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The Worst Best Picture Academy Award Winners

Kris King Kris King
March 5th, 2010 12:15pm EST

worst best picture winners

This year’s Academy Awards mark the 82nd time that an Oscar statuette has been awarded for Best Picture. Since the high-flying war epic Wings first brought home the gold in 1928, some of the most famous movies of all time have shared in the honor: Gone With The Wind, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Godfather. Not only are these titles essential viewing for movie fans, but they’re basically a prerequisite for being a functional human being. Still, with 81 titles to choose from, not every Best Picture winner can be, you know, good.

It seems that every year somebody comes along to complain about the movie that won Best Picture or which nominee got snubbed. Just imagine if The Blind Side wins this year--the world would implode. Still, it wouldn’t be the first time that a shameless stinker won Hollywood’s highest honor. So in anticipation for inevitable disappointment, we’ve gone through the archives of past Academy Award winners and picked out the lamest, most dull and downright worst movies to be called the best.  

1931 – Cimarron

The first western to win best picture follows the eventful life of Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and his family as they settle in the Oklahoma prairie. At least that’s how it starts. Cimarron suffers from a sever lack of focus, as if it can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be. It subjects viewers to a cavalcade of different genres and character types. In its expansive 40 year storyline, Yancey transforms from the traditional western hero to a deadbeat husband who abandons his family for years at a time, then changes again into an Atticus Finch-type who fights for the little guy.

And what 30s movie would be complete without a heaping side dish of grotesque racial caricatures? While most of the minorities in the film are depicted through broad stereotypes, our hero Yancey (if you can call him a hero) goes out of his way to treat them with dignity, as if the filmmakers couldn’t make up their mind on whether or not to be racist either. Cimarron’s general message on the matter seems to be something along the lines of “This little pickaninny may shuck and jive, but by God, he deserves our respect!”

What Should Have Won: Hard to say considering 1930’s obscure list of nominees. Anyone fans of Skippy out there that want to vouch for it?

1933 – Cavalcade

Taking a page from Cimarron’s playbook, Calvalcade follows a married pair of British aristocrats through the years of 1899 to 1933. As time passes, the tumultuous days of early 20th century stampedes over lives as they have personal brushes with the death of Queen Victoria, the outbreak of World War I and the sinking of the Titanic. Cavalcade packs in the excitement in a way that only a dull, stilted British movie based on a dull, stilted stage play can: vintage overacting, stale camerawork and a bloated running time. To be fair, Cavalcade manages to remain more focused than the downright schizophrenic Cimarron, and there’s a rather masterful sequence that breaks down the ravages of World War I in the span of minutes, the rest of the movie, however, is a total snore.

What Should Have Won: 42nd Street

1941 - How Green Was My Valley

Oftentimes when venting about a movie that shouldn’t have won Best Picture, it typically boils down to it beating out a more deserving nominee. Ordinary People topped out Raging Bull in 1980, In The Heat of the Night won in favor of more influential titles like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde--one could probably make cases like these for every Academy Award winner. But the absolute worst example of this was in 1941, when John Ford’s dull melodrama on the woeful lives of Welsh coal miners How Green Was My Valley beat out Citizen Kane for Best Picture. While one changed the face of cinema as we know it, the other became the type of movie that college professors wheel out to illustrate the plight of the lower class, putting the entire room to sleep in the process.

What Should Have Won: Citizen Kane, for heaven's sake.

1951 - An American in Paris

It may be colorful; it may be pretty--but it certainly isn’t very rousing. An American in Paris, whose 18 minute expressionist danceapalooza climax was a concept lifted from The Red Shoes, feels more like a love letter to Gene Kelly’s ego rather than joyous exploration into the art of dance or whatever. An American in Paris’s win here likely hampered the un-nominated Singin’ in the Rain’s from getting any sort of traction with the Academy in the following year, which is a shame considering it’s the far better film.

What Should Have Won: A Streetcar Named Desire

1952 - The Greatest Show on Earth

Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth stands as a prime example of everything that is wrong with Cecil B. DeMille movies. It’s a big, broad, pointless piece of filmmaking whose only novelty hinges on seeing Jimmy Stewart try to act under a pound of clown make-up. The extended scenes of mid-century big top extravagance interplayed with the guileless, slack-jawed reactions of the crowd borders on unbearable. There could be a pretty decent movie hidden amongst the film’s excess weight, but any sort of intriguing drama quickly gets snuffed out by five minute montages of elephants ambling around.

What Should Have Won: High Noon -- It’s widely believed that Greatest Show only won Best Picture because of the controversy surrounding the blacklisting of High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman. Academy members were essentially scared that a win for the western classic would draw the ire of the House of Un-American Activities Committee.

1956 - Around the World in 80 Days

This dull, torturously long adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic novel feels like watching a strabger's travel videos that you bought by accident at a garage sale. Director Michael Anderson’s idea of adventure seemingly falls in line with that of Cecil B. DeMille’s: rather than have anything happen, just parade some elephants around for 40 minutes or so. There’s no sense of wonder in Phileas Fogg and Passepartout’s journey around the globe, in fact, it comes across more like an out of date, racially insensitive educational video with a title like “Cultures! Of the World!” It’s downright coma inducing.

What Should Have Won: 1956 certainly wasn’t a bad year for movies, Around the World went up against classics like Giant, The King and I, and The Ten Commandments, all of which could have understandably won the Oscar.

1963 - Tom Jones

Tom Jones often gets cited as being a daring choice for Best Picture. This British adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel of the same name certainly doles out its fair share of saucy metaphor and innuendo, but through today’s eyes the movie comes across as manic, aggravating and ugly. The film’s dark lighting highlights everyone’s potatoy English features, which makes any sort of randy wink to the camera just seem… gross.

What Should Have Won: How The West Was Won

1999 – American Beauty

Jumping ahead a few decades we find American Beauty, which, admittedly, is not a terrible movie, just not as wildly, enthusiastically amazing as the inescapably gushing reviews made it out to be at its release. Spacey is still great in his role as the miserable Lester, but in hindsight the film comes across as cloyingly pretentious, trying way, way too hard to gobble up as much artistic resonance as humanly possible. Images like rose petals spewing from Mena Suvari’s shirt or that utterly ridiculous dancing plastic bag suffer from such transparent pretense that it’s hard for viewers to decide whether to roll their eyes or gag. 

What Should Have Won: With nominees like The Cider House Rules, The Sixth Sense, The Green Mile, and The Insider, it’s difficult to imagine anything but American Beauty winning. Chalk it up to a weak year.

2005 – Crash

In 2005, one movie tackled a touchy social issue with such boldness and emotional honesty that it sent a rift through America’s cultural landscape. Supporters gushed over the film while detractors were mostly just creeped out by its forward premise. When Oscar time rolled around, that movie, Brokeback Mountain, did not win Best Picture. Instead, the award went to the absolute lowest point in self-gratifying Hollywood issue mongering: Crash. Paul Haggis’s manipulative, cynical look at race relations in LA relies on coincidence and phony characters to drive home its premise with all the grace of a jackhammer. It’s the type of film whose sense of moral superiority feeds directly into the filmmakers’ insatiable egos.

What Should Have Won: Brokeback Mountain

Photo Credits: Lions Gate Entertainment