8 Of The All-Time Best Academy Award Losers

Do the Right Thing 8 Of The All Time Best Academy Award Losers

On one level, the Academy Awards can have an enormous effect selecting which movies or singular movie will be designated as the most prestigious films from a single year. However, it’s also possible that they’re simply a reflection of opinions that have already been formed about the best films of the year, and when the Oscar pick for Best Picture disagrees too much with the popular and critical opinion, it gets swept aside. Driving Miss Daisy, for example, isn’t exactly hailed as a lasting contribution to the history of cinema. Meanwhile two movies that weren’t even nominated, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, are considered two of the greatest of their decade at the least, despite Oscar’s lack of recognition.

So it’s important to remember with the awards coming up that they may not even mean that much. They may be remembered as elevating a movie like Argo to a level it may not have enjoyed otherwise, but ultimately are somewhat irrelevant. It’s tempting to think that in an age where powerful bodies with this type of previously perceived authority are dwindling, and that the Academy could go that way also. But then again, there are so many exceptions to the notion that Best Picture really does mean the best picture that maybe it was never that true in the first place.

For your consideration, I’d like to present several of these exceptions, movies that were up for the Best Picture award at the Oscars but was passed over for another film in a decision that now seems laughable in hindsight. Here are 8 big losers from previous years at the Academy Awards to remind us all that losing does not by any means translate into slipping from the cultural ethos into distant memory. In fact, it might even make them more hipster-cool.

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1) The Shawshank Redemption

Shawshank Redemption 8 Of The All Time Best Academy Award Losers

The internet has decided that The Shawshank Redemption is the best movie of all time. Or at least, IMDb users have voted it as their favorite. And yet, it couldn’t even get enough votes from the Academy to win a single award, most notably the Best Picture award which went to Forrest Gump. Needless to say, Shawshank has done pretty well for itself, partially because Ted Turner bought its rights for ridiculously cheap and so it played endlessly on his TV channels, but also in large part because it’s just an excellent movie.

Forrest Gump is a fine film in itself, with some pretty seamless and impressive technological work, and a fantastical style that is a lot of fun and packs an emotional punch. Tom Hanks has a tendency to do that. I don’t know many people who would argue it’s better than Shawshank though, or Pulp Fiction for that matter. The friendship of Andy and Red is the driving force behind the affection people have for Shawshank, the patriarchal gentleness of Morgan Freeman combined with the quiet menace of Tim Robbins providing a memorable dynamic that you can’t help but root for. Forrest may still have legs, but Shawshank has outpaced it in the race for the hearts and minds of the public since losing out at the Oscars.

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2) Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan 8 Of The All Time Best Academy Award Losers

Consensus opinion seems to agree that Shakespeare in Love has no business having “Academy Award Winner” on its DVD cover. I watched it a long time ago and found it great and whatever, but seriously. I can see why The Thin Red Line didn’t win that year, for the same reasons The Tree of Life didn’t win last year. But how did Saving Private Ryan lose out? I have yet to find an explanation, although I haven’t looked terribly hard.

What’s undeniable is that the years that have passed since the 1999 awards ceremony are all the evidence needed to show that Saving Private Ryan is probably the most important film of 1998. It’s impossible to watch a movie or television series depicting war today without seeing in it the influence of Spielberg’s war aesthetic. The realism of the Omaha Beach sequence, the immersive feeling brought about by the background chaos, the use of sound, the casual shots of horrifying gore, these are almost cliches in the genre of epic war pictures now. It’s why the 1999 Best Picture selection is most often regarded as a joke.

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3) Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane 8 Of The All Time Best Academy Award Losers

Even though there’s a bunch of hipster-critic pushback over the course of the past few years, Citizen Kane has long been considered the best movie ever made (if such a distinction even has any meaning). As far as the Academy is concerned though, it wasn’t even the best movie of the year it was released. It lost the Best Picture award to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley. That one was apparently deemed less controversial and therefore more worthy of a statue. Sounds a little like this year’s backlash around Zero Dark Thirty.

Who knows a thing about How Green Was My Valley today though? Who has even seen it? I know I haven’t, partly out of spite, partly because it frankly has a stupid-ass title. Also, Quentin Tarantino says John Ford is racist so I hesitate to watch anything he did. Citizen Kane, on the other hand, has gone on to be considered such an advance in moviemaking history that it’s the one film that virtually every Film 101 class studies closely. It wasn’t textbook cinema at the time, but it is now. I think that says everything. Not only that, since the first time I saw it (and I don’t usually respond strongly to movies from before the 1970s) it has always felt more like a contemporary movie than anything else from around that time. Some aspects are dated but it’s surprisingly easy to watch, even today. It makes you realize the Oscars tend to be the short game, but in the scope of film history, the long game is what matters, and Citizen Kane kind of won at that. Maybe I’m not giving How Green Was My Valley the credit it deserves though. All you How Green Was My Valley fans, let me hear from you.

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4) Fargo

Fargo1 8 Of The All Time Best Academy Award Losers

For some reason I don’t think I “got” the Coen brothers until I saw Burn After Reading. The ending scene where they two guys are like “So what happened here anyway? What did we do? Nothing I guess. Oh well” sort of summed up how I felt about every Coen movie I had seen up to that point, and it was like an alarm bell going off and I was like “ohhhh so that’s the point of all their movies!” It was revelatory. I went back and rewatched all of them, and now am so outraged that Fargo lost the Academy Award to The English Patient, which I also hated the first time but probably would like more if I ever cared to see it again. To be clear, I do not.

Fargo truly has something for everyone, though. Well-composed steadicam tracking shots? Got those. Beautiful landscape shots and sincere characters contributing to a realistic sense of space and place? At your service. A human being being fed into a wood chipper? Done and done. Steve Buscemi being sexually serviced? Thought you’d never ask. Scene after perfectly constructed scene, Fargo is mesmerizing and absurd, a perfect summation of the short-term thinking by dumb folks looking for easy money. At least they earned some kudos for No Country for Old Men.

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5) 12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men 8 Of The All Time Best Academy Award Losers

Ok, so Bridge on the River Kwai is pretty good I guess, I’m happy for it, but 12 Angry Men is one of the greatest films of all time. Again, and I don’t like appealing to them too often, but IMDb users are again on my side on this one. Why do modern audiences respond to 12 Angry Men when they see it?

For one, it has the same factor that I find Citizen Kane to have: it feels more like something that was made today rather than 50 years ago. There’s something to the rhythm of the movie that doesn’t feel as tired or corny as other 1950s films. I can’t say the cast appeals to me that greatly since I’m not familiar enough with actors of the era for the facial or name recognition to have any effect, with Henry Fonda being the one appropriate exception. Maybe some of it is in its deceptively simple premise. People expect from it a typical court drama, and instead get drama that is extremely gripping for reasons that aren’t really that obvious. It’s strangely absorbing. That’s usually the stuff that works best, when you don’t realize the spell it’s cast on you. That it can still cast its spell on today’s audiences speaks to its greatness more than awards likely ever could.

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6) Singin’ in the Rain

Singin in the Rain 8 Of The All Time Best Academy Award Losers

I always think I don’t like musicals and then I see a musical and love it and think “well that’s the exception to the rule that musicals are bad.” Except this happens all the time. So I don’t know what to make of it. But Singin’ in the Rain was possibly the most unexpectedly enjoyable musical, perhaps movie, I’ve ever watched. Now, it is unlike the other films in this list since it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, though it did receive a Best Supporting Actress win. Having watched it, this seems like one of the most bizarre oversights in Academy history.

It has a charm to it that’s similar to The Artist, so maybe that movie’s win was to make up for this one. From the opening scene, Singin’ in the Rain establishes a tone that is uniquely its own, a combination of absurdity and satirical jabs at Hollywood figures, the vapidity of stardom, and the desperation of the rich and famous. This combines with Gene Kelly’s charisma, which you want to resist because he seems way too smooth at first but then before you know it you’re looking up tap dancing lessons online. I don’t even want to know what won Best Picture for that year because it will just make me angry.

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7) Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain 8 Of The All Time Best Academy Award Losers

I’m not one of the people, of which there are many, who think Crash is the worst Best Picture winner ever. I think it’s more subtle than people give it credit for, that beneath the overt racism on its surface, which isn’t as unrealistic as people think especially if you listen to talk radio, there are some fascinating observations made on how racism actually works subconsciously in a multicultural society. All that being said, Brokeback Mountain is an incredible movie that deserved all the awards.

It could have earned distinction simply from Heath Ledger’s performance as the almost incoherently soft-spoken life pardner of Jake Gyllenhaal, who has also never been better even though his character was more vocal. Add to that the heartbreaking work of Michelle Williams and one of the least Anne Hathway-y performances of Anne Hathaway’s career. It’s easy to forget that although 2005 seems like a short while ago, making a movie all about a gay relationship like this was still taboo in the purportedly liberal Hollywood film industry. This movie doesn’t make that taboo into mere gimmickry. It’s a genuinely felt, beautifully realized and exceedingly emotional portrayal of a romance forbidden for arbitrary reasons.

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8) Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now 8 Of The All Time Best Academy Award Losers

I guess I can’t blame people for not doling out awards to movies I didn’t like the first time, like Fargo, and like Apocalypse Now. In my defense, the first time I saw it, I watched the 3 ½ hour version and couldn’t make it through, but when I saw the original theatrical release for the first time, I was completely blown away. Maybe it took some priming from the first viewing. Maybe the original shorter version plays better. Maybe Kramer vs. Kramer was crazily important in 1980 (I’ve seen it; it’s great). But today, considering Apocalypse Now anything but the best film of 1979, let alone one of the best ever made, is downright heretical.

It seems like the rule goes accordingly: awards bodies like the Academy tend to reward movies that everybody likes very much rather than movies that many love deeply but others have issues with. Work that is too controversial will sometimes garner a nomination but the press that would accompany a winner like Zero Dark Thirty would reflect too poorly on the Oscar reputation. What they don’t realize is that while trying to protect their status as a reputable, wholesome organization, they’re simultaneously solidifying opinions that insist the group is historically irrelevant, rewards the safe over the ballsy, and prefers populist fluff rather than enduring pieces of truly fine art. Granted, it’s nearly impossible to determine what movies will have staying power, but it’s usually safe to assume that films that take real risks ultimately influence future work more than stuff that plays off the usual conventions of their period, because those eventually fade away. I think the numerous movies that have gone unappreciated by the Academy and other recognition bodies of their era prove this.

Do you have any favorite Academy Award losers? Share your picks in the comment section below.

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