Looking back over the past 20 years of Oscar winners – from the award ceremonies of 1995 through to 2014 – reminds us how hard it is for The Academy to get it right year in, year out.
There have been some magnificent films and performances in that time, as well as some odd choices for best picture winner: Shakespeare in Love?
With the 2015 winners set to be announced on Monday Australian time, we decided to look back at the past two decades of major award winners to find the best of the best – the Oscars’ Oscars.
From the 20 years of winners, we picked five nominees from the following categories: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film.
Then we turned the list over to critic Patrick James to choose the best in each category. The envelope please…
Winner: 12 Years A Slave (2014)
Lord of The Rings: Return of the King (2004)
The Departed (2007)
No Country For Old Men (2008)
There are difficult choices here as so few of the Best Picture nominees appear ‘great’ a few years after their release (Chicago, Forrest Gump and Crash to name a few).
One exception is 2014’s winner, 12 Years a Slave.
An unflinching depiction of Solomon Northrop’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) life as a plantation slave in Louisiana during the 1840’s, 12 Years A Slave was an unlikely choice for Best Picture.
Illustrating the brutality, humiliation and inhumanity of the life of slave, it was unlike the typical, escapist confection generally associated with Hollywood – it was preceded by Argo, The Artist and The King’s Speech in the 2010s.
Twelve Years a Slave was the first mainstream Hollywood film to tackle the dark history of slavery and its win marked a significant cultural moment in the United States.
See a clip of the film here.
Other Best Film winners in the past 20 years included:
Forrest Gump (1995), Braveheart (1996), The English Patient (1997), Shakespeare in Love (1999), American Beauty (2000), Gladiator (2001), A Beautiful Mind (2002), Chicago (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2005), Crash (2006), Slumdog Millionaire (2009), The Hurt Locker (2010), The King’s Speech (2011), The Artist (2012), Argo (2013).
Winner: Ang Lee (2005) Brokeback Mountain
Stephen Soderbergh (2001) Traffic
Martin Scorsese (2007) The Departed
The Coen Brothers (2008) No Country for Old Men
Kathryn Bigelow (2010) – The Hurt Locker
Each director on this list has an impressive backlog of credits, but Ang Lee has shown himself to be truly versatile in tackling wildly different subject matter.
Brokeback Mountain is steeped in the lore of American working class as the doomed love story of two gay ranchmen of the American west.
With Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal putting in breathtaking performances, Lee brings graceful rendering of his story and deep sensitivity to his characters.
Watch a clip from the film here.
Other Best Directors from the past 20 years:
Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire), Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby), Roman Polanski (The Pianist), Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), Mel Gibson (Braveheart), Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump), Ang Lee (Life of Pi), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech), Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity).
Winner: Daniel Day Lewis (2008) There Will be Blood
Geoffrey Rush (1997) Shine
Sean Penn (2004) Mystic River
Phillip Seymour Hoffman (2006) Capote
Forrest Whitaker (2007) The Last King of Scotland
Daniel Day-Lewis, a three-time Oscar winner, brings a full blooded intensity to the part of Daniel Plainview, the rapacious oil prospector who can barely contain his disgust at the world.
Lurking just beneath the surface of his salesman’s persona is the constant threat of violence – something that explodes to life in the film’s incredible final scene – where the wretched Plainview finally loses his soul.
Even if you subscribe to the belief that Day-Lewis’ recent roles, such as Lincoln, are made for Oscar glory, it is an incredible performance, from an incredible actor – one that makes full use of his formidable talent.
Watch a clip from his performance here.
Other Best Actor Nominees from the past 20 years:
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart), Jamie Foxx (Ray), Sean Penn (Milk), Adrien Brody (The Pianist), Denzel Washington (Training Day), Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful) Nicholas Cage (Leaving Las Vegas), Jack Nicholson (As Good as It Gets), Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump).
Winner: Marion Cotillard (2008) – La Vie En Rose
Frances McDormand (1997) – Fargo
Helen Mirren (2007) – The Queen
Kate Winslet (2009) – The Reader
Cate Blanchett (2014) Blue Jasmine
The film that introduced French actress Marion Cotillard to the wider world and the role that kick started her path to becoming the best actress in world cinema.
Cotillard transforms completely into the role of famed singer Edith Piaf, flawlessly capturing her personality at every stage of her life – as a bratty street kid, as the tempestuous and fiery superstar and as the frail elderly woman racked with illness.
Cotillard was truly humbled when she won, beating out Cate Blanchett for Elizabeth: The Golden Age, giving one of the most emotional speeches in recent memory.
Watch her in full flight in the role here.
Other Best Actress winners from the past 20 years:
Jessica Lang (Blue Sky), Susan Sarandon (Dead Man Walking), Helen Hunt (As Good as It Gets), Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love), Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball), Nicole Kidman (The Hours), Charlize Theron (Monster), Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby), Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line), Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook).
Best Supporting Actress
Winner: Tilda Swinton (2008) – Michael Clayton
Kim Basinger (1998)– L.A. Confidential
Judi Dench (1999) – Shakespeare in Love
Cate Blanchet (2005) The Aviator
Penelope Cruz (2009) Vicky Christina Barcelona
Tilda Swinton has made a career out of appearing in wildly different and experimental films, so it is ironic that her best performance comes from playing a corporate everywoman in Michael Clayton.
She plays the pharmaceutical executive, way in over head trying to handle a renegade lawyer – her polished, ultra composed exterior concealing her intense self doubt and anxiety as she moves towards personal and professional disaster.
Here’s a clip of Swinton in the trailer for the film here.
Other Best Supporting Actress nominees from the past 20 years:
Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite), Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), Angelina Jolie (Girl, Interrupted), Marcia Gay Harden (Pollock), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago), Renée Zellweger (Cold Mountain), Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardner), Jennifer Hudson (Dream Girls), Mo’Nique (Precious), Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Anne Hathaway (Les Misérables), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave).
Best Supporting Actor
Winner: Heath Ledger (2009) The Dark Knight
Benicio Del Toro (2001) Traffic
George Clooney (2006) Syrianna
Javier Bardem (2008) No Country for Old Men
Christian Bale (2011) The Fighter
The death of Australian star Heath Ledger cast a shadow over The Dark Knight upon its release in 2008 and the film showcased an amazing final performance by the Australian star.
With his off-kilter voice and sloppy make up and scarring, Ledger is unrecognisable as ‘The Joker’, tearing up the screen with explosive intensity in every scene he appears.
Perhaps one of the greatest performances of all time, all the more remarkable for having emerged from a superhero movie, it was a bittersweet end to the actor’s career – he died a year before his Oscar win was announced.
Watch him in action here.
Other Best Supporting Actor winners from the past 20 years:
Martin Landau (Ed Wood), Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects), Cuba Gooding, Jr. (Jerry Maguire), Robin Williams (Good Will Hunting), James Coburn (Affliction), Michael Caine (The Cider House Rules), Jim Broadbent (Iris), Chris Cooper (Adaptation), Tim Robbins (Mystic River), Morgan Freeman (Million Dollar Baby), Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine), Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds), Christopher Plummer (Beginners), Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club).
Best Foreign Language Film
Winner: The Lives of Others (2007) – Germany
All About My Mother (2000) Spain
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2001) Taiwan
The Counterfeiters (2008)
A Separation (2012) – Iran
German political thriller The Lives of Others, set in the world of 1980’s Berlin, was hailed a ‘masterpiece’ when it was released in 2006 and won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in early 2007.
A cynical political operative is sent to spy on a playwright and his girlfriend, but is improbably moved by the couple’s idealism and begins to protect them from the state authorities he works for.
Although set in a very particular time and place, The Lives of Others tells a moving, universal story.
Watch a scene from the film here.
Other Best Foreign Language film winners from the past 20 years:
Burnt by the Sun (1995), Antonia’s Line (1996), Kolya (1997), Character (1998), Life Is Beautiful (1999), No Man’s Land (2002), Nowhere in Africa (2003), The Barbarian Invasions (2004), The Sea Inside (2005), Tsotsi (2006), Departures (2009), The Secret in Their Eyes (2010), In a Better World (2011), Amour (2013), The Great Beauty (2014).
Best Original Screenplay
Winner: Fargo (1997) – The Coen Brothers
Good Will Hunting (1998) Ben Affleck & Matt Damon
Lost in Translation (2004) – Sofia Coppola
Juno (2009) – Diablo Cody
Midnight in Paris (2012) – Woody Allen
A down on his luck car salesman (William H Macy) arranges the kidnapping of his wife in order to secure ransom from her wealthy father – but the plan gets botched, introducing a determined and heavily pregnant detective (Frances McDormand) onto the case, before more and more disaster strikes for everyone.
Fargo combines the Coen brothers’ flair for thriller noir films with off beat humour about small town America and is arguably their best ever film.
Watch a clip of the film here.
Other Best Original Screenplay winners from the past 20 years:
Pulp Fiction (1995), The Usual Suspects (1996), Shakespeare in Love (1999), American Beauty (2000), Almost Famous (2001), Gosford Park (2002), Talk to Her (2003), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2005), Crash (2006), Little Miss Sunshine (2007), Milk (2009), The Hurt Locker (2010), The King’s Speech (2011), Django Unchained (2013), Her (2014).
(This article has been corrected. Amelie did not win an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.)