Re-Thinking the Oscars: 5 Films That Deserved to Win “Best Automobile”

Jurassic Park Jeep Wrangler - iStock

This Sunday, the 89th Academy Awards will honor the actors, actresses, directors, and other critical contributors to the films of the past year. The Oscars are all about rewarding the many artists responsible for the year’s best movies—whether their craft be acting, direction, costume design, music, or any other facet of filmmaking. But, unfortunately, the Academy consistently forgets one important detail:

The cars.

Far be it from me to suggest a “Best Automobile” category for the Oscars, but by my estimation, in the past 20 years, only two Best Picture winners have featured an Oscar-worthy automobile. 2007’s “The Departed” included Leonardo DiCaprio’s 1992 Ford Mustang in a handful of scenes, and 1999’s “American Beauty” stars Kevin Spacey alongside a 1970 Pontiac Firebird—although whether it was hiding a 250-cubic-inch straight-six or the 400-cubic-inch V8 under its hood remains a mystery.

More shocking than the lack of great cars in the Oscars’ Best-Picture winners has been the frequent presence of trophy-worthy vehicles in films nominated but passed over for Best Picture. Who is this Academy, and what does it have against cars?

In the past, we had great cars in great movies. “Back to the Future'”s DeLorean DMC-12. “Jurassic Park'”s Jeep Wranglers. But, looking back over the past 20 years, at least five films have been nominated for best picture and ended up losing, despite starring objectively more-compelling automobiles.

“Boyhood” – 1968 Pontiac GTO
This movie lost to “Birdman,” and although Alejandro Iñárritu’s direction and camerawork deserved considerable acclaim, the selection of cars did not. Perhaps “Boyhood” can’t stack up against the storytelling present in “Birdman,” but the 1968 Pontiac GTO certainly has a compelling story of its own. The first year of the GTO’s second generation, 1968 ushered in the muscle car’s new body style. It may not have had the longevity of the Ford Mustang or Dodge Charger, but in terms of presence, “Boyhood’”s 1968 Pontiac GTO was certainly more memorable than any of “Birdman’”s automotive victims.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” – 1989 Lamborghini Countach
“12 Years a Slave” won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2014, and I won’t argue against its merit. The moving film launched Chiwetel Ejiofor’s career as a starring actor, and few movies have highlighted the moral extremes of humanity, and the boundlessness of human perseverance, as poignantly as director Steve McQueen’s drama. However, “12 Years a Slave” is set in the 1840s and as such, it’s not exactly overflowing with throaty exhaust notes and revving engines. “The Wolf of Wall Street,” however, features plenty of both, including one memorable scene starring Leonardo DiCaprio and his white 1989 Lamborghini Countach. Few cars pack as many supercar features as the Countach, from scissor doors to a mid-mounted V12 engine. Sure, it may not carry the weight of “12 Years a Slave,” but the Countach isn’t exactly light on history, with production spanning 1974 to 1990—maybe enough to merit its own Oscar-worthy movie.

“Juno” – 1991 Toyota Previa
Obviously, this movie would have won the 2008 Oscars’ Best Picture had the director, Jason Reitman, opted to star a 1994 Toyota Previa instead of a 1991. In an effort to resolve complaints about the Previa’s lack of power, Toyota made the obvious move in 1994 and added a supercharger to the 2.4-liter inline 4-cylinder engine. The 1991 model J.K. Simmons drives in Juno features only the 133-horsepower engine, but it’s nonetheless an all-wheel-drive, cab-over minivan. That deserves an Oscar on cool-factor, alone. Not to mention, “Juno” lost the Best Picture award to “No Country For Old Men,” which largely starred 40-year-old American trucks getting shot at in the desert.

“Little Miss Sunshine” – 1978 Volkswagen Type 2
I discussed the merit of “The Departed’”s 1992 Mustang earlier, but considering it was going up against “Little Miss Sunshine” and a 1978 Volkswagen Type 2 with a broken starter motor, Scorsese’s 2007 Oscar win was nothing short of miraculous. The Fox Body mustangs of the early ’90s have plenty of charm nowadays, but they can hardly compete with the yellow Type 2. I’ve joked about cars “starring” in movies, but the Hoover’s microbus was a legitimate character in “Little Miss Sunshine,” adding tension and drama with every stop along the way from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach, California.

“Sideways” – 1987 Saab 900 Cabrio
To be perfectly honest, I’ve never seen “Million Dollar Baby” (the 2005 Oscars winner), but I have seen “Sideways,” and casting a Saab 900 Cabrio as Paul Giamatti’s car was nothing short of brilliant. These little Swedish convertibles have a rabidly enthusiastic fanbase, and seeing one wind through wine-country backroads helps explain why. Conveying equal parts intelligent, sophisticated, and neurotic, the little turbo convertible matched its owner’s personality flawlessly and made for the ideal road-trip car through Santa Barbara County.

What is your favorite car that got featured in a movie?

-Matt Smith

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1 Comment

  1. Many but Marlowe’s 1963 Sport Fury (Marlowe) and 1941 Buick (The Big Sleep) come to mind.

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