By John H. Foote
So often through the history of the cinema, and the connection to the Academy of Arts and Sciences, wildly over appreciated films are nominated for and often win the Best Picture award, in addition to many other prizes. If you study closely the nominees and winners of each year right back to the beginning, you will find many films that caught the imagination of the public and/or critics for a short time but it was often enough to get them to the winner’s circle where that coveted little man awaits them. Within a year, they are forgotten or the Academy is red-faced with shame about voting the film the winner.
One year after Gandhi (1982) roared to eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director, many members announced they had made a grave error not awarding the Oscar to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Steven Spielberg. How right they were, but they were not, are not alone.
What forever puzzles me is how such films manage to win? In some cases, they become a flavour of the moment, but that does not make them the year’s best. And what about the truly great films that are passed over in favour of these films?
Below are the 10 most asinine Best Picture winners, films that simply did not deserve the prize in light of the films it was nominated against, or because the film simply lacked that feeling of being for the ages, which is what a Best Picture winner should be.
Now in fairness, the Academy often gets it right, there are many deserving winners through it history. This is about those ten that were not deserving. At all.
15. BRAVEHEART (1995)
Let me be clear, I like this film, I admire what Mel Gibson did with it. His performance, his direction, the battle sequences, it is a magnificent creation, but really, Best Picture? The story of Scottish independence warrior William Wallace makes for a bloody good, though a bloody good film, but in no way was this the year’s best and, in truth, 1995 was a pretty good year for movies. Gibson won I think for not screwing it up, for making an expensive epic that was not all that bad. He has made greater films, The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) and not been nominated for either. Both are works of art.
BETTER CHOICES: APOLLO 13, TOY STORY, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, DEAD MAN WALKING, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, GET SHORTY, THE USUAL SUSPECTS.
14. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965)
Sorry, Alan. I understand why the film won, it was a massive hit with audiences, though critics crucified it, and it was pure, simply human beauty. The film spoke of everything mankind should be, not considering what they are. Directed by Robert Wise, who had won an Oscar for West Side Story (1961), the film benefited from a wonderful performance from Julie Andrews who should have won her second Oscar for her work here. Too sickening sweet for me, I mean you can feel the cavities forming as this sugary work unfolds. And only in a film like this would the Nazis not be evil, just kind of nasty.
BETTER CHOICE: DR. ZHIVAGO
13. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)
After seeing the film for the first time at TIFF I liked it, it was fast paced, interesting, but then critics lost their minds and hailed it as though it were the second coming of cinema. Wildy original? Hardly. Takes brilliance to another level? Seriously? I mean freaking seriously? A classic romantic comedy exists on three rules: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. This film is chock full of comedy, but is also an intense, nightmarish drama about living in the mean streets of Mumbai. Set against the backdrop of a popular game show, which provides much of the comedy and irony, it does have its moments and is nicely acted and directed, but never will I believe this was the year’s best film. There were several better choices.
BETTER CHOICES: THE DARK KNIGHT, MILK, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, WALL-E, THE WRESTLER, DOUBT, THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
12. CHICAGO (2002)
It had been a long time, 1968 to be exact, that a musical had won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but when Rob Marshall unveiled his film version of Chicago, there was little doubt the film was going to go all the way. Miramax had two major films vying for the Oscar that year, Martin Scorsese’s ambitious, flawed Gangs of New York, and Chicago. The moment Chicago was screened for Harvey Weinstein he put all his money behind the musical, quite forgetting Scorsese even had a film. It worked, as the film took six Academy Awards including Best Picture, and Marshall won the coveted the Directors Guild of America as Best Director. Good film, some fine performances, but not one for the ages.
BETTER CHOICES: FAR FROM HEAVEN, THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS, ABOUT SCHMIDT
11. GOING MY WAY (1944)
Sickly sentimental drivel with Bing Crosby playing a version of himself, the version his massive ego must have admired best in what became a box office hit. Much loved in its time, it was so admired it collected the Oscar for Best Picture, Actor (Crosby) and Best Director while a single better film went unrewarded. Billy Wilder’s stunning film noir Double Indemnity (1944) was a subtle masterpiece, perfect in every way. How, how, how did it lose to this?????
BETTER CHOICE: Hell, only choice, DOUBLE INDEMNITY
10. AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)
Over A Streetcar Named Desire? No chance, no way. The film that altered and revolutionized the art of acting was by far the year’s best film and remains one of the greatest films to emerge from the fifties should have won the lions share of Oscars that year. Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Score, Black & White Cinematography, Black and White Cinematography and Film Editing. No contest. But Hollywood loves them a musical. Odd that perhaps the greatest of all time, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), was not even nominated the following year. One thing I do admire about An American in Paris (1951) is that dance becomes a language within the film. But better than A Streetcar Named Desire?? Never.
BETTER CHOICE: A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE
9. CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981)
Like the Olympic runners they depict in the film, this little film came out of nowhere to win Best Picture, snatching the glory from Reds, Raiders of the Lost Ark or On Golden Pond. Directed by Brit Hugh Hudson it dealt with the 1924 Olympic runner who would refuse to run for his country because the race was to happen on the Sabbath. His religious beliefs demanded he not run, so he refused to run the biggest race of his life. Warren Beatty’s brilliant film Reds was the movie everyone had pegged to win Best Picture, and sure enough, Beatty won Best Director, richly deserved. There was support for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it looked liked Reds year. Then in a stunning, however undeserving move, this film sprinted to victory. Beatty and Reds were robbed.
BETTER CHOICES: REDS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, BODY HEAT, RAGTIME
8. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)
Less a movie than a roadshow series of location postcards based very loosely on the book. To be clear, this is not the Jackie Chan version, which frankly I prefer. Directed by Michael Anderson, produced by showman Michael Todd just months before his death, the film was one of those all-star cast fiascoes where you spend most of the time spotting the stars. David Niven starred and gave a typical Niven performance, the proper English gentleman who knows it all. How did this defeat The Ten Commandments, or Giant, or the not nominated best film of the year The Searchers? If Hollywood wanted to honour Demille this was the year to do it with his massive retelling of the story of Moses. It only feels like 80 days while watching the film, and trust me it does end. Mercifully.
BETTER CHOICES: THE SEARCHERS, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, LUST FOR LIFE
7. HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)
A very fine film, but really a stronger choice than Citizen Kane? Not in a million years was this the best film of the year because Kane ruled, period. Sweet and sentimental, set in a Welsh mining town, it is well acted, beautifully shot, but next to the genius of Citizen Kane, ordinary. Citizen Kane changed only everything about cinema and film-making, its 24-year-old director a wunderkind who took the business by storm. But the massive ego of Orson Welles would be his undoing and he never achieved such heights again. Bold, brash, he makes his film with utter confidence and acts the part of Kane with staggering realism, aging from 20 to 80 and never stepping wrong. While How Green Was My Valley was gradually forgotten, Citizen Kane towers still.
BETTER CHOICE: only one, CITIZEN KANE
6. SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)
Yes, it is a beautifully written, directed comedic love story that is also a backstage comedy and farce about the very early days of English theatre. The love story sees young Will Shakespeare falling for a noblewoman, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, who wants to act and does, though she must pretend to be a man. She falls in love with Shakespeare, though promised to another man, causing all sorts of trouble as he is writing and producing Romeo and Juliet. The love he has for this young woman will directly impact how he writes his play, and how they act it. Paltrow won an Oscar, this being before her days of being an entitled, pretentious ass. How does another film win Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Sound Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Director BUT NOT win Best Picture?? Ask the Academy because that was the fate of the far more deserving film, Saving Private Ryan (1998). Ask yourself this, today, twenty years later, which film is best remembered?
BETTER CHOICE: SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
5. CRASH (2005)
The stunned look on presenter Jack Nicholson’s face said it all when he opened the envelope to reveal that Crash had bested Brokeback Mountain as the years best film. Horror? Shock? Bewildered? What? I remember screaming out loud at the injustice, outraged that the homophobia that grips Hollywood had taken the prize away from a brilliant, deserving work of art. Crash was an interesting, often moving series of stories set in Los Angeles over a couple of days, the characters often interconnected by the stories. The acting was very good, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, Terence Howard, Sandra Bullock and especially Michael Pena, do terrific work. But the film feels forever like a TV movie, a network TV film. Paul Haggis beats us over the head with the messages within, racism is wrong, all racism. The weakest of the five nominated films and King Kong (2005) should have had its spot.
BETTER CHOICES: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, KING KONG, CAPOTE
4. ROCKY (1976)
Consider the films Rocky bested for Best Picture. All the President’s Men, Network and Taxi Driver, each among the very best of the decade, each a film for the ages. There are arguments for all three to win, but for Rocky? The million to one shot of the story within the film spilled out into real life and when the night was over, Rocky had gone the distance to win the top prize. It would bring an era of feel-good movies, illuminating the dark cinema that had preceded it, and for a year Sylvester Stallone was declared the next Brando…until his next film when his limitations as an actor became woefully apparent. There is much to like in Rocky, very much a love story, cliched without being cliched and he does not win the fight, but he gets the girl and finds happiness. But a better film than any of the three aforementioned? Not a chance.
BETTER CHOICES: ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN, NETWORK, TAXI DRIVER
3. GANDHI (1982)
Gandhi’s greatest hits shamed the Academy into giving it eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor and Director. I have nothing but admiration for what the Mahatma accomplished with his non-violence campaign, but it felt like at any moment he might walk on water as a demonstration of his being sent from the heavens. He speaks in platitudes, as though a tribe of writers follows him around scribbling down answers that are for the ages. And so much is left out about him, his treatment of his wife, the abuse, the sleeping with two teen aged girls to test his celibacy, there was much to not like about the man. Show us that!! Humanize him! Kingsley was great but he was not playing a person, he was playing it, a thing, a being. Was he really like this? As though every word out of his mouth was a profound quote?
BETTER CHOICES: E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, TOOTSIE
2. THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996)
The first press screening, I sat through this film in utter agony, as though I was being tortured slowly, which turns out I was. During the climactic scene in the cave I wanted to scream, “Just die for Gods sakes!! Die so we can end this nightmare!” I concede it is beautifully filmed, the cinematography is stunning in its beauty, but my God the story is as slow as a camel wandering through the desert without a rider. Agony. And a love story must have a couple with sparks, they must have heat between them. The chemistry between Ralph Fiennes and Kristen Scott Thomas would freeze water, it is nonexistent in every way. How it won nine Academy Awards remains one of the greatest horror shows in Academy history. It is today as forgotten as the desert sands blowing past on a windy day.
BETTER CHOICES: TRAINSPOTTING, THE CRUCIBLE, FARGO
1. THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952)
Cecil B. Demille’s huge soap opera set under and within the lives of circus performers is easily the most undeserving Best Picture winner of all time. Such an ordinary film, and considering it was up against High Noon (1952), The Quiet Man (1952) and the not nominated Singin’ in the Rain (1952) simply makes it all the more ridiculous. Yes, we get a great look behind the scenes of the massive circus, and the huge job of moving from town to town for shows, but the stories within are downright silly. Love affairs, jealousy, egos, the balancing of said egos, a killer hiding from the police, a huge train wreck, Demille just piled it on until it all became downright stupid. In honouring the film, they were trying to honour Demille, one of the true pioneers of cinema. Perhaps they should have waited four years to honour him for a more worthy film, The Ten Commandments (1956) on which his efforts to direct were quite astounding.
BETTER CHOICES: THE QUIET MAN, HIGH NOON, SINGIN IN THE RAIN
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.