Can Oscar Spot a Classic?


With this year’s Academy Awards now firmly planted in the annals of cinematic history, I felt it was appropriate to take a look at Oscar’s past. With 2014 being one of the closest races in the award’s questionable and sometimes subjective history, everyone seemed to have their own opinion on who should go home with the coveted, tiny golden man.

In the days leading up to this year’s Oscars, I read numerous opinions of fellow film fanatic’s predictions of sure-fire winners. Of course not all of them were in agreement (which is why we call them opinions) and several cinephiles mentioned films they felt got the Oscar snub. And this started me thinking. Not necessarily about whether or not Oscar always gets it right, that’s a debate for another time. But is a film that gets the Best Picture nod destined to become a beloved classic?

Think about your personal film collection. How many Best Picture winners do you own? Now out of those winners, how many do you watch repeatedly, or quote incessantly? Schindler’s List was a remarkable achievement in film, but how many times have you watched it? Now how many times have you seen Jurassic Park, or Dazed and Confused, or The Nightmare Before Christmas, all released the same year?

This year’s Academy Awards honored the 75th anniversary of one of the most beloved classics of all time, The Wizard of Oz. But in 1939, even the great and powerful Oz couldn’t muster up the Oscar for Best Picture. That award went to Gone with the Wind.

So the question I am posing is not whether Oscar rewards a great film, but rather what has John and Jane Q-Public come to embrace over the years? What films are they more likely to drop in his/her DVD or Blu-ray player and watch for the umpteenth time, reciting each line by heart?

For instance, in 1931 Cimarron was awarded best picture. How many of you have seen Cimarron as opposed to that year’s Frankenstein, Dracula, or Fritz Lang’s classic M? In 1933 Cavalcade took home the prize. I had never even heard of Cavalcade and certainly wouldn’t consider it a beloved film such as that year’s epic, King Kong; The Marx Brother’s hilarious, Duck Soup; or the chilling horror thriller, The Invisible Man. And I’d be willing to bet more people are familiar with 1936’s Reefer Madness than that year’s best picture winner, The Great Ziegfeld.

Sometimes Oscar does seem extremely short sighted. In 1941 How Green Was My Valley was awarded over Citizen Kane. Citizen. Freakin’. Kane. A film that many believe to be the best of all time. Other films released that year, The 47 Ronin, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dumbo, The Maltese Falcon, and The Wolf Man.

1977’s winner was Annie Hall. Also released that year, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Eraserhead,  High Anxiety, The Hills Have Eyes, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Jabberwocky, Kentucky Fried Movie, The Rescuers, Saturday Night Fever, Slap Shot, Smokey and the Bandit, The Spy Who Loved Me, and of course the most brilliant sci-fi film ever made, Star Wars.

1979’s winner was the depressing drama, Kramer vs. Kramer. It beat out Apocalypse Now. Let me just give you a minute to let that sink in…Apocalypse Now for Christ’s sake! Have they released a Kramer vs. Kramer Redux? No, they have not. Also released that year, Alien, The Amityville Horror, The China Syndrome, The Jerk, Mad Max, The Muppet Movie, North Dallas Forty, Quadrophenia, Rocky II, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and The Warriors.

So I think you see where I’m going here. Below I present to you the films of the 80’s. I’ll show you each year’s winner, followed by a list of other notable films released that same year. Did Oscar pick a truly beloved film to be enjoyed for years to come? How many of the “other” films would you be more willing to watch, or have added to your own collection, as opposed to that year’s winner? Let me know if you were as surprised by some of the results as I was. If there’s enough interest I will post other years as well. Enjoy!


Winner: Ordinary People

9 to 5
Altered States
American Gigolo
The Blues Brothers
The Changeling
Coal Miner’s Daughter
The Elephant Man
The Fog
Friday the 13th
The Gods Must Be Crazy
The Jazz Singer
Private Benjamin
Raging Bull
The Shining
Star Wars Episode V: the Empire Strikes Back
Stir Crazy
Superman II
Urban Cowboy


Winner: Chariots of Fire

Absence of Malice
An American Werewolf in London
Body Heat
Das Boot
The Cannonball Run
Christiane F.
Clash of the Titans
Endless Love
The Entity
Escape from New York
The Evil Dead
For Your Eyes Only
The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Friday the 13th Part 2
The Great Muppet Caper
Halloween II
History of the World: Part 1
The Howling
Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior
Mommie Dearest
My Bloody Valentine
On Golden Pond
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Quest for Fire
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Shock Treatment
Time Bandits


Winner: Gandhi

48 Hours
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
Blade Runner
Conan the Barbarian
The Dark Crystal
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid
Fast Times at Ridgemont High
First Blood
Night Shift
An Officer and a Gentleman
Personal Best
Pink Floyd – The Wall
Rocky III
The Secret of NIMH
The Shaolin Temple
Sophie’s Choice
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Swamp Thing
The Thing
The Verdict
Victor Victoria
The Year of Living Dangerously


Winner: Terms of Endearment

All the Right Moves
The Big Chill
A Christmas Story
Curse of the Pink Panther
The Dead Zone
Gorky Park
The Hunger
Liquid Sky
The Man with Two Brains
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
Mr. Mom
Never Say Never Again
The Outsiders
The Right Stuff
Risky Business
Rumble Fish
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Staying Alive
Strange Brew
Sudden Impact
Superman III
Tender Mercies
To Be of Not to Be
Trading Places
Twilight Zone: The Movie
Uncommon Valor
Valley Girl


Winner: Amadeus

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai
Beverly Hills Cop
Children of the Corn
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter
The Hotel New Hampshire
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Johnny Dangerously
The Karate Kid
The Killing Fields
The Last Starfighter
Moscow on the Hudson
The Muppets Take Manhattan
The Natural
The NeverEnding Story
Night of the Comet
A Nightmare on Elm Street
Places in the Heart
Police Academy
Purple Rain
Red Dawn
Repo Man
Revenge of the Nerds
Romancing the Stone
Sixteen Candles
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
The Terminator
This is Spinal Tap
Top Secret!


Winner: Out of Africa

Agnes of God
Back to the Future
Better Off Dead
The Breakfast Club
The Color Purple
Day of the Dead
Desperately Seeking Susan
Fright Night
The Goonies
The Jewel of the Nile
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Lust in the Dust
Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Pale Rider
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
Prizzi’s Honor
Rambo: First Blood Part II
Rocky IV
St. Elmo’s Fire
Teen Wolf
To Live and Die in L.A.
Vampire Hunter D
A View to a Kill
Weird Science


Winner: Platoon

9 ½ weeks
About Last Night…
Betty Blue
Big Trouble in Little China
Blue Velvet
Children of a Lesser God
The Color of Money
Crocodile Dundee
Down by Law
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
The Fly
The Hitcher
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Little Shop of Horrors
The Manhattan Project
Maximum Overdrive
The Morning After
The Mosquito Coast
Peggy Sue Got Married
Pretty in Pink
Short Circuit
Sid and Nancy
Stand by Me
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Top Gun


Winner: The Last Emperor

Angel Heart
Black Widow
Broadcast News
Dirty Dancing
Empire of the Sun
Evil Dead II
Fatal Attraction
Full Metal Jacket
Good Morning, Vietnam
Lethal Weapon
The Lost Boys
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Prince of Darkness
The Princess Bride
Radio Days
Raising Arizona
Three Men and a Baby
Throw Momma from the Train
The Untouchables
Wall Street
The Witches of Eastwick
Withnail and I


Winner: Rain Man

The Accidental Tourist
The Accused
Action Jackson
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
Biloxi Blues
Childs Play
Coming to America
Dangerous Liaisons
Die Hard
A Fish Called Wanda
Gorillas in the Mist
I’m Gonna Git You Sucka
The Last Temptation of Christ
Mississippi Burning
The Naked Gun
They Live
Torch Song Trilogy
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
Working Girl
Young Guns


Winner: Driving Miss Daisy

The Abyss
Apartment Zero
Back to the Future Part II
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Born on the Fourth of July
The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover
Dead Poets Society
Do the Right Thing
Drugstore Cowboy
The Fabulous Baker Boys
Field of Dreams
Honey, I Shrunk the Kids
In Country
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Lethal Weapon 2
The Little Mermaid
Look Who’s Talking
Major League
My Let Foot
Milo and Otis
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
New York Stories
Pet Sematary
Puppet Master
Road House
Roger & Me
Say Anything…
Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Steel Magnolias
Vampires Kiss
The War of the Roses
Weekend at Bernie’s
When Harry Met Sally…


22 responses to “Can Oscar Spot a Classic?

  1. Wow, you weren’t kidding, 1982 was a wonderful year for movies. Blade Runner, Conan, Dark Crystal, E.T., Fast Times, Porky’s, Secret of NIMH, Poltergeist, First Blood, Wrath of Khan, The Thing, TRON.

  2. I think it’s important to remember that the Best Picture winner can also be a reflection on the events surrounding the Oscars. Like “The Hurt Locker”. While there may not be a high caliber of films in that roster (except maybe District 9 and Inglorious Basterds), the fact that it was an Iraq war film probably was huge factor. And the because it was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who was up against her ex-husband. Hollywood/Academy politics play a huge factor in what wins as best picture. When you mentioned 1977 and Annie Hall (which is one of my favourites), some of the other films are quite polarizing and definitely not mainstream. David Lynch is definitely fantastic, but crowning Eraserhead as the best films of the year is unrealistic given the Academy’s rigidness.

    That being said, I think for people who don’t watch a ton of movies but are looking for some direction in what to watch, previous best picture winners are a good starting point. They’re generally all-around decent films that can provoke greater interest in movies.

    That being said, how awesome would it have been if Ghostbusters was a best picture winner? I haven’t seen Out of Africa, but I’ve heard its painfully slow.

    • I am certainly not suggesting that any of the films listed are necessarily better than the best picture winner for that same year (I enjoyed Annie Hall as well). I was just fascinated by the juxtaposition between some of the best picture winners and other films from that same year that have gone on to become fan favorites. So my inclusion of Eraserhead was not because I think it’s a great film (I actually hated that film) but because it has gone on to gain a huge cult following.

      Out of Africa is a stunningly beautiful film, but not one that I will ever watch outside of my initial viewing because it is slow (don’t tell my father, he loves that movie). However, The Breakfast Club, Day of the Dead, and The Goonies, none of which are best picture worthy, are all films that I have watched on countless occasions and have gone on to become fan favorites.

      Thanks for the feedback. I always enjoy your comments!

  3. Don’t ya wish you had a nickel for every time you’ve watched 9to5, Raiders, or 16 Candles ( while munching the ultimate cinema snack: popcorn and Jr’s) over the course of your formative movie watching years???

  4. Thank you for such an informative site. Yes, Apocalypse Now, oh I could cry. And I’ve seen it many times, along with several others. Truly I get your point, as you have already mentioned, Gandhi. It was a great movie, saw it once, don’t need to see it again. Also, I can’t believe Terms of Endearment beat out The Man with Two Brains. Oscars were rigged that year I bet.

  5. I think this is like the argument over who is the greatest guitarist. How can you compare such different genres? That said, some real turkeys have won, and some of the greatest films and filmmakers have missed out. I tend to see mostly indy movies as they are on for such a short time, so I make an effort to catch them, and are less likely to turn up on tv or dvd. Similar to how I buy clothes – charity shop stuff seems to need a home more than big shops. Films need to be watched and loved. As for this year, I can see why 12 Years Won, and it deserved it, but it was worthy rather than great. For truly original filmmaking, I would back Nebraska, All is Lost, and Only Lovers Left Alive. Original, engrossing, and very very cinematic. Sadly they could only be made in the states where there is a big industry to support the little auteurs.

    • Valid point about 12 Years a Slave. It was a brilliant piece of film making, but it’s a heavy, heavy subject. Once you’ve seen it, you appreciate it for what is was but are unlikely to watch it again. Whereas a film like Only Lovers Left Alive (brilliant in its own right but certainly not award worthy) is a film I will definitely end up adding to my personal collection and watch multiple times.

      • I think this debate shows how many levels there are to a film. My post on Her criticised its lack of story, and yet there is very little in Only Lovers… Jarmusch;s film is so rich in atmosphere and imagery, the characters etc, that we get lost in it. As a writer I should be looking for storylines and dialogue, but it is great to get lost in all the other stuff. I think John Huston said the ideal film should have no dialogue; after all, the original cinema was dialogue free.. Well, sort of.

  6. I think the above comment about 12 Years A Slave is probably one of the biggest reasons that there seems to be such a disconnect. The criteria for a Best Picture nod at the Oscars is not going to be the same as the criteria for a repeat-worthy classic. It could be about subject matter (like 12 Years A Slave and Schindler’s List), a difference in perspective (I believe I’m correct in saying is that the average Academy voter is not your average movie watcher) or the simple fact that sometimes “great” movies aren’t the ones we love to watch (I don’t think anyone is going to call Happy Gilmore a great film but I could watch it for days. Same with National Treasure).

    I for one would be interested in seeing what other decades look like, especially the older ones.

  7. I think it all depends on one’s definition of ‘classic.’ Is a classic something mass audiences love and want to repeatedly view, or is it the definition more varied. Apocalypse Now is brilliantly well made, for example, but Kramer vs Kramer has the tighter narrative and better developed characters. Ditto that Ordinary People versus Raging Bull and the other films of 1980.

    • Agreed that the definition of classic is subjective. I was coming at it from more a beloved classic POV. Not that the academy doesn’t recognize great films, but are they films that viewers will cherish and obsessively watch over and over?

      • In my case, many of them are. I’ve seen Ordinary People (one of my favorite four movies ever) somewhere close to two dozen occurrences. And I can’t imagine ever seeing Raging Bull a second time. Casablanca is my favorite movie ever. Even Schindler’s List is one I’ve repeated, because I think it so powerful and symbolically complex that it deserves repeat observations.

        But. I consider a classic to be movies that use the medium of film to advance already compelling narratives centered on complex people and conflicts in furtherance of meaningful themes. So, for the most part, I think, does the Academy.

        Therein is why I’d call 12 Years a Slave a classic. But I wouldn’t assign the same title to Gravity, for instance.

        (Note: I’m not sure I’m really disagreeing with you, as much as I am saying the answer to your question is: It Depends.)

  8. Pingback: “Citizen Kane” – What Makes A Classic? | Films and Figures

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