Ranking All the Best Picture Nominees of the 2010s
More nominations meant more recognition for diverse voices, with uneven results
By Todd Hill
Trends in cinema may never fit neatly into decade-long windows, but from the perspective of today it’s clear that a trend that had been building for several years reached critical mass during the 2010s.
Event-scale superhero movies and franchise film properties first became identifiable cinematic phenomena going back as far as the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the 2010s that they came to truly dominate the box office, each and every year. Opinions will differ on whether this was ultimately a positive development for the movies, but there’s no question that, with very few exceptions, the Academy Awards got through the decade without paying this trend much attention at all.
What Oscar voters did accomplish, however, was an at times half-hearted and consistently uneven embrace of more diverse voices in filmmaking. This clearly led to some movies receiving Best Picture nominations that they didn’t deserve, but in the interest of shining a light on all manner of stories, viewpoints and performances that had been relegated to the shadows for far too long, well, no harm, no foul.
I’ve been using this platform to rank the Best Picture nominees of each year, in articles which can be found elsewhere in this publication, an endeavor I ambitiously intend to continue all the way back to the first Academy Awards for 1927–28. And I should point out that my rankings for the films of 2010 through 2019, taken by year, do not match up precisely with my rankings here of the Best Picture nominees for the entire decade. For instance, I placed “The Kids Are All Right” ahead of “The Social Network” in my rankings of the 2010 nominees because I find the former title more entertaining and enjoyable to watch. But in taking the decade as a whole, I wound up ranking “The Social Network” a full eight spots ahead of “The Kids Are All Right” due to its long-term importance.
It was surprisingly easy to find appropriate films for my top 10 Best Picture nominees of the decade, as well as my bottom five. Arguments can be had over whether this film or that is too high or too low, that’s what rankings like this are for, but I make a case for why each movie is where it is on my list. While the list definitely features some hot takes on my part (Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” at №81 of 88, for instance), I feel the following ranking largely mirrors the critical consensus on most titles, at least as of the spring of 2021, when it was initially published.
However, recency bias is bound to come into play when evaluating films that are for the most part less than 10 years old. Only a little more time will tell whether lists like the one below are actually on the mark. So many movies — even Best Picture nominees — are forgotten so quickly, while others — some of which never garnered a nomination, and I mention many of those below as well — only grow in reputation over the years. I don’t flatter myself that lists like mine have any meaningful role in that process, but, well, let’s revisit this a decade from now and see how it stands up. I’m fully prepared to take any lumps coming my way.
- Mad Max: Fury Road — While acknowledging that it would be impossible to make a movie about, say, the Fantastic Four without indulging in computerized visual effects, I think I gave up on superhero films when it became apparent how dependent they had become on unreality to tell their cookie-cutter stories. George Miller’s fourth “Mad Max” title is, pared down to its essence, nothing more than a chase flick, but most of what we see of this post-apocalyptic dystopia is real. It wouldn’t be so transfixing it if wasn’t. And while the last thing we need is another sequel, Miller must be praised for propelling his real-life creation in such a radically different, fem-centric direction. The result represents a career high point for actress Charlize Theron. Although it’s been less than a decade since its release, it’s already apparent that this film is destined to have a long shelf life.
2.) Moneyball — The measure of a good sports movie isn’t whether it can hold the interest of someone uninterested in that sport. More importantly, it should be found compelling by diehard fans. That “Moneyball,” about Billy Beane’s transformation of baseball’s Oakland A’s via “sabermetrics,” is able to do both is intended as highest praise. Time has been kind to this film, and especially Aaron Sorkin’s script. In fact, I would go so far as to include it among the top 50 best sports movies ever made as well as the top 10 films about baseball. It also includes what is arguably Brad Pitt’s best performance in a lead role (he plays Beane) to date. The real find here, however, is Jonah Hill, branching out from a long line of comedic roles to earn an Oscar nomination as Beane’s nerdy sidekick, a performance he would more or less reprise two years later in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
3.) The Big Short — Timing may not be everything, but it’s certainly better to have good timing than bad. “The Big Short’s” timing was perfect. The 2008 recession may have come and gone by the time Adam McKay’s biting satire hit theaters, but it took a while for anyone who cared to understand what caused the downtown, while the recovery from it took years. So McKay’s withering and surprisingly informative expose on the high-finance hijinks that cratered the economy hit at just the right time. Featuring something approaching an all-star cast (Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt), the movie is more fun than it has any right to be, especially considering the level of outrage McKay quickly reaches and then maintains. Ultimately, the self-righteousness becomes exhausting, and while your mileage may vary, until the movie tries our patience it can do no wrong.
4.) The Martian — For reasons unknown, movies about outer space became a mini-thing in the 2010s, with most of the films of surprising quality. This entry, arguably the best of the bunch, succeeds largely because of Matt Damon, as an astronaut left behind on Mars, all by his lonesome; the routinely appealing actor is forced to carry the movie on his shoulders. But while this film resembles in many ways an intergalactic “Cast Away” (2000), director Ridley Scott fortunately intersperses scenes of Damon’s astronaut making water and growing potatoes on Mars with sequences of the crews back on Earth working to retrieve him and bring him back home. Ultimately, the movie becomes a celebration of scientific ingenuity, not unlike “Apollo 13” (1995), and that’s good company for any motion picture to keep.
5.) The Social Network — David Fincher’s dark take on the social media giant Facebook is widely lauded today for being prescient, given how the platform has devolved into a repository for ruinous conspiracy theories and generally the worst aspects of the human race. The movie, however, doesn’t go there because it was released in 2010, when Facebook was still hip and fun. The film was no doubt made too soon, but that’s hardly the film’s fault. It’s essentially a superlative origin story. As with all of Fincher’s projects, the movie is exquisitely well made, with several moments that are just electric, but in the service of what exactly? I’m not going to argue with anyone who considers the picture important; it is. I’m not much taken with the performance of Jesse Eisenberg, which consists largely of staring at either computer screens or various dumbfounded characters. It doesn’t let us in.
6.) Her — In the not-too-distant future, at least in the developed world, the notion of people falling in love with robots could be a reality. Thanks to this film, we can argue that writer/director Spike Jonze got there first. The logical place for Jonze to go with this picture (set in the not-too-distant future), in which Joaquin Phoenix plays a greeting card writer of sorts who has an emotionally intimate relationship with his computer’s operating system, would be satire. But remarkably, “Her” doesn’t go there at all. Instead, what should be a decidedly wacky premise is used as the starting-off point to explore big topics like the meaning of love and the social imperatives of our lives (we can’t really go it alone). While the movie inevitably has some creepy, awkward moments, it ultimately left me feeling hopeful, as well as once again admiring the performance of Phoenix, of whom I’m not a huge fan. But what’s with all the strange, high-waisted pants?
7.) Little Women — It’s a period film that’s of the moment we’re living now (but aren’t they all?). It has a lot on its mind, about women’s choices, the creative impulse, the impossibility of love, that I don’t remember the earlier films focusing on this well. Some specific points — I guess when you’re making the 500th version of a story you can indulge in non-linearity. I don’t think it was necessary, and for most of the film I was finding the device problematic. The noisy and chaotic scenes early on, sure, I got it, but I was hoping the movie would settle down, and I was glad when it did. Of course, this is largely because Gerwig was more interested in these women as adults. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful, nothing less; I hope she finally gets an Oscar one of these years. I look forward to much more from Florence Pugh. And finally, the production design is stunning. For Gerwig, this is a major step up from “Lady Bird,” her debut.
8.) Gravity — The vast majority of those who saw and enjoyed this, one of the best of the boomlet of outer space movies to grace the 2010s, had little to no conception of the enormous nuts-and-bolts challenges director Alfonso Cuaron and company mastered to assemble this otherwise simple tale of survival in low Earth orbit. And that’s OK; it’s not an audience’s job to look for the strings that make a puppet show possible. Of course, one could similarly praise a “Transformers” flick, if only from a technical perspective. Most remarkable is how Cuaron and company utilized so many bells and whistles to tell a story so striking in its minimalism. While George Clooney turns in a snarky but key supporting performance, Sandra Bullock is the real star here. Thank goodness the film takes the trouble to give her character a back story so we care; it makes all the difference.
9.) Boyhood — It’s so much more than a gimmick. In fact, as gimmicks go, it’s not even original. To tell a simple and relatively plot-less story about growing up, writer/director Richard Linklater filmed his small cast over 12 long years, in real time, a concept that Linklater had earlier toyed with for his “Before” trilogy. In any event, the result here is nothing less than a revelatory examination of a fractured but functional American family. Critics fell especially hard for the movie, especially the performance of Patricia Arquette as the mother (she won an Oscar for her effort), but also those of Linklater regular Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane, who so visibly matures as the boy of the title. Critics often have perspectives far removed from the average cinephile, but I think they were right on the mark here. Remarkably relatable, the movie is impossible to watch without us being forced to reflect on our own adolescence.
10.) The Room — I wish this film weren’t based on a true story, but it’s actually based on several, in which young women have been kept captive in tiny shelters and raped by their captors for years. On one hand, this is a profoundly life-affirming experience about the resiliency of the human spirit. On the other, it’s a crushingly depressing reminder of how brutal we can be towards our fellow men, especially women. Starring Brie Larson and child actor Jacob Tremblay (Larson’s character has been imprisoned for so long she has a young son), this obviously claustrophobic film is remarkably adept at addressing some significant themes. It’s not spoiling anything to point out that a successful escape from the room of the title figures in the plot, since so much transpires after that point. If you’re like me, the movie will impact you to a degree far greater than you may have been prepared for. Honestly, I wish I could un-see it, but I’m grateful I can’t.
11.) Marriage Story — Noah Baumbach contributes a title to the short list of must-see movies concerned about divorce, with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson.
12.) Roma — Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron reminds us that when we ignore the other people existing in our little worlds we miss out on so much.
13.) The Kids Are All Right — Lisa Cholodenko’s family drama has flawed, unconventional characters we care about and doesn’t tell us where it’s going.
14.) Fences — Denzel Washington, who stars and directs, found a way to make this powerful August Wilson play work just as well on the big screen.
15.) Arrival — The rare movie to actually make us care about linguistics, this high-toned sci-fi flick has seen its reputation climb upward.
16.) Lady Bird — Greta Gerwig hits it out of the ballpark with her directorial debut, starring Saoirse Ronan as an utterly relatable young woman.
17.) Manchester by the Sea — Kenneth Lonergan should make more movies; maybe they don’t have to be this wrenchingly depressing.
18.) Black Swan — The best horror films are internal, and the ballet world is innately stressful; this flick also features Natalie Portman’s best performance.
19.) Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood — Quentin Tarantino imagines a happy ending to the Charles Manson cult killings in this sunny pastiche.
20.) 1917 — A one-shot, real-time World War I adventure tale that spotlights some impressive technical achievements.
21.) A Star is Born — I hope, and believe, this fifth version of a Hollywood chestnut will have a long life; its first hour is a tremendous pleasure to watch.
22.) Midnight in Paris — Woody Allen may or may not be as heinous as they say, but this inventive, fantastical flick is one of his best.
23.) Birdman — A real high-wire act about the crazy lives actors lead, the movie soars like a hawk for 90 minutes, and then suddenly falls to earth.
24.) Parasite — This is a rare, welcome Best Picture win for a talented South Korean filmmaker, but the movie is guilty of trying too hard.
25.) 12 Years a Slave — Ironically, when a movie about slavery in the U.S. is this well done, it can be almost too hard to watch.
26.) Spotlight — A newspaper drama that lays on the sanctimony pretty thick, but it’s a true story about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, so sanctimony earned,
27.) The Favourite — This costume drama couldn’t be further from the coziness associated with the genre; Rachel Weisz delivers a riveting performance.
28.) Moonlight — It’s quiet, gentle, even exquisite, in its telling of a man’s struggles with his sexuality, but it left me on the outside looking in.
29.) The Revenant — Did you ever wonder what a nature documentary would look like if the prey savaged by a vicious predator was a human being? Wonder no more.
30.) Argo — Ben Affleck’s retelling of a Iranian hostage drama is genuinely suspenseful and exciting, but little seen today.
31.) Joker — It’s a superhero flick that’s actually more interested in mental illness, bullying and abuse, and Joaquin Phoenix is right at home as the title character.
32.) 127 Hours — Danny Boyle shows us that survival tales can be suspenseful even when we know what’s going to happen. Especially then.
33.) Life of Pi — A boy and a tiger are lost at sea; director Ang Lee had to rely on a lot of high-tech wizardry to tell this somewhat unwieldy story.
34.) Hugo — Martin Scorsese’s evocative, sort-of kids flick set in early 20th century Paris is a visual feast and a real treat for cinephiles.
35.) La La Land — This is a real movie-movie with musical numbers, but the novelty wears off and it fades quickly on subsequent viewings.
36.) Dunkirk — Christopher Nolan brings his technical expertise to an early turning point in World War II that nicely captures the chaos and horror of war.
37.) The Shape of Water — “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” is updated for today’s politically correct times because, well, why not?
38.) American Hustle — Another David O. Russell parade of stars that looks great and is even greater fun to watch. It’s just not a very good movie.
39.) Darkest Hour — If this film is remembered at all it should be for Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning performance as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
40.) Zero Dark Thirty — Kathryn Bigelow’s film about how torture may or may not have aided in the capture of Osama bin Laden is problematic, but it should be.
41.) Silver Linings Playbook — David O. Russell tries to convince us that mental illness is funny. It’s not, but stay for the awesome climactic dance scene.
42.) True Grit — I’m not quite sure how the Coen brothers’ solid remake of a classic western received zero Oscars on a whopping 10 nominations.
43.) Get Out — Jordan Peele may be a filmmaker to watch, but only if he does more than just push sensitive buttons like he does in this ambitious horror film.
44.) Brooklyn –Another reason for the cult of “I’ll Watch Saoirse Ronan in Just About Anything” to thrive, but that’s about it.
45.) The King’s Speech — It’s actually perfectly fine, but that’s all; the film would be more highly regarded today if it hadn’t won Best Picture, which it in no way deserved.
46.) The Fighter — I’ve seen enough boxing movies already, but there’s no denying the intensity of the performances here, especially Christian Bale’s.
47.) Lincoln — Steven Spielberg’s historical tome about Abraham Lincoln is dry, but Daniel Day-Lewis is doing some interesting things, and oh, such facial hair!
48.) Philomena — This gentle film about a country’s and a woman’s unfortunate past wasn’t worthy of a Best Picture nod, but it works just fine on its own level.
49.) The Descendants — Set in Hawaii, Alexander Payne’s movie looks great, and it stars George Clooney, but it still has a ramshackle quality to it.
50.) Hell or High Water — This is hardly the first film to see the potential in bank robbers speeding down dusty roads in the southern Plains; the formula still works.
51.) Ford v Ferrari — Dads, this one’s for you; Matt Damon and Christian Bale look cool racing cars in the 1960’s.
52.) The Artist — Wouldn’t it be cool if a silent film won the Oscar for Best Picture for the first time since 1929? Not really, but whatever.
53.) Django Unchained — It’s classic Tarantino, truly entertaining with some priceless scenes, but ultimately repetitive, derivative and exhausting.
54.) Jojo Rabbit — It only feels like Wes Anderson made this charming Adolf Hitler comedy of sorts that’s a little too desperate to be liked.
55.) The Wolf of Wall Street — I loved Martin Scorsese’s Wall Street flick when it came out, but today it feels like a celebration of offensive debauchery.
56.) Captain Phillips — Like “Wolf,” this is based on a true story (about high-seas piracy), but the film’s racial elements may now raise uncomfortable issues.
57.) The Grand Budapest Hotel — Another exceptionally studied addition to the extraordinarily fussy filmography of Wes Anderson.
58.) Hacksaw Ridge — Mel Gibson, who helmed this WWII drama, was just interested in the blood and gore, but star Andrew Garfield brought much more.
59.) Green Book — You know that out-of-touch white guy who insists he’s not racist because he has lots of “colored” friends? Well, this movie.
60.) The Imitation Game — Britain’s WWII Enigma code-breaking genius Alan Turing gets the standard biopic treatment.
61.) Selma — We’re still waiting for the seminal MLK Jr. film; this isn’t it. Maybe this is because his life story is too big, or maybe it’s just because he was black.
62.) The Post — Another dry historical tome by Steven Spielberg, about the publication of the Pentagon Papers, although Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep are lively.
63.) BlacKkKlansman — Spike Lee is hyper-sensitive to the racial failings of America because someone has to be, but this is just a variation on a theme for him.
64.) The Theory of Everything — Theoretical physicist extraordinaire Stephen Hawking gets the standard biopic treatment.
65.) Inception — Junk science taken seriously. A plot bordering on incomprehensibility. It’s time we re-evaluated the films of Christopher Nolan.
66.) Toy Story 3 — There have been four “Toy Story” movies, each much like the other, but this is the only one to garner a Best Picture nod? Explain.
67.) Bridge of Spies — Yet another dry historical tome by Steven Spielberg, about the Cold War. Tom Hanks is again lively, but Mark Rylance steals the show.
68.) Call Me By Your Name — Filmmakers routinely don’t get Oscars for their best work. It was nice to see James Ivory finally win his for this minor, forgettable effort.
69.) Vice — Alternative titles: “Vile,” “Venal,” Venomous.” Adam McKay’s takedown of former vice president Dick Cheney adds to today’s partisan sniping, and little more.
70.) Winter’s Bone — Jennifer Lawrence’s breakthrough, featuring her trudging through the Arkansas mud, leans heavily on poverty porn.
71.) Hidden Figures — The women of color who excelled at NASA during the 1960s deserve a better, less formulaic movie than this.
72.) Lion — Show of hands: Who even remembers this India/Australia adoption tale starring Dev Patel? Stick around for a huge plot twist in the closing credits.
73.) Black Panther — Hey, look, a superhero flick finally got a Best Picture nomination. Can we check off that token gesture box now?
74.) War Horse — An accomplished addition to the sad animal film subgenre, which needs to go away. The rank sentimentality is unforgivable.
75.) Les Miserables — There have been more than 40 film adaptations of Victor Hugo classic story of injustice, most of them better than this one.
76.) Nebraska — Filmmaker Alexander Payne proves he’s not above patronizing the people of America’s heartland, especially in his native state.
77.) The Help — African-American filmmakers can be trusted to tell their own stories, but the makers of this movie didn’t get that memo.
78.) Bohemian Rhapsody — Or you could just click on a link to Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance at Wembley Stadium. It’s just as good, the real thing, and shorter.
79.) Phantom Thread — Daniel Day-Lewis is routinely brilliant, but as a filmmaker P.T. Anderson has lost me, especially with this high couture mushroom head trip.
80.) Whiplash — Hot take alert: I hated this very worthy film, in which a monster of a music teacher callously destroys the dreams of a would-be jazz drummer.
81.) The Irishman — Martin Scorsese made yet another mob movie, this time out with creepy de-aging technology. Zero Oscar wins on 10 nominations? Ouch.
82.) Amour — Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke takes on dementia without a trace of sentimentality, resulting in a really hard movie to sit through.
83.) Dallas Buyers Club — Matthew McConaughey lost a lot of weight to play an HIV-positive character and won an Oscar, but the casting feels like a stunt.
84.) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — “And the Oscar for angriest movie of the year goes to ….” The righteous fury that rises out of the ashes of injustice, or in this case justice denied, is palpable in “Three Billboards.” The awkward title refers to the only avenue the mother of a daughter left raped and burned to death feels she has left to find the girl’s killer, calling attention on three billboards to the local police chief’s inability to solve the crime. As the mother, Frances McDormand radiates rage, but there’s more than enough negative energy to go around in this movie, courtesy of a police officer, played by Sam Rockwell, who is racist for no good reason. The movie feels a lot like 2004’s “Crash;” both feature scripts of tortured construction that are forced to work hard to make belabored points.
85.) American Sniper — What’s the difference between glorifying an assassin paid by the mob and glorifying one paid by the U.S. military? The fact that in the latter case, the government says it’s OK to kill in a particular situation, at a particular time? That’s not enough of a distinction for me. As a director, Clint Eastwood has rarely made bad movies, and this is a quality film as well, as far as that goes. However, it has since become apparent to Hollywood what wasn’t so obvious when “Sniper” hit theaters in 2014 — Eastwood, late in his filmmaking career, decided to focus on telling stories about conservative folk heroes, and he did so to score political points. There’s clearly an audience for such movies, and that audience benefits from having someone as talented as Eastwood making them. But the Academy has since learned to look the other way.
86.) The Tree of Life — It’s telling that while Terrence Malick’s film still garners more praise than criticism today, the vast majority of those who are complementary fall into a pattern of describing how the movie made them feel rather than what it’s about. While they are clearly in the minority, the film also has its detractors, and I believe this movie to be not just dreck, but unforgivable garbage. Bear in mind, however, that I have said this about literally every picture Malick has made to some degree. Most unforgivable to me is how the filmmaker signed up major stars like Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn, and then made such a mess of editing that their performances never become defined or even make sense. So, what’s the movie about? There are cosmic orbs, dinosaurs, landscapes, violence, and Penn walks through a desert in a suit looking pensive.
87.) Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close — It’s the furthest thing from a hot take to criticize this adaptation of a Jonathan Safran Foer novel, a book that is actually not that bad. The movie, alas, is utterly reviled today, and justifiably so (it kind of was in 2011 too). While the book utilizes the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 in the U.S. as a framework, the film leans heavily, and cynically, on that tragedy to draw out from the audience not just pathos but the dreaded bathos. And the sentimentality is very badly played. A boy — and not to criticize the young actor unnecessarily, but his characterization here is intensely annoying — is sent on a wild goose chase in a puzzle-like New York City after his dad (Tom Hanks) is killed on 9/11. Only Sandra Bullock, as the mother, escapes this picture relatively unscathed.
88.) Beasts of the Southern Wild — What do you get when you mix neorealism, magical realism and a dollop of political correctness? In the case of this nominee, a real mess. Ostensibly, this is a movie about people living on the edge in coastal Louisiana in the wake of, presumably, Hurricane Katrina, as seen through the eyes of a charismatic child. Also, there are aurochs. The child actor at the center of the film received an Oscar nomination for doing what the best child actors have always done, which is just be themselves. Similarly, the newbie director was nominated after wowing film festival crowds at Sundance and Cannes; he’s made one movie since, which went wholly unnoticed. Critics drank the Kool-Aid on this movie in a big way upon its release, but it’s borderline unwatchable, and largely forgotten today.
For further consideration
For 2009 and 2010, Academy voters were charged with nominating an even 10 films for Best Picture, a doubling of the five that were chosen each year from 1944 to 2008. Beginning with 2011, the directive changed to five to 10 nominees, and voters settled on either eight or nine for the remainder of the decade (the number is supposed to go back up to 10 again beginning in 2022).
This obviously resulted in several more movies getting nominated for Best Picture during the 2010s, and arguably some more diverse titles as well, but did every film that deserved a nod receive one? Hardly. Below are five unheralded films released during the decade that I feel definitely merited the honor of a Best Picture nomination, along with 21 more that are already showing signs of having better reputations than titles that did get some Oscar love.
Inside Out — Animated movies aren’t just for kids, except when they are. But when do they merit a seat at the grown-ups’ table, basking in the glow of a Best Picture nomination? The Oscars haven’t been consistent on this question, not even recently. “Wall-E” (2008) was relegated to the Best Animated Feature ghetto, where it came out on top, while two years later “Toy Story 3” got a Best Picture nod. “Inside Out” (2015) should have gotten an invite to that party as well. A high-concept Pixar creation about a child’s mind, the film sometimes struggles to hold the attention of young audiences, but adults can sure relate to it. The wizards at Pixar have a genius for tugging at our heartstrings, and that has never been more in evidence than here.
Uncut Gems — Movies like “Uncut Gems” generally don’t get anywhere near the Oscars, and as long as that’s the case then this small, select part of the film world should still obey the laws of movie logic. And maybe that’s even comforting, because “Uncut Gems” certainly isn’t. The directing team of Josh and Benny Safdie aren’t known for making subtle films, and “Uncut Gems” is nothing if not manic. Their style finds suitable expression in the jewelry, betting and sports worlds of New York City, and it finds its personification in a strong starring performance by Adam Sandler. While Sandler works well here, I continue to find him an actor of limited means, and if he ever wins an Academy Award — for anything — I’ll eat my hat.
Carol — This prestige title, directed by Todd Haynes (2002’s “Far From Heaven”) and adapted from a Patricia Highsmith novel, will have to content itself with its inclusion into the queer movie pantheon. It fully belonged among the Best Picture nominees, and it did receive six Oscar nominations, including a Best Actress nod for Cate Blanchett for arguably her best work, but the film won nothing. Telling a sad, sad story about a thwarted lesbian love affair in New York City during the 1950s, when such relationships faced many struggles, the film is in solid hands with Haynes, who displays a sympathetic understanding of how homosexuals once had to carry themselves in America.
Frances Ha — Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s film looks better and more significant in retrospect, and fortunately, retrospective is what articles like this can afford. This is a delightful comedy that’s centered on female characters, just the sort of movie that’s sorely missed today. It’s lively and fun. More importantly, it marks the second collaboration of actress Gerwig and director Baumbach, who a few years later would go on to multiple Academy Award nominations for various other movies. How prescient it would’ve been for the Oscars to anticipate that with some recognition for “Frances Ha,” instead of ignoring it completely, as it did.
Margin Call — The consensus is that “The Big Short” (2015) is the definitive movie about the Great Recession of 2008, and there’s probably no reason to refute that. But some consideration should be given to “Margin Call,” the debut of a filmmaker who’s been worth watching ever since, J.C. Chandor. A corporate drama, set in skyscrapers at night, about a bunch of Wall Street scumbags who have just realized their dangerous games are about to spill out into the economy at large, it features an all-star cast with Kevin Spacey — doing what he did best — at the center. We don’t for one minute understand what they’re so scared about, but it doesn’t really matter, and that’s good writing.
Before Midnight — If the final “Lord of the Rings” movie could receive 11 Oscars, then how about something for the last film of Richard Linklater’s relationship trilogy?
Nightcrawler — The Academy really should have given this movie about media immorality, along with Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, far more attention.
Paterson — Adam Driver once again captivates as a poetry-writing bus driver in this intermittently twee effort by Jim Jarmusch.
The Edge of Seventeen — Movies about high school are routinely caged in their little genre ghetto. Kudos to this one for breaking out and having a moment.
First Reformed — Ethan Hawke, as a priest in spiritual crisis, gave the best performance by an actor in 2018 and wasn’t even nominated.
I Am Love — No surprise here that Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino and actress Tilda Swinton proved to be a great match.
Rabbit Hole — Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart shine in a stagy drama about the multiple ways we all find to grieve.
A Most Violent Year — Once you’ve slipped over to the dark side there’s just no going back, especially in the New York heating oil business.
Margaret — Even the flaws in Kenneth Lonergan’s moody post-9/11 film are more interesting than what many of the movies on this list can offer.
Jackie — Natalie Portman’s determined accent work to play the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy was definitely a choice. And surprisingly, it pays off.
Skyfall — Who says that arguably the best movie in the James Bond franchise, the longest in film history, doesn’t deserve a Best Picture nomination?
The Souvenir — A far from typical coming-of-age tale, centered on a troubled relationship; look for more from director Joanna Hogg.
Foxcatcher — This highly unusual true story about Olympic wrestling reminds us that extravagantly rich people really aren’t like the rest of us.
The Florida Project — Stories about characters struggling on the fringes of our society rarely get told, but this one beat the odds.
The Lighthouse — Two great actors get on each others’ nerves in a richly evocative period piece that’s just a little too weird.
All is Lost — Robert Redford deserved at least an Oscar nomination for his near-wordless performance as a solo sailor with some really bad luck.
Moonrise Kingdom — All of Wes Anderson’s films share a similar look and feel, but his mastery of the filmmaking crafts should count for something.
Drive — Style IS substance in Nicolas Winding Refn’s slick flick about a getaway driver (Ryan Gosling in a career highlight performance).
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a graphic novel transported to the screen so well. Congrats to filmmaker Edgar Wright.
The Master — I may be the only film writer not wowed by this P.T. Anderson effort, but if it is indeed a take-down of Scientology then I’m all for it.
Inside Llewyn Davis — Another Coen brothers movie that feels like an inside joke which doesn’t include me, but film soundtracks don’t get much better than this.
About this project
Some people vow to visit every continent on the planet, others to read everything Shakespeare (allegedly) wrote. I’ve never had much interest in doing either, but I am committed to seeing every motion picture ever nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, back to the very first ones in 1927–28 (specifically, I’m talking about films nominated for Outstanding Picture, Outstanding Production, Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Motion Picture and Best Picture; I’m not sure why the Academy has seen fit to change the name of the award so frequently).
I don’t for one moment presume to operate under the assumption that the Best Picture nominees over time consistently represent the best American filmmakers have had to offer, which is why with each slate of nominees I also briefly consider some other consensus critical picks for the best movies of that year(s). Yes, there’s a lot of overlap, but not as much as there should be.
So, why am I taking the time to watch and then write about so many (571 following the 2021 Academy Awards) often sub-par movies? As anyone with just a passing knowledge of the Oscars knows, the voters often get it wrong, which isn’t so much fascinating as it is frustrating. The Oscars, however, have always mattered to the film industry, and matter still (the annual awards telecast, not so much). Each year’s Best Picture nominees help to paint a picture of how Hollywood saw itself at that time, and provide us with glimpses at trends in movie history that could be gone for good.
Most of all, they supply context. Think this year’s slate of nominees was the best ever? The worst? I can virtually guarantee you that’s not the case. No, really. You’d be surprised.
Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.