10 Great Best Picture Nominees That Should Have Won

Raging Bull (1980)

Robert Redford’s directing debut, Ordinary People, won Best Picture at the Academy Awards for 1980. It’s a finely acted drama that, among other things, showed a very different side of television icon Mary Tyler Moore.

Raging Bull has enjoyed more longevity. Critics like Siskel & Ebert and polls in magazines like American Film have consistently named Martin Scorsese’s boxing biopic the best film of the ‘80s. In a first for the National Film Registry, this movie was inducted in its very first year of eligibility. Like the next entry on this list, however, it was not universally well-received in its day. It also happened to come right on the heels of more crowd-pleasing boxing feature, Rocky, which won the Best Picture award for 1976. This wouldn’t be the only time Scorsese lost to a big-name actor turned first-time director: it happened again 10 years later when Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves beat Goodfellas.

Telling the story of middleweight prizefighter Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull unfolds in beautiful black-and-white like a confession of proud and shameful memories. It’s a tale of self-destructiveness and forsaken potential where the champion is left stripping his belt for jewels and literally beating his own head against the wall of a dark cell by the end.

Through much of his life, LaMotta is able to sublimate that destructive energy of his into the boxing ring. Driven by deep-seated insecurities, he’s essentially a functional self-destroyer. Even at the height of his career, however, there’s something within him that is unable to enjoy success and nurtures the desire to tear down everything he has built, including his relationship with his wife and his brother, played respectively by Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci (in his first major role).

Robert De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull is the stuff of cinematic legend. It’s possible there are younger film-lovers out there who have not yet discovered De Niro in his peak period. Suffice it to say, De Niro’s remarkable physical transformation in this film, from a boxer in fighting shape to a washed-up, overweight lounge entertainer, set the template for the likes of Christian Bale in the 21st century.

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now is the textbook example of a film that garnered a mixed reception upon its release and would not be fully appreciated until later. Back in 1979, critics like Roger Ebert regarded it as a masterpiece, but the Vietnam War was still fresh in the public mind and many reviewers saw the film as overwrought — not unlike its legendary and infamous production. Filmed on location in the Philippine jungle, the movie was famously beset by a typhoon, tropical diseases, and stories of wild excess that sent it over budget and threatened the health and sanity of its cast and crew.

In this film, the frightening absurdity and lie of the war plays out in a picaresque fashion as a U.S. special ops officer boards a river patrol boat on a mission to assassinate a rogue colonel named Kurtz, who has set himself up as a demi-god in Cambodian territory. This narrative paralleled the making of the film, with Francis Ford Coppola briefly becoming the media portrait of a megalomaniacal movie director gone AWOL.

More than any other film — even William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, with its trucks full of nitroglycerine, traveling across a rickety wooden bridgeApocalypse Now seemed to symbolize the precarious, unfettered creativity and ego-driven madness of the New Hollywood, or American New Wave. The film’s Best Picture loss to the divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer can perhaps be seen as a reckoning against the movement, or indeed, a divorce from it. Another Vietnam epic, The Deer Hunter, had already taken Best Picture the year before, and that would be the last New Hollywood film to win.

As it drifts upriver through clouds of colored smoke, Apocalypse Now is a movie that seems to proceed from the most mythic, dreamlike depths of the human psyche. Echoing Kurtz’s words at the end of the film, Coppola once said, “It struck me like a diamond bullet in my head that I wasn’t making the film, the jungle was.” That diamond bullet left an exit wound in Coppola’s career and has been tearing through time ever since.

Star Wars (1977)

So much has been written about Star Wars already, but really, that’s the point. It’s a movie that spawned a multimedia empire and touched people all around the world. But again, the Academy often overlooks the merits of what’s popular or entertaining in favor of upholding its professional pride and putting the spotlight on what it considers to be more “serious” works of artistry. As people lined up outside cinemas nationwide to see Star Wars, Oscar voters distinguished themselves from the rabble by awarding Annie Hall Best Picture. The question now: is Star Wars a greater artistic achievement?

In the wake of #MeToo, Woody Allen’s name has become more stigmatized than ever, but he’s hard to avoid in a discussion of Oscar history since he’s received two dozen nominations since 1977. Annie Hall was the beginning of the Academy’s obsessive preoccupation with Allen. Historically, it’s been regarded as one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time.

Star Wars is in a different league. In 1997, on the American Film Institute’s first list of the 100 greatest American movies of all time, Star Wars rounded out the top 15. On the 10th-anniversary list in 2007, it had climbed the rankings to #13. If the AFI had done another list in 2017, it wouldn’t have been surprising to see this 40-year-old space opera crack the top 10.

Together with Jaws, Star Wars is the movie that birthed the blockbuster. It’s also a movie that is no less an auteurist work than Annie Hall. With George Lucas serving as writer-director, A New Hope has a purity of vision that even its superior sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, cannot claim. Lucas was young and surrounded not only by talented collaborators, but also by New Hollywood peers, fellow “movie brats” who helped rein in some of his more questionable instincts. Imagination-wise, this is a movie where the music, costume design, and so many other elements were firing on all cylinders. Everything came together to form the perfect combustion of fairy-tale lightning in a space bottle.

The Exorcist (1973)

The Exorcist is arguably the greatest horror film ever made. When you have something that’s the pinnacle of a whole genre going up against other films, that carries a lot of weight. The 2009 expansion of the Best Picture category opened up the field to more genre contenders, but if you’re a filmmaker working outside the realm of human-interest dramas, the Academy is more likely to throw a nomination your way than a win. Horror ostensibly appeals to a narrower audience.

In Oscar history, it also sometimes feels like the Academy attempts to give belated recognition to certain names as a kind of consolation prize for not awarding them earlier. The Sting, which won Best Picture for 1973, is a classic caper film, but it’s actually not Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s best movie. That distinction belongs to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which was passed over for 1969’s Best Picture in favor of Midnight Cowboy.

The real battle for 1973 isn’t between The Exorcist and The Sting. It’s between The Exorcist and American Graffiti. But again, The Exorcist has the weight of a whole genre behind it, and in this case, its elemental power as a tale of good-versus-evil is unmatched by a feel-good coming-of-age comedy.

The only horror film to ever win Best Picture was The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. That film lacked a supernatural aspect; it was more a dramatic showcase for Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, bundled up in the skin of a serial killer thriller. The Exorcist has a more fantastic premise: it’s about two priests attempting to exorcise a demon from a little girl.

What keeps the film grounded and makes it work, however, is that it was written by a Catholic but directed by an agnostic with a background in documentary features. After young Regan MacNeil uses a Ouija board to solicit what seems like an imaginary friend, the horror unveils slowly and is first submitted to rigorous skeptical procedures. By the time the two priests enter Regan’s room to combat the head-spinning, projectile-vomiting demon, disbelief is sufficiently suspended and our spirits quake with every utterance of “The power of Christ compels you!”

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