April 24, 2024

The Worst Films Nominated for an Oscar

The Oscars are designed to recognise excellence in the film industry, sometimes they do this by nominating films that are not very good. So here are lovesick robots, killer bees, a feminist cave woman, a thoughtful seagull, and a brace of unloved sequels: the worst films nominated for an Oscar.

A note on the methodology: I used a combination of average user rating on letterboxd, combined with the score on Rotten Tomatoes. It is not very scientific, but it certainly was fun. Having read many reviews and comments on these films to write this article, it should also be noted that a lot of people do love these movies: they just don’t rate them very highly.

In reverse order, from 10 to 1.

Worst Ever Films to receive an oscar nomination: Transformers Revenge of the Fallen

10. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Letterboxd: 2.4/5

Rotten Tomatoes: 20/100

Nominated for: Best Sound Mixing

Michael Bay has crafted a career in an increasingly uncommon zone: as an auteur who makes big budget movies for major studios. His films are vast, loud, busy, full of crass humour and wanton destruction; many of them have been hugely successful.

In 2007 he directed ‘Transformers’, an action sci-fi film based on the iconic toy line, a fun popcorn movie that became a huge hit. Two years later he was back for the sequel.

Feeling the playfulness of the first had been replaced by bombast, critics were hostile, delivering Bay some of the worst reviews of his career.

This did not have any impact on the film’s box office: it was an even bigger hit than the first, earning $800 million worldwide. Three more sequels (and likely more to come) would follow; but ask fans of the series, and even they usually put this one near the bottom.

Bay’s films are known for their imposing sound, the ‘Revenge of the Fallen’ sound mixing team (Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, and Geoffrey Patterson) received an Oscar nomination. From this group, Russell is one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed sound engineers; to date he has been nominated 16 times (for films including ‘The Rock’, ‘Skyfall’ and ‘Spider-Man’) without a win.

What They Said: ‘A horrible experience of unbearable length’, – Roger Ebert, ‘Chicago Sun-Times’

 Worst Films to be nominated for an oscar: The Sting II

9. The Sting II (1983)

Letterboxd: 2.8/5

Rotten Tomatoes: 10/100

Nominated for: Best Musical Score

In 1973, classic comedy-caper movie ‘The Sting’ was one of the major films of the year: starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford it topped the US box office, and subsequently won 7 Oscars, including Best Picture (making producer Julia Phillips the first woman to win in this category). It remains a beloved cinematic icon from its era.

Following a movie this successful is difficult, as the producers of its belated sequel would discover. More than a decade later, ‘The Sting II’ was made with new stars (Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis), a new director, and a new setting (although the same Oscar winning screenwriter, David S. Ward). These changes seemed to create an existential crisis at its centre.

Director Jeremy Paul Kagan claimed that his film was ‘inspired’ by the first movie, rather than a direct sequel, and that his principal characters were now based on real people. At the same time, the script referenced specific events from the earlier film.

The result was an insipid, unfunny mess, that fared poorly with both critics and the public.

The original ‘Sting’ also had iconic music, the sequel at least did better on this front; acclaimed composer Lalo Schifrin, who had created famous scores for ‘The Exorcist’ and ‘Dirty Harry’, was able to successfully update the original music and was Oscar nominated.

What they said: ‘Moves slowly, looks terrible and copies the first film shamelessly.’ – Janet Maslin, ‘New York Times’

 Worst Films to be nominated for an oscar: Clan of the Cave bear

8. The Clan of the Cave Bear (1986)

Letterboxd: 2.7/5

Rotten Tomatoes: 10/100

Nominated for: Best Makeup

American author Jean M. Auel is best known for the book series ‘Earth’s Children’; set 30 000 years before the present day, the books imagine pre-history encounters between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons, in western Europe.

The first book in the series, ‘The Clan of the Cave Bear’, was adapted into a movie in 1986, which presented a formidable challenge.

The text focusses on our how our ancestors lived, rather than a gripping story; this is almost certainly easier in a novel, which allows for extensive description. Without this structure, the film was viewed as inert: heavily made-up actors moving slowly around some striking natural environments (British Columbia, standing in for Paleolithic Europe).

Daryl Hannah, Clan of the Cave Bear
Daryl Hannah, in costume

Auel’s main character, Ayla, is a woman (played by Daryl Hannah), the writer attempted to use this to comment on contemporary feminism; controversial in the novel, this was met by howls of derision by the film’s critics, who saw it as simplistic. Costing a hefty $16 million, the film made only $1.9m at the box office and became a notorious flop.

The one aspect that people did like was the visually striking makeup.

The film’s primitive clans adorn their bodies with highly stylised, colourful body paint, courtesy of Michael Westmore and Michèle Burke, who were Oscar nominated. Westmore had come to prominence working on the original ‘Star Trek’ TV series, and this was his second nomination in a row: he had won the year before for the Peter Bogdanovich film ‘Mask’.

What they said:A goofy and ill-made movie that wants to be deadly serious and acts incredibly daft.’ – Tim Brayton, ‘Antagony and Ecstasy’

 Worst Films to be nominated for an oscar: The Blue Lagoon

7. The Blue Lagoon (1980)

Letterboxd: 2.5/5

Rotten Tomatoes: 12/100

Nominated for: Best Cinematography

Based on a novel published in 1908, ‘Blue Lagoon’ is like the gentler version of ‘Lord of the Flies’: two seven year olds are shipwrecked in the South Pacific, as they grow up they learn basic survival skills, and eventually fall in love.

For the film version, director Randall Kleiser (‘Grease’) and the producers were not bashful about promoting the more titillating aspects; two attractive young actors, scantily clad, looked longingly at each other on the poster.

The copy promised, ‘a sensual story of natural love.’

Brooke Shields
Brooke Shields

The lead actress, Brooke Shields, had already courted controversy; in her pervious film, Louise Malle’s ‘Pretty Baby’, she had shot some nude scenes, filmed when she was only 11. While the film received some praise, this aspect was unsurprisingly divisive.

But ‘Blue Lagoon’ delivered a more chaste experience than suggested; while featuring nudity, masturbation and a teen pregnancy, none of the scenes were overtly explicit. Seemingly disappointed, critics instead found the film boring.

The marketing had already worked though, and it grossed a healthy $58 million at the box office.

One of its selling points was its filming location; a real tropical island, Nanuya Levu, off the coast of Fiji. The beautiful setting was well captured by Néstor Almendros, a famed cinematographer who had won an Oscar the year before for ‘Days of Heaven’.

Shields would later say that making the film had been an uncomfortable experience, and she had felt Kleiser had tried to exploit her.

What they said: ‘A piece of lovely dreck, The Blue Lagoon is a naughty fantasy that’s also too chaste to be truly entertaining.’ – Rotten Tomatoes.

 Worst Films to be nominated for an oscar: Jonathan Livingstone Seagull

6. Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973)

Letterboxd: 2.7/5

Rotten Tomatoes: 8/100

Nominated for: Best Cinematography, Best Editing

Richard Bach was an aspiring writer with an interest in birds and new age spirituality. He combined these into ‘Jonathan Livingstone Seagull’, a philosophical novella told from the perspective of a bird, that blew up into an unexpected cultural sensation.

And if ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’ presented a few film-making challenges, it looked positively straightforward in comparison to this.

The novel is broken into sections, and has poetic prose charting Jonathan’s spiritual development, mixed with photos of real birds. To try and force this square peg into the round hole of a film, director Hall Barlett utilised aerial footage of real birds, voice over narration, long stretches of music from Neil Diamond, and animated sequences with a psychedelic tint.

It was quickly apparent the film had problems, and much tinkering ensued.

Worst Films to be nominated for an oscar: Jonathan Livingstone Seagull
Neil Diamond’s original soundtrack album

Bach wrote the first draft of the screenplay and had it in his contract he could veto any changes; when Barlett made changes anyway, Bach sued, which led to lengthy mediation. The writer eventually took his name off the film. Diamond had written not just a score but a whole album, including several new songs; when Barlett removed some of these, Diamond sued him as well.

The troubled production was a box office failure and widely mocked, multiple critics reported simply walking out. Although the film did get some recognition for its technical aspects, and two Oscar nominations for cinematography (Jack Couffer) and editing (Frank P. Keller and James Galloway).

The best known of this group was Keller, who had a fruitful association with director Peter Yates; Keller had won an editing Oscar in 1969 for his work on Yates’ film ‘Bullitt’, noted for its thrilling car chase sequence.

What they said: ‘The dumbest, most patronising movie of this, or any other year.’ – Gene Siskel, ‘Chicago Tribune’

 Worst Films to be nominated for an oscar: The Swarm

5. The Swarm (1978)

Letterboxd: 2.3/5

Rotten Tomatoes: 9/100

Nominated for: Best Costume Design

Irwin Allen was a producer, writer and director whose name came to symbolise an entire sub-genre: the Disaster Movie. Cutting his teeth in TV, Allen found big box office success with films depicting epic-scale catastrophes; his biggest hits were ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ (an overturned cruise ship) and ‘The Towering Inferno’ (an out-of-control skyscraper blaze).

In 1978 he turned to a less likely-seeming catalyst for chaos: killer bees.

Killer bees were a conspiracy theory of their time. Through the 1970s, the American media reported that African bees had migrated to South America, bred with the local bee population, and spawned a new hybrid that was aggressive and potentially lethal.

Reports would often be accompanied by a graphic, showing the bees inexorable spread north, towards the United States (these alarming claims were completely untrue).

Allen took this idea as the basis for his film. With a script by Stirling Silliphant, who had won an Oscar for ‘In the Heat of the Night’, and a cast including Michael Caine, Henry Fonda, and Katharine Ross, Allen hoped to replicate the successful formula of his earlier work.

Attack of the killer bees
Attack of the killer bees

Allen’s films relied heavily on visual spectacle, this time the producer was relying on bees. Vast numbers of the insects were deployed: more than 2 million were unleashed in the larger scenes, 800 000 had their stingers removed by hand so they could safely interact with the actors.

But times had changed. ‘Star Wars’ had been released the year before, and Allen’s films now seemed old fashioned by comparison; bees were simply not thrilling enough, and the film was a flop.

It did garner one Oscar nomination, for costume designer Paul Zastupnevich. Zastupnevich was Allen’s personal assistant, his only three credits are for films produced by his employer. After Allen retried, he would help curate a museum dedicated to the producer’s career.

What they said: ‘A number of journalists, rolling in the aisles with laughter, were ejected from the press screening.’ – Jennifer Selway, ‘Time Out’

 Worst Films to be nominated for an oscar: Meteor

4. Meteor (1979)

Letterboxd: 2.5/5

Rotten Tomatoes: 5/100

Nominated for: Best Sound

Another disaster movie from the same era was ‘Meteor’, which tried to mimic Star Wars by shifting its setting to space. The story is one we have become familiar with: scientists detect a large meteor headed for Earth, and the governments of the world are forced to cooperate to prevent an extinction level event.

The story had a genuine scientific basis: a report from MIT published in 1967 had speculated on the possibility of a large asteroid hitting the earth, and what measures could be taken to prevent it.

Like ‘The Swarm’ the film would rely heavily on visual effects, but their development was troubled. Two different effects teams were hired and fired during production, a third joined when the film was only weeks away from release; the resulting visuals were unimpressive and cheap looking, featuring obvious use of models and carboard sets.

The film was also derided for being overly talky and taking too long to get to the actual meteor, however poorly rendered. Despite a cast featuring Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Martin Landau and yes, Henry Fonda, the film bombed heavily at the box office.

One bright spot was the Oscar nomination for its sound team, William McCaughey, Aaron Rochin, Michael J. Kohut and Jack Solomon. Of these, William McCaughey and Aaron Rochin were already well established, and had worked together on classic 1970s films ‘Rocky’ and ‘The Deer Hunter’.

What they said: ‘Meteor really combines several disasters in one continuous cinematic bummer.’  – Variety.

 Worst Films to be nominated for an oscar: Nornit

3. Norbit (2007)

Letterboxd: 2.0/5

Rotten Tomatoes: 9/100

Nominated for: Best Makeup

Hugely popular in the 80s and 90s, by the 2000s Eddie Murphy’s star was on the wane. But then a career resurgence: the animated film ‘Shrek’ became a huge hit, and the musical drama ‘Dreamgirls’ earned Murphy his first Oscar nomination.

Looking to capitalise, he turned back to comedy. ‘Norbit’ was about a genial, timid man bullied by his harridan of a wife; Murphy would write and produce, and play three different characters, much as he had done in his earlier hits ‘Coming to America’ and ‘The Nutty Professor’.

But he made a miscalculation.

Trying to replicate the ‘gross-out’ comedies that had become popular, but which he had no affinity for, Murphy leant on outdated racial stereotypes and offensive body humour. The resulting film was laboured, unpleasant, strangely violent, and desperately unfunny.

It still opened at number one and earned nearly $100 million at the box office, but left a sour taste. In later years, the title would become a kind of shorthand for a movie failure.

The film’s one good component is its makeup, provided by technical wizard Rick Baker. Baker created the fat suits and other get-ups that Murphy would wear as the different characters, and earned his tenth Best Makeup Oscar nomination.

He would end his career with 11 nominations in this category, and a record 7 wins.

What they said: ‘Norbit may be the most disturbing, morally repugnant, nightmare-inducing film of the century.’  – Tom Long, ‘Detroit News’

 Worst Films to be nominated for an oscar

2. When Time Ran Out (1980)

Letterboxd: 2.6/5

Rotten Tomatoes: 0/100

Nominated for: Best Costumes

Returning for their second appearance in this list: Irwin Allen and Paul Zastupnevich. Two years on from ‘The Swarm’, the Master of Disaster swapped from bees to volcanoes, to tell a fictionalised version of the eruption of Mount Pelée, on the Caribbean island of Martinique.

Allen, now in financial difficulty, would again find it hard to mount a grand enough spectacle to wow his audience. This time round, he also had difficulties with his cast.

William Holden was a screen legend nearing the end of his career, struggling with entrenched alcoholism. He was often drunk on set, and in one instance had to be removed from a bridge sequence, as the crew were worried he would fall and hurt himself.

His co-lead was Paul Newman, contractually obliged to appear after starring in Allen’s ‘Towering Inferno’. While Newman was a professional, he was disinterested in the movie, and gave a lacklustre performance.

Newman's Own brand
Born from a volcano: Newman’s Own

When asked in later years if he regretted any of the films he had made, Newman replied, ‘The volcano one.’ He used his salary from the film to start his own food company, Newman’s Own, all of the profits from which are donated to charity; at time of writing, the brand has given away hundreds of millions of dollars.

Paul Zastupnevich was again nominated for his costumes.

What they said: ‘Wonderfully cheesy but not as hilariously awful as Swarm or Meteor, which is a pity.’  – Radio Times.

 Worst Films to be nominated for an oscar: Heartbeeps

1. Heartbeeps (1981)

Letterboxd: 2.4/5

Rotten tomatoes: 0/100

Nominated for: Best Makeup

Andy Kaufman was a kind of proto anti-comedian, whose idiosyncratic style made him a minor stand-up celebrity in the 1970s. He then found much bigger fame playing Latka Gravas, a supporting character on the hit sitcom ‘Taxi’.

Kaufman was interested in crossing over to movies, his first and only vehicle was this bizarre romantic comedy.

He plays ValCom 17485, a valet robot in the near future who falls in love with a female service robot, played by Bernadette Peters. The two steal a van and hit the road; after being recaptured and escaping again, they hide out in a junkyard run by sympathetic humans and build a robot son from spare parts.

The happiest of endings.

Oscar worthy

Hampered by a low budget, the film was barely released; what reviews it did get were universally hostile. Kaufman was a regular guest on ‘The Late Show with David Letterman’, in one appearance he apologised for the movie, and offered to personally refund the ticket price to anyone who had gone to see it.

Letterman quipped, it wouldn’t cost him much.

Similar to Norbitt, the film’s one trump was the design of the robots, created by Stan Winston. Winston was nominated for Best Makeup (losing to Rick Baker for ‘An American Werewolf in London’) and would have a long career in visual effects, working on films like ‘The Terminator’, ‘Robocop’ and ‘Jurassic Park’.

What they said: ‘I would rather shove knitting needles through my eyes than sit through five minutes of this ever again.’ – Brian McKay, ‘eFilmCritic’

Honourable Mentions – Bad Films Nominated for Oscars

  • When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970: Best Visual Effects)
  • Poltergeist II (1982: Best Visual Effects)
  • Endless Love (1981: Best Original Song)
  • Sunset (1989: Best Costumes)
  • Yes, Giorgio (1982: Best Original Song)


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