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Second Best: 25 Greatest Best-Picture Oscar Losers

From ‘Pulp Fiction’ to ‘The Philadelphia Story,’ these films didn’t need Oscars to become classics

Tim Grierson Feb 22, 2015

For more than 85 years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have given out prizes for Best Picture ”” which means there’s also been more than eight decades’ worth of Best Picture losers. And considering that the Academy has gotten it wrong plenty of times, many of those also-rans have become part of the cinematic canon, supplanting in our collective appreciation the movie that bested them the year they were nominated.

With that in mind, here’s a list of the 25 best Best Picture losers. Sure, it’s an honor just to be nominated ”” but it’s even better to have stood the test of time. And like the Oscars themselves, this list is sure to inspire plenty of outrage, name-calling and second-guessing. Let the arguments commence.

25) ‘A Serious Man’ (2009)

(Actual Winner: The Hurt Locker)
Perhaps you’d argue that Fargo is the Joel and Ethan Coen film that should make this list (and you might be right). But A Serious Man arguably has the darker laughs, the grander ambition and the deeper resonance. Very loosely inspired by the filmmakers’ Minnesota upbringing, this character study about an ordinary pushover (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the 1960s wrestles with questions about the existence of God and the meaning of life. But because this is a Coen brothers movie, that means it’s very, very funny ”” except when it’s eerily strange and, during the perfectly ambiguous ending, upsettingly unfathomable.

24) ‘The Awful Truth’ (1937)

(Actual Winner: The Life of Emile Zola)
Considering all the complaints conservative groups launch at Hollywood today for its supposedly edgy, racy content, you wonder what contemporary moral watchdogs would make of this screwball classic, which dealt with divorce and diddling around way back in the 1930s. (Actually, the movie, based on an Arthur Richman play, had already been adapted two times previously.) So funny and effervescent that you may never realize what a trenchant portrait of marriage it is, this romcom par excellence starred Cary Grant and Irene Dunne as a couple on the rocks who eventually discover they’re meant for one another. With its beautiful décor and clever quips, The Awful Truth is like the greatest, more decadent cake ever ”” and, c’mon, who doesn’t love cake?

23) ‘Quiz Show’ (1994)

(Actual Winner: Forrest Gump)
Ordinary People‘s Best Pic win has always been tainted in people’s minds because it beat out the immortal Raging Bull. Truth is, Robert Redford’s strongest film as a director is this supremely sharp look at the scandal that rocked the popular 1950s quiz showTwenty One, which discovered that ensuring that an attractive, likeable contestant (a charmingly empty Ralph Fiennes) kept winning was good for ratings. And proving there were no hard feelings between the filmmakers, Bull director Martin Scorseseprovides a superb cameo as the evilest Geritol president imaginable.

22) ‘Broadcast News’ (1987)

(Actual Winner: The Last Emperor)
The worst thing you can say about Terms of Endearment is that writer-director James L. Brooks won his Oscars for the wrong movie. His follow-up film is smarter, funnier and far more touching, tracing the love triangle between three very different television journalists: William Hurt’s impossibly shallow anchor, Albert Brooks’ painfully insecure reporter, and Holly Hunter’s type-A+ producer. Hidden inside this bittersweet romantic comedy is an insightful, still relevant criticism of TV news, but that’s merely the garnish for a movie about being lucky in love and successful in your career ”” and why most people don’t get both in this life.

21) ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981)

(Actual Winner: Chariots of Fire)
For such a decorated, commercially successful filmmaker, Steven Spielberg has had several movies that are worthy contenders for this list. So why choose this affectionate throwback to the matinee serials of the 1930s ”” one that’s less soulful than E.T., less mature than Saving Private Ryan? Because it remains the height of Eighties event moviemaking, and long before he became a perpetual grump, Harrison Ford was all cocky, sexy, funny lightness as globetrotting archeologist Indiana Jones. The man with the dusty fedora and cracking bullwhip is the epitome of the escapist action hero, blessed with just enough gravitas to give Raiders‘ thrills and corny romance a bit of grit.

20) ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948)

(Actual Winner: Hamlet)
It’s not unusual for musicals to be nominated for Best Picture ”” it is out of the ordinary for them to be as twisted as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s florid, psychologically intense film, one whose fingerprints can be seen on everything from Black Swan to most of Martin Scorsese’s movies. The filmmaking duo drew from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale for this look at a ballerina (Moira Shearer) forced to choose between her composer (Marius Goring) and the dance company’s head (Anton Walbrook). Her destiny, however, is forever linked to the titular footwear she dons when it comes time to enter stage left. Forget about any sort of realistic look at the inner workings of a ballet troupe; this is a glorious, unparalleled metaphor for artistic dedication and the toll such things take.

19) ‘The Tree of Life’ (2011)

(Actual Winner: The Artist)
You may agree with costar Sean Penn’s negative assessment of his role: “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context!” That doesn’t make filmmaker Terrence Malick’s sensuous Palme d’Or-winning drama, however, any less emotionally overwhelming. A portrait of a 1950s Texas brood from the perspective of the two oldest of the family’s three young boys (Tye Sheridan and Hunter McCracken), The Tree of Life speaks in capital-letter themes ”” Adolescence, Parenthood, Regret, God, Existence ”” in a poetic, ethereal film language that feels like a waking dream. It’s a movie that doesn’t need to be figure out as much as experienced and embraced.

18) ‘Raging Bull’ (1980)

(Actual Winner: Ordinary People)
Initially, Martin Scorsese didn’t understand why Robert De Niro responded to the true story of Jake LaMotta, a former prizefighter turned nightclub stand-up comic. But after bottoming out due to drug addiction and exhaustion, the director saw himself in the middleweight champion’s stumbles toward redemption ”” resulting in one of the director’s most personal films. Failure, guilt, jealousy, persecution, the inexplicable compulsion to get beat up: The movie could be Scorsese’s Stations of the Cross. And as LaMotta, De Niro was ferocious, ugly, compelling and never as brutally magnificent again.

17) ‘The Social Network’ (2010)

(Actual Winner: The King’s Speech)
When director David Fincher went from the nihilism of Seven and Fight Club to the sweeping, deceptively sentimental scope of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, some accused him of selling out for Oscar approval. Ironically, the movie that gave him the best chance of winning beautifully combined those two instincts. The Social Network is a somber, ambivalent movie about the quest to succeed, but (thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s so-clever-it-hurts screenplay) it’s also a nimble crowd-pleaser, a dark office comedy for the 21st century. Someday, the movie’s Facebook connection may make it seem dated, but its themes ”” ambition, masculine pride, the overpowering thirst for acceptance ”” guarantee its timelessness.

16) ‘Pulp Fiction’ (1994)

(Actual Winner: Forrest Gump)
Arguably the most influential American film since Star Wars, Quentin Tarantino’s sophomore effort treated the history of cinema like a box of paints where any two colors would look great together. Mixing romance, crime thriller, buddy comedy, absurdist horror and French New Wave chic, Pulp Fiction is, like George Lucas’ massive sci-fi moneymaker, a movie about the fun of making movies, of dreaming up alternate realities populated by cooler people facing greater stakes. For the rest of the 1990s, everybody else was trying to copy this genre-bending groundbreaker. Tarantino, for better or worse, has spent his time trying to top it.

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15) ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940) 

(Actual Winner: Rebecca)
Name Jimmy Stewart’s best performances and there’s a good chance you’ll overlook this one, which won him his only competitive Oscar. He plays a reporter covering the high-society wedding of the perfectionist Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), falling in love with her and, in the process, competing for her affections with her ex-husband (Cary Grant). Based on Philip Barry’s hit play, The Philadelphia Story is the apex of the sophisticated, witty romantic comedy, and Stewart was never more dashing and charming than he was here ”” which is saying a lot when you’re starring alongside Grant.

14) ‘JFK’ (1991)

(Actual Winner: The Silence of the Lambs)
In the near quarter of a century since Oliver Stone unleashed his broadside against the Warren Commission, science has helped debunk most of the director’s conspiracy theories regarding President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination being recast as a coup d’état. So why does JFK still feel so relevant and revelatory? Partly because of the intensity and anger that Stone brings to his retelling of district attorney Jim Garrison’s desperate quest to unlock the truth. Partly because of the extraordinary paranoia pulsing through every frame, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Richardson, composer John Williams and editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. And partly because of Kevin Costner’s Jimmy Stewart-like conviction and decency as Garrison. As history, the film is nonsense. Good thing movies aren’t textbooks.

13) ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ (1959)

(Actual Winner: Ben-Hur)
The courtroom drama has long been a Hollywood staple, and perhaps the finest of them all is director Otto Preminger’s adaptation of a Robert Traver novel, which features a battle between a small-town defense attorney (Jimmy Stewart) and a hotshot, big-city prosecutor (George C. Scott). If that setup sounds clichéd, Anatomy is anything but: Scored by Duke Ellington, this lengthy, fully absorbing film addresses not just guilt and innocence but also the very nature of truth, justice and the law. Even its title sequence, courtesy of the legendary Saul Bass, is masterful.

12) ‘Five Easy Pieces’ (1970)

(Actual Winner: Patton)
If the films of Hollywood’s 1970s renaissance could be summed up in a single motif, it might be characters who try their damnedest to run away from themselves ”” and fail. Exhibit A is Bob Rafelson’s class-conscious character study, in which a former piano prodigy (Jack Nicholson) is wasting his life away in California’s oil fields, only to be reunited with his family (and his feelings of being a failure) after his father’s stroke. A marvel of letting an antihero’s restless wanderings dictate the terms of the story, Piecesdoesn’t explain its lead’s ennui so much as honors it. We all know someone like this ”” and we hope to God he’s not us.

11) ‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)

(Actual Winner: Gone With the Wind)
For many lifetime moviegoers, one of their earliest scares was being freaked out by the Wicked Witch of the West. Despite its deserved reputation as a beloved children’s classic, The Wizard of Oz is not without its scarring moments: the Scarecrow being torn apart by flying monkeys; the Wicked Witch’s “I’m melting!” death scene; the tearful farewell between Dorothy and her Oz friends. This, of course, is why this fantasy film endures, resulting in a near-perfect, emotionally nuanced, almost mythic exploration of the lengths we’ll go to find out if the grass really is greener on the other side.

10) ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ (1942)

(Actual Winner: Mrs. Miniver)
Nobody likes the studio-enforced happy ending, which leaves Orson Welles’s follow-up to Citizen Kane permanently unrealized and unfinished. (Fingers crossed the original cut will still be unearthed one day.) And yet, this adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which chronicles a well-to-do Indiana family whose fortune is about to change at the turn of the 20th century, remains a haunting gem. Welles merely narrated this grand, mature drama, allowing his fellow Mercury Theatre actors to shine, especially Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead. The former boy-wonder filmmaker went to his grave wondering what might have been with Ambersons ”” an ache fits the melancholy mood of a movie about the fickleness of fate.

9) ‘GoodFellas’ (1990)

(Actual Winner: Dances With Wolves)
At the time, this adaptation of Nicolas Pileggi’s inside-this-thing-of-ours book on mobster Henry Hill’s life felt like a new peak for director Martin Scorsese and one of the darkest examinations of  gangster culture to date. But who could have known how compulsively watchable this film would be every single time it pops up on cable? And even its biggest fans couldn’t have guessed that its echoes would still be felt everywhere ”” from the opening unbroken shot of Boogie Nights to the very DNA of The Sopranos? We all know how the film’s ironic, bittersweet ending plays out, and yet we can’t look away. And Harry Nilsson’s “Jump in the Fire” has never sounded the same since.

8) ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967)

(Actual Winner: In the Heat of the Night)
Amidst the Summer of Love and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, this violent, funny, ultimately sobering film arrived in theaters in August of 1967, preaching rebellion and personal freedom but also acknowledging their limitations. Inspired by the French New Wave’s rule-breaking auteurs, Bonnie and Clyde starred Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the original (and most photogenic) rebels without a clue, shooting their way through Texas in the 1930s. Remembered as a bellwether for New Hollywood, it’s an outlaws-in-love story that wears its contradictions on its well-tailored sleeve ”” a tale of youthful abandon in which our gorgeous heroes are gunned down for their troubles.

7) ‘The Last Picture Show’ (1971)

(Actual Winner: The French Connection)
To call Peter Bogdanovich’s teen drama “nostalgic” would be like describing “Born in the U.S.A.” as patriotic: sort of accurate but missing the point entirely. It’s a snapshot of a small Texas town in the 1950s that’s ostensibly filled with bighearted, god-fearing real Americans. But this exceedingly sad film spits in the eye of such homespun niceties: This is an Eisenhower-era world riddled with directionless teens, bored housewives and disenfranchised citizens who can’t escape the futility around them. Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won Oscars for, respectively, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, but when you watch the film now, you tend to marvel at the main attraction: how young and unmannered Jeff Bridges used to be.

6) ‘Grand Illusion’ (1937)

(Actual Winner: You Can’t Take It With You)
Foreign-language films are rarely nominated for Best Picture; director Jean Renoir’s graceful humanist war drama, however, was a welcome early exception. Set in a World War I German prison camp, where French soldiers learn how identity can be defined by nationality but also by class, Grand Illusion delivers its pacifist message without stumbling into sentimentality or pretentiousness. Renoir once said that the movie tackled the riddle of “human relationships”: “If we don’t solve it,” he declared, “we will just have to say goodbye to our beautiful world.” Which explains why this movie remains so dispiritingly timely.

5) ‘Chinatown’ (1974)

(Actual Winner: The Godfather Part II)
Easily the most scintillating movie ever made about water rights, Chinatown is a case study in being just smart enough to be consistently surprised by how mistaken you can be. Jack Nicholson’s J.J. Gittes embodies private-dick cool, which makes him the perfect unsuspecting patsy to stumble through director Roman Polanski’s sun-draped Los Angeles noir, naively confident that he knows all the angles. First, he’s wrong about the woman he thinks is Evelyn Mulwray. Then he’s wrong about what happened to the real Mrs. Mulwray (a brilliantly brittle Faye Dunaway). And lastly, and most tragically, he’s wrong about believing that he’s finally outrun the grievous mistakes of his past. Forget it, Jake.

4) ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007)

(Actual Winner: No Country for Old Men)
Before Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature, the writer-director could have been pegged as some sort of poet of Southern California malaise. But after this devastating takedown of the self-made American tycoon, the old preconceptions had to be trashed. Pitting capitalism (in the form of Daniel Day-Lewis’s ruthless Daniel Plainview) against religion (Paul Dano’s slithering Eli Sunday), this widescreen minimalist epic plays like the origin story of the 20th century, as humanity’s thirst for oil, money and power overwhelms everything in its path.

3) ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950)

(Actual Winner: All About Eve)
Like many classics, this poison valentine to Tinsetown runs the risk of being reduced to its most quotable lines. But what “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up” can’t articulate is the depth of director and co-writer Billy Wilder’s bemused contempt for Hollywood’s ability to both build up and destroy lives. Starting as a murder mystery narrated by a corpse, Sunset Blvd. is one of the funniest, straight-up strangest noirs of the 1950s. The perverse, codependent relationship between William Holden’s hack writer and Gloria Swanson’s deluded has-been actress remains a potent, upsetting portrait of the strange bedfellows created by an industry that sells (and crushes) dreams.

2) ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)

(Actual Winner: How Green Was My Valley)
It’s funny how time and expectations alter our assessment of a film. For years, Oscar’s overlooking of director-producer-star Orson Welles’s dazzlingly self-assured debut has been among the most damning pieces of evidence used against the Academy’s myopia, helping to propel it to the top of “Greatest Movies Ever” lists. (Consequently, the movie that beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, has been needlessly bashed.) But now, even the filmmaker’s achievement ”” still ground zero for cinema’s fascination with American ambition, ego and failure ”” has seen its legacy be reconsidered. After being No. 1 on Sight & Sound‘s hugely influential once-a-decade critics poll of the greatest films since 1962, Kane fell to No. 2 in 2012, bested by Vertigo. Is it possible that the most critically celebrated film of our lifetime is suddenly ”¦ underrated?

1) ‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975)

(Actual Winner: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
Stanley Kubrick’s career was peppered with films that received hostile reviews upon their initial release, only to be reevaluated far more favorably in later years. And no film better exemplifies this trend than his adaptation of William Thackeray’s 1844 novel , a “period drama” that shreds the conventions of its genre by being more faithful to its era and, simultaneously, unfailingly contemporary in its themes. Ryan O’Neal’s Redmond Barry is a feckless, no-account commoner who schemes and manipulates his way into marriage, fortune and nobility. Kubrick’s follow-up to A Clockwork Orange couldn’t have seemed more different in terms of tone or temperament, but Barry Lyndon is the director’s sharpest critique of humanity’s frailties and the maddening randomness of existence. For those who accused Kubrick of soullessness, this is also his most heartbreaking film, the beauty of its painterly compositions eventually translating into a restrained compassion for those luckless souls up there on the screen.

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