12. Gladiator (2000)
The quality of films dips significantly from this point on in this article. Given the prestige and near-universal acclaim for the top 10 Best Picture winners of the 21st century, the regard for the bottom half of this list begins losing such regard quickly. Gladiator represents a significant drop in thee type of film that has won Best Picture so far in the 21st century. Ridley Scott’s Roman epic follows the fall and rise of a Roman soldier as he finds glory in battle, loses his family, and becomes an enslaved gladiator that must fight to the death in the coliseum.
While a fine action flick there’s little substance to the film and its standard three-act structure and story arc is suggestive that this was more a nod to Scott’s years of profitable service in Hollywood than the quality of the film he won Best Picture for. A fine film but not quite Best Picture-worthy – especially in a year when more serious films (such as Traffic) and more ground-breaking films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) were up for the same award.
11. The Departed (2006)
An American adaption of the crime thriller Infernal Affairs, helmed by Martin Scorcese, is a tightly paced, well-acted, and masterfully directed film. Intriguing, suspenseful, and (of course) entertaining, its briskness is largely owed to long-time Scorcese editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who also won that year for Best Film editing), often cited as a major contributor to his film’s successes. But its downbeat story – of an Irish mob grooming a mole to infiltrate the Boston police while a trooper is directed to ingratiate himself with the mob – and violent nature seem at odds with the Academy’s sensibilities.
Citing a weak year for competition in-category (the middling dramedy Little Miss Sunshine was a contender, for example), it seemed to be an award recognizing Scorcese’s lifetime influence in the film world rather than reflective of being the best film of the year.
10. CODA (2021)
This inspiring, heartfelt film may be a little emotionally manipulative but it’s done with such style and sympathy it’s difficult to find fault. Small for a Best Picture film (and the first to win released through a streaming service), CODA focuses on a young woman whose desire to become a professional singer is at odds with her deaf family, who can neither hear her voice and depends on her to navigate their lives.
Featuring deaf actors, it’s a landmark film in representation of the hearing disabled, while the film’s intimate nature blends comedy and drama, grounding it in a tangible reality. While not a big draw in theaters (it made 1/10th of its budget back), this is a hidden gem for film fans to discover when they are looking for a film with a lot of heart and an uplifting story.
9. Spotlight (2015)
Uncomfortable subject matter may be admired but is rarely a hit with both audiences and critics alike. Yet Spotlight deftly approaches a serious topic (child sex abuse in the church) through the investigative journalist team of The Boston Globe. Based on true events, Spotlight is a terse drama that soberly approaches the story with no flash or flourish.
Its realism provides tension as the story develops, and its approach to a notorious scandal is appropriately somber. A hard-hitting drama that sheds light on a serious, systemic crime, Spotlight reveals how cinema can become a historical document itself.
8. Moonlight (2016)
Through its wide-spread narrative that depicts three stages of a black man’s life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, Moonlight explores the complexities of identity, masculinity, and sexuality with nuance and sensitivity. Its use of light and color is exceptional, creating a dreamlike atmosphere that enhances the emotional impact of the story.
Spanning decades, Moonlight’s visual themes support the story’s exploration of the intersection of blackness, masculinity, and vulnerability, as the main character experiences life and ultimately finds his identity. Powerful and a rare film in both structure and subject matter, with themes rarely explored in cinema, Moonlight marked a turning point in black representation in cinema.
7. The Hurt Locker (2008)
War is one of the most traumatizing experiences a person could endure; being a bomb disposal technician in war ratchets up an already hellish experience. The Hurt Locker is a gripping, intense vision of the psychological effects of such a stressful position, as the protagonist faces one deadly situation after the next.
Its intense cinematography perfectly captures the tension and jarring nature of war, while the protagonist isn’t portrayed as an action-packed hero but a soldier following orders as his life is under constant threat from seemingly every direction. Winning six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, The Hurt Locker does not romanticize military service during wartime but is a stark representation of the mental toll war takes on an soldiers.
6. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
An actor in decline known best for playing superhero Birdman attempts a career comeback by producing and starring in a Broadway play, only to find his efforts undermined by family members, the other actors in the play, and himself. But can he fly?
A dizzying black comedy/psychological drama, Birdman is a movie in constant motion, cleverly edited to appear as if shot in one long take with only frantic jazz drumming as its score. The film is a unique look at how stress affects the mind and a surreal comment on celebrity, ego, and the audience itself.
5. Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)
Just when her life is coming apart at the seams, a struggling laundromat owner suddenly finds herself literally splintered into a thousand directions. Visually stunning, absurd, and dramatic (all at once), Everything Everywhere All At Once is maybe the best cinematic representation of what living in a 24/7 multi-voiced digital age can sometimes feel like and how it can be overwhelming.
An alternately personal story about reconciling one’s flaws and how they affect the people around you and a whiz-bang piece of surreal entertainment, Everything… was a hit with critics and audiences, making it a rare comedy-drama to take Best Picture.
4. 12 Years A Slave (2013)
This unflinching portrayal of the brutality and inhumanity of slavery was widely hailed by critics and almost guaranteed to win Best Picture. Following the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, 12 Years A Slave provides a visceral and emotional account of the horrors of slavery.
Not an easy film to watch, this film acts as a historical document that depicts the physical abuse, psychological trauma, and dehumanization endured by enslaved people. But it is the resilience and strength of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity represented by Solomon Northup that lifts the film from a horror show to an inspiring, and important, film.
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Peter Jackson’s sprawling The Lord of the Rings trilogy was an immediate success with audiences and critics alike upon its release over three consecutive years between 2001 to 2003. It’s fitting that the final film in the trilogy won Best Picture, if not in recognition of that entry’s specific merits but representative for the trilogy as a whole.
It’s also unfair to only consider this film as a stand-alone on this list, as The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most significant achievements of cinema to date since its invention. The entire trilogy became an instant classic and its popularity hasn’t waned in the decades since the final film’s Best Picture win.
2. Parasite (2019)
The first non-English language film to win Best Picture, Parasite is also one of the best to take home the award in the 21st century. This 2019 South Korean black comedy thriller, directed by Bong Joon-ho, tells the story of the impoverished Kim family who gradually infiltrate the wealthy Park family’s household, leading to a series of unexpected events for all involved.
Praised for its biting social commentary on class inequality, greed, and the human condition, Parasite strikes a perfect balance between humor, tension, and suspense. Featuring stunning cinematography and a talented cast, Parasite won four Academy awards and is still held in high regard among film fans.
1. No Country for Old Men (2007)
A simple story about a man who finds a suitcase full of money and the unstoppable force sent out to retrieve it, No Country for Old Men is a violent thriller and The Coen Brothers’ best film. Shot with brilliant crispness and edited without a single wasted frame, this film is a masterclass in how to make a movie.
It’s a mark of greatness when the entire story of a film can be understood with the sound off. Edgy, tense, and uncompromising, No Country for Old Men is one of the best films ever made and the best Best Picture winner of the 21st century (so far).