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 (145)

  • Rob  

    Remakes should not even be eligible for contention (for script or picture).

  • Rob  

    2005: Sure Crash was overrated and ripe with cliches, but it also had some of the best payoffs and excellent acting. The only film that was actually MORE overrated and had MORE cliches was Brokeback Mountain! A snoozefest about gay cowboys who start doing it because it's cold outside? That movie was not good, and yes, I'm a straight male but it has nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the characters. It took place in the 50s (60s?), so you could have easily replaced the characters with a white woman and black man and it would have been the same cliche-ridden snoozefest. Actually, that story might have been a little more interesting.

  • Adam S.  

    1994: I have nothing bad to say about Forrest Gump, but yes, Shawshank Redemption was better. Still, I wouldn't call the former film "undeserving", just "less deserving".

    1996: Agree, Fargo was excellent. Didn't see The English Patient, didn't want to.

    1997: L.A. Confidential is an amazing niche movie, but winning over Titanic is a tough call. You have to think about broad base appeal here, even if the Academy doesn't much these days. Then again, have they ever? Okay, if you're just talking in terms of film quality, you're clearly right that Titanic shouldn't have won. If, however, it's based on film achievement, it's hard to argue with their selection.

    1998: I'd give it to The Truman Show, but I haven't seen Saving Private Ryan yet. I should get on that.

    1999: I thought American Beauty was plenty deserving. I'd give the Oscar to The Matrix over it in a heartbeat, though.

    2001: Not a great year for movies, huh? I liked A Beautiful Mind at first, but I got sick of it with repeat viewings. I'd give it to Moulin Rouge.

    2004: Million Dollar Baby and Sideways were both trash compared to Eternal Sunshine. Personally, I thought the boring, bleak Sideways had no likable characters and didn't have much upside. Maybe I need to watch it again.

    2005: Didn't mind Crash. Didn't see Brokeback Mountain. And wasn't 1992's Heavyweights (a superior film, and yes I went there) Apatow's debut? The 40 Year-Old Virgin was kind of overrated, I thought. Not a lot of memorable character or scene work compared to, say, Role Models or Anchorman.

    2006: Have to disagree with you here. The Departed was awesome and a legitimate choice.

  • Joe  

    Million Dollar Baby shouldn't have won - that was the year Scorcese should have got the award for the underrated Aviator. The academy screwed this up, so they had to give him the award for The Departed - which was basically him copying someone elses homework...badly.

  • Patrick  

    Little Miss Sunshine was a mess of a film. It literally plays out like a parody of a dozen indie films. If I hadn't been watching it with a group of friends I would've left half way through it. Best Picture? Hell no!!!

  • Blake Robinson  

    Was pretty much with you until the pretty ridiculous claim about "The Departed."

  • Shisha hookah  

    Certainly the scene were Paul Giamatti finally drinks his precious wine in a fast food restaurant had to at least make you roll your eyes a little. If not try watching again without drinking a bottle of Merlot first.

  • Glen  

    1994: Most people probably don't know there was a Forrest Gump novel which was a scathing satire on America which was transformed into a toothless feel good movie. Pulp Fiction is equally overrated. Shawshank redemption was much better, hardly #1 IMDB material, the 80 metascore is probably right. Glad to see this article mention Heavenly Creatures, I am possibly biased as a NZer though. 1996 Fargo was often annoying and I have no desire to see the English Patient but I thought The People vs Larry Flynt was brilliant and nobody has mentioned it, perhaps its subject matter is too risque for the academy. 1997 is the only year I have seen all nominees and I believe four of them are overrated, the exception being as good as it gets. 1999 as many people have said was an amazing year. I would have picked the sixth sense but would have picked American Beauty most years. 2000 should have been Almost Famous. 2004 Eternal Sunshine, although I haven't seen and have no interest in Million Dollar Baby. Haven't seen even one of the 2005 nominees. 2006 Pan's Labyrinth blew Departed and Little Miss Sunshine out of the water (both good, slightly overrated films) but Pan's Labyrinth was a foreign film, a fantasy and a horror, triple oscar suicide. 2008 The Dark Knight was so much more than an action superhero film, it was dark, intense, complex and tragic 2009 District 9 is my 2nd favourite of all time (Original Terminator is my first) despite that I'm not generally a huge sci-fi fan. I think the Social Network will deservedly win best picture this year.

  • Graham  

    Chicago irked me the most. Of the nominated films, The Pianist should won that year.
    But the film that should've been nominated (and won) that year was Road to Perdition, an absolute masterpiece. One of the most glaring omissions from the Academy in recent times.

  • anaughtymouse  

    Who wrote this crap? Other than the choice of Saving Private Ryan, the other winners were spot on! Did the author even WATCH these movies?

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