Each decade has found the film industry worrying about potential threats to its audience sizes. In the past, that threat has come from radio, television, VCRs, and DVD players. Now, with the advent of streaming platforms and moviegoing habits in flux, that threat feels real. We are now in the era of Peak TV, where audiences have access to enormous amounts of content they can binge on demand. Adaptations that may once have felt perfect for the screen are now going to TV for limited series instead. Theater chains are redefining the moviegoing experience to keep audiences from defecting to home theaters (or, let’s be honest, mobile players). Existing Intellectual Property (IP) became worth its weight in gold and the phrase “cinematic universe” became a thing.
These changes and more are reflected in the ten Best Picture winners from 2010-2019. Having spent the 2000s awarding prestige pictures that capitalized on Oscar campaigns (a tactic popularized by Miramax in the 1990s), Oscar voters steadily sought out less obvious choices. Campaigning is still the norm, but over the course of the decade those campaigns were centered around titles that would have seemed like longshots twenty years earlier. Sure, the Academy of the 90s would have no problem voting for movies that solve racism in a car or a prestige film about a stuttering king finding his footing as a leader, but would they have been able to get behind a dark fantasy about a woman falling in love with a fish-man? Or a quiet, poetic film about a gay black boy from a poor neighborhood? I think not.
Perhaps the two most consequential changes to the Academy in the 2010s are its move to a ranked ballot system for Best Picture and its push for more diverse members in response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that plagued it. I won’t explain the process of the preferential ballot here (you can find details here), but one of the worries behind the switch was that it would favor generic, middle-of-the-road films over anything that inspires a more passionate response (for good or bad)–and yes, it is kind of amusing that the same Academy that voted for Driving Miss Daisy over Do the Right Thing and The English Patient over Fargo is suddenly worried about being milquetoast. Results always vary with the Academy, and it’s difficult to measure the true impact of the preferential ballot, but common wisdom seems to argue that it directly resulted in at least three scenarios where the perceived underdog who deserved to win actually made it to the stage in 2015, 2016, and 2019. If it continues to yield good winners? I’m all for it.
You could also conceivably argue that two of those wins (2016 and 2019) grew directly out of the Academy’s massive push to diversify its membership. Again, I won’t go into specifics here, and the diversity push may cause change more slowly as it continues, but it already seems to be paying off as the Academy becomes more globally conscious.
As usual, please keep in mind that although I’ll comment on which movie I think should have won each year, whether or not a movie deserved to win cannot impact its place in the ranking. And for me, this is a fluid list that I will update and change as I see fit.
10. Argo (2012)
If you showed me Argo with no preconceptions, then told me it won Best Picture, I’d be shocked. It’s well-made and decently acted, but definitely not bound to be a classic. It is, however, an ‘up-with-Hollywood’ movie in which filmmaking saves the day, and Academy voters had to love that. But Argo mostly won because critics felt it was unfairly snubbed in the Best Director race, where Ben Affleck (knee-deep in his ‘career redemption’ award season narrative–which went sour with alarming speed after Argo‘s win) was famously snubbed. Argo was rewarded with Best Picture to make amends, but that doesn’t make the movie feel any more significant.
Should have won in 2012: Admittedly, the other options don’t inspire me much either. I would go with Beasts of the Southern Wild.
9. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
I found Birdman annoying to the point of exhaustion, but it does have some smart things to say about fame. Birdman is also a remarkably well-made movie. But the constantly moving camera starts to feel like a gimmick–one that gave me a migraine with alarming speed. Birdman also doesn’t feel like the smart takedown of franchise filmmaking this decade could have used. I think this is a case where people were so marveled at the skill of what was achieved that it blinded them to the flaws. It’s just here, with nothing real to say or do, but looking pretty.
Should have won in 2014: This is another year where I don’t feel passionately about any of the contenders, but I’d say give it to Selma over this.
8. Green Book (2018)
Well, we almost got through the decade without an embarrassing Best Picture winner. In a replay of the year Driving Miss Daisy won, Green Book is an overly simplistic buddy movie in which a black person and a white person in a car solve racism because everything would be fine if we just talked to each other. It’s even worse that a move with problematic racial politics won in a year with smarter commentary on the same subject. In Green Book‘s defense, unlike Daisy or the execrable Crash, it does try to grapple with deeper issues about race, just in a clumsy way that tries too hard to allow room for a #NotAllWhitePeople argument to be made. And there’s no denying that the way in which it will only grapple with its gay, black protagonist through the lens of a white heterosexual dude is undeniably crude–and rewarding this movie with Best Picture feels like giving it an A+ for effort when a B- would have sufficed.
Should have won in 2018: BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther had more cogent things to say about race and Roma was a smart, well-crafted movie. I have nitpicky issues with each, but in the end why not give it to Roma?
7. The King’s Speech (2010)
The King’s Speech is a pure prestige movie: engineered from the ground up to win Oscars. It’s shiny and pretty and the performances are good. The movie itself is almost irrelevant, but it does have to be at least decent to protect the shiny veneer. It’s good in a bland way. That doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t deserve Best Picture, just that it was designed to hit all the buttons Academy members traditionally love to vote for (buttons that became alarmingly archaic by the end of the decade). It definitely won’t challenge the status quo. As such, these movies can be forgotten over time, except for an eye-rolling acknowledgment of their existence. So it is, and so it shall be, with The King’s Speech. The chasm between this movie opening the decade and Parasite closing it speaks volumes
Should have won in 2010: In 2010 it was easy to deride The Social Network as “the Facebook movie” as if it was on par with The Angry Birds Movie. But as the decade continued, Social Network only proved to be more and more relevant for our time.
6. The Shape of Water (2017)
Less than 30 minutes into The Shape of Water I turned to my husband and said “there’s nothing subtle about this movie, is there?” Perhaps its because director Guillermo del Toro was inspired by fairy tale tropes, but everything in Shape conforms to black and white ideals about good and evil, right and wrong. In a year crowded with Best Picture favorites (any one of four movies could have easily won, and many of the nominees would have been revolutionary choices), Shape was an inoffensive winner allowing headlines to celebrate diversity and inclusiveness when in reality it has nothing to say for or against those issues. It simply parrots them through a story that parallels Beauty and the Beast.
Should have won in 2017: My heart belongs to Call Me By Your Name but I can’t deny that Get Out was the most daring movie and deserved the win (another genre choice!)
5. The Artist (2011)
I know The Artist has detractors. And it may seem odd to say that this movie feels like a breath of fresh air when it’s a silent film with a clichéd premise. Having the temerity to do a mostly silent, black-and-white film in the modern age makes The Artist feel perhaps more audacious than it has a right to be. Yes, The Artist is an earnest film. But it has a palpable love for its subject matter and an honest desire to entertain, which makes it a good, if not great, artist indeed. A bravura performance from Jean Dujardin helps. Even without words, he’s suave and charming. Berenice Bejo is a fine counterpart, as they both hit all the tips and tricks silent stars used to employ while winking knowingly to their modern audience.
Should have won in 2011: A Separation won Best Foreign film and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay but failed to get the Best Picture nom (and win) it deserved.
4. Spotlight (2015)
Spotlight is both a celebration of journalism and a deep-seated exploration of integrity. It’s about faith and how sometimes doing the right thing requires an enormous act of courage from many people. It is also an ode to the very industry of reporting and a reminder of why it provides such a vital service when done right. Spotlight may not be flashy but it’s a great, understated movie that deserved recognition from an inexplicably crowded field of contenders.
Should have won in 2015: The Academy got it right with Spotlight, which had been the underdog to The Revenant (which won Best Director), The Big Short (which won the PGA), and even Mad Max: Fury Road (which cleaned up in technical categories).
3. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
You could call 12 Years a Slave a prestige pic, but you’d be wrong. Part of the genius of 12 Years is that it uses the form of a prestige pic to force its audience to confront some deeply discomfiting truths about American history. That doesn’t make it a fun movie, but it makes it an important one. Inconvenient truths must be acknowledged, and the biggest unpleasant truth of all is that racial inequality is still pervasive in the U.S. The Academy awkwardly tried to acknowledge that in 2005 with Crash, but 12 Years mops the floor with Crash in every possible way. 12 Years is smart, unflinching, and steadfastly refuses to pander to its audience.
Should have won in 2013: Gravity was revolutionary filmmaking, but 12 Years a Slave deserved the Best Picture win.
2. Parasite (2019)
Closing out the decade with the first foreign-language Best Picture winner ever feels like a great mission statement for the future of the Academy as it closed out the 2010s. Parasite is a movie that truly has it all: a trenchant message perfectly timed for its political moment, the veneer of prestige thanks to festival-circuit wins, and a genuinely thrilling, oddball plot that ensures audiences will see it and continue thinking about it long after the movie has ended. It checks a lot of boxes without sacrificing originality, which is perhaps the most remarkable feat of all.
Should have won in 2019: 1917 felt like it had the momentum, but it was always Parasite who deserved the win.
1. Moonlight (2016)
Moonlight is something completely new in a Best Picture winner. It’s a story that hasn’t been told because stories like this and the people it happens to are cast into the margins. It is the first LGBT movie to win Best Picture, and it focuses on an aspect of LGBT culture that barely sees the light of day: an African American boy growing up in a rough neighborhood struggling with his sexuality. And the cast doesn’t contain a single white actor. Moonlight is also one of the most poetic, beautifully filmed movies you’ll find. It doesn’t beat you over the head with its message, it just tells you a story with sumptuous visuals and heartbreaking acting. After a long period of prestige pics and movies about Hollywood, its win feels revolutionary. Hopefully, it’s a sign of things to come.
Should have won in 2016: La La Land was the frontrunner (and accidentally given the award for a hot second), but when it was announced that Moonlight was the true winner it was like history correcting an error in real-time.
Now just for fun, let’s take a look at how the ranking would be different if the right movie won each year in this decade:
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
9. Roma (2018)
8. Selma (2014)
7. The Social Network (2010)
6. Spotlight (2015)
5. A Separation (2011)
4. Get Out (2017)
3. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
2. Parasite (2019)
1. Moonlight (2016)