Time is the harshest critic. Just look at some of the movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. There are plenty of titles there that have been pretty much forgotten by their reviewers and audiences alike, despite being relatively new. And wait till you see some of the classics that lost to these forgotten Best Pictures!
Since 1929, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been handing out annual awards to some of the best movies out there in recognition of their artistic merit. However, there have been some pretty questionable choices by the Academy throughout its history.
In our list of 15 Academy Award-winning movies you already forgot, we look into some of the recent (and in several cases, not-so-recent) movies that came out and won a bunch of awards only to be promptly forgotten, while the runners up for those years have stood the test of time.
15. The Hurt Locker (2009)
At the 82nd Academy Awards, two movies led the nominations: Kathryn Bigelow’s low-budget war drama The Hurt Locker and and her ex-husband James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster Avatar. Both received nine nominations. By the end of the evening, Avatar won a mere two Academy Awards in technical categories, while The Hurt Locker won six, including Best Picture and the Best Original Screenplay (for Mark Boal). Bigelow herself won the award for Best Director, thus becoming the first woman in history to win in this category. It was a story worthy of an Academy-Award winning movie.
Looking back, the Academy could have easily awarded Best Picture to almost any of the other nominees in that category. Neill Blomkamp was nominated for his sci-fi movie District 9, Quentin Tarantino for Inglourious Basterds, and the Coen brothers for their dramedy A Serious Man. Although a fine movie on its own, almost a decade later The Hurt Locker has been surpassed not just by other movies but by Bigelow’s own Zero Dark Thirty.
14. The Artist (2011)
Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is a charming anachronism: a black and white silent film made in 2011. It tells the tale of a 1920s silent movie star who finds himself out of work as the talkies become increasingly popular. The movie’s leads are played with humor and grace by Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo. Academy voters loved The Artist– it won five awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Hazanavicius), and Best Actor in a Leading Role (for Dujardin).
The Artist is undoubtedly charming, but there were far more interesting movies released in 2011. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn made his American debut with a neo-noir thriller Drive, starring Ryan Gosling. Tomas Alfredson directed Cold War espionage thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, filled with acting heavyweights like Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Gary Oldman and the future Mad Max, Tom Hardy. Not to mention, Terrence Malick released his insanely ambitious Tree of Life that year.
13. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
John Madden’s romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love follows Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) as he struggles with actors, financiers, critics, censors, and his own writer’s block. Luckily, he falls in love with a merchant’s daughter (Gwyneth Paltrow) who provides him with much-needed inspiration for his new play, Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare in Love was nominated for thirteen Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture, Best Actress (for Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (for Judi Dench), and Best Original Screenplay (written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman).
Despite all of its charms, decades later Shakespeare in Love seems a bit trite, at least compared to some of the other 1998 Best Picture nominees, like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. And then there’s Peter Weir’s surreal comedy-drama The Truman Show,which wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture despite (or because of) its prescient glimpse into our current age of instant celebrities, vapid reality shows, and omnipresent surveillance.
12. The King’s Speech (2010)
Based on a true story, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech is a fairly straightforward biographical drama that follows Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) as he helps King George VI (Colin Firth) overcome his stutter. The King’s Speech was a critical and commercial success, earning over $400 million at the box office. It got nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Colin Firth), and Best Original Screenplay (by David Seidler). And yet, despite all of these awards and the movie’s ridiculously talented cast (that includes Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce and Timothy Spall), The King’s Speech feels like an afternoon TV movie.
For comparison, The King’s Speech competed for Best Picture against Darren Aronofsky’s gruelling psychological thriller Black Swan, David Fincher’s acerbic masterpiece The Social Network, Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit, and Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Arguably, any of these movies is more memorable than The King’s Speech.
11. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Academy voters love movies about people overcoming their physical and mental disabilities. In 2001, actor and director Ron Howard, best known for his adaptations of Dan Brown novels, made A Beautiful Mind. This biopic tells a story about John Nash (Russell Crowe), a mathematician who managed to win the Nobel Prize for Economics despite suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. A Beautiful Mind was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Howard), and Best Supporting Actress (for Jennifer Connelly).
Despite its success, A Beautiful Mind nowadays seems like a formulaic Oscar bait movie. Some of the other Best Director nominees that year included Ridley Scott for Black Hawk Down, David Lynch for Mulholland Dr., and Robert Altman for Gosford Park. Meanwhile, Antoine Fuqua’s cop drama Training Day was nominated for a mere two Academy Awards. It won a single Academy Award for Denzel Washington as Best Actor. At least Fuqua got to direct The Magnificent Seven remake.
10. Chicago (2002)
Looking back, it’s somewhat baffling that Rob Marshall’s Chicago won so many Academy Awards. Based on a satirical stage musical, Chicago stars Richard Gere, Renée Zellweger, and Catherine Zeta-Jones in a story about two murderesses in Prohibition-era Chicago as they attempt to achieve fame on stage through notoriety. Chicago was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won six. Chicago thus became the first musical to win Best Picture since the 1968 musical Oliver! (That movie, by the way, is also on our list.)
Chicago beat other nominees for Best Picture, including Roman Polanski’s harrowing WWII drama The Pianist, starring Adrien Brody, and Martin Scorsese’s historical epic Gangs of New York. Spike Jonze’s wonderful, surreal meta-film Adaptation, based on a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. Same for Thomas Paul Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, an unsettling blend of drama, comedy, and even psychological horror that features a surprisingly nuanced performance by Adam Sandler, of all people.
9. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Directed by Bruce Beresford and based on a stage play by Alfred Uhry, Driving Miss Daisy is a comedy-drama exploring the relationship between Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy), a white retired school teacher, and her black chauffeur, Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman). Its message that African-Americans are human beings too apparently impressed the Academy so much that it awarded Driving Miss Daisy four Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress (for Tandy).
25 years later, it seems ridiculous that the Academy snubbed nominees like Born on the Fourth of July, one of the finest movies in Oliver Stone’s career. Stone at least received an Academy Award for Best Director, which cannot be said for Peter Weir, whose Dead Poets Society is still widely watched today. To add insult to injury, 1989 saw the release of a drama that did a far better job of capturing the complex contemporary state of race relations in the US– Spike Lee’s electrifying Do the Right Thing.
8. Dances With Wolves (1990)
Almost as radical as Driving Miss Daisy, Dances With Wolves is a 1990 western epic that tried to teach the world that the 19th century Native Americans were people too. And who better to embody their plight than a white US Cavalry officer? The lead was played by Kevin Costner, who also directed and co-produced the movie. Despite its preachy tone, historical inaccuracies, and no small amount of hypocrisy, Dances With Wolves earned more than $400 million at the box office. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won seven, including those for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (by Michael Blake).
By favoring Costner’s epic, Academy snubbed Martin Scorsese’s gangster biopic Goodfellas, starring Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci. Widely considered to be one of Scorsese’s best movies, Goodfellas was nominated for six Academy Awards, but won only for the Best Actor in a Supporting Role (for Pesci). Goodfellas withstood the test of time, while Dances With Wolves pretty much disappeared from the cultural radar, thus proving its detractors right.
7. Crash (2004)
Written, directed, and co-produced by Paul Haggis, Crash is a social drama exploring racial tensions in modern-day Los Angeles. It’s also a huge mess of a movie that’s simultaneously sanctimonious and unintentionally offensive. Its ensemble cast includes Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Terrence Howard, Thandie Newton, and Ryan Phillippe. With its preachy, yet bland message of tolerance, Crash was practically designed to win Academy Awards. It was nominated for six awards and won Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing.
2004 was a year of politically-charged movies, most of which were better than Crash. Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana attempted to explore the political, economic, and moral quagmire of Middle East. George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck tackled the radicalization of the American political discourse through a story about the 1950s political witch hunts. The best by far, though, was Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, a deeply humane story of two men (played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal) falling in love.
6. The English Patient (1996)
The real-life László Almásy led an interesting life. This Hungarian nobleman fought in WWI, participated in a failed coup d’etat, competed in car races, flew airplanes, explored the Sahara desert, and spied for the Nazis. Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient successfully trades all this excitement for a plodding romance between a heavily fictionalized version of Almásy (Ralph Fiennes) and a beautiful Englishwoman (Kristin Scott Thomas) in pre-WWII Egypt. The English Patient was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won nine, including Best Picture and Best Director.
As is often the case, the Academy awarded crowd-pleasing sentimentality over smarter, meaner movies that came out the same year. Ethan and Joel Coen competed for Best Picture with their critically-acclaimed noir comedy Fargo that inspired the anthology TV series on FX. 1996 was also the year of Trainspotting, a movie that introduced us to director Danny Boyle and actor Ewan McGregor. These are the movies people still talk about decades later. The English Patient? Not so much.
5. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Why mention an old British sports drama that’s mostly remembered for its title theme by Vangelis? Well, in 1981 Chariots of Fire won the Academy Award for Best Picture while competing against Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yes, the first Indiana Jones movie was actually nominated for Best Picture. And then, unfortunately, one of the best action adventure movies ever made lost to a film about two upper-class British athletes (played by Ben Cross and Ian Charleson) competing at the 1924 Paris Olympics.
Mind you, there’s nothing really wrong with Chariots of Fire. The British Film Institute ranked it 19th on its list of 100 Top British films. However, one can’t help but imagine a world in which a 1981 Best Picture winner features young Harrison Ford as a bullwhip-wielding archeologist who punches Nazis for two hours. Think about that for a moment. Or better yet, rewatch Raiders of the Lost Ark!
4. Gandhi (1982)
Gandhi is a historical biographical epic about Mahatma Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) and his struggle to liberate India from British rule. It’s a fine movie to be sure, yet despite of all of its good intentions, Gandhi feels as dry and dull as a history lecture. However, Gandhi was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won eight of them, including Best Picture, Best Director (for Richard Attenborough), and Best Actor (for Kingsley).
30 years later, Gandhi has been pretty much forgotten. The same cannot be said about some of the other nominees at the 55th Academy Awards. This was the year featuring not one, but two popular gender-bending comedies: Tootsie, starring Dustin Hoffmann, Teri Garr, and Jessica Lange, as well as the British-American musical comedy Victor/Victoria, starring Julie Andrews and James Garner. This was also the year that Steven Spielberg released his sci-fi classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a major inspiration for the TV series Stranger Things.
3. Out of Africa (1985)
Yet another dull, inoffensive period drama on our list, Out of Africa was based on a autobiographical novel by Karen Blixen. Its story follows Blixen (Meryl Streep) as she settles on a plantation in Kenya around 1920s with her philandering husband, only to fall in love with a dashing big game hunter, Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford). Directed by Sydney Pollack, Out of Africa was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director.
While Out of Africa still looks amazing, it’s hard to bear its glacial pace and excessive length. For comparison, this was the same year that Australian director Peter Weir got nominated for his first American movie, the crime thriller Witness, featuring Harrison Ford. Veteran filmmaker John Huston directed comedy Prizzi’s Honor, starring Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, and his daughter Anjelica Huston (who won an Academy Award for her performance),. Finally, the great Akira Kurosawa adapted William Shakespeare’s King Lear into Ran, a blood-soaked epic set in medieval Japan.
2. Oliver! (1968)
Oliver! is a British musical drama adapted from a stage musical by Lionel Bart that was, in turn, based on the classic novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. The movie was directed by Carol Reed, a British director best known for his 1949 noir thriller The Third Man. In 1968, Oliver! was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won six, including Best Picture and Best Director. And yet, the movie is pretty much forgotten today.
Some of the finest movies that came out in 1968 not only lost to Oliver!, but weren’t even nominated for Best Picture. One of them was Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a science fiction masterwork that regularly tops the lists of the best sci-fi movies ever made. Another snubbed genre classic is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, an adaptation of a psychological horror novel by Ira Levin. And yet another one: The Producers, directorial debut of Mel Brooks, who later made other classic comedies like Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.
1. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
In the 1950s, the movie industry found itself threatened by the new medium– television. As more and more people skipped movie theaters and watched TV instead, Hollywood responded the same way it reacted to the rise of the internet today: by producing big budget spectacles that can only be fully experienced in cinemas. One of them was Around the World in 80 Days, an adaptation of a Jules Verne novel that featured David Niven, Shirley MacLaine, and about million cameos from the likes of Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, and Buster Keaton. The Academy gave it five awards, including Best Picture.
But the Academy was so hopelessly out-of-touch that some of the best movies made that year were barely recognized. Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai was nominated in two technical categories. The Ladykillers, one of the finest British black comedies, received a single nomination for Original Screenplay… and lost. Federico Fellini’s La Strada at least won an award for Best Foreign Film, but John Ford’s western Searchers-– one of the finest American movies ever made– failed to be nominated at all.
What do you think about our list of forgotten Best Pictures? Do you have suggestions of your own? Share your thoughts with the others in the comments below!