For the love of entertainment
The 2000’s were a curious decade for Best Picture. Much of the early part of the decade was spent waiting for a Lord of the Rings movie to finally win while the decade as a whole yielded some remarkably hit or miss winners. Even among the good ones, I have a hard time finding one I feel particularly passionate about. Of course, the movie I would have felt most passionate about famously lost its Best Picture race, which we will hear about shortly.
Even so, in putting this ranking together I am sticking to my established process, in which I only consider the movies that actually won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It just makes life easier. I will comment on snubs or wrongful wins when necessary, but at the end of the day those arguments cannot impact rank.
Crash holds the very justified reputation for being most famous for blind-siding Brokeback Mountain in the Best Picture race for 2005. The people who made Shakespeare in Love must have been thrilled when this shocking upset occurred, because it meant everyone would finally start hating on another movie for beating a more deserving candidate.
Beyond that dubious distinction, what is there to say about Crash? It’s the most embarrassingly overpraised over-simplification of race relations in America since Driving Miss Daisy–which says a lot. At the end of the day, not only did Brokeback deserve the win, but having Crash in the winner field means that we’re left with a stinky ol’ turd in the punchbowl when it comes to rankings like this. There’s really no other place to put this movie than last place.
Had it won, Brokeback would have claimed the number one slot. Just sayin’.
Should have won in 2005: Brokeback Mountain. Just in case you couldn’t tell.
I hated this movie. It’s a senseless series of violent acts and misogynistic behavior (AKA the Scorsese special) playing out as two cops acting as moles–one infiltrating an Irish gang and one acting as that gang’s mole inside the police force–try to ferret each other out before the other exposes him. It’s one of those movies where little makes sense and there doesn’t seem to be a point worth making, just bloody mayhem.
To make matters worse, The Departed was the end-game in a persistent award season refrain that we owed Martin Scorsese a win since he had lost for Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and Taxi Driver. At long last, the increasingly loud Scorsese contingent had a project they could cram down everyone’s throats before finally shutting up about it. Ultimately, all they did is leave us with another turd in the punch bowl.
Should have won in 2006: I’d have gone for The Lives of Others–which won Best Foreign Film but wasn’t even nominated in the big race. Children of Men would have run a close second and Volver third. If you forced me to stick to actual nominees I’d choose The Queen, but the nominees weren’t reflective of the best movies that year.
In other news of Academy Award recognition coming too late, we come to Return of the King, the final installment of Peter Jackson’s landmark Lord of the Rings trilogy. Had this win come for the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, we wouldn’t have any issues. As it is, the LotR series had devolved into overblown CGI spectacle by the time the Academy decided it was overdue for a win. In fact, the Academy over-corrected the snub by awarding Return in every category in which it was nominated–tying it with Ben-Hur and Titanic for the most Academy Awards ever. Considering that both those other films actually lost a category or two, Return now stands as the film with the largest sweep in Academy history. Too much, too late.
Should have won in 2003: animation stigma be damned, Finding Nemo deserved some respect. The Fog of War is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. And I loved Dirty Pretty Things. City of God. None of these were nominated. I’d give Nemo a narrow edge over Dirty Pretty Things.
Thankfully, we get away from the too little, too late argument going forward. Well, you could argue the Academy wanted to reward Ron Howard after Apollo 13 and other endeavors, but that wouldn’t hold up very well. Anyway, remember my criticism of The King’s Speech? That’s A Beautiful Mind in a nutshell. It’s a prestige film all the way. It hits all the buttons Academy members love to vote for. It bathes itself in the glow of pretty cinematography, well-placed blurbs from critics, prominent performances, and voila! Academy Award success to a film that is, strictly speaking, remarkably average. It’s a system that only really assures success on a short-term basis. It gets your name in the books, but it won’t make people love you or remember you.
True, the story of the brilliant mathematician, John Nash, and his decades-long struggle with mental health, is compelling. But more than a decade on, I recall very little about the movie other than Russell Crowe’s bravura performance (which lost out to Denzel Washington in the Best Actor race). So it goes.
Should have won in 2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was the LOTR movie that deserved to win. Gosford Park for second place.
Slumdog Millionaire is probably the most original film on this list. It’s the feel-good story of a down-on-his-luck man making a surprising run on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? His backstory comes out as he piles on the correct answers–revealing how every moment of his life led him to this moment, and how it may help him reconnect with his lost love. It’s an unapologetic crowd-pleaser designed to be uplifting. Think of it as the polar opposite of Million Dollar Baby, but don’t let that make you discount it.
It’s a sweet, well-made movie, but it feels a little too lightweight to go anywhere in the top five. Charm and originality can only get you so far in the end. As an exercise in pure cinematic joy, however, don’t count this Slumdog out.
Should have won in 2008: Milk. Followed by Waltz With Bashir. Notably: The Dark Knight‘s failure to be nominated caused the Academy to expand the field of Best Picture nominees going forward.
I accused A Beautiful Mind of being forgettable. The same can not be said of Million Dollar Baby, the story of an impoverished waitress with bottomless wells of determination who, with the help of a crusty old coach, fights her way to boxing success only to end in tragedy. It’s that ending that makes this Baby stand out–and what made the Academy acknowledge it over Martin Scorsese’s flawed favorite The Aviator.
How you respond to Million Dollar Baby really relies on how you react to the ending. In my mind, the last thing you could call this movie is cloying or saccharine, but there are those who do. Actor-director Clint Eastwood instead goes for the sucker punch, and its one I still feel in my gut all these years later. Because not only does he dare to have an unhappy ending, he goes for a finish that is just bleak. Having Eastwood and Hilary Swank (who won her second Academy Award for this) front and center helps. Both stars refuse to give in to emotional theatrics, a decision that enhances their character’s dignity and makes their fates all the more heartbreaking.
Should have won in 2004: You could make a case for The Incredibles, but in my mind it’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Speaking of gutsy movies, Kathryn Bigelow became the first-ever female Best Director winner for The Hurt Locker, an intense exploration of elite soldiers disarming IEDs during the Iraq War. Hurt Locker is one of those edge-of-your-seat movies, if I may use an overused term that rarely actually applies to films people try to attach it to. It’s spare and unflinching. It’s gutsy and messy and not afraid to be complicated–which is all-too uncommon these days. It also had a stand-out performance from Jeremy Renner, who lost the Best Actor race but made his mark as an actor regardless (currently appearing as Hawkeye in the Avengers movies but still racking up critical acclaim with turns in films like American Hustle and Arrival). The Hurt Locker was a bold movie that came out at just the right time. Incidentally, Hurt Locker was the first Best Picture winner after the Academy decided to expand the Best Picture nominees beyond the traditional field of five.
Should have won in 2009: Up is one of my favorite movies. Don’t judge me.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s something along the lines of “seriously?!” But hear me out, and maybe acknowledge that as a gay man I’m particularly susceptible to Chicago‘s charms.
First of all, Chicago has some rather timeless, subversive things to say about America, justice, and the celebrity machine. I’d like to say that those things are particularly relevant this day and age, but as time goes on they only appear to grow more and more relevant. And it’s not afraid to be tongue in cheek or pessimistic about whether or not these things will change. Secondly, Rob Marshall’s staging brilliantly transfers all the musicals iconic song numbers from the stage to the screen without losing an ounce of the source material’s wicked glee. Thirdly, the cast gives it their all and makes the most of every scene.
Sorry haters, Chicago is a terrifically fun movie. It’s one of only two movies in this decade of winners that I’ve seen more than once, and it’s the only one I have probably seen more than five times. Possibly ten times. Stop judging me.
Should have won in 2002: did you just hear me confess how many times I’ve watched Chicago?
In a complete reversal from Chicago, No Country for Old Men is a spectacularly bleak movie about the violent rampage that ensues after a man finds some drug money in the desert and has the audacity to think he might be able to get away with keeping it to provide a new life for him and his wife. It’s a film with great performances (particularly from Javier Bardem, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his unhinged killer) and weighty themes seamlessly culled from its source material, a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. The Coen brothers clearly respected the book and brought it to spectacular, depressing life, changing only the order in which things happen in the conclusion (not for the better, I might add. Figures that the one thing they changed would get screwed up).
Should have won in 2007: No Country for Old Men.
This may seem a little left field, but consider this: of all the Best Picture winners from 2000-2009, Gladiator has had the biggest pop cultural impact by far. Only Return of the King could come close to making a similar claim, but as I said earlier, Return‘s luster faded with the ubiquity of the LotR series in general.
Furthermore, who was not entertained by Gladiator? The saga of a Roman soldier who’s family was brutally murdered, who then gains revenge by rising through the ranks as a gladiator until he captures the attention of the nation and the treacherous emperor who betrayed him. It’s a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie with enough depth to keep critics happy–depth that comes in no small part from Russell Crowe’s deft performance as Maximus Decimus Meridius. Just how firmly did he implant himself into the pop cultural landscape? People remember the character’s entire name without even needing to Google it.
I said that Chicago was one of only two movies on this list I had seen more than once, and this is the other. Given how much Gladiator pops up on TV I’ve seen it a few times. Chicago still wins in repeat viewings, but it really says something for Gladiator that you would be likely to stop and settle in if you’re channel surfing and happen upon it.
Should have won in 2000: Gladiator earned it.