In looking back over the best films of the 2010s, it seemed like it might be fun to also revisit and rank the Best Picture winners of the last decade. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but in practice ranking the films that won the top honors at the Oscars over the past decade was simply a reminder of how often the Academy goes with a boring or safe or outright angering choice, leaving behind a litany of genuinely great films as non-winners in its wake.
Here are a few of the films that did not win Best Picture over the last decade: The Social Network, The Tree of Life, Her, Lincoln, Boyhood, Selma, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mad Max: Fury Road, Arrival, Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, Roma, A Star Is Born, Black Panther. And those are just films that were nominated, not to mention the countless now-iconic movies that didn’t even make the shortlist for the Academy.
And yet each year, like Lucy and the football, I’m drawn back to the Oscar race, hopeful that something great might get recognized. To be fair, that’s happened in the last decade too, and the screenplay categories routinely single out ambitious storytelling. But be forewarned as you read this list: the back half or so is a rough trip down memory lane.
10. Green Book
What Should Have Won: A Star Is Born
Green Book is, uh, pretty bad. It’s not a poorly made movie, mind you. The performances are solid (Mahershala Ali’s really good! Viggo Mortensen is charming!), and it’s a handsomely crafted film. The pacing is fine, it hits all the right beats to make you feel real good at just the right moments, and feel a little bad at just those right moments. But what Green Book has to say about the world we live in is pretty rough stuff. It’s the story of a racist white man who learns to be a little less racist by becoming friends with a black man, witnessing the terrors of institutionalized racism (“blacks only” hotels, bars, etc.) during their drive. At the end of the movie, you feel good because the lonely black man (whose interior life isn’t explored in the slightest) is invited to a holiday dinner with the white man’s family, and the white man made a black friend. Problem solved.
Except it’s not. Being nice to others is a good thing, no doubt, but racism can’t be solved by simply being nice to others. The Civil Rights movement was a hard fought battle against institutionalized racism, and it was only after schools and restaurants and public establishments were desegregated that we could even think of moving forward. In purporting to be a film about race while ignoring the actual problems, all in favor of making you feel good inside by the end, Green Book does its audience a disservice. That it was nominated alongside a film that actually tackled the legitimate problems facing African-Americans then and now, BlacKkKlansman, makes its win all the more embarrassing. It’s the worst Best Picture winner since, well, Crash.
9. The Artist
What Should Have Won: The Tree of Life
The Artist is a fun and wholly forgettable exercise. It’s kind of amazing, in hindsight, that this movie won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor, and yet its central figures never really returned to the awards circuit in any significant way. Jean Dujardin is dashing as the film’s silent movie star protagonist; Berenice Bejo is alluring as a silent era “it girl”; the dog is fun. But nothing about The Artist really stands the test of time. It’s sweet and fun and flighty, and it ends up making almost no impression at all.
8. The King’s Speech
What Should Have Won: The Social Network
I’ll admit, it’s hard to separate my dislike for The King’s Speech from my disdain for how this perfectly fine movie railroaded The Social Network, an actual masterpiece, all awards season. David Fincher’s film was neck-and-neck until the bitter end, when Tom Hooper’s feel-good biopic surged ahead and took Best Picture, Director, and Actor. The King’s Speech isn’t a bad or even poorly made movie, it’s just one of those Oscar movies that catches heat in the moment for the way it makes you feel, while voters seem to catch some sort of disease that makes them ignore things like craft and theme and societal impact. Ugh, now I'm mad again. Anyway, The King's Speech is fine.
What Should Have Won: Boyhood
Birdman is like a really cool song that’s not really about anything. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarrítu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s ambitious drama plays out like it’s one shot, which is a very neat conceit executed pretty beautifully. But the story, then, purports to be about superhero movies and social media and washed-up actors and the New York theater scene and critics etc. etc. It’s a screed against a whole bunch of things, but in screaming from the rooftops about anything and everything, it ends up being kind of about nothing. It’s fine as a script, but it’s the filmmaking craft and performances that really elevate this thing.
What Should Have Won: Lincoln
Boy this was a fun year. Argo kind of came out of nowhere on the festival circuit as this handsomely crafted, supremely compelling, and wildly entertaining thriller. Ben Affleck’s direction was the talk of the town, and he suddenly found himself in competition with David O. Russell’s super serious romcom Silver Linings Playbook, Steven Spielberg’s passion project Lincoln, Quentin Tarantino’s race epic Django Unchained, and Kathryn Bigelow’s well-intentioned Zero Dark Thirty. Nearly all of these films ran into some kind of controversy, some more substantial than others, but while Argo was certainly in the top tier, I think we can all agree that it was the Academy’s shocking snubbing of Affleck from the Best Director category that spurred voters to launch this one into the #1 spot.
And you know what? Good on them. Argo’s not the best movie released the pack of 2012 nominees, but it’s a darn good one. Affleck worked his ass off and it shows, and the movie’s extremely entertaining. This is one of those “probably shouldn’t have won, but I’m OK with it” years.
What Should Have Won: Mad Max: Fury Road
Spotlight is a damn good film. Tom McCarthy’s thrilling drama about the investigation and reporting of widespread systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by Roman Catholic priests draws heavily from the political thrillers of the 70s, and it’s so good that you don’t feel weird speaking about it in the same breath as a masterpiece like All the President’s Men. This is no-nonsense filmmaking executed to precision. We don’t disappear into the interior lives of the characters all that much, and there’s no attempt to “humanize” the protagonists beyond their work. It’s about the hard-fought battle to do great journalism, and this ensemble cast acts their hearts out. If it wasn’t going to be the action masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road this year, I’m glad it was Spotlight.
4. The Shape of Water
What Should Have Won: Call Me By Your Name
I really don’t understand the criticism that The Shape of Water was a “safe” choice for the Academy one year after the Moonlight win. Guillermo del Toro’s lovingly crafted drama is the story of a mute cleaner at a high-security laboratory who falls in love with and then steals a literal Fish Man. They have sex and everything! This is a weird movie! And it won Best Picture.
The craft on display here is the best of del Toro’s career, and the performances are absolutely stunning. But it’s also a beautifully drawn fable about being an outsider in America, and the systemic forces that work against you every day of your life, whether you’re disabled or gay or black. You’re different, and that’s all that matters to them. The script, the shot composition, the score, the performances—everything fires on all cylinders here, and to me it’s still a wonder that a movie like this won Best Picture.
3. 12 Years a Slave
What Should Have Won: 12 Years a Slave
There was a recurring sentiment during the 2013 Oscar season that 12 Years a Slave wouldn’t win Best Picture because people couldn’t bring themselves to watch it. And while it’s certainly an extremely uncomfortable watch, that’s kind of the point. Writer/director Steve McQueen puts the audience in the shoes of the slaves he chronicles in Solomon Northrup’s story in such vivid, gutting detail that many had a visceral reaction to watching this film. That’s a testament to McQueen’s talent and boldness as a filmmaker that he wasn’t going to let the audience off the hook on this one. If he was going to capture the American slave story, he was going to do it right.
The subject matter is heart-wrenching, but this truly is a film that doesn’t simply lean on its story to draw an emotional reaction out of its audience. The cinematography is calculated and precise; the performances fine-tuned; the music honed just right. This is a monumental piece of filmmaking, and it’s a testament to the power and diversity of cinema that its main competition this year was a filmmaking masterpiece of an entirely different sort: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.
What Should Have Won: Moonlight
It’s still kind of hard to believe Moonlight won Best Picture, and not just because of envelope-gate. Over a decade after Crash beat Brokeback Mountain, and after countless “this is fine” movies winning over literal masterpieces, the fact that an ambitious coming-of-age indie about life as an African-American won Best Picture over a very colorful (but also very white) musical about Hollywood dreamers is stunning. It’s reminiscent of the ballsy wins of No Country for Old Men or The Hurt Locker—movies like that normally don’t take the top prize, especially against such formidable competition. But Barry Jenkins’ masterful stewardship of this impactful, relatable, yet extremely specific story transcended traditional wisdom to pull off the win regardless. It remains one of the most surprising and exciting Best Picture winners in history.
What Should Have Won: Parasite
Much like Moonlight, I'm still kind of amazed that Parasite won Best Picture to close out the decade. Not only because Parasite is not an English-language film (as most Best Picture winners are), but because Parasite is really and truly one of the best films of the 21st century. Rarely do the Oscars get it so right, and it was positively joyous to see Bong Joon Ho and his filmmaking team take the stage multiple times on Oscar night as their searing screed against capitalism, wealth inequality, and the myth of social mobility absolutely dominated the Academy Awards. Parasite is one of the most fully realized and meticulously crafted "social commentary" dramas in recent memory, but it's also entertaining as heck. Meticulously acted, meticulously crafted, meticulously executed. Is it too hyperbolic to say this is a perfect movie? Screw it. Parasite is a perfect movie, and it's the best Best Picture Oscar winner of the 2010s.
Editor's note: This article was originally published as part of Collider's Best of the Decade coverage in November 2019.
The Oscar-winning DP also talks about the way Cary Joji Fukunaga pushed everyone on set to make every scene more ambitious.