Countdown to the Oscars: The Greatest Best Picture Hits, Misses, and Draws

By February 25, 2016
on October 19, 2009 in Santa Clarita, California.

Love ‘em, hate ‘em, or love/hate ‘em, The Oscars bring out strong feelings in just about all movie lovers. For better or worse, the decisions Academy members make year in and year out about what films and performances are deemed “the best” carry a lot of weight in film history. If a movie can boast “Best Picture Winner” on its poster or logline, it gets attention (and views). It’s a badge of honor, a stamp of approval, and a guarantee to be remembered on movie trivia lists in the future.

The question is: do they get it right? The real answer is there is no “right” or “wrong” when critiquing something that is as subjective as film. Still, with hindsight and perspective, we can look back at previous Best Picture winners and deduce whether or not the films chosen as “the best” have lived up to that title. Do they stand the test of time? Did they add something new to the medium or push boundaries? Did they touch viewers on an emotional, intellectual, or even visceral level, and do they continue to do so? Is their value as entertainment and/or art still credible?

These are just a small handful of questions we asked film lovers and GeekNation writers, Matt Brown and Rachel Cushing, in an experiment to see which films, from the last 87 years, they would each list as most deserving of their Best Picture wins, which were least deserving, and which years it was too close to call.

And here we go!

Rachel: Let’s start with the good! While there have been some pretty egregious misses on the part of Academy voters in the past (more on that below), I do think they’ve gotten it right as far as Best Picture goes on a number of occasions. So my choices for “Yay, the Oscars Got it Right” are:

1954’s On The Waterfront

It won against The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Three Coins in the Fountain.

AFI’s 100 Greatest Films of All Time List includes this Elia Kazan classic at #19 and the easy answer as to why, is Marlon Brando’s towering and game changing performance. But it’s so much more than that. For me, this is one of the movies that changed what film meant to me when I first saw it. You can tell how personal of a story it was was for director Kazan, who was considered an outcast because he named names to HUAC in the early 1950s. The scope of the movie is both big and small, and if viewers walk away with nothing else, they at least will have seen, and felt, one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever committed to film, Terry telling his brother “I coulda been a contender…”  No other film in 1954 came even close to touching that level of emotional realism.

1972’s The Godfather

It won against Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, and Sounder

the godfather

Just to be clear, my list is not all about Marlon Brando (but could you blame me if it was…?!). Looking back, this year included a number of films that ended up being significant to film history (Cabaret was directed by the legendary Bob Fosse, and Deliverance has clearly made a mark on cinema with it’s dark and brutal story about human nature), so it’s a little harder to objectively state that The Academy got it right when choosing The Godfather as Best Picture. Still, I’m making that claim because, well, it’s The Godfather! This is character storytelling at it’s best, with many moving parts that support the central story of a man who slowly succumbs to The Dark Side (if only Anakin Skywalker were as compelling…a story for another day).

Francis Ford Coppola’s moody, intimate, and tense direction brilliantly tells the story of a mob family that isn’t made up of two dimensional baddies, but of three dimensional human beings who believe in love and loyalty. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of tension, violence, and blood to go around, but it’s the family you will walk away thinking about.

1993’s Schindler’s List

It won against The Fugitive, In The Name of the Father, The Piano, and The Remains of the Day

This is another year that included a number of solid, even great, films (The Piano is Jane Campion’s moody and magical masterpiece, and The Fugitive is, quite simply, a fantastic action movie), but no film matched the harrowing, yet hopeful, depth of Steven Spielberg’s dramatic telling of one small story that took place during The Holocaust. Somehow this movie came out in the same year as Spielberg’s mega blockbuster hit, Jurassic Park, which only further proves that he is one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. As for Schindler’s List, it is one of the best examples of the marriage of horror and beauty in film. Spielberg often tells stories about grace and hope, and that is nowhere more apparent than in this story about a man who somehow managed to save lives during one of the greatest horror shows in history. His decision to shoot in black and white is a beautifully artistic choice that enhances the story and gave us that indelible image of a little girl in a red coat – a symbol of both tragedy and the hope we find in spite of it.

Matt: While my personal preference is Deliverance (he said while avoiding the pitchforks of Godfather fans) I still think that, objectively speaking, I can’t really argue with The Godfather’s win. Here are my picks for when the Oscars got it right:

1943’s Casablanca

It won against For Whom The Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, In Which We Serve, Madame Curie, The More The Merrier, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette, and Watch on the Rhine.


You don’t even need to see all those other movies to know that they got it right here. Casablanca is simply one of the greatest stories ever told by some of the greatest filmmakers, actors, and characters of all time. In fact, if you asked me what I thought the greatest movie of all time was (I might come up with a different answer if given time) but my gut reaction is always Casablanca. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

1980’s Ordinary People

It won against Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, and Tess.

Oooh, controversial. This has often been regarded as an example of old white men giving the award to “typical Oscar-bait” while ignoring classics like The Elephant Man and Raging Bull. Well let me ask you this, when is the last time you actually saw Ordinary People? That’s what I thought. The film at a glance may seem like a typical family drama, and maybe it is as far as plot goes. But the film is a master class in subtlety for everyone from the writers to the director to the actors. It’s a film I’ve seen several times and I always pick up a little something new. It’s an absolute masterpiece and one of my favorites.

2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

It won against Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, and Seabiscuit.

“Oh, but it had too many endings!” Shhh… no.

Had this film lost, it would have joined the league of films like Star Wars and The Dark Knight, movies that should have won but didn’t because the Academy rarely, if ever, awards big budget films. But Return of the King (and, as an extension, the other two Lord of the Rings films) is quite simply one of the greatest cinematic achievements of this or any time.

“Yeah, but you have to see the other movies to get what’s going on, it’s not a full movie.” Shhhh… no. Go away.

Rachel: Nice picks, Matt (as the lady with an elvish tattoo on her back, I particularly approve of your last choice)! But now we must move on to those head scratching moments when Academy voters clearly honored the wrong film…here are a few years I think the Oscars missed the mark in picking Best Picture:

1956’s Around the World in 80 Days

It won against Giant and The Ten Commandments…as well as Friendly Persuasion and The King and I.

It’s a little hard to know what it must have been like to see Around the World in 80 Days back in 1956, but I imagine people were pretty blown away by it’s epic grandeur and extensive special effects (which were state of the art at the time), but wouldn’t they also have been astounded by The Ten Commandments?? Watching both today, I’d say that was a far more impressive achievement (I mean, Charlton Heston parted The Red Sea!).

I also have to say that hindsight has proven Giant to be much more than just the last film James Dean starred in before his premature death. It’s a beautiful movie in it’s own right as it takes on a number of complex social and moral issues while tracing the journey of a family in Texas over 20 years. It seems  to me that both these films have left a much stronger mark on cinema history than Around the World in 80 Days (I’d also like to mention that I used to watch The King and I on loop as a kid…just putting that out there).

1996’s The English Patient

It won against Fargo and Jerry Maguire as well as Shine, and Secrets and Lies.

The term “Oscar bait” gets thrown around a lot and I usually take it to mean a period piece that is epic in scope (visually and thematically), full of big performances, and is, more often than not, rather tragic. Now, sometimes that combination results in an absolutely worthy Oscar winning film (like Lawrence of Arabia, Gone With the Wind, or Ben-hur, just to name a few) and other times, it results in…something less than that. The English Patient, to me, is the worst type of “Oscar bait” movie, one that plays at emotion but doesn’t actually achieve it.

Yes it’s stunning to look at, and the supporting turns by Juliette Binoche and Naveen Andrews are affecting, but, man, is the main storyline a dud. But that’s just my personal opinion – there are many people who the film did hit on an emotional level, and yet even those people cannot call the film “original” or “groundbreaking” or even paced all that well…all of which you can clearly say Fargo is. What a daring, bloody, funny and wholly original film! And it loses to “Lawrence of Arabia – lite”?? Sigh.

2005’s Crash

It won against Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night and Good Luck, and Munich.

In this instance, I will make the claim that Crash did not deserve to win Best Picture over ANY of the other nominated films!!! (Deep breath) Countless words have already been written about how Brokeback Mountain is one of the most deeply emotional, honest, and inspiring movies to be made in the last 25 years…and will therefore go down as one of the greatest snubs in Oscar history.

Not that Crash isn’t a worthy attempt at weaving LA stories together in a socially thoughtful way, but it’s stunt casting and clunky message don’t come near the brilliant subtlety in any of the other nominees (ok, I won’t call Capote subtle…but the acting is certainly a whole lot better!). This is clearly one of the most baffling decisions the Academy has ever made…

brokeback mountain

Matt: I have to admit, I have not seen The English Patient but I have seen the episode of Seinfeld where everybody loves that movie except for Elaine, and as I have been in that position before with many films, I feel her pain. And now it’s my turn to rail at The Oscars for getting it wrong:

1968’s Oliver!

It won against The Lion In Winter, as well as Funny Girl, Rachel, Rachel, and Romeo and Juliet.

Look, Oliver! is a fun (if too lengthy) musical iteration of Oliver Twist with some memorable songs and good performances. But The Lion In Winter pairs Katharine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, the best actor and actress of that time, and perhaps all time. The film could have been about Hepburn and O’Toole making idle chitchat at Applebee’s while they wait too long for their food to arrive and it would be magnificent. We just lucked out that this particular film is actually great.

1990’s Dances With Wolves

It won against Goodfellas, as well as Awakenings, Ghost and The Godfather Part III.

I almost went with the previous year when Driving Miss Daisy beat Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot and the not even nominated Do The Right Thing. However I haven’t seen Driving Miss Daisy and I thought that would be unfair. But I have seen Dances With Wolves and Goodfellas and there isn’t even a question. How does Kevin Costner’s dry, bloated, meandering Western beat Martin Scorsese’s mob masterpiece? No sense. It makes no sense.


2008’s Slumdog Millionaire

It won against The Dark Knight, which I know wasn’t even nominated, but come on! In a year that also gave us WALL-E, Iron Man, Australia, Burn After Reading and In Bruges, as well as actual Best Picture nominees The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Frost/Nixon, how does Slumdog Millionaire win? It wasn’t that good to begin with, and it was barely memorable after the fact. Plus, The Dark Knight wasn’t even nominated, and no, I will not let that go.

Rachel: I have to admit I really liked Dances With Wolves at the time, but with hindsight, I  do agree that Goodfellas probably should have won. And, as someone who has seen Driving Miss Daisy…yeah, it didn’t deserve the win over Born on the Fourth of July (or, for me personally, Dead Poet’s Society – an all time great in my book).

When we started this list, we realized that there were some years where more than one film really did deserve to go home with the golden statue for Best Picture. These are the years where we don’t envy those who had to vote one way or the other:

1939’s Gone With The Wind

It won against The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington…not to mention Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Of Mice and Men, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights.

I just can’t…I mean, how do you choose between two of the greatest films ever put to film?? You can’t argue that the scope of Gone With the Wind is grander than The Wizard of Oz or that it has more memorable moments (for every “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” you have “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, for every “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” you have “There’s no place like home”).

Both of these films were ahead of their time and both still stand up today.  And just to make things interesting, there are many years where the inspirational Mr. Smith Goes Washington would have taken home the top prize as well. What a year for film!

1962’s Lawrence of Arabia

It won against The Longest Day and To Kill a Mockingbird…as well as The Music Man and Mutiny on the Bounty.

I will start off by saying I think The Academy got it right in choosing Lawrence of Arabia (one of my Top Ten Favorite Films of All Time), but both The Longest Day and To Kill A Mockingbird have earned their place amongst the greats as well. AFI declared Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird to be the most heroic character ever put to film and The Longest Day is one of the greatest WWII films ever made.

It’s also a personal favorite of mine because it broadened its storytelling scope to include Germany’s perspective as well America’s, something that hadn’t been done in that way before (and would later be mimicked by the equally brilliant Tora! Tora! Tora!).

1976’s Rocky

It won against All the President’s Men, Network, and Taxi Driver…as well as Bound for Glory.

1976 fixed

If I had been a voter back then, I probably would have just flipped a coin (a four sided one if I could find it…) because how else do you choose? Rocky, All The President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver are all on the AFI Top 100 Films of All Time List (#s 57, 77, 64, and 52, respectively) and all have contributed to the ongoing journey of what cinema can be. They each, in their own way, helped push the boundaries of how to tell stories, showcase character development, and be entertaining at the same time. There is style and truth in all of these movies, and it should have been a four way tie…that’s all I’m saying.

Matt: Many of these films I consider to be some of the best of all time, some even in the top 10. To think that many came out in the same year seems an embarrassment of riches. In fact I only just saw All The President’s Men for the first time a few weeks ago, and it only made the 1976 dilemma harder. Damn, that’s a brilliant movie.

Well, here are my choices for When The Oscars Made a Near Impossible Decision:

1977’s Annie Hall

It won against The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars, and The Turning Point

1977 fixed

Annie Hall vs. Star Wars. Quirky vs. revolutionary. The oft forgotten gem The Goodbye Girl was also nominated that year, but it was really Allen vs. Lucas. It’s an easy win for Star Wars for me personally, but even I have to admit that Annie Hall is a terrific, smart, and fresh comedy. I bet that if you put it to a vote again even after 40 years of hindsight, you still wouldn’t be able to call it.

1997’s Titanic

It won against As Good As it Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, and L.A. Confidential

Again, this is an easy win for me because Titanic is one of my top 5 favorite movies, but (having not seen The Full Monty) As Good As It Gets, Good Will Hunting, and L.A. Confidential are all 10/10 films as well. So while I think they made the right call, I can imagine it was in no way an easy one.

2007’s No Country For Old Men

It won against Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton and There Will Be Blood.

It won against There Will Be Blood. Three for three, I still think No Country For Old Men was the best movie of 2007 and deserved the win, but there was a wrinkle. I almost put this under “when the Oscars got it right” but to do that would underestimate There Will Be Blood. I can only imagine how much harder it would have been if the list of nominees included Sweeney Todd, 3:10 To Yuma, Zodiac, Gone Baby Gone, or even Hot Fuzz, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Grindhouse.

Rachel: I think 2007 was one of the best years for film in the last two decades, but do agree that The Coen Brothers deserved the win for No Country for Old Men (after needlessly losing in ‘96 for Fargo…yeah, I’m still harping on that).

Matt: I almost went with 1994 instead of 1997 for when Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption. I think people often complain about Forrest Gump simply for beating a movie they preferred and start to forget how great it really is. And yet despite how great those other two films (because who are we kidding, we’re talking about three classics here) I never questioned Gump’s win, so there was very little debate for me to present.

So there’s our look back at some of the years where we think the Oscars got it right, got it wrong, and ultimately made a pretty impossible decision. It’ll be interested to see how we look back on this decade to see if the films chosen are simply of their time, or will stand the test of it. What are some of your favorite Best Picture winners? How about biggest snubs?

Keep checking back here at Geeknation as we continue counting down to Oscar Sunday.

Rachel Cushing
Rachel is a television editor by day and either a Jedi knight, vampire slayer, or elvish warrior by night. In between she makes time for movies, movies, and more movies (plus a few books, television shows, and then…more movies). When she’s supposed to be sleeping, she writes about movies as well, both here on and on her own blog. Tweet her @RachelJCushing