The Academy Award’s top honor, the Best Picture category, primarily draws in tough competition as the arguable best of the best contend for the trophy. Often, the category becomes stacked with great films, any of which could hold the Oscar. Other times, a forerunner seems like a clearcut winner.
With the category expanding from five to ten nominees in 2009, the competition has only gotten heavier, allowing more films a chance at the award.
As many winners have said during acceptance speeches, just receiving a nomination for the award is an honor. Still, sometimes, the films that don’t win seem just as deserving as the actual winner, if not more so. Sometimes, a great movie remains left without an award. Meet the Best Picture-nominated movies that should have won, but didn’t.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Based on Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof stars Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman as a married couple whose problems escalate during a family gathering. Director Richard Brooks, who also co-wrote the screenplay with James Poe, made story changes for the film, notably a new ending and removing more blatant homosexual themes. Still, the film riveted audiences and became a hit, receiving six Oscar nominations. It didn’t win any.
The Best Picture award that year instead went to the Vincente Minnelli-directed musical Gigi, starring Leslie Caron. Though Gigi’s bigger budget shows off in extravagant production values, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s box office surpassed it. Likewise, the chemistry on set and the substance of its story, with or without having to read between the dialogue lines, makes Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the more lasting film.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction has often made excellent source material for film, as Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird continues to show. Director Richard Mulligan’s film version stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a respected lawyer representing a Black man falsely accused of a crime. The film scored eight nominations that year and won three, including Best Actor for Peck.
Though nominated for Best Picture, the integral film lost to Lawrence of Arabia. In the biographical movie, Peter O’Toole plays T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who participated in the Arab Revolt of 1916. Considered a beloved classic by many, the film proved too much for Mulligan’s endeavor, which may have hit too close to home.
While both films explore important themes, To Kill a Mockingbird remains essential viewing, with even the British Film Institute listing it as a film that should be seen by age 15.
A scathing takedown of the television media industry and its endless pursuit of top ratings, Network received numerous Academy Award nominations. It won four, including a posthumous Best Actor win for Peter Finch’s incredible performance and Best Supporting Actress for Beatrice Straight, who only has five minutes of screen time in the film. Like director Sidney Lumet’s previous films nominated for Best Picture, Network did not win that category.
While director Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver has arguably become the fan favorite from the category over the years, both it and Network lost to an even rougher underdog story.
Directed by John G. Avildsen, the film Rocky showcased newcomer Sylvester Stallone as a creator, writer, and talent who would become a major star. Not a surprising winner, Rocky swayed the industry’s heart over Network’s media introspection.
Reds combines the thrill of watching great actors act with the energy of a revolution. Starring Warren Beatty, who also directs, as American journalist John Reed, the biographical film also boasts excellent performances from Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson as well. Beatty won Best Director for the film, the first Oscar trophy he ever took home in any category despite being nominated numerous times since the 60s.
The Best Picture-nominated film went up against Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond, and the great Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, but all lost to Chariots of Fire. Director Hugh Hudson’s historical sports film also holds an inspiring true-life story, but its most lasting cultural impression may be the Vangelis original score, for which it also won.
The Color Purple (1985)
Musician Quincy Jones championed The Color Purple’s film adaptation, becoming its producer and composing its score. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, the film stars Whoopi Goldberg in a career-defining performance as Celie, who endures many hardships as a Black woman. The film also marked a change of pace in the career of director Steven Spielberg, not yet known for character-driven dramas.
The combined efforts of Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and director Sydney Pollack won out over Speilberg and his all-Black cast, also featuring Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey early in their careers. The Best Picture Oscar of the year went to the film Out of Africa.
Great filmmaking notwithstanding, the irony of such a story, a biographical one about a Danish author relocating to Africa for a better life, winning over a story following figures of the African diaspora as they struggle with their displacement in the American South, must be noted.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
Oliver Stone took the Academy by storm when he won Best Director for his film Platoon, which also won Best Picture in 1986. His follow-up film, Born on the Fourth of July, stands even stronger with Tom Cruise in a powerhouse performance, against type, as Ron Kovic, a discharged Vietnam vet who returns to the U.S. where he no longer feels at home. Based on a true story, the biting wartime commentary must have been too much to take home the Best Picture win this time.
The Best Picture category thrived with great competition this year. My Left Foot, Dead Poets Society, or Field of Dreams could have won, in addition to Born on the Fourth of July. However, Director Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy took the trophy home despite its antiquated and cordial treatment of racial issues between a Jewish woman and her Black chauffeur, who eventually become friends.
A black comedy from The Coen Brothers, Fargo stars Frances McDormand as a police chief in Minnesota investigating a crime. Though a pitch-perfect comedy of errors that balances a somber tone and quirkiness, the film did not win over its most significant competition. It did win two of its nominated categories: for its screenplay and Best Actress for McDormand.
No one can deny the great filmmaking involved in The English Patient, director Anthony Minghella’s adaptation of the Michael Ondaatje novel. The war epic romance stars Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche in the type of movie tailor-made for award season, so it understandably took home Best Picture among its nine wins at The Oscars.
However, Fargo remains the most memorable and entertaining film of the nominees. It has continued as a television series and inspired other films, like 2014’s Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter.
Indian director Shekhar Kapur’s gilded retelling of Queen Elizabeth I may not be the most historically accurate telling of the monarch’s story. Still, the filmmaking resounds on all fronts to create a compelling and visually sumptuous endeavor, earning Elizabeth seven Oscar nominations. The Best Picture-nominated film catapulted Cate Blanchett into the spotlight, though she did not win Best Actress. The film also did not win Best Picture.
Though Shakespeare in Love presents a watered-down story from the same Elizabethan era, it reigned over the queen and the rest of the nominees, made up of well-crafted films like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, to win Best Picture. The John Madden-directed film, starring Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow, became one of few romcoms to best a drama in the category.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Pretty Woman may have made Julia Roberts a name, but Erin Brockovich gave her the only Academy Award win of her career. The Steven Soderbergh-directed film follows Brockovish’s investigation into a power company’s dealings with a small community. Based on a true story, the film gets to the heart of how many everyday people feel in the country, needing someone to stand up and fight for them.
In addition to Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh received nominations for a second film in the same year, Traffic. It also did not win Best Picture, but did win him Best Director. Ang Lee’s popular film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon also had a chance for Best Picture of the year, but the win would go to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator.
Starring Russell Crowe as Maximus Decimus Meridius, the epic plays as bloated pomp and circumstance with the least personality among the nominees, a summer blockbuster disguised as an Oscar-winning movie.
Moulin Rouge! (2001)
The Academy caused a stir when it nominated Moulin Rouge! for Best Picture without nominating its director, Baz Luhrmann. At the time, nominations for the two categories often went hand in hand. Despite the musical striking a balance of drama and comedy, a spectacle with a substance that feels both nostalgic and refreshing, it would only win for its costumes and production designs.
The year’s Best Picture winner, A Beautiful Mind, follows real-life mathematician John Nash, who begins questioning reality. The biographical film, directed by Ron Howard, who also won Best Director, stars Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, who also won Best Supporting Actress. Though the film excites while watching, it leaves a dry memory that hasn’t aged well, with some critics questioning its unrealistic presentation of schizophrenia.
The Hours (2002)
Director Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours, meticulously explores three women’s similar and connected lives in three different time periods. Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep lead a film full of incredible moments, ideas, and performances. The Hours received nine nominations in total but won only one. It did not grab the Best Picture award.
The films of the year presented a tough competition for the Best Picture Oscar, but the award went to director Rob Marshall’s musical Chicago. A win not easily contested, the film showcases one of the last great Hollywood musicals, with lavish productions and an outstanding ensemble. Kidman’s musical lost the year before, and though Kidman would win Best Actress this year for The Hours, the musical would reign supreme this time overall.
The Aviator (2004)
Hollywood loves stories of its own industry and history. The Aviator, directed by Martin Scorses and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, chronicles the life of Howard Hughes, an aviation pioneer turned filmmaker. Though nominated for eleven Academy Awards, it received five, including Best Supporting Actress for Cate Blanchett. It came as a surprise, though, when it did not take home the top honor.
The one thing Hollywood may love more than a Hollywood story is trauma. The Best Picture winner of the year, Million Dollar Baby, delivers on that front. The sports drama, directed by Clint Eastwood, stars Hillary Swank as an amateur boxer who grows into a professional through a grueling and tragic story. The film also beat out acclaimed films Ray, Sideways, and Finding Neverland.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
The sincerity and tenderness of director Ang Lee’s gay cowboy drama, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as secret lovers, put the queer experience at the forefront of the industry for a time. The film won three Oscars, including Best Director for Lee, but did not win Best Picture. If it had, it would have become the first gay film to come out on top, an honor that wouldn’t happen until Moonlight’s win over a decade later.
Instead, the Best Picture win went to Crash. Arguably one of the worst to win the category, the film, co-written and directed by Paul Haggis, represents a dark spot in the academy. Such an all-star ensemble cast certainly draws attention, but the film’s volatile and overly involved story exacerbates the very tropes and trauma it thinks it conquers. Haggis also wrote and produced the traumatic Million Dollar Baby that won the year before.
The gorgeous black-and-white drama Roma examines the class divide in 1970s Mexico City, with Yalitza Aparicio wowing as Cleo, an indigenous domestic worker. The film grabbed Oscars for Best International Feature Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón. However, its nomination for Best Picture did not result in a win, becoming the second time Cuarón would win for directing but not for the movie overall after 2013’s Gravity.
In place of Roma, the Academy awarded Best Picture to Green Book, a film based on the racial dynamic between an African-American musician and his Italian-American driver traveling through the deep American South of the 1960s.
Much like Driving Miss Daisy, Green Book does more to alleviate certain audience members of uncomfortable history than to examine it realistically. In that regard, the film marks a failure, especially compared to Roma, which beautifully does the opposite.
Drive My Car (2021)
Drive My Car won the Best International Feature Film at The Academy Awards and became the first Japanese film nominated for Best Picture. A stage director, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, receives rides from a driver, played by Toko Miura, while out of town for work. As they connect, director Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s film embraces layers of complexity within its characters, their grief, and their connections.
The film lost Best Picture to CODA, which stands for child of deaf adults. Directed by Sian Heder as a remake of the 2014 French film La Famille Bérlier, it revolves around Emilia Jones’ character, Ruby Rossi, the only member of her family who can hear.
CODA made strides for those who are deaf and hard of hearing, the first time a film on such a level would represent the community. The film doesn’t go as in-depth as Drive My Car, but still deserves celebration.