The Oscars will air this coming Sunday, and while Hollywood is readying itself to see who takes home the night’s big prize, we take a look back at the non-winners. The Academy Awards is rich with history, and while the story of the night is usually who won, it can also be about who didn’t win (yours truly has still not gotten over Saving Private Ryan losing the top prize in 1999). Since doing a Top 10 list of all Best Picture losers would surely be more difficult than a list of Top 10 winners, let’s just take a look back at the past ten years (nice round number as Doc Brown would say).
10. District 9
Neill Blomkamp’s debut feature seemingly came out of nowhere. He had originally been tapped by Peter Jackson to direct the big-budget version of Halo, but Microsoft balked at the idea of an untested director which led Blomkamp to adapting his short film “Alive in Joburg”. What resulted was the surprise hit of the summer (2009) and was a watershed moment for science fiction. If the Best Picture race hadn’t been widened to a field of 10 that year, it’s unlikely this sci-fi gem would have gotten in. But with its clever infusion of documentary-style filmmaking, powerful explorations of apartheid, and thrilling action sequences, District 9 transcended its genre tropes to be something so much more. It deservedly earned additional nominations for screenplay, visual effects, and film editing and is one of the most innovative and memorable sci-fi films of the new century.
9. Michael Clayton
Unless you count being the best movie to come from the writer of The Cutting Edge, Michael Clayton never had an awards season storyline like a career crowning achievement (No Country for Old Men) or the little Indie that could (Juno) to give it any chance at a win. No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood received their due accolades, but Michael Clayton deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those two with absolutely exceptional work across the board. If it hadn’t been for Daniel Day-Lewis (you know, the greatest actor of forever), Clooney would have won his first Best Actor trophy. Give it 5 years (and approximately 500 showings on TNT/FX/USA), and you’ll eventually agree.
8. There Will Be Blood
While not prolific in any sense, Paul Thomas Anderson has become one of the most revered voices in American cinema. You could make a case that most of his films deserve to be in the Best Picture conversation, but it wasn’t until his partnership with Daniel Day-Lewis (D-Day for us cool kids) that he finally broke through. Blood is a sprawling American epic that tackles issues of family, greed, religion, and capitalism — all anchored by Day-Lewis’ performance that is nothing short of a force of nature. Day-Lewis rightly won his second Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Daniel Plainview, a man of Citizen Kane proportions driven to murderous insanity. If it hadn’t been for the Coen Brothers’ career-best work on No Country For Old Men, you probably would have seen Anderson joining Day-Lewis in the winners circle with Oscars for Director and Picture in-hand.
7. Up in the Air
Early on in the 2009 Oscar season, it seemed like the race was Up in the Air’s to lose. However early frontrunner status is largely seen as the kiss of death for awards prospects. Debuting just a year after the 2008 financial crisis, Air was all about the now. A portrait of a country being thrown out onto the street and trying to figure out how to fight its way back. George Clooney, in a role he was born to play, is a man lost between career and wondering if there’s something more. His ending is uncertain, not knowing where he’s going to next. Much like the people he was hired to fire. Jason Reitman was a surprise director nominee for Juno two years prior, but here he firmly cemented himself as one of the freshest up-and-coming voices. A movie that is all at once hilarious, romantic, poignant, and timely.
Is there a reason why certain genres never win Best Picture? How do you quantify the difference between creating believable sci-fi versus writing a musical number? No matter how you determine that difficulty, there are probably less than a handful of people that could create, write, and execute Inception into the movie it is, and thankfully Christopher Nolan got the freedom to do it. The Dark Knight being snubbed for both Picture and Director is largely regarded as the impetus for expanding the Best Picture field to 10 (or up to 10). And it seemed now would finally be the time for Nolan to be honored as the visionary director he is. By marrying his sensibilities for penetrating psychological drama (Memento) and smart, big-budget spectacle (The Dark Knight), Nolan creates something wholly original, thrilling, mind-bending, but never losing sight of his character’s humanity. A film that demands to be watched, re-watched, dissected, and discussed for years to come — isn’t that what we want from a Best Picture? Thankfully the expanded field allowed Nolan to finally enter the Best Picture race but he continues to be snubbed by the director’s branch. Hopefully that changes with this year’s Interstellar.
5. Inglorious Basterds
It had been a while since Tarantino was in the hunt for the big one. So it came as no surprise that his return to the Best Picture game came with a story set in Oscar’s favorite wheelhouse: World War Two. While the Kill Bill films were great fun in their own regard (mostly for the performances of Uma Thurman and the late, great David Carradine), Basterds was Tarantino at his best since Pulp Fiction. Sold as a Brad Pitt war movie, the film ends up having little use of Pitt apart from his entertaining southern drawl (“No, more like chewed out. I’ve been chewed out before.”). Instead the real stars are Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent. Laurent is an exceptional find as the victim-turned-avenger and watching her interact with Waltz gives the film one of its tensest scenes. But it’s in Christoph Waltz where Tarantino finds his new muse. Waltz displays charm, menace, calculation, and terror in equal measure. Filled with many other great supporting performances (looking at you Fassbender) and set-pieces (the basement tavern), Basterds is a film that only gets better with each viewing.
4. Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 was only the third animated film to be nominated for the big prize (Beauty and the Beast and Up being the first two). Since the creation of the Best Animated Feature category, there seemed to not be as much demand to push animated films into the main race. Luckily, with the expansion to ten, films like Up and Toy Story 3 are able to call themselves Best Picture nominees (and they wholly deserve to do so). Toy Story 3 is a film that shouldn’t have worked as well as it did. It was thought that sequels to animated classics were never as good as the original (Toy Story 2 proved that wrong), and then it was thought a third film would only be a letdown (wrong again). Instead of treading water for what could have been seen by a cash-grab by the studio, Pixar deciding to dig deep into the themes of what it means to grow up and setting aside childish things. The first Toy Story made our toys and imaginations come to life, but it was Toy Story 3 that made them part of the family. Loved ones we didn’t want to see go. While the movie is expertly framed within a fun prison escape story, it’s the final moments to penetrate even the coldest of hearts. And it’s what catapults this third chapter into the top-tier of animated works.
3. Life of Pi
3D spectacle continues to evolve as our best filmmakers take the reigns of the new technology. From Avatar, to Hugo, to Pi (and this year’s Gravity) — audiences are finding reasons why they need to return to the movie theater. In the face of countless destruction from summer blockbusters, it’s great to see films emerge in the later months that are reaching for something higher than fanboy approval. Ang Lee has always been adept at crafting beautiful images and telling deeply human stories, but the visuals he displays in Life of Pi are simply extraordinary. The imagery alone is breathtaking enough, but the story that Lee takes us on it unforgettable. A film about faith, storytelling, and finding the will to believe against all odds. Why do we continue to fight on, even after we’ve lost everything? According to Lee it’s something primal and intangible within us. By the end you feel both exhausted and fulfilled and are left contemplating over the journey you just experienced, and immediately want to be swept away by it again and again.
2. Brokeback Mountain
“And the winner is… Crash” Gasp! Most people couldn’t believe it. It seemed unfair, insulting even to some. Ang Lee (listed again, we know) turned in a work that was groundbreaking back in 2005. Lee won his first, much deserved, Best Director Oscar and it seemed like it would have no trouble claiming the big prize (after rolling through the precursors with ease and acclaim). It was destiny, or was supposed to be. Instead the Academy wasn’t quite ready to call the “gay cowboy movie” its Best Picture. If the film had been released today, it’s hard to imagine a movie that would beat it. The powerful and enduring love story is more than gay or straight, but universal in someone loving someone society tells them they aren’t supposed to. With incredible performances from its entire cast (especially the late Heath Ledger), Brokeback paved the way for LGBT films everywhere. This is not to be condemnation of Crash (which had plenty of detractors before it won Best Picture), but a lamentation of a film that was truly unique, timeless, and human. There is a special club for movies that didn’t win which should have — Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Network, Pulp Fiction, Saving Private Ryan — and Brokeback fits comfortably among them as some of the best cinema America has to offer.
1. The Social Network
It’s loss to The King’s Speech seemed more inevitable than Brokeback’s loss to Crash. We also think The King’s Speech is a fine film with great performances, and it’s a fine Best Picture… for 1995. Much like Up in the Air, The Social Network is a story of America and who we are now. Who would have thought the ideas of “Let’s make a Facebook movie!” and “Let’s make a Battleship movie!” would have such vastly different outcomes. Thankfully, the story behind Facebook has more meat than red dots versus blue dots, and by combining the power trio of Aaron Sorkin, Scott Rudin, and David Fincher, you get a timely story told with the timeless themes of what power and ambition can do to a person and a friendship. Aaron Sorkin’s script matched with Fincher’s eye created something that was greater than the sum of its parts. It transcends the idea that it’s just “the Facebook movie” or a college movie. It’s a portrait of how a moment at Harvard University changed the entire way our society and culture functions. It leads our list because when film historians look back at this century’s first decade, it will undoubtedly view Fincher and Sorkin’s masterpiece as both defining and iconic.