Over the course of the Academy Awards’ near-90 history, a grand total of 528 films have been nominated for the Best Picture. For filmmakers and producers, this is the Holy Grail of the awards season, the year-defining statuette valued higher than any other. While distinctions like Cannes’ Palme d’Or or the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance hold greater resonance to independent filmmakers, the Best Picture Oscar is considered by many as the apex of what one can achieve in Hollywood.
Naturally, there can only be one winner. Every year, several films are nominated but ultimately fall at the final hurtle. It’s not entirely uncommon for Best Picture nominees to be soon forgotten about, casting them into the depths of Oscar obscurity. With the 2016 ceremony on the horizon, SquareEyed picks out 20 brilliant Best Picture Nominees you have probably never heard of!
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Lost to: The French Connection
In a strong year that also saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange missing out, The Last Picture Show is something of a forgotten classic from director Peter Bogdanovich. Featuring an incredibly young Jeff Bridges, it’s a seminal coming-of-age story set at the tail end of the Korean War. It follows a group of high school kids trying to find their way against the backdrop of an impossibly harsh Texan town, ravaged by an economic downturn. Through bleak surroundings, they find happiness and salvation. Impeccably directed and featuring a multitude of layered performances, The Last Picture Show is a cinematic slice of hope often forgotten about in discourses of ‘Coming of Age’ dramas.
Midnight Express (1978)
Lost to: Annie Hall
If there was ever a film to show you exactly why the riches of high-profile drug smuggling is not worth the risk, Midnight Express was it. Written by a legendarily coked out Oliver Stone, it centres on the true misfortunes of Bill Hayes, an American college student who was caught smuggling an 2kgs of hash out of Turkey, subsequently hurled into a brutal and uncompromising Istanbul prison. It’s a terrifying, searing portrait that came under serious criticism from some corners of critical commentary for being distinctly anti-Turkish. Regardless of its political viewpoint, it’s a cracking watch.
Lost to: The Godfather
From our former critic, Monty Smith: Burt Reynolds and his three big-city pals find a nasty surprise when they go down to the Georgia backwoods for a weekend’s canoeing. A terrifying trip through alien and hostile territory, observed by British director John Boorman with devastating detachment. His haunting, strangely beautiful movie continues to influence film-makers and, after Duelling Banjos, hillbilly music never again seemed quite so jolly.
Reynolds’ macho screen image was cleverly undercut in James Dickey’s sparse screenplay (adapted from his own novel) and the casting all round was perfect: Jon Voight, Ronny Cox and, squealing like a pig, Ned Beatty. Brilliantly photographed by Vilmos Zsigmond, Deliverance remains the king of all wilderness thrillers.
Lost to: Dances With Wolves
Featuring a mightily bravura double-act in Robert De Niro (while he was still creditable) and the late Robin Williams, Awakenings is the stunning true story of British neurologist Oliver Sacks (fictionalised as Malcolm Sayer in the film for Williams’ character) who discovered the beneficial effects of the drug L-Dopa, which awakened catatonic patients, including an astonishing trial run with Leonard Lowe (De Niro).
Awakenings is a profound, deeply moving study of the immense courage of patients – and the fearlessness of a revolutionary doctor. Raw and subversive, Awakenings simply doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Five Easy Pieces (1970)
Lost to: Patton
An early entry in the stellar career of Jack Nicholson, this is a film about an oil rig worker. Yes, that doesn’t exactly sound riveting, but the blue-collar journey of one man with an extraordinary pianist gift disguises himself as an oil worker is a force of nature. Nicholson’s, Robert Eroica Dupea, is an unforgettable creation as we follow him through the bars and bowling alleys of America, captured with heart-wrenching intensity by Bob Rafelson.
The Killing Fields (1984)
Lost to: Amadeus
Films about journalism have often been well received. All the President’s Men perhaps remains the definitive account of fearless investigative reporting, but there’s a catalogue of worthy titles to supplement it. The Killing Fields captures the experiences of a New York Times reporter (Sam Waterston) trapped in Cambodia during tyrant Pol Pot’s “Year Zero,” when two millions civilians lost their lives. It’s an honest, touching film that showcases the atrocities of war and inherent dangers in warzone reporting. Investigating Watergate, this ain’t.
The Insider (1999)
Lost to: American Beauty
There’s no shame in losing to American Beauty, but The Insider should be remembered regardless of what it won or lost. An on-form Michael Mann directs a couple of outstanding performances from Russell Crowe and Al Pacino in this dramatised account of a 60 Minutes segment on the tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. Although it didn’t have the gravitational box office pull of Sam Mendes’ suburban nightmare, The Insider afforded Mann the best reviews of his career, surpassing even his masterful crime saga Heat. As enthralling as it is labyrinthine, The Insider is All the President’s Men meets Deep Throat.
Lost to: Out of Africa
Harrison Ford’s only Leading Actor nomination, believe it or not, came from this outstanding Peter Weir-directed thriller. Ford is John Book, the detective sent to Amish country to protect a young boy who is the sole witness to a grisly murder. It’s a movie about choices, choices that we make and choices others make for us. Powerful, assured and featuring a Ford that will stunt Han Solo and Indy fans the world over, Witness is a crime thriller you’re not likely to see the like of ever again.
The Conversation (1974)
Lost to: The Godfather Part II
The Conversation was the rarest of cases; a director losing to himself. Yes, Francis Ford Coppola was really that good in the 70s. The Conversation wasn’t quite up to the level of Godfather Part II but it’s a heck a lot better than most thrillers made these days. Featuring a brilliant Gene Hackman as a surveillance expert suffering a mental breakdown when he suspects the couple he’s spying on will be murdered, The Conversation is a pressure-cooker level of tension throughout. It scooped the Palme d’Or at Cannes and demands multiple viewings to truly appreciate the depth of genius at work here, from Hackman’s tragic central performance to Coppola, operating at a level of filmmaking productivity unprecedented at that time.
The Right Stuff (1983)
Lost to: Terms of Endearment
Adapted from Tom Wolfe’s celebrated 1979 novel of the same name, The Right Stuff focuses on the Mercury 7, a group of astronauts selected to advance groundbreaking aeronautical research. Featuring an excellent cast including Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid and Scott Glenn, The Right Stuff depicts some of the most thrilling flight footage ever put on film. It was also a particular favourite of film criticism doyen Roger Ebert, who placed it at #2 Best Movies of the 1980s, after only Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Watch it, thank us later.
Lost to: Rocky
Yes, that year the Academy chose Rocky over Network, Taxi Driver and All the President’s Men. It happened. We have to get over it. Even still, Network, a biting satirical masterpiece still holds up 40 years later. Directed by Sidney Lumet, it centres on the fictional television network UBS, struggling with poor ratings. A scorching look at the shameful bureaucratic politics in not only television, but society in general, Network boasts a flawless screenplay and a couple of memorable turns from Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway. Supremely well-acted and intelligent, Network will knock the Rocky right out of you.
Lost to: Million Dollar Baby
Set over the course of a wine-soaked week shared between two friends, Thomas Haden Church and Paul Giamatti, Sideways is easily one of the funniest Best Pictures nominees of all time. From director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Nebraska), it’s set in the beautiful California wine vineyards where an incorrigible narcissist and a depressed writer get embroiled in all sorts of hilarious jams, including with Virgina Madsen and Sadro Oh, the two unfortunate women they encounter. It’s nearly impossible to watch Sideways without a ridiculous grin smacked across your face.
Cider House Rules (1999)
Lost to: American Beauty
Another excellent entry from 1999, The Cider House Rules is a wonderful drama about Homer Wells, a young man (pre-Spiderman Tobey Maguire) brought up in a Maine orphanage by the avuncular, secret-abortion provider Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), eventually deciding to leave the place and see the world. When he meets the impregnated couple of Wally and Candy, he starts to learn of a dark secret hidden in the orphanage he called a home for so many years. Driven by the excellent source material written by John Irving, it’s an inspirational drama that does incredibly well not to veer into fappy cheesiness.
“Goodnight you princes of Maine, you kings of New England!”
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Lost to: Rain Man
This Alan Parker (Midnight Express, The Wall) film is a gloriously uncomfortable portrait of two discordantly different policeman styles, delivered on screen and on point by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe. However, in a narrative centred on a brutal triple murder of civil rights activists, Parker is remarkably professional and restrained in executing racism as realism. It’s essential and painful, and correctly used as a model for any aspiring filmmaker on how to portray the racial segregation of blacks in the USA during the 1960s.
Michael Clayton (2007)
Lost to: No Country for Old Men
Manhattan law firm fixer George Clooney doesn’t see himself as a miracle worker – more like a janitor, mopping up after hours. When senior colleague Tom Wilkinson’s moment of clarity in the corporate jungle manifests itself as a breakdown, Clooney is sent to smooth the feathers of Wilkinson’s wicked opponent, Tilda Swinton (picking up a Bafta alongside her Academy Award), in a three-billion dollar class action. Written and directed by Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton recalls the dark look and flinty style of the great 70s conspiracy thrillers.
The Crying Game (1992)
Lost to: Unforgiven
One of the greatest Irish films ever made, The Crying Game follows Stephen Rea’s IRA member as he slips into a friendship with a British soldier he’s holding captive – and the soldier’s girlfriend. Featuring one of the greatest twists in cinematic history, The Crying Game is a deeply involving drama that is respectful in its exploration of thematic issues like race, nationality and sexuality. Challenging social norms, Neil Jordan deservedly scooped an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, but 1992 was Clint Eastwood’s year through and through.
In the Bedroom (2001)
Lost to: A Beautiful Mind
In idyllic Mid-Coast Maine, the Fowler family’s only son Frank comes home from his freshman year at college for summer vacation. His mother Ruth, the school choir director, is unhappy with Frank dating soon-to-be divorced mother Natalie who is several years his senior, but Frank’s father Matt, the town doctor, doesn’t see a problem. While Frank considers holding off his future for Natalie, her jilted husband causes them all problems until an unthinkable tragedy shakes the community to its very core. A simply brilliant crime film.
Lost to: The English Patient
A biopic on the life of Australian pianist David Helfgott who sadly suffered a mental breakdown is a difficult watch, but it’s a brilliant one. If you’re a fan of Geoffrey Rush – and, come on, who isn’t? – it doesn’t get much better than this.
Quiz Show (1994)
Lost to: Forrest Gump
Chronicling the Twenty One quiz show scandals of the 1950s, this is a subtle yet ruthless depiction of corporate greed and shame. Directed by the inimitable Robert Redford, Quiz Show Richard Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a young lawyer who investigates a potentially fixed game show and two of its biggest winner Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), a big time show winner from one of America’s most distinguished literary families; and Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) a working-class Jewish man with a brash temperament. Perhaps unappreciated amidst the hullabaloo of Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show is arguably Redford’s greatest film.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
Lost to: The King’s Speech
The Jennifer Lawrence film you haven’t seen. Before she was becoming both America’s new tortured sweetheart (Silver Linings Playbook) and the rebellious leader for a younger generation (The Hunger Games), Lawrence was starring in this quiet but powerful drama about a courageous mountain girl, attempting to track down her drug-dealing father while doing her best to keep her family together. Shamefully forgotten about, Winter’s Bone was 1st on seven top critics’ lists for 2010 and is an unforgettable experience, giving us a true feminist heroine and an impossibly unnerving performance from John Hawkes as Teardrop Dolly, Lawrence’s on-screen father.