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The Greatest Films Not to be Nominated for a Single Academy Award.

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

I’m a big fan of the Oscars. It may not be fashionable to admit that but I love the way the film industry gets together to celebrate both the highlights of modern cinema and the successes of years gone by. However, in order to truly appreciate the Academy Awards for what they are, you need to embrace the madness of it all – the iconic, timeless work that is passed over for mediocrity; the filmmakers who are ignored for their masterpieces and later rewarded for much-lesser efforts; and the glamour and spectacle of an evening that seems to completely disregard the troubles of the rest of the world.

The mistakes are as important to the event as the successes. With that in mind, I’d like to highlight some films that weren’t even nominated for a single award on Oscar night - not even a token nomination for, say, Sound Effects Mixing. The only caveats are that they are American productions (so that there’s no excuse for their omission) and that they were eligible from the first year of the awards onwards. Also, some of the films are grouped together to explore a common theme.

20) A Night at The Opera

Judd Apatow recently argued that the Academy Awards should have a category for comedies. Although I don’t agree a new section of awards is required (as you would have to have one for every genre considering how horror and science fiction are equally neglected), as a group of films they should be taken more seriously.

Well, okay, you can’t take the Marx brothers seriously. They’d have hated that more than anyone. However, their anarchic, chaotic films are still treasured years after other more ‘worthy’ titles have been consigned to history.

One reason for its omission may be that too many writers contributed, thus rendering it a team-effort of gags, but then it took five people to write the later-nominated ‘The Lives of a Bengal Lancer’. Also, many other nominated screenplays have benefited from a variety of figures.

A tightly written comedy routine is as beautiful in its way as any death or romantic scene. The ‘Signing of the Contract’ scene in ‘A Night at the Opera’ is honed to perfection. Each line heightens the humour and draws on the brothers’ stage experience to deliver such material. To argue that comedy writing of this standard is not something to be highly regarded would be to dismiss the works of Peter Cook, John Cleese and Neil Simon. In cinema, it’s arguably harder to make someone laugh then it is to make them cry.

19) Bringing Up Baby/His Girl Friday

More comedy but not quite as anarchic. The omission of ‘Bringing Up Baby’ is no mystery. It’s well established in Hollywood folklore that the failure of the film nearly ended the careers of Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hawks.

However, when coupled with the neglect of ‘His Girl Friday’, one feels that Hawks may have been years ahead of his rivals and the audience.

Like the writing of a Marx brothers scene, one has to ask – is the level of patter employed by Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in ‘Friday’ any less of an achievement than, say, the solemnity of Gary Cooper’s performance in ‘Sergeant York’ or the sense of terror portrayed by Joan Fontaine in ‘Suspicion’?

The screenplay, by Charles Lederer and based upon a play by Charles McArthur and the great Ben Hecht, uses words like a machine gun uses bullets – they’re fired thick and fast and set up a witty battle of the sexes. Last year, Aaron Sorkin was rightfully acclaimed for such dialogue in ‘The Social Network’, particularly its superb opening scene. These guys were doing it seventy years before!

18) Sullivans Travels

Preston Sturges wasn’t completely ignored by the Academy. In fact, he did win an Oscar. And yet ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ fell by the wayside. Quite how is beyond me. A light and enjoyable farce for the first half, it dramatically changes tone for the second and finishes with a truly profound message. Maybe Hollywood thought the argument that a Mickey Mouse cartoon is as important to some people as a Hollywood epic a bit trite or on-the-nose. Shame. This is Sturges’ masterpiece.

1941 was a particularly bad year for Oscar with ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ snubbed and ‘Citizen Kane’, ‘Dumbo’ and ‘The Maltese Falcon’ winning just two awards between them. Now I’m Welsh, so it seems somewhat traitorous to say this, but it seems farcical that the pleasant if unspectacular ‘How Green Was My Valley’ was the big winner that year.

17) Rio Bravo

Hawks again, nineteen years after ‘His Girl Friday’ and still on top form. His response to ‘High Noon’ has John Wayne leading the line, Dean Martin stealing the show and Angie Dickinson looking hot as hell.

‘Ben Hur’ swept up that year. Even Hugh Griffith took home the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ award in a year that had Martin in ‘Bravo’ and George C Scott in ‘Anatomy of a Murder’. It’s a situation that reminds me of standing in a bar and watching pretty-if-conventional girls being ignored whilst the guys surround an unattractive girl in hot pants. Like Griffith in ‘Ben Hur’, the garish outfit might fool you, but you’ll regret your choice the day after.

Furthman and Brackett’s screenplay is a great example of how to escalate tension and has been used as a template for many a film since.

That year, for Best Original Screenplay, ‘Rio Bravo’, Francois Truffaut for ‘The 400 Blows’, Ernest Lehman for ‘North by Northwest’ and Ingmar Bergman for ‘Wild Strawberries’ all lost out to ‘Pillow Talk’. Seriously, ‘Pillow Talk’. ‘Pillow Talk’!

16) Groundhog Day

Bill Murray is one of the finest screen comedians there’s ever been. Yet the Academy seemed to wait until all the life had been sucked out of him (in a good way) by Sofia Coppola before choosing to nominate him. Why couldn’t he have been nominated at the height of his game – in full acerbic, sarcastic splendour? This picture is the perfect showcase for Murray, as it plonks him unceremoniously in a world he can’t help but look his nose down. And no one does this in quite as likeable a way as Murray.

One of the Best Picture nominees that year was ‘The Fugitive’. A routine film with a couple of quality set pieces. ‘Groundhog Day’ is a delight from the first moment to the last with its witty screenplay, light direction and enjoyable performances.

15) Detour

Each year, the Academy Awards tend to be dominated by the output of the major studios. Naturally, this is due to the financial strength they are able to give to the campaigns.

‘Detour’, a film noir from a Poverty Row studio, was unlikely to be able to compete with the major productions of that year. However, few films have as much an impact on the audience as this terrific, and little known, gem.

The biggest sin of omission was for Ann Savage for her ruthless, psychotic turn. Never once does Savage try to make her character more sympathetic. There is an unrelenting viciousness to her, and it infects the film with such a sense of nihilism and despair.

Edgar G Ulmer creates great atmosphere and tension on a small budget.

That is a great skill in itself. Hitchcock was nominated that year for one of his lesser works, ‘Spellbound’. I think Ulmer would have been a more worthy nominee.

14) Night of the Living Dead

I will cheat twice on this list. I haven’t seen this film. However, it would be remiss of me to limit this list to films I’ve seen. It’s quite evident the debt many horror filmmakers owe to Romero, as he is an oft-used point of reference.

Like comedy, horror is another neglected genre. Yet they are the two genres more likely to garner an instant reaction than any other. I would also claim that you would likely find more social commentary or satire in a horror film than you would in other more mainstream dramatic films.

Mind you, even ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ couldn’t gain a Best Picture nomination the year of ‘Night of the Living Dead’. That year belonged to ‘Oliver!’ which, in hindsight, may well have picked a pocket or two.

13) The Terminator

How could F Murray Abraham’s Salieri be recognised over Arnie’s T-800, you might ask. Well, maybe not.

However, ‘The Terminator’ was a great breakthrough for James Cameron. It fizzles with energy and the punky design gives it a great edge, aided by the iconic costume design. Brad Fiedel’s score sets the mood beautifully and has endured over the years. The special effects were groundbreaking, and should surely have been nominated.

‘Splash’, ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’, ‘Footloose’ and even ‘Greystroke’ all received more nominations that year.

12) Badlands

The second cheat. Terrence Malick’s debut is the other film I haven’t seen on this list, even though I’ve wanted to for some time. If Malick’s other work is anything to go by, this was an unwarranted omission.

I shall leave the summing up to Geoff Andrews of Time Out who wrote "One of the most impressive directorial debuts ever... What distinguishes the film, beyond the superb performances of Sheen and Spacek, the use of music, and the luminous camerawork by Tak Fujimoto, is Malick's unusual attitude towards psychological motivation.”

Sounds pretty good to me! Certainly more so than ‘The Way We Were’.

11) This is Spinal Tap

‘Amadeus’ may be the best film about musicians in 1984. But did Mozart ever get to support a puppet show with a ‘Jazz Odyssey’? Did he ever use a dwarf to dance around a miniature version of an English landmark? And did he ever feel the need to go up to 11?

Considering Pat Morita was nominated for his wooden turn as Mr Miyagi in ‘The Karate Kid’, surely one of the Spinal Tap members could have taken his place in the list of nominees?

Of the nominated songs that year, ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’, ‘Against All Odds’, ‘Footloose’, ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Let’s Hear it For the Boys’, which reads like a horrible mix-tape of soundtracks to parties from my childhood, none had the nerve to talk about mud flaps. The boys of Spinal Tap did.

That year there was an award for ‘Best Song, Score’. ‘Spinal Tap’ was passed over for ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan’. Ahem.

10) Upon a Time in America/Once Upon a Time in the West

‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ is my favourite film of all time. Leone’s western operates as a dance of death against the backdrop of American industry driving forward and crushing everything in its path. The only reason it’s not higher is due to the fact it’s an international co-production.

Ennio Morricone’s score is beyond beautiful. It helps Leone’s images to transcend the western genre, and to somehow capture the spirit and feel of life and death and everything in between. The cinematography captures the emotion of the human face like only Leone’s films can. And the beauty of the patient build-up engineered by the editing of the opening sequence helps to form one of cinema’s most memorable moments.

And six years later, these guys returned with ‘Once Upon a Time in America’, a ghostly and brutal foray into American crime. Robert De Niro’s pensive performance plays second fiddle to James Woods’ sneering and quietly psychotic turn. Like several others mentioned in this list, Woods lost out to Pat Morita’s Mr Miyagi.

The set design evokes an ethereal New York, in which genuine violence lurks everywhere and love lurks nowhere. And Morricone once again shows composers just how it’s done.

9) In a Lonely Place / To Have and Have Not

There’s no doubt that Humphrey Bogart was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars from the moment John Huston rescued him from supporting roles to headline ‘The Maltese Falcon’. It’s surprising to consider that despite his many superb performances through the 1940s and 1950s, he only won the Oscar once – for ‘The African Queen’.

How could Bogart not have won for ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ or, amazingly, for ‘Casablanca’? However, these films were well rewarded in other ways hence their exclusion from this list.

Two Bogart films that were completely passed over were the violent, thrilling ‘In a Lonely Place’, where he gives his career best performance as a screenwriter with an uncontrollable aggressive streak; and ‘To Have and Have Not’, Howard Hawk’s sexy, playful adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Cuba-set novel.

Both of these films benefit from quality screenplays, assured direction, great performances by Bogart and delightful turns by other performers – not least Lauren Bacall for ‘To Have and Have Not’.

It wasn’t until the 1960s when the French critics re-examined Bogart’s films with a more intellectual approach. For the most part, it appears that his films were seen as disposable film-noirs or crime thrillers and not worthy for Academy Awards. I would say, seventy years later we know better!

8) Reservoir Dogs

Tarantino is now so much a part of the filmmaking landscape that it seems peculiar to consider that his breakthrough role, which began all the narrative devices and tricks he would hone through the rest of his career, failed to be nominated in a year that saw ‘Scent of a Woman’ do rather well.

The supporting cast make the most of this dialogue-heavy screenplay. Steve Buscemi crackles with energy, Michael Madsen acts like he actually has cold blood icing through his veins and Harvey Keitel is as great as usual.

Two years later, Tarantino was honoured for ‘Pulp Fiction’ with a win for Best Screenplay. Even then though, he was beaten to Best Picture by the far less controversial and far more crowd pleasing ‘Forrest Gump’.

Now that he has restricted himself to directing homages, he may well have to be content with the one award.

7) The Night of the Hunter

Cinema may well be no more than a form of entertainment but it can occasionally rise to the level of art. Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa are the easy names to call upon for that argument. But American cinema? How often does it aspire to art? The works of Chaplin and Keaton? John Ford at his most personal? The unique, uncompromising approach of Kubrick? ‘The Night of the Hunter’ would sit easily with any of these.

Mitchum is watchable even at the worst of times. When he was cast in a role that played upon his animalism and violence, you can’t take your eyes off him. Charles Laughton’s sole directorial venture has an eerie, poetic feel to it. There is no other film that looks like this.

1956 was a poor year for the Oscars. The winning work of that year is now long forgotten. The safe, conventional choices merely display how little the Academy dared to involve themselves with the daring, dark side of American cinema. Shame.

6) The Shining

Not only not nominated for an Oscar, but nominated for two Razzies – even including one for Kubrick – which is a situation that helps me to understand how the world slowly drove Jack Torrance to madness.

Kubrick’s painstaking and methodical build up of tension creates a terrifying piece of work. Whether Shelley Duvall’s performance is a result of acting or pure Kubrick-style manipulation is debatable but it can’t have been the easiest gig in her career. And Jack Nicholson chews the scenery beautifully here. As Kubrick said to Spielberg, it’s like watching James Cagney explode in ‘White Heat’.

I’d be little happier if I could say that ‘The Shining’ missed out in the year that ‘The Elephant Man’ dominated. Instead, I have to write that sentence replacing ‘The Elephant Man’ with ‘Ordinary People’.

5) Millers Crossing/The Big Lebowski

The Coens have a very cautious approach to award ceremonies. From their point of view, the films nominated are often arbitrary. What did ‘Fargo’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’ have that ‘Miller’s Crossing’ and ‘The Big Lebowski’ did not?

Frances McDormand is a delight in ‘Fargo’ but Jeff Bridges’ Dude near-sparked a religion. ‘No Country for Old Men’ is deeply thematic, but ‘Miller’s Crossing’ is just as much an exploration of loyalty, brutality and honour.

David Thompson was right when he commented that ‘the last thing the Big Lebowski needs is to be recognised by the Academy’. However, I would finish this point by stating that ‘The Big Lebowski’ could have filled the Best Supporting Actor category all by itself, and that there are few films as beautifully designed as ‘Miller’s Crossing’.

4) King Kong

How many films have had such an immediate and persistent effect on popular culture as ‘King Kong’? The story of how Beauty killed the Beast is so well-established it seems difficult to believe the film originated from an idea by a horror novelist and an ex-wrestler.

Admittedly, not much of an argument could be made for the cast getting recognition. However, it seems a shame that Cooper and Shoedsack’s atmospheric work was passed over. And in an era when honorary awards were often handed out, how could Willis O’Brien not be recognised for his superb stop-motion achievements?

‘King Kong’ wasn’t nominated in a year that ‘Cavalcade’ was the big winner. And who the hell has heard of ‘Cavalcade’?

3) Heat

I am of the opinion that Michael Mann will be celebrated for his work by future generations, but remain comparatively underrated during his lifetime. I say ‘comparatively’ because he does get to work on his own projects with high-budgets, as well as enjoying a strong reputation amongst critics.

But then you have to remember how little ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ is recalled as a beautiful example of action cinema; how ‘The Insider’, one of the most intelligent and superbly pitched dramas of the 1990s, is known as the film where “Russell Crowe was fat”; and how ‘Heat’ wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award.

Mann’s control over his productions is so absolute that the neglect of ‘Heat’ is all the more surprising. The cinematography, with it’s cold blue style, captures both the beauty and danger of a city like L.A., and would go on to influence the look of many other films, not least the ‘The Dark Knight’.

The sound design, something Mann takes a great deal of time exploring, is stunning. Hearing the gunshots echoing off the tall L.A. skyscrapers during the sensational bank robbery scene only serves as a reminder as to how much sound can add.

Also, the editing help to make the film one of the most enthralling and exciting in recent memory. The aforementioned bank robbery is one of the most powerful action scenes I have ever seen, as it is able to balance the gunplay with the emotion that each character is experiencing. How many other action films merely concentrate upon the firing bullets, and not the fear and adrenalin of those firing them?

Mann’s screenplay allows the film to be a solid, methodical and precise view of the mechanics of both police-work and criminal enterprise, whilst being filmic, emotional and stylised. The myriad of characters are as well-served as the supporting cast in any Paul Thomas Anderson or Robert Altman picture.

Finally, we have Pacino and De Niro. Both have been better, for sure. However, ‘Heat’ plays to their on-screen personas in a way no other film has. Pacino’s Hannah is explosive, emotional, and elemental. De Niro’s McCauley is quietly intense, precise and disciplined. The whole back catalogue of their work flows into these characters and yet each feels a fully rounded character.

1995 was a great year for cinema. Fincher’s ‘Se7en’, Singer’s ‘Usual Suspect’ and ‘Heat’ moved the crime genre on with a massive leap. ‘Toy Story’ changed the landscape of animated film. However, the big winner that year was the factually-challenged ‘Braveheart’. Hell, even ‘Waterworld’ got a nomination!

2) City Lights/Modern Times

Chaplin’s relationship with Oscar was rather curious. In the first year, he was removed from official competition in order to receive an honorary award for writing, producing, directing and acting in ‘The Circus’. Gone was the opportunity for the cinematic icon to take home the inaugural Best Actor award.

In later years, ‘The Great Dictator’, ‘Limelight’ and ‘Monsieur Verdoux’ received a couple of nominations. And yet his two masterpieces, ‘City Lights’ and ‘Modern Times’ were completely ignored. Maybe this was because Chaplin was still making silent films years after everyone else had stopped.

When you see the ending of ‘City Lights’, you are watching cinema at it’s most powerful. Sound isn’t required for the emotional impact the images

deliver. Not for nothing did Orson Welles claim this to be the ‘greatest film ever made’.

The tightness and quality of Chaplin’s comedic acting is at its height in both films. The boxing scene in ‘City Lights’ is as good slapstick as has ever been done. In ‘Modern Times’, you couldn’t imagine anyone else other than Chaplin in those early factory scenes.

There is no one more iconic in American cinema than Chaplin. His appearance is known to those who’ve never seen one of his films. Throughout his career, he should have taken home many of the golden statuettes. Yet they waited until he was nearing death before giving him an honorary award. This may be the pinnacle of the argument made earlier that comedy is not taken seriously enough

1) The Searchers

A mystery. Pure and simple.

Considering that ‘The Searchers’ is now regarded as one of the great landmarks in American cinema; was directed by John Ford, the winner of most Best Director Oscars in the awards’ history; and saw the great John Wayne give his most complex and daring performance, it seems all the more perplexing that it lost to ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’, which is probably the worst film to win Best Picture.

We can see the effect this western had on future filmmakers. Spielberg watches it before he begins every picture. George Lucas’ used the sequence showing the aftermath of the family massacre as the template for a similar scene in ‘Star Wars’. John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards would pave the way for De Niro’s Travis Bickle and Clint Eastwood’s William Munney, with its portrayal of a conflicted and violent anti-hero. Hindsight is, indeed, a wonderful thing, but it is demonstrative that the film had an immediate impact on the audience.

Ford’s beloved Monument Valley has never looked better. The epic widescreen shots convey the lonely expanses the pioneers braved. The score is stunning and sets the tone for this dark, brooding masterpiece.

In comparison, ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ is garish, overloaded and boring. The success of spectacle over substance would be seen time and again (‘Titanic’ over ‘LA. Confidential’, ‘Dances with Wolves’ over ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Ben Hur’ over ‘Anatomy of a Murder’). No more is the Academy’s willingness to reward mediocrity over daring artistry more evident than with the disregard for ‘The Searchers’ and the celebration of films of the ilk of ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.

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