Awards season is upon us, even as slow as it is (and as paltry and weak as the contenders look to be) this year. So I find it tough to get as excited as I used to be with this time of the filmgoing year, but I am usually quite a fan of the season and the Academy Awards like a pleb. It is no less an opportunity to perform ones tastes, gamify the conversation, and make predictions and observations on how the filmgoing atmosphere has been (the latter probably adds to my lack of anticipation for the Oscars). I mean, just as much a perk to experiencing a work of art is the ability to have it rattle around in conversation with others and if the Oscars are not at all a conversation (which they aren’t), they are at least a launch-pad to that conversation whether in favor or disfavor of the results.
So, as something of an off-shoot to my massive 2010s lists project (and there may be a couple more in the future), I had it in my mind to pick the 22 times in the 2010s that I felt the Oscars and I truly aligned. And by “Got It Right” in the headline, I mean Got. It. Right. The Academy somehow picked the exact same choice as me for the best of the year, not that it was a win that I was very happy to see it or even that they picked my favorite of the nominees. They picked my number one pick in the category for the whole year.
Aaron Sorkin winning Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network (83rd Academy Awards, 2011)
The past year’s Oscarbait The Trial of the Chicago 7 has illustrated to us many of the worst flaws with Sorkin as a writer (as well as as a director) and a lot of those flaws were already visible before that stood as his worst work. But The Social Network hasn’t lost one bit of its freshness, its rhythm, its sense of humor and Sorkin transmitting his sense of character language over to personalities while still avoid the sense that Joss Whedon trap of giving everybody a one-size-fits-all voice is a miracle in itself before we take a step back and watch it form into one of the decade’s best character studies. I’m too fond of certain seasons of The West Wing to call it his best work, but it did pop up as a possibility in my mind.
Gore Verbinski winning Best Animated Feature for Rango (84th Academy Awards, 2012)
It’s always a good time when Disney loses this category to an underdog (there’s going to be another Best Animated Feature win later in this post for an EVEN better movie!) but Rango‘s gung-ho revolving door of genre types, Roger Deakins-involved photorealistic landscapes, and idiosyncratic animated animal designs that refuse to be even a little bit cuddly makes it so obviously a more challenging animated film than anything else of that year (or that Disney has made since Lilo & Stitch) that this win had me leaping for joy.
Mark Coulier & J. Roy Helland winning Best Makeup for The Iron Lady (84th Academy Awards, 2012)
Y’all think Meryl Streep has girl power? Do you think she has girl power while playing the decrepit version of a woman who sent paramilitary death squads into Northern Ireland? Listen, there are so many areas in which I really fucking hate this movie. But the one place where they earned every bit of acclaim they deserved was that makeup, which I regret I could not find a decent clip of (though perhaps the best examples of Coulier and Helland’s craft may have turned out to be spoilers, but who cares about biopic spoilers?). Suffice it to say that a phenomenal job is shown having Thatcher’s body grow more and more wrinkled and cracked as the years of the longest run as Prime Minister pass by. It’s probably responsible for more transformation within the performance than Streep herself, if I can be bold.
Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer, & Donald R. Elliott winning Best Visual Effects for Life of Pi (85th Academy Awards, 2013)
First of all, what a fucking disrespectful disaster of an Oscar moment (especially with that joke at the beginning about skipping past their deserved respect). How dare the Academy cut off the VFX artist’s speeches because they’re trying to appeal to an industry that needs them? The VFX industry is very famously one that is the most exploited by Hollywood for nearly no pay where studios that put their passion into this labor of love end up closing down because of high demands and low pay (especially given that the studio in question Rhythm & Hues shut down shortly after). The fact that the Oscar win clip, like the telecast, infamously cuts to black in the middle of the speech still pisses me the fuck off.
Now if I can take a moment to get off my soapbox and admire the work before us: Richard Parker! What an absolutely amazing creation of a character simply out of the visuals and if Life of Pi didn’t represent the bleeding edge of effects work in 2012, it would still earn that trophy based on the weight and presence and personality of that tiger. But of course, it wouldn’t be an Ang Lee movie if it wasn’t playing with the new toys of the cinema.
Cate Blanchett winning Best Actress for Blue Jasmine (86th Academy Awards, 2014)
A performance for which I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been said before: Blanchett stealing the entire movie from right under Woody Allen’s nose, which is not a tall order given how limp his directing has been over the past 9 years and how she’s been the best actor alive since… forever? But he did give her a role that is like a glove for all the cold and brittle presence that Blanchett brings at her best and just stepped back for her to fire on all cylinders with this one.
John Ridley winning Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave (86th Academy Awards, 2014)
Steve McQueen is evidently not happy that Ridley won that award, but that is besides me. The fact is that the script at the center of their fight was a masterpiece of containing an overwhelming real-life experience into something truly fractured and exhausting with the weight such a sum of time would bring with it, turning what could have just remained a straightforward message biopic into experiential misery. And that’s on top of how Ridley found a way to map within the episodic structure Solomon’s anti-character arc as we watch him get more and more set on survival whatever he has to cut out of his soul to get it.
Skip Livesey, Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, & Chris Munro winning Best Sound Mixing for Gravity (86th Academy Awards, 2014)
Speaking of a movie that is wholly experience based released in 2013, Gravity owes that accomplishment to so many of its elements. Among those elements is the way the sound – even in the vaccuum of space – is arranged to give us that sense of transporting within the hollow abyss.
Tim Webber, Chris Lawrence, Dave Shirk, & Neil Corbould winning Best Visual Effects for Gravity (86th Academy Awards, 2014)
I realized I already used “bleeding edge” when discussing Life of Pi‘s Visual Effects win up above, but we may as well face the fact that a lot of these some more of these wins are going to be about reaching the pinnacle that visual effects were capable of at the end of the year. And this team is responsible for translating all of Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki*’s cinematic vocabulary into a fully CGI 3D world. You can’t sit into a world like the sound makes us do without that world being built and these four names are the men who built the world of Gravity.
Adam Stockhausen & Anna Pinnock winning Best Production Design for The Grand Budapest Hotel (87th Academy Awards, 2015)
At the risk of giving away the spoilers, this and the next two entries are all going to be The Grand Budapest Hotel and that makes it possible that I will just repeat myself when describing the winning elements but I’ll try to avoid it. This is without a doubt the fussiest film out of the fussiest filmmaker alive and the artificial look of it all is a big part of what I love about it (and I expect what holds some viewers at a distance). Can you possibly blame me with the way that wide establishing shot of the ground has that funicular as a moving piece or the manner that the titular hotel has such a wonderfully cake-like look? And that’s without bringing in the element of decay so that this ostensibly wacky place slowly dies before our eyes so that even as a hazy dream, it feels real in a very sad way.
Milena Canonero winning Best Costume Design for The Grand Budapest Hotel (87th Academy Awards, 2015)
And then there’s the way this world is inhabited by purple figures (or even pink and white in the prison sequences) matching Stockhausen and Pinnock’s own fussy indulgence, where the blackest black is applied to the villains as color coding and in the end they allow a link between these weirdly human characters to the cartoon world they’re sucked into.
Alexandre Desplat winning Best Score for The Grand Budapest Hotel (87th Academy Awards, 2015)
And then a cartoon movie absolutely needs a cartoon score and Desplat’s zany music box arrangement of tempos for the characters’ movements through this world is not just the perfect fit for what kind of experience The Grand Budapest Hotel is going for, it’s also my favorite work of his entire career thus far. Plus this win was actually the biggest surprise of the night for me, probably the biggest surprise of this entire list and goshdarn it when the Oscars pull the rug out from under me like that, it is phenomenal to watch.
Margaret Sixel winning Best Film Editing for Mad Max: Fury Road (88th Academy Awards, 2016)
I think I’ve been clear round these parts that Sixel’s work on Mad Max: Fury Road is my single favorite piece of work in all the movies I’ve seen from the 2010s so y’all can’t possibly hold it against me for wanting to high five the Oscars for recognizing the highest piece of the form. One of a kind action-editing that is able to accomplish clarity and frenzy all the way and between this and Jennifer Lame’s work on Tenet and Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir’s work on Atomic Blonde bringing their own individual sense of momentum and impact… maybe women are just better action movie directors than men?
Mark Mangini & David White winning Best Sound Editing for Mad Max: Fury Road (88th Academy Awards, 2016)
Glad as I am to see all the Fury Road technical sweep of that year’s ceremony (as well as how most of the recipients looked like Fury Road characters including Jenny Beaven’s awesome fucking outfit when she won Costume Design), none of them were really my pick for THE best of the year outside of Sixel and this accomplishment in Fury Road putting that fucking fury in every gunshot, melee blow, crash, and engine roar. Even the crack of that tree falling in the clip I selected has that phenomenal violent edge that reminds us of the perils these characters are in for.
Casey Affleck winning Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea (89th Academy Awards, 2017)
In which we learn that “getting it right” does not necessarily mean “Getting It Right” for there is nothing right about a man who abused his power in an industry as Affleck did still making movies or being celebrated on a night with everybody applauding him and being handed an award by Brie Larson (and the Academy damn well knew it, hence why they had to arrange the following year for Affleck to not present an award to Frances McDormand of all fucking people). Luckily, I have zero pull as an influence unlike the Oscars (anybody who gives my opinion any value should reconsider where they are in life) and thereby can admit without fear of rewarding Affleck on such a scale that… yes, it was in fact the Best Lead Performance by a Male Actor that I had seen all year (and possibly even the year before and after).
It’s so heavy, the way that Affleck’s visible sorrow is lugged around and around the entire movie so that it’s clear that Lee’s on existence is a great pain to him and since he can’t even be bothered to look for the exit anymore, he may as well just move through life with the minimum effort possible. A portrayal of depression and guilt that speaks to me in ways that I did not expect to be spoken to and yet Affleck is not even the best performance of the film (he’s not even the best performance in the clip I used) let alone of the entire year…
Viola Davis winning Best Supporting Actress for Fences (89th Academy Awards, 2017)
The one performance I wanted to be Mulligan in Manchester by the Sea, which together with Davis in Fences make for a pair of top ten performances of the 2010s. Davis, though, the game was already set in here favor with material she had spent long years being intimate with and thereby allowing her revisit Rose’s continuous reserves of quiet frustration in her domesticity before letting it all explode in a climax you can’t even resent for being so showy in it acting. It’s deeply grounded, emotionally exhausting, and impressively modulated as film acting rather than theatrical acting. Between this and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it’s very evident that giving Davis August Wilson material means you have to step the fuck back because she owns the show.
Viola also happens to have my favorite Oscar speech and dress out of this whole list, for those who care about these sort of things as much as I do.
Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones, & Dan Lemmon winning Best Visual Effects for The Jungle Book (89th Academy Awards, 2017)
Hey, Disney money gets you that Disney resources. It is evident that The Lion King remake was able to enhance all the technical accomplishments that The Jungle Book remake pulled but The Jungle Book accomplishes not looking like the horror show the later movie was because it allows color to be an element of its photorealistic environments and because somehow it is less concerned with having its animals function a anything but animals. Talking animals, still, but less Lovecraftian in their mouth movements than The Lion King. Plus the full-constructed CGI world has at least one on-camera human presence as reference for the designers and feels more immersive as an experience than anything Disney made since TRON: Legacy (especially in 3D).
Mark Bridges winning Best Costume Design for Phantom Thread (90th Academy Awards, 2018)
I should not have to explain why Phantom Thread of all movies deserved Best Costume Design. If the movie works on any level for the viewer, it’s because of the wonderful arrangements of all that fabric and just how erotic it can be to watch, arrange, and create that fabric. If the costumes were on any level than less than the best ever, then I’d have to concede Phantom Thread‘s weakness but I love it so evidently…
Richard King & Alex Gibson winning Best Sound Editing for Dunkirk (90th Academy Awards, 2018)
If I may dare to shock y’all, I deeply believe the sound does more to sharpen the structure of this movie than Lee Smith’s film editing. It’s specifically because of the way the sounds are filtered in terms of how they echo in relation to the ocean water that I think we are able to effortlessly shift between the three perspectives with no trouble and I think that added dimension to the fact that war movies always demand great sound to work is how I end up loving Dunkirk as a movie probably more than I should.
Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman, Phil Lord, & Christopher Miller winning Best Animated Feature for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (91st Academy Awards, 2019)
It’s the best superhero and comic book movie ever made and I would have been very upset to have seen it walk away empty handed. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the sort of creative storytelling and animation that we need more of if Hollywood’s gonna keep taking our money, the sort of movie that makes one feel truly like they can fly.
Alfonso Cuarón winning Best Cinematography for Roma (91st Academy Awards, 2019)
The center of a credit-based controversy back in Mexico that for some reason did not catch the slightest wind up in the States for some weird reason** and thereby giving me a bit of pause in congratulating Cuarón for winning this without Galo Olivares up on stage with his own trophy. Regardless of whoever is responsible for one of the most beautiful films of the 2010s, the fact is that Roma IS one of the most beautiful films of the 2010s and it is entirely worthwhile to appreciate its sense of care and awareness regarding the multiple shades of gray so that calling it a black and white movie seems like missing the real treat of it all and taking all the right lessons from Cuarón’s career long collaboration with camera movements and long takes. The result is something that has the sense of a dreamy panorama and while I’m often tempted to break open my Criterion blu-ray of this movie eventually, nothing can beat actually seeing it in the big screen when it was first released (except maybe seeing it in 70mm, please help me see it in 70mm in the future).
Paul Lambert, Ian Hunter, Tristan Myles, & J.D. Schwalm winning Best Visual Effects for First Man (91st Academy Awards, 2019)
Hey, I guess between this and Gravity, I just really love space movies. We’ve continuously watched movies throughout this decade crafting a tangible world beyond the atmosphere (since we can include Interstellar, The Martian, and Ad Astra) and I wonder if the story of a man sinking himself more and more to his mission for the sake of burying his grief doesn’t feel the most appropriate area for that. Plus there’s only more scrutiny that the visuals could receive when shot in 70mm and First Man totally deserves it.
Matthew A. Cherry & Karen Rupert Tolivar winning Best Animated Short Film for Hair Love (92nd Academy Awards, 2020)
I am not generally someone who gets too into the short films largely because my sample of them is so small that I feel even less confident in my declarations than the other obviously subjective claims of me knowing the Best Editing of 2015 or the Best Performance of 2016 or what have you. More often, it’s because my pick in this category almost never wins and that I have chosen Hair Love‘s win amongst the rest of this list is specifically because it’s an instance where my favorite film not only in the animated category but out of all of the shorts nominated and that I have seen in 2019 got the gold. The makers of this film have put out a short of such effortless short-form storytelling and simple designs with a stress on the texture (all the better to communicate that central hair as a presence). Implies that Sony Pictures Animation may have learned every single right lesson from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
*While Lubezki was not my favorite of the three years he won (Gravity and Birdman are close though and he WAS my favorite of 2011 with The Tree of Life), it was still absolutely phenomenal to see him get three Oscars in a row after a whole decade in the 2000s of not getting his due.
**Especially weird given the history of credit-based controversies attached to the wins of Dalton Trumbo, Natalie Portman, and John Ridley and the nominations of Linda Blair.