Robbed By The Academy! These Incredible Films Somehow Didn’t Win Best Picture

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
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The courtroom drama has long been a Hollywood staple. Perhaps the finest of them all is director Otto Preminger’s adaptation of a Robert Traver novel. The film features a battle between a small-town defense attorney (Jimmy Stewart) and a hotshot, big-city prosecutor (George C. Scott). This lengthy, fully absorbing film addresses not just guilt and innocence, but also the very nature of truth, justice and the law.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Image Source: Beaumont

Gone with the Wind — a giant cultural phenomenon if nothing else — beat out Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wuthering Heights, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Love Affair to win Best Picture. It also beat out an equally (if not more) enduring film from director Victor Fleming in The Wizard of Oz. Oz has since become a staple for both musicals and classic Hollywood filmmaking.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Image Source: Taste of Cinema

There’s long been a strand of self-loathing to the film industry, and sometimes that self-loathing leads to great movies. It’s essentially the core of Billy Wilder’s darkly funny Sunset Boulevard. A struggling screenwriter (William Holden) discovers Hollywood’s gothic underbelly after stumbling into an intense relationship with an unstable star of the silent age (Gloria Swanson).

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
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It’s not hard to see why Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch has become synonymous with unbending American virtue. Like the film around him and the Harper Lee novel from which it’s adapted, he’s hopeful but clear- eyed. Finch is aware of how hard it is to champion justice and tolerance in a world that often seems to want neither. In spite of the fact that To Kill a Mockingbird was nominated for eight Academy Awards, it only won three. None of those were for Best Picture.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
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Filtering a story of prejudice through a tense thriller set in the Deep South, In the Heat of the Night took the top prize of the night at the Oscars. However, both The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde captured a Hollywood filled with fresh ideas. This violent, funny, ultimately sobering film arrived in theaters in 1967 — preaching rebellion and personal freedom.

The Conversation (1974)

The Conversation (1974)
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The year belonged to Francis Ford Coppola, if only because of numbers; Coppola released not one but two Best Picture nominees in 1974. Giving the second slot to another Coppola film might seem excessive. However, The Conversation is a masterpiece that can stand side by side with The Godfather Part II.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver (1976)
Image Source: Getty Images

Sylvester Stallone’s sleeper hit, Rocky, took home the gold statuette this year. But Rocky Balboa’s journey looks downright triumphant next to that of Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) — the alienated cabbie for whom New York had become a living hell. Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader took the film to the sort of dark places few movies dare to go. The Academy responded with a nomination but no award (sadly).

Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars (1977)
Image Source: Getty Images

Films that capture the public imagination via sensation, action, and special effects tend not to win Best Picture — even when they become one of their era’s defining moments. There’s no better example of that than Star Wars. The film helped to define blockbuster filmmaking, and took over the imaginations of a whole generation. However, Star Wars — along with The Goodbye Girl, Turning Point, and Julia, all lost to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall for Best Picture.

Apocalypse Now (1980)

Apocalypse Now (1980)
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Not to take anything away from the wrenching look at divorce with Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, but Apocalypse Now was unlike any war film that came before it. Francis Ford Coppola’s film was an operatic and grandiose episode that delved into the horrors (physical and otherwise) inherent on the battlefield. Apocalypse Now is today considered to be one of the greatest films ever made.

Raging Bull (1981)

Raging Bull (1981)
Image Source: IMDb

Scorsese’s searing Raging Bull loss to Robert Redford’s Ordinary People has become an easy example of how the Oscars often get it wrong. Initially, Martin Scorsese didn’t understand why Robert De Niro responded to the true story of Jake LaMotta. After bottoming out due to drug addiction and exhaustion, the director saw himself in the middleweight champion’s stumbles toward redemption. De Niro was ferocious, ugly, compelling, and never as brutally magnificent again.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1983)

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1983)
Image Source: IMDb

A fairy tale set in the American suburbs and dressed up in science-fiction trappings, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial suggests that even the most mundane settings could be filled with wonder via the story of an alien who takes refuge with a family still reeling from divorce. The emotionally rich and visually stunning storytelling captures everything Spielberg did better than everyone else at this point in his career.

The Color Purple (1986)

The Color Purple (1986)
Image Source: IMDb

The epic romance with Redford and Streep in colonial Kenya won over Oscar voters. Simply put, the Academy whiffed by not honoring a film featuring Whoopi Goldberg’s Golden Globe-winning performance, Oprah Winfrey’s high-profile Hollywood debut, and Steven Spielberg’s honest exploration of racism, sexism and domestic violence in the early 20th century.

Broadcast News (1987)

Broadcast News (1987)
Image Source: IMDb

Romantic comedies are rarely rewarded by the Academy. But this James L. Brooks film is smarter, funnier and far more touching than most. It traces the love triangle between three very different television journalists: William Hurt’s impossibly shallow anchor, Albert Brooks’ painfully insecure reporter, and Holly Hunter’s type-A+ producer. Hidden inside this bittersweet romantic comedy is an insightful, still relevant criticism of TV news.

Working Girl (1988)

Working Girl (1988)
Image Source: IMDb

There are certain types of movies that often have a hard time winning Best Picture Oscars. They include comedies in general, romantic comedies in particular, and most films focused more on women than men. Mike Nichols’ Working Girl checks all those boxes — making it a dark horse in the year’s race. This is ridiculous considering the film is one of the most sophisticated and winning comedies of the decade. Playing a character that’s a mix of brains and determination, Melanie Griffith is at her most charming here.

Goodfellas (1990)

Goodfellas (1990)
Image Source: IMDb

At the time, this adaptation of Nicolas Pileggi’s book on mobster Henry Hill’s life felt like a new peak for director Martin Scorsese. It was one of the darkest examinations of gangster culture to date. Goodfellas didn’t take the prize. However, to put it mildly, it would make a fine alternate choice. It’s become one of the most admired (and most imitated) films of the ’90s. Who could have known how compulsively watchable this film would be every single time it pops up on cable?

Pulp Fiction (1995)

Pulp Fiction (1995)
Image Source: IMDb

Tom Hanks literally running through history in the overly earnest Forrest Gump is what the Oscars live for. The same can’t necessarily be said for Quentin Tarantino’s genre mash-up Pulp Fiction. It was an ultra-violent, complex cultural phenomenon that should be in consideration for best picture of the entire decade. The first independent film to gross more than $200 million, Pulp Fiction was a shot of adrenaline set straight to Hollywood’s heart.

Fargo (1996)

Fargo (1996)
Image Source: IMDb

Anthony Minghella’s romantic World War II drama is a fine film, though it tests viewers’ patience over the course of three hours. On the other hand, Fargo spawned a TV series. It also created a fandom for the Coen brothers’ winningly quirky black comedy about murderous deeds and dimwits in snow-covered Minnesota. Fargo cemented the directors as America’s foremost re-inventors of the crime drama.

L.A. Confidential (1997)

L.A. Confidential (1997)
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Curtis Hanson’s story of crooked cops in the City of Angels is one of the best modern-day noirs ever made. With actors Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce owning their roles in an ensemble, the movie is a gripping drama with a lot more suspense than Titanic had. L.A. Confidential is seductive, beautiful, cynical, and twisted. As such, it’s one of the greatest films of all time.

Saving Private Ryan (1999)

Saving Private Ryan (1999)
Image Source: IMDb

Spielberg’s riveting look at the horrors of World War II is a film that will go down in history as one of the greatest war movies ever made. Crazily enough, it didn’t get Oscar’s biggest prize. Still, it’s likely you’ve thought about images in Saving Private Ryan about a dozen more times than you have Shakespeare in Love. In fact, I’m here today to tell you that Saving Private Ryan isn’t just a good Spielberg film; it’s his best.

Zero Dark Thirty (2013)

Zero Dark Thirty (2013)
Image Source: IMDb

An easy-to-understand storyline for Oscar voters, Argo is at best an average drama with below-average production value. The true story that the Academy should have recognized is Kathryn Bigelow’s look at how Osama bin Laden was tracked down. You can take issue with both films’ portrayal of real events, but what Zero Dark Thirty does succeed in doing, however, is capturing the melancholy, tension and uncertainty of one of America’s most difficult decades.

The Pianist (2003)

The Pianist (2003)
Image Source: IMDb

The movie musical suddenly became hot again in the early 2000s, with Chicago winning six Oscars (including best picture). Though honestly, have you even thought about this movie in the past decade? The Pianist was clearly the better picture. Here we have Roman Polanski’s unflinching look at a Jewish musician’s struggle to survive the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II.

Brokeback Mountain (2006)

Brokeback Mountain (2006)
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Paul Haggis’ interwoven all-star drama about racial tensions in L.A. was plagued by mixed reviews and complaints of stereotyping. It’s since caught flak for more than 10 years as an Oscar fail. And it very much was — especially considering the fact that Ang Lee’s timeless and resonant Brokeback Mountain was sitting right there. It featured Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger as cowboys in a forbidden love affair.

There Will Be Blood (2008)

There Will Be Blood (2008)
Image Source: IMDb

Pitting capitalism (in the form of Daniel Day-Lewis’s ruthless Daniel Plainview) against religion, this widescreen minimalist epic plays like the origin story of the 20th century. Humanity’s thirst for oil, money and power overwhelms everything in its path. From the scenery to the epic acting performances by complementary characters, There Will Be Blood was a triumph of the highest order.

The Social Network (2011)

The Social Network (2011)
Image Source: IMDb

In a perfect example of the age bias of the Academy, more members could relate with a movie set in the late 1930s than with the birth of Facebook. David Fincher’s dramatization of the rise of Mark Zuckerberg is a movie looking at the now. It most likely went over the heads of the older voters. At its core, the film is much more than just the story of one website. It is both a micro and macro look at success, failure and the trappings of ego and greed.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)
Image Source: IMDb

Orson Welles’ first feature film is often considered the greatest film of all-time. It’s a cornerstone of American cinema. It sets the bar for students of filmmaking in everything from structure to cinematography. The only problem was that Welles based the movie on William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was still alive, and didn’t like the movie one bit. Hearst also had a lot of Hollywood friends. Kane was expected to win multiple awards at the 14th Academy Awards, yet it lost out on the Oscar for Best Picture to How Green Was My Valley.