We love it when our favorite films win big at the Academy Awards. It validates our tastes and proclaims — how ever artificially — a stamp of quality on the movies we adore. But with hundreds of eligible films released every year and only 5-10 (depending on the year) nominees for the top prize, many great films don’t get their titles forever memorialized on the pillars of the Dolby Theater.
To listen to some folks talk, especially on Film Twitter, you would think if a great film doesn’t win Best Picture, it will cease to exist. Or, at the very least, will lose much of its cultural power and sustainability. And yet, year after year, great and lasting pictures miss out on the industry’s highest honor. For so many reasons. Politics, cultural zeitgeist, and mood are just some of the things that contribute to which film wins.
Today, we’re looking back at just a few of the enduring classics that were nominated for Best Picture and didn’t win. For the purposes of this list, we are only talking about films that were released more than 25 years ago, thus proving their staying power. And while there are MANY that aren’t included here, this list features films that still show up frequently on TV, or that draw big attention with their anniversaries, or have had recent resurgences with new special editions, Criterion releases, etc. And even though we’ve narrowed this down to ten, there were plenty of others we considered, including The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown, The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, Moonstruck, Fatal Attraction, and more.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
dir. Victor Fleming
Earning 5 Academy Award nominations and winning 2, The Wizard of Oz lost to Gone With the Wind in a big lineup. (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Ninotchka also lost that year.) Still drawing large numbers of viewers at reparatory screenings and now enjoying new life via an exhibit at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, this is a film that will never be forgotten.
Citizen Kane (1941)
dir. Orson Welles
It’s been called the greatest film of all time. The movie based on its making just won 2 Oscars last year and was nominated for 8 more. And Criterion just released a stunning 4K restoration. It may seem surprising that Citizen Kane didn’t win Best Picture. Especially when its legacy is so much farther reaching than the film that beat it: How Green Was My Valley. Perhaps more than most on this list and off, Citizen Kane proves losing Best Picture doesn’t erase a film from movie history.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
dir. Frank Capra
Maybe its luster is starting to dim now, but It’s a Wonderful Life has inspired so many other films and stories over the decades. Not to mention that memes that never die and the Christmas-time screenings and events. Nominated for 5 Oscars and going home empty-handed, Frank Capra’s emotionally vibrant film lost Best Picture to another emotional roller coaster: The Best Years of Our Lives. While that film hasn’t had the lasting impact it deserves, It’s a Wonderful Life still reminds us year after year of the importance of being kind and good, even when it would be so easy not to be.
dir. Sidney Lumet
If recent years have shown us the downslide of journalism in the modern era, Network was one of the most visceral examples of the way corporatization of the news would eventually cause lasting damage to the way we consume information. The brilliant performances and stellar writing gave us a film that is still relevant today and that has actually enjoyed a new life in the post-Trump era. Part of a truly great lineup of nominees, Network lost that year to Rocky, a winner that has also enjoyed a long life.
Star Wars (1977)
dir. George Lucas
The franchise to end all franchises. Or to start them, really. In so many ways, Star Wars changed the course of movies and moviemaking. There will forever be debates over whether Annie Hall really should have won that year, but the fact is it doesn’t matter. Because 11 feature films and countless spin-off series later, the original film is still as much a part of our culture as it was 45 years ago when fans lined up around the block to get a look at that galaxy far, far away.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
dir. Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg could have 10 films on this list, easily, and maybe Raiders of the Lost Ark doesn’t “feel” like a Best Picture winner, losing to Chariots of Fire, but it’s certainly the one from the 1981 nominees that still gets talked about the most. Inspiring four sequels, a TV show, theme park rides and many Halloween costumes, Indiana Jones’s first adventure is a film that is never going away.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
dir. Steven Spielberg
We almost left this one off the list in favor of other classics, but E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is celebrating its big 4-0 this year and the excitement is huge. TCM just announced both Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore will appear for a special screening at the upcoming TCM Film Festival, and there are new releases and special editions coming out this year to commemorate the film that some consider Spielberg’s best.
dir. Martin Scorsese
Every Gen X dude who went to college in the 90s had three posters on their dorm wall: Scarface, Pulp Fiction, and Goodfellas. And cinephiles still love to talk about how Martin Scorsese’s film was robbed by Dances With Wolves. If you could transport yourself back in time to 1990, you would see it was no real surprise that the sprawling Western won out in the end, but folks today love to discount it for what they think should have been Scorsese’s first or second or third Best Picture winner.
A Few Good Men (1992)
dir. Rob Reiner
Literally as I’m writing this, A Few Good Men is playing on AMC. Thirty years later, it’s still on constant circulation through the cable networks. Which, even for this Tom Cruise fan, seems like an odd thing. But the military courtroom drama, with its crisp writing from Aaron Sorkin and unforgettable performances from Cruise and Jack Nicholson, is still part of the conversation in ways Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven haven’t been in years.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
dir. Frank Darabont
The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction are two of the most enduring Best Picture losers of the 90s. The way cinephiles have turned on that year’s winner, Forrest Gump, a problematic but still generally good film, has been predictable but interesting. Another film that still shows up on television all the time, Shawshank is talked about in many circles with a sort of awed reverence, as some still can’t seem to understand how Roger Deakins, Thomas Newman, and Morgan Freeman didn’t win either.