Perhaps my favorite thing about the cinema (behind massive explosions, Morgan Freeman’s voice and Rachel McAdams, of course) is the varying opinions moviegoers have about certain films. Most of us can objectively pick out “good” movies and “bad” movies; everyone except Nick Swardson knows Bucky Larson is a cow chip of a film and everyone knows The Shawshank Redemption is a masterpiece (see what I did there?). But when you add in concepts like interpretation, entertainment, and enjoyment, objectivity goes out the window and the whole process becomes complicated. I love that differing of opinion and the good natured debate that often follows. In no setting is the debate of what is good and what isn’t more prevalent than during award season. The Academy Awards in particular bring out the critic in just about every moviegoer and more often than not, I think it’s safe to say we cinephiles disagree with what the Academy thinks is best. This list is not about pointing out what films should have been honored over the last two decades (though that idea may sneak in a time or two); it is simply a ranking (taking into account quality of film and personal connection/appreciation) of the films that have taken home a Best Picture Oscar in the last twenty years. Let the debate begin.
20. Shakespeare in Love (1998) - Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush
There are several BP winners on this list that I personally do not care for but Shakespeareis the only one I hold as a straight-up bad film. I feel like I could probably just say, “Shakespeare features Ben Affleck trying to pull off an accent” and leave it at that. Under the impression that perhaps I had given this movie an unfair shake due to the fact that it beat out Saving Private Ryan (a personal favorite of mine) for BP that year, I tried to give Shakespeare another chance recently. I made it through about 15 minutes.
19. The English Patient (1996) - Ralph Fiennes, Juliette Binoche, Kristin Scott Thomas
From a technical standpoint, English Patient is a fantastic film. Landscapes, cinematography, etc. - all of those elements are great. But from a storytelling standpoint, there are very few films that bore me faster than this one. I’ve seen the whole film in various pieces but I’ve never been able to manage a full viewing from beginning to end. I just can’t make myself care enough to sit through it.
18. Million Dollar Baby (2004) - Hilary Swank, Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman
All cards on the table, I’m not sure why I dislike this movie so much. I’ve watched MDBtwice: once right after its release on DVD and once more recently. Both times I had the overwhelming desire to stop watching movies altogether. Maybe it’s just that I’ve never understood the merits of Hilary Swank or maybe Clint Eastwood’s “grizzled old man” bit has worn thin. I’m actually getting a little angry just thinking about this movie now so I’m going to move on to the next film.
17. American Beauty (1999) - Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Mena Suvari
I will not question the quality of the filmmaking that went into American Beauty and I understand why so many people champion it as a great piece of work. But if I were to take all the characters from every film on this list and line them up from my favorite to my least favorite, the bottom half would be dominated by those from American Beauty. There’s not a likeable character in this movie for me and that results in a wholly dissatisfying experience.
16. Chicago (2002) - Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Gere
Chicago suffers in my book for three major reasons:
1.) Zellweger has never done anything for me on any level;
2.) I don’t like musicals;
3.) Hearing “All That Jazz” played 100 billion times during that year’s broadcast left me with an indelible hatred for this film.
I also just don’t think it’s a Best Picture-caliber film. 2002 was a down year for award-worthy films (Two Towers excluded) but I have a hard time accepting this as the best film a given a year has to offer.
15. Forrest Gump (1994) - Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Sally Field
Much like Chicago, one of Forrest Gump’s problems is that I can’t accept it as a Best Picture-caliber film. A heart-warming story? Sure. A well-acted film? Sure. But a Best Picture winner? Really? The final act alone, in which Forrest changes the world through a serious of dumb coincidences, should have kept this film out of contention. Its bigger crime, however, is that it somehow beat out Shawshank and Pulp Fiction for BP. Those are two of the greatest films of all time and somehow neither was recognized in the year of their release. I hate Forrest Gump; truly and unequivocally hate it.
14. Titanic (1997) - Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane
I must be completely honest: Titanic could have been the greatest film in the history of the medium and I probably still would have hated it. I was borderline obsessed with the tale of the Titanic as a kid and my excitement was immeasurable when, as a young teenager, I heard they were making a movie about the ill-fated voyage. I was furious, then, to learn that my beloved fascination had been turned into a romance; it was a punch in the stomach that I’ve never been able to get past. It was years before I even saw this movie and it’s for the best that I never take it in again.
13. A Beautiful Mind (2001) - Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Jennifer Connelly
I am less sure about my opinion of this film than I am any other on the list. I saw ABM in theaters and loved it but upon my second viewing a few years later, I was less impressed. It didn’t leave much of an impression the second time around and maybe that’s indicative of its overall value.
12. Crash (2005) - Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon
I think Crash has developed an unfair reputation as a disgraceful BP winner. You could convince me that Brokeback Mountain should have taken home the hardware that year but I personally think Crash is a powerful, well-made film that deserves more respect than it gets these days.
11. The King’s Speech (2010) - Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter
If I’d had a vote last year (crossing my fingers that it’ll come through in time for next year’s voting), I, like most of you, would have thrown my support behind Inceptionor The Social Network. But if those two were eliminated from contention, I’d have no trouble jumping on this movie’s bandwagon. The dynamic between Firth and Rush is superb and while it may have been a bit hokey, I dig the speech in the final scenes.
10. The Hurt Locker (2009) - Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Guy Pearce
The Hurt Lockeris not nearly as iconic of a film as Renner’s lead performance is. But wow, what a magnificent piece of acting Renner turns in here. He more than carries the load; in fact, I think he’s the reason this film took home six Oscars. That’s not to say it isn’t a great film, because it is. Kathryn Bigelow manages to dive into the fragile psyche of soldiers at war in a way that dozens of other films have failed to accomplish. It is Renner, however, who makes this film work.
9. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) - Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor
I don’t have a whole lot to say about Slumdog other than I love it. I love how fresh and lively it is. I love how Danny Boyle’s unique style comes to life. I love how the blended story comes together. And I love that, generally speaking, it has a happy ending. Very few well-respected, BP-quality films conclude on a high note and while I’m not someone who needs that to enjoy a film (obviously), it’s refreshing when a filmmaker is able to pull it off.
8. Gladiator (2000) - Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Djimon Hounsou
There’s a lot to like about Gladiator, including some outstanding action sequences and a strong narrative that works on a number of levels. But there are two reasons why Gladiator ranks high on this list:
1.) It marks the comeback, as it were, of Ridley Scott, one of the industry’s best directors who, in 2000, hadn’t had a hit in nearly a decade (Thelma and Louise);
2.) I think the hero-villain dynamic between Crowe and Phoenix is one of the most underrated of its type in recent history. Phoenix is a perfect match for Crowe. They are exact opposites and yet strangely similar except in the way they react to life’s hurdles.
7. Silence of the Lambs (1991) - Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster, Ted Levine
If you weren’t legitimately freaked out by Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, then you’re either exceptionally desensitized to sheer horror or you weren’t 8 years old when Silencedebuted (like me). Holy crap. In the pantheon of great movie villains, I’m not sure I could keep Lecter out of the top ten. Truly terrifying. Beyond Hopkins, though, Silence is a chilling, well-written film that still holds up quite well 20 years later.
6. Braveheart (1995) - Mel Gibson, Sophie Marceau, Angus Macfayden
I’ve heard plenty of criticism of Braveheart over the years but I refuse to truly listen to any of it. Historical inaccuracies, bad accents, and whatever else, the issues don’t matter to me when compared to this film’s wholly engrossing narrative, beautiful sets, and terrific acting. This is a powerful epic that sticks with me no matter how long I go between viewings (which usually isn’t very long).
5. Unforgiven (1992) - Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman
I literally just watched this film for the first time years and it strikes me as one that gets better not only the more times I see it but also the older I get. I don’t think I could appreciate it when I was 18 the way I do now. Unforgiven contains what is in my mind Eastwood’s greatest performance and the blurred line between good and evil that his character exhibits is exquisite. Likewise, Hackman provides the perfect antagonist. The dialogue, too, is MAGNIFICENT. If there’s a problem with Unforgiven, it is Jamiz Woolvett’s somewhat painful acting. I get that he’s trying to pay homage to the Westerns of old but yikes…
4. Return of the King (2003) - Viggo Mortensen, Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood
When I think about the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I consider them one giant film (and if we’re talking about the director’s cut, then it’s like one Godzilla-sized film) rather than three separate entities. That one giant film is one of my five favorite films of all-time. I probably watch my copies of this film more than any other. But if I’m forced to cut the film into thirds and consider their merits individually, I think Return of the King is the “worst” of the three. The conclusion is especially long and somewhat anti-climactic (warranted when considering the three films as one whole). Obviously, however, the slightstep down Return is from the first two LOTR installments doesn’t prevent it from being a wonderful film. Just know that if I put the three together for this list like I do in my mind, it would definitely hold the top spot.
3. The Departed (2006) - Leonard DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson
You either LOVE The Departed like I do or you DESPISE it. I’m not sure I know anyone who falls into the middle ground of those two categories; it’s simply a polarizing film. Personally, I don’t think you can get much better from an acting, writing, or straight filmmaking standpoint. An impeccable cast, a brilliant script, and a genuine sense of passion on Scorsese’s part that exudes through every scene. I would have been fine with The Departedtaking home every major award in 2006.
2. Schindler’s List (1993) - Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes
This is, without question, the greatest movie that I will never watch again. One viewing is plenty enough to sufficiently haunt me for the rest of my life. Spielberg’s passion for the project is evident but without two perfect portrayals, Neeson as the hero and Fiennes as one of the most disgusting bad guys ever, Schindler’s List probably doesn’t have quite the same impact. Then again, the closing scene in which the real life survivors that Schindler saved walk by his grave is one of the most harrowing and powerful film-related experiences I’ve ever had with a film. The only “knock” on this film is just what I said at the outset: I won’t/can’t watch it again and, perhaps unfairly, that brings it down a notch.
1. No Country for Old Men (2007) - Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones
When I wrote my review for NCFOM a few years back, it was the first time I ever used the word “masterpiece” to describe a film. And that’s exactly what it is in my mind. It is the picture of perfection. From the phenomenal, understated performances of all the actors involved to the meticulous way in which the film moves right on down to the use of natural noise for a soundtrack, there are no misses within NCFOM. Perhaps the master stroke is the way in which this film concludes, an ending many people disliked but that, for me, served as a perfect representation of the film as a whole. This is, for me, the Coen Brothers’ crowning achievement and that is, of course, saying something.