We’re very early in the 2020s and there aren’t a lot of Best Picture winners from this decade to talk about yet, but let’s start building this list anyway, shall we? I’ll add to it every year as new Academy Award winners are announced, but if you want more complete decades in the meantime, feel free to go browse.
Some notes on how I do this: while I will comment on whether or not a movie deserved its Best Picture win, whether or not it was a worthy winner cannot in and of itself impact the ranking. Please also note that this is a fluid ranking for me. Obviously, I’ll provide updates when there are new winners but I may also make changes as time passes and I am able to revisit or rethink these movies. It’s my prerogative, so that’s the way it is.
3. CODA (2021)
A lot of people grumbled when it became clear that CODA was making a late surge during the campaign period for the Academy Awards. At the center of that grumbling is a debate about whether or not the Oscars are intended for serious art-house movies only–a debate all the more ludicrous every year as the Academy is pressured by ABC, which airs the ceremonies, to appeal to a broader range of movie fans. It’s a debate that has been raging to the point where it feels like the Academy is having an identity crisis.
Ultimately, it didn’t feel like anyone would be happy with the outcome because of the two frontrunners, CODA was dismissed as a touchy-feely movie while The Power of the Dog was equally disliked by many for being, get this, a bit on the clinical side. Yes, the complaint was that one movie was too emotional while the other wasn’t emotional enough.
It remains to be seen what legacy CODA will have and how it will sit with Oscar fanatics. I worry that people will hate it because they won’t think it feels hefty enough. At the end of the day, it’s a good movie that taps into genuine emotion that audiences respond to. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s certainly not the first time a crowd-pleaser has won Best Picture and it won’t be the last.
Should have won in 2021: Can we all at least agree that CODA is a good movie first? Okay, if we’ve managed that I can admit that I put it in fourth place in my ranking for 2021 behind Flee, The Power of the Dog, and my first-place finisher: West Side Story, a movie that didn’t feel necessary given how fantastic the Best Picture-winning 1961 adaptation of the musical was, but which found surprising heft and nuance for contemporary audiences.
2. Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)
One of the most exciting things that has happened since the Academy began its drive to diversify its membership (not just in terms of race but also in terms of gender and age) has been watching just how quickly the definition of what constitutes an Oscar movie has changed. Just ten years ago we would have likely seen The Power of the Dog triumph over CODA and a movie like Everything Everywhere All At Once would probably not have even gotten close to the podium at all. Moonlight and Parasite most likely also benefited from the diversified membership of the Academy. It is truly a brave new world at the Oscars.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is a weird movie. Even at a base level, it’s just got a lot going on. It’s a multiverse movie about a woman whose boring, stressful life is suddenly livened up by sci-fi action movie intrigue, googly eyes, hot dog fingers, and, um, butt plugs. Yeah. A movie with butt plugs became the only movie (so far) to win six of the major categories at the Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, and Screenplay). The only major category EEAAO lost is Best Actor, and it didn’t have a nomination there.
I haven’t even mentioned that the cast is predominantly Asian or Asian American–a wild breakthrough for diversity in American film. Or that it has solid LGBTQ+ representation. Let’s hope it leads to better roles and representation.
The real success of EEAAO is that it has a massive heart at its core. It never loses sight of the fact that it’s about a family who has been struggling in many ways–struggling to survive economically, struggling to be seen in a country that marginalizes them, struggling to connect with each other, and struggling to understand how to find their own agency in spite of the heavy expectations they face.
This movie has no business succeeding as well as it does given the high-wire act it walks and how balls-out bizarre it is. But it does work. Really well, in fact.
Should have won in 2022: My personal favorite movie of the year was Aftersun, which only managed to muster a nomination for Paul Mescal as Best Actor (he lost to Brendan Fraser). But I will never complain about EEAAO winning–for what it represents and for the fun I had watching it. It would have had my vote.
1. Nomadland (2020)
2020 was an odd year for the Oscars. With a pandemic raging and movie theaters shut down for the majority of the year, studios scrambled. Many movies that had been seen as potential contenders dumped their original release dates and fled for 2021 instead, hoping that there would eventually be a return to business as usual that might help their chances (and their wallets). Many expected that 2020 would end up being a weak year for Oscar under these circumstances–especially when the Academy loosened their rules about streaming (allowing movies that had previously had a planned theatrical release to debut on streaming platforms and still be eligible) and lengthened the eligibility window through February. But while you could certainly make a case that a quiet movie like Nomadland could have been crowded out of any other year instead of becoming the clear frontrunner, the quality of the Best Picture contenders was very high. There are some who will apply a mental asterisk to Nomadland because of the pandemic, but in my mind it’s a worthy winner in any calendar year.
Nomadland is quite simply one of the most empathetic movies I’ve ever seen. Following Frances McDormand (who won Best Actress for her troubles) as her character settles in with and interacts with a community of van-dwelling nomads who have abandoned their traditional lives (most played by actual nomads), it becomes a highly resonant movie about connection, grief, and displacement. Many criticize the movie for omitting its source material’s harsh portrayal of working in an Amazon distribution center, but I feel like putting an emphasis on the human element instead of the political one still tells quite a story (you can find more on the differences here). I love both it and the book it is based on.
Should have won in 2020: For me, it comes down to Nomadland and Minari, another deeply human story about a family of Korean immigrants struggling to start a farm in 1980s Arkansas. Both are great movies that portray sides of the American character usually pushed to the margins, but ultimately I would go with Nomadland for the win.
Other Rankings for the 2020s
Best Supporting Actor • Best Supporting Actress