The 93rd Academy Awards were among the most controversial in the history of the Oscars, and oddly Best Picture was among the least controversial topics of conversation. While the decision to present Nomadland its win prior to the awards for Best Actor and Best Actress prompted severe backlash, Chloe Zhao’s film seems to be one of the more beloved Best Picture winners of the past decade.
Nomadland was the rare case in which one film dominated the entire season and won almost every major award leading up to the Oscars, but the race is rarely that cut and dry. Awards watchers love a good horse race, and more often than not, Best Picture winners are judged not only on their merit as individual films, but by what films they beat for the distinction.
Certainly, there are a fair amount of bad Best Picture winners, but the majority are simply solid, well-crafted works that were popular at the time of release. The Oscars don’t hand the award to a masterpiece like The Godfather: Part II or On the Waterfront every year, but that doesn’t mean everything else is a Crash or a Driving Miss Daisy. Many Best Picture winners are only remembered and rewatched because of the win itself, and sometimes that can damage their long-term standing.
It’s hard to shake the reputation of being an undeserving winner, and trying to ignore the fact that a film beat out one or more future classics can be difficult. Here are seven cases in which a perfectly good, respectable film was saddled with a soured reputation because of its Best Picture win.
The King’s Speech (2010)
What it beat: The Social Network, 127 Hours, Black Swan, The Fighter, Inception, The Kids Are All Right, Toy Story 3, True Grit, Winter’s Bone
The King’s Speech will forever be remembered as the movie that beat The Social Network. Not only was the win undeserved, but it was emblematic of just how out of touch the Oscars were. Once again, a feel-good period piece won over an edgy critical favorite destined to be a classic. The win has aged poorly as The Social Network continues to be relevant to recent events and topped many lists of the best films of the 2010s.
It’s an unfortunate situation in more than one way, because The King’s Speech is a really charming film. It’s a lot more entertaining than some of the stuffy historical films the Oscars go for, and the chemistry between Colin Firth and Geoffery Rush is generally delightful. Although its reputation of being “a film that should be shown in schools” seems like an example of damning with faint praise, there’s a lot of good insights about British royal politics and the anxieties of public speaking that elevate The King’s Speech over something downright insulting like Green Book. Had it not gone home with Best Picture, The King’s Speech would most likely be remembered as a well-made crowdpleaser, and not as the film that stole David Fincher’s Oscar.
Ordinary People (1980)
What it beat: Raging Bull, Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Elephant Man, Tess
Here’s a case in which a truly excellent film was overshadowed by its awards competition. Yes, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is one of the greatest films ever made, but that doesn’t change the fact that Ordinary People is as well. The “family drama” was a popular genre among awards bodies at the time, and Ordinary People, an incredibly moving contemplation of grief and faith, opted for a more patient, studied approach over taxing melodrama and signature “Oscar clip” moments.
Robert Redford shows remarkable mastery for a first-time director, letting each of the leads have their moment to shine without feeling exploitative. However, Timothy Hutton’s lead performance puzzlingly took home a Best Supporting Actor award, a case of category fraud made even more unfortunate when considering Hutton’s co-star Donald Sutherland was shut out (somehow, the 85-year-old legend has never received an Oscar nomination). Raging Bull was a film that instantly announced itself as a classic, but a more careful reflection of Ordinary People suggests that the quality difference between the two isn’t as wide as it has been made out to be.
Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
What it beat: All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, Norma Rae
It may shock you to realize that Kramer vs. Kramer was the highest grossing film of 1979, a year that saw the release of a Star Trek movie, a Muppets movie, a Rocky sequel, and a James Bond movie. It was a very different time – every single Best Picture winner of the 1970s was also among the top ten highest-grossing films of the year. While it momentarily captured the zeitgeist, Kramer vs. Kramer’s win isn’t remembered as fondly given its win over Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now (although for my money, the Oscar should’ve gone to Bob Fosse’s self-reflective musical masterpiece All That Jazz).
Kramer vs. Kramer hasn’t aged perfectly, but it’s one of the rare examples of a divorce movie where both participants are given equal weight. Meryl Streep’s Joanna isn’t painted as unreasonably compulsive, and seeing just how big of a screw up Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is only strengthens her perspective when she’s offscreen. Ted’s irresponsibility is well-handled, and his eventual custody win doesn’t absolve him of his mistakes. Hoffman’s treatment of Streep on-set has done more to harm the film’s legacy than anything, but as it stands Kramer vs. Kramer is an earnest, well-made drama. It’s just no Apocalypse Now.
Out of Africa (1985)
What it beat: Witness, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor, The Color Purple
Even in 1985, Out of Africa felt like a weird Best Picture winner. It wasn’t particularly acclaimed, and while it was one of the biggest films of the year, its slow pacing and simplistic perspective on race relations generated blowback. It was also another example of the sweeping historical romance winning over edgier fare; Peter Weir’s masterful crime thriller Witness would have been a much more exciting choice, and 1985 could’ve been a great year to recognize a box office smash like Back to the Future or an arthouse masterpiece like Brazil.
While it falls squarely within the oft-mischaracterized category of “Oscar bait,” Out of Africa is certainly not the disaster that some may suggest it is. Streep and Redford are so inherently charismatic that they elevate even the soppiest of moments, and while it’s hardly Sidney Pollack’s best work, he nonetheless put together a beautiful looking film that’s stunning to watch on a big screen. If nothing else, the score from John Barry is an all-time great.
A Beautiful Mind (2001)
What it beat: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, Moulin Rouge!
A Beautiful Mind is far and away the weakest film within the lineup of 2001’s Best Picture hopefuls (which notably does not include David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down). Like many Best Picture winners, its “based on a true story” narrative is almost entirely inaccurate. The depiction of mental health issues, while praised by subject John Nash himself, were also up for debate. But is it a bad movie? Actually, no.
Ron Howard took a risk by showing the film from Nash’s perspective and pulled off an impressive shock with the realization that Nash has imagined entire events and people; furthermore, Russell Crowe’s performance as Nash is far more nuanced and compelling than his win the previous year for Gladiator. The Oscars’ favoritism towards biopics about historical figures overcoming disability can’t be ignored, but not every film that falls into the category is worth dismissing entirely.
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
What it beat: Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, Blossoms in the Dust, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back The Dawn, The Little Foxes, One Foot In Heaven, Sergeant York, Suspicion
John Ford received a record-breaking four Academy Awards for Best Director (earning top honors for The Informer, Grapes of Wrath, and The Quiet Man), but surprisingly, How Green Was My Valley was the only one of the bunch to actually take home Best Picture. How Green Is My Valley is one of Ford’s best, combining the working class grittiness of The Informer, the romanticism of The Quiet Man, and the evolution of political views that he would focus on with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Long Voyage Home. Ford is one of the great cinematic humanists, and How Green Was My Valley is a moving depiction of the decline of a mining coalfield through the eyes of a child witnessing his family splinter apart.
But 1941 was the year of Citizen Kane. How can you compete with that? Some would argue that only a select few Best Picture winners ever could, with The Godfather, Casablanca, or Schindler’s List coming close. It would be difficult to stack up against what is widely considered to be the most influential movie ever made, but Ford’s film is still brilliant (if not necessarily comparable). The dominance of Citizen Kane tends to overshadow the fact that 1941 was just a great year for film, period.
Rain Man (1988)
What it beat: The Accidental Tourist, Working Girl, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Grind
This lineup of films is absolutely stellar; among the nominees you have one of Lawrence Kasdan’s finest screenplays ever with The Accidental Tourist, one of the great ‘80s rom-coms in Working Girl, the incendiary true-crime thriller Mississippi Grind, and the deserving winner, the ruthlessly entertaining Dangerous Liaisons. And the Oscar went to…. Rain Man? Another case in which the highest-grossing film of the year also won Best Picture, Rain Man feels like the safest possible choice in a year with better options (lest you forget snubs for Big, A Fish Called Wanda, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Last Temptation of Christ).
Rain Man may feel like a boring winner, and the subsequent parodies over the years certainly haven’t improved its reputation. The Oscars certainly love road comedies that feel like they’re addressing a seemingly important topic, but Rain Man thankfully avoids the forced historical reconciliation of Green Book or Driving Miss Daisy and focuses purely on the brotherly bond. It’s interesting to see Tom Cruise weaponize his own charisma to play a flawed character, and despite some problematic moments Dustin Hoffman is really charming. Barry Levinson’s films are generally very pleasant watches that don’t push the needle, and Rain Man fits that description perfectly.
KEEP READING: Every Best Picture Oscar Winner Ranked
Stiles also revisits ’10 Things I Hate About You,’ ‘Save the Last Dance,’ hosting ‘SNL’ and more!
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