Film will always be a subjective medium. What films some people consider classics, others sometimes consider the worst films of all time. There really isn’t a set criteria of what a “Best Picture” should be, but we can all agree that sometimes, the Oscars just don’t get it right.
We can usually forgive them on getting Best Acting or Editing wrong, but when it comes to Best Picture, the Academy seems to be off the mark, quite frequently. The voters have the same predictable methods by leaning towards the more sentimental or inspiring films. The following films are not necessarily bad, but they felt more like cheap cop outs rather than true winners.
Here are the 13 Worst Movies to Win Best Picture at the Oscars.
14 Chicago (2002)
We all know how the Academy feels about musicals. With Oliver! and My Fair Lady being Oscar veterans, voters can’t resist a jig or two. Chicago dominated the 2003 Academy Awards with six Oscar wins. Most of the big stars were nominated and it took awards for best set design and costumes.
Chicago focuses two female murderesses, Velma (Catherine Zeta Jones) and Roxie (Renee Zellweger), and their fight for the spotlight and freedom. On stage, it’s a fun time, but once it hit the big screen, the pizzazz wasn’t there. The satirical elements that made the Broadway play so great were immediately overpowered by the sexy and glitzy sets and the horrible singing by big stars who just wanted a paycheck (Richard Gere, anyone?). Zeta Jones may have been fantastic as Velma Kelly, but that doesn’t make the whole film best picture material. This was a mess that not even Billy Flynn could defend.
What Should Have Won: The Pianist, Gangs of New York
13 Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
As far as sappy melodramas go, Kramer vs. Kramer is pretty run of the mill. It focuses mainly on the relationship between a workaholic dad and his son after a divorce tears their family apart. Then a nasty custody battles ensues which illustrates Ted and Joanna’s true characters and how a small child can change that.
There’s nothing overly significant about the film as a whole except for the exceptional performances by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep (for which they rightfully earned Oscars). The sentimentality makes for a nice film to watch once or twice - like a Lifetime film - but it doesn't hold a candle to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
What Should Have Won: Apocalypse Now
12 Ordinary People (1981)
1981 was a particularly raging year for film awards. One of Martin Scorsese’s best films, Raging Bull got snubbed for most of the big awards (but at least Robert De Niro got Best Actor) in favor of a very ordinary film called Ordinary People. The film is about a family trying to mourn and heal after the oldest son dies in a boating accident. The youngest son, Conrad feels survivor’s guilt and PTSD while his mother, Beth, just cares about getting back to normal rather than helping him.
Their Best Picture win shows that voters will often prefer “realistic” family dramas over films that push boundaries. People love to defend this film because they claim that it openly discusses mental illness when it was still taboo to acknowledge. While that may be true, it quickly got buried and now is barely even talked about. Besides that, it plays like a generic TV movie. On the other hand, Raging Bull is a fascinating character study that also showcases another type of mental illness, and has been called the best film of the 80s time and time again.
What Should Have Won: Raging Bull
11 Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Frequently regarded as the worst Best Picture recipient of all time, it’s not entirely clear how Around the World in 80 Days got into the running, let alone how it walked away with the actual award. It most likely had to do with the obscene demands that the production had. They used over 140 sets, 8,552 animals, 74,000 costumes, and over 68,000 extras. This set many records in the film industry (some that haven’t been reached since), but still lacked the spark that the Jules Verne’s novel had. The shallow, predictable comedy beat out epics such as the The Ten Commandments and The King and I. The film was just as long as the other nominees, but relied on pretty backgrounds and shallow caricatures of culture, using cheesy, “ethnic” music and stereotypical costumes to show the distances its main characters travel.
The one positive thing that came from the film was the creation of the cameo role. It features over 40 famous actors, such as Frank Sinatra and Peter Lorre, in small roles for only a scene or two. That’s the only thing that’s remembered about the forgettable winner and even that’s not much to brag about.
What Should Have Won: Ten Commandments, The King and I
10 Dances With Wolves (1990)
1990 was a fantastic year for film. It was the year of Goodfellas, Ghost, and even the infamous Godfather Part III. However, despite having those iconic films in the running for Best Picture, they all lost to Kevin Costner’s mullet. Dances With Wolves stars the actor and director as Lieutenant Dunbar, an army officer stationed at a remote outpost in the Dakota Territory during the Civil War. There, he befriends wolves and the local Sioux tribe. He then falls in love with the beautiful Stands With a Fist and has to make a decision that will affect him and his new family. Dances with Wolves may have had a cultural impact, but, so far, it’s only remembered as a comparison to James Cameron's Avatar rather than a superior film.
Until his 2007 win for The Departed, Martin Scorsese never got the recognition he deserved. Instead, he lost to a Civil War romance with more subtitles than action.
What Should Have Won: Goodfellas
9 The English Patient (1996)
Elaine Benes wasn’t wrong when she expressed her hatred for The English Patient. Frequently called one of the most boring films of the 21st century, The English Patient somehow managed to keep voters awake enough to give it a golden statue. The two-and-a-half-hour endeavor takes place mainly through flashbacks, as a cartographer relives his steamy love affair while on his deathbed.
Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes are decent in their roles and have good chemistry, but the pace is slower than a lazy snail. You just have to sit back and pray for it to end eventually. Apparently, long shots of the Sahara Desert were more interesting than Frances Mcdormand’s captivating performance in Fargo.
What Should Have Won: Fargo
8 Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Even if it’s riddled with historical inaccuracies, a period piece is still a period piece to the Academy, especially if it's subject is arguably the most famous writer of all time. Shakespeare in Love has pretty-boy struggling artist, Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), yearn for the rich Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow). They have to meet in secret because she is already promised Lord Wessex. Starting to sound familiar? It’s because Shakespeare uses Viola and their romance as inspiration to write Romeo and Juliet, arguably his most famous play.
The film has its own charms and is one of the better period romances, but had no reason to win the award. To have Saving Private Ryan lose Best Picture to Fiennes wearing eyeliner still has people scratching their heads to this day.
Who Should Have Won: Saving Private Ryan
7 Forrest Gump (1994)
Tom Hanks tugged at the heartstrings of Academy voters in 1995 as the kind-hearted Forrest Gump. The film leads a dim-witted protagonist through many major events throughout the 20th Century and incorporates him in the mix via composite photography. He goes from a restaurateur to a ping pong champion and once even meets John Lennon on a talk show. But take away the ridiculous plot, and all that’s left is a large dose of sap melodrama.
If the Academy wanted an inspiring tearjerker, they should have gone with The Shawshank Redemption. The relationship between Ellis and Andy was far superior to Forrest and Bubba’s. At least Shawshank Redemption didn’t give us the most overrated restaurant in existence.
What Should Have Won: Shawshank Redemption, Pulp Fiction
6 Cimarron (1931)
1931 was a great period for drama and horror films. Unfortunately, none of those made the cut for the nomination. Instead, all we got were low end comedies and dramas that no one remembers. Amongst the nominees was Cimarron. While it was overly praised in the 1930s, Cimarron is an excellent example of a film that has not aged well at all.
Set in Oklahoma during the land rush, Yancey Cravat turns a frontier camp into a respectable town only to leave his family to explore the Cherokee strip. Cimarron was the only western film to ever win an Academy Award until Dances with Wolves in 1990. That may sound impressive, but the expensive set design couldn’t save it from its scattered storytelling and racist caricatures.
What Should Have Won: M (not nominated)
5 Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Driving Miss Daisy has its touching moments and is a great film to watch with your grandmother when you have to do your weekly visit. Morgan Freeman is fantastic as Hoke Colburn as is Jessica Tandy as the titular character (a performance for which the veteran actress won her own Oscar). It’s a interesting insight into segregation, but that’s really all it was. The film took most of its time jamming a familiar subject down its audience’s throat.
What voters didn’t know was that an even more relevant film about race got snubbed that year: Do the Right Thing. Spike Lee’s iconic film uses style and vibrancy to tell a depressing yet very relevant story. Driving Miss Daisy may have been about racism in the 1940s South, but it was nothing that hadn’t been done before.
What Should Have Won: Do The Right Thing (not nominated), Dead Poets Society
4 How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Don’t know what this film is about? Don’t worry, barely anyone does. The only reason that its name is still remembered is because it famously beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture.
The film is about the hard life in a Welsh mining town and how Mr. and Mrs. Morgan want to give their youngest son a better life than they have. It sounds like the typical family drama mixed with depressing and endearing elements— two traits that the Academy gobbles up. Corporate greed and a sleigh named Rosebud apparently weren't enough to give the award to one of the biggest cinematic inspirations of all time.
What Should Have Won: Citizen Kane
2 The King's Speech (2010)
A classic feel-good period piece, The King’s Speech was considered Oscar bait before it was even released. It’s about King George VI (Colin Firth) who abruptly gets pushed to the thrones after his brother chooses to marry outside of royalty. He’s insecure and nervous, especially since he has an extreme speech impediment that prohibits him from getting in front of a microphone. His speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), gives him the courage and guidance he needs to speak and be taken seriously by his own country.
The plot of the film, though based on a true story, could have come out of a random Oscar bait idea generator. Firth and Rush put on great performances, but the fact that this was (jokingly) predicted to win best picture before even being released showed how predictable the voters have gotten.
What Should Have Won: The Social Network
1 Crash (2005)
With all of the talk and buzz, everyone thought that Brokeback Mountain was a sure win in 2006. It was tragic, romantic, and especially controversial to many viewers due to the homosexual relationship at the center of the film. Unfortunately, voters decided to go with a safe choice: Crash. Crash was a film that almost no one knew about. The name was barely mentioned throughout the year until it decided to do a last minute campaign before the big show. Even its director, Paul Haggis, thought other films were more deserving.
The film is a star-studded mess centered around a car crash. Through a single event, multiple characters experience racial tension, loss, and redemption. It sounds interesting on paper, but on screen, it’s “Racism for Dummies.” It spoon feeds the audience the racial problems that these characters experience and basically dumb it down for the audience to understand. Crash winning Best Picture finally alerted audiences that the Academy might have lost their way when it came to choosing the “best” film. At least Brokeback Mountain's director, Ang Lee, won a deserved award for Best Director.
What Should Have Won: Brokeback Mountain
Can you think of any other terrible movies that have won an Oscar? Let us know in the comments!