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11 Movies That Could Have Won a Best Popular Film Oscar

Nearly a decade ago, the controversial best-picture snub of superhero hit “The Dark Knight” sparked the motion picture Academy to action. In an attempt to stoke the Oscar odds for populist cinema and to be more inclusive, the organization expanded its top field for the first time in seven decades.

Last week, with Oscar telecast ratings trending downward at an alarming rate for ABC executives, Academy brass took action once again, announcing a half-baked plan to honor “popular” films with an Oscar in some manner to be adjudicated at a later date.

The thinking is that declining interest in the Oscar telecast is owed in part to under-seen art-house fare boxing out popular films at the ceremony year after year. Nevertheless, an analysis of the last nine years of nominees — the post-“Dark Knight” world, if you will — reveals a healthy balance of specialty fare and movies the masses flocked to see.

Assuming a criteria of $100 million in domestic box office receipts, a Metacritic score of 80 or higher, and a Rotten Tomatoes rating of at least 90%, there have been 27 realistic crossover best picture contenders in that spread. Sixteen of the titles, movies like “District 9,” “True Grit,” “Gravity,” “The Martian” and, just last year, “Dunkirk and “Get Out,” were nominated. Two (2010’s “The King’s Speech” and 2012’s “Argo”) ultimately won. Already this year, there are four films — “Black Panther,” “Incredibles 2,” “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and “A Quiet Place” — that fit the bill.

The 11 films that meet these presumably reasonable parameters for defining a critical and audience hit, yet were passed over for best picture recognition, are as follows. When the Academy’s governing members state a goal of popular film recognition at the Oscars, these are the missed opportunities they have in mind.

Agree? Disagree? Are these films classic examples of Academy-audience disconnect, or do they simply compute as Oscar also-rans?

“Star Trek” (Paramount, 2009)
Metacritic: 82; Rotten Tomatoes: 94%; Cinemascore: A
Box office: $257.7 million ($385.6 million worldwide)
J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi reboot was a popular bet for a nomination in the Academy’s first year of an expanded field. It probably fell just short, after major nominations from the producers and writers guilds. Oscar voters didn’t completely ignore it, however; the film was nominated for makeup, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects.

“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” (Warner Bros., 2011)
Metacritic: 87; Rotten Tomatoes: 96%; Cinemascore: A
Box office: $381 million ($1.3 billion worldwide)
Warners’ franchise capper may have been a massive critical and popular hit, but even the hometown British Academy held off on recognition in the top fields. It just didn’t translate to that side of the equation, though it was Oscar-nominated for art direction, makeup and visual effects. The film is also one of three on the list to crack $1 billion worldwide.

“Skyfall” (Sony/MGM, 2012)
Metacritic: 81; Rotten Tomatoes: 92%; Cinemascore: A
Box office: $304.3 million ($1.1 billion worldwide)
With support throughout the various Academy branches, “Skyfall” had to have been on the verge of a best picture nomination. It received notices in five categories, ultimately winning for original song (Adele’s title track) and sound editing (in a rare tie, with “Zero Dark Thirty”). It ultimately fell short of all major categories, including supporting actor and supporting actress, where Javier Bardem and Judi Dench were strong contenders throughout the season. The film remains Sony’s biggest global hit of all time.

“The Lego Movie” (Warner Bros., 2014)
Metacritic: 83; Rotten Tomatoes: 96%; Cinemascore: N/A
Box office: $257.7 million ($469.1 million worldwide)
Four animated movies have fit the stated criteria during this stretch (five when you include “Incredibles 2” this year). The twist ending for “The Lego Movie” was a snub in the animated feature film category as traditionalists in the branch rebelled against outsider filmmakers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller. Nevertheless, it was a wildly popular film that also dazzled critics, so a full-blown best-picture push might have been warranted. (The campaign focused on the music and writing branches in addition to animation.)

“Creed” (Warner Bros./MGM, 2015)
Metacritic: 82; Rotten Tomatoes: 95%; Cinemascore: A
Box office: $109.7 million ($173.5 million worldwide)
The awards season bungling of “Creed” remains an unfortunate note in recent Oscar history, but whatever happened with MGM and Warner Bros.’ collaboration there, the movie chugged along as a favorite with both fans and critics throughout the fall. Its near-complete dismissal from the Oscar ranks (save a supporting actor bid for Sylvester Stallone) was a cornerstone of the #OscarsSoWhite dust-up that year.

“Inside Out” (Disney, 2015)
Metacritic: 94; Rotten Tomatoes: 98%; Cinemascore: A
Box office: $356.4 million ($857.6 million worldwide)
There seems to be no question that top-shelf Pixar release “Inside Out” would have landed a nomination in the 2009-2010 paradigm of 10 best picture nominees, just like “Up” an “Toy Story 3” did. Limiting voters to five choices on the ballot, as in the current system (yielding a sliding scale of anywhere from five to 10 nominees), tends make it an uphill battle for animated films. A screenplay nomination and an anticipated animated feature win (Pixar’s eighth at the time) was cold comfort.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Disney, 2015)
Metacritic: 81; Rotten Tomatoes: 93%; Cinemascore: A
Box office: $936.6 million ($2.06 billion worldwide)
The all-time box office champ also caught critics off-guard, and was no doubt part of the impetus to push for these changes. The Broadcast Film Critics Assn. even polled its membership that year, after initial voting had closed prior to the film screening for anyone, to determine whether it should be added to the best picture mix. (Outrageously, perhaps, it was.) The film was nominated for film editing, original score, sound editing, sound mixing and visual effects, but walked away from the Oscars empty-handed.

“Moana” (Disney, 2016)
Metacritic: 81; Rotten Tomatoes: 96%; Cinemascore: A
Box office: $248.7 million ($643.3 million worldwide)
You might have expected animated feature Oscar “Zootopia” to fit the criteria, but Disney’s other 2016 animated entry, while not as big a success at the box office, was slightly more critically adored (81 on Metacritic versus 78). In addition to the animated feature nomination, it was also recognized for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original song “How Far I’ll Go” (which lost to another critical and box office hit that year, “La La Land”).

“Baby Driver” (Sony, 2017)
Metacritic: 86; Rotten Tomatoes: 93%; Cinemascore: A-
Box office: $107.8 million ($226.9 million worldwide)
Edgar Wright’s revved-up action-musical is one of a few films actually name-checked by Academy sources when defending the decision to carve out a popular film award. While it was nominated for film editing, sound editing and sound mixing (and unexpectedly won the editing prize from the British Academy), it was never able to spin out into the major categories. Even Golden Globes voters opted out in their patented comedy/musical category. But it’s exactly the kind of film the Academy’s board of governors is hoping to see recognized going forward.

“Coco” (Disney, 2017)
Metacritic: 81; Rotten Tomatoes: 97%; Cinemascore: A+
Box Office: $209.7 million ($807 million worldwide)
Last year’s Pixar hit is the final animated film on the list, and it ultimately won more Oscars than any of the rest (two, for original song and animated feature film). It was an emotional wallop that cleaned up at the box office and wholly satisfied critics already accustomed to greatness from the Emeryville, Calif.-based studio. Pixar’s is a brand that has come to be taken for granted, which could also be part of what has held it out of the top category these last several years.

“War for the Planet of the Apes” (Fox, 2017)
Metacritic: 82; Rotten Tomatoes: 93%; Cinemascore: A-
Box office: $146.8 million ($490.7 million worldwide)
The overall Academy-avoidance of Fox’s revived “Planet of the Apes” franchise has been a head-scratcher, to say nothing of shutting it out of a visual effects victory at every step. Matt Reeves’ trilogy closer last year was the most moving of the three and the one most indebted to and inspired by prestige cinema. Along with “Baby Driver,” it has been brought up by name by Academy insiders when discussing the thinking behind establishing a popular film category.

Of course, you can open up the criteria a bit and flood the zone with many other films. Drop the Metacritic requirement to 75 and you get everything from “Gone Girl” and “The Jungle Book” to “Trainwreck” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Adjust the box office threshold and an even broader mix surfaces. Our goalposts are as arbitrary as the Academy’s are sure to be, but until the organization’s leadership convenes once again to determine those benchmarks, the concept will remain maddeningly nebulous.

Stay tuned…

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