It’s Oscar season, and we can’t resist another swipe at Hollywood’s premier awards show. Last year we did a post called “We Hate The Oscars“, but lest you think we are always negative about it, we also did one called “When the Oscars Got It Right” in 2018. In reality, all the Best Picture winners are at least good films, and most of the time excellent films. Nevertheless, the overly conservative nature of the Academy has left some of the true “best” films of certain years off the ballot all together. In addition, the out-sized power of the actors voting bloc causes “actorly” films to win over better overall films (the most notorious recent example of this is Shakespeare in Love winning over Saving Private Ryan in 1998). I know there are cases where a film’s greatness only emerges over time, but the voters are primarily Hollywood veterans and should be able to recognize breakthrough material, instead of just going with safe bets. We each take a look at three films we think were overrated, and provide you with the film that should have won instead.
History is filled with instances where visionary art was overlooked in its time, only to be appreciated years later. When it comes to the Oscars, though, almost every year it feels like the process of evaluating “the best” is tainted by things like studio campaigning, the urge to honor someone who is “due”, or just picking someone who has been nominated in the past. I often feel like those with a prior nomination “get into the club” and get to the front of the line for a nomination, and a fresh acting/writing/directing talent has to be twice as good, or have a Harvey Weinstein campaigning for them, just to get thought of. I love Tom Hanks, but every role he touches doesn’t turn to gold (see Captain Phillips). Spielberg is a great director, but sorry, he missed the mark with Lincoln and it should never have been nominated. Here are my three best pictures that were not the best that year.
The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
For me a best picture has to have great writing/directing/acting/producing, but I also give credit to those films that culturally resonate and have an impact to moviemaking in that year. Yet, even though The Silence of the Lambs qualifies – it reached a huge audience and is still a pop culture reference almost 20 years later – I still think of this film as just gourmet horror (pun intended). Honestly, if you remove Jodie Foster and replace her with a capable but less-regarded actor, the film would never have been up for any Oscars. For this film to be one of the few in history to sweep the top five Oscar categories (picture, both lead actor, directing, and writing) is pretty bizarre when you think about all the great(er) films that came before and after. It’s well-known Oscar trivia that Hopkins won Best Actor for barely 16 minutes of screen time, and he created an iconic character, but wasn’t it also over-the-top and borderline scenery chewing? Heath Ledger got nominated for an equally iconic role as the Joker, but he was put into the Best Supporting category for 33 minutes of screen time. I enjoyed seeing Lambs in the theater in 1991, but even at the time, I was surprised at how much acclaim critics and the Academy bestowed on it.
Should have won: JFK
Oliver Stone went all out in his opus about the Kennedy assassination. He stitched together a massive tapestry of information that was both compelling and entertaining even at 3 hours. Technically, I thought this film was the height of his filmmaking skills as director/writer/producer. He got a superb performance out of Kevin Costner and a really talented supporting cast of both veteran and newer actors. It certainly made a cultural impact, although I feel like it has started to fade over time, which is unfortunate. It’s such an important film for so many reasons, and it deserved to be anointed Best Picture.
DJ: Silence of the Lambs may be the king of overrated, to sweep the Oscars the film needs to be historic, and Lambs was not. There is no doubt JFK should have won, I just think Hollywood did not want to “approve” of Stone’s methods, despite the greatness of Platoon and other films, he had not been embraced. It’s an amazingly crafted film.
Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
There was a stretch from 1977 – 1982 where each Best Picture got it wrong. I was tempted to rant about Annie Hall winning over Star Wars, but I think that argument has been made and settled at this point. Actors make up the majority of the voting Academy, and Kramer vs. Kramer is a good example of where the power of their voting bloc causes the wrong film to get the Oscar. It wasn’t a bad film by any means, and it was “of the moment” with its themes of divorce, single parenting, father’s rights, etc., but it was primarily an acting showcase and I don’t believe it has stood the test of time. Dustin Hoffman was a card-carrying “Oscar club” member at this point, with three Best Actor noms already, so that helped the film’s case. In addition, Meryl Streep’s star was rising, having received a Best Supporting nom for the Deer Hunter, and she went on to win Best Supporting Actress for Kramer (her first Oscar of many). It’s simply one of those films with two great performances, but as an impactful film that one would want to go back and watch again, it falls short of being “the best”.
Should have won: Apocalypse Now
I don’t think any fan or critic would disagree with me on this one. Apocalypse Now is #30 on AFI’s Top 100 American films of all time: Kramer vs. Kramer? Not even on it. Case closed. When you see the blood, sweat and tears that Francis Ford Coppola put into making this film (see the excellent doc Hearts of Darkness), it’s even more disheartening to see Apocalypse Now lose Best Picture. This is a visionary film that was extremely bold to make just a few years after the end of the Vietnam War. I saw this film in college in 70mm format (reportedly it was Coppola’s personal copy) and it was one of the most profound cinematic experiences of my life.
DJ: I think Kramer vs. Kramer is a fantastic film, the performances are great, maybe Hoffman’s best. But Apocalypse Now is in another world. Kramer is like a play whereas Apocalypse Now is an experience. It should have been rewarded, it checks all the boxes.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
I’m not sure why, but starting in 2007 with No Country For Old Men, the Academy took a sharp turn towards primarily recognizing smaller, independent films for Best Picture. This was a big mistake. Independent and foreign films are great, but ignoring films that resonate with the public was not historically what the Oscars were about, and this has led to a lot of people tuning out to both the awards and the TV show. They feebly tried to correct this in 2009 by expanding the Best Picture category up to ten films, but it hasn’t worked to fix the problem. Slumdog was a good film, but it’s a small-focused work that really has no trappings of “greatness” to it. Really – are many people out there going back and watching this? Don’t think I have a MAGA hat on, but if I’m being real, the Oscars should at least lean toward recognizing great American studio-made films, and Slumdog was essentially a foreign, independent work. The Oscars should never solely be about box office success, but they need to fix the formula that evaluates quality with some measure of films that reach a larger audience and have staying power into the future.
Should Have Won: The Dark Knight
Batman is one of the most iconic fictional characters in American history, and Christopher Nolan finally gave us a version that honored the comics but also gave us one hell of a great drama. But Hollywood snobbery deemed it not sophisticated enough (but Silence of the Lambs was?) and failed to even nominate it for Best Picture. It pains me to see Joker get nominated this year when Heath Ledger’s version was so much more dynamic and memorable. Nolan’s technical approach to this film – mostly using practical effects instead of CGI, for example – was groundbreaking and refreshing, and had a huge impact on the many comic book films that came after. The list of 2008 Best Picture nominees was one of the weakest of all time, and The Dark Knight should have at least been on that list, if not the winner.
DJ: Slumdog Millionaire should not be a Best Picture. Although it was a weak year for that category. I think The Dark Knight caused the change to 10 nominees. I like TDK but it was my least favorite of the three. Should it have been nominated over Milk or The Reader? Absolutely!
The Oscars have had a long history of making some wrong Best Picture choices. In a year when Around the World in 80 Days won, how does The Searchers not even get a nomination? So it’s no surprise they keep making mistakes. I still can’t believe Blade Runner 2049 didn’t get a nomination. The Academy is weird and does weird things, the make-up Oscar is the worst! I found three films, two I like and one I don’t that didn’t deserve to win in their year.
Everyone loves the Rocky films, I love the Rocky films, except maybe for the 5th one. No one denies the original was a great film and it kind of led the way for the underdog films. The one where someone or a team wins or almost wins and they learn lessons about themselves. A feel-good story. And that’s great. But there is not a whole lot in this film. Some great boxing scenes, a weird romance, Burgess Meredith chewing up scenery. Stallone has probably never acted better but it’s a simple story. I am actually surprised the critics went for this one with such strong competition. There is nothing wrong with Rocky, I actually watched it again last year. If this was made today and there were five nominees, I don’t think it gets a spot. Not sure what the campaigning was like in 1976. I find this one of the strangest winners in Oscar history, I can’t really rationalize why it won, like I can with others.
Should Have Won: Taxi Driver
I keep going back and forth on this one. 1976 also had Network and All the President’s Men which I almost picked. Both of these films are better than Rocky. I settled on Taxi Driver and it’s where Martin Scorsese should have gotten the win. Taxi Driver is a masterpiece filled with iconic dialogue and incredible acting. It’s grittier than Rocky and has a complexity to its story especially DeNiro’s Travis Bickle. Jodie Foster gives an incredible performance as an underage hooker. It has stood the test of time and is culturally significant.
MG: I never thought about Rocky not deserving the win, but I didn’t realize it won over Taxi Driver, so I completely agree with your argument. I’m sure Taxi Driver was too edgy for many of the old-guard Academy members. In many ways it was a film both ahead of its time and very much of its time. Also, there’s no question that Scorsese deserved to win for director for this film over The Departed.
Dances with Wolves (1990)
I applaud Kevin Costner’s guts to make this epic film. It’s a very good film. Kevin Costner does a great job as a union soldier who survives the Civil War and ends up living with the Lakota. I love the Western genre. This is a long film and it can be slow, not “English Patient” slow, but slow. There is now a 4 hour plus version that they released to make it even slower. The amount of effort Costner put into this film is commendable. The cinematography is beautiful. The acting is very good, Mary McDonnell and Graham Greene are wonderful. I liked how Costner portrayed the Native Americans compared to movies from the past. I would be all for him keeping his Best Director Oscar as I think he did an amazing job but I don’t think the film should have gotten the top spot that year. There have been a lot of good Westerns since this film, Unforgiven was another Best Picture from the 90’s, but after that they do not often get nominated. Not sure if the star power of Costner and Eastwood, both films they directed, helped propel them to the top. But my pick would have come from a different genre.
Should Have Won: Goodfellas
I didn’t mean to do this and it was not my intention to include two Martin Scorsese films on the list but at the end of the day, I call them as I see them. Goodfellas is an epic film, turning the gangster genre on its head. This may be his best film. Telling the story of true-life gangster Henry Hill, Scorsese hits it out of the park. DeNiro and Pesci are brilliant as always. It has to be Ray Liotta’s best role too, he has not matched his performance here as of yet but I know he has stopped smoking, thanks Chantix. It’s a sweeping story, with great music and intense performances. This film has the energy the Dances with Wolves just doesn’t have.
MG: You caught me in a pickle on this one, because I loved both films back in 1990 for different reasons. Wolves was very influential in causing a shift in how we looked at the plight of Native Americans (not that it made any real difference in policy in this country), although I do agree when I watched some of it recently it felt a bit bloated. Yet, in terms of film-making craft, Goodfellas is a masterpiece and holds up well. It’s had a long influential reach to many others that came into the film business. This one is a toss-up for me.
Forrest Gump (1994)
I liked this film when I saw it. I am not a fan today. It’s hard to watch. Gump is iconic but to me in a negative way. Who hasn’t said “Run Forrest run” or “Life is like a box of chocolates”? I don’t like any of the characters. There is way too much going on. I despise the use of real famous people inserted into scenes. I don’t even like Tom Hanks’s performance and I know he won the Oscar. Only Gary Sinese impressed me. I hate the story. I know a lot of people still love this movie, but it’s dated and just not a film that should be Oscar-worthy. I think the voters were just impressed with the technology that Zemeckis used in creating this epic story. Tom Hanks was becoming the darling of the cinema and no one wanted to recognize a prison story written by Stephen King. This is one of the biggest failures in Oscar history up with Silence of the Lambs or the Shakespeare in Love debacles.
Should Have Won: The Shawshank Redemption
I shouldn’t have to say much here, The Shawshank Redemption is one of the best films of all time, probably in most people’s top 50. Why does it not have an Oscar? It’s has a great story, classic performances from Morgan Freeman, Tim Robbins, and Bob Gunton as the Warden and it’s beautifully filmed. It has great iconic lines that everyone knows, such as “Get busy living, or get busy dying”. I am not a horror fan so probably the best thing, Stephen King has ever written, at least in my eyes, and a great script by Frank Darabont. It is way better than Forrest Gump and it’s not even close. You can make cases in some of these other picks, but not this one. Is The Bubba Gump Shrimp company still even open? Shawshank for the win.
MG: Good pick here, because this is a real Oscar mistake – almost as bad as Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. I loved Gump when I saw it in the theater before it blew up as a big thing. But the truth is it’s gimmicky and Tom Hanks was the Oscar golden boy at the time and that gave the film an undeserved level of Oscar attention. Is the story really that great when you come down to it? (By the way, Bubba Gump Shrimp is still going strong – ate there in Cancun and San Francisco in the past decade.)