For the love of entertainment
I’m an Oscar junkie, so I thought it would be fun to go back in time and pick out the best and worst of the winners for the last few decades. Please keep in mind, I am only considering the movies that won an Academy Award for Best Picture. I’ll comment on which movie I think should have won each year, but whether or not a movie deserved to win cannot impact its ranking in and of itself. My reasoning here is that this will make the task more manageable. If I tried weighing every movie in every given year, there would be far too much to consider.
The current decade isn’t over, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start judging. I’ll update this post with new rankings as new winners come in every year through 2019.
Argo has a lot going for it. But if you sat me in a room to watch it with no preconceptions, then told me it had won Best Picture, my response would be “really?” It’s a dramatic thriller indirectly about the Middle East, which hits some hot-button issues I guess. It’s also based on the true story of an incredible rescue mission, which people love. It’s well-made and decently acted. But mostly it’s an ‘up-with-Hollywood’ movie in which filmmaking saves the day and lets the good guys be heroes and save lives. Academy voters had to just love that.
Argo distinguished itself as Best Picture front-runner because critics felt it was unfairly snubbed in the Best Director race, where Ben Affleck (knee-deep in his ‘career redemption’ award season narrative) was famously left in the cold along with Katheryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables). In the end, although there was a lot of righteous indignation on behalf of all three, no one was going to give an Oscar to Bigelow or Hooper anyway, so Argo reaped the reward of a make-up win in the Best Picture race.
Should have won in 2012: This would have been a good year for some action movies to crack the Best Picture nominees. The Dark Knight Rises had its fans and while I find it overdone it still would have been better than several nominees. Skyfall wasn’t just the best Bond movie ever, it was a great movie: period. There were great documentaries like How to Survive a Plague. Still, in the end I would have gone with something that was nominated: Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Full disclosure: I hated Birdman. From the way they placed the ‘or’ outside of the parentheses in the title to the relentless drum beat in the background of every scene, I found it annoying to the point of exhaustion. It follows Riggan, a washed up actor who made a name for himself starring in comic book movies about a hero named Birdman. Michael Keaton, who faded into obscurity after leaving the Batman franchise, plays Riggan. Now Riggan is putting on a Broadway play in a last ditch effort to prove that he’s somebody, and it isn’t going well. As pressure mounts, Riggan begins hearing Birdman talking to him and starts to believe that he can move things with his mind. He’s clearly on the verge of a breakdown.
Birdman does have some smart things to say about fame, notoriety, and artistry. In one particularly cutting remark, a critic tells Riggan that he’s not an actor, he’s a celebrity. Birdman is also a remarkably well made movie from a technical standpoint. Most scenes were filmed in one long shot, requiring painstaking rehearsals from the actors, who needed numerous takes to hit all their marks. But the constantly moving long shots stop feeling awe-inspiring and start to feel like a gimmick. Things move around restlessly and unrelentingly. I’m sure it was a conscious decision to try to unsettle the audience in a subtle way, except that it’s not subtle. It feels like a gimmick, which to me defeated the entire purpose of doing it. I think this is a case where people were so marveled by the skill of what was achieved that it blinded them to the flaws.
Should have won in 2014: Whiplash also said intelligent things about artistry–and it was actually a good movie.
There’s a class of film that is engineered from the ground up to win Oscars. Call them ‘prestige films’ if you need a fancy label. The King’s Speech is one of those. It’s shiny and pretty. The performances are good. The movie itself is almost irrelevant, but it does have to be at least decent–certainly good enough not to detract from the shiny veneer. It’s good in a sort of bland way. That doesn’t necessarily mean the movie doesn’t deserve to win Best Picture, just that it was designed to hit all the buttons Academy members love to vote for. It definitely won’t challenge the status quo. Think A Beautiful Mind, Shakespeare in Love, The Last Emperor, and the ultimate example of ‘prestige’ filmmaking: The English Patient. If you have a head for patterns, you’ll notice that most of those movies have been largely forgotten over time, except for an eye-rolling acknowledgment of their existence. Hell, English Patient will live on for the way Seinfeld mocked it more than anything else. So it is, and so it shall be, with The King’s Speech.
Should have won in 2010: The Best Picture race was seen as a showdown between King’s Speech and the more modern, relevant The Social Network, and the prestige film won. I’m more a fan of the quiet family drama The Kids Are All Right.
I know The Artist has numerous detractors. And it may seem odd to say that this movie feels like a breath of fresh air when it’s a silent film about an actor who sees his star dimming as another’s star rises. Yes, silent films have come and gone. And yes, that premise has been done before. It’s combining the two and having the temerity to do a mostly silent, black-and-white film in the modern age, that makes The Artist feel perhaps more audacious than it has a right to be. At least it dared to do something different. When it comes down to it, yes, The Artist is an earnest film, which I just derided The King’s Speech for. 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: 2011 was a pretty weak year for movies, so there isn’t really anywhere to go other than The Artist except for this: if foreign movies had a fair shot in Best Picture, there would be no denying A Separation.
2015 was a very odd year. By December, no frontrunner for Best Picture had emerged. Early leaders Carol and Spotlight rapidly lost steam to three newcomers (Carol wasn’t even nominated in the end). The Big Short thinly emerged as frontrunner by winning the Producer’s Guild Award. The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road had Oscar momentum in other categories, which could translate to Picture. As Oscar night drew near, there was no consensus over who would win. Some said Revenant‘s actor/director momentum would prevail. Some said the Academy had a jones for Mad Max. Others thought you couldn’t argue with a solid indicator like the PGA, so Big Short was a lock. But many said that if the Academy voted for the best movie, it would be Spotlight. In the end Spotlight went home with only two Oscars, but they were big ones: Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture–the first Best Picture winner since The Great Ziegfeld in 1952 to only win two Oscars
Spotlight is the story of The Boston Globe‘s investigative team looking into the cover-up of child abuse and molestation by priests in the Catholic church. It is frequently compared to All the President’s Men, and for good reason. Spotlight is 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. Since the film is set in 2001–just as the internet was beginning to permanently change the face of journalism–it also serves as an ode to the very industry of reporting and is a reminder of why it provides such a vital service when done right. Spotlight won’t go down as one of the all-time best Oscar winners 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.
You could call 12 Years a Slave a prestige pic if you want, 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. Everyone knows slavery was bad, but people rarely want to talk about it or acknowledge just how degraded or tortured the lives of the slaves were. It makes them uncomfortable. This movie forces audiences to look at the unpleasant truth and think about it. That doesn’t make it a fun movie, for sure, but it makes it an important one. Inconvenient truths must be acknowledged. We must learn from history to avoid repeating it. 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 fact 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.
I struggled with the top two movies on this list. 12 Years is an important movie, and I still believe that. But even if it uses the format of a prestige pic to force its audience to confront uncomfortable truths, it still has a lot of the familiar tropes of a prestige pic. Moonlight is something completely new in a Best Picture winner. It’s a story that happens all over the country but 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, which is huge, but more significantly 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 and struggling with his sexuality. And the cast doesn’t contain a single white actor. Now, before you roll your eyes and accuse this of being a PC backlash to the previous year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy, 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. Moonlight‘s win is a huge departure for the Academy–after a long period of prestige pics and movies about Hollywood, it feels revolutionary. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.
Should have won in 2016: La La Land was the frontrunner (and accidentally named the winner for a hot second), but when it was announced that Moonlight was the true winner it was one of the most thrilling moments in Academy history because it was like history correcting an error in real time. Some say the Best Picture category’s preferential ballot system gave both Moonlight and Spotlight the edge they needed to win two years in a row–and if so, we can thank preferential ballots for getting it right.
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:
7. The Kids Are All Right (2010)
6. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
5. Spotlight (2015)
4. Whiplash (2014)
3. A Separation (2011)
2. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
1. Moonlight (2016)
As you can see, Moonlight and 12 Years still come out on top but after that things get interesting.