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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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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.

10 outside the box; Best Picture; Winners; Oscars

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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