They Wuz Robbed! 1980
Won: Ordinary People
Robbed: Raging Bull
Whenever you watch the highly stylized, hypnotic boxing scenes in director Martin Scorsese's 1980 film Raging Bull--where sweat and blood splatter as they erupt from pulpy gouges; where time seems to expand and slow down as fists fly and blows land; where opponents loom in silhouette and blinding flashbulbs explode and hiss like gunshots--you can't believe the film didn't win Best Picture. These cathartic, repulsive, mesmerizing sequences featuring notoriously savage prizefighter Jake LaMotta (played by a best-ever Robert De Niro) are masterworks of composition and editing. They encapsulate how Scorsese plays with viewers' objectivity throughout the film. He employs distancing techniques (like using black-and-white film, which marked Bull as a period piece and made its considerable bloodshed seem less gory) and then draws us into LaMotta's warped point of view, both in and out of the ring. The brutal, psychotically jealous LaMotta may push the limits of human existence, Scorsese suggests, but there's not an impulse he acts on that we haven't shared.
Perhaps the Academy resented having to spend time, however briefly, inside LaMotta's skin. Despite its masterful storytelling and powerhouse performances (not only from Oscar-winner De Niro but also the then-green Cathy Moriarty and Joe Pesci), and the fact that Bull is widely considered to be the best film of the 1980s, it wasn't universally embraced upon release. Criticized as a dark picture with an unsympathetic, enigmatic protagonist, its impressionistic, ambitious narrative structure was regarded by some as bizarre and inappropriate for a biographical film. It's no wonder that the Academy cozied up to a Hollywood golden boy like Robert Redford, whose tidily conventional directorial debut, Ordinary People, a drama about domestic strife and the miseries of affluence, beat Bull in 1980. (Ten years later, history would repeat itself as Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves prevailed over Scorsese's GoodFellas.) Time has rendered a different verdict entirely.