Worst Best Picture: Is The English Patient Better or Worse Than Crash?

the english patient

Alex Russell

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 1996 winner The English Patient. Is it better than Crash?

I briefly considered this entire piece being the following sentence: “The English Patient beat Fargo, which is terrible, but it is not worse than Crash.”

That’s sort of the weirdness of the whole process. Does Casablanca need to be compared with Rocky to determine anything? Maybe not, but at the very least, the Academy has a chance every year to name one movie literally “Best Picture” and if they pick one over another, they are saying it is better. That seems like a simple thing, but there are so many times when you look at two movies nominated in the same year and you just can’t believe it.

There are many famous snubs — Crash beating Brokeback Mountain is the most famous, see I told you people — but none are stranger now than The English Patient over Fargo. That kind of thing is why I started writing these. I had to know if there was some better example of a travesty on this list. I had to search everything. I had to go through every single time someone who was given the power to say so said “Best Picture.” I put The English Patient off because I was worried it might be the one. I didn’t want to run out of steam, so I knew I had to wait on the supposed biggest mistake in Oscar history (aside from Crash).

You’ll have to wait until the end for the official answer re:Crash, but honestly, The English Patient is nautical miles worse than Fargo, and it’s really odd that anyone could watch both movies and not see that. You have to wonder if Fargo perhaps gained more momentum over the years rather than quickly or if the Coen brothers’ success after Fargo has elevated it. Whatever the case, The English Patient can rightfully be considered a snub. I’ll sign that document, bring it to me.

It’s the story of “the English patient” (Ralph Fiennes), a badly burned and wounded man who is tended to by a nurse (Juliette Binoche) who has lost her taste for the war. The patient is dying, the nurse is in love with a bomb defuser (Naveen Andrews) who is constantly in danger, and they’re all joined by Willem Dafoe’s crazy thief character, who has no thumbs. If it sounds convoluted, then good, because it really, really is.

The English Patient drags through these characters with a narration provided by Fiennes as he recounts how he became “the English patient.” Much of his past is lost to him, but other parts are extremely specific and must be told in great detail. The movie correctly guesses that there are only two things anyone cares about in a Best Picture winner — love and war — but it misses a chance to expand some interesting characters. Dafoe pops in and out of the narration in brief moments and always offers the hope that everything will get interesting, but alas, we need more stories of forbidden love and terrible strife.

“Boring and beautiful” is a fair epitaph for The English Patient. It’s not terrible by any means, but the patient’s stories of a wild affair and the nurse’s doting and caring are only so interesting, and they keep rehashing similar moments long after both of them have established who they are. If every line of dialogue must advance the plot, The English Patient could be a short film. After watching it, I feel mostly OK about the whole experience, but in the process it can be frustrating to watch the same thing again and again.

The Best Part: Willem Dafoe is generally the best part of everything he’s in, and this is no exception. His character has no thumbs, which is shown during an early visit when he tries to hand the nurse an egg and can’t hold on to it. The reveal of how he lost them is the best part of the movie, no question.

The Worst Part: The whole Fargo thing, maybe? If I have to pick something actually in the movie, I’m tempted to pick a pretty big spoiler, but I’ll instead go with the nurse’s relationship with the bomb defuser. The entire thing occupies about six minutes of screentime in a three hour movie, but we’re supposed to believe it defines her? The patient’s love story gets somewhere around three hours of the three-hour thing, and the mix makes everyone’s motivations a little tough to believe.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The two great crimes of The English Patient are that it focuses on the wrong things and that it beat Fargo, a much better movie. The year Crash was nominated, everyone was certain that Brokeback Mountain would crush it, but even if the rumor that everyone was too afraid of the subject matter is true, Good Night, and Good Luck was also nominated, and that’s a fantastic movie. The crimes of The English Patient make it pretty unwatchable, but they don’t match up to those of Crash. While they’re both probably the two most obvious snubs, I don’t think The English Patient is even one of the five or ten worst, so there’s no real comparison to be made.

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 SlaveThe 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 GodfatherCasablancaGrand 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 | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | Hamlet | Braveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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13 comments

  1. What is it that people hate about The English Patient, I’ve seen it 4 times and will see it again. I have to say that I hated the film fargo and I’m tired of the popularity of fargo. I thought the acting was bad and the accents we’re worse.

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