Since its inception, The Academy Awards have named 79 Best Pictures. In that time, the Academy has certainly honored many boring films like Out of Africa and films with terrible elements like the dialogue and characters in Titanic, but that doesn’t completely discount the work of crew members in other areas. The cinematography of the former and the effects work to sink the ship of the latter are impressive achievements. This list will feature terrible films and terrible choices made by Academy voters.
10. The Departed (2006)
I enjoyed this film when I saw it in the theatre, but it completely falls apart on repeat viewings. It has a lot going for it in terms of story and acting, yet those are the same areas where it fails. We are supposed to believe that Costello, “the” major crime figure in Boston, couldn’t figure out the new guy Costigan was the rat. It’s rather obvious, and yet Costello even explained that in the old days he would just wipe everyone out. Awfully convenient that he doesn’t do that now. As is unfortunately typical of many of his recent performances, Nicholson slips out of character and occasionally gives us “Jack,” such as the scene in the bar where he talks about having a rat in the organization and the scene in the porno theatre. They completely disrupt the movie. Don’t get me started on the CGI rat running through the final shot.
While there are many other Best Pictures winners that are admittedly worse movies, The Departed secured a spot in this top 10 because the film did not win on its merits (The Queen was a much better film), but was instead given as a Lifetime Achievement Award to Scorsese. Through envy or ignorance the Academy members have missed honoring a number of great filmmakers (Hawks, Hitchcock, Kubrick) through the years. Scorsese used to be on that proud list as his seminal works (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas) were bypassed. The Academy even had a chance to honor him for The Aviator, which was technically fantastic, but that year they decided to stick it to conservatives, since Bush was re-elected, by selecting Million Dollar Baby, a good film but there was no comparison. If the Best Picture of the Year is going to be determined, it should be based on the film in question not be used by the Academy to save face with history. It won four awards.
9. Cimarron (1931)
The film tells the story about the expansion of America in the late 19th Century, particularly around the Oklahoma Land Rush. What certainly is a period full of great potential in American history is completely sabotaged by lead actor Richard Dix’s overacting, no doubt left over from silent films, the racist attitudes towards non-whites, and a terrible script. Some of the action scenes are impressive in their execution, but those aren’t enough to make up for this odd, rambling film. It won three awards.
8. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Producer Michael Todd took Jules Verne’s compelling adventure story and turned it into a boring travelogue. Having to compete with television many movies during the 1950s used the medium to its full advantage by telling massive stories that could only be fully appreciated in a movie theater. Shot in 70mm Todd-AO, the film has a lot of location footage from different parts of the world that at the time must surely have been impressive, but viewers today have seen all these locations through the myriad of cable channels, so there’s no longer any novelty. It is also filled with over 40 cameos, so it’s likely that everyone who voted for this had a friend in it. It won five awards.
7. Cavalcade (1933)
While the British have made some fantastic films over the years, it must be some secret cruel joke that their Best Picture winners rarely hold up over time. Mrs. Miniver may have been inspiring upon its release, but it comes off as a hokey WWII propaganda piece. Tom Jones is basically an extended Benny Hill episode and says more about what a terrible year 1963 must have been. Other than Vangelis’ score, was there anything memorable from Chariots of Fire, other than the SCTV sketch with Hall & Oates?
However, the worst of the British imports is Calvalcade. Based on a Noel Coward play, it is a boring melodrama about two families as they experience major events through the turn of the 20th Century: the Second Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the Titanic, and the WWI. A documentary on the History Channel would be more entertaining. Yet, it won three awards.
6. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
A terrible film written by Akiva Goldsman, a man who has written many terrible scripts. How a writer could get so many facts wrong about John Nash’s life when he has access to them in the book he’s adapting speaks to his abilities.
Nash didn’t have visual hallucinations, but the medium is visual and the filmmakers were limited in their imagination. What we do get for hallucinations is surprisingly rational and coherent, which is another crutch filmmakers use since there shouldn’t be a logic that the entire audience can understand.
Many other notable facts were omitted or altered from Nash’s life, but the worst has to be the casting of Jennifer Connelly, who won an Oscar for her performance, as Nash’s wife who is from El Salvador. Are we supposed to believe that in 2000 there were no Latina actresses available? The film only won Best Picture because Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are such nice guys in the industry. It won four awards.
4. & 5. An American in Paris (1951) & Gigi (1958)
What the heck was there about Leslie Caron in Paris, France that made Academy voters swoon during the 1950’s because both these movies are stinkers? These MGM musicals are hard to take as we are forced to believe that someone could fall in love with the annoying Caron. Her suitors are Gene Kelly, a struggling American painter, and Louis Jordan, a rich Parisian, both completely uninteresting characters, so there’s no interest in seeing anyone get together.
An American in Paris has many great Gershwin tunes in it, but it goes completely off the rails with the 18-minute ballet that concludes the film. Gigi is by Lerner and Lowe, who have two very good songs in the film, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “I Remember It Well,” but they were unfortunately prophetic with “It’s a Bore.” An American in Paris won six awards and Gigi won nine out of nine awards.
3. Broadway Melody (1929)
Unfortunately the years have not treated this backstage Broadway drama well as two sisters try to make it on the Great White Way. This film suffers like many of the time do from an overabundance of melodramatic storytelling and acting. It has some historical significance being the second Best Picture winner and the first to have sound, as well as its early use of Technicolor in a sequence, but leave this to the hardcore film historians. The film won one award.
2. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
The fact that this snoozefest beat out Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poet’s Society, and Field of Dreams in the category is astounding. This film thinks its insightful by letting us know racism was bad and blacks weren’t treated well in the South, as if no one had been aware of that before 1989.
We are supposed to feel empathy towards Miss Daisy, an old southern Jewish widow, becomes enlightened over the years to the plight of African Americans, but considering the story opens in 1948 when she is 72 and six million fellow Jews have recently been slaughtered in WWII because they were different, it is nearly impossible to care about this ignorant woman.
Rather than voters feeling good about themselves because they selected a film that shows the ills of racism, why couldn’t they have gone a step further and nominated the much more worthy Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing?
1. Ordinary People (1980)
The movie is tolerable with its navel-gazing story about an upper middle class family falling apart due to the death of a son. What earns the film its ignominy as the worst choice by the Academy is that it and its director Robert Redford beat out Martin Scorsese and his masterpiece Raging Bull, which has since gone on to not only be dubbed the best film of the 1980s by many critical groups, but in the 2002 Sight and Sound Director’s Poll was voted the sixth greatest film of all time because of the excellence it achieved in all categories of filmmaking.
The Academy made a similar error awarding Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves over Scorsese’s Goodfellas, but Dances is a more impressive achievement compared to Ordinary People, which barely raises above the level of Lifetime movie.
Regardless of the number of Best Picture wins, deservedly or not, Scorsese earns moving forward (See #10), it will never erase the epic mistake Academy members made overlooking Raging Bull.