The Least Deserving Best Picture Winners Since 1990

Some Oscar-winning films hold up better than others. With this year's Academy Awards ceremony approaching, we asked Metacritic contributor Nick Hyman to take a look back at the past two decades of best picture winners and select the 10 films least deserving of that award -- movies that either seem less impressive now that additional time has passed, or that should never have won in the first place, given the alternatives available. Take a look at his selections, and let us know what you think.

1994: Forrest Gump 82 Add to Netflix Queue

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While Forrest Gump is a solid sentimental flick, it was a harbinger of things to come in Hollywood, as its gimmicky use of visual effects often betrayed and overshadowed the drama that unfolded on screen. Sticking points include the stereotypical portrayals of the supporting characters, which include a “strong” female character who nevertheless must be saved by a man, and Forrest’s African-American best friend Bubba.

Should have won instead:
The Shawshank Redemption 80 Add to Netflix Queue

Prison drama The Shawshank Redemption should have been the winner this year. Contender Pulp Fiction is mostly great, but suffers a bit from a self-indulgent bloated running time. The Shawshank Redemption’s reputation has grown in the ensuing years due to Frank Darabont’s brilliant adaptation of Stephen King’s source material and for the memorable performances of Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman.

Memorable film(s) not nominated for best picture:
Ed Wood 70 Tim Burton made his last brilliant film (before he let set design and costuming take over his movies) in this biopic about the infamous director featuring great turns by Johnny Depp, Martin Landau (who won the Oscar for supporting actor), and Bill Murray ... Heavenly Creatures Peter Jackson’s masterful blend of fantastical visions and a heartbreaking real-life murder tragedy has arguably never been topped ... Once Were Warriors Lee Tamahori’s stunning debut about a Maori family being torn apart by violence and pride was intense, moving, and unforgettable.

1996: The English Patient 87 Add to Netflix Queue

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The well-produced but overwrought and overlong romantic drama was essentially the Out of Africa for the ’90s. Starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas as World War II-era explorers and tragic lovers, the film took on too many subplots and featured overly extensive flashbacks. The film’s best picture win also ushered in the era of Miramax’s notoriously aggressive Oscar campaigning.

Should have won instead:
Fargo 85 Add to Netflix Queue

The Coen Brothers wouldn’t strike Oscar gold until 2007 with No Country for Old Men, but they probably should have with this wryly told gem of a crime drama about a car salesman (William H. Macy) who hires two knuckleheaded criminals (Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare) to murder kidnap his wife. Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning portrayal of small-town police chief Marge Gunderson was both heartwarming and incisive.

Memorable film(s) not nominated for best picture:
Breaking the Waves 76 Lars von Trier's brilliant film about a deeply religious woman who must cope with her recently paralyzed husband's request that she have sex with other men was and is unlike anything else ... Trainspotting 83 Director Danny Boyle would go on to win Best Picture with 2008's Slumdog Millionaire, but was that movie really better than this kinetic adaptation of Irvine Welsh's drug-addled novel?

1997: Titanic 74 Add to Netflix Queue

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Titanic is a massive achievement in filmmaking, but director James Cameron’s writing isn’t in the same league here. Two lovers going down on a famous sinking ship would have been enough, but did we have to have a hammy Billy “I hope you two enjoy your time together!” Zane chasing them down with a gun?

Should have won instead:
L.A. Confidential 90 Add to Netflix Queue

This masterful film based off of James Ellroy’s novel was a richly realized ’50s-era crime drama that netted Kim Basinger an Oscar for supporting actress, shot Russell Crowe to international stardom, and featured great performances from the likes of Guy Pearce and Kevin Spacey. The latter’s simple reply of “I don’t remember” when being asked why he became a cop is more powerful than a ship hitting an iceberg.

Memorable film(s) not nominated for best picture:
The Ice Storm 72 Dysfunction runs amok in two different affluent families in Connecticut in the early '70s. Key parties, adultery, and sexual confusion are a part of director Ang Lee and screenwriter James Schamus' brilliant adaptation of Rick Moody's novel.

1998: Shakespeare in Love 87 Add to Netflix Queue

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Shakespeare in Love is a good but not great semi-meta-fictional movie about the famous playwright falling in love with a merchant’s daughter, who longs to be an actor. At times, the ensemble cast and canned settings make the film feel more like a well-done TV movie than an Oscar-winning film. Many observers were surprised at the film’s victory over best director winner Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.

Should have won instead:
Saving Private Ryan 90 Add to Netflix Queue

Despite a corny time-spanning framing device that plays to Spielberg's worst instincts, his World War II drama is an old-fashioned men-on-a-mission action film filled with gritty realism and astonishing set pieces. Tom Hanks leads the band of brothers here, which also includes great supporting turns by Jeremy Davies, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Barry Pepper, and Matt Damon as the titular soldier.

Memorable film(s) not nominated for best picture:
The Truman Show 90 Peter Weir's prescient satire on the way the media covers and influences our lives hit screens right before reality television would take over. Weir was able to temper star Jim Carrey's comedy tics and wrench out a brilliant performance as a man whose whole life has been unknowingly televised. Ed Harris also shines as the director of the successful reality show.

1999: American Beauty 86 Add to Netflix Queue

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Since 1999 was the strongest year for American film since the '70s, it's strange that a film as flawed as American Beauty won the award for best picture. The Sam Mendes-directed film uses questionable symbolism to argue that it's okay to fantasize about screwing your teenage daughter's best friend because you're a suburban white male unhappy with your life and one-note shrew-like wife (Annette Bening). Only Thora Birch as Kevin Spacey's character's daughter and Wes Bentley as her boyfriend avoid coming off as cartoonish stereotypes.

Should have won instead:
The Insider 84 Add to Netflix Queue

Michael Mann's drama about Big Tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman was a suspenseful and beautifully stylized telling of real-life events. Russell Crowe's beefy portrayal of the conflicted Wigand and Al Pacino's reined-in take on Bergman were the perfect yin/yang for Mann's behind-the-camera skills.

Memorable film(s) not nominated for best picture:
Fight Club 66 Arguably David Fincher's most realized vision is this adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's novel about how today's man fits into modern society. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton are the men and Helena Bonham Carter is the complicated femme fatale. It's certainly much better than The Social Network ... Three Kings 82 Before The Fighter, David O. Russell took George Clooney, Ice Cube, Mark Wahlberg, and Spike Jonze into the Gulf War with outstanding results. Yes, it's an action film, but one with intelligence, style, and a politically righteous point of view ... The Matrix 73 There probably hasn't been a more influential science fiction film since this Wachowski Brothers classic, which introduces Neo (Keanu Reeves) as he takes the red pill and enters a technological rabbit hole that prophetically features a land where people are controlled by machines. Can you hear me now?

2001: A Beautiful Mind 72 Add to Netflix Queue

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Ron Howard’s overly earnest biopic about Nobel Laureate economist John Nash and his struggles with paranoid schizophrenia was very nearly the definition of Oscar bait. Russell Crowe’s performance as Nash is excellent, but Jennifer Connelly (who won the best supporting actress Oscar) as his wife seems sedated as she rather boringly stands by her man. The film's “twist ending” also seemed completely ripped off from better films The Sixth Sense and Fight Club.

Should have won instead:
(None)

Other nominees included Gosford Park, Moulin Rouge!, In the Bedroom, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Memorable film(s) not nominated for best picture:
Amélie 69 Jean-Pierre Jeunet's charming French postcard of a movie was a lovely slice of modern Parisian life starring Audrey Tautou. The movie was nominated for five Academy Awards (including best foreign language film) but should have been in the running for the main prize.

2002: Chicago 82 Add to Netflix Queue

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The musical had a major comeback in 2002, as Miramax’s spendy campaigning catapulted Chicago into capturing Oscar gold. Rob Marshall’s film robs the audience of enjoying the numerous dance numbers due to its erratic editing. Each musical number is also presented as a flashy showstopper instead of building to a satisfying climax, and the non-musical parts of this unworthy film are exceedingly dull.

Should have won instead:
The Pianist 85 Add to Netflix Queue

Controversial director Roman Polanski's 2002 film, based on the WWII memoir by fellow Pole Wladyslaw Szpilman, was a far superior best picture nominee that actually won awards for best actor (Adrien Brody), best director, and best adapted screenplay.

Memorable film(s) not nominated for best picture:
Punch-Drunk Love 78 Paul Thomas Anderson's uniquely abstract love story about a novelty item salesman who falls head over heels in love with his sister's friend got a surprisingly heartfelt and dramatic performance out of funnyman Adam Sandler and proved that a story about two people falling in love could be funny, sad, scary, and also beautifully honest... About a Boy 75 Brothers Chris and Paul Weitz directed this adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel of the same name about a self-centered modern man who meets a 12-year-old boy. The friendship that develops amongst a soundscape of Badly Drawn Boy songs is an atypical coming-of-age film featuring two characters of wildly varying ages learning to grow up.

2004: Million Dollar Baby 86 Add to Netflix Queue

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For the Academy, no single person defines America more than Clint Eastwood. His Unforgiven was a worthy winner back in 1992, but Million Dollar Baby was a dour, cliché-ridden sermon with all the subtlety of a Glenn Beck telecast. Familiar tropes abound in the story of female boxer (Hilary Swank) and her aging trainer (Eastwood). The ridiculously dank film's lowest point is the portrayal of Swank's trailer park family, who come off as cartoonishly as South Park.

Should have won instead:
Sideways 94 Add to Netflix Queue

Director Alexander Payne and writer Jim Taylor adapted Rex Pickett's 2004 novel into a brilliant cinematic character study. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play a wine snob and horndog who travel to Central California wine country and have their lives hilariously and movingly turned sideways.

Memorable film(s) not nominated for best picture:
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 89 Writer Charlie Kaufman and director Michel Gondry crafted a wholly original drama about how the heart and mind battle when we're in love. Jim Carrey plays a man who tries to erase his memories of his former true love (Kate Winslet) in a brilliantly twisted sci-fi tinged narrative that also features Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, and Tom Wilkinson.

2005: Crash 68 Add to Netflix Queue

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Paul Haggis’ simplistic drama about race relations and forgiveness is an unholy mess of a movie that is one of the more embarrassing best picture winners of all time. Did you know that racism is bad? Did you know that you can be forgiven for sexually molesting someone if you later save that person from a car explosion? The pretentious snow-falling-in-Los Angeles ending could make your eyes permanently roll back into your head. 

Should have won instead:
Brokeback Mountain 87 Add to Netflix Queue

Director Ang Lee's tragic love story (based on an Annie Proulx story) was a pitch-perfect drama of forbidden romance set in early '60s Wyoming. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger play the cowboy lovers whose relationship is impeded by themselves, the time period, and the women (Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway) who love them.

Memorable film(s) not nominated for best picture:
The 40-Year-Old Virgin 73 Judd Apatow's big-screen film debut is still his best. The warmly comic blast stars a never-better Steve Carell (who also co-wrote the film) as the titular virgin who falls in love with an eBay seller played by Catherine Keener. A stellar supporting cast that includes Paul Rudd, Romany Malco, Jane Lynch, Elizabeth Banks, and Seth Rogen helps make this one of the best comedies of the last decade ... The New World 69 Director Terrence Malick's lyrical take on the story of Pocahontas and John Smith is a beautifully filmed (using mostly available light) vision of the English settling of North America. The naturalistic performances by Colin Farrell (Smith), newcomer Q'orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas), and Christian Bale (tobacco exporter John Rolfe) aid in realizing Malick's meditative vision.

2006: The Departed 86 Add to Netflix Queue

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Martin Scorsese’s remake of the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs is a crime-drama machismo-fest that features a hilarious amount of digitally-aided headshots and an exhaustingly over-the-top performance by a seemingly undirected Jack Nicholson. The improbable female characters and double-crosses have all been done before … and by the same director. This Oscar felt like Scorsese’s lifetime achievement award.

Should have won instead:
Little Miss Sunshine 80 Add to Netflix Queue

Thankfully devoid of guns and Boston accents, Little Miss Sunshine perfectly balances drama and comedy. The film, about a family that tries to get their youngest child to a beauty pageant, is filled with great characters and just the right amount of heart. Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Abigail Breslin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, and Alan Arkin (who won best supporting actor) all shine and make the case for a "best ensemble" award.

Memorable film(s) not nominated for best picture:
Children of Men 84 The Academy rarely rewards hard sci-fi, but they should have given some love to Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation of P.D. James' novel about a future world in which humans are no longer able to reproduce. Clive Owen, as a former activist, protects a miraculously pregnant refugee in this modern science-fiction classic ... Casino Royale 81 James Bond can save the world, but why can't he get some Oscar love? The latest reboot of the Bond franchise, an irresistible mix of action and romance, was not only one of the best Bond films, but was also one of the best films of the year. Director Martin Campbell, Daniel Craig as Bond, and Eva Green as Vesper Lynd turn action into art ... United 93 90 Nobody wanted to relive the events of 9/11, but director Paul Greengrass' telling of the events of and surrounding flight United 93 was a hauntingly executed drama that remains suspenseful even though you already know the terrible outcome.

What do you think?

What Oscar-winning films do you find undeserving, and which snubs irk you the most? Let us know in the discussion section below.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (144)

  • Chad S.  

    Julianne Moore has never been nominated for an Academy Award.

  • anthony  

    1990: goodfellas absolutely over dances with wolves
    1994: i thought pulp fiction was better, and quiz show and shawshank were on par with forrest gump, but that doesn't mean gump was a bad selection. 1994 had some great nominees that year.
    1996: fargo or lone star, which got little love that year, over english patient. i actually think english patient is possibly the worst best pic of the past 25+ years. pretentious as hell.
    1997: la confidential all the way over titanic
    1998: i have no problem with shakespeare in love winning. i thought it was a great movie. but to those who keep arguing for SPR, i think TTRL was a much greater achievement than SPR. SPR had amazing battles scenes and was very well edited, but the story was mediocre at best.
    1999: i would have gone with magnolia, along with many other options over the hackneyed american beauty
    2000: traffic w/o question
    2001: i would have gone either memento or royal tenenbaums over a beautiful mind
    2002: chicago was a travesty. what about city of god, the hours, adaptation, and the pianist, to name a few
    2003: mystic river, but then again, i'm not a big LOTR fan
    2005: another phenomenal year. i would have gone with syriana
    2007: NCFOM and TWBB might be the 2 best movies of the decade. it's unfortunate they came out the same year.
    2008: lots of great movies that year. the wrestler, doubt, frost/nixon, and synecdoche, ny were better IMO than slumdog, which was good
    2009: hurt locker over inglorious basterds, district 9, a serious man, and up in the air?
    2010: i think we'll be saying the same about the king's speech if it beats out the social network. king's speech was very good, but TSN, black swan and true grit were among the better films

  • Jordan  

    Disagree mostly. Titanic deserved its win just simply for what it did for the industry. No one is going to look back in 50 years and remember LA Confidential, but everyone will remember Titanic. Also, The Departed is one of the most entertaining movies ever, it definitely deserved its win. Saving Private Ryan also should have won best picture, good call there. I also see a lot of outcry for The Dark Knight, which is good to see. Slumdog was a fantastic movie, but like I said, 50 years from now, The Dark Knight will be remembered, not Slumdog. The Academy really missed an opportunity to gain favor with the public that year seeing as how the Dark Knight was a phenomenon. Same thing will happen this year. I have seen most of the movies up for Best Picture this year, and Inception is still BY FAR the most entertaining and engaging of all of them. And isnt that what movies are for? Chances are The Kings Speech (great movie) will win, and everybody will forget about it in 5 years, while Inception goes down as the movie that everybody wants to watch on a Friday night...not some film about Facebook or a speech impediment.

  • Sumant  

    i will say i agree with roughly 50% of this article is actually quite bad for what this is supposed to be about (writing past wrongs)

    anyways i'll focus on the positives

    i'm really happy to see once were warriors on your list it truly is the greatest films to ever come out of new zealand (yes even better than lotr) and i'd really like to see it held in higher esteem than it is now

    also it was sharp of you (article writer) to include amelie for films that should have been nominated. i think a way of judging the true worth of a piece of cinema is to see how it manages to effect and convert those who would have been averse to movies of that type or genre and amelie is an example of this for me

    and pianist over chicago goes without saying

  • SANTINO  

    1990:GOODFELLAS
    1994ULP FICTION
    1995;LEAVING LAS VEGAS
    1996:FARGO
    1997:L.A CONFIDENTIAL
    1998:SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
    2000: TRAFFIC/ALMOST FAMOUS
    2001:MULHOLLAND DRIVE
    2002;ADAPTATION
    2005:SYRIANA
    2006:UNITED 93/BABEL
    2007: THERE WILL BE BLOOD
    2008: MILK

  • A.C.  

    ^^^^Nope Kyle, I really agree. The statement about the fighter's family in Million Dollar Baby, what else could they possibly have made her family into? Just trying to find little things that irritated you about certain films, and let them fester inside you enough to make you argue for less deserving films.
    A point unmentioned? 2008 No Country For Old Men over There Will be Blood. I think the latter is one of the best films of the decade. The acting was better in TWBB, and if you read both of the novels the films were based on, the creative adaptation of TWBB from Oil! is much more of an achievement than the almost completely identical production of Cormac McCarthy's novel.

  • Kyle  

    I don't want to offend the writer, but this is quite a terrible article. You have no real justification, except your opinion. You don't even follow the scores on this site. I don't disagree with everything (although, a lot). But the fact of the matter is, nearly every year the academy gives the award to a movie that angers some people. And you dis the Social Network which has one of the highest scores on your site. Are you telling us not to even take into account what your site says? Also... there is no twist ending in "A Beautiful Mind." Well, I didn't feel like there was one. But then again, true stories usually forgo the "twist" endings... because, ya know, we already know what happens.

  • Dan  

    Agreed on everything except for American Beauty. That was an incredible film, and it seems your reservations have more to do with the subject matter than filmmaking. And you should have added 2008! There Will Be Blood lost out to the Coens' lifetime achievement award.

  • Psychedelic Soul Foo  

    I agree wit u for the most part, Nick. BUT I don't think Little Miss Sunshine should have won instead of Departed. Yea it wasn't Scorsese's best but it was still a great film imo
    Plus, you forgot to mention about GOODFELLAS' loss to the inferior DANCES WITH WOLVES; that was the most disappointing

  • Ben Betik  

    2000- Memento over Gladiator. Memento was ground-breaking and arguably the best director debut in years. Gladiator was a good, not great action flick.

    2008- Dark Knight/Wall-E over Slumdog Millionaire- I can't believe this wasn't brought up. Slumdog Millionaire was a decent film and any other year (2005) would have deserved to win. However, The Dark Knight was superior in every way, and Wall-E deserved to have a close shot too, even though it's not Pixar's best.

    2009- Up in the Air over The Hurt Locker. I loved both of these movies and was happy when Avatar got shut out. Still, Up in the Air was the better of the two, with the better acting and directing, though Jeremy Renner was admittedly better than George Clooney and should have won best actor even over Jeff Bridges.

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