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.
If you sat me in a room to watch Argo with no preconceptions, then told me it had won Best Picture, I’d be shocked. It’s well-made and decently acted, but mostly it’s an ‘up-with-Hollywood’ movie in which filmmaking saves the day. Academy voters had to love that. Argo became the 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 snubbed alongside Katheryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) and Tom Hooper (Les Miserables). Although there was a lot of indignation on behalf of all three, Argo was rewarded with Best Picture.
Should have won in 2012: Of the nominees, Beasts of the Southern Wild would have had my vote. How to Survive a Plague should have been nominated. But I’d go with a genre flick: Skyfall wasn’t just a great Bond movie, it was a great movie: period.
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. Most scenes were filmed in one long shot, requiring painstaking rehearsals from the actors. But the constantly moving long shots start to feel like a gimmick to me. 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. 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.
Should have won in 2014: Whiplash also said intelligent things about artistry–and it was actually a good movie.
The King’s Speech is engineered from the ground up to win Oscars: a prestige movie. It’s shiny and pretty. 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 the movie doesn’t deserve 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. 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.
Should have won in 2010: Best Picture was a showdown between King’s Speech and the more modern, relevant The Social Network. I’d go with The Social Network.
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.
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: I would have been fine with Get Out claiming victory, but my heart belongs to Call Me By Your Name.
2015 was another odd year with no consensus over who would win. In the end, Spotlight became the first Best Picture winner since The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952 to only win two Oscars. Spotlight 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. 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, 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.
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 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.
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:
8. The Social Network (2010)
7. Spotlight (2015)
6. Whiplash (2014)
5. Skyfall (2012)
4. A Separation (2011)
3. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
2. Call Me By Your Name (2017)
1. Moonlight (2016)
As you can see, Moonlight still comes out on top but things get interesting after that.