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The Biggest Best Picture Upsets At The Oscars In The Past 25 Years

“American Sniper” is probably not going to win the Oscar for best picture. If it does, that would be the single biggest best picture upset at the Academy Awards in at least 25 years.

Many of the e-mails and tweets I’ve received since we published our election-style Oscar picks yesterday have made the case for “American Sniper.” That’s fair — lots of people loved the movie; it’s been a juggernaut at the box office; and the argument can be made that if voters are exhausted by “Boyhood” and “Birdman,” then “American Sniper” is a viable compromise choice.1

But the film was pretty much disregarded by the guild awards and critics group awards that often give us insight into who’s leading the Oscar race. And that’s what our model relies on. We can’t reliably predict the Oscars because we can’t poll the Academy. The best guess at what’s going on in those 6,000 heads — besides betting markets — is how other awards shake out. It’s hardly perfect, but it holds up most of the time.

Had we been using this model over the past 25 years, it would have been right 80 percent of the time, correctly “predicting” 20 out of 25 best picture winners. I can live with those odds — I seriously doubt that, short of bugging Bob and Harvey Weinstein’s homes, you’d be able to consistently get a better performance.

Here are the years when the model gets it wrong, essentially the biggest best picture upsets of the past 25 years:

1995 Apollo 13 2.8 Braveheart 0.4 2.4
2005 Brokeback Mountain 3.9 Crash 1.6 2.3
1998 Saving Private Ryan 3.1 Shakespeare in Love 1.5 1.6
2004 The Aviator 2.4 Million Dollar Baby 1.7 0.7
1989 Born on the Fourth of July 1.5 Driving Miss Daisy 1.4 0.1

The slim difference between the model’s choice and the actual winner in the 1989 contest would have given me a miserable headache, so I’m glad that I was neither predicting the Oscars nor alive in 1989. This also settles a long-standing bet I’ve had with a friend. I thought “Crash” was the biggest upset in recent memory, but he insisted that it was “Braveheart.” Based on the model, I was wrong.

So let’s look at the current state of the race and try to figure out if any upsets would be historic.

Birdman 3.4 0.0
Boyhood 2.5 0.9
The Imitation Game 1.2 2.2
The Grand Budapest Hotel 0.9 2.5
American Sniper 0.5 2.8
The Theory of Everything 0.5 2.9
Whiplash 0.4 3.0
Selma 0.1 3.2

If “The Imitation Game” or “Boyhood” wins, that would be an upset but hardly unprecedented. Should “Selma,” “Whiplash,” “The Theory of Everything,” “American Sniper” or “The Grand Budapest Hotel” win, it would be the single largest upset in the past 25 years.

The closest historical precedent for “American Sniper” beating the front-runners would be “Braveheart” beating “Apollo 13.”

So for fans of “American Sniper” who want to leave this piece with a stat to tell all their friends who won’t shut up about “Boyhood,” here you go: In Oscar contests between a critically acclaimed film about a group of people around Houston trying their best and a film about a big strong man who leads his nation to war, the latter has won best picture 100 percent of the time.


  1. I’m not 100 percent sure I buy into that last argument.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.