For good or ill (almost certainly ill), The Academy Awards are widely considered the most prestigious recognition that can be bestowed on a film. Unfortunately, the award for Best Picture rarely goes to the greatest artistic achievement but to the film that challenges the fewest voters, films that look nice and seem “important” but require little consideration after a first viewing. As of this writing, Alejandro G. Inarritu’s mostly lifeless The Revenant seems poised to win Oscar upon Oscar over George Miller’s vital, enrapturing Mad Max: Fury Road, largely because the former film is more “Oscar-y” than the latter. The following is a breakdown of the Academy Awards “Best Picture” category over the last fifty years.
Note: Each Academy Awards ceremony recognizes the films released the previous year, so the years listed in this article will represent the year of release, rather than the year the awards ceremony takes place. While the Academy Award for Best Picture is given to the producer(s) of a film, the names listed with each title are that film’s director.
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Coal Miner’s Daughter (Michael Apted)
The Elephant Man (David Lynch)
Ordinary People (Robert Redford)
Raging Bull (Scorcese)
The Winner: Ordinary People
Should Have Won: Uh, Raging Bull.
Atlantic City (Louis Malle)
Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson)
On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell)
Raiders of The Lost Ark (Spielberg)
The Winner: Chariots of Fire
Should Have Won: Reds should have beat Chariots of Fire in a walk.
E.T. the Extraterrestrial (Spielberg)
Gandhi (Richard Attenborough)
Tootsie (Sydney Pollack)
The Verdict (Lumet)
The Winner: Gandhi
Should Have Won: E.T. or The Verdict, but the Academy loves a stuffy historical drama.
The Big Chill (Lawrence Kasdan)
The Dresser (Yates)
The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman)
Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford)
Terms of Endearment (James L. Brooks)
The Winner: Terms of Endearment
Should Have Won: The Right Stuff, but it’s hard to begrudge Terms of Endearment its recognition.
The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe)
A Passage To India (Lean)
Places in The Heart (Benton)
A Soldier’s Story (Jewison)
The Winner: Amadeus
Should Have Won: Amadeus, on the comeback trail?
The Color Purple (Spielberg)
Kiss of The Spider Woman (Hector Babenco)
Out of Africa (Pollack)
Prizzi’s Honor (John Huston)
Witness (Peter Weir)
The Winner: Out of Africa
Should Have Won: A weak field. Fine, Out of Africa.
Children of a Lesser God (Randa Haines)
Hannah and Her Sisters (Allen)
The Mission (Joffe)
Platoon (Oliver Stone)
A Room with a View (James Ivory)
The Winner: Platoon
Should Have Won: Platoon is fine, but Hannah and Her Sisters was Woody Allen operating at the height of his powers as a filmmaker and writer of comedy. The Academy traditionally avoids giving awards to comedies.
Broadcast News (Brooks)
Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne)
Hope and Glory (Boorman)
The Last Emperor (Bernardo Bertolucci)
The Winner: The Last Emperor
Should Have Won: Broadcast News. The Academy turns up its collective nose at a great comedy, yet again.
The Accidental Tourist (Kasdan)
Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears)
Mississippi Burning (Parker)
Rain Man (Barry Levinson)
Working Girl (Nichols)
The Winner: Rain Man
Should Have Won: Mississippi Burning is far more vital than the decidedly more “Oscar-y” Rain Man.
Born on the Fourth of July (Stone)
Dead Poets Society (Weir)
Driving Miss Daisy (Beresford)
Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson)
My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan)
The Winner: Driving Miss Daisy
Should Have Won: Shamefully, Driving Miss Daisy wins the award and Do The Right Thing (Spike Lee) isn’t nominated.
Awakenings (Penny Marshall)
Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner)
Ghost (Jerry Zucker)
The Godfather Part III (Coppola)
The Winner: Dances With Wolves
Should Have Won: Goodfellas, obviously.
Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale, Kirk Wise)
The Prince of Tides (Barbara Steisand)
The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathon Demme)
The Winner: The Silence of the Lambs
Should Have Won: The Silence of the Lambs. Nailed it, AMPAS.
The Crying Game (Neil Jordan)
A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner)
Howards End (Ivory)
Scent of A Woman (Martin Brest)
Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood)
The Winner: Unforgiven
Should Have Won: Unforgiven. The Academy gets on a roll!
The Fugitive (Andrew Davis)
In The Name of the Father (Sheridan)
The Piano (Jane Campion)
The Remains of the Day (Ivory)
Schindler’s List (Spielberg)
The Winner: Schindler’s List
Should Have Won: The Academy stays hot! Schindler’s List is a great film.
Forrest Gump (Robert Zemekis)
Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
Quiz Show (Redford)
The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont)
The Winner: Forrest Gump
Should Have Won: Since the 1994 awards, there has been great discussion over whether Pulp Fiction or The Shawshank Redemption should have beaten Forrest Gump. It should have been Quiz Show.
Apollo 13 (Ron Howard)
Babe (Chris Noonan)
Braveheart (Mel Gibson)
Il Postino: The Postman (Mchael Radford)
Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee)
The Winner: Braveheart
Should Have Won: Braveheart, if it was ever good, has not aged well; Babe and Apollo 13 have.
The English Patient (Anthony Minghella)
Fargo (Joel Coen)
Jerry Maguire (Cameron Crowe)
Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh)
Shine (Scott Hicks)
The Winner: The English Patient
Should Have Won: Fargo, come on.
As Good as it Gets (Brooks)
The Full Monty (Peter Cattaneo)
Good Will Hunting (Gus Van Sant)
L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson)
Titanic (James Cameron)
The Winner: Titanic
Should Have Won: Titanic was destined to win, but L.A. Confidential is vastly superior.
Elizabeth (Shekhar Kapur)
Life Is Beautiful (Roberto Benigni)
Saving Private Ryan (Spielberg)
Shakespeare in Love (John Madden)
The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick)
The Winner: Shakespeare in Love
Should Have Won: Shakespeare in Love has gone down in history as a testament to Harvey Weinstein’s ability to lobby Oscar votes. Saving Private Ryan seems like the most likely winner, but The Thin Red Line is, perhaps, the most thoughtful, meditative film about war ever made.
American Beauty (Sam Mendes)
The Cider House Rules (Lasse Hallstrom)
The Green Mile (Darabont)
The Insider (Michael Mann)
The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan)
The Winner: American Beauty
Should Have Won: Turns out The Insider is a far more insightful glimpse at the state of American life than American Beauty.
Stay tuned for Part 3: the 2000’s