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


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


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


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


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


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


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:

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


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


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


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


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)

  • Lyons  

    What about The Dark Knight not even being nominated last year? The characters were deep, the plot was well developed, and the overall presentation was incomparable. The fact that Inception was nominated and TDK was not? Insane. I loved Inception, but The Dark Knight was by far the stronger film.

  • Alex  

    Clicked on this article to read about Gladiator, and yet that somehow didn't make the list. Not that 2000 was a terribly great year in film, but I always figured that was one of the stranger wins. Also, saying A Beautiful Mind isn't deserving but not providing an alternative winner is simply admitting the film deserved to win, and thus is a waste of a spot on this list.

    I'm pre-emptively disappointed about King's Speech or Social Network beating Inception. Maybe I'm simply sour since Dark Knight was similarly fantastic and didn't even get a nomination, but from what I saw no other movie came close to being as entertaining as Inception, nor got as many people talking about it in the days and months following. If pre-Oscar discussion is any indication, though, it has no chance. Ah well...

  • jacamor  

    1990: Goodfellas
    1991: The Silence of the Lambs (by default)
    1992: Unforgiven
    1993: Schindler’s List
    1994: Shawshank 1995: Leaving Las Vegas
    1996: Fargo
    1997: L.A. Confidential
    1998: Thin Red Line
    1999: American Beauty
    2000: Gladiator
    2001: A Beautiful Mind
    2002: The Pianist
    2003: LOTR
    2004: MDB (by default)
    2005: Brokeback
    2006: The Departed
    2007: No Country
    2008: Milk
    2009: Hurt Locker (by default)
    Other years, besides the ones already mentioned: 1968: Once Upon a Time in the West and 2001 (over Oliver)
    1964: Dr. Strangelove (over My Fair Lady)
    1952: Singing in the Rain and High Noon (over The Greatest Show)
    1956: The Searchers (over Around the World)
    1958: Vertigo (over Gigi)
    1948: Treasure of Sierra Madre (over Hamlet)
    1944: Double Indemnity (over Going My Way)
    1940: Grapes of Wrath (over Rebecca)

  • Red Pison  

    Interesting opinions, I was surprised The Shawshank Redemption lost to Forrest Gump, but both were good movies. The English Patient year is probably the worst Oscar year of them all aside from Billy Crystal's hosting ability. Shakespeare In Love was so grossly overrated and I was so disappointed with the Academy for choosing it over Saving Private Ryan if only for the D Day intro alone.
    But what can you do considering the Academy is more about politics than giving merit toward deserving candidates?

  • DRL  

    Someone, in singing the praises of American Beauty, said, "It has several well known quotes, it has iconic imagery, and it’s packed with themes and symbolism." So did John Ford's "The Searchers" (or "triumph of the will" for that matter), which was not nomiated. American Beauty was well-photographed but was pickled in artificiality. The characters talked in stoned cadences (in Wes Bentley's case, perhaps literally) and we come away with the shocking revelation that homophobes are gay, a "Sunset Boulevard" beginning that tells us what happens to the main character at the beginning (but in "Sunset Boulevard" that wasn't a problem because that movie had a story).. A mishmash of tones and themes given a thick coating of Oscar patina by Conrad Hall.

    The Eastwood hatred here is also rather intense. "Bridges of Madison County" was as good as any film of 1995 (Meryl Streep was acting, not accenting), Mystic River (I am a loner on this one) was the best film of its decade, and Eastwood's much derired material with the Swank character's family lasted all of five minutes. While the caricatures, say, in Dead Poets Society, another movie that should have been anti-nominated, do not exist in real life, the Swank family.... no one's ever met people remotely like this, not even a little bit? And "Sands of Iwo Jima" was better than The Departed, even, so give the guy a break. He doesn't ALWAYS get nominated (Hereafter. Reminds me. 1997 - "The Sweet Hereafter" - maybe the best film of that year)

  • DRL  

    what should have been:
    1990: Goodfellas (Godfather III was criminally underrated too, so to speak. Awakenings too saccharine. Ghost was excellent movie of its kind)
    1991: got it right
    1992: The Crying Game or Howards End as excellent examples of their genres (not the movie everyone brags about being able to quote, "A Few Good Men"
    1993: got it right, although some very close runners up: Remains of the Day, The Piano, Inthe Name of the Father). The Fugitive - well, the Academy never rewards action movies. A miracle it was nominated.
    1994: If you're gonna choose something other than Forrest Gump, forget about "Shawshank". PULP FICTION! Quiz Show was no slouch either
    1995: Braveheart? Huh? And the movie everyone was predicting to win, "Apollo 13?" Two of the best American films of the year - whose directors were nominated - "Leaving Las Vegas" and "Dead Man Walking"
    -should've been up for Best Pic.
    1996: "English Patient" was Oscar-manufactured to within an inch of its life(lessness). "Fargo" is a classic, but it wasn't long and bloated, and wasn't serious enough to win (No Country for Old Men may not have had a Favorite Oscar Theme (TM) but was plenty serious).
    1997: "Full Monty" - joke, Good Will Hunting - just b/c its uncool to not love this movie doesn't mean it should have won. "L.A. Confidential" would have won (I hope) in any other year.
    1998: The look on Harrison Ford's face, and his tone of voice (even for Harrison Ford) when he announced the winner said it all.
    1999: American Beauty was more empty stylistics from Sam Mendes. Green Mile-who the hell were those people in that movie and what was it about? This year was about Dreamworks' revenge over.... the Cider House Rules (anyone remember what the rules were?) At least the "wow, I'm so cool" "The Matrix" was nominated. "The Insider" was an example of good old-fashioned craftsmanship, which is why it did not win a single Oscar. ignored - "Topsy Turvy"
    2000 - millennium started with a whimper. As far as Americanized martial arts films go, "Crouching Tiger" was pretty good and the best of the lot, but what about Almost Famous?
    2001: In the Bedroom (2006: Little Children)
    2002: Comments about Chicago were overly harsh. "The Pianist" may have been a lifetime achievment award for Polasnki. "Gangs of New York" - failed failed masterpiece. "About Schimdt" should have won
    2003: Mystic River. 2004: Sideways. Cannot believe how many people hated this movie.
    2005: worst choice, given the other nominees, of modern times. The other 4 were all excellent and I think Munich is underrated. Spielberg had to make a movie about the Holocaust to win Best Picture.
    2006: Little Children
    2007: "I'm finished" - There Will Be Blood
    2008: Thank you, "Slumdog Millionaire", for forcing the Academy into nominating 10 movies a year. "The Wrestler" - the good Darren Aronosfky film of the last couple of years -should have won.
    2009: Tie btwn the winner and Up in the Air
    2010: "the facebook movie v. the English monarch who must overcome a stammering problem to give a speech no one remembers". TKS will win, and, like "Ordinary People," "Gandhi" and "Out of Africa" will be regarded years from now as one of those "very well made films" that no one gets worked up talking about

  • Jeremy L  

    Your analysis of American Beauty, a complex film about the conflicts between status, comfort and desire, was utterly puerile. This article betrays an absence of critical perspective, as people here have noted, and everyone who reads it is a little dumber for it.

  • Steve  

    There are very, very few Best Picture winners I agree with. I think Hollywood overlooks actual storytelling talent and instead focuses on who stars in what or who it's directed by. Unique, good stories such as the Poseidon Adventure, Aliens, and Cube are ignored because Hollywood, for whatever reason, cares more about "lighting" and "acting talent" than actual stories.

  • Mark  

    This is an odd article for a site whose entire purpose is to distill a wide range of reviews into a consensus score. This is one person's opinion and publishing the Metacritic scores in the article shows just how hit and miss one reviewer can be. Having said that, one place where both the author and the Metacritic score agree with me is in Crash winning over Brokeback. With an 87 Metacritic score for Brokeback, it somehow lost to Crash with its 68 score. I still remember watching Crash and wondering why I had paid good money to watch an extended episode of a bad TV cop drama.

  • Rob  

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

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