Best Oscar-winners of past 10 years

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Best Picture

Winner: “12 Years a Slave”
Runner-up: “No Country for Old Men”
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
“Moonlight”
“Spotlight”
“The Hurt Locker”
“The Artist”
“Argo”
“Slumdog Millionaire”
“The King’s Speech”

When comparing the last 10 years of Best Picture Oscar winners, it becomes easy to narrow down what are the ones we still care about and discuss as a collective nation of filmgoers. For example, “The King’s Speech” is generally understood as Oscar bait that beat the much more socially and generationally important “The Social Network” — the David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin masterpiece. Then there’s the crowd pleaser “Slumdog Millionaire” that is incredibly well directed, written, acted, shot and edited, but in reality, Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (which was snubbed of Best Picture and Director nominations that year) was the best film of 2008 in hindsight. As for “Argo,” it’s a good movie, but not great and not nearly as memorable or important as it was hyped up to be in 2012. Minus those minor instances where the best film of the year didn’t win Best Picture, choosing the one film to declare the winner out the remaining seven is a much tougher proposition. “Birdman,” when it was released in 2014, was a jaw-dropping technical feat, a major comeback for star Michael Keaton and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and a savage critique of Hollywood, Broadway, actors, critics and everything else in the entertainment business. “Spotlight,” “The Hurt Locker” and “Moonlight” are intensely real and incredibly well-written — and densely researched for the former two — that have lasting social and historical importance. “The Artist” is a sweet, beautiful love letter to Tinseltown and its storied history. But declaring the best of the decade of the remaining Best Picture winners came down to the Coens’ masterpiece, “No Country for Old Men” and Steve McQueen’s beautiful, painful examination of America’s dark, racist past, “12 Years a Slave.” Would you choose the technical masterpiece, with precise editing, a barren-yet-intense sound mix and tightly controlled directing of “No Country for Old Men”? However, on top of the technical prowess, there are questions of existence regarding free will or determinism at the center of all Coen brothers films. Or would you choose the more blatant social critique that finds small moments of hope in front of overwhelming despair, to create a monumentally emotional experience in “12 Years a Slave?” Ultimately, we decided “12 Years a Slave” was the important film of the crop. It’s the film that says the most about America, about both the past and the present, while remaining as artistically challenging as Steve McQueen’s barely seen past art films. “12 Years a Slave” in a one on one against most movies to win the Best Picture Oscar would likely be considered the most important.

— Levi Hill

Best Lead Actor

Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis — “There Will Be Blood”
Runner-up: Sean Penn — “Milk”
Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
Jean Dujardin – “The Artist”
Jeff Bridges – “Crazy Heart”

Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the best actors of all time for a reason. He totally inhabits roles, so much so that when he won the Best Lead Actor award for “Lincoln,” he talked about how his wife has had to live with many different men. We’re concerned about how she dealt with Daniel Plainview, the iconic antihero of “There Will Be Blood.” From some of the most gripping monologues of the 21st century to a physical aura that informs literally every movement of his character, DDL is haunting and ingrains himself in our minds.

Sean Penn’s transformative performance in “Milk” was his career best, beating another towering performance from Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler” — a performance that would have been on this list, if all nominees over the past decade were eligible. But that’s not to take away any credit from Penn, who carried Gus Van Sant’s masterpiece, a beautiful biopic about the life and death of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay senator. Yet, along with our winners, Jeff Bridges won a long-overdue Oscar for his soulful, country tinged music drama “Crazy Heart.” Jean Dujardin, building off his Cannes Best Actor win, not-so-silently tip-toed his way to an Oscar for his (nearly) wordless performance. Then harkening back to the method (mumble) style that put Marlon Brando on the map, Casey Affleck gave a mournful, honest performance of a broken man whose life was plagued by tragedy. His win will be surrounded by discussion of the sexual assault allegations made against him in the past, but the performance itself is astounding. While lead actors throughout the decade have been weak in hindsight, these five look to last forever.

— Kyle Kizu and Levi Hill

Best Lead Actress

Winner: Natalie Portman — “Black Swan”
Runner-up: Cate Blanchett — “Blue Jasmine”
Brie Larson — “Room”
Kate Winslet — “The Reader”
Marion Cotillard — “La Vie en Rose”

Natalie Portman, during/post-”Star Wars,” was quietly churning out great performances, having excellent star-making performances in “V for Vendetta” and “Closer.” But, in Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” Portman gave a performance for the ages. The psychological thriller (horror) film rests on the scrawny shoulders of Portman, but don’t let her petite figure fool you, the performance is as committed, as brazen and as gonzo as anything that could ever be imagined to win an Oscar. It’s rare that a film takes such a stark (and poetic) descent into madness and overbearing stress, but thanks to Portman’s no-holds-barred performance and Aronofsky’s fearless direction, it seemed impossible not to choose Portman as the crowning achievement of leading lady performances within the last 10 years.

Yet, choosing just five to be the standard bearers of leading actress performances in the last 10 years may have been the most challenging proposition, as all of the Best Actress winner have been excellent. While Cate Blanchett’s searing portrayal of another woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in “Blue Jasmine” was our runner-up, any one of the other performers could have walked away with runner-up honors. Brie Larson broke our hearts in “Room,” Kate Winslet finally won a much-deserved Oscar for her incomparably complex and unsympathetic role in “The Reader” and Marion Cotillard proved that foreign performances can’t and shouldn’t be ignored from major Oscar wins with her role in “La Vie en Rose.”

— Levi Hill

Best Supporting Actress

Winner: Lupita Nyong’o — “12 Years a Slave”
Runner-up: Mo’Nique — “Precious”
Viola Davis — “Fences”
Alicia Vikander — “The Danish Girl”
Patricia Arquette — “Boyhood”

This is a category with heartbreak, heartbreak and heartbreak. And acting, acting, acting. Much like the leading actress performance, the supporting actress category of winners was an embarrassment of riches. Yet, there was one that towered over the rest and that was Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave.” The film is a punishing experience due to its subject matter alone, but the devastating performance by Nyong’o as the long-suffering and psychologically and sexually tormented enslaved Patsey may be one of the best, most raw performances ever put on celluloid. While many may claim that the film was gratuitous in its violence, turning off many viewers (as if slavery should be shown lightly), no one could argue that in every single scene Nyong’o is in, she makes the pain, the loss and the hope of a better life felt in every gesture and shed tear.

As for choosing a runner-up, it came down to other highly emotional performances from Viola Davis in “Fences” (who’s essentially the lead) and Mo’Nique’s vicious turn in the unrelentingly grim “Precious.” While it’s not really fair to say one is better than the other, as both are incredibly moving in radically different ways, but Mo’Nique’s performance came as a major surprise. As the de-glammed, angry monster at the core of “Precious,” Mo’Nique gave the crowning achievement of her career. Davis was equally excellent. Davis also had been doing the performances on stage (where she won a Tony), and we’re quite sure Davis’ roles will only continue to grow in stature after seemingly proving incapable of playing a bad role across film and television for the last 10 years.

— Levi Hill

Best Supporting Actor

Winner: Heath Ledger — “The Dark Knight”
Runner-up: Javier Bardem — “No Country for Old Men”
Christian Bale — “The Fighter”
Christoph Waltz — “Inglourious Basterds”
Christopher Plummer — “Beginners”

Heath Ledger’s take on the infamous Joker in “The Dark Knight” offers us not only the greatest villain of all time, but one of the best performances of all time. His complete physical and mental transformation is equally as terrifying as it is complex. From his tiny tics — psychotically licking his lips, owning each actor around him with his hand gestures, inflecting his voice frighteningly low and high — we see a true madman. His character will last for decades to come.

Javier Bardem came very close for similar reasons. His completely dominating glare and evil sneer haunted audiences; we could feel his presence in each scene. Christian Bale’s transformation as the drug addicted ex-wrestler is career-best work. Waltz also leaves an iconic character; the fact that his completely evil, hysterical Nazi villain is fourth is a testament to the strength of this category. Finally, and not least, Christopher Plummer’s tender turn in Mike Mill’s “Beginners.”

— Kyle Kizu

Best Director

Winners: Joel and Ethan Coen — “No Country for Old Men”
Runner-up: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Kathryn Bigelow — “The Hurt Locker”
Alfonso Cuaron — “Gravity”
Damien Chazelle — “La La Land”

It’s hard to think of a perfect film, but “No Country for Old Men” is absolutely one of them. The Coens waste no frame and elevate every aspect to the masterful: the soundscape and atmosphere enhance the terror of Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, the story subverts every convention of the Western and thriller genres and the structure earns its poetic ending on existence. The Coens are on the Mount Rushmore of directors and “No Country for Old Men” is their masterpiece.

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s job is extremely different, but nearly as impressive. With a flowing, swaying and lingering camera, Inarritu investigates a search for meaning through excellence in each and every facet of the film. Kathryn Bigelow easily makes this list. Her command of terror and visual environment in the Iraq war drama “The Hurt Locker” reverberate off the screen and into our blood. Alfonso Cuaron’s space disaster film is perhaps the spectacle of the 2010s. And finally, Damien Chazelle’s vision of a magical fantasy dream land comes to life in such vibrant fashion.

— Kyle Kizu

Best Original Screenplay

Winner: Spike Jonze — “Her”
Runner-up: Kenneth Lonergan — “Manchester By the Sea”
Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy — “Spotlight”
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr., Armando Bo — “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”
Dustin Lance Black — “Milk”

“Her” might just be the most unique sci-fi film of the 21st century precisely because the sci-fi aspects are injected in the veins of each scene, but it’s never overt and uses those ideas to lead to a statement on existence. The script is as sweet and tender as anything that’s come out in the past year, but it’s also unafraid of being weird and hilarious. And any screenplay that can create such a deeply layered being in an inanimate object is special. We won’t see such a realistic vision of our technologically dependent future in a while.

Kenneth Lonergan’s poetry in both the structure, dialogue and story of “Manchester by the Sea” is one of the most masterful pieces of film writing. It’s unafraid to confront structure as such a prevalent aspect of poetic beauty and its dialogue is as whip smart as that in “Good Will Hunting.” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo’s work in the satirical, yet real search for meaning of “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).” Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s script for “Spotlight” is perhaps the most efficient piece of original screenwriting in the past 10 years and Dustin Lance Black offered a tender and unconventional take on the biopic in “Milk.”

— Kyle Kizu

Best Adapted Screenplay

Winner: Aaron Sorkin — “The Social Network”
Runner-up: Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney — “Moonlight”
Joel Coen, Ethan Coen — “No Country for Old Men”
Adam McKay, Charles Randolph — “The Big Short”
John Ridley — “12 Years a Slave”

This is not a disservice to any of the other adapted screenplays — as, arguably, the adapted screenplays are typically more competitive than the original screenplays — but Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network” is arguably the greatest script ever written and therefore the easy winner as the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winner over the last 10 years. The dialogue, the character development, the structure and the message of the story as eerily relevant and perfect as any script can be. Not since Orson Welles’ perennially declared masterpiece “Citizen Kane” has a 2-hour script felt brimming with intensity and ambition, yet completely controlled with precise clarity. And for that, there was no winner but Sorkin here.

As for the rest of the field, as mentioned above, every single one of these nominees was unique and perfect in their own right. The Coens had the typically monumental task of adapting Cormac McCarthy, but they made it look effortless. Adam McKay and Charles Randolph made complex mathematical and financial equations about the economic collapse into a thought-provoking, hilarious character study. John Ridley gave us the historically rich, emotionally grueling, yet beautiful script for the Best Picture-winning “12 Years a Slave.” Then there was our runner-up, Barry Jenkins’ time-jumping, intimate and empathetic triptych adaption of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”

— Levi Hill

Kyle Kizu is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.

Contact Levi Hill at [email protected].