Top 10 Modern Oscar Upsets

Even though the Academy Awards and Golden Globes may seem to be interchangeable they are two very different shows that just happen to honor the same works of art. Sometimes they agree, but many times they do not and that makes for some great unexpected upsets during award season. While the Golden Globes usually sets the stage, the Oscars are considered the bigger and more lucrative awards to receive. So when the time comes for the Academy to make its picks it’s not uncommon to see a few unexpected surprises come about. As the big show approaches this year I looked at some of the biggest surprise wins in the modern history of the Oscars, ones that occurred from the year 2001 (celebrating the best of the year 2000) to the 2017 show. These are my picks for the Top 10 Modern Oscar Upsets.

For this list I examined the Golden Globes and Academy Awards results for every show from 2001 to today and looked at director, animated feature, acting and best picture category winners for each year. I picked out situations where nominees that were snubbed or lost at the Golden Globes but came out on top for the Oscar usually in unexpected fashion. That’s not to say the Oscar winners were bad winners by any means. In fact many deserved their wins, some more than the Golden Globe winners, but considering the buzz and expectations following the Globes these wins took many people by surprise or seemed to come out of left field thus making them an upset. It should be noted this is not a list of the WORST Oscar wins. It’s a look at those wins that were relatively surprising or unexpected.

Also I only picked one upset per show year so even though there might have been several surprises in a single Academy Award show only the most notable from that show was considered for this countdown.

Again this list focuses on acting and overall film categories so smaller categories like screenplay and foreign films were not considered. I wanted to focus on categories that gain the most attention because, after all, those are the upsets that are the most notable at the end of the day.

What modern Oscar upset do you remember most? Let me know in the comments below and enjoy the list. Don’t forget to watch the Oscars this Sunday and look for my preview post later this week and my take on the winners on Monday.



10. “Rango” wins after favorites are snubbed, 2012 Academy Awards


The 2012 Academy Awards was an odd one for Best Animated Feature Film. In a rare occurrence, the Golden Globe winner for the award was not even featured in the Academy’s list of nominees as “The Adventures of Tintin”, considered a heavy favorite, was snubbed completely. In fact, most of the Globes’ choices were snubbed for this category with even Pixar’s divisive “Cars 2” and “Arthur Christmas” turned down for more artistic small films like “A Cat in Paris” and “Chico and Rita” which were both expected to earn Oscar love due to their more sophisticated presentations and their surprise nominations that made it the first time TWO foreign language films were in the category in the same year. “King Fu Panda 2” and “Puss in Boots”, both DreamWorks products, did earn nominations as well. However, possibly spurred by the respect of director Gore Verbinski in the eyes of many, “Rango” took home one of the night’s most unpredictable awards, beating much more financially successful and well-known films from DreamWorks and two artistically beloved foreign animated features to clinch the win. It might not be an upset in the most traditional sense, but “Rango’s” win was a surprise mostly because of the competition and the films that were snubbed in its favor making it the only win for Best Animated Film to be featured on this list.




9. “The Departed” wins Best Picture after Golden Globe Snub, 2007 Academy Awards


For many the Golden Globes set the stage for what’s to come at the Academy Awards presenting nominees and winners that are frontrunners for Oscar nominations. Sometimes though a rare occurrence takes place where a third film, separate from the Globe honored winners, takes home the Academy’s top prize. Such was the case for Martin Scorsese’s crime drama “The Departed” which was nominated for a Best Motion Picture – Drama Golden Globe but lost out to “Babel” at the Globes. The Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy award went to “Dreamgirls” which was expected to be an Oscar nominee for Best Picture itself. As luck would have it however “Dreamgirls” was snubbed for the Academy’s top prize and while “Babel” received a nomination it was “The Departed” that overcame its early loss to take the top spot over other heavy favorites like “Little Miss Sunshine”, “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “The Queen” in one of the most competitive Best Picture lineups of the new millennium to date. While the win was well deserved, it caught some fans off guard but once Scorsese was honored for Best Director, an award he also received at the Globes, everyone knew the unlikely was probable as his film took home the two biggest prizes of the night despite a Best Picture snub earlier in the year.




8. “The Kings Speech” beats “The Social Network”, the 2011 Academy Awards


David Fincher’s “The Social Network” was the heavy favorite going into the 2011 Oscar ceremony having nabbed the Best Director and Best Motion Picture – Drama Awards that year at the Golden Globes. “The King’s Speech” was a respected film. Colin Firth’s performance as King George VI put him ahead in the acting categories as he took home the Best Performance in a Motion Picture – Drama Actor Award at the Globes and Best Actor at the Oscars. However overall “The Social Network”, chronically the birth of Facebook, was expected to take home the top prizes of the night. To the shock of many Fincher lost the Best Director Oscar to Tom Hooper, the director of “The King’s Speech”, but even then many held out believing “The Social Network” was the one to beat. It wouldn’t be long before the upset was confirmed and “The King’s Speech” was named the winner in a classic case of the two awards shows going in different directions in their appreciation of quality films. While “The King’s Speech” was a fantastic work, many still feel “The Social Network” was robbed, but it doesn’t even begin to compare to some of the more controversial and random wins still to come on this list.




7. “The Aviator” and “Sideways” loose to “Million Dollar Baby”, the 2005 Academy Awards


Two favorites had been established going into the 2005 iteration of the Oscars. “The Aviator” was going to contend for the top prize and give Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar and “Sideways” was going to be the film’s closest competition. Both had won Golden Globe Best Picture honors after all. In a surprise twist this did not happen at all. Leo lost the Oscar to Jamie Foxx, but even more surprisingly Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” nabbed Best Picture and a Best Director award. Now “Million Dollar Baby” is a great film, but the odds were stacked against it. It lost to “The Aviator” at the Golden Globes despite Eastwood winning the Best Director honor at that show. It was expected that the same result would come about at the Oscars, which is why, even after Eastwood won his Globe, few lost hope that “The Aviator” would pull it off. After a lot of buzz around “Million Dollar Baby” however the Oscar’s took the seemingly easy route, awarding the Best Picture to the film directed by their Best Director pick.




6. “Birdman” beats “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, the 2015 Academy Awards


Now we’re getting to the cream of the crop, the upsets that are considered truly bizarre by many. It wasn’t like “Birdman” was ignored in 2015. It received Golden Globe nominations and earned a Globe for Michael Keaton for his leading role. But it lost out to “The Grand Budapest Hotel” which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar along with heavy favorite and fellow Best Picture Globe winner “Boyhood”. It won no other major awards at the Globes and came into the Oscars as an underdog. When Keaton lost out to a very deserving Eddie Redmayne for the Best Actor Oscar and Edward Norton and Emma Stone lost their supporting actor awards it looked like “Birdman” was dead on arrival. Then the Best Director award came up. It was expected that Richard Linklater or Wes Anderson would earn the prize for their Golden Globe winning films, but to the shock of many Alejandro G. Iñárritu was announced the winner and all of a sudden “Birdman” was relevant again. Then the Best Picture. Surely “Boyhood” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” would snag the award. Nope, it was “Birdman” which made this underdog film an instant modern classic. Iñárritu would repeat the award in more typical fashion in 2016 (more on that show later) but in 2015 it was an unexpected victory for both the top categories of the night and one that left many sincerely shocked and proud of the Mexican-born filmmaker and his crew.




5. Sean Penn beats favorite Mickey Rourke for Best Actor, the 2009 Academy Awards


Sean Penn is a great actor. Noone denies that. And his work as Harvey Milk in “Milk” is mesmerizing. That’s also undeniable. However, many believed that Mickey Rourke’s career-defining turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson in “The Wrestler” was better. “The Wrestler” was a phenomenon of a film at the time. Yet, despite it’s successes it only truly garnered awards show notoriety for Rourke’s captivating leading man performance that earned him a Golden Globe win for Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama. He even topped Sean Penn for that honor, making Rourke the immediate favorite going into the Oscars a few months later. The writing was on the wall. One of the most unpredictable of nominees would come out on top after a powerful performance on the big screen. Then the moment came. The envelope was opened, and it wasn’t Rourke who got the Academy’s honor. It was Penn. While the win was a significant one, marking Penn’s second Best Actor Oscar, it was one that some felt was determined based on favoritism. Rourke’s performance had been praised as one of the most raw and believable character portrayals of the year and for him to lose it seemed wrong. Penn’s role in “Milk” was a great and powerful one to be sure but considering the hype and critical love for Rourke’s performance this was nothing short of an unexpected upset.




4. “The Hurt Locker” upsets “Avatar”, the 2010 Academy Awards


It was an upset that had the cinematic world talking long after the curtain fell. “Avatar” had been praised as a visual marvel and had become the highest grossing film of all time not adjusted for inflation. How could it ever lose at the Oscars? It dominated at the Golden Globes with a Best Picture award and a Best Director award for James Cameron. It seemed destined to earn its spot in history as a Best Picture winner by the Academy. However, going into the ceremony there were many that doubted “Avatar’s” staying power with voters. Some saw it as an unoriginal story. Other’s felt it was too hyped up in general. Adding to the fun Cameron was competing against his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow for the night’s top honors, but no woman had ever won Best Director so “The Hurt Locker” didn’t seem to have the traction. Then the awards started. One by one “The Hurt Locker” beat out “Avatar” for award after award. Quickly “Avatar” looked like it was dead on arrival to the shock of many. The landmark film won three awards, but “The Hurt Locker” came from nowhere to win six of its own including Best Picture and Best Director making Bigelow the first woman to ever win the directing honor. It’s not every day a mainstream film becomes the favorite for the Oscars’ top prizes and despite fans believing the popularity and buzz would last many watched in amazement as history was made and the year’s biggest cinematic wonder suffered a fall from grace from which it would never recover.




3. “Spotlight” beats “The Revenant”, the 2016 Academy Awards

“Spotlight” was a respected film going into the 2016 awards season but at the Golden Globes it was a non-contender. It earned a Best Motion Picture – Drama nomination but lost to the much-praised favorite “The Revenant” while “The Martian” took the Musical or Comedy best picture honor. There was no sign of it anywhere else. No acting nominations or anything over the course of that night and only a Best Director nomination that was lost to Alejandro G. Iñárritu. At the Oscar’s it was not much different. However, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo did earn supporting acting nominations despite being snubbed by the Globes. “Spotlight” won what was expected to be it’s only award of the evening in the Best Original Screenplay Oscar and as the night went on no one saw what was about to take place at the end of the show. It looked like “The Revenant” had it made. DiCaprio got his long overdue Oscar and Alejandro G. Iñárritu won his second straight Best Director honor. No contest, right? Well when the Best Picture envelope was opened what was the selection? Not “The Revenant”. Not “The Martian”. Not even the third-place favorite “The Big Short”. No, it was “Spotlight” a film many had written off as having no real chance to beat it’s much more well-known heavy hitting competition. It was a fantastic victory that came from absolutely nowhere and to this day many still can’t explain. It certainly left an impact and showed that you can never tell who will win at the Oscars.




2. Roman Polanski wins Best Director after being snubbed by the Golden Globes, 2003 Academy Awards


One of the most controversial wins on this list, this was a victory overshadowed by disdain towards the honoree but significant also for the magnitude of the upset due to Polanski not even being nominated for a Golden Globe before winning his Oscar. Martin Scorsese had won the Best Director Globe for “Gangs of New York” while Polanski’s “The Pianist” lost to “The Hours” for Best Motion Picture – Drama. Most expected the Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy winner “Chicago” to be the front runner for Best Picture which did in fact happen as that film took the Oscars’ highest award. However, Scorsese was the heavy favorite for the Best Director Oscar and since Polanski wasn’t a Globe contender few believed he of all people would play spoiler. Polanski did in fact win the honor which was drenched in controversy as the director could not be present in America to accept the statuette as he had fled to Paris after being accused of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in the 1970s. The award was insanely controversial as many saw the Globe snub as righteous for Polanski’s personal behavior and the Oscar win as the Academy awarding a rapist for his art. Others put aside Polanski’s alleged crimes and argued Scorsese was robbed as was “Chicago” director Rob Marshall. Regardless of your take on the situation it remains among the most unexpected and controversial upsets in the show’s history.




1. “Crash” wins Best Picture, the 2006 Academy Awards


Possibly the most controversial upset in the history of the Academy Awards, “Crash” winning best picture has become part of Hollywood history as arguably one of the biggest missteps in the Academy’s run and it’s not hard to see why. Save for a few acting awards that resulted in no wins, “Crash” was a non-contender at the Golden Globes. It received no Best Director nomination, no Best Motion Picture nomination, and was lost in the background for most of the ceremony as an also-ran. Then came the Oscars. This little irrelevant film earned nominations for Best Director and Best Supporting Actor but, to the surprise of many, won the Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing Oscars. It’s Best Picture nomination however seemed like a non-factor. “Brokeback Mountain” was the heavy favorite and earned Ang Lee the Best Director Oscar and garnered nominations for Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michell Williams. It also won Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. While none of this guaranteed its Best Picture win no one thought it would loose to “Crash”. Not with great films like “Capote”, “Munich” and “Good Night, and Good Luck” on the ballot. But it happened. “Crash” won and immediately people asked how and why. The film was a non-factor most of the night. It earned nothing from the Globes, not even nominations in the top overall film categories. It was the upset of a lifetime, the ultimate cinematic underdog, taking the win away from “Brokeback Mountain”, a film that some accused the Academy of snubbing due to its focus on an (at the time) borderline taboo subject like homosexuality.  Even if those accusations are accurate it’s not like there weren’t better options than “Crash”. So why did it win? Few truly understand to this day and over time it has become one of the most despised Best Picture wins in the show’s history. However, it was still an incredible, controversial and completely unforeseen upset and all of this combined gives it the top spot on this list.



4 thoughts

  1. My memory of 2016 is different from yours. Based on everything I was reading going into Oscars night, The Martian had absolutely no shot at winning any big awards at all. Nobody was even talking about it as a possibility. My impression in the preceding week was that yes, The Revenant was probably the favorite for Best Picture by a little, but that both The Big Short and Spotlight were right on its heels. While I was a little surprised when Spotlight came out on top, it wasn’t the earth shaker some might claim.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Our memories are different but I did see a lot of people calling the Martian an outside contender simply because of its Globe win. Most of what I read knew The Big Short wouldn’t beat The Revenant but I had seen VERY little in terms of Best Picture for Spotlight. I remember after the show people weren’t disappointed but it sparked discussions about the unique nature of the Oscars compared to the Globes. The Revenant was considered THE contender that was going to take everything and it looked like it would take at least most of it. What was odd was the Screenplay award was foretold by a lot of productions I had read but I didn’t see anyone truly giving it a shot over other nominees.


      1. I went back to check and see if my memory was faulty. Based on the prognosticators over at Gold Derby at the time The Martian was ranked 5th for Best Picture, while The Revenant was #1, The Big Short was #2, and Spotlight was #3, with Mad Max: Fury Road falling at #4. I will admit that I’m surprised The Martian was ranked that highly at the time, but it seems that with Mad Max in its way the genre slot was already spoken for. In retrospect it seems like the Best Picture voting that year might have been really competitive, with Spotlight just barely grabbing enough votes due to the preferential balloting.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. See Mad Max was never on my radar for Best Picture, or the radar of a few publications I read, although almost everyone considered it a FANTASTIC movie. Regardless of The Martian however the entry was mote about The Revenant and Spotlight and it was still quite an upset. Maybe I give The Martian too much credit. It was a great movie after all and considering it’s Globe win it would have been just as impressive for The Big Short to win over The Martian in my opinion. It’s very rare the comedy/musical Best Picture at the Globes really ever has a shot at the Oscar anyway, let alone win it.

        Only two have done it in the 2000s, Chicago and The Artist, so it could be said the odds were stacked against The Martian and The Big Short on repuitation alone.


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