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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
12

‘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

Everett

11

‘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
10

‘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
9

‘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.