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Offbeat Oscars: 10 Outside-the-Box Best Picture Winners

Serial-killer thrillers, neurotic-nebbish rom-coms, silent French movies — these winners went against the grain

10 outside the box; Best Picture; Winners; Oscars

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The Academy Awards have a well-earned reputation for playing it safe when it comes to picking their Best Picture winners, but there’s no denying that they’ve become a bit less predictable in recent years. Diversifying the kinds of movies they champion (if, frustratingly, not the kinds of people in them), the Oscars have slowly started to move away from their history of reflexively exalting lavish musicals and straightforward historical epics.

Just look at last year’s ceremony: Sure, you could argue that Birdman overcame its weirdness by appealing to the film industry’s self-congratulatory narcissism, but there’s really no precedent for an awards juggernaut about a telekinetic actor who’s struggling with social media and begins to caw at strangers. Likewise, this weekend’s likely winner is just as peculiar: The Revenant could be compared in scale to The English Patient and in bleakness to No Country for Old Men. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the Academy has a history of flipping for movies in which the hero’s face is constantly plastered underneath a layer of his own spit.

Still, Alejandro González Iñárritu is hardly the first filmmaker who’s ever inspired the Oscars to reach outside of their comfort zone. Here are 10 Best Picture winners that reminded the world that the Academy sometimes takes the road less traveled.

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ANNIE HALL, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Liv Ullmann (on poster), 1977

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‘Annie Hall’ (1977)

Compared to a fellow nominee like Star Wars — or the following year's winner, The Deer Hunter — Woody Allen's neurotic classic feels as scrawny as its nebbish hero. And yet, even the biggest sci-fi fanatics would have a hard time arguing that the Oscars got this one wrong. The only non-musical comedy to win Best Picture between Tom Jones in 1963 and Driving Miss Daisy in 1989 (if we're being generous with the definition of "comedy"), Annie Hall smashed through the fourth wall in order to bring modernism to an awards group that traditionally likes to keep one foot stuck in the past.

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THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Anthony Hopkins, 1991. ©Orion Pictures Corp/courtesy Everett Collection

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‘The Silence of the Lambs’ (1991)

Before Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Thomas Harris' novel, the idea of a horror movie winning Best Picture felt like the Toxic Avenger winning Miss America — there wasn't much in the Academy's history to suggest they would ever crown a movie this violent and misanthropic, particularly one that wasn't shrouded in the fog of war. Of course, when Hannibal Lecter escapes from his cell, he likes to make a show of it: Not only was this the first pure horror movie to so much as score a nomination since The Exorcist in 1973, it was also only the third film in Oscar history to walk away with all five of the top prizes.

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AMERICAN BEAUTY, Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, 1999

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‘American Beauty’ (1999)

It's hard to believe now, but once upon a time it took a certain boldness to call attention to a movie about a modern middle-aged white man going through an existential crisis. The only Best Picture winner ever inspired by the sight of a plastic bag dancing in the wind, Sam Mendes' highly polarizing — and endlessly mocked — satire of suburban malaise broke one of the Academy's longest streaks of sweeping historical dramas (Shakespeare in Love, Titanic, The English Patient, etc.). Playing like a faux-existential Douglas Sirk film for the minivan era, the film's focus on "how we live now" made it the odd duck of a category full of seemingly irresistible Oscarbait like The Cider House Rules and The Green Mile.

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THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING, Elijah Wood, 2003, (c) New Line/courtesy Everett Collection

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‘Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ (2003)

On one hand, Peter Jackson's trilogy of Tolkien adaptations was such a critical and commercial sensation that a Best Picture trophy seemed inevitable for its final installment. On the other hand, this is effectively the last three-and-a-half hours of a 558-minute movie about a band of hairy little people trying to return a piece of jewelry. While its Oscar victory may have been preordained, The Return of the King was nevertheless the first fantasy film to win Best Picture, its triumph eradicating myth that the Academy Awards were too stuffy to recognize the merits of a film in which Elijah Wood rides a giant eagle over an erupting volcano.

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THE DEPARTED, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, 2006. ©Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

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‘The Departed’ (2006)

It's unlikely that anyone involved ever imagined that this remake of a Hong Kong gangster movie would be the film that won Scorsese his Oscar (especially after Gangs of New York swung for the fences and came up short), but the master's pulpy crime saga managed to get the job done. Too frequently diminished as a tribute to Scorsese's entire body of work, the Academy's decision to honor The Departed was a harsh course-correction to the Crash debacle of 2005. It was also the rare Best Picture that refused to play nice or pretend that it didn't enjoy busting heads.

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SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, from left: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, 2008. ©Fox Searchlight/courtesy Everett Collection

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‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008)

It's always a bit of a surprise when any Academy Award goes to a person of color; it's a monumental shock when the Oscar for Best Picture went to a movie that was full of them. 2008 marked the first time that Hollywood's top prize had been given to a movie with an almost exclusively non-white cast (The Last Emperor is an arguable exception; Gandhi is not), but Slumdog Millionaire also signaled a critical shift in a number of other respects. A love story that arrived on the heels of decidedly unromantic winners like No Country for Old Men, Danny Boyle's populist Indian fairy tale was as warm and frivolous as previous awardees were bleak and borderline nihilistic.

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THE HURT LOCKER, Jeremy Renner, 2008. ©Summit Entertainment/courtesy Everett Collection

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‘The Hurt Locker’ (2009)

The only Best Picture awarded to a film about an ongoing war since Casablanca in 1943 (and what a hard-nosed look at WWII that was), The Hurt Locker was dumped into the summer movie season before topping a newly expanded field of 10 nominees to claim Oscar gold. Kathryn Bigelow’s tense and refreshingly uncontroversial Iraq War saga managed to explode a category that ran the gamut from sci-fi spectacles (Avatar and District 9), an unflinching inner-city drama (Precious), and a movie about a young woman learning a valuable lesson about the price of having sex with Peter Sarsgaard (An Education).

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THE ARTIST, Jean Dujardin, Berenice Bejo, ph: Peter Iovino 2011, ©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

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‘The Artist’ (2011)

History will remember February 26th, 2012 as the day when the Oscars officially became a crap shoot. The last (and most visionary) of Harvey Weinstein’s legendary Academy Awards heists, The Artist was an outside-the-box pick that few people saw, and even fewer saw coming. The first “silent” film to win Best Picture since 1929 and the first black-and-white film to win Best Picture since 1960, Michael Hazanavicius’ love letter to old Hollywood triumphed over competition from Alexander Payne, Terrence Malick, Woody Allen, and Steven Spielberg. Quickly brushed under the rug, the French movie nevertheless cemented this as an era in which almost any kind of movie can take home the business’ biggest prize.

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