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Oscars: 12 Greatest Best Picture Winners of the 21st Century, Ranked

So often, in the last four to five months of the calendar year, theaters become consumed by films put out by studios chasing Oscar glory. It is an institution, a historical account of the history of movies, and because of this, the self-importance thrust onto it by Hollywood becomes one of great weight. But, the Oscars tend to nominate a particular group of films more so than others: costume dramas, true stories, musical biopics, uplifting tales of overcoming historical bias — otherwise known as Oscar bait.

However, over the last 22 years since the Academy has begun to expand in great numbers, the kinds of films that win have changed. While some have been awful (Crash), others have been a great surprise (Moonlight), so here are the greatest to have won the highly coveted Best Picture Oscar over the last 23 years.

Guillermo del Toro has fashioned a career for himself delighting in the wonder and horror of monsters, but also one deeply rooted in the romantics of old cinema. The Shape of Water sees those ideals married, not only as a pictorial and aesthetic piece of old Hollywood, but one that finds romance in the fantastical world of monsters del Toro has gone to create. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, Sally Hawkins plays a mute janitor at a government lab where she discovers an amphibious, man-like creature being detained. In what is one of the more unlikely wins in Best Picture history, del Toro’s monster-human love story went on to win big that night at the Oscars.

Related: 2023 Best Picture Nominees, Ranked by Most Likely to Win

Argo is a great ensemble piece about Hollywood’s involvement in a CIA operation that freed six Americans from the home of a Canadian ambassador during the Iranian revolution. In an increasingly hostile environment and one that could’ve led to death, star and director Ben Affleck keeps the stakes as high as possible while also adding an air of brevity as he trains the stranded Americans to appear as part of a film crew. Seeking the advice of two Hollywood producers — played with a hilarious gusto by Alan Arkin and John Goodman — Affleck plays the CIA operative Tony Mendez, who was brave enough to try something radical to save American lives. Argo was the rare film to win the night’s top award even though Affleck wasn’t nominated for Best Director.

An immense work that shows the nuts and bolts of investigative journalism, from the editors to the reporters, and what it takes to publish a story. Not only how painstaking the work is, but the lengths journalists go to abide by an ethical code while balancing the morals of doing what’s right. Spotlight stars Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, and Liev Schrieber as a team of Boston Globe journalists who uncover the horrific child abuse scandal that had been ongoing for decades at the Catholic Church across multiple dioceses. A landmark case highlighting institutional violence and the framework it takes to cover the trauma imposed upon young kids, Spotlight is a riveting true story.

Ridley Scott’s only film to land Best Picture at the Oscars, and one that should’ve won him Best Director, Gladiator is a Roman epic grounded in the tragic roots of the hero’s journey. Featuring some of the best duel-to-the-death battles inside the Colosseum and carried by Russell Crowe’s brooding, tough-guy charisma, Gladiator is a violent but endearing revenge story from start to finish. With a fascinating turn from Joaquin Phoenix as the evil and cunning, Emperor Commodus, murdering his way to the throne, the spiritual journey of Maximus is an old-school epic. And one that is now getting a sequel.

A staggering work examining the spaces created during the war, masculinity as identity, and the sheer adrenaline of staring death in the face that it becomes addictive, The Hurt Locker is one of the great war films in recent memory. Starring Jeremy Renner as a gravity-shifting bullhead who gets assigned bomb detonation assignments out in the middle of the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker traces the relationships urged during the war and how intimacy diminishes. While the actors — including Anthony Mackie — do complex character work, it’s Bigelow’s direction that takes your breath away. As she pieces together the arc through transformative, pulse-pounding set pieces. Bigelow would also go on to beat her ex-husband, James Cameron in the Best Director race, making her the first woman ever to win.

Martin Scorsese’s first foray into the depths of the Irish criminal world and taking a step back from his Italian roots, The Departed is an old-school crime epic starring some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Entangled in a web of lies, Scorsese’s film perfectly channels the inner workings of Billy Costigan, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as he goes toe-to-toe with crime boss Frank Costello. Costello was played to an absolute maximum of sleaziness by icon Jack Nicholson (who, surprisingly, has only worked with Scorsese this one time). The Departed would go on to win Scorsese his first Oscar for Best Director and Best Picture despite its grit and ruthlessness.

A film steeped in a meta-commentary so deep, that not only is the story about fame, but down to the casting, the art transcends its very reflections on acting and filmmaking. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s sprawling black-comedy — made to appear as one long continuous take — stars Michael Keaton as a seasoned veteran actor living under the long shadow of his superhero hit “Birdman”, much like his real life with the success of Batman. The film and performance reminded people of what a talented dramatic and comedic presence Keaton is but also was the head of a stacked ensemble. With Ed Norton playing a version of his overbearing persona and the reputation he’s garnered with a great, scene-stealing assist from Emma Stone — Birdman was a technical achievement as well as an artistic one.

Related: These Movies Didn’t Win the Best Picture Oscar, but Should Have

Hailed as a masterpiece upon release, which led to a shocking Oscars moment in which Moonlight — a film about a young, gay Black kid — won Best Picture. Barry Jenkins’ script is based on the play from Tarell Alvin McCraney, In The Night, Black Boys Look Blue. Jenkins painted a vivid triptych about the life of a young Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert) as he comes of age in Miami. It’s a beautiful tone poem that paints the hardships of coming of age in a neighborhood ravaged by crack, but also finds beauty and pain in becoming yourself. It’s a story triggered by traumatic violence and puts Chiron on a heartbreaking trajectory before finding love.

The sparse, minimalist landscape of the Texas desert peppered with the nihilism-infused dialogue were not ingredients that screamed box office success and Oscar glory. And yet, the Coen Brothers added another masterpiece to their already tight oeuvre with No Country For Old Men. With a tour de force performance of pure evil manifest, Javier Bardem wanders from place to place killing anyone and everything in his path while going on philosophical diatribes about the importance of the coin toss. “Call it Friendo.” In a stacked year at the Oscars, the Coen brothers would go on to take home Best Picture and Best Director.

In a continued run of crossover success from Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho — having made two consecutive films in America (Snowpiercer, Okja) — the filmmaker returned to his country to make his pop masterpiece, Parasite. Not only did he one-up his craftsmanship, but he again took aim at capitalism and how it shapes Korea’s social hierarchy. With his always reliable leading man, Song Kang-ho front and center as the leader of a family of misfits. Scheming their way from the bottom basement apartment to the über successful household run by Cho Yeo-jeung, Parasite takes a dark, violent turn like the best of Joon-ho’s films do. Parasite went on to gross $263 million and took home the biggest awards at that year’s Oscars, making it a rare success story for an international film in the United States.

We may never see a big-budget fantasy epic on the same level as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy again. However, with The Return of The King, Jackson more than delivered. Ending the epic quest in an action-filled, heartbreaking but resoundingly feel-good way as Frodo (Elijah Wood) fulfills the promise of destroying the ring, saves his friendship with Sam (Sean Astin) and Aragon (Viggo Mortensen) becomes the savior of an empire. The film made history that night winning 11 Academy Awards across technical fronts, including Best Picture.



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