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The Best Directors to Never Win a Best Director Oscar

by Scott Kacsmar
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The Best Directors to Never Win a Best Director Oscar

As we near the 100-year anniversary of film’s transition into the era of sound, there have been many great directors to come along from all over the world. One of the most prestigious honors they can win in their careers is the Best Director Oscar from the Academy Awards, which has been handed out annually since the 1st ceremony in 1929.

John Ford, the famous director of Westerns with actor John Wayne, has the most success with this award, winning 4-of-5 times he was nominated for Best Director. Still, even someone like the legendary Martin Scorsese has only won Best Director once out of 9 nominations for The Departed. Scorsese is up for Best Director at the Oscars for a 10th time this year for Killers of the Flower Moon, trailing only William Wyler (12) for the most nominations in history.

The favorite at major awards betting sites to win the Best Director Oscar this year for the 1st time in his career is Christopher Nolan for Oppenheimer. Nolan has already built up an excellent resume of films this century, but this would be his biggest award win yet after he was nominated in 2017 for Dunkirk.

However, until Nolan is officially announced as a Best Director Oscar winner on March 10, he is still one of the best directors to never win the award. Is he the best of the best? That’s hard to say, as it is unbelievable just how many all-time great directors never won this award. Some greats have never even secured a nomination for it.

We did our best to count down the 10 best directors to never win a Best Director Oscar, and you know we still needed an honorable mention list too. There are just too many to pick from.


 

Honorable Mentions


For your consideration, our 12 honorable mentions for the best directors to never win an Oscar:

  • Lars von Trier: The Danish master of doom and gloom has never been nominated (Highlights: Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Dogville, Melancholia).
  • Wong Kar-wai: The Chinese auteur known for his lush visuals has never been nominated (Highlights: Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love).
  • Pedro Almodóvar: The Spanish filmmaker was nominated for Talk to Her in 2002 (Other Highlights: Bad Education, Volver, The Skin I Live In, Pain and Glory).
  • Spike Lee: No director has done more for the Black community; his only nomination has been for BlacKkKlansman (Other Highlights: Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, 25th Hour, Inside Man)
  • Sofia Coppola: The daughter of Francis Ford Coppola, Sofia has carved out her own successful directing career, nominated in 2003 for Lost in Translation (Other Highlights: The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette, Priscilla).
  • Ridley Scott: Still going strong at 86, the English director has been nominated for Best Director 3 times for Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down (Other Highlights: Alien, Blade Runner, American Gangster).
  • Brian De Palma: Known for his suspenseful work, he has never been nominated (Highlights: Scarface, The Untouchables, Carrie, Carlito’s Way).
  • Sidney Lumet: The late director had 4 of the strongest films ever nominated for Best Director that ultimately lost out to other greats, including 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict (Other Highlights: Fail Safe, Serpico).
  • Robert Altman: The great American filmmaker was 0-for-5 at the Oscars, losing with M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts and Gosford Park.
  • Peter Weir: Now retired, Australia’s greatest director was 0-for-4 at the Oscars, losing with Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
  • Alexander Payne: One of America’s best directors and screenwriters, Payne is 0-for-3 at the Oscars, losing with Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska (Other Highlights: Election, The Holdovers).
  • Federico Fellini: Italy’s greatest director, Fellini was 0-for-4 at the Oscars, losing with La Dolce Vita, 8 ½, Fellini Satyricon and Amarcord.

Already strong company, we have a high bar to clear with our top 10 list of the best directors to never win a Best Director Oscar.


 

10. Tim Burton (0 Nominations)


Our only director in the top 10 to never receive a nomination, Tim Burton may be an acquired taste. Yet, if you were a kid in the late 80s or 90s, you likely were exposed to his work as he helped franchises that were very successful with producing toys and merchandise for Pee-Wee Herman, Beetlejuice, Batman and even Mars Attacks!. He was also a producer and the inspiration for The Nightmare Before Christmas.

If you had an interest in the macabre or a crush on Winona Ryder (or Johnny Depp), then you probably appreciated his work. In my view, he’s the only director to ever nail a 3rd act in a Batman movie with his 1989 film that was a record-setting success at the box office decades before the MCU and the rise of comic-book movies.

Still, these types of movies, including the quirky tale of Edward Scissorhands, usually don’t do well at the Oscars. Having said that, Burton is in a weird position as 12 of his films have been nominated for 20 Academy Awards with 8 Oscar wins, yet he has never been nominated for Best Director. That’s a bit strange.

His 1994 film Ed Wood, a biopic about failed director Ed Wood, could have easily been nominated for Best Director as he mixed a great cast performance with black-and-white cinematography. Of course, the problem in 1994 was the loaded field with Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction.

That’s often the problem with award shows. It’s not just how good your movie is but how good the field is matters a lot.

In 2003, Burton’s fantasy drama Big Fish absolutely should have been the type of movie that would do well at the Oscars. But it was only nominated for Best Score, and Best Director would have been a tough sell that year given the field of Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Clint Eastwood (Mystic River), Peter Weir (Master and Commanders), and Fernando Meirelles (City of God).

Burton’s last great film was 2007’s take on the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street starring Johnny Depp. But again, that was a heavyweight year with the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men) beating out Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood).

So, at least we have good reasons for Burton’s total lack of success for Best Director Oscars. Yet, if you were born at a certain time, there’s a good chance he is a director you hold near and dear to your heart. Maybe he has some great ideas left that will come out later in life and get him in the field for his first nomination.


9. Ingmar Bergman (3 Nominations)


Sweden’s greatest film director, Ingmar Bergman, likely lacked Oscar success due to the English-speaking film bias the Academy has held for most of its existence. Note that some of Bergman’s best work, including The Seventh Seal, did not get any acknowledgment from the Academy.

It was not until Cries and Whispers in 1973 that Bergman was finally nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. He lost to George Roy Hill for The Sting, a great con movie. Bergman was nominated again in 1976 for Face to Face, but he faced too many great challengers in winner John G. Avildsen (Rocky), Sidney Lumet (Network) and Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men).

Bergman’s best chance was in 1983 with his 3rd and final nomination for Fanny and Alexander, arguably his last great film. But he lost to James L. Brooks for the tearjerker Terms of Endearment, which I wouldn’t have picked if I had a vote.

Bergman did see 3 of his films win Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, including The Virgin Spring (1960), Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Fanny and Alexander (1983). Still, he never quite got to enjoy the biggest award for a director at the Oscars.


8. Paul Thomas Anderson (3 Nominations)


Paul Thomas Anderson is one of America’s greatest filmmakers still active today. Yet, he is 0-for-11 at the Oscars, going 0-for-3 as a Best Director nominee.

The 1st nomination is likely the one that stings the most for PTA. He was recognized for his brilliant 2007 film There Will Be Blood, which won another Best Actor Oscar for star Daniel Day-Lewis. But the Coen brothers had No Country for Old Men that year, and that took home the biggest awards for Best Director and Best Picture. It is hard to call that one a snub as a couple of heavyweights were going at it.

PTA was nominated a decade later in 2017 for Phantom Thread, another fine collaboration with Day-Lewis, but maybe a film too quaint to outdo the likes of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird or Jordan Peele’s Get Out. He lost in a loaded category to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water.

His 3rd nomination for Best Director came in 2021 for Licorice Pizza, but he lost that time to Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which feels like it fell out of all film discussions since that award show. Still, he had a shot that night.

At 53 years old, PTA should have opportunities ahead of him for more great films and chances to be recognized as an Oscar winner. The only concern you have with him is he’s lost a couple of his greatest collaborators. Philip Seymour Hoffman died in 2014 and Day-Lewis has retired from acting. Still, maybe he can do something with Joaquin Phoenix down the road after they worked on The Master together. Heck, maybe he can get Mark Wahlberg to try taking acting seriously again after their breakout film together in 1997’s Boogie Nights.

Either way, he’s one of the best directors we have today.


7. David Lynch (3 Nominations)


David Lynch may be the greatest surrealist filmmaker we’ve ever had.

Almost known as well for his TV series Twin Peaks as his films, there is no doubt a special quality to his work. Outside of his aptly named The Straight Story (1999), Lynch usually goes against the grain of conventional storytelling and opts for stories that make you think and wonder what the hell’s going on.

However, Lynch is also in a rare position, where arguably his 3 best films were all nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, but each time he just lost to something critics really loved that year:

  • In 1980, Lynch made a classic in The Elephant Man, but he faced stiff competition from winner Ordinary People (Robert Redford) and also had to compete with Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull.
  • In 1986, Blue Velvet was another masterpiece from Lynch but it lost to the Vietnam War epic Platoon by Oliver Stone, which also won Best Picture.
  • In 2001, for my money, Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was the best film that year but he lost to Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, and he also had to contend with the first part of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Maybe in different years Lynch would have won, or maybe he was always just too weird for members of the Academy.

Lynch has not directed a film since 2006’s Inland Empire, and at 78 years old, those days may be behind him. However, there is no denying he has a style of his own and he will continue to be an inspiration for filmmakers who want to try different things and won’t be afraid to be called weird. Instead, they’ll take the compliment of being compared to Lynch.


6. David Fincher (3 Nominations)


A lot of David Fincher’s best work has gone largely unnoticed by the Academy, including Se7en, The Game, Fight Club and Zodiac.

Maybe Se7en was a little too stylish of a serial killer film for a voting bloc that had no problem honoring The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. Fight Club was probably too much “bro culture” for the Academy in 1999. But why snub Zodiac when it’s one of the best-paced, best-written biopics about a real serial killer case?

Even if Zodiac got the proper credit then that it does now, as we’ve stated above, 2007 was a loaded year with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men.

Fincher’s later work started to receive more Oscar attention, including 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. He received his first Best Director nomination for that film but he lost to Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire, a choice I’m still not sure I agree with.

Two years later, Fincher was nominated again for The Social Network but he lost to Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech. This one is a case where hindsight analysis does Fincher no favors on Oscar night. Sure, we know today that The Social Network was the most important film of that year, as it shed a light on the creation of Facebook. In fact, you can say the movie needs a sequel given everything that’s happened with Mark Zuckerberg and social media since 2010.

However, at the time, people liked The King’s Speech with Colin Firth’s stuttering performance earning him a Best Actor award. In hindsight, Jesse Eisenberg probably should have won for the way he nailed Zuckerberg. However, social media and the “tech bro” culture were still so new, so maybe people just weren’t ready to embrace how great that film was.

Fincher was also nominated a 3rd time in 2020 for Mank, but that’s a pretty quaint choice of film for him. He lost to Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland in what was not a strong class thanks to the pandemic.

We’ll see what Fincher has ahead of him. The Killer with Michael Fassbender felt like a return to his roots, and while I enjoyed it a lot, the Academy clearly did not. Maybe Fincher is just not their style.


5. Stanley Kubrick (4 Nominations)


Few all-time great directors have ever been snubbed as badly by the Academy as Stanley Kubrick was. Maybe his films were too satirical, too violent, too hard to follow, or just not mainstream enough to win such a prestigious award. Still, with several films now recognized as some of the greatest ever made, it would have been nice to see at least 1 of Kubrick’s 4 nominations earn him an Oscar.

Right off the bat in 1964, Kubrick should have won for Dr. Strangelove, but he lost to George Cukor’s My Fair Lady. I don’t care how perfectly cast Rex Harrison was in that one, a musical should not have defeated the best satire about the Cold War, which was very relevant at the time. Maybe it scared people too much about what could happen in a nuclear war.

In 1968, Kubrick really set the bar high for science fiction with 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, once again, he lost to a bloody musical that wasn’t even an original idea in Oliver!. Just another take on Oliver Twist. 2001 was a masterpiece and should still be used for film study today.

In 1971, Kubrick was nominated again for A Clockwork Orange despite the controversy surrounding that film for its depiction of rape and violence. However, there were lessons to be learned throughout the carnage, and later reviews of the film have deemed it a classic. Still, you can at least understand why this would lose to The French Connection, the classic by William Friedkin.

Kubrick’s final nomination for Best Director came in 1975 for Barry Lyndon. Not my favorite film by any means, I would have ranked it last in that field, which was rightfully won by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Yet, maybe the biggest snub for Kubrick was not even getting a nomination for The Shining in 1980. That is my favorite Kubrick film, a horror masterpiece with Jack Nicholson, but this just speaks to how horror has largely been neglected by the Academy over the years.

Even if Kubrick was nominated in 1980, again, that was a loaded year with Redford’s Ordinary People beating out Lynch’s Elephant Man and Scorsese’s Raging Bull.

Kubrick’s final completed film was Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which is probably the boldest film ever made to suggest some freaky sexual things go on behind closed doors among the world’s elites. He died a few days later after screening the film for friends and the cast. Remember, this is the guy who made a film about sentient A.I. turning on humans in space. Conspiracy theorists, have at it. We’ll just be over here acknowledging Kubrick as one of the greatest directors of all time.


4. Christopher Nolan (2 Nominations)


Consider this position only temporary, as Christopher Nolan should win the Best Director Oscar for Oppenheimer. Is it his best film? Not in my view, as I’d rank The Dark Knight, Memento, The Prestige, Inception, Batman Begins and Interstellar ahead of it.

However, it is great to see Nolan getting the recognition he deserves as already one of the best directors of all time. You could see it early with his mind-bending narrative in Memento, and The Prestige was one of the most underrated films of the 2000s.

Of course, his Batman trilogy with Christian Bale is the greatest set of comic book movies ever made, and I would rank The Dark Knight as the No. 1 comic book movie ever made. Just one of the greatest films ever made period.

Still, Nolan has also shown some great flair for historical films with Dunkirk and now Oppenheimer. He has expressed interest in doing a horror movie too, so we know the 53-year-old director still has some great films ahead of him.

This dominating award season for Oppenheimer will only encourage more people to work with him in future projects.


3. Alfred Hitchcock (5 Nominations)


The Master of Suspense was not a favorite of the Academy, as Alfred Hitchcock was 0-for-5 at the Best Director Oscar in his career. Maybe it was the lack of success for the horror and thriller genres in the history of the Oscars, but how many ever did it better than Hitchcock? They could have found him a win at some point here.

In 1940, Hitchcock’s Rebecca lost to John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, which is understandable. Great films and Wrath was timelier, released shortly after the Great Depression.

In 1944, Hitchcock’s Lifeboat included the funniest Hitchcock cameo of them all as he always liked to appear in some way in his films. Still, losing to Going My Way, a Bing Crosby musical about a singing priest was a rough loss. However, the true robbery that year was Billy Wilder not winning for the noir classic Double Indemnity.

In 1945, Wilder and Hitchcock were battling again, but this time it was Wilder winning for The Lost Weekend over Hitchcock’s Spellbound. That one is defensible at least.

In 1954, Hitchcock was getting closer to his prime run with Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, a fine choice in most years. However, Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront was a better-received classic with Marlon Brando’s acting leading the way.

In 1960, Hitchcock received his 5th and final nomination for Best Director for Psycho, a game-changer of a film in the horror genre. However, he lost again to Wilder for The Apartment, which is admittedly an excellent film with Jack Lemmon. But Psycho arguably had the better case for Best Director with the way Hitchcock teased the killer’s reveal and scared everyone for decades when taking a shower in a hotel.

In my view, Hitchcock was the better director in 1954 and 1960, and those other winners were elevated by the acting and screenplay. On the Waterfront and The Apartment made better sense for Best Picture winners; Rear Window and Psycho made better sense for Best Director.

Still, it’s a bit shocking some of Hitchcock’s other best work did not earn him more nominations, including Strangers on a Train, Vertigo and North by Northwest.

Knowing the Academy, even an all-time great film like Vertigo (1958) probably would have lost to a lousy musical like Gigi that year. Vertigo infamously had mixed reviews upon release, but it ranks extremely high on a lot of all-time great films lists today.

Hitchcock’s legacy is secure and his prime run of films will go down as one of the best ever. However, it sure would have been nice to see him get an Oscar too.


2. Akira Kurosawa (1 Nomination)


The greatest filmmaker in Japan’s history, Akira Kurosawa, was simply ahead of his time. His work influenced some popular American works, including The Magnificent Seven and Star Wars.

However, Oscar success largely eluded Kurosawa, as the Academy had a strong bias for decades toward English-speaking films from the United States and the United Kingdom. Kurosawa did see 2 of his films win the Oscar for Best International Film for Rashomon and Dersu Uzala.

Still, so many of his classics did not even get nominated for that award, including Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, High and Low, Ikiru, The Hidden Fortress and Throne of Blood.

Kurosawa’s only Oscar nomination for Best Director came in 1985 for Ran, his take on King Lear and one of his best films. He lost to Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, one of the weakest Oscar winners of all time. Five years later, Kurosawa received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy.

It is too bad Kurosawa did not live to see Bong Joon-ho win Best Director and Best Picture in 2019 for Parasite, a South Korean film with all Korean dialogue. That was a glass-ceiling moment as it was the 1st non-English language film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

In this type of climate, Kurosawa’s films would have garnered far more mainstream acclaim at award shows. But you can always hunt his work down and enjoy some of the best filmmaking we’ve ever seen.


1. Quentin Tarantino (3 Nominations)


If we are to believe Quentin Tarantino, his 10th and final film, The Movie Critic, will be his last before he retires from filmmaking. That means he may only have 1 last shot at winning an Oscar for Best Director.

His films have already received 34 Oscar nominations with 7 wins, but he has never taken home the top prize. His most deserving year may have been 1994 with Pulp Fiction, his indie blockbuster that influenced a whole generation of filmmakers and screenwriters.

Unfortunately, Tarantino lost to Robert Zemeckis for Forrest Gump, the fan-favorite that year. Given Pulp Fiction is my favorite film of all time, that’s an award choice I will never agree with.

Tarantino should have won that year. Not only was his script top-notch and memorable, but he got the best performance out of John Travolta in years. He got him back on the dancefloor in a memorable scene, the soundtrack and use of music was top-notch, the tension and camera work in scenes like Uma Thurman’s drug overdose and the restaurant robbery elevated the film to another level.

That should have been his win. It’s also a bit odd that he never got nominated for either Kill Bill volume in 2003-04. Those films also hold up incredibly well. But it was Tarantino’s 2nd Best Director nomination in 2009 for Inglourious Basterds that was probably his best chance to win.

But it just felt like the Academy pushed the narrative of Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker) beating her ex-husband James Cameron (Avatar) to become the 1st woman to win a Best Director Oscar. Tarantino was pushed aside that year.

Be honest, how many times have you watched The Hurt Locker in the last 15 years? It just didn’t resonate as a classic then, and it sure doesn’t now. Meanwhile, Inglourious Basterds is still highly rewatchable with great performances from Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz, and an alternate ending from history that is satisfying, to say the least.

Tarantino’s 3rd and most recent nomination was in 2019 for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his alternate take on everything from the Charles Manson family to Bruce Lee and Sharon Tate. Very good film, but Bong Joon-ho, South Korea’s GOAT (please watch Memories of Murder) deserved to win for Parasite.

Just like that, Tarantino has never won Best Director, and we may only get to see 1 more film from him. However, that won’t stop us from rewatching the timeless classics he made that will have him go down as one of the greatest directors of all time.

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Scott Kacsmar
NFL football picks are Scott Kacsmar's expertise, serving as his main focus. He has contributed to various sports websites and blogs, such as NBC Sports, ESPN Insider, FiveThirtyEight, and, JoeWager. Originating from Pittsburgh, Scott maintains a love-hate connection with the Pirates.

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