Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was released in 2008, and as we’ve said before, it became a watershed moment not just for the comic book movie genre, but also the entire film industry. Ranking among the most acclaimed works of the year, Dark Knight collected several accolades, many of which were awarded posthumously to Heath Ledger. The film seemed like such an unstoppable force in pop culture that year that many believed it would secure a Best Picture nomination, following the footsteps of other genre titles that had previously become phenomena.
However, when Oscar morning came about, Nolan’s tour de force was conspicuously left off the ballot. It had acquired eight nods, and would go on to win two awards at the ceremony (Best Supporting Actor and Sound Editing), but the widespread outrage about its Best Picture snub became the larger story. People have always felt the Academy is out of touch, and this was Exhibit A for that belief system.
To their credit, the Oscars responded the following year by expanding the Best Picture category to include 10 nominees (today, it is a sliding scale where anywhere between 5 and 10 films can be nominated) with the goal being to invite more commercial fare to the party. The experiment has overall been a success, as several of the recent Best Picture contenders have gone on to become outright hits at the box office.
However, 2008 was hardly the only year in which the awards show would have benefited from having an expanded category. Every year, hundreds of films are released, and many critic organizations unveil top ten lists because there are frequently more than five movies worthy of being considered “the best.” So what great films missed out on another award nomination just because they came out at the wrong time? We thought about it and compiled the following list of mistimed Best Picture films; those that had the support of Academy branches but couldn’t quite get there.
NOTE: Oscar wins are bolded. Any film released between 2009-2014 was ineligible for inclusion.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Nominations: Best Score
The original animated film; Walt Disney received an honorary award from the Academy for pioneering a new realm of entertainment. It’s rare that the Oscars recognize these types of works for the main Best Picture (using the newer Best Animated Feature category to award them), but it has happened, and since Snow White had such a tremendous impact on film, it would have been hard for them to exclude it were more slots available.
The Third Man (1949)
Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Director (Carol Reed), Best Film Editing
This piece of film Noir was noteworthy for its groundbreaking stylistic choices, which included the introduction of Dutch angles as well as harsh lighting, which helped convey the atmosphere of post-war Vienna. Full of twists and fully-realized characters, The Third Man thrilled and excited audiences, becoming a premiere bit of entertainment.
The African Queen (1951)
Nominations: Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart), Best Actress (Katharine Hepburn), Best Director (John Huston), Best Screenplay
Since it was a player in all the key categories, it’s quite baffling that The African Queen couldn’t get enough support to contend for the main prize. Featuring Bogart at his cynical, charmingly hard-edged best and a thrilling story set during the high stakes of World War I, the ambitious work was certainly loved by many members of the Academy, so it definitely should have secured a Best Picture nomination to go along with all its other accolades .
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Actor (Kirk Douglas)
It’s always surprising when a film that gets this much Oscar love, particularly in the major categories, is left off the Best Picture ballot. Throw in the fact that the film is about Hollywood and making movies (something that Academy usually goes for in a heartbeat) and secured many nods for some of the key Oscar precursors, this drama should have been in the field even if it wasn’t an expanded year.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Jean Hagen), Best Musical Score
Widely regarded as one of the best musicals ever made, Gene Kelly’s stirring portrait of Hollywood’s difficult transition from silent films to “talkies” entertained and delighted the hearts of many and still does to this day. The National Board of Review named it one of the top movies of the year, and the Directors and Writers Guilds both noticed it, which typically equates to a Best Picture nod these days.
Rear Window (1954)
Nominations: Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound
Viewed by many pundits as perhaps the best film by Hitchcock, the director displayed impeccable mastery of filmmaking techniques by taking audiences for this wild, thrilling ride. While the basic plot was more than enough to draw us in and leave us engrossed, there are several other fascinating layers Rear Window forces viewers to explore (morality, etc.) that make it two steps above your typical thriller.
Nominations: Best Sound, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing
The Academy always has a spot for a great musical, especially this one. Receiving a nomination from the Writers Guild for its screenplay and becoming one of the most successful films at the box office during its theatrical run in ’55, this story of love easily could have made a solid case for one of the slots in an expanded Best Picture category.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Sal Mineo), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Natalie Wood), Best Screenplay
One of James Dean’s most iconic roles (and sadly one of his last), this drama turned film conventions on its head by telling a story of disenfranchised youth and breaking down the growing generational gap in middle class suburbia. The Academy is mocked for being “out of touch” with modern society, but every once in a while they go big for a film that speaks to the country’s contemporary audience (Social Network) and given how popular this film was, it’s alarming it didn’t get a Best Picture nomination.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Nominations: Best Costume Design, Best Director (Billy Wilder), Best Actor (Jack Lemmon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction
Wilder’s legendary screwball comedy gave audiences big laughs and musical interludes that made it a perfect piece of entertainment. Featuring a screenplay that so elegantly balanced highbrow and lowbrow humor, and three stars firing on all cylinders (Lemmon, Bryan Curtis, and Marilyn Monroe), this tale of gender-swapping and finding love brought joy to many who saw it.
Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Peter Ustinov), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Music
Stanley Kubrick put audiences right in Ancient Rome with his classic swords and sandals epic. Featuring tremendous scope (as per usual with the director), and a riveting tale of a struggle for freedom from oppression, Spartacus represented why moviegoers went to the theater; to see these larger-than-life stories play out and captivate them for generations.
Nominations: Best Director (Alfred Hitchcock), Best Supporting Actress (Janet Leigh), Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction
Like sci-fi, it’s hard for horror/thriller films to get invited to the party, but when a master craftsman like Hitchcock is involved, the Academy is open to altering its tastes. While it was impossible to know the enduring legacy of Psycho upon its initial release, at the time it was still very noteworthy, as the Master of Suspense expertly combined all aspects of a film to deliver a tense, chilling ride that made us all step back and wonder if we had gone a little mad.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Nominations: Best Score, Best Original Song, Best Actress (Audrey Hepburn), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction
One of cinema’s greatest love stories, Blake Edwards’ adaptation of the Truman Capote novella went on to become a mainstay of popular culture, earning a spot in the National Film Registry as well as several other accolades received during its initial release. Romantic dramedies are usually seen as “token” nominations, but this tale of finding true happiness and doing what is in your heart would definitely have been worthy.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (George Kennedy), Best Actor (Paul Newman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score
Considered by some critics to be one of the landmark films of its era, this prison drama combined human resiliency with an anti-establishment message that spoke to the youth of America during a tumultuous time in its history. With its quotable dialogue, powerful themes and grounded, honest performances, Cool Hand Luke stood out from the rest and was definitely worthy of a Best Picture nomination.
The Producers (1967)
Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Gene Wilder)
In addition to his Oscar, Mel Brooks also received an award from the Writers Guild for his dark comedy about two producers who try to make a Broadway flop and abscond with the investors’ money, only to see their show become a major hit. With Zero Mostel and Wilder leading the charge, Brooks took a hilarious look at the inner-workings of the business and gave us musical numbers we’ll never forget (“Springtime for Hitler”).
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Nominations: Best Visual Effects, Best Director (Stanley Kubrick), Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Decoration
While the Academy’s reluctance to reward genre pieces with actual trophies is well documented, they’ve never been shy of nominating select ones in the major categories. Given that 2001 revolutionized movie making, had a profound influence on future directors, and was one of the most talked about works of the year, it certainly would have been included in the more commercial-friendly expanded Best Picture field.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Ruth Gordon), Best Adapted Screenplay
Horror isn’t what the Academy usually goes for, but they do make exceptions occasionally for psychological thrillers that haunt and stay with audiences long after they’re over (The Sixth Sense). With Mia Farrow leading the way in a chilling and disturbing performance, Rosemary’s Baby is an expertly written genre films that transcends its category and managed to terrify viewers with minimal reliance on gore imagery.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Gig Young), Best Actress (Jane Fonda), Best Supporting Actress (Susannah York), Best Director (Sidney Pollack), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score
This film holds the record for most Oscar nominations without being included in the Best Picture category, and given that it was able to secure nods for just about any other award you could think of, this acclaimed drama would definitely have one of the spots reserved had it come out during a different time. A powerhouse for acting talent, this critique of American life during the Depression era was seen as one of Pollack’s greatest achievements and had tremendous staying power.
Easy Rider (1969)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Original Screenplay
Exploring elements such as the rise and fall of the hippie lifestyle and becoming a landmark movie for the counterculture movement, Easy Rider helped usher in the New Hollywood era of motion pictures and received much acclaim after its release. It also served as a coming out party for Nicholson, who took over the film’s second half with a masterful display of acting.
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score
The Directors Guild nominated helmsman Sam Peckinpah for his work on this classic Western, and one can easily see why thanks to its revolutionary techniques such as quick cuts and slow motion imagery. Its story also offered a dose of meta commentary, as it spoke about the end of an era (the outlaws) and what we must do to move on.
Nominations: Best Actor (Al Pacino), Best Adapted Screenplay
Based on the true story of an honest New York cop who fought hard against corruption within his department, Serpico took a good hard look at our country’s law enforcement and what was considered “justice.” With Pacino leading the way in one of his finest performances, director Sidney Lumet pulled no punches in his crime drama, giving its viewers something serious to think about long after it was over.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing
This year saw eventual classics such as Jaws and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest earn Best Picture nominations, but if 1975 was a year of 10, there most definitely would have been room for this riveting action/adventure tale from John Huston. Praised for being enjoyable and grand, Sean Connery and Michael Caine teamed up to deliver one of the wittiest and rollicking features audiences had seen up to that point.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Director (Steven Spielberg), Best Supporting Actress (Melinda Dillon), Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Original Score
Star Wars may have been the sci-fi film of the moment during 1977, but there was obviously room for two genre pieces at the Oscar party that year. Since it received love from several branches, it’s easy to think that Spielberg’s awe-inspiring tale of first alien contact would have been part of an expanded field.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Nominations: Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score
Empire is one of the few sequels seen by many as superior to the original; and since Star Wars was nominated in several major categories, it is somewhat surprising that the trilogy’s middle chapter couldn’t find similar success. Director Irvin Kershner delivered a powerful character story that had some inspirational bits of wisdom; and the genre thrills made it a great theatrical experience.
Back to the Future (1985)
Nominations: Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Original Song
During the early days of the Hollywood blockbuster, the Academy was open to having films that operated largely as high-value popcorn entertainment taking one of the five Best Picture slots (Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.). With Spielberg serving as a producer for Robert Zemeckis’ time-traveling comedy, it’s a wonder that this inventive high-concept film couldn’t sneak in, especially since it was the most popular film of the year and received widespread acclaim.
Stand By Me (1986)
Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay
Handled with care by director Rob Reiner, this adaptation of a Stephen King short story is seen by many as one of the definitive coming-of-age films, punctuated by its strong themes of friendship and loyalty, as well as sporting perhaps one of the finest youth ensembles. It may not have scored as many Oscar nominations as other titles on our list, but the film was recognized by several other award organizations, including the National Board of Review, the Golden Globes, and the Director’s Guild.
Nominations: Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Actress (Sigourney Weaver), Best Art Direction, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score
One of the most acclaimed entries in the sci-fi genre, the sequel to Alien was considered a breakthrough thanks to Weaver being nominated for her portrayal of Ripley. Since it had struck a powerful chord cord with the Academy, it’s easy to see James Cameron’s sequel following a path like his own Avatar or Inception and be invited to the party, especially since the Vietnam undertones gave Aliens an extra layer of food for thought.
Empire of the Sun (1987)
Nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score
Though all its nominations were in the technical categories, other aspects of this Steven Spielberg World War II drama received love from other awards outlets including the National Board of Review and the Directors Guild. With a young Christian Bale inspiring us all with his earnest portrayal of James Graham and a story of perseverance through hard times, Empire of the Sun is another Steven Spielberg film the Academy should have gone all the way for.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Nominations: Best Editing, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Sound
Sometimes, you just need to sit back and appreciate the masterful achievement in filmmaking you’re witnessing. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is one of those examples, as Zemeckis seamlessly blended live action with cell animation, moving movie technology to the next stage in its evolution while telling a heartfelt story about rediscovering joy and enthusiasm for life.
Nominations: Best Actor (Tom Hanks), Best Original Screenplay
Sporting one of Hanks’ best performances, Big turned into one of the best entries of the body-switching genre that became so popular in the 1980s. Speaking to children’s desires to grow up and adult’s wishes to reclaim their youth, there was something for everyone in this story that balanced comedy and drama to illustrate why we should all have the heart of a kid.
Do The Right Thing (1989)
Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello)
Part of the National Film Registry and nominated for Best Picture at the Golden Globes, Spike Lee burst on to the scene with this immediate and hard-hitting portrait of extremely high tensions between blacks and whites. Many saw it as a superior work to the films that ended up earning nods that year, and since it received some support from the Academy, it’s not hard to think that a message film such as this, especially one so innovative, would have been part of an expanded field.
Thelma & Louise (1991)
Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Geena Davis), Best Actress (Susan Sarandon), Best Director (Ridley Scott), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing
Just by the sheer number of Oscar nods this Ridley Scott road trip movie got when it was released (regardless of the other many accolades), you can make an easy case for Thelma & Louise cracking an expanded field. The freewheeling exciting adventure offered up big spirit and heart, with a script that rounded out its characters in a way that any viewer – man or woman – could appreciate.
Malcolm X (1992)
Nominations: Best Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Costume Design
Released during a year of high racial tensions (Rodney King riots), Spike Lee’s biopic of the civil rights activist conveyed powerful and relevant messages that spoke to contemporary society. Part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, Malcolm X should have parlayed its status as an important work into a Best Picture nomination, even though it wasn’t exactly the Academy’s cup of tea.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Dianne West), Best Supporting Actor (Chazz Palminteri), Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Tilly), Best Director (Woody Allen), Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design
The 1994 Best Picture lineup is a murderer’s row of cinema classics, but it’s obvious the Academy had this Woody Allen film on its mind when the ballots were being filled out. With a story that no doubt spoke to many industry professionals (maintaining artistic integrity vs. doing what the public wants), the film was about finding your own path in life and doing what was right in your heart.
The Usual Suspects (1995)
Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Spacey)
The Academy loves a great mystery film, and this was one that some of the largest branches went for; which means some probably had it in mind for the top prize. Anchored by Spacey’s incredible performance and Christopher McQuarrie’s sharp script, the wild ride of twist and turns left an imprint on moviegoers and became one of the standout offerings of its genre.
Toy Story (1995)
Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song
Much like Snow White, Pixar’s debut feature-length film introduced the masses to a new form of cinematic entertainment (3D computer animation), and John Lasseter received a Special Achievement Award for the team’s effort. Not only did Toy Story symbolize the next leap forward, it also told a relatable, emotional story that set the template for one of the industry’s finest studios.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Nominations: Best Actor (Nicolas Cage), Best Actress (Elisabeth Shue), Best Director (Mike Figgis), Best Adapted Screenplay
It may be better known today as the film that won the crazy Nic Cage an Oscar (and showed that he could actually act), but Leaving Las Vegas has more going for it than that interesting footnote. The film was obviously well received based on the nominations that it did get, and its tragic love story that coupled two three-dimensional characters packed a heavy emotional punch that left viewers gutted and heartbroken.
Nominations: Best Film Editing
One of David Fincher’s best-known works was only able to manage a lone nomination from the Academy, but it was received more favorably from other award groups, most notably the BAFTA nomination the screenplay received. Some may say that it’s “too dark” for Oscar’s taste, but they haven’t been afraid to embrace the muck before and this chilling portrait of the human condition was seen as one of the best films of the year by many.
Nominations: Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Anthony Hopkins), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score
Steven Spielberg’s historical drama was largely overlooked by the Oscars, but it did pick up notices from several of the vital precursors, including the all-important Producers Guild and Directors Guild. Blending multiple genres such as courtroom drama and mystery, it told an emotional story about the search for truth.
Boogie Nights (1997)
Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Burt Reynolds), Best Supporting Actress (Julianne Moore)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to the 1970s adult film industry was impeccably scripted, boasted one of the best ensemble casts put to screen, and injected a taboo subject with entertainment and heart. A twisted rags-to-riches tale full of non-stop energy, it was highly acclaimed and even got some support from the stuffy Academy.
The Truman Show (1998)
Nominations: Best Director (Peter Weir), Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor (Ed Harris)
Sporting a plot that seemed prophetic in the years following its release, The Truman Show offered a unique and fascinating critique on mainstream media consumption and middle-class suburbia. With Jim Carrey showing that he could do more than zany comedy, viewers became engrossed in Truman’s fictional world while hoping he could break free and live a normal life.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Nominations: Best Director (Spike Jonze), Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener)
With the expanded Best Picture category, the Academy has given itself some room to nominate films that standout because of their odd sense of uniqueness and creativity. This Twilight Zone-esque piece by Jonze (who would later receive much Oscar love for Her) certainly fits that bill, with its interesting spin on obsession with celebrity culture and people’s desire to be someone else in entertaining and heartbreaking fashion.
Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay
The Academy loves Alexander Payne, and with the new Best Picture field typically seeing at least one entry that’s a little more light-hearted than its competition, you could make the case that this high school dramedy would have earned a spot in what became one of the best years in film. Using a student government association election to put a satirical spin on American politics and giving viewers a collection of interesting characters to follow, Election would have been a thematically rich, thoroughly entertaining addition to the list.
The Matrix (1999)
Nominations: Best Visual Effects, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Film Editing
In 2010, Inception was able to become the “token blockbuster” in a field of 10 thanks to it becoming a zeitgeist-seizing technical accomplishment. The Wachowskis’ big break easily could have followed a similar trajectory; even though it wasn’t quite as loved as Nolan’s work (no Best Screenplay nomination), it was still one of the most groundbreaking works of the year and revolutionized special effects in a way few other films have.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography
While not as successful on the awards circuit as other films by Joel and Ethan Coen, this strange, loose adaptation of Homer’s “Odyssey” was able to get some Oscar love, as well as notices by other major organizations like the Golden Globes. In addition to the film itself being critically acclaimed, its soundtrack became a touchstone of pop culture, winning the Grammy for Album of the Year. When phenomena like that happen, Oscar likes to take notice (sometimes).
Almost Famous (2000)
Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress (Kate Hudson), Best Supporting Actress (Frances McDormand), Best Editing
Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical exploration of the music industry and journalism was packed with memorable performances and important life lessons that we can all relate to. The Best Editing nod is further evidence that it could have scored one for Best Picture, since the former is almost a prerequisite for the latter.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Nominations: Best Film Editing, Best Sound, Best Director (Ridley Scott), Best Cinematography
War is one of the Academy’s favorite genres, and they rarely pass up the opportunity to honor an unrelenting and frenetic offering such as this. Like so many other entries on our list, the National Board of Review and several Guilds took the time to notice Black Hawk Down, and some critics even deemed it culturally significant as America entered the post-9/11 period.
Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Foreign Language Film
While it’s rare for the international flick to crack the Best Picture field, there is a precedent in the way of 2012’s Amour. This charming narrative of helping others and discovering love may not have won the Best Foreign Film Oscar like that French film did, but it certainly won many Academy members over and would have had a strong argument for inclusion.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (Kate Winslet)
No matter the time period, the Academy is always going to go for the next great love story, and Eternal Sunshine is one of the most unique examples in this particular subgenre (plus, its Screenplay win indicates it had a lot of supporters). With its inventive high-concept premise, director Michel Gondry explored extremely relatable human emotions in heartbreaking fashion and captivated those who saw it.
Walk the Line (2005)
Nominations: Best Actress (Reese Witherspoon), Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Film Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing
Typically, when you want to go for Oscar gold, going for a biopic about a beloved cultural icon doesn’t hurt your chances. Walk the Line was obviously an acting showcase as Phoenix and Witherspoon brought Johnny and June Cash to life in a manner that went beyond imitation, but the number of accolades the film received spoke volumes to its quality and Best Picture candidacy.
Nominations: Best Animated Feature, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing
While The Dark Knight received a majority of the publicity of being an Oscar snub in 2008, Pixar’s sci-fi tale of environmentalism and true love was right there in the conversation as well. After the category expansion, Pixar secured Best Picture nominations in 2009 and 2010, meaning that this acclaimed bit of entertainment with a message most likely would have made the cut too.
As you can see, the term “Oscar snub” had a much different definition pre-2009 when compared to today. Given how many are outraged over snubs in the social media age, we have to wonder what the furor would be had any of these Hollywood classics been released in today’s moviegoing society.
We cannot stress enough that this list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so feel free to share your picks for films that should have been nominated for Best Picture in the comments below.