As we have seen time and time again, the Academy of Arts and Sciences is not infallible. Made up of human beings (often with somewhat questionable agendas), the Academy has had its fair share of mis-steps and baffling snubs over its 86 year history. Fortunately, they do recognize talent, even if they generally pass it up for something safer. Proving that sometimes a nomination is more of an honor than a win, here are 15 of the best nominated films never to win Best Picture.
1. The Wizard of Oz
When this adaptation of Frank L. Baum’s novel came out in 1939, it blew people away. The dazzling use of Technicolor, kept hidden until Dorothy finally lands in Oz, creates a lush, iconic world that seems to jump off the screen.
Still instantly recognizable today, the film’s influence on popular culture cannot be overstated. It has been made into a sequel, a deconstruction-cum-musical, a prequel, an animated series, museums… the list goes on.
There were, however, some areas where it fell short. It was considered a commercial failure on its initial release, barely covering its hefty production costs. It was lauded by critics, but earned only one Oscar nomination, for Best Picture.
It would lose to another epic story filmed in glorious Technicolor you may have heard of: Gone with the Wind, which won a stunning 10 awards that year. Luckily, the awards snubbery has not seemed to mar its reputation. It continues to dazzle children and adults alike to this day.
2. Citizen Kane
It seems shocking that a movie that frequently tops “best film ever” lists should have so few Oscars to its name. Despite being nominated for nine awards including Best Actor (Orson Welles lost to Gary Cooper), Best Director (Orson Welles lost to John Ford) and Best Picture (it lost to How Green was my Valley), it won only one, for Best Original Screenplay.
Most of this can be attributed to William Randolph Hearst, the real life newspaper mogul Kane is rumored to be based on (Welles denies this, claiming Kane is a synthesis of a lot of sources, despite some of Kane’s speeches being taken verbatim from Hearst). Hearst refused his papers to cover any aspect of the film, including the production studio, RKO. He even went so far as to insist that Louis B. Mayer, then head of MGM, buy all copies of the film and destroy them.
Luckily for us, they refused. Far more intelligent people than me have written about why the film is such a classic, but I will simply add that it is impeccably filmed, written, and acted. Its legacy is undeniable.
3. To Kill a Mockingbird
Based on Harper Lee’s one and only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird presents the story of Scout Finch as she relates the tale of a particular time in her childhood home of Alabama in the 1930s. Her father Atticus (in one of Gregory Peck’s finest and most remembered roles) is a lawyer, tasked with defending Tom Robinson, a black man charged with raping a white girl.
The film touches on a lot of themes, including racism and poverty, but at its core it is simply about empathy. Characters are presented to us in a specific way, and then revealed to be completely different. The film wants to challenge your own prejudices, and 52 years later that idea still resonates. With so much to say, it would have been far too easy for the film to devolve into moralizing preachiness, but Gregory Peck, as Atticus, keeps that from happening.
Instead he grounds the character in old-fashioned human decency, and becomes one of the most badass film characters of all time. The film was nominated for eight Oscars and won three (Actor, Screenplay, and Art Direction) but lost the big one to Lawrence of Arabia.
4. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
A savage satire of the Cold War, Dr. Strangelove is an incredible film. Made in 1964, it contains chameleonic performances by Peter Sellers, meticulous direction by Stanley Kubrick, and a pitch black sense of humor.
There are always stories and legends about the off-screen antics of Kubrick, and this film has its fair share. He insisted on covering the table in the war room in green felt, despite the movie being filmed in black and white. George C. Scott was notoriously hard to work with, but Kubrick found that by playing chess with Scott in between takes the actor would settle down.
The film has inspired quite a legacy, regularly gracing “best films of all time” lists. Even the Academy took notice of the film, and nominated it in four categories. It would take home zero awards by the end of the night, losing Best Picture to My Fair Lady.
5. The Exorcist
There are few horror movies that have received as much universal acclaim as The Exorcist. Adapted from his novel of the same name by William Peter Blatty, it is often called one of the scariest movies of all time.
The film’s iconic portrayal of possession inspired a new sub-genre of horror films and led to sequels, prequels, and reboots. It also gave us a way to make jokes about projectile vomiting. Any film will have its detractors, however, and The Exorcist was no exception. It received mixed reviews on its initial release. While some recognized the artistic rendering of horror, others were left cold thanks to grotesque special effects.
Regardless, that year the Academy nominated the film for 10 awards, the first horror movie ever to receive the honor. It wound up winning two, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound Mixing, but lost Best Picture to The Sting.
6. Taxi Driver
Gritty, grimy, and crackling with electricity, Taxi Driver is often considered one of Martin Scorsese’s finest works, which is saying quite a lot.
Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) is a bit of a sociopath. After taking a job driving a cab at night to combat his insomnia, Bickle decides the streets of New York need a cleaning, and he is just the man to do it. Unfortunately for the general populace, he has no morals to speak of, so most of his attempts at justice revolve around horrific violence and split-second judgment calls.
Another film that regularly ranks as one of the best of all time, the movie stills feels fresh and original today, nearly 40 years later. It received four Oscar nominations that year, but lost all of them, losing Best Picture to Rocky.
7. Star Wars
It is not hyperbolic to say that Star Wars changed cinema forever. It is one of the most successful film franchises in history, spawning two sequels, three prequels, whatever JJ Abrams is working on now, television specials, animated series, videogames, and a metric butt-ton of toys.
The original film, released in 1977, introduced audiences to this universe, and they couldn’t get enough. Neither could the academy, so they nominated the film for 11 awards, including the series’ only Best Picture nomination. It would go on to win every technical award, but lost the big one to Annie Hall.