Revival House: Ten Films That Should Have Won Best Picture

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.

Goodfellas (1990)
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.

Fargo (1996)
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.


  • BobCashill

    The most recent injustice: Crash over Brokeback Mountain. 

    The 1967 race did at least inspire Mark Harris’ excellent book Pictures at a Revolution. And I’d probably put Tootsie over E.T. or Gandhi in 1982.

  • Chris Holmes

    I love me some Goodfellas, but Dances With Wolves is the better film IMO. Even with the Costner handicap.

  • Chris Holmes

    I love me some Goodfellas, but Dances With Wolves is the better film IMO. Even with the Costner handicap.

  • JonCummings

    I can’t go with you on Star Wars over Annie Hall — maybe if Empire Strikes Back had been nominated in ’80 — and I wouldn’t want to deprive Chariots of Fire, one of my favorite films, of its award (Raiders didn’t need an Oscar to help its box office the way Chariots did — and isn’t that what the awards come down to, at least sometimes?). I’m with Bob on Tootsie, and I would add that in ’95 I would have given it to Il Postino, not Apollo 13.

    But this list could be a lot longer, so I’ll toss in some more, with the winner first and my suggestion second:
    ’44 (Going My Way/Double Indemnity);
    ’51 (An American in Paris/A Streetcar Named Desire);
    ’52 (The Greatest Show on Earth/High Noon);
    ’68 (Oliver!/Lion in Winter or Funny Girl);
    ’70 (Patton/M*A*S*H);
    ’73 (The Sting/American Grafitti);
    ’76 (Rocky/All the Presidents’ Men, Network, or Taxi Driver — probably Network);
    ’85 (Out of Africa/The Color Purple);
    ’87 (The Last Emperor/Broadcast News or Moonstruck);
    ’94 (Forrest Gump/any of the other four nominees — Four Weddings & a Funeral, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, Shawshank — but clearly Pulp Fiction);
    ’99 (American Beauty/The Green Mile or The Cider House Rules);
    ’00 (Gladiator/Traffic);
    ’01 (A Beautiful Mind/Moulin Rouge!);
    ’04 (Million Dollar Baby/Sideways);
    ’07 (No Country for Old Men/There Will Be Blood).

    Many of these are matters of taste, obviously, but at least one of these — 1952 — is ridiculous. Greatest Show on Earth must still be the worst of all the Best Picture winners.

  • Wayne Morgan

    You are correct in all except Braveheart.  To say that shouldnt have won is ridiculous.

  • INCyr

    Really?  No love for L.A. Confidential over Titanic?  That’s always been one of the top Best Picture travesties in my book.

  • Brett Alan

    Pretty good list. I particularly agree on Citizen Kane, Dr. Strangelove, and Apollo 13. I actually never saw Fargo, but ANYTHING over The English Patient would be a big improvement.

    I can’t say I agree about Raiders. Would have loved to see Empire Strikes Back win in ’80, but I think Raging Bull over Ordinary People is hard to argue with.

    Jon has some very good suggestions, especially Pulp Fiction which is so far better than Forrest Gump that it’s not funny. And I’m not someone who generally is a fan of Tarantino and movies in that genre–I mean, I’m not anti-Tarantino or anything, it’s just not particularly my thing. But Pulp Fiction was a tremendous, groundbreaking film, and Forrest Gump was pretty dumb. (And, yeah, Shawshank or Quiz Show would clearly be an upgrade over Gump, and I may even have enjoyed those films a little more than PF, but PF should have won. Love Broadcast News, would have been very happy if that had won.

    And I want to mention one film that wasn’t even nominated: Wall-E. That was the year Slumdog Millionaire won. Now, Slumdog is an enjoyable film. I liked it and recommended it. But it was pretty ordinary. It was a routine underdog-makes-good story and there was nothing innovative or even particularly memorable about it. (Even the ploy of incorporating a Bollywood dance number into a mainstream American film had been done before.) Wall-E, on the other hand, was absolutely unique and was fabulous on almost every level. I just have a hard time seeing any case that Slumdog was a more worthy best picture. In general, Pixar has put out many of the best films of our time, and it’s ridiculous that it doesn’t have a Best Picture statue to show for it, and even more ridiculous that it couldn’t even get a nomination when there were five per year. (In fact, Beauty And The Beast is the ONLY animated film to be nominated when there were only five nominees.) I think the fact that so many members of the Academy have jobs that don’t really exist in animation leads to an unfortunate bias against it.

  • Killian Zimmerman

    fun list, but “every movie released in 2004 that wasn’t crash” would have been more succinct.

  • DwDunphy

    You can definitely figure out the politics of the times from the movies that got the nod and those that maybe should have.

  • octagonproplex

    Well, I disagree with seven of those assessments.

    Only “Citizen Kane”, “Dr. Strangelove” and “The Graduate” ring true to me as being the best pictures of their years. And I’m not totally positive “Dr. Strangelove” even was the best, but it certainly was the beat nominated.
    Not that the eventual winners were necessarily the best pictures of their years either, however in the case of “Dances With Wolves” and “Braveheart”, they very clearly were rare cases of The Academy actually getting it right.

    “Ghandi” is a great film, I have no problem with it winning over “E.T.”.

    Same for “Annie Hall” over “Star Wars”. It’s apples vs. oranges – they both forever changed the complection of their respective genres. They both had much inovation, however “Annie Hall” had more originality. 

    “Raging Bull” is one of the most wildly overrated films ever.

    Personally I’d rather watch “Chariots Of Fire” again over “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”. And I’d rather listen to Vangeli’s melocholic score over John William’s bombastic adventure music. I do like “Raiders” but it’s not my favorite type of thing. “Raiders” is great for what it is, but I find the Indiana Jones franchise along with “Hook” to be Spielberg’s slightest efforts and a waste of his massive talent.

    Also, the one thing I know to be true about 1996 is that “Sling Blade” was by far the best drama of that year. Not “Fargo”.

  • octagonproplex

    In my opinion (of course) “The Thin Red Line” should have owned 1998, just as “Tree Of Life” should be this awards season’s shoo-in.

    Furthermore “Road To Perdition” was 2002′s best, and “The Passion Of The Christ”, 2004′s.

    I could go on and on but alas, the Academy Awards are a shameful farce and rarely if ever get anything correct.

  • octagonproplex

    “L.A. Confidential” was a great film, for sure!

    1997 was an extremely stong year, but I’d have to say my favorites were “Gattica” and Adrian Lyne’s “Lolita”. – both which of course were not even close to being nominated.

    I find “Amastad”, “Contact”, “Kundun” and “The Game” to all be very underrated masterpieces from that year as well.

    “Titanic” actually is a pretty terrific though. So at least the Oscar went to a movie we all can still remember and that has held up all these years later. – Many awards years that is not the case.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve never forgiven the Academy for over looking ‘All That Jazz’(79),  ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (62)  and ‘The Lion In Winter’ (68).

  • Donald Paluga

    1939-The year ANY of the nominees could have won in almost any other year

  • Donald Paluga

    1939-The year ANY of the nominees could have won in almost any other year

  • Donald Paluga

    1939-The year ANY of the nominees could have won in almost any other year

  • egebamyasi

    never saw Fargo? really?