Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decides, in its infinite (and campaign-influenced) wisdom, upon a small group of films meant to represent the best the year in question had to offer. The winners are remembered, of course; the Best Picture award either enhances a film's reputation or irreparably harms it, depending on what it was going up against.
But what about the whole batch? Which year had the best overall group of Best Picture nominees? Vote up the most impressive groups from the 2010s.
NOTE: The years in question refer to the year in which the Oscar ceremony took place, not the year in which the movies were released.
2015 (87th Academy Awards - February 22, 2015)
The Winner: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Nominees: American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
The Race: Despite the massive box-office success of American Sniper (and the collective goodwill the Academy, and the industry as a whole, has toward Clint Eastwood), the headline-making behind-the-scenes story about how Boyhood came to be, and not one but three other psuedo-biopics that check off a number of standard Oscar boxes, it was Birdman (Full Title Not Being Indulged for the Purposes of This List) that rose to the top of the heap. Though its narrative certainly trades in Oscar-friendly tropes - backstage show business, redemption, etc. - it's also an eccentric and experimental movie with bold flourishes and an ambiguous, cryptic ending. Whether one likes the movie or hates it - and there are plenty who hated it even at the time - it doesn't play it safe in the slightest... which is exactly what makes it a tad surprising that the Academy went for it.
Not that the Hollywood Foreign Press is necessarily a reliable precursor, but Birdman didn't even have a Best Picture trophy from the Golden Globes to show for its Oscar run-up (although it did win top PGA and SAG prizes). Nope, the Globes awarded Boyhood (drama) and The Grand Budapest Hotel (comedy). Despite overwhelming acclaim for both, the Academy still opted for Alejandro Iñárritu's sardonic meta-comedy.
The Snubs: A pair of twisted contemporary thrillers, Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler and David Fincher's Gone Girl, earned critical hosannas, but found little love from the Academy. Ditto Inherent Vice and Under the Skin, two theoretically daring choices that would seem to be fair game in a year that honored something along the lines of Birdman. One of the early faves coming out of Cannes, Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, failed to crack the final selection, along with fringe contenders Interstellar, Mr. Turner, and The Immigrant.
In Hindsight, Though... : Birdman has more than its share of haters, and comes across in retrospect as an Academy Award curiosity, especially when The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, and Selma have been much more prominently featured on best-of-decade lists. The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, meanwhile, have been tossed into the Generic Prestige Biopic scrapheap.11697Good choices?
2014 (86th Academy Awards - March 2, 2014)
The Winner: 12 Years a Slave
The Nominees: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street
The Race: After his previous efforts Hunger and Shame failed to attract the Academy's glances, Steve McQueen finally broke through at the 86th Oscars. His brutal but inspiring true-story adaptation 12 Years a Slave became the first Best Picture winner to be helmed by a Black director. (Three years later, Moonlight became the second.) The split between this year's Best Picture and Best Director winners encapsulated the competition, with 12 Years a Slave and Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity running neck and neck for much of the campaign season. Cuaron wound up winning Best Director, while McQueen's film won top honors. The cases for both were, of course, wildly different; for McQueen's film, it was simply a great story that shined a light on a devastating chapter of American history; Cuaron's film, on the other hand, was praised first and foremost as a groundbreaking technical achievement, embodying the pure spectacle of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking in a unique (and 3D-optimized) way.
Of course, those weren't the only two heavyweights in contention. In fact, David O. Russell's Amerian Hustle matched Gravity for most total nominations with 10, but it went home emptyhanded. Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street had five of its own, but too much controversy - in some cases, outright hostility - doomed its chances.
The Snubs: Despite the Coen Brothers having a handful of Oscars to their name already, their cinematic folk ballad Inside Llewyn Davis wasn't quite to the Academy's liking. Richard Linklater's third entry in the Before series, Before Midnight, was also overlooked despite a rapturous reception. And a few more low- to mid-budget critical faves - among them Fruitvale Station, Blue Jasmine, and All Is Lost - didn't quite have the support, either.
In Hindsight, Though... : Though uncompromising dramas about the realities of the Antebellum South - or any savage historical era or institution, for that matter - aren't typically the types of movies that become rewatchable favorites, 12 Years a Slave's reputation still remains strong. Gravity, meanwhile, hasn't endured in quite the same way. The Wolf of Wall Street has only grown in acclaim since its release, with Jordan Belfort becoming a practical embodiment of the dark side of American capitalism.8364Good choices?
2016 (88th Academy Awards - February 28, 2016)
The Winner: Spotlight
The Nominees: The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room
The Race: Were it not for the nature by which the following year's winner was announced - i.e., the infamous Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway Moonlight/La La Land fiasco - top honors going to Spotlight would have gone down as the biggest Best Picture surprise of the decade. By the time the final award of the night was set to be announced, it seemed as though it was going to go one of two ways: BP was either going to the preordained winner The Revenant (which had emerged as the favorite despite earning, to put it mildly, a decidedly mixed reception) or the popular favorite Mad Max: Fury Road, which had already been bestowed a better-than-expected six Oscar trophies.
And then came the announcement: Spotlight. Tom McCarthy's journalistic procedural about The Boston Globe uncovering the Catholic Church's abuse scandal was, to be sure, a broadly well-regarded movie. It just wasn't expected to take the whole thing.
The Snubs: Though the Academy nominated animated features for Best Picture in both of the first two years of its expanded field, Inside Out failed to make the cut this time around despite virtually unanimous praise. For many, Todd Haynes's Carol was an even more conspicuous omission, to say nothing of Sicario, Ex Machina, Creed, or 45 Years. And then there were two big-ticket items with Oscar written all over them: Steve Jobs, directed by Oscar-winner Danny Boyle and written by Oscar-winner Aaron Sorkin, and The Hateful Eight, written and directed by two-time Oscar-winner Quentin Tarantino.
In Hindsight, Though... : No one really has anything against Spotlight, per se - except perhaps for the Catholic Church - but Mad Max: Fury Road is that rare film that catapulted to classic status almost right away, and deservingly so. The pros ranking the best movies of the decade certainly think so.9687Good choices?
2011 (83rd Academy Awards - February 27, 2011)
The Winner: The King's Speech
The Nominees: 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter's Bone
The Race: This was always going to be a two-movie race, as The King's Speech and The Social Network had been firmly established as the favorites heading into Oscar weekend. Anything else winning would have been a shock. And just like that, an easy juxtaposition was created. Incidentally or otherwise, the two contenders were complete opposites. In one corner, a period piece that checked oh-so-many time-tested Oscar boxes: WWII, royalty, Nazis, a protagonist overcoming a disability, a climactic inspirational speech; it was practically engineered to win Best Picture. In the other corner, a distinctly modern story about a distinctly modern creation, centered around a young, prickly protagonist. The two films had milieus of the privileged and elite in common - Buckingham Palace on one hand, rich Harvard brats and Silicon Valley hotshots on the other - but little else.
Naturally, the Academy sided with the triumphant WWII movie. It's the scorpion and the frog.
The rest of the field was no slouch, though. After The Dark Knight was infamously snubbed two years earlier, Christopher Nolan finally made his way into the Best Picture race with the popular, if divisive, smash hit Inception. Pixar made the cut again with Toy Story 3, which has gone down as the most popular of the series. And elsewhere, there was the indie that launched Jennifer Lawrence to stardom, a Coen Brothers Western, and a pair of R-rated, auteur-driven hits that delivered acting Oscars for Natalie Portman and Christian Bale.
The Snubs: Strong reviews and a solid box-office performance for the Boston crime thriller The Town put it in the Oscar conversation, but it was left on the outside looking in. Ditto a pair of well-regarded (if depressing) dramas, Rabbit Hole and Blue Valentine. All three of those movies were represented in the acting categories only.
In Hindsight, Though... : Honoring The King's Speech over The Social Network seemed, even at the time, like a historical Oscar mistake unfolding before everyone's eyes. Hindsight has only enhanced the reputation of the latter - David Fincher's own reputation as one of cinema's modern masters doesn't hurt that, of course - while the former seems, in the minds of many, to fit comfortably in the "Oscar bait" bucket. Pixar being what it is, Toy Story 3 is probably the most enduringly popular of the 10 nominees. Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan remains divisive, in much the same way that his mother! proved to be a few years later. True Grit and The Fighter are still considered among the better examples of two out-of-fashion genres.6957Good choices?