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The 10 Most Controversial Best Picture Winners

12 March 2019 | Features, Film Lists | by Justin Gunterman

5. The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth

The Greatest Show on Earth is, without a doubt, the worst reviewed Best Picture winner in the history of the Oscars. With a shockingly low 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s really hard to complain about a lot of other Best Picture winners. Of course, an aggregate score from Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t mean much to some people. After all, people love Bohemian Rhapsody regardless of its low rating. The real question is, are the critics right when it comes to this movie?

The answer is yes. It would be one thing of The Greatest Show on Earth was a little disappointing, but this thing borders on being flat-out bad. It’s occasionally charming, but it’s also badly written and way too long. It’s barely mediocre, which says a lot about its status as a “Best Picture winner.” The fact that it’s most often talked about because it didn’t deserve the award is another sign that it’s not fondly remembered.

It’s not like it was a weak year for movies either. This film came out the same year as The Quiet Man, High Noon, Singin’ in the Rain, Ikiru, and Forbidden Games. Those movies have earned nothing but praise since their release. On the flipside, The Greatest Show on Earth has become something of a joke. As with all movies, it has its defenders, but its negative reputation is tough to ignore.

 

4. Rocky

rocky movie

Some of the movies on this list are considered certifiable classics. Of course, this begs the question: how the hell did they make it on a list like this? If they’re considered classics, what makes them so controversial? Well, that’s what we’re going to talk about as we address Rocky, a movie that constantly finds a place on “Worst Best Picture” lists.

Keep in mind, this list isn’t covering the worst of the worst. Rather, it exists to call out movies that have caused some sort of controversy for their big win. A lot of people really enjoy Rocky, but a lot of other people really hate that it beat out Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men. That kind of saltiness is hard to ignore on a list of controversial Best Picture Winners.

Stallone started a colossal franchise with the creation of Rocky. It’s so colossal that it gets referenced or parodied damn near constantly. At the same time, it came out the same year as other really influential movies. Stallone’s tour de force is an excellent movie, but people argue that it’s not necessarily as excellent as the other phenomenal nominees.

Honestly, who can blame people for that opinion? Taxi Driver in particular is considered one of the greatest movies of all time. Many people think this should have been Scorsese’s big win rather than The Departed. At the very least, people think it should have been Scorsese’s first big win. Too bad Stallone’s big-hearted sports drama took it out.

 

3. The King’s Speech

When The King’s Speech won Best Picture in 2010, one thing became crystal clear: most of the supposed “precursor awards” were meaningless and had been meaningless for some time. The Social Network dominated all the way up until the Producers Guild Awards and BAFTAs.

The momentum then changed and only the ballsiest of pundits claimed that The Social Network stood a change. It lost the most important awards leading up to the Oscars which unfortunately meant it was dead on arrival.

It’s easy to see why The Social Network was an early favorite. It was, by a wide margin, the best reviewed movie of 2010. Sorkin’s biting script and Fincher’s snappy direction made for a viewing experience that stood out in all the right ways. It was safe enough for a potential Best Picture win, but daring enough to feel refreshing. It was the perfect pick for Best Picture, but it wasn’t the movie voters decided to vote for in the end.

If there’s one thing to learn from this list, it’s that Academy Award voters love safe movies with an easy-to-understand message. At least, that’s how a lot of people seem to feel about this list of controversial winners. The King’s Speech was undoubtedly the safer movie of the two.

It’s a movie people have seen variations of before, and it’s a movie that tackles a big issue in a simplistic way. It’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a movie that felt stale back then and continues to feel stale to this day.

 

2. Shakespeare in Love

undeserving best picture winners

Chalk this one up as the movie that beat Saving Private Ryan at the Oscars. Maybe if it were a different year, people wouldn’t be as mad about Shakespeare in Love’s Best Picture win, but it won against Saving Private Ryan, and that’s a sin that can’t be forgiven.

This is a situation where we really need to analyze the ways in which each film is remembered today. Saving Private Ryan is considered one of the greatest war movies of all time while Shakespeare in Love is considered the hokey romantic comedy that snatched the Oscar away from a deserving movie.

To be honest, the hypothetical “what if Saving Private Ryan wasn’t released” scenario doesn’t really save Shakespeare in Love. There were several movies that seem like better choices. Of the five nominees, The Thin Red Line definitely sticks out as a better movie than Shakespeare in Love.

Outside of the Best Picture nominees, there’s also The Truman Show, American History X, Rushmore, and A Simple Plan. So, while the big issue is that Saving Private Ryan lost, there are actually plenty of movies that could’ve won instead.

It’s a shame that they didn’t because people won’t let this one go. It’s not as talked about as the number one pick, but it’s still a movie that’s brought up again and again for all the wrong reasons. If it weren’t for the big Oscar win, it might be a fondly remembered (albeit forgettable) period piece, but it just had to win against such stiff competition.

 

1. Crash

Here it is: the quintessential undeserved Best Picture winner. Roughly a decade-and-a-half later, people continue to talk about that baffling Crash victory. This self-congratulatory ensemble movie that tries way too hard to provide a social commentary swooped in out of nowhere to take away Brokeback Mountain’s glory.

Statistically, it shouldn’t have won. Yes, it had the notoriously helpful PGA victory, but it failed to pick up any major Golden Globe nomination. When it picked up the big prize, it became one of only two movies to win an Oscar without a Best Picture Globe nomination. There have been various theories about how it managed to win over such a crowded field, but most people believe it was simply the safest, simplest choice.

Like a lot of movies on the list, Crash continues to be a topic of discussion for all the wrong reasons. It constantly pops up on lists very similar to this one. For example, it was recently listed as the second worst Best Picture winner of all time by Chris Cabin on Collider. That is only one of the many written pieces that seem to badmouth Paul Haggis’s metaphorical punching bag of a film.

The biggest case against the movie comes from Paul Haggis himself, who said that he wouldn’t consider the movie the best of the year. You could argue that he was simply being modest, but there’s some truth to what he said. Crash isn’t as good as Brokeback Mountain, Munich, or Capote.

Hell, there are probably dozens of movies that deserved the award instead. In other words, the hate isn’t unwarranted. This was a controversial choice, so don’t be surprised if you hear about it for decades to come.

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