The Worst of the Oscars: 1978-2012

One of the things that happens from this point forward is that action movies and cult movies begin to take over the IMDB ratings. We also, by the 90’s, begin to run into IMDB’s bias toward recent films. So the comparison of Academy to IMDB becomes steadily less useful.

IMDB’s temporal bias is the result, in my opinion, of fanboys and excited audiences wildly over-rating pictures right when they see them and then not going back to revisit their ratings. There’s a sort of “observer effect” in films since the late 90’s where IMDB itself has become part of the process. So people, in the moment, think “Best. Movie. Ever!” rush over to IMDB and rate it a 10. Five years later, they’d probably rate it an 8.

IMDB ratings have a predictable rhythm. New movies shoot up to the top, sometimes to #1, based on early fanboy ratings and deliberate attempts to raise the rating. Then they slowly sink down to Earth as general audiences catch up. I don’t think they are as bad as critics say nor are as manipulated as snobby websites like to pretend. But they do have issues.

At some point, IMDB is going to have to tweak their formula to downweight votes that were cast (1) for movies that debuted since IMDB was inaugurated, and (2) in the immediate months after a movie was released. I think this would remove a lot of the bias, at least for anything less than ten years old.

Year: 1978
Academy Pick: The Deer Hunter
IMDB Rating: 8.2 (1st of 43, minimum 5000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Deer Hunter
Consensus Best Picture: The Deer Hunter
Comment: That’s five times in seven years that all three agree. That’s ten years in a row where every pick was defensible. Whether that is a result of the age demographics lining up properly or really represents a consensus, I don’t know. I do know that the 70’s were a great decade for film but also a great decade for the Academy. But the wheels were about to come off.

Year: 1979
Academy Pick: Kramer vs. Kramer
IMDB Rating: 7.7 (8 of 42, minimum 5000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Apocalypse Now
Consensus Best Picture: Apocalypse Now
Comment: I have not seen Kramer, but it is not too lightly regarded. There was no way that two Vietnam movies were going to win in consecutive years.

Year: 1980
Academy Pick: Ordinary People
IMDB Rating: 7.8 (9 of 38, minimum 8000 votes)
IMDB Pick as Best Picture: Empire Strikes Back
Consensus Best Picture: Raging Bull
Comment: Ordinary People was not a bad pick but the snubbed was a who’s-who of snubs: Scorsese, Lucas and Kubrick all had pictures out that year.

Year: 1981
Academy Pick: Chariots of Fire
IMDB Rating: 7.2 (15 of 38, minimum 8000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Consensus Best Picture: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Comment: Steven, we have a table over here for you with Charles, Alfred, Martin, George, Sergio and Stanley. Two of you will eventually get lucky.

Year: 1982
Academy Pick: Gandhi
IMDB Rating: 8.1 (4th of 41, minimum 8000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Blade Runner
Consensus Best Picture: Blade Runner
Comment: This was the year Attenborough famously said that ET should have won over his film.

Year: 1983
Academy Pick: Terms of Endearment
IMDB Rating: 7.3 (9 out of 36, minimum 8000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Return of the Jedi
Consensus Best Picture: Scarface, maybe? Ebert put The Right Stuff in his Great Movies list.
Comment: I remember Terms being sad but history — or at least IMDB — has not judged it well. I don’t know anyone who regards it as a classic.

Year: 1984
Academy Pick: Amadeus
IMDB Rating: 8.4 (2 out of 45, minimum 10000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Once Upon A Time in America
Consensus Best Picture: None that I can see. Kind of a weak year.

Year: 1985
Academy Pick: Out of Africa
IMDB Rating: 7.0 (19 of 43, minimum 15000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Back to the Future
Consensus Best Picture: Ran
Comment: Now we’re really biting hard into Gen-X nostalgia land. Back to the Future is a fun movie but putting it over Ran, Brazil or The Color Purple is a bit much. That having been said, it’s a better choice than the Academy made. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who didn’t like OOA.

Year: 1986
Academy Pick: Platoon
IMDB Rating: 8.2 (2 out of 47, minimum 15000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Aliens
Consensus Best Picture: Platoon
Comment: Here’s a question: why exactly is it so ridiculous to have an action movie be the Best Picture? An action movie can be no less substantive than a cheesy musical but the latter is considered legitimate Oscar fare while the former is not. I don’t want to get carried away and see the Avengers win Best Picture or something. But Raiders, Star Wars, Aliens … these are all regarded as classic by critics, not just fanboys.

Year: 1987
Academy Pick: The Last Emperor
IMDB Rating: 7.8 (8 out of 50)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Full Metal Jacket
Consensus Best Picture: Wings of Desire?
Comment: Another weak year — we had a few of these in the 80’s and it’s not a “we have to await the verdict of history” thing because we’d get a few classics in the 90’s. I actually think, given enough time, The Princess Bride will be regarded as the best film of 1987. (Holy crap, was that 26 years ago?) It’s already rated second on IMDB and has always been popular with audiences and critics. In a hundred years, no one will be watching The Last Emperor but people will be saying, “I do not think that word means what you think it means” on our Martian colony.

Year: 1988
Academy Pick: Rain Man
IMDB Rating: 8.0 (5 of 52, minimum 15000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Cinemaro Paradiso
Consensus Best Picture: Cinema Paradiso
Comment: That’s another foreign film winning the IMDB ratings. Paradiso is a great film and I’m glad IMDB recognizes it. In fact, three of the top four IMDB ratings from this year are foreign films, the other two being the animated classics Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbor Totoro. Rain Man is sometimes regarded as a poor choice. I’m not a fan but IMDB likes it just fine.

Year: 1989
Academy Pick: Driving Miss Daisy
IMDB Rating: 7.4 (17 out of 44, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Consensus Best Picture: Crimes and Misdemeanors or Do the Right Thing
Comment: Driving Miss Daisy is regarded as one of the worst Oscar picks ever. I have not seen the film but the IMDB doesn’t regard it was historically bad. It does jar the senses, however, that Spike Lee’s outstanding film about racial tension was snubbed in favor of … this one.

Year: 1990
Academy Pick: Dances with Wolves
IMDB Rating: 8.0 (3 of 35, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Goodfellas
Consensus Best Picture: Goodfellas
Comment: Scorsese gets shafted again, although Wolves was a fine film and a defensible choice.

Year: 1991
Academy Pick: Silence of the Lambs
IMDB Rating: 8.7 (1 of 36, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Silence of the Lambs
Consensus Best Picture: The Silence of the Lambs
Comment: The first consensus pick since 1978. After a tepid late 80’s, the Academy enter a very good early 90’s.

Year: 1992
Academy Pick: Unforgiven
IMDB Rating: 8.3 (2 of 53, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Reservoir Dogs
Consensus Best Picture: Unforgiven

Year: 1993
Academy Pick: Schindler’s List
IMDB Rating: 8.9 (1 of 59, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Schindler’s List
Consensus Best Picture: Schindler’s List

Year: 1994
Academy Pick: Forrest Gump
IMDB Rating: 8.7 (3 of 54, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Shawshank Redemption
Consensus Best Picture: The Shawshank Redemption
Comment: I’m not a fan of Gump but it still makes many critics lists and was on the AFI Top 100 list. Even though Shawshank is usually rated as the #1 or #2 movies of all-time by IMDB and is now showing up on critics’ lists, I’ll call this defensible. Shawshank‘s status is a vindication of audiences. It was not regarded as a classic when it came out. Thanks to the enthusiastic reception on home video, it now is.

Year: 1995
Academy Pick: Braveheart
IMDB Rating: 8.4 (3 of 71, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Se7en
Consensus Best Picture: Toy Story
Comment: Braveheart is routinely listed as one of the worst Oscar picks of all time. rated it as the worst and its name frequently comes up. While I think IMDB may over-rated it a bit, I think the scorn heaped on the movie is more a reaction to the director than to the movie itself.

Year: 1996
Academy Pick: The English Patient
IMDB Rating: 7.3 (14 of 71, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Fargo
Consensus Best Picture: Fargo
Comment: I personally like The English Patient but that’s probably because I went to it on an early date with a future girlfriend who I’m still friends with 16 years later. Most regard it as a poor pick and IMDB and the critics agree. But I’m not seeing a Vertigo-level classic that was denied, unless it’s Fargo.

Year: 1997
Academy Pick: Titanic
IMDB Rating: 7.6 (12 of 82, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Life is Beautiful
Consensus Best Picture: Titanic
Comment: Titanic is also lightly disregarded, but it made the AFI 100. I seem to remember the mid-90’s being a peak of Oscar bitching but it wasn’t like classic films were being snubbed. Most of the snubs were of films that have been forgotten. You can’t a classic that got the shaft until…

Year: 1998
Academy Pick: Shakespeare in Love
IMDB Rating: 7.2 (33 of 94, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: American History X
Consensus Best Picture: Saving Private Ryan
Comment: This was a terrible pick, easily the worst since Out of Africa and probably the worst since Gigi. That rating of 7.2 may not sound so bad compared to earlier movies that rated in the 6’s. But IMDB has a bias toward movies that have a lot of votes and movies that are recent. A 7.2 for a Best Picture that’s only 15 years old is simply appalling. The IMDB voters thought Enemy of the State was better. They thought Mulan was better. In a year that included such instant classics as American History X, Saving Private Ryan, The Big Lebowksi, Pi … the Academy went with a mediocre safe antediluvian pick like they were stuck in 1964.

Year: 1999
Academy Pick: American Beauty
IMDB Rating: 8.5 (3 of 94, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Fight Club
Consensus Best Picture: The Sixth Sense
Comment: 1999 was an amazing year for movies. It may one day be regarded as the last great year for movies. American Beauty was a fine choice from the cornucopia.

Year: 2000
Academy Pick: Gladiator
IMDB Rating: 8.5 (2 of 101, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Memento
Consensus Best Picture: Unclear. There are plenty of great movies but history has yet to have its say.
Comment: Roger Ebert regarded this as a poor choice. No one else seems to.

Year: 2001
Academy Pick: A Beautiful Mind
IMDB Rating: 8.1 (5 of 120, minimum 20000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Fellowship of the Ring
Consensus Best Picture: The Fellowship of the Ring
Comment: This will be the last “consensus” note. We’re now only a dozen years in the past and it takes time for the greatest films to become obvious. Fellowship made the AFI 100 and it seems like a good place to stop. There is no film from the last decade, other than the other two chapters of LOTR, that have any consensus as being classics. In time, some may be. But I don’t feel comfortable making that judgement now.

Year: 2002
Academy Pick: Chicago
IMDB Rating: 7.1 (37 out of 105, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Two Towers
Comment: In 2001 and 2002, it was felt at the time that Academy was basically running in place until LOTR concluded. Instead of giving it three awards, they’d crown the final chapter — which they eventually did, acknowledging its status as an instant classic.

While I understand the logic of that process, Chicago was a still a horrible pick for Best Picture of 2002. I liked it OK but my wife hated it and I’ve heard others express equal contempt. IMDB is probably under-rating it because it’s a musical and it beat a popular film. But it gives higher ratings to such non-fanboy movies as City of God, The Pianist, Talk to Her, Lilya 4-Ever, 25th Hour, In America and Adaptation. Chicago got the smug crowd behind it and rode it to victory over at least a couple of dozen better films. When was the last time you watched Chicago? I watched About a Boy, rated slightly above it, last month.

Year: 2003
Academy Pick: Return of the King
IMDB Rating: 8.9 (1st of 111, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Return of the King
Comment: This is a good place to pause for a moment. I’m going to go through the next ten years for completeness but I think all of those years are too recent to judge. This was probably the most recent year that we can fairly judge. To me, this was the last year of relevance for the Academy. They were finally forced to acknowledge that an action film could be the Best Picture of the Year and everything since has been a long temper tantrum as the Academy tries to crawl away from that realization. I watched when LOTR was up all three years to see if it would win. I haven’t really watched an award ceremony since.

This is also the point where I think the IMDB ratings become very unreliable, as you will shortly see. Action films dominate and even poorly regarded Oscar winners get decent ratings. There has not been enough time to properly judge these movies and the eventual failing of IMDB may be that it’s ratings are too static to account for the eventual verdict of history.

Year: 2004
Academy Pick: Million Dollar Baby
IMDB Rating: 8.1 (5 of 117, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Year: 2005
Academy Pick: Crash
IMDB Rating: 7.9 (13 of 117 for 2004, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Batman Begins
Comment: Crash is a reviled pick. IMDB doesn’t rate it as low but I think it will sink in time. But there were a dozen movies rated better, including other Oscar nominees.

Year: 2006
Academy Pick: The Departed
IMDB Rating: 8.5 (1st of 136, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Departed

Year: 2007
Academy Pick: No Country for Old Men
IMDB Rating: 8.2 (2 of 146)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Like Stars On Earth
Comment: Bollywood’s influence begins to show up. No Country was the best-rated American film.

Year: 2008
Academy Pick: Slumgdog Millionaire
IMDB Rating: 8.1 (4th of 138, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Dark Knight

Year: 2009
Academy Pick: The Hurt Locker
IMDB Rating: 7.7 (16th of 138 for 2008, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Inglorious Basterds
Comment: I really don’t know why The Hurt Locker won. It’s a good film, mostly an action film. But it somehow got a reputation as being a great film. Did they think it was anti-war? Did they really hate James Cameron that much? Most of the top-rated films of 2009 are blockbusters. It was a weak year.

Year: 2010
Academy Pick: The King’s Speech
IMDB Rating: 8.1 (4th of 144, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: Inception
Comment: Is Chris Nolan about to take over the mantle of snubbed director? As long as he continues to make action films, yes. He has three of the top six films of the last decade, according to IMDB. The King’s Speech is the top-rated mainstream film, but I would have taken Black Swan or Winter’s Bone over it. That 8.1 will sink in time.

Year: 2011
Academy Pick: The Artist
IMDB Rating: 8.0 (5th of 151, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Intouchables

Year: 2012
Academy Pick: Argo
IMDB Rating: 7.9 (8th of 109, minimum 25000 votes)
IMDB pick as Best Picture: The Dark Knight Rises

Here’s the thing that strikes me about the last 35 years of film history. Over that span, the IMDB ratings for individual years have become populated by a much broader variety of films than ever before. Surprisingly, traditional Oscar fare does well. For all the lashing IMDB gets, great films are popular there. IMDB loves Scorsese, loves Kubrik and loves good film. The difference is the variety — IMDB also loves foreign films, actions films, art films and animated films. These are things the Academy tends to ignore as they pick the same shit every year. Oscar bait has pretty much become its own genre. In other words, the problem is not so much that the Academy has regressed, it’s that they haven’t kept up.

Cracks have now begun to appear in that facade. The Return of the King, THe Hurt Locker and Argo — two action movies and a suspense film — are three films that would never have been considered in the past. The Academy repeatedly snubbed Hitchcock, Lucas and Spielberg for making similar fare. The nomination of Amour this year indicates that the segregation of foreign films may also be ending. And I hope that they will stop segregating off animated films too.

In short, the Academy is going through the same process they went through in the 1960’s: slowly reluctantly adapting to the new reality while occasionally scuttling back into a safe pick like The King’s Speech. It will be interesting to see where things go from here. But it would not surprise me if, within the next decade, we see an Oscar given out to something like Inception. Or even — gasp! — a foreign film.

Anyway, I’ll just tally things up for the 26 years from 1978 to 2003. The Academy’s record was actually pretty good. In five years — 1978, 1991, 1993, 2003 and arguably 1994, they picked the consensus best picture. In ten other years — 1982, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1995, 1999, 2000, 2001 — they made a defensible choice. That’s 15 out of 26. They did have a few flops — 1981, 1985, 1998 and 2002.

For the worst pick of the third era, there are really three movies in the running — Out of Africa, Shakespeare in Love and Chicago (acknowledging that Crash may be in the mix eventually). It’s a tossup between those three, which were all awful picks over far superior films. But I’m really going to have to go with Shakespeare in Love, the middling comedy romance movie that triumphed over Spielberg’s second great film. It’s was an appalling pick and everyone knew it at the time. Chicago at least had some old white people cache and was in the middle of the rebirth of the musical. Out of Africa had big names. But Shakespeare in Love? I’m still mad about it.

I’ll have one final post to wrap things up.

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