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How History Judges The Oscars’ Closest Calls

I’d love to tell you that the Oscars get the close calls wrong — that when the Academy spurns one credible best picture nominee for another, it errs on the side of the shlocky, the safe, the self-referential: the films that cater to Hollywood’s pathology in the present day and not necessarily those that will hold up better historically.

You could accuse the Academy of that after Sunday night, when it went with “Birdman” (a film about a washed-up actor) over the more critically acclaimed “Boyhood.” (I was rooting for “Boyhood” even though our statistical model said to bet on “Birdman.”) But these films haven’t had any chance to ripen.

So let’s look at some for which we have a little more perspective: the most controversial Oscar winners of the past 25 years, based on my colleague Walt Hickey’s lists of the biggest upsets and the closest calls during this period. Walt’s lists are derived from our statistical model, which assesses best picture nominees based on which other awards the films won. So it assesses those cases where there was a significant controversy at the time, not others, like the 1990 contest, when a film (“Dances With Wolves”) was winning everything even if another choice (“Goodfellas”) looks a little better now.

Still, we can be a little more data-driven when evaluating these films and their closest competitors. For instance, we can look at the American Film Institute’s (AFI) list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, along with similar lists put together by critics and movie buffs; Empire Magazine’s recent list of the top 301 films of all time is a particularly useful data source. We can also look at IMDb and Netflix ratings for which films still have the most cultural resonance.

Spoiler alert: My initial bias — that Hollywood gets the close calls wrong — doesn’t hold up so well according to this evidence. We’ll find that there are a few obvious miscalls but at least as many cases where history has validated the Academy’s verdict. We’ll also find that some of the notoriously “bad” choices were symptoms of poor years for film all around and the selections may have been as good as any of a weak lot.

Year1: 1989

Oscar Winner: “Driving Miss Daisy” (Empire Top 301 ranking: not ranked; IMDb rating: 7.4)

Spurned Film: “Born on the Fourth of July” (Empire: not ranked; IMDb: 7.2)

“Driving Miss Daisy” was something of an upset winner at the time, partly because Bruce Beresford wasn’t nominated for best director that year. Nor does it receive much praise from either critics or popular audiences today. It seems like an obvious “miss.”

But 1989 was a weak year for best picture nominees. The other awards were split, enough so that “Driving Miss Daisy” might have been considered a plurality favorite along with “Born on the Fourth of July,” according to our model. “Born on the Fourth of July” has also not held up so well; it doesn’t rank anywhere in the Empire or AFI lists.

In fact, the best films of 1989 may not even have been nominated. The 20/20 Awards, which revote on the Academy Awards 20 years later, went with the bypassed “Crimes and Misdemeanors” when it considered the case a few years ago. Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” which was infamously bypassed for a nomination, is the only film from the year to rank in the AFI top 100. “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” also not nominated, is the only 1989 release among the IMDb top 250.

Year: 1992

Oscar Winner: “Unforgiven” (Empire: No. 150; IMDb: 8.3)

Spurned Film: “The Crying Game” (Empire: not ranked; IMDb: 7.3)

“Unforgiven,” the Oscar winner, still looks like the best choice. It ranks in the Empire top 301 and the AFI top 100, won the 20/20 Award, and maintains a considerably better IMDb rating than its closest competitor, “The Crying Game.” Incidentally, “The Crying Game” doesn’t receive all that much credit from contemporary critics for having compelled greater awareness of transgender people; instead, it’s sometimes remembered for having sparked transphobic reactions in its audience.

Year: 1995

Oscar Winner: “Braveheart” (Empire: No. 174; IMDb: 8.3)

Spurned Films: “Apollo 13” (Empire: not ranked; IMDb: 7.6), “Sense and Sensibility” (Empire: not ranked; IMDb: 7.7)

“Braveheart” looks like another correct call for the Academy. And credit where credit is due: It was an upset winner at the time. Mass audiences continue to love “Braveheart” — note the stellar IMDb rating — and if critics’ views aren’t in much consensus, the major alternatives (“Apollo 13” and “Sense of Sensibility”) do no better. Perhaps “Toy Story,” the only 1995 film in the AFI top 100, could make a case for itself.

Year: 1998

Oscar Winner: “Shakespeare in Love” (Empire: not ranked; IMDb: 7.2)

Spurned Film: “Saving Private Ryan” (Empire: No. 76; IMDb: 8.5)

This is among the biggest Oscar upsets of the past three decades — and the one that remains the hardest to fathom now. “Shakespeare in Love,” the winner, is almost completely forgotten about today except when it’s mentioned in articles like this one. “Saving Private Ryan,” conversely, rates as the third best film of the 1990s (behind “Schindler’s List” and “Unforgiven”) on the AFI list.

Year: 2000

Oscar Winner: “Gladiator” (Empire: No. 27; IMDb: 8.5)

Spurned Film: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (Empire: not ranked; IMDb: 7.9)

This case resembles 1995. It features another historical war epoch (“Gladiator”) that remains epic in audiences’ minds today versus a perfectly decent alternative (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) that hasn’t gained much historical esteem. Unlike in 1995, the win wasn’t an upset — “Gladiator” would have been the modest favorite, according to our model.

Year: 2004

Oscar Winner: “Million Dollar Baby” (Empire: not ranked; IMDb: 8.1)

Spurned Films: “The Aviator” (Empire: not ranked; IMDb: 7.5), “Sideways” (Empire: No. 277; IMDb: 7.6)

This was a close three-way race in a weak year for best picture nominees — no 2004 releases rank in the AFI top 100, and none of the Oscar nominees did especially well at the box office. “Million Dollar Baby,” the Academy’s choice, has the highest IMDb rating among the nominated films. “Sideways” was the only one to make the Empire top 301, although it did so only barely and continues to generate polarizing reactions among filmgoers and oenophiles.

Year: 2005

Oscar Winner: “Crash” (Empire: not ranked; IMDb: 7.9)

Spurned Film: “Brokeback Mountain” (Empire: No. 222; IMDb: 7.7)

I remarked on Twitter on Sunday night that “Crash” over “Brokeback Mountain” looks like an even worse choice in retrospect. Indeed, “Crash” has become something of a running punchline for Hollywood’s failings. The movie’s IMDb ratings are actually not bad, but I feel safe asserting that they don’t reflect the critical consensus of how “Crash” is viewed today.

The thing is, though, that if “Crash” hadn’t won, some other film would have had to. And while “Brokeback Mountain” was an important film — especially for an industry that spent so long in the closet — it wasn’t necessarily a great film. Although it ranks in the Empire top 301, its IMDb rating is just decent, and Netflix reviewers barely even give it three stars. It’s not even talked about that much anymore except when the subject of Oscar snubs comes up.

Perhaps that’s because there’s a much fuller breadth of gay characters on television and movie screens today, including the hosts of the past two Oscar ceremonies. Ellen DeGeneres and “Modern Family” are likely to loom a lot larger in the historical imagination than “Crash” — but also larger than “Brokeback Mountain.”

Year: 2006

Oscar Winner: “The Departed” (Empire: No. 55; IMDb: 8.5)

Spurned Film: “Little Miss Sunshine” (Empire: No. 202; IMDb: 7.9)

Two well-liked films, “The Departed” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” were the main competitors. Academy voters went with “The Departed” then; it also rates slightly higher today, according to IMDb, Empire and Netflix.

Year: 2010

Oscar Winner: “The King’s Speech” (Empire: not ranked; IMDb: 8.1)

Spurned Film: “The Social Network” (Empire: No. 148; IMDb: 7.8)

We’ve gotten to the point where the films are too recent to allow for much additional perspective. You could cobble together a case for “The Social Network” having held up better; it’s not as though Facebook has become any less relevant, and “The Social Network” ranks in the Empire top 301 while “The King’s Speech” does not. Perhaps “The Social Network” will come to seem more iconic over time. But it could also feel dated and slightly hackneyed, in the same way that 1987’s “Wall Street” now does (rewatch “Wall Street” to see what I mean). “The King’s Speech,” for now, has incrementally better IMDb and Netflix ratings.

Year: 2013

Oscar Winner: “12 Years a Slave” (Empire: No. 119; IMDb: 8.1)

Spurned Film: “Gravity” (Empire: No. 35; IMDb: 7.9)

Based on my personal preferences, this ought not have been a tough call to begin with. I’d have cast my lot with “12 Years a Slave,” which I thought was the better film on its face and the one that’s likely to hold up better historically. But one year tells us almost nothing further about them. At least the Academy didn’t spurn “12 Years a Slave” and “Selma” in consecutive years.

So if you’re scoring at home, the Academy made the wrong choice with “Shakespeare in Love” in 1998, according to just about any measure you might look at. Its 2005 selection of “Crash” looks bad, too — but not necessarily because “Brokeback Mountain” was a great film. You can critique it for not having nominated the right films (like “Do the Right Thing”) in 1989 more than for choosing the wrong film among those nominees.

Otherwise it acquits itself reasonably well. Its choices in 1992, 1995, 2000 and probably 2006 have held up better than the main alternatives; 2004 was going to be a close call either way. It’s too early to judge 2010 or 2013; perhaps the evidence weighs slightly toward the Academy in 2013 and against it in 2010. But its track record isn’t as bad as I suspected. Maybe in a decade or two, “Boyhood” will be a held up as a nonpareil work of filmmaking and “Birdman” as no better than “Shakespeare in Love” — but maybe not.


  1. Years reflect the year of release for the film and not the year the Academy Awards ceremony was held.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.


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