Some of the finest films in history failed to capture a Best Picture Oscar because of bad timing or an unfavorable climate. Or because a competitor, maybe no better or even far inferior, gained an advantage.
The Academy's shift from "And the winner is..." to "And the Oscar goes to..." seemed to admit that anointing a single film is a flawed effort. There are many factors that give some nominees an edge and cause others to fade in the home stretch or never gain traction. Not all of these elements can be identified, since many are subtle or only emerge over time. But here are ten possibilities:
1. In the shadow of an epic. Impeccably scripted and executed, LA Confidential had all the earmarks of a best picture, but what chance did it have in 1997 against the mighty Titanic? Almost as long as the odds that Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz or any other excellent 1939 film could have toppled the superb screen version of the beloved opus Gone With the Wind.
2. You can't fight sentiment. Victims of the "Aww!" bug couldn't resist the gentle earnestness of 1994's Forrest Gump or the long-awaited 1973 reunion of Butch Cassidy's Newman and Redford in The Sting. The latter ragtime-infused romp generated more nostalgia than American Graffiti's masterful portrait of teen angst in the early '60s. The Shawshank Redemption, no matter how electrifying, was probably too gritty to prevail over Gump's chocolatey sweetness. Even among many well-made sentimental 1989 nominees such as Field of Dreams and Dead Poets Society, none could detour the adorable Driving Miss Daisy.
3. No second place, please - they're British. How else can 1968's award to Oliver! be explained? (Its defeat of the far better Funny Girl ruled out the musical mania factor.) Amid a '60s invasion of music, fashion and film, it was the sixth Best Picture in seven years featuring British stories, settings and/or stars. They unseated-not always fairly-the likes of How the West Was Won, The Sand Pebbles and A Thousand Clowns. In an earlier Anglo-centric period, '40s films like Rebecca, How Green Was My Valley and Mrs. Miniver had similarly defeated classics such as Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath.
4. Sign of the times. It's easy to see why voters favored war-related movies in the '40s and domestic dramas during Reagan's "family values" era. While Casablanca's award was undeniably merited, some films unjustly lost out. The Best Years of Our Lives was first-rate but should it have topped the unforgettable It's a Wonderful Life in 1946? It's debatable but it made more sense than seeing 1980's Ordinary People kayo Raging Bull.
5. Caught in a sea change. Often a shifting tide seems to occur in the film industry. After choosing three musicals in five years, voters closed out the '60s by honoring the fascinatingly bleak Midnight Cowboy instead of Hello, Dolly! As the century was ending with wins for the more personal Shakespeare in Love and American Beauty - causing outrage on behalf of films like Saving Private Ryan - the next prize went to Gladiator rather than the smaller Chocolat or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. More recent wins for The Artist and Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) over entries like Moneyball and Boyhood, point to renewed interest in unique styles of storytelling.
6. Blinded by the flash - spectacle and star voltage. Neither John Wayne's The Quiet Man nor Gary Cooper's High Noon, popular as they were, could boast the extravagant allure of The Greatest Show on Earth. Laden with star power, the 1952 big-top melodrama was a smash hit and would not be denied. A few years later, the big-budget Giant and The Ten Commandments held their own with critics and audiences but at Oscar season fell short of the celebrity-studded fantasy Around the World in Eighty Days.
7. Time to play catch-up. After bypassing The Defiant Ones and To Kill a Mockingbird, voters finally honored, at the height of the civil rights struggle, a 1967 movie about racial tensions. While In the Heat of the Night was excellent, so were competitors Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (a racially themed but semi-comedic family story) and The Graduate. The 21st Century saw the revered Lord of the Rings trilogy skillfully filmed, but neither of the first two netted the Oscar, losing to A Beautiful Mind and Chicago. Victory was all but assured for 2003's Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King over Mystic River and Lost in Translation.
8. They held out for a hero. Rocky is the saga of an underdog boxer, the writer-actor who created and portrayed him and a case of perfect Oscar timing. Released at the Bicentennial and even set in Philadelphia, the film and backstory shrieked "American dream" and bested All the President's Men and Taxi Driver in what was called an upset. In retrospect, it was no surprise that voters opted for a boxer's rise to fame over a leader's fall from grace and a loner's descent into madness. Or that the heroic exploits of Ben-Hur in 1959, at the brink of a New Frontier, held more appeal than Room at the Top's love triangle or Anatomy of a Murder's courtroom intrigue.
9. When in doubt, think "important." If all things seem equal, a story about an iconic figure or issue of social significance is apt to carry the day. Dances with Wolves may have seemed a nobler choice in 1990 than the more accomplished mob movie Goodfellas and 1982's Ghandi a worthier subject than the wondrous ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. In that light-but only that light-Amadeus, The Life of Emile Zola, Platoon and Schindler's List had little competition.
10. Same time next year, later this year... or maybe last year. It's no secret that a late-premiering film is fresh in the minds of voters. But even an earlier release can benefit from delayed buzz. The brilliant Up in the Air resonated with 2009 audiences and initially seemed like the one to beat, but nearly all had been said about it by the time The Hurt Locker gained attention and word of mouth picked up. It surged throughout the awards season, soaring past Up in the Air as well as Up and Avatar. Just one voting cycle can make a huge difference. Who would slight the resplendent 1964 My Fair Lady in favor of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, even in the Vietnam era? In the prior year's weaker field, though it might have aced out the raucous Tom Jones.
And this year? Which movie got discovered at the right time, raised new awareness or plucked old heartstrings? Who accurately read the importance of quirkiness or flash or resilience -- or importance? Or will it be the unlikely year when none of that matters because one nominee is, quite simply, the Best Picture?