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.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee)
Erin Brokovich (Steven Soderbergh)
Gladiator (Ridley Scott)
The Winner: Gladiator
Should Have Won: Gladiator was built to win Oscars, but Traffic and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are the better films.
A Beautiful Mind (Howard)
Gosford Park (Altman)
In The Bedroom (Todd Field)
The Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring (Peter Jackson)
Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann)
The Winner: A Beautiful Mind
Should Have Won: The Fellowship of The Ring is still an astounding realization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel.
Chicago (Rob Marshall)
Gangs of New York (Scorcese)
The Hours (Stephen Daldry)
The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers (Jackson)
The Pianist (Polanski)
The Winner: Chicago
Should Have Won: The Two Towers is the height of Jackson’s The Lord of The Rings trilogy, but Chicago is a solid choice.
The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King (Jackson)
Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola)
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Weir)
Mystic River (Eastood)
Seabiscuit (Gary Ross)
The Winner: The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King
Should Have Won: The Return of The King, the weakest of the three Rings movies, won in the name of the complete trilogy. The award should have gone to the much smaller, far more personal Lost in Translation.
The Aviator (Scorcese)
Finding Neverland (Marc Foster)
Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood)
Ray (Taylor Hackford)
Sideways (Alexander Payne)
The Winner: Million Dollar Baby
Should Have Won: Like most of Eastwood’s films, Million Dollar Baby is well-crafted, boring Oscar-bait. The Academy again passed over a great comedy in Sideways.
Brokeback Mountain (Lee)
Capote (Bennett Miller)
Crash (Paul Haggis)
Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney)
The Winner: Crash
Should Have Won: In a rare show of irony, the Academy selected Crash to win the Oscar for Best Picture instead of any of the four other, actually good, films that were nominated. It’s a travesty that Brokeback Mountain didn’t win.
Babel (Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu)
The Departed (Scorcese)
Letters from Iwo Jima (Eastwood)
Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)
The Queen (Frears)
The Winner: The Departed
Should Have Won: Many critics felt that it won the Best Director and Best Picture awards for Martin Scorcese’s career, but The Departed is vital, electric, and the best picture of 2006.
Atonement (Joe Wright)
Juno (Jason Reitman)
Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy)
No Country For Old Men (Joel and Ethan Coen)
There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Winner: No Country For Old Men
Should Have Won: There’s no doubt that No Country For Old Men deserved the gold. It’s just a shame it couldn’t be shared with the tremendous There Will Be Blood.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
Milk (Van Sant)
The Reader (Daldry)
Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)
The Winner: Slumdog Millionaire
Should Have Won: The next year the Academy would expand the field of Best Picture candidates from five to ten when they realized they had failed to nominate a movie that people liked, like The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan). Milk is pretty good.
The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock)
District 9 (Neil Blomkamp)
An Education (Lone Scherfig)
The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
Inglorious Basterds (Tarantino)
Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (Lee Daniels)
A Serious Man (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Up (Pete Docter)
Up In The Air (Jason Reitman)
The Winner: The Hurt Locker
Should Have Won: District 9 is an all-timer, but The Hurt Locker was the best in a pretty strong field. Kudos to The Academy on their choice.
127 Hours (Boyle)
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky)
The Fighter (David O. Russell)
The Kids are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko)
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper)
The Social Network (Fincher)
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich)
True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen)
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik)
The Winner: The King’s Speech
Should Have Won: The King’s Speech is a blueprint for how to win Oscars: it’s a period drama that does not risk challenging or offending its audience. The Academy picked a snoozer from an incredibly strong field. The award should have gone to the excellent The Social Network or Winter’s Bone… or Black Swan, or Toy Story 3.
The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
The Descendents (Payne)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Daldry)
The Help (Tate Taylor)
Midnight in Paris (Allen)
The Tree of Life (Malick)
War Horse (Spielberg)
The Winner: The Artist
Should Have Won: The Artist? Ugh. Malick’s marvelous The Tree of Life is, by far, the most legitimate candidate on this list.
Argo (Ben Affleck)
Amour (Michael Haneke)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)
Django Unchained (Tarantino)
Les Miserables (Hooper)
Life of Pi (Lee)
Silver Linings Playbook (Russell)
Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow)
The Winner: Argo
Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained were too controversial, Amour was too emotionally distressing, and Beasts of the Southern Wild didn’t make enough money, so Argo took home the Oscar.
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
American Hustle (Russell)
Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass)
Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallee)
Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron)
Her (Spike Jonze)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorcese)
The Winner: 12 Years a Slave
Should Have Won: 12 Years a Slave is not the wrong choice, but Her and The Wolf of Wall Street are its equals.
American Sniper (Eastwood)
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)(Inarritu)
Boyhood (Richard LInklater)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
The Theory of Everything (James Marsh)
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
The Winner: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Should Have Won: Birdman? Seriously? Not the astounding Boyhood or the sublime The Grand Budapest Hotel? Come on, Academy.
The Big Short (Adam McKay)
Bridge of Spies (Spielberg)
Brooklyn (John Crowley)
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)
The Martian (Ridley Scott)
The Revenant (Inarritu)
Room (Lenny Abrahamson)
Spotlight (Tom McCarthy)
Will Win: The Revenant
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road; it’s an incredible achievement. At 70-years-old, George Miller has created as vital and kinetic a science-fiction epic as has ever been made. The Revenant, while beautiful to look at, is a joyless slog.