The Academy will never please everyone, but they hope to please as many moviegoers and as broad an audience as possible, retaining some dignity without hurting too many feelings. But now and then, the Oscars get it completely wrong. A turning point was in 1941, when “Citizen Kane” infamously lost Best Picture to John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley.” Fortunately, time has rewritten that watershed moment across innumerable best-of lists, where Orson Welles’ film, like Kane himself from his ivory tower of isolation, proudly stands at the top again and again.
As we’ve learned from Oscar nights such as the “Crash” of 2006 and the big, fat, WTF win of “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line” in 1999, don’t count on a Best Picture win to secure a classic. Thus, as we ramp up to the Academy Awards nominations unveiled this Thursday, here are ten films that lost Best Picture but deserved better. And you can stream them now.
What won? “Going My Way”
What should have won? “Double Indemnity” (Netflix)
In 1945, Oscar was still finding his legs and the Academy loved their musical comedies, so they crowned Leo McCarey‘s easy, breezy “Going My Way” the best film of the year. Meanwhile, looming on the horizon of film legends was Billy Wilder, who the Academy gave a mea culpa the following year with top honors for “The Lost Weekend.” A salacious noir — perhaps the noir — of murder, double-crossing and adultery gone horribly out of control, “Double Indemnity” features a subtly wily Barbara Stanwyck (also Oscar-nominated) as a very mad housewife, the kind of serpentine female character audiences weren’t used to seeing. Even though the film went home empty-handed that night, “Double Indemnity” stands tall as an undisputed classic. Whereas the sweet songs of “Going My Way” are seldom heard.
What won? “A Man For All Seasons”
What should have won? “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (Amazon)
When Mike Nichols‘ scandalous Edward Albee adaptation “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” came along in 1966, it was one of the most radical studio movies ever made. A pity, but no shocker, that Academy voters skirted the drunken moral turpitude in favor of a more dignified Renaissance period piece, “A Man For All Seasons,” well-directed by studio master Fred Zinnemann. “Woolf” not only boasts iconic performances across the board, from Sandy Dennis‘ willowy Honey to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor‘s scary pas de deux, it heralded a bold new talent and bonafide actors’ director, in Mike Nichols, who came from the stage to the screen like an angry bat from hell.
What won? “The Godfather Part II”
What should have won? “Chinatown” (Amazon)
Happy was the day the Academy accorded two best picture nominations to still-budding director and studio enfant terrible Francis Ford Coppola, for “Godfather Part II” and passion project “The Conversation.” But who should have won that night? Roman Polanski‘s “Chinatown,” the finest achievement of his incendiary career, a neo-noir written by Robert Towne and starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway that encapsulates New Hollywood at its most muscular and audacious, tapping into the reservoir of film history while rewriting the rules. The debate rages on over which “Godfather” entry is the best, and they’re all more-than-worthy of accolades, but let’s make room for the little guy.
What won? “Kramer vs. Kramer”
What should have won? “Apocalypse Now” (Netflix)
The horror, the horror. Sure, “Kramer vs. Kramer” is easy to love, affording simple pleasures in the form of a middle-of-the-road domestic drama with well-acted sympathetic characters. But Francis Ford Coppola’s unimpeachable masterpiece of war, which the director fought tooth and nail to make for over a year in the waterlogged Philippines, is so much more: a real movie movie, as pure as cinema gets. It racked up a couple of tech prizes, but was shut out in six other categories. Many factors were working against “Apocalypse”: first, it was a long-delayed August release whereas “Kramer” came along in late December, and secondly, the Academy saluted Best Picture winner “The Deer Hunter,” another Vietnam War movie, the previous year. You don’t hear much chatter about “Kramer” anymore, whereas “Apocalypse Now” seared the minds of moviegoers forever.
What won? “Out of Africa”
What should have won? “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (iTunes)
It was happenstance. At the same time that AIDS victim Rock Hudson‘s death made headlines, Hector Babenco‘s “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” one of the seminal breakout art films of the 1980s, was opening in New York. The world may have finally been ready for a gay romance between a Brazilian revolutionary and a homosexual pariah, but the Academy wasn’t. Predictably, Sydney Pollack‘s sweeping love epic “Out of Africa” took the top prize. But “sleeping” is more like it, because that’s what I’ve done every time I’ve tried to watch this movie, an Oscar package from the get-go given the chemistry of stars Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, both Oscar nom could-be’s this year. For his go-for-broke, wonderfully flamboyant performance in “Spider Woman,” William Hurt did take home the Best Actor Oscar.
What won? “Schindler’s List”
What should have won? “The Piano” (Netflix)
Is it blasphemous to say that Jane Campion’s lush psychosexual fairytale “The Piano” should’ve topped Spielberg’s much ballyhooed Holocaust epic “Schindler’s List”? Don’t query guests at a dinner party. That year, the Academy also could’ve made history by naming Campion (she’s this year’s jury president at Cannes, where the film won the Palme d’Or) the first woman to win the best director Oscar, a token that ultimately went to Kathryn Bigelow in 2010. But the Academy had to do the right thing by hailing “Schindler’s List,” nevertheless a powerful piece of work. Call me crazy, but “The Piano,” like the virtuosic notes of Michael Nyman’s epic score, is more wild and loose and moving, a rapturously cinematic dream about female passion. (Alert: this is not a film to watch on a crowded plane.) Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin both picked up actress statuettes for their performances as a mute pianist and her doting daughter experiencing joy and despair along the muddy coast of New Zealand.
What won? “The English Patient”
What should have won? “Fargo” (Netflix)
No need to bash “The English Patient” because Elaine Benes already beat that turkey to death so succinctly in “Seinfeld,” effectively sealing the coffin (“Stop telling your stupid story about the desert and just die already!”). A long, dull, morose movie adapted from Michael Ondaatje’s terrific novel about the relationship between a WWII nurse and a burn victim in a shabby Italian monastery, the late producer Saul Zaentz and director Anthony Minghella’s film swept up nine Oscars in 1997. Though the Academy redeemed themselves by awarding the Coens’ criminally good tragicomedy “Fargo” the best original screenplay of the year — and Frances McDormand the year’s best actress — voters inevitably took the bait for a film that aimed for the heart while lobotomizing the head. No one watches “The English Patient” anymore, but “Fargo” is immortal. (It placed #2 on our TOH! ranking of the Coens’ filmography.)
What won? “Gladiator”
What should have won? “Traffic” (Netflix)
As the 73rd Academy Awards sauntered on, it seemed Steven Soderbergh‘s impeccably shaped drug war drama “Traffic” might be headed for Best Picture, as the film had picked up four major Oscars (director, adapted screenplay, supporting actor for Benicio Del Toro and editing). But Ridley Scott‘s loud and violent and finely made “Gladiator” stole its glory and gobbled up the gold. Soderbergh’s most humane, heartfelt film to date, “Traffic” has ace performances from bottom to top — not to mention dazzling cinematic style. While “Gladiator” may have a home on USA Network and TNT at 10am on a weekday, “Traffic” has a place in film history, and it hasn’t aged one iota.
What won? “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”
What should have won? “Lost in Translation” (Netflix)
When “Return of the King” cleaned up the Oscars in 2004, winning all 11 awards for which it was nominated, the sweep felt more like a tribute to Peter Jackson’s entire Tolkien trilogy than a singling-out of the final film. In retrospect, it’s truly a wonder that Sofia Coppola‘s soft-spoken, meandering romance “Lost in Translation” snuck its way into the final five: the film is so subtle, you almost miss its devastating turns amid such quiet and contemplative rhythms. Bill Murray, too, got the snub that year in favor of Sean Penn‘s hammy bellow from hell in “Mystic River.” It’s hard to forget Murray’s crushing look of defeating and resignation when Nicole Kidman read Penn’s name that evening.
What won? “Crash”
What should have won? “Brokeback Mountain” (Netflix)
What the hell happened here? History can’t let this one go. Even Jack Nicholson was dumbstruck when he unsealed the envelope and opened a Pandora’s Box of jeers upon the world. The film that all but introduced middle America to gay sex unlike any film before, Best Director winner Ang Lee‘s “Brokeback Mountain” was locked-and-loaded for the win all season until Paul Haggis’ thudding “Crash,” like a deus ex machina, stole the prize, left prognosticators baffled and sent us all screaming in the streets and spitting mad. The Academy, and for that matter Hollywood, had an opportunity to come out of the celluloid closet and embrace a story of queer love among the prairies. But just like that, back to the closet they went, and we haven’t seen a gay studio movie of this caliber since. If nothing else, “Brokeback Mountain”‘s resonant loss reminded audiences not to put stock in a Best Picture win to guarantee an enduring classic. Meanwhile “Crash” foundered almost immediately. It’s the little victories.