The Academy Awards have always been a lighting rod for controversy. As with anything as subjective as cinema, opinions will always vary as to who the true winner should be. With the 86th Academy awards to air tomorrow night, I’ve thrown together my list of the top five worst best picture winners in the history of award. While I do not believe these are outright awful films, they each represent a time when I believe the Academy got it wrong.
While there have been many missteps in the Academy’s history, the first time the award for best picture went to the absolute wrong film would most certainly have to be in 1941 when How Green Was My Valley was voted over Citizen Kane. The John Ford film about a Welsh mining family is by no means terrible but when held up against the incredibly innovative film by Orson Welles, the drama seems overly maudlin and dry. In the years since How Green Was My Valley was released, the drama has simply become better known for the fact that it beat Citizen Kane or that it is a favourite of TV’s Dr. Frasier Crane than anything found in sentimental working-class film. Citizen Kane meanwhile is one of the most celebrated films of all time and was Sight & Sound’s ‘Greatest Film Ever Made’ from 1962 until 2012 when it was replaced by Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
In 1968, the Academy Awards would make what I believe to be their worst mistake in my top five when they neglected to nominate Stanley Kubrick’s ground-breaking 2001: A Space Odyssey and in favour awarded Carol Reed’s Oliver! the best picture prize. While Reed’s film is a tremendous achievement, the musical has not anywhere near the same impact as the science fiction film by Kubrick. With each subsequent year, 2001: A Space Odyssey remains as the one of the benchmarks by which most science fiction films as measured and continues to captivated audiences nearly fifty years since its initial release.Oliver! on the other hand appears dated when even compared to other musicals of the era like Singin’ In The Rain and West Side Story.
The Academy awards notoriously chose a slew of stale dramas in the early 1980s that have since been practically forgotten from public consciousness while many contemporary counterparts are still discussed in many circles as being pinnacles of cinema. To be honest, it became too difficult to chose between Ordinary People’s questionable victory over Scorsese’s phenomenal Raging Bull, Chariots Of Fire prize in favour of Spielberg’s spectacular Raiders Of The Lost Ark or the tediously slow Gandhi’s win over anything else. So instead my focus shifts to the easiest of targets, Shakespeare In Love. Up against Steven Spielberg’s definitive World War II epic Saving Private Ryan, Miramax president Harvey Weinstein had been infamously reported to campaigning the light-hearted period romantic comedy in questionable ways come Oscar season in 1998. While Shakespeare In Love is not an unwatchable slog, Saving Private Ryan’s opening scene on the beaches of Normandy has gone down as one of the most horrifically accurate portrayals of war ever seen on the big screen and could have been awarded the best picture prize based purely off the strength of that sequence alone.
In 2005, the Academy awards had the opportunity to recognize a romantic heart-wrenching masterpiece that will be held up as the one of best of the decade. Instead they chose Crash. The safe contrived drama about racism was laughably out of touch when first released and only grows more so with each passing year while Ang Lee’s remarkable Brokeback Mountain continues to shine as a brutally honest look at love. If the content of an affair between two men was too risqué for some Academy members, they also had the possibly of one of Steven Spielberg finest efforts in Munich. Even the other two nominees, Capote and Good Night And Good Luck, feel more deserving than the what is essentially a well-performed movie-of-the-week.
The final selection on my top five worst Academy award best picture winners is 2010’s The King’s Speech. The predictable crowd-pleaser was picked in favour of some truly excellent and ground-breaking films. The Social Network was heralded one of the defining films of this new generation upon release and looks more relevant every day as the world only becomes further invested in things like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Films like The Fighter, Toy Story 3, Black Swan, and 127 Hours have also become benchmarks of their respective genres while The King’s Speech remains as nothing more than a well executed period piece that will be forgotten in time. Even Christopher Nolan’s big budget science fiction film Inception is far more worthy of the award than the period piece for its clever mix of summer tentpole expectations and high-minded autuer subtext.
My choices for the top five worst best picture Academy award winners are certainly far from definitive and are simply the opinion of a lifelong film lover. In truth, most every film nominated for an Academy award is far from deserving any title of “the worst” but that is what makes the oscar season exciting. The 86th Academy Awards is sure to spark many discussions in subsequent years over who really deserved the prize when it airs tomorrow night.
Editorial By Benjamin Murray