For any movie lover, Academy Awards season is a time to revel in your favorite films of the year, and root for them to get the recognition they deserve. In some cases, the movies that win are shoo-ins. In others, jaws drop when the winner’s name is announced (assuming it was the right one, that is).
Every Oscar-winning movie is an expression of cinematic excellence. Some Best Picture winners have been no-brainers, like Casablanca, Schindler’s Listand The Godfather. But sometimes, another nominated film in a given year is deemed more deserving by voters. Because of this, some Oscar-winning movies are remembered as highly overrated victors in the Best Picture category.
Table of Contents
Arguably one of the most polarizing Best Picture winners ever, Crash was a good movie with powerful messages about racism and prejudice, delivered through several intertwining stories that developed into strings of coincidences. It was a good movie, but it wasn’t necessarily a great one.
The crime drama, which was produced, directed, and co-written by Paul Haggis, had an impressive ensemble cast and received decent reviews, with critics praising the realistic handling of timely and controversial subject matter. But Crash was also criticized for being unconvincing. The storylines were messily contrived to weave a coherent message together that felt like it was spoon-feeding a message to viewers. What had most people up in arms, however, was that Crash won against other powerful and influential movies that were nominated that year, like Brokeback Mountain.
Watch Crash on HBO Max.
There’s no denying Rocky’s place in pop culture and film history — its inclusion on this list isn’t designed to minimize that. But the movie doesn’t quite fit the typical Oscar-winning movie type. This isn’t to say a movie like Rocky shouldn’t be recognized, but the sports drama isn’t in the same league as others that have taken home the statue in the past (and since). This is especially so when considering that other films nominated in the category that year included All the President’s Men and Taxi Driver.
Rocky is feel-good cinema at its finest, the story of a small-time fighter who realizes his dream of getting a shot at the world heavyweight title. It has a wonderful mix of both heart and intense action, and the movie remains a timeless classic. But while Rocky inspires, there’s little depth to the story to justify the win in such a prestigious category.
Watch Rocky on Netflix or stream Rocky on Paramount+.
Dances With Wolves (1990)
That any movie nominated the same year as Goodfellas would win against that groundbreaking gangster film immediately suggests that it’s overrated. But what makes the win by the epic Western film Dances with Wolves even more confounding is that it also perpetuates the outdated white savior trope, which would likely never fly today and shouldn’t have even back then.
The film has since been criticized for its lack of authenticity, particularly regarding the Lakota language, which only one actor in the movie was actually a native speaker of. Dances with Wolves was a passion project for Kevin Costner, who starred, directed, and produced it. As his directorial debut, the win solidified his position in Hollywood as more than just someone who worked in front of the camera. But considering that not only Goodfellasbut also Awakenings and Ghostwere up against it that year, the win was disappointing.
Watch Dances With Wolves on HBO Max.
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Shakespeare in Love had wonderful costumes and a fine cast. But in hindsight, it was nothing more than a glorified, far less sexualized version of Bridgerton. The plot, at its core, was corny, depicting a fictional version of William Shakespeare who falls in love with a woman named Viola while he’s writing Romeo and Juliet.
The Academy loves period pieces, and this very well might be why Shakespeare in Love won over other nominated films that year, like The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan. But it’s merely a romantic comedy set in the Elizabethan era with stunning costumes. Shakespeare in Love is a well-acted, visual spectacle, but its status as a Best Picture winner is questionable.
Watch Shakespeare in Love on Paramount+ or stream Shakespeare in Love on The Roku Channel.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
The Academy loves artsy movies, but Birdman takes the concept of being artsy to an entirely different level. The black comedy-drama is about a has-been actor who gained fame playing a superhero known as Birdman and continues to be haunted by the character. The story follows his attempt to revive a now flailing career on Broadway. The entire movie is meant to look as though everything is filmed in one shot.
Birdman has been analyzed and overanalyzed to interpret the true meaning, hidden themes, and satirical critiques, making it one of the more cerebral Oscar-winning films. But while Birdman should have earned Michael Keaton an Oscar, the Best Picture award should have gone to another movie that year, like The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Sniper, The Theory of Everythingor Selma.
Watch Birdman on HBO Max
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
One of the biggest upsets in Oscar history was when a little film about a wealthy Jewish woman and her travels with her Black chauffer won Best Picture over the touching and inspirational drama Dead Poets Society. The chemistry between Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy was wonderful, but the movie was far too subtle to justify its win over the far more captivating and exciting Robin Williams classic.
What’s more, Driving Miss Daisy has been criticized for its depiction of racism. Its choice for nomination in the first place over Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee, now considered one of the best films of the ’80s, was cause for uproar as well. The outdated stereotypes of Driving Miss Daisy would likely lead to even more pushback today.
Watch Driving Miss Daisy on HBO Max
Many argue that Gladiator only won Best Picture in 2000 because it didn’t have much competition to go up against: the other nominees in the category included Chocolat, Erin Brockovich, Trafficand Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The high-action Ridley Scott film, starring Russell Crowe as Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius, is an exciting epic historical drama. Gladiator is a fun summer movie, not necessarily one that should be considered for Oscar contention.
With that said, we can credit movies like Gladiator for reinvigorating the “swords and sandals” genre that touches on ancient history, both fictional and real. Without Gladiator’s success, we might never have been graced with shows like Game of Thrones and House of the Dragonnor movies like 300, Robin Hoodand The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But visual spectacles and masculine themes alone don’t justify Oscar glory. Gladiator might have rightfully been the year’s blockbuster movie, but it wasn’t necessarily Oscar-worthy.
Watch Gladiator on Paramount+.
Green Book (2018)
Inspired by a true story, Green Book follows Don (Mahershala Ali, who won his second Oscar for the role), a Black pianist and his journeys with his Italian American driver and bodyguard, Frank (Viggo Mortensen), during an eight-week concert tour through the Deep South. Before taking the job, Tony is given The Negro Motorist Green Bookwhich serves as a guide in the Jim Crow South for Black travelers to find housing, gas stations, and restaurants they are permitted to patronize.
The movie takes viewers on a journey as the two men warm to one another and go through various adventures. Knowing it’s all based on a true story and real people makes Green Book intriguing. But it’s a slow-moving story that some believe did not deserve to win over other nominated movies like BlacKkKlansman, Roma, and Vice.
Watch Green Book on Fubo TV.
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
The Cecile B. DeMille drama The Greatest Show on Earth was a visual spectacle about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It is an enjoyable film, but many also call it melodramatic, devoid of a real plot, too long, and clichéd.
The Greatest Show on Earth is a charming movie, and it made waves when it debuted in 1952, becoming a box-office success. But going up against much more nuanced films like High Noon, Ivanhoeand The Quiet Manas well as even red Mill (not the Nicole Kidman musical version), The Greatest Show on Earth continues to be named among the worst Best Picture winners in Oscar history. Many believe the win was simply a way to cap off DeMille’s almost 40-year career at the time. Considered a founding father of American cinema, it was to be his final project and, as a fitting send off, marked his first nomination (and win). Interestingly, DeMille did end up returning four years later with The Ten Commandmentswhich would’ve been a more fitting movie to honor as a tribute to DeMille’s illustrious career.
Watch The Greatest Show on Earth on Paramount+ via Amazon.
American Beauty (1999)
By today’s standards, American Beauty would be considered predatory and downright creepy. The story of a man (Kevin Spacey) dealing with his midlife crisis by becoming obsessed with and fantasizing about his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari) is sometimes painful to watch. The message is supposed to be about an aging man regaining a sense of youthfulness and excitement in his life, but it’s at the expense of ogling a young woman.
The artsy angle to the story and hidden depth is arguably why American Beauty was nominated in the first place. Dubbed a black comedy, American Beauty is supposed to function as a satire of beauty and its perception within the middle class, as well as serve as a story of redemption. But with far more entertaining and well-executed movies that year like The Sixth Sense and The Insider, American Beauty received more attention and accolades than it deserved.
Watch American Beauty on Hoopla.