Every year, since 1929, Hollywood has picked one quintessential movie of the year. Some years the choice is quite obvious. Movies like Gone With the Wind, Ben-Hur and Titanic were all major achievements that galvanized the public, the year they were made.
While most of the time, Oscar gets it right, there have been some years when Oscar has completely surprised us. Sometimes, there are more than one really great movie that year, and it comes down to what seems like a coin toss. However, there have been some years when Oscar just flat-out gets it wrong. For whatever reason, the movie that is crowned best picture is actually far from it.
This list, is compiled of the worst of those decisions. These are the movies that should have won, but for whatever reason they were looked over for other, lesser, films. Some of these films are less popular than the inevitable winner, some are deemed too controversial, and some just may not have even been seen by enough voters.
Whatever the reason, these are the movies that should have won, and the underwhelming, over-rated movies that stole their prize. I’ve ranked the films from least to most shocking.
10. Pulp Fiction
Movie That Won: Forrest Gump
To be honest, it really was no surprise, come Oscar night, that Forrest Gump took home the big prize. It had, after all, taken home every other major award up to this point. Still, that doesn’t make it the right choice. And it damn sure doesn’t make it the best film of 1994.
That honor belongs to Pulp Fiction. A refreshing cinematic shot of adrenaline that broke all the rules and changed the face of cinema. Maybe the problem was that it was just too cutting-edge. It would certainly seem so, since the winner turned out to be the exact opposite.
Forrest Gump is sweet, nostalgic and old-fashioned. Which, I suppose, made it the obvious choice for most Academy voters. It was after all a crowd-pleaser. It’s also a very good film, in its own right. And it definitely has all the makings of an Academy Award-winning picture. Historical references, larger-than-life characters, and a heart-warming story. Frankly, it’s the safe option.
Pulp Fiction, with its excessive profanity and gratuitous violence, not to mention its rather deplorable characters, wasn’t exactly the respectable choice. So, I’m sure this turned off some Academy voters. Therefore, Gump’s popularity and wholesomeness won out, in the end.
Looking at them today, both films hold up rather well. But, Fiction will always be the film of 1994 that started a cinematic revolution, while Gump is more likely to be discussed in history books than social circles. In other words, Fiction is still just as revered and adored to this day, and Gump is remembered more for its character than the film itself.
9. Apocalypse Now
Movie That Won: Kramer VS Kramer
Once again, the Academy makes the safe choice. Kramer VS. Kramer was easily the more palatable picture. Its story about a woman who leaves her husband alone to raise their child is both tragic and uplifting. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that it contains powerhouse performances from Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.
To be fair, Apocalypse Now had a lot going up against it, before it even entered the Oscar race. It was plagued with production problems, causing it to be delayed. Director Francis Ford Coppola had gone well over budget, the studio was very vocal about their lack of confidence in him and the picture. By the time of its release is seemed to everyone that he had lost his freaking mind.
Plus, the finished project wasn’t exactly cohesive, in the basic sense of the word. On top of that, it had a running time of over two-and-a-half hours. So, it was a bit of an effort to sit through, to put it mildly. That’s if you were willing to sit down in the first place. And, therefore, like Pulp Fiction, Apocalypse Now was passed over for a film that was both more popular with the public and easier to digest in one quick sitting.
Also, I think a lot of Academy voters watched Apocalypse as more of a fascinating curiosity than a narrative film. It certainly isn’t one that is easy to grasp in just one viewing. Overwhelmed by Apocalypse’s massive scope and running time, it’s understandable that they were more easily persuaded by the familiar brilliance of Kramer.
Of course, time has been much kinder to Apocalypse Now. Today it is considered a modern classic and one of the greatest films ever made, while Kramer feels rather dated and quaint, if it’s bothered to be watched at all.
8. Dr. Strangelove
Movie That Won: My Fair Lady
A pattern is emerging that will continue throughout this entire list. A better, more challenging film is passed over for a safer, more popular choice. This PHENOMENON/TREND doesn’t get more evident than this example. No two films could be further removed from each other, in style, story or substance. Still, to this day, ahead of its time, Dr. Strangelove is a brilliant, hilarious political satire, that requires a great deal of intelligence from its audience.
While My Fair Lady, on the other hand, is a well-made, pre-packaged, audience pleaser that offers nothing more than what’s on the surface. Sure, as far as filmed musicals go, this is one of the best, especially of its time. And, in 1964, it was probably the movie that made the most sense.
However, Dr Strangelove was nominated. Therefore, it’s greatness was recognized. So, how could voters watch both of these films and then somehow determine that My Fair Lady was the better picture? I can only guess that either, once again, not as many people saw Dr Strangelove, or My Fair Lady was just so darn pleasant and wholesome that its jolly spirit eked itself to victory. Whichever the case, the oversight is inexcusable.
Looking at both films today, the competition isn’t even close. My Fair Lady is a nearly-forgotten product of its time. While Dr. Stranglove is a beloved classic that is still shown at midnight screenings throughout the world, and discussed ad-nauseam in cinema classes and online forums.
Movie That Won: Dances With Wolves
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Hollywood loves to congratulate itself. I mean, the fact that they have so many awards ceremonies to celebrate its products, should be your first clue. So, when one of their own goes on to big things, they’re especially quick to give praise.
Case in point, when an actor goes on to direct, they’re suddenly bestowed with a larger level of importance. Examples are Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford. They especially love it when that film contains a significant level of social importance all its own.
That brings us to Dances With Wolves. It is an epic masterpiece that, not only triumphs the return of a beloved genre, but contains a subject matter that touches on important social issues (another Hollywood favorite that will play its part in another selection on this list). Wolves may be an impressive epic, but it’s a rather lazy choice for best picture. Sure, it checks off all the Academy boxes, but it lacks any real potency.
Now, Goodfellas is nothing if not invigorating. Every scene is a work of art. Every line of dialog is memorable and every character is a classic. This is a film that is not only one of the best films of the year, but of all time.
Especially, compared today, Goodfellas is the obvious choice. Both films hold up as timeless classics, but watch Wolves once and you’re good for another decade. But, with Goodfellas, you’ll be ready for the next viewing as soon as it’s over.
6. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
Movie That Won: Hamlet
This one’s pretty obvious. I doubt many of you reading this have even seen the 1948 film version of Hamlet, starring Lawrence Olivier, let alone set it aside for annual viewings. For those of you that have seen it, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s an exceptional adaptation of the Shakspeare tragedy, but I’ve yet to see one that isn’t. In my opinion, the play does most of the heavy lifting. This film shouldn’t have even been in the running for best film of 1948, let alone won.
The best film of 1948, without question, is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The film, about a trio of strangers who band together to search for gold, is also one of the greatest adventure films ever made. One that would inspire many filmmakers for years to come. Making it the forefather of such equally iconic modern classics as Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Princess Bride. Like Goodfellas, it allows for repeat viewings and gets richer with every one.
With distinct characters, unpredictable story and John Huston’s flawless direction, Treasure is a ready-made classic that is just as entertaining today as the day it was made. One of Humphrey Bogart’s most iconic roles and arguably the greatest film John Huston ever made.