Best or Bust? 12 Times the Oscars Got Best Picture Wrong

RealClear Staff


Ready to rewrite movie history? We strip a dozen movies of their Best Picture Oscars and crown the films which really deserved it.

1. 'How Green Was My Valley: 1941 Winner

There's nothing wrong with John Ford's drama about a Welsh coal-mining family. In any other year, it would be a worthy winner. But not in 1941.

Shoulda Won: 'Citizen Kane'

What many consider to be the greatest film of all-time is certainly one of the most influential: the first film by 25-year-old genius Orson Welles about a Randolph Hearst-like newspaper baron is filled with groundbreaking camera work, cinematography and editing. It's a film that still inspires filmmakers today.

2. 'Oliver!': 1968 Winner

The 2 1/2-hour musical version of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" is typical of the gargantuan mega-musicals of the 1960s: Fun to watch, but too long and over-the-top. 

Shoulda Won: '2001: A Space Odyssey'

No one had ever seen a science fiction film like Stanley Kubrick's "2001," and no one has seen one like it since.  A one-of-a-kind movie, it provoked arguments and discussion upon its release and still audiences are mystified and intrigued by the film, even in 2016 -- 15 years after the real 2001.

3. 'Driving Miss Daisy': 1989 Winner

Race relations have been a problem in America since its inception, and in movies since the beginning of the medium, stretching back to 1915's "Birth of a Nation." Viewed from a time of the Black Lives Matter movement 27 years later, the two highest profile 1989 movies to address racism couldn't be more starkly different: Bruce Bereford's "Driving Miss Daisy," about a simple black man (Morgan Freeman) who is the loyal chauffeur and companion to a cantankerous old Southern woman (Jessica Tandy) was made by white filmmakers. From the black viewpoint: Spike Lee's great and incendiary "Do the Right Thing," still relevant today, about race relations in modern day New York City.

Shoulda Won: 'Do the Right Thing'

4. 'Shakespeare in Love': 1998 Winner

A pleasing romantic comedy about the Bard and his love life, starring lots of British people and Gwyneth Paltrow. A nice, fun little movie. Groundbreaking? No. Best Picture material? We say no.

Shoulda Won: 'Saving Private Ryan'

Steven Spielberg's movie was groundbreaking in its level of realism. This movie should have won Best Picture on the strength of its opening 25-minute D-Day invasion sequence alone, and the movie only gets better throughout its 168 minutes. One of the great war films of all time, its loss to "Shakespeare in Love" is one of the most inexplicable upsets in Academy Awards history.

5. 'Cimarron': 1931 Winner

Wesley Ruggles' adaptation of Edna Ferber's sweeping saga of an American family in the West is static and dull, with lots of overacting -- the worst Best Picture winner ever. You might be thinking "Hey, it's 1931, it's the way they made films then." Not so. That same year there were many examples of  dynamic, cutting-edge filmmaking: Horror films such as "Dracula" and "Frankenstein"; gangster films such as "Public Enemy," "Little Caesar" and the original "Scarface"; and the aviation war film "The Dawn Patrol."

But our choice for Best Picture of 1931 is:

Shoulda Won: 'City Lights'

Charlie Chaplin's heartbreaking film of a tramp who falls in love with a blind woman who thinks he is a millionaire is one of the greatest films of all time, made by a true master of both comedy and drama.

6. 'The Life of Emile Zola': 1937 Winner

Paul Muni as the 19th century French writer and social activist. Yawn.

Shoulda Won: 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs'

Walt Disney's groundbreaker was the first feature-length animated film ever -- it hit audiences in 1937 the way Pixar's "Toy Story" did in 1995. Kids and adults still love it today -- it remains a top seller in the Disney library.

7. 'Dances With Wolves': 1990 Winner

This tale of a Civil War cavalry officer (Costner) who joins a Sioux Indian tribe and is renamed Dances With Wolves is a sweeping epic, and a pretty good film that Costner also directed. Influential film critic Pauline Kael derisively referred to Kevin Costner's directorial effort as "Plays With Camera," but we say that's not fair. But ....

Shoulda Won: 'Goodfellas'

Seems obvious now, right? Martin Scorsese's rock-solid classic is now widely considered to be the second-greatest gangster movie ever, behind only "The Godfather." We bet a lot of Academy voters who cast a vote for "Dances With Wolves" want that one back.

8. 'Around the World in 80 Days': 1956 Winner

The hook for this gargantuan, 3-hour adaptation of Jules Verne's novel is the cavalcade of more than 40 big stars, such as Frank Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich, who pop up for a scene or two along the journey of gentleman adventurer Phileas Fogg (David Niven). No one seriously thinks this is a great movie today -- and we wonder how many really felt that way about this fluffy piece of entertainment then.

Shoulda won: "The Ten Commandments"

The epic story of Moses (Charlton Heston) was the final film of Cecil B. DeMille, a great climax to a lengthy and influential career. It's so colorfully rich in visual details, with eye-popping production design and costumes and a roster of big stars, that it is still an audience favorite to this day -- one of the few old films still shown on network television (ABC shows it every Easter).

9. 'Kramer vs. Kramer': 1979 Winner

We admit this is a tough one. "Kramer vs. Kramer," about the bitter divorce battle between  Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, is a great movie, one of the first Hollywood films to address divorce in an intelligent and mature way. Still, it's not a movie seen as much anymore, and its issues seem a little passé today (divorce is a lot more complicated now). 

Shoulda Won: 'Apocalypse Now'

Like "Citizen Kane," "The Ten Commandments" and "2001: A Space Odyssey," Francis Ford Coppola's surrealistic Vietnam War epic is a movie that is unlike any other -- if you're shown any 5-second clip of this movie, you'll know instantly what it is. "Apocalypse Now" is one of the great war movies of all time -- some say the greatest -- but for the opposite reason as, say "Saving Private Ryan": It doesn't pretend to be realistic, but its surrealistic approach finds the truth of the folly of war.

10. 'Cavalcade': 1933 Winner

Still a good movie, but nothing more -- a stuffy film of an uppercrust British family that must change with the times (kind of a precursor to "Downton Abbey"). 

Shoulda Won: 'Duck Soup'

The Marx Brothers' indisputable masterpiece is a rollicking comedy about a prime minister (Groucho Marx) who starts a war just for the hell of it, and charms with inventive comedic gags and musical numbers. This was the "Airplane" of its time!

11. 'Crash': 2005 Winner

Paul Haggis' ambitious ensemble piece about race and economic relations in America has so many characters that none of them have much depth; they're more representatives of a point view than actual characters (though the cast is mostly excellent).

Shoulda Won: 'Brokeback Mountain'

Derisively referred to at the time as the "gay cowboy movie," we think that Ang Lee's, sensitive, beautifully shot and acted film that's great in every way would be the clear winner over "Crash" if they squared off in 2016. Attitudes have changed just in one short decade.

12. 'A Beautiful Mind': 2001 Winner

Ron Howard's hit-you-over-the-head-to-make-sure-you-get-it approach mutes Russell Crowe's excellent performance as real-life 1940s mathematician/genius John Nash and his battle with mental illness. And most of it isn't even true; the movie itself says it is "inspired by true incidents" (read: we take something true, discard it, then totally make up something else). 

Shoulda Won: 'Mulholland Dr.'

David Lynch's wild, surrealistic take on Hollywood might be the strangest, weirdest movie made by a studio. Naomi Watts is an aspiring actress who tries to solve the identity of a amnesiac woman, and she's so awesome, she should have won Best Actress hands down. Talk about a film that operates purely on dream logic! Lynch was nominated for Best Director (and lost), but that was the only Oscar nomination the film received.



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