The Searchers (1956)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: The Searchers was an epic example of a movie in a beloved Hollywood genre (the Western), created by a bigger-than-life Hollywood director (John Ford), and starring an undisputed cinematic titan (John Wayne). It was also a huge box office success. So how was it completely overlooked at the Oscars that year? Well, for one thing, it was a big year for epics, and The King and I, The Ten Commandments, and the horrible eventual winner Around the World in Eighty Days all outgrossed The Searchers. More importantly, The Searchers was actually an independent production — the first film from Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney’s short-lived production company — in a time when studio product still reigned supreme.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: With a bleak plot and a dark turn by Wayne, The Searchers is simultaneously the pinnacle of the Hollywood Western form and a deconstruction of the genre — it paved the way for the great anti-Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. Even better: it’s 100 percent Yul Brynner-free!
Groundhog Day (1993)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: The Academy famously ignores comedies in most major categories. Still, you would have thought Groundhog Day‘s intricate screenplay would have earned some love. But in those pre-Charlie Kaufman days, Groundhog Day‘s unique mixture of farce, drama, fantasy, and existentialism probably just seemed unclassifiably weird. (The decidedly more classifiable Sleepless in Seattle and In the Line of Fire were both nominated that year.)
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: The definition of a sleeper hit, Groundhog Day has since become an all-demographics favorite, at once goofily charming and philosophically significant. In hindsight, the film seems like an early indicator of Bill Murray’s mid-career rebirth as an arthouse clown.
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman had already won Foreign Film Oscars (for The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly) and racked up two screenplay nominations when he unleashed this inquisition into humanity and/or the artistic process. Even at a time when wonky foreign meta-movies were earning Oscars, Persona was probably just too bizarre for the voting membership.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: A peak in a career full of peaks, Persona predicted a whole generation of bizarre cinema. (In a sense, David Lynch has been brilliantly remaking Persona throughout his career.) But it’s also just a great actress showcase, with dueling Bergman muses Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman engaged in a movie-long staring contest.
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Putting aside its infamous aversion to comedy, the Academy has three major blind spots: films about youth culture; films starring morally irredeemable protagonists; and films not made in America. Hat trick for Breathless!
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: The film that kickstarted the French New Wave would prove influential for decades. In particular, its cut-happy editing style would prove to be a defining aesthetic in pretty much every visual medium in the back half of the twentieth century.
King Kong (1933)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: The Oscars were only six years old and didn’t have awards for either special effects or musical score — categories that Kong would have owned.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: An early example of the Academy’s prejudice against B-movie adventure fare, King Kong came out in a year when forgotten middle-brow mediocrities like Smilin’ Through and Cavalcade were racking up nominations. In hindsight, Kong practically invented the entire notion of a visual-effects movie. And remarkably, the titular ape remains one of the most believable — and emotionally complicated — non-human characters in film history.
Touch of Evil (1958)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Former boy-wonder auteur Orson Welles was nobody’s favorite person by the time he made this gritty border-noir thriller. Recut by the studio, ignored by critics, and overlooked by audiences, it’s understandable that Touch of Evil didn’t earn any Academy love. Still, the lack of a cinematography nomination hurts, since Evil opens with the most famous long shot in history: A three-minute unbroken take that introduces the characters, the setting, and throws in a ticking time bomb to boot.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: Welles’ last American film is also, next to Citizen Kane, his most complete vision. It’s also his most flat-out fun movie, a B-film made with an operatic conviction that anticipates everything from Bonnie & Clyde to Pulp Fiction to Drive.
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Remember when we said that the Academy didn’t nominate Groundhog Day because it was a comedy about existentialism? Right, well replace ”existentialism” with ”golf, sex, drugs, and Rodney Dangerfield,” and you’ve got Caddyshack.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: Caddyshack somehow manages to balance several different brands of comedy from very different performers — Dangerfield’s hyperbole, Chevy Chase’s casual narcissism, Bill Murray’s deadpan absurdity, and Ted Knight’s perpetual outrage — and, in the process, it created a dirty comedy that everyone can enjoy. In a happier world, the Best Supporting Actor nominations would have been Joe Pesci for Raging Bull and those four guys for Caddyshack.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Why it Wasn’t Nominated: The Coen Brothers’ follow-up to their Oscar-winning Fargo was a purposefully ambling sorta-mystery about a pothead and a militant conservative bumbling around Los Angeles. Crash this wasn’t.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: The cult of Lebowski proves that, if nothing else, the film is merely one of the most quotable films ever made. But the movie’s smart remix of noir, and its sprawling ensemble cast, makes it a relentless filmic treat. But sure, whatever, Shakespeare in Love was cute, too.
The Shining (1980)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: You think comedies have it hard? Only three horror movies have ever been nominated for Best Picture, and that’s if you count Rebecca and The Silence of the Lambs, which we don’t. So actually, only one horror movie: The Exorcist.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: The movie has become an iconic freakout, between the elevator blood and the freaky little girls and why is this man in a bear suit? It’s also become a favorite among film theorists, who are still debating whether the movie is about the breakdown of the modern family or the history of Native Americans in post-colonization America.
The Thing (1982)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Another victim of the Academy’s general disinterest in the horror genre, The Thing was never in the running for a major award. But it’s remarkable to think that the movie was snubbed for a Visual Effects award. The Academy chose to honor E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, proving that sentimentality will trump cynicism even in the technical Oscars.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: Rob Bottin and a young Stan Winston made the film’s body-morphing invader into a monstrously fluid creature that still impresses in the digital age.
Bend It Like Beckham (2002)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: The Academy almost never honors sports movies — with the striking exception of boxing, a subject which has won the top prize twice (Rocky, Million Dollar Baby). But Beckham‘s problem was even more elementary: The film opened in the U.K. a full year before it became an unexpected hit in the U.S. One wonders, had it opened sooner, if the Best Original Screenplay nomination that went to My Big Fat Greek Wedding — another rom-com-flavored family comedy about a highly specific subculture — would have belonged to Beckham.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: The rare female-driven sports movie, Beckham starred a host of future stars — current Alcatraz and Good Wife headliners Parminder Nagra and Archie Panjabi, Tudors bad boy Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and former Portman stand-in Keira Knighley. Beckham‘s stateside success could be seen as an early indicator of the emerging popularity of soccer in America. (Is it popular yet?)
Modern Times (1936)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: A critical and box office success, Modern Times may have been overlooked simply because it was a film out of its own time — it was Chaplin’s final silent film, and came out nearly a decade into the sound era.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: The film’s portrayal of a factory worker gobbled up by an assembly line — and generally beset by the modern age — remains oddly timely over seven decades later. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture that year — you’re telling me that Modern Times deserved less attention than the freaking Great Ziegfeld?
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: A nasty little noir about uniformly nasty people doing unequivocally nasty things, Success actually came out in a good year for cynical films — see eventual Best Picture winner Bridge on the River Kwai — but the fact that beloved stars Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis were both playing horrible people combined with the film’s low box office to dim its chances.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: The product of an intriguing screenplay written (with various stages of collaboration) by iconic Hollywood screenwriter Ernest Lehman, London filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick, and playwright Clifford Odets, Sweet Smell of Success has some of the most razor-sharp dialogue in movie history.
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: The joyless, crusty old deans who apparently run the Academy would’ve never considered this blazing disaster-film spoof — despite the film’s surprising Writer’s Guild award win. (In a quirk of history, 1970’s Airport, a film which is now best remembered as being horrible enough to inspire Airplane!, earned a Best Picture nomination in 1970.)
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: The sheer amount of jokes-per-minute in Airplane! is awe-inspiring, but the film is also the rare spoof to remain funny long after its spoof subjects have faded away into history.
Grizzly Man (2005)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: If Werner Herzog cared about Oscars half as much as he cared about the chaotic madness of nature, he’d probably have felt a little bit miffed that Grizzly Man — a critical sensation that did decent-for-documentary business — was overlooked by the Academy. In yet another example of the documentary committee’s Keystone Cops-worthy ineptitude, Grizzly Man was disqualified due to a curious rule that forbids films made entirely with archival footage — despite the fact that the movie features plenty of new footage.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: An endlessly fascinating film which doubles as a psycho-portrait of a single eccentric human being and a reflexive examination of the documentary art form, Grizzly Man has become a mini-classic that turned Herzog into an indie-cinema rock star. The award went to the cutesy March of the Penguins. A few years later, Encounters at the End of the World — a film made purely out of spite to Penguins — earned the director his first nomination. You could say he got the last laugh. Although it remains unclear if Werner Herzog has ever laughed.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: A critical and box office flop made by an Italian director who seemed hell-bent on destroying a sainted Hollywood genre, Once Upon a Time in the West also cast beloved American everyman Henry Fonda as a despicable black-hatted villain.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: Like The Searchers before it, West honors its genre’s roots while exploring the western’s moral depths. It’s also a technical wonder, between Ennio Morricone’s fantastic score and the gorgeous exterior shots of a near-cartoonish fantasy-land America landscape.
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: The 2007 Best Picture slate was one of the darkest in Oscar history, between There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, and winner No Country for Old Men. But where those films all brought some combination of star power, good-sized box office, or an Oscar-decorated cast and crew, Zodiac was a box office failure without any obvious star, made by David Fincher before his Benjamin Button-assisted reboot as an Academy favorite.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: A tense investigation into the birth of modern age of paranoia, Zodiac is a marked the beginning of Fincher’s move away from Fight Club-esque cinematic pyrotechnics. It’s also scary as hell.
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: It’s not that the Academy doesn’t like action movies; it’s just that it prefers action movies that come with a thin veneer of topicality (like The Hurt Locker) or historical significance (like Braveheart, the 1995 Best Picture winner).
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: Featuring one of the great bank heists in movie history and the first (and, unfortunately, not last) pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, Heat is a grand Hollywood entertainment, a fine example of what action movies were before the handheld cameras arrived.
American Psycho (2000)
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Well, it’s a movie about a handsome dude who has sex with random women and then tears them apart with a chain saw.
Why It Should’ve Been Nominated: A scabrously funny adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel, Psycho is a great showcase for the soon-to-be-Batman Christian Bale. It’s also a movie whose Wall Street setting feels oddly more timely in the wake of the financial crisis.