Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932)

With a few exceptions, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the group that hands out the Oscars, in case you weren’t aware) rarely concurs with critical opinion. The Oscars tend to fete populist, feel-good fare (Chicago, Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love) or sprawling epics just this side of cheese (Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings:
The Return of the King
). Any number of films would have made better picks. What about Minority Report, Mulholland Drive, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Being John Malkovich or The Thin Red Line? Or even Gangs of New York, Waking Life, Memento, Three Kings or Dark City?

Alright, maybe Waking Life and Dark City would have been a stretch for even the most adventurous Academy voters, but in any given year there are films more deserving of the Best Picture title than what the official Oscar records would have you believe.

Of course, this is hardly a recent phenomenon. The Academy has been getting it wrong more often than not since the beginning.

Many of the greatest directors in film history have never won an Oscar and countless worthy films were never even nominated. Some moviemakers, like the incomparable Buster Keaton, had to settle for a long overdue honorary award in 1960. (The greatest director of our time, Martin Scorsese, may be headed down a similar path.)

John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966)

While everyone has his or her own favorite films that were snubbed by Oscar, it’s impossible to come up with any sort of comprehensive list. Here, then, are simply 20 great films that never won the Academy Award for Best Picture—but should have.

City Lights (1931)
Warner Home Video, $29.95
Director: Charlie Chaplin
What won instead: Cimarron
Although Chaplin won a special Oscar for The Circus a few years earlier, he didn’t get a single nomination for what may well be his greatest film, City Lights. Maybe it’s because silent films were falling out of fashion by 1931, or maybe it’s the earliest evidence of the Academy’s bias against comedies. Whatever the reason, there was no film more deserving of a win that year.

Scarface (1932)
Universal Studios, $59.98 (with Brian De Palma’s Scarface)
Director: Howard Hawks
What won instead: Grand Hotel
The gangster film is the defining genre of the early 1930s, and Scarface is one of its absolute best examples. From the virtuoso opening scene on, the film remains fresh—even shocking—while many of its contemporaries seem tame by comparison. The De Palma remake is fun, but can’t touch the original.

King Kong (1933)
Turner Home Video (VHS only), $16.99
Directors: Merian C. Cooper and
Ernest B. Schoedsack
What won instead: Cavalcade
If the Oscars are tough on comedies, they’re even tougher on genre films. This list could have easily been filled solely with science-fiction, fantasy and horror films that should have received recognition outside of the technical categories to which they’re usually relegated. Like the best genre films, King Kong transcends its form; it’s a profoundly human film that just happens to star a giant ape.

Citizen Kane (1941)
Warner Home Video, $26.99
Director: Orson Welles
What won instead: How Green Was My Valley
This practically gets on the list by default, although it certainly merits its place. It’s hard to believe that the film now widely regarded as the greatest ever made only got one Oscar—for Best Original Screenplay. Almost as hard to believe? The only other Oscar Welles ever received was an honorary one in 1971.

Double Indemnity (1944)
Image Entertainment, $14.99
Director: Billy Wilder
What won instead: Going My Way
Unlike Welles and a number of other great directors, Billy Wilder did win several Oscars—seven, to be exact. But he lost out for the movie that became the archetype for every film noir to follow. Today, Double Indemnity may seem a bit more dated than the noirs that followed it, but those films wouldn’t be the same without it.

The Third Man (1949)
The Criterion Collection, $39.95
Director: Carol Reed
What won instead: All About Eve
It may be the greatest film noir ever made, but other than a much-deserved award for black-and-white cinematography, Carol Reed’s masterpiece went away from the Oscars empty-handed. (The fact that is was a British production couldn’t have helped its chances.) Welles should have scored an acting award, too, but wasn’t even nominated.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)
MGM/UA Home Video, $14.95
Director: Charles Laughton
What won instead: Marty
This is probably one of the longer shots on this list. The film is still puzzling today, so one can only wonder what audiences—and Academy voters—made of it in 1955. But it is a haunting and visionary film, exactly the type of movie that should be rewarded by the Academy but, sadly, rarely is.

The Searchers (1956)
Warner Home Video, $14.97
Director: John Ford
What won instead: Around the World in Eighty Days
John Ford won plenty of Oscars, but he didn’t pick up a single nomination for his best film, arguably the greatest western ever made. Starring John Wayne in an atypical anti-hero role, the film is a complete reexamination of the genre to that point, by the only two men who could have done it justice.

Vertigo (1958)
Universal Studios, $19.98
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
What won instead: Gigi
Rebecca was the only Hitchcock film to win an Oscar for Best Picture, and he never won for Best Director. That fact alone should be enough to discount the awards entirely. Vertigo is the director’s most complex and accomplished film, and appreciation of it only grows with each viewing. (It also features Jimmy Stewart’s best performance.)

Seconds (1966)
Paramount Home Video, $14.99
Director: John Frankenheimer
What won instead: A Man for All Seasons
Frankenheimer’s greatest film is probably The Manchurian Candidate, but it had the misfortune of being released in the same year as a little film called Lawrence of Arabia (not to mention the dubious distinction of being released just months before the assassination of JFK). That’s not to diminish the brilliance of Seconds, a paranoid thriller unlike any other. The film did garner a nomination for James Wong Howe’s incredible black-and-white cinematography but was otherwise overlooked.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Warner Home Video, $19.97
Director: Stanley Kubrick
What won instead: Oliver!
You’d think that even with the Academy’s aversion to science-fiction, a high-minded film like 2001 would have received some recognition. All it got, however, was an expected (and well-deserved) award for Best Special Effects. But 2001 is much more than a spectacle. It is pure cinema—a film open to interpretation and infinite in its subtleties.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Paramount Home Video, $14.99
Director: Sergio Leone
What won instead: Midnight Cowboy
If The Searchers reinvented the western, Leone turned it on its head. Once Upon a Time in the West is without question the coolest western ever made, its nearest competition being Leone’s own Dollars trilogy a few years earlier. The movie deserves an award just for the moment when Henry Fonda’s face first comes into frame, and we suddenly see those cold blue eyes in a whole new light.

The Conversation (1974)
Paramount Home Video, $14.99
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
What won instead: The Godfather: Part II
1974 was a very good year for movies (and for Coppola), with The Conversation up against both The Godfather: Part II and Chinatown for Best Picture. Of the three, I’d have to give The Conversation a slight edge. It is Coppola’s most personal film and, quite possibly, his best.

Taxi Driver (1976)
Columbia/TriStar, $19.94
Director: Martin Scorsese
What won instead: Rocky
There are probably half a dozen Martin Scorsese films that could have been on this list, but in many ways Taxi Driver remains his greatest achievement. The template may be borrowed from The Searchers, but Taxi Driver is the quintessential ’70s film.

This is Spinal Tap (1984)
MGM/UA Home Video, $14.95
Director: Rob Reiner
What won instead: Amadeus
A fictionalized account of a real composer may have won that year, but I’ll take this mockumentary about a fake British metal band any day. Maybe if the nominations went to 11, it would have had a chance.

Ran (1985)
Wellspring, $34.98
Director: Akira Kurosawa
What won instead: Out of Africa
Kurosawa should have won an Oscar long before this, but Ran was his last best chance to nab the award. As with his great Throne of Blood, Kurosawa showed that Shakespeare is a perfect match for feudal Japan.

Wings of Desire (1987)
MGM/UA Home Video, $14.95
Director: Wim Wenders
What won instead: The Last Emperor
This is Wenders’ greatest film and one of the most memorable movies of the 1980s. Legendary cinematographer Henri Alekan helped create one of the most stunning portraits of a city ever lensed. It is not so much a love story as a hymn to a Berlin divided by the Wall.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
Miramax Entertainment, $19.99
Director: Quentin Tarantino
What won instead: Forrest Gump
Tarantino’s movie is far and away the most influential of the ’90s, a fact that was becoming evident even by the time of the 1995 Oscar ceremony. It did win for Best Original Screenplay, but lost in all six of the other categories in which it was nominated. (That it lost to Forrest Gump in four of those just makes it all the more disheartening.)

Being John Malkovich (1999)
USA Film, $19.98
Director: Spike Jonze
What won instead: American Beauty
One of the most inventive films in recent years, Being John Malkovich is a movie Terry Gilliam would be proud to make. Although much of the credit has to go to Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant script (which didn’t win an Oscar either), Jonze turned in one of the most assured directing debuts of the 1990s.

Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Studios, $14.98
Director: David Lynch
What won instead: A Beautiful Mind
We’ve sung the praises of this film in the magazine before (see MM #57, Vol. 12), but it bears repeating. Mulholland Drive is a thoroughly original and endlessly rewarding film, done as only Lynch can do it. It will surely go down as one of the decade’s most remarkable cinematic achievements. MM