One of the good things about the Academy Awards is that the list of Best Picture nominees gives us an idea of the most successful films, going back to 1927. Sure, the list excludes thousands of great foreign movies, acclaimed indies and the great silent features made before 1927, but it is undeniable that it gives audiences a good place to start a film education. There have been over 500 films nominated for Best Picture and just 85 of them have won the awards.
Obviously, there’s a lot of movies that should have won Best Picture. It’s impossible to look at every movie ever made and say “This one should have won.” The world would be a better place if films by Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rossellini, Wong Kar-Wai and many others were on the list of Best Picture nominees, but they’re not. Instead, this chronological list is just a handful of great movies that did get nominated and should have actually walked away with the statue.
As a note, many obvious picks are not here for the sake of bringing attention to other films that you haven’t read about a thousand times before. In other words, everyone knows that Saving Private Ryan should have beat Shakespeare in Love and Brokeback Mountain should have beat Crash. Double Indemnity should have beat Going My Way. There’s no use in me wasting more of your time on that.
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The Smiling Lieutenant – 1932, directed by Ernst Lubitsch (lost to Grand Hotel)
Back in the early 1930s, the Oscars severed a very different purpose. The studio heads ran the Academy and really handed out the Best Picture awards to stroke their own egos. Paramount was nowhere near as powerful as MGM, so even though it produced three Best Picture nominees for 1931/32, there was no way Irving G. Thalberg’s baby, the all-star movie Grand Hotel, wasn’t going to win.
But that’s no excuse for Ernst Lubitsch’s best musical not winning Best Picture. Holy cow, this is one fun movie. Maurice Chevalier is caught in a love triangle with sexy violinist Claudette Colbert and lovestruck princess Miriam Hopkins. Oh, and Colbert sings to Hopkins, “Jazz up your lingerie!” Need I say more?
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The Grapes of Wrath – 1940, directed by John Ford (lost to Rebecca)
I love Rebecca as much as the next Alfred Hitchcock fan, but John Ford’s first masterpiece was the best film on 1940. Although Ford had won a Best Director statue for 1935’s The Informer, his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath really showed that Ford was a master of the medium. Everything that made him a genius is there. Plus, there’s Henry Fonda’s performance as Tom Joad is heartbreaking and monumental. Grapes only won two Oscars – Ford won Best Director (for the second of four times) and for Jane Darwell’s supporting performance as Ma Joad.
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Citizen Kane – 1941, directed by Orson Welles (lost to How Green Was My Valley)
Citizen Kane is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, but Hollywood politics prevented it from winning Best Picture. However, the idea that it walked away empty handed is wrong. The movie was nominated for an incredible nine awards and won for Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz’s original screenplay. And the idea that Hollywood would recognize such a radically different film from anything seen before is a bit silly.
Instead, Hollywood went with Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, a wonderful movie. Ford even won a second-straight Best Director statue, something that’s never happened again.
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The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – 1948, directed by John Huston (lost to Hamlet)
As surprisingly entertaining as Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is, it can’t touch The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Featuring the best performance Humphrey Bogart ever gave, this is John Huston’s masterpiece. The movie is one of only a few to win all of the awards it was up for except Best Picture. Huston won Best Director and Best Screenplay and he is the only person to direct his father to an Oscar win. Walter Huston won Best Supporting Actress.
The real crime was that Bogart wasn’t even nominated, though. I can live with Hamlet winning and even with Olivier winning Best Actor, but Bogart was robbed.
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A Streetcar Named Desire – 1951, directed by Elia Kazan (lost to An American In Paris)
I love the MGM musicals. I really do. But A Streetcar Named Desire should have beat An American In Paris. George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun could have won, too, but Streetcar – with its scorching hot acting class and incredible directing from Elia Kazan – was practically made to win Best Picture. Three of the four main castmbmebers (Kim Hunter, Vivien Leigh and Karl Malden) won Oscars, but Marlon Brando lost to Bogart.
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Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb – 1964, directed by Stanley Kubirck (lost to My Fair Lady)
One of the craziest things about the Academy is that it asks the industry to chose the best movie out of a cluster of films that couldn’t be more different. This year, they have to pick a 1970s-set caper movie over a serious historical epic about slavery during the Civil War. In 1965, members of the Academy were asked to decide if Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove – a black Cold War comedy – was better than George Cukor’s sweeping film of My Fair Lady. Unfortunately, they picked My Fair Lady.
It’s almost a good thing that none of Kubrick’s movies won Best Picture. His films are so unique, so of one mind, that they would not fit in a group of 80 other movies. That would mean that they conform to some mythical rules in someone’s head and they fit none of the rules.
My favorite moment in the film isn’t Strangelove’s manic speech at the end, but Sterling Hayden’s “precious bodily fluids” speech.
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Five Easy Pieces – 1970, directed by Bob Rafelson (lost to Patton)
The only “New Hollywood” film that won Best Picture was William Freidkin’s crime thriller The French Connection. But as great as that movie is, it misses the themes that ruled the “New Hollywood” movement, like a different kind of hero or a new twist on America. Five Easy Pieces is closer to the best of what “New Hollywood” had to offer and should have topped Patton.
1970 was actually a pretty strong year. Patton is a great war movie, but both Five Easy Pieces and Robert Altman’s MASH were better representations of that era of filmmaking.
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Raging Bull – 1980, directed by Martin Scorsese (lost to Ordinary People)
Ordinary People is a good movie, but it’s still surprising that the Academy went with two straight intimate family dramas in a row (Kramer vs. Kramer won the year before). Raging Bull is Martin Scorsese’s best movie and it’s rather sad that he didn’t win until The Departed. At least he won for a good movie. (He’s not in the late Sidney Pollack’s shoes. Could you imagine knowing that of all the good movies you made, Out of Africa is the one that won?)
As for Raging Bull, it remains a monumental achievement. It’s Robert De Niro’s best performance and no one probably did as much as he did to secure a Best Actor statue.
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The Verdict – 1982, directed by Sidney Lumet (lost to Gandhi)
No disrespect to Gandhi and all the heart and soul Richard Attenborough poured into making it, but The Verdict should have won Best Picture for 1982. After a decades of directing some of the greatest American films ever, Sidney Lumet finally produced the ultimate court drama. A down-on-his-luck drunk lawyer takes a no-win case to revive his career. Everything worked at every level. It just clicked. Unfortunately, it didn’t click with the Academy.
Like Dr. Strangelove, it is just so annoying that The Verdict came out the year it did. Not only was the movie robbed because of Gandhi, but Paul Newman was robbed because of Gandhi. Newman later won for The Color of Money, but come on. This was a career defining performance in a career made of career defining performances.
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Munich – 2005, directed by Steven Spielberg (lost to Crash)
You can sing your praises for Brokeback Mountain and yes, it should have beaten Crash. But the 2005 field of Best Picture nominees is probably the strongest of the past decade. It’s just so disappointing that the worst movie is the one that won. That’s why it still hurts.
When you’ve had a career as long as Steven Spielberg’s and you’ve made as many good movies as he has, you’ve been robbed a lot. It’s still surprising that Schindler’s List is his only film to win Best Picture. It’s great, but Munich is a stunner. This is Spielberg at his most entertaining. True, the politics of the movie are too difficult to forget, but if you can for a moment, Munich reveals itself to be a thriller above measure.
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top image courtesy of Amazon
Deputy Editor Daniel S Levine is a longtime movie fan and a graduate of Hoftsra University. I also know just about everything you might need to know about Star Wars.