plays like traditional Eastwood: raw yet poetic, tender but never sentimental. It’s a fine work in and of itself, but its not nearly the masterpiece some make it out to be, especially when Eastwood had already delivered the superior Mystic River in 2003 and would come back again to greatness in 2006 with Letters from Iwo Jima.

Alternative Picks – The AviatorSideways

Not Even Nominated – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindBefore Sunset

 

2005 – Crash

Did It Deserve to Win? No

Perhaps the most infamous win in the Academy’s history since Shakespeare in LoveCrash is truly reviled in some circles, but I personally don’t think its a terrible film. It has some nice performances in it and solid editing to make sense of its expansive narrative. However, I tend to agree that the film oversimplifies racial relations in America, and in the face of four exceptional films from 2005, the film was ultimately undeserving.

Alternative Picks – MunichGood Night and Good Luck

Not Even Nominated – King KongThe New World

 

2006 – The Departed

Did It Deserve to Win: Yes

Playing within his familiar wheelhouse within the world of crime, Martin Scorsese delivered a genuine modern masterpiece of the genre with The DepartedFinally awarding him (and the film) the Oscar may seem like simply an apology by the Academy for not having awarded him in the past, but in truth, the film stands with the very best of Marty’s work, serving as a deeply complex and intriguing morality play of two souls lost and conflicted in their societal roles. The cast is uniformly excellent, featuring career best performances from Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, and is rounded out by a terrifically structured screenplay and blazing editing from Thelma Schoonmaker.

Alternative Pick – Letters from Iwo Jima

Not Even Nominated – Children of Men

 

2007 – No Country for Old Men

Did It Deserve to Win? Yes

2007 was a banner year for modern American cinema, and near the top of the pack was Joel and Ethan Coen’s contemporary Western, which showcased the Coens’ patient Western, some of Roger Deakin’s finest photography, and a startling supporting performance from Javier Bardem. As haunting a film as any released in the 2000’s, No Country for Old Men carries the Coens’ signature pitch black comedy, while reflecting a time and place where the old values of the American West passed by, leaving behind those who tended it in the dust.

Alternative Pick – There Will Be Blood

Not Even Nominated – Into the WildThe Diving Bell and the ButterflyThe Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire

Did It Deserve to Win? No

Much like the spirit of Rocky reflected Jimmy Carter’s hopeful election in 1976, Slumdog Millionaire rode on the election of Barack Obama in 2008 to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. America had been going through difficult times in both eras, and Slumdog Millionaire was a representation of the triumph of the underdog. In fact, it was the first film with a happy ending to win the Oscar in five years. Now, that does not mean the film was entirely deserving of the statuette. It’s an uplifting film, sure, but it doesn’t address many of the serious issues plaguing the slums of Mumbai or other Indian cities. Documenting doesn’t necessarily equate addressing. Characterized by canted angle photography and lightning fast editing, Danny Boyle’s stamp is all over Slumdog Millionaire, but I can’t say that I loved this film as others did.

Alternative Pick – Milk

Not Even Nominated – The WrestlerThe Dark KnightWALL-E

 

2009 – The Hurt Locker

Did It Deserve to Win? Yes

Ever since the beginning of the War on Terror, filmmakers tried year after year to epitomize the conflict occurring in the Middle East, but no film had broken through up until Kathryn Bigelow’s film was released. An incredibly tense, yet emotionally anchored film, The Hurt Locker manages a deft balancing act of being completely objective concerning the political implications of the war, while staying intimately subjective with the soldier’s personal experiences on a day to day basis. 2009 had another fairly strong lineup of films due to the expanded Best Picture field, but The Hurt Locker stands on its own as a future war classic, depicting not only the battles abroad, but especially the battles within.

Alternative Picks – A Serious ManDistrict 9

Not Even Nominated – Where the Wild Things Are

 

2010 – The King’s Speech

Did It Deserve to Win? No

2010 marked yet another year where a fine, well crafted, but ultimately unremarkable piece of work ended up taking home the Best Picture while greater films were left with lesser recognition. The King’s Speech is a good film by its own rights, but it is by no means great. It features solid performances from its ensemble and a familiar theme of overcoming personal adversity, but it doesn’t distinguish itself from the hundreds of films with similar themes that came before it. It’s a simple and effective crowd pleaser that hits the emotional buttons in order to solidify its narrative arcs and not much more than that.

Alternative Picks – InceptionThe Social NetworkToy Story 3, Black Swan

Not Even Nominated – Blue Valentine

 

2011 – The Artist

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Did It Deserve to Win? No

Of all of the recent Best Picture winners, perhaps the victory of The Artist is the most baffling. Frankly, there is nothing inherently objectionable about it, but it was also the most lightweight amongst all of the other nominees from 2011. It’s a fun bit of pastiche with nice allusions to the silents it emulates, and even does a decent job of recycling the core narrative of Singin’ in the Rain. Regardless, it never comes close to improving upon anything its predecessors offered. Had it been released in the silent era, it likely would have enjoyed a pleasant, but far less rapturous reception.

Alternative Picks – The Tree of LifeHugo

Not Even Nominated – DriveContagion

 

2012 – Argo

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Did It Deserve to Win? No

I would like to start by saying that my objection to Argo winning the Best Picture Oscar is a soft one. It’s been quite revelatory to see Ben Affleck have a successful career turnaround, especially in the role of an efficient director. It also helped that Argo hit the zeitgeist in a crucial way as it premiered within weeks of the attack of the American embassy in Benghazi. Indeed, Argo had contemporary relevance and was also entertaining, with a strong ensemble and savvy, urgent editing. And yet, in the face of the other Best Picture nominees, Argo was less masterful of the medium by comparison.

Alternative Picks – LincolnLife of PiZero Dark Thirty

Not Even Nominated – The Dark Knight RisesThe Master

 

2013 – 12 Years a Slave

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Did It Deserve to Win? Yes

I’m hard pressed to find anyone who sits down on a Friday night and has the itch to watch 12 Years a Slave. Impeccably crafted and acted, but equally raw, unsentimental, and emotionally galvanizing, I myself can’t imagine if I ever will want to see it again. Nevertheless, it is absolutely essential viewing for any human. It does for American slavery what Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust, which is to remove it from the arm’s length accounts in textbooks and bring it to vividly painful life. There are films I enjoyed watching more from 2013, but I cannot begrudge the Academy for finally awarding a film from such a pivotal period of American history.

Alternative Picks – GravityThe Wolf of Wall Street, Her

Not Even Nominated – The Place Beyond the PinesBefore Midnight

 

So out of the last fourteen years, there were only five times that I agreed with the Academy’s decision of Best Picture. Again, I don’t consider all of the winners that I disagree with to be particularly bad films, I just feel like greater work had come and gone in those respective years that was more deserving of recognition, if even for only a nomination.

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~ by romancinema on February 21, 2012.

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