19 Classic Movies That Never Won Best Picture
Winning isn't everything. Now that it's Oscar season, check out the masterpieces that didn't win Best Picture, even though it seems like they should have. Did your favourite movies make the list?
1933: King Kong
King Kong is not just about a giant ape on the loose in the big city—it’s a bonafide tragedy about love, longing and never fitting in. (We can all relate to pathos like that!) Utilizing stop motion animation and scale miniatures, this monster movie classic also showcased the era’s most groundbreaking effects. King Kong has since been recognized as one of the greatest films of all time… but it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar!
That year’s Best Picture winner: Cavalcade
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1939: Wizard of Oz
“Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” This charming and endlessly watchable classic has had audiences following the Yellow Brick Road since it premiered. “Over the Rainbow” took home the Academy Award for Best Song, while Judy Garland won an Academy Award for “Best Performance by a Juvenile” that year, which included her work in Babes in Arms.
That year’s Best Picture winner: Gone with the Wind
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1941: Citizen Kane
At the young age of 26, Orson Welles directed, co-wrote and starred in what many consider the greatest American movie ever, Citizen Kane. This drama about a newspaper tycoon wasn’t the first film to utilize non-chronological storytelling, nor deep-focus cinematography—it was, however, the first film to combine the two modes. Despite being a technical marvel, Welles only got the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
That year’s best Picture winner: How Green Was My Valley
1946: It’s a Wonderful Life
Every Christmas, this Frank Capra classic becomes a favourite all over again. It was nominated for major Oscars: Best Picture, an Actor nod for Jimmy Stewart, and Director and Editing. But it didn’t win any awards except a technical one. Still, audiences adore this movie about appreciating all the good things in life. (It has one of the happiest movie endings of all time, too!)
That year’s Best Picture winner: The Best Years of Our Lives
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1952: Singin’ in the Rain
Debbie Reynolds wows as a chorus girl with a movie star’s singing voice, Gene Kelly’s umbrella soft-shoe in a studio downpour is legendary, and Donald O’Conner’s “Make ’em Laugh” number stands the test of time. This ode to silent cinema is still considered one of the best musicals of all time, but Singin’ in the Rain only got two nominations, for Musical Score and Supporting Actress—it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. The acting nominee wasn’t Debbie Reynolds, but Jean Hagen.
That year’s Best Picture winner: The Greatest Show on Earth
1954: Rear Window
While regarded as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest masterpieces, Rear Window wasn’t nominated for Best Picture! James Stewart plays a photographer who, while confined to a wheelchair because of a broken leg, begins spying on his neighbours to pass the time. Things get extra tense once one of them does away with his wife. Grace Kelly shines as Stewart’s socialite girlfriend, who helps him investigate the supposed murderer across the courtyard.
That year’s Best Picture winner: On the Waterfront
1955: Rebel Without a Cause
James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo were riveting in their searing portrayals of teenage angst. Rebel Without a Cause was one of the first to capture the emotional trials of being young and misunderstood in postwar America. Wood and Mineo got Supporting Acting nods, but Dean’s famous lead performance, curiously, was snubbed.
That year’s Best Picture winner: Marty
Psycho was revolutionary cinema at the time it premiered. (Needless to say, the film’s harsh depiction of violence, cross-dressing and famous plot twists broken from convention.) The film’s artistry is just as genius as its plotting. Stark black-and-white cinematography and heart-pounding editing and sound make Psycho a cinematic treat, but it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture.
That year’s Best Picture winner: The Apartment
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Steven Spielberg’s rollicking adventure took America by storm when it first premiered, but it didn’t take home Best Picture (it was nominated for nine Oscars overall). No worries: Indiana Jones became a household name, and Steven Spielberg’s masterful action sequences have stood the test of time.
That year’s Best Picture winner: Chariots of Fire
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1982: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
The wide-eyed alien stole America’s heart when the movie premiered in 1982, becoming an instant blockbuster and luring audiences with its fantastical action and sentimental, tear-jerking family drama. E.T. is filled with moments of both comedy and heart, so that the alien who moves into a suburban household run by a single mom, feels relatable to anyone who has ever yearned for belonging.
That year’s Best Picture winner: Gandhi
1987: Fatal Attraction
Fatal Attraction was a cultural juggernaut that was as much about fears of women working as it was about marital infidelity. Glenn Close played the bunny-boiling femme fatale who refuses to let go of the married man who joined her in a weekend fling. Though it succumbs to a movie monster ending, it thrills with its story about obsession, power, and fear that remains influential and relevant.
That year’s Best Picture winner: The Last Emperor
1989: Field of Dreams
“If you build it, he will come.” Have you ever said that line? It’s the oft-repeated statement of faith from everyone’s favourite baseball movie. Field of Dreams seems like a silly premise. A farmer hears a message in his cornfield and builds a baseball diamond. Once finished, legendary ballplayers emerge from the cornrows and play America’s pastime. The film is full of nostalgia, but still surprisingly moving as it presents a story about the simple pleasures of baseball.
That year’s Best Picture winner: Driving Miss Daisy
Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas features virtuoso long takes, freeze frames, direct addresses, and innovative uses of zooms, pans, soundtrack, and voiceover. This crime classic follows real-life Mafia associate Henry Hill as he joins up with the mob as a teen and spends his adulthood embroiled in crime.
That year’s Best Picture winner: Dances With Wolves
1994: Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino’s avant-garde masterpiece lost the Best Picture Oscar to the much more staid and traditional Forrest Gump. However, Pulp Fiction changed American cinema through its highly influential style. The film creates suspense and humour at the same time through vignettes set in a criminal world of boxers, hitmen, drug kingpins and thieves. Pulp Fiction also features several now-iconic film moments, such as John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s dance.
1995: Sense and Sensibility
The late great Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon gives all the cinematic Mr. Darcys a run for their romantic money in this adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet also shine as the Dashwood sisters.
That year’s Best Picture winner: Braveheart
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The Coen Brothers’ darkly comic presentation of crime, morality and incompetence endures as a classic of American cinema. When a hapless Midwestern car salesman (William H. Macy) schemes to extort money from his father-in-law by enlisting two criminals to kidnap his wife for ransom, things go downhill in a hurry. Frances McDormand plays the pregnant police chief investigating the crimes. She won the Best Actress Oscar for her iconic performance, but the film may have been too offbeat for some Academy voters.
That year’s Best Picture winner: The English Patient
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1998: Saving Private Ryan
Director Steven Spielberg’s riveting World War II drama changed the way combat was depicted in film. The harrowing opening battle, when troops storm the beach at Normandy in 1944, is unforgettable in its visceral impact. Handheld cinematography combines with innovative uses of sound, desaturated film stock, and film speeds to put viewers in the middle of the devastating conflict.
That year’s Best Picture winner: Shakespeare in Love
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1999: The Sixth Sense
Forget the suspense and that world-famous twist ending—The Sixth Sense is also a sensitive drama about loss and grief. Bruce Willis stars as a weary therapist who agrees to help a traumatized child confront his demons (or in this case, his ability to see dead people). The Sixth Sense was an instant blockbuster, popular with audiences who didn’t reveal spoilers.
That year’s Best Picture winner: American Beauty
2005: Brokeback Mountain
This story of two cowboys who fall in love with one another was as controversial as it was acclaimed. Ang Lee won for Best Director, while Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were nominated in acting categories for their portrayals. Brokeback Mountain remains a seminal, progressive work presenting same-sex love, but it didn’t win the night’s big prize.
That year’s Best Picture winner: Crash
Next, check out our ranking of every Best Picture Oscar winner from worst to best!