The Oscars or Academy Awards have been hit and miss over the years. For every deserved win, like this year’s Parasite, there have been some seriously dubious calls. Saving Private Ryan lost out to Shakespeare in Love, Brokeback Mountain lost out to Crash, and even Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, widely regarded as one of the best films of all time, lost to…How Green Was My Valley—nope, I haven’t seen it either.
We thought it’d be fun to have a look at how the Academy has done over the years and, with the benefit of hindsight, highlight a few of the best and worst Academy Award for Best Picture winners.
Who Are the Academy?
But first, a quick refresher. What makes the Oscars so erratic is that there are only a few thousand people eligible to vote. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is an invitation-only professional body for people involved in making movies. Its ranks are made up of actors, directors, producers, and others of that ilk. The Oscars aren’t based on merit or broad appeal: they’re a popularity contest for the Hollywood elite.
Over the last few years, the Academy has been trying to address its longstanding diversity issues, but at its core, it’s still an exclusive club. And it’s why its choices can be so at odds with what people expect or think deserves to win.
Worst of the Best
Now, the fun begins. We’re not going to address early-Hollywood stinkers like The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) or The Broadway Melody (1929), which have suffered under the weight of years. Instead, I’m going to use Rotten Tomatoes to find the four worst popular, modern winners. Of course, as Best Picture Winners, they’re all watchable and enjoyable films—they’re just bad compared to the films they beat or haven’t aged well.
4. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Ron Howard’s Russell Crowe drama about a mathematician with schizophrenia isn’t genuinely awful; it’s just profoundly mediocre. The subject matter is played for easy pathos, but it’s, at best, an average drama. Maybe give it a miss and go with Crowe’s other best picture winner, Gladiator. Is it much more deserved? No. But it is way more entertaining.
3. Braveheart (1995)
Look, I adore Braveheart. It’s Mel Gibson at his silly best, both starring and directing—before he went truly off the rails in the 2000s. It’s just that it’s not exactly best picture stuff. Granted, 1995 wasn’t exactly a stacked year at the Oscars, but both Babe and Apollo 13 are better films. Either one of them should have won.
2. Crash (2004)
Crash is a decent drama about racism in LA, but its inclusion on this list is less about it winning, and more about the movies it beat: Brokeback Mountain and Munich. Even its director, Paul Haggis, came out and disavowed the win saying in a 2015 interview, “Was it the best film of the year? I don’t think so.”
1. Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump has not aged well. Tom Hanks’ performance is excellent, and it’s an important pop-culture milestone, but the sentimentality hides a deeply troubling message that glosses over all the nuance of modern American history. Watch it again if you don’t believe me, but prepare to be disappointed. Pulp Fiction or the stellar Four Weddings and a Funeral should have got the win that year.
Best of the Best
With the worst of the best out of the way, it’s time to look at the best of the best. Same deal as before, but Hollywood classics are eligible for inclusion—some of them have aged fantastically.
4. The Godfather (1972)
Okay, I’m calling an audible here. Technically it’s 7th on Rotten Tomatoes official list. Still, I’m putting it at number four—mostly because I haven’t seen It Happened One Night (1934) and All About Eve (1950), and I think it just edges out the also exceptional Spotlight (2015), which the Tomatometer puts at number six.
There’s not a lot that needs to be said about The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola’s direction is perfect. Marlon Brando and Al Pacino are exceptional. Not only is it a fantastic piece of art, but it’s incredible entertainment. A popular movie with a point that never lets up. A true masterpiece and utterly deserving of its plaudits.
3. Casablanca (1942)
Even if you haven’t seen Casablanca, you’ve seen a thousand allusions and references to it. Directed by Michael Curtiz, it’s more famous for its two stars: Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. It’s widely hailed as one of the best movies of the last century. The only film that regularly gets ranked higher than it, Citizen Kane, never won an Academy Award. I watched it again recently, and it’s as classy as it ever was. If you haven’t seen it, fix that this weekend.
2. Moonlight (2016)
The Academy’s recent focus on diversity and Hollywood’s move towards superhero blockbusters instead of prestige-but-still-broadly-appealing blockbusters like Gladiator and Titanic has significantly changed the kind and quality of the films being nominated. These last two films are the primary beneficiaries of it as the Academy is hewing closer to the critical consensus than ever before. Whether Barry Jenkins (III) ‘s Moonlight is still considered in the same light in a decade remains to be seen, but right now, it’s one of the most spectacular and important films ever made.
1. Parasite (2019)
Parasite winning the Academy Award was a huge shock to me. I’d seen it a few days before and adored it. It’s a horrifically compelling look at class inequality in South Korea (and the rest of the world) told as a suspenseful horror-drama. Bong Joon-ho’s direction and writing is spot on. It’s that perfect blend of an entertaining movie that isn’t afraid to take a position—whether you agree with it or not. But I couldn’t see it winning the Oscars.
It was too Korean, too pointed, and too genre. Snowpiercer (2013), Joon-ho’s first English language film was criminally snubbed from any nominations when it was released. I didn’t think Parasite could overcome everything and win.
But it did.
Is it the best film ever to win Best Film? Maybe. It’s certainly up there, and it is according to the critic’s consensus on Rotten Tomatoes (which is, along with some individual wrangling, what I’ve primarily based this list off). After all, only 93 films have won the award; hundreds of films that would have won in a bad year lost because they came out the same year as a true masterpiece.
What do you think? Which of the winners should top this list? Let us know in the comments.