In part eight of this series, we look at the movies that should have won the Best Picture Oscar between 1990 and 1999.
For the first half of the decade, movies remained as great as ever, and then began a long decline in 1996, a decline that has only worsened. That’s not to say there were not some great movies made after 1995. It’s just that overall, as you’ll see, this is when Hollywood stopped making ‘em like they used to.
Of course, compared to today, 1999 looks like 1939.
- What Did Win: Dances with Wolves
Director and star Kevin Costner set out to make an epic, was laughed at the whole time (remember all the “Kevin’s Gate” stories?), and came home with a legitimate masterpiece, a box office smash, and Best Picture.
I love this movie. It’s everything moviemaking should be, something that takes you away, sweeps you up, and has something to say about people and the world.
- What Should’ve Won: Dances with Wolves
Yes, I love Goodfellas more than Dances with Wolves, but as I’ve said before, Best Picture is its own thing.
The Academy made the right choice.
See also: Total Recall. Home Alone, Presumed Innocent, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Tremors, The Hunt for Red October, Joe vs. the Volcano, A Shock to the System, Q&A, Ghost, Quick Change, Exorcist III, Men at Work, Goodfellas, Narrow Margin, King of New York, Avalon, The Hot Spot, Predator 2, Misery, The Grifters, and Alice.
- What Did Win: Silence of the Lambs
A knockout of a serial killer movie that would spawn something close to a million imitators over the decades to come, none of them its equal.
- What Should’ve Won: JFK
Director Oliver Stone’s Big Lie is one of the most dazzling pieces of filmmaking you are ever likely to see.
See also: Terminator 2, Once Around, L.A. Story, the Hard Way, New Jack City, Class Action, Oscar, Thelma and Louise, City Slickers, The Commitments, The Indian Runner, Late for Dinner, Other People’s Money, 29th Street, The Addams Family, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and Fried Green Tomatoes.
- What Did Win: Unforgiven
Clint Eastwood’s Western masterpiece proves that only those who admire and understand the genre they are deconstructing have the right to tear it apart. This is a rumination on the meaning of death, but not from the perspective of the dying… Instead, we get a look at those who deal it out and discover killing a man eats away your soul like a slow-acting cancer.
Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Richard Harris, Saul Rubinek, and Frances Fisher are all unforgettable.
- What Should’ve Won: Malcolm X
Director Spike Lee and star Denzel Washington bring one of history’s most complicated, charismatic, and honest men to vivid life in the best movie of the 1990s.
See also: Wayne’s World, American Me, My Cousin Vinny, Basic Instinct, One False Move, Batman Returns, Unlawful Entry, A League of their Own, A Stranger Among Us, Diggstown, Last of the Mohicans, A River Runs Through It, Consenting Adults, Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant, Damage, and Lorenzo’s Oil.
- What Did Win: Schindler’s List
Director Steven Spielberg’s 1993 was one for the ages: this Best Picture winner and Jurassic Park. A critical and commercial triumph. Has a director ever had a better year?
- What Should’ve Won: Schindler’s List
There was no denying Spielberg anything in 1993.
See also: The Fugitive, The Firm, Cliffhanger, Sleepless in Seattle, Age of innocence, Groundhog Day, Falling Down, The Sandlot, Menace II Society, Sleepless in Seattle, In the Line of Fire, True Romance, Dazed and Confused, Demolition Man, Rudy, Carlito’s Way, A Perfect World, Grumpy Old Men, Shadowlands, Tombstone, and In the Name of the Father.
- What Did Win: Forrest Gump
A massive blockbuster about a simple-minded man who strolls through history changing everyone with his simple decency… Nevertheless, my favorite scene is still Forrest Gump beating the hell out of a dirty, filthy hippie.
- What Should’ve Won: Pulp Fiction
The no-brainer of no-brainers; 27 years on, director Quentin Tarantino’s twisty-turny-violent-funny-shocking-exhilarating love letter to the genre movies he loves is still a dazzler.
See also: True Lies, The Lion King, Dumb and Dumber, Clear and Present Danger, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Red Rock West, Speed, Ed Wood, The River Wild, Clerks, The Last Seduction, Legends of the Fall, and Nobody’s Fool.
- What Did Win: Braveheart
Director and star Mel Gibson delivers an epic that gets better and feels more relevant with each passing year.
- What Should’ve Won: Braveheart
If you catch me on another day I might pick Casino or Dead Man Walking, but this is not that day.
See also: Shallow Grave, Friday, Crimson Tide, Apollo 13, Species, The Usual Suspects, Seven, To Die For, Get Shorty, Leaving Las Vegas, Mighty Aphrodite, Casino, Toy Story, Heat, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Nixon, and Dead Man Walking.
- What Did Win: the English Patient
Anthony Minghella’s epic war romance is full of steamy sex and beautiful scenery… It is also forgettable and overrated.
- What Should’ve Won: Lone Star
Writer and director John Sayles’ autopsy of a Texas border town haunted by its secrets and struggling with the changes that come with the modern world feels even more relevant today.
Chris Cooper is perfectly cast as a decent, everyman sheriff burdened by the memory of his father and who never got over his first love.
A lovely and literate screenplay that treats the audience like adults as it examines race, myth, small town politics and the humanity that ties us all together.
See also: Beautiful Girls, Fargo, Happy Gilmore, Primal Fear, Twister, Independence Day, Mission: Impossible, The Arrival, The Rock, Trainspotting, Bound, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Trees Lounge, Swingers, Ransom, Sling Blade, Scream, and The People vs. Larry Flynt.
- What Did Win: Titanic
James Cameron’s epic love story shouldn’t work. It’s hokey and sentimental and obvious at times, but it sure does. Boy, does it ever.
- Ulee’s Gold
The Mighty Peter Fonda delivers the greatest performance of the decade as a middle-aged beekeeper trying to hold on to the old ways — and his lifelong grudges — in an ever-changing world determined to break down the walls Ulee built around himself and his granddaughters.
Ultimately, this is a story about the gifts that come with learning to forgive, with discovering that even if we don’t like the people we love, we might find out they’ve changed if we change by offering them a second chance.
One of the greatest movies ever made, the one where Peter proved he’s every bit as talented as his father and sister.
See also: Air Force One, The Full Monty, The Relic, Donnie Brasco, Austin Powers, Breakdown, Traveller, Cop Land, The Game, L.A. Confidential, and The Edge.
- What Did Win: Shakespeare in Love
Unfairly remembered as The Movie That Stole Saving Private Ryan’s Oscar, Shakespeare in Love is far from a masterpiece, but accomplishes what it sets out to: you want the couple to find a way to be together, you laugh, you’re transported to another time and place… Overall, though, it proves just what a weak year 1998 was.
- What Should’ve Won: A Civil Action
Of all the titles released in 1998, this is the one I like the most, an unfairly forgotten legal thriller about a rich, telegenic, famous, and mercenary attorney (a superb John Travolta) who finds his conscience and meaning in his life by way of a slam-dunk case ripe for a fat settlement.
A true underdog story, and a truly moving one… Every bit as underrated as Saving Private Ryan is overrated.
See also: Armageddon, Saving Private Ryan, Deep Rising, The Replacement Killers, The Wedding Singer, Twilight, Suicide Kings, The Big Hit, Wild Man Blues, Bulworth, Out of Sight, There’s Something About Mary, Lolita, Saving Private Ryan, Halloween: H20, Cube, Permanent Midnight, Ronin, Happiness, American History X, The Waterboy, A Civil Action, and Affliction.
- What Did Win: American Beauty
Another unfairly maligned Oscar winner… Kevin Spacey knocks it out of the park as a suburban, middle-aged drone who falls in love with a high school cheerleader, and sees her as his last chance to feel young and vital again.
The simple-minded and pious Woke Gestapo will scream Pedo! Pedo! Pedo!, but when the time comes, our hero makes a deeply moral choice, realizes he needs to appreciate a family he himself damaged through years of indifference, but only does so after it’s too late.
- What Should’ve Won: American Beauty
As much as I love Fight Club, Magnolia, and Topsy-Turvy, I’m sticking with American Beauty.
Caveat: The best movie of 1999 was the documentary American Movie.
See also: The Sixth Sense, The Matrix, Notting Hill, Magnolia, Analyze This!; Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels; Go, Election, Limbo, Run Lola Run, Bowfinger, Fight Club, The Straight Story, Bats, American Movie, Deuce Biglalow, Topsy-Turvy, and Galaxy Quest.