The 92nd Academy Awards ceremony proved to be a historic night as, for the first time in its near-century-long history, the Oscar for Best Picture was presented to an international film. Bong Joon-ho’s tragicomic social satire “Parasite” deservedly won the top prize in addition to best director, original screenplay and international feature. It’s refreshing that the Oscars awarded a film that is both endlessly entertaining and timely in its commentary on the drastic wealth disparity of the modern world. The victory of “Parasite” is especially gratifying in light of the questionable nature of other recent films that have won this award. In honor of the Oscars awarding a deserving film best picture this year, here are five best picture winners from the 21st century worthy of that title.
“The Departed” (2006)
Scorsese films often analyze the intersections of masculinity, faith and crime. “The Departed” depicts the nexus of these themes and how destructively consuming they can be. “The Departed” chronicles the high-octane story of a cop infiltrating the Boston mob while, concurrently, a mob affiliate infiltrates the police department. The exhilarating premise of “The Departed” leaves room for subtle examinations of loyalty and self-deception that’s enhanced by the film’s top-notch cast and their stellar performers. It is Scorsese’s direction, however, that’s the star of the show as he balances the vile corruption of this world with a strange sense of perverse beauty, primarily through his trademark use of slow motion and the film’s operatic soundtrack. “The Departed” is a masterclass of dynamic filmmaking that will surely become a classic of the crime genre.
“12 Years a Slave” (2013)
The power of “12 Years a Slave” lies not in its grand speeches or grotesque displays of violent abuse but in the chilling mundaneness of its depiction of slavery. The film emphasizes the horror of slavery and white supremacy. Steve McQueen’s haunting direction focuses on the daily existence of enslaved people and contrasts that with the life-or-death circumstances that they’re forced to experience. The quiet power of the film is most prominent in the scene in which the enslaved people gather for a funeral for an overworked slave who died in the field. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stares lost into the middle distance as fellow enslaved people sing “Roll Jordan Roll”; Northup’s recognition that his fate will likely echo that of the dead man culminates in the resignation of singing. This showcases not only Ejiofor’s incredible performance but the quiet power that the film holds. “12 Years a Slave” is a deeply affecting film and one that any American can find meaning in.
“No Country For Old Men” (2007)
“What’s the most you ever lost in a coin toss?” Spoken by sociopathic Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) to a random gas station attendant (Gene Jones), this quietly menacing threat cuts to the ambivalent heart of what makes “No Country for Old Men” so effective. A taut, gritty and anarchic crime thriller, “No Country for Old Men” showcases the Coen brothers at their most philosophically pessimistic as well as their most cinematically proficient. The cat-and-mouse chase between Vietnam veteran Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Anton Chigurh, played with chilling indifference by Bardem, overwhelms the viewer with tension. The Coen brothers’ use of Western-genre iconography provides context to the film’s central theme of the changing times. The film demonstrates many dichotomies in time period, demonstrated by horses riding alongside Buicks, and hunting rifles fighting against automatic weapons. This is further demonstrated by the old-fashioned, cash-driven bounty hunter that is emblematic of the genre going up against the unfeeling philosophical sociopath of Anton Chigurh. The Coen brothers’ untenable talent of understanding their audience allows “No Country for Old Men” to become an eerie proclamation of the ever-changing world and those who are unable, or unwilling, to keep up.
An odyssey into the soul, Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” paints a poignant portrait of a young, queer black man seeking a place in his community. He is gutted because he must reinvent himself to become the person he’s expected to be by his community. Jenkins’ decision to trisect the film, with each chapter focusing on the film’s protagonist, Chiron, at a different age, illustrates visually the rampant reinvention Chiron must go through throughout his life. The miracle of the experiment, however, is that the character of Chiron shines through each performer, offering a forcibly repressed vulnerability. “Moonlight” is a transformative experience, and compels the audience to step into Chiron’s internal struggles to find comfort inside his own head. Jenkin’s “Moonlight” stands as one of the most empathetic films of the 21st century and an enduring depiction of a life that should be represented more on screen.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003)
When the history of cinema in the 21st century is being told, it is inevitable that Peter Jackson’s towering adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” will be at the forefront of the story. The capstone of the trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” is a rousing achievement of epic fantasy filmmaking that has proved to be the landmark fixture of the genre. Jackson’s adaptation of the Tolkien novels transports the audience to the world of Middle-Earth, crafting spectacular images and sequences like the storming of Minas Tirith and the climax at Mount Doom. The audience, engrossed by the human drama of this fantasy, finds even more spectacle in the sight of the potent character dynamic. Not enough can be said of the film’s ensemble. The actors take ownership of the classic characters through quintessential performances as few casts have done before, most notably in Andy Serkis’ instantly iconic performance as the corrupted Hobbit Gollem. “The Return of the King” represents the best that blockbuster filmmaking has to offer. When it comes to the major cinematic franchises that have risen to prominence this century, “The Lord of the Rings” is king.
The past two decades have been a turbulent era for the Oscars, as the Academy has made some of the worst decisions to award undeserving films (see “Crash” and “Green Book”), awarded some of the most daring and relevant choices the top prize, and even doubled the number of nominees for best picture from 5 to 10. A decade ago, it was nearly inconceivable that films like “Moonlight” and “Parasite” would be nominated for best picture, let alone win. We are now entering a new decade of the Oscars, and, though it’s inevitable that there will be some winners that will leave us disappointed, let’s hope that there will be more films deserving of a spot among these masterpieces.