This list is a small representative sample of films that were better than that year’s Academy Award Best Picture. There are numerous infamous examples of great films that lost the Oscar to a lesser film. Raiders lost to Chariots of Fire. ET and Tootsie lost to Ghandi. Apocalypse Now lost to Kramer vs Kramer. Citizen Kane lost to How Green was my valley. But this list isn’t about the BP losers. It’s about the ones that weren’t even nominated and are much better films than the film that the Academy declared was that year’s absolute best.
But I would say each entry on this list might be the best film that was released that year, yet somehow the Academy didn’t see its merit. The best modern examples of this are Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Both of which were not even considered and the winning film was far inferior. Respectively they were Crash and Slumdog Millionaire. I actually like Slumdog but it’s not in the same league as TDK.
It’s important to recognize merit when it goes unrecognized because films are massive collaborations between all sorts of people. And the hard work of everyone from the grips to the costumers, the actors to the directors should be praised. And the films on this list are all amazing and rarely receive recognition of any kind. Usually they wind up in the National Film Registry, but almost no one pays any attention to that. These films should have been recognized in their own time but their times failed them. They should be championed by someone. This is my humble attempt.
This list is not ranked, it is alphabetical.
My pick: In a lonely Place; Winner: All About Eve, Honorable Mention: The Gunfighter
All About Eve is a good film. It’s not a great film. The narration is unnecessary. And it’s generally boring without much of a plot. There are a few great performances in it but as a piece of cinema it’s lacking overall.
The Gunfighter staring Gregory Peck is superior in every way. This is one of the greatest westerns ever made. It’s taut from beginning to end. And Peck is great in this role. He’s not well known for his westerns but this and The Bravados are two of his best films. But that’s not my actual pick for this entry.
In a Lonely Place is one of the greatest films ever made. It is Bogart’s greatest performance by far. He was never given as much to do in any other film before or after. His most iconic roles are wonderful but often he’s just cool and reactive. Here Bogart shows us that he was not just a great star but one of the greatest actors of his or any generation.
Gloria Grahame also has her career high point in this magnificent film. She is generally underrated but the fact that her performance in this film is rarely is ever brought up is a travesty. Together they form a codependent alcoholic relationship under the shadow of Hollywood glamour. The potential for violence is every where felt as we root for what is obviously a tragedy waiting to happen.
In typical film noir style it’s a murder investigation with a complex emotional drama wrapped around. If you have not seen this film you need to as soon as possible. It is perfect.
My Pick: The Naked Spur; Winner: From Here to Eternity
Who even cares about From here to Eternity anymore? That one scene on the beach is featured in every film montage ever but it’s a boring movie. I’ve never finished it! About half way through two or three times now I’ve just turned it off. I tried but boring is boring.
The Naked Spur on the other hand is one of the greatest westerns ever, a genre perennially ignored by the Academy with a few notable exceptions. This is also easily one of Jimmy Stewart’s best films. Stewart had range. He wasn’t just the goofy Everyman. He could be heroic and cynical. And this is basically an action film, or as close as you can get to an action film in the 50s.
In fact director Anthony Mann is sometimes credited as being one of the co inventors of the action genre. He’s seen a resurgence of interest in the last few decades as a kind of dark horse auteur. His best films were westerns and this is probably the best of the bunch. He’s also known for pioneering what are sometimes called psychological westerns.
Psychology didn’t really have anything to do with it but the point of the name was to highlight that westerns like The Naked Spur were about more than just good and bad guys. They were emotionally complex satisfying stories about realistic men. Think High Noon vs Rio Bravo. Both great films but one feels very real and the other feels like a fantasy. The Naked Spur is actually a good balance between those extremes because it feels like an adventure film but it’s also very dark. If you like westerns and Jimmy Stewart this is essential viewing.
My Pick: Scarlet Street; Winner: Going my way
Going my way is fine. Bing Crosby is nice. But Scarlet Street might be the most perfect example of Film Noir. It features what is probably Edward G. Robinson’s best performance. It’s also one of the most powerful expressions of the banality of evil. This film is about every day simple darkness found in every human heart. But in film noir those little sins, the twisted habits of the heart, become the entangling web that catches up the main characters.
The villains in Film Noir are usually human nature and the self. There is no where to hide from these evils because they are in our very selves. Film Noir like this is so compelling because it is existentially terrifying. To honestly look at the horrible things that have happened to us and say “yes, this was my fault.”
Obviously that isn’t true of genuine victims. But for most of us our mistakes are our own. And that is when we find ourselves taking a stroll down scarlet street.
My Pick: Shadow of a Doubt; Winner: Casablanca
Hear that sound? It’s coming from you. And I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you scream like a crazy person.
Look I’m not saying Casablanca didn’t deserve BP. It did. In fact it might be the best film ever made. But if you switched it out for Shadow of a Doubt almost no honest person would blink. Not because they’re similar but because their quality is equal. That’s how good this film is. This film is almost certainly top 5 best films ever made. And it wasn’t one of the ten films nominated that year.
At least Casablanca won. At least that year was one of the few years where we can honestly say the Academy wasn’t wrong. But they also wouldn’t have been wrong to award it to this film.
There are a handful of Hitchcock Films everybody watches. Vertigo, Rear Window, Psycho, North by Northwest. These are the ones that are perennially popular. But his stuff in the 40s was just as good, even better. Notorious, Spellbound, Lifeboat, and most importantly Shadow of a Doubt.
Joseph Cotten is usually remembered for Citizen Kane and the Third Man. But the psychopathic Uncle Charlie was his greatest performance. And it also may have been Hitchcock’s crowning achievement. It has an amazing balance between the mundane and the murderous. Carpenter’s oft imitated Halloween owes far more to this film than it does Psycho.
And it’s unique in that it’s almost entirely shot on location. Something Hitch hated doing and consequently almost never did. But the end result was perfection.
My Pick: Sorcerer; Winner: Annie Hall
I don’t like Woody Allen very much. Mostly because I don’t think he understands cinema. But much worse than that is the subject matter of his “films.” They aren’t really possible to characterize because he’s very prolific and they’re all very different. But one thing they almost all have in common is that they are pretentious narcissistic romps through a childish id. But much worse than that they are essentially masturbatory stories about infantilized men.
His most iconic film is probably Annie Hall and it’s not much of a film. It’s basically a one man monologue by a bizarre man child trying desperately to give every female within reach chlamydia. Star Wars should have won instead.
It is one of the most perfect films ever made. From the opening shot to the glorious finale SW is a celebration of everything that makes cinema cinema. But the Academy decided they wanted to award a film that was the emotional equivalent of looking in a mirror and picking your nose.
Yet as great as SW is a superior film came out that year. Sorcerer is its opposite in almost every way. The premise is several political refugees in South America are tasked with driving trucks carrying nitro glycerin up a mountain. It’s sort of a remake of The Wages of Fear but Friedkin contends its an adaptation of the novel that the French film was based on. That’s probably one reason it didn’t fair well at the box office.
But it also came out at the same time as SW. So it was crushed and swept under the rug. But this film isn’t just better than SW and Annie Hall. This is director Friedkin‘s Magnum Opus. Which means it’s better than The Exorcist or The French Connection. In fact this is probably one of the ten best films ever made. Sadly it’s hard to view. The film is virtually unheard of. It’s a taut nihilistic thriller from beginning to end. Absolutely essential viewing for any cinephile.