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.
2. 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, West Side Story, and my first-place finisher: The Power of the Dog.
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. 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