With less than a week till this Sunday’s Oscars, 12 Years a Slave is considered the odds-on favorite to win Best Picture. Steve McQueen’s haunting masterpiece is a deserving choice, but hindsight reveals that the Academy screws up more often than not – and as the years pass, it’s harder and harder to live in a world where The English Patient beat out Fargo. So let’s examine the continually-shifting (and admittedly nebulous) arenas of popular and critical perception to determine which films should’ve won Best Picture over the past 20 years (I’ll do my best to use evidence to temper my own opinions, which consist of Harry and the Hendersons taking home the gold year after year). The year listed refers to release dates, rather than the date of the ceremony.
What Won: Argo
What Should’ve Won: Argo
Okay, so we’re off to a not-so-contentious start here – I promise to get unnecessarily indignant ASAP. But little has changed in the past year: while Django Unchained has the biggest cult following, Zero Dark Thirty remains the critical darling, and Silver Linings Playbook makes for an endearing underdog, Argo seems to have the broadest appeal across all categories.
What Won: The Artist
What Should’ve Won: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
The Artist’s victory was heavily criticized at the time as nostalgic Academy navel-gazing. At this point, it’s more of a hazy memory, a 3 am slice of Domino’s pizza consumed after hours of heavy drinking: “Really? The Artist won Best Picture? Are we positive?” There weren’t a ton of viable options that year – The Tree of Life didn’t bode well with mainstream audiences and The Descendants didn’t have quite enough critical acclaim. The most culturally impactful and well-received film of 2011 was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which would’ve been an opportunity to reward the entirety of the series, a la The Return of the King.
What Won: The King’s Speech
What Should’ve Won: The Social Network
The King’s Speech was so far up the Academy’s ass that it probably found Bruce Vilanch. Built on everything the Oscars fawn over (period pieces, British accents, talented actors portraying handicaps), The King’s Speech is certainly a very good film, but too mannered and conventional to be a great one. Inception, an uncommonly intelligent blockbuster, or The Social Network (named film of the year by Roger Ebert, Rolling Stone, The Associated Press, The New York Times, The New Yorker, etc etc etc), which so pointedly commented on American life in the 21st century, were far better choices.
What Won: The Hurt Locker
What Should’ve Won: Up
Though my favorite was Inglourious Basterds, the best reviewed films of 2009 were clearly The Hurt Locker and Up. The Hurt Locker strikes me as very much a film of its time (and how fun it was to root for director Kathryn Bigelow to outdo ex-husband James Cameron and the soulless Avatar!), whereas Up is a film of timeless appeal. It’s also Rotten Tomatoes highest rated film of that year.
What Won: Slumdog Millionaire
What Should’ve Won: The Dark Knight
Admittedly, I don’t like Slumdog Millionaire very much (its victory reeks of the Academy’s typical self-congratulatory tendencies, here awarding itself for embracing diversity and tackling social injustice), but it’s clear that 2008’s most memorable film wasn’t even nominated: The Dark Knight tip-toed the line between critical and commercial success in a way that few other films have ever managed. In fact, it’s the film most responsible for the Academy raising the possible number of Best Picture candidates from five to ten, so as to recognize culturally significant (i.e. money-making) films that might otherwise be neglected. It almost certainly would have been nominated under the current rules, which were (not coincidentally) enacted the following year.
What Won: No Country for Old Men
What Should’ve Won: There Will Be Blood
No major contestation here, except to say that There Will Be Blood was at least an equally fine choice. Both were universally praised films that frustrated some audiences with their endings (No Country was deliberately abrupt, whereas Blood ventured into strange milkshake territory). But There Will Be Blood was listed as the film of the decade by Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, and Rolling Stone.
What Won: The Departed
What Should’ve Won: The Departed
No argument from me – I love Scorsese, and, like many others, I thought The Departed was one of the best films of the decade. The only other two choices I considered weren’t even nominated – Alfonso Cuaron’s dazzling Children of Men, and Paul Greengrass’ devastating United 93.
What Won: Crash
What Should’ve Won: Brokeback Mountain
There’s a case to be made that Crash is not only a legitimately bad film, but a malignant one – thunderously obvious and facilely liberal, it’s too busy patting itself on the back with one hand and aggressively pleasuring its limp genitals with the other to really make any kind of worthwhile statement on racism. It struck many critics as contrived Oscar-bait, ironic considering that’s the exact criticism most commonly leveled at Ang Lee. I found Lee’s Brokeback Mountain poignant and incredibly moving: it holds an 87% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, easily surpassing Crash’s 75%.
What Won: Million Dollar Baby
What Should’ve Won: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Well, there’s absolutely no rationale for Million Dollar Baby, other than people getting caught up in Clint Eastwood’s late-career resurgence – I mean, when the hell was the last time you had a conversation about Million Dollar Baby, for Christ’s sake? Eternal Sunshine, on the other hand, is one of the most beautiful movies ever made, both visually and thematically. Eternal Sunshine is #82 on IMDB’s Top 250, Million Dollar Baby a distant #186.
What Won: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
What Should’ve Won: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The Return of the King is generally considered the finest of a beloved and highly successful trilogy. One of the previous installments probably should’ve gotten the Oscar, but giving it to the finale was an easy way to kill three birds with one stone. It didn’t hurt that there weren’t many strong contenders, with Lost in Translation marking the biggest competition.
What Won: Chicago
What Should’ve Won: City of God
Sweet mother of God, not Chicago. Chicago’s victory is unfortunate, yet far from surprising – the Academy’s bronzed boner for musicals remains rigid and uncompromising, despite the genre’s lack of pulse. Chicago was the biggest musical to come down the pike in quite a while, and the Academy pounced on it with drunken fervor, nominating it for 13 awards and giving it six. Yet, it holds only a 7.2 rating on IMDB, tied (with Shakespeare in Love) for the lowest of any of the films on this list. A better choice would’ve been The Two Towers. An even better choice would’ve been the wildly acclaimed Brazilian film City of God, which for lame bureaucratic reasons (which I’m ignoring) was ineligible until the following year.
What Won: A Beautiful Mind
What Should’ve Won: Spirited Away
A Beautiful Mind is such a safe, lame choice – it reminds me of how Frasier used to win the Emmy like every freaking year for Best Comedy in the 90s (I think calling A Beautiful Mind the Frasier of films is probably as cruel an insult as I could possibly muster). It’s a shame, too, because 2001 was filled with groundbreaking and influential classics like Donnie Darko, Mulholland Drive, and The Fellowship of the Ring. But perhaps the best choice was famed animator Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (though it’s American release didn’t occur until 2002), which holds a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and is #36 on the IMDB Top 250 (A Beautiful Mind is #171).
What Won: Gladiator
What Should’ve Won: Almost Famous
Gladiator clearly exists on two different planes – its 8.5 rating on IMDB makes it their 47th highest rated film, but it was derided by more than a few critics (“pointless” – L.A. Weekly, “eminently dumb” – The Associated Press, “muddy, fuzzy, and indistinct” – Roger Ebert, “pandering and detached” – The New York Times). Fourteen years later, it’s generally considered a regrettable Oscar choice, particularly in a year with strong competition like Traffic, Memento, Requiem for a Dream, Almost Famous, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Traffic was the most critically acclaimed, Crouching Tiger the most trendy, and Requiem and Memento both developed tremendous cult followings, but it seems that Almost Famous, one of the most entertaining and re-watchable films of the past twenty years, best bridges the gaps between commercial/critical and former/present popularity.
What Won: American Beauty
What Should’ve Won: Fight Club
American Beauty has more than enough pedigree for a Best Picture winner – the question here is whether it deserved to win in this particular year, considered one of the strongest in history. In retrospect, Fight Club was the most indelible and important movie released in 1999. Other worthwhile choices include Magnolia, Being John Malkovich, Three Kings, and, hey, why not, The Matrix.
What Won: Shakespeare in Love
What Should’ve Won: Saving Private Ryan
Although I knew Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture before writing this, I somehow also thought Saving Private Ryan had won some other year – now Love’s victory feels even more undeserved. The films had roughly similar critical zeal, but SPR has undoubtedly stood the test of time better than the largely forgotten Shakespeare: SPR is #35 on IMDB’s Top 250 with an 8.6 rating; Shakespeare owns a 7.2, placing it in a direct tie with Mallrats. Rushmore, Wes Anderson’s most celebrated film, also would’ve made a delightfully eccentric choice.
What Won: Titanic
What Should’ve Won: Titanic
Although it feels like a pretty lame stance to take, I’m apathetically okay with Titanic winning. Seventeen years later, after every iconic scene of the film has been thoroughly mocked and discarded like the most overplayed tracks on a “Now That’s What I Call Music!” CD, it’s easy to forget that Titanic was a very well-reviewed movie – combined with its unprecedented, juggernaut appeal, it’s probably the closest we’ve come to a modern-day Gone with the Wind. As much as I’d like to make a case for Jackie Brown or Boogie Nights, it’s a tough sell.
What Won: The English Patient
What Should’ve Won: Fargo
Voting for Best Picture in 1996 was an incredibly simple task – in an exceptionally weak year, exactly one terrific film was released. Hint: It wasn’t The English Patient. Nearly 20 years later, Fargo owns a permanent spot in film history (particularly for its grotesque wood-chipper finale), whereas The English Patient is best remembered for being mocked in a Seinfeld episode.
What Won: Braveheart
What Should’ve Won: Toy Story
There’s a ton of violent, nihilistic films to choose from in 1995, including Braveheart, The Usual Suspects, Se7en, Heat, and Casino. It’s hard for me to argue any of these films as standing head and shoulders above the others (though Heat is my personal choice), so I’ll have to buck the trend and go with Pixar’s Toy Story, a film whose 78 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes are all positive. Of course the Academy whiffed on the chance to give this groundbreaking family film a nod, instead nominating the vastly inferior Babe.
What Won: Forrest Gump
What Should’ve Won: Pulp Fiction
Surprised? It didn’t take long for Forrest Gump’s triumph over the likes of Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption to get immortalized alongside 1941’s How Green Was My Valley winning over Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon. Opinions on Gump vary greatly (though it’s rated 77th out of 86 Best Picture winners by Rotten Tomatoes), but I’m apt to side with Jay Baruchel, who acknowledged in This is the End that “it’s a horrendous piece of shit.” Either way, it’s freaking outrageous that Pulp Fiction didn’t win this one.
What Won: Schindler’s List
What Should’ve Won: Schindler’s List
It’s freaking Schindler’s List, don’t be a douche. That being said, I’d probably have voted for Dazed and Confused.