“Popular Film” Oscars: What Movies Would Have Won Over the Past 20 Years?

The new Oscars category may be controversial, but we had to wonder.

"The Devil Wears Prada" New York Premiere - Arrivals
Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic

In a head-scratching move no one actually asked for, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its intention to institute an Oscar for “popular” films. What exactly this means, no one knows for sure. The announcement literally noted they’d figure it all out later. So while we can’t predict the future, we can look to the past to try and figure out what we might be dealing with.

We decided which movies might have been nominated and won in the category in recent history, because, well, someone had to do it. But first, because the Academy hasn’t declared any rules, we have to make them up ourselves. The two major issues are:

1. Defining “popular”: There are a lot of ways the Academy could define popular (perhaps limiting the category to movies that open immediately in wide release), but ultimately “popular” comes down to money. So, for sake of ease, we limited eligible films to those that finished in the Top 50 at the box office that year, per BoxOfficeMojo’s data.

2. No animated films: It’s true that many of the most critically acclaimed “popular” movies in recent years also happen to be animated (thanks, Pixar!), but animated films already have their own category. If the intent is to recognize films that the Academy currently doesn’t, then including animated films would be both redundant and beside the point. For the same reason, we guess documentaries aren’t eligible either in our world—with all apologies to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (that really wasn’t an issue, though).

So, with that in mind, after some cross-referencing of Rotten Tomatoes and a whole lot of from-the-gut decision-making (does every best picture nominee in the Top 50 automatically get nominated? Well, we weren’t always sure, and voters might not always be, either), we arrived at the past two decades of “Popular Film” Oscar races.

Before we get into it: Yes, we did notice that, as most people are predicting, the category would probably exist to honor blockbusters and mega-franchise films, which, well—yawn. Those movies aren’t made to win Oscars; they’re made to make money. And they do! So what do they need a trophy for? And yet, occasionally, the category could give recognition to other, often overlooked genres like studio comedies, “chick flicks,” and films aimed at diverse audiences. Let’s get into it.


Nominees: Baby Driver (#28 in box office rankings, $107 million in sales), Bladerunner 2049 (#34, $98m), Get Out (#15, $176m), Logan (#11, $226m), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (#1, $620m), Wonder Woman (#3, $412m)

Alternatives: Girls Trip, Thor: Ragnarok, War for the Planet of the Apes, The Greatest Showman, Spider-Man: Homecoming

Winner: Get Out

Last year actually makes a strong case for the category: You have Stars Wars vs. Wonder Woman, with the Logan and Bladerunner fanboys screaming about Rotten Tomatoes scores. The reality is, those films would have split the vote, and Get Out would have taken it. Here’s a question, though: If the Academy had this category in 2017, would the campaign to get Get Out a best picture nomination have carried quite as much weight?


Nominees: 10 Cloverfield Lane (#44, $110m), Arrival (#29, $100m), Captain America: Civil War (#3, $408m), The Jungle Book (#5, $364m), La La Land (#19, $141m), Hidden Figures (#14, $169m)

Alternatives: Deadpool, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Doctor Strange, Sully

Winner: La La Land

Do films nominated for best picture get to be nominated a second time here? Technically, they should. With all apologies to Deadpool fanboys, we think voters would probably give La La Land this trophy as something of a runner-up statuette for losing to Moonlight.


Nominees: Creed (#29, $108m), Mad Max: Fury Road (#21, $159m), Jurassic World (#2, $652m), The Martian (#8, $228m), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (#1, $936m), Trainwreck (#28, $110m)

Alternatives: Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Bridge of Spies, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Straight Outta Compton, Paddington

Winner: The Martian

It was actually nominated for best picture and was a Top 10 blockbuster, so why wouldn’t it win? This year kind of makes this category look unnecessary.


Nominees: American Sniper (#1, $350m), Interstellar (#18, $188m), Into the Woods (#23, $128m) Gone Girl (#18, $167m), Guardians of the Galaxy (#3, $333m), X-Men: Days of Future Past (#9, $233m)

Alternatives: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Fault in Our Stars, Lucy, Maleficent

Winner: Interstellar

Was the category created for superheroes, or was it created for Christopher Nolan?


Nominees: 42 (#37, $95m), Gravity (#6, $274m), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (#1, $424m), Pacific Rim (#34, $101m), Star Trek Into Darkness (#11, $228m), The Wolf of Wall Street (#28, $116m)

Alternatives: The Great Gatsby, Iron Man 3, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Wolverine, World War Z

Winner: Gravity

Both “duh” and “yawn.”


Nominees: Chronicle (#50, $64m), The Dark Knight Rises (#2, $448m), The Hunger Games (#3, $408m), Looper (#45, $66m), Marvel’s the Avengers (#1, $623m), Skyfall (#4, $304m)

Alternatives: 21 Jump Street, Django Unchainad, Pitch Perfect, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Amazing Spider-Man

Winner: Skyfall

The inclusion of some critically loved genre films spices things up here, but remember that Skyfall was the James Bond film that made critics flip their damn wigs. If this category had actually existed for decades, the Oscars would have had the opportunity to finally recognize the Bond franchise.


Nominees: Bridesmaids (#14, 169m), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (#1, $381m), The Help (#13, $169m), The Muppets (#34, $88m), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (#11, $176m)

Alternatives: Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Crazy Stupid Love, Contagion

Winner: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

The Harry Potter franchise finally wins after several nominations but no previous wins. Call it the Return of the King Corrective.


Nominees: Alice in Wonderland (#2, $334m), Black Swan (#25, $106m), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (#5, $295m), Inception (#6, $292m),The Town (#36, $92m), Tron Legacy (#12, $172m)

Alternatives: The Karate Kid, True Grit, Shutter Island, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Eat, Pray, Love

Winner: Inception

Nolan strikes again.


Nominees: Avatar (#1, $709m), The Blind Side (#8, $255m), District 9 (#27, $115m), The Hangover (#6, $277m), Inglourious Basterds (#25, $120m), Julie & Julia (#34, $94m)

Alternatives: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Watchmen, Where the Wild Things Are, Zombieland

Winner: Avatar

Year 2009 was something else, and it’s easy to forget how weirdly enthralled we all were with Avatar.


Nominees: The Dark Knight (#1, $533m), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (#3, $317m), Iron Man (#2, $533m), Mamma Mia! (#13, $144m), Tropic Thunder (#23, $110m), Quantum of Solace (#9, $168m),

Alternatives: Hancock, Twilight, Sex and the City, Marley and Me, Cloverfield

Winner: The Dark Knight

This movie is basically why this category now exists.


Nominees: The Bourne Ultimatum (#7, $227m), Enchanted (#20, $128m), Hairspray (#24, $118m), Juno (#14, $143m), Knocked Up (#13, $148m), Superbad (#22, $121m)

Alternatives: 300, American Gangster, I Am Legend, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Winner: The Bourne Ultimatum

This year is remembered as one of the best for modern movies (it was the year of There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, and, yes, Michael Clayton), but the box office movies were atrocious (it was the year the Transformers series began). So we get a diverse set of nominees here, but the best of the Bourne series probably wins.


Nominees: Borat (#16, $128m), Casino Royale (#9, $167m), The Devil Wears Prada (#17, $124m), Dreamgirls (#19, 103m), Superman Returns (#6, $200m), V for Vendetta (#36, $70m)

Alternatives: Night at the Museum, The Departed, The Da Vinci Code

Winner: The Devil Wears Prada

Alternative Winner: Superman Returns

We’re already going to predict this category is going to court controversy in the future for favoring male-led films, but we could see Prada winning here because the others will split the vote. We include a Superman win as another possibility because, well, that movie did make money and critics were absolutely wild about it. So it’s interesting to think that a win would have basically forced Warner Brothers to make a sequel, perhaps altering the DC movie universe—and our understanding of Zack Snyder—forever. To think, we could have avoided Batman v Superman!


Nominees: Batman Begins (#8, $205m), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (#7, $206m), The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (#2, $291m), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (#3, 290m), King Kong (#5, $218m), War of the Worlds (#4, $234m)

Alternatives: Wedding Crashers, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Sin City

Winner: War of the Worlds

Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg had to have won this category at least once, even in our alternative timeline. Right?


Nominees: The Bourne Supremacy (#8, $176m), Collateral (#23, $101m), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (#6, $249m), Mean Girls (#28, $86m), Spider-Man 2 (#2, $373m), The Passion of the Christ (#3, $370m),

Alternatives: The Manchurian Candidate, Kill Bill Vol. 2

Winner: The Passion of the Christ

Let’s not talk about it.


Nominees: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (#1, $377m), Kill Bill Vol. 1 (#40, $70m), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (#31, $93m), Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (#3, $305m), School of Rock (#36, $81m), X2: X-Men United (#6, $214m)

Alternatives: Elf, The Matrix Reloaded, Love Actually, Big Fish, Bad Santa

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

It won almost everything else that year.


Nominees: Chicago (#10, $170m), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (#2, $339m), Minority Report (#17, 132m), My Big Fat Greek Wedding (#5, $241m), Spider-Man (#1, $403m), Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (#3, $302m)

Alternatives: Signs, Catch Me If You Can, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Ring, The Bourne Identity.

Winner: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

Yeah, you know where this is going.


Nominees: A Beautiful Mind (#11, $170m), Bridget Jones’s Diary (#31, $71m), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (#1, $317m), The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (#2, $313m), Ocean’s 11 (#8, $183m), Spy Kids (#17, $112m).

Alternatives: Legally Blonde, Pearl Harbor, Planet of the Apes, Vanilla Sky, Hannibal

Winner: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Yep, a franchise sweep.


Nominees: Cast Away (#2, $233m), Erin Brockovich (#13, $125m), How the Grinch Stole Christmas (#1, $260m), Gladiator (#4, $108m), The Perfect Storm (#6, $182m), X-Men (#8, $157m)

Alternatives: Meet the Parents, What Women Want, The Perfect Storm, The Patriot, Remember the Titans

Winner: Gladiator

Welcome to the years when we didn’t really need this category at all.


Nominees: American Beauty (#13, 130m), Any Given Sunday (#28, $75m), The Green Mile (#12, $136m), The Matrix (#5, $171m), The Sixth Sense (#2, $293m), Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (#1, $431m),

Alternatives: Analyze This, American Pie, The Blair Witch Project

Winner: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

No one loved the movie, but this would have been the Academy’s chance to do penance for snubbing the original Star Wars in favor of a Woody Allen film.


Nominees: Patch Adams (#10, $135m), The Parent Trap (#32, $66m), Saving Private Ryan (#1, $216m), There’s Something About Mary (#3, $176m), The Truman Show (#12, $125m)

Winner: Saving Private Ryan

We’re thoroughly in really weird territory, where Hollywood was completely different.


Nominees: As Good as It Gets (#6, $148m), The Full Monty (#44, $45m), Good Will Hunting (#7, $138m), L.A. Confidential (#24, $64m), Titanic (#1, $600m)

Winner: Titantic

Yes, these are the exact same nominees as the actual best picture list that year. We’d go back even further (we’re sure the Jurassic Parks and Independence Days of the world might have shaken things up in previous years), but 20 years ago Hollywood actually made quality original blockbusters like Titanic and theatergoers still flocked in large numbers to adult-oriented dramas like Good Will Hunting and L.A. Confidential.