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Here’s who should have won Oscars 10, 25, and 80 years ago

The Oscars are coming! And they won't leave you alone!
The Oscars are coming! And they won't leave you alone!
Rodolfo Arpia /
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

With Birdman's triumph at the 87th annual Academy Awards, there's been the usual hue and cry about the film not deserving the award, particularly over Boyhood, the film that served as frontrunner for most of Oscar season.

But there's always a backlash against the Oscar winner right away. It's generally a few years later when the dust settles and film critics and cinephiles start judging a movie's place in history when the "truth" emerges.

Let's look back at several significant past Oscar ceremonies to see how those winners have held up.


Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar Baby (Warner Bros.)

Winner: Million Dollar Baby
Nominees: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways

Should have won: Honestly, this is a pretty lackluster crew, when looked at with 10 years worth of hindsight. Sideways is probably the only film here that had an actual effect on the culture at large, and that's mostly just in convincing a bunch of people to buy pinot noir on a regular basis. Million Dollar Baby was a fine winner here, and it remains a fine winner to this day.

Should have been nominated: The big brouhaha at the time surrounded Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 getting passed over, but — perhaps because of how both films were tied into culture war arguments at time of release — neither has stood the test of time particularly well. Instead, consider Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which has gone on to become the kind of cult film that people hopelessly treasure and endlessly love. Or, heck, a pair of superhero films from the year that would have been great nominees as well — Spider-man 2 and The Incredibles. (For purposes of this section, we're mostly considering mainstream American releases, because that's what the Oscars gravitate toward, and they still miss way too many of them.)


The Insider

The Insider (Buena Vista Pictures)

Winner: American Beauty
Nominees: The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense

Should have won: This lineup is an abomination, considering that 1999 is one of the best years for American film of the past 25 years. The Academy nominated and handed the victory to a vaguely edgy suburban dramedy that now feels like it was made on a different planet, a ghost story, two giant slabs of hokum, and a pretty cool Michael Mann-directed docudrama. The Insider is far from Mann's best, but it deserved to win over this lightweight field.

Should have been nominated: How about Being John Malkovich? How about the biting and prescient Three Kings? How about the overlong yet thrillingly ambitious Magnolia? How about Toy Story 2? Honestly, why not The Matrix? Any or all would have livened up this lineup considerably.


Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction (Miramax)

Winner: Forrest Gump
Nominees: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption

Should have won: See, this is a pretty good lineup. I'm a Gump defender — I think it's far more satirical than its detractors allow it — and I love me some Quiz Show. But, yeah, I'll go with general consensus here. Pulp Fiction blew up the movie world, and it should have won. It's certainly the film time has been kindest to.

Should have been nominated: The Academy usually enjoys beautifully done Oscarbait, but it somehow largely ignored Gillian Armstrong's adaptation of Little Women, which is as Oscarbait-y as they come, but still a very good film. And in the "popcorn films that have stood the test of time" category, we have Speed and True Lies. (Hey, the Academy had nominated The Fugitive just one year prior. It coulda happened.)


My Left Foot

My Left Foot (Miramax)

Winner: Driving Miss Daisy
Nominees: Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot

Should have won: It's a little weird that Driving Miss Daisy won this award, no? Call it a triumph of the Academy's older voters. This is another lineup where a bunch of great films were ignored, but there are two perfectly viable options here in the unrestrained bombast of Fourth of July and the quietly engaging biopic rhythms of My Left Foot. Oliver Stone had won a few years prior, so give it to Foot.

Should have been nominated: If you made a case for The Little Mermaid, I would not stand in your way. Henry V? Sure. And Cinema Paradiso might have been a foreign film, but its schmaltzy celebration of old Hollywood is very much in keeping with what the Oscars like. But this category is severely deficient because it's lacking two landmark American films — sex, lies and videotape (which broke independent film wide open) and Do the Right Thing (which remains a brilliant, incendiary take on race relations). Replace Miss Daisy with either, and this category instantly gets a hundred times better.



Amadeus (Orion)

Winner: Amadeus
Nominees: The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier's Story

Should have won: The Academy got this one right. You may be judging it solely based on reputation, but Amadeus is a thrilling tale of creation and artistry that deservedly won over a bunch of other movies that range from "pretty good" to "that was nominated?!"

Should have been nominated: Since it wasn't like the Academy was going to suddenly notice Nausicaa or Paris, Texas, let's turn, instead, toward a couple of films that likely hit genre bias on their way to being largely ignored. Purple Rain was a musical, sure, but not the sort that the Oscars usually like (which are more Broadway-y), while This Is Spinal Tap was the sort of thing the Academy likely just didn't know what to do with. (I also like Jonathan Demme's weird little comedy Swing Shift but acknowledge I am almost wholly alone in this.)



Chinatown (Paramount)

Winner: The Godfather, Part II
Nominees: Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno

Should have won: What a lineup! You could really pick anything not named The Towering Inferno here and have a great winner, but I'm going to say the ruthless neo-noir Chinatown, which I like just a smidgen more than Godfather II. If you prefer the other (or Conversation or Lenny), I'm not gonna fight you.

Should have been nominated: The ‘70s were an embarrassment of riches in American film, thanks to a crumbling studio system that gave hungry young directors unprecedented amounts of money to make weird films and passion projects. So if we're going to replace Towering Inferno (and we should), we have many options. But the Academy has always had a bias against comedy, so let's skew toward one of Mel Brooks's two releases that year — Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein.


Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Columbia Pictures)

Winner: My Fair Lady
Nominees: Becket, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek

Should have won: I actually really love My Fair Lady but acknowledge freely that it is basically just like The Goonies in that you have to have first seen it between the ages of five and 10 to actually like it. Plus, Dr. Strangelove is the rare comedy that was nominated and one of the best comedies ever made and a chance for Stanley Kubrick, who never saw one of his films win Best Picture, to win here. Let's go with that!

Should have been nominated: There are a lot of really great films in 1964, but I'm guessing the Academy wasn't going to suddenly embrace Jean-Luc Godard with Band of Outsiders or The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (though that, at least, made the Foreign Film lineup). Instead, how about Goldfinger, possibly the best James Bond film, or A Hard Day's Night, definitely the best film to star The Beatles?


On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront (Columbia)

Winner: On the Waterfront
Nominees: The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Coins in the Fountain

Should have won: Here's another year the Academy got it right. I can't even mount a half-hearted defense of any of the others beating out Waterfront.

Should have been nominated: The Academy loved Federico Fellini, but his big breakthrough film, La Strada, wasn't on the radar, apparently. The same goes for Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai or Kenji Mizoguchi's Sansho the Bailiff. (This was a really great year for world cinema, in case you couldn't tell.) In terms of Hollywood productions the Oscars could conceivably recognize, why not A Star Is Born or Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant Rear Window (for which Hitch actually received a directing nomination)?


Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity (Universal Studios)

Winner: Going My Way
Nominees: Double Indemnity, Gaslight, Since You Went Away, Wilson

Should have won: Going My Way is a perfectly pleasant film (though its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary's, is better). Gaslight is the reason we have the term "gaslighting." But only Double Indemnity is still watched with the fervor and ferocity it must have been viewed with in 1944. An easy "shoulda won" candidate here.

Should have been nominated: As with almost any year in the ‘40s, there are tons of great options here, ranging from the plausible (Laura, which received a bunch of nominations but couldn't crack the top category) to the slightly wacky (To Have and Have Not, a noir classic that was mostly overlooked). But this was the year Preston Sturges — one of the best writer-directors ever — received two screenplay nominations, and I'll choose his The Miracle of Morgan's Creek to ascend to the top category.


Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind (MGM)

Winner: Gone With the Wind
Nominees: Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights

Should have won: Gone With the Wind is a landmark film, but it's also a movie that gets harder and harder to watch with every passing year. Some of that is the (very intentional) bloat. Some of that is changing attitudes in what makes a great film. And some of that is the troubling racial attitudes of the film. But it would also sort of feel weird if it hadn't won Best Picture, so huge was its impact on the industry. So I'll stick with it, while also suggesting any of the other nominees would have been a fine choice as winner.

Should have been nominated: Widely considered one of the best years in American film history, 1939 has a bevy of great choices. But let's focus in on just one, the great adaptation The Women, which united some of the greatest actresses of the era with a highly enjoyable script.


It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night (Columbia Pictures)

Winner: It Happened One Night
Nominees: The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, The Gay Divorcee, Here Comes the Navy, The House of Rothschild, Imitation of Life, One Night of Love, The Thin Man, Viva Villa!, The White Parade

Should have won: Look, you haven't seen most of these. I haven't seen most of these, and it's my job. And while I love The Thin Man, the Oscars got this one right. It Happened One Night is a delightful comedy and one of the most idiosyncratic Best Picture winners ever.

Should have been nominated: The screwball comedies of Howard Hawks never got their due, which is why I'm putting up Twentieth Century here. But you may know better than I, readers. I haven't seen nearly enough 1934 films. What have I missed?

Correction: This article originally misidentified the wine the characters enjoy in Sideways as pinot grigio. It's actually pinot noir. The text has been corrected.

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