In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1997 winner Titanic. Is it better than Crash?
I don’t think enough time has passed yet for us to really know how to talk about Titanic yet, but at the same time, can you believe it was 17 years ago?
Titanic might be the most polarizing movie on the list. People who liked it saw it multiple times in the theater and people who didn’t like it hated it. I expected this to be a difficult trip to sea, but honestly, it’s somewhere in between those extremes. It’s sappy and silly, but it’s also got genuine moments. I suppose you can say that about most love stories, but I was most interested in attempting to judge Titanic without what I already knew about it.
I was a young teenager when Titanic came out, and the young teenager response was mostly poorly defined snark. You just had to remind whatever much-nicer-than-you person you were berating that it was a movie about a boat sinking. After three hours and a lot of Leo, I can confirm, the boat does sink, but there’s more to talk about. There’s just not… a lot more to talk about.
It’s pretty thin. Leo DiCaprio plays Jack Dawson, a plucky street urchin who just wants to find his fortune on the high seas! Kate Winslet plays Rose, who loves him because her monstrous husband-to-be (played by Billy Zane) is cartoonishly evil. There’s a bunch of other people, but calling them “characters” might be a stretch. Rose and Jack fall in love and Billy Zane tries to stop them/rob them/arrest them/kill them/etc. By the end it’s high comedy, and it really feels like James Cameron was worried that we wouldn’t understand who the bad guy was. The line between good and bad isn’t as obvious as it is in Avatar, but it’s just as likely to induce eye-rolling.
While this love triangle plays out, Rose has to show Jack she knows how to drink and dance and whatever and Jack has to yuk his way through a high-class dinner with her friends and family. Your patience for Titanic will depend on how much you like this kind of thing. If the “rich girl just wants to fall in love with someone outside her station” story is your deal, then you’re in luck. That’s 100% of what this is, right down to the famous nude scene. I like a good love story, and I can’t say I hate this one, but it’s certainly a bit much at times.
As for the whole ship sinking part, it still looks pretty spectacular now. A lot of the effects for a movie like this will date themselves quickly, but Titanic still looks solid. That’s a good thing, too, because the characters don’t have enough in them to prop this all up. Hopefully you’ll like the love story and be wowed by the boat sinking, because the connective tissue of Titanic is pretty bad.
The Best Part: The climactic sinking scenes are still worth watching. Even though Titanic is a love story before it’s a disaster movie, there’s genuine excitement and sadness built into the sinking, which is difficult to do considering none of the characters are interesting at all. It’s still visually compelling, which ain’t nothing.
The Worst Part: The dialogue in Titanic is awful. At one point Billy Zane’s character is asked about Picasso and he says “He’ll never amount to a thing, trust me.” Little garbage jokes like that are scattered through this thing, and I just can’t stand them. Add on what passes for “foreshadowing” being people constantly asking about lifeboats and it’s hard to ignore how dumb the dumb parts of this movie are.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Rethinking is rampant among a lot of these movies. People just don’t love Forrest Gump or Titanic like they used to. Some of that is inevitable, because anything everyone loves has to develop a backlash. But some of it, well, some of it is because people take the time to look closer. I didn’t hate Titanic or the hype around it in 1997, but I didn’t have any interest in it. I saw the parts everyone talked about when it came on cable. I figured that Titanic was probably a little exciting and a little boring and that I wasn’t missing anything by not seeing it. The reality is that it has massive problems with pacing and length and that song got played so much that I think it’s a part of my nervous system, now. Titanic isn’t bad, but it’s certainly middle-of-the-road compared to a lot of this list, and while that means it’s certainly better than Crash, it’s a weird piece of movie history that got far more praise than it deserved. It’s also waaaaay better than Avatar, and that comparison probably helps with the rethinking.
Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.