In the 80 or so years of its existence, the Academy Awards has made some poor choices. Dances With the Wolves over Goodfellas? Bleh. And try finding someone who could justify The Greatest Show On Earth or Around the World In 80 Days winning- let alone getting nominated. The list goes on. We know what their mistakes were. We know all the worst choices for Best Picture, the best choices for Best Picture, and all the notable snubs that have accumulated over the years. To give the Academy a break from all the harsh criticisms and accusations, I’ve decided to create a list of Best Picture and Best Director nominees that, if they won, would have been excellent choices. Not to say that they were snubbed: because the movie that won might have been a better choice. This list is simply me reminiscing of the best Best Picture winners that could’ve been.
TopTenz Master Note: I realize this list is similar to Friday’s Top 10 Great Movies That Didn’t Win An Oscar, but this was a very late submission that TopTenz felt should be included even at the risk of addressing a similar topic.
10. The Shawshank Redemption
Why Should It Have Won?: The Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies that’s jam packed with classic and powerful scenes, and the result is something that should not be missed. With career defining performances from the two leads, impressive direction, and an astonishingly original plot; it gets nearly everything right. Over the past decade, since it’s aged much better than Forrest Gump, Shawshank has amassed a generally large cult following who’ll back me in saying that it’s a modern classic and an obscure but moving masterpiece about prison life.
Why Didn’t It Win?: Robert Zemeckis had already directed the popular Back to the Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and so maybe the Academy was just glad to see him make a blockbuster that was both entertaining, emotionally resonate, and applicable for a few awards (such as Best Actor for Tom Hanks), even if it was incredibly melodramatic.
Oscar noms: Best Picture, Best Actor (Morgan Freeman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Mixing
Oscar wins: Zero.
Why Should It Have Won?: Warren Beatty’s cinematic portrayal of Communist journalist Jack Reed rivals Lawrence of Arabia, Amadeus, and Doctor Zhivago with its lush visual immensity and masterful ensemble performances. Beatty and Keaton both give tour de forces, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro proves his optical genius yet again, and the tale of the rise and fall of a little known historical figure is spectacularly executed and an insurmountable feat in biographic filmmaking.
Why Didn’t It Win?: Putting both movies side to side, it seems as if Reds would have been a surefire win for Best Picture. Other than cross country fanatics, who would’ve voted for Chariots of Fire? Reds even had everything that would ensure qualifying for the prestigious award; it’s epic, it’s a biopic, and it’s directed by an actor. But then again, if you put it into context with the fall of the Iron Curtain and Ronald Reagan single-handedly ending the Cold War, it makes some sense that a movie about the author of “Ten Days That Shook the World” wouldn’t win Best Picture.
Oscar noms: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Warren Beatty), Best Actress (Diane Keaton), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound
Oscar wins: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton)
8. The Third Man
Why Should It Have Won?: Carol Reed’s visually dazzling noir mystery about espionage and betrayal in post-war Vienna showcases Graham Greene’s sharp, witty dialogue and Orson Welles, who gives a magnificent performance with screen-time of only 7 minutes and perfectly validates the phrase “There are no small parts, just small actors”. British Film Institute ranked The Third Man #1 on their Top 100 list, American Film Institute ranked it #57 on theirs, and Roger Ebert frequently includes it on his “Top 10 Great Films” list. If there was ever a film that’s greatness meets the expectations set by critics, this would be it.
Why Didn’t It Win?: Sadly, The Third Man met its match with the classic Bette Davis flick; All About Eve. Since Mankiewicz got the homefield advantage, the Oscar was given to All About Eve. Reed would be later honored in 1969 with Best Director and Best Picture for his musical-film Oliver! (which notoriously beat out Stanley Kubrick’s masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey from winning any major awards).
Oscar noms: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing.
Oscar wins: Best Cinematography.
7. Taxi Driver/ Network/ All The President’s Men
Why Should They Have Won?:
Taxi Driver- Dark, moody, and disturbing study of one of the most memorable characters in film; Travis Bickle. Exemplary work from Robert De Niro and a whole bunch of other 1970s character actors, as well as arguably being Martin Scorsese’s best- or most tone driven- masterpiece to date.
Network- Perhaps more resonate now than ever, legendary screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky wrote a hard hitting, laugh-out-loud, corrosive satire on an industry that we’ve come to know and love: the media. Network delivers on every level- the cast is tremendous (Robert Duvall, William Holden, Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, and Ned Beatty are all amazing), Sidney Lumet directs with style and social conscious, and each audacious monologue is more unforgettable than the next.
All The President’s Men- Easily the one of the greatest movies about journalism and political scandals. Redford’s and Hoffman’s star-driven charisma turn William Goldman’s witty script into riveting storytelling. The zenith of smart filmmaking.
Why Didn’t They Win?: Contrary to popular belief, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does have a heart, and when Rocky was released many viewed it as the underdog; it had a low budget, but ended up being a sleeper-hit and transformed Sylvester Stallone into a star overnight. To dumbfound spectators, the Academy overlooked critically acclaimed satires, character studies, and period pieces so that they could give Best Picture to the predictably sympathetic sports movie. Nobody had any idea what sort of overblown franchise and Razzie ridden legacy this award would enable Stallone to pursue.
Taxi Driver- Best Picture, Best Actor (Robert De Niro), Best Supporting Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Original Score.
Network- Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Peter Finch), Best Actor (William Holden), Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), Best Supporting Actor (Ned Beatty), Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing.
All The President’s Men- Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Alexander), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Editing, and Best Art Direction.
Taxi Driver- Zero, but it won the Palme d’Or.
Network- Best Actor (Peter Finch), Best Actress (Faye Dunaway), Best Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight), and Best Original Screenplay.
All The President’s Men- Best Art Direction, Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Sound.
6. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb
Why Should It Have Won?: Sure, 2001: A Space Odyssey was more of a visual exercise than a narrative, A Clockwork Orange was way too risqué, Spartacus was too much of a Ben-Hur rip off, Paths of Glory had tough competition, and Full Metal Jacket lacked humanism, but why Why WHY couldn’t Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb have won Best Picture? It was Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus; Kubrick’s only work in which his photographic genius, satirical philosophical screen-writing, and over-the-top actors met at equilibrium! Since its release, there has ceased to be comedy as sharp as Kubrick’s biting political satire, an ending as memorable as Slim Pickens plummeting towards the earth backwards on a nuclear bomb, nor performances as classic as Peter Seller’s Dr. Strangelove, George C. Scott’s General Turgidson, and Sterling Hayden’s Jack D. Ripper.
Why Didn’t It Win?: I don’t want to rip on My Fair Lady, but when they awarded it Best Picture the Academy was still stuck in the heydays of historical epics and lavish musicals, and it would take them another decade until they finally woke up and smelled the roses of contemporary controversial masterpieces. And for some reason Rex Harrison got Best Actor over Peter Sellers… WHY?!
Oscar noms: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor (Peter Sellers).
Oscar wins: Nada! but the 2002 Sight and Sound poll taken by famous movie directors ranked Dr. Strangelove #5 on their top 10 list.
5. A Streetcar Named Desire
Why Should It Have Won?: A lyrical and acting landmark in cinema. Vivien Leigh’s soft-spoken derangement as Blanche DuBois and Marlon Brando’s animalistic hostility as Stanley Kowalski (“Stella!!!”) easily rank as two of the greatest performances ever recorded on film. Not far behind are Karl Malden and Kim Hunter, who both won Oscars for their roles and spectacularly portrayed troubled and edgy characters. The script is as legendary as the cast: every line of dialogue is ingeniously crafted and fits each character’s inner turmoil perfectly, mainly because the playwright who wrote this raw, explosive New Orleans drama was also the American Shakespeare: Tennessee Williams. Infamous for it’s controversial themes, Williams stealthily snuck in several risqué lines of dialogue under the Hollywood Production Code’s noses- which would later be considered a monumental step in the fight against censorship.
Why Didn’t It Win?: I’ve seen An American In Paris put on both “Top 10 Best” and “Top 10 Worst” Choices for Best Picture lists. The former praises the sumptuous direction and colorful dance sequences and the latter condemns the gaping plotholes, aching sentimentality, and overproduced (though catchy) musical numbers. The Academy used to be a sucker for those kinds of things. And apparently A Streetcar Named Desire lost credibility for giving the bird to the Hollywood Production Code.
Oscar noms: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Marlon Brando), Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Kim Hunter), Best Supporting Actor (Karl Malden), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Music, and Best Sound.
Oscar wins: Best Actress (Vivien Leigh), Best Supporting Actress (Kim Hunter), Best Supporting Actor (Karl Malden), and Best Art Direction.
4. The Grapes of Wrath
bDirector John Ford made some pretty good movies. There were the Westerns, the war propaganda, and the cultural dramas- all of them validating his signature sympathetic, earthy, beautifully rendered style. Ford was famous for producing an immense amount of high quality classics throughout the 30s, 40s, and 50s; and the most heartwarming, hard-hitting, timely, and relevant of them all is undeniably The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Its timeless themes and morals have become a bedrock for the American ideal in cinema as we know it, and Henry Fonda flawlessly defines himself as the common man, Tom Joad, with an iconic performance. Overall, The Grapes of Wrath is one of the great American masterpieces and it’s a shame that it was overlooked by the Academy (even though Ford won a well deserved Best Director).
Why Didn’t It Win?: Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, and obviously us Yankees fell head over heels for the cinematic mastermind and thought that he was the best thing to come out of England since the crumpet. As usual, we threw his film an Academy Award, and then even went so far as to nominate his second American endeavor- Foreign Correspondent. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator would’ve also been a great choice for Best Picture.
Oscar noms: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Henry Fonda), Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound.
Oscar wins: Best Director (John Ford’s second Best Director out of four- an achievement unmatched by any other director), and Best Supporting Actress (Jane Darwell). The Grapes of Wrath has also been included on American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Movies list, placing at #21, and was given an honorable mention on the first Sight and Sound Top Ten Poll in 1952 (and also ranks pretty high on my list as well).
3. Grand Illusion (La Grande Illusion)
Why Should It Have Won?: Often cited as the greatest anti-war film ever made, named by Orson Welles as the one movie he would take with him “on the ark”, and given the #5 slot on the definite Top 10 poll taken at the 1958 Brussels World Fair: La Grande Illusion (Grand Illusion) is nothing short of a masterpiece. Directed by Jean Renoir not as a movie about the brutality of war, but rather the absurdity of two rational men with a common background fighting one another- calling WWI a “war of gentlemen”. Within it’s running time, La Grande Illusion fires very few pistols and launches many eye-opening accusations against war with a fresh script, classic contrasting performances from foreign screen-legends Jean Gabin and Eric von Stroheim, and Jean Renoir’s ever-relevant morals.
• La Grande Illusion was the first foreign language (French) film to be nominated for Best Picture.
Why Didn’t It Win?: You might have heard of a director from the 1930s-1940s by the name of Frank Capra. He was famous from cranking out a string of upbeat classics that consecutively every other year won him 3 Academy Awards for Best Director- the first being It Happened One Night, the second being Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, and third being You Can’t Take It With You. The latter is a star studded farce based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play with a message revolving around following the American Dream and the pursuit of happiness: something that would be very appealing in a time when the economic state of the country was at an all time low.
Oscar noms: Best Picture.
Oscar wins: Seeing as the “Best Foreign Language Film” category wouldn’t be around for another decade, La Grande Illusion didn’t win anything. But if you ask any film historian about what they think are the 10 Great Movies, chances are this’ll be somewhere on their list.
2. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Why Should It Have Won?: John Huston was an American American. His signature gruff, endearing directorial manner won him the title of “cinema’s Ernest Hemingway”- noted for his memorable collaborations with Humphrey Bogart and adaptations of the great American novels. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a tale of comradery, greed, and betrayal in the deserts of Mexico that allowed Huston to utilize all of his talents; creating an extraordinary Hollywood spectacle and earning him worthy Best Director and Screenplay Oscars. Humphrey Bogart gives one of the definite performances of American cinema that only reinforces how fantastic of an actor he is, but was criminally overlooked for a nomination by the Academy. Luckily, Huston’s father Walter Huston won a much deserved Oscar for being a grizzled, wise, rambling old guy. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre isn’t the great American film, but it’s pretty damn close.
Why Didn’t It Win?: Actually, the fact that Sir Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet won Best Picture comes across as a surprise to most people. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre must’ve won: it got Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, it was a commercial success, it had one of the greatest performances of all time courtesy of Humphrey Bogart, and it has that quote about not needing no stinkin’ badges. Contrary to popular belief, Hamlet did win Best Picture, as well as Best Actor (Olivier’s first and only Oscar), and became the first foreign (British counts as foreign) Best Picture winner. So why did exactly did Hamlet win? To paraphrase: Olivier’s edit of Shakespeare’s tragic masterpiece introduces Freudian overtones and performs with a noir and Orson-Wellesian heart, refreshing the classic tale into something more stylish and consumable for moviegoers while still allowing room for Olivier to flex his thespian ego.
Oscar noms: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston), and Best Screenplay.
Oscar wins: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Walter Huston), and Best Screenplay.
1. Citizen Kane
Why Should It Have Won?: Citizen Kane has become the obligatory choice for greatest film of all time, and with good reason. Stunningly original storytelling and brilliantly innovative cinematography, direction, screen-writing, and acting render it as a masterpiece, while topping countless respectable Greatest Ever Lists and numerous citations by other great directors validate Welles as one of the masters of cinema and Citizen Kane as the sparkling jewel of filmmaking history. Orson Welles’ crowning achievement is easily the #1 Best Picture Winner That Could’ve Been.
Why Didn’t It Win?: Mr. Welles and the Academy weren’t very fond of one another and upon it’s release, Citizen Kane wasn’t all that popular. Citizen Kane was met with rave reviews earning some Oscar nominations, but nobody really wanted it to win. Instead, John Ford- who had been on a masterpiece streak with Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, and The Grapes of Wrath- took home Best Director and Best Picture for his Welsh mining epic How Green Was My Valley: subtly ironic seeing as while preparing to filming Citizen Kane, Orson Welles claimed to have watched Stagecoach 41 times. How Green Was My Valley, even though it’s a very good movie, notably snubbed several other classics such as The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion, and Sergeant York.
Oscar noms: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Orson Welles), Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Musical Score, and Best Sound.
Oscar wins: Only Best Original Screenplay 🙁
List written by Sam Dot.
Sam Dot is an Oscar buff, resident movie critic at Rotten Tomatoes, and co-writes for a blog called The Great Review where he and his friend attempt to review everything ever made. Check it out: http://thegreatestreview.blogspot.com/