Losers Rule: 5 Great Best Picture Oscar Losers

It happens every year—the best picture Oscar brings the winning film crowds of new viewers and millions of extra box-office dollars. Stars recycle the platitude “it’s an honor just to be nominated,” but history records only the winners.

The problem is that history—or at least the Academy members who vote for best picture—so often get it wrong. Among the films that did not take home the gilded statuette as their year’s top film are such certified classics as The Philadelphia Story, The Great Dictator, The Maltese Falcon, Suspicion, Apocalypse Now, Sunset Boulevard, and Citizen Kane!

So the heck with winners—let’s take another look at some “losers.” Jumping back in time in five-year leaps, here are five fabulous films that were nominated for—but failed to win—best picture. This year’s Oscar losers can consider themselves in good company, for these “also-rans” are well worth a second chance.

Five years ago (2003) Lord of the Rings: Return of the King strode majestically past the intense, down-to-earth Mystic River. This beautifully written and constructed drama, based on Dennis Lehane’s novel, packs an emotional wallop that will linger long after the film ends. Director Clint Eastwood knows just when to control his stars—Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon—and when to let their natural tendencies run rampant. Their characters’ experiences as kids growing up together in a rough Boston Irish neighborhood left ties of friendship and resentment, both of which come into play as they reunite after a family member is murdered.

Ten years ago (1998) Two British costume dramas shook their starched ruffs at one another, and Shakespeare in Love triumphed over Elizabeth. Naturally regal as Judy Dench was as Queen Elizabeth I in Shakespeare, it was then little-known Cate Blanchett who recreated the definitive Virgin Queen for this generation. (She reprised the role in ’07’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and was nominated for a best actress Oscar both times.) The first Elizabeth emphasizes the political smarts the queen developed to counter the conniving politicians circling the throne like vultures. (Geoffrey Rush and Christopher Eccleston make particularly delicious predators.) But neither director Shekar Kapur nor Blanchett lose sight of the passionate young girl inside the slowly calcifying monarch.

Fifteen years ago (1993) Schindler’s List rose to the top of voters’ ballot lists, besting The Piano. Both were expertly told tales of human cruelty, kindness, and survival, but of such completely different kinds that it’s a shame they had to compete. The Piano uses the natural lushness of its New Zealand setting to mirror the transformation of prim Scottish widow Ada (Holly Hunter), mute and intimidated by this new, wild land; and gone-native rough guy Baines (Harvey Keitel). The seduction of one by the other, over lessons on the titular instrument, is one of the most sensuous fully clothed sequences ever filmed.

Twenty years ago (1988) Rain Man washed out the hopes of Dangerous Liaisons, one of the most compelling and sumptuous films of any decade. In 18th-century French courtly society, all was fair in love and love was war. Vice was its own reward for the conniving Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close, in a performance both powerful and subtle) and her devilishly amoral lover the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich, oozing oily charm under his powered wig). The plot is both complex and eternal, and it’s a tribute to Stephen Frears’ direction that the whole thing doesn’t drown in the lavish set decoration and elaborate costumes. Close’s emotionally wrenching closing shot has lost none of its power in the succeeding decades.

Twenty-five years ago (1983) Terms of Endearment heard sweet nothings from Academy voters, jilting The Dresser. So few Americans saw the filmed version of Ronald Harwood’s stage play that it’s a miracle The Dresser was even nominated. But this tale of an aging actor on the down-slope of his career, and the dresser who assists him as their theatre company tours Britain during World War II is—appropriately—an actors’ tour de force. And what actors: Albert Finney stars as the bull-like, bellowing actor/manager. He’s matched by a much quieter but no less impressive performance by Tom Courtenay as the dresser. This is a must-see for those who love great British drama and great British actors.

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