THIS SUNDAY, the Oscar for best picture will go to either "Spotlight," "The Big Short" or "The Revenant," all respectable best picture options. Either of the latter two would make for a pretty weird winner, actually.
For the most part, the Academy has a solid track record of playing it safe, especially in the best picture race. There are outliers ("Silence of the Lambs," "The Deer Hunter"), but most winners are toothless prestige. In many cases, better, more enduring films have lost to safer picks.
Here's a chronological and highly subjective look at the times Oscar got it dead wrong.
Note: Years indicate when the Oscar ceremony took place, not the year the films came out.
1939: "You Can't Take it With You "winning over "Grand Illusion"
An agreeably fluffy rom-com directed by Frank Capra is a fine pick for best picture in an off movie year. But in a year that has Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion," you give the award to Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion." The anti-war war film is funny, humane and one of the best movies ever made ever ever. It does at least have the distinction of being the first foreign film to be nominated for best picture.
1942: "How Green Was My Valley" winning over "Citizen Kane"
All due respect to John Ford, if the Academy had one do-over ...
1965: "My Fair Lady" winning over "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"
I'll admit a bias against musicals, but "My Fair Lady" winning over Kubrick's subversive masterwork is just a garbage decision, just garbage.
1974: "The Sting" winning over "The Exorcist"
Oscar's always been stingy with sci-fi and horror movies, "Silence of the Lambs" being the only horror movie to have won best picture. "The Exorcist" was the first horror movie nominated for best picture, itself quite an achievement. But it should have won, too, likable a film as "The Sting" is.
1980: "Kramer vs. Kramer" winning over "Apocalypse Now"
In both the process of making it and the end result, "Apocalypse Now" is insane. In the best possible way. With its countless memorable scenes and lines and its fever dream storytelling, it's one of the few American films that can rightly be called "mythic." "Kramer vs. Kramer" is not mythic.
1981: "Ordinary People" winning over "Raging Bull"
Also a shame was Robert Redford winning best director over Martin Scorsese that year. Like "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Ordinary People" is a very good drama about a middle-class family. But "Raging Bull" was one of those movies that changed movies. It remains one of the best things Scorsese's ever done.
1991: "Dances with Wolves" winning over "Goodfellas"
Were I not just 6 years old at the time, I would have angrily tweeted about this outrage.
1997: "The English Patient" winning over "Fargo"
Be honest. Assuming you've seen "The English Patient," have you ever wanted to watch it again? So serious. So long. Soooo much sand. It's a fine piece of filmmaking. But, in hindsight, it kind of feels like a parody of a quintessential Oscar movie.
1998: "Titanic" winning over "L.A. Conidential" and "Good Will Hunting"
Isn't "Titanic" — like "Avatar" and "Gravity" after it — really more of a great technical achievement than an all-around great film? It's certainly not in the same league as the movies it beat. "L.A. Confidential," in particular, is a truly, madly, deeply better film. After that movie, film noir was done. The genre reached its apex, everyone could go home now.
2003: "Chicago" winning over "The Pianist"
Roman Polanski's "Pianist" scored a best actor and best director win, but for best picture it was crushed by "Chicago's" Harvey Weinstein hype machine. On the surface, "The Pianist" seems like the kind of historically important prestige film that Oscar loves. But it shattered the conventions of that kind of movie, becoming mostly a one-man show about a guy trying to survive one of the worst things that's ever happened. It's a historically accurate horror movie.
2006: "Crash" winning over all the other nominees and many movies that were not nominated
I'll admit to being swept up by the massive emotion-y EMOTION! of "Crash" the first time I saw it, but in the clear light of several years later I now see that "Crash" is a bad movie. It's one of the worst to ever win best picture. That year it won against four much-better movies: "Brokeback Mountain," "Capote," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Munich."
2011: "The King's Speech" winning over "The Social Network"
Oscar will always pick the old-timey, heartwarming triumph of the human spirit. Always.
2015: "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" winning over "Boyhood" and "Whiplash"
"Birdman" is showy, shallow and smug. So of course Oscar awarded it over the two masterpieces in the bunch.