It is always fascinating to see how The Academy votes in any given year. Certain genres go in and out of fashion, and the group that votes the Best Picture has changed over the years, from the early years when The Screen Extras Guild was allowed to vote to a more narrow range of voters today. The voters tend to be older, and more conservative than the voters in other categories, so the films chosen tend to reflect an older sensibility.
New blood is coming in though, which is reflected in the nominees for the past few years. Here is a list of what is considered to be the 15 strongest Oscar Best Picture competitions.
15. 2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King vs Lost in Translation vs Mystic River
2003 was an unusual year at the Academy Awards, with films nominated from genres that usually are overlooked by the Academy voters. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the third film in the financially successful trilogy, is the story of the hobbits trying to return the ring to the place it was forged in order to destroy it and beat the forces of darkness.
Lost in Translation is a film about a middle aged American actor who has a platonic relationship with a younger woman who is the wife of a fashion photographer he meets in his hotel bar. Mystic River is the story of three childhood friends, one of which is traumatized by an experience when he was young, and how their lives as adults intertwine.
Lost in Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola and written by her too, was a small budget hit and gave the Coppola family another member who won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. It was considered too small a film for any major awards other than screenplay.
Mystic River, despite iconic performance from Sean Penn and Tim Robbins (who both won Oscars). was a little too intense as far as the action go for some voters. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King was a fantasy film which normally the Academy would overlook as a genre and it was a surprise to be the Best Picture winner. In fact, it won all 11 awards it was nominated for, which was a new record.
14. 2013 – 12 Years a Slave vs Dallas Buyers Club vs Her vs Gravity
2013 had nine films nominated for Best Picture, as the Academy had opened up Best Picture nominations for up to 10 films. These were probably the most diverse group of films in years. Of the nine, four were considered front runners.
12 Years a Slave, based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, is the story of a free African American man lured to Washington D.C. in a job offer, he is then taken and sold into slavery and works on Louisiana plantations for 12 years until an abolitionist helps him get a letter to his family in New York. Directed by Steve McQueen, it was considered one of the best films depicting slavery.
Dallas Buyers Club, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and stars Matthew McConaughey as a rodeo cowboy infected with HIV in 1985 after having unprotected sex with an IV drug using prostitute. Told he has 30 days left to live, he learns of AZT which is the only drug the FDA approves for human testing. He drives to Mexico to get more, but a doctor there advises him of a drug combination that works better. With a transgender AIDS patient he had met in the hospital they form a club to help other AIDS patients with the new drugs.
Her, by rising director Spike Jonze a sci-fi fantasy film set in the near future, stars Joaquin Phoenix as a man who falls in love with the female voice of his smart phone’s operating system, only to find out it grows and evolves and outgrows him.
Gravity, directed by Alfonzo Cuaron and stars Sandra Bullock, is an outer space drama about a biomedical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone working on fixing the Hubble Space Telescope when a cloud of debris destroys her ship and forces her to take drastic steps to get back home.
Like 2007, all of these films were made for relatively low budgets and any one of the four could have won. Dallas Buyers Club, despite its excellent performances, was a small budget film with a topic that voters found dated. Her, was seen as a sci-fi film which the voters don’t usually care for. Gravity, despite excellent performances and winning Best Director was also a sci-fi film.
12 Years a Slave won the Best Picture due to the fact that several biographies of Lincoln were recently released, and due to the popularity of TV genealogy shows, especially among African Americans who were researching about their family roots.
13. 1951 – An American in Paris vs A Place in the Sun vs A Streetcar Named Desire
In 1951, adult themes were even more in evidence than the previous year as the studios tried to walk a tight line, making films that were introducing themes not yet seen regularly, while trying to appease both the censors and the Catholic Legion of Decency, which had the power to influence a film’s box office by the ratings they gave to films.
Of the three films considered as the front runners for Best Picture, An American in Paris was considered to have the widest appeal. It was produced by the noted Freed unit at MGM, and directed by Vicente Minnelli and starred one of their big musical stars, Gene Kelly.
A Place in the Sun was directed by George Stevens and starred new heartthrob Montgomery Clift in a story of Southern privilege and murder. A Streetcar Named Desire is the darkest of the three. It’s based on the Tennessee Williams play and starred Vivian Leigh as a faded beauty who’s still trying to reconcile her past with her present circumstances.
All three films did well at the box office and with critics. A Place in the Sun won Best Director and Best Screenplay, which the audience assumed that would lock up Best Picture. A Streetcar Named Desire took most of the acting Oscars, winning Best Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress, but in an upset, the sophisticated musical An American in Paris won. The voters were very familiar with the Gershwin music, and the 18 minute ballet that ended the film obviously impressed many.
12. 1957 – The Bridge on the River Kwai vs Witness for the Prosecution vs 12 Angry Men
1957 was an excellent year for films, with three strong movies among the five nominees for Best Picture. Surprisingly, two of them were courtroom dramas, though with very different settings and endings. First there was The Bridge on the River Kwai, starring Alec Guinness and directed by the great David Lean. It was a war picture set in a POW camp.
The first of the two courtroom dramas, Witness for the Prosecution, was based on the short story by Agatha Christie and starred previous Best Actor winner Charles Laughton. It’s a film with an unexpected twist ending. The third film and second courtroom drama 12 Angry Men was directed Sidney Lumet and starred a cast of “everyman actors”. A jury deliberates over the evidence in a case to decide a man’s fate.
In choosing the Best Picture, Witness for the Prosecution, though well written, acted and directed, was essentially seen as a British film, which might have won a decade ago, but it had the misfortune to be released in 1957, when voters were not quite ready to embrace this small black and white film.
12 Angry Men was originally a Broadway play, and was seen as a little too set bound, even though it had a great cast. The Bridge on the River Kwai was seen as a big action packed adventure in wide screen and enough years had passed since the war for it to be palatable for voters, so it won the Best Picture.
11. 1940 – Rebecca vs The Grapes of Wrath vs The Great Dictator
1940 was another great year for films. Again as in 1939, there were ten films nominated for Best Picture, but the three listed were considered the strongest competition.
First was Rebecca, the first film directed in the US by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. A gothic romantic drama, it would be very different than his subsequent films. Next up is The Grapes of Wrath, it was based on the novel by John Steinbeck and directed by the great John Ford. Finally, The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s first full talking film, in which Charlie satirizes Hitler, Mussolini and the Nazis, never realizing that a year later, much of the film became frighteningly real.
Any of these films could legitimately be named as Best Picture, but the Academy considered The Grapes of Wrath, though well made, and winning John Ford the Best Director Oscar, too depressing to really appeal. The Great Dictator was released in 1940 when the country was still neutral about World War II, so the voters did not think it was an appropriate choice.
So for the second year in a row, David O. Selznick produced the Best Picture winner, Rebecca. As Selznick was extremely popular due to Gone With the Wind which won the Best Picture the previous year.
10. 1976 – Rocky vs Network vs All the President’s Men vs Taxi Driver
In the bicentennial year, many of the films nominated for Academy Awards showed different sides of America, good and bad and delved into politics once more. Four films released that year were considered front runners and have stood the test of time.
Rocky told the story of a small time debt collector for the mob and a part time boxer who is given a chance of a lifetime shot at the Heavyweight Champion, the movie introduced Sylvester Stallion as a new star. Network, The story of a fictional television network and what is going on both behind the scenes and on the air in the news program, introduced us to news anchorman Howard Beale, who rallied viewers with his rant “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore!”
All the President’s Men, a political thriller based on true events, detailed the Watergate investigation by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. Taxi Driver tells the story of a former marine and current taxi driver who is exceedingly sickened by the prostitution and crime in New York. He takes the law into his own hands to save a child prostitute and shut down a brothel.
While any of these four films could have one Best Picture, Taxi Driver’s director, the great Martin Scorsese, was not nominated which would make it tough for that film to win. Network won three of the four acting awards, but was somewhat downbeat. All the President’s Men, with its great cast, was the only film that was all about Watergate, of which voters were tired by 1976. In the end, Rocky, the feel-good movie of the year, won Best Picture.
9. 1971 – The French Connection vs A Clockwork Orange vs Fiddler on the Roof vs The Last Picture Show
1971 seemed to be a schematic year in films with violence, drugs, and bizarre criminals versus more family friendly fare such as musicals and black and white period pieces, which were starting to look dated by this time. The MPAA had come in instead of the older censorship rules, meaning stories not allowed in the past could now be made, and marketed to those audiences who could see them.
The Academy Awards race was tight that year, with four films that could legitimately win Best Picture. First up was The French Connection, directed by William Friedkin, who would go on to direct The Exorcist. Starring Gene Hackman, it was an action thriller of the new style, focusing on car chases and drug busts.
Then there was A Clockwork Orange, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starred Malcolm McDowell in a film about the disenfranchised youth and their criminal activities in the near future. Fiddler on the Roof was a more or less faithful adaptation of the 1964 stage musical directed by Norman Jewison who’s a previous nominee. The Last Picture Show, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, is a coming of age tale set in Texas filmed in black and white.
That year at the Academy Awards, themes the voters embraced in the past returned. A Clockwork Orange was seen as too graphic and violent as far as sex was concerned. Fiddler on the Roof was seen as old fashioned as it had played Broadway in 1964, and as a film its time seem to have passed.
The Last Picture Show, despite an excellent script and two Supporting Oscars, was a style of film the Academy didn’t usually go for. The French Connection was a crime thriller which the Academy always liked, so it was named Best Picture.