Critic’s Picks: Todd McCarthy’s Least Favorite Best Picture Oscar Winners

7:30 AM 3/1/2018

by Todd McCarthy

THR's chief film critic selects the 10 least deserving winners of the Academy's top prize.

Crash, Driving Miss Daisy and Oliver! - Split - Photofest - H 2018

There have now been 90 years of Oscar winners and losers and, along with them, 90 years of cheers for deserving victors as well as 90 years of jeers for imposters that snuck into the winner's circle. Some best picture winners still retain their status as all-time classics that people today still watch and love — Casablanca, All About Eve, Lawrence of Arabia, the two Godfathers, among others — while there are those that either haven't been seen by anyone in decades (for good reason) — Cimarron, Cavalcade, The Great Ziegfeld, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days — or are almost instantly perceived through the next morning's hangover as "What were they thinking?" choices, including such toe-stubbers as Oliver!, Driving Miss Daisy, Chicago and Crash.

I've been watching the annual spectacle since I was nine years old and have more often come away disappointed (and sometimes royally pissed off) by the winners than satisfied. Sometimes the Academy has gone through periods of preferring "entertainments" over deep-dish dramas, while at others the show has simply felt like insiders patting fellow members of the Hollywood club on the back. There have been sympathy votes for ailing artists and comeback kids, prizes for people who should have won the year before and get make-up trophies instead. And sometimes Hollywood wants to demonstrate that it's "grown up" and does so by embracing serious, small and/or socially conscious films, sometimes misguidedly so; we're in one of those periods right now. And then there have been years when everyone was just out to lunch.

I've seen all the winners, from 1927-28, when William Wellman's robustly entertaining World War I flying drama Wings won the award for "production" and F. W Murnau's visually sublime Sunrise took a parallel award for "artistic quality of production," to Barry Jenkins' most recently victorious Moonlight, one of the smallest-scale and most atypical best picture winners in awards annals.

Following are the ten winners that provide the greatest aggravation and feeling of miscarriage of justice. They are listed chronologically.

For the list of my ten favorite all-time best picture Oscar winners, click here.

  • 1, 2 and 3. 'The Broadway Melody,' 'Cimarron,' 'Cavalcade'

    It's fair to bunch these three early best picture winners together because they share one very important trait in common: They are all utterly unwatchable today. Broadway carries a historical distinction as the first all-talkie musical but is plodding and static; the expensive Cimarron is excruciatingly slow and notable only as the sole Western to win best picture until Dances With Wolves came along six decades later; and Cavalcade plods through the first three decades of 20th century British life with incomparable obviousness and yawning sincerity.

  • 4. 'The Great Ziegfeld'

    Another lumbering behemoth, this sanitized three-hour tribute to showman Flo Ziegfeld is all about lavish sets, costumes, music and showgirls, and not remotely about good storytelling or accurate character portrayals.

  • 5. 'Mrs. Miniver'

    Stiff upper-lipped and “inspirational” to the breaking point, this is another M-G-M prestige project that made a mint and is now all but impossible to swallow. Made while Britain was already under attack and released shortly after the U.S. entered WWII, the film plods along to its finale, in which “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is sung in a bombed-out church. William Wyler is the only director with a film on both my best and worst lists.

  • 6. 'The Greatest Show on Earth'

    It's possible to understand why some of the films on this list appealed to viewers, and the Academy, at the time, but not this one. Why, after a long career filled with lumbering box-office hits but no Oscar nominations, did the industry decide to finally honor one of its pioneers, Cecil B. DeMille, for this graceless, grievously banal production?

  • 7. 'Around the World in 80 Days'

    Well, on second thought, DeMille's film has competition from this one, although the cast here is far more likeable. It's an extravaganza rather than a movie, one so densely populated with cameos by friends of producer Michael Todd that the film may have prevailed at the Oscars simply because a healthy percentage of the Academy membership was in the picture. Shot in 13 countries, it should have won for best travelogue.

  • 8. 'Oliver!'

    In the decade between 1958-68, lavish musicals won the best picture Oscar five times. Culturally speaking, it's not difficult to deduce why the beloved likes of Gigi, West Side Story, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music won in their years. But in the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary's Baby, if...., Petulia, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Producers, The Battle of Algiers, Planet of the Apes, Faces and others, the choice of yet another splashy mainstream musical was a joke, showing the Academy to be hopelessly out of step.

  • 9. 'Driving Miss Daisy'

    Is Bruce Beresford's adaptation of this esteemed play a decent film? Yes, it is. Aren't Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman very good in it? Yes, they are fine. Doesn't it demonstrate that the racial bridge can be crossed even by those with long-entrenched prejudices? Yes, it does. So what's not to like? Nothing, other than the fact that there's nothing urgent, novel, revelatory or terribly illuminating about this very small story, which would have been more at home on television's small screen. It's another example of Academy members sticking with what, and whom, they know, rather than looking for the new.

  • 10. 'Crash'

    I'll never forget the sensation of sitting in Toronto's Elgin Theater, barely able to wait for the world premiere of this film to end so my misery would cease, only to be rattled by the tumultuously positive reaction when the end finally came. Well, this is Toronto, I told myself, they're very generous here and they enjoy watching American delusionism and self-hatred, especially when the script was written by a Canadian. Then came Oscar night and the announcement of the worst best picture winner in half-a-century, criminally prevailing over Brokeback Mountain. And now I read that even its writer-director, Paul Haggis, doesn't even think it should have won best picture.