As a confirmed sci-fi nerd, I decided to tackle the question systematically. Besides, if we want to avoid opening up paradoxes then we’ll need a clear agenda for using our time machines and mind control rays to correct Oscar voting.
Here is my plan: I’m going to flip through the 80 year history of the Oscars and retroactively award trophies to the sci-fi genre. This is perfectly in keeping with the traditional academy practice of giving awards to the people who should have won them in the past. Since I am not bound by the byzantine rules that govern the academy, I’m going to do things my way. I’m not constraining myself to the historical nominee lists and I’m going to consider foreign films as eligible in the year they were released.
To make things even more interesting, I’m going to issue statues in three minerals:
1) Gold – For any year in which I think a science-fiction film should have won.
2) Silver – For any year in which I can name at least one science-fiction film that I like better than the film that won (even if it was not the year’s overall best).
3) Bronze – For any year in which I can name at least one fantasy or horror film that I like better than the film that won. These have to be films outside the realm of reasonable reality. Thus a horror film about a serial killer does not count, but one about zombies or pyrokinesis would. Similarly, a medieval epic would be ineligible, but a fantasy involving magic or non-human races would.
Only one award (the best possible) will be given for each year.
For each ceremony I will list the year followed by the original winner in parentheses. My comments and awards will come after. For many dates I’m limited by the breadth of SF I’ve seen, which is a little lacking for the 1950’s and before. Any help is appreciated. On silvers and bronzes, if you’re curious about what film I would have ranked #1, you’ll have to wait for a future series (or just ask in the comments).
Year by Year Revisions:
1928 (Wings): Wings is solid entertainment, but no competition for the landmark Metropolis. Gold trophy.
1929 (Broadway Melody): Even the relatively silly sci-fi adventure Woman in the Moon trumps Broadway Melody’s musical tripe, which rode in on novelty, but is outclassed by nearly every song and dance picture of the 1930’s. Silver trophy.
1930 (All Quiet on the Western Front)
1931 (Cimarron): The prototype for all bloated blockbusters that got showered with molten Oscar gold by short-sighted voters, this overblown western is now universally regretted by critics. Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, however, are still considered classics. There were even better foreign films in 1931, but in practicality they never win, so a gold trophy it is.
1932 (Grand Hotel): Critics seem to look down their noses at the now-passe Grand Hotel today, but I don’t know; I kind of like it. A whole slew of horror classics came out, including The Mummy, Vampyr, and The Most Dangerous Game, but I think the best answers are either Freaks the Dr. Moreau adaptation Island of Lost Souls, both of which contain sci-fi elements for the silver.
1933 (Cavalcade): King Kong has stood the test of time far better than Cavalcade, even though its effects are now more charming than terrifying. I can just imagine Kong crushing decade-spanning odes to patriotism and class unity with his over-sized hairy paws. For the record, I consider any giant monster movie with a raging beast more than ten times human size to be sci-fi (plus there's the whole lost world angle), so I don't want to hear any arguments that it shouldn't get a silver at the least. The gold, however, could be argued, but who would dare argue with the mighty Kong?
1934 (It Happened One Night)
1935 (Mutiny on the Bounty): I’m a big fan of this one, but I’d have to say that Bride of Frankenstein is about on the same level. Hell, it’s even better than its original. We’ll call this a silver to stay on the safe side.
1936 (The Great Ziegfeld): Things to Come for the silver. I’m not a huge fan of either, but they have their moments. At heart, I think I like the forward-looking Things to Come more than the antiquated nostalgia, with which I can't relate, that swells forth from Ziegfeld.
1937 (The Life of Emile Zola): Fantasy favorites Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Lost Horizon are in the running, but The Life of Emile Zola is pretty decent. No statues.
1938 (You Can’t Take It with You): Not one of Capra's best, but a sparse year as far as I can tell. I could use some help.
1939 (Gone with the Wind)
1940 (Rebecca): Dr. Cyclops, perhaps the only real sci-fi entry this year, isn't even close.
1941 (How Green Was My Valley): Anything is better than this miserable Irish mining family rubbish that notoriously stole the Oscar from Citizen Kane and Maltese Falcon. Man Made Monster, aka The Electric Man is frankly terrible, but it will have to do unless someone knows of anything better.
1942 (Mrs. Miniver): So sue me if I’d rather see a movie about a lady who transforms into a panther under emotional stress than one about a lady who transforms into a less frivolous woman under the threat of German bombs. “Cat People” takes the bronze.
1944 (Going My Way): Only because I haven’t seen a single SF film from 1944, although you can read my sarcastic claim that “Going My Way” counts, here.
1945 (Lost Weekend)
1946 (The Best Years of Our Life): A truly great film, and one of the best WWII "coming home" stories out there. Just the same, I’d probably put the fantasy classic “A Matter of Life and Death” on a short list of 1946 films that I like better. Bronze trophy.
1947 (Gentleman’s Agreement): There are at least five film noirs I can think of that I prefer to “Gentleman’s Agreement” (not a bad film itself), but to nab the silver I'll have to go with the ultra-obscure but brilliantly surreal and prescient Krakatit.
1949 (All the King’s Men)
1950 (All About Eve): All About Eve is too good to try toppling, but the 1950's began to usher in some legitimately interesting SF beginning with Panic in the Streets, DOA, Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M.
1951 (An American in Paris): I’ve never understood the enduring popularity of this one. I’ll take The Thing from Another World any day, but even better is The Man in the White Suit. It's about as soft as sci-fi gets, but it works. Gold trophy.
1952 (The Greatest Show on Earth): Despite the ambitious title, it seems like I should be able to outdo it, yet my SF knowledge fails me for 1952.
1953 (From Here to Eternity): A great year for B-movies: Robot Monster, War of the Worlds, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Then there is the largely fantasy-based 5000 Fingers of Dr. T which includes an atomic device (which mean science, right!). Ultimately I'm going to award a silver award based on my love for little-known Brit B-movie gem The Four Sided Triangle. Not to many people would agree that it is better than From Here to Eternity, but its often the case that everyone except me is wrong.
1954 (On the Waterfront): Much as I enjoy Them!...
1955 (Marty): I don't want to put any spoilers here, but I think Kiss Me, Deadly might qualify (discussion in the comments section). The excellent The Quatermass Xperiment provides a more explicitly SF silver.
1956 (Around the World in 80 Days): Forbidden Planet. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Earth Versus the Flying Saucers. This one is too easy and AtWi80d helps by aging quite poorly. It’s kind of a shame that one of Jules Verne’s least impressive and utterly un-sci-fi novels should be his only adaptation to win. Again, my absolute top contenders are all foreign films, so we'll assume academy jingoism should have sealed a gold.
1957 (The Bridge on the River Kwai): The Incredible Shrinking Man is not to be missed, but it isn't in the same order of magnitude as David Lean.
1958 (Gigi): Here's the year that Jules Verne should have won, for The Fabulous world of Jules Verne by Karel Zeman. Mostly based on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Myserious Island, but with Zeman adding some of his own stop-motion inspirations to boot. Also good are Fiend without a Face, The Blob and I Bury the Living.
1959 (Ben-Hur): I’d like to think I could take all 212 minutes of Ben-Hur without batting a eyelash, but I’m getting little help from the year’s lineup: On the Beach? The Wasp Woman? Plan 9 from Outer Space? I'll have to call upon The Tingler, a gulity pleasure, though it means that I make gimmick-king William Castle a best-picture winner.
1960 (The Apartment)
1961 (West Side Story): I love West Side Story, but the technically-innovative and marvelously whimsical Czech mixed-media Baron von Munchausen adaption Baron Prasil is something I love even more.
1962 (Lawrence of Arabia): Many would disagree, but I know I have allies in thinking The Manchurian Candidate is worthy of the prize. Should brainwashing and mind control be considered sci-fi? I compel you to think so! Gold trophy!
1963 (Tom Jones ): Tom Jones stood for a long time, with little to oppose it save the underloved Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (aka Fungus of Terror). However, the Czech Republic's ahead-of-its-time space opera Ikarie XB-1 handily unseats it and may even deserve a gold.
1964 (My Fair Lady): If My Fair Lady had ended with Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison singing “The Rain in Spain” while being consumed in a hailstorm of nuclear bombs, it might have stopped me from sliding the Oscar over to Dr. Strangelove. Gold trophy.
1965 (The Sound of Music): Alphaville, followed by the The War Game. Silver trophy.
1966 (A Man for All Seasons): Who Wants to Kill Jesse? steals the prize in a bloodless Czech coup. And despite Paul Scofield’s excellent performance, I bequeath his acting Oscar to Olga Schoberova. Just because! (Also, it's worth mentioning the underrated Seconds).
1967 (In the Heat of the Night) It's a bit of a stretch but I'm going to combine the British Privilege and the French Weekend, too dystopian films in the thick of the political turmoil that also produced In the Heat of the Night. We'll call it a silver.
1968 (Oliver!): In what will probably be the least contested retroactive decision of this entire post, I transfer the Oscar to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” How “Oliver!” won, even given its catchy, lightweight charm, I’ll never know. On the long list of 1968 SF I’d rather rewatch would be “Yellow Submarine,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Barbarella” and “Danger: Diabolik.” Gold, gold gold.
1969 (Midnight Cowboys): An odd year for SF. Horrors of Malformed Men, Marooned and The Illustrated Man are all interesting anomalies, but none work as well as Midnight Cowboys.
1970 (Patton): I don’t think I can count 1970’s outpouring of surrealism as SF (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Eden and After, El Topo, etc.), which is a shame. Originally I actually put forward Colossus: The Forbin Project for a silver, but I don't think that holds up. Patton emerges from the battlefield as the victor.
1971 (The French Connection): While both films share a dubious legacy of starting violent cinematic trends, I think “A Clockwork Orange” is the more groundbreaking and provocative work. I wouldn’t quite commit to calling it the year’s best, so silver trophy for now.
1972 (The Godfather)
1973 (The Sting): I'm too big a fan of The Sting to retcon 1973, but it was a year full of oddball contenders: The Holy Mountain, The Hourglass Sanatorium, The Savage Planet, The Day of the Dolphin, Sleeper, Soylent Green, Idaho Transfer, Ivan the Terrible: Back to the Future and Westworld.
1974 (The Godfather Part II)
1975 (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest): The combined cult status of Rocky Horror Picture Show, Death Race 2000, Shivers, A Boy and His Dog, Rollerball, Footprints on the Moon, The Stepford Wives and Black Moon earn a silver even if individually they might not truly rival Jack Nicholson's performance piece. Call it a silver.
1976 (Rocky): The Man Who Fell to Earth? God Told Me To? Maybe even almost Logan’s Run? This is far from my best attempt, but I grant it a silver anyway. Rocky's a popular heavyweight these days and his underdog status is overrated.
1977 (Annie Hall): This is probably my favorite Woody Allen film and there’s only a single 1977 that I unambiguously like more. Fortunately, it’s SF. Can you guess it? “Eraserhead.” Oh, and for the angry unwashed masses, you can pretend I said “Star Wars” or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Gold medal.
1978 (Deer Hunter): I’m of the minority opinion that 1978 was just not a standout year for SF. I’ve got no special love for Superman, Dawn of the Dead, The Boys from Brazil, Coma, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or even the gloriously awful Starcrash. No awards.
1979 (Kramer vs. Kramer): The Tin Drum and Stalker are arguably eligible for the steal, but Alien is the obvious answer. It almost gets a gold from me, but will have to settle for a silver since I can think of exactly one better 1979 film (Apocalypse Now).
1980 (Ordinary People): The Empire Strikes Back and The Falls can both handily and independently clinch a silver trophy here.
1981 (Chariots of Fire): Time Bandits would lock in a silver trophy, but since the best film of the year (maybe even the decade) is the vaguely-sci-fi horror movie Possession I think a gold is in order.
1982 (Gandhi): Blade Runner. Solid gold. Enough said.
1983 (Terms of Endearment): I think the year's best is rightfully the French essay-film Sunless although it would never actually win for at least two reasons (ie: Frenchness and using the pseudo-documentary essay format). Therefore, Videodrome is left free to nab the gold trophy and shovel it into its chest oriface.
1984 (Amadeus): Terminator, Ghost Busters and The Brother from another Planet are all up there, but I’m a huge Amadeus fan, with its dueling composers and insight into genius, jealously and revenge. However, throw in 1984, Repo Man and Threads (and as Mad Dog mentions, Urusei Yatsura 2: Beautiful Dreamer) for some fierce competition, and I think a silver is not improper. This was originally a bronze, but I'm capitulating before anyone can write in with crazy defenses of Dune or The Last Starfighter.
1985 (Out of Africa): Brazil walks in, guns down all the nominees in the room, and coolly walks away from the carnage with its well-deserved golden Oscar.
1986 (Platoon): I know Platoon has a lot of fans out there, but I think The Fly is just strong enough to buzz off with the silver prize.
1987 (The Last Emperor): OK, The Red Spectacles is probably not the best known or most liked ’87 SF I could have picked, so choose your own. Here are some ideas: Predator, RoboCop, Hellraiser, Wings of Honneamise, On the Silver Globe, Evil Dead II, Bad Taste, Spaceballs. But keep in mind that The Last Emperor is a pretty decent, unquestionably gorgeous film. Silver trophy.
1988 (Rain Man): I have a soft-spot for Rain Man despite its flaws. Nevertheless, I’d take cartoons-come-to-life fantasy Who Framed Roger Rabbit or the magical realism Time of the Gypsies over it. Bronze trophy. (Mad Dog notes that anime heavy-weight Akira should be in the running, and while I'm not an acolyte at that altar, it does deserve a mention.)
1989 (Driving Miss Daisy): Can Batman be considered SF? For this year it is surprisingly hard for me to find pure SF to triumph over such a frail opponent. Oh, wait, wait, wait… Tetsuo: The Iron Man. There we go. Silver it is.
1990 (Dances with Wolves): There’s always Clive Barker’s oddball horror film Nightbreed, but for a genuine silver I’ll have to turn towards one of my favorite animes, PatLabor 2: The Movie.(Note: If you are interested, you don’t have to see the show or the original movie to enjoy.) Verhoeven's undeniably fun Total Recall, a favorite since I was young and fitting way to close out the 80's, can also trounce Wolves.
1991 (Silence of the Lambs)
1992 (Unforgiven): This is a hard one to beat, so I’m going to have to call upon my secret magical realism weapon, Olivier, Olivier, for a dues ex machina. It's got a couple of undeniable sci-fi intrusions so it qualifies for a gold trophy. If you haven't seen it, you might have to buy the VHS used from Amazon or request it from a public library system to catch a peak, but I consider it worth the effort.
1993 (Schindler’s List): Talking animals is the simple, yet brilliant premise of the 1993 cerebral SF classic Look Who’s Talking Now. Nah, just kidding. The year’s best genuine SF was probably Jurassic Park, so Spielberg wins no matter what. No trophy awarded.
1994 (Forrest Gump): I seem to remember liking Forrest Gump though I’m a bit embarrassed by that in retrospect. It bears eventual rewatching. The question is rather something like Stargate or Star Trek: Generations is really any better? For now I’ll use another guilty pleasure, the fantasy-tinged Heavenly Creatures, to nab a bronze.
1995 (Braveheart): City of the Lost Children and the non-SF Se7en are my two top contenders for the year, with Ghost in the Shell not far behind. We'll say that sci-fi has a two-thirds majority to squeeze in a gold statue.
1996 (The English Patient): Mars Attacks, Multiplicity, and Space Jam just aren’t going to cut it, and even the year’s big SF release, Independence Day falls well short of The English Patient. There were a handful of better films this year, but science-fiction dropped the ball.
1997 (Titanic): I like a good Poseidon Adventure knock-off as much as the next guy (though clearly not as much as the next gal), and “Titanic” has an undeniable emotional sweep, technical audacity and flair for the dramatic. Still, I’m far less effusive than the academy. I’ll jump to the far extreme of the budget spectrum – while remaining on the same quality of acting – by picking Cube. Silver trophy.
1998 (Shakespeare in Love): Whether you prefer brooding indie sci-fi like Dark City and Pi or high-concept feel-good blockbusters like The Truman Show and Pleasantville, there was just no excuse to award Shakespeare in Love anything. Of course, everyone in 1998 was so shocked that Saving Private Ryan didn't win, that they too numb to enummerate all the other fine films that were spurned. Here's hoping that the gold trophies heals some of the wounds.
1999 (American Beauty): I was pretty in favor of this victory back in 1999, but the film seems far less daring now that I’ve seen a lot more hard-hitting dramas from the preceding decades. Still a finely acted and well-orchestrated feature, but now I think Being John Malkovich and The Matrix should have split the little gold man.
2000 (Gladiator): I've not felt any drive to go back and rewatch Gladiator over the years, but I've revisited the underrated Canadian mindtrip Possible Worlds half a dozen times, always finding new food for thought. It deserves a gold trophy. Wild Zero, benefitting from taking itself a lot less seriously than anyone involved with Gladiator, is also a fun alternative.
2001 (A Beautiful Mind): 2001 has a lot of arguable cult favorites (Donnie Darko, American Astronaut, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, and Millennium Actress to name a few) that can all lay some claim to the Silver. My vote for the year's best is the anime Spirited Away, a fantasy film that causes the gold to slip through the cracks of my own rules.
2002 (Chicago): The remake of Solaris for a silver. I thought this was just crazy personal bias, but it sounds like Tim (see comments) agrees. I called this a slow year originally, but he also reminded me of Minority Report, one of Spielberg's late career bests.
2003 (Lord of the Rings): Considering that this is already fantasy, I’ll leave well enough alone.
2004 (Million Dollar Baby): I loved Million Dollar Baby, but nothing like the creative solar flare of Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind. 2002 was a year of great ideas, and Primer deserves a mention too. Gold trophy.
2005 (Crash): Fans of V for Vendetta will probably be upset at my suggestion that this battle was even close, but it was. Serenity would have tipped the battle if there was any lingering doubts, so it’s another silver trophy for the shelf.
2006 (The Departed): I applaud a more-or-less action movie taking the prize, but did it have to be a derivative remake of a foreign film on a year when so much better came out? Take your pick of The Prestige, Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men, The Fountain and even Renaissance. Au.
2007 (No Country for Old Men): Should it have gone to There Will Be Blood? Maybe. Probably. But SF wasn't even in the running.
2008 (Slumdog Millionaire): WALL-E and Timecrimes are two fantastic sci-fi films that I'd rank over enjoyable crowd-pleaser Slumdog, but since the best film was easily Synecdoche, New York. Since that is borderline sci-fi (more fantasy, I know), we'll go ahead and call this a golden year.
2009 (The Hurt Locker): A silver for The Watchmen. Not as brilliant as the graphic novel, but pretty darn close.
2010 (The King's Speech): A disappointingly safe choice from the academy on a year with much more interesting films. Inception deserves a silver trophy, though it should have been even better, while the year's real winner was Fincher's Social Network.
Total: 56 (about 67% or 2/3 of Oscar years)
Conclusion: Spin up your time machine and recharge your mind control rayguns, science-fiction has definitively been short-changed and history needs to be fixed!
Call to Arms:
P.S. If you think you know a way to add more (or better) trophies to the stockpile, then put your suggestion in the comments section. Give the name of the original winner and the title of the film you prefer. All I ask is that you make sure to see the actual Oscar winner, too. If I agree with you, I’ll update the list.