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The Trophy Hunter: Ranking the 21st century Best Picture winners, part 2

| Friday, February 26, 2021

Elaine Park | The Observer

Yesterday, I ran through spots 20-11 on my countdown of this century’s Best Picture winners; today, I finish my ranking with a tight battle for the number one spot. 


  1. “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003)

“Return of the King” occupies a strange spot in contemporary Oscar memory: one of the most-nominated movies ever, but universally regarded as the weakest of its trilogy. Both winning Best Picture and serving as the highest-grossing movie in the year of its release make “Return of the King” the kind of major-studio success that has grown increasingly scarce in recent years. 

  1. “The Shape of Water” (2017)

Most lists would have this movie outside of their top ten, and that’s fine. I recognize that I’m one of a select few who were genuinely touched by Guillermo del Toro’s fish-sex parable, especially given that it beat out two bona fide classics-in-waiting: “Lady Bird” and “Get Out.” I don’t care; “The Shape of Water” is a handsomely mounted homage to genre cinema that overcomes its more base impulses. At least in my eyes.

  1. “Gladiator” (2000)

“Gladiator”’s reinvention of the swords-and-sandals epic was an oasis in the pop culture desert that was the early 2000s. At three-hours-plus, the movie threatens to become a slog, but the thrilling highs of its battle scenes outweigh the relative lows of its insistence on showing hands lovingly grazing wheat. 

  1. “Chicago” (2002) 

A throwback musical that hearkens back to the form’s cinematic heyday in the 1950s and 60s, “Chicago” remains most notable for its dynamite choreography and killer songs. Regarding the latter: John C. Reilly’s performance of “Mister Cellophane” adds to the abundance of evidence that he’s one of his generation’s most versatile — and talented — actors. 

  1. “12 Years a Slave” (2013)

As striking as it is, “12 Years a Slave” is remarkable in retrospect for the talents it introduced; the film’s Oscar success lifted Chiwetel Ejiofor to deserved leading-man status, and gave Steve McQueen the cachet to make rewarding passion projects like “Widows” and “Small Axe.” Most important of all, this film marked the feature debut of Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar here for one of the best screen performances of the decade. 

  1. “Million Dollar Baby” (2004)

“Million Dollar Baby” is simultaneously more brutal and more humanistic than any other movie Clint Eastwood ever directed. The film is cinematic rope-a-dope; it lures you in with recognizable actors and a seemingly uplifting sports movie storyline before flooring you with vicious narrative uppercuts. 

  1. “Parasite” (2019)

Here’s where the listmaking gets hard. Any of the top four movies could have been number one on this countdown, each one standing apart from the other films that won Best Picture this century. Of those, Bong Joon-ho’s darkly comedic thriller has the most room to grow in terms of esteem; we have yet to fully appreciate the impact of its historic win, and each rewatch reveals a new, twisted aspect to “Parasite”’s appeal. 

  1. “The Hurt Locker” (2009)

One of the lowest-budgeted and lowest-grossing Best Picture winners ever, “The Hurt Locker” remains uncommonly absorbing, a nail-biter that is all the more impressive for how tightly it constrains its narrative. 

  1. “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

Even more so than “Fargo,” “No Country” marks the maturation of the Coen Brothers as filmmakers. Their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel is hauntingly low-key, only ratcheting up its intensity when the directors want to highlight the senselessness of the violence on-screen. Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh is the century’s greatest onscreen villain, a milk-guzzling, coin-flipping psychopath whose bowl cut masks the inhuman bloodlust that drives him; opposite Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones’ wizened sheriff valiantly struggles to reject the implicit promise of the film’s title.

  1. “Moonlight” (2016)

“Moonlight”’s Best Picture victory was a shock in more ways than one. Not only did the ceremony’s Warren-Beatty-assisted mishap (nearly) justify the continued existence of televised awards shows, but the mere fact that a film as intimate and tranquil as “Moonlight” beat a movie as loud and as classically Oscars as “La La Land” upended decades of Academy convention.

The win for “Moonlight” was a win for independent cinema, a win for stories about POC and a win for LGBTQ+ narratives; without it, we wouldn’t have “Parasite” winning Best Picture and Best Director, or “Nomadland”’s Chloe Zhao being a frontrunner for the 2021 Best Director award. “Moonlight” stands on its own merits, of course, depicting love and acceptance without ever losing sight of the pain at the heart of its main character. If you haven’t seen it, watch it; and if you have seen it, watch it again. 

The Oscars almost never get Best Picture right; the entire premise of picking a single film amongst the hundreds that are eligible each year is foolish, if not downright insane. And yet, every once in a while, they nail it. With “Moonlight,” the Academy picked not only the Best Picture of 2016, but maybe the Best Picture of the 21st century. 

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