Everyone knows The Oscars don’t necessarily pick the very best films every year. They pick the ones they’re told to pick. But even then, whether it’s five nominated pictures, ten, or somewhere in between – as is the case with this year’s eight nominees – sometimes the correct answer is right there in front of them! They get it right more often than not, at least in the vacuum of their nominees and which one should win, but on occasion they get it wrong. Very wrong.
Rather than selecting the truest Best Picture they can, the Academy is sometimes manipulated by lobbying, politics, and a fear to go out on a limb and pick a film that will, in a few years, be considered the best of the bunch. Here are a dozen times The Oscars missed the mark with their Best Picture selection:
11. American Beauty beats The Insider – Honestly, The Insider never had a chance up against the box-office and critical power of American Beauty. Sam Mendes’s film was something entirely new and fresh in 1999, pre 9/11, when suburban malaise had yet to be exploited into oblivion with imitators. These days, it rings false and feels ancient. The Insider has only improved with every passing year, and every subsequent viewing. It is antiquated in a sense as well, but in an important way, telling the tale of a type of journalism that has passed us by.
10. Dances with Wolves beats Goodfellas – I’m one to defend Dances With Wolves for what it is. Kevin Costner’s magnum opus is a wonderful Western generating great emotion, fantastic visuals, and solid performances, albeit ham-fisted performances at times. It’s “Oscar bait,” and the backlash makes sense… because it isn’t Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s third masterpiece in a decade and a half transcends film, it vaults into that rare air of cultural artifact. But it was much too edgy, to violent, and too frightening for Academy voters, who opted to take the bait instead.
9. The King’s Speech beats The Field – Tom Hooper’s claustrophobic, murky story was Oscar bait of the highest order in 2010. Colin Firth deserved his win for Best Actor, but the film as a whole? Forgettable. Especially when it’s compared to David Fincher’s The Social Network (which was probably the right choice), Darren Aronofsky’s seminal thriller Black Swan, and Christopher Nolan’s Inception. But none of these were safe enough for the Academy, so they went with the period picture about a king with a stutter. Yawn.
8. A Beautiful Mind beats In The Bedroom – The early 2000s were a weird time for Hollywood. With a writer’s strike significantly weakening the quality of the product for a few years, 2002’s list of nominees was considerably thin. In The Bedroom, Todd Field’s tough, captivating family drama, is head and shoulders above the list of nominees. But it was much too dark and upsetting, unlike the inspirationally saccharine Ron Howard doc-drama – which was less true than false – A Beautiful Mind.
7. Driving Miss Daisy beats The Field – This is where things get truly offensive. Driving Miss Daisy is utterly forgettable drivel, not even deserving of its nomination let alone a win. Any of the other four nominees are more deserving, so much so that it’s clear politics were in play. Consider Dead Poet’s Society, Born on The Fourth of July, My Left Foot, and Field of Dreams. Of these five, Driving Miss Daisy is obviously the most forgettable.
6. The English Patient beats Fargo – We should have all listened to the wisdom of Elaine on Seinfeld. The English Patient is a stodgy slog of a film, a faberge egg – beautiful but hollow. On the other hand, Fargo is one of The Coen Brothers’ greatest achievements in a career full of greats. The “sorta-true” tale of crime and corruption on the frozen tundra of North Dakota is a masterpiece of mood, humor, and pathos. The English Patient is absolutely forgotten these days.
5. Forrest Gump beats Shawshank Redemption/Pulp Fiction – At the time, Forrest Gump had more momentum than any movie ever. It was a crowd pleaser, a box-office smash, a 20th-century American history book come to life. Tom Hanks was a shoe in. Shawshank Redemption, on the other hand, was a little seen drama a the time that history has since appreciated. There was also this small indie called Pulp Fiction that reshaped cinema for decades. But it was much too edgy at the time. Forrest Gump has not improved with age.
4. How Green Was My Valley beats Citizen Kane – In one of the earliest instances of the Academy being scared of new, fresh material, they chose a film about a small town ravaged by coal miner’s strikes. It was a heavy-hitter for 1941, early Oscar bait. But Citizen Kane will find its way near the top of pretty much any best-of-all-time lists. It reshaped the way films were shot, it brought in wonderful new techniques, and it captured the mad genius of a young Orson Welles.
3. Shakespeare in Love beats Saving Private Ryan – One of the most gross miscalculations of The Oscars came thanks to the power of Harvey Weinstein. The producer lobbied heavily for Shakespeare in Love, a thankless, forgettable period comedy that I honestly can’t remember despite seeing it two or three times. On the other end of the spectrum is Steven Spielberg’s WWII masterpiece, able to tell a small human story in the midst of a sprawling moment of heroism in American culture. It’s clear which film has stood the test of time, and this upset is one of the moments when Oscar officially became political to its core.
2. Crash beats Brokeback Mountain – In 2005, The Oscars had a moment, and squandered it. It was a time when homophobia was falling out of favor with culture in the country, and Ang Lee’s gorgeous romance would have gone a long way to shed the stigma of the 90s. Instead, Weinstein struck again, and Paul Haggis’s abhorrent Magnolia ripoff, complete trash, one of the worst films ever made let alone the worst Best Picture winner, took home the top prize. It transcended embarrassing BP winners, and kept the Academy as a cultural staple stuck in another era.
1. Ordinary People beats Raging Bull – Ordinary People is a fine film, and would be served well as a movie-of-the-week family drama with solid performances. But when was the last time you sat and watched Ordinary People? What is the best scene of the picture? You don’t know, because Robert Redford’s drama has all but disappeared after winning at The Oscars. On the other hand, Martin Scorsese’s ferocious, emotionally-charged, perfect masterpiece, his truest masterpiece, Raging Bull, is arguably one of the two or three best films of the 80s.