Top 5 Films That Should Not Have Won Best Picture (1990-present)

Written by Brent Holmes February 26, 2012


With Oscar night just around the corner comes the probability of another disappointment at midnight. (In all likelihood, The Artist will win beating out Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life, making this writer very sad). Now is the opportune time to reflect on some of the classic failings of the Academy. Obviously charting out the films least deserving of the title of Best Picture is a gargantuan task, there are 84 years of Best Pictures to observe. To break it down, here are the top 5 films since 1990 that should not have won Best Picture.

5) 2009: The Hurt Locker/Up in the Air

A recent win and one that is hard to criticize. Katherine Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker winning Best Picture is the ultimate case of satisficing. There were worse outcomes to this year, with Avatar appearing as another front runner after it’s win at the Golden Globes.

The win was promoted as a win for feminist filmmakers, however, it’s hard to see how The Hurt Locker is a feminist film. As far as war films go, there hasn’t been a film that has been able to capture the wars in Iraq/Afghanistan the same way that Apocalypse Now, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon captured Vietnam. The Hurt Locker comes close but the notion that “War is a Drug” isn’t thoroughly explored or acknowledged. At the end of the day, it could be just as much a pro-war as an anti-war film.

Conversely, Up in the Air was a film that tackled the problems of 21st century society including the placing of jobs and economic success over companionship and relationships and the reactions to the 2008 recession. Director Jason Reitman is very much like this generation’s Martin Scorsese. Up in the Air is the 21st century Taxi Driver. Hopefully, it won’t take the Academy 40 years to give him his due.

4) 1990: Dances with Wolves/Goodfellas

Does this one require much explanation? It’s Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas! One of the most prominent directors of American cinema was denied Best Picture for over 40 years with Raging Bull and Taxi Driver being defeated by relatively bland films. (If this list included 1970s films, Taxi Driver losing to Rocky would be on here.)

Most notably, Goodfellas lost to Dances with Wolves, a film that halfheartedly tries to be an accurate presentation of Native Americans with really embarrassing inaccuracies. Like most American films pandering to certain equality sentiments, it defines the cultures of colonized groups through the lens of the colonizer.

Scorsese’s most recent win is too little, too late for the Academy. He was on the cutting edge of cinema when he started and any acclaim he gets for The Departed and Hugo will always be overshadowed by the significance of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.

3) 2000: Gladiator/anything else


Another tough decision, this one between Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), both films are presentations of overly melodramatic masculinity with cardboard characters have an emotional range that reaches from a grim desire for revenge to a bland depression. They are the antithesis to Titanic (also on this list).

Gladiator’s win at the 73rd Academy Awards was a worse call purely on the basis that there were films more deserving of the title including Chocolat, Traffic, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The most annoying thing about both Gladiator and Braveheart is the Americanization of history. Both films construct historical (or ahistorical) presentations of past civilizations with culturally American values, in Gladiator’s case around the notion of a fight for freedom that functions as self-affirmation for American political values. It is a boring set of ideals that wins out too much over other more realistic and intellectually stimulating films.

2) 1994: Forrest Gump/Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption


In 1994, Forrest Gump beat out two great films: Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, and Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. On the most basic level, this outcome is a result of the inability of the Academy to challenge questions of American identity. Forrest Gump is a film that undoubtedly asserts that the American Dream is a tenable one in any circumstance. Gump is a hollow dumping point for American values, most notably the value of accepting things at face value without questioning them.

Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption are essentially the opposite, calling into question the nature of violence and justice. 50 years from now, Pulp Fiction will have more aesthetic and cultural value than Forrest Gump ever will.

1) 1997: Titanic/The Sweet Hereafter


It is a close race between #1 and #2 on this list. Forrest Gump may have beaten out Pulp Fiction/The Shawshank Redemption, but Titanic’s win in 1997 beat out one of the Best Canadian Films that didn’t even get a nomination. The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan (who did get a Best Director Nomination that year) is quite simply one of the best films ever made. Exploring a small town devastated when a bus accident claims the lives of most of its children, The Sweet Hereafter is one of the most emotionally powerful films made and a symbol of the power of Canadian cinema.

It was defeated by the Titanic, (made by the essentially Americanized Canadian director James Cameron) a film designed to capitalize on the overtly emotional viewer. We see these kind of films all the time; The Vow representing the most recent attempt to exploit this overly indulgent, melodramatic tone to get an audience. Put simply, films that are deliberately structured to create an emotional reaction are less effective than films that earn it through genuine empathy.

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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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