The 70s were a decade of rulebreaking cinema following the demise of the studio system. The 80s pivoted away from that and toward a prestige picture system, and the 90s doubled down on that. Not only were prestige pics often rewarded, with the rise of Miramax there came to be an entire industry around marketing them to Academy voters. In almost every year you can point to a more groundbreaking movie that went ignored.
10. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Shakespeare won because the Weinstein brothers and their original studio, Miramax, were at the height of their glory days as movie marketers. Swift-boating Saving Private Ryan‘s Academy Award is the jewel in their crown. Shakespeare in Love is about an imagined love affair between William Shakespeare and a woman who disguises herself as a man in order to act in one of his plays. Their mad affair leads him to write the classic love story Romeo and Juliet. It’s a cute romantic comedy filmed well, with some dramatic flourishes. But that’s really all you can say about it. It was massively overpraised (and over-rewarded) to the point of embarrassment.
Should have won in 1998: Is there anyone out there who thinks Shakespeare in Love deserved to win over Saving Private Ryan? No? Good. That’s the right answer.
9. Braveheart (1995)
Centering on the story of William Wallace, the Scottish man who led an uprising against the British, Braveheart is an example of the Academy’s preoccupation with actor-directors. To be honest, there’s very little I remember about Braveheart nowadays except for Mel Gibson’s iconic inspirational speech to his soldiers, the offensive depiction of the villain as homosexual, and the over-the-top gore of the finale. Still, it’s surprising how that speech has had such staying power as a pop cultural touchstone all these years later. For that alone, Braveheart gets some points.
Should have won in 1995: Apollo 13 had been predicted to win but the best movie of 1995 wasn’t even nominated: Seven, which should have become the second thriller to win after The Silence of the Lambs.
8. The English Patient (1996)
The English Patient exists today as a punchline–even more than Shakespeare in Love. It lives in infamy as the ultimate example of the ‘prestige film’–a movie engineered to win Oscars. It became the torch-bearer for this kind of film after a Seinfeld‘s gag where Elaine is pilloried for hating it. I’m willing to bet that wasn’t the way the producers hoped to be remembered. As for the movie, it’s fine. It’s a pretentious WWII-era love story about a nurse taking care of a badly burned man, whose fateful love affair is teased out in flashbacks. Being self-serious and dull would land any other movie in the bottom slot, so The English Patient should be very thankful that Shakespeare in Love exists right about now.
Should have won in 1996: You know what movie also came out in 1996 and is remembered for being good? Fargo.
7. Dances With Wolves (1990)
Here we have another self-serious movie, with another actor-director. Kevin Costner directs himself as a white man who befriends and tries to save a tribe of Native Americans in the old West. To be fair, it was about time for someone to do a harsh reality check about the brutal treatment of Native Americans by the U.S. government. But to have that message filtered through a story about a white man trying to save the day is problematic. Dances gets points for trying, but ultimately falls flat for handling a serious subject in the Driving Miss Daisy mode. It hasn’t aged well.
Should have won in 1990: Goodfellas, adding more fuel to the fire for conspiracy theorists looking to be angry about Martin Scorsese’s failure to win an Oscar for Raging Bull a decade earlier.
6. American Beauty (1999)
American Beauty dares its audience to look at a typical American family in a typical American suburb. Then it dares you to look closer. You’ll find that all is not as it seems. Just look at the household of Lester Burnham. His family has been crumbling for some time and is finally beginning to collapse under the strain, sending them on a collision course with disaster and violence. What’s more? Spend some time in an upper-middle-class suburb some time. Really look at the families surrounding you. You will be shocked–shocked–at how depressingly accurate American Beauty is. And to think, it wasn’t even directed by an American.
Should have won in 1999: American Beauty deserved it.
5. Titanic (1997)
Make fun if you will. Titanic doesn’t make it hard. Here’s the thing, though: people were talking about Titanic nonstop for months after it came out. Which says nothing about the months of conversation before it came out–mostly predicting that it would be a disaster of epic proportions. James Cameron proved them all wrong. Nevermind the years and years of conversation devoted to Titanic in the almost twenty years since it was released. The script is silly, the love story seems trite, but otherwise Titanic is a solidly made movie that does what it promises: entertain. Say what you will about Cameron, he knows how to play to his audiences. He sucked them in and they never let go.
Should have won in 1997: I could be convinced that L.A. Confidential deserved it more. But the power of Titanic is that quality almost doesn’t matter.
4. Forrest Gump (1994)
Yes, Forrest Gump is an earnest, heartfelt movie. Yes, Pulp Fiction was a far more groundbreaking movie released that year. But you would have to be heartless to say that Gump lacks charm or wit. It’s a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. Many people criticize it for that, but I think it’s refreshing. There’s something bold and sweet about a movie so willing to be earnest. It’s the story of a slow-witted man careening through some tumultuous decades in American history. In a world that is sternly cynical and compromising, Forrest Gump is an eternal optimist who strives to do the right thing every day of his life. What’s so wrong with that?
Should have won in 1994: Yes, Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction. And yes, Fiction was a more groundbreaking movie in many ways. But to me, Forrest Gump had a much more profound emotional impact. That gives it the edge.
3. Unforgiven (1992)
Did I mention that the Academy has a thing for actor-directors? Here’s Clint Eastwood proving my point. Unforgiven is in many ways both a standard Western movie and a standard Clint Eastwood movie. Its plot finds a retired gunslinger (played by Eastwood) reluctantly taking on one last job. What makes it a great movie? Incredible performances, for one–including Gene Hackman’s violent turn as Little Bill Daggett, for which he won Best Supporting Actor. Smart filmmaking from Eastwood (remember, in 1992 he didn’t have the reputation as a director that he does now). And the moneymaker: smart observations about repentance, violence, and forgiveness. Consider this: Unforgiven is a Western that has the mettle to question everything the Western genre stands for and celebrates.
Should have won in 1992: Some will tell you The Crying Game should have won. Don’t you listen to them.
2. Schindler’s List (1993)
When I sat down to work on this list, I had every intention of putting Schindler’s List at the top. But a funny thing happened when I started typing the blurbs. I kept going back to another movie on the list. This is not to take away from Schindler’s List at all. It’s a gorgeous movie and a staggering achievement from Steven Spielberg, rendered with splendid artistry in black and white (with touches of color here and there). It’s a painful movie. It’s an important movie. It’s a movie about deep hurts, incredible wrongs, and the triumph of the human spirit in bleak circumstances.
Should have won in 1993: Don’t even think any other movie should have won.
1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
I just couldn’t stop thinking about this movie as I was writing this list. I think that speaks to the power of The Silence of the Lambs. Thrillers don’t usually win Best Picture, let alone get nominated for it, but there’s just no denying Silence. It’s an exceptionally well-crafted movie. Twenty years later, it still frequently appears on TV–and every time I stumble upon it while channel-surfing, I’m compelled to stop. It’s the only movie on this list that can make that claim. I will literally stop what I’m doing in order to watch it. That says something. About me, I guess, but about the movie as well.
Should have won in 1991: Silence owned the year, not to mention the decade.
Just for fun, here’s what the list would look like with all the movies that should have won:
10. American Beauty (1999)
9. Titanic (1997)
8. Forrest Gump (1994)
7. Unforgiven (1992)
6. Goodfellas (1990)
5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
4. Seven (1995)
3. Fargo (1996)
2. Schindler’s List (1993)
1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)