Do We Know What a Best Picture Winner Looks Like Anymore?

We all have an idea of what an "Oscar-winning film" is supposed to look like, but after last Sunday's awards show, it may be time to throw the old paradigm out the window. The Hurt Locker is only the latest Best Picture winner to flout the conventions of what kind of film takes home the top prize; in fact, it closed out a decade that was full of such wins. Here are six Best Picture winners of recent vintage that prove there's no such thing as a typical Oscar movie anymore:

2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Guess how many fantasy films have ever won Best Picture? None before Return of the King (and much to Avatar's chagrin, none since). The final Lord of the Rings installment couldn't have been up against a more traditional Best Picture film in 2003 -- Mystic River, a Clint Eastwood-directed drama with an Oscar-winning performance by Sean Penn -- and yet it pulled out the victory anyway. In fact, it tied the record for the most Academy Awards ever won by a film, with 11 victories.

2005: Crash

Brokeback Mountain had been heavily tipped to win the Best Picture trophy in 2005, and it picked up so many of the precursor awards (hitting the trifecta of DGA, WGA, and PGA wins) that it was thought unbeatable. Sure, Brokeback's gay themes would have broken new ground if it had won the Academy's top prize, but in ever other respect, it was a conventional Oscar film: a period drama with Oscar-nominated performances, a director who would win the Oscar that year, and critical unanimity. The comparatively polarizing Crash instead proved that a little movie can be released in the spring and pick up only a few precursor awards, yet still sneak in and grab the Best Picture Oscar.

2006: The Departed

After making so many ambitious, weighty films About Something yet coming home empty-handed from the Oscars, The Departed was intended to be a simple diversion for Martin Scorsese -- nothing more, nothing less. "Talk to Academy is not a movie that they seem to feel is prestigious," pundit David Poland said that awards season. "The truth is, if you listen to members, you don't even get the feel that the film is a lock to be nominated. I think it will be... I think it will be #2 or #3 for a lot of people. But the winner? No." Somehow, though, this unlikely crime drama overcame the usual debits (too violent, too modern, too genre) to win Best Picture in addition to the eventually ordained Best Director Oscar for Scorsese.

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  • snickers says:

    If any fantasy film deserved a Best Picture award, it was Return of the King. A feast for the eyes and mind.

  • Dimo says:

    It's weird that I can rattle off the Best Pictures winners in the 70's 80's, and 90's, but I had to be reminded about half of the movies you mentioned.

  • JAB says:

    Here is what kills me about all the talk about THL being the lowest grossing Best Pic winner ever it makes it sound like a little art house flic when in fact it has more tension & action then just about any film released last year. It looks great & is as entertaining as any film I've ever seen. It is the best war movie since "Saving Private Ryan". It doesn't have that film's epic set pieces, but it has acting that at least matches Spielberg's war classic & minute for minute is much more intense.
    It was marketed horribly, but to hear Bigelow's & Boal's comment it apparently was a minor miracle that it was marketed (& released) at all. It is clearly a better movie than "Avatar".
    Oscar got it right this year for a film that was criminally under-seen (like Bigelow's other great movie, "Near Dark"). Let's hope DVD, changes all of that.

  • Alejandro says:

    The Hurt Locker did not deserve the Oscar and it has nothing to with the marketing or box office. It has everything to do with the message. The Hurt Locker inspires chaos and destruction while Avatar inspires peace and hope. What do you think our world needs more of? Certainly not more positive publicity for a seven-year-old war that has long since expended its good purpose. However, the final decision doesn't matter anyways. The Hurt Locker may have the Oscar but it will soon be forgotten while Avatar will endure for the ages.

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    I don't get it, who would not want this to be here?

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