The 10 Best Films That Didn’t Win Best Picture

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Awards seasons and the Oscars in particular are always very divisive. People will argue for hours and hours on end about which film deserves to win, and which film didn’t deserve to be nominated. More often than not, the Academy completely misfire and award just the wrong movies the big prize when there are better movies battling against them.

Equally, there are times when the Academy does get it right: Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia, The Apartment, The Godfather, Schindler’s List and The Lord of the Rings stand out as examples of the years where Oscar was right on the money. However, there are films that were nominated for Best Picture and have since gone on to be regarded as classics that didn’t win.

Below is my list of the great films that were nominated for the top award, but were beaten by lesser movies and yet have gone on in their own right to be highly regarded, and in some cases more highly regarded than the films that won.

10. Fargo (1996, Joel Coen)

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Beaten by The English Patient.

This was really the film that got the Coen Brothers into the public conscious and established them as filmmakers who were a force to be reckoned with. The bleak comedy brought together all the elements from their previous films: dark humour, strong characterisation, bizarre violence and super smart dialogue, all placed into one tight and beautifully put together package. It rightfully won Best Actress and Best Original Screenplay Oscars for Frances McDormand and the Coens respectively, but its originality and its cynical yet oddly humane attitudes should have put this as the Best Picture of 1996.

9. L.A. Confidential (1997, Curtis Hanson)

LA Confidential The 10 Best Films That Didnt Win Best Picture

Beaten by Titanic.

There is a lot of Titanic love out there, and I just don’t see it. However, as it was the biggest grossing film of all time, on Oscar night, it would have been an outrage for the Academy to award Best Picture to another film.

Curtis Hanson‘s L.A. Confidential is arguably the finest studio film of the 90′s, a taut and brilliantly acted crime drama that never reveals its full hand until the final moments. Beautifully recreating the world of Los Angeles in the 50′s and lovingly referring to the great noirs of the 40′s, L.A. Confidential is a handsomely mounted picture that has something between its ears.

8. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982, Steven Spielberg)

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Beaten by Gandhi.

Not even Richard Attenborough believes his film should have beaten Spielberg’s magnum opus, arguing that while Gandhi is a terrific narrative, Spielberg’s E.T. is a work of pure masterpiece cinema. And he’s right. Spielberg’s meditation on childhood and innocence is as heartbreaking as you would like, featuring the finest child performances ever committed to celluloid as well as some of the most iconic images. Like all of Spielberg’s work, it is a film made with heart and is deeply personal whilst also being very entertaining. One of the most outrageous Oscar oversights.

7. Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)

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Beaten by The Godfather Part II.

Both of them are exceptional works and I can’t deny the win for what is “the finest sequel ever made,” but one can make a case for Roman Polanski‘s detective story being just as worthy a Best Picture winner. The 30′s period picture features arguably Jack Nicholson‘s finest hour as the laconic, quick witted private dick Jake Gittes hired to investigate the murder of the head of Water and Power in LA. The film contains one of cinema’s most gutting twists, packed with great performances and capturing a side of the great city that often goes unnoticed, this dark neo noir was a force to be reckoned with.

6. There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)

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Beaten by No Country for Old Men.

Again, another conundrum between two great films as to which one is better. The Coen Brothers have more than a fair claim for holding on to the Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars, but Paul Thomas Anderson‘s epic is perhaps the film that deserved to triumph in the big category.

It is a film that has defined its decade. On the surface you have a brilliant story about the economic rise and emotional fall of one of cinema’s most gruesome characters: Daniel Plainview. Beneath that however are allegories of capitalism, religion, Big Oil and the sins of the father. It is so thematically dense that on a 10th viewing you can read it another way. It is one of the those highly intelligent films that is perhaps to clever for the voters.

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5. Raging Bull (1980, Martin Scorsese)

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Beaten by Ordinary People.

Many claim this to be the biggest oversight in Academy history mainly because of how badly aged Robert Redford‘s familial drama is, while Raging Bull is widely considered to be maestro Scorsese’s finest work (although the film at number 2 takes my cash).

This hard hitting biopic about one very explosive character is a true marvel to behold. It is brutally and savagely honest, the portrait of LaMotta is easily one of the least flattering depictions of a real person in cinema history, made even more surprising by the fact LaMotta was heavily involved in the project.

It looks amazing too. The crisp monochrome photography perfectly matches the period, the performances are incredible, not least of all Robert De Niro, and Scorsese’s direction of both the boxing and the drama is balanced perfectly, almost like ballet. It was the peerless film of that year and it’s just shocking that it didn’t win.

4. The Shawshank Redemption (1994, Frank Darabont)

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Beaten by Forrest Gump.

A lot of people love Forrest Gump and I am proud not to be among those people. The fact it beat one of my favourite films to the coveted Best Picture is frankly outrageous. Again, you could easily make a claim for Quentin Tarantino‘s film also taking this prize, it would have been a far worthier winner (but then again, what wouldn’t?), but it is Frank Draabont‘s phenomenal prison drama which edges it for me.

Of course, the reason it didn’t win is because no one went to see it, it flopped massively at the box office and was only a huge hit on home video. By then it was too late. I could go on forever about the merits of this film: amazing script, production design, emotional complexity, truly great performances, but I won’t. All you need to know is this. Gump won. This didn’t. That’s wrong.

3. Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)

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Beaten by Kramer vs Kramer.

It is true that Coppola had two Best Picture winners under his belt by the end of the 70′s but denying him a third just because he’s already got two seems ludicrous, especially when his masterpiece was beaten by Kramer vs Kramer. Apocalypse Now is a film way ahead of its time in terms of dealing with the Vietnam War in the way it did and that’s probably why it didn’t end up winning.

While The Deer Hunter portrayed its soldier characters as valiant, Coppola showed his soldiers as disillusioned and mad, wantonly taking drugs and participating in outright murder. The mysterious character of Kurtz, an American Colonel, is the film’s embodiment of war madness and murder.

This was not the depiction of America’s soldiers that America wanted to see at the time, it was salt in the wounds. Yet the film has lasted, it remains immensely powerful to this day. The tale of madness was perhaps too explicit for the Academy, but if the Academy really are out of step with popularity, like George Clooney suggested, this would have been the winner. Sadly it wasn’t to be.

2. Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorsese)

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Beaten by Dances With Wolves.

The fact the Academy, after snubbing Taxi Driver and Raging Bull didn’t make up for it by awarding Scorsese the Best Picture and Director Oscar he deserved for Goodfellas, and instead gave it to Kevin Costner‘s sentimental waffle, makes my head spin and my heart sink.

Goodfellas is the perfect film, as in there is literally nothing wrong with it. Nothing. Every frame, every moment of that film is signs of a filmmaker working completely at the top of his game knowing exactly what he is doing and being very confident in every directorial decision.

It works at a level of sheer cinematic artistry and it works on a level of entertainment. It has a watchability which Costner’s worthy drama has none of. I have seen Dances With Wolves once in my life, I have no impetus to watch it again. Once was plenty. I will be watching Goodfellas till the day I die because every time I see something new that gives me something to be excited by with cinema. The oversight of this brings me to question whether the Academy should be taken that seriously.

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1. Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)

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Beaten by How Green Was My Valley.

The big one. When respectable publications such as the AFI and Sight & Sound’s poll “The Greatest Films Ever Made,” lists complied by the kinds of people who are members of the Academy, Orson Welles‘ classic Citizen Kane rightfully claims the ownership of the Number One spot. And yet the ‘Greatest Film Ever Made’ walked away on Oscar night with one lonely award: Best Original Screenplay.

There are political reasons why Citizen Kane did not win the Best Picture Oscar. Namely because the person that the lead character, Charles Foster Kane, was based on: William Randolph Hearst, wasn’t particularly happily with the parallels drawn by Welles. Also, the film’s bleak outlook won’t have gone down swimmingly with an audience who were looking towards films as escapism from World War 2. But in hindsight the Academy made a foolish error in not giving Welles the Best Picture award.

For a 26 year old and for a debut work, Citizen Kane is massively ambitious, wonderfully confident and sublime in every single way, and Welles had control of it all. Although they wouldn’t have known it at the time, the film has gone on to be perhaps the most influential film ever put on screen and even 70 years after its original release young filmmakers are aware of the power that Welles’ Kane has. The peerless film and the one a great number of people consider to be the pinnacle of cinematic art was not a Best Picture winner. Academy out of touch? I think so.

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  • Jeff Beck

    Very interesting list, Will. It is unfortunate that the Academy has made so many poor decisions in the past, though, for this list, the only one that really bugs me is #2. In one of the Academy’s most inexplicable decisions, it still baffles many to this day as to how they could have made such a big mistake like that. The British Academy got it right as did several American film critics groups. I imagine the Brits had a good laugh at our Academy, along with the rest of America, when Dances with Wolves was named BP. In all my years of being a film critic/film buff, I have never met one individual who thought it was a better film than Goodfellas, and understandably so.

    I really like Forrest Gump, and while I find it to be a four-star movie, I have to say that Pulp Fiction should have easily taken Best Picture that year.

    I like Citizen Kane, but have never really loved it, though it is amusing to think that, even though it’s considered by many today to be the single greatest film ever made, it lost best picture to a film that a vast majority of people have never even heard of (How Green Was My Valley, which I’ve only seen once, after which, I forgot everything about it).

    Another I would have had to include as a completely inexplicable decision by the Academy is Network losing Best Picture to Rocky. Not sure how they went about making that big of an error either.

    Then there are the three Kubrick masterpieces that got nominated for Best Picture (Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon) and somehow lost. You can also add in one of their biggest mistakes of all time here which is not even nominating 2001: A Space Odyssey for BP. If we were talking biggest mistakes in the Best Director category, all four films would apply.

    This is a subject I find fascinating, and I could go on, but suffice it to say that the Academy rarely chooses the actual Best Picture of the year. Last time they actually did that was when they gave it to LOTR.

    PS: Thank you for not being one of those people who continually complains about Saving Private Ryan losing to Shakespeare in Love. That’s an argument that I’ve heard quite enough of. Both are great films, but I’ve always found SiL to be far superior (it’s actually on my top ten of all time).

    • Will Chadwick

      Dr. Strangelove. I knew I missed one. Damn. I thought I would get the complaint about Star Wars losing to Annie Hall, thankfully you didn’t as Woody deserved that award. I think Citizen Kane isn’t an easy film to love (I do love it incidentally) but as a work of art it is infinitely admirable.

      Actually I thought they were completely correct in awarding the Best Picture to Slumdog Millionaire.In regards to the Shakespeare in Love issue, I agree it is an argument done to death and I kind of wanted to drift away from it. Its mainly because I don’t think Saving Private Ryan is as good as the films I’ve listed. And outside the battle sequences, there is little that is extraordinary about the film.The more I think about it, the more the exclusion of Dr. Strangelove is beginning to bother me.

  • Chad

    Dr. Strangelove is a masterpiece. Based on the ones I’ve seen, it’s my favourite Kubrick film.

  • baby slings

    Shawshank redemption over forest gump any day of my life.

  • NickLock

    “There Will Be Blood” over “No Country for Old Men”?  “The Shawshank Redemption” over “PULP FICTION”?  You can make an argument for many Best Picture winners and the picture that should have won instead but make sure this guy isn’t on your side when you do.  Nick

  • Aldo Torres

    Saving Private Ryan belongs in this list too.