What does it mean to be “an Oscar movie?” While folks are mostly aware of the term (and its often negative connotations), the type of movie that actually wins laurels and accolades from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is always in flux. When the institution launched its first ceremony in 1929, the Oscars were initially seen as a way to build hype for the studios’ wares—an industry agreed-upon publicity stunt. But by the end of the next decade, the prestige that came from being dubbed the “Best Picture of the Year” would often be synonymous with the most successful, an idea which seems pretty foreign in 2022.
Hence in the time since Den of Geek carved out its own little corner of the internet—which is 15 years and counting—the idea of an “Oscar movie” has changed and changed again. When this site began, the Academy was still dominated by the prestige arthouse projects that were often made in Harvey Weinstein’s own image following Saving Private Ryan’s loss to Shakespeare in Love in 1999. It’s arguably the reason that an elevated crowdpleaser like The Dark Knight wasn’t even nominated in 2009. Yet as we’ve puttered on, we’ve seen the Academy embrace genre—be it Get Out, Joker, Mad Max: Fury Road, or even a Guillermo del Toro movie that can be found below—as well as broaden its voting base and taste, leading to the first Best Picture winner in a foreign language.
So yes, despite an “Oscar movie” feeling immutably the same each year, we promise things have changed. And to demonstrate this, we’ve ranked the Best Picture winners from the last 15 years. Enjoy!
*Editor’s Note: Each film is represented by the year they won the Best Picture Oscar, and not the year they were released.
15. The Artist
Best Picture Winner of 2012
So many of the films on this list have such incredible depth, complexity, visual and emotional power that it’s hard to understand why a trifle like The Artist can stand amongst them as a Best Picture winner. Director and writer Michel Hazanavicius crafts a black-and-white, silent film about the end of the silent era in cinema with French actor (and Best Actor winner) Jean Dujardin as a silent star on the wane and Berenice Bejo as the rising new actress with whom he eventually falls in love.
The Artist is cute and gimmicky as far as it goes, but it’s the kind of movie one forgets a few minutes after leaving the theater. It’s evanescent fluff, but it’s also about Hollywood and if there’s anything this town loves, it’s movies about itself. That’s the only explanation for why this won in a year that also included Moneyball, The Descendants, War Horse, Midnight in Paris, and the goddamn brilliant Tree of Life as nominees. – Don Kaye
14. Green Book
Best Picture Winner of 2019
Peter Farrelly was once known best for gross out comedies, including There’s Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber. So when his “biopic” about musician Dr. Donald Shirley and Italian-American driver Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga, and their tour of the Deep South in 1962, became the Oscar frontrunner, it was quite the surprise.
Boasting excellent performances from Mahershala Ali as Shirley (Ali won Best Supporting Actor for the performance) and Viggo Mortensen as Lip, the movie told the story of a burgeoning friendship between opposites one of whom was (initially) a massive racist. Many enjoyed the feel-good aspects of the film but it drew criticism for focusing more on Lip’s arc than Shirley’s experience and bravery. It also oversimplifies complex issues in a sentimental but rather manipulative way, including by mostly exaggerating Shirley and Vallelonga’s alleged friendship. It’s an Oscar win that might well not stand the test of time. – Rosie Fletcher
13. Slumdog Millionaire
Best Picture Winner of 2009
Danny Boyle was becoming a big name in the British film industry in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s thanks to homegrown hits like Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, The Beach, and 28 Days Later. But after two box office disappointments in Millions and Sunshine, it looked like Boyle’s best days might be behind him. Such is the unpredictable nature of the film industry that Boyle’s next project, Slumdog Millionaire, would not only be a global hit but an awards season behemoth, snatching eight of the 10 Oscars it was nominated for, including Best Director and Best Picture. And yet, star Dev Patel was not even granted a Best Actor nomination for his central performance, which remains a stain on Oscar history.
In the movie, Patel plays Jamal Malik, a young contestant chancing his luck on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, Kaun Banega Crorepati. A prize of 20 million rupees is up for grabs if Jamal can tackle a series of questions that appear to be designed specifically for him, as he is able to answer them by recalling his own life experiences from the Juhu slums of Mumbai. These are told in a string of flashbacks after Jamal is detained and tortured by the police, who believe he is cheating at the game show. Given how it all ends in a majestic dance number though, you can rest assured this is more euphoric than grim. – Kirsten Howard
Best Picture Winner of 2021
In director Chloé Zhao’s (Eternals) quiet masterpiece, a brilliant Frances McDormand stars as Fern, a woman in her mid-60s who lost her husband, her house, and her entire previous existence when the town she lived in—Empire, Nevada—vanished off the map following the closure of its sole factory. Fern joins the ranks of America’s “forgotten people” as they drift across the West, finding temporary work, occasional companionship, and, most surprisingly, a newfound community made up of people like her.
Zhao expertly uses her cast (which mixes actual nomads playing essentially themselves with McDormand and a small number of professional actors) to convey the rollercoaster of optimism and despair that these wandering souls ride every day, all of it set against vast, empty vistas that only highlight how isolating life can be when your country has abandoned you. Is this the future for more of us, and can something new and beautiful arise out of it? Those are the questions Nomadland leaves you pondering. – DK
11. The King’s Speech
Best Picture Winner of 2011
A true story that features British Royalty and the lovely Colin Firth, The King’s Speech is also a good recipe for an Oscar win. Tom Hooper’s chronicle of Queen Elizabeth II’s father, formerly The Duke of York and eventual King George VI after his brother Edward VIII abdicated the throne, is a feel-good period piece that checks a lot of Academy voters’ boxes, including nobility and World War II..
Firth plays ‘Bertie,’ a royal afflicted with a strong stutter who seeks the help of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), who coaches the future King in order to help him make speeches. Helena Bonham Carter plays his wife Elizabath (aka the Queen Mother), and events focus on the abdication and the build up to King George’s radio broadcast communicating the declaration of war against Nazi Germany in 1939. The film got 12 nominations including Best Actor, which Firth won. A solid all-rounder and crowdpleaser made on a budget of $15 million which took over $450 million worldwide. It also beat The Social Network, Black Swan, and Inception for Best Picture. – RF
10. 12 Years a Slave
Best Picture Winner of 2014
Based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a Black man born free in New York during the 19th century, and the events surrounding his abduction which led to him spending more than a decade in bondage and torment in Louisiana, Steve McQueen’s unflinching biopic is one of the most searing and sober-eyed depictions of chattel slavery ever put to screen. Filming with a relentless, almost mechanical gaze, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave underscores the industrial vastness of the evil institution in its title, finding in one intimate account a biblical indictment of a system that had tendrils throughout all sides of the country.
As Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor is heartbreaking. This is not only due to his situation but also in how he plays the protagonist without any vanities or pretenses of greatness; he is a weary, brutally beaten man who is fearful even as he’s always thinking of survival. Lupita Nyong’o also won a deserved Oscar for an even more understated and tragic performance as Patsey, the “favorite” of the master on the plantation. As that particularly nasty piece of work, Michael Fassbender is chilling. But perhaps one of the sharpest observations in McQueen’s movie is to contrast Fassbender’s neolithic monster with a supposedly benevolent slaveowner played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch’s William sees Northup’s intelligence and soulfulness—yet he still refuses to acknowledge Solomon’s true humanity. And when ignoring it becomes too inconvenient, he sells him.
The movie deconstructs and exposes the delusions of Southern revisionism which still persist in parts of this country during the 21st century. It also provides as harrowing an American drama as any released in the last 15 years. Frankly, we imagine it is that unsparing, devastating quality which prevented the film from finishing higher on this list. – David Crow
9. The Shape of Water
Best Picture Winner of 2018
In addition to its Best Picture win, The Shape of Water landed Guillermo del Toro a Best Director Oscar. Yes, the same man who brought us Blade II, Hellboy, and nightmares like Cronos and Pan’s Labyrinth, has quite a collection of statues thanks to this little movie about a nice woman getting some unlawful carnal knowledge of the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Not even your genre stalwarts at Den of Geek expected this on Oscar night.
Not that we’re complaining. The Shape of Water is stuffed to the gills (sorry) with del Toro’s famed attention to detail where every frame carries details that build the world with no exposition necessary. That last bit is particularly helpful since Sally Hawkins plays her romantic lead non-verbally and Doug Jones’ stunning Amphibian Man performance is also entirely without dialogue. The film’s heavy atmosphere (and occasional heavy-handed moment) is only matched by how completely earnest it is about its bonkers love story. Whether or not you believe this deserved its BP win in 2018 (oh, be quiet), it’s a delightful 123 minutes and a celebration of its director’s love for genre, cinema, and storytelling. – Mike Cecchini
Best Picture Winner of 2013
The CIA uses Hollywood filmmakers to stage a daring rescue mission of hostages in Iran in this thriller based on a true story. Give them the Oscar now! Ben Affleck’s smart ensemble piece, which tells a compelling tale while flattering the industry, is sure fire awards bait. Fortunately the movie is also very good.
As well as directing, Affleck plays CIA specialist Tony Mendez who comes up with the plan to create a fake sci-fi flick called “Argo,” which he’ll complete with producers and a fake film studio all in order to provide cover for six Americans hiding out in the home of the Canadian ambassador in Tehran. They will be Canadian filmmakers scouting for locations. High tension, great performances and a stranger than fiction story make this an enjoyable watch, which also picked up wins for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Editing. – RF
Best Picture Winner of 2017
Moonlight is the Oscar winner which is too often overshadowed by how it won Best Picture (with presenters being given the wrong envelope and reading the wrong movie’s title). That is a shame because it is arguable there is not a more original or haunting film among the last 15 Best Picture winners. Working from a story told in triptych, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a lyrical exploration of identity, repression, and self-denial.
The beautiful, stunted identity in question belongs to Chiron, a Black youth who we meet as a child and as played initially by Alex Hibbert. We then watch that boy grow into a teenager (Ashton Sanders), and finally an adult (Trevante Rhodes), all while he is never able to reconcile his own desires—which involve attraction to another boy named Kevin—with a culture which seeks to deny his sense of self, even among fellow Black men.
Jenkins reveals a subtle and elegiac affection for these characters, preferring a cinematic vernacular of poetry over prose. It is in the long silences when André Holland’s adult Kevin watches the man Chiron has grown into, or in how a small act of kindness by Mahershala Ali’s neighborhood drug dealer, who teaches young Chiron how to swim, that this becomes something monumental. A bitter epic that’s been hushed to a whisper. – DC
6. The Hurt Locker
Best Picture Winner of 2010
One of the most harrowing war films ever made, The Hurt Locker focuses on the physical, mental, and spiritual effects endured by a bomb removal squad during the colossal waste of life and resources that was the second Iraq War. Kathryn Bigelow became (deservedly) the first woman to win an Oscar for Best Director while Jeremy Renner and Anthony Mackie gave breakout performances—with Renner especially disturbing as a man for whom his dangerous work has become his entire life.
The Hurt Locker did not gloss over war nor its effects on the participants, and just as with the real-life events, neither the viewer nor the characters ever fully understand what the hell anyone is doing there and who the bad guys are. Working with a low budget, Bigelow films it all in semi-documentary style, adding incredible, almost unbearable tension as we follow these soldiers into their genuinely terrifying line of work. A must-see that’s also hard to watch. – DK
Best Picture Winner of 2016
Tom McCarthy’s love letter to real, muckraking journalism has aged like fine wine. Produced in our modern era when many local newspapers are shuttering their investigative units—if not shuttering their papers altogether—Spotlight feels ever more poignant in its portrayal of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, which broke wide open the heinous cover-up and widespread protection of child sex abuse among Catholic priests in the Boston area. The fallout from this investigation of course went on to rock the world as systemic abuse around the globe, perpetrated and hidden for decades by members of the Catholic Church, was finally brought into the light.
Yet for all the horrifying elements of this investigation, the movie is a straight-laced, no-frills affair. McCarthy’s movie and his cast—which includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, and John Slattery—seek to instead underplay the gumshoe travails of its heroes, often to captivating effect. That approach also seems to carry over to the art design, the lighting department, and every other segment of the production that grounds the picture in a plainspoken naturalism worthy of the AP style guide. All of which accentuates the sinister nature of the revelations. This is a movie that lets the larger implications of its story about systemic abuse and life-ruining silence speak volumes all by itself. – DC
4. The Departed
Best Picture Winner of 2007
Is The Departed Martin Scorsese’s best film? Of course not. Is it the first movie he should’ve won Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for? Nope. Are we still happy he did? Absolutely. This dramatic and heavily revised remake of an also pretty great Hong Kong action movie, Infernal Affairs, takes roughly the same story about two rats—one an undercover cop who’s infiltrated the Irish mob in Boston and the other a mole for the same mob who’s earned respectability among the Massachusetts State Police—and elevates it to operatic grandeur.
In the complementary roles of two young men who lose the ability to tell right from wrong, and up and from down, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon are riveting, with the former cracking under pressure with a skittish energy far more deserving of an Oscar than his work in The Revenant, and the latter slowly realizing his own capacity for emptiness. This is career-defining work from both leading men who are buttressed by a great supporting cast that includes Martin Sheen, Ray Winstone, Vera Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Wahlberg in the best performance of his career. (We can even overlook Scorsese indulging Jack Nicholson as the now statesman actor goes ham as the ultimate weaselly mobster.)
Of all the crime epics Scorsese has made, The Departed is his most sordid and pulpy. It’s also a nerve-shattering joy to behold right up to its merciless climax and that final, cheeky visual gag. – DC
Best Picture Winner of 2015
There are two obvious, inescapable things that come up in any conversation about Birdman. The first, of course, was it marked Michael Keaton returning (kinda) to the world of superheroes that he had, at least up until that point, shunned since he hung up his cape and cowl following 1992’s Batman Returns. Really, this will have come out almost a decade before the wonders of the multiverse and pop culture’s insatiable appetite for all things Dark Knight lured him back for The Flash movie, which will allegedly finally see release in 2023.
The other major aspect about Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is how director Alejandro G. Iñárritu chose to tell his story via the illusion of one continuous take. Birdman is alternately tense and human, and bizarrely funny, and the script (which Iñárritu co-wrote) is an energetic, even playful look at backstage drama and the price of fame, high or low, even in the film’s weirder moments.
Sure, it might be easy to dismiss Birdman’s win because of a certain novelty factor that it brought to the Oscar party. Do this at your own risk. Keaton is brilliant as Riggan Thomson, who starred as the titular Birdman in a defunct movie franchise now trying to make a very different name for himself, even as his winged screen alter ego mocks him from the darker corners of his mind. But Keaton is almost upstaged by Emma Stone as his daughter in a manic and moving performance, which earned her the first of three Oscar nominations in a decade. Throw in Edward Norton as an impossibly up-his-own-ass actor for good measure, and you’ll find that Birdman is an effortless rewatch. – MC
2. No Country for Old Men
Best Picture Winner of 2008
Ethan and Joel Coen have rarely been better than with this atmospheric, nearly perfect adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy. It was an easy choice for Best Picture back in ‘08 despite stiff competition from films like There Will Be Blood. The Coens dispensed with the trademark snarkiness and dry humor of almost all their previous films for a bleak, chilling hybrid of Western and neo-noir that touched on themes of fate, evil, and what it means to be decent—if there even is such a thing—in a world that’s falling apart.
The film features a typical performance of low-key power by Tommy Lee Jones, a breakout lead role for Josh Brolin, and most effectively, a frightening turn from Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh, the hitman who seems to have been summoned up from hell itself. Defying narrative and character expectations at nearly every turn, No Country for Old Men remains as unsettling now as it did 15 years ago. – DK
Best Picture Winner of 2020
The haves and the have nots. This duality of capitalism has been at the heart of most Bong Joon-ho movies in the last decade, but with Parasite, he removed all elements of genre and allegory. Instead he crafts the most sobering of passion plays about class and a poisoned symbiosis between rich and poor that we’ve seen in this century. It’s a vision so compelling it did what once seemed unthinkable: convince the Academy to give Best Picture to a movie in a foreign language.
The historic quality of its Oscar win became the headline the morning after the ceremony, but dwelling on that novelty obscures the universal power of Parasite. Set in Seoul and around a likable family of con artists, Parasite begins almost as a dry comedy as it bears witness to the Kim clan slowly infiltrate the rarified airs occupied by the wealthy Parks. One family is clearly preying on the gullibility and privilege of another, yet who is the actual parasite in this relationship remains negotiable as the Kims find themselves squabbling amongst themselves and other fellow travelers for the scraps of the careless. At one point, it’s said the Parks “are rich but nice.” Jang Hye-jin’s mother amongst the Kims flatly observes, “They’re nice because they’re rich.”
The knotty culpability of all parties in a system that leaves some with everything and others with nothing is taken to tragic, nigh Shakespearean extremes by Parasite’s end, and it is all chronicled with a passive almost vindictive judgment by Bong, a director who mixes black comedy, drama, and even horror into a film that is a devastating wonder to behold. – DC