The Oscar Quest: Worst Best Picture Choices
This is the one list that the most people feel the need to weigh in on.
And it’s the one I listen to people’s opinions about the least.
The reason for that is because people base their opinion on only having seen the film that won (and even then, not all the time) and one other film that they like better. So I just ignore everyone. It works out.
Here’s my list of what I consider to be the ten worst Best Picture decisions of all time made by the Academy. I’ll do my best to explain why I consider each a terrible decision.
Oh, and because I didn’t say it for the last one — not that it matters, people don’t listen anyway — the rankings don’t matter. But fuck it, let’s just go forward.
10. 1967, In the Heat of the Night
I consider this a terrible decision because of the competition involved. This was a year where Hollywood transitioned to the big budget musicals of old Hollywood, into the more realisitc and socially conscious films of the 70s. And yet, the Academy once again proves they will hang on for dear life in the face of change. It’s like a child refusing to eat vegetables. They won’t eat spinach unless you cook it inside something they do like, and only when you tell them after the fact, “You know you just ate spinach, right?”, do they actually go, “Oh, I guess I like spinach, then.”
Of the five nominees, Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduare, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night, it’s clear Dolittle was the weakest choice. A holdover from Old Hollywood. It was probably a pity nomination, since they spent a lot of money on it and the film bombed (I view Hello, Dolly! in 1969 a similar fashion), and this was a consolation prize, of sorts. That’s really the only way to explain it. The film is not that good.
Anyway, of the four possibilities, it’s clear In the Heat of the Night is the weakest one. First, you have Bonnie and Clyde, a film that most reflects the 70s films that are to come. It’s violent, it’s gritty, it’s sexual, and it feels like it has balls. You know? And, I kind of understand why they didn’t vote for it, since it is radically different, and there were other films that were less controversial. I say that doesn’t matter, but knowing the Academy, I understand.
Then there’s The Graduate. Here’s a film that best represents the changing sexual attitudes of the country, as well as the prevailing isolation of the younger generation. If you went back to see what the 60s felt like today, you’d probably look at this film. It has everything. It’s funny, it’s well-made, it reflects a huge part of the culture. And yet — no dice. Why? I guess maybe the sex was too much for the Academy. You have to understand, the majority of the Academy are people who grew up in an earlier era. So they’re more conservative and are used to a different kind of film. This is how The King’s Speech beats The Social Network. So I get how they wouldn’t vote for a film that’s about the youth, since most of them are middle aged men, who are precisely the ones the film is saying doesn’t get it.
Don’t want sex or violence, fine. Now you’re left with race. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night. Two films dealing with race. The former deals with race right out in the open. A woman brings home a black fiancé and her parents, who thought they were liberal, must deal with it. The whole film is them discussing their feelings on this, and reflects everything that Civil Rights was about — white America confronting the fact that African Americans are equal citizens and can do whatever they want. In the Heat of the Night, on the other hand, feels like a bastardization of the issue. It feels like Hollywood wrapped up the race issue in the comfortable blanket of a mystery film and presented it that way, so the children could eat the spinach as easily as possible. It feels like the race issue is not the major message of the film. I mean, it is, but, in terms of which film gets its message across more clearly, that film is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. So that’s why I consider this choice to be terrible. It feels too easy, and the competition was really strong. If there were two more Doctor Dolittles on this list, I bet I wouldn’t be so quick to throw it on this list.
9. 1996, The English Patient
The reason this is on here is simple — it’s just a bad film. It’s not even any good. I mean, it’s competently made and does a great job pretending to be a good film, but it’s really just long, and boring, and is just not really that good. Just die already!
They really did have it right. And they did it right when it won all the Oscars, too.
Really though, the film just isn’t very good at all. (Needs to be an hour shorter and made in the 50s, and then it would work.) And not only that, it beat Fargo! Fucking Fargo! You tell me which film holds up better. Fuck, I’d take Jerry Maguire over The English Patient this year. Sure, it gets overly sappy at the end, but you know what, that’s Cameron Crowe. Fuck you if you don’t think “You Complete Me” is the same as John Cusack holding a boombox outside of a girl’s window.
So, that’s why The English Patient is where it is. It’s not a good film, and Fargo is a much, much better choice, as evidenced by everybody saying so after the fact. The only good that came out of this decision was the fact that now we all get to marvel at how Harvey Weinstein manages to get these films to win all the time.
8. 1979, Kramer vs. Kramer
This one has nothing to do with quality of the film — it’s really a great, great film — but it’s more about what it beat. First, All That Jazz, which is Bob Fosse’s magnum opus, a wonderful film, and just happens to be one of my top five favorite films of all time. So, maybe I’m slightly biased in saying it deserved to win here. And that’s fine. But now I’m gonna drop another name on you — Apocalypse Now.
Fuck you if you think Kramer vs. Kramer is a better film than Apocalypse Now. You might like it better, but there is no way this film deserved to win Best Picture over what is probably the greatest war film ever made. Or, at worst, the greatest Vietnam War film ever made. No fucking way. It deserved every acting award it got, but Best Picture (and Best Director, that was a fucking laughingstock decision) was not something it should have won. It beat Apocalypse Now! That’s why this is on here.
7. 1989, Driving Miss Daisy
Ah, perhaps the second most popular entry on the “worst Best Picture” lists. Everyone likes to shit on this film. And honestly, I think the criticism is a bit harsh. It’s not that bad a film. It’s just a terrible Best Picture winner. And I understand why it’s on the lists. Hell, it’s on mine. But, I really don’t think it deserves to go any higher than here. And the only reason it’s really on here is because of the competition it beat.
The five nominees this year were: Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Driving Miss Daisy, Field of Dreams and My Left Foot. Five good-to-great films. The fact that they chose the lightest, most innocuous film on this list — actually kind of reminds me of 1967, where they chose a film that’s first and foremost entertaining, and then has that side message of, “Oh, look, blacks and whites, learning to respect one another. Kumbaya” — really is what makes this a terrible decision.
Now that I’ve done my part in the bashing of the film — let me defend it. Because I do feel it needs to be defended. Most people think this was the worst possible choice on this list. I probably thought so too, before I started this Quest. Now, I think it’s a third choice at best. Which is definitely not as bad as most people say or assume. Because, look at it this way:
Born on the Fourth of July should not have won. Too much Vietnam, too much Oliver Stone, too much pessimism. Great film, wonderful performance by Cruise, but, it shouldn’t have won. Coming Home dealt with the exact same material (for the most part) eleven years earlier. Plus Platoon won Best Picture — it just didn’t need to win. Nor should it have, I feel. I just don’t think it’s a Best Picture winner.
Then, Dead Poets Society. Personally, I feel it’s the weakest film on this list. I know, I’m gonna catch shit for that, but it’s what I believe. It’s a film about a teacher telling his students to do great things and think for themselves. Fine. It’s a good film. Robin Williams gets nominated. Fine. But Best Picture? Come the fuck on. This is not a Best Picture winner. This is the last film on this list that should have won this award. It’s not that good, people. It’s uplifting. That’s not the same thing.
That leaves Field of Dreams and My Left Foot. Now, while I love Field of Dreams, I totally understand why everyone is gonna say it shouldn’t have won. That’s fine. Some people love Dead Poets Society, think it’s a classic and poo-poo my lack of love for it. The same amount of people will feel the same way about my love for Field of Dreams. I accept that. It’s perfectly valid. I’m sure if Field of Dreams won Best Picture this year, the same criticisms as Driving Miss Daisy would have existed.
And My Left Foot – it’s a wonderful film — Daniel Day Lewis deserved the Oscar ten-fold. However — is it a Best Picture winner? I’d say yes, but there’s still that lingering doubt of, “Well, it’s kind of small…and isn’t really that great outside of the Day-Lewis performance.” (That is, once he becomes successful at the end of the film, it kind of gets less interesting.)
So, really, you look at this list, and you go — what do you vote for? You can make a case for all of these films and none of these films. And what ends up happening is, all of these films are great, but they all seem to be lacking one little thing that makes them definitive winners. Or definitive films to vote for. In a way, Driving Miss Daisy was the only film that could have won here. That doesn’t make it a good choice, but it does, hopefully, make a person understand, while it was a bad choice, this is not one to sling shit on the way people sling shit on it. There really weren’t that many options. It really seems like My Left Foot was the only other legitimate choice. I’d have been okay with that, but it just didn’t happen. Plus, isn’t this way so much better? Isn’t it nice that we have a straw man to knock down when we talk about this stuff?
6. 1990, Dances with Wolves.
Another standard entry (I hope) on the “worst of” lists. It beat Goodfellas. I think we can all agree — that’s not okay. Plus it’s just not even a good movie. Nothing happens! Nothing at all! Watch the director’s cut if you really want to see a film that just did not deserve to win any awards. Think of what happens. Man, sent to a remote outpost. Encounters Native Americans. Eventually, befriends them. Becomes one of them. Marries a white woman raised as one of them. They go on a buffalo hunt. The white men come, capture him, and ship him back east. He’s upset. The end. That’s THE ENTIRE MOVIE!
And this beat Goodfellas. How could it not be on this list?
5. 1952, The Greatest Show on Earth
This is a film — you have to put it on here. You just do. Even though I understand completely why they voted for it — it still belongs on this list. High Noon clearly should have won Best Picture this year.
Although, honestly, I can see people making a case for — why should High Noon have won? It’s just a western. I’d actually like to see someone make this argument one day, because it’s actually quite legitimate. People are getting too matter-of-fact about this one.
But still, even if High Noon doesn’t win, why not The Quiet Man? That film was just as good, if not better, than The Greatest Show on Earth? (Also, Singin’ in the Rain, but the reason that film didn’t win was because it wasn’t nominated, and the reason it wasn’t nominated was because An American in Paris won Best Picture the year before, beating A Streetcar Named Desire, an entry that, sadly, did not make this list. Although it came really close.)
The Greatest Show on Earth is, on its own, a terrible choice for Best Picture. It’s actually a good film. I enjoyed it very much. As a film. As a Best Picture winner — just, no. High Noon should have won. But, High Noon is an allegory about the situation going on in Hollywood, with HUAC and the blacklist and all that. And everyone knew this. Which, understandably, make it a controversial decision. And considering Hollywood was in the middle of not only controversy on the HUAC front, but also on the Paramount Decision front (they were in the process of losing their monopoly on production, distribution and exhibition), I can see why they wanted to be like, “Let’s take something not controversial and try not to put even more heat on us.” I totally understand that.
I don’t understand, though, why they didn’t just go with The Quiet Man. That’s just as non-controversial as The Greatest Show on Earth, plus they gave it Best Director. The choice is both baffling and bad.
4. 1980, Ordinary People
Oh, we all knew this was coming. Ordinary People, a film that has very little merit outside of good performances by Donald Sutherland, Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore and Judd Hirsch, and the fact that it was directed by Robert Redford, wins Best Picture over Raging Bull.
That should be enough. I shouldn’t have to say anymore. But I will. Because it’s necessary.
A family drama (second year in a row for those) about a son who got into a boating accident where his brother died, and since then, his mother, who favored his brother over him, has turned cold to him and to the world, and, struggling with his brother’s death and lack of love and support from his mother, tries to kill himself. And the film is about him visiting a psychiatrist, working through his issues, as well as the dynamic between the family, with his father being overly supportive, his mother resenting him but putting on a happy face in public. And eventually he realizes his mother is the problem, as does his father, and they decide, “we’re okay.” That’s the film. If you think this winning had nothing to do with the fact that Robert Redford directing it, you can suck my dick.
This film did not deserve to win Best Picture at all. A solid nominee at best. This film purely won because the Academy loves Robert Redford — and apparently hates Martin Scorsese.
Just look at the two films. A family drama, that would have been right at home in the 40s (maybe that’s why they voted for it), wins over a film that’s literally pulsing with fucking emotion. Martin Scorsese put his fucking soul into Raging Bull, and the result is a film that most people consider one of the greatest efforts ever put to film. Did they find the film controversial upon release? Was it too complex for them? (Then why did they nominate it?)
I don’t understand this decision, and this clearly belongs right where it is, simply because of the quality of the film that won and the quality of the film it beat. Unacceptable all around. For shame, Academy. This is the second time you fucked over Martin Scorsese (technically the first, but we dealt with 1990 on this list already), and you seemed to like making a habit over it for the next 25 years after this one. That alone puts this in the top five.
3. 1981, Chariots of Fire.
The quintessential. Of course this is here. This is single-handedly the worst film to ever win Best Picture. Of all 83 Best Picture winners, this is #83. This is seriously the worst one. It’s not even a good film. It’s seriously about people running. Watch the film. It’s not even interesting. Not even a little bit.
And, it beat, Reds, which, I kind of understand why they didn’t want to give Best Picture to Reds, it’s overly long, kind of boring, and is almost a love letter to communism. But it also beat Raiders of the Lost Ark. Which, while I do understand why that didn’t win (they passed up Star Wars, for christ’s sake. In a year where the expected winner was a film about ballerinas), it still doesn’t make Chariots of Fire an okay choice. Vote for On Golden Pond. At least then we can be like, “Oh, the Academy went for overly sentimental instead of classic action film and big budget epic.” At least then we could understand. Here, it’s like they were all just duped. Like when Roberto Benigni won Best Actor.
This is just a terrible decision all around, and doesn’t deserve to be less than third on a list of the worst Best Pictures of all time.
2. 1941, How Green Was My Valley.
It beat Citizen Kane. I rest my case.
1. 1948, Hamlet.
I’ve said this from the beginning — despite Chariots of Fire and it being so terrible, and How Green Was My Valley beating the film considered to be the greatest film ever made — I’ve always considered this choice to be the single worst in Academy history, for Best Picture.
The reasoning behind this begins with the picture itself — it’s Hamlet. What is this, 1936? Didn’t Hollywood move past these classical films when they discovered their own identity? What makes this a Best Picture winner? That would be like if someone did a cover of “The Star Spangled Banner” and won Record of the Year for it at next year’s Grammys. That’s what this decision is the equivalent of.
I understand Laurence Olivier winning Best Actor for it — this is considered the greatest role in the history of the stage, and he’s a man who made his career off of Shakespeare. Plus Humphrey Bogart wasn’t nominated and the category was kind of weak — it made perfect sense that he won. But Best Picture is just something this film did not need at all. It’s just not that good.
Now, alongside all of that, the real reason I consider this to be the worst Best Picture decision of all time has to do with what it beat. Here are the other four nominees from this year:
The Snake Pit – a wonderful film about schizophrenia. Pre-1967, before Hollywood actually dealt realistically with things, there are only four films I can think of that actually dealt with medical issues in a blunt and clinical manner. There’s The Lost Weekend, which deals with alcoholism in a way that hadn’t really been seen before (and, I guess, Days of Wine and Roses also kind of does that, so I guess that’s a fifth film), The Three Faces of Eve, which deals with multiple personality disorder, David and Lisa, which deals with a man who believe he’ll die if touched forming a relationship with a girl who can only speak in rhymes who has a second personality that can’t speak at all, and this film.
This film is amazing in the way it deals with schizophrenia, purely because no other film would have the balls to deal with it so openly as this does. And, honestly, this was a better choice for Best Picture than Hamlet was. It was still fourth best of the nominees, but still, better than the film that won.
Johnny Belinda – a wonderful film featuring a performance by Jane Wyman that I consider one of the top five Best Actress winning performances of all time. It’s a melodrama toward the end, sure, but it’s a wonderful film and glorious example of Hollywood filmmaking of the time, and, honestly, I feel it would have been a better choice than Hamlet. Some people might not feel as strongly as I do, but the whole point becomes moot when we get to the other two nominees.
The Red Shoes – you may have heard of it. It features the single best dance sequence ever put to film, the 17-minute ballet of the Red Shoes. It’s just wonderful, through and through. The film itself is just beautiful, and perfect. However, while I consider this a perfectly good choice for Best Picture, Hollywood at the time might not have. You can’t make the argument to me that they didn’t vote for it because it’s a foreign film, because Hamlet was also a British film. The argument here was that it was a bit of a surrealist film, and had fantasy elements to it, and might have just been obtuse for some of the older members of the Academy. I don’t understand it, but at least that holds more water than the alternative. Either way, this was a much better decision than Hamlet.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – right here, it’s game over. Even if you somehow found a way to go, “Well, Hamlet should have won over all four of those other films,” there’s nothing you can say with this one. Not one thing. This film should have easily won Best Picture this year. And the fact that, not only did Hamlet beat it, but the fact that the other three films were better choices than Hamlet, is what makes this the worst Best Picture choice in Academy history. Worst. Of all time.
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Now, here’s an unofficial 11-15, just so you can know which decisions I consider bad, but not bad enough to make the official list.
11. 1937, The Life of Emile Zola. One of the five (possibly even as high as two or three) weakest Best Picture choices of all time.
12. 1951, An American in Paris. A weak choice, plus it beat A Streetcar Named Desire, a far superior film.
13. 1940, Rebecca. Not a bad film, but, it beat The Grapes of Wrath, an American classic.
14. 1977, Annie Hall. It was a tossup between this and Around the World in 80 Days. Both have their upsides and downsides. This was a better choice than the favorite that year, The Turning Point, but still, not as good a film as Star Wars. And Around the World in 80 Days, it’s not a bad film at all. It’s big, and it’s marginally entertaining, and it makes sense as a Best Picture. I’d have taken Giant that year, but, I understand why Around the World in 80 Days won. I consider Annie Hall the greater travesty.
15. 1985, Out of Africa. A boring film, a terrible choice, and it beat the superior A Color Purple. The Academy being racist as usual.
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Now, for those of you wondering why I haven’t included any decisions post-1996 (past 15 years) in my lists of the worst Best Picture decisions of all time. The reason for this is — I feel any decision so recent, no matter how strongly I feel about it, just hasn’t had the time to show itself as either a truly good or truly bad decision.
Plus, these last fifteen years (though really the last ten) are my years. They’re the years I started watching, therefore I have more of a vested interest in them and stronger opinions about them than I do the other years. So what I’m doing is, just creating a list of what I think are the five worst decisions from the past fifteen years. Because, honestly, if I had my druthers, I’d put the last two decisions on the worst decisions list, more so the last one. So, because it’s too soon to truly judge and be objective about it, here’s a list of what I consider the worst five decisions of the past fifteen years. Starting with an unofficial sixth, because — of course.
6. 2009, The Hurt Locker. I have to. I just don’t like this decision at all. I thought this was a terrible choice for Best Picture, mostly because I didn’t like the film. I get that a lot of people loved the film and I get that there wasn’t really a better choice, but, I don’t like it. But I don’t despise it enough to put it higher than these other five, because these are truly bad.
Here’s my official list:
5. 2001, A Beautiful Mind.
Good lord, this film is not good enough to be a Best Picture winner. Not at all. I understand them not wanting to vote for Fellowship of the Ring, because there were gonna be two more, and all that — I understand. And I understand their hands were kind of tied here. But still, that doesn’t excuse them from having such a weak set of nominees. Gosford Park was never winning. Nor was In the Bedroom. And, with them not wanting to vote for Fellowship, that leaves Best Picture between A Beautiful Mind and Moulin Rouge! When that’s the case — it deserves to be on this list. In a few years, this might (and probably will) make the top fifteen worst decisions of all time list.
4. 2004, Million Dollar Baby.
Of course. Here’s a film that people somehow fell in love with, and that emotional led them to vote for this over the vastly superior The Aviator. That’s just terrible voting. Granted, I’d have probably made this second choice too (since Ray shouldn’t have won Best Picture, I despised Sideways and Finding Neverland was just a weak nominee), but it shouldn’t have won. Poor decision.
3. 2002, Chicago.
What the hell was this? Okay, fine, you ignore Two Towers. But Gangs of New York too? Are you serious? For some reason, this race, at the time, came down between this film and The Hours. In that sense, they made the better choice. In the grand sense — not Gangs? Also, all three films were Harvey Weinstein films — which is just incredible. He had a 3/4 chance of winning this one. That’s incredible. Also, no to The Pianist. I say Gangs should have won here, and that Chicago was a weak choice. It wasn’t even that great a film. It was a solid film at best. Winning Best Picture just killed it.
2. 2005, Crash.
You thought this was gonna be #1, didn’t you? You thought this was gonna be on the worst 15, didn’t you? Well it isn’t. And you know why? Because what was gonna win instead? Fuck you if you say Brokeback Mountain. That film was not good enough to win. It was a great film, but it was not a Best Picture winner. Crash isn’t either, but really all this points to is how bad the set of nominees was this year. Capote was a weak nominee, and was never going to win. Munich was probably the best film on the list, but for some reason nobody voted for it. And then there’s my vote, Good Night, and Good Luck, which everyone just seemed to ignore. I say the last two were the best two, and I think either Crash or Brokeback would have been bad choices. Crash just gave them a bad choice to really hold up. Brokeback would have been a bad choice after a few years, when the love for the film died down and people realized, “Hey, this is not a very good Best Picture winner. Kind of like Million Dollar Baby.”
Of course this decision is #2, though. Crash is not a good Best Picture winner at all. It almost certainly will be in the top 15 worst decisions of all time in a few years (for me. For other people it’s on there already).
1. 2010, The King’s Speech.
No, this is not bitterness talking. This is legit knowledge, that in a few years, people will look back on this and go, “What the fuck were they thinking?” Because The King’s Speech is a great film. There’s no denying that. Hell, nobody even wants to deny that.
The reason this will go down as a poor choice for Best Picture is because, in ten years, fifteen years, twenty years, when you look back at the films on this list that hold up the best, you’re gonna look at Inception, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, The Social Network, True Grit, The Fighter, and you’re gonna go, “Do we even remember The King’s Speech?” I feel like the films that’ll hold up the best on this list are Inception, Black Swan and True Grit. Maybe The Social Network. I can’t get a handle on what that film’s legacy is going to be. But something tells me, several films on this list will eclipse the legacy of The King’s Speech, kind of like how Fargo eclipsed The English Patient, or the way Saving Private Ryan eclipsed Shakespeare in Love, or the way the first two Rings movies eclipsed A Beautiful Mind and Chicago. I’m guaranteeing you right now, that the legacy of the films that didn’t win this award this year, will end up having better reputations than the film that did. And that alone puts this as the most egregious error of the past fifteen years, and in the top twenty worst decisions of all time. The only reason I haven’t put it on that list is because that time hasn’t passed yet.
(Note: I wrote this article a long time ago. Back when I was still bitter about the loss. I did rewatch The King’s Speech since then, and while I admit it is a great film, and while I still do think it shouldn’t really have won, I don’t think it’s that egregious a choice anymore. I had the opportunity to change this article, but you know what? It’s important to be wrong. So I’m leaving it. I probably would take it off this bottom list now. I’d probably put on either Shakespeare in Love or… no, probably that.)