Oscar Fail: Is an Academy Award a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?

College professor Gary Stratton reveals the method behind his madness in Teaching Worldview Through the Academy Award-winning Film.  Part one in 2014 Oscar Week Series.

Academy voters will crown this year’s ‘Best Picture.’ But will anyone remember it in twenty years?

by Gary David Stratton • Senior Editor

Sunday's Academy Awards Show seeks to honor "truly great" films, yet history reveals that Oscar voters often miss the mark.
Sunday’s Academy Awards Show seeks to honor “truly great” films, yet history reveals that Oscar voters often miss the mark.

And the nominees are:

American Hustle[1]

Captain Phillips[2]

Dallas Buyers Club[3]





12 Years a Slave[8]

The Wolf of Wall Street[9]

Sunday night tens of millions of viewers from nearly every nation on the planet will tune in for the coronation of Hollywood’s “Best Picture” of the year.  Studios have spent millions of dollars in countless screeners, screenings, billboards, interviews, Variety Ads, Twitter campaigns, blog attacks, and countless party conversations, seeking to sway the roughly 5,500 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters to crown their film as King or Queen of the industry.

But do the Oscars always get it right? You wouldn’t think so looking at the award’s history. Arguments are legion. Nearly every year is controversial in one way or another. In many cases, Academy voting turns out to be a major “Oscar Fail.”

Factors in ‘Oscar Fail’

Some Oscar winners are beloved in their day, but don’t stand the test of time. There are few Academy voters today who would argue that Shakespeare in Love (1998) was anything close to a classic, yet it somehow managed to win over Stephen Spielberg’s WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan.  The 1968 musical Oliver was certainly endearing, but not nearly as enduring as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Other Oscar winners have “outside the film” appeal to voters that may not always be a genuine indicators of greatness. The Hurt Locker (2009) was a compelling film, but it is hard to imagine how voting might have gone if Katherine Bigelow had not been in a position to be the first female director to win top honors. (Or, if Avatar director, James Cameron–Katherine’s ex-husband–had not alienated many academy voters with his “I’m king of the world” Oscar acceptance speech for his 1998 Titanic win.) In fact, she might be more worthy of winning for this year’s Zero Dark Thirty, but that is unlikely now that she’s “already won” her statue.

15 years later, it is hard to imagine how ‘Shakespeare in Love’ won over Spielberg’s WWII classic.

Some films are simply too far ahead of their times to even receive a nomination for Best Picture. Citizen Kane (1941) is near the top of most “All-Time Great Films” lists, but lost to the long forgotten How Green is My Valley. Hitchcock’s cutting-edge masterpiece Vertigo is still watched in film schools, while only the most die-hard fans ever watch 1958 winner Gigi. 1999 genre-bender The Matrix couldn’t even garner a Best Picture nomination, yet few doubt that it will be studied as a classic for years to come.

Other great films lose Oscars simply because they are up against other greats in the same year.  Forrest Gump (1994) garnered a much-deserved Best Picture Oscar. Yet few would argue that it was unequivocally better than two other celebrated films in the same year: Quentin Tarantino’s groundbreaking  Pulp Fiction, and Shawshank Redemption (currently #1 on IMDB‘s greatest movies ever made.)

Sometimes a film’s novelty gives it a short-term popularity. The unique silent film aesthetics of last year’s winner The Artist helped give it the upper hand over more conventional films. Yet many purists point to the social importance of the civil rights movement portrayal of The Helpthe acting excellence of The Descendants, and/or the overall of craftmanship of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (11 nominations) as more deserving criteria.

The 2011 Picture of the Year had to overcome a smear campaign

Even more dramatic are the publicity efforts launched by studios and internet devotees in order to promote their films and sometimes smear their rivals.  2011 winner The King’s Speech had to overcome an alleged smear campaign launched by devotees of The Social Network that all but overshadowed the equally deserving Inception.

How The Shall We Then Choose?

The truth is, the public-relations-driven, artistically myopic, and sometime overtly political nature of  Hollywood often make Oscars an unreliable measure of true greatness.

So… what of 2013? Many believe it is a two-horse race between Spielberg’s biopic of America’s greatest president (Lincoln) versus the cinematic adaptation of the world’s greatest musical (Les Miserable.)  But is it?  Could Ben Affleck’s sweep at this year’s SAG Awards indicate that his Oscar-snub for Best-Director  created a huge sympathy vote for Argo? Could the fact that Silver Linings Playbook is the first film in over three decades to garner Best Actor nominations in all four categories  factor into voter’s minds?

The truth is, no one knows!

If the professionals don’t always get it right, what hope do we mere mortals have? But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In fact, over a decade of using Academy Award-winning films to teach philosophy and theology have taught me that there might be a way to predict which film will have a ‘deep culture’ impact.


Next: High Culture? Pop Culture? Shouldn’t a Great Film Impact ‘DEEP CULTURE’?


[1] Charles Roven, Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison and Jonathan Gordon, Producers

[2] Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti and Michael De Luca, Producers

[3] Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter, Producers

[4] Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman, Producers

[5] Megan Ellison, Spike Jonze and Vincent Landay, Producers

[6] Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, Producers

[7] Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan and Tracey Seaward, Producers

[8] Gabrielle Tana, Steve Coogan and Tracey Seaward, Producers

[9] Nominees still undetermined






5 Replies to “Oscar Fail: Is an Academy Award a Reliable Indicator of a Truly Great Film?”

Comments are closed.