Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Question of the Week: What’s the worst Best Picture winner?

It’s Oscar season, and while I don’t pay much attention to the Academy Awards these days because I see so few movies in the theaters, I’m still mildly interested. I might have another Oscar-related Question of the Week soon, but for now, let’s concentrate on the worst winner of the Oscar’s highest honor!

We’ve all (probably) been a bit shocked that some movies win Best Picture. Sometimes it’s because they’re clearly not as good as some of the other nominees, and sometimes because they’re just not that great a movie. I’m not interested, right now, in the first category – Best Picture winners that shouldn’t have won because another nominee was better. I’m just interested in the quality of the winners, when stacked against all the other winners of Best Picture. So what’s the worst movie from this list of Best Picture winners?

1928: Wings
1929: The Broadway Melody
1930: All Quiet on the Western Front
1931: Cimarron
1932: Grand Hotel
1933: Cavalcade
1934: It Happened One Night
1935: Mutiny on the Bounty
1936: The Great Ziegfeld
1937: The Life of Emile Zola
1938: You Can’t Take It With You
1939: Gone With the Wind
1940: Rebecca
1941: How Green Was My Valley
1942: Mrs. Miniver
1943: Casablanca
1944: Going My Way
1945: The Lost Weekend
1946: The Best Years of Our Lives
1947: Gentleman’s Agreement
1948: Hamlet
1949: All the King’s Men
1950: All About Eve
1951: An American in Paris
1952: The Greatest Show on Earth
1953: From Here to Eternity
1954: On the Waterfront
1955: Marty
1956: Around the World in 80 Days
1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai
1958: Gigi
1959: Ben-Hur
1960: The Apartment
1961: West Side Story
1962: Lawrence of Arabia
1963: Tom Jones
1964: My Fair Lady
1965: The Sound of Music
1966: A Man for All Seasons
1967: In the Heat of the Night
1968: Oliver!
1969: Midnight Cowboy
1970: Patton
1971: The French Connection
1972: The Godfather
1973: The Sting
1974: The Godfather Part II
1975: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
1976: Rocky
1977: Annie Hall
1978: The Deer Hunter
1979: Kramer vs. Kramer
1980: Ordinary People
1981: Chariots of Fire
1982: Gandhi
1983: Terms of Endearment
1984: Amadeus
1985: Out of Africa
1986: Platoon
1987: The Last Emperor
1988: Rain Man
1989: Driving Miss Daisy
1990: Dances With Wolves
1991: The Silence of the Lambs
1992: Unforgiven
1993: Schindler’s List
1994: Forrest Gump
1995: Braveheart
1996: The English Patient
1997: Titanic
1998: Shakespeare in Love
1999: American Beauty
2000: Gladiator
2001: A Beautiful Mind
2002: Chicago
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2004: Million Dollar Baby
2005: Crash
2006: The Departed
2007: No Country for Old Men
2008: Slumdog Millionaire
2009: The Hurt Locker
2010: The King’s Speech
2011: The Artist
2012: Argo
2013: 12 Years a Slave
2014: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
2015: Spotlight
2016: Moonlight
2017: The Shape of Water
2018: Green Book
2019: Parasite
2020: Nomadland

Obviously, none of us have probably seen all of these, and I haven’t seen the ones generally regarded as the “Worst Best Picture Winners” – The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days, Oliver! – but I have seen Crash, which isn’t very good, and while Chicago isn’t bad, this isn’t necessarily about bad movies, just movies that didn’t deserve Best Picture, and that certainly didn’t. Forrest Gump is not very good, and American Beauty has not aged well at all. My go-to “Worst Best Picture Winner” is usually Titanic, because I just don’t think it’s a very good movie, but I think my answer is …

The French Connection. Man, what a load of hot garbage that movie is. I mean, Titanic is a spectacle – it’s not very good, but just the fact that Cameron managed to get it on screen and it looks stupendous is an achievement, despite the godawful acting and the stupid story. The French Connection, though, is terrible. Hackman is lousy, Scheider is fine but certainly not great, Friedkin doesn’t do much with the direction, and the story sucks. Even if we allow for the fact that, you know, it’s gritty, man, the fact that Hackman and Scheider break so many laws in their pursuit of the smuggler and then Hackman straight up kills that FBI guy and then apparently executes the smuggler (although, of course, they had to make a sequel – which is also garbage – so he’s not dead, thereby invalidating the tiniest sliver of interest the first movie had) is simply ignored. HE KILLED AN FBI AGENT AND GETS AWAY WITH IT!!!!! I don’t care that he kills the dude, because “fog of war” and all that, but the movie ends and nobody cares. The only saving grace is the car/train chase, which is pretty cool. But the movie sucks. That it’s considered one of the best movies ever made makes me think that people who judge these things just aren’t very smart.

Anyway, that’s my rant. Check out the list above and tell me what the worst movie on it is!


  1. humanbelly

    Hmmmmm— I’ve seen 47 from this list. The earliest is BROADWAY MELODY; the most recent is BIRDMAN(etc). And man, talk about not having any common ground for direct comparison–! However, I’m sure I’m going to shock the assemblage here and say that the movie I enjoyed the least, by a long stretch— I mean to the point of my wife and I making fun of it while we watched it in a near-empty theater– was LOTR:RETURN OF THE KING. I would choose to rewatch any other Oscar winner over that film. . . even the pretty dreadful AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. . .

    Okay– lay me to waste, teammates!


  2. Peter

    I feel like the worst is probably The Broadway Melody. I haven’t seen every film here, but I think most of the notorious Oscar winners I’ve seen are merely overrated, not entirely uninteresting. If you’ve seen basically any talkie since The Broadway Melody – it won’t hold any interest for you.

  3. William Wilson

    The answer to your question is Braveheart.

    Although it’s been a few years since I saw The French Connection, your reading of the ending is different to mine. We just hear a gunshot as Hackman runs out of scene, I always saw that as a sign of pursuit, not execution.

    And doesn’t the film end with details of the criminals punishment from the legal system, which is light because of lack of evidence, presumably because of poor police procedure.

    A quick google and the end credits say the villain was never caught. Which aligns with my memory.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I had forgotten that it said the villain was never caught, and I always thought that while we didn’t see the end, it was heavily implied he killed the dude. Oh well – he still killed the FBI guy. The ending, however, doesn’t make it a bad movie for me – the rest of it does! 🙂

      Braveheart’s an interesting choice. I think the history is laughable, and Mel’s subsequent behavior shades it a bit, but I still enjoy it.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I haven’t seen Parasite, but I like how you go against the grain, as it seem universally loved!!!!

      When I watched Heaven’s Gate a few years ago, we discussed that and Deer Hunter (I don’t know if you were involved). I think Deer Hunter works because the actors are so good in it, so despite some issues with the script, it’s a better movie than Heaven’s Gate. You may disagree!

  4. daniel

    I didn’t like PARASITE when I first saw it, but I rewatched it recently and it’s ok I guess. It’s well made and clever. And probably one the better Bong Joon-ho movies. I think I just don’t like Bong Joon-ho that much.

    SHAPE OF WATER is kinda bad.

    MOONLIGHT could have been a cool shot film if they only released the best (the third) segment from it. As it stands it’s kinda meh.

    SPOTLIGHT has a hot/powerful topic, but it’s at best aggressively mediocre.

    BIRDMAN was annoying.

    I don’t think I’ve ever finished watching THE ARTIST.

    LORD OF THE RINGS nad GLADIATOR are probably not that good.

    FORREST GUMP and AMERICAN BEUTY are definitely not very good.

    But I think my answer is SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I’ts a bad answer, because there’s definitely some cool stuff in there. But everything that made it into the pop culture cannon (Lecter, Jodie Foster’s accent, the traumatic lamb story) is either goofy, camp or stupid.

      1. daniel

        Ugh, sorry about my comment. I’m not American, and I’m usually to lazy to reread what I wrote and check the spelling.

        Yeah, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is probably a dumb choice. I don’t think the movie is terrible, but last time I saw it I was struck by how, contrary to popular belief, goofy Lecter is. It’s like Hopkins read the script, figured it’s trash, and decided to ham it up for the camera.

        SHAPE OF WATER is way worse. It’s about Sally Hawkins falling in love with a handsome but (what seems like a) developmentally disabled fish-man. But I think a combination of SPLASH and TIM (the Mel Gibson movie) is an unusual choice for the Academy, so it’s got that going for it.

          1. daniel

            Visually it’s definitely very nice, but it’s a strange film. I thought that the Academy felt bad for not honoring PAN’S LABYRINTH enough, so they overcompensated on this one.

  5. Edo Bosnar

    Looking over the list, I’m surprised – given the haphazard way I watch movies – to realize that I’ve actually seen quite a few of these, 34 in fact. Still, though, I’m not sure I’ve watched enough of them to answer this question properly, esp. since the ones I’ve seen skew heavily toward the more recent years.
    One thing that’s apparent to me is how little I pay attention to or even care about the Oscars, because I’m surprised that some of these (even one or two that I liked well enough), were even nominated much less won, i.e., Braveheart, Titanic and Gladiator (two ‘historical’ action flicks and a disaster movie? Really?) or Return of the King (*Really?*). So those are all potential answers for me.
    But there’s also that category of movies I call award vacuums: pretentious big-budget spectacles apparently made specifically to get movie-poster quotes from overbearing film critics and suck up all of the major awards at film festivals and the Oscars. Of those, the ones I liked the very least and hope I never have to sit through them again (once and twice respectively was more than enough) are Deer Hunter and Out of Africa.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I’m surprised you were surprised about Titanic and Return of the King, both of which currently hold the record (with Ben-Hur) for most Oscars won for a single movie. And the Academy seems to dig historical epics, so that’s probably why Braveheart and Gladiator were nominated (other than the fact that those are both good movies!).

      I’ve never seen Out of Africa, but dang, it seems boooooorrrrring.

    2. Edo Bosnar

      Thinking about this last night, I realized that I’d mixed up The Last Emperor with another Bertolucci film (which didn’t win the best-picture Oscar) so I edited my above comment. I’ve never watched Last Emperor.

  6. I tend to be underwhelmed by Best Picture Winners. In many cases, the eventual winner is *fine,* but not the best movie of the year. Like, Argo is a solid flick, but best picture?

    However, I loved Parasite and Nomadland. So maybe things are on an upswing.

    I hear you on French Connection. I rewatched it recently as part of a haphazard tour through Friedkin’s filmography. Most of the movie consists of guys following other guys or shouting over each other. The car chase is fun. I like the cold and dingy feel of NYC. And I think the abrupt ending is good actually. But both that, and the Exorcist, which are probably Friedkin’s most famous, beloved works, leave me cold.

    I will also admit the Lord of the Rings movies were anathema to me. I suffered through the first two, but somewhere between hour one and hour three of Return of the King, I turned it off and have never looked back.

    I’m also– gasp– not a huge fan of the Godfather pictures.

    I *am* a huge fan of Chicago: The Play, but Chicago: The Movie didn’t do it for me. I can’t stand it when musicals try to find some excuse for the musical numbers, like having them be in the characters’ heads.

    However, the movie I remember hating the most is Slumdog Millionaire. You’re telling me this guy knows the answer to every question because it relates to something that occurred in his life, and also the questions are asked in chronological order of when these life events happened to him!?!?!

    1. A perfectly valid point about Slumdog, but it’s the kind of thing that only bothers me if I don’t like the movie. And I loved the movie.
      I enjoyed Chicago, partly for the performances. Zellwegger did a remarkable job playing someone who’s extremely stupid but not a comedy character, which isn’t something I see very often.
      I doubt there’s any award that doesn’t have a number of “why did that win?” winners attached. A whole bunch of factors come into play, as Oscar histories point out. And of course some movies simply get lucky and win because the competition was weak.

      1. I liked the Bollywood number at the end of Slumdog. And yes, my complaint would not be a problem if I was swept along with the movie. But for some reason, I wasn’t.

        Maybe if I rewatched it now I’d have a totally different opinion. I love the experience of rewatching a movie I thought was underwhelming, only to totally connect with it the second time around.

  7. The standard take on the elements the Academy prefers in a good Oscar film is that it’s profitable but not so much it looks like they’re rewarding commerce over art. And that it tackles serious issues but in an uplifting way (Driving Miss Daisy si, Do The Right Thing, no). And that serious drama is better than comedy (nothing for All of Me despite Steve Martin’s amazing physical comedy)..
    And some Oscars are acknowledged as “why hasn’t he gotten one yet?” awards, particularly when it’s an old dude approaching retirement or death. I can’t think of any reason Peter O’Toole won for Venus other than “OMG, Lawrence of Arabia’s gotten old!” (I love Peter O’Toole but the movie, not so much).

    1. Greg Burgas

      My wife and I are always talking about “make-up Oscars,” where someone gets one because the Academy realizes they don’t have one yet. See Pacino, Scent of a Woman. I also like that they gave Newman a Lifetime Achievement Oscar and then he went out a few years later and won one his own damned self.

  8. John King

    “Obviously, none of us have probably seen all of these” – very much the case for me.
    The films I tend to watch rarely come close to winning the best picture Oscar

    Rather than vote for one of the few I have seen simply on the basis that I have watched it, I will instead say one of the 90 I have not (yet) seen (except maybe for the odd clip)

      1. John King

        I’ve seen infernal affairs but did not watch the remake (I’ve seen quite a number of Hong Kong films)

        I notice that the number of winners of best animated feature that I’ve seen are more than twice the number of best picture winners I’ve seen in full

        though I ‘ve only seen 2 winners in the International Feature Film category

  9. DarkKnight

    Of all the movies I’ve actually seen on this list I’d have to say Forrest Gump. I’ve always found it to be brutally obnoxious. The movie has one joke that they just constantly run into the ground. The only other movie that comes close is Titanic and that at least has crazy production values.

    Btw one of my favorite film sites Films Fatale reviewed every best picture winner if you’re interested:


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