Overlooked at the Oscars: The Top 10 Best Living Directors Without an Academy Award Nomination

Every year around Oscar time, we get inundated with discussion about previous award seasons and the many great films that the Academy has overlooked. While I can understand the appeal of these kinds of discussions (and while I do agree that there are some glaring omissions), it’s also a little too easy to look back with hindsight and point out mistakes. Plus, let’s not forget that there can be more than one truly great movie in a year, which makes it difficult to call it a snub just because the one you preferred didn’t win. Nominations are a little more flexible, however, which is why I was surprised to find out that Gary Oldman’s nomination for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was his first ever nomination for anything. How can a guy with such a fantastic career go this long without a single Oscar nomination?

Obviously a lot of it has to do with the kinds of projects that some people choose to focus on. Immediately I started thinking about filmmakers as well, and I wondered how many great directors out there had yet to be recognized by the Academy in any way. There have been plenty of lists singling out directors who have not won Best Director or now deceased legends that never got nominated, but I was more interested in living filmmakers who thus far had no mentions at the Academy Awards whatsoever (ie. no Best Picture, no Best Director, no Best Screenplay… nothing). The list was harder to generate than you might think, and although you can probably guess the kinds of people it might include, I’m hoping that at least a few of them will surprise you.

10. Sam Raimi

At first glance, it’s pretty obvious why Sam Raimi has never been nominated. He has spent the vast majority of his career working on horror flicks and blockbuster comic book movies. However, he has done a few slightly more “respectable” pictures over the years including the Kevin Costner baseball drama For Love of the Game and the underrated thriller A Simple Plan (which earned both screenplay and supporting actor nods). As an A-list director, I included him on this list not because he has been snubbed per se, but more because he’s a great example of the kinds of directors that rarely get recognized by the Academy.

9. Tony Scott

Alright, I know I’m going to get a lot of flack for including Tony Scott on here, but hear me out. The guy has clearly built a pretty solid career on pure popcorn flicks, but unlike his brother he really has not bothered to delve into anything that could be considered classy. Still, he’s made some great films, and both Top Gun and Crimson Tide actually earned a handful of Academy Award nominations — they just happened to be for boring technical awards. If Denzel Washington can win an Oscar for Training Day, why can’t something like Man on Fire get nominated as well?

8. Jean-Luc Godard

As one of the pioneers of the French New Wave in the ’60s, Godard’s films have always been somewhat experimental, which is probably one of the main reasons why he has been overlooked by the Academy all these years. However, the Academy did nominate some of his fellow French New Wavers like Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer… go figure. Two years ago they decided to give Godard an Honorary Oscar, which pretty much confirms the fact that they will never actually nominate him even though the man is still making films (hey, some people out there really dug Film socialisme). Godard, appropriately enough, did not show up to accept it.

7. Michael Winterbottom

You might think it would be difficult for British filmmakers to find recognition within an American organization, but the Academy has always been somewhat partial to British films (supposedly 18% of Best Picture nominees and Oscar-winning performances are British). Unfortunately Michael Winterbottom’s career has mostly focused on smaller fringe films that push the envelope, the kinds of things that Academy voters generally aren’t very keen on. The closest he has come to an Oscar thus far would probably be A Mighty Heart, which earned Angelina Jolie a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress but no Academy Award noms.

6. Wong Kar-Wai

Out of all the fantastic Asian directors working today, Wong Kar Wai is one of the first ones I would have assumed had been nominated for Best Foreign Film at least once. Movies like Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and Happy Together all seem like they should be shoo-ins for the award, but out of his entire filmography, only In the Mood for Love was actually selected by Hong Kong for submission in the first place. All three of the aforementioned films were nominated for Independent Spirit Awards, however.

5. Ken Loach

Here’s another veteran British filmmaker who has racked up plenty of BAFTAs, but who remains Oscar-less. He’s been making movies since the late ’60s and has maintained a pretty consistent body of work, with his 2006 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley being one of the most well-received of his career. It seems like the kind of movie that typically wins Oscars, and it even won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, but was completely ignored by the Academy. Bummer.

4. Jim Jarmusch

Again, this one’s probably not a huge surprise — Jim Jarmusch is a director who clearly marches to the beat of his own drum. He is fiercely independent and seemingly has no interest in making movies that would be palatable to mainstream audiences, which can always be a problem for Academy Award nominations. However, both Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise are considered by many to be seminal films, and Broken Flowers starring Bill Murray was probably his most accessible film to date. He’s been nominated for plenty of Palme D’Or awards at Cannes, but no Oscars.

3. Paul Schrader

This one might be a bit of a cheat because although Paul Schrader is an accomplished director in his own right, it is his screenwriting credits that truly make it shocking that he has no Oscar nominations to his name. The man wrote a handful of Martin Scorsese’s most well-regarded films including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. In fact, Raging Bull was nominated for just about everything *except* its screenplay. Of course, Schrader has also directed some great films himself including Affliction, which James Coburn won Best Supporting Actor for in 1998.

2. David Cronenberg

Surprise, surprise… another guy who has spent the majority of his career doing gory genre films has somehow managed to avoid the Oscars. Still, David Cronenberg has always been a little more cerebral than the typical horror director, and you’d think that something like The Fly might have an outside shot at an award (actually, it did win for Best Makeup). His last three films have found him becoming a little more accessible, with A History of Violence picking up Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor nods, and Eastern Promises earning Viggo Mortensen a Best Actor nomination. Something tells me Cronenberg’s first nomination isn’t far off.

1. Brian De Palma

This was definitely the biggest surprise of the bunch for me, although in retrospect I guess it makes a bit of sense. Brian De Palma certainly has his share of detractors and has done quite a few genre-y thrillers over the years, but let’s be serious here: Scarface and The Untouchables should be all he needed to at least get nominated. Strangely, neither of these films were nominated for Best Picture or Best Director, and actually the former was not nominated for anything at all. Even Carrie picked up nominations for Best Actress and Supporting Actress. Unfortunately, it seems like De Palma’s best days are probably behind him, but hey, at least he can sleep easy knowing that he has five Razzie nominations under his belt.

Honourable Mentions

I thought these directors were also noteworthy, but they simply haven’t directed enough films yet:

  • Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Chopper)
  • Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go, One Hour Photo)
  • John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition)
  • David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls)

Here are a few other great directors who only have minor nominations, and not necessarily for the things that you might think:

  • Tim Burton (Best Animated Feature for Corpse Bride)
  • Lars Von Trier (Best Original Song for Dancer in the Dark)
  • Richard Linklater (Best Original Screenplay for Before Sunset)
  • Spike Lee (Best Original Screenplay for Do the Right Thing and Best Documentary Feature for 4 Little Girls)

What other overlooked directors would you add to the list?

  • I would have included Judd Apatow and Nicholas Wendig Refn in the honourable mentions.

  • Both good calls.

  • KeithTalent

    Glad to see Hillcoat in the honourable mentions. Dude’s amazing; can’t freaking wait for The Wettest County.

  • Colin

    David Gordon Green continues to dig himself into a hole that the Academy will forever overlook… not that I think he cares, really.

  • antho42

    I will add:
    Alejandro Amenabar
    Kiyoshi Kurosawa
    Takeshi Kitano

  • mitch

    great list. definitely agree with de palma at 1.

  • Steve Kasan

    De Palma is the biggest travesty here IMO. The man has directed some of the best films, hell, Scarface is probably one of the most iconic films up there with The Godfather.
    I also agree about Tony Scott. He does get overshadowed by Ridley, but, the man has directed some stellar films. Top Gun is quite possible the quintessential Tom Cruise film.

  • Essie

    The thing I’m confused about with this list is the inclusion and placement of Godard. I think it’s safe to say that Godard is one of the 5 or 10 best directors of all time, but he’s below 7 others here. Curious.

    I’d throw in Carlos Reygadas, Bela Tarr, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Michael Haneke, and Pedro Costa.

  • Gabe

    Terry Gilliam. Ed Zwick. Maybe Chris Columbus. From abroad, Zhang Yimou, Emir Kustarica, Michael Haneke, Bertrand Tavernier, Cuaron.

  • I had considered some of these options, but many of them have nominations, albeit indirectly:

    Terry Gilliam – nominated for screenplay for Brazil

    Ed Zwick – nominated as producer of Traffic and Shakespeare in Love

    Zhang Yimou – Raise the Red Lantern nominated for Best Foreign Film

    Michael Haneke – The White Ribbon nominated for Best Foreign Film

    Alfonso Cuaron – nominated for screenplay and editing for Children of Men

  • You could argue Tony Scott, with his “popcorn films” is much more deserving than many serious directors. It’s much harder to make a really good popcorn film than it is a film about a serious subject matter.

    Tony Scott is one of the most visually impressive directors working today and his films almost always work.

  • Alex Krajci

    Steven Spielberg Is My Favorite Film Director.

  • Iam_Spartacus

    Sergio Leone