Rank ‘Em: Academy Award Best Picture Winners

#30: Amadeus (1984)

The film may be called “Amadeus,” but it’s really the story of Antonio Salieri, the court musician to the Hapsburgs in Vienna when the upstart Mozart sprang on the scene and took the world by storm, despite his youth and vulgarity. Salieri’s jealousy grows as Mozart’s popularity threatens his position, but he also recognizes Mozart’s brilliance – this combination of jealousy, respect, and frustration at such a gift being given to such an (apparently) undeserving youth makes Salieri’s character a fascinating one (and a role that won an Oscar for F. Murray Abraham as well). The film is highly fictionalized, but to excellent dramatic effect, and had the side bonus of resurrecting the actual Salieri’s music, which had largely been forgotten.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier’s Story
My favorite film that year: This is Spinal Tap

#29: On the Waterfront (1954)

I make no bones about my strange ambivalence toward Marlon Brando – I still need to rewatch this after having seen A Streetcar Named Desire and suddenly “getting” his appeal. I have a feeling On the Waterfront would move higher after that. But in the meantime, it’s still an excellent movie, its story of mob-corrupted unions remaining powerful thanks to a good script and great acting. The “I coulda been a contender” scene is justly famous, though now seen most often out of context. The meta relationship between the movie’s support of testifying against the mob and director Kazan’s highly criticized willingness to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee is interesting, too, but it might actually make me like the film less.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Coins in the Fountain
My favorite film that year: Rear Window

#28: An American in Paris (1951)

The story for this is pretty slight, I’ll grant you – little more than an American artist living as an expat in Paris, dancing around with children, singing Gershwin tunes with his musician buddies, and falling in love by the Seine. But, see, there’s this twenty-minute ballet number that’s set to one of Gershwin’s best long-form compositions, and I love that enough to raise the film up a whole bunch of notches. Best Picture material? Eh, probably not, but for a fan of musicals and Gene Kelly, it’s certainly up there.

Did it deserve to win? Not really
Other nominees: Decision Before Dawn, A Place in the Sun, Quo Vadis, A Streetcar Named Desire
My favorite film that year: Strangers on a Train

#27: The Sting (1973)

The Sting reteams the director and stars from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; this time Robert Redford and Paul Newman play conmen in the 1920s working on a very long con while also avoiding the mob which is after Redford for stealing from them, and the FBI, which is after Newman for many jobs. Watching these guys play out their elaborate schemes, with fake-outs and double-crosses all over the place, is pretty awesome. Bolstered by a great sense of period detail and a rousing score based on Scott Joplin ragtime, and this film is just flat-out enjoyable.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: American Graffiti, Cries and Whispers, The Exorcist, A Touch of Class
My favorite film that year: The Long Goodbye

#26: The French Connection (1971)

When young filmmakers swept Hollywood by storm in the 1970s, they weren’t just making problem pieces and character dramas – they were applying that type of nuance to large-scale thrillers as well, and none did it better than William Friedkin in The French Connection, a crime film detailing a pair of cops trying to track down a major drug shipment. Being a New Hollywood film, the characters here are better drawn than in most crime films and there’s plenty of room to breathe as the film charts its course; plus the film boasts one of the greatest car chases ever put on celluloid.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, The Last Picture Show, Nicholas and Alexandra
My favorite film that year: The Last Picture Show

#25: Rebecca (1940)

I’ve been known to rag on this film for two reasons – one, it’s quite far down my list of favorite Hitchcock films, simply because most of his films are so incredibly amazing, and two, it changes the ending from the book in a way that I think is something of a cop out. But I’ve got to give the film its due – taken on its own and disregarding both Hitchcock’s other output (most of which hadn’t happened yet when this film was made) and the source novel, this is one solid, creepy, and well-done little Gothic drama. Joan Fontaine is suitably mousy as the unnamed narrator, unable to come to terms with the reminders of her husband’s former wife everywhere she looks, and Judith Anderson is downright menacing as the housekeeper who will never let her believe she’s as good as Rebecca was. Not quite a ghost story, but Rebecca’s absence is almost as palpable as if she were haunting the place.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: All This and Heaven Too, Foreign Correspondent, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Kitty Foyle, The Letter, The Long Voyage Home, Our Town, The Philadelphia Story
My favorite film that year: His Girl Friday

#24: Titanic (1997)

Sometime after everybody watched Titanic in theatres multiple times, it became popular to deride it. But I don’t care, I still think it’s a pretty awesome movie, and even though I resisted the urge to go see the 3D version of it, I have to admit to being rather moved once again watching the new trailer play. It has its corny moments, to be sure, and the script is nothing to write home about, but in this case, Cameron knows where his strength is and the combination of simple love story with devastating disaster is immensely entertaining and wrenching.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: As Good As It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential
My favorite film that year: L.A. Confidential

#23: The Departed (2006)

I was very pleased when this won Best Picture, though the reasons for that are probably more along the lines of “FINALLY Scorsese gets some Academy recognition,” especially as the details of this film already fade from my memory. Still, I’m leaving it fairly highly ranked because it is a very solid film in its own right, depicting its cat-and-mouse game between the police, Irish mobsters, and the double agents on both sides with skill and aplomb. It’s hard to beat the cast, too, who all play off each other mighty well.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen
My favorite film that year: Pan’s Labyrinth

#22: The Artist (2011)

This is extraordinarily high up for this film, I think, but every time I try to move it lower, I can’t. We’ll see how it pans out over a few years, but right now, I’m still taken with its lighthearted charm and old-fashioned melodrama, even as I rather wish there had been a bit more substance to it or a greater sense of appreciation for silent cinema beyond imitation. In short, The Artist may not age for me well, but right now, when I’m making this list, this is where it falls, and I’m okay with that.

Did it deserve to win? Maybe
Other nominees: The Descendants, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse
My favorite film that year: The Tree of Life

#21: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

I’m of the opinion that The Return of the King is not quite as good a film as The Fellowship of the Ring (the multitude of false endings as well as a few changes to the books didn’t sit well with me), but taken as a celebration of the entire trilogy, which the award certainly was, it’s well-deserved. Adapting the Lord of the Rings trilogy to film is a massive undertaking, and Peter Jackson did better than I could’ve hoped, maintaining the epic feel along with the strong characterizations and sense of mythic lore that makes the story and Middle Earth itself so timeless.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, Seabiscuit
My favorite film that year: Kill Bill, Vol. 1

#20: Braveheart (1995)

I freaking love Braveheart. There, that’s out there. I know there are some in the Third Row who like to bash on this film (see also: Gladiator), and I know there are gaping historical inaccuracies, and I know most of the filmgoing world has no great love for Mel Gibson these days, but for me, Braveheart works spectacularly on the level of epic cinema, and I’m not going to deny it. It’s also in large part responsible for my fascination with Scotland.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Apollo 13, Babe, The Postman (Il Postino), Sense and Sensibility
My favorite film that year: Before Sunrise

#19: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Well-done serial killer movies fascinate me, and this one is very well-done, giving us not just one serial killer but two, one of them ostensibly helping the FBI find the other one, but how disturbing is it to have to take advice on stopping evil from someone who’s at least as evil? Quite disturbing. This film works great on the straight thriller aspect of finding Buffalo Bill, the horror aspects involving Hannibal Lector, and the character development aspects of Clarice Starling and her backstory. One of only three films to win the Big Five Oscars – Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay, and one of the few horror/thriller films to win the big prize.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides
My favorite film that year: Beauty and the Beast

#18: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Earlier on this list we saw Mrs. Miniver, the rah-rah home front WWII movie directed by William Wyler just before he went off to war himself. When he got back, he made this film, a more measured look at life after the war ends and the soldiers return home, hoping to find families intact, girlfriends waiting, jobs aplenty, but it not necessarily working out that way. Though the film ultimately maintains an optimistic view, it makes it clear that re-entry to civilian life is not easy, as the war left some men alienated, others physically or psychologically handicapped, and unable to just pick up their lives where they left off. A solid cast all around raises this film even higher, with non-actor Harold Russell a stand-out as a soldier who lost his hands, just as Russell himself had.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Henry V, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Razor’s Edge, The Yearling
My favorite film that year: The Big Sleep

#17: The Godfather (1972)

And I’m sure to take flack for having this one so low, even though it’s still pretty high up, I think. Still, most people seem to think that The Godfather is the best American movie ever made, or at least a close second to Citizen Kane, and I just don’t see it. It’s an extremely good movie, with some gorgeous cinematography and an intriguing and at the time unique take on the gangster film. It definitely deserves to be mentioned among the greatest American films ever made, and that’s where I have it, but there are loads of other films I like more.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, Sounder
My favorite film that year: Cabaret

#16: Unforgiven (1992)

Though the days of the classical western largely ended in the 1950s and the heyday of the revisionist western was solidly in the ’60s and ’70s, Clint Eastwood’s finest film, a fitting cap on both those styles of westerns, didn’t come along until 1992. When aging, retired gunslingers are called upon to carry out vigilante justice in a town where the sheriff is rabidly against bounty hunters but lets criminals and rapists go, we’re in a world of moral ambiguity that Eastwood balances perfectly with classical Western styles and tropes, while also meditating on aging itself. Eastwood is an icon of Hollywood, and aside from the Leone spaghetti western cycle, this is easily the finest thing he’s done.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, Howards End, Scent of a Woman
My favorite film that year: Unforgiven

#15: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

I’m sure to take flack for having this film so high, but I don’t care. I saw it three times in the theatres, and have watched it many more on DVD, and I love it every time. Tom Stoppard’s sly script is impeccable, and the tongue-in-cheek view of Elizabeth Theatre put a new spin on Shakespeare for me – I already liked Shakespeare in general, but I’m pretty sure my love for his work actually solidified with this film. I’m not even going to waffle and say that it probably didn’t deserve to win Best Picture, because to me, it did, Saving Private Ryan notwithstanding. That’s an unpopular opinion, but I will stand by it.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: Elizabeth, Life is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line
My favorite film that year: Shakespeare in Love

#14: American Beauty (1999)

It’s funny how many of these entries I feel like starting off with “it’s become popular to dislike this film,” but it seems to be true with a lot of them. I don’t know if it’s reaction against acclaim exactly like Academy Awards, or what. Anyway, I refuse to buy into the popular backlash on a lot of these films, including American Beauty. I’ve seen the film probably four or five times, and every time I find it both moving and viciously funny, a worthy sardonic look at American suburbia. Quite an impressive debut for Sam Mendes, to my mind, and he hasn’t really disappointed me since, either.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense
My favorite film that year: Run Lola Run

#13: Schindler’s List (1993)

Spielberg’s magnum opus, at least in terms of serious dramas. I think Spielberg often falls into the trap of sentimentalism, but he only does so here at the very end, and honestly, for this film, it’s almost deserved. The portrait of Oskar Schindler never falters, showing him as a consummate businessman capable of wining and dining Nazis to get what he wants, subvert their goals with his own, and become the sort of man who will go to any lengths to save a handful of Jews. Supported ably by Ben Kingsley and opposed solidly by Ralph Fiennes (relatively young at the time, but he’s still never had a role better than the hateful and sadistic Amon Gö), Liam Neeson plays Schindler with just the right combination of humanitarian concern and world-wise intelligence. Spielberg is a consummate storyteller, whether he’s telling of archaeologist adventurers, resurrected dinosaurs, or the Holocaust, and that shines through every frame here.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, The Remains of the Day
My favorite film that year: Jurassic Park (heh)

#12: Gone with the Wind (1939)

Still estimated to be the top-grossing film ever (adjusted for inflation), Gone with the Wind remains one of the most sweeping epics ever put on film, despite dealing with some criticism of its racial portrayals. And true, I’d never laud GWTW’s admittedly Southern-centric point of view as far as that goes, but I have to admit that I’m still swept up with it every time I watch it. In terms of a iconic, character-driven film that hits on some of the most devastating situations in American history, not to mention its technical achievements in the use of Technicolor, crane shots, etc., it deserves its place in cinematic history.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Dark Victory, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights
My favorite film that year: The Wizard of Oz

#11: The Godfather Part II

I may not like either of the Oscar-winning Godfather movies as much as I’m supposed to (I haven’t seen The Godfather III yet, and I’m not anxious to), but I do like Part II significantly more than Part I. That being said, most of what I like more about Part II are the flashbacks to Vito’s childhood and how he became a mob boss. I liked the parallels being made to the modern-day story involving Michael and his attempts to retain control while losing even more of his humanity, but I often found myself bored with Michael’s story (except the incredibly powerful scene where Diane Keaton gives him what for), so I still don’t count myself a complete fan of this film either.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno
My favorite film that year: Chinatown

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Kurt Halfyard
Admin

MONSTER POST!

Andrew James
Admin

This has got to be the largest post ever for RowThree. By quite a long shot I have to imagine.

It’s four pages long! I didn’t even know this site did that. Was that automatic Jandy or did you set that up?

Marina Antunes
Admin

I was just thinking that this is EPIC. I’m not sure where to start but GWTW would definitely be higher up on my list mind you, I haven’t seen all of these titles (though surprising myself, I’ve seen about 80%) but GWTW is one of my all time favourites πŸ™‚

Ross Miller
Member

Holy crap Jandy! Epic post indeed! That must have taken you ages.

Only ones that that stood out as contentious for me are Crash (sorry, I LOVE that film) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest being so low.

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[…] on that at some point. Anyway. The whole post, with all 72 Best Picture winners I’ve seen, is here on Row Three. Here’s just a sampling of films culled from throughout the […]

Mythical Monkey
Guest

Love the “Yes, Sure, maybe, no” way of rating the films — a choice of awards look so final and decisive but some years it’s really a case of well, I guess this one rather than that one.

You won’t get any arguments from me re: Crash or Shakespeare in Love — the former just made me mad, while I’ve thought the latter was sublime from the moment I first saw it in a theater to the last time I saw it on DVD.

Jonathan
Guest

Holy. Freaking. Moly.

toro913
Guest

I saw Gigi very recently and found it to be by far the worst Oscar Best Picture winner I’ve seen so far (Crash is 2nd). I have no issues with musical, if there are a few decent songs or some good dance sequences I can usually give them a pass. This lacks all of that, but it does have some lavish design (Andrew will love the pagentry). Leslie Caron is as cute as a button, so there’s that.

David Brook
Admin

That’s mightily impressive Jandy. As with many others, I’d have Cuckoo’s Nest much higher. I agree on Crash though, I didn’t hate the film, but I didn’t particularly like it either.

My disagreements though: Slumdog Millionaire – that’s probably my least favourite of the list (I haven’t seen many of the pre-70’s films to be honest). I’ve always thought The Departed was overrated too. I thought Shakespeare in Love was nice enough, but not amazing.

Also, how good a year was 1974/5?! Godfather Part II, The Conversation and Chinatown are all top ten/twenty material for me.

Gerry
Guest

Forrest Gump heartwarming?

You seem to be missing the fact that it’s about a little girl who gets abused by her father and as a result spends most of the rest of her life compulsively seeking out men to abuse her.

When she comes to terms with her abuse she discovers she has AIDs and dies.

Forrest Gump is an entertaining and great film, totally, in my opinion, deserving of it’s best picture oscar.

Andrew James
Admin

+1

Gerry
Guest

Fair enough.

Forrest, while perhaps not understanding the psychology of the situation, recognised that the abuse had a major effect on Robin Wrights character and had her fathers house bulldozed, seeming sad and angry while this was happening.

Gerry
Guest

Appreciation of film, like any other art form, is subjective Kurt. I thought Contact was garbage.

You’re right Jandy, the Forrest bits were heartwarming, e.g. his first winning run on the football field was rousing and emotionally affected me (as well as making me laugh). I just wouldn’t call the film as a whole heartwarming, because of poor Robin Wrights character.

Engaging the audience emotionally is the goal of most good screenwriters and Forrest Gump emotionally engaged me big time.

I really enjoyed your article, and your pro Hitchcock bias Jandy.

What do you think of Billy Wilder?

Andrew James
Admin

While I agree with Kurt that Contact is awesome, I think Gump is pretty great too. Hating on that movie just proves you’re an asshole.

πŸ˜‰

David Brook
Admin

I think Contact is underrated, but I don’t think it’s amazing. It starts very well, but the ending gets very sentimental with her father and everything. That opening shot is phenomenal though even though it’s been ripped off since.

Derek Armstrong
Guest

I got a tingle down my spine when I arrived at #1 and saw what it was. I just watched All About Eve for the second time about three weeks ago, and my oh my, is that a great film.

I also love your unabashed appreciation of such films as Braveheart and Titanic.

I am making my way through the best picture winners myself. I believe my total is somewhere in the 50s. I’ve been keeping a spreadsheet on it for several years now, but I seem to be knocking off only one or two movies a year. I guess that’s what happens when there’s so much else to see and you have a young child.

I would love to steal this idea for my own blog, but a) there’s no way I’m going to do all that work, and b) it’s your idea, you did it very well, and probably no one else needs to repeat it. πŸ™‚

Stevee
Guest

Wow. What a post. Maybe when I’m like, 97 and have seen every film in the Academy’s existence I might do one just like it.

No seriously, good job. And fine choice for #1, too! Brilliant movie. Although in terms of my choice, I’d put Schindler’s List at #1. After all, it is my second favourite movie of all-time.

Nat Almirall
Guest

Wow. Damn. Expletive that has yet to be invented. Well done! Glad to see you young’ns appreciating All Quiet on the Western Front and The Thin Man. Likewise I applaud your ballsiness (ovariness?) in putting No Country so high up.

I do think you vastly underrate Patton, which, aside from Scott’s amazing performance, the iconic opening scene, and the score, is a surprisingly gorgeous film.

You also need to see A Man for All Seasons and Rocky, stat. Rocky may seem like an overly “guy” film, but, as my sister wonderfully observed, it has a much bigger appeal.

And Tom Jones! is, to me, the best comedy ever filmed. I can’t stand Henry Fielding’s writing, but I think Richardson’s direction is incredibly creative, from the opening silent sequence (and switch to silence at certain points) to the use of stills to trick photography to breaking the fourth wall (“Did you see her take fifty pounds from my pocket?!?”) some 15 years before it became fashionable.

Of course everyone’s going to quibble with your choices, but, above all, kudos to you for making this list. I may intensely disagree with a lot of your selections, but this is awesome.

Nat Almirall
Guest

And Night of the Hunter wins 1955.

David
Guest

What a list!!

I did a much simpler version on my blog,and we have one thing in common,our favorites are always different from the choices of the Academy.

SJHoneywell
Guest

Impressive list. I know I haven’t seen this many winners. By my count, there’s close to 500 films that have been nominated for Best Picture. I’ve seen about 40%.

By rough count, I’ve seen 50 of these.

Of course, my order would be very different. West Side Story would be nowhere near my top 10, for instance. Neither would It Happened One Night, mainly because I agree with you on The Thin Man.

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ruth
Guest

I haven’t seen so many of these but since I just saw All About Eve for the first time last week, I could see it being on the top 10 at least. No qualms that you put it as #1 though, it’s certainly a masterpiece. I’ll be seeing Sunset Boulevard soon!