As a byproduct of the media’s focus on #Oscarsowhite, we’ve gained some insight into how Oscar winners are selected, who votes, and the well-funded campaigning for votes that happens behind the scenes. It isn’t only a lack of racial diversity that’s led to some odd, unpopular choices over the years. The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who pick the winners, are also accused of being out-of-touch seniors who play or are easily played by Hollywood politics.
In 2012, actress Alfre Woodard talked to a reporter about the likelihood that a sexually explicit film like Shame would ever be nominated by members of a group whose median age is 62. “Maybe if the median age was 45 to 50, a film like Shame might show up, which I thought was a brilliantly rendered piece, but a subject matter that you don’t expect a certain older demographic would flock to see,” she said.
Shame, which was not nominated, remains pretty obscure.
Now, we have some data to prove what we’ve long suspected—the vaunted prize doesn’t always go to the most artful or original piece of work, even when top film critics agree on which film should be recognized.
Our economics reporter, Dan Kopf, pulled 22 years of rankings from Metacritic, a website that evaluates and creates a score of up to 100 for every critic’s review of a major release. Its editors then tally all the scores from recognized critics and calculate a total (meta) score. Comparing Metacritic’s rankings for Oscar-nominated films to the winner of Best Picture each year since 1994, we identified 15 occasions when the high honor and all its ticket-selling marketing power went to the “wrong”—less critically acclaimed—movie.
Here’s a look at the movies that won, and those that scored higher (in descending order) on Metacritic.
Best Picture 2014: Birdman
Scored Higher: Boyhood; Selma
Best Picture 2012: Argo
Scored Higher: Zero Dark Thirty; Amour
Best Picture 2010: The King’s Speech
Scored Higher: The Social Network; Toy Story 3; Winter’s Bone
Best Picture 2007: No Country For Old Men
Scored Higher: There Will Be Blood
Best Picture 2006: The Departed
Scored Higher: The Queen; Letters from Iwo Jima
Best Picture 2005: Crash
Scored Higher: Capote; Brokeback Mountain; Good Night, and Good Luck; Munich
Best Picture 2004: Million Dollar Baby
Scored Higher: Sideways
Best Picture 2002: Chicago
Scored Higher: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist
Best Picture 2001: A Beautiful Mind
Scored Higher: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Best Picture 2000: Gladiator
Scored Higher: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Traffic; Erin Brockovich; Chocolate
Best Picture 1998: Shakespeare in Love
Scored Higher: Saving Private Ryan
Best Picture 1997: Titanic
Scored Higher: L.A. Confidential; The Full Monty
Best Picture 1996: The English Patient
Scored Higher: Secrets & Lies; Shine
Best Picture 1995: Braveheart
Scored Higher: Sense and Sensibility; Babe; Il Postino; Apollo 13
Best Picture 1994: Forrest Gump
Scored Higher: Pulp Fiction; Quiz Show
The most dramatic gaps between the winning film’s Metacritic score and that of the highest ranked film occurred in 1995, 2000, and 2005, when Braveheart, Gladiator, and Crash won, respectively.
Braveheart achieved a score of 68 on Metacritic, while Sense and sensibility was given an 84. Gladiator’s average score was 64, whereas Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon attracted a whopping score of 93.
Crash? It earned a 69, but Capote’s tally was 88, and Brokeback Mountain’s was 87. Hollywood pundits believed that the latter, by lauded director Ang Lee, didn’t win the Oscar that year because its lead characters were closeted cowboys.
Among all of the films nominated for Best Picture since 1994, only one was given a rank of 100: Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater, who tops Quartz’s list of the 100 best directors of the last 25 years.
A second film, Three Colors: Red, by Krzysztof Kieslowski, achieved the perfect 100, too, but it was never in the running for best film. (Kieslowski was a candidate for Best Director in 1995, but didn’t win.)
So which films took Best Picture and, arguably, deserved to? The honorable winners were: Spotlight (2015), 12 Years a Slave (2013), The Artist (2011), The Hurt Locker (2009), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), and American Beauty (1999).
“No statue has ever been put up to a critic,” Jean Sibelius, the early 20th Century Finnish violinist, famously wrote, explaining why we need not pay them any attention. Apparently, Academy members have complied.