Twelve Years a Slave to History: Why Academy Voters Often Miss the Real Best Picture

A college professor reveals the method behind his madness in NOT always choosing Academy Award-winning films when selecting the stories students live by for classroom use.  Part one in 2014 Oscar Week Series.

If history is any indicator, Brad Pitt and the TWELVE YEAR’S A SLAVE producing team will deliver their carefully prepared acceptance speeches Sunday night. Yet history also reveals that, when it comes to picking the film audiences will recognize as truly great twelve years from now, Oscar voters often miss the mark.

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

When it comes to picking the film that will be viewed as truly great in TWELVE YEARS, Oscar voters often miss the mark. (Photo: Indiewire)
If recent history is any indicator ‘Twelve Years a Slave’ (Center) will beat ‘Gravity’, (upper left and continuing clockwise) ‘American Hustle’, ‘Dallas Buyers Club’, and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street.’ (Photo: Indiewire)


And the nominees are:

American Hustle [1]
Captain Phillips [2]
Dallas Buyers Club [3]
Gravity [4]
Her [5]
Nebraska [6]
Philomena [7]
12 Years a Slave [8]
The Wolf of Wall Street [9]



Sunday night tens of millions of viewers from nearly every nation on earth will tune in for the coronation of Hollywood’s “Best Picture” of the year.  Studios spend millions of dollars in countless screeners, screenings, billboards, interviews, Variety Ads, Twitter campaigns, blog attacks, and countless party conversations, seeking to sway the roughly 6,000 members of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters to crown their film as King or Queen of the industry.

This year’s battle between expensive (and lucrative) visual special effects (VFX) driven Gravity and smaller (and less lucrative) historical period piece Twelve Years a Slave looks awfully familiar to the past three year’s battles between VFX-driven commercial hits Avatar, Hugo, and Life of Pi and smaller period pieces The Hurt Locker, The Artist, and Life of Pi and Argo. The historical films are riding a three-year winning streak, and there is little reason to believe this year will be any different. Everything points to Brad Pitt and the Twelve Year’s a Slave producing team giving their carefully prepared acceptance speeches Sunday night.

Mistakes of History

But do the Oscars always get it right? You wouldn’t think so looking at the award’s history. Arguments are legion. Nearly every year is controversial in one way or another. The truth is, many if not most Oscar winners simply don’t stand the test of time. For instance, there are few Academy voters today who would argue that Shakespeare in Love (1998) was anything close to a classic, yet it somehow managed to win over Stephen Spielberg’s WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan.  The 1968 musical Oliver was certainly endearing, but not nearly as enduring as 2001: A Space Odyssey. Why does such a careful and democratic  process often fail?  Here are a few reasons.

Politics as Usual

Many Oscar winners have “outside the film” appeal to voters that may not always be a genuine indicators of greatness. The Hurt Locker (2009) was a compelling film, but it is hard to imagine how voting might have gone if Katherine Bigelow had not been in a position to be the first female director to win top honors. (Or, if Avatar director, James Cameron–Katherine’s ex-husband–had not alienated many academy voters with his “I’m king of the world” Oscar acceptance speech for his 1998 Titanic win.) In fact, Katherine’s might have been more worthy of winning for last year’s Zero Dark Thirty, but other political factors led to actor/director Ben Affleck’s film Argo winning after he was snubbed in the nominations for best director.

Even more dramatic are the publicity efforts launched by studios and internet devotees in order to promote their films and sometimes smear their rivals.  2011 winner The King’s Speech had to overcome an alleged smear campaign launched by devotees of The Social Network that all but overshadowed the equally deserving Inception.

A Series of Unfortunate Timings

15 years later, it is hard to imagine how ‘Shakespeare in Love’ won over Spielberg’s WWII classic.

Some films are simply too far ahead of their times to even receive a nomination for Best Picture. Citizen Kane (1941) is near the top of most “All-Time Great Films” lists, but lost to the long forgotten How Green is My Valley. Hitchcock’s cutting-edge masterpiece Vertigo is still watched in film schools, while only the most die-hard fans ever watch 1958 winner Gigi. 1999 genre-bender The Matrix couldn’t even garner a Best Picture nomination, yet few doubt that it will be studied as a classic for years to come.

Other great films lose Oscars simply because they are up against other greats the same year.  Forrest Gump (1994) garnered a much-deserved Best Picture Oscar. Yet few would argue that it was unequivocally better than two other celebrated films in the same year: Quentin Tarantino’s groundbreaking  Pulp Fiction, and Shawshank Redemption (currently #1 on IMDB‘s greatest movies ever made.)

Sometimes a film’s novelty gives it a short-term popularity. The unique silent film aesthetics of 2012 winner The Artist helped give it the upper hand over more conventional films. Yet many purists point to the social importance of the civil rights movement portrayal of The Helpthe acting excellence of The Descendants, and/or the overall of craftmanship of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (11 nominations) as more deserving.

The truth is, the public-relations-driven, artistically myopic, and sometime overtly political nature of Hollywood often make an Oscar a highly unreliable measure of long-term greatness.

How Shall We Then Choose?

The 2011 Picture of the Year had to overcome a smear campaign

What about this year? I am passionately committed to Twelve Years a Slave winning Best Picture, but is my judgment clouded by my passion? If the professionals don’t always get it right, what hope do we mere mortals have? Maybe not much. But over two decades of using film in the classroom has taught me that there might be a better way to predict which film will have true staying power. Although I started out using only Academy Award-winning films, I quickly realized that the Academy isn’t very good at selecting the stories my students live by. So I developed a new set of indicators for picking films that are not so much a slave to contemporary fashion and more in line with which films are still changing students’ lives TWELVE YEARS or more after their Academy Award campaign winds down.




[1] Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison and Jonathan Gordon, Producers

[2] Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, Producers

[3] Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, Producers

[4] Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman, Producers

[5] Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze and Vincent Landay, Producers

[6] Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Producers

[7] Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan and Tracey Seaward, Producers

[8] Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen and Anthony Katagas, Producers

[9] Nominees still undetermined