What Should Have Won Best Picture For the Past 30 Years

By  · Published on March 4th, 2014

After all the handwringing and concern, this year’s Oscars were reasonably even-handed. After all, the directors for Adaptation, Shame and Children of Men all got to make acceptance speeches – and they got to give them while representing incredibly strong pieces of cinema, standing alongside some stridently beloved performers. The next morning, there was a general perception that the whole program had been “fair” after a few years where the politicking (and its results) were too overt, where decent had replaced outstanding, where ossification had set in. The Academy had finally gotten it right. Whatever that means.

The thing is, to think of any given stack of Oscar ballots as being wrong is both faulty and perfectly natural. We do it every year with gusto even knowing that – for all the pomp and ceremony – the Academy Awards aren’t a final or definitive word on quality. They’re one group’s opinions, but they feel like something more. Something that has the power to solidify cultural merit or spark an artistic legacy. It’s why the digital pitchforks come out for “snubs.”

With that in mind, Scott Beggs, Rob Hunter and Landon Palmer got together to argue what movies should have had their names etched in Oscar history, to do a calculation on Academy accuracy – admittedly with the benefit of clear-eyed hindsight and correct opinions. That didn’t make some years easier or anything. Some bad picks were obvious, but most years led to a lot of verbal fisticuffs.

Still, we managed to come out with one shining example of cinema for every year from 1983 through 2012.

1983: Terms of Endearment

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? Terms of Endearment

Emma (Debra Winger) and her mother Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) don’t exactly get along, but as the years pass and the two women grow older they discover their differences pale beside their love. If alien invaders ever worm their way into our society this film and its ability to identify those with or without human hearts might be our only line of defense.

It’s a beautifully acted and written adult drama that will wring every last ounce of fluid from your tear ducts, but the genius of it is that it never feels manipulative. Instead, writer/director James L. Brooks and his immensely talented cast deliver an authentic glimpse into the lives of people that we come to know and care about. – Rob Hunter

1984: This Is Spinal Tap

Was it nominated? No

What won? Amadeus

Not exactly a year bursting with prestige, it did far better on the populist front. Somewhere in the middle of that Venn diagram, lost backstage, is the mockumentary brilliance of Christopher Guest’s career blueprint. On the surface, it’s hilarious and endlessly quotable, but beneath all that it’s a cringing exploration of fame and self-delusion. Mostly self-delusion. Not only is it a success at making us laugh, it uses three long-haired court jesters (in perfect, empty-brained performances) to seek out human traits that are rarely explored in film. Naturally, its profundity holds hands with songs like “Lick My Love Pump.” – Scott Beggs

1985: Brazil

Was it nominated? No

What won? Out of Africa

Brazil’s troubled production history is proof enough of the importance of recognizing risk-taking filmmaking in the face of an increasingly risk-averse studio system, but in this case, the controversy ultimately mimicked the film itself. What begins as a manic, inventive depiction of bureaucratic chaos quickly morphs into a no-holds-barred portrayal of systems of dystopic control that implement the method behind the madness. “1984” as imagined by Salvador Dali, Terry Gilliam’s film was never meant to be a cautionary tale, but a funhouse mirror that forces a consideration of the baby-masked forces that limit the possibilities for a better future. – Landon Palmer

1986: Stand By Me

Was it nominated? No

What won? Platoon

Without a single insincere note, this story about a group of four friends, a dead body and a road trip without a car treats youth (and all of its complexity) with raw honesty. It also refuses to condescend to its pubescent heroes even as it reveals their flaws. Of course, they’re our flaws as well, or at least the flaws we owned before we tested for a driver’s license. And maybe a few we held onto.

Rob Reiner’s film also combines all the best and most familiar elements of Stephen King’s writing – classic rock ’n’ roll, friendship, morbid fascination, bullies, transformation and the power of a good story. Oddly enough, it’s also easy to forget that it’s a direct meditation on death and loss with the journey to see an ex-person bookended by an adult Gordie learning about Chris’ violent end. Devoid of white noise and urgency, it plays out exactly like a favorite memory should. – SB

1987: Broadcast News

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? The Last Emperor

A network news producer (Holly Hunter) finds herself lost in a love triangle of sorts with an anchorman (William Hurt) and a field reporter (Albert Brooks), but her biggest challenge is her struggle to remain true to herself. James L. Brooks’ greatest film is also my favorite movie of all time. Every frame, word, and performance is perfection with the lead actors in particular playing at the top of their game. The story remains a sharply insightful and sadly predictive look at the cheapening of our media and televised journalism, and its ability to balance that intelligence with incredible wit and an awkwardly realistic adult romance is a feat rarely matched in or out of Hollywood. It’s an honest film that finds value in every emotion, for better or worse, that combine to make us who we are. – RH

1988: The Thin Blue Line

Was it nominated? No (not even for Best Doc)

What won? Rain Man

Excluded from consideration for Best Documentary Feature because AMPAS members saw its reenactments, pointed advocacy, and deliberate reveal of information as unbefitting non-fiction filmmaking, The Thin Blue Line has probably influenced documentary filmmaking more than any single film of the past quarter century. Errol Morris not only makes an art of reality (complete with a hypnotizing score by Philip Glass), but in doing so inaugurated his career-long fascination with exploring the nature of how we come to know and understand what it is we think we know and understand. By exploring the ways that we make reality of fictions, The Thin Blue Line took non-fiction to a new level. – LP

1989: Do The Right Thing

Was it nominated? No

What won? Driving Miss Daisy (Yup, seriously.)

Has there been another film about contemporary American race relations quite like this? Spike Lee’s magnum opus captured a moment somewhere between the Civil Rights era and a gentrified Brooklyn and, in the context of a 1980s NYPD culture that regularly brutalized black Americans, urged a conversation about what we talk about when we talk about difference. Its huge cast of characters, its regional specificity, its hip-hop soundtrack, and its pained search for justice make Do the Right Thing a quintessential American film. It serves as a necessary reminder of what sugar-coated films purportedly “about race” rarely dare to say about race. – LP

1990: Goodfellas

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? Dances With Wolves

In an alternative universe, Martin Scorsese would have won his Best Director statue 26 years earlier than he did, and his angry film about organized crime would have scored Best Picture. (To be clear: I think Dances With Wolves is a great movie, and that backlash against it is mainly motivated by its undeserved win instead of genuine dislike.)

Goodfellas evoked the filmmaking of the 1970s – both as a concise resculpting of The Godfather and as an exhibition of Scorsese’s energy – while taking advantage of the technology and access at the director’s finger tips in the 90s. It’s one of the last times that Robert De Niro fully owned a role (Cape Fear 1992 is arguably on the list, too), but it was the freedom to improvise on set that led Joe Pesci to steal scenes like a hair gelled Jesse James and earn an Oscar of his own. It’s an epic tale of having a dream, pursuing it, achieving it, and then watching it eat away at your soul. – SB

1991: The Silence of the Lambs

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? The Silence of the Lambs

Jonathan Demme’s crime thriller is a dominating movie. It sticks to your ribs like curdled milk that you’re happy to drink a second glass of. No wonder it won all of the big five Oscars and continues to be studied and re-analyzed year in and year out. More than just fame, this is a movie that’s reached icon status.

Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling is a fantastic character constructed from familiar noir tropes without relying on them. Her performance anchors the insanity – truly, insanity – floating around her and the case. More than that, it’s rare for a film to feature two iconic villains, but Buffalo Bill with his kidnapping, skinning and front-tucking stands out even as Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) eclipses the sun. It’s as perfect a procedural as we’re likely ever to see. – SB

1992: Glengarry Glen Ross

Was it nominated? No

What won? Unforgiven

James Foley is the reason that all other Mamet films feel…well, “less than.” Foley meets Mamet’s precise sense for rhythmic dialogue with impeccable staging and perfect camerawork, a stunning realization of stage material for the medium of film. Mamet’s expressive portrayal of winner-take-all economics already speaks well beyond the era of Reagan and Friedman, but the real gift of Foley’s Glengarry Glen Ross is in watching great actors deliver the meatiest of material. A gold standard for screen performance as well as adaptation, it is an eternal reminder that a few people and some words don’t only make for great theater. – LP

1993: Schindler’s List

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? Schindler’s List

Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a factory owner in World War II Poland and friend to the German occupiers, but he finds it impossible to ignore his conscience, so he sets in motion a plan to save as many Jews as possible from Nazi persecution. Steven Spielberg’s B&W epic is quite possibly the most deserving Best Picture winner in Academy history. It’s a true story, both ridiculously compelling and masterfully told, and it features Neeson’s finest performance to date.

Spielberg refuses to pussyfoot around the images of suffering and pure cruelty, and aside from one highly effective “gimmick” involving the little girl in red, he avoids flashy filmmaking in favor or stark and affecting cinema. But yes, we strongly considered Groundhog Day as our pick instead. The conversation lasted a while. – RH

1994: Ed Wood

Was it nominated? No

What won? Forrest Gump

The film industry is no stranger to making movies that romanticize the tortuous and rewarding art of making movies. But Tim Burton’s biopic of the “worst filmmaker ever” is less about filmmaking than it is about our own blinding romance with the movies. Where the film could have easily traded on cheap jokes at Wood’s expense, Ed Wood is unapologetically sincere. And that’s the key that unlocks its insight into the magic and risk of making movies, regardless of what the outcome may be. Wood’s (fictional) conversation with Orson Welles, delivered in full drag, should be required viewing for anyone who dares to pick up a camera.

(And, yes, the conversation on this one – featuring Shawshank, Pulp Fiction and yelling – lasted longer than the Schindler’s List one.) – LP

1995: Se7en

Was it nominated? No

What won? Braveheart

A pair of detectives (Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) race against time to catch a serial killer working his way through the seven deadly sins. The earliest of three David Fincher films to make our list, this remains the man’s masterpiece. An unflinching and painfully exciting thriller, this is a film that fascinates even as it revolts and depresses. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script and Fincher’s eye created a world together where the only things darker than the decrepit hallways and rain-soaked streets are the hearts of the men who walk them. It’s bleak and brave in equal measure, a less sensationalized and showy Silence of the Lambs, and a mesmerizing deconstruction of formula. And not for nothing, but it’s a ballsy movie in a business that more often than not plays it far too safe. – RH

1996: Fargo

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? The English Patient

Marge! A Sunday School hero charged with bringing down some serious scum. Like most Coen Brothers’ movies, it features an ink black sense of humor, a job gone wrong and a host of mortal consequences. All of that is a lattice to support an impressive series of events filled with some unbelievable weirdos. Those odd ducks are brought to life by a fleet of naturalistic and psychopathically endearing performers who manage to keep the two-in-six-billion sensibility of the Coens intact.

Like Silence of the Lambs – but using completely different tones and methods – it perfects genre by adding to it and subverting its ideas. The result is a punch of creativity that laughs as loud as a gun shot while desperation sleeps on the bunk below. – SB

1997: L.A. Confidential

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? Titanic

Curtis Hanson’s sprawling mosaic of LAPD corruption in the 1950s is one of the great films of the 1990s, certified by the presence of a ’90s Kevin Spacey. Both a tribute to and deconstruction of Classic Hollywood, L.A. Confidential diagnoses a Tinseltown dedicated wholesale to what’s on the surface. Hanson’s film is not a cynical take at the brutal depths behind Hollywood’s glossy surface, but rather an exegesis on how a place of such intoxicating beauty and perfection lends itself to self-aggrandizement at all costs. L.A. Confidential is one of the most engrossing mirrors Hollywood has ever fashioned for itself. – LP

1998: The Truman Show

Was it nominated? No

What won? Shakespeare In Love

Truman (Jim Carrey) lives a simple life in a small coastal town, but he suspects something is amiss with the world around him. He’s right of course, but what he doesn’t know is that he’s the 24/7 star of his very own TV series and the town is little more than a set populated with actors. There are a handful of films that are impossible to turn away from if you come across them while channel surfing… The Shawshank Redemption, A Few Good Men, Street Kings, and this gem from director Peter Weir and writer Andrew Niccol. Carrey’s heartfelt performance carries us through a story as suspenseful as any thriller but far more creative and emotionally rewarding. But yes, Saving Private Ryan would have owned this slot if Spielberg had lopped off that embarrassing coda with Ryan as an old man. – RH

1999: Fight Club

Was it nominated? No

What won? American Beauty

A man (Edward Norton) in need of a change meets an enigmatic soap salesman (Brad Pitt) who shakes things up in dramatic and occasionally literal fashion. David Fincher’s (and screenwriter Jim Uhls’) adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s supposedly unadaptable novel is as perfect a marriage of style and substance as we could hope for. The story meshes a critical take on consumerism with man’s dwindling role in society, and Fincher’s technical precision brings it alive with visuals that immerse viewers into the world through imaginative touches, onscreen text, and more.

It’s dark and raw but never sloppy, and it continually fascinates. It stands apart from the cookie cutter crowd with its themes, intelligence, and visual splendor, but more than that it leaves your mind alive with activity (that you aren’t allowed to talk about). – RH

2000: In The Mood For Love

Was it nominated? No (not even for Best Foreign Film)

What won? Gladiator

In the Mood for Love’s lengthy shoot meant it could have become many things: a decades-spanning flashback story, a story about an illicit affair, etc. Lucky for us, Wong Kar-Wai stripped the film down during post-production to a non-affair-affair between two lonely figures on the other side of a dishonest relationship. In doing so, Wong crafted one of cinema’s great romances. Within the compact corners and between the eavesdrop-ready walls of this ’60s Hong Kong apartment complex is a resonant story of an emotional bond more profound than physicality can demonstrate. You simply have to know how to see what’s right in front of you. – LP

2001: Memento

Was it nominated? No

What won? A Beautiful Mind

A man (Guy Pearce) suffering a rare disorder that prevents him from creating new memories struggles to collect clues he hopes will lead him to his wife’s killer. Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s second film tells a fascinating story of obsession and revenge, but it does so while playing with narrative and structural conventions. The result is a richly rewarding experience that satisfies on the mystery front while simultaneously ending on an emotionally powerful final note.

2001 was an amazing year for movies with titles like Amelie, The Royal Tenenbaums, Vanilla Sky, In the Bedroom, The Pledge, and more, but it’s Nolan’s film that draws attention back again and again with its exquisitely crafted, wondrously executed, and highly memorable tale. – RH

2002: Catch Me If You Can

Was it nominated? No

What won? Chicago

Populist and sprawling, Steven Spielberg’s profile of Frank Abagnale’s real-life crimes is one of the most delightful daddy-issue therapy sessions of the modern era. Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks make a smirk-inducing odd couple engaged in a game of Cat and Also Cat. It’s a chase scene engine with a lot of charm and meaningful emotional tics brought on by abandonment and failed promises.

All of it is best illustrated by two scenes. One where Abagnale reveals to young brace-faced Brenda (Amy Adams) who he really is and she responds with deeper commitment, and a second where he bails on meeting with her to run away because he sees plainclothes cops ready to nab him. His sincere desires are eclipsed by the lies he’s chosen, and he’s not the only one to get hurt. There’s a trenchant complexity here underneath the mainstream adventure. Such an outstanding blend. – SB

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

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? It did

A crowning achievement that was several years (and nominations) in the making, it’s hard to deny the sheer force and magnitude of what Peter Jackson and his team constructed. There’s an argument that it was an award for the entire trilogy, but Return of the King stands on its own – building rousing narrative arcs about honor, courage and friendship while putting Weta’s innovative CGI on display.

It was a towering example of fantasy that also managed to bring a tear to the eye (“I can carry you!”). Everything in this movie about tiny Hobbits was huge. – SB

2004: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Was it nominated? No

What won? Million Dollar Baby

A man (Jim Carrey) opts into an experimental procedure that wipes memories of his ex-girlfriend (Kate Winslet) from his mind after discovering that she did the same, but as the moments both good and bad disappear forever, he fights to hold onto the woman he fell in love with. Michel Gondry’s visual stylings are a perfect pairing for Charlie Kaufman’s ideas, and their combined imagination could power a mid-sized country for decades.

The beauty of their collaboration is that they manage to harness that creativity for a love story overflowing with wit and warmth. It’s unafraid to let its characters act ugly when cornered and hurt, and it strikes a delicate balance between raw emotion and visual wonder. It’s sci-fi magic but as real as the joy and pain each of us feels in our own private love stories. – RH

2005: Cache

Was it nominated? No (not even for Best Foreign Film)

What won? Crash

Michael Haneke’s films have long been invested in confronting the audience as witnesses to filmic events. But where he’s settled for brash provocations in the past, Haneke here makes a transcendent film that interrogates the relationship between knowledge and power in the ever-political act of looking. Rather than delivering a simple mystery about who is spying on a bourgeois French family, the true revelations in Cache pertain to its unlayering of issues related to memory, guilt, and complicity when we seek simple closure to complex, resonant questions. The question is not who is taping, but what we do when we’re seen. – LP

2006: Children of Men

Was it nominated? No

What won? The Departed

Remember that alternative universe from before where Scorsese wins for Goodfellas? It culminates years later with Alfonso Cuaron and his baby-less dystopia getting sincere recognition. For some reason, this movie managed to fly under the radar even as people were screaming from the rooftops about it. A pure revelation of intimate characteristics displayed as bigthink ideas, it also featured no fewer than four action sequences that literally dropped jaws. No hyperbole there – the scenes (particularly the 360-degree car attack in the woods and the single-take military raid) demanded a physical response.

It’s more than simple spectacle, though (which Cuaron’s latest could easily be accused of), with a loud-beating heart at the core of its redemption story. – SB

2007: Zodiac

Was it nominated? No

What won? No Country For Old Men

2007 was a great year for bleak movies. But the reason Zodiac stands out (beyond its under-recognized technical achievements, hiding in plain sight) is its brilliant displacement of where we assume the focus of a serial killer film should lie. Rather than giving attention to the Zodiac killer’s morgue-bound victims, Fincher’s film holds its lens on three people whose lives became consumed by the serial murderer. Zodiac is fascinated with the process by which an event can latch itself onto our lives and take control. It’s a story of obsession and an exhaustive search for closure far bigger than any typical “whodunit.” – LP

2008: Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father

Was it nominated? No (not even for Best Documentary)

What won? Slumdog Millionaire

How many movies have made you cry? How many have made you cry a dozen times? And not just a knowing sob, but a full-on, no-shame bawling that originates deep in your chest. What movie has had that kind of hold on you?

There are many things to be said for issue movies (even though the Oscars tend to nominate them while delivering wins to the “fun” documentaries), but few take a singular, gut-wrenching focus like this one and telescope it purely by revealing the story as it unfolds. If you haven’t seen it, the less you know the better, but suffice it to say that it is a heart-crusher of familial bonds, terror and enduring love. – SB

2009: Inglorious Basterds

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? The Hurt Locker

Two stories unfold and converge in Nazi-occupied France as an unorthodox squad of American soldiers fight a vicious war against the enemy and a young woman (Melanie Laurent) plots revenge against the German officer (Christoph Waltz) who slaughtered her family. Quentin Tarantino’s World War II epic features many of his filmography’s usual traits, but for the first time he manages a tale that delivers emotional weight alongside a marvelously crafted piece of cinema. Every element here works in near-perfect conjunction with the next, from the editing to the dialogue to the performances to the soundtrack, and together they work to tell a richly satisfying tale. Even better, the film is itself an ode to Tarantino’s and our love of movies and the people who make them. – RH

2010: Inception

Was it nominated? Yes

What won? The King’s Speech

Once again, Christopher Nolan proved how far the boundaries of imagination could be pushed and what creativity looks like when encapsulated by a 30 foot x 70 foot screen. Inception blended genres, built a host of fantastical worlds and thrilled with mind-twisting effects (that were often practical).

It’s a studio picture, but it’s also a miracle that it got made at a studio (or at all), and that paradox (sorry) makes it even cooler. A crowd-pleaser with a trippy sci-fi concept, it was a rare roller coaster that raised questions – and had people talking endlessly afterward. – SB

2011: Meek’s Cutoff

Was it nominated? No

What won? The Artist

The Western has made so many attempted comebacks, and has been retooled and reimagined so exhaustively, that it seemed we had truly drained all the mythos, themes, and imagination we could place on western expansion. Then Kelly Reichardt’s mesmerizing period piece comes along and, more so than any film on the subject matter I can think of, intricately depicts the existential nightmare of moving westward in the 19th century. While so many period pieces are told from the vantage point of the present, Meek’s Cutoff takes you somewhere that makes you forget the last 160 years ever existed. – LP

2012: Oslo, August 31st

Was it nominated? No (not even for Best Foreign Film)

What won? Argo

A troubled young man (Anders Danielsen Lie) on a day pass away from a drug treatment center struggles with frequently overwhelming depression as he revisits the people and places that resonate strongest in his life. Films about mental illness are far from uncommon, but too often they settle for flashy acting or stylish presentation over simple, honest humanity. This Norwegian drama from director/co-writer Joachim Trier features a heartbreaking and powerful lead performance that, along with the score, cinematography, and script (co-written by Eskil Vogt) captures a truth about the crushing power of sadness. It speaks to anyone with a heart, but it speaks a bit louder to those of us touched by depression in our friends, family members, or even ourselves. – RH

We’re looking forward to hearing your opinions and have no doubt that – even in disagreement – the comments section will be filled with thoughtful discourse.

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