The Oscars: A Brief History of Best Pictures

Michael Prescott
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So last week, on Thursday to be precise, we learned of the nominees and respective categorical shortlists for the Academy Awards. There are discussions over Fassbender versus Jared Leto, Nyong’o and Lawrence, Cuaron or McQueen, and so on. But the big question – as always – is what’s going to win Best Picture.

What’s interesting about recent years (since 2009) is that the Best Picture nominations have been expanded to allow up to ten nominees, depending on the percentage of votes garnered. This is reminiscent of the 1930s and early 40s where ten nominees were chosen. This year, just like previously, there are nine.

Looking at realistic contenders, the likes of Before Midnight, Inside Llewyn Davis and Rush were the ones to miss out on the final unclaimed spot. The actual nine-strong list consists of 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena and The Wolf of Wall Street

From the six that I’ve seen and what I’ve heard of the other three (Dallas Buyers Club and Her open in the UK next month), it’s a pretty strong list. It’s also very diverse – historical biopics, modern news stories, brilliant space exploration, wigs and bankers, and a wonderful array of directors (Cuaron, Payne, Scorsese, Greengrass, Russell, McQueen, Jonze).

The next month or so will be dominated by BAFTA and specifically Academy Award talk (we’ve already covered the Golden Globes – both film and television), and my mission is to look at a different aspect of the Oscars in consecutive weeks as we build to the event on March 2nd 2014. Considering the list of Best Picture nominations, it’s only right that we do a brief tour of the best, worst and craziest years.


In 1939, there were ten nominees. Okay, so Dark Victory, Ninotchka and Love Affair might not ring any bells – no surprises that these didn’t win, you might say.

But neither did Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach or Of Mice and Men.

And even The Wizard of Oz, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – each a classic in its own right – all missed out, because 1939 was the year of Gone with the Wind. How’s that for a lineup?


1967 wasn’t bad either. There was the original pre-Eddie Murphy Doctor Dolittle. Not notable in itself, but interesting in the sense that it was over an hour longer than the eventual remake (clocking in at 2½ hours).

Three more seminal films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate – again lost out. Instead, it was another race-related Sidney Poitier vehicle that rode to victory, with In the Heat of the Night confirming 1967 as a memorable year for Best Picture nominees.


This is one of the great years in film. 1957 immediately evokes 12 Angry Men, The Seventh Seal, The Bridge on the River Kwai and Witness for the Prosecution (three of which were nominated), whereas 1982 always conjures up images of sci-fi mainly because of Blade Runner and Tron (but also The Thing, E.T. and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan).

As for 1976 – a year which also gave us the horrific treats of Carrie and The Omen (before we knew of the inferior remakes) – there were four genuinely terrific contenders alongside Bound for Glory starring David Carradine (no, I don’t know much about it either).

The others were eventual winner Rocky, the prophetic statement on celebrity and news culture that was Network, the Martin Scorsese/Robert de Niro classic Taxi Driver and the chronicling of the Watergate events in All the President’s Men.

William Goldman – author of the industry-infamous book Adventures in the Screen Trade in which he notably proclaims that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything” – was the screenwriter of the latter film. Sidney Lumet of 12 Angry Men, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon fame helmed Network which features the well-remembered “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” rant from Peter Finch.

The 1980s

Then for a while, not a lot happened. We called it the 80s, and I’m inclined to blame Thatcher and Reagan. The list of winners – particularly compared to earlier (and later) years – is uninspiring. It reads, from 1980 to 89, like this:

Ordinary People, Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Terms of Endearment, Amadeus, Out of Africa, Platoon, The Last Emperor, Rain Man, Driving Miss Daisy

Yeah, great… and the rest of the nominees are even worse. 1983 (The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff, Tender Mercies) and 1984 (The Killing Field, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier’s Story) proving particularly weak on paper, and clearly these haven’t been remembered too fondly since.


The good news is that 1994 was just around the proverbial corner, and it rivals ’76 for the very best lineup for me. Unfortunately I found Forrest Gump to be a laborious chore, but most people did not I take it. Whatever your views, there’s no doubt that it etched its way into cinematic history with its win – as did four more alongside it.

It’s hard to believe that Richard Curtis’ breakthrough in film, Jules’ rendition of Ezekiel 25:17 and that Rita Hayworth poster are all 20 years old, but they are. Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption were all nominated.

Finally, the underrated (or at least oft-overlooked) satire Quiz Show from director Robert Redford and featuring a young Ralph Fiennes is a superb adaptation of a true story, and is a fitting addition to a wonderful list… apart from Forrest Gump.


One of the more extraordinary results for the following reason: Gangs of New York, The Hours, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Pianist make up 80% of the Best Picture nominees. What a shortlist, what a year! Surely it’s one of them, right? Nope – it’s Chicago. In first place, above the aforementioned four, it’s Chicago. Right you are then…


And the travesties just keep on coming! 2005 will forever be remembered for two reasons:

(1)   It was the occasion where cheap, brash and King of oversimplification Crash triumphed over its nearest rival and should-be champion Brokeback Mountain. (Incidentally, despite the progress since films are still considered “too gay” for Hollywood and/or American audiences as proved by Behind the Candelabra being restricted to TV whereas it was in cinemas worldwide)

(2)  It was the year that Crash got fucking nominated in the first place. I mean – Crash, really?! There were three other very worthy winners in the form of Capote, Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck… but the winner – lest it need repeating – was Crash. Goodbye credibility.


No real surprise to see a change in the format then, since it needed rescuing slightly. And in the four years since the best of these has undoubtedly been 2010. Just take a look at this, it’s incredible:

127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, The King’s Speech, The Social Network, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone

All ten places were filled, and rightly so. I quite enjoy The King’s Speech but it’s one of the very weakest on the list, alongside The Kids Are All Right (which again I think is good) and the Jennifer Lawrence film, Winter’s Bone (which, despite the hype, I didn’t like).

And yet all this really proves is the quality of everything else. 127 Hours is a great achievement, The Fighter was moving, well-written and excellently performed (plus the return of David O. Russell) whilst Black Swan was yet another interesting and layered Aronofsky film. All three would have been serious contenders in most years.

The Social Network, True Grit, Toy Story 3 and Inception are simply a case of bafflingly impressive output though. These four would win the race in almost any other competition, and they each have a claim of being one of the best films released in the 21st century so far.

About Michael Prescott

24-year-old Welsh writer on all things film. Background in Philosophy. Accidentally in Sheffield for 6 years and counting. Addicted to Kevin Spacey. Tweetable: @M_S_Prescott

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