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Stream These: 10 Classic Best Picture Losers That Deserved Better

Features
by Ryan Lattanzio
January 14, 2014 3:08 PM
11 Comments
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Jack Nicholson announcing "Crash" as Best Picture at the 78th Annual Academy Awards.

The Academy will never please everyone, but they hope to please as many moviegoers and as broad an audience as possible, retaining some dignity without hurting too many feelings. But now and then, the Oscars get it completely wrong. A turning point was in 1941, when "Citizen Kane" infamously lost Best Picture to John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley." Fortunately, time has rewritten that watershed moment across innumerable best-of lists, where Orson Welles' film, like Kane himself from his ivory tower of isolation, proudly stands at the top again and again.

As we've learned from Oscar nights such as the "Crash" of 2006 and the big, fat, WTF win of "Shakespeare in Love" over "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Thin Red Line" in 1999, don't count on a Best Picture win to secure a classic. Thus, as we ramp up to the Academy Awards nominations unveiled this Thursday, here are ten films that lost Best Picture but deserved better. And you can stream them now.

"Double Indemnity"

1945
What won? "Going My Way"
What should have won? "Double Indemnity" (Netflix)
In 1945, Oscar was still finding his legs and the Academy loved their musical comedies, so they crowned Leo McCarey's easy, breezy "Going My Way" the best film of the year. Meanwhile, looming on the horizon of film legends was Billy Wilder, who the Academy gave a mea culpa the following year with top honors for "The Lost Weekend." A salacious noir -- perhaps the noir -- of murder, double-crossing and adultery gone horribly out of control, "Double Indemnity" features a subtly wily Barbara Stanwyck (also Oscar-nominated) as a very mad housewife, the kind of serpentine female character audiences weren't used to seeing. Even though the film went home empty-handed that night, "Double Indemnity" stands tall as an undisputed classic. Whereas the sweet songs of "Going My Way" are seldom heard.

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

1967
What won? "A Man For All Seasons"
What should have won? "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (Amazon)
When Mike Nichols' scandalous Edward Albee adaptation "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" came along in 1966, it was one of the most radical studio movies ever made. A pity, but no shocker, that Academy voters skirted the drunken moral turpitude in favor of a more dignified Renaissance period piece, "A Man For All Seasons," well-directed by studio master Fred Zinnemann. "Woolf" not only boasts iconic performances across the board, from Sandy Dennis' willowy Honey to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's scary pas de deux, it heralded a bold new talent and bonafide actors' director, in Mike Nichols, who came from the stage to the screen like an angry bat from hell.

Jack Nicholson in 'Chinatown'

1975
What won? "The Godfather Part II"
What should have won? "Chinatown" (Amazon)
Happy was the day the Academy accorded two best picture nominations to still-budding director and studio enfant terrible Francis Ford Coppola, for "Godfather Part II" and passion project "The Conversation." But who should have won that night? Roman Polanski's "Chinatown," the finest achievement of his incendiary career, a neo-noir written by Robert Towne and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway that encapsulates New Hollywood at its most muscular and audacious, tapping into the reservoir of film history while rewriting the rules. The debate rages on over which "Godfather" entry is the best, and they're all more-than-worthy of accolades, but let's make room for the little guy.

1980
What won? "Kramer vs. Kramer"
What should have won? "Apocalypse Now" (Netflix)
The horror, the horror. Sure, "Kramer vs. Kramer" is easy to love, affording simple pleasures in the form of a middle-of-the-road domestic drama with well-acted sympathetic characters. But Francis Ford Coppola's unimpeachable masterpiece of war, which the director fought tooth and nail to make for over a year in the waterlogged Philippines, is so much more: a real movie movie, as pure as cinema gets. It racked up a couple of tech prizes, but was shut out in six other categories. Many factors were working against "Apocalypse": first, it was a long-delayed August release whereas "Kramer" came along in late December, and secondly, the Academy saluted Best Picture winner "The Deer Hunter," another Vietnam War movie, the previous year. You don't hear much chatter about "Kramer" anymore, whereas "Apocalypse Now" seared the minds of moviegoers forever.

1986
What won? "Out of Africa"
What should have won? "Kiss of the Spider Woman" (iTunes)
It was happenstance. At the same time that AIDS victim Rock Hudson's death made headlines, Hector Babenco's "Kiss of the Spider Woman," one of the seminal breakout art films of the 1980s, was opening in New York. The world may have finally been ready for a gay romance between a Brazilian revolutionary and a homosexual pariah, but the Academy wasn't. Predictably, Sydney Pollack's sweeping love epic "Out of Africa" took the top prize. But "sleeping" is more like it, because that's what I've done every time I've tried to watch this movie, an Oscar package from the get-go given the chemistry of stars Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, both Oscar nom could-be's this year. For his go-for-broke, wonderfully flamboyant performance in "Spider Woman," William Hurt did take home the Best Actor Oscar.

11 Comments

  • Chris | January 21, 2014 5:43 PMReply

    1997
    What won? Titanic
    What should have won? L.A. Confidential

  • Bruce Batty | January 21, 2014 5:08 PMReply

    Brokeback Mountain was a boring-ass movie. Great, gays. But the movie was boring and did not deserve to win.

  • Nichola | January 15, 2014 8:03 AMReply

    The Color Purple should have won

  • Mark | January 15, 2014 5:41 AMReply

    The Piano over Schindler's List? Chinatown over The Godfather Part II? No.

    And The English Patient is a beautiful art movie for adults, probably the reason you found it long, dull and morose.

  • Jamie | January 14, 2014 10:04 PMReply

    These losses are one of the reasons that I've always thought the actual vote tallies should be available at some point. It is obvious in many years with strong contenders that vote splitting will let another film slide through. Then there is the fact that a very popular film in any given year will lose its luster while a seemingly lesser film becomes a multi-decade classic.

  • JC | January 14, 2014 8:32 PMReply

    Great list, I agree with most of this. Frankly, I've always felt that "Traffic" and "Erin Brokovich" (both Soderberg films that year that were both nominated) split the voting, thus allowing "Gladiator" to sneak into the win position. "Gladiator" was clearly inferior to both of Soderberg's films that year.

  • SELBFAN | January 14, 2014 5:50 PMReply

    I agree the wrong film won in 1980 but it should have been Bob Fossee's masterpiece All That Jazz in my opinion.

  • Jamie | January 14, 2014 10:01 PM

    I'll second this one as All That Jazz is a frequently rewatched film and there is always something wonderful to note of remember. Then there is the "Aerotica" number which may be one of the single best pieces or choreography ever committed to film.

  • Steve Barr | January 14, 2014 5:35 PMReply

    Intersting choices . You didn't mention Reds losing to Chariots of Fire and The Right Stuff Losing to Terms of Endearment . As for Citizen Kane , How Green Was My Valley was a great film . As for Saving Private Ryan it was a great short film blown up way out of proportion by what followed the opening sequence . I loved what you said about Apocalypse Now . Truer words were never spoken . Oh and how about Raging Bull losing to Ordinary People .

  • Non-Speaking Extra #9 | January 14, 2014 3:43 PMReply

    Hey, film-nerd, you omitted one of the most heinous breaches of Oscar voting in history:

    The Year: 1990.

    The "best" picture: "Dances With Wolves". New age political correctness run amok in a Hollywood backlot western. Barely tolerable first viewing, unwatchable the second time (or any other.)

    What SHOULD have won: "GOOD FELLAS". A movie so astonishingly good its three hour running time never feels long, so good you can tune into it at any point and see a classic, quotable sequence, so good even if you tune into the last half hour, you gotta watch it till the end.

  • Non-Speaking Extra #10 | January 14, 2014 3:45 PM

    "Lost In Translation"? Really? REALLY? Only your parents are impressed by your internet columns.

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