Essays · Movies

Why ‘The Social Network’ is the Best Movie to Lose Best Picture

You don’t get to become an Oscar contender without making a few enemies.
Debate Week Best Picture Losers Social Network
By  · Published on April 21st, 2021

Welcome to Debate Week: Best Picture Losers, a series in which we’ll be looking at some of the best movies that were nominated, but ultimately lost the Oscar race for Best Picture. In this entry, Anna Swanson discusses David Fincher’s eight-time nominated 2010 film, The Social Network.

The Social Network, David Fincher‘s generation-defining opus about the founding of Facebook, is one of the finest films of the 21st century. At the 83rd Academy Awards, it took home three Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Original Score. These wins were certainly well deserved and cause for celebration, but not without the sting of knowing that the film was worthy of so much more. So, why did it lose out on some of the major awards? To explain that, we have to go a bit further back than 2010.

In 1995, at the 67th Academy Awards, Forrest Gump had a success story that few films could ever hope to achieve. The Robert Zemeckis movie took home a very respectable six total awards, out of the astounding thirteen nominations it had racked up. But it also, through no fault or intent of its own, caused a shift that still reverberates today. Also nominated that year was Pulp Fiction, the second feature from a former video store clerk by the name of Quentin Tarantino. You might have heard of him.

One of the many things that Pulp Fiction did was completely change what was considered cool. Now, with a fair bit of distance, the film is ubiquitous with a certain brand of dorm-room-poster auteur fetishism. But even those who might roll their eyes at Tarantino’s precociously clever pastiche cannot deny that the film’s influence was, and still is, incomparable. The dialogue, the music, the style, the very structure of the narrative, the performances, and the actors themselves — all of Pulp Fiction‘s qualities became a form of currency that Hollywood couldn’t get enough of.

Meanwhile, Forrest Gump achieved a different form of success by being the opposite of Pulp Fiction‘s brand of cool. As Adam Nayman succinctly puts it for The Ringer: Forrest Gump was a string of Top 40 hits, while Pulp Fiction was a collection of B-sides. The recognizability of Forrest Gump’s references and iconographies made it endearing to the generation of boomers voting it into the pantheon of Best Picture winners. But Pulp Fiction‘s legacy — perhaps partially because its Best Picture loss allowed it to retain an outsider status even while grossing a couple hundred million bucks — has loomed much larger and held much more sway.

So, what does this have to do with The Social Network losing a decade and a half later? Quite a bit, actually. By 2010, anyone who had paid attention to the legacy of recent Oscar winners would have noticed that films with a critical eye and a degree of cultural specificity, rather than broad feel-good messages about overcoming adversity, tended to age better than their baity counterparts. The lesson was always there, but it was never more apparent than it was after Pulp Fiction.

Pulp Fiction and The Social Network do not have that much in common as films. Tarantino’s sensationalism and spectacle are markedly different from Fincher’s calculated and clinical approach. Tarantino’s distinct authorial voice comes through in his writing as much as his direction, whereas Fincher is more of a classical for-hire type of auteur who doesn’t write his own scripts. Both share a wry sense of humor and a penchant for working with Brad Pitt, but overall the filmmakers are more different than they are alike.

But in their own distinct ways, both films have a finger on the pulse of their respective moments. With The Social Network, the Aaron Sorkin-penned script had a chokehold on the zeitgeist. There was, of course, the controversial true story of Facebook’s founding that made it narratively relevant. But the film also helped rush in an era of new stylistic and thematic revelations.

Fincher’s eye for precision has inspired countless filmmakers, with The Social Network serving as a prime example of his craft. You can see its influence in the rigor of Whiplash, the sleek character study of Ex Machina, and the satirical, social-media bite of Ingrid Goes West. These are all films that, on the surface at least, are not like The Social Network, but certainly scratch the same itch.

Though The Social Network wasn’t the first film made that can fall under this category, it is one of the most prominent examples of a 21st century period piece. These are movies made in the last twenty years that capture an earlier time in the 2000s. Think Moneyball, Lady Bird, The Disaster Artist, Hustlers, Uncut Gems, or The Bling Ring. While it would be a stretch to say that The Social Network inspired all of these movies, it does seem fair to say that the Fincher film perfectly captured an ever-growing impulse to narrativize recent history. As society and culture have developed at an accelerated rate thanks to the internet and social media, it makes sense to desire stories that illuminate the why and how of it all.

But The Social Network isn’t just a movie that announced new trends; it’s an ingeniously well-crafted film that bucks the old ones. Particularly in contrast to the winner, The Kings Speech, a period piece in the classical sense of the term, The Social Network had no interest in upholding an underdog narrative. Jesse Eisenberg‘s Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the nerd who emerges from the locker he was stuffed into and then goes on to find success and happiness. He’s the self-engineered outsider who weaponized his intelligence and ambition against anyone who once cared for him. His alienation is entirely his own fault. This is the kind of seamlessly executed and completely surprising arc that other films can only dream of pulling off this well.

The Best Picture race was a chance for the Academy to prove that they were with it, to show that they were embracing the recent expansion of the Best Picture category to include up to ten nominees and using this as an opportunity to reward slightly out-of-the-box films. As can often happen, the more deserving film losing ultimately makes the Academy come away looking worse. This was a chance to piggyback off of the film’s cultural relevancy, and they failed.

Meanwhile, The Social Network, much like Pulp Fiction, retains the coolness of an outcast status. Its adoration is only buoyed by the argument that it didn’t conform to a standard of Oscar bait. The Academy couldn’t keep up with The Social Network, not the other way around.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.