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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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Jane Campion's 'The Piano'

1994
What won? "Schindler's List"
What should have won? "The Piano" (Netflix)
Is it blasphemous to say that Jane Campion's lush psychosexual fairytale "The Piano" should've topped Spielberg's much ballyhooed Holocaust epic "Schindler's List"? Don't query guests at a dinner party. That year, the Academy also could've made history by naming Campion (she's this year's jury president at Cannes, where the film won the Palme d'Or) the first woman to win the best director Oscar, a token that ultimately went to Kathryn Bigelow in 2010. But the Academy had to do the right thing by hailing "Schindler's List," nevertheless a powerful piece of work. Call me crazy, but "The Piano," like the virtuosic notes of Michael Nyman's epic score, is more wild and loose and moving, a rapturously cinematic dream about female passion. (Alert: this is not a film to watch on a crowded plane.) Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin both picked up actress statuettes for their performances as a mute pianist and her doting daughter experiencing joy and despair along the muddy coast of New Zealand.

1997
What won? "The English Patient"
What should have won? "Fargo" (Netflix)
No need to bash "The English Patient" because Elaine Benes already beat that turkey to death so succinctly in "Seinfeld," effectively sealing the coffin ("Stop telling your stupid story about the desert and just die already!"). A long, dull, morose movie adapted from Michael Ondaatje's terrific novel about the relationship between a WWII nurse and a burn victim in a shabby Italian monastery, the late producer Saul Zaentz and director Anthony Minghella's film swept up nine Oscars in 1997. Though the Academy redeemed themselves by awarding the Coens' criminally good tragicomedy "Fargo" the best original screenplay of the year -- and Frances McDormand the year's best actress -- voters inevitably took the bait for a film that aimed for the heart while lobotomizing the head. No one watches "The English Patient" anymore, but "Fargo" is immortal. (It placed #2 on our TOH! ranking of the Coens' filmography.)

2001
What won? "Gladiator"
What should have won? "Traffic" (Netflix)
As the 73rd Academy Awards sauntered on, it seemed Steven Soderbergh's impeccably shaped drug war drama "Traffic" might be headed for Best Picture, as the film had picked up four major Oscars (director, adapted screenplay, supporting actor for Benicio Del Toro and editing). But Ridley Scott's loud and violent and finely made "Gladiator" stole its glory and gobbled up the gold. Soderbergh's most humane, heartfelt film to date, "Traffic" has ace performances from bottom to top -- not to mention dazzling cinematic style. While "Gladiator" may have a home on USA Network and TNT at 10am on a weekday, "Traffic" has a place in film history, and it hasn't aged one iota.

2004
What won? "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
What should have won? "Lost in Translation" (Netflix)
When "Return of the King" cleaned up the Oscars in 2004, winning all 11 awards for which it was nominated, the sweep felt more like a tribute to Peter Jackson's entire Tolkien trilogy than a singling-out of the final film. In retrospect, it's truly a wonder that Sofia Coppola's soft-spoken, meandering romance "Lost in Translation" snuck its way into the final five: the film is so subtle, you almost miss its devastating turns amid such quiet and contemplative rhythms. Bill Murray, too, got the snub that year in favor of Sean Penn's hammy bellow from hell in "Mystic River." It's hard to forget Murray's crushing look of defeating and resignation when Nicole Kidman read Penn's name that evening.

"Brokeback Mountain"

2006
What won? "Crash"
What should have won? "Brokeback Mountain" (Netflix)
What the hell happened here? History can't let this one go. Even Jack Nicholson was dumbstruck when he unsealed the envelope and opened a Pandora's Box of jeers upon the world. The film that all but introduced middle America to gay sex unlike any film before, Best Director winner Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" was locked-and-loaded for the win all season until Paul Haggis' thudding "Crash," like a deus ex machina, stole the prize, left prognosticators baffled and sent us all screaming in the streets and spitting mad. The Academy, and for that matter Hollywood, had an opportunity to come out of the celluloid closet and embrace a story of queer love among the prairies. But just like that, back to the closet they went, and we haven't seen a gay studio movie of this caliber since. If nothing else, "Brokeback Mountain"'s resonant loss reminded audiences not to put stock in a Best Picture win to guarantee an enduring classic. Meanwhile "Crash" foundered almost immediately. It's the little victories. 

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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