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The Best Movies to Ever Win the Oscar for Best Picture — IndieWire Critics Survey

Great movies don't always win Best Picture, but some of the best movies ever made have managed to walk away with Hollywood's top prize.

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

This week’s question: What is the best movie to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture?

Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York

“The Hurt Locker”

This one’s hard for me to answer, because for every “Godfather” or “Amadeus,” there’s an overlooked “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” or “Once Upon a Time in America.” So I’ll take your question to mean: What’s the most awe-inspiring Best Picture win? And for me, that’s got to be Kathryn Bigelow’s landmark win with “The Hurt Locker,” beating “Avatar,” the highest-grossing movie in Hollywood history (which was made by her ex-husband, who she also defeated for Best Director, historically). That kind of drama can’t be made up.

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Freelance for /Film, Vice, Harper’s Bazaar and more

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It was an earlier screen narrative that relied on the plot device of gateway storytelling, when you think it’s going to be about this one character (played by Jack Nicholson) but it ends up being a much broader story about the significance of mental and physical confines that is still relevant today. In doing so, it highlights an array of fascinating characters (and amazing performances) that don’t ever seem short-changed. It’s an endlessly rewatchable piece that is equal parts funny, sad, horrifying, and maddening.

Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Freelance for The Village Voice

“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”

“There’s a difference between ‘best’ and ‘favourite’,” they say, never having met me, a Wrestling and Reality TV-loving, self-absorbed millennial who will gladly call “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (a billion-dollar blockbuster!) the best Best Picture of all time. Apologies to the older, more experienced critics on this list, but for the time being, I’m firmly Hashtag TeamPopulism.

“But it has one thousand endings,” they say, to which I respond: good. More films should be their own post-scripts. More third Acts in genre fare should extend into hour four, and function as instant critiques and deconstructions of the tales that precede them. In the case of Peter Jackson’s third and final foray into Middle Earth, we’ve made our way into hour nine of the series when Frodo finally vanquishes the One Ring (or hour eleven if ya nasty and watch the Extended Editions), but this isn’t the film’s true climax. The conflict continues — for years in fact — as the seldom explored negative effects of adventure stories weight down Frodo’s very soul.

Even in a fantasy setting, and in a series credited with pushing forward the worlds of studio set design, forced perspective in cinematography and digital visual effects, Jackson’s secret weapon is his dramatic deftness. He captures quiet moments amidst the celebration; moments of longing for a home that isn’t quite there anymore, and the search for a youthful sense of normality that may never return, even to a realm as ethereal as The Shire. “The Lord of the Rings” may feature dragons and goblins and creatures contorted by trinkets, but at the heart of this adventure story lies the very reason adventure stories exists in the first place: to prepare children for adulthood.

I watched “The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King” in theaters when I was eleven years old, and what struck me then — something I couldn’t quite put into words until at least a decade later — was what the climax of the story really is. It isn’t the destruction of the enemy, nor is it a moment of charging heroically into battle when all seems lost. It’s carrying on even when all has been lost, as Frodo leaves behind his childhood home and boards a westward vessel, just as I would go on to years later, moving across the world to America at the age of seventeen. The core purpose of this adventure tale isn’t bows, or axes, or even the love and loyalty shared by the characters, though it contains all those in spades.

No, the purpose is understanding that the comforts of childhood, though they may continue to comfort future generations who come along in our stead, are temporary. Experience, hardship, pain, these are, unfortunately, the things that will go on to define us as we grow older. And that’s okay, because even after years of being weighed down by the specter of the Ring, Frodo performs one final heroic act before he bids his friends farewell and sets sail. He finds a way to smile again.

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

“The Best Years of Our Lives”

William Wyler isn’t, for the most part, among my directorial heroes; John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph Mankiewicz, Vincente Minnelli, and Michael Cimino are; yet the best movie to win Best Picture is an exception to the principle, his 1946 film “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Wyler’s grandiose style, a cinema of literary equivalences, shuddered in spontaneous emotion and historical consciousness upon percussive contact with the subject of the moment, three Second World War veterans returning to their home town in the Midwest and facing circumstances both changed and insufficiently changed, confronting traumatic wartime experiences that went undiscussed except as war stories, and looking toward a future in which they were struggling to find a place—and the members of their families, particularly the women in their families, who also had to face the return of virtual strangers. He gathers a cast that seems live-wire alert to the passions of the day; with the bitter force of stifled political conflicts and the sense of new mores arising, Wyler opens, broadens, airs out his style, filming with his head up to embrace the times with a quasi-documentary ardor–which makes his culminating flourish of romantic style all the more spectacular; the ending is one of the most breathtakingly rhapsodic of all (as proven by Abbas Kiarostami’s tribute to it, at the end of “24 Frames”).

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail/Film Festival Today

"The Godfather"

“The Godfather”

I think “Moonlight” (2016) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013) are films that will stand the test of time and remain, to future cinephiles, superlative examples of the genre. I am also extremely partial to “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), a movie about returning World War II vets and the challenges they face back home. But it is “The Godfather” (1972) that, I think, is the best of the best, an epic drama by Francis Ford Coppola that features a star-making performance by Al Pacino, holding his own against a masterful Marlon Brando, with strong support from Diane Keaton, John Cazale, James Caan and others. I know many who prefer “The Godfather, Part II.” I am not one of them.

Edward Douglas (@EDouglasWW), The Tracking Board

The Silence of the Lambs

“The Silence of the Lambs”

Orion Pictures

There are so many movies on that list that I’ve heard of but a lot fewer that I’ve actually seen and not many of my favorite movies ever received a Best Picture Oscar. Sure, there’s lots of greats among them like “Casablanca,” “The Sound of Music,” “My Fair Lady” and “The Apartment” (a movie I only saw recently), but “Crash” and “Million Dollar Baby” are the only Best Picture winners that also topped my year-end list since I’ve been writing about movies. Even so, I probably will have to give this one to “Silence of the Lambs” or one of “The Godfather” movies since they’ve stood the test of time better than some of the others, and I’ve also watched them more than once. I guess I’ll go with “Silence of the Lambs” if a three-way tie isn’t allowed.

Carols Aguilar (@Carlos_Film) Freelance

“Birdman”

Considering that the list of Best Picture winners could have included gems such as “Brokeback Mountain,” “The Tree of Life,” “Amour,” or “Citizen Kane,” but doesn’t; the boldest and best choice is easily Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”  I’d be lying if I said I’ve seen all 90 winners, but “Birdman” strikes a chord because of its unconventional approach at analyzing the acting craft and the perils of fame from the point of view of a performer haunted by his most successful role.

“Birdman” is a dark comedy with surrealist undertones that confront Michael Keaton’s character with his alter ego as he tries to move on into a more serious career in theater, and also offers singular turns by Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Zach Galifianakis. Impeccably and inventively shot by Emmanuel Lubezki to trick the audience into thinking the entire film was shot in a single take, it’s a film that marries its thematic strangeness with an equally odd visual aesthetic that enhances the tale.

Some believed it was an obvious choice for Oscar recognition given that it’s a film about the entertainment business, but I’d argue that since it was very critical of that very subject, it could have easily backfired. The subtly deranged screenplay managed to be introspective and satirical without being entirely cynical, and gave Keaton the best role of his career by a long shot. If I’d had to pinpoint why four out of the five Oscars for Best Director have gone to Mexican storytellers, I’d say is the fact that their projects are all atypical, perhaps that’s the connecting thread.

Ray Pride (@raypride), Newcity, Movie City News

“Sunrise”

“Sunrise,” duh. So special that the Academy gave Murnau’s masterpiece the “Unique and Artistic Picture” nod the first ceremony in 1928, and made it singular by dropping that award afterwards.

David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire

Carol

“Carol”

“Carol.”

Don’t argue with me. Just accept it.

Question: What is the best film currently playing in theaters?

Answer: “Black Panther”

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