Top 10 Oscar-Winning Directors Who Should Have Won Years Earlier

Top 10 Films checks out some of the greatest Oscar-winning directors who perhaps should have achieved the Best Director award long before they eventually took home Hollywood’s biggest prize…

Martin Scorsese

Won with The Departed but could have won with Taxi Driver

Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese,Martin Scorsese finally won his own Academy Award as Best Director for The Departed but, while being a fine piece of work, was hardly the director’s finest achievement. The Academy could have bestowed their highest accolade for a filmmaker to him for a number of earlier projects from Mean Streets to Goodfellas but Top 10 Films would have ensured his career got off to a Oscar-winning start with a Best Director gong for 1976’s Taxi Driver featuring a mesmeric performance from Robert De Niro.

Steven Spielberg

Won with Schindler’s List but could have won with Close Encounters of the Third Kind

close-encounters-of-the-third-kind_steven-spielberg_alien-spaceshipOkay, so Steven Spielberg didn’t win Best Director for Jaws which seems strange retrospectively but when you consider the film is essentially a monster movie and the Academy doesn’t like horror, you can see why it didn’t make the cut. Jaws wasn’t even deemed good enough to merit Spielberg with a nomination. But, while Spielberg would eventually take home the Best Director gong for Schindler’s List (an Oscars-friendly melodrama about a true life hero), Spielberg could, or perhaps, should have triumphed over Woody Allen, George Lucas, Herbert Ross and Fred Zinnermann (his fellow 1977 Best Director nominees) for childlike adult fantasy Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfuss’ brilliant performance medicates the American-dream-in-crisis with a wide-eyed willingness to accept that the world, and life itself, is too big to be constrained to domesticity on a suburban street.

James Cameron

Won with Titanic but could have won with Terminator 2

The Terminator, T2, Judgment Day, Arnold Schwarzenegger,Titanic was much loved by mainstream audiences, its triumphant box office figures highlighting its success with a broad demographic. It went on to earn James Cameron his only Best Director gong but remains one of the director’s weakest efforts when you think he also made The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss. It may be a sign of the Academy’s adversity to genre cinema but few would argue his 1991 epic science-fiction sequel to The Terminator was anything less than a marvellous concoction of advanced computer-generated special effects and a killer action-thriller plot featuring a suitably buff Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to save the day.

Carol Reed

Won with Oliver but could have won with The Third Man

The Third Man, Carol Reed, Orson Welles,Carol Reed won his only Best Director Oscar for 1968 musical Oliver but his work in the 1940s, which included Odd Man Out and The Fallen Idol, could have seen him crowned king of the directors. Top 10 Films would have given him the Best Director award for 1949’s film noir The Third Man. He was nominated that year but lost to Joseph L. Mankiewicz who triumphed with All About Eve.

Robert Zemeckis

Won with Forrest Gump but could have won with Back To The Future

Back To The Future, Film, Robert Zemeckis, Michael J Fox,Robert Zemeckis may have won Best Director for Forrest Gump – arguably rightly so but Quentin Tarantino was in the running for Pulp Fiction that year – but he could have won a couple of times before. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was an almost seamless, brilliantly realised combination of animation and live action that brought cartoons to life while, previous to that, he gave us enduring audience favourite Back To The Future.

Steven Soderbergh

Won with Traffic but could have won with Out of Sight

Top 10 Oscar-Winning Directors Who Could Have Won Years EarlierDespite Hollywood’s fairly liberal politics in comparison with Middle America the Academy was unlikely to merit Steven Soderbergh with its Best Director award for a film with “sex” in the title as in his feature film debut Sex, Lies and Videotape. Yet, as worthy as the film was – indeed, it has since been added to the National Film Registry for its “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” attributes and won Soderbergh the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1989 – he, like Martin Scorsese, would have to wait patiently for his Oscar. After Out of Sight failed to even get him a nomination – the film Top 10 Films would gladly bestow Soderbergh the Best Director title with – he made sure he’d be in the running the following year. In fact, he became the first director to be nominated for two films in a single year with Traffic and Erin Brockovich. He won for Traffic.

Ron Howard

Won with A Beautiful Mind but could have won with Apollo 13

Bill Paxton, Film actor and director, Top 10 FilmsRon Howard won Best Director for A Beautiful Mind starring Russell Crowe but most audiences are likely to remember other entries in the director’s career such as the delightful romance Splash, thriller Ransom, or adults-versus-children comedy Parenthood. Admittedly, none of those films are really Oscar-worthy but his 1996 effort Apollo 13 certainly was. In fact, it was nominated for nine Academy Awards but didn’t win any of the top prizes. The dramatisation of the doomed mission to the moon featured everything the Academy loved – a true story, heroic actions on earth and in space, a celebration of America’s technological might and space-race endeavour, and tear-jerking melodrama. Yet, it didn’t earn Ron Howard Best Director. In hindsight, could it have brought Howard Hollywood’s biggest prize before he eventually won with A Beautiful Mind. Definitely!

Roman Polanski

Won with The Pianist but could have won with Chinatown

Chinatown_jack-nicholson_top10filmsHaving burst onto the Hollywood scene (and the Academy’s for that matter) with Knife in the Water (which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film) in 1962, it wasn’t until 2002 that Roman Polanski would finally achieve the accolade his artistic talent deserved. He could have won for Rosemary’s Baby, he could have won for Tess, he could have won for Chinatown. That said, his film noir starring the brilliant Jack Nicholson was up against eventual Best Director winner Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather II so it’s understandable. Any other year and it would be a shoe-in for the prize.

Joel Coen / Ethan Coen

Won with No Country For Old Men but could have won with Fargo

Fargo, Top 10 Films,The Coen brothers could have won Best Director countless times before they eventually grabbed the accolade for No Country For Old Men. But for Top 10 Films it would have to be Fargo, a film Joel was nominated for as Best Director but lost to Anthony Minghella and The English Patient.

Danny Boyle

Won with Slumdog Millionaire but could have won with Trainspotting

Trainspotting, Ewan McGregor in a toilet, Bathroom scenes in Film,Too British. Too colloquial. Perhaps better suited to the best Foreign Language Film award? Joking aside, if the brilliant dark crime drama Shallow Grave wasn’t an indication of Danny Boyle’s talent then Trainspotting, ranked as one of the greatest British films ever made by the BFI, certainly did.

Written and Compiled by Dan Stephens

Over to you: what Oscar-winning directors could or should have won years earlier?

Discover More:
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Top 10 Oscar-Winning Directors Who Should Have Won Years Earlier
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Top 10 Times The Oscars Picked The Right Best Picture
Top 10 Films To Be Snubbed For Best Picture At The Oscars
16 Stunningly Photographed American Films That Were Completely Snubbed By The Academy Awards

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Rory Reply

    Crazy to think Scorsese had to wait so long for Best Director, especially when, despite The Departed been so good, its legacy is hardly that of Goodfellas or Taxi Driver.

    • Dan Reply

      Raging Bull is another you’d think would have got him Best Director, particularly when you think that was the year Robert Redford won with “ordinary film” Ordinary People! In hindsight, 1980 was a strange year. You look at the nominees and the eventual winner and think Scorsese would be a shoe-in.

      • Rory Reply

        Yeah, sometimes you look at the class of that year and think, “well, great movies but the eventual winner just edged it” but not 1980. Another example would be The Last Temptation of Christ when Scorsese was up against eventual winner Barry Levinson with Rain Man. A worthy winner for me. In fact, with Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda), Mike Nichols (Working Girl) and Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning) in the running, I would put Scorsese at the bottom of the pile. Jump forward two years to 1990 and Goodfellas losing to Costner and Dances with Wolves and you think – how!?

        • Dan Reply

          Just looking at the 1990’s nominees and you’re right – a strange year with Coppola up for Best Director with Godfather III. It was if the Academy had to nominate it given the previous two films had earned nominations. I’ve grown to like Dances with Wolves far more than when I first saw it but I’d still have given Scorsese the Oscar for Best Director.

  2. Callum Reply

    Surprised to see Ron Howard win for A Beautiful Mind and not Apollo 13 but I suppose it depends what the talent pool was that year.

    • Dan Reply

      Definitely. There’s years when you think – how can you pick a winner out of that lot – eg. 1982 when Richard Attenborough won Best Director for Gandhi and was up against Lumet, Petersen, Pollack and Spielberg for The Verdict, Das Boot, Tootsie and ET, respectively.

      Then there’s years when you think it’s more obvious – certainly in hindsight: eg. 1972 when Francis Ford Coppola was nominated for The Godfather but lost to Bob Fosse (Cabaret).

  3. Gul Reply

    Interesting to see such great names winning for inferior films. Reed for Oliver! Really!

  4. CineGirl Reply

    I knew Scorsese had missed out a few times but it’s interesting to see some of the other names on here. Good list Dan.

    • Dan Reply

      Thanks CineGirl.

  5. Callum Reply

    Then there’s guys who never even got one award – talk about “should have won years earlier” 🙂

  6. Dan Grant Reply

    Great top ten Dan. I agree with you on pretty much everything here. Close Encounters is a film I have grown to appreciate so much more over the years. I liked it when I was young but now that I am older, I appreciate it so much more. Glad you mentioned it here.

    • Dan Reply

      Totally agree. I think Close Encounters has really grown on me as a film – it started as one I liked but has become one I love. Dreyfuss performance, the character he plays, Spielberg’s portrayal of the aliens from a technical and storytelling perspective, the epic finale – it’s just brilliant.

  7. Chris Reply

    I remember when Jon Stewert hosted the oscars and said “those keeping track at home, that’s Three 6 Mafia: One, Martin Scorsese: Zero”. At least he won next year for The Departed.

    Peter Jackson comes to mind, he won best director for Return of the King, but the first Lord of The Rings was equally as deserving for the direction.

  8. Matthew Liedke Reply

    Reading this list a little late, but so much yes with Apollo 13! Ron Howard being able to recreate the tension both in space and on Earth with his direction mixed with the great performances he got out of Hanks, Paxton, Bacon, Sinise and Harris who were all on their A-game made for a real winner.

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