As we head into awards season, I thought it might be fun to compile an Oscar-related list of when the Academy got it flat balls-out wrong. So, with the test of time on my side, here are ten films that really should have won Best Picture. Before we begin, there are two obvious omissions from this list. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) has certainly stood the test of time, but it’s hard for me to dispute that year’s winner, The Best Years of Our Lives and its very frank portrayal of three veterans returning home from WWII. And while Saving Private Ryan (1998) seems like a film that should have taken home the top trophy, Shakespeare in Love is such a great film in its own right (with an arguably superior screenplay) that while it annoyed me initially, I did eventually calm down. Now let’s all take a deep breath and proceed.
Citizen Kane (1941)
The actual winner: How Green Was My Valley.
The other nominees: Blossoms in the Dust, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the Dawn, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, One Foot in Heaven, Sergeant York, Suspicion.
Listen, I love How Green Was My Valley, one of the many great movies from director John Ford, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that throughout the years, Citizen Kane repeatedly shows up as number one on many lists of the best films of all time. In addition to its non-linear storytelling, Orson Welles’s directorial debut is visually groundbreaking cinema in terms of its use of low camera angles and most importantly its use of lighting, in-camera techniques and optical printing to keep the foreground and background all in sharp focus.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
The actual winner: My Fair Lady.
The other nominees: Becket, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek.
It’s a crime that Stanley Kubrick never won an Oscar (other than for Visual Effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey) and this is the year it probably should have happened. One can also make a good case for A Clockwork Orange (1971) but the competition that year, namely The French Connection, was tough. Incredibly, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, though Kubrick was nominated for Best Director that year, in which Oliver! took home the top prize. I’ll admit I’m biased because I don’t personally care much for musicals, but — getting back to 1964 — Strangelove is iconic Kubrick and one of the greatest satires of all time.
The Graduate (1967)
The actual winner: In the Heat of the Night.
The other nominees: Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Don’t get me wrong, In the Heat of the Night is a solid movie that introduced the world to the unforgettable line “They call me Mister Tibbs!” But thinking in terms of which film became classic American cinema, it really should have been between The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, with the slight edge going to the one with the Simon & Garfunkel tunes and that instantly recognizable leg pose on the movie poster. The film’s director Mike Nichols did win the Best Director Oscar that year, so at least the Academy got that one right.
Star Wars (1977)
The actual winner: Annie Hall.
The other nominees: The Goodbye Girl, Julia, The Turning Point.
Because I love Annie Hall so much, I almost didn’t include Star Wars on this list. But how can I argue against the movie that changed the course of film history? In terms of substantiating the summer blockbuster and using epic visual effects to tell a tale of pure escapism, the influence of Star Wars never went away. In terms of total number of Oscars won, Star Wars was actually the winner of the evening with six wins total (Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound and Visual Effects, plus a special achievement award for Sound Effects Editing), compared to the four won by Annie Hall.
Raging Bull (1980)
The actual winner: Ordinary People.
The other nominees: Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Elephant Man, Tess.
This should have been Martin Scorsese’s first Oscar. Taxi Driver, you say? Well, 1976 was a tough year with Network also in the field and Rocky winning. The actual Best Picture winner Ordinary People is a very good film, but at the end of the ’80s, Raging Bull was selected best film of the decade by many film critics, including Roger Ebert — so even after only ten years Raging Bull was already demonstrating it would better stand the test of time.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
The actual winner: Chariots of Fire.
The other nominees: Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Reds.
Nothing against Chariots of Fire — it’s a good movie — but come on! This was one of very few instances where the Best Picture winner went to a film in which the director (Hugh Hudson) did not receive a directing nomination. The award for Best Director that year went to Warren Beatty for Reds, leaving me to think that Raiders wouldn’t have even been the Academy’s second choice for Best Picture. At best it likely placed third, which shows just how much the Academy doesn’t consider pure escapist cinema to be Best Picture material, no matter how perfect it is. The Academy did manage to get something right that evening: with a total of five Oscars won, Raiders actually took home more statues than any other film that evening. Chariots and Reds won four and three, respectively.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The actual winner: Gandhi.
The other nominees: Missing, Tootsie, The Verdict.
So how did it come to be that a serious historical three-hour drama will automatically be the frontrunner for Best Picture? Aside from Citizen Kane losing, this might be the best example of the Academy getting things seriously wrong. Even back in ’82 I knew that E.T. would become an endearing classic and that Gandhi (while a very good movie) would never be remembered in such a way. E.T. is simply filmmaking perfection by a director making the kind of movie he was put on the earth to make.
The actual winner: Dances with Wolves.
The other nominees: Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather Part III.
At the time, my friend Bill summed it up like this: “To say Kevin Costner is a better director than Martin Scorsese is like saying I’m a better quarterback than Joe Montana.” No disrespect intended to the excellent Dances with Wolves, but Goodfellas is Scorsese’s masterpiece — and the second film of his that should have won.
Apollo 13 (1995)
The actual winner: Braveheart.
The other nominees: Babe, The Postman (Il Postino), Sense and Sensibility.
This is the film that should have earned Ron Howard his first Oscar, not A Beautiful Mind (2001). Come to think of it, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) should have taken Best Picture over A Beautiful Mind that year, but at least that was sort of made right when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) took home all 11 Oscars for which it was nominated. But getting back to Apollo 13, Ron Howard was famously not even nominated for directing this near-perfect film that manages to create considerable tension even though the story’s outcome is known. The Directors Guild of America gave Ron Howard its prestigious DGA award that year, but the Oscar went to Mel Gibson — who Howard happened to making the movie Ransom (1996) with at the time.
The actual winner: The English Patient.
The other nominees: Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies, Shine.
Not unlike Elaine on Seinfeld, I find The English Patient an excruciating experience to sit through. The winner that year clearly should have been Joel and Ethan Coen’s perfect blend of crime and dark humor, which at 98 minutes is precisely as long as it needs to be. Fargo was also, in 1998, the only 1996 film to make the American Film Institute’s original 100 Years … 100 Movies list.