The Oscars have always catered to the finest films from a given year, or at least that’s what they’re supposed to do. The Best Picture award is designed to recognize the best film from the previous year, and there are years when the winner seems to be a fair reflection of that. Other times, the winner feels like it shouldn’t even have been nominated. In these years, the winner should sometimes have been another film that was nominated, or maybe a film that was unjustly shut out of the Oscars conversation altogether.
The Oscars give us a set of films to look back on, but it often feels like they give us the wrong set. The Best Picture winners on this list aren’t bad films, necessarily. Some of them are perfectly enjoyable, and well worth your time. As representations of the best from a given year, though, they fall short of the mark, especially when considering what could have been.
Here are 15 Best Picture Winners That Didn't Even Deserve Nominations.
15 Out of Africa
Out of Africa is too long. Even Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are incapable of saving the film from its own incredibly slow pacing, although the pair are undoubtedly charismatic in the central roles. Following a love story between the two, the film takes great advantage of its setting, and manages to create some truly outstanding visuals. Still, these aren’t enough to save the film, which hasn’t developed the best legacy in the years since its initial release.
This year also saw the release of Spielberg’s The Color Purple, which was famously blanked in spite of its incredible 11 nominations. Unfortunately, many of the year’s very best films were completely ignored by the Oscars, including modern classics like Back to the Future and The Breakfast Club. The Academy could have made the edgy choice and nominated these films. Instead, it was what many still believe it to be: outdated, dry, and rather boring.
14 A Beautiful Mind
Telling the story of John Nash, a mathematician who struggled with mental illness, A Beautiful Mind played into many of the cliches that typically come to define an Oscar winner. It’s a biopic about an interesting figure in history, one who struggled with personal and professional demons before triumphing over them. While the film, and Russell Crowe’s performance as Nash are certainly respectable, they were probably undeserving of the top prize, especially in a year when it was nominated alongside the first installment in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Moulin Rouge!
A Beautiful Mind’s story is undoubtedly appealing, but it’s also the kind of consensus choice that often makes the Best Picture winner so boring. If the Academy was really interested in representing the best cinema from the year that was, it would have left A Beautiful Mind off of its list of nominees in favor of something much more interesting like The Royal Tenenbaums or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive.
While Gigi isn’t remembered as a disastrous choice, exactly, it’s still seen as one of the Academy’s mistakes. The film follows a platonic friendship that eventually becomes romantic, and is a whimsical and fun film that is kept afloat by two remarkably charismatic performers. Even though the film had all this working in its favor, history tends to forget that Gigi exists at all, and it certainly isn’t the most iconic film to be released in 1958.
That honor belongs to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is considered the master’s best film, and also one of the greatest ever made. Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil was also released in 1958, but neither of these films was even nominated for the top prize. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also lost out to Gigi, although that film was at least nominated. Although it’s not Gigi’s fault, 1958 will likely go down as one of the worst years in the Academy’s history, largely because of the cinematic masterpieces that they chose to ignore completely.
12 In the Heat of the Night
In the Heat of the Night has the horrible problem of good company. The film, which stars Sidney Poitier as a detective who finds himself in the middle of a murder investigation in a racially prejudiced town, is a perfectly fine detective story that is often guilty of reducing racial insensitivity to simple misunderstanding. In a bad year, it would be a perfectly deserving Best Picture winner. In this particular year, In the Heat of the Night is trounced by much more widely beloved films, some of which were also nominated for Best Picture.
The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, two films which were seen as reinventing the cinematic landscape, were released that year, and either of them would have been incredibly deserving of the top prize. These films broke the mold, and told more interesting stories than the ones mainstream Hollywood had been telling for an entire generation. Of course, 1967 also saw the release of Cool Hand Luke, which wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, but which definitely should have been.
11 Chariots of Fire
Chariots of Fire is likely most remembered for its closing anthem, which is used to usher in the runners and has been endlessly spoofed in the years since the film’s initial release. The film follows a group of runners during the 1924 Olympics as they race for a variety of reasons, including faith and to fight anti-Semitism. While the film works as an inspirational sports story, it isn’t remembered today as a truly great film the way many of its contemporaries were.
Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark was passed over in favor of Chariots of Fire, as were other greats like the massive Reds. Many of the year’s best releases missed out on a nomination, including gritty independent fare like An American Werewolf in London and Das Boot. These films are all more widely remembered today than Chariots of Fire, which may work as a sports movie, but isn’t very good at being much more than that.
10 Around the World in 80 Days
Around the World in 80 Days might be among the least serious films to ever take home the Best Picture prize. Following a man who gets into a series of misadventures as he travels the world in a hot air balloon, the film is known mostly for the great number of celebrity cameos it contains, and for its remarkable silliness. While it’s nice to see a fun film win the top prize, there are few who argue that Around the World in 80 Days was the most deserving of the nominees, or of the films that came out that year.
Nominees like Giant and The Ten Commandments were overlooked, as was The Searchers, another Western ignored by the Academy that went on to become a classic. John Wayne, a legend of the silver screen who starred in The Searchers and many other iconic Westerns, was often overlooked by the Academy, but his name is remembered to this day. Still, The Searchers should probably have taken the top honor.
9 Driving Miss Daisy
Driving Miss Daisy, which tells the story of an African American driver who is hired to drive a racist old woman around is a sweet, but remarkably simple story about the way we keep those who are different from us at arm’s length. While it’s clear that the film is trying to be insightful with regard to its commentary on race, the whole thing ends up feeling a bit strained and uncomfortable, in part because it reduces the issues to something much more simple than what they actually are.
Ultimately, Driving Miss Daisy is a fairly uninteresting film that plays out exactly as you expect it to from the first moments. It’s not so much bad as it is bland. The fact that it beat out more interesting fare like Born on the Fourth of July and Dead Poets Society is fairly shocking, as are the films that were left of the list because of this film’s inclusion, which includes at least one modern classic in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
8 The King's Speech
The King’s Speech is a perfectly fine film. The story of a king who feels insecure in his role because of his stutter may not exactly be relatable, but it’s certainly a fun one to watch unfold. As the king gains confidence and eventually enters his reign with the ability to deliver a speech, there’s an undeniable feeling of uplift, in part because of everything that he’s experienced up until that moment. Still, 2011, the year The King’s Speech won, was filled with films that were more deserving than the film that ultimately took home the gold.
Chief among these was almost certainly The Social Network, the masterful film which followed Mark Zuckerberg in the early days of Facebook. Many critics believed that film was robbed of the top prize, and it will almost certainly be considered a better cinematic achievement in 30 years. The King’s Speech reeks of Oscar bait, and while it’s not a terrible film, there was much more interesting stuff happening in theaters that year.
This star-studded musical certainly had its merits, but it definitely wasn’t an all time great. The Academy often has trouble resisting a shiny, bold musical (see also: La La Land), but their decision to award Chicago is particularly heinous, especially considering the other nominees that year. The Hours and The Pianist were both more widely regarded than Chicago. Alas, they fell victim to the Academy’s tendency to award films that praise the performing arts, which Chicago certainly does.
Although the film, which follows two murderous showgirls on trial, may be remembered for some standout moments and performances, it will ultimately be eclipsed by the other great films that should have beaten it out for a nomination. Steven Spielberg alone had two great films worthy of consideration in 2002 in the form of Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can, which have both been more fondly remembered than Chicago in the years since.
6 How Green Was My Valley
Although How Green Was My Valley isn’t terrible, it’s largely remembered because of the film it beat: Citizen Kane. That film, which is widely regarded as one of the best ever made, was not widely acclaimed upon its release, and, although it was nominated for the top prize, it didn’t ultimately win the award. For its part, How Green Was My Valley follows a family of farmers who try to provide a better life for their children than the one that they have been living.
As moving and interesting as that film is, it definitely didn’t deserve the victory over Citizen Kane, or the many other films it beat out to claim the top prize. In addition to Kane, the Academy also chose this film over The Maltese Falcon and Sergeant York, two films remembered more fondly today by cinema historians. Although it wasn’t nominated for the top prize, Disney’s Dumbo also pushed the envelope of what animation was capable of, and likely deserved its nomination more than How Green Was My Valley.
5 Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump was up against several outstanding films, and it trumped them all in spite of its somewhat saccharine simplicity. Many believe that Pulp Fiction should have taken home the top prize, but there were plenty of deserving films in that year’s crop, and Forrest Gump definitely wasn’t chief among them. While the film’s story about a mentally disabled man who nonetheless has an enormous influence on American history is sweet, it also feels quite simple and the levels of cliche that it contains can often be overwhelming.
Forrest Gump is an interesting example in that, while many believe the film was unworthy of the top prize, they haven’t forgotten it the way some other losers are disregarded by history. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction may be the more widely hailed among film fans, but Forrest Gump certainly has its core group of supporters, even if it may not entirely deserve them.
4 Dances With Wolves
Dances With Wolves is perfectly fine, like most of the entries on this list. Unfortunately, the Oscars are meant to recognize the best of the best, and Dances With Wolves certainly doesn’t qualify in that regard. The film, which follows a Civil War soldier who forms a relationship with Sioux Indians was star Kevin Costner’s directorial debut, and was also fairly popular, especially considering its lengthy runtime.
Perhaps most notably, the film won out over Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which is still widely regarded as one of the best gangster films of all time. Dances With Wolves is widely scorned for its win, and for beating out not just Goodfellas but also other films like Edward Scissorhands and Misery, which weren’t even nominated for the top prize in spite of their widespread acclaim. Ultimately, it seems as though Costner’s directorial debut wasn’t the most deserving film of 1990-- it wasn’t even close.
3 The Greatest Show on Earth
There are few Best Picture winners that are held in as poor esteem as The Greatest Show on Earth, which won the top prize in 1953 over several other more deserving titles. The film follows a group of circus performers as they deal with life inside of the circus, and is widely considered to be both a strange film and a decidedly boring one.
Unfortunately, the Academy wasn’t in the habit of rewarding Westerns, especially in its earliest years. Otherwise, High Noon might have walked away with the top prize. That film is certainly remembered more as an all-time great than the actual winner, as was the truly spectacular Singin’ in the Rain, which was ignored for the top prize and has gone on to be remembered as one of the best films ever made. It just goes to show that, while the Academy names a Best Picture, history often tells a very different story-- one that’s often more correct.
2 Shakespeare in Love
Shakespeare in Love is actually pretty good. It’s a fun riff on Shakespeare that manages to tell a fairly convincing love story. The problem for this little film only comes because its fellow nominees outshone it to such an insane degree. Many entries on this list won over Steven Spielberg, but many believe that Shakespeare in Love’s win over Spielberg’s masterful war film Saving Private Ryan is among the most egregious in Oscar history.
Of course, the comedy also beat out other classic films like The Thin Red Line, which was nominated, and The Truman Show, which wasn’t. Obviously, the Academy is incapable of recognizing every worthy film that comes out in a given year, but, at least in terms of legacy, it seems that Shakespeare in Love will go down as one of their biggest errors. Which is a shame, because it’s an incredibly lovely little movie that got wrongly compared to juggernauts.
Crash is notorious for how undeserving it was of the prize that it ultimately took home. The film tells the story of many lives scattered across Los Angeles, and it earned the Best Picture prize over critical favorite Brokeback Mountain. In fact, the rest of the nominees that year were also much more remarkable than the film that ended up taking home the prize. Brokeback Mountain may have been the most deserving, but the quality of every one of that year’s nominees meant that Crash was truly undeserving of the nomination.
The victory for the film actually brought about a real conversation about the problem of homophobia within the Academy, and, although Crash was meant to tackle the issue of race, it certainly didn’t solve the racial problems that the Academy is still working through today. Unfortunately, Crash’s legacy is to be remembered as one of the most undeserving Best Picture winners in the Academy’s long and storied history of getting it wrong.
Which best picture winner nominee is the least deserving in your eyes? Let us know in the comments!