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22 Classic Movies That Never Won Best Picture

Winning isn't everything. Now that its Oscar season, check out the masterpieces that didn't win Best Picture, even though it seems like they should have. Did your favorite movies make the list?

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Best Picture vs. popular movies

The Best Picture Oscar was created to go to the most esteemed and excellent picture of the year. However, the films the Academy chooses in any given year don’t always endure. Best Picture winners are often forgotten, while films that weren’t even nominated rise up in the cultural imagination and become important, noteworthy classics. Some of the most beloved films, the ones audiences remember and watch again and again with new generations, didn’t win Best Picture. In fact, it’s rare for the Academy to choose films that are the most popular. They often choose serious subjects over comedies and weighty historical topics over fantasy and science fiction. The Best Picture Oscar overwhelmingly goes to dramas directed by men—only a tiny percentage of nominated films have been directed by women. Read on to check out the films you probably love that didn’t win the most-coveted Oscar. Find out 21 things you didn’t know about the Academy Awards.

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1933: King Kong

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This monster movie classic was about way more than a giant monkey on the loose in the big city. King Kong delivers heartfelt tragedy in a story about love and longing and never fitting in. We can all relate to pathos like that! The film also showcased technical feats with state-of-the-art special effects that included stop motion animation and scale models of the famous ape and other creatures. The visuals seamlessly weave the effects with live-action footage. The movie has since been recognized as one of the greatest films of all-time, but it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. That year the Best Picture Oscar went to Cavalcade, a period drama about an upper-class British family’s upheaval after the turn of the century. Find out the little known connection between Star Wars and King Kong.

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1939: Wizard of Oz

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Audiences have always been stunned when Judy Garland as Dorothy opens the door to her black and white house and finds the stunning brilliant and vibrant wonder of Munchkin Land just beyond the frame and whispers, “Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” This charming and endlessly watchable classic has had audiences following the yellow brick road since it premiered. “Over the Rainbow” took home the Academy Award for Best Song, but The Wizard of Oz lost the Oscar to Gone with the Wind. Garland did take home an Academy Award for “Best Performance by a Juvenile” that year, which included her work in Babes in Arms.

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1941: Citizen Kane

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Orson Welles directed, co-wrote, and starred in this artsy masterpiece when he was only 27 years old. Though his masterpiece is roundly considered the greatest American movie of all time, Welles only got the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Citizen Kane was one of the first films to use cinematography to convey thematic messages—and do it with visual poetics. Every shot expresses the anguish, loneliness, and passions of Charles Foster Kane. Welles’ plays up the man’s ego, mystery, and despair with a depth well beyond his years. The Best Picture Oscar, then called Outstanding Motion Picture, went to How Green Was My Valley, a sentimental epic about a hardworking family set during the turn of the century. Here are 10 cinematic tearjerkers sure to make you cry.

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1946: It’s a Wonderful Life

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Every Christmas, this Frank Capra classic becomes a favorite all over again. It was nominated for all the major Oscars: Best Picture, an Actor nod for Jimmy Stewart, and Director and Editing. But it didn’t win any awards except a technical one for the falling snow effect. Still, audiences adore this movie about appreciating all the good things in life, and it has one of the happiest movie endings of all time. The Best Picture Oscar instead went to the gritty postwar drama The Best Years of Our Lives about veterans adapting to life after World War II.

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1952: Singin’ in the Rain

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Singin’ in the Rain is a musical masterpiece that looks like a Technicolor dream. Debbie Reynolds wows as a chorus girl with a movie star’s singing voice in this ode to the end of the silent film era. Gene Kelly’s umbrella soft-shoe in a studio downpour is legendary and Donald O’Conner’s “Make ’em Laugh” number stands the test of time for its humor and charm. This movie is still considered one of the best musicals of all time, but Singin’ in the Rain only got two nominations, for Musical Score and Supporting Actress—it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. The acting nominee wasn’t Debbie Reynolds, but Jean Hagen as the silent film actress whose annoying voice needs dubbing after the film industry’s switch to talkies. The Greatest Show on Earth won the Best Picture Oscar that year. Heard of it? Add these top romantic movies of all time to your list.

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1954: Rear Window

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Hitchcock’s Rebecca was his only film to win a Best Picture Oscar even though Rear Window is regarded as one of his most masterful thrillers. James Stewart plays a photographer confined to a wheelchair because of a broken leg. The audience feels similarly trapped and voyeuristic as they gaze with him out the back window of his apartment at all the stuff going on with the neighbors. Things get extra tense once one of them does away with his wife. Grace Kelly shows up as a cool, well-dressed city girl looking to investigate the criminal across the courtyard. Thrills intensify once the man figures out the nosy neighbors are on to him and the audience gets taken along for the ride. The Best Picture Oscar went to the drama On the Waterfront, the movie where Marlon Brando speaks his famous “I coulda been a contender” line.

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1955: Rebel Without a Cause

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James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo were riveting in their searing portrayals of teenage angst. Nicholas Ray’s film was one of the first to capture the emotional trials of being young and misunderstood. Wood and Mineo got Supporting Acting nods, but Dean’s performance was overlooked. So was the movie itself which stands out as a true American classic that uses melodrama to get at the rebellion at the heart of the American experience of youth. That year the Best Picture Oscar went to Marty, a character study about lonely hearts starring Ernest Borgnine. Find out James Dean’s last words before his infamous car crash.

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1960: Psycho

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Psycho was revolutionary cinema at the time it premiered. It broke taboos around violence and cross-dressing and shook up audience’s expectations. When the film’s star, Janet Leigh, gets killed off in the first act, audiences were stunned and shaken. The plot hooks you in and carries you forward until the unexpected twisted ending. The film’s artistry is just as genius as its plotting. Gorgeous cinematography and heart-pounding editing and sound make Psycho a cinematic treat, but it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. If nominated, Psycho would’ve been up against Best Picture winner, The Apartment—Billy Wilder’s cynical love story that also dips into themes of illicit affairs. Psycho, like these 12 horror films, was inspired by true events.

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1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark

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Steven Spielberg’s rollicking adventure took America by storm when it first premiered. Indiana Jones became a household name and everybody loved the action-packed search for the famous Ark of the Covenant. Raiders was a blockbuster hit and was nominated for nine Oscars, but it didn’t take home the big ones. Spielberg’s masterful action sequences made all the seamless effects technique look effortless and real. Harrison Ford’s charmingly roguish performance didn’t even garner an acting nod. The rollicking adventure, Raiders, lost to the much more sedate drama Chariots of Fire with its famous musical score by Vangelis.

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1982: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

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The wide-eyed alien stole America’s heart when the movie premiered in 1982, becoming an instant blockbuster and luring audiences with its fantastical action and sentimental, tear-jerking family drama. E.T. is filled with moments of both comedy and heart, so that the alien who moves into a suburban household run by a single mom, feels relatable to anyone who has ever yearned for belonging. The movie also taps into a sense of childhood hopes and fears which allowed the film to appeal to adults as well as kids. E.T. is also a masterwork of cinematic storytelling with beautiful compositions that capture its universal themes. The Academy rarely awards the Best Picture Oscar to box office hits so E.T. didn’t have much of a chance against the historical biopic Gandhi which has an over three-hour running time.

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1987: Fatal Attraction

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Fatal Attraction was a cultural juggernaut that was as much about fears of women working as it was about marital infidelity. Glenn Close played the bunny-boiling femme fatale who refuses to let go of the married man who joined her in a weekend fling. The box office hit has layers of meaning around gender roles and women’s desire. Though it succumbs to a movie monster ending, it thrills with its story about obsession, power, and fear that remains influential and relevant. It lost Best Picture to The Last Emperor, the nearly three-hour historical epic about the life of the last emperor of China, Puyi, born in 1906.

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1989: Field of Dreams

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“If you build it, he will come.” Have you ever said that line? It’s the oft-repeated statement of faith from everyone’s favorite baseball movie. Field of Dreams seems like a silly premise. A farmer hears a message in his cornfield and builds a baseball diamond. Once finished, legendary ballplayers emerge from the cornrows and play America’s pastime for an adoring crowd. The film is full of nostalgia, but still surprisingly moving as it presents a story about the simple pleasures of baseball. Field of Dreams lost to Driving Miss Daisy, a film about the friendship between a cranky white woman and her unrealistically complacent black driver. Don’t miss these other movies with memorable one-liners.

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1990: Good Fellas

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Martin Scorsese’s Good Fellas is a masterclass in filmmaking as much as it’s an expose of mobster life. The film features virtuoso long takes, freeze frames, direct addresses, and innovative uses of zooms, pans, soundtrack, and voice over. The movie follows real-life wiseguy Henry Hill as he joins up with the mob as a teen and spends his adulthood embroiled in crime. Dances With Wolves won the Best Picture Oscar. Kevin Costner starred in and directed the sprawling drama about a Civil War veteran who falls in with a Lakota Sioux tribe. Costner also won the Directing Oscar over Scorsese.

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1994: Pulp Fiction

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Quentin Tarantino’s non-linear, avant-garde, hyperviolent masterpiece lost the Best Picture Oscar to the much more staid and traditional Forrest Gump. However, Pulp Fiction changed American cinema through its highly influential style. The film creates suspense and humor at the same time through vignettes set in a criminal world where the audience roots for underworld characters and hitmen like the iconic duo played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson. Pulp Fiction also features several now-iconic film moments such as Travolta dancing, a reference to his previous disco fame in Saturday Night Fever. Another famous scene features Bruce Willis as the boxer Butch choosing a weapon to save his previous nemesis from horrors involving “the gimp.” Pulp Fiction also made epic use of music—check out these 11 other movies with the most rockin’ soundtracks ever.

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1995: Sense and Sensibility

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The late great Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon gives all the cinematic Mr. Darcys a run for their romantic money in this adaptation of Jane Austen’s beloved novel about marriage and class. Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet play the Dashwood sisters in this popular romance that Austen fans watch again and again for its costumes and swoon-worthy courtships. Thompson won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The Best Picture award went to Braveheart, Mel Gibson’s three-hour battle film filled with gruesome violence.

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1996: Fargo

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The Coen Brothers’ searing presentation of a kidnapping gone wrong endures as a classic of American cinema. The film’s style focuses on the Midwestern landscape between Minnesota and North Dakota, the setting for harrowing crimes and murders. A hapless car salesman (William H. Macy) schemes to exhort money from his father-in-law by enlisting two criminals to kidnap his wife for ransom. It all goes downhill from there. Frances McDormand plays the pregnant police chief investigating the crimes. She won the Best Actress Oscar for her iconic performance. The film’s bleak and black comedy may have been too much for Academy voters who instead gave Best Picture to the World War II romance The English Patient. Find out the highest-grossing movie the year you were born.

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1998: Saving Private Ryan

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Director Steven Spielberg’s riveting World War II drama changed the way combat was depicted in film. The harrowing opening battle, when troops storm the beach at Normandy in 1944, is unforgettable in its visceral impact. Handheld cinematography combines with innovative uses of sound, desaturated film stock, and film speeds to put viewers in the middle of the devastating conflict. The Best Picture winner that year was Shakespeare in Love, a popular romance that won amid longstanding controversy that takes on new light due to producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault, misconduct, and harassment allegations. These are more of the best military movies.

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1999: The Sixth Sense

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The Sixth Sense has one of the twistiest endings of all time. It’s also a sensitive drama about loss and grief that follows a traumatized child and the therapist who tries to help him. Bruce Willis stars in a dramatic role that shifted from his usual cop persona. Director M. Night. Shyamalan infuses the film with eerie beauty and palpable suspense. The Sixth Sense was an instant blockbuster, popular with audiences who didn’t reveal spoilers. The Best Picture Oscar went to American Beauty. It’s a film that presents sympathetically the story of a grown man sexually obsessed with his teenage daughter’s cheerleader friend. If you loved The Sixth Sense and its final twist, check out these 11 other films with surprise endings you won’t see coming.

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2005: Brokeback Mountain

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Ang Lee won the Oscar for directing this affecting adaptation of Annie Proulx’s short story about two cowboys who fall for each other in a world where such love is forbidden. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were nominated in acting categories for their portrayals of men grappling with desire society won’t allow. Brokeback Mountain remains a seminal, progressive work presenting same-sex love and relationship. In a surprising upset, the melodrama Crash won Best Picture—it’s widely considered sentimental and too shallow in its presentation of the complexity of race relations in Los Angeles. Discover 15 movies you never knew were banned in the United States.

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2009: Avatar

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The Academy often gives the Best Picture Oscar to large scale films (with long-running times) that harness huge casts and crew to achieve technical excellence. Avatar’s use of new CGI and motion capture technology to build the visually stunning planet Pandora should have made it an obvious contender. However, the Academy never recognizes science fiction films in this category. Even the groundbreaking film Star Wars lost to Annie Hall. Two fantasy films have won: The Shape of Water and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Avatar lost to The Hurt Locker which also scored a historic Best Director Oscar for Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win that award.

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2017: Get Out

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The only film in the horror genre to win Best Picture is the serial killer thriller The Silence of the Lambs, so it was unlikely the groundbreaking chiller Get Out could take the top award. Jordan Peele won Best Original Screenplay—his only award despite also being nominated in the Best Director and Best Picture categories. Get Out offers fresh and searing social commentary wrapped in an inventive, genuinely terrifying package. The film was also a huge box office success. Instead of recognizing its ingenious achievement, Get Out lost to The Shape of Water, a love story involving a fishlike creature. Find out 10 classic movies people lie about watching.

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2018: Black Panther

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Black Panther made waves even for being nominated since the Academy rarely honors action films and comic book stories. Its wins for Best Costume Design and Best Production Design gave awards to the first women of color to ever take those honors. It also won for Original Score, but lost in the Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, and Best Picture categories. Black Panther was not only a global phenomenon at the box office but a culturally significant film that celebrates black culture and presents black characters in a positive, powerful light. It was a long shot for a superhero film to win, but the loss to Green Book will likely not age well. Green Book was plagued with several controversies including the idea that it puts forth a “white savior” concept in its true story presentation of black musician Dr. Donald Shirley and his white bodyguard. Don’t miss our rankings of every Oscar Best Picture winner.

Molly Pennington, PhD
Molly is a writer and collage artist with a PhD in film and cultural studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Her professional astrology services and artwork are available at Baroque Moon Astrology. She covers the zodiac, books, movies, TV and culture for Reader’s Digest, and loves to talk about all the ways we make meaning.