Second Best: 25 Greatest Best-Picture Oscar Losers - Rolling Stone
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Second Best: 25 Greatest Best-Picture Oscar Losers

From ‘Pulp Fiction’ to ‘The Philadelphia Story,’ these films didn’t need Oscars to become classics

For more than 85 years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have given out prizes for Best Picture — which means there’s also been more than eight decades’ worth of Best Picture losers. And considering that the Academy has gotten it wrong plenty of times, many of those also-rans have become part of the cinematic canon, supplanting in our collective appreciation the movie that bested them the year they were nominated.

With that in mind, here’s a list of the 25 best Best Picture losers. Sure, it’s an honor just to be nominated — but it’s even better to have stood the test of time. And like the Oscars themselves, this list is sure to inspire plenty of outrage, name-calling and second-guessing. Let the arguments commence.

Five Easy Pieces

‘Five Easy Pieces’ (1970)

(Actual Winner: Patton)
If the films of Hollywood's 1970s renaissance could be summed up in a single motif, it might be characters who try their damnedest to run away from themselves — and fail. Exhibit A is Bob Rafelson's class-conscious character study, in which a former piano prodigy (Jack Nicholson) is wasting his life away in California's oil fields, only to be reunited with his family (and his feelings of being a failure) after his father's stroke. A marvel of letting an antihero's restless wanderings dictate the terms of the story, Pieces doesn't explain its lead's ennui so much as honors it. We all know someone like this — and we hope to God he's not us.

wizard of oz

THE WIZARD OF OZ, Judy Garland, 1939



‘The Wizard of Oz’ (1939)

(Actual Winner: Gone With the Wind)
For many lifetime moviegoers, one of their earliest scares was being freaked out by the Wicked Witch of the West. Despite its deserved reputation as a beloved children's classic, The Wizard of Oz is not without its scarring moments: the Scarecrow being torn apart by flying monkeys; the Wicked Witch's "I'm melting!" death scene; the tearful farewell between Dorothy and her Oz friends. This, of course, is why this fantasy film endures, resulting in a near-perfect, emotionally nuanced, almost mythic exploration of the lengths we'll go to find out if the grass really is greener on the other side.

The Magnificent Ambersons

‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ (1942)

(Actual Winner: Mrs. Miniver)
Nobody likes the studio-enforced happy ending, which leaves Orson Welles's follow-up to Citizen Kane permanently unrealized and unfinished. (Fingers crossed the original cut will still be unearthed one day.) And yet, this adaptation of Booth Tarkington's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which chronicles a well-to-do Indiana family whose fortune is about to change at the turn of the 20th century, remains a haunting gem. Welles merely narrated this grand, mature drama, allowing his fellow Mercury Theatre actors to shine, especially Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead. The former boy-wonder filmmaker went to his grave wondering what might have been with Ambersons — an ache fits the melancholy mood of a movie about the fickleness of fate.


‘GoodFellas’ (1990)

(Actual Winner: Dances With Wolves)
At the time, this adaptation of Nicolas Pileggi's inside-this-thing-of-ours book on mobster Henry Hill's life felt like a new peak for director Martin Scorsese and one of the darkest examinations of  gangster culture to date. But who could have known how compulsively watchable this film would be every single time it pops up on cable? And even its biggest fans couldn't have guessed that its echoes would still be felt everywhere — from the opening unbroken shot of Boogie Nights to the very DNA of The Sopranos? We all know how the film's ironic, bittersweet ending plays out, and yet we can't look away. And Harry Nilsson's "Jump in the Fire" has never sounded the same since.

Bonnie and Clyde

‘Bonnie and Clyde’ (1967)

(Actual Winner: In the Heat of the Night)
Amidst the Summer of Love and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, this violent, funny, ultimately sobering film arrived in theaters in August of 1967, preaching rebellion and personal freedom but also acknowledging their limitations. Inspired by the French New Wave’s rule-breaking auteurs, Bonnie and Clyde starred Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the original (and most photogenic) rebels without a clue, shooting their way through Texas in the 1930s. Remembered as a bellwether for New Hollywood, it’s an outlaws-in-love story that wears its contradictions on its well-tailored sleeve — a tale of youthful abandon in which our gorgeous heroes are gunned down for their troubles.

The Last Picture Show

‘The Last Picture Show’ (1971)

(Actual Winner: The French Connection)
To call Peter Bogdanovich’s teen drama “nostalgic” would be like describing “Born in the U.S.A.” as patriotic: sort of accurate but missing the point entirely. It’s a snapshot of a small Texas town in the 1950s that’s ostensibly filled with bighearted, god-fearing real Americans. But this exceedingly sad film spits in the eye of such homespun niceties: This is an Eisenhower-era world riddled with directionless teens, bored housewives and disenfranchised citizens who can’t escape the futility around them. Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman won Oscars for, respectively, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, but when you watch the film now, you tend to marvel at the main attraction: how young and unmannered Jeff Bridges used to be.

Grand Illusion

‘Grand Illusion’ (1937)

(Actual Winner: You Can't Take It With You)
Foreign-language films are rarely nominated for Best Picture; director Jean Renoir's graceful humanist war drama, however, was a welcome early exception. Set in a World War I German prison camp, where French soldiers learn how identity can be defined by nationality but also by class, Grand Illusion delivers its pacifist message without stumbling into sentimentality or pretentiousness. Renoir once said that the movie tackled the riddle of "human relationships": "If we don't solve it," he declared, "we will just have to say goodbye to our beautiful world." Which explains why this movie remains so dispiritingly timely.   


‘Chinatown’ (1974)

(Actual Winner: The Godfather Part II)
Easily the most scintillating movie ever made about water rights, Chinatown is a case study in being just smart enough to be consistently surprised by how mistaken you can be. Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes embodies private-dick cool, which makes him the perfect unsuspecting patsy to stumble through director Roman Polanski's sun-draped Los Angeles noir, naively confident that he knows all the angles. First, he's wrong about the woman he thinks is Evelyn Mulwray. Then he's wrong about what happened to the real Mrs. Mulwray (a brilliantly brittle Faye Dunaway). And lastly, and most tragically, he's wrong about believing that he's finally outrun the grievous mistakes of his past. Forget it, Jake.

There Will Be Blood

‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007)

(Actual Winner: No Country for Old Men)
Before Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth feature, the writer-director could have been pegged as some sort of poet of Southern California malaise. But after this devastating takedown of the self-made American tycoon, the old preconceptions had to be trashed. Pitting capitalism (in the form of Daniel Day-Lewis's ruthless Daniel Plainview) against religion (Paul Dano's slithering Eli Sunday), this widescreen minimalist epic plays like the origin story of the 20th century, as humanity's thirst for oil, money and power overwhelms everything in its path.

Sunset Boulevard

‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950)

(Actual Winner: All About Eve)
Like many classics, this poison valentine to Tinsetown runs the risk of being reduced to its most quotable lines. But what "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" can't articulate is the depth of director and co-writer Billy Wilder's bemused contempt for Hollywood's ability to both build up and destroy lives. Starting as a murder mystery narrated by a corpse, Sunset Blvd. is one of the funniest, straight-up strangest noirs of the 1950s. The perverse, codependent relationship between William Holden's hack writer and Gloria Swanson's deluded has-been actress remains a potent, upsetting portrait of the strange bedfellows created by an industry that sells (and crushes) dreams.

Citizen Kane

‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)

(Actual Winner: How Green Was My Valley)
It's funny how time and expectations alter our assessment of a film. For years, Oscar's overlooking of director-producer-star Orson Welles's dazzlingly self-assured debut has been among the most damning pieces of evidence used against the Academy's myopia, helping to propel it to the top of "Greatest Movies Ever" lists. (Consequently, the movie that beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture, John Ford's How Green Was My Valley, has been needlessly bashed.) But now, even the filmmaker's achievement — still ground zero for cinema's fascination with American ambition, ego and failure — has seen its legacy be reconsidered. After being No. 1 on Sight & Sound's hugely influential once-a-decade critics poll of the greatest films since 1962, Kane fell to No. 2 in 2012, bested by Vertigo. Is it possible that the most critically celebrated film of our lifetime is suddenly … underrated?

Barry Lyndon

‘Barry Lyndon’ (1975)

(Actual Winner: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
Stanley Kubrick's career was peppered with films that received hostile reviews upon their initial release, only to be reevaluated far more favorably in later years. And no film better exemplifies this trend than his adaptation of William Thackeray's 1844 novel , a "period drama" that shreds the conventions of its genre by being more faithful to its era and, simultaneously, unfailingly contemporary in its themes. Ryan O'Neal's Redmond Barry is a feckless, no-account commoner who schemes and manipulates his way into marriage, fortune and nobility. Kubrick's follow-up to A Clockwork Orange couldn't have seemed more different in terms of tone or temperament, but Barry Lyndon is the director's sharpest critique of humanity's frailties and the maddening randomness of existence. For those who accused Kubrick of soullessness, this is also his most heartbreaking film, the beauty of its painterly compositions eventually translating into a restrained compassion for those luckless souls up there on the screen.

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