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The Definitive Best Picture Losers

It’s December. And you know what that means? It means for every popcorn blockbuster, we get about three Oscar bait movies that are made solely to appease that body of somewhat stodgy Academy voters. Don’t get me wrong – a good portion of the Best Picture winners in history are still some of the greatest films ever made – “The Godfather” (Parts I and II), “Schindler’s List,” etc. But what about those historically good movies that got the nomination, but didn’t take home the prize? What about those popular movies that carried fan support, but lost out to a smaller, most of the time better, film? Well, here they are. This list focuses on those films that may or may not have been produced as Oscar bait, but earned the recognition of “Best Picture nominee,” only to walk away without the big prize. As usual, not in order of worst to best. I take into account quality, kindness of social opinion as time has passed, and, of course, if it was a year of an infamous “snub.” Envelope please.

screenshot from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

50. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
Lost to: A Man for All Seasons

It may be the greatest performance of Elizabeth Taylor’s career, opposite her husband Richard Burton. Both actors scored nominations, plus supporting nods for Sandy Denis and George Segal. All in all, the film racked up 13 nominations and five wins, two of which were for Taylor and Denis. But, when all was said and done, Paul Scofield and his performance as Thomas Moore in the biopic of “A Man For All Seasons” took home the gold (both Lead Actor and Picture, respectively). Retrospectively, “Virginia Woolf” has gone down as one of the most brutal looks at a twisted family dynamic and almost felt like a look inside the roller coaster marriage of Taylor and Burton. Thanks to  Mike Nichols brilliantly restricted directions and the brilliant Edward Albee source material, it still stands as one of the great claustrophobic movie of all time.

screenshot from 12 Angry Men

49. 12 Angry Men (1957)
Lost to: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Sidney Lumet’s definitive courtroom drama somehow only garnered three nominations – Director and Screenplay, in addition to Picture. Since that Oscar night, it has been slowly built up as one of the greatest looks at the justice system, with Henry Fonda in a brilliant performance as the only doubter in a room full of frustrated jurors who just want to slap the handcuffs on an innocent man. Pitted against Lee J. Cobb as the most one-sided, blind-to-the-facts juror in the history of cinema, Fonda shines. I would never jump to the conclusion to say it’s a better film than “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” but it’s certainly a lot easier to re-watch and enjoy.

screenshot from MASH

48. M*A*S*H (1970)
Lost to: Patton

Robert Altman has a laundry list of brilliant films, most of which were nominated for something, but missed out on major gold. “M*A*S*H” was the first one to truly break into the mold, using the Altman-esque technique of filmmaking and screenwriting. The story fits together loosely, characters talk over each other, and it takes a serious topic and flips it on its head. Altman’s skill would be honed and injected into other wonderful Best Picture nominees (“Nashville,” “Gosford Park”), but this war comedy that gave birth to one of the greatest television shows of all time was the first to break into the fold. It lost to a good film and sits alongside “Five Easy Pieces” as another Best Picture loser from that year. Not bad company.

screenshot from Top Hat

47. Top Hat (1935)
Lost to: Mutiny on the Bounty

In the 1930’s, the Academy essentially nominated anything that wasn’t bad. Alongside eleven other nominees sat possibly the greatest Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers collaboration “Top Hat.” While Astaire is a beloved performer, he never received any nominations for his acting in musicals with Rogers (or anyone else for that matter). In fact, his only Oscar nomination came in 1974 for Best Supporting Actor in…”The Towering Inferno.” “Top Hat” grabbed three nominations other than Best Picture, for Original Song, Art Direction, and Dance Direction, but won nothing. Regardless, other than the winner that year, “Top Hat” stands head and shoulders above its fellow nominees. Maybe even above “Mutiny on the Bounty.”

screenshot from High Noon

46. High Noon (1952)
Lost to: The Greatest Show on Earth

It lost the Oscar to what has gone down in history as one of the worst Best Pictures of all time (no argument here). This western that grabbed seven nominations and four wins (Editing, Original Song, Music, Lead Actor) may not be as good as billed, but it’s still an original film that works well. The film focuses on Gary Cooper’s Will Kane as he struggles between sticking around until the clock strikes 12 to fight incoming enemies or leaving with his new bride, played by Grace Kelly. As the clock moves forward, he gets less and less support from the townspeople he is trying to protect. The movie is essentially filmed in real time, flashing back to the clock over and over. While Gary Cooper was never really that great an actor, the filmmaking techniques manage to cloak his stiff facade and create one of the greatest westerns of all time. Besides, Grace Kelly is an epic definition of beauty in it.

screenshot from Yankee Doodle Dandy

45. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Lost to: Mrs. Miniver

The man who is better known for his gangster films gave what may be his best performance ever in this biopic of the great George M. Cohan. James Cagney won an Oscar for his lead performance, showing audiences a very different side to the man who would eventually become better known for playing a psychopath with an Oedipal complex (“White Heat”). “Yankee Doodle Dandy” grabbed seven nominations and three wins, for Cagney, Best Score, and Best Sound. Directed by the great Michael Curtiz, Cagney’s love letter to the music of America still stands up as a shot of life, even against the nine other nominees.

screenshot from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

44. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Lost to: Midnight Cowboy

It was the movie that forever embedded Paul Newman and Robert Redford as an iconic pair of actors and redefined the western genre. It was nominated for seven Oscars, winning four (Song, Music, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay), but still didn’t garner any nominations for acting. This story of two bank robbers on their way to Bolivia to escape the law is packed with memorable scenes and lines as Newman and Redford put a stamp on their illustrious careers. The catch: it lost to the first X-rated film to ever be nominated (and win) Best Picture. I’m not arguing – “Midnight Cowboy” is great. But “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” almost created another sub-genre: the Western buddy dramedy.

screenshot from Guess Who's Coming to Dinner

43. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Lost to: In the Heat of the Night

The nominees for Best Picture this year were loaded. Two of the other films nominated are higher on this list for various reasons. Unfortunately, Stanley Kramer’s story of race relations and family dysfunction was up against another film about race relations, the other more visceral (though also starring Sydney Poitier). Oddly enough, none of this film’s ten nominations or any of “In the Heat of the Night’s” seven nominations included Poitier, who was wonderful in both films, in very different roles. Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for her work, but the film’s true gem was the final performance of Spencer Tracy, also nominated for an Oscar (he lost to Rod Steiger, also for “In the Heat of the Night”). Based on how the Academy likes to vote now, if this lineup of films were nominated again this year, I’d put my money on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Or even “Dr. Doolittle.”

screenshot from The Social Network

42. The Social Network (2010)
Lost to: The King’s Speech

Since the mid-90’s, there has been a slowly building divide between critics and the Academy. When Oscar race tracking became so much more evident and easier, statisticians began recording numbers of precursor wins, critic society awards, and guild nominations. In the second year of the “let’s have ten nominees” transition the Academy tried out, we saw the sharpest recent divide we’ve ever seen between two films. “The Social Network” all but swept the critical awards before the Oscars, only to lose to a light historical story about an English king overcoming a stutter. It’s the most recent entry on this list, but if there was ever a year that showed clear evidence of the type of movie the Academy was looking for in recent memory, it was this one.

screenshot from The Philadelphia Story

41. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Lost to: Rebecca

Screwball comedies aren’t supposed to win Oscars. While “The Philadelphia Story” isn’t exactly “screwball,” it is an extremely light crowd-pleaser that suffered from two problems: it was up against the only Hitchcock film ever to win Best Picture and it was one of ten nominees, four of which would historically go down as truly classic films (one more is coming up on this list). That being said, Jimmy Stewart won his only Oscar for this wonderful film about relationships, storytelling, and the passion of the press. Among all the nominations, somehow Cary Grant missed out (though I would argue he was more the lead than Stewart and every bit as good). It’s just more evidence of how perfectly crafted this film was, character to character, scene to scene.

— Joshua Gaul

Part One  / Part Two  / Part Three  Part Four  / Part Five 


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screenshot from Double Indemnity

The Definitive Best Picture Losers