By Adam Spunberg

In nearly every industry, sport, or contest, there is an inevitable push to compare the best offerings of one year to another. This is especially true in film, where fans of certain movies rally vigorously behind their choices, hoping to fuse together that fine line between universal quality and personal taste.

The Academy provides us a wonderful annual contest, but there is no awards assembly to tackle the questions that really tickle us. What was the best film of the 70’s? Who had the best acting performance of the 90’s? Is such-and-such winner regarded as highly today as it was then? Why not have an Academy Awards of the Decade, a ceremony that reminisces in the great films of yesteryear, and then stacks them up against each other in an ultimate challenge of cream of the cream of the crop.

Have no fear! With that idea in mind, we’ve staged a contest of our own here at AwardsPicks.com, gathering Top-10 lists from all of our premier writers. Who needs the Academy when you have us? Just as there is no accounting for the public’s taste, there is equally no predicting the whirlpool of opinion among critics and reviewers. We had many different orderings, but in the end, here is the will of the collective:

10. Chicago (2002): Average score of 8.43
9. Crash (2005): Average score of 6.93
8. A Beautiful Mind (2001): Average score of 6.50
7. Million Dollar Baby (2004): Average score of 5.79
6. Slumdog Millionaire (2008): Average score of 5.50
5. No Country for Old Men (2007): Average score of 5.43
4. The Hurt Locker (2009): Average score of 5.14
3. Gladiator (2000): Average score of 4.43
2. The Departed (2006): Average score of 4.21
1. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003): Average score of 2.64

(NOTE: Staff writers who voted include Paul Popiel, Steve Neumann, Bryce Van Kooten, Ayinde Waring, Kit Bowen, Nate Freiberg, Savanna New, Michaela, Zanello, Colin Campbell, Steve Gustafson, Christa Youngpeter, Adam Spunberg, Phil Wallace, and Jeremy Martin)

I am proud to say that my personal list, which you will see below, runs pretty close to the averages above. Before I delve into my selections, however, let’s make a few observations:

1. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is clearly the preferred choice, winning by nearly 1.5 points. Five of the 14 voters placed LOTR No. 1 on their lists, and of the remaining nine, five more have it in their top three. The lowest placement was fifth, by three voters. There is no question that Peter Jackson’s epic conclusion resonates most vividly as the superlative film of the decade.

2. The Departed and Gladiator are almost a wash, but they appear to have separated themselves from the pack. The Departed seems to be consistently recognized as among the top films, registering zero No. 1 votes but plenty between two and five. Gladiator, on the other hand, received three first-place votes, but it also polled last for two voters and seventh for two more. Evidently, Gladiator was more polarizing.

3. Recent honoree The Hurt Locker spearheads the next group of four films, all close in tabulation. No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and Million Dollar Baby are easily within range of each other. Amazingly, Million Dollar Baby drew three first-place votes, so Clint Eastwood’s feminist-boxer flick is officially the most diversely-viewed picture on the slate.

4. A Beautiful Mind and Crash form the next tier. Crash dependably falls in the bottom half among our data, but A Beautiful Mind struck a chord in a few cases, achieving as high as a No. 2 vote.

5. Chicago makes an extremely convincing caboose. No question about the general feeling here, as the oft-questioned winner snags four 10th-place votes, five ninth-place votes, and two eighth-place votes. Its highest recording is fourth.

Of course, we are all entitled to our own opinions. Just because AwardsPicks.com endorses a certain assortment does not mean that has to be yours. As you review my list, please feel free to refresh your memory with the accompanying trailers, provided for your entertainment:

10. Chicago (2002)

Like many of my colleagues, I never quite understood how Chicago could have possibly won an Oscar. Its competition was Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and The Pianist. Looking back, The Hours – perceived by many at the time as an instant classic – has not lived up to expectation. Compelling as Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Virginia Woolf may be, the movie is so painfully slow, very few people would ever want to endure it twice. Polanski’s masterpiece, The Pianist, paid penance for its director’s crimes, but the film itself is still quite powerful. Of course, everyone knows The Two Towers was the best movie that year, but the Academy members were saving their accolades for Return of the King.

9. Crash (2005)

Crash is all about Los Angeles. Hollywood is all about Los Angeles. Brokeback Mountain features homosexuals. Hollywood didn’t want to be considered too gay-friendly. Put those four thoughts together and you can see how Crash pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Oscars history. Perhaps the Academy should have given more credence to the pool, particularly to Spielberg’s Munich or other contenders Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck, but the bitterness over the Brokeback Mountain debacle still ices many people’s perceptions of Crash. I enjoyed Crash quite a bit and would rank it much higher than Chicago, but ninth seems about right on this compilation of winners.

8. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Watching the trailer (a pretty awesome trailer), I do remember how much I enjoyed certain segments of this movie. Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank, and Morgan Freeman all provide superb performances. I almost hate to sink it as low as eighth, but these are Best Pictures, after all. Its main competition was The Aviator, a battle that came down to the wire. Amusingly, it is probably the offbeat comedy, Sideways, that boasts the strongest legacy today among the public. Finding Neverland never carried serious consideration, but I loved it and thought it should have competed with the heavyweights (no pun intended).

7. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

Maybe an effective trailer, but it seems a little too marketed for the CW crowd. First up: A Beautiful Mind. Next: One Tree Hill. In all seriousness, this movie was absolutely carried by Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. Without their inspiring performances, the film would not be half of what it was. Putting aside that The Fellowship of the Ring should have won – OF COURSE – let’s also appreciate the rest of the field. Moulin Rouge and Gosford Park were both sensational in their own way, and In the Bedroom possesses that creepy quality that stays with you well after a viewing. A Beautiful Mind was an excellent film, but it may have been the least among nominees in an extraordinary year.

6. The Hurt Locker (2009)

We’ve barely had a chance to digest what happened in these awards, but The Hurt Locker seems fairly popular among my co-writers. Over time, I may move The Hurt Locker up my list, but I still feel a grander loyalty to Inglourious Basterds, Up in the Air, and possibly An Education. As for Avatar, that’s like comparing apples and bombs.

5. No Country for Old Men (2007)

No Country for Old Men may not fit your usual Best Picture description, but it was about time the Coen Brothers received some overdue honors. A literally flawless depiction of Cormac McCarthy’s book, the film leaves an unforgettable impression, especially the performance of Javier Bardem. Juno – while an excellent effort – is not quite in the same league, Atonement fell apart in the second half, and There Will Be Blood was excruciating to sit through (don’t ever give that, or The Hours, to a person on suicide watch … seriously!). Michael Clayton was the worthiest challenger in my eyes, but difficult to argue with this film. That’s why it makes my top half.

4. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Now there is a trailer that gets your adrenaline soaring! I absolutely loved this movie, because it exposed us to something culturally-enriching, mixing unspeakably-horrible events within a hopeful fable. I also really enjoyed The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for its uniqueness, but nothing could overcome the momentum that Danny Boyle’s Slumdog brought to the cinematic world. Frost/Nixon was a nicely-executed adaptation of the play, Milk a grand effort, and The Reader subtly effective, but the only movie that year in Slumdog’s league for me was WALL-E.

3. Gladiator (2000)

A little more historical accuracy and Gladiator would have ascended to No. 2 on my list. Originally billed as a summer blockbuster, Ridley Scott brought much much more to the table. With an outstanding performance from Russell Crowe, as usual, Gladiator embodies what the big picture experience is all about. Chocolat was a delicious diversion, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a fascinating import, and Traffic a mature rendition of the drug problems in America. Erin Brockovich? Spunky, but not a Best Picture. Still, Gladiator prevailed over a solid crop of films, and as the numbers suggest above, the movie continues to electrify its audiences today.

2. The Departed (2006)

I remember fidgeting at the edge of my seat and never stopping, both the first and second times I saw this movie. It sucks you in unapologetically and never lets you breathe. How Leonardo DiCaprio did not get nominated (they gave him the nomination for Blood Diamond instead) I will never know. Consider that you had Martin Scorsese, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Alec Baldwin, Mark Wahlberg, and Martin Sheen among others, all assembled together to create the suspense of a lifetime. Letters from Iwo Jima, Babel, Little Miss Sunshine (very enjoyable), and The Queen were all stellar movies, but The Departed was a special Best Picture. My colleagues seem to agree.

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

No contest. NO CONTEST. No cinematic experience this decade even compared to this one (and by that, I mean the trilogy as a whole). Just watching the trailer raises hairs on my neck. I want to sprint to the nearest television and pop in the extended DVD, so I can be reunited with this ethereal world Peter Jackson created. Having these celestial films to look forward to every December was an unparalleled delight, and I can only hope The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings Prequel live up to the same standard. Among its competitors, I found Mystic River to be immensely powerful, and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is vastly underrated. I’ll admit that Lost in Translation gave me a few butterflies, but the sheer scope of what Peter Jackson accomplished with Lord of the Rings may never be achieved again, nor should we expect it to be. Thank you, LOTR, for making life a little bit more wonderful.