10 Worst Best Picture Wins in Oscar History
The Oscars each year honor the “best” of the film industry. What the general public is not privy to is that the “best” is determined through campaigning, money spent, excessive glad-handing and a general middlebrow interest in what isn’t too terribly “challenging.” While the list of “great” Best Picture winners is massive, few of those could be considered conventionally opaque, ravenously experimental pieces of work. Usually the institution rewards formal brilliance, arguably not necessarily understanding the richness at the heart of certain material over its own intelligent, universal perceptiveness: No Country For Old Men, for example, was an awards windfall for the Coen brothers because it was a tight, well-performed thriller, expertly edited and paced by the skilled filmmaking team; probably not for its meditation on morality and mortality.
As a result, sometimes Oscar gets it “wrong.” Oftentimes that leaves an unquestionable classic in the dust; Citizen Kane and Vertigo have traded pole position on lists of the greatest American films of all time and neither took home the big prize. And sometimes it results in choices that veer from the ill-advised to the downright disastrous. If movies are a sign of the times, the Oscars always seem five steps behind, eager to honor what came before, fearful of what would come after, leading to a sea of choices made conservatively, choices that in retrospect, should make any cinema lover wince.
Here are some of those choices…
10. The Lord of The Rings: Return Of The King (2003)
It’s not that Peter Jackson didn’t do strong work in bringing JRR Tolkien’s work to life, as many recognize the Lord of the Rings series as a contemporary fantasy touchstone. But to believe that Return of the King was the best film in the series is poppycock; Fellowship Of The Ring is a stirring adventure that doubles as a savvy entrance to Middle Earth, while The Two Towers is a muscular war picture that broadens the emotional world of the characters. But Return is little more than dramatic inevitabilities, played as grandly and loudly as possible, half-interminable large-scale battle, half victory lap. It’s impossible to avoid that the film’s 14 Oscar windfall seems less like a commendation towards the third film, and more of a reward for three years of successful, satisfying pulp.
The nominees that year included Sofia Coppola’s moody Lost In Translation, Peter Weir’s peerless high seas escapade Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World, Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River and the horse-racing flick Seabiscuit. If the Academy wanted to be daring, they could have awarded an audacious batch of indies that included Elephant, the playful American Splendor or Dogville or maybe acknowledged the breathless Cinemania of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol 1. Meanwhile, in Oldboy and Memories Of Murder, South Korea had unleashed two instant classics that overshadowed more than a few of the nominated pictures. And if you want deep cuts, as far as high fantasy, unpopular opinion here: PJ Hogan’s psychologically-rich Peter Pan handily outdid Jackson’s entire Rings trilogy.
9. Chariots of Fire (1981)
No foolin’: how many of you have re-watched Chariots Of Fire? Even a few sittings of Hugh Hudson’s sports epic won’t obscure that the only memory you have of the picture was Vangelis’ iconic score. Chariots isn’t a bad film, but it’s a safe, conservative pic, a crowd-pleaser that was through-and-through veddy, veddy British. If you haven’t seen Chariots it’s still worth a watch today, if only to hear that score in its proper context, as it’s long been used and misused as a punchline over the years. What viewers will find is a solid sports film with genuine stakes and a gorgeous scope, even if the story is severely lacking.
The nominees that year included Atlantic City, acting fave On Golden Pond, Warren Beatty’s Reds and a small, obscure film called Raiders of the Lost Ark. You probably haven’t heard of it. Beyond the Oscars, however, this was one fantastic year, with Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot, Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, George Romero’s Knightriders, Michael Mann’s Thief and Sidney Lumet’s forever-underappreciated crime epic Prince of The City all rubbing shoulders. And quick, how many times have you seen Chariots Of Fire compared to 1981 favorites An American Werewolf In London, Escape From New York and The Evil Dead??
8. Terms Of Endearment (1983)
James L. Brooks’ touchy-feely melodrama isn’t even his best work, and one could argue it was a perfect representative for the Me decade of the Eighties. This warmed-over melodrama is turgid, joyless stuff, and it hasn’t aged well at all, basically creating a template not for further emotional cinematic storytelling, but rather a slight evolution in the types of soaps on television this had absentmindedly aped.
It Defeated:The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff and Tender Mercies also highlighted the Best Picture race that year, a less-than-thrilling collection, even if Mercies would be our easy, runaway pick. Meanwhile, there were some fiercely experimental ideas pursued by some of the generation’s greatest filmmakers that year with De Palma’s Scarface, Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, Tony Scott’s debut The Hunger, Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy and David Cronenberg’s prescient Videodrome.
7. The King’s Speech (2010)
It may be a philistine’s sentiment that the year the Academy widened the nomination pool to ten films, they selected the most boring film. But it’s true: Tom Hooper’s faintly whimsical The King’s Speech is all polite BS and historical revisionism, delicately lionizing stuttering King George while demonizing his brother and turning speech therapy sessions into character-building moments approved by Screenwriting 101 teachers. The picture is only somewhat enlivened by Hooper’s inept, askew camera angles, which lack purpose or aesthetic pleasures, and only obscure the storytelling at hand. It’s an outright terrible film made by people with no cinematic vision.
The nominations that year included daffy horror picture Black Swan, true sports story The Fighter, crowd-pleaser Inception, the smaller The Kids Are All Right, Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, the first billion dollar nominee in Toy Story 3, the Coens’ True Grit, Appalachian noir Winter’s Bone and, most significantly, critics favorite The Social Network. Outside that spectrum, loaded with choices better than the Tom Hooper cliché-fest, there was a smattering of alternate offerings, from Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island to Roman Polanski’s paranoid The Ghost Writer, crime actioner The Town and sci-fi tragedy Never Let Me Go, moody star vehicles The American and Biutiful and exciting work from overseas as far as Dogtooth, A Prophet, Another Year and five hour epic Carlos.
6. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Leave it to director Ron Howard to gussy up a straightforward biopic by turning it into a half-baked spy picture obscuring the fact that it’s the story about a mentally-imbalanced man. Its surprise and technique obscuring storytelling, from the poison pen of Akiva “I wrote Batman And Robin you can hate me now” Goldsman, and it’s stunning that such a cheap tactic would win plaudits. Credit Russell Crowe’s committed lead performance, but this is a tacky, sloppy movie, with cheap fake-outs, unconvincing makeup sequences and an ending so syrupy that it celebrates this tortured genius while ignoring his anti-Semitic leanings and homosexual love affairs. It’s pretty much the tackiest way to treat a true life story, but tacky is a word Ron Howard has not yet learned.
Robert Altman’s last Oscar go-round, Gosford Park, vigilante thriller In The Bedroom and fantasias The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and Moulin Rouge! Other Oscar nominees not in the Best Picture race were Michael Mann’s Ali, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. There was a new millennial explosion of great foreign films; France brought us The Piano Teacher, Fat Girl, Time Out and the much more commercial Amelie; while the J-horror movement reached its apex with Kairo. Mexico gave us The Devil’s Backbone and Y Tu Mama Tambien and the anime genre produced two classics, Spirited Away and Millennium Actress. And not Oscar favorites, but still notable, were Ghost World, The Pledge, the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There and The Royal Tenenbaums.
5. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Even if it weren’t simply about what this film was able to bypass on its way to Oscar gold, it simply wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny. This elderly coming-of-ager sees ancient old bird Jessica Tandy and stubborn chauffer Morgan Freeman teaching each other lessons about friendship and tolerance, smoothed-over to go down like a spoonful of sugar. Director Bruce Beresford made several pictures described as “kindly” by viewers and this might have been the most feeble overall.
Fellow nominees included the intense Born on the Fourth Of July, school drama Dead Poets Society, the syrupy Field of Dreams and biopic My Left Foot. That’s a pretty safe group of nominees, ignoring the fact that the year was filled with a number of significant cinematic milestones, from Steven Soderbergh leading the Nineties Indie boom with Sex, Lies and Videotape to Michael Moore rewriting the rules of popular documentary filmmaking with Roger and Me. Woody Allen added to his late-career high points with Crimes and Misdemeanors while John Woo directed perhaps the greatest action film of all time, The Killer. Lost amongst all this, however, is the justifiable fury that arose when Miss Daisy’s generic soft-pedaling take on race was preferred over the brilliant, incendiary Do The Right Thing. Future Oscar winner Kim Basinger would eventually end up onstage openly blasting the Academy’s decision to not nominate the fiery film, but it only resulted in a brief blackballing, one that eventually ended in her own Oscar. Because the Academy just can’t stay mad with you, you know.
4. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Otherwise known as the year of The Dark Knight snub. Not that Christopher Nolan’s picture was under-acknowledged, as it did receive eight nominations, but it felt as if the Academy was reaching in order to fill those five slots, ignoring Nolan’s blockbuster in favor of the facile crowd-pleasing thrills of Danny Boyle’s India-set fantasia. The film was originally left for dead by the now-defunct Warner Independent label when Fox Searchlight rescued it, avoiding plans for a direct-to-DVD release and staging a brilliant campaign for the film. A campaign that ignored that Slumdog Millionaire is an ugly, overly violent fantasy about a cipher of a boy who triumphed over adversity with luck and the advantages of a westerner’s trivial television program, “Who Wants To be A Millionaire?” The picture celebrates wealth and materialism as factors in helping love conquer all, a love that makes little sense in regards to the characters being addressed, populating its world with a justified, principled bore of a hero against swarthy, one-dimensional villains.
It Defeated:The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seemed reverse-engineered for Oscar success, but it had to settle for a nomination alongside the stagebound Frost/Nixon, the adequate Milk and the liked-by-no-one The Reader. Meanwhile, in addition to Nolan’s Batman entry, there were great films from Woody Allen (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Pixar (Wall-E) and the Coens (Burn After Reading). A special notice should be given to Steven Soderbergh’s Che, which, at four hours, is still more watchable than The Reader.
3. Around The World In Eighty Days (1956)
Long considered one of the weakest of Best Picture winners, this fantasy adventure based on the novel was released when Hollywood faced a crossroads not unlike now; too many audiences abandoning the cinemas in favor of other entertainments, forcing studios to overload on cheap gimmicks and old-timey epics. Around The World In Eighty Days earned its reputation as a crowd-pleaser due to a massive supporting cast of familiar names, with cameos from Shirley McClaine to Buster Keaton and everyone in between. But it’s impossible to avoid that it was a big, dumb spectacle, impossible to avoid considering the sizable “showcase” role given to Latin America superstar Cantinflas, mixing with star David Niven like oil and water.
Friendly Persuasion was the smallest and most indistinct of the nominees that year, which also featured an acting showcase (Giant) as well as two other similarly garish “event” pictures, The King And I and The Ten Commandments. Outside of the Oscars, it was a phenomenally strong year, with Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Fritz Lang’s Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, Elia Kazan’s hot-blooded Baby Doll and Federico Fellini’s La Strada. There was also a pretty interesting picture released that year that probably wouldn’t be a big deal if several scholars didn’t consider it one of the finest American films ever made. That would be John Ford’s The Searchers.
2. Oliver! (1968)
Quick, show of hands: how many of you have re-watched Oliver!? Adapted from the stage musical, the toe-tapping adaptation of Oliver Twist is as kitschy as they come, a disposable redo of a non-musical story that has been adapted successfully numerous times already; I’d recommend the recent, highly-underrated Roman Polanski version. The consensus was that the Oscars had taken their conservative pushback of the Hollywood New Wave too far, as Oliver! was almost instantly regarded as one of the Academy’s more dubious choices.
It Defeated:Funny Girl was the rare comedy to break out into the Best Picture circle, joining The Lion In Winter, Paul Newman’s Rachel, Rachel and the definitive contemporary version of Romeo and Juliet. Beyond that, 1968 was a thrilling year for popular cinema, with John Cassavetes' Faces sharing space with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West. Genre filmmaking got a massive revision with Planet Of The Apes and Night Of The Living Dead, while the world saw unforgettable star-defining turns from Steve McQueen in Bullitt and Peter Sellers in The Party. Oh and the year’s highest grossing film was not nominated for a Best Picture Oscar: that would be 2001: A Space Odyssey.
1. Crash (2005)
Leave it to well-meaning Hollywood to assume that in the fractured year of 2005, the most pressing issue facing our country was race, specifically in the eyes of white guy Paul Haggis. Crash is so on-the-nose you need an x-ray to catch that fingertip buried inside a face, an over-written disaster where every damaging issue in Los Angeles is based on either race or our resistance to avoid discussing it. Kudos to star Don Cheadle, who is forced to explain the film’s title in a laborious monologue that would leave any actor slapping their head in exasperation, a moment that defines the film as a picture that isn’t going to be about anything other than what it’s about.
Many fingered Best Director winner Ang Lee and Brokeback Mountain to be Crash’s greatest deterrent. But it was a strong year in that category all over, with issue pictures rearing their heads in the form of the chilly Capote, George Clooney’s level-headed Good Night And Good Luck and Steven Spielberg’s prickly Munich. Outside of the Oscars, the bench wasn’t deep, per se, but it did allow for Noah Baumbach’s The Squid And The Whale, Michael Haneke’s Cache, David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence. Meanwhile, amongst all these films, only Terrence Malick’s The New World became a fixture on various “best of the decade” lists.