Author’s note: I no longer stand behind this ranking – though I still dislike all of these films – but I leave this as it stood in 2010, for the interest of history
A sequel to last week’s list, because despite a ceremony where nothing truly objectionable took place (if nothing else, the Up in the Air shut-out kind of made my night), it’s still fun and delightful to hold the Academy’s feet to the fire. In the spirit of whiny, unconstructive criticism, may I unveil:
The Ten Worst Films to Win a Best Picture Oscar
Whenever I get to thinking about this movie, I invariably wonder if it’s really as bad as my memory would make it out to be. And then I catch five minutes on cable. In a lot of respects, it’s a perfectly conventional 1930s drama, like dozens of other films that would never make a list like this one. Except that The Life of Emile Zola is so atrociously, vengefully dull. Starring Paul Muni, arguably the least interesting actor in Hollywood history, the film dutifully relates the story of Zola’s rise to fame, his interest in social justice, and his passionate defense of Alfred Dreyfus, and does so without a flicker of life, or any reason whatsoever for the audience to give a shit about the endless speechifying that dominates the last half of the film. Oscar history is littered with airless prestige pics, but this is the one that’s the most aggressively, hatefully stuffy and inert.
Best of the year’s nominees: The Awful Truth
9. Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988)
I’ve gotten in trouble for hating on this one before, let’s see if I can do it again. Now, much like arid prestige biopics, the middlebrow drama about family dynamics and people learning who they are has had a pretty good time at the Oscars, and especially in the 1980s. Why do I thus pick on this specific entry in the field, when Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment are all just as mildewy and really, neither more nor less competent? Two reasons: the first is that Rain Man has a kind of sick sheen that makes the whole thing look as much like a TV commercial as a narrative film (especially in the interminable Vegas scenes). The second is the maddening portrayal of autistic people: starting with Dustin Hoffman’s alarmingly over-praised performance (Pauline Kael, in one of the few times she and I are in great agreement, called it “humping one note on a piano for two hours and eleven minutes”), and moving into the disgustingly functional way the screenplay uses his autism, as a prop so that Tom Cruise can find out that he wants to be a better person. It’s the exact same role filled by the dog in As Good As It Gets.
Best of the year’s nominees: Dangerous Liaisons
8. Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959)
An absolutely stultifying epic; the third-longest of all 82 Best Picture winners, though it feels a great deal longer than 212 minutes. The dirty secret is that nestled in the middle of it is a real honey of an action sequence: that chariot race, which used the grand plane of 65mm film as well as it ever has been, in the creation of one of the most deservedly iconic moments in 1950s cinema. It’s not an accident that whenever you’re watching a clip show, the Ben-Hur shots are all taken from the race, or just after it; it is the only time that the movie is any less than soporific, with Charlton Heston at his most blandly declamatory and a narrative that refuses to do in two scenes what it can do in ten, and that’s before the peculiar last 20 minutes, in which the turgid political narrative and coded gay love story of the last nine hours abruptly becomes a religious drama. It seems impossible that a great studio talent like Wyler could be responsible for this dreary shambles, but he did later admit that his biggest reason for taking the job was the paycheck.
Best of the year’s nominees: Anatomy of a Murder
7. Crash (Paul Haggis, 2005)
Some would have you believe that the film’s only real sin was derailing a watershed sociopolitical moment when it beat the gay cowboy movie, but no. Crash really is quite a flaccid, crappy bit of nothing that all but punishes the audience for daring to be more intelligent than Paul Haggis. It is a story about how in America, everybody is racist, and since everybody is racist, it’s okay to be racist, especially if you feel very guilty about it. It’s a thematically ugly movie made by the worst kind of white liberal for the worst kind of white liberal audience, and not only does it present a stupidly reductive argument about society, it does so with the hamfisted urgency and wild lack of subtlety of a tottering drunk. On the subject of ugly, I would say that the film looks as though it was shot for television, except in the age of The Sopranos and Deadwood, that would be an indefensible slur against television.
Best of the year’s nominees: Brokeback Mountain
6. Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981)
Massively tasteful, and screamingly pointless, this story of two wildly uninteresting men who spend a lot of time talking how training to run in the Olympics. There are few enough sports movies to have been granted film’s most beloved grand prize; that one of them is this wan little snip of absolutely nothing but a memorable electronic theme song and shots of people in white shorts bobbing about is insane. It’s so wildly boring that I can’t even think of anything else to say about it.
Best of the year’s nominees: Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Academy enjoyed Braveheart so much that they gave it Best Picture a second time, five years later. Only this time, the sword fights were inexplicably shot using the trendy shutter angle trickery that gave Saving Private Ryan its distinctive look. I’ m as much a fan of giving out major prizes to unapologetic action movies as anybody, but I don’t mind saying that I’d much prefer that they did so when the action movie in question wasn’t so clangy and wearying. A victim of too much style applied with a criminal lack of discrimination (Scott would do better with the following year’s Black Hawk Down, though that film boasts its own set of problems), the film is emblematic of everything that has become so damn wrong with blockbuster filmmaking in the decade sense: flurried cutting for no reason, unpleasantly hyper-masculine characters, a bloated running time, and worst of all, the noise, noise, noise, NOISE! The scariest thing? It wasn’t even the worst of that year’s nominees.
Best of the year’s nominees: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
The 1950s’ most noteworthy purveyor of over-the-top epic entertainment was surely going to take the top prize sooner or later; but why did it have to be for this gargantuan cavalcade of terrible ideas all spinning one after the other. It’s spectacular, all right, but in the worst possible way: every time you think you’ve seen the craziest, most awful thing the movie can throw at you, it pulls another card out of its sleeve – and if you don’t like circuses going into it, you’ll walk out believing that they’re the foulest punishment ever thrust upon mankind by a cruel god. From Charlton Heston looking perpetually asleep to James Stewart giving the one performance of his career where you can just feel his self-loathing rolling off the screen, to Betty Hutton being forced to warble a number of absolutely wretched songs, to say nothing of the many times the film stops short to present with minimal artistry some asinine circus act or another, it’s one of the few Oscar-winners that’s actually so bad that it’s kind of campy fun.
Best of the year’s nominees: The Quiet Man
Arguably the most historically important winner of all 82: the first all-talking musical ever made. In that light, you have to spot it some roughness in the blocking and the sound recording: that’s what comes from being a groundbreaking technical work. But still, even in 1929, there were better musicals to choose from; other than its privilege of place, there is nothing whatsoever to set this backstage drama apart from any one of a dozen or more other films made in the same eligibility period (even co-nominee The Hollywood Revue of 1929, which is pretty tedious in its own right, has significantly better musical numbers). The plot, which is stiff and unconvincing even by the standards of an early sound melodrama, is made all the more grating by a clutch of dreadful performances that wouldn’t pass muster in any period of filmmaking. The only way to get through it, I’ve found, is to cling to the dimly interesting reading that the protagonist “sisters” are actually lovers, and pray.
Best of the year’s nominees: faced with arguably the worst BP slate in history, I shall be forced to assume it was the lost film The Patriot, directed by Ernst Lubitsch.
2. A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001)
A whole basketful of Oscar’s worst habits: the film achieves a false sense of importance by being able to wave around the “True Story” flag despite elliding several key details about its subject and inventing others; it was given top honors apparently just because the director needed to have a Best Picture under his belt, and yet it is one of the worst things he’s ever touched; the performances are mannered and gimmicky to no end whatsoever; it’s a Serious Movie for people who think that a film just has to be mirthless and hushed to be great art; it is weighed down by a colossally stupid visual trick that gets used and re-used throughout the film; and worst of all, it is suffocatingly aware of its own profundity and what would already be a grim experience is made virtually unendurable by a wave of unjustified self-importance. It’s tremendously polished, but hollow and miserable and soulless.
Best of the year’s nominees: Moulin Rouge!
1. Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1930/31)
Despite a modestly entertaining opening ten minutes (a historical action sequence that keeps us happily away from the characters), this ungainly story of Oklahoma’s rise from barbaric frontier territory to proud statehood, the only Western to win Best Picture in the first 62 years of the awards, is entirely unwatchable today (if indeed it ever was watchable), even despite the starmaking performance for the divine Irene Dunne. Richard Dix, as the magnificently-named Yancey Cravat, gives one of the least-effective leading performances that I’ve ever seen in an A-picture, but at least the film has the decency to shuttle him off to God knows where before the end. Which leaves us with the film’s helplessly wandering plot machinations and hideous lack of compelling incident (for a two-hour movie, precious damn little happens), which makes it that much easier to focus on the film’s staggering racism and the complete absence of a single credible character in all the melodramatic fizzle.
Best of the year’s nominees: The Front Page