It’s no great secret that the Oscar for Best Picture has been awarded to some puzzling choices over the years. Way back in 1944, the musical comedy Going My Way won the award, rather than Billy Wilder’s classic Film Noir Double Indemnity. Then flash forward to 1952 when Cecil B. DeMille’s tiresome circus picture The Greatest Show on Earth trounced High Noon, whilst in later years Dr Strangelove lost to My Fair Lady, Rocky outdid Taxi Driver and (notoriously) Driving Miss Daisy ran over My Left Foot.
In recognition of this, here's a purely personal look at ten times when the Academy Award for Best Picture went to a dubious choice, and which movie arguably should have won.
With the changes in the composition of the Academy voters and other initiatives, the occasionally bewildering absence of some deserving movies could become a thing of the past…or throw up leftfield choices which may bemuse an older audience.
Last year, former President Donald J Trump made his own views clear on Best Picture winner Parasite:
'How bad were the Academy Awards this year? Did you see it? The winner is… a movie from South Korea! What the hell was that all about. Let’s get "Gone with the Wind." Can we get "Gone with the Wind" back, please?'
Trump aside, here are the overlooked films that are worth a rewatch:
Dances with Wolves (Amazon Prime, My5) – winner
Goodfellas (Amazon Rent/Buy) – my choice
Not to say DWW is a bad movie – it boasts a great John Barry score and cinematography from Dean Semler (both winning Oscars for their work on the picture), but it is something of a ego-trip for the camera-hogging Costner.
The movie’s success led to overblown endeavours such as The Postman before the actor came back down to earth, delivering the far superior western Open Range in 2003.
To many, the Best Picture and Director gong should have gone to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, a blistering return to the mobster milieu and violence of his earlier movies. Scorsese’s propulsive picture is barrelled along by a superb ensemble cast, Thelma Schoonmaker’s whip smart editing and a terrific soundtrack. With varying degrees of success, the director attempted to catch this kind of lightning in a bottle again with Casino (1995), The Departed (2006) and The Irishman (2019).
I exempt Gangs of New York (2002) due to its period setting; a flawed movie, but one that was the best of a weak field for Best Picture in 2003, when the musical Chicago won the award.
Forrest Gump (Amazon Rent/Buy) – winner
Pulp Fiction (Amazon Rent/Buy) – my choice
Quentin Tarantino’s second picture was a revelation, with a clever interlinked portmanteau structure that spotlights the LA criminal demi-monde which continues to fascinate the director. The dialogue crackles, and John Travolta’s comeback from the indignities of the Look Who’s Talking franchise and It’s A Royal Knockout was well deserved.
English Patient (Amazon Rent/Buy) – winner
Fargo (MGM, Amazon Rent/Buy) – my choice
The late Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient appears to be a self-conscious attempt to revive the epic style of David Lean, one which obviously worked in 1996, but hasn’t really aged well.
As with his later Cold Mountain (2003), the director delivers on the spectacle front, but The English Patient is overlong and on the dull side, hence the picture’s lampooning at the time in shows such as Seinfeld.
The Coen Brothers black comedy Fargo was probably too bitter a pill for some Academy members, but their twisty tale of murder and kidnapping in snowy North Dakota remains a very engaging watch. Great performances from Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare anchor Fargo, a picture that successfully melds Hitchcock (The Trouble with Harry, Family Plot) and Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity), with echoes of their own 1984 debut Blood Simple.
Guilty on occasion of being too clever by half, the Coens rein in their more indulgent tendencies (see Barton Fink) on Fargo, which is all to the good.
Titanic (Amazon Rent/Buy) – winner
LA Confidential (Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy) – my choice
I feel something of a fraud when talking about Titanic, as the interminable scenes of faux Gaelic whimsy, simplistic observations on class and contrived romance make me reach for the fast forward button until the iceberg finally hooves into view and we get down to business.
Even then, I prefer the 1958 take on the story, which is strangely less dated than James Cameron’s Poseidon Adventure (1972) knock-off.
Curtis Hanson’s masterful adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is itself something of a throwback, a handsomely mounted period thriller that harks back to the film noir world of Dashiell Hammett and Philip Marlowe. But committed performances from a first-rate cast (including Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell, and Danny DeVito), a healthy dose of moral ambiguity and some surprising twists mean that L.A Confidential almost approaches the classic status of Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).
Shakespeare in Love (Amazon Rent/Buy) – winner
Saving Private Ryan (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy) – my choice
Gwyneth Paltrow amazingly won the Best Actress statue for her wooden line readings in the role of Viola de Lesseps in Shakespeare in Love. A witty script from Tom Stoppard wasn't enough to warrant the gong in my opinion. Famously, Judi Dench won Best Supporting Actress for her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo (8 minutes in fact) as an aging Queen Elizabeth, which I guess can be filed under the category of ‘nice work if you can get it’.
Oddly enough, another Best Picture contender in 1998 was Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, which starred Cate Blanchett as the Virgin Queen (a role that she returned to the director’s 2007 sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age). Blanchett lost out to Paltrow for Best Actress.
Stephen Spielberg’s kinetic WWII movie Saving Private Ryan should easily have won the Best Picture award on the strength of the innovative combat scenes alone, which at least gave him the consolation prize of another Best Director award (after Schindler’s List).
Some of Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality I could have done without (especially the mawkish ending), but overall, the movie stands up well today, with much of its verité approach having become part of contemporary film grammar.
A Beautiful Mind (Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy) – winner
Gosford Park (ICON, Amazon Rent/Buy) – my choice
On the face of it, Robert Altman’s period mystery Gosford Park is classic Oscar fare. Penned by Julian Fellowes, Gosford Park presages Downton Abbey in its aristocratic setting and ensemble cast. But Altman manages to subvert what could have been a run-of-the-mill Agatha Christie re-tread with his roving camera and quirky touches.
All players rise to the occasion, particularly Maggie Smith as the Countess of Trentham (a nastier dry run for her similarly titled character in Downton), Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Jeremy Northam, and Emily Watson. The picture is ideally accompanied by anchovy toast, muffins, a pot of Earl Grey and a fortifying glass of port.
Crash (Amazon Rent/Buy) – winner
Munich (Amazon Rent/Buy) – my choice
Going for a Short Cuts (Robert Altman) style vibe, the picture aims to provide a panorama of life in contemporary Los Angeles, a city undermined by racial, social, and economic tension. Ten years later, the film's own director commented on Crash: ‘Was it the best film of the year? I don't think so.’
Whilst Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain is a fine and, dare I say it, important movie, my preference for the rightful Best Picture Oscar (of the nominees) is another Spielberg film, Munich, which follows a covert Israeli hit squad hunting the perpetrators of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre.
Whilst not exactly a barrel of laughs, Munich is for me more a rewatchable experience than Brokeback, with an episodic structure that provides a host of great and occasionally nerve-wracking scenes. The cast excels, with my favourite sequences including those between team leader Avner (Eric Bana) and French independent information brokers Papa (the late Michael Lonsdale) and his weaselly son Louis (Mathieu Amalric).
The King’s Speech (Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy) – winner
The Social Network (Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy) – my choice
2010 was a strong year for Best Picture nominees, which makes it all the more baffling that Tom (Cats) Hooper’s George VI drama The King’s Speech secured the top prize. It is by no means a bad movie, blessed with some strong performances and a solid storyline, but The King's Speech has the air of either a higher budgeted TV movie (see ITV’s Bertie & Elizabeth) or conversely a low budget episode of The Crown.
Far more to my taste is David Fincher’s The Social Network, the Aaron Sorkin-penned acidic portrait of Facebook supremo Mark Zuckerberg. Jesse Eisenberg plays the boy billionaire as a narcissistic, off-putting character, although he has the odd moment of pained awareness when he reflects on his selfish behaviour.
Looking at this year’s awards, there’s a chance that Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7 may just sneak through the pack to walk off with Best Picture. It is one of those Academy-friendly, rather traditional, well-constructed features with liberal leanings that tend to do well.
Birdman (Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy) – winner
Grand Budapest Hotel (Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy) – my choice
Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman is an easy film to admire in terms of ambition and technique, but perhaps less so as a viewing experience. Using the illusion that the entire film is a single tracking shot in the manner of Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), Birdman resuscitated the career of Michael (Batman, Batman Returns) Keaton, who ironically enough plays a former movie superhero striving for credibility in his Off-Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’
Keaton went on to play the winged supervillain The Vulture in 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. For my choice from the other nominees, I would go for either Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash or Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. But, since I recently wrote about Whiplash in these pages and due to my deep enjoyment of Anderson’s comedy, I’ve plumped for the latter.
Ralph Fiennes is outstanding as Monsieur Gustave H., the Grand Budapest Hotel's eccentric concierge, who has a unique philosophy - and an eye for the older ladies.
As in the Coens’ Hail Caesar (2016), Fiennes displays a hitherto unheralded talent for comedy - Wallace and Gromit aside.
Production design (Adam Stockhausen) and music (Alexandre Desplat) are perfect, with all Fiennes co-stars all having their chance to shine, especially youngsters Tony Revolori (Zero the bellhop, mentee of M Gustave) and Saoirse Ronan (Agatha, an apprentice baker, Zero’s girlfriend) as well as the great F Murray Abraham (Amadeus), who poignantly plays the older Zero.
Green Book (Amazon Rent/Buy) – winner
The Favourite (Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy) – my choice
Green Book received a similar reception to Crash in that many critics were taken aback by its Best Picture win, seeing it as a kind of reverse spin on the reviled Driving Miss Daisy (1989).
Based on real life, Viggo Mortensen plays Italian-American nightclub bouncer Tony Lip, hired to drive celebrated black pianist Don Shirley on a concert tour of the Midwest and Deep South of the USA in the early 1960s. Green Book came in for a fair amount for stick for being what some regarded as a ‘white saviour’ movie, seen mainly from Lip’s perspective.
Mortensen recently faced more controversy when he cast himself as a gay character in his directorial debut Falling (2020).
My choice? A difficult one, as I enjoyed both BlackKkKlansman and Black Panther, but for its sheer wilful eccentricity I’ll go for Yorgos Lanthimos’s black comedy The Favourite, set in the faction-riven court of Queen Anne (1702-1714). Olivia Colman as the queen plays a different monarch to her stoic Elizabeth II in The Crown.
Not many characters to root for, although the unstable Anne is probably the most sympathetic, stuck in the middle whilst Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) and her cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) compete for her royal favour, using sex, flattery and intimidation as weapons in their mutual armouries.
You don’t have to try too hard to see how the influence of The Favourite has already spread, especially if you have watched the Hulu (Ch4 in the UK) series The Great (Catherine), with Elle Fanning as the young Russian Empress.