10 Great Filmmakers Who Never Won The Academy Award For Best Director

The 92nd Academy Awards are almost upon us, and if there's one certainty going into Oscar night, it's that some worthy talent in some category will be overlooked in favor of a lesser talent. No nominee or winner is undeserving of recognition, but snubs are also an essential part of Oscar history and directors are not immune to them. In fact, some of the greatest directors of all time have gone their whole career without receiving a proper Best Director Oscar.

Film is fundamentally a collaborative medium, and we're only a little over a month removed from a decade where the movie industry shifted to a more producer-controlled landscape in which IP-friendly tentpoles seemed to occupy all the best real estate. Yet the best directors, the ones with the most singular voice or vision, do tend to bolster the case for auteur theory, whereby a director can be considered a film's primary author. With that in mind, here's a roughly chronological look at ten great film authors eluded by the golden statuette for Best Director. With each name on this list, we'll be seeking to answer three questions: who did they lose to (if they were ever nominated), what film or films should they have won for, and why, oh, why didn't they ever win?

1. Orson Welles

This Oscar season, much has been made of Sam Mendes' 1917 and how the whole movie is edited to look like one continuous shot. It's a serious contender for Best Picture and/or Director, but you can trace its one-shot conceit back decades to the pioneering use of long takes by directors like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. I'm a sucker for a long tracking shot; Touch of Evil opens with one of the most famous in film history, in which Welles draws out the suspense for three and a half minutes as a couple walks through the streets alongside a car with a bomb hidden in the trunk.

Thanks to movies like that and Citizen Kane, Welles was sort of the original poster boy for auteurism. His technical innovation in Citizen Kane ensured the 1941 classic a place at the top of the American Film Institute's 100 Years ... 100 Movies list, among many others. It's the only film that earned him a Best Director nomination. Alas, the Academy was too in love with John Ford, a four-time winner who scored back-to-back wins for The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley—the latter costing Welles his one chance at Best Director glory. It wasn't until 1970 that the Academy bestowed an Honorary Award on Welles "for superlative artistry and versatility in the creation of motion pictures."

2. Akira Kurosawa

During his illustrious fifty-year film career, the great Akira Kurosawa only nabbed a single Best Director nomination—for Ran, his late-career Japanese retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear. Kurosawa's most fertile creative period was during the 1950s and early 1960s, but directors of non-English language films only started receiving Oscar nods after that and it wasn't until last year that one of them, Alfonso Cuaron, finally won.

The directors of the world last ranked two Kurosawa classics, Seven Samurai and Rashomon, at #17 and #18 in Sight & Sound magazine's once-a-decade poll of the 100 greatest films of all time. If we could retcon Oscar history and expose more Academy voters to Kurosawa early on, then surely either of those films would merit a nomination. As it is, Kurosawa lost his sole directing nom to Sydney Pollack, who took home the gold for Out of Africa. In 1989, however, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were on hand to present Kurosawa an Honorary Award "for accomplishments that have inspired, delighted, enriched and entertained audiences and influenced filmmakers throughout the world."

3. Alfred Hitchcock

The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, received no less than five Best Director nominations over the course of his career. That ain't bad, but it still wasn't enough to land him an actual win. In 1967, Hitchcock did walk away with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, a distinction reserved for "creative producers." However, that award doesn't even look like an Oscar; it's a rather awkward bust of Thalberg. One can well imagine Hitchcock's shadow lingering over it on an otherwise empty mantle while drolly delivering the acceptance speech that he never got to give for his 1960 horror masterwork, Psycho.

Directors sometimes secure wins, later in their careers, for lesser films as a kind of consolation for past snubs. Yet in the case of both Rear Window and Psycho — Hitchcock's two final nominations, which the AFI and other list-compilers continue to laud as two of the greatest films ever made — he lost to a peer who had already won once before. It's hard to fault the Academy for awarding Elia Kazan or Billy Wilder for A Streetcar Named Desire or The Apartment; but considering their previous wins and the stunning lack of a directorial nomination for Vertigo (which tops Citizen Kane on some lists), it does feel like Hitchcock got snubbed. Maybe he was just ahead of his time, artistically, or too dark in his story content and too much of a populist filmmaker.

4. Stanley Kubrick

Despite earning nominations for Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick never actually won an Oscar for Best Director. In 2016, the Director's Guild of America named all four of those movies along with a fifth Kubrick feature, The Shining, among the 80 best-directed films since 1936 (the year of the guild's founding). 2001: A Space Odyssey came in at number four on that list, yet Kubrick lost the Oscar for it to British filmmaker Carol Reed.

With all due respect to Reed, who made off with the statuette for his musical Dickens adaptation Oliver!, there's just no comparison between a film like that and 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is simply a case of the tide of popular opinion having yet to catch up with Kubrick's cinematic genius. Though criticism has helped unravel some of its mysteries and it's now widely regarded as a masterpiece, 2001 proved more impenetrable to first-time viewers on its initial release. Kubrick should have won for it but it wasn't even nominated for Best Picture, proving once again how shortsighted awards ceremonies like the Oscars can be.

5. Sergio Leone

The DGA also named Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America two of the best-directed films since 1936. Quentin Tarantino — whose own similarly named fairytale, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is another frontrunner in multiple Oscar categories this year — owes a great debt of influence to Leone and has called The Good, the Bad and the Ugly the best-directed film of all time. Any of those three films would have been deserving of some Oscar prestige, yet they went unrecognized and Leone is the one filmmaker on this list who never received a single Best Director nomination in his career.

The first two foreign filmmakers to break the glass ceiling in the Best Director category were Italian (one of them, Federico Fellini, earned early nominations for both La Dolce Vita and  in 1961 and 1963), but the Academy had no love for '60s spaghetti Westerns, it seems. Some of the names nominated in place of Leone for the films in question are less well-known now, if not outright forgotten—certainly by casual moviegoers and even perhaps by anyone but the most knowledgeable cinephiles. The Oscars undeniably provide a short-term boost to certain films, but they're not always the best indicator of what's going to have continued cultural clout. The whims of one occasionally myopic awards ceremony haven't kept Leone's films from standing the test of time.

6. Spike Lee

With a filmography dating back to the 1980s, Spike Lee wasn't even nominated for Best Director until just last year with BlacKkKlansman. He won the Best Original Screenplay award for that movie—a partial vindication for his loss on Do the Right Thing almost thirty years earlier. In 2015, he also picked up an Honorary Award for his ongoing work as "filmmaker, educator, motivator, iconoclast, artist." (When not behind the camera, Lee wears the hat of an NYU professor.) However, the Academy overlooked his directorial work until late in his career.

The two biggest nomination snubs of Lee's career were probably Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, both of which have since entered the National Film Registry along with his first film, She's Gotta Have It, and his Best Documentary-nominated film, 4 Little Girls. With a powerhouse performance by Denzel Washington, Malcolm X revived the memory of an important civil rights leader who had been somewhat marginalized in history classes next to Martin Luther King, Jr. At the 62nd and 65th Oscars, Lee was similarly marginalized on the ballots next to a gaggle of all-white directors, as the Academy continued its predictable pattern of recognizing Merchant–Ivory films and doling out umpteen Woody Allen nominations.

7. Quentin Tarantino

Based on their awards season momentum, it's looking like Bong Joon-ho or Sam Mendes are more the favorites to win, but there's a chance Quentin Tarantino could pull a slight upset and finally win Best Director at this year's Oscars. In the past, Tarantino has said that he thinks of himself more as a writer, and the Academy's voting patterns would seem to reflect a similar view. He's already won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar twice — for Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained — but he lost Best Director to Robert Zemeckis at the 67th Academy Awards and he lost it again to Kathyrn Bigelow at the 82nd Academy Awards. Third time's the charm?

Bigelow was the first woman to ever win, so it's hard to argue that her name should retroactively be scrubbed in favor of Tarantino's. As much as I like Zemeckis and Forrest Gump, however, Pulp Fiction was more era-defining. As I noted in a 25th-anniversary feature last year, it also happened to be "a profanity-laden crime drama with drugs, sodomy, and exploding brains." The Academy might outwardly favor material like that with a nomination, but when it comes time to make the final voting decisions, it has a known conservative streak.

8. Paul Thomas Anderson

Like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson has been nominated more for writing than directing. Unlike Tarantino, Anderson has no plans to retire after his next movie. Hopefully, he has many more films left in him and will continue to deliver Oscar-worthy output. At the 80th Academy Awards, he received a Best Director nomination for There Will Be Blood but lost to the Coen Brothers for No Country for Old Men. At the 90th Academy Awards, he received a nomination for Phantom Thread but lost to Guillermo Del Toro for The Shape of Water. There Will Be Blood is a modern masterpiece, but so is No Country for Old Men, and Phantom Thread and The Shape of Water are about evenly matched.

Where Anderson really got robbed was Boogie Nights. That movie garnered a Best Original Screenplay nom but despite it being one of the best films of the 1990s, it and Anderson's name were absent from the Best Director category at the 70th Academy Awards. Oscar voters apparently felt more comfortable that year with a British comedy about male strippers than an American drama about porn actors. (Quick, can you name the director of The Full Monty without looking it up online?) Fellow heavyweight James Cameron won the award for Titanic — he's "the king of the world," remember? — but I would humbly submit that he does action better than romance and Boogie Nights is a more essential, more emotionally truthful American film.

9. Christopher Nolan

We have Christopher Nolan and The Dark Knight to thank for the re-expansion of the Best Picture category to a limit of ten nominees post-2008. It goes without saying that Nolan and his epoch-making blockbuster were snubbed, especially when you consider that the 81st Oscars filled their potential slots with the likes of The Reader. Nolan didn't receive a Best Director nomination for Inception, either, even though that film reeled in nominations for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Since the Best Director category still has a limit of five nominees, it's always going to be harder to earn a seat at the table there, but did Tom Hooper, the director of Cats, really deserve to be nominated for The King's Speech more than Nolan did for Inception?

Hooper actually won the award and it wasn't until two years ago, at the 90th Oscars, that the Academy finally saw fit to toss Nolan a bone, nomination-wise, for Dunkirk. That's right: the quintessential filmmaker of the 2000s only has one Best Director nomination under his belt. Strike The Reader from the record and at least give the man a nom for The Dark Knight.

10. David Fincher

Last but not least, there's the curious case of David Fincher. Fincher's first Oscar nomination was for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That tells you everything you need to know, historically, about the Academy's tastes. While not a bad film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is probably the least interesting entry in Fincher's filmography. I would almost rather rewatch Alien 3, his first "bungled masterpiece," as he once put it, than rewatch Brad Pitt's head hobble around on an old man's body in Benjamin Button. Then again, I'm not an Academy member. No doubt, the story of an old white man who ages in reverse would appeal to a voting body that was largely made up of the same demographic.

In recent years, the Academy has tried to diversify its membership, but looking at this year's ballot, it's hard not to agree with the assessment that the slate of nominees evinces a disturbing familiarity in places. As for Fincher, he was nominated and should have won for The Social Network, obviously. (Again, Tom Hooper won that year for The King's Speech). But don't take my word for it ... /Film's core writing staff already named The Social Network the best film of the 2010s. Fincher is a zeitgeist filmmaker and capturing the zeitgeist isn't always something the Academy does well. Who knows, with his next project, Mank, centering on the co-screenwriter of Citizen Kane, maybe there's still a chance yet for Fincher to win the Best Director Oscar that Orson Welles never did.