By John Young
Updated December 23, 2008 at 12:00 PM EST
Eric Draper/AP

From the moment that Saving Private Ryan was released in July of 1998, Steven Spielberg was the favorite to win that year’s Best Director Oscar. Ryan scored that rare combination: Not only was the film popping up all over critics’ Top 10 lists, but it was also 1998’s box-office king, raking in $216.5 million domestically. Spielberg’s direction was no doubt integral to the film’s success. Ask anyone about Ryan, and you’re bound to hear about the sheer visceral power of its D-Day battle scene and the heart-wrenching impact of the film’s coda.

But despite the popularity of Spielberg’s win, since we’ve been revisiting all the major Oscar categories from 5, 10, 15, 20, and 25 years ago in our Recall the Gold survey of entertainment industry players and EW readers, we have to ask the question: Were fellow nominees John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful), and Peter Weir (The Truman Show) just as worthy to take home the golden statue?

Madden accomplished the tricky balancing act of making surprise Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love both a sexy historical romance and a droll comedy. But many voters probably dug the film’s astute writing more than its direction (the script by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard won Best Original Screenplay). Then there was Terrence Malick, the reclusive director who made Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 1970s, and then disappeared from filmmaking for 20 years until 1998’s mesmerizing The Thin Red Line. However, for every person who thought the film was a philosophical masterwork, there was another who considered it an indulgent bore — buttered popcorn doesn’t sit very well with three hours of narration about the destructive nature of mankind.

Whether or not Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful went well with artery-clogging snacks also depended on whom you talked to. For numerous voters, the WWII drama was a charming and compassionate testament to a father’s love for his son; others accused Benigni of trivializing the Holocaust. Plus, the Academy had the option of honoring Benigni in the Best Actor category, which they did instead. As for Weir, the director deserves credit for capturing a surprisingly multifaceted performance from Jim Carrey, an actor who up until that point was most admired for his ability to contort his body as if it were Silly Putty. Weir also crafted a science-fiction parable with arresting imagery and prophetic cultural relevance (the film forecasted America’s infatuation with reality TV). But The Truman Show failed to secure a Best Picture nomination, and no director since 1930 has been able to win a directing Oscar without his or her film also contending for the top prize.

So, PopWatchers, take out your Oscar pens and tell us which director you thought should have won in our poll below. If you need a reminder of each film, check out the clips after the jump. While you’re at it, if you haven’t already, vote in all the other polls from our ongoing walk down Oscar’s memory lane. Tomorrow, we’ll examine the 1993 Best Supporting Actress race, and you can check out coverage of this year’s awards contenders in Dave Karger’s Oscar Watch blog.

addCredit(“Eric Draper/AP”)

Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful

John Madden, Shakespeare in Love

Terrence Malick, The Thin Red Line

Steven Spielberg, Saving Private Ryan(bloody violence NSFW)

Peter Weir, The Truman Show(trailer)