I’ve been ranking the best picture nominees at the Oscars each year for about as long as I’ve been doing this blog. Sure, they’re a flawed process… their tastes are out of date; they lean way too white, male, and heteronormative; they prefer films that tick their specific boxes to films of lasting merit and influence; acting awards are often given out based on who’s “due” rather than merit. With time and perspective, some of their picks for “best picture of the year” seem like terrible misfires, and that goes at the least as far back as the time they let William Randolph Hearst turn them against Citizen Kane. But they’re still my Super Bowl, my Stanley Cup, my [insert thing you, the reader, cares about], so I keep tuning in and keep watching all the nominees.
So as the decade has come to a close*, and the first Oscars of the 20s (well, the second first Oscars of the 20s) is on the horizon I thought now was a good time to rank all the nominees from the past ten years.
Because I clearly like writing more than I like myself.
We’re talking close to 100 movies here so don’t expect a lot of chit-chat about why this is ranked over that, we have too much ground to cover for even medium-lengthed reviews. Also I am not rewatching them all before I do this (or in many cases, ever ever again), so… gonna be some gut calls.
But it’s my blog and I do what I want. Warning… I am kind of a snob about narrative. Sure I care about cinematography and performance and all of that, but mostly I really want to be told a story.
Let’s go, worst to best. Allons-y.
(*One word about “Actually the next decade starts in 2021” and I will scorn you to the ends of the Earth. If you’re going to pedantic, at least be right.)
88. American Sniper (2015). Not just bad, it’s actively evil. Releasing a movie connecting the war in Iraq to the war on terror, celebrating a man who kills brown people while calling them “savages,” while the man who killed said lead character was still on trial for that killing, was criminally irresponsible. Also it’s not good.
87. Fences (2017). A quick list of characters I find more sympathetic and less purely loathable than Troy Maxon of Fences… Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Raoul Silva in Skyfall, Killmonger in Black Panther, Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, Captain Klenzendorf the literal Nazi from Jojo Rabbit, the racist cop from Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Kylo Ren, Ultron, Thanos, General Huxx, basically everyone from Wolf of Wall Street, and Arthur Fleck in Joker. Spending two hours watching Denzel Washington chew scenery while spewing Troy’s endless stream of toxic hatred, disdain, abuse, and entitlement was excruciating. To Hell with this movie and to Hell with whoever gave the play it’s based on a Tony.
86. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2012). Do I have to explain why “Young boy who misses his dead father but gives zero fucks about his living mother uses his magical autism powers to heal 9/11” wasn’t very good? Is it obvious? This nonsense is not what they told us they expanded the category from five to “up to ten” for.
85. The Theory of Everything (2015). There is an entire genre of movie, biopics mostly if not exclusively, that exists for the sole purpose of getting its (typically white and male) star an Oscar nomination for acting. They present no message, no larger point, no challenge to the subject’s legacy, just a showcase for acting. This is one of the worst examples. This movie has no reason to exist outside of getting Eddie Redmayne an Oscar.
84. Bohemian Rhapsody (2019). See above but Rami Malek. Bohemian Rhapsody is almost beat-for-beat the musical biopic parody movie Walk Hard, only with no jokes and terrible editing. It’s a demonstrable whitewash and glamourization of the still-living members of Queen, and its only purpose is to make Rocketman look that much better in comparison.
83. The Imitation Game (2015). See above but Benedict Cumberbatch. There was a legitimately important story to tell about Alan Turing, specifically about how he played a huge role in defeating the Nazis then his government destroyed his life for being gay, but they only made that a footnote to a story about Turing overcoming (fictional) resistance to develop an early computer to break the German codes, because that one’s more heartwarming.
82. The Darkest Hour (2018). See above but Gary Oldman. “Winston Churchill was just as good as you’ve always thought! Look at him defying those weak-willed ninnies in Parliament to stand up to Hitler! Can Gary Oldman have an Oscar now?” Pointless. This genre needs to end.
81. The Blind Side (2010). Another white saviour tale that skates by for at least three-quarters of its run time with no discernable conflict then invents the dumbest possible conflict to give the last act stakes.
80. Zero Dark Thirty (2013). Dull, dull, dull, oh God it was dull. In the third act, the protagonist gets increasingly frustrated at the CIA’s lack of action on her intel regarding Bin Laden, and I was like “Sister, I’m right there with you.”
79. The Tree of Life (2012). Bet you thought I’d rank this one lower, didn’tcha? Well, a wise critic showed me what people like about Terrence Malik, so I now admit that his tone-poem, cinematic-ballet style isn’t necessarily without merit… just isn’t my thing. I prefer movies where I don’t have to check Wikipedia to figure out what the plot was. And what the flipping heck was up with the Big Bang and the damned dinosaur? What was that?
78. Green Book (2019). How the actual fuck did this thoroughly mediocre Hallmark movie about a white man learning to be less racist make the shortlist, let alone actually win? Who got paid to vote for this nothing-burger of a feel-good whitewashed biopic? I want names.
77. War Horse (2012). Spielberg doesn’t make bad movies, typically, but… Who is War Horse for? Who is the story of a horse suffering its way through World War One possibly for?
76. Precious (2010). Maybe I’m getting my white privilege all over this, but acting aside, I just don’t see what the big deal was, I really don’t.
75. Hugo (2012). A story about a child trying to connect with his late father via a robot gets completely thrown out at the halfway point so that Martin Scorcese can give a handjob to one of the pioneers of cinema. What a weird bait-and-switch this movie was.
74. Call Me by Your Name (2018). One of those old school picturesque coming-of-age-in-Europe romance movies, only this time it’s male-male romance. A sluggish, low-stakes male-male romance with a slightly questionable age gap, and a poor peach loses its innocence.
73. The King’s Speech (2011). The King’s Speech is a perfect case study in how to tick the boxes of an Oscar-bait picture. A biopic (ding) about a friendship between upper and lower class men (ding) one of whom overcomes a disability (ding) to defeat the Nazis (ding ding ding). It’s little remembered, save for a few increasingly obscure references in the seventh season of The Office.
72. A Serious Man (2010). If a subtle, slow-paced statement on how life is ultimately unknowable, and God or the universe don’t owe us and won’t provide us definitive answers about it is your jam, hey this is the movie for you. If it’s not… the way I put it when a friend I was watching it with fell asleep for a while, then asked what happened when he was out, is “This isn’t really a movie where things happen.”
71. 127 Hours (2011). A great performance from James Franco but it does drag a bit, especially given we know exactly where it’s going.
70. Boyhood (2015). How do you spend 12 years making one movie and forget to give it any sort of story, or manage to make it about something? How do you not at least check the footage and make sure you haven’t already done “mother’s boyfriend can’t handle his booze, becomes abusive?” I guess it’s an impressive thing to attempt, filming one movie over 12 years, but as it ended on the central character spouting white-boy wank philosophy on his first day at college, I couldn’t help but think “What was the goddamn point of that?” Still don’t know.
69. Avatar (2010). The special effects were a next-level achievement, sure. You could see every cent of the $200 million they spent on the effects… and the $10 they spent on the script. It’s 45 minutes too long, its white saviour-ism hasn’t aged well, and if you play it on a high-def TV it looks like a dated video game. It made record amounts of money but left no cultural impact, and that second thing’s for a reason.
68. Les Miserables (2013). A better musical than Cats on the stage, somehow worse in the theatre? All those damned extreme close-ups. Tom Hooper’s direction is bad and he should feel bad.
67. The Phantom Thread (2018). I feel like if this weren’t Daniel Day-Lewis’ theoretical retirement movie, the Academy would have given it a miss. It’s a somewhat interesting look at a deeply dysfunctional relationship but that’s about it.
66. A Star is Born (2019). The performances are great, including several Alias vets their old castmate Bradley Cooper snuck in, but once Lady Gaga’s career takes off, it’s a long, gradual wait for her rising star and his spiral into self-destruction to hit a breaking point. There’s not a lot of gas left in this tank. Thankfully civilization should be reduced to embers before we get another remake starring Zac Efron and Billie Eilish.
65. Philomena (2014). A perfectly adequate and charming movie that regardless has no place in a “Best Picture” race. The World’s End deserved a nod more than this one, you jags.
64. Nebraska (2014). I think this one got nominated for “Best Comedy/Musical” at the Golden Globes because they saw Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk in the credits and made an assumption. I kid, it’s because they didn’t want to compete with 12 Years a Slave. It’s got charm. Their dismissal of Mount Rushmore was amusing.
63. Manchester by the Sea (2017). Great performances, and I’ve come to have greater respect for its central thesis of “pain and grief don’t stop the world and all of its petty inconveniences, no matter how much it feels like they should.” But it’s also quite slow and just drifts to a close rather than coming to a point. And Zeus in a swan suit is it ever a downer…
62. Moneyball (2012). I mean it works overall, there’s a lot of good moments, but it’s really slow-paced, especially for a Sorkin script.
61. The Revenant (2016). Incredibly well shot and acted (save for the fact that if Leonardo DiCaprio authentically threw up after eating raw bison liver, and you filmed it, that isn’t acting), just a little… hollow.
60. Life of Pi (2013). …It’s fine. It’s visually impressive but aside from that, I’m hard-pressed to recall something remarkable about it.
59. Hacksaw Ridge (2017). The first act was really charming, the third act thrilling, but the second act, where the army tries to beat pacifist Desmond Doss into either quitting boot camp or agreeing to use a gun, drags it down.
58. Selma (2015) At least one 2015 biopic managed to say something.
57. The Kids Are Alright (2011). I remember very little about this story of a family tossed into chaos when a lesbian couple’s kids meet their biological father, but I do remember it being pretty darn good.
56. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2013). I remember it being very well made… when I remember that it exists. Which is… not often.
55. District 9 (2010). A better look at apartheid than the movie about Nelson Mandella that came out the same year. A solid sci-fi adventure.
54. The Wolf of Wall Street (2014). Quite well made, but I feel it was a little too flattering to a real-life piece of filth, who definitely made money off this film existing.
53. The Help (2010). Kinda white saviour-y, but a decent exploration of America’s ongoing struggles to be cool about the legacy of slavery. Oh, the South. You so racist.
52. An Education (2010). A sweet if weird coming-of-age romance anchored by an excellent performance from Carey Mulligan.
51. Amour (2013). Aging sucks and mortality is some bullshit. This is a very well acted movie I would not want to watch a second time.
50. The Hurt Locker (2010). A better examination of how a person can get hooked on combat than American Sniper could ever have been. With some excellently staged suspense sequences.
49. The Fighter (2011). A very well done biopic from David O. Russell, filled with great performances, especially Christian Bale and the majestic Amy Adams.
48. Dallas Buyers Club (2014). Probably should have found a trans actress to play the trans character but overall it was decent. 2014 was really the year Matthew McConaughey reminded us he’s got game.
47. The Post (2018). Spielberg, Hanks, Streep, and an all-star supporting cast (what a weird place for a Mr. Show reunion) reminding us of when journalism used to accomplish things, like proving that the Vietnam war was fought on false pretense.
46. True Grit (2011). What a great debut for Hailee Steinfeld. Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin all came to play, and she still stole the movie from them.
45. Captain Phillips (2014). A solid suspense flick that doesn’t have a great deal to say. An excellent depiction of shock in the denouement, though.
44. Lion (2017). A very moving story about a lost child trying to find his way home as an adult, but each story beat lasts about five to ten minutes too long, given there is no suspense about where this might go.
43. Gravity (2014). Don’t think too hard about the science or how the premise means that Earth is kind of screwed for years if not decades, and you’ve got an exciting adventure about a desperate bid for survival in the least hospitable circumstances possible.
42. Up (2010). Man, that first 10 minutes is a burst of heartbreak. Then some pretty solid Pixar fun.
41. The Descendants (2012). George Clooney and a really impressive Shailene Woodley anchor this story of complicated grief and family struggles. And it led to this amazing tweet…
40. Midnight in Paris (2012). Look, maybe it’s the writer in me being vulnerable to stories about writers, but I found this one incredibly charming. Even if liking Woody Allen movies has become problematic.
39. Roma (2019). The unique direction style really helps elevate this slice-of-life story of an indigenous Mexican maid and the collapsing middle-class family she works for, set against the backdrop of early-70s Mexico. It’s shot to feel like a memory, which is fitting, being inspired by writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s own childhood.
38. Room (2016). An incredible performance by Brie Larson, and the latter two acts tell a great story of the difficulties in adjusting to a new life, following the most uncomfortable first act this side of 12 Years a Slave.
37. Vice (2019). Knockout, unrecognizable performance by Christian Bale aside, I appreciate this look into Dick Cheney’s rise to an extremely troubling amount and type of power for how it revealed the core value of the Republican party… they want to win. That’s all. They have no moral centre, they just like being in power, and will do whatever they need to do to keep it.
36. Her (2014). This improbable romance between a man and the AI that runs his phone and computer is surprisingly sweet and moving. And a crackerjack cast doing great work. I don’t know, it got to me.
35. Moonlight (2017). The struggles of a gay youth in the ghetto make for compelling if occasionally sluggish viewing. Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris have star turns, and the arc of the central character’s life is interesting. Then it just sort of… stops. Look, I warned you I was gonna be a stickler for quality of the narrative, and that includes “having an ending.”
34. La La Land (2017). Okay, yes, preferring La La Land to Moonlight is an embarrassingly white thing to do, as Big Mouth hilariously pointed out last season. But the visuals are incredible, the way they use colour is impressive, the songs are mostly good, and it has a lot to say about relationships. And maybe Ryan Gosling arguing with John Legend about how jazz works is a little offputting (if you assume Gosling is right, anyway) but still. It’s a hot pile of white person problems but an enjoyable one. (“City of Stars” should not have won Best Song that year, it wasn’t even the best song in La La Land. But they almost always get that category wrong.)
33. Black Panther (2019). The first comic book movie to make the best picture list (after The Dark Knight getting snubbed in favour of the thoroughly mediocre The Reader caused the Academy to change the rules to allow more nominees), and yeah, a good choice. Attacks colonialism and isolationism, asks what the best route forward is, and presents one of the few truly great Marvel hero/villain pairings. Sure the villain is just a less benevolent Black Panther but there’s something to it this time, something more compelling than the series of evil arms dealers that take on Iron Man. And then it collapses into B grade CG for the climax but up until then, pretty damn good superhero action.
32. Bridge of Spies (2016). A very solid entry from Steven Spielberg, as Tom Hanks’ James B. Donovan must negotiate Cold War politics to save the life of one air force pilot and one innocent, while facing resentment at home for representing a Soviet spy.
31. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2018). Revenge, remorse, redemption, all in a tight script from the writer of In Bruges and knockout performances from the cast. It raises some questions about who deserves redemption and how it can be found. Not everyone cares for the answers they present, since it’s the second most hatable character in the whole movie who finds his way to a better path, and not all viewers are on board with that. But is redemption not better than punishment? Or, like the angry, grieving mother at the centre of the story, does our need to see the bad people punished overrule everything?
30. Dunkirk (2018). A tense thrill ride as the British army attempts to escape the advancing German forces. The three perspectives mash up well: the solider just trying to get out, the civilian boat sailing to the rescue, and Tom Hardy trying to provide air support to the very end. Quite the high-wire act.
29. Arrival (2017). Two of my favourite actors headline a gripping and fascinating story of alien first contact, taken from a little-explored linguistic standpoint. How do you communicate with a species whose concept of language evolved completely differently? And then there’s a great twist I never saw coming. That doesn’t happen often.
28. Inglourious Basterds (2010). Once you get past the fact that this is not the Brad Pitt-led action-comedy the marketing sold us, but a tense and nuanced sequence of desperate games of cat-and-mouse , it’s one of Tarantino’s better efforts.
27. Up in the Air (2010). A great look into the economic downturn and a fantastic character study into what happens when your career requires a lack of empathy or connection. The first time I became aware of the amazing talent that is Anna Kendrick, and a subtle, knockout turn from George Clooney.
26. The Big Short (2016). A brilliant way to use comedic devices to trick audiences into learning why the 2008 financial crash happened, and how it could again. The best example of “Art must entertain in order to instruct” I can think of. Shame nobody told Christian Bale what the rest of the movie was like. They could have at least stopped cutting to him once his plotline ran out of things to do.
25. Birdman (2015). An excellent high-wire act about a man’s attempts to stay relevant, centred around amazing performances from Michael Keaton, Edward Norton (as every theatre nightmare anyone’s ever had), and Emma Stone.
24. Silver Linings Playbook (2013). Really funny, sweet, charming, and incredibly acted, and I’d probably find it even more so on a rewatch, when I didn’t spend half the movie unbearably tense that something bad was going to happen to the protagonist. Confirmed what Winter’s Bone had told us: Jennifer Lawrence is an incredible talent.
23. Lincoln (2013). Spielberg does “great man biopic” right, by focusing on one very specific moment… the rush to get the 13th amendment abolishing slavery ratified by all states before the Confederacy’s inevitable surrender. Great flick in a genre that tends to half-ass it.
22. Brooklyn (2016). Okay, I’m going to be real with you, there is a definite chance I’m overvaluing this one due to my deep and profound awe of Saoirse Ronan’s acting skills/inherent adorability, but she is magnificent and that made this movie spellbinding. I probably wasn’t supposed to view the second half, where Eilis (perfect storm of unintuitive Irish names right here) must choose between the comforts of home and her new life in New York, as a horror movie, but the choice felt very obvious to me and I kept wanting to scream “Run, Eilis, it’s a trap!” Still. Heckuva movie.
21. BlacKkKlansman (2019). Spike Lee brought us one of his best movies in years with the true(ish) story of black and Jewish detectives working together to infiltrate the KKK, who are portrayed as both a menace and buffoonish clowns. Sadly you don’t need to be smart to be dangerous. This one was a home run, and Green Book beating it for best picture might be the worst blown call since Citizen goddamn Kane lost to cinematic history footnote How Green Was My Valley.
20. The Favourite (2019). An excellent and hilarious power struggle between two cousins vying for position in the court of Queen Anne: one who wields the power of the throne, and tolerates no threat to her position; one whose family fell from grace and will do anything to escape poverty and get back into high society. And between them, an incredible performance by Olivia Colman as the ailing and temperamental queen.
19. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2015). Wes Anderson’s best and most Wes Anderson movie. If you like his style even a little, you’ll love this one. Endlessly entertaining, even if it definitely has too many framing devices.
18. Django Unchained (2013). I said Inglourious Basterds was one of Tarantino’s better efforts. As Historical Revenge Porn goes, Django winning a blood-soaked victory over slavery is even better than Shoshanna Dreyfus blowing up a theatre full of Nazis while Eli Roth machine guns Hitler’s face into pulp. And filled with amazing performances.
17. The Social Network (2011). Great script, amazing direction (programming a website plays like a heist sequence) terrific performances, and the idea of the creator of Facebook being lured to the dark side by the creator of Napster is so perfect I don’t even care if it actually happened. It might… in retrospect, it might be too sympathetic towards Mark Zuckerberg.
16. Mad Max: Fury Road (2016). It was damn good to finally see something less Oscar baity on the shortlist, and man this was a thrill ride. For a two hour car chase, this movie was incredible. I still occasionally shout “WITNESS ME!” before doing something daring. Plus Charlize Theron killed it as Furiosa, the real lead of the movie.
15. Inception (2011). Man I love this movie. Works on multiple levels, if you can keep up with how dream layers work. Some people say its a metaphor for the filmmaking process, but you can ignore that. Also, one of the better vague endings in recent memory. (The top wobbled, he’s awake, fight me.)
14. Black Swan (2011). One of the most purely tense film experiences I’ve ever had, with each moment summoning new dreads, thanks to an intense and haunting performance from Natalie Portman.
13. American Hustle (2014). The year “Faux Scorcese” was better than “Actual Scorcese.” Probably David O. Russell’s best, and he has his greatest ensemble acting in it.
12. Argo (2013). Ben Affleck wrote and directed an incredibly effective thriller, even if he did undervalue the contribution of Canadians a little. Despite the ending being public record, the climax had me on the edge of my seat.
11. The Shape of Water (2018). Not only does the fantasy romance really work, but I love how the heroes are a supergroup of marginalized people: a mute, a black woman, an elderly gay man, a communist, and a, well, fish monster, all working together against Michael Shannon’s embodiment of white patriarchy. A delightful adult fairy tale.
10. Lady Bird (2018). I already knew from Brooklyn that Saoirse Ronan was an incredible talent, but Lady Bird is where I learned that Greta Gerwig is an equally incredible writer/director. Lady Bird is a sheer delight.
9. Get Out (2018). Jordan Peele’s excellent debut as a horror auteur is clever, creative, and creepy as Hell. Plus it has a lot to say about race relations, and how racial issues go far beyond simple “Me Klansman, black people bad” racism.
8. The Martian (2016). Sure it’s the textbook example for category fraud at the Golden Globes because I wouldn’t call it a “comedy” yet it was entered as one, but it’s still a delightful movie with an unbeatable cast of familiar faces. And you know what, when it tries to be funny, it nails it.
7. Whiplash (2015). At what price artistic excellence? Is abuse ever justified? An incredible ride that’s probably the only good Miles Teller movie.
6. Winter’s Bone (2011). Jennifer Lawrence burst onto the scene with an incredible performance as a girl with few options in life who must confront her entire backwater, regressive, small-town-if-even-a-“town” “society” in a desperate bid to save her family home.
5. Toy Story 3 (2011). The fourth instalment was better than it deserved to be since this played as a perfect conclusion to the Toy Story saga. Tense, moving, Pixar at its best.
4. Hell or High Water (2017). The least grim movie from the writer of Sicario, which is akin to being the most uplifting season of The Wire or most competent boss from The Office or least autotuned episode of Glee. Hell or High Water is an excellently crafted cops-and-robbers story, a modern-day western in which two brothers try to save their ranch while an aging Texas Ranger hunts for them. I can watch this one over and over. Which is harder to do with the author’s other big films, Sicario or Wind River.
3. Spotlight (2016). An astounding cast takes on the sex scandals of the Catholic church. A reminder of what journalism can accomplish when commerce gets out of its way.
2. Hidden Figures (2017). Sure Kevin Costner de-segregating NASA, at one point literally with a crowbar, and the saintly John Glenn each wandered into White Saviour territory, but overall this true(ish) story of the women of colour who helped get America into space was the whole package.
1. 12 Years a Slave (2014). An amazing achievement in film that digs deep into the horrors of slavery that I never ever want to see again ever. Astounding performances from the cast, even if Brad Pitt’s Canadian Abolitionist Saviour character was just a little over-the-top righteous.
And there we have it. A ranking of movies that even I didn’t know going into this.
Soon enough, it’ll be time to rank a new crop of best picture nominees, and if there is any justice in this dying ember of a world, expect Jojo Rabbit and Little Women to be up near the top.
Otherwise expect a lot of complaining.