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The 10 Most Unconventional Best Picture Winners

22 February 2016 | Features, Film Lists | by Justin Gunterman

No Country for Old Men

As of recently, the term “Oscar bait” has been thrown around quite a lot. There’s a reason for that: the Oscars are predictable. Most people believe that the Academy Awards are far too conservative to ever pick risky movies for their grand prize.

Actually, until the recent extension of the best picture field, nominations for unsafe choices were almost out of the question. While the aforementioned extension has helped more unusual films get recognized, it’s still often the safe choice that gets crowned Best Picture.

This year, for example, both Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian earned Best Picture nominations. However, most people still believe that the crown will go to something like Spotlight or The Big Short.

The riskiest potential winner to most people would be The Revenant. This isn’t implying that Spotlight or The Big Short don’t deserve to be in contention. It’s more an observation that the Oscars have a “type” that they like to stick with.

Heavy-handed dramas dealing with social issues are generally considered their forte. On the flip-side, science fiction films, family films, light comedy films (as opposed to dramedies), and horror films are almost exclusively ignored. Certain genres, such as science fiction films and animated films, have never won the top prize.

It’s telling that making a list of ten unconventional best picture choices proved to be difficult. The fact of the matter is that the Oscars like to play it safe.

One thing to note, however, is that when a movie in this list is referred to as “safe” or “Oscar-friendly,” that does not mean that it is a bad choice for Best Picture or a bad movie in general. It simply means that it is something that the Oscar voters tend to appreciate.

 

1. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

silence of the lambs

The Silence of the Lambs is the only horror film to ever win Best Picture. In the eighty-eight years the Oscars have been around, only two other horror films have been nominated: The Exorcist and The Sixth Sense.

The Silence of the Lambs, like every horror film, is simply not an Oscar friendly film. It’s too violent, too dark, and it’s stuck in a genre that the Academy doesn’t take seriously. Given the fact that it was up against films that seemed like more obvious choices, it’s a miracle that it was able to pull through and ultimately claim victory.

Given the history of the Academy Awards, the most logical choice for the Best Picture award in 1991 would have been either JFK or The Prince of Tides. They perfectly fit into the category of “dramas dealing with social issues.”

The Silence of the Lambs, on the other hand, was more or less a straight-up horror film. While not as strange of a choice as something like The Exorcist, it was still a film that felt like an unusual pick when you consider the Academy’s predictable voting pattern.

To add to that, it could be argued that there wasn’t a deep enough social message for the Oscars to dig the film. At the very least, the social message certainly wasn’t in plain view. Certain arguments could be made claiming that The Silence of the Lambs is somewhat of a popcorn thriller – a film with little beneath the surface.

Oscar voters either didn’t agree with that statement or they simply didn’t care. The movie is a masterful piece of filmmaking, and that’s only further proven by the fact that the Academy was willing to pick it over more conservative choices.

 

2. Birdman (2014)

Birdman

Movies about movies have done exceptionally well at the Academy Awards recently, so why is Birdman such a weird choice? In fact, after The Artist and Argo won back-to-back, shouldn’t we have seen a Birdman victory coming? Well, the actual setup of the plot isn’t what makes Birdman a real choice.

Describing the basic story of Birdman paints it as a pretty basic film. The execution, however, is what makes Birdman a darkly surreal black comedy that goes completely against what the Academy tends to love.

In all honesty, both Best Picture frontrunners from 2014 were odd choices. If Birdman didn’t win, the prize would have almost certainly gone to Boyhood, Linklater’s experimental drama about growing up.

Choices like The Imitation Game and American Sniper were in the race, but they weren’t real threats. 2014 was bound to be a year where the voters chose something new.

Birdman’s sardonic personality is far from what viewers have come to associate with the typical Best Picture winner. It’s gritty, strange, and spastic. The fact of the matter is, Birdman isn’t a movie for everyone. Generally, the Best Picture winner is a film that appeals to a wide audience.

Birdman, on the other hand, is not a film meant for the mainstream. Given its humble box office numbers and polarizing response from casual filmgoers, that becomes pretty evident. In the end, the Academy proved for the first time in years that they weren’t total sticklers by opting for a film outside of the norm.

 

3. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings The Return of the King (2003)

Big budget blockbusters aren’t completely out of the question for Oscar voters. After all, Gladiator managed to win the big award back in 2000. The difference between Gladiator and The Lord of the Rings, however, ultimately has to do with their genres.

While they’re both large-scale movies, one is a historical drama while the other is a fantasy film. Fantasy films tend to do exceptionally well when it comes to technical categories but not so much when it comes to the more important awards.

After earning Best Picture nominations for the previous two films in the series, Return of the King was able to pull through and win the most important award of the night over Oscar-ready films like Seabiscuit and Mystic River.

Even more surprising was the fact that it managed to win every single award it was nominated for proving that nothing was standing in the way of Peter Jackson’s grand fantasy spectacle.

The film’s status as a box-office giant probably helped it gain word of mouth, but that’s rarely enough to pull through and win Best Picture. No fantasy film since Return of the King was able to earn the same level of acclaim from Academy voters, but the victory proves that Oscar voters aren’t unwilling to take risks.

 

4. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy was the first and only X-rated film to win Best Picture. While the X-rating wasn’t nearly as taboo in 1969 as it was in later years, Midnight Cowboy still tackled a number of controversial topics that seemed completely out of the comfort zone of the conservative Academy voters.

Though it has since been reissued an R rating, the adult content in the film were unusual for a Best Picture winner. In fact, the adult content in the film was unusual for films in general.

Midnight Cowboy was released during a time when filmgoers were finally starting to become more comfortable with taboo subjects like sex and violence. If you went back a few years prior to the release of Midnight Cowboy, you’d learn that film censorship was much less relaxed.

Midnight Cowboy was one of the first movies to take on the edgier subject matter, and it definitely didn’t hold back.

However, its victory goes to show that Academy voters, like filmgoers in general, were beginning to accept that films were starting to become more adult-oriented. Today, a movie like Midnight Cowboy doesn’t seem any more risque than any other Best Picture nominee, but back then, Midnight Cowboy pushed the limits.

 

5. American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty bath

A movie this cynical doesn’t usually fit the Best Picture criteria. American Beauty is an incredibly bleak film. It was daring, innovative, and darkly comic. It was considered by many to be the best movie of 1999, but that doesn’t mean much in terms of Best Picture chances.

If a movie earns critical acclaim, it usually doesn’t move far during awards season if it seems too out-of-the-ordinary.

The Cider House Rules was considered American Beauty’s biggest rival. In comparison to the Sam Mendes film, The Cider House Rules was ready-made for Oscar glory. Though the term “Oscar bait” wasn’t thrown around nearly as much, if at all, in 1999, The Cider House Rules was as close to Oscar bait as movies could get.

On the flip-side, American Beauty was far from Oscar bait. It was an unusual psychological drama that touched on a number of touchy subjects. In the end, it turns out that the voters were perfectly happy with the unabashed darkness of the film.

Since the release of American Beauty, Mendes continued to direct critically acclaimed movies. Though some have done well in terms of Oscar nominations, none have been able to dominate the Academy Awards like American Beauty did.

 

 

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  • Wyatt W.B

    Very cool list! Except The Artist. Total Oscar bait.

    • Chrisychipz

      I can’t tell if you’re joking, but if not, The Artist is the opposite of Oscar bait

    • Xavier

      Its not because The Artist is a movie about movies and Hollywood thats its an oscar bait. Black and White, Silent movie, no american stars, no famous director and with a bit of cynic view on the hollywood system, its so far from an Oscar bait. Specially if you run against Moneyball, The descendants, Tree of life and Midnight in Paris.

      • Wyatt W.B

        Interesting argument. I respectfully disagree. Although it is cynical of the Hollywood system, and the film industry, it does celebrate it, too. It pays tribute to old ways of filmmaking, and even uses some of the same equipment, and filming techniques as was once used. It is a great movie, but I do think I baited awards.

  • Alex Ramage

    I really don’t think American Beauty is “an incredibly bleak film”. It’s about a normal miserable dad who lets go of everything he realises he doesn’t care about, rediscovers his passions and dies with a smile on his face. dark maybe, but not bleak..

    • SupernaturalCat

      Agreed …although I can see how typically conditioned American sensibilities would automatically cast American Beauty as such for many people. Which is to say, they’d perceive Spacey’s character as highly negative for quitting his horseshit corporate job, smoking grass, becoming more introspective, etc, when in actuality, those are positive traits! …which speaks volumes about the typically exalted daily round of life that is promoted here.

  • Abhishek

    I disagree with year 2011. The help was a better movie and contender than Moneyball and The Descendants.

  • Johannes Runge

    So not true…many of the examples. But especially The Artist was predestined to get an Oscar.