The 10 Worst Best Picture Winners Ever (Part 2)

Meet the Milli Vanilli of top Oscar winners past — two of which star Russell Crowe

Last Updated: February 17, 2011 @ 3:42 PM

After my last post maybe I should re-emphasize that this is strictly a personal list and it represents nothing more than my opinion. These are the Oscar winners that get under my skin. Just because I didn’t include the movie you hate the most doesn’t mean…

Ah screw it.

I hereby declare this list to be permanent, definitive and binding throughout the known universe by the powers pulled out of my own butt.

So with that out of the way let’s get to the good stuff. And by good I mean the really horrible ones. The Milli Vanilli of the Best Pictures.

5. The English Patient

This is the second biggest poser movie ever to win Best Picture (for biggest poser, see below.) By that I mean this movie pretends to be something it’s not. It’s the very definition of Oscar bait. It looks important and dignified and all the right people loved it so therefore it must be award worthy. But the reality is The English Patient is a bloated David Lean rip-off. I’d call it Titanic in the desert but James Cameron at least knew he was making a cheap, cheesy romance.

English Patient would have been better off if they’d embraced the Harlequin paperback angle. Instead, the director brings a ponderous solemnity to this even though his characters are behaving like hormonally charged teens. The result is one of the slowest most unromantic and unsexy affairs ever on the big screen.

At least with over the top offerings like Titanic, Legends of the Fall, and Moulin Rouge they present love as tidal wave like force that sweeps characters off their feet. Here it’s often hard to believe the leads even like each other. And it ends with a tacit justification of the hero’s actions which result in torture and deaths of several people.

Even at the time some critics didn’t overlook this point. “The problems of three people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world,” said Bogie in Casablanca. That movie is a hundred times more romantic precisely because they don’t sacrifice other people for their love. In the end we have a tawdry romance that’s too stuffy to admit it’s tawdry and with an ending about how your personal needs justify the deaths and suffering of others.

4. Around the World in 80 Days

I know it was the '50s, but what the hell, Academy? This one is just incredibly hard to sit through now and it’s hard to believe it was an easier to do so back then. It starts with an incomprehensible beginning presented by Edward R. Murrow. He could take down McCarthy but he couldn’t make this intro interesting.

The big draw to this film back then was two-fold. First there was the wide screen photography, then there were all the cameos by famous celebrities of the era. The photography is used like it was a novelty instead of a form of expression. Most of this film reminds me of some of those really cheap amusement park rides or early IMAX movies. The ones with nice scenery filling a screen 10 stories high but nothing else. That's Around the World in a nutshell. Compare this to the cinematography done on Bridge on the River Kwai a year later and it looks primitive.

As for the cameos, talk about being on the wrong side of history. It’s fun now to spot famous people in their first nothing roles like Clint Eastwood in Revenge of the Creature or Harrison Ford in Dead Heat on a Merry Go Round, but Around the World took the opposite track. And now watching it is the exact opposite of fun. You see the camera linger on an unfamiliar face and you have to go to Wikipedia to find out who this person is.

Provided you give a damn. Most of the time these “stars” don’t even do anything on screen. At least when you watch It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World you get the idea that these people were comedians. I have no idea who the French cab driver who can’t pronounce “Cook” is and I have no desire to find out. Last of all, for a film about a race around the world, how can it be so slow? It’s three hours long and takes them nearly an hour just to get started. It will feel like more than 80 days after you watch this one.

3. Gladiator

Gladiator is the dumbest historical adventure to ever win Best Picture. Yes it is dumber than Braveheart. Worse than that it’s dumb at all the wrong moments. Movies aren’t supposed to be 100 percent accurate. They’re not supposed to be Einstein level brilliant all the time. But it’s a really bad when those inaccuracies and mistakes crop up during key moments of the story.

Let’s start with the beginning. Commodus kills Marcus Aurelius because he’s going to turn Rome back into a Republic by giving power back to the Senate. Leave aside that Marcus Aurelius never even contemplated such a thing the Imperial Roman Senate was not an elected body. Turning power over to them would make Rome an Oligarchy. Maximus learns the truth and tries to stop Commodus only to be betrayed by his lieutenant, General D-Bag. Maximus escapes but instead of rallying his army like any sensible Roman general would do he rides to rescue his family.

They’re in Spain. He’s in Germany. I don’t know why Maximus is so shocked to find his family dead since it would have taken him a whole month to get there. (If you want to be a real stickler, Marcus Aurelius died on the Danube frontier which is near modern day Hungary, meaning Maximus would have to ride through the Alps, Switzerland, France, the Pyrenees and then into Spain. It took Commodus 4 months to finally arrive in Rome after his father’s death.)

Then he gets captured, sold as a Gladiator arrives in Rome and this is where the story grinds to a dead halt. Commodus sees it’s his arch enemy but does nothing. His excuse why he can’t just kill the guy is lame on multiple levels. Why can’t he just poison him? It’s 200 A.D. People are dropping dead all over the place. They drank water out of lead pipes, for crying out loud. Commodus himself had two older brothers who dropped dead from illness and that was on the Imperial health plan. And at the end he finally stabs Maximus anyway.

He can stab him now that we’re at the three-hour mark but he couldn’t do it 90 minutes ago? It reduces him to an epic whiner for the second half of the movie. “I saw a slave become more powerful than the emperor of Rome!” Yeah, because you didn’t kill him right then and there. Maximus incredibly is even dumber. Even though he’s a Roman citizen and was the right hand man of Marcus Aurelius, as soon as he’s discovered he stays a gladiator. Even though as a full citizen they couldn’t keep him there. That’s kind of why Roman citizenship was such a hot commodity in those days.

The killer is the ending where both Commodus and Maximus die and it’s up to General D-Bag (remember him) to switch sides again and set everything right. Way to go. Why didn’t you just do that in the first place? Thanks for nothing, jerk.

2. A Beautiful Mind

Not to pick on Russell Crowe, but he’s only actor whose Oscar-winning pictures I avoid like the plague.

This one baffles me. Here is our number one poser. This one is posing as a biography. If this movie were a standardized test it would get a 10 out of a 100. The name is the only thing this movie got right. If you are actually curious about the life of John Nash then whatever you do, don’t see this movie. This is an amazing feat for a biography, it gets the subject’s professional life, personal life, and his mental illness completely wrong.

So what in God’s name was the point of all this? CIA conspiracy hallucinations. That’s right, why deal with actual mental illness when you can have articulate characters only Russell Crowe can see. And people took that seriously. This 1950s era pseudo psychological crap somehow had everyone talking about how great the film was. After seeing it I felt like I was taking crazy pills.

This is just my theory but I think the screenwriter first came up with this lame thriller about a guy who’s running from people who turn out to be hallucinations. But then somebody pointed out that it was ridiculous, antiquated, pseudo psycho junk so he shelved it until he got the job on Beautiful Mind and Bingo, instant credibility. The word “biography” just somehow managed to turn off everyone’s critical sense. To say nothing of their bull crap meter.

1. Greatest Show on Earth

Boy did Cecil B. DeMille suck. All you need to know about him as a filmmaker is that he is almost too bombastic, too pompous, too dramatically simplistic for the Old Testament. The Ten Commandments is by far his best movie and it has stretches that just make you groan. Nobody plays a recognizable human being. The acting would have made Lee Strasburg rip his hair out. And that’s just from the big names on the cast. The extras and smaller bits are laughable. If you close your eyes and just listen to some of the lines you’d swear it was from a Disney cartoon. Warner Brothers cartoons weren’t this lame.

And this is as good as DeMille gets. His movies get worse the closer their subjects get to the 20th century. Samson and Delilah takes place a few centuries after Ten Commandments and it has its moments, the silly to spectacle ratio is about 50/50. Then moving up in history through The Crusades the silliness starts to overwhelm the good parts. When we get to the early American history like Reap the Wild Wind, Unconquered and The Buccaneer things are just barely holding together.

Then for some reason Cecil B. decided to make a film set in the then present 1950s and everything came crashing down. It’s all there, the endless padding of pageantry only instead of watching hundreds of slaves raise a giant monolith we get clowns and animals. You’d never seen that in your life unless you actually went to a circus or a state fair. We still have the same stilted acting from almost everybody. Jimmy Stewart somehow manages to beat the odds and play a sympathetic character but he’s the only one that lucky.

Betty Hutton, who was brilliant in Miracle at Morgan’s Creek, succumbs to her corny dialogue and lack of meaningful direction. Worse yet she has to sing a song that rhymes “circus” with “overwork us.” Charlton Heston is worse than hammy in this picture, he’s utterly forgettable. Every time an extra or bit player opens their mouth it’s hard not to laugh out loud. This is a movie about the circus yet DeMille gives it so much pomp you’d think his source material was the Book of Kings.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a DeMille movie without a big spectacle. In this case a train crash that only does a fraction of the damage a real collision would have. It looks a like a pair of toy trains smashing into each other. The Godzilla movies had better miniature work. Actually the funniest part is when a car hits a train head on and flips into the air. It’s like a Star Wars prequel with bad special effects. If that fails, what else is there?

Nothing at all. Yet in 1953, a whole lot of nothing (152 minutes worth of it) took home the big prize.

Michael Lee is a novel writer, blogger and freelance journalist living in L.A. He's been a judge for the prestigious PAGE Awards and blogs about his two biggest passions, screenwriting and food, at Screenwriting Foxhole and To Cook and Eat in L.A., respectively. Lee is also a co-author of "The Insider's Guide to Screenwriting" and has just published his first novel, "My Frankenstein."