Let’s be honest: At least 75% of the fun of Oscar season is complaining about how the Academy got it completely wrong. And it is something that the Academy has done very often, providing us with endless amounts of fodder for articles such as these (really, I should be thanking them).
Due to the sheer enormity of those mistakes I’ve decided to restrict this post to the biggest mistakes with regards to Best Picture winners. But even that is too wide a parameter for this list. And so without further ado, some rules:
- The movie that won Best Picture must have some flaw that disqualifies it from laying a claim to being the actual best picture of the year.
- There must be a clear better picture that should have won, and it can’t be my own personal preference. For instance There Will Be Blood is one of the best movies of the 21st century, but its lack of an Oscar win is not a major snub because the Best Picture winner that year was No Country for Old Men which is similarly superb. Similarly while The Broadway Melody (1929) is one of the worst best pictures ever does not make it one of the Oscars’ biggest mistakes because there is no movie that would obviously take its place.
- The fact that a movie wasn’t appreciated in its own time does not make it any less worse that it didn’t win Best Picture. The fact that the Academy missed out on those movies in the first simply speaks to the inherent flaws of assessing the merits of a movie less than a year after it first comes out.
10. OLIVER! dir. Carol Reed. (1968 Academy Awards)
Other Nominees: Funny Girl; The Lion in Winter; Rachel, Rachel; Romeo and Juliet
Not Nominated: 2001: A Space Odyssey; Rosemary’s Baby; The Producers
Slotting in at number 10 is a clear case of the Academy favouring the traditions of the past rather than looking forward to new and exciting directions in film. Oliver! is not a bad movie per se, because it is an enjoyable Dickens musical with some stellar musical numbers and an effortless charm to it. But I was shocked to find out that the movie came out in 1968, assuming it to be a much older film than that because of its tone and subject matter. That this old-fashioned musical won the year after the 1967 awards when the American New Wave burst onto the scene with the nominations of Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and In The Heat of the Night among others just goes to show how tenuously the Academy flirts with innovation in favour of what is safe and conventional. Arguably Funny Girl is the best movie on the slate of actual nominees but egregiously left out of the nominees stands a trio of iconic and groundbreaking films that may have been left out possibly because they came from less prestigious genres like comedy (The Producers), horror (Rosemary’s Baby), or science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey).
Should Have Won (and Been Nominated): 2001: A Space Odyssey
9. ROCKY dir. John G. Avildsen (1976 Academy Awards)
Other Nominees: All the President’s Men; Bound for Glory, Network; Taxi Driver
As with Oliver! this isn’t a case of a bad film winning Best Picture. Rocky is a much better movie than its multiple sequels of ever decreasing quality might suggest. It’s a great sports movie about one man’s scrappy determination to rise to the top that is made all the more compelling because, unlike the many sequels, he does not actually achieve that goal. It is a worthy addition in the list of what is arguably one of the strongest lineups of Best Picture nominees ever. But in that lineup of films, it is clearly the least (or at best second least) worthy winner on the list. Either one of the media-based movies would have been better winners, whether it was All The President’s Men, the best movie about journalism detailing the greatest journalistic moment in American history, or Network, a dystopic view of the future of media that looks ever more eerily prescient with each passing year. But it is snubbing Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Taxi Driver that earns Rocky its place on this list. Until he finally won Best Director and Best Picture for The Departed in 2006, the Academy had a systemic problem of undervaluing Scorsese’s work and awarding Rocky Best Picture over Taxi Driver represents the genesis of that problem.
Should Have Won: Taxi Driver
8. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE dir. Danny Boyle (2008 Academy Awards)
Other Nominees: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button; Frost/Nixon; Milk; The Reader
Not Nominated: The Dark Knight; WALL-E
This was the awards that forced the changes we see today in the Best Picture award from five nominees to up to ten nominees. The snubs of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which was indisputably the event movie of the year as well as one of the year’s best, and Pixar Studio’s WALL-E, which had the daring audacity to make a children’s movie with the first forty-five minutes being without dialogue, were such egregious snubs that the Academy knew it had to change or lose all its relevance (whether the changes have helped the Academy to stave off its fall to irrelevancy is another question altogether). The 2008 Awards was symptomatic of the Academy’s allergy to the actual movie genres that drive box office success to the point that they would be blind to the superlative examples of that genre. As far as the actual winner goes, Slumdog Millionaire is by no means a bad movie and probably the most deserving of the actual nominees, but the absence of The Dark Knight and WALL-E means that at best Slumdog‘s win gets an asterisk.
Should Have Won (and Been Nominated): The Dark Knight
7. THE ENGLISH PATIENT dir. Anthony Minghella (1996 Academy Awards)
Other Nominees: Fargo; Jerry Maguire; Secrets and Lies; Shine
Not Nominated: Big Night; Hamlet; Sling Blade; Trainspotting
Like Elaine Bennis, I simply have never gotten the appeal of The English Patient. It is overly long and every second of the film seems to be begging you to notice how serious and prestigious the film is. When I recently watched this movie, I fell asleep twice. The first time was before the opening credits had finished rolling and when I woke up the second time halfway through the movie it took me a good fifteen minutes to realize I had missed something because the film is so ponderously slow. Part of me wonders if all the prestige this film has garnered is because all the characters speak in a British accent, and Americans seem to think a British accent denotes intelligence (God knows my own British-y accent has come in useful sometimes). Meanwhile sitting among the nominees is Fargo, an actually intelligently-told and darkly-comic tale with great performances all around and made by truly visionary directors who pointed to Hollywood’s potential future. So of course the Academy chose to ignore it.
Should Have Won: Fargo
4. FORREST GUMP dir. Robert Zemeckis (1994 Academy Awards)
Other Nominees: Four Weddings and a Funeral; Pulp Fiction; Quiz Show; The Shawshank Redemption
Not Nominated: Ed Wood; The Lion King
Forrest Gump has, to put it mildly, not aged well. The central conceit that a bumbling white man could be a central player in some of the most powerful moments of American history and told in such a way as to rewrite the contributions of actual minority leaders and influencers all in the name of comedy is certainly not a premise that would fly today without heavy opposition. But besides the obvious faults of the movie is the fact that it was surrounded by other worthy winners whether in the shocking and vital filmmaking of Pulp Fiction, which is still arguably Quentin Tarantino’s best movie, or the quieter and much more heartfelt storytelling of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption. But as is most often the case, the Academy decided to go with the middle-browiest of choices.
Should Have Won (Perhaps Controversially): The Shawshank Redemption
5. THE KING’S SPEECH dir. Tom Hooper (2010 Academy Awards)
Other Nominees: Black Swan; The Fighter; Inception; The Kids Are All Right; 127 Hours; The Social Network; Toy Story 3; True Grit; Winter’s Bone
Like the 1976 Academy Awards (See #9), the 2010 edition featured one of the best slates of Best Picture nominees ever. There was one of the greatest threequels ever made (Toy Story 3), solid entries by great actors’ directors (Black Swan, The Fighter, 127 Hours), a Coen Brother’s Western (True Grit), a Christopher Nolan mindbender (Inception), and for the first time ever TWO pictures directed by women (The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone). But the main prize was seen a contest between only two movies. In one corner a safe and conventionally told tale of King George VI and his speech impediment featuring stodgy acting and a fish-eye lens (for the Anglophile and traditionalists out there). And in the other corner was The Social Network, a movie which prophetically exegeted the hopes and fears of a generation, showing both the exultant highs of possibility that a new era of social networking could bring as well as its terrifying dangers and the crippling isolation. It is a movie that has seemed only more prescient as time has gone on, featuring one of the smartest screenplays ever made, and a groundbreaking soundtrack. The choice was so clear between honouring the Academy’s past and embracing its potential future. It’s no wonder they chose the way they did.
Should Have Won: The Social Network
4. SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE dir. John Madden
Other Nominees: Elizabeth; Life is Beautiful; Saving Private Ryan; The Thin Red Line
Not Nominated: The Big Lebowski; Gods and Monsters; Rushmore; A Simple Plan; The Truman Show
The choice of the 1998 Academy Best Picture award came down to two movies: Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan. The former is a pleasant and well-told period romantic comedy about, as the title might suggest, an imaginary tale of William Shakespeare falling in love with a lady who disguises herself as a man to get into his theatre company. There is nothing wrong with the movie save for its lack of innovative ambition in storytelling. But in Saving Private Ryan we have a true event movie that did nothing short of revolutionize how war movies would get told from then on. The level of attention of realism that Steven Spielberg brought to the proceedings and the pure visceral power of the movie should have been more than enough to bring home the Oscar. And the result would’ve been routine except that standing in Shakespeare‘s corner was none other than mega-bully producer Harvey Weinstein whose exploits in strong-arming the Academy through his aggressive campaigning is infamous (to say nothing of the other much, much more serious things he has become infamous for recently). In other words, Shakespeare in Love’s win over the much more deserving Saving Private Ryan stands as testament that at some level, the award can be bought. And that is why the movie lands so high on this list despite its obvious merits.
Should Have Won: Saving Private Ryan
3. DRIVING MISS DAISY dir. Bruce Beresford
Other Nominees: Born on the Fourth of July; Dead Poets Society; Field of Dreams; My Left Foot
Not Nominated: Henry V; Crime and Misdemeanors; Do the Right Thing; sex, lies, and videotape
Here many of the cardinal sins that led to previous big Oscar mistakes come together for disastrous results. Driving Miss Daisy is a tiny, tiny middle-brow picture that on the surface seems like a progressive choice but is in actuality much more status quo than the Academy would like to believe. In the meantime the movie is surrounded by much better choices. In Dead Poets Society and My Left Foot you have arguably much better middle-brow movies that have endured. Meanwhile in Born on the Fourth of July you have a powerful movie on the effect of the Vietnam War featuring one of Tom Cruise’s best performances of all time. But arguably the best movie of the year didn’t even make the nominations as Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing which confronted race in America is a revolutionary and incisive way. But naturally the Academy whiffed on a chance to elevate a minority director (for the first time) and indicate that they were an organization remotely in touch with reality.
Should Have Won: Do The Right Thing
2. CRASH dir. Paul Haggis (2005 Academy Awards)
Other Nominees: Brokeback Mountain; Capote; Good Night and Good Luck; Munich
Not Nominated: The Constant Gardener; A History of Killing; The New World; Syriana; Walk the Line
Take a good hard look at all the other nominees and all the movies that were not nominated. And know that any one of those would have been a better choice that the insipid Crash. It’s take on racial politics and culture in Los Angeles is about as subtle as a freshman high schoolers take on the same subject. It is filled with manipulative sentimentality, peddles in easy and pat solutions, and for a movie with a seemingly progressive message seems to engage in every single racial and cultural stereotype possible. It is simply a bad movie. And the fact that an Academy of mostly older white men decided to bestow the Best Picture award to this movie instead of to the infinitely-superior-in-every-way Brokeback Mountains stinks of the highest homophobia possible. Crash has no business being anywhere near the conversation for the best film of the year, and its award is truly one of the great black stains against the notion that the Academy is either a purveyor of good taste or a judge of great art. The only great comfort is that the passage of time has only made this horrific mistake all the more clear.
Should Have Won: Brokeback Mountain
1. GIGI dir. Vincente Minnelli (1958 Academy Awards)
Other Nominees: Auntie Mame; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; The Defiant Ones; Separate Tables
Not Nominated: Touch of Evil; Vertigo
Admittedly, it is going to take a lot to earn top place on this (dis)honourable list. But of all the mistakes the Academy has ever committed, none has ever been as bad as awarding the Best Picture to Gigi, a much creepier retread of the same chauvinistic themes of My Fair Lady but also more forgettable. In my opinion is the worst Best Picture winner, but none of its fellow nominees are that much better either with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof being the best of a mediocre bunch. But the true egregiousness of Gigi‘s selection is that sitting outside of the nominations in none other than Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the current consensus best movie ever made (at least according to the authoritative Sight and Sound magazine 2012 poll). It’s true that Vertigo was not well-received when it first came out and has grown in esteem as time has gone on, but that simply makes it more absurd that the title “Best Picture of the Year” gets bestowed to a movie when it is barely a year old at best. Gigi’s win illustrates the fundamental flaw at the heart of the Academy Awards which is that it is impossible to have any perspective of the greatness (or lack of) of a piece of art without a good chunk of time in between. But because there is no way that the Academy ever reneges on putting more distance between a film’s release and awarding it, it simply ensures that every year there will always be a shot for them to make another egregious mistake for us to endlessly complain about.
Should Have Won: Vertigo