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15 Inferior Best Picture Oscar Winners (And the Enduring Classics They Beat)

Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire
Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire

Last Wednesday, Craiggers hit on some forgotten Best Picture Academy Award winners, films which have slipped through the cracks of society's consciousness for one reason or another; either for being too of-the-moment, not having enough quotable lines, or for simply not having held up very well -- hindsight is 20/20, a man convicted of DWI manslaughter once told me. And how true it is.

Sometimes those negligible films wind up beating out classics which, looking back on it now, should easily have taken the top honors. Here are 15 examples of exactly that.

1951 An American in Paris, a romantic musical starring Gene Kelly The Classic It Beat: A Streetcar Named Desire

However big a fan you are of An American in Paris, it's rarely mentioned now, even by people who love musicals. A Streetcar Named Desire, on the other hand, was a revolutionary film, tackling mature subject matter with a gritty intensity not seen before, particularly on the part of breakout star Marlon Brando. Brando famously killed the "Why I Oughta!" school of stiff, dead-eyed acting single-handedly with his portrayal of the loathsome, unhinged and drop-dead-sexy Stanley. His method acting approach is still in common use today, and Streetcar is performed as a play and studied in film classes even now.

1964: My Fair Lady, a romantic musical The Classic It Beat: Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I've got nothing against romantic musicals, in principle. But did a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion deserve to win over Stanley Kubrick's astoundingly prescient, entirely original dark comedy? I would submit that it did not. But then, you're reading the writings of a man utterly unmoved by the mawkish strains of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face."

1967: In the Heat of the Night The Classics It Beat: The Graduate, Bonnie & Clyde and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

In the Heat of the Night is a fine film with fine performances, don't get me wrong. But aside from the racial politics, it plays out as a fairly standard detective story. Perhaps that was what was revolutionary about it, but the films it beat were unique in every way. The Graduate was an unsettling slow-burn of an anti-love story, Bonnie & Clyde was a fast-paced, ultra-violent gangster romance with a modern bent, and as for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, well, it proves that In the Heat of the Night wasn't even the best "Racism Is Dumb" film starring Sidney Poitier that year. Having a black man marry a white girl in 1967 was far more daring than a black man simply being a decent detective, and it had Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn to boot.

1971: The French Connection The Classic It Beat: A Clockwork Orange

This represents the second time in a row Stanley Kubrick's genius got screwed out of its proper accolades. Once again, The French Connection is a fine film, a taut, suspenseful thriller, but in no way was it the meticulously produced, staggeringly innovative mindfuck that was A Clockwork Orange, still controversial after all these years, and still packing a hell of a phallus-shaped punch. The French Connection will remind you why everyone loves Gene Hackman, but A Clockwork Orange will ruin "Singin' in the Rain" for you. Forever.

 

1973: The Sting The Classic It Beat: The Exorcist

Yet again, not a complete embarrassment. The Sting still holds up as a solid comedy today, but if you ask a fan of comedic film to name his favorite comedies, do you think The Sting will be in the Top 20? Now ask a horror fan the same question. I bet The Exorcist makes it into the Top 3 every single time -- unless you're asking one of those horror fans who claim to hate it just to be different, in which case, kindly slap his or her smug fucking face for me. The Sting helped solidify Robert Redford and Paul Newman as kings of the buddy picture, but The Exorcist set the high watermark for an entire genre, and soiled the bellbottoms of an entire generation. And it would still be doing so today, were bellbottoms still in style.

1979: Kramer Vs. Kramer The Classic It Beat: Apocalypse Now

Fresh war does not do well at the box office. It just hurts too much. Three Kings and The Hurt Locker, both excellent films set in the two Iraq conflicts, did poor theatrical numbers despite critical acclaim and only found life later on home video and DVD. Such was the case with Apocalypse Now, which took Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and stuck it in the middle of a hallucinatory Vietnam War. Even though it was obviously a brilliant film, the Academy wasn't nearly as comfortable handing over the Oscar to it as they were with awarding it to a film about the at-the-time very topical subject of divorce. Divorce was just starting to become socially acceptable, so here we have a choice which seems baffling now, but kind of made sense at the time.

1980: Ordinary People The Classic It Beat: Raging Bull

Ordinary People is a sad, sad film filled with great performances -- Mary Tyler Moore in particular -- but it lacks the dynamic levels of Raging Bull, the highs and the lows, the smoldering intensity. It wasn't the last time Scorsese was unjustly skipped over for an Oscar, sadly.

1981: Chariots of Fire The Classic It Beat: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Look, sometimes the Academy should see through obvious Oscar bait and just go with the film everyone loves. You'll watch Chariots of Fire maybe once in your life. You'll watch Raiders of the Lost Ark literally every time you catch it while flipping through channels. Don't act like it's not true.

1987: The Last Emperor The Classic It Beat: Fatal Attraction

For all I know, The Last Emperor is about a struggling sandwich shop called Emperor's run by a gruff but lovable old man trying to keep the place afloat with the help of his many eccentric relatives. Why did it beat out a film whose very title has become part of the lexicon, immediately understood when referring to one's crazy ex? Well, despite the fact that the film is still scary as shit to this very day, we just can't picture an Academy that would hand out a Best Picture Oscar to a film featuring a boiled pet rabbit.

 

1990: Dances With Wolves The Classic It Beat: Goodfellas

At no point should Kevin God Damn Costner have won an Academy Award for Best Picture, not when he's in competition with Martin Scorsese at the top of his game. Hell, not even if he were up against a Martin Scorsese at the middle or dead gutter bottom of his game. Dances With Wolves was decent enough, I suppose...decent enough for James Cameron to rip off for Avatar, anyway. But Goodfellas remains maybe the best gangster film of all time not to feature a Corleone.

1994: Forrest Gump The Classic It Beat: Pulp Fiction

Let there be no mistake: The acting saved Forrest Gump. Excellent performances buoyed what was a weak, simplistic, anti-intellectual screenplay which suggests that all of life's difficulties can be dealt with handily as long as you don't think about them too hard. Pulp Fiction, on the other hand, was so damned funky, gritty, smart, stylish and all-around balls-out awesome that practically every film even tangentially related to crime ripped it off for the rest of the decade. Enormously influential and endlessly cool, it's what every independent filmmaker aspires to.

1996: The English Patient The Classic It Beat: Fargo

Craig touched on this already, but we need to reiterate: The English Patient, while a decent film, just does not have the cleverness, quotability and humor of the Coen Brothers' darkly manic snow noir. The cast delivers on every level, and you've got to love a crime flick in which the hero is a pleasant, pregnant Minnesota woman whose chirpy Yooper accent hides a sharp, keen mind. Arguably the Coen Brothers' best film. Relax, Lebowski fans, I said "arguably."

1998: Shakespeare in Love The Classic It Beat: Saving Private Ryan

Shakespeare in Love is a passably pleasing evening's entertainment, but Saving Private Ryan is a war movie like none had seen before. Gritty realism pervades every frame of a film that starts with horrifying butchery yet still somehow ends on an amazingly hopeful note. Have a few people shed tears watching Shakespeare in Love? Probably. But everyone bawls at the end of Saving Private Ryan. And rightly so.

2001 and 2002: A Beautiful Mind and Chicago The Classics They Beat: The Fellowship of the Ring and Two Towers chapters of The Lord of the Rings saga

Look, I understand that the Academy didn't want to just lavish awards on these films for three years in a row and deny other films those awards for having the bad luck to be made between 2001 and 2003. But it fucking should have. Instead of saving up all its goodwill for Return of the King, Hollywood should have been behind all three films in this amazing, groundbreaking, life-affirming, soul-repairing trilogy. Because they deserved every award they were nominated for. You know it and I know it, and it was fallacy to pretend otherwise.


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