Oscar Award 2016

Oscars 2016: The Real Best Pictures of The Past 40 Years

  | February 28, 2016 09:31 IST (Washington)
Oscars 2016

A still from the film Spotlight

Let's take a walk through the past four decades of Best Picture winners. It's an almost unbroken chain of incorrect decisions! But with the perspective lent to us by the passage of time, we can now confidently look back and discern what was actually the best

#OscarsSoWhite? How about #OscarsSoWrong? The inability of the academy to find a single non-white actor to nominate in two years may seem baffling, but remember - this is the same academy that is painfully misguided and short-sighted when it comes to awarding trophies. (Also Read: Oscars 2016: Is Author of Revenant the Book Thrilled? He Can't Comment)
Let's take a walk through the past four decades of Best Picture winners. It's an almost unbroken chain of incorrect decisions! But with the perspective lent to us by the passage of time, we can now confidently look back and discern what was actually the best. Doing our best to set the record straight here, but don't hesitate to argue with us in the comments section. Let's start with the last time Sylvester Stallone was a nominee.
Nominees:All the President's Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Rocky, Taxi Driver
Best Picture winner: Rocky
The actual best picture: Network
Tough year! And Rocky was actually a moody, refined piece of filmmaking, in addition to great popular entertainment ... but Network transcended entertainment and became prophecy in perpetuity (Howard Beale's latest incarnation is, of course, Donald Trump). The ambition of its writing, the wickedness of its cast, the firm hand of director Sidney Lumet - Rocky may go the distance but Network wins by decision.
Nominees:Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars, The Turning Point
Best Picture winner:Annie Hall
The actual best picture:Annie Hall
Surprise! Star Wars is frequently considered one of Oscar's great misses, but wow, Annie Hall? The academy got it right this time. Woody Allen's film reinvented the rom-com in ways that are still being ripped off to this day, and it changed the way we talk about our own relationships. (Says Dan Zak: I know which one I'd rather watch over and over again: the one that involves a large vibrating egg.)
Nominees:Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman
Best Picture winner: The Deer Hunter
The actual best picture:An Unmarried Woman
The Deer Hunter launched Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep, and it has some lovely, haunting sequences, but the Vietnam scenes feel dated now. Meanwhile, An Unmarried Woman is so lovely, down to its whimsical jazzy score by Bill Conti. And when Alan Bates gives Jill Clayburgh a giant painting at the end ... bliss.
Nominees:All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, Kramer vs. Kramer, Norma Rae
Best Picture winner: Kramer vs. Kramer
The actual best picture:Apocalypse Now
What a bonkers roster. Kramer vs. Kramer is a gorgeously spare, simple movie about divorce and parenting -- can you believe that 105 minutes of talking without CGI or explosions was not only the Oscar winner but the box-office champ for 1979? But it's hard not to love every shot of Apocalypse Now, which routinely makes Top-10 lists of the best films ever. If this lineup were voted on today, Apocalypse would win in a landslide.
Nominees: Coal Miner's Daughter, The Elephant Man, Ordinary People, Raging Bull, Tess
Best Picture winner: Ordinary People
The actual best picture?
Dan Zak claims: 1980 came to epitomize Oscar injustice, when Robert Redford's predictable tale of suburban angst won over Martin Scorsese's gorgeous boxing epic. Ordinary People is no dud, but here I bow to the sweep instead of intimacy. (And how did Tess even get into this conversation?)
Amy Argetsinger maintains: Wrong! The Shining reinvented the horror film (what if the monster is inside your head?), holds up to endless analysis and still scares the hell out of me.
Nominees:Atlantic City, Chariots of Fire, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds
Best Picture winner:Chariots of Fire
The actual best picture: Raiders of the Lost Ark
And so the Oscars began its hopeless love affair with "prestige" pics - posh British accents, period costumes and vaguely noble-seeming themes. And thus it missed the chance to reward the movie that raised the bar for action-adventure and special effects, launched Harrison Ford as the most important star of the 1980s, and remains an absolutely thrilling film to this day.
Nominees:E.T. the Extraterrestrial, Gandhi, Missing, Tootsie, The Verdict
Best Picture winner: Gandhi
The actual best picture:Tootsie
Raise your hand if you've seen Gandhi. Anyone? It's hard to think of a movie that had a shorter shelf-life after the Oscars. (But hang in there, we will.) Tootsie and The Verdict are two of the tightest screenplays ever written, and feature two beloved actors (Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman) in career-best performances. Tootsie, with its deft handling of comedy and romance, is the greater feat. Watch it now: It's still laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Nominees: The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff, Tender Mercies, Terms of Endearment
Best Picture winner:Terms of Endearment
The actual best picture:Terms of Endearment
The last Best Picture winner that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors and still has room for Jack Nicholson. Eminently watchable - good luck trying to flip away from it if you stumble upon it on cable some night - and exquisitely tear-jerking still. (The Big Chill is almost unwatchable today - no, really, try it - and took a nomination slot that should have gone to a little movie called Testament, starring Jane Alexander as a mother struggling to keep her family alive after a nuclear attack.)
Nominees:Amadeus, The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier's Story
Best Picture winner: Amadeus
The actual best picture:Amadeus
Surprise! Yes, Amadeus was awash in posh accents and wigs. But with Tom Hulse, it brought a dusty historic icon like Mozart to giggling life, while tapping into our own feelings of inadequacy in the person of F. Murray Abraham's Salieri -- the man just brilliant enough to recognize he wasn't brilliant enough. And it connected thrillingly to the music. It probably truly was the best, even in a year that included Ghostbusters.
Nominees: The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Out of Africa, Prizzi's Honor, Witness
Best Picture winner:Out of Africa
The actual best picture:Back to the Future
God bless Meryl, but Out of Africa was a pristine, color-by-numbers costume drama, elevated by some pretty scenery. Did anyone sit down in the past year and watch this again? Anyone in the entire world? Two of this year's best screenplay nominees deserved to be in the best picture category: Back to the Future and The Purple Rose of Cairo. For its sheer cultural endurance, let's pick B2TF. This would've been the appropriate time to honor director Robert Zemeckis, instead of in 1994, but we'll get to that soon.
Nominees:Children of a Lesser God, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Mission, Platoon, A Room with a View
Best Picture winner:Platoon
The actual best picture: Hannah and Her Sisters
Kids, would you believe us if we told you that there was once a Best Picture Oscar winner that starred Charlie Sheen? Yes, there was, and it was Oliver Stone's pompous and bombastic Vietnam drama. Meanwhile, we can deal with our complicated feelings about Woody Allen elsewhere; Hannah proves itself to be his best movie, as Dan's annual viewings of this novelistic comedy-drama have determined.
Nominees:Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction, Hope and Glory, The Last Emperor, Moonstruck
Best Picture winner: The Last Emperor
The actual best picture: Moonstruck
The Last Emperor was such a quintessential Oscar winner -- a handsome but ponderous epic by a director (Bernardo Bertolucci) who is much better when sex is involved (Last Tango in Paris, The Dreamers).Broadcast News got so much so right about Washington journalism and dating-at-work, but James L. Brooks had just won big with Terms four years earlier; and Fatal Attraction was the apex of the era's psychosexual-thriller craze but has not aged well. Moonstruck, on the other hand, is pure joy - a modern-day version of romantic comedies that won the top prize back in the Golden Era (It Happened One Night, The Apartment) but never do anymore.
Nominees: The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, Rain Man, Working Girl
Best Picture winner: Rain Man
The actual best picture: Big
You know what the best part of Rain Man is? Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise should've won best actor that year, instead of Dustin Hoffman. There. It's been said. No way was Rain Man the best picture, not with the fizzy and delightful Working Girl in the running. Still, the actual best movie of 1988 did not even make it into the finals: Big, a deceptively simple fable about innocence and maturity disguised as fish-out-of-water romp.
Nominees:Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Driving Miss Daisy, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot
Best Picture winner: Driving Miss Daisy
The actual best picture:Field of Dreams
There was so little enthusiasm for the polite little Driving Miss Daisy that director Bruce Beresford wasn't even nominated; the day after the Oscars, the world forgot that this movie ever existed. Whereas the plaintive mysticism of Kevin Costner hearing the voices of dead White Sox ... a movie so cornball-potent it sent legions of dads and lads on pilgrimages to a cornfield baseball diamond movie set in Dyersville, Iowa. (They do know it was just a movie set, right?) Plus, by rewarding a Kevin Costner film, we might have gotten it out of our system and thus avoided.
Nominees: Awakenings, Dances with Wolves, Ghost, The Godfather Part III, Goodfellas
Best Picture winner: Dances with Wolves
The actual best picture:Goodfellas
Dances With Wolves was like an Oscar trap - a gorgeous, sweeping epic directed by a red-hot leading man (Costner), but empty at the center and barely remembered today. Whereas Goodfellas was Martin Scorsese's masterpiece - a dark, funny, anthropological take on mob life that paved the way for the Sopranos and is still ripped off annually by some lesser filmmaker or another. And rewarding Scorsese then would have lifted the pressure to over-reward his perfectly acceptable but far from groundbreaking "The Departed" 16 years later.
Nominees: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides, The Silence of the Lambs
Best Picture winner:The Silence of the Lambs
The actual best picture: The Silence of the Lambs
It's still amazing that Academy members made this pick. And oh what a pick. It was dead right. The culture has filed Silence in the horror-film category, but really it's a feminist Western. And an artful, thrilling experience. (But how, at the same time, did they manage to deny a nomination to Thelma and Louise? #OscarsSoWrong.)
Nominees: The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, Howards End, Scent of a Woman, Unforgiven
Best Picture winner: Unforgiven
The actual best picture:Unforgiven
Once again, they got it right. Unforgiven, a beautifully contemplative Western whose hero grapples with what it means to kill someone, also had the meta-appeal of serving as an apology for Eastwood's gleefully bloody Dirty Harry years. Still, this lineup of nominees doesn't reflect how fun movies were that year -- A League of Their Own and Death Becomes Her and Sneakers. Hey, how about Sneakers for best pic?
Nominees:The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, The Remains of the Day, Schindler's List
Best Picture winner: Schindler's List
The actual best picture?
Dan Zak: I have seen plenty of Spielberg movies, but I have never seen anything like The Piano. It isn't a film. It's a portal.
Amy Argetsinger: Huh. I thought Schindler's List was pretty darn undeniable. I'll keep an open mind, though
Forrest Gump, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption
Best Picture winner:Forrest Gump
The actual best picture:Pulp Fiction
Forrest Gump was a mawkish piece of cheap tone-deaf manipulation that was embarrassing to watch even at the time, even while it crushed at the box office. Perhaps the worst Oscar travesty of all time -- especially in the year of the exhilaratingly creative, mindbending Pulp Fiction, which remains one of the best movies to come in on the middle of while cable-surfing at 11 p.m.
Nominees: Apollo 13, Babe, Braveheart, Il Postino, Sense and Sensibility
Best Picture winner:Braveheart
The actual best picture: Not that.
Amy Argetsinger: The Academy has a weakness for historic epics and doughty men and noble themes and actors-turned-directors - so why didn't they just pick Apollo 13, which has all of that in spades and was much, much better movie than the ambitious but mediocre Mel Gibson vehicle? Besides, rewarding Ron Howard properly this year would have kept them from overcompensating to him six years later.
Dan Zak: Oh my God I'm picking Babe. Will that do? Will that do?
Amy Argetsinger: That'll do, pig.
Nominees: The English Patient, Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies, Shine
Best Picture winner: The English Patient
The actual best picture?
Dan Zak: Any cinephile would pick Fargo, but I've never been able to forgive its all-too-coincidental climax, which crushes the movie's delicateness with a deus ex machina the size of a tan Ford Sierra. Seinfeld made The English Patient into a punchline, but it's a remarkable adaptation of the remote and interior Michael Ondaatje book.
Amy Argetsinger: Seriously? When was the last time you watched it? Fargo was the best distillation of the Coen Brothers' unique voice, and rewarding them this time would have kept the academy from overcompensating 11 years later.
Nominees:As Good as It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential, Titanic
Best Picture winner: Titanic
The actual best picture:Titanic
Yeah, L.A. Confidential -- whatever. Titanic is a freaking masterpiece. A sumptuous production, two of the planet's most likable actors, a gripping story, and visual effects that still hold up. Deal with it.
Nominees:Elizabeth, Life Is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, Shakespeare in Love, The Thin Red Line
Best Picture winner: Shakespeare in Love
The actual best picture:Elizabeth
Harvey Weinstein's egomania eclipsed what is actually a fabulous movie: Shakespeare is brimming with wit but light as gossamer, and with a gorgeous end that's satisfying even though it's not technically a happy one. But Elizabeth is the real cinematic achievement: visceral, painterly, and it introduced us to the force that is Cate Blanchett.
Nominees: American Beauty, The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense
Best Picture winner:American Beauty
The actual best picture: The Sixth Sense
Here's another best picture that has not aged well. American Beauty feels very of-the-'90s. Its earnestness, its plastic bag as metaphor for the fleetingness of life - I mean, jeepers. The Sixth Sense was more than just its twist ending. We keep thinking about the teary car scene between Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment. That alone would've won our vote.
Nominees: Chocolat, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Erin Brockovich, Gladiator, Traffic
Best Picture winner:Gladiator
The actual best picture: None of the above.
A perfectly fine revival of the old chariots-and-togas genre, Gladiator was still basically just a solid B of a movie. However, it employed a lot of technicians and B-list actors (while launching Russell Crowe to the A-list), and that's something that academy voters tend to see as in their own economic self-interest. So, whatever.
Dan Zak:Almost Famous or Requiem for a Dream.
Amy Argetsinger:Memento.
Nominees:A Beautiful Mind, Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge!
Best Picture winner: A Beautiful Mind
The actual best picture:In the Bedroom
If only the academy had rewarded Ron Howard for his Apollo 13 six years earlier, it wouldn't have had to overreward this middling star vehicle. (Though in fairness, Russell Crowe probably deserved the Oscar for A Beautiful Mind instead of Gladiator.) We might have gone for Moulin Rouge! at the time, but In the Bedroom has since risen in our estimation. It's a fast pitch down the middle, whereas Baz Luhrmann is just swinging a baseball bat at anything that comes his way.
Nominees:Chicago, Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist
Best Picture winner: Chicago
The actual best picture:Chicago
Chicago is still the standard bearer for movie musicals in the post-Gene Kelly era. It's a thrilling, seamless experience. (But Spike Jonze's Adaptation was robbed of a nomination.)
Nominees:The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, Seabiscuit
Best Picture winner:The Lord of the Rings
The actual best picture:Lost in Translation
There was a desperate inevitability to 2003's win -- Peter Jackson had pulled off this sprawling trilogy on a brisk schedule and with blockbuster receipts, and here was the last chance to reward him, so ... It's only with a decade's distance that we can say, the third LOTR wasn't nearly as memorable as the first, and the first wasn't really all that great. But that was how the academy missed its chance to recognize a sweet, sardonic film by a female director (Sofia Coppola) that launched a new era for national treasure Bill Murray and a superstar career for Scarlett Johansson.
Nominees: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Million Dollar Baby, Ray, Sideways
Best Picture winner:Million Dollar Baby
The actual best picture: Million Dollar Baby
As Roger Ebert said: "a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true." (But pour out some of your pinot for "Sideways," a dark, character-driven comedy that you can watch every time it comes on TV and still find a moment of resonance.)
Nominees: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night and Good Luck, Munich
Best Picture winner:Crash
The actual best picture: Brokeback Mountain
Your tolerance for Crash may vary, but let's face it: It won because it employed a dozen well-liked B-listers, and it was filmed in the neighborhoods where all the academy voters live. A sensitive and groundbreaking film whose catchline ("I can't quit you") still haunts, Brokeback was robbed. One positive about the "Crash" win: Jack Nicholson as presenter. He should present all best pictures. Note his cheeky gestures and "whoa," directed toward the wings, after announcing the winner.
Nominees:Babel, The Departed, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen
Best picture winner:The Departed
The actual best picture?
Dan Zak: Was The Queen a comedy? It was to me. Scorsese had to go conventional to finally win, but I wouldn't call it a compromise. The Departed is a sinfully fun movie.
Amy Argetsinger: Sure, but it's not even one of Scorsese's five best; and again, if they had only gotten it right in 1990, we wouldn't have been in this quandary today. The real problem is that the actual best picture of 2006 was robbed of a nomination -- and that was the bravely over-the-top and hugely entertaining Dreamgirls.
Nominees: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood
Best Picture winner: No Country for Old Men
The actual best picture: Michael Clayton
As our film critic Ann Hornaday said of No Country: Fine artists working at the height of their powers, "all to follow around a serial killer blowing people away with a cattle stun gun." Michael Clayton, on the other hand, felt like it sprung straight from the 1970s, cinema's second golden age. Plus, it had Tilda Swinton with one of the best best-supporting-actress performances ever. (Argetsinger adds: I will give you this one, Dan. There Will Be Blood, was the actual best picture, but I do not have the words to explain how it affected me.)
Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, Slumdog Millionaire
Best Picture winner:Slumdog Millionaire
The actual best picture: None of the above.
Amy Argetsinger: I'm going to say it. Twilight is the best movie of 2008. Catherine Hardwicke managed to bring gritty indie-film texture and Pacific Northwest moodiness into a blockbuster, one of the rare teen flicks where the teenagers actually look like teenagers and and their inarticulate pauses linger poignantly in the multiplex. But also a subtly camp sense of humor woven throughout, anchored by Robert Pattinson, that had me laughing throughout. OK, maybe I had had a few drinks, but ... a surprisingly lovely film.
Dan Zak: You are out of your mind. What about The Dark Knight, or The Wrestler, or In Bruges? Or even Synecdoche, New York?
Nominees: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, The Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air
Best Picture winner:The Hurt Locker
The actual best picture:The Hurt Locker
There was much complaining that the Oscars had once again honored a prestigious indie film seen by few people instead of a popular multiplex hit -- but the real complaint should have been, why wasn't "The Hurt Locker" a popular multiplex hit? Yes, it was a psychological drama about a failed war -- we get why you resisted popping it into the DVD player -- but the action was superb, too.
Nominees:Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King's Speech, 127 Hours, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter's Bone
Best Picture winner: The King's Speech
The actual best picture: Not that.
Dan Zak: Another prestige pic, in the mold of Chariots of Fire, except instead of an exciting race we have ... a speech impediment. I'm a sucker for boxing movies and The Fighter was an electric reinvention of the genre, with the added bonus of seeing Christian Bale and Amy Adams at the top of their games.
Amy Argetsinger: Really? Come on. The Social Network wasn't perfect, but name another movie that so expertly captured an era. I'm beginning to wonder if this was a good idea, you and me here.
Nominees: The Artist, The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse
Best Picture winner: The Artist
The actual best picture:Moneyball
The neo-silent film had its quirks and its charms, and amid so many bloated epics, it definitely deserves props for being the shortest Best Picture winner in a generation, at a brisk 100 minutes. But Moneyball is more than a baseball movie. It is a document of American masculinity at the turn of the millennium, when we began to inflict data on leisure in order to approximate the control of destiny. Sport convinces man that he is God, and this movie vibrates like a requiem for that hubris.
Nominees:Amour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty
Best Picture winner: Argo
The actual best picture: Skyfall
Go big or go home. Listen, this was a tough year: Argo was delightful, but Spielberg was working at a much higher level of difficulty by making the weighty themes of Lincoln so human and relatable. But that's beside the point: The academy had one chance to give a Bond movie the Oscar, and it was with the confident, thrilling, psyche-probing Skyfall. Bond may be the best franchise of all times, but its individual films rarely connect on all levels like this one did. (Note from Amy: Dan would surely veto this, but he's walked away from the computer.)
Nominees:American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Picture winner: 12 Years a Slave
The actual best picture:12 Years a Slave
In the hands of an artist like Steve McQueen, a historical epic sidesteps stodginess and uplift to become an intimate, wrought-iron tragedy.
Nominees: American Sniper, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
Best Picture winner: Birdman
The actual best picture?
Amy Argetsinger: Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and think, "That was a dream, right? Boyhood didn't really lose the Oscar, did it?" And then I look it up on my phone and am reminded that, somehow, Richard Linklater's 13-years-in-the-making masterwork did not win. It gets me every time.
Dan Zak: Do you reward the time and effort it took, or do you reward the finished product? For me, it's the latter. And thus it's Birdman.
Nominees: The Big Short, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, The Revenant, Room, Spotlight
Best Picture winner: TBA
The actual best picture?
Our critics are split between Spotlight and The Big Short. Meanwhile, this exercise has demonstrated to us that it truly does take distance and perspective to determine the actual best picture of any given year. Check in with us in 2025 for our ruling on the most deserving film of 2015.

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