This weekend, after months of frantic build-up, prognostication and guesswork, the 86th Academy Awards will take place. Of course, the main event will be awarding Best Picture (or, as the category was referred to back in the day, Outstanding Picture), and no matter who takes the prize, the winner joins a roster of films that veer from solid-gold classics to what-on-earth-were-the-Academy-thinking, and everything in between.
With Sunday’s Oscars fast approaching, we’re ranking every one of the 85 Academy Award Best/Outstanding Picture winners to date, from the very worst to the very best. It’s been an involved, highly unscientific procedure mostly involving a lot of shouting and throwing objects in the Playlist office, but we’ve arrived at a ranking that we think is something close to definitive. Today, you can check out the first part, from number 85 to number 41, and check back tomorrow for the rest. The .01% of our readership who thinks we’ve got this absolutely right, and the 99.99% who’ll inevitably think we’re insanely wrong on every possible level, are welcome to chime in in the comments section below.
85. "The Greatest Show On Earth" (1952)
A spectacular (not least when it comes to the impressive train crash sequence) but inert and insubstantial three-hour Cecil B. DeMille circus drama. Soapier than an all-day "Days Of Our Lives" marathon, and not all that much better acted, with the possible exception of Jimmy Stewart‘s tragic clown.
84. “The Broadway Melody” (1929)
The first talkie to win Best Picture, and the first musical, has its place in the history books, but even the most determined Oscar completist will find it hard to power through the creaky acting, dull staging and toxic sexual politics being passed off as frothy fun here. Much less spectacular than the other MGM musicals that followed. (Trivia: there was also a version that was Technicolor in parts that has apparently been lost.)
83. "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989)
The first film since 1932 to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination, this mild-mannered drama about the friendship between an elderly Jewish lady and her black chauffeur is well-acted and well-meaning, but rightly became a byword for the Academy picking the bland over the brilliant. It beat "Born On The Fourth Of July," "My Left Foot," "Field Of Dreams" and "Dead Poets Society" that year.
82. "Going My Way" (1944)
The the story of a pioneering young priest being billeted to a troubled parish and the first film to feature Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley character (the other being the superior “The Bells of Saint Mary’s”), your liking for this picture will depend on your tolerance for sentimentality channeled through a Catholic prism and sprinkled with crooning. To add insult, it beat out “Double Indemnity” to the Oscar.
81. "Crash" (2005)
In which Paul Haggis, creator of mountie-out-of-water drama "Due South," explains that Racism Is Bad, but We’re All Just People Deep Down Inside. Sentimental, crude, and stuffed with coincidence, it rightly took a lot of heat for beating favorite "Brokeback Mountain," but it would belong in the Hall Of Shame in any year.
80. "Cimarron" (1931)
Irene Dunne’s debut performance is typically endearing, but most everything else falls flat now, in what was the first Western to take Best Picture (and would remain so for almost 60 years until “Dances With Wolves”). Remade with just as much a lack of luster in 1960, the 1931 version is blighted by leaden scripting and lead Richard Dix’s overacting. The opening Oklahoma land rush scene is still exciting, though.
79. "Out Of Africa" (1985)
A turgid colonial romance, this misfire from Sydney Pollack somehow proved to be an Oscar behemoth. It’s hard to work out which is worse: Meryl Streep‘s mangled vowels, or that it’s a movie about Africa that couldn’t remotely care about Africans.
78. "Around The World In 80 Days’ (1956)
David Niven stars as Phileas Fogg in this lavish boondoggle of a Jules Verne adaptation which has arguably more interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes than anything that actually made it onto the screen, especially involving impresario producer Michael Todd’s wheeling and dealing to get location approval and the involvement of a massive cast of cameo stars including Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra and Edward R. Murrow.
77. "Forrest Gump" (1994)
Tom Hanks‘ dim-witted would-be-Zelig takes a sanitized, fairly reactionary tour of the second half of the 20th century in Robert Zemeckis‘ Capra-aping blockbuster epic. It’s occasionally technically inventive, and Hanks is winning, but the film’s mostly glib and patronizing.
76. "Cavalcade" (1933)
Based on the Noel Coward play, a large pinch of the salt of historical context is needed to appreciate this dated soap opera now. Detailing three decades of the lives, loves and tragedies of an upper-class London family and their servants, it’s all so terribly terrible, and occasionally unintentionally funny, such as when a central pair are discovered to have been chatting about their future aboard the Titanic.
75. "A Beautiful Mind" (2001)
Takes the remarkable true story of paranoid schizophrenic Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, and sands all the edges off until it feels like so much movie bullshit. Worth watching for Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, but Russell Crowe feels fatally miscast.
74. "The Life Of Emile Zola" (1937)
An early pioneer of the Oscar biopic, the film takes fascinating subject matter (French writer Emile Zola, and his involvement in the Dreyfus affair) and makes the dullest possible version of that story. It’s hampered by the studio’s refusal to engage with anti-Semitism—the word ‘Jew’ is never used—though Paul Muni is very good in title role.
73. "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936)
A lavish musical biopic of theatrical impresario Flo Ziegfeld (of the Ziegfeld Follies), this wows in the spectacular song-and-dance sequences, but drags every time the music stops. At three hours long, that leaves about two that are entirely disposable, except for a terrific turn by Best Actress winner Luise Rainer in the first half.
72. "American Beauty" (1999)
A victim, perhaps, of its own overhyping, Sam Mendes’ film is by no means bad, it’s just hard to remember now quite what—aside from Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening’s caustically toxic performances and a terrific, often overlooked Chris Cooper—we all collectively lost our shit over.
71. "Hamlet" (1948)
A handsomely shot but unimaginatively stagy Shakespeare adaptation (the only one to win Best Picture to date), hurt by severe cuts to bring it down to two-and-a-half hours. Director/star Laurence Olivier is a wonder, but few of his co-stars command the screen in the same way.
70. "The Sound Of Music" (1965)
While our childish hearts may twirl on the mountainside with Julie Andrews, our sober grown-up heads do tell us that the beloved Robert Wise musical is really so much cheese. The story of a singing nun who renounces her nunship to mother a family of moppets, wed their stupidly handsome father (Christopher Plummer) and evade Nazis, we take a Plummer-esque stance on it now: kind of embarrassed by our involvement.
69. "Gigi" (1958)
A sickly and overstuffed Technicolor Lerner/Loewe musical, significantly inferior to some of Vincente Minnelli‘s other song-and-dance classics, and mostly lacking in memorable tunes (beyond Maurice Chevalier‘s creepy-even-then "Thank Heaven For Little Girls"). Looks great, but feels like eating an entire wedding cake.
68. "How Green Was My Valley" (1941)
Best remembered now as the film that beat "Citizen Kane" (and as a favorite of Frasier Crane), this sturdy family saga set in a Welsh mining town is decent, but curiously unmemorable. John Ford‘s favorite of his own films, but if you were going to give only one of his movies Best Picture, why would it be this one?
67. “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947)
Two years after the end of the war and the discovery of the extent of the Holocaust’s atrocities, this serious-minded, well-intentioned story of a journalist “going undercover” as Jewish to expose anti-semitic sentiments must’ve seemed timely. Now it seems tame and rather preachy, with Gregory Peck on stiffer-than-usual good-guy form, though strong support from John Garfield and Celeste Holm does enliven things.
66. "Tom Jones" (1963)
Reflecting as much the mores of the time it was made as the time in which it was set, Tony Richardson’s romping, undisciplined version of Henry Fielding’s novel is best watched now for Albert Finney’s performance as the titular 18th century playboy, because there’s little other substance to it.
65. "Chicago" (2002)
Rob Marshall’s starry adaptation of the 1975 broadway hit may have been the first musical to win Best Picture since “Oliver!” but still feels like an odd, slight choice over the same year’s “The Pianist.” The glittery, dress-uppy vibe of the Jazz Age setting and musical numbers memorably described by one critic as “calisthenic” don’t help with the insubstantiality either.
64. "Braveheart" (1995)
Mel Gibson’s full-throated historical epic may seem blusterous and self-aggrandizing in retrospect, but props are due to it for some truly thrilling battle scenes and an overall impressive scope. It’s Hollywoodized bunkum, of course, but of the entertaining, “they’ll never take…our FREEDOM” variety.
63. "Grand Hotel" (1932)
Before ‘The Grand Budapest’ there was simply ‘Grand,’ a lavish, nearly as star-crammed precursor to Wes Anderson’s latest. The glorious Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and Barrymores John and Lionel make it a ‘30s all-star team up, but the portmanteau format it popularized (stories either not at all or barely connected) remains unsatisfying to this day.
62. "Oliver!" (1968)
The Carol Reed version of the Lionel Bart musical based on the Charles Dickens book is a perfectly decent adaptation of the material, and Mark Lester as Oliver is preternaturally angel-faced, but it feels pretty slight, especially compared with David Lean’s brilliant non-musical version from 1948, and also with the more textured efforts in Reed’s own catalogue.
61. "Kramer Vs. Kramer" (1979)
Reasonably well-acted and intermittently powerful divorce drama which hasn’t dated well in the last 35 years, now feels decent, but unremarkable. The men’s-rights-ish gender dynamics, with Meryl Streep demonized and Dustin Hoffman sanctified, feel especially troubling these days.
60. "All The King’s Men" (1949)
Detailing the rise to prominence and the fall into corruption of a Southern politician, and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, by a long mile this version is more successful than the turgid Steve Zaillian/Sean Penn one. Broderick Crawford is terrific as the compromised would-be man of the people but the moralism of the slow descent to hell is pretty depressing stuff.
59. "The Best Years Of Our Lives" (1946)
A wildly popular account, at the time, of the difficulties civilian life posed for three servicemen returning from WWII, the William Wyler drama certainly bears nothing but the best intentions. But to a modern eye it’s a bit overlong, and sags in between some of the more affecting scenes, like this one, of Fredric March returning home to Myrna Loy and family.
58. "The King’s Speech" (2010)
Tom Hooper‘s stirring tale of the king with the speech impediment and the therapist who helped him find his voice is pretty much the middle-of-the-road personified, and is hampered a bit by Hooper’s distracting visual style. But it is remarkably satisfying as a crowd-pleaser, and there’s no denying the quality of Colin Firth‘s central turn.
57. "Chariots Of Fire" (1981)
An unlikely underdog that saw its filmmakers pronounce "the British are coming!" when it took the Oscar, "Chariots Of Fire" remains an atypically effective cheer-from-your-seat kind of sports movie. A bit fusty, yes. Formally uninventive, yes. But as the Vangelis score soars, it’s hard not to see why it proved such a surprise crowd-pleaser 30+ years ago.
56. "The Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King" (2003)
Peter Jackson‘s Tolkien trilogy is a crowing cinematic achievement, but it was the third and least of them that won Best Picture (though it’s still leaps and bounds above ‘The Hobbit‘ films so far). ‘Return Of The King‘ matches the spectacular action and impeccable craft of the first two, but lacks the tight focus of the first or the more emotional qualities of the second. And of course, it goes on foreeeeveeeeeeeer.
55. "A Man For All Seasons" (1966)
A sincere and prestigious mounting of the Robert Bolt play about the staunchly Catholic Sir Thomas More’s refusal to recognize King Henry VIII’s divorce, it’s every bit as stately as that description sounds, and every bit as dull. Paul Scofield reprises his theatrical role as Moore, and Orson Welles and John Hurt lift things in supporting roles, but Fred Zinnemann’s game direction can’t overcome the verbosity and heaviness of the film’s stage origins.
54. "Million Dollar Baby" (2004)
The Academy’s love for Clint Eastwood knows few limits, as evidenced by the 4-major-Oscar sweep for this extremely familiar-feeling underdog boxing story. That the boxer was a woman (Hilary Swank, getting her second Best Actress Oscar) was really the only unusual element to an admittedly solid, well-made drama, barring the sucker punch ending.
53. "Shakespeare In Love" (1998)
Much-denigrated after the fact when it beat "Saving Private Ryan" to the gold (especially after a bitter and bad-tempered Oscar campaign), "Shakespeare In Love" has aged reasonably well. It’s hardly an all-time classic, but it’s an enjoyable and moving upmarket rom-com, with a cast having a ball, and a sparkling script from Tom Stoppard.
52. "Ben Hur" (1959)
The most epic of all the epics (it’s the longest Best Picture winner ever, beating ‘Return Of The King‘ by ten minutes, and ties that film and "Titanic" for most ever Oscar-wins), "Ben Hur" remains a real wow on the big screen even now. It’s overlong and preachy, and Charlton Heston is a bit ropey as the title character, but remains a staggering achievement, with some of the finest action sequences in the history of the medium.
51. "Mrs. Miniver" (1942)
Overshadowed a bit these days by some of its contemporaries, William Wyler‘s WWII melodrama, about the life of a well-to-do British woman in the early years of the war, is old-fashioned and unabashed in its role as propaganda. But it’s well-executed, stirring, and has a great lead performance from Greer Garson (whose own six-minute acceptance speech remains the longest in Oscar history).
50. "The Sting" (1973)
A slick, thoroughly enjoyable, totally empty period con-caper re-teaming "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford as grifters taking on Robert Shaw‘s hoodlum. Breezy and fun, with great chemistry between the stars, but so lightweight you fear a gust of wind might blow it off the screen.
49. "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008)
Danny Boyle‘s unexpected smash has its problems, we’ll acknowledge, mainly in its scripting and the very occasional whiff of poverty porn. But it’s hard to think of a recent Best Picture winner that’s as bright and vibrant as this one, so full of energy and invention. We’d seen crowd-pleasers win Best Picture before, but never one that looked or sounded like "Slumdog Millionaire."
48. "Ordinary People" (1980)
Robert Redford, proving early how much time the Academy has for actors-turned-directors, won Best Director as well as Best Picture for this unassuming but very well-performed drama detailing the slow disintegration of a family in the wake of the death of a son. Among several notable elements is Timothy Hutton’s performance that should have launched him to much greater heights of stardom than he subsequently achieved.
47. "Gandhi" (1982)
Richard Attenborough‘s ambitious three-hour epic telling of the legendary Indian political figure makes a decent run at chronicling the story of Gandhi’s life, but doesn’t do much beyond that. It’s a rather shallow and personality-free take, afraid to ever take much of a viewpoint on anything. Still, it’s impressive in the broad strokes, and in the occasional effective little scene too.
46. "Argo" (2012)
Facing the inevitable Best Picture backlash even before it won, we still stand beside the grown-up entertainment of Ben Affleck‘s "Argo." Sure, it tinkers with the truth a bit, and the director isn’t the strongest choice in the lead, but it’s genuinely, knuckle-gnawingly tense, and has a deep bench of supporting players, with fine work from everyone from Bryan Cranston to Scoot McNairy.
45. "The Departed" (2006)
A bit of a comic-book trifle when compared to Martin Scorsese‘s best work, with a couple of whopping misjudgements (god, that final shot…), but when "The Departed" works, it really works. Most notably in William Monahan‘s hilariously profane script, a couple of cracking suspense sequences, and a fantastic, perplexingly undervalued Matt Damon performance at the center.
44. "The Artist" (2011)
While the Michel Hazanavicius film seems on the surface to have been a challenge for the Academy, being in black and white and silent, it’s still a very escapist film with not a huge amount of substance there once you take away the gimmicks of its presentation. Affectionate and perkily performed (Jean Dujardin got the Oscar, but we fell most for Bérénice Bejo), it still doesn’t feel like one for the ages.
43. "Rain Man" (1988)
Two and a half decades later, what really stands out about this solid Barry Levinson film is not the much-parodied Best Actor-winning Dustin Hoffman performance, that became an early byword for goosing a character’s disability or an affliction to an Oscar, but just how good Tom Cruise is, in the less obvious role as the conflicted brother.
42. "Titanic" (1997)
A phenomenon the likes of which hadn’t been seen for decades, "Titanic" understandably attracts a lot of backlash today. But if you can separate yourself from the hype, the fact remains that it works, dammit. Sure, it’s broad-strokes storytelling, but compare it to copycats like "Pearl Harbor" and "Australia" and you can see that James Cameron is someone who actually knows how to do this kind of old-fashioned melodrama and make it click with audiences. And he’s got eleven Oscars and two billion dollars to prove it.
41. "Rocky" (1976)
We’re fans of Sylvester Stallone’s essential boxing flick, but the familiarity of the format which it helped define has gotten to the point now where some of its lustre has faded. The sequels became broader and more, well “Eye of the Tiger”-y, but the original still feels heartfelt: it’s not subtle, but it is energetic, emotive filmmaking.
40. "Dances With Wolves" (1990)
There was a fair amount of debate over this one, but we’re somewhat going to swim against the tide of revisionist opinion by suggesting that Kevin Costner’s epic western deserves its top 40 spot and is more than the vanity project detractors now see it as (those would come later). A meticulous, thoroughly researched, elegiac movie, it’s old-fashioned in a good way, though maybe too cautiously PC to have as much bite as it could.
39. "Terms Of Endearment" (1983)
Sentimental and occasionally overwrought though it might be, James L. Brooks‘ movie is also a tremendously entertaining, engagingly performed ‘80s take on the women’s picture that gifts Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger with two exceptional roles as a spiky mother and daughter. Jack Nicholson is a further treat, for once adding color to the background rather than dominating proceedings.
38. "You Can’t Take It With You" (1938)
There’s probably an argument to be made that, when compared to "It Happened One Night" or "It’s A Wonderful Life," "You Can’t Take It With You" is rather minor Capra. But minor Capra is major anyone else when it comes to this kind of comedy, and his adaptation of Kaufman and Hart‘s stage play, which sees Jimmy Stewart’s real estate magnate woo Jean Arthur, despite his snooty family and her eccentric one, is a delight, not least in the pairing of its leads, who are on top form here.
37. "Mutiny On The Bounty" (1935)
The best film based on this famous story by quite some distance, what is essentially a parable about clashing leadership styles is given real dramatic heft by Frank Lloyd, who also directed “Cavalcade” (no. 76), and by pretty definitive portrayals of Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian by Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, respectively.
36. "From Here To Eternity" (1953)
As a performance showcase, this Fred Zinnemann melodrama about the romantic and professional entanglements of a group of U.S. Army servicemen stationed in Honolulu just prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, still shines — Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine and Montgomery Clift in particular. But its claim to icon status lies mainly in one deliriously romantic scene as Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr enjoy an extra-marital clinch in the nighttime surf.
35. "Patton" (1970)
Spectacular 70mm WWII biopic of the legendary general, dominated by a titanic performance by George C. Scott. Caught a little awkwardly between Franklin J. Schaffner‘s Old Hollywood and writer Francis Ford Coppola‘s New, but compulsively watchable all the same.
34. "An American In Paris" (1951)
Gene Kelly’s dazzling and still surprisingly weird musical may stumble whenever it’s required to do anything as rote as plotting, but the dance numbers here are the real point, and not just the window dressing. From its exaggerated painterly Paris to the 13-minute climactic ballet to the Gershwin music it’s all set to, this is the average musical, concentrated.
33. "In The Heat Of The Night" (1967)
The winner of one of the most heated and controversial years in Oscar history might not have had the same legacy as "The Graduate" and "Bonnie & Clyde" did, but it’s a damn fine film nevertheless. Sidney Poitier‘s big-city cop and Rod Steiger‘s bigoted police chief team for a Mississippi murder investigation, and it’s atmospheric, textured stuff that transcends its genre trappings.
32. "The English Patient" (1996)
Harvey Weinstein‘s first massive Oscar success has come to represent a certain kind of Lasse Hallström-esque middlebrow effort in retrospect, but a rewatch suggests that’s a bit unfair. This one is thrilling, romantic and more than anything a cracking story, beautifully told by Anthony Minghella, who keeps it just this side of melodrama, but still bursting with feeling. The kind of film that they say they don’t make anymore.
31. "Wings" (1927)
Silent era “It Girl” Clara Bow is the nominal star of this film which has the distinction of being the first Best Picture winner ever, but it’s the still-impressive aerial photography of WWI dogfights that are the centerpieces now. Director William Wellman and fourth-billed star Gary Cooper would go on to make the transition to talkies more smoothly than Bow, but this does also provide a taste of what made her one of the biggest stars of her day.
30. "Marty" (1955)
Even now, "Marty" feels like an unlikely Best Picture winner—it’s a low-key romance between people who don’t look like movie stars, adapted from a TV drama that aired only two years earlier. But the film—one of only two to win both Best Picture and the Palme d’Or—was deserving. Sure, director Delbert Mann was a bit of a journeyman, but Paddy Chayefsky‘s magnificent script, and the performances by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, more than make up for it. Here’s producer Burt Lancaster to tell you about it:
29. "My Fair Lady" (1964)
A frothy, totally irresistible George Cukor musical with a never lovelier Audrey Hepburn (who admittedly is not hugely convincing as a cockney waif, and had her singing voice dubbed) and the irascible, exasperated Rex Harrison as her svengali, the film still breezes past our radar for the dodgy patriarchalism and classism of its premise with its lavishly costumed, hummable charm.
28. "Unforgiven" (1992)
Fascinating for the grim deconstruction of a myth of the American West that he’d been influential in creating, Clint Eastwood’s “final western” is a flawed film, but even its flaws speak to its ambition. While there are a few too many characters, and a few unexplored avenues that the film even at over two hours doesn’t have time to develop, what’s there is still pretty choice, with Eastwood himself bringing an appropriately broken, end-of-days feel to his role.
27. "Gladiator" (2000)
Relaunching the Hollywood swords ‘n’ sandals genre, Ridley Scott’s Ancient Rome-set epic also provided the defining role for Russell Crowe’s muscular, masculine appeal and brought him his first Best Actor Oscar (he’d been nominated the year before and would be again the year after). It’s a relatively straightforward story of a man’s rise to heroism to avenge his family, but elevated by the sheer scale of the endeavor, and by Crowe’s intense performance.
26. "The Last Emperor" (1987)
The lavish stateliness of this Bernardo Bertolucci film about the end of the last Chinese imperial dynasty may be unfashionable now, and at 2 hours 40 minutes it does require an investment of time, but the spectacle alone often saves the day. Even when the man is lost amid the trappings, the trappings (it was the first film ever permitted to shoot inside the magnificent Forbidden City) are worth it.
25. "Platoon" (1986)
The second Vietnam movie to win Best Picture (and the first made by an actual vet of the conflict), "Platoon" isn’t the most artful ‘Nam picture to contend for an Oscar (*cough* "Apocalypse Now"), but is one of the most visceral, authentic and deeply felt. Oliver Stone‘s own combat experience feeds into his powerful and elegaic tale of the young infantrymen (Charlie Sheen) torn between two mentors, as powerful an anti-war statement as ever graced the Academy’s stage.
24. "The Hurt Locker" (2009)
80 years into its history, the Academy finally deigned to give Best Picture to a movie directed by a woman, but Kathryn Bigelow‘s war drama about a risk-addicted bomb-defusing expert was no affirmative-action choice. It’s gripping, authentic, wryly funny and brilliantly directed. The narrative occasionally ends up in a cul-de-sac (the sub-plot involving Jeremy Renner‘s young Iraqi friend), but it’s otherwise a top-tier war movie.
23. "The Silence Of The Lambs" (1991)
One of the unlikeliest Oscar phenomena ever, Jonathan Demme‘s adaptation of Thomas Harris‘ serial killer thriller might not be the most nourishing or uplifting of the Best Picture winners, but it’s one of the most thrilling, and certainly the scariest. It’s been a little diminished by its imitators (especially in Anthony Hopkins‘ performance), but if only every studio thriller was this good…
22. "Amadeus" (1984)
A rare example of the Prestige Picture done right, Milos Forman’s retelling of Mozart’s story through the eyes of a rival is inspired precisely because strip away the lavish sets and costumes, and you’re left with a compelling two-hander: a fascinating take on the nature of artistic jealousy between an accomplished journeyman and a genius. It’s an added treat that the genius is played as an insufferable giggling manchild by Tom Hulce.
21. "No Country For Old Men" (2007)
Deeply satisfying and richly textured, this film really saw the Coen brothers, long favorites on the more culty side of things, come into their own in terms of mainstream acceptance and the honing of their uncompromising vision to reach a wider audience. Still the best adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy book, they also get career-best performances from most of the cast, including Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin and an unforgettable Javier Bardem.
20. "Midnight Cowboy" (1969)
The birth of a real sea-change in Academy Award-winners (the first X-rated film, the first with gay themes), John Schlesinger‘s heartbreaking story of the relationship between two NYC hustlers has aged a little in 45 years, but remains hugely potent thanks to Waldo Salt‘s phenomenal script, and, more than anything, the wrenching performances from Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman. Plus Harry Nilsson, obviously…
19. "Gone With The Wind" (1939)
"Gone With The Wind" had a production of almost unrivaled difficulty, burning through multiple directors, but the result was absolutely worth it—the film won more Oscars than anything else up to that point, and adjusted for inflation, is the most successful film in history. Whatever its problems are—hugely troubling depictions of race and gender; it’s about an hour too long—one can’t ignore the glorious Technicolor sweep of the thing, or the soapy pleasures of the story.
18. "The Deer Hunter" (1978)
Michael Cimino’s elegy to the Vietnam War is incredibly ambitious, and makes good on most of its ambition, not least in a clutch of amazing performances from Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Cazale. And its scope was rivaled by its success, with the film winning nine Academy awards.
17. "The Lost Weekend" (1945)
Somewhat atypical even for the restless Billy Wilder, "The Lost Weekend" might be mistaken for an ‘issues’ movie as the film tackles the evergreen topic of alcoholism, in the shape of Ray Milland‘s boozy writer. But the director’s melding of psychological realism and heightened film noir style keeps it miles away from being a movie of the week, and it remains gritty and near-definitive on the subject to this day.
16. "Rebecca" (1940)
Winning out in a competitive year (“The Philadelphia Story,” “The Great Dictator,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and a second Hitchcock effort, “Foreign Correspondent” were also nominees), Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel is worthy even against that field. Creepily gothic in atmosphere, and boasting an Olivier performance finely balanced between charm and cruelty, it’s a compulsive, sinuous, doom-laden treat.
15. "The Bridge On The River Kwai" (1957)
There’ve been plenty of WWII movies in Oscar contention, but few with the power or texture of David Lean‘s "The Bridge On The River Kwai." A near-definitive look at Japanese POW camps, digging into questions of heroism and honor while being thoroughly entertaining throughout, it’s barely aged a day, in part thanks to the tremendous performances by Alec Guinness and William Holden, among others.
14. "The French Connection" (1971)
The small miracle of ’70s classic “The French Connection” is how ordinary it ought to be, and isn’t. It’s a fairly standard cop thriller plot, but played with such grit and realism by Gene Hackman and directed with such an eye for action and seedy violence by William Friedkin, that it simply transcends its story. Exactly the sort of movie we usually bemoan not winning, only this time, it did.
13. "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930)
Only the third-ever Best Picture winner, Lewis Milestone‘s adaptation of the best-selling WWI novel remains one of the most powerful anti-war statements ever put on screen, and a film years ahead of its time. Told from the German side, it’s a bleak picture with combat scenes that still impress, and it’s shot through with memories of a conflict that still left scars. It says something about its power that it was banned in Germany under the Nazis, who understood the power of its pacificist sentiments.
12. "All About Eve" (1950)
Oscar voters love movies about performers and actors, and none have made the impact of "All About Eve," which was nominated for 14 Oscars, more than any other movie (since matched only by "Titanic"). Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s story about the rivalry between aging Broadway star Bette Davis and ambitious upstart Anne Baxter remains an acerbic and bitchy delight, one of the best-ever inside-baseball pictures, and the home of Davis’ most seminal work.
11. "It Happened One Night" (1934)
Frank Capra’s joyous screwball Big-5 winner (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) is one of the ultimate Golden Age of Hollywood charmers in which a wry worldly journalist (Clark Gable) gets lumbered with a fleeing socialite (Claudette Colbert) on the promise of an exclusive… and guess what happens? The jokes come thick and fast, but it’s the chemistry that the lead pair rustle up effortlessly that makes even its creakiest corners sing.
10. "West Side Story" (1961)
The question of whether "West Side Story" is the best musical ever made is debatable, but in the absence of "Cabaret" or "Singin’ In The Rain," it’s certainly the best one to ever win an Oscar. The Romeo and Juliet-retelling marks a pile-up of an alarming amount of talent, including Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, Ernest Lehman and Natalie Wood, and most are at the top of their game here—from classic songs to the dance sequences (among cinema’s best), this is magic throughout.
9. "On The Waterfront" (1954)
Director Elia Kazan’s brilliant film about dockworker corruption and unionization may have had real-life allegorical aims, but no context is needed to be blown away by it to this day. The defining slim-Brando performance, the film is sad and angry and desperate all at the same time, as a man struggles to fulfill his better nature in spite of himself. And in the business with Eva Marie Saint‘s glove, it contains one of the greatest moments of improvised screen acting of all time.
8. "One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest" (1975)
Hitting at the counter-cultural peak of the 1970s, and rightly winning out in maybe the single toughest Best Picture competition ever ("Jaws," "Nashville," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Barry Lyndon" were the other nominees), Milos Forman‘s adaptation of Ken Kesey‘s novel is still a wonder. Jack Nicholson‘s best performance provides the pivot point for one of cinema’s greatest ensembles, and Forman balances a difficult meld of tones pitch-perfectly.
7. "The Apartment" (1960)
“Shut up and deal,” is one of our favorite last lines ever, but the story goes it was a placeholder until Billy Wilder and partner I.A.L. Diamond could think of something better, but they "settled" for it anyway. Which should give you a good idea of the level we’re working at here, with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine also both elevating the already-terrific material. Wilder was well known for his snappy comedies but it’s the undertow tug of other emotions, of sadness and loneliness and tentative hope, that makes “The Apartment” stand out even in his filmography.
6. "Schindler’s List" (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic is an astonishingly powerful film, which, yes, focuses not on the 6 million who died but the 600 who didn’t, to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick’s reported jab, but it doesn’t shrink from placing acts of heroism against a larger backdrop of unthinkable cruelty (brilliantly personified by a breakthrough Ralph Fiennes) nor from showing the limits and the hardships of individual decency (embodied by a career-best Liam Neeson). There are missteps, like the red coat moment, and the overly "dramatically constructed" shower scene, but they are easily overlooked in what is overall a passionate, sincere and consummately well-made film about a horror so enormous it could paralyze a lesser filmmaker.
5. "Annie Hall" (1977)
Brilliant, absurd, hilarious, poignant and sad, Woody Allen’s finest hour is great for many things, among them: Diane Keaton, Diane Keaton’s hats, Diane Keaton’s vests, Diane Keaton’s delivery of “Lah-di-dah,” Diane Keaton’s line readings in general. To be fair, Allen gets a few good moments too and the skewering of a relationship in which neurosis and self-absorption will always overcome affection is pin-sharp, but Keaton’s peculiar, awkward charm deserved to have a film this good written for it.
4. "The Godfather" (1972)
The first in maybe the greatest four-movie run any American director has ever achieved (“The Conversation” was up next, followed by “The Godfather II” and “Apocalypse Now”), Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of the Mario Puzo novel is that rare film that has spawned so many parodies and references and yet still feels shockingly fresh each time you come to it. Simply one of the greatest films ever made, there have been times when the Academy got it wrong, but this was not one of them.
3. "Casablanca" (1943)
Michael Curtiz‘s miraculous WWII picture defies genre—is it a thriller? a romance? an adventure?—but whatever it is, it’s pretty much perfect. Every element, from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the leads, and the dense supporting cast, to the photography, to the music, to the all-timer of a script, works like gangbusters. It’s soulful, funny, heartbreaking, hugely exciting cinema, and all while feeling totally effortless that belies how hard it is to get it this right.
2. "The Godfather Part II" (1974)
There was some internal debate at The Playlist as to which of Francis Ford Coppola‘s gangster classics would come ahead of the other. Ultimately, it was ‘Part II’ that won out: one of only two sequels to win Best Picture (the other being "Return Of The King,") it takes everything that made the original so great, and expands on it, filling in Vito’s backstory thanks to a breakthrough performance from Robert De Niro, while pushing his son Michael into darker and darker territory. Impeccable stuff.
1. "Lawrence Of Arabia" (1962)
So here we are. While any of the top ten (at least) could have filled the top slot, what’s most surprising (to us with our bloodied noses and bruised fists) is that the number one spot was the subject of exactly zero internecine wrangling—at the very top of the list you have as near to a unanimous choice as we’ve made on this whole 85-strong catalogue. Simply put, we’d argue that no Oscar-winner takes advantage of the artform in the way that David Lean‘s "Lawrence Of Arabia" does. It’s sweeping, jaw-dropping cinema from minute one to minute 222, the rare film that captures the whole sweep of a man’s life while still telling a remarkable, fat-free story. Both Lean and star Peter O’Toole are at the peak of the powers, but ultimately, it wins the top slot by managing to create images and moments that have never been—and perhaps could never be—equaled.
So that’s our take, arrived at with not a little heartache on all our parts. Our capacious comments section is at your disposal for vitriol, death threats, allegations of insanity and unfounded rumormongering as to the modesty of our mothers. Oh, and reasoned argument too. — Jessica Kiang, Oliver Lyttelton