2010: The King’s Speech [Personal Favorite]
This British period piece is the most unpopular winner of the decade. Its detractors, most of them massive fans of David Fincher’s very contemporary, very American drama The Social Network, claim its victory serves as a sign that Academy voters are hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch. They’re not far wrong — Academy voters can indeed be pretty darn out of touch — but I would argue that what it really reveals is the problematic nature of the Best Picture award itself, that two such different films — one a humanistic historical drama about a friendship that transcends the class divide, the other an edgy, cynical expose’ of humans’ appetite for exploitation and tendency toward betrayal — should be judged against each other when each film succeeds brilliantly in what it sets out to do. It all comes down to what flavor you’re hungry for, and I will always gravitate toward a smart, well-crafted heartwarming film, particularly one which features strong performances from Colin Firth (as King George VI), Geoffrey Rush (as speech therapist Lionel Logue), Helena Bonham Carter (as George’s loyal, loving Queen), Guy Pearce (as his feckless older brother Edward, who surrenders his throne to marry Nazi sympathizer Wallis Simpson), and Michael Gambon (as the exacting George V).
Perhaps the Academy voters took the criticisms to heart, as this marks the last victory (so far) for a British period drama. This Masterpiece Theatre fan blinks the mist from her eyes.
2011: The Artist [Good]
The first silent film since 1927’s Wings to win Best Picture, this one has met with some backlash as well, yet I find it an effective depiction of Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound movies and its displacement of one-time matinee idols like George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), the darker side of my beloved Singin’ in the Rain. Unlike John Gilbert, the silent star on whom he may have been based, George manages to struggle to an eventual happy ending, once he’s been humbled and learned to adapt. Yet, having seen in the film itself how effective silent drama can be, we feel a sense of loss just the same.
2012: Argo [Good]
The first big news story I can remember following, the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the taking of American hostages, forms the backdrop of this taut nail-biter, which tells the story of six Americans who escaped the U.S. embassy in Iran and took refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home, and the successful rescue mission mounted by the CIA’s Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck, who also directed). Affleck is among those actors whose real-life behavior I find off-putting, but this film nonetheless shines an intriguing light on a piece of little-known history. Even though I knew the fate of the six escapees going in, I found myself worrying about them every step of the way. Affleck’s performance is serviceable, but the cast is full of performers who disappear into their featured or minor roles, adding to the film’s realistic you-are-there feel. Alan Arkin is here as well, awesome as usual. And John Goodman (at the time) made an excellent John Chambers, the make up whiz of Hollywood.
2013: Twelve Years a Slave [Good]
Chiwetel Ejeofor is an insufficiently acknowledged treasure, an intently charismatic actor equally at home in blockbusters (his performance was pretty much the only thing I liked about Doctor Strange) and serious dramas. Here he brings his energy and power to the role of Solomon Northrup, an African-American New Yorker kidnapped, taken south, and sold into slavery. Even the ultimately happy ending, in which Northrup regains his freedom, can’t soft-pedal the brutality and degradation he is forced to endure; this film is not an easy watch, nor should it be. Yet tough meat is often the most nourishing. The movie boasts strong performances not only from Ejeofor but from Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson (as an especially despicable pair of slaveholders) and Lupita Nyong’o (who won Best Supporting Actress for her turn as Northrup’s fellow slave Patsey, a sexually exploited girl fighting for every scrap of dignity).
2014: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance [Good, but Not for Everyone]
Alejandro G. Inarritu’s backstage drama centering on a disaffected actor (Michael Keaton in an inspired bit of casting) who made his name playing a superhero but now hopes to stage a comeback on the “legitimate stage” made a strong impression on me when I first saw it, with solid performances from all involved. Yet while I still remember it as an interesting, incisive look into the world of theater and the acting profession, there were points at which I wasn’t sure where my sympathies were meant to lie, most of them involving female characters. Keaton’s performance provides a strong anchor for the film, but a specific scene involving one of his co-stars, played by Naomi Watts, leaves a sour aftertaste in my mouth. Trigger warning for sexual assault.
2015: Spotlight [Good]
This film’s victory represents a triumph of competence, the first word that comes to mind when I think of it. Its parts combine into a well-oiled machine, particularly its screenplay, which tells the story of a team of journalists’ exposure of sexual abuse and corruption in Boston’s Catholic Church, and its performances. (Michael Keaton is here again, in a less flashy but still solid turn.) It doesn’t quite have the oomph that might make it a favorite frequent watch of mine, but those looking for a serious workplace drama with a minimum of personal distractions could do far worse than this film.