An Oscar award carries with it great prestige and cachet, but it is not the only mark of a great film. It's A Wonderful Life, Psycho, Vertigo and The Maltese Falconare all classics, but failed to garner a single Academy Award amongst them. Several films we consider classics today never received a single Academy award. In some cases such as The Searchers, these film giants did not even receive a single nomination.
The American Film Institute has produced several Top 100 and Top 10 lists of films, both in general and in various genres. It may be surprising to some movie aficionados that sixteen of the Top 100 never won an Oscar (three of which are in the Top 20) and another five were not even nominated.
While votes are kept secret, there are some trends that may explain why these illustrious films were shut out of the awards. Some years simply produced so many top notch pictures that there wasn't room for all the greats at the Oscar banquet. In 1941, The Maltese Falcon(No. 31 on the AFI list) had the bad luck of being up against Citizen Kane, arguably the best film ever made, and How Green Was My Valley, the Best Picture Winner. Competition was so fierce that year that Citizen Kane itself only one one award out of nine nominations.
In post-WW II1946, It's A Wonderful Life (No. 20 on AFI Top 100), was up against the odds-on sentimental favorite The Best Years of Our Lives. The latter was an emotional powerhouse following the lives of three soldiers upon their return from the war, and won seven of the eight categories in which it was nominated.
Vertigo (No. 9 on the AFI list), Psycho (No. 14), and North By Northwest (No. 55) all seem to have fallen prey to the curse of Alfred Hitchcock. Despite being considered one of the all time greatest directors in film, Hitchcock never did get much love from the Academy. Out of five Best Director nominations, he received no awards save the Irving Thalberg honorary award. Eight actors and actresses were nominated for their work in a Hitchcock film; only Joan Fontaine (Suspicion) walked away a winner. Of all his classic pictures, only Rebecca (1940) won a Best Picture Oscar.
Through the late 1960s and 1970s, there seemed to be an internal struggle within the Academy between the old guard that favoured epic dramas and elaborate musicals, and the newer members that favoured innovations in film-making and compelling, if somewhat dark, storytelling. Films such as Taxi Driver(1976 - No. 52 on AFI), Dr. Strangelove (1964 - No. 39 on AFI), A Clockwork Orange(1971 - No. 70 on AFI), The Wild Bunch and Easy Rider(1969 - No. 79 and 84 on AFI's list, respectively), all were shut out of Oscars, perhaps because of this generation gap.
Genre pictures such as comedies (especially in the early days of film-making), science fiction, horror/thriller, and satirical or avant garde works often get shorted by the Academy. Classic comedies such as Duck Soup(AFI No. 60), Modern Times(AFI No. 78) and Bringing Up Baby(AFI No. 88) failed to receive even a single nomination. Blade Runner(AFI No. 97), and the afore mentioned Hitchcock pictures are all examples of sci-fi and thriller films that the Academy snubbed as well.
Controversy may hamper a film's chances of taking home an award. While the Academy did nominate Do The Right Thing (AFI No. 96) for Best Picture, fears of violence and rioting as had taken place at the premiere for the film may have all but sunk any possibility of a win.
Oscar snubs are best looked at historically, as some films age better than others. Especially in today's film environment of slick advertising campaigns and Oscar promotions, it can be difficult to judge if a truly deserving film has been unfairly shut out of the party. Will 500 (Days of Summer) prove to be another classic without an Oscar nom? Only time will tell.
Note: The AFI Top 100 list reference is the 10th Anniversary list, announced in 2007.