Rank ‘Em: Academy Award Best Picture Winners

#10: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-1930)

Eighty years later, and this film still retains all the power of its anti-war sentiment. The main character is an idealistic German student whose teacher, upon the advent of WWI delivers an impassioned ode to the glories of battle and of serving the motherland, so he and all his classmates eagerly join up – only to find that there’s nothing glorious about war, especially trench warfare. The film contrasts a leftover 19th century view of war as something honorable and glorious (mostly held by people who had never been in war, or had only supervised from the relative comfort of the back lines) and the stark reality of modern warfare that was so devastating in WWI. Yet, to me, what makes the film even more interesting is that after Paul experiences the disillusionment of war, he can’t simply seek to leave and return to his civilian life. It’s become part of him, and he’s lost the ability to relate to people who don’t know firsthand what he’s gone through. It’s a heartbreaking film, and remarkably realistic in its battle scenes.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee, Love Parade
My favorite film that year: All Quiet on the Western Front

#9: Chariots of Fire (1981)

This is another film that often gets cited when people talk about films that didn’t deserve to win their Academy Awards, and I can’t really figure out why. Obviously I’m somewhat biased, as the film has a lot of personal significance for me – it’s one of the best portrayals of Christianity I’ve ever seen on the screen, neither ironic nor treacly sentimental, plus its depiction of Christian missionary and Olympic athlete Eric Liddell is balanced by the interesting and nuanced character study of Harold Abrams, the Jewish runner who can’t find peace within himself. The film has a ton of historical inaccuracies, including some major ones that play into the climax, so maybe that’s one reason people denigrate it, but taken as its own fictionalized narrative, I think it works like gangbusters, and it’s inspirational in all the right ways. It’s one of the few films that every time I watch it, I immediately want to watch it again as soon as the credits run.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds
My favorite film that year: Raiders of the Lost Ark

#8: The Apartment (1960)

I’m a big fan of Billy Wilder, and pretty much all his talents are on display here – a down to earth comedy/drama, with a slightly cynical edge to an ultimately warm story, and of course, a wonderful script. Jack Lemmon is perfect as the office drone who lends out his apartment to his superiors in hopes of climbing the corporate ladder, a tactic which ends up with his boss Fred MacMurray (playing much slimier than usual) using the apartment to romance Lemmon’s secret crush, Shirley MacLaine. A very adult film in the best way, with well-drawn characters and realistic situations, not to mention one of the sweetest, warmest, and yet not the slightest bit sentimental romances of all time, with plenty of humor, but just as much melancholy to balance it out.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: The Alamo, Elmer Gantry, Sons and Lovers, The Sundowners
My favorite film that year: Psycho

#7: No Country for Old Men (2007)

I’d consider this the most recent really great film to win the Oscar, which is appropriate since 2007 was an incredibly strong year for film overall. Thankfully, Oscar went along with it for once. The Coen Brothers are among my favorite directors of all time, and this time they get source material from Cormac McCarthy that fits their style perfectly. A western of sorts, but with a force of evil that fairly stymies the sheriff in charge, a wonderfully world-weary performance by Tommy Lee Jones. The “evil” is Anton Chigurh, a killer with no remorse and less morality, a cold role that deservedly made Javier Bardem a household name. The trademarked Coen combination of human depravity and black humor, along with a distinctive dialogue rhythm, all came together perfectly in this film.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood
My favorite film that year: No Country for Old Men

#6: West Side Story (1961)

For a very long time, I had this as one of my four rote favorite films whenever someone asked me (as people are wont to ask film buffs) what my favorite film was. It’s not that high up my list anymore, but I do still quite love it, with its modernized Romeo and Juliet story, wonderful songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim (my favorite Broadway songwriter), and incredibly athletic and visceral choreography by Jerome Robbins. Yes, there’s a lot of dancing in this movie, and yes, it’s highly balletic. And I love every second of it. Even though the leads are a bit bland (strange to think of Natalie Wood being bland, but she rather is here, especially trying and failing to pull off a Puerto Rican accent), the support is so strong from everyone else that it doesn’t matter to me.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: Fanny, Guns of Navarone, The Hustler, Judgment at Nuremberg
My favorite film that year: West Side Story

#5: It Happened One Night (1934)

This is my favorite Frank Capra film, and one of the least prone to the claims of Capracorn (with which I don’t agree anyway). Instead, it’s a proto-screwball comedy with Claudette Colbert as a spoiled heiress trying to run away from daddy without knowing, like, how to take the bus, and Clark Gable as a reporter trying to get a big story – and she’s it. The film is right on the cusp of the Production Code, and though it’s fairly discreet compared with films from a couple of years earlier, it also contains some things that it probably wouldn’t have a couple of years later. In any case, there are a ton of memorable scenes in here (everyone singing on the bus, the Walls of Jericho, hitchhiking), and the Robert Riskin screenplay is pretty much impeccable. Simply a delight from start to finish.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: The Barretts of Wimple Street, Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, The Gay Divorcee, Here Comes the Navy, The House of Rothschild, Imitation of Life, One Night of Love, The Thin Man, Viva Villa!, The White Parade
My favorite film that year: The Thin Man

#4: Annie Hall (1977)

I go back and forth constantly on whether my favorite Woody Allen film is Manhattan or Annie Hall, and generally whichever one I’ve seen most recently wins out. That’s because both films are essentially perfect, as far as I’m concerned. Annie Hall centers on Alvy Singer’s (Allen) relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton), in a flashback structure as he wonders what went wrong with it. It’s a very funny film, but also wistful and awkward, the most sustained summation of Allen’s typical themes in any of his films, and usually considered the turning point between “funny Woody” and “serious Woody.” In fact, it’s both funny and serious, and the way the two interplay is what makes it quite possibly the quintessential Woody Allen film (he achieves the same a few more times, but this was the first). One of the best scripts ever written – fantastic in both dialogue and structure – as well as the personability of Keaton and yes, Allen, makes this endless rewatchable.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars, The Turning Point
My favorite film that year: Annie Hall

#3: Casablanca (1943)

This is often considered the finest studio-produced Hollywood film of all time, and it certainly has claim to that title. Not auteur-driven like Citizen Kane or part of a subtly subversive movement like The Godfather, Casablanca is studio assembly-line moviemaking of the very best quality, and shows what that was capable of when miracles happen. Because Casablanca basically is a miracle, with a far-from-smooth production history. It’s frankly incredible it turned out decently, let alone one of the best films ever made, but there it is. A taut script ties together a melodrama-ready war-time romance, an underground resistance leader, a world-weary expatriot, a corruption-laden city, and an unforeseen commitment to nobility, all in perfect balance with each other. Unforgettable dialogue, a stellar cast both lead and supporting, and a remarkably nuanced combination of idealism and realism make Casablanca as moving and memorable now as it was seventy years ago. And that’s saying something.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, In Which We Serve, Madame Curie, The More the Merrier, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette, Watch on the Rhine
My favorite film that year: Casablanca

#2: Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I’ve had people surprised sometimes that I love Lawrence of Arabia as much as I do – apparently it’s unusual for a girl to like a movie with no female speaking parts. But it’s a damn good movie. A complicated and nuanced character study awash in ambiguity masquerading as an epic, Lawrence of Arabia combines those widescreen desert vistas that I love so much with the truly fascinating story of a man who helped bind Arabia together for the British WWI effort, but has difficulty coping with his now-divided allegiances. But this is not mainly a political story, though there is that in it. It’s primarily about Lawrence, his personal struggles with the things he does, and the violence he encounters, but then his inevitable slide into becoming something he himself hardly knows. This movie has exuberant joys, exciting battles, but also goes to some very troubling and dark emotional places.

Did it deserve to win? Yes
Other nominees: The Longest Day, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, To Kill a Mockingbird
My favorite film that year: Lawrence of Arabia

#1: All About Eve (1950)

Really, any of the top four or five could be up in this #1 slot, and probably were at some point during the making of this list. Ultimately, I decided to listen to my Flickchart for this one, even though I deviated from it in other places on the list according to my own discretion. But I do truly love All About Eve, and could rewatch it any day of the week. All the characters, from the conniving Eve and the aging and desperate Margo to the cynical Addison DeWitt and caustic Birdie, are really well-drawn and memorable (it says something that of all the films on this list, this is one of the few that I didn’t have to go look up character names for), the dialogue is to die for, and the plotting is fantastic in its own right. Yet funnily enough, even as I place this film atop my list of favorite Academy Award winners, there are two films from 1950 that I like even more – I would’ve given the award to either Sunset Boulevard or In A Lonely Place. 1950 was certainly a good year for entertaining cynicism.

Did it deserve to win? Sure
Other nominees: Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride, King Solomon’s Mines, Sunset Boulevard
My favorite film that year: In a Lonely Place

What I Learned from This Exercise

  • If I chose Oscars, there would be a lot more statuettes for Hitchcock-directed films. Except the one that actually won one.
  • There would also be a lot more noir films, and fewer social problem films and probably fewer epics.
  • In the 1960s, the Academy routinely nominated one great foreign film along with all the American ones. It never won.
  • The Academy gets dogged on a lot, but I’d say they pick good to great films 70% of the time. There are a lot of solid films in here.
  • That said, they only align with my personal favorites some 20% of the time.
  • The Academy has picked pretty great films at least twice per decade.
  • There are far too many of these movies that I don’t remember very well and should rewatch.
  • These are REALLY hard to rank, and the order fluctuated constantly while I was making the list. It’s still fluctuating in my head.
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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!

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