If you are tempted to write to the letters page in a spittle-flecked fury about us beginning our survey of the 21st century in 2000 keep in mind that the ceremony for that year's best film took place in 2001. Both definitions are covered. Okay? There are always arguments that the Academy Awards do not select the best films, but the voters have not done a bad job this century. The bloated, prestige epics that dominated the 1980s and early 1990s have given way to off-beam independent features, more diverse dramas and – bless the day – at least one film in a language other than English. So where did this year's winner land?
22. A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001)
A profoundly bogus refusal to disentangle mathematician John Nash's struggles with mental illness. Uninterested in the maths, less interested still in Nash's condition, Akiva Goldsman's screenplay tells us a feeble espionage story instead. Russell Crowe is barely adequate in the lead.
21. CRASH (2005)
"Was it the best film of the year? I don't think so." Don't take our word for it. That's Paul Haggis, director of this wet-liberal soap opera, speaking 10 years after its shock win. Let us be fair. If it hadn't scandalously beaten Brokeback Mountain to the prize it would be remembered more fondly.
20. GREEN BOOK (2018)
Popular feeling was behind A Star is Born. The critics liked Roma. But Peter Farrelly’s cosied-up treatise on racial division rode its win at the People’s Choice in Toronto all the way to the biggest prize of all. Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen played well off one another.
19. CODA (2021)
No other film crept so slowly and steadily towards best picture. No film since 1932 won with so few other nominations. Telling the story of a child of deaf parents who really, really wants to sing, Sian Heder’s drama is sentimental and manipulative. But it works. You hate yourself as you give in to that lachrymose last scene. Not a patch on The Power of the Dog though.
18. THE KING’S SPEECH (2010)
The Brown (ahem) Windsor Soup of British filmmaking. A handsomely made dish that will take the edge of the appetite without interesting more adventurous tastebuds. Colin Firth is charming and frail as George VI. Other actors do Madame Tussaud duties without breaking noticeable sweat. Carry on…
17. THE LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING (2003)
The third part of Peter Jackson’s workmanlike slog through a trilogy that Michael Moorcock famously called “Epic Pooh” equalled the record for most Oscar wins. A technical achievement, certainly. But deserves mild opprobrium for (see also Harry Potter) convincing a generation that adaptation should be approached as dutiful transcription. Tiring.
16. CHICAGO (2002)
Chicago is a great show. Catherine Zeta Jones knocks "it" so far out of the park that "it" has not yet come back to earth. But director Rob Marshall didn't bring much zing to his manoeuvring of Kander and Ebb's songs into a cinematic frame. No matter. The film was a huge hit and triggered a boom in movie musicals.
15. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)
Danny Boyle fulfilled his Oscar potential with this fiercely energetic study of a young man accused of cheating his way to success on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Made a star of Dev Patel. Great fusion of musical styles. But maybe a little hollow?
14. MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004)
The ending of Clint Eastwood’s film is still controversial. “I’ve gone around in movies blowing people away with a .44 Magnum. But that doesn’t mean I think that’s a proper thing to do,” the director replied in typically robust form. To that point, it remains a gripping boxing yarn of the old school.
13. BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) (2014)
Alejandro G Iñárritu’s pseudo one-shot drama is far from the worst film to win best picture this century. But its victory is among the most puzzling. How did this showy take on luvvie life win over more voters than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood? You can’t fault the cast. It’s a technical marvel. But still a peculiar one.
12. ARGO (2012)
Storming entertainment that takes some liberties with the truth – and bigs up USA can-do attitude – as it talks us through a bravura rescue in post-revolutionary Iran. Great supporting work from John Goodman and Alan Arkin in a film that moves too quickly to allow many doubts to set in.
11. GLADIATOR (2000)
How Ridley Scott, still without an Oscar, must wish he had taken a producer credit – that's who gets the best picture statuette – on his flashy, bellowing Roman drama. This is what Russell Crowe does best. Pioneering use of CGI. Launched a dozen financially unsuccessful sword-and-sandal imitations.
10. THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017)
It said something about how the Academy was changing that Guillermo del Toro's tale of a sexual relationship between a woman and a fish creature was seen as something like the safe option. Not the director's best film, but a loving creation of post-war Baltimore featuring a touching turn from Sally Hawkins.
9. THE HURT LOCKER (2009)
A competition between the highest grossing film of all time and, by some measures, what would then have been the lowest grossing title ever to win. In the event, Kathryn Bigelow’s excellent war film beat James Cameron’s Avatar to the title. Cameron seemed genuinely delighted to see his former wife become the first woman to direct a best picture winner.
8. THE DEPARTED (2006)
Yes, of course Martin Scorsese should have won for Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or Goodfellas. But, if he had to get a career prize for a mid-tier work, then why not this propulsive remake of the Hong Kong thriller Infernal Affairs? Makes the most of Jack Nicholson at his very biggest.
7. NOMADLAND (2020)
The 2021 ceremony, like much else in the pandemic years, will forever have an asterisk next to it – no real audience, many films not properly released – but Chloé Zhao’s contemplative study of boomers in limbo would have been a worthy winner in any year. Magic hour photography to die for.
6. THE ARTIST (2011)
Eyebrows are being raised at the dizzy heights of this entry. There is a popular perception that, following its comfortable win over so-so competition, Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist was metaphorically shelved as beneficiary of a brief mass delusion. In truth, the monochrome comedy is a near-perfect exercise in pastiche.
5. SPOTLIGHT (2015)
A powerful, beautifully acted study of the Boston Globe’s investigations into clerical abuse that bears reasonable comparison with All The President’s Men (which lost to Rocky in 1976). Underrated due to its lack of flash. But Tom McCarthy’s drama is a model of professionalism.
4. 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
An odd one. Steve McQueen’s take on Solomon Northup’s slave memoir hit like a hammer blow on release and cruised to victory. It did not, however, much figure on end-of-decade polls. Watching it again, it remains as moving, unsettling and – this is Steve McQueen, after all – odd as ever.
3. NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)
Not a bad year. The Coen Brothers fiercely gripping, disturbingly nihilistic take on a Cormac McCarthy novel wasn’t even the best film nominated that year – surely There Will be Blood – but it cruises into the top three. An uncharacteristic Coen film in many ways, but a worthy one to secure their only best picture win (so far).
2. MOONLIGHT (2016)
The delayed triumph for Barry Jenkins's delicate triptych – after Faye Dunaway mistakenly awarded La La Land – provided viewers with the greatest ever Oscar drama, but it slightly obscured the wonder of a win that confirmed the Academy was no longer so stuffy as it once was.
1. PARASITE (2019)
When Bong Joon Ho’s satirical comedy thriller won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the notion of it receiving even a best picture nomination seemed fanciful. The campaign by distributors Neon was masterful, but it would have been to no end if voters didn’t connect so strongly with the nuanced characters and careering plot. The first ever winner in a language other than English. The first Palme d’Or winner to take the prize in 61 years. The year the Academy grew up. Then the pandemic arrived and everything was shaken to pieces.