February 23, 2012Well, Sunday, Feb. 26 is the big Oscar night celebration, and everyone is talking about movies right now – so I thought it might be fun in this week's column to look back through history and – at a time when everyone else is talking about the best picture award – I wanted to look at the worst best pictures.
That is, I thought it would be fun to take a stroll back down movie lane and find the top five absolute worst movies that have won best picture awards.
Now, don't get me wrong, some terrific movies, of course, have won the Oscar for best picture over the years. For instance, I loved American Beauty and I thought Kevin Spacey was fantastic in that, and it won for best film in 1999, and I could list a lot of other great movies that have won best picture as well.
But I'm just saying, if you look closely at it in hindsight, there have been a surprising number of absolute stinkers that have won the Oscar for best picture – which is remarkable when you think about it, since it's supposed to be the best picture, and every year there are about 500 films to choose from, so you would think that best picture would always go to a fairly decent picture – but no.
When I first set out to write a column on the worst best picture winners, and I started looking back over the years, I was alarmed to find that I might very well have to change it to a top 10 list of worst best pictures instead, because there were a lot of real stinkers that had won best picture. However, in the end, I worked hard to limit myself to five, but I can tell you it wasn't easy.
I started to realize that movies are like anything else: Some things seem really great at the time, but then you look back later, and you're like, "What in the world was I thinking?" You know how before you get married you think, "Hey, this person is just perfect – it's amazing," but then, after you've been married awhile, you look back, and you're like, what was I thinking?
Or remember, in the early '80s, how leg warmers were all the craze and they were really stupid but you couldn't see it because you were still basking in the afterglow of Flashdance because Jennifer Beals had managed to pull off leg warmers really well and that made you think that you could.
But, as they say, hindsight is always 50-50, and that applies to movies as well as to marriages and leg warmers.
I will also say that I learned a lot of fascinating movie facts by looking into the past best picture winners. For instance, very few people realize an X-rated movie once won best picture.
That's a good trivia question to ask someone, by the way, if you want to stump them: What X-rated movie won a best picture?
And, in the last 30 years, only one comedy has won the award. Also, only one best picture in history has been nominated for every single category in which it was eligible.
There's something else interesting that I found out: In the history of the Academy Awards, only one movie directed by a woman has ever won best picture.
Another thing I learned was that only one martial arts movie has ever been nominated for best picture – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I don't like that film at all because to me it's basically just a bunch of people flying around nonsensically in the air doing summersaults and other crazy things. Crouching Tiger didn't win that year, however, so it can't make it on my list of worst best picture winners – but it makes my point that there are a lot of bad pictures that get nominated even if they didn't win.
And when I went through all the winners and nominations going back to 1928 when they began giving out the award, I began to realize other things as well – like the fact that the Academy is extremely American-centric. In fact, in the entire history of the Oscars, not one single foreign-language film has ever won the prestigious best picture award – though foreign films have done surprisingly well in the best foreign-language picture category.
Also, as a general point, before I give you my list, I agree that it's hard to rate movies because rating movies is so highly subjective, whether you're talking about best picture winners or not. One woman in our office who has a degree from a prestigious Ivy League school thinks Bill Murray's Groundhog Day is one of the best movies ever – it's one of her absolute favorites – but, to me, I like that movie OK, but I find parts of it kind of repetitive.
And I know a lot of people who love Memento, which came out about 10 years ago. In fact, Memento has a rating of 8.6 out of 10 stars on Internet Movie Database – one of the highest scores of any movie ever. But, if you ask me, the whole movie is just absolutely incomprehensible.
I've watched Memento five times now because I keep thinking that maybe I can figure out what's going on, but then I finally just gave up. I don't understand it at all, and, frankly, to me, it's like the whole movie is backwards.
Magnolia is another movie that other people like but that left me mystified. It was fine until the end: Out of nowhere, large toads start raining down from the sky. (SPOILER ALERT!) What the heck is that? Toads don't rain from the sky. It makes no sense whatsoever.
Now, neither Groundhog Day, nor Memento, nor Magnolia won for best picture, but even when it comes to best picture winners that were giant hits, the movies can be really uneven.
Like, when it comes to Titanic, which did win for best picture, I enjoyed the first eight hours, and then, the next four hours I thought were kind of slow, but, then, the last five hours, when the ship was sinking, I thought were more exciting.
If you haven't seen the movie, Kate Winslet is this woman who falls in love with a 12-year-old boy. I always say I think it would have been more believable if she had adopted him instead of wanting to get with him if you know what I mean.
Also, I think that, at the end, there was plenty of room for both of them on the plank floating in the water, so there was no need for him to stay in the water and die. (SPOILER ALERT!)
Five years before Titanic, in 1994, Forrest Gump beat out two movies much better than it: It beat Pulp Fiction and Shawshank Redemption. I have no idea how Pulp Fiction doesn't win best picture that year (or just about any year for that matter), and Shawshank should clearly have beat out Forrest Gump.
Shawshank Redemption, by the way, which is based on a Stephen King story, is the best example we have of how a movie can be much better than the book that it's based on.
Like I said, there were a lot of movies I had to cut in order to limit it to five.
Driving Miss Daisy (1989), for instance, amazingly didn't make the list. (OK, now they're in the car, now he's putting on the brakes, now he's taking a left. Wow, I wonder if he will take a right next?)
And Terms of Endearment (1983) didn't make the list either, even though it is the chick flick that started all chick flicks – Fried Green Tomatoes, Steel Magnolias, Beaches, The Divine Secrets of the Traveling Pants and on and on. You know, they are all movies where four feisty women are good friends and one of them is dying of something and her death brings the other three closer together. Terms of Endearment is extremely sappy and it makes normal overacting look as subtle as a Buddhist tea ceremony.
Anyway, with all that said, could we have the envelope please, and now, with no further to do the worst top five films ever to win a best picture award.
Oh, and a drum roll please, and the fifth worst movie ever to win an Academy Award for the worst best picture is …
A Beautiful Mind (2001). If I saw this movie on a plane, I'd walk out. If you'd told me before 2001 that a movie about a math geek directed by Opie Taylor would ever even be in the running for best picture, you'd have laughed at my face till the chickens came home.
If I want to see someone do equations on a blackboard I'll save my money and just go to a math class at UNCG and sit in there all day. I haven't looked to see what films this movie beat out that year, but, just to pick one off the top of my head, I can't imagine why it beat out Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001.
Out of Africa (1985). Now, this beat out the other nominees that year: The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi's Honor and Witness. (I did at one time think that Kelly McGillis was hot, but it turns out in retrospect that her shoulders are freakishly broad.)
Out of Africa, interminably, is like nine hours long with Redford and Streep doing highly unconvincing accents the whole long time.
What's amazing about the 1985 Oscar for best picture, which of course went to films released in 1984, is how many great movies came out that year that weren't even nominated.
Look at that sad list of best picture nominees – Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, etc. You would think from that list that no good movies came out that year, but the truth is that 1984 was one of the best years ever for movies, and many other movies should have won rather than the stinker that did.
There were easily a dozen movies that came out in 1984 far better than any of these nominated, and certainly better than the cure-for-insomnia winner with Redford and Streep.
Just to get started, this same year, The Terminator (perhaps the greatest motion picture of all time) and the original Nightmare on Elm Street, another near perfect movie, didn't even get nominated.
Ghostbusters. (Who you gonna call?) Not even a nominee. How can that be? ("Why worry? Each one of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.")
Oh, and other great films that year that got snubbed by the Oscars: Beverly Hills Cop, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Karate Kid ("Wax on, wax off!"), Purple Rain, Police Academy, Footloose, Romancing the Stone, Sixteen Candles … I could go on but you get the idea. Which would you rather watch again, Ghostbusters or Out of Africa? I thought so.
Shakespeare in Love (1999). This somehow beat out Saving Private Ryan. How in the world did that happen? There is nothing about Shakespeare in Love that I didn't absolutely hate. This is like a chick flick in the Middle Ages, and all I remember about it are very effeminate men riding around in tights on horses saying things like, "Thou hast smitten me with thy fetching glance which is as pureth as the stream which runeth througheth the mountaineth." I mean, who talks like that? No one I know.
Also, this movie has Ben Affleck (star of Gigli, Jersey Girl and Reindeer Games) doing a Shakespearian accent. I think I've made my point.
Oh, and by the way, you know how earlier I said that only one comedy has won best picture in the last 30 years, well, this is it – Shakespeare in Love.
Which leads me to my main question: This is a comedy? Who knew? How do you figure that? There's not a single laugh in it.
The English Patient (1997). Now, this movie almost made number one on my list because it so, so horrible. This is a monstrosity of a movie. Quite honestly, if Seinfeld hadn't already done such a good job of pointing out what a terrible movie this is, I would spend a lot more time abusing it here.
And coming in as the very worst best picture of all time is …
Chariots of Fire (1981).
Now, first of all, I have nothing against movies about gays, not that there's anything wrong with that. But I do have two words for this movie: Bo and ring. This is perhaps the most boring movie of all time, and I'm including all movies in that statement – not just best picture winners. So it's especially egregious that this movie, which won an Oscar, is so boring.
A girl back then made me see it, and the whole time I was like, "Uh, all they do is run along the beach, I don't get it. Why don't they do something? This is a movie – they're supposed to do something interesting. Why are we here?"
Anyway, amazingly, this somehow beat out Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the best pictures of all times, a movie in which a bunch of stuff does happen – it has snakes and planes and fistfights and gunfights and more. But in Chariots of Fire, nothing happens. There's not even a chariot that catches fire.
But the critics loved it. ABC News said you'll be "riveted" and "You'll cheer like crazy."
But I wasn't and I didn't, and the only thing I remember is that they're running along the beach to that dull repetitive music.
And what's the huge dramatic moment in the movie? The big climax? Oh no, he won't run on Sundays! Big deal, who cares?
Do you know that in England, at Cambridge every year, they hold a Chariots of Fire race for charity. It's one of Cambridge's largest annual charity events. They race through the streets on a 1.7-mile course.
Now, take a wild guess what day of the week that Chariots of Fire charity race is? Right, it's on Sunday. I couldn't make this stuff up if I tried.
I just want to scream at the English people: "What!? Did you not see the movie!? Did you miss the point entirely?"
Think about it: Even if that guy the movie was based on was alive, and he wanted to run in the race that was based on him – he couldn't be in it because it's on Sunday.
OK, so that's your list of the worst best picture movies. And by the way, I haven't forgotten about you: I have the answers to those questions I asked earlier.
The movie that was nominated for every award it was eligible for was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which was nominated for 13 awards in 1967, and won five of them despite the obvious misspelling in the name.
The only movie to win best picture directed by a woman? The Hurt Locker, which won in 2010. Another example of a great movie that won the award.
Also, the only X-rated picture to win for best picture? Well, it was Midnight Cowboy of course, which won the Oscar in 1969.
OK, that's it – enjoy the Oscars and, until next week, I'll see you at the movies but the balcony is closed …