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The Definitive Best Picture Losers

The Definitive Best Picture Losers

screenshot from The Exorcist

#20. The Exorcist (1973)
Lost to: The Sting

Crammed in between two Best Picture wins for Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” films was an interesting little year that rewarded another pairing of Robert Redford and Paul Newman (trivia: “The Sting’s” Julia Phillips is the first time female producer to ever win Best Picture). The other big landmark – the first time a purely horror film was nominated for Best Picture. “The Exorcist” was nominated for ten Oscars, winning for Sound and Adapted Screenplay. The horrifying story of a young girl possessed was, rumor has it, cursed as they tried to complete the film. This film about the struggle between faith and sin is possibly the most important horror film of all time.

screenshot from Avatar

#19. Avatar (2009)
Lost to: The Hurt Locker

The year after “The Dark Knight” and “WALL-E” missed out on Best Picture nominations, the Academy decided to change the rules and allow ten nominees. It didn’t necessarily change anything, because the race still ended up being between two films: a little indie drama about a bomb diffuser in Iraq and the biggest box office hit of all time. A weird twist – the directors of each film were formerly married. On Oscar night, the Academy made the bold choice to go with “The Hurt Locker,” shunning “Pocahontas in Space,” AKA “Avatar.” Oscar went to a dark, infectious film instead of a amusement park ride. Good for them. While it may not have been an “upset,” it was still an important moment to see the highest grossing film of all time walk away without the big prize.

screenshot from All the President's Men

screenshot from Taxi Driver

screenshot from Network

#16. (tie) All the President’s Men (1976)
#16. (tie) Taxi Driver (1976)
#16. (tie) Network (1976)
Lost to: Rocky

I had no choice to go with a tie here. Look at that gauntlet of films. And they all lost to a sports movie about an underdog boxer. Now, “Rocky” is a good movie – it grabbed ten nominations. Sylvester Stallone was only the third person ever to be nominated for Acting and Writing in the same year (the other two are Orson Welles and Charles Chaplin…not bad company). But, you have to assume that the three films here split the vote. “Network” is a cutting satirical drama about the TV industry. “All the President’s Men” is the brilliantly written and acted story of the Watergate Scandal. “Taxi Driver” is the ultimate story of urban paranoia. Between the three of them, they were nominated for 22 Oscars, winning eight. And, if you ask me, each holds up much better than the Best Picture winner.


screenshot from Pulp Fiction

#14. (tie) The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
#14. (tie) Pulp Fiction (1994)
Lost to: Forrest Gump

Another important year in the history of cinema saw one of the most competitive races. And yes, I cheated and went with another tie. Deal with it. “The Shawshank Redemption” has become one of the beloved films of all time, still sitting at #1 on IMDBs top 250 films. “Pulp Fiction” gave birth to a new filmmaking formula, when Quentin Tarantino broke every rule to tell a twisted, but wholly entertaining thinly veiled film noir. But when the envelope was opened, the award went to a lighthearted epic about a handicapped man whose life reads like a history book. “Forrest Gump” is a nice movie – extremely enjoyable and re-watchable. But the two movies it beat have had much greater social and industrial impacts that it can ever imagine. But, stupid is as stupid does, I suppose.


#13. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Lost to: An American in Paris

Playwright Tennessee Williams worked with iconic director Elia Kazan to bring his play “A Streetcar Named Desire” to the screen. Williams wrote the screenplay for his stage play and Kazan directed a stellar cast that grabbed twelve nominations, including one in all four acting categories. Oscars went to Karl Malden, Kim Hunter, and Vivien Leigh, though Marlon Brando – the biggest name of the bunch – missed out on an award. Then, when the big announcement came, they handed the statuette to a musical starring Gene Kelly. It was light. It was colorful. It wasn’t nearly as dark as “Streetcar” was. “Streetcar” has gone down in history as an acting class, to say the least.

screenshot from Raiders of the Lost Ark

12. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1980)
Lost to: Ordinary People

In retrospect, it may not have deserved the award and certainly wasn’t the biggest surprise of that year (coming up soon!). But, given the impact Steven Spielberg’s essential adventure film has made on the entire industry, there is no reason to think that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” isn’t one of the most important films to go home without a Best Picture win. The first of a film series that has slowly gotten worse, “Raiders” was the first film to put Harrison Ford on an island (figuratively). The man who first appeared in American Graffiti and stole the show in “Star Wars” as Han Solo got to headline a film and blew it out of the water. The film may have become more myth than substance, given its epic reputation, but Spielberg’s mix of action sequences and wit in this film is rarely approached in the industry today.

screenshot from Bonnie and Clyde

#11. Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Lost to: In the Heat of the Night

Finally, we hit the last of the film on this list from 1967, one of the greatest years in film history. While “The Graduate” redefined sex in the movies and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “In the Heat of the Night” tackled issues about race that few films would approach, it was Arthur Penn’s ultra violent (at the time) story of historic bank robbing couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow that may have broken the biggest barriers. Nominated for ten Oscars and winning for Cinematography and Supporting Actress (Estelle Parsons), “Bonnie and Clyde” changed the way not only violence was portrayed on screen, but managed to embed it within an interesting discussion of masculinity and relationships. The movie may have centered around bank robbers, but the real root of the film was how Bonnie and Clyde played off each other as a couple and the complexity of their courtship. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty played the leads like the masters they are and helped create one of the finest films of the 60’s or any decade.

— Joshua Gaul

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