The Oscars are often lauded as the end-all be-all authority on what the year's best was in entertainment. The Golden Globes by contrast kind of acts as a litmus test for the Oscars. For the sake of novelty and difference, the two have to make different decisions for Best Film and other awards, otherwise there would be little to no point in having the two of them in parallel. Many years however, you find the Oscars making a pick that can only be described as "politically inclined". That is to say the film in question campaigned the best for its own cause, or the choice of film resonated with the social movements of the time, or in some cases the choice was made out of sheer political maneuvering.
While it's true in some sense that deciding a best film is often a matter of opinion, most of the time it's abundantly clear which film in a given year had the biggest impact, not only financially but culturally and in some cases a film has such a major impact that it literally changes the way the industry works. In those cases when you consider the Academy turning an obvious blind eye to the clear choice, it can be really puzzling. Below are a list of twelve such cases that stand out glaringly. Keep in mind there are MANY more cases where the film chosen for Best Picture was at best questionable, but this list focuses on head-scratching choices, ones where it's clear the Academy was too uptight to tell it like it is, where in fact it suggests that the Academy has to be "political" shall we say, instead of populist.
12 How Green was My Valley (Beating Citizen Kane) - 1941
Let's get the most painfully obvious one out the way first. Ever heard of the movie How Green was My Valley? Me neither. In fact I doubt anyone past 1941 even bothered to go see it. And yet, the movie they skipped over is regarded by many critics and film historians as one of the greatest films in the history of Cinema. Peter Bogdanovich (and admittedly many other filmmakers) rightfully state that Citizen Kane was easily forty years ahead of its time in the skill of its editing, of its shot selection, its cinematography and its narrative style. The film is almost 80 years old but is still watchable today, follows a relatively quick pace, and tells a story that remains relevant to this day. I've seen it myself half a dozen times and it never gets old. It is interesting to note that the film was considered sort of a semi-biography of William Randolph Hearst, who at the time was one of the most powerful men in America as his media empire had tremendous propagandist power. Is it any wonder that the movie he felt made fun of him was mysteriously snubbed for Best Picture?
11 Dances With Wolves (Instead Of Goodfellas) - 1991
Let me preface what I'm about to say by admitting the obvious; Dances with Wolves is a great movie and is very touching and very moving. It's been quasi remade by various filmmakers (see The Last Samurai, Avatar), Kevin Costner was great in it, the plight of the Native Indians and the political message espoused in the damning critique of Colonialist America is very powerful. But the film is a bit predictable, it is a bit formulaic and hokey and quite frankly The Oscars has a penchant for picking war movies but why is it that war movies get so much precedence? Now, let us state the other painfully obvious truth; Goodfellas is as good as The Godfather and is leagues better than any other mobster movie ever made. Scorsese delivered his best work, all the principal actors killed it, the cinematography was brilliant (look at the absurdly long take in which Ray Liotta takes his date into the night club). The film had a cultural impact that cannot be overstated (would The Sopranos have existed without this film? The same argument could be made for other TV shows, and its narrative style influenced dozens of great movies). This is a case where the Academy makes the safe pick, and picked it wrong.
10 Rocky (Instead Of Network Or Taxi Driver) - 1977
Look, I LOVE Sylvester Stallone, and I think Rocky is an inspiring, heartwarming movie about triumph over adverse circumstances. But it is nowhere near as groundbreaking and powerful as Network. Network told the truth about News, Media and Corporations in a way that most films wouldn't even dare to anymore, and it did so with such brilliant satire, sharp on point acting and fantastic dialogue. Could this one be a glaring political decision to keep Network off of most people's radar? Look at the speech made by the corporate executive in the large board room to Howard Beale at the end of the film, who has the balls to write that sort of dialogue into a movie anymore and peddle it to the masses? You could make an argument for Taxi Driver as well, the key thing to pull out of this pick was that the Academy once again made a choice on what was more P.C. instead of what was objectively a much better piece of film. Perhaps the point was to launch Stallone's career, and Rocky certainly did a good job of that.
9 Ghandi (Overtaking ET The Extra Terrestrial) -1982
Once again we have favoritism of serious political content over sheer cinematic genius and powerful entertainment value. If you saw ET as a kid and weren't deeply moved, it's because you were a bloodless psycho. Ghandi is bland and forgettable, notwithstanding Ben Kingsley's fantastic performance. ET killed it at the box office and the treatment of its subject matter was perfect; it was inventive, it was playful, it was so obviously the film with the most impact that year. The Academy has frequently found itself decades behind the cultural times, either by accident or by intention (who knows), and in this case that is equally true. They couldn't pick a movie for kids because after all, we're adults over here deciding which film has the most merit to adults...or something like that I'm not so sure what the thought process is like.
8 The Return of the King ( VS Lost in Translation) - 2004
This race ties nicely into the previous one. We have a movie that is very well produced and very well shot, but is in no way groundbreaking whatsoever. The last installment in the LOTR trilogy (fanboy flame retardant jacket ON!) was boring, too long, hokey and unoriginal. It had an epic scale and over-the-top acting, it had some of the most stunning visuals ever seen, but was cheesy as hell. Lost in Translation was one of the most originally told narratives, minimalistic in its nature, and contained performances by Johansson and Murray that are effortless, natural and enthralling. You really get into their bizarre relationship and their inability to feel satisfaction in their lives. The Academy picked one of the most financially successful films of 2003 and one with a large fan following (mostly due to books, not films). It almost feels like they made up for not picking the sci-fi/fantasy movie that was obviously the best in previous years, but they missed the mark again.
7 Annie Hall (Replacing Star Wars) - 1978
Well this is an obvious one. Once again I feel the need to defend Woody Allen's film, it was quite inventive and playful and hilarious, he and Diane Keaton were great together, as usual. But can you seriously explain to me in logical terms how the biggest, most influential film likely of the entire century was passed up for best picture? The cultural phenomenon of Star Wars alone was unlike anything people had seen before. The favoritism of serious subject matter over sci-fi wins out once again and yet when you see Star Wars you see a really tightly delivered story, with tight acting performances, expertly shot, they really grab you and make you identify with Luke as you go on this unexpected adventure along with him. This is a lot like ET losing out, but by orders of magnitude higher.
6 Crash (VS Brokeback Mountain) -2006
It's interesting to note that if these two movies had come out ten years later, Brokeback would have won. This choice also glaringly highlights how social influences force certain decisions. On the one hand we have an ensemble piece that focuses on racial and financial issues. On the other a daring look at forbidden love (daring just 10 years ago, today it's relatively tame, interesting how quickly time changes perceptions). Crash is the safe pick, sometimes the Academy makes the safe pick and sometimes they purposely make the daring pick, but in most cases they seem to get it wrong.
5 Chariots Of Fire (Instead Of Raiders Of The Lost Ark) - 1982
Best adventure film in decades loses to safe choice, AGAIN. One of the most iconic adventure heroes we've ever seen loses to a bunch of guys running on the beach. This makes no sense at all and only serves to reinforce the reality that the Academy makes the safe pick way too often, like the committee are a bunch of senior citizens who don't get what all the fuss is about with the young kids. This also feels a lot like the Rocky pick, in that stories of human suffering and overcoming seem to get special precedence at the Academy. Rife with pro-British propaganda, the P.C. inclined movie wins out to yet another Spielberg masterpiece.
4 Gigi (Chosen Over Vertigo) - 1959
The film that loses out is perhaps the best work by undeniable genius Alfred Hitchcock. Jimmy Stewart delivers a performance that is picture perfect, the plot is brilliant, the delivery is brilliant, the subtlety of the storytelling is brilliant and the shocker at the end stops most people's heart from beating for a second or two. But the Academy chooses a musical that's trite and totally forgettable. Maybe they didn't like Hitchcock or something, who knows. To this day people consider Vertigo a masterpiece and that's because it is. The film does go into the duplicitous nature of people and the powerful effects of trauma on the brain, maybe the subject matter was a bit too non-PC, who knows?
3 Out of Africa (Rather Than Back to the Future) - 1986
Look, Out of Africa is a moving romance with Redford and Meryl Streep, two perennial A-list stars with serious street cred, but Back to the Future was a force of nature spending 11 weeks at the top of the box office and this was due in large part to the sensational word of mouth. The time travel paradox style of storytelling became mainstream in this film, a style of storytelling that would manifest itself in several films to come. Another case of adults picking the movie that adults and only adults would want to see instead of the obvious choice that appealed to literally everyone. Who doesn't like Back to the Future? Expect a shitty reboot in the next five years that will have none of the charm, wit and chemistry of this one.
2 The King's Speech (Instead Of The Social Network) - 2011
If you haven't noticed the trend by now, the Academy likes to make the serious pick when confronted with a choice between something edgy and something classical. The Social Network captured modern society's obsession with technology and smartphones and the rise of narcissism in the choice of partners that the fictitious Zuckerberg. The Oscar choice is a way of giving credence and weight to royalty, to old traditions, to old establishments and to patriotism, and to a forgettable plot. So many Best Picture choices, like this one, quickly become irrelevant in a few years and we will remember The Social Network as it put its finger right on the pulse of our society, we knew it at the time and we still know it now.
1 Forrest Gump (Over Shawshank And Pulp Fiction) - 1995
The highest rated movie on IMDb argued by some to be the best of all time, a Tarantino masterpiece, to this day a cult classic that changed cinema deeply, and the Oscar goes to the tame American propaganda film told through the eyes of someone suffering from some kind of autism. And don't give me that speech about how hot Tom Hanks was at the time either, Forrest Gump is cute and whimsically philosophical, but ultimately a sob story. The other two films reach higher, further, aspire to greatness and achieve it in many respects. It's choices like this that solidify the image of the Academy as a corrupt bunch of people who want to push an agenda that is tame and neutered.