Ranking 16 years of Oscar winners

Story highlights

  • We rank the past 16 Oscar winners for best picture, from "American Beauty" to "Birdman"
  • The Academy Awards air Sunday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ABC

(CNN)Everyone knows that the best movie doesn't always win the Oscar.

First, there's the subjective nature of evaluating art, which usually comes down not to scientific criteria but to personal tastes.
Then, there's the cautious nature of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members, who tend to favor safe or somber films over comedies, genre movies and anything edgy (see "My Fair Lady" over "Dr. Strangelove," "Forrest Gump" over "Pulp Fiction" or "Crash" over "Brokeback Mountain").
But for better or worse, the Oscar choices make movie history, and we're stuck with them.
So as we look toward Sunday's awards show, here's our take on the 16 most recent Oscar winners for best picture, ranked worst to best. Some of these movies are now widely hailed as classics. Others, we think, were clearly overrated. All of them were at least good enough to sway Oscar voters at the time.
Keep in mind, these aren't necessarily the best movies of the past 16 years -- "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Sideways," "There Will Be Blood," "The Dark Knight" and several Pixar movies would also have to be in the conversation -- but the best of Oscar's best.
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16. 'Crash' (2005)

This sober ensemble drama about racial tensions in Los Angeles, directed and co-written by Paul Haggis, is ambitious and well-crafted. But its interlocking plots hang on coincidences, and its characters seem to exist only to make moral arguments in support of Haggis' big "statement" about why folks in L.A. don't get along. Some observers believe academy voters favored the movie because they saw themselves in its sprawling cast of flawed Angelenos. "Crash" shouldn't have won the Oscar over "Brokeback Mountain," one of the great tragic love stories of our time.

15. 'A Beautiful Mind' (2001)

You probably remember Ron Howard's fawning biopic about John Nash, the brilliant real-life mathematician whose career was almost derailed by his paranoid schizophrenia. It features fine performances by Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. But would you watch it again? Tasteful but formulaic, the movie glosses over less savory aspects of Nash's life. And let's be honest: It's hard to make mental illness, and math, compelling onscreen.

14. 'The Artist' (2011)

This silent black-and-white movie is a charming and affectionate homage to early Hollywood. It has some peppy dancing sequences and a cute, scene-stealing dog. But beyond the novelty of a silent film in the IMAX era, there's not much to it.

13. 'The King's Speech' (2010)

Tom Hooper's old-fashioned film is a perfectly respectable crowd-pleaser, with memorable performances by Colin Firth as the stuttering monarch and Geoffrey Rush as the speech therapist who cures him. It's hard not to be stirred by its hard-won, triumphant ending. But the movie suffers in comparison with David Fincher's gripping "The Social Network," which swept the critics' awards that year and is a much more daring film.

12. 'Chicago' (2002)

Along with "Moulin Rouge" the year before, "Chicago" helped revive the movie musical for the new millennium. Rob Marshall's energetic direction and brassy performances by nonmusical theater actors (hey, Richard Gere can tap dance!) make this a treat for anyone who likes Broadway shows. But the film doesn't break any ground, and after you stop humming its catchy tunes, you realize its razzle-dazzle works better on the eyes and ears than on the heart.

11. 'Birdman' (2014)

Many viewers were wowed by Alejandro González Iñárritu's inventive, darkly comic drama about a fading action-movie star trying for a comeback on Broadway. Others thought it was pretentious and self-indulgent. Either way, there's no denying the artistry in Michael Keaton's brave performance and in Iñárritu's ever-probing camera, which swoops around the bowels of a New York theater in long, uninterrupted takes. "Birdman" is a fascinating exploration of fame, identity and the fragile male ego, but it's not for everybody.

10. 'Argo' (2012)

Director Ben Affleck took a little-known episode about a daring rescue during the Iran hostage crisis and turned it into a movie that had a little of everything: political drama, suspense, laughs and bad '70s hair. Subtract a few points for Affleck casting himself in the lead (he's a better director than an actor) and some historical inaccuracies (the group was never in as much danger as the movie wants you to believe). It's still a thrilling caper film that earns some chuckles at Hollywood's expense.

9. 'Gladiator' (2000)

The special effects haven't aged well (those tigers look really fake). But director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe, at his charismatic best, elevate a simple revenge story into an epic, rousing spectacle. "Are you not entertained?" Yes, we are.

8. 'The Departed' (2006)

Yes, it's second-rate Scorsese. And its Oscar win was probably a makeup call for those times, like "Dances With Wolves" over "Goodfellas," when Scorsese was unjustly snubbed. But this is still a mostly thrilling, highly watchable movie, led by a heavyweight cast (DiCaprio, Damon, Wahlberg, Sheen) and what may be Jack Nicholson's last great role. Its clashes between double-crossing cops and gangsters, none of them sure whom they can trust, crackle with tension.

7. 'Slumdog Millionaire' (2008)

From its exotic Indian settings to its clever game-show framing device, Danny Boyle's fantasy-drama-romance is one of the most original best picture winners. Sure, some of the acting is a little clunky. But Boyle's colorful, kinetic visual style fits the teeming Mumbai backdrop, and the director somehow balances dark subject matter (police torture, child prostitution) and sunnier moments (a closing-credit Bollywood dance number) without lessening either's emotional punch. "Slumdog Millionaire" has an irrepressible, and irresistible, spirit.

6. 'Million Dollar Baby' (2004)

Clint Eastwood's somber, old-fashioned boxing drama blindsides you with an emotional wallop. With the saddest ending of any movie on this list, it's not a film you really want to see twice. But for most of its length, this story of a determined young female boxer bonding with her aging, haunted, reluctant trainer is deeply satisfying. Eastwood, best actress Hilary Swank and best supporting actor Morgan Freeman all deserved their Oscars.

5. 'American Beauty' (1999)

Moviegoers hadn't seen anything quite like Sam Mendes' dramedy, which mines such familiar topics as suburban ennui, the male midlife crisis, the many definitions of beauty and the underbelly of the American dream for fresh insights. Some critics gripe that Alan Ball's script feels too schematic, but it's hard to argue with Kevin Spacey's vivid performance as a hollow middle-aged dad whose crush on his daughter's classmate jolts him out of his misery and toward a redemptive inner peace. Seventeen years later, "American Beauty" still holds up.

4. 'The Hurt Locker' (2009)

"Avatar" was 2009's blockbuster, but it was trumped at the Oscars by this little-seen drama about a bomb-disposal squad during the Iraq War. Director Kathryn Bigelow fashioned a visceral narrative around some unbearably tense scenes of soldiers -- mostly Jeremy Renner, in a star-making performance -- defusing bombs that could blow them to bits at any moment. Some veterans have complained about technical inaccuracies, but Bigelow's film remains arguably the most compelling portrayal of a complex and controversial war.

3. '12 Years a Slave' (2013)

Steve McQueen's unflinching account of Solomon Northrup's kidnapped-into-slavery memoir isn't just crucial viewing for anyone who wants to better understand a shameful chapter of American history. It's also a great film. Star Chiwetel Ejiofor conveys both inner strength and profound suffering, sometimes merely through his wounded eyes, while Lupita Nyong'o is heartbreaking as a slave brutalized by a sadistic plantation owner. The movie is not easy to sit through -- the scene in which a half-hanged Solomon must shuffle around on tiptoes to avoid death is especially harrowing -- but its ending rewards viewers with a profound emotional catharsis.

2. 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King' (2003)

We realize there are hordes of moviegoers out there who don't know an Orc from an Ent and think fantasy stories are a bunch of hogwash. And yes, the bloated "Hobbit" movies soured some viewers on Peter Jackson's exhaustive vision of the J.R.R. Tolkien universe. But Jackson's sprawling "Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- buoyed by gorgeous New Zealand vistas and state-of-the-art special effects -- is a triumphant achievement. Despite the many epic battle scenes, Jackson never loses sight of the human emotions at the heart of his story. As the first fantasy film to win best picture, "Return of the King" is a cinematic landmark and the standard against which all other fantasy movies are judged. (It is way too long, though.)

1. 'No Country for Old Men' (2007)

The Coen brothers set aside their visual quirks, and most of their oddball humor, to make this riveting adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's spare, neo-Western novel. It's not a perfect film -- the main character dies offscreen, and the ending feels anticlimactic -- but its best scenes are filled with visual poetry and simmering dread. Josh Brolin is a revelation as Llewelyn Moss, an ordinary man who gets in over his head after he stumbles across a suitcase filled with $2 million in drug money, while Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, in a bizarre pageboy haircut, is the most indelible movie villain since Hannibal Lecter. The cat-and-mouse scenes of Chigurh tracking Moss across south Texas are almost unbearably suspenseful. Part thriller, part existential tragedy, "No Country for Old Men" is a modern classic -- and the Coens' best movie.