10 Movie Masterpieces That Lost Best Picture to Forgettable Films

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is so famous for its oversights that the term “Oscar snub” is used to denote the movies that fail to get nominated by the Academy or fail to win when they deserve it. Looking at the following list of Oscar snubs and fails, you’ll see how badly the Academy screws up sometimes.

The following 10 classic movies lost the Best Picture Oscar to lesser films that have not been able to stand the test of time.

1. Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane | RKO Radio Pictures

Orson Welles’s classic teardown of William Randolph Hearst has been repeatedly called the best movie of all time by the American Film Institute and others, but it did not win Best Picture at the 1941 Academy Awards. In fact, it only took home one of its nine nominations: the Oscar for Best Screenplay. Welles’s landmark performance as Kane and his influential directing would leave the ceremony empty-handed.

Instead, John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley won for Best Picture and Best Director, and though Ford is one of Hollywood’s great directors, that film isn’t exactly on par with Citizen Kane, nor is it as well-remembered as the film Ford won for the previous year, the adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The documentary, The Battle Over Citizen Kane blames Hearst’s vehement hatred of the film and attempts to squash all press coverage of it through his newspaper empire as the reason the movie failed commercially and lost out at the Oscars.

2. Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver | Columbia Pictures

Martin Scorsese’s 1976 dark classic starring Robert De Niro in a landmark performance as the disturbed cab driver Travis Bickle is regularly cited as one of the greatest movies of all time, but it lost the Best Picture trophy to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky. Though De Niro’s performance as a former Marine with PTSD back from Vietnam who takes it upon himself to cleanse the dirty city and save a teenage prostitute played by Jodie Foster is considered one of the greatest acting performances of all time, he failed to win the Academy Award he was nominated for, as did Foster.

Peter Finch and Beatrice Straight from Network took home those trophies, although neither of those actors nor that film are anywhere near as well known or considered to be as artistically important as Taxi Driver. Taxi Driver is now thought to be one of the best collaborations between Scorsese and De Niro, and was named the 52nd best movie of all time by the American Film Institute. Rocky is considered a classic in its own right, coming in just five places below Taxi Driver on AFI’s list, but the Best Picture snub, in addition to the acting and directing snubs for the latter is what really boggles the mind.

3. Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan

Saving Private Ryan | DreamWorks Pictures

Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama, Saving Private Ryan has been hailed as one of the most realistic depictions of warfare ever captured in a Hollywood film. The film was a critical, box office, and popular success, but it didn’t take home the Academy Award for Best Picture. At the 1994 ceremony it lost out to the romantic comedy Shakespeare in Love. You’d think Tom Hanks as a World War II hero would guarantee Oscar success, especially since rom-coms aren’t exactly typical Oscar material, but something about Shakespeare in Love was irresistible to voters that year.

While Shakespeare in Love might be an enjoyable movie, it’s hardly a landmark film like Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg won for Best Director and the film took home four other trophies, but its acting nominations and Best Picture nod left it empty-handed. Saving Private Ryan’s loss to Shakespeare in Love is considered one of the biggest Oscar mistakes of all time and is frequently cited when people want to remind others how little the Academy knows about anything.

4. Chinatown

Chinatown

Chinatown | Paramount Pictures

Roman Polanski’s neo-noir masterpiece, Chinatown lost Best Picture at the 1975 ceremony to The Godfather Part II, which swept the awards that year and took home twice as many Oscars as the first Godfather movie. The Godfather Part II may be considered the greatest sequel ever made, but Polanski’s ode to film noir, featuring great performances from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, is a masterpiece of the genre. The only Oscar the film won of its 11 nominations was for Robert Towne’s screenplay, which is to this day considered one of the finest examples of the screenwriting craft.

One would think that having one of the best screenplays ever written might translate into a Best Picture win, but that year Academy voters wanted to honor The Godfather again. Roman Polanski lost to Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson to Art Carney in Harry and Tonto, and Faye Dunaway to Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. On AFI’s list of the greatest movies of all time, Chinatown comes in at No. 21, while the second installment of The Godfather is 32nd.

5. Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard | Paramount Pictures

Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece is considered to be one of the best movies ever made about Hollywood. Gloria Swanson plays a washed-up former star of silent films whose career has waned with the advent of the talkies, though she’s in immense denial about that fact and thinks she’s on the verge of a big comeback. William Holden plays a down-on-his-luck screenwriter who is hired by Swanson’s character to fix a script she wrote to engineer that comeback, a business relationship that ultimately leads to disaster. The movie is responsible for such famous lines as “I’m ready for my close-up,” and “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!”

The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards at the 1951 Oscars and won three of them, the biggest being Best Screenplay. The movie had nominations in all four acting categories and is one of only three films not to win any of the awards when it was nominated in all four categories, the others being 2013’s American Hustle and 1936’s My Man Godfrey.

The movie lost Best Picture to another film with some very similar themes but a more upbeat ending, All About EveAll About Eve is also about an aging actress, played by Bette Davis, and is considered a classic in its own right. But on AFI’s list of the greatest movies of all time, Sunset Boulevard ranks higher, at No. 16, over All About Eve’s No. 28. Interestingly, Gloria Swanson and All About Eve’s two stars, Davis and Anne Baxter, were beaten out for Best Actress by Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday.

6. High Noon

High Noon

High Noon | United Artists

This Western classic starring Gary Cooper in a late career high performance is considered to be one of the best Westerns ever made. It is believed the film failed to win Best Picture in 1952 only because its story serves as an allegory for those who were afraid to testify before the House of Un-American Activities. Cooper plays the marshal of a small western town who’s about the give up his post for his new wife, a Quaker who doesn’t approve of violence, played by Grace Kelly.

When a gang of outlaws comes to town before the new marshal shows up, Cooper is forced to defend all the townspeople on his own, standing completely alone with no support from anyone. The film lost out to Cecil B. DeMille’s bombastic circus movie The Greatest Show on Earth. High Noon is ranked 27th on AFI’s list of the greatest films of all time and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry due to being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” during the registry’s first year of work.

7. Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction

Pulp Fiction | Miramax

Quentin Tarantino’s modern classic was beaten out for Best Picture in 1995 by the melodrama Forrest Gump in a move that revealed just how uncool Oscar voters really are. Pulp Fiction rightly won for Best Original Screenplay, but the movie was too violent, too profane, and just too weird for Academy voters to grant it the top award. The movie is considered a cultural watershed, and its success had a landmark effect on independent film.

Robert Zemeckis won the directing trophy for Forrest Gump over Tarantino, another Academy mistake, as Tarantino is considered one of the most iconic directors of the modern era, with Pulp Fiction being cited by most as his finest film. Uma Thurman, John Travolta, and Samuel L. Jackson also failed to take home any Oscars for their performances in the movie. Pulp Fiction is ranked No. 94 on AFI’s list and is thought to be one of the most culturally influential movies in recent history.

8. Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain

Brokeback Mountain | Focus Features

This is one of the more famous upsets in the Oscars’ recent history. The drama, Brokeback Mountain was hugely significant for its portrayal of gay men, with Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger playing cowboys coming to terms with their sexuality. The movie received rave reviews when it was released; it is now considered to be a modern classic and landmark piece of LGBT cinema. It lost the Best Picture trophy to Crash, a drama about social tension in L.A. that was definitely considered an underdog going in.

Ang Lee’s adaptation of the short story by Annie Proulx will go down as one of the most important pieces of LGBT cinema for the amount of popular attention the film got and for having two huge movie stars performing gay sex scenes. Lee won for Best Director, but Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, and Michelle Williams went home empty-handed, and the movie itself was not properly honored. It was a sign that even in 2006, Hollywood wasn’t as progressive as it liked to think it was. Some have speculated that if the movie came out now, it would win Best Picture.

9. Boyhood

Boyhood

Boyhood | IFC Films

The movie follows a boy named Mason from early childhood to college. It’s truly an ambitious feat given that this movie was shot in just 39 days, but over the course of 12 years. Along with watching Mason grow up we also see actor, Ellar Coltrane grow up. This is obviously a passion project for everyone involved, and the film was well received. There have been many coming-of-age stories before it, but this one truly sets itself apart. It was up for Best Picture, but lost to Birdman. 

The entertainment industry is very much in love with itself, so it’s not surprising that a movie about actors took home the prize.

10. Psycho

Anthony Perkins in Psycho | Universal

Anthony Perkins in Psycho | Universal

Chances are even those who aren’t Alfred Hitchcock fans know how important this movie is to film history. The creepy thriller pulls you in by showing you a secretary who disappears after she checks into a motel. The story is so compelling that it led to a remake and television show adaptation years later.

But many fans probably don’t know that it didn’t win Best Picture and wasn’t even nominated for the award! Instead, in 1960, The Apartment won Best Picture. It’s a film that many people may love but it has hardly remained a cornerstone of pop culture like Psycho has. The thriller actually didn’t win any Oscars, but was nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction.

Additional reporting by Nicole Weaver.

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