No matter how excited we get for the Academy Awards every year, we reserve a piece of our minds for that inescapable pessimism: time after time, we find ourselves sighing heavily over the recognition of a duly undeserving movie with as the Best Picture of its given year. No matter how bleak a cinematic year, there are usually one or two films we're charged with going to bat for... but many of us know the pangs of seeing these greats passed over come the night of the big ceremony. Heck, sometimes, they don't even make it to the nominees list. But no matter what the Academy says, we all know what we consider the real Best Pictures to be.
Looking back on the most recent decade, we can find error in most of the Best Picture victories, even those that might have seemed sufficient at the time. The years 2000 through 2010 were rife with errors, the Academy assuming we'd hold fast to affection for films we've all but forgotten entirely, that we'd soon discover the good judgment in passing over those neglected bits of genius.
With the luxury of hindsight, we can throw quality, influence, and lasting presence in pop culture into the mix to determine what truly should have won the top honor each year at the Academy Awards.
"We are not entertained!"
What won: Kicking off what would turn out to be a rather mediocre decade of Best Picture wins was Ridley Scott’s effectively boring swords-and-sandals epic Gladiator. Though the movie may maintain a presence in the Hollywood lexicon thanks to a few memorable sequences — the thumbs up/thumbs down shtick; Russell Crowe’s endlessly quotable “Are you not entertained?” catchphrase, parodied above — it has generally been washed clean of any qualitative significance since winning the award.
What should have won: Fourteen years after the release of its pictures, the 73rd Annual Academy Awards’ Best Picture nominees list is overshadowed by one of its entry: Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a spectacle in technique and innovation alike. While Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic was an excellent picture in its own right, Crouching Tiger maintains a luster far dominant to the crime piece.
That said, the year in question is one of many in this gallery that would be best represented by a movie that didn’t earn a single Oscar nomination: High Fidelity. Though perhaps the less emotionally empowering of the two rock-and-roll movies released that year (the other being Almost Famous), High Fidelity serves now as a “voice of a generation” piece, one riveted by phenomenal lead and supporting performances.
Image: DreamWorks Pictures
"Terrified, mortified, petrified, stupefied... by this Best Picture win."
What won: In close contention for the most forgettable Best Picture win of the past decade in change, A Beautiful Mind is also a regrettably manipulative bastardization of a true plight with schizophrenia. And another Russell Crowe movie to boot!
What should have won: I can’t be too displeased that The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring didn’t snag the Oscar in 2001, mostly because the series got its due recognition two years later with a Best Picture win for Return of the King. That said, the first chapter definitely deserved the trophy over the John Nash biopic.
However, reigning supreme above its fellow nominees is Moulin Rouge!, the very epitome of the sort of cinematic showmanship ostensibly celebrated by the Academy.
Image: Universal Pictures
"How'd you do it, Frank? How'd you win the Oscar?"
What won: I am one of the few who’ll go to bat for the charms of Chicago, which does its musical-comedy duties in remaining peppy and stimulating throughout. I won’t condone much of in the way of Richard Gere, but the flick on the whole is an altogether decent piece of work. That said…
What should have won: Again, I’m drawn to mention The Lord of the Rings, if only out of spiritual obligation. The real Best Picture nominee to take the cake (besting Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and the impeccably cast The Hours both by a wide mile) is The Pianist.
While unabashedly powerful, the grim nature of the story keeps it from holding steady territory in the cinematic conversation, especially considering that the kingship of its realm has been unofficially assigned to Schindler’s List without room for debate.
So, we again turn away from the nominees list to find a movie that worked quite as effectively and stays close to our hearts to date (and no, it’s not cheating to go for a Steven Spielberg film): Catch Me If You Can, the delightful, engaging, oft quoted bit of merriment that I can’t help but watch every time it’s on television (especially around Christmastime).
Image: DreamWorks Pictures
"You shall not surpass... this year's Best Picture winner."
What won: First of all, I know that the quote parodied in this slide’s headline is from Fellowship, not the 76th Best Picture winner Return of the King. Please don’t revoke my Middle-earth passport.
If I haven’t yet made this perfectly clear, I am 100 percent on board with Peter Jackson’s trilogy capper having won the Academy Award for ‘03. I love Lost in Translation like nobody’s business, and reference American Splendor on a weekly basis. But enigmatic whispers and Judah Friedlander tirades about Revenge of the Nerds, lastingly significant as they might be, cannot trounce the artistic and pop cultural merits of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Well done, Academy.
Image: New Line Cinema
"Each Oscar accepted, each nominee resigned."
What won: I remember liking Million Dollar Baby enough when I saw it… but that memory restores only when I’m prompted to think about the Oscar-winning community on the whole; the film almost never comes to mind on its own accord, ranking perhaps as the most forgettable movie to win since the pre-Gladiator days. And it’s funny that “forgettability” should be such a factor here…
What should have won: …because the real best movie of 2004 was, no doubt, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’d like to throw obligatory esteem at The Aviator (of which I’m part of the dwindling fandom) and Sideways, but non-nominee Eternal Sunshine stands out above all as the most memorable and generationally significant movie of the calendar year, and among those of the decade entirely.
If you were anything in between a sensitive middle schooler or a media-savvy 50-year-old at the time of Eternal Sunshine’s release, it should have made an impact of some profundity on your life. Especially for those on the precipice of adulthood in ‘04, the film stands as something altogether special, telling, and representative.
Image: Focus Features
"I wish I knew how to quit caring about the Oscars."
What won: Crash.
What should have won: Anything but Crash. Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Grizzly Man, Capote, Kung Fu Hustle. Just not Crash.
Image: Focus Features
"What are you, an Awscah winnah? Go f**k yourself!"
What won: Although rating low as far in contention with the rest of Martin Scorsese’s lifetime of creative output, The Departed might well have been the best option to represent 2006 as the Best Picture winner at the 79th Annual Academy Awards. Not because it was so good (it really wasn’t), but because the year gave us so few memorable movies.
What should have won: In such a lightweight year, I’m prompted to call Little Miss Sunshine, a Best Picture nominee and perfectly fine indie dramedy, one of the strongest contenders for the spot.
Outside of the nominees, we have what probably tops both mentioned pictures: Alfonso Cuaron’s science-fiction fable Children of Men. Though the better picture in a vacuum, The Departed has likely proven more culturally durable, if only, perhaps, for heightened accessibility.
Image: Warner Bros
"What's the biggest Oscar you ever lost on a coin toss?"
What won: Few take issue with the victory of No Country for Old Men, the Coen Brothers’ quiet, haunting Western/horror film steeped in nihilism and American decay.
What should have won: The conversation here hasn’t changed much since 2007: No Country or There Will Be Blood? I’ll always side with the latter, Paul Thomas Anderson’s richer (though perhaps less stylistically impressive) character piece about a hollow man in a hollowing world.
Image: Miramax/Paramount Vintage
"Who wants to be a Best Picture winner?!"
What won: Slumdog Millionaire, another film living humbly in the backs of our minds, but one that stirred far more outcry upon its initial victory than either Million Dollar Baby or A Beautiful Mind.
What should have won: Again we’re treated to an Oscars absent of go-to answers. The honored nominees are all good, but that boring kind of good that you can’t really justify awarding with the Best Picture. So we look elsewhere, and eagerly: Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, one of the finest feature films ever made.
The humanistic piece is as intimate as Kaufman’s prior screenwriting effort, Eternal Sunshine, and as vast and impressive in scope as something like 2001: A Space Odyssey. The movie is as grand an achievement in filmmaking as anything else we’ve seen in decades, exemplifying the human experience with little parallel.
So, yes, I think it should have beaten Slumdog.
Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures
"That's a Best Picture bingo!"
What won: Finally, we’re back among good company. The Hurt Locker stands as as perfectly viable option for Best Picture — proving well made and sociopolitically significant five years after its release (though for my money, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is the superior effort).
What should have won: Still, I can’t help but dwell on my own favorite movie of the year: Inglourious Basterds, which itself keeps quite a happy resting place in the zeitgeist. Two very different illustrations of war, each effective in its own way at communicating horror and wonder alike. For me, though, Inglourious tops off with that indefinable cinematic zest What won: Finally, we’re back among good company. The Hurt Locker stands as as perfectly viable option for Best Picture — proving well made and sociopolitically significant five years after its release (though for my money, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty is the superior effort).
What should have won: Still, I can’t help but dwell on my own favorite movie of the year: Inglourious Basterds, which itself keeps quite a happy resting place in the zeitgeist. Two very different illustrations of war, each effective in its own way at communicating horror and wonder alike. For me, though, Inglourious tops off with that indefinable cinematic zest — one that will continue to dazzle for ages.
The 82nd Annual Academy Awards’ Best Picture category was no slouch! Other great prospects: District 9 and A Serious Man, though neither really holds a candle to The Hurt Locker or Inglourious.
Image: The Weinstein Company
"If you were the best best picture, you would have won Best Picture."
What won: As the Academy is wont to do, it opted to represent the filmmaking prowess of 2010 by awarding the Best Picture Oscar to The King’s Speech, a film so familiar in form as to practically rob its own story of merit just by its manner of conduction.
What should have won: Meanwhile, they had the option to award one of two wonderfully original, fresh, and idiosyncratic pieces that same year: The Social Network, itself a bitingly affecting story for and about a very specific generation dealing with its own very specific self-induced malignancies; and Black Swan, a majesty of form and psychoemotional evocation — the most viscerally riveting movie I’d seen in years. Either of those would have been fine!
Image: Columbia Pictures