Arguably the biggest night in Hollywood is the Oscar ceremony. Each year, the Academy nominates the stars and films they deem to be “the best” of the past 12 months and reward their cinematic accomplishments. For the most part, the voters do a solid job of recognizing the year’s greatest, but everyone is well aware that they’re also notorious for snubbing popular choices. (READ: the 2014 Oscar Nominees.)
But even acclaimed films like Goodfellas, Fargo, and The Social Network are able to say they were at least invited to the party. Over the years, there are countless examples of terrific films that were left off the Oscar ballot entirely – despite receiving heavy praise from audiences and other critical organizations, and eventually, long lasting acclaim with audiences. With the nominations for the 86th Academy Awards being revealed January 16, we started thinking about some of our favorite films with zero Oscar nominations.
Please note: If a film received any kind of Oscar nomination (even in a lone technical category, like Fight Club), it is NOT eligible for this list. Films that didn’t get enough Oscar love are another discussion for another day.
Léon: The Professional (1994)
1994 was one of the more iconic years in film history. The Best Picture race (a controversial one at that) came down to Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, and The Shawshank Redemption. With a roster that includes classic movies like those, you would be hard-pressed to argue that the Academy overlooked one of the year’s finest – but if you said that Luc Besson and his gritty crime-revenge drama Léon: The Professional should have been there, there wouldn’t be too many cinephiles now that would disagreed.
The film’s best chance at any nomination was in the form of Gary Oldman’s Stansfield. Chewing up scenery everywhere he goes, Oldman portrays the villain in an over-the-top, but entertaining fashion. Responsible for some of The Professional’s most chilling moments, Oldman disappears into the character, showing off his impressive skill as a method actor (put it this way, you can’t tell that you’re watching Commissioner Gordon) and commitment to the role. The Academy typically favors antagonistic characters in the Best Supporting Actor category, so it’s odd that they would turn away from such an appealing choice.
In her first film role, Natalie Portman also drew praise for her performance as Mathilda. Filmmakers run a risk when they cast child actors in major parts, but Besson had a winner on his hands with the young Portman. Playing well beyond her years, the actress was able to handle the movie’s mature subject matter with ease. Giving us a well-rounded character that was both frightened and confident, she’s one of the most memorable parts of The Professional and could have easily been nominated for Best Actress. The Academy hasn’t been afraid to honor gifted youngsters before (they gave Best Supporting Actress to Anna Paquin the year prior), so there’s even some precedent.
NEXT: Famous Genre Film Snubs
Groundhog Day (1993)
Harold Ramis’ classic comedy about a weatherman (Bill Murray) stuck in a time loop in Punxsutawney, PA during Groundhog Day has been a favorite of movie fans for over 20 years. Perhaps the film’s strongest aspect is its screenplay, which won a BAFTA on top of several other honors. Last year, the Writers Guild of America even named it one of the top 101 screenplays of all-time. So it comes as some surprise that the Academy chose to ignore it when the Oscar nominations came around. Perhaps the film’s early release date was a detriment?
But the script wasn’t the lone reason why this film was added to the National Film Registry in 2006. Bill Murray’s nuanced performance – which balanced comedy and drama seamlessly – is one of the crowning moments of his illustrious career. His Phil Connors remains a likeable and sympathetic protagonist throughout the film, even when he’s at his most mean-spirited. Ramis deserved his fair share of credit as well, since he was able to take the high-concept of the premise and turn it into a grounded, believable film about the value of bettering yourself as a person.
With so many accolades to its name (including a spot on the American Film Institute’s top ten fantasy films) and its enduring popularity among movie fans, it’s a massive oversight by the Oscars that they did not nominate Groundhog Day for anything.
With résumés that include Oscar-nominated (and winning) classics such as The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Deer Hunter, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, having Robert De Niro or Al Pacino star in your film is a great way to get some awards buzz (or at least it was for a period of almost 20 years). Michael Mann must have felt like he struck gold when he cast both of them to star in his cops-and-robbers deconstruction piece, Heat, but the film ultimately fell flat with voters, securing – you guessed it – no Oscar nominations.
Like so many of the snubbed movies before it, Heat has gone on to have a bigger impact on the industry than the films that actually won. Several modern movies ranging from The Dark Knight to The Town have used Mann’s opus as a source of influence. Its ongoing impact on Hollywood notwithstanding, Heat operates as an intriguing character study of both sides of the law, buoyed by excellent performances from De Niro and Pacino. The screenplay and the performances should have been up for several awards – not just Oscars.
Heat is also a masterwork from a technical level, as Mann was able to create some of the most famous bank heist sequences in film. One viewing of Heat today, it’s hard not to see traces of their DNA in countless similar movies. The top-notch cinematography should have also been considered, along with other technical categories. Instead, the film was passed over by every major awards committee – despite being released in the thick of awards season.
Midnight Run (1988)
One of the more underrated De Niro pictures (in this writer’s opinion) is the late-’80’s comedy Midnight Run. Overcoming the conventions of the buddy-cop genre thanks in large part to the chemistry between De Niro and Charles Grodin, the film is both highly entertaining and full of great character moments that push it to the next level (“I hope it’s a wonderful coffee shop, Jack.”) . With a well-rounded script and a strong cast, Midnight Run was named one of the ten best films of the year by the National Board of Review.
Aside from that honor, the movie found some momentum at the Golden Globes, gaining nominations (but no wins) for Best Picture – Comedy/Musical and Best Actor – Comedy/Musical for De Niro. While the Oscars do not have a separate category for comedic films, the pair of Globe nods indicates that Midnight Run had several supporters on the awards circuit and the Academy hasn’t been afraid to recognize funny films in some capacity (see Marisa Tomei’s Best Supporting Actress win for My Cousin Vinny).
It would have been hard for the film to sneak into the Best Picture lineup, but a case could easily be made for the two stars to secure acting nominations. Both De Niro and Grodin delivered surprisingly subtle and nuanced performances (for a comedy) and the screenplay crafted three-dimensional characters that evolved as the film went on. Comedies rarely find good fortunes at the Oscars, but this is one case where an exception should have been made.
NEXT: Famous Director Snubs
The Terminator (1984)
The late-’70s to mid-’80s was the Golden Age of the Hollywood blockbuster. Crowd-pleasing spectacles like Jaws, Star Wars, Alien, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Back to the Future were not only recognized for their technical achievements; in many cases, the Academy also gave these movies nominations for the more “prestigious” categories like Best Picture or Best Original Screenplay.
So it seems odd, then, that Oscar would completely ignore one of the more famous films of the era, The Terminator. James Cameron’s 1991 sequel cleaned up in the technical categories, but his 1984 original received zero nominations. Stan Winston – who received several nominations and wins for his work in the years following The Terminator – was not noticed for his breakout job of creating the Terminator. The effects may look dated today, but for the time they were revolutionary.
Cameron’s screenplay was also inventive and thought-provoking and could have very easily earned a Best Original Screenplay nomination (Reese is John Connor’s father? TWIST!). Cameron (along with co-writer Gale Anne Hurd) received a Saturn Award for their writing and the Academy had shown a willingness to include genre films in that particular category in the years before.
Three Kings (1999)
Long before David O. Russell became an Academy favorite with his string of critically-acclaimed hits in the early 2010s, he directed the Gulf War gem Three Kings. Starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube, the film tells the story of a small group of soldiers who embark on a mission to steal gold for themselves – only to have a change of heart when they encounter a group of Iraqi rebels who need their help.
Featuring a morality tale that tied into a hot political issue, the film should have been ripe for Oscar nominations. Despite a number of honors from a variety of other critic organizations (including the National Board of Review and the Writer’s Guild of America), the movie ultimately found no support in the Academy. Granted, 1999 was one of the landmark years for film, but Three Kings received widespread acclaim upon its release and is considered to be one of the better films of that year. While it would have been tough for it to crack the lineup of only five Best Picture nominees, it seems odd that none of the strong performances were nominated (especially given the overwhelming success that Russell’s last few films have had with the acting branch), and Russell’s terrific script and stylish direction would have been worthy additions to the ballot.
When moviegoers think of Russell today, the term “Oscar lock” comes to mind, but that wasn’t always the case. Three Kings couldn’t even find love in the technical categories, despite the fact that other awards groups praised its cinematography, sound mixing, and editing.
The Big Lebowski (1998)
As is the case with David O. Russell, Joel & Ethan Coen have earned a reputation as Academy darlings thanks to building an impressive résumé that includes Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit. Even their lesser-known films like O Brother, Where Art Thou and A Serious Man have found their way on the ballot for screenwriting. It’s very rare for the Coens to be shut out completely – Fargo was awarded Best Original Screenplay in 1996, for example - but a snub is exactly what happened when the duo released The Big Lebowski, arguably their most famous film.
All the awards groups failed to appreciate Lebowski when it was initially released (for what it’s worth, it scored a handful of nominations in Europe). Still, the Coens have been nominated for five Best Screenwriting Oscars (winning twice) in their illustrious careers – but unfortunately their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, was snubbed at the 2014 Oscars, so maybe it is NOT surprising that one of their most quotable screenplays was also ignored.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about The Big Lebowski without mentioning Jeff Bridges’ defining role – the Dude. The actor’s most iconic performance is the perfect blend of apathy and comedy, crafting one of film’s most memorable characters. John Goodman (who has never been nominated in his career – crime) was more than deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination as his unhinged and hilarious turn as Walter stands out as one of the movie’s highlights. The Coens have directed their fair share of Oscar-nominated performances, so it seems like a missed opportunity that these two main players were left out.
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Like so many of his fellow auteurs, Quentin Tarantino is a well-regarded director who seems to deliver awards-quality films at every turn. A two-time winner for Best Original Screenplay (for Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained), Tarantino’s filmography has been showered with nominations in a variety of categories including Best Picture and the various acting awards. However, when he arrived on the scene in 1992 with Reservoir Dogs, the Academy did not take notice.
Keeping with the theme of our list, Tarantino’s debut feature received recognition from a handful of critic associations, with the filmmaker’s direction getting a bulk of the praise. One of his biggest strengths is his writing, which combines pop-culture references and dark humor to create lines of dialogue that stick with the viewer long after the film is over. Reservoir Dogs also features a lot of substance, tackling themes of honor among thieves and loyalty to friends. Both the screenplay and the film itself could have been nominated in their respective categories – especially in retrospect, as the film has become one of the most enduring releases of the year.
Tarantino is also famous for getting standout performances from his actors; guiding Christoph Waltz to two Best Supporting Actor wins among a number of other nominations. It’s hard to point at one specific performance in the ensemble as the “most Oscar-worthy” (since all the actors deliver), but a case can be made for Michael Madsen – who gave us the chilling and ruthless Mr. Blonde – or Harvey Keitel, whose Mr. White was a voice of calming influence and humanity – to have been placed on the ballot.
NEXT: Recent snubs
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was a watershed moment for the Academy. Not only did Heath Ledger win a posthumous Oscar for his chilling portrayal of the Joker (marking the first time an actor won a prize for a comic book role), it also affected the institution as a whole. When the middle chapter of the trilogy was not one of the five Best Picture nominees, the Academy responded to the uproar by expanding the category to include ten movies. They hoped this would allow more commercial fare to be included.
So it came with a heavy dose of irony when The Dark Knight Rises came out in 2012 and was awarded with… a grand total of zero nominations.
While not as beloved as its predecessor, the trilogy’s finale certainly had its fair share of supporters, as it was named one of the American Film Institute’s ten best films of the year. None of the performances reach the heights of Ledger, but the film very well could have snuck into the Best Picture lineup as the “token blockbuster” (a la Inception in 2010) without too many detractors. However, the biggest eye-opener was it being shut out in the technical categories (where summer blockbusters usually shine). State-of-the-art special effects, Wally Pfister’s cinematography, and Hans Zimmer’s exceptional score were all worthy of receiving a nod.
Many were expecting Nolan to at least get a Peter Jackson-style nomination for the cumulative effort of completing his trilogy; needless to say, the hopes were thoroughly crushed.
2011’s cancer dramedy 50/50 earned several accolades after its release, but an Oscar nomination was not one of them. Receiving praise from organizations like the Golden Globes and the National Board of Review, Jonathan Levine’s charming, inspirational film could not find a spot on the expanded Best Picture list – even though one can make a strong case it should have.
Will Reiser’s original screenplay (based on his own real-life struggles) pulled off the impossible (given the subject matter) by finding a happy medium between comedy and drama. There are several scenes and lines of dialogue that are gut-bustingly hilarious while others cause us to tear up. It told a heartfelt and realistic story of two friends enduring a trying ordeal and because the script was so strong, audiences were able to buy in.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt was also worthy of a Best Actor nomination (he even got his “Oscar clip” scene via the nervous breakdown in the car). 2011 was a tough year for this category, as big names like George Clooney and Brad Pitt were nominated, but there wouldn’t have been many complaints had Levitt found his way on the list. Like the screenplay, the actor had to achieve the right balance between two genres and did so with great effect. His Adam felt like a person we all know and Levitt showed he was more than capable of being a leading man.
While some of Hollywood’s greatest films have gone on to add “Oscar-winner” to their name, some of what many consider to be better, more enduring, works were not even nominated for a single category (only to become a respected film in the years following its release). Since film is a highly subjective medium, it’s all but a guarantee that this phenomena will not end and fans will be asking why the next batch of unappreciated movies didn’t fit in the Academy’s wheelhouse.
Of course, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to list some of your favorite movies that never got an Oscar nomination in the comments below. Whether it’s the crime classic Scarface, an old western such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the rare Scorsese picture to not find support, or anything from the filmography of John Hughes (Breakfast Club), there are plenty of instances to choose from.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90
The 86th Academy Awards will air on March 2. Check out the list of 2014 Oscar Nominees HERE.