by Daffy Stardust
(note: This article was first posted in August of 2020, when there were only 92 Best Picture winners in Oscars history. It has since been updated to include more recent winners and to make mild adjustments to the ranking to more closely match my current opinions.)
Hello Le Blog readers!
The summer of 2020 was obviously unique and a little stressful and I found myself in need of a project. It occurred to me that the previous summer I had posted my own version of the American Film Institute’s top 100 list after having finished watching all of the movies on their current list. As Le Blog’s central Oscars commenter it seemed only appropriate and responsible for me to check off whatever Best Picture winning films I hadn’t yet seen and then offer my own ranking of them.
There were twenty-six Best Pictures that had previously eluded me for one reason or another, some simply by chance, others because I’d been actively putting them off. That being the case, it wasn’t a big surprise to find that these ‘leftovers’ were pretty hit-and-miss. Most of them ended up finding spots in the bottom half of my rankings here. I did, however, stumble on a few gems that vaulted into my top 25.
In general, ranking the upper and lower levels of these 92 films was relatively easy, with only a few changes being made after my first-flush reactions. On the other hand, the huge swath of relatively average to decent Best Picture winners was very difficult to put into a satisfying order for me. That’s where I became most aware of both apples vs oranges comparisons and my own biases. In the end, I had to accept the first as the nature of making art in any way competitive and the second as simply okay since this is my article and nobody else’s.
I’ll be starting with the very worst at #94 and moving up to the best at #1 and making some comments along the way where I’m motivated to do so. Here we go…
94 – Cavalcade (1933)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Art Direction
Perhaps the most basic and damning criticism that can be lodged against a movie is that it is boring. Of course it’s also one of the more subjective of judgements. I have been known to be thoroughly engrossed by films that many others might find tedious. Obviously, plenty of the voting members of the Academy were entertained by director Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade back in 1933. For my part, I found the usually delightful work of writer Noel Coward to be almost entirely stultifying. The characters are so thinly drawn that I couldn’t bring myself to care the tiniest bit about their trials and tribulations. One mid-film reveal actually elicited a derisive snort of laughter from me instead of the intended dramatic shock.
A side note here: Cavalcade‘s Frank Lloyd was nominated for Best Director alongside George Cukor and Frank Capra at the Oscars ceremony that year. Folksy funny man Will Rogers opened the envelope and mentioned that he’d been following the winner’s career closely, exclaiming “come up and get it, Frank!” Well, Capra leapt to his feet and began making his way to the stage triumphantly before realizing that the winner was actually the other Frank in the category. Oops.
Better Choice?: Considering my low opinion of Cavalcade, it shouldn’t be much of a challenge to select a more worthy honoree for Best Picture of 1933. Among other nominees of the time, some would favor The Private Life of Henry VIII which boasts Best Actor winner Charles Laughton, or Best Cinematography winner A Farewell to Arms, or Best Adapted Screenplay winner Little Women, which also featured Best Actress Katherine Hepburn (though not for that film). If you want to honor advances in special effects and popular filmmaking, you couldn’t do much better than the original King Kong. You might even select one of the Marx Brothers’ better loved comedies, Duck soup. For my own part, I’m going to choose a film with all of the trappings of a pretty typical historic drama featuring a big star that spends a good deal of its running time playing with gender roles and presentation. Never mind that it’s a consistently engaging entertainment. Greta Garbo’s Queen Christina would make a delicious early Best Picture winner for anyone who took the time to look it up.
93 – Cimarron (1931)
Oscar Wins: Outstanding Production (the equivalent of Best Picture then), Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Art Direction
I’ll readily give a nod to Cimarron in the Best Art Direction category. There are a few very impressive set pieces here that involved high level effort and talent from the designers and building crew. Unfortunately, we also have a screenplay that is trying to do more than it is capable of while also relying on insulting racial stereotypes early in its story. I don’t understand why some filmmakers think it’s a good idea to try to cover a whole lifetime instead of focusing on a single thematically meaningful period. Cimarron‘s two hour run time feels more like three.
Better Choice?: I’m going to step outside the bounds of what the Academy usually honors and argue for the atmospheric horror of Tod Browning’s film adaptation of Dracula. It’s certainly better remembered than Cimarron. It features a star-making performance by Bela Lugosi, a delightfully creepy Dwight Frye, and no problematic racial humor at all. Browning’s effective use of shadows and silence help create some genuinely spooky moments. Maybe if the Academy had shown the willingness to vote for genre pictures like this early on, we’d be looking at an entirely different list here.
92 – Tom Jones (1963)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score
Sometimes a specific work of art simply rubs an individual person the wrong way. I first tried to watch Tom Jones more than twenty years ago and became so irritated by every little part of its production that I just hit the eject button and returned it to the video store without coming even close to finishing it. Last week I committed myself to a full viewing with the earnest hope that in the intervening decades I had become privy to some information or understanding that would open up its pleasures to me.
The satire is limp. The cinematography is amateurish. The art direction is inconsistent. The score is invasive and annoying. Never again.
Better Choice?: More than 50 years ago the Academy could have gained real distinction by selecting a foreign-made film as Best Picture if they had honored Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2. They knew it was good. They nominated him for Best Director and gave it the Best Foreign Language Film award. Instead they waited until just last year with Parasite.
91 – Crash (2005)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing
Better Choice?: Yeah. Every other film in the Best Picture category would have been a better choice that year. In particular, Brokeback Mountain stands out as a significant and beloved film that would have marked the Academy as forward thinking and artistically sharp-eyed. We knew this at the time. This isn’t revisionist history.
90 – Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing
This adaptation of the Jules Verne globe trotting adventure is indeed colorful and features some beautiful travelogue type footage. What is truly unforgivable is that the ticking clock which is in the movie’s title and is its central conceit doesn’t help drive the forward momentum of the story. A three hour comedy adventure should never be described as languid, but huge portions of Around the World in 80 Days are just that.
And yes, that’s Shirley MacLaine there, playing an east Indian princess. ugh.
Better Choice?: Here’s another case where a foreign film would have stood out as a great honoree, in Akira Kurosawa’s exciting and groundbreaking Seven Samurai. It was released in 1954, but for reasons I’m not privy to was instead eligible at the 1956 Oscars. If we’re looking for an English language film, I could settle on Lust For Life.
89 – The English Patient (1996)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Dramatic Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography
Are there some individually handsome visuals here? Sure, but there is also some really awkward camera framing that looks no better than a TV movie of the week. And honestly, once you’ve seen one sand dune, you’ve seen them all. The color palette here is b-o-r-i-n-g. The film as a whole also suffers from central characters who are either too shallowly drawn or who evoke no sympathy where they should. Okay, let’s go ahead and throw that statuette to Juliette Binoche, but otherwise I can certainly see why Elaine Benes hated this movie.
Better Choice?: The obvious choice here is the Coen brothers’ Fargo, which could have easily taken home six awards instead of just two.
88 – The Broadway Melody (1929)
Oscar Wins: Outstanding Picture (equivalent to Best Picture)
In the very early days of sound film, it’s understandable that the Academy would be wowed by this stage door musical. It was something new then. For a modern audience though, The Broadway Melody is more of a curiosity. As a pre-code Hollywood production, it features a couple of those antiquated ‘undressing’ scenes in which a couple of the female leads strip down to their slips or bed clothes. At the time it was a little scandalous, but nowadays it’s kind of cute when you understand the context. The acting here is uncomfortably inconsistent. Bessie Love stands out, possessing that spark of life that often distinguishes good acting in any era. Unfortunately, several scenes could have done with at least one more take. The editing is downright awful in spots.
Stage door musicals became a staple of early Hollywood after this and were done better many times over. Maybe try Gold Diggers of 1933?
87 – The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Oscar wins: Best Picture, Best Story
This movie doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Part of it appears to be a sort of light documentary on the workings of a traveling circus. If they’d really committed to that approach it might have been particularly interesting to modern audiences who never experienced this outdated form of entertainment.
Unfortunately, we’re also given a relatively shallow narrative featuring a couple of love triangles and a clown played by Jimmy Stewart who is on the run from the law. Stewart never appears on screen out of his clown makeup – except when a police detective shows his photo to ask if anyone recognizes him…uh…yeah dude, that’s Jimmy Stewart!! Is Oscar-winning actor Jimmy Stewart wanted for murder?!?
The competitive trapeze work done by a couple of the leads is head and shoulders above the rest of what we get here, but it’s not enough to make its 2 1/2 hour run time worth it.
Better Choice?: There are a few. Right there in the Best Picture category next to this circus movie are both High Noon and The Quiet Man. In retrospect however, it’s hard not to point out that the pure delight that is Singin’ in the Rain was also eligible that year.
86 – Going My Way (1944)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Motion Picture Story, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Song
Better Choice?: While I don’t begrudge wins for Barry Fitzgerald in the Supporting Actor category or “Swinging on a Star” as Best Original Song, the otherwise mediocre Going My Way might have benefitted from a split in the vote between two great crime dramas. I would have also preferred George Cukor’s Gaslight, but the real top choice of 1944 has to be the seminal film noir Double Indemnity.
85 – Out of Africa (1985)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography
Gorgeous landscape photography, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and a couple of scenes with animals…that’s pretty much what there is to recommend in Out of Africa. The story’s delivery is shockingly muted considering the dramatic possibilities inherent in the set-up. An early scene shot in front of an embarrassingly obvious green screen even gets things off on a weak foot for that famous cinematography.
Better Choice?: The one that was actually nominated in the Best Picture category was The Color Purple, and those people who are still annoyed by the voters’ choice are not wrong. I’m going to suggest two others, though. For pure pop filmmaking it’s hard to beat Back to the Future. Want something that’s also a bit arty? Great. Me too. I would personally choose Terry Gilliam’s Orwellian masterwork Brazil.
84 – Braveheart (1995)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Makeup
Braveheart is clearly an entertaining piece of attractive filmmaking. I’m not going to argue that. The utter carelessness with which it is written and designed as a historical epic however, makes it a unique failure in my eyes. Irresponsible revisionism has to be considered one of the hallmarks of its director’s career, and I hate to see that we awarded him for it.
Better Choice?: There are several, including Apollo 13, Sense and Sensibility, The Usual Suspects, 12 Monkeys, and Toy Story. I’m going to lean towards the gentle farm fable Babe, though.
83 – Gandhi (1982)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Art Direction
Better Choices?: There are a few, including the beloved E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Tootsie. Both are top notch crowd pleasers that are crafted with true excellence. I’m going to make the argument however, in favor of the Best Picture nominee that straddles the worlds of traditionally serious Oscar bait and perfectly constructed storytelling that moves an audience. That film is the David Mamet penned courtroom drama The Verdict, starring Paul Newman and Jack Warden.
82 – Forrest Gump (1994)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Visual Effects
Consider this quote from Robin Armstrong:
“Forrest Gump was a love letter to uncritical thinking, obedience to authority, and the linking of financial success to virtue. A re-writing of the 1960s political activism that would blush George Orwell, with an Old Testament level of judgement, condemning free-thinkers to death by AIDS.”
Yep. Pretty much…and it’s all wrapped up in a box of chocolate so it tastes sweet, isn’t it?
Better Choice?: Although Forrest Gump was unquestionably a powerhouse of a cultural touchstone back in 1994-95, there are a few flicks from that year that would probably look better in hindsight as a representative for what was going on. Pulp Fiction was surely the most influential movie of the year, leading to years of Tarantino copy cats as well as the filmmaker’s own popular career. Ask around about what movie or director kicked off many artists’ deep interest in the art of film. Among people in their 30s to 50s you’re going to hear a lot about Tarantino and Pulp Fiction. Film fan culture is as powerful as it is today largely because of him.
You think it was just too edgy for the Academy? You might be right. Well, in that case both Quiz Show and Bullets Over Broadway were better.
81 – Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor
Here is where you’re going to start seeing a lot less snark and fewer severe criticisms of these Best Picture winners. It’s also where the difficulty I described at the beginning of this article starts to kick in. The middle 50 on this ranking are a big old mess, and could easily be very different.
Million Dollar Baby was extremely impactful and effective the one time I sat down to watch it, and that impact is most likely why it did so well the night of the Oscars ceremony. I simply cannot imagine independently making the decision to sit down and watch it ever again. I got the experience with it I was meant to have and I get the feeling that follow up viewings would only weaken that.
Better Choice?: The nominated films in the Best Picture category would have left me stumping for Sideways if I was a voting member of the Academy. That said, there’s a film from 2004 that in my mind towers over everything else as a work of art. That film is Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s memory wiping romantic comedy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I’m even betting that if the Academy got a do-over on this one it would at least get a few more nominations. Kaufman’s win in the Best Original screenplay category looks like an admission that they underrated this film at the nomination stage.
80 – Gigi (1958)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Musical Score, Best Original Song, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing
Gigi is one of those films that I could see myself spacing out in front of on a lazy Saturday during the all-star break. Not because I liked it particularly, but because it is very visually appealing and it does feature some vaguely pleasant music. Those Oscar-winning costumes even ignite a little sartorial jealousy in me. I just wish the songs were more uniformly catchy and a little less pervy. Oh, and while you’re at it, do you think we could get a little more movement on screen? Everybody seems to sit or stand still while they’re singing. ah well.
Better Choice?: Just Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, that’s all. Just the film that introduced me to the concept of the unreliable narrator and has that amazing Bernard Herrmann score, and uses color even better than Gigi does, that’s all.
79 – Green Book (2018)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay
When I walked out of the movie theater after seeing Green Book with my mother, my aunt, and one of my mother’s friends a couple of years ago I knew two things. First, I knew that the movie had without a doubt worked on an emotional level in that crowded suburban venue. I also knew that something about the movie was unsatisfying to me in some vague way that I couldn’t immediately identify.
After talking it out with the others at dinner afterward I realized that both things came from the same source: It was too easy. It’s nice to see people who are set up in conflict come to like one another. Of course it is. But does that really solve the problem? Not really. Does a respectful cop in a late scene somehow indicate that’s who the characters would go on encountering? Not in real life it doesn’t. But movies get to end when they want to end. They get to end when it suits their narrative…and here we are in 2020.
Better Choice?: Yes. There were lots of better choices for Best Picture that year. Plenty. But let’s just focus on the films that were actually nominated in the category to keep this streamlined. Both Roma and The Favourite would have been fully satisfactory selections, and each of them had already nabbed an above the line award that night. My own choice would have also fit that stipulation in the Best Adapted Screenplay winner, BlacKkKlansman. But I guess the last few minutes of Spike Lee’s flick were less comfortable for the Academy’s voters than Green Book‘s were.
78 – Nomadland (2020)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress
There are certainly high level elements to Nomadland that could fool you into thinking it’s a truly top notch piece of cinema. The beautiful cinematography is entrancing at times, the movie’s topic is interesting and timely, and there’s a reason Frances McDormand has won three Best Actress trophies. Unfortunately, while my second viewing allowed me to relax into its easy-going narrative, it also convinced me that a third viewing wouldn’t be necessary to grasp its charms or ideas and wouldn’t be a particularly appealing thought either. Maybe if I need a nap?
Better Choice?: If you limited me to just the other Best Picture nominees this year, I’d take either Sound of Metal or Minari. Both of these provide more intricately and interestingly crafted stories while still addressing the struggles of lower income people in emergency situations. When it comes down to it though, I’m pretty certain that twenty years from now I’ll still be returning regularly to the visual and character pleasures of Autumn de Wilde’s directorial debut, her Jane Austen adaptation Emma. Nothing else this year has made me laugh as hard or connect as hard with as many characters, especially while offering up chef’s kiss performances from so many actresses. Going forward, I’m keeping my eyes open not only for Anya Taylor-Joy, but also Mia Goth, Miranda Hart, and Tanya Reynolds.
77 – Argo (2012)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing
Better Choice?: Argo is a fun movie with a strong screenplay and good period design elements, but there’s not much about it that screams Best Picture to me. Life of Pi on the other hand, features absolutely gorgeous photography and special effects and is built around an emotionally personal story. Ang Lee has won Best Director twice without his film also taking home the Best Picture prize. In my alternative timeline that would not be the case. The pair of Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi looks like a huge upgrade to me over Crash and Argo.
76 – Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Makeup
I remember seeing this film in the theater at the time of its initial release and enjoying it a good deal. While I’ve come across bits and pieces of it over the past thirty years, I’ve never again sat down and watched it from start to finish in its entirety. What I’ve had more experience with in that time have been the spoofs that have been done of it and the comments made about it. I’ll have to admit that I’m not sure I can fully trust 19 year old me about what I saw in 1989, and with all this noise in between it’s hard to give even the clips available on line a clean, clear viewing without allowing those spoofs to creep through. Still, you’ll notice that I’ve ranked it above both Green Book and Forrest Gump.
Better Choice?: I also went out with a friend and saw Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing not long after it opened (maybe it was opening weekend?) My memory of that experience and my reaction to the movie is much more vibrant. From the moment Rosie Perez began dancing to “Fight the Power” right through the tragic end I knew for sure that I was watching one of the most exciting pieces of work I’d ever seen. I don’t remember anyone spoofing Do the Right Thing…but I sure do remember all of us talking about it.
75 – Ben-Hur (1959)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Special Effects
There’s roughly ten minutes of Ben-Hur that are equal in excitement to anything I’ve ever seen on the big screen, and all ten minutes are centered around a single event. The legendary chariot race is a prime example of why practical effects in movie making are typically superior in their connection to the audience. While nobody got killed making it happen as one urban legend suggests, there were injuries, and fatal accidents were far from impossible during the five weeks of shooting required to make the sequence happen. The lead up to the race, the race itself, and the immediate fall-out from the race are of themselves worth the price of a ticket to see Ben-Hur on the big screen (as I did last year). However, if I wanted to see it a second time, I’d probably just wait until the intermission, go in and watch this part of the film and then go home. The rest of its 3 1/2 hour running time is a pretty mediocre biblical epic.
Better Choice?: Ideally a great film is one that a person would enjoy seeing multiple times, but none of the Best Picture nominees from 1959 fall into that category for me. On the other hand, Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (nominated six times) is one of the most rewatchable films of all time. I get that some films are honored for how impressive the overall production is, but so often that means just one full viewing for me.
74 – Marty (1955)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay
Marty is a sweet little movie that is easy to have genuine affection for. Yes, both Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair are “Hollywood ugly,” as both are bit more charismatic and better looking than we are told they are by the script, but that’s the nature of visual storytelling. Typically the audience still needs to be able to congratulate themselves on thinking these people are more attractive than the folks on screen do.
In retrospect this movie looks a little sleight as a Best Picture winner, but I’m guessing that was sort of the point at the time. With big dramatic winners like On the Waterfront and From Here to Eternity preceding and colorful spectacles like The Greatest Show on Earth and An American in Paris just before those, it’s easy to see the appeal of a major move towards a smaller story.
Better Choice?: While I’m sure plenty of cinephiles would choose something like East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, or Night of the Hunter, I’m going to err towards the light humanism of Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon, and William Powell. My guess is that its troubled shoot and resulting lack of a Best Director nomination killed its chances at the big prize with the voters.
73 – The Departed (2006)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing
This looks to me like a perfect example of what happens in Oscars history when the voters make a series of mistakes and then try to make up for them in later years. How on the great green earth is The Departed Scorsese’s big Oscars win when the Academy could have easily previously honored Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or Goodfellas?
To my taste, The Departed could have benefitted by having a less star-studded cast, fewer plot problems being solved by a bullet to the head, and a visual ending to the movie that wasn’t so painfully on the nose. Otherwise, I’d say it’s a decent movie – not great.
Better Choice?: If I was being constrained to the Best Picture nominated films I would tap the dysfunctional family comedy Little Miss Sunshine and be okay with it. The slam dunk best film of the year however, was Guillermo del Toro’s historical fantasy/horror Pan’s Labyrinth. The Academy couldn’t even manage to name it Best Foreign Language Film either, which stands as one of its biggest ever mistakes. A mistake that might have led in part to what happened in 2017.
72 – Wings (1927)
Oscar Wins: Outstanding Picture, Best Engineering Effects
The annual Academy Awards ceremony was still taking shape when it honored its first set of movies back in May of 1929. Maybe that’s why its first “Outstanding Picture” winner was released almost a full two years prior? Still, they could have done much worse in deciding which film to so honor. Wings features some impressively creative early camerawork and some very strong production design as well. The very first “It girl” Clara Bow shows off her star power in a supporting role here.
Better Choice?: While I did enjoy Wings quite a bit more than I’d expected, that year’s winner in the one-time Best Unique and Artistic Picture category is a much more cohesive and elegant piece of work. F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is at least as accomplished in its use of the camera and superior in its film editing. This movie has been haunting me ever since I saw it last year, and I keep meaning to revisit it.
71 – The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay
This is a curious example of a film that is masquerading as a historical biopic but is really the story of an infamous incident of corruption and anti-semitism in the French military. For some reason the filmmakers decided to spend its first twenty minutes or so telling us the details of writer Emile Zola’s early life and career when a single short scene could have introduced us to the character effectively. After all, we were going to spend the rest of the film learning about the Dreyfus Affair, and those are the parts of the movie that are truly engaging. Maybe at a time when the abuses of the Third Reich had not yet led to war the studio was trying to direct the public’s attention away from some of the story’s underlying themes.
Better Choice?: Clearly the Academy did not know what to do with Walt Disney’s revolutionary animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They nominated it only for Best Scoring this year, and then handed it a unique honorary award the next year. Its very late release date couldn’t have helped. Either way, there’s no arguing that it’s far and away the most influential movie released in 1937.
70 – The Artist (2011)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design
There is undoubtedly some good work going on in The Artist, especially with its film editing and production design. There is also some real charm in the performances. Unfortunately these strengths are used in aim of a central conceit that wears out its welcome by not playing with its rules nearly often enough. The overall story and script are also rather thin, which doesn’t help. This might be worth a single viewing, but beyond that I find it pretty disposable.
Better Choice?: This is really going to come down to individual tastes for most folks. Accomplished directors like Terrence Malick, Alexander Payne, and Martin Scorsese all did really good work this year and I wouldn’t argue too vociferously with anyone who favored their films for Best Picture. My own tastes run towards Woody Allen’s luscious and clever Midnight In Paris. Yes, I know some people will always err away from this guy, but this is a case where I simply can’t ignore his skill, talent, and intelligence as a filmmaker. Midnight in Paris makes me smile every time I watch it.
69 – You Can’t Take it with You (1938)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director
The first three quarters of Frank Capra’s adaptation of You Can’t Take it with You is one of the liveliest and funniest Best Picture winners on the entire list. Then the last act comes to a grinding halt as the piece’s villain gets preached at by multiple characters. Never mind that I generally agree with the point of view of the film (aside from its distaste for paying one’s taxes). The way this stuff is delivered is absolute poison to a movie that had been amazingly entertaining up to that point. Go watch it, but just shut it off once the courtroom scene is over. That will leave you very satisfied.
Better Choice?: In contrast with Capra’s winning film, Micael Curtiz’ technicolor adventure The Adventures of Robin Hood is satisfying throughout. Yes, its costumes are a little Halloweeny at times and some of its stunts look quaint today, but this is still clearly a light year jump ahead in the production of action films, boasting an early use of Technicolor photography and a greatly influential musical score.
68 – Hamlet (1948)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design
There’s a lot to like about Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of the William Shakespeare tragedy Hamlet. The production design is chillingly effective. The camera displays creative movement and framing through large portions of the film. Significantly, judicious and efficient cuts were made to the often four hour script to get it closer to two and a half hours instead.
while Olivier’s own performance took home Best Actor and has continued to be praised in many quarters, my own tastes run towards more naturalistic and less elevated readings of the bard. This style varies a bit between the players here, with some edging closer to my own preferences, but too many falling too much adjacent to the flowery approach that holds many audiences at an arm’s length.
Better Choice?: While I will recommend everyone takes a look at the British ballet drama The Red Shoes, I’m going to go with a more down to earth route by selecting John Huston’s great dark western morality tale The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Huston won Oscars for both Best Director and for his screenplay, while his father Walter took home Best Supporting Actor honors.
67 – Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Song, Best original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing
Better Choice?: I’m not going to make any argument against Slumdog Millionaire here. It’s a visually arresting film that covers a lot of emotional ground and was obviously very appealing to lots of audiences. All I can do is express my own preference for the smaller production and more language-focused drama that is John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. It stars some of the finest actors of its era and they each deliver at a high level. That’s clearly going to appeal more to my own sensibilities.
66 – The Hurt Locker (2009)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing
This is a very effective war drama focused on the activities of a bomb disposal team during the war in Iraq. It features top notch sound design and fully engaged acting performances, creating palpable tension through most of its two hour running time. These are not accomplishments to be sneezed at, and it’s easy to see why The Hurt Locker ended up as the big winner the night of the Oscars ceremony.
Better Choice?: That said, my own selection is going to be Quentin Tarantino’s alternative history adventure Inglorious Basterds. It creates its own brand of tension through innocuous things like fresh milk and party games. Robert Richardson’s instinctively perfect cinematography and the film’s adept selection of a variety of musical cues help to keep each moment arresting while moving forward. In addition, its brilliant use of its multi-lingual context make this a very close rival with Pulp Fiction for the title of Tarantino’s greatest film.
65 – Grand Hotel (1932)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture
I often found myself wondering what C. C. Baxter was waiting with bated breath to see during The Apartment. Stupid sponsors…
Grand Hotel has a long history of adaptation, first from a German novel to a stage play, then to this Best Picture winner. A few more versions have popped up, including a stage musical based on the film and a proposed version that would have been set in Las Vegas.
It’s no wonder, considering the truly appealing interlocking stories concept that allows for a star-studded cast in a variety of fashionable dress. This 1932 model features Greta Garbo (delivering her famous “I Vant to be Alone!”), both John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and a fetching young Joan Crawford. Along with some surprisingly imaginative establishing photography, this added up to both a big box office winner and a Best Picture triumph.
64 – Rain Man (1988)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay
When I was in college, I was cast in a stage production of The Boys Next Door, a comedy/drama focused on a group of men with intellectual disabilities. As part of our research for our roles, we visited multiple special education classrooms, and more than one teacher there reminded us not to be afraid of the humor that can come with the work they did. People are funny, and people with disabilities are still people.
Quite often, the criticisms I’ve read of Rain Man have been focused on how Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) is treated with humor at times. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing these criticisms are coming from folks who don’t spend a lot of time with this population. Everything I remember from the film falls well within the range of what I’ve seen in interactions between students and their caregivers. If anything, Rain Man is a tiny bit schmaltzy in places.
Better Choice?: While Rain Man is certainly right in the wheelhouse of what is often honored by the Oscars, I’m not of the impression that it has had much of a life with audiences or a long term influence on filmmakers. Those criticisms cannot be levied at 3-time Oscar winning Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a colorful and funny film that is notable for its achievements in both animation and film editing. More than thirty years later, the movie is still gaining lots of fans.
63 – Gladiator (2000)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and Best Costume Design
Better Choice?: Gladiator is a reasonably worthy Oscar winner, and its spot on the list does nothing to hurt the award’s reputation. But ideally what we’re looking for is a film that lifts that reputation up, and there’s a couple from 2000 that I think do that job a little better. If you still want an action drama with lots of swordplay, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sports better fight choreography, more beautiful photography, and more poetic uses of visual storytelling. Looking for a nostalgic coming-of-age story? Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous fills that bill admirably, with tightly and elegantly written scenes and dialogue delivered by a sharp cast. In the end, I’m going with the former.
62 – The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Dance Direction
Once again we’re faced with filmmakers who think we want to see every single event in a man’s life when they’re making a biopic, especially one that’s almost three hours long. Maybe back in the 1930s the average moviegoer knew all the sordid details of Florenz Zeigfeld’s life, and that required accounting for. Nowadays, I’d be pretty surprised if I ran across more than one or two people who do.
As it stands, the film builds toward him creating his amazingly lavish Broadway variety shows, which are some of the most amazing bits of stage spectacle I have ever seen put to film. The early parts of the film also feature most of Luise Rainer’s wonderful Best Actress performance. We have a great time getting there. Unfortunately after that the film goes a little rickety and doesn’t support any sort of dramatic through-line. Despite this, I will definitely give a strong recommendation to the first 2/3 of the film.
Better Choice?: What I’m going to do is suggest that we replace an overlong entertainment with a more iconic comedy that moves with agility from scene to scene and entertains as much in about half the time. What I’m describing is Charlie Chaplin’s memorable satire of the mechanized age, Modern Times. It would be nice to have a Chaplin on this list, wouldn’t it?
61 – Chariots of Fire (1981)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design
Chariots of Fire is an aesthetically comfortable film with a nice lightly inspirational touch. And it’s relatively short. I could easily see myself watching it again while I’m doing laundry or packing for a trip or doing my taxes. You know, if it was already playing on cable and there was nothing else good on…
Better Choice?: The obvious selection here is Steven Spielberg’s delightfully constructed adventure Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s not like the Academy didn’t already value it quite a lot. Raiders was a Best Picture nominee that won four categories, including Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing. Let’s add Best Picture to that list.
60 – CODA (2021)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay
Following up one light, inspirational Best Picture winner with another, CODA got quite a lot of flack leading up to its Oscar win from film purists who compared it to a Hallmark movie of the week. These comparisons are roundly unfair to my view, because I’ve never seen a single one of those things that was ever nearly as skillfully built and performed as CODA is. I also object to the implication that Best Picture should only be for ‘serious’ movies. This is the kind of snobbishness that comes back to bit the Academy in the rump all too often. Take a look at what my number one choice on this list is and then take a moment to consider what my feelings on the issue probably are. While I love some of the more artful films detailed here, I also ideally would like a Best Picture winner to be a movie I could recommend to just about anyone and they would enjoy it. CODA sure fits that bill.
Better Choice?: My personal favorite movie of 2021 was the Lin-Manuel Miranda directed, Jonathan Larson biopic musical Tick Tick…Boom. Click here and you can read all about it!
59 – Dances with Wolves (1990)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography
Okay, I’m going to open up by saying a bunch of nice things about Dances with Wolves. Try to stay patient about it. There’s a tendency among Oscars onlookers to instinctively low-rate a film if it has the temerity to beat out one of their favorites…and this one quite often falls into this scenario.
Costner’s three hour western epic boasts some gorgeous photography, a strong musical score by the great John Barry, and a more than competent story that never strains to fill its long run time. It’s the sort of film that almost seems built to appeal to Academy voters, but it still doesn’t feel calculated or dishonest to me. In isolation, Dances with Wolves is an Oscar-worthy film.
Better Choice?: Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, right? Right. Let’s move on.
58 – The Deer Hunter (1978)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing
Look, your mileage is going to vary here, but to my taste if Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter had stayed focused on the lead up to deployment and then return from service in Vietnam it would have been a far more appealing film. I appreciated the detailed slice of life depictions of the Pennsylvania factory town the main characters called home and the wrecked ambivalence of the returning soldiers seen as so optimistic in the opening sequences. Where the film loses me is in its almost Rambo-like depiction of their war prison escape and its ludicrous use of apparently completely ahistorical Russian roulette competitions. Even if this is allegory, it’s shallow and lazy allegory. Veterans commit suicide all the time. It’s a real problem. Why not treat the topic honestly instead of sensationalizing it?
Better Choice?: (sigh) I guess not. The most memorable movies of 1978 were the genre hits Superman, Halloween, and Grease. These are all reasonably well oiled entertainments, but none of them are perfect enough to warrant strong consideration for a Best Picture honor.
57 – A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay
This is a reasonably strong ‘brilliant guy goes through hardships’ biopic with good performances and handsome production all around. Does its presence here hurt the prestige of the award? Not at all…but it kind of maintains a sort of water treading status. Without its Oscar win, it’s hard to imagine this would have any sort of legacy with cinephiles.
Better Choice?: There are a few. It’s hard to blame the Academy for holding off for a couple of years to award Peter Jackson and crew for their massive Lord of the Rings series, but Fellowship of the Ring turns out to have been the best of the three. It would have also been nice to be able to say that a Robert Altman film was a Best Picture winner, and his Gosford Park is surely good enough to qualify. My choice however, is going to be David Lynch’s masterfully romantic and horrific Hollywood fable Mulholland Dr. While we’re at it, let’s throw a statuette to Naomi Watts for her breathtaking work in it.
56 – Mrs Miniver (1942)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Cinematography
It’s often interesting to see what sort of art was being made about a historic event while that event was still taking place. Are the depictions too optimistic? Too pessimistic? Do they have their facts straight, or have they given in to their own bias and functioned as propaganda?
1942’s Mrs Miniver appears to land in the range of light propaganda, most prominently in a scene depicting a downed German pilot directly threatening our suburban mother heroine. The destruction of private homes outside of main city and British Air Force areas is also emphasized. The story, perhaps rather purposefully, takes its time in making the transition from a light family drama to a plea for courage in protecting those very comforts in the ongoing conflict. I admit to a lot of shifting in my seat as these early scenes droned on. It surely doesn’t help that half the main cast are clearly not British and are not pulling off the dialect AT ALL.
By the time we reach the dramatic climax and the inspirational exhortations that follow though, the film has really found its groove and is operating with admirable skill and impact. The strength of these late scenes close the film on an emotional high note and kept motivating me to push Mrs Miniver a little higher on my rankings, finally landing here at number 56.
Better Choice?: Nah. Despite its weaknesses, Mrs Miniver appears to have been the perfect selection for 1942. Other bits of western rah rah that were prominent like Yankee Doodle Dandy and Pride of the Yankees didn’t land as well for me and couldn’t best Mrs Miniver at the box office.
55 – The Last Emperor (1987)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing
The technical aspects of Bernardo Bertolucci’s historical epic The Last Emperor are unquestionably excellent. Its production design alone is like nothing that had ever been seen in a major Hollywood narrative film before. Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, as are James Acheson’s costumes. If you’re in the mood for a film that delivers on awesome practical visual spectacle this is a great place to go.
The story and script of the film are perhaps too inscrutable for many tastes, but I personally appreciated the subtlety with which its central character was presented. This approach turned the man into a sort of mystery to be talked over at post-cinema coffee and dessert. After all, just because you take a trip into a foreign land, does that mean you should expect to fully understand it?
Better Choice?: While I can endorse The Last Emperor as fully deserving of its Best Picture victory, it’s hard to ignore the generationally great pop perfection that was Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride.
54 – How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography
Here’s another example of a film that has suffered slings and arrows unfairly because the Academy chose to honor it over something else. I’d wager that many of the critics of How Green Was My Valley have never actually seen the film. Is it groundbreaking or even unassailably great? Heck no, but all I can do is judge it on its own merits and against the kinds of films that have also won Oscar’s top prize. On those criteria it looks like a fully deserving honoree.
How Green Was My Valley is weakened early by some unnecessary voice over, but quickly rebounds with a fully engrossing family drama. Beautiful black and white photography, appealing turns from Donald Crisp, Maureen O’Hara, and little Roddy McDowall, and emotionally effective story threads result in a more than satisfying experience for the audience. This is one I wish I’d seen on the big screen.
Better Choice?: Well…yes…of course. For starters, both The Maltese Falcon and The Lady Eve are all-time greats in their respective genres. Beyond that, it doesn’t take much of a film historian to realize that the legendary Citizen Kane was also released in 1941. This is the film that is often named as the greatest of all time by many prestigious organizations. Those people aren’t far off. While it isn’t my personal choice, Orson Welles’ stunning masterpiece is a more than valid one for that high distinction.
53 – My Fair Lady (1964)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Costume Design
I genuinely like movie musicals. Unfortunately, my favorites don’t tend to be the ones the Academy decides to honor. My Fair Lady certainly has some beautiful design elements and let’s say five memorable songs. And hey, it’s always nice to see Audrey Hepburn on my screen (even if she isn’t doing her own singing). Even with these strengths, it tests my patience a little at almost three hours in length. Also, I’m simply not a fan of lead actor Rex Harrison’s brand of talk/singing. If you want a patter song in your musical it had better be on the level of Robert Preston in The Music Man. Rex is not.
Better Choice?: I would personally choose Mary Poppins over My Fair Lady, but Stanley Kubrick’s cold war comedy Dr. Strangelove takes my official selection. Not only is it spine chillingly funny, with razor sharp performances from Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, and George C Scott, but that image of Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb is one of the most iconic moments of late 20th century cinema. Dr. Strangelove is simply a much more appropriate indicator of what was happening in 1964.
52 – The French Connection (1971)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing
You could do a lot worse than this bracing police drama featuring a dangerous performance from Gene Hackman and perhaps the most famous car chase scene in the history of the movies. Despite several safety measures being put in place by director William Friedkin, including the chase being shot at a different camera rate, more than one accidental collision occurred during filming and were kept in the final cut of the movie. Unlike some other Best Picture winners, The French Connection perfectly matches the tone of its era, especially if you were living in the much less corporate New York City of the time.
Better Choice?: While both The Last Picture Show and A Clockwork Orange have their stalwart proponents, I’m not one of them. Both films are interestingly conceived and have strong elements, but neither is intellectually or emotionally satisfying. I’m going to go ahead and endorse the Academy’s decision.
51 – The Sting (1973)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Song Score, Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, and Best Film Editing
Better Choice?: The Sting is fun and features an excellent antagonist performance from Robert Shaw, but by this point we’ve all seen more pulse-pounding cons on film. On the other hand, William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is still one of the scariest films in movie history with arresting central performances from Ellen Burstyn, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair. Audiences were running screaming from movie theaters back in 1973 and it wasn’t because the movie wasn’t doing its job.
50 – Oliver! (1968)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Score, Best Sound, and Best Art Direction
Better Choice?: Just like in 1964, Stanley Kubrick created a masterpiece and then got robbed by a big movie musical (I swear I do like musicals, guys). Back then it was his Dr. Strangelove that lost out to My Fair Lady, but now we got a win for Oliver! instead of for the mesmerizing genius of 2001: A Space Odyssey. This isn’t meant as any sort of insult to Oliver! After all, it’s here at #50, isn’t it? But…come on.
49 – A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design
So often it seems like the prints that are being pulled when older movies are transferred to video or placed on streaming services are somehow degraded from their original glory. This in particular appears to hurt the look of color productions from prior to the 1980s. Films of the same era that have had modern restorations like Lawrence of Arabia or The Sound of Music typically look amazing, but less popular movies have apparently been left to languish. This is really unfortunate for films like A Man for All Seasons, because I get the feeling it would have been visually stunning on its initial release. As it is, the colors in its images are often jarring or it doesn’t handle dark images well.
Visuals aside, A Man for All Seasons is an effective historical drama that does a good job of laying out its central conflict and the stakes. I personally have trouble taking sides between a selfish, petulant monarch and a power and money hungry church, but conflict is the name of the game in drama and we certainly see that here. Clearly, the one-man-against-the-machine narrative is a consistently satisfying dramatic trope.
Better Choice?: I would have much preferred that Mike Nichols’ filmed version of the caustic stage drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have been honored by the Academy. It’s the sort of movie that almost wears out its welcome, but then becomes an absolutely fascinating car crash of humanity. This is a fantastic adaptation, opening the world of the play effectively and featuring razor sharp performances from its cast.
48 – No Country For Old Men (2007)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay
Joel and Ethan Coen have been among the most entertaining, acclaimed, and successful filmmakers of the past thirty-five years. Their visual style, use of music, and idiosyncratic stories, characters, and style as applied to a variety of genres and subjects have consistently resulted in top notch entertainments made with panache and verve. For this they have attracted a relatively large and dedicated fan base.
No Country for Old Men certainly shows many of the hallmarks that have made the Coens what they are. It features unique characters in sharply written scenes, filmed with creative camera placement, and edited elegantly. All of these qualities tend to make it an objectively well-mede film. Where this specific Coen brothers project falls down for me is its reason for telling this particular story. I come out of each viewing shrugging my shoulders and wishing there was a point that didn’t seem so much like nihilism. Good overall work, though.
Better Choice?: I’m going to make two different suggestions here. The first is the French language biographical film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, a beautifully constructed and shot story about a man who has lost his ability to speak. It was far from unknown to the Academy, as it was nominated in the Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography categories.
Secondly, we have Andrew Dominik’s rumination on the cult of personality in the context of the late 19th century American west with a very very long title. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford features some of the beautiful work of superior cinematographer Roger Deakins and wonderful performances by Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, and Sam Rockwell.
I honestly started typing about these two films without my final selection in place.
47 – American Beauty (1999)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography
A lot of what we’re dealing with here in the middle portion of my list are films that have excellent elements or are very satisfying in some way or another, but also have some less ideal elements. That’s what’s keeping them here in the middle.
American Beauty is a Clinton era rumination on the damage caused by middle class repression and the tragic results when people break free from it suddenly. The film’s handsome, colorful photography establishes a modicum of the idealized world these characters think they’re supposed to be living out. Meanwhile, Thomas Newman’s nominated score plunks like gathering rain that should be relaxing but instead increases your anxiety. The characters try to cope with their own rippling anxieties through displaced obsession with materialism, with sex, with drugs, with externalized control. Also it’s a movie about a middle-aged man who’s trying to screw with a teenage girl.
Like it or not, it’s compelling and funny and really well constructed.
Better Choice?: While American Beauty is a good reflection of the angst of late ’90s complacency and uncertain identity, Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman investigated some of the same themes in a much more inventive way. Their movie Being John Malkovich tells a story I’m betting you’ve never seen before. Also, I auditioned for it a good seven years before it was released.
46 – Gone with the Wind (1939)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing
This is one of those films with an indelible place in American movie history that is struggling with some of the baggage it represents. It is a troubling fact that we have seen more films from the point of view of the Confederacy than we have from the point of view of the Union. While Gone with the Wind isn’t as repugnant as something like, say, Birth of a Nation, it does really need to be viewed through a specific lens.
There’s no doubt that it features an extraordinarily impressive overall production. The runaway success of the novel had made its huge budget an obvious done deal. The accompanying intensity of public attention to the ongoing adaptation and casting of the film make its eventual overall quality and blockbuster status that much more of an achievement.
Better Choice?: …in a landmark cinematic year like 1939, there were plenty of other choices that would have made truly great Best Picture winners. Frank Capra’s paean to and criticism of the American political system Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is one. John Ford’s crackling and practically perfect western adventure Stagecoach is another. How about the great Ernst Lubitsch’s pre-Cold War comedy Ninotchka? All of these would have been excellent choices, but I’m going to fight big production with big production by choosing the magically beautiful family film The Wizard of Oz. It’s the one other film of the year that has perhaps an even stronger long term hold on the public imagination and appears set to carry that love far into the future without the baggage Gone with the Wind has.
45 – Rocky (1976)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Film Editing
Some of you might have seen me share the opinion that, based on the ridiculously bad overall filmography of Sylvester Stallone, the world of film would have probably been better off without the success of Rocky. I am reiterating this idea here, but I will also say that opinion has nothing to do with the actual quality of 1976’s Best Picture winner.
That’s because Rocky is actually a pretty darn fine piece of popular filmmaking (see how I’ve got it right here near the midpoint of my list?). It is extremely well constructed and features good performances by good actors as reasonably nuanced characters. If you’ve seen Rockys II through V in recent years without returning to the original then that last little bit might surprise you. Yeah, the first Rocky was very well written and didn’t have any subplots involving a relationship between Paulie and a robot butler. Rocky lives in what is a pretty decent approximation of the real world, and we can’t forget that it was a really good movie.
Better Choice?: For me, this year comes down to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or Sidney Lumet’s Network. Either one would be a fantastic replacement for Rocky. I’m going to err towards Network with its screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky that puts its sophisticated ideas and dark humor at the forefront of what is happening in its story.
44 – Titanic (1997)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Dramatic Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects
Titanic was the kind of cultural phenomenon that tends to obscure in peoples’ minds whether or not the piece of work in question is any good or not. Internet discussions over how many people can fit on a floating door or why the water in the flooded hallways apparently isn’t ice cold take on a life of their own. Now I’m not going to come close to suggesting that Titanic is a perfect film, but there’s also little doubt that it achieved amazing things technically while still delivering an appealing story. The modern bookending structure is also very effective, both walking through what the audience should expect and putting a button on it. I do wish that old lady hadn’t thrown that necklace in the ocean, though.
Better Choice?: Although I’m personally much more likely to rewatch a movie like Tarantino’s Jackie Brown or Fincher’s The Game, neither one of those is either absolute top level or seems much like an Oscar-type film.
I’m going to let this one stand.
43 – The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Beast Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Dramatic Score, and Best Film Editing
Better Choice?: While William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives is a very effective piece of post-war family drama, it just hasn’t gained the long term devotion of movie fans. Perhaps that’s because so little of it is visually or thematically unique. In contrast, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life has become an enduring holiday standard. Its story is more creative, its stars are more iconic, and its dialogue more memorable; this probably should have been an instant classic, and readily recognized by the Academy.
42 – Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress
I don’t usually feel compelled to describe the plot of these movies, but it seems impossible to discuss this one without doing so. Gregory Peck plays a features writer who is just moving to New York City to join a national magazine. In hopes of writing a well-researched series on anti-semitism he decides to tell everyone around him that he is Jewish himself. Obviously, complications follow.
This film is more than 70 years old, and some of its treatment of the subject is a little simplistic at times, but it also manages to address some of the more subtle angles. Kazan’s Group Theatre touch is certainly a real positive in many of the scenes, with genuine energy coursing through the character interactions. It isn’t on the level of something like On the Waterfront, but it’s there and I love it. On the negative side, the film appears to slavishly adhere to some of the requirements of Hollywood filmmaking of the era and it left me personally a little dissatisfied by the ending. If you’ve seen it then you probably know what I mean.
Better Choice?: Without reservation, I can say that the visual mastery and photography of Michael Powell’s controversial Black Narcissus was clearly more advanced, more artistic, and did more to push forward the cinematic art form. Its subject matter and cuts forced on its U.S. release by the Catholic Legion of Decency probably made it a hard movie for many Academy members to vote for. Heck, most of them probably hadn’t seen it in its intended form.
41 – Moonlight (2016)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay
It’s a little unfair to Moonlight that it is best known for the confusion around the announcement of Best Picture at the Oscars ceremony. It clearly went into the evening as the only contender in the category to be nipping at La La Land‘s heels, and there are plenty of reasons for the love it was receiving.
Linus Sandgren’s wonderfully evocative cinematography makes the picture a pleasure to look at while also putting in a mighty assist in actually telling the story. This was very important due to the unique structure and stop and start nature of the overall narrative, with characters sometimes dropping out and other times being reintroduced in another form. This challenge is also met with strong, intelligent performances from Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, and Mahershala Ali in particular.
Better Choice?: As is evidenced by its loss on the Academy’s preferential ballot, La La Land was a deeply divisive movie for some people. I get what some of these people were griping about. Its main characters could be seen as a little insufferable, the singing and dancing aren’t at the Gene Kelly/Judy Garland level, and yeah the sound mix is a little off in a couple of sequences. Despite all of that, La La Land is an emotionally expressive film, with excellent visual design and a few of the lovelier melodies in recent cinema. This feels like a Best Picture winner.
40 – All the King’s Men (1949)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress
The depiction of a grass roots populist strong man in this adaption of the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name is hair raising in its continued relevance in American politics. The cult of personality doesn’t always sweep in men who are already moral monsters, but the leeway it tends to give these men can certainly give the green light to their worse natures. The Willie Stark we meet at the beginning of All the King’s Men appears to be a relatively sympathetic character. He really does seem to be fighting battles for the little guy. All it takes is one lesson from a lost campaign though, before he turns just as dirty as anybody he was fighting. A scene featuring the man rebel rousing in front of a crowd lit with tiki torches seems prescient with modern eyes. Despite an inappropriately truncated resolution, this movie hits hard and precisely and deserves to be seen.
Better Choice?: Although 1949 was home to a rightly celebrated performance by the great Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress, I have to put my less than considerable weight behind a truly great piece of Italian filmmaking, Bicycle Thieves. It’s one of those close to perfect pieces of cinematic storytelling that is deeply emotional and personal while also being sneakily brilliant visually. It’s one of the greatest films of all time, that’s all.
39 – In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing
As a murder mystery, Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night isn’t particularly satisfying…but that appears to be quite intentional. The story isn’t really about the identity of a killer, even though it uses some of the moves that such police detective procedurals often do. There’s a clever slice of red herring fed to the audience early in the film that serves two purposes, first clearing an innocent man and then redirecting our suspicions while making it look like it’s distracting us.
The real tension of the story is in the extremely tenuous working relationship between its two leads, and that’s where its real strength is too. You could probably put Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier in a great variety of projects together and they would inject electricity and wit. By some modern standards this particular film might seem a little antiquated (its R&B scoring sure is), but if you compare it to other Best Picture winners with similar conceits like Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book? In the Heat of the Night looks positively subtle and complex.
Better Choice?: I might ruffle some feathers here by declaring my opinion that 1967 is a mildly overrated year in film overall. Fellow Best Picture nominees Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner all fall in that category for me: good, but pretty far from great. Mel Brooks’ comedy The Producers and the Audrey Hepburn thriller Wait Until Dark are easily my favorite pieces of movie entertainment from 1967, but I’m not going to suggest that they are Best Picture type films. In the Heat of the Night, even in retrospect, feels like a very valid choice by the Academy.
38 – The Shape of Water (2017)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score
Director Guillermo del Toro’s big Oscar-winner has its weaknesses, primarily some jarring moments which mark it as more modern than its otherwise fairytale tone would suggest. In spite of this, the strengths of The Shape of Water are entirely entrancing and transporting, making it a wildly accomplished piece of work. The Academy did a great job of identifying its truly magical production design and Alexandre Desplat’s bubbling dreamscape of a score. What continues to need attention are the extraordinarily sensitive and detailed performances delivered by both lead actress Sally Hawkins and supporting player Richard Jenkins. These are the reasons I continue to return to this movie, warts and all.
Better Choice?: 2017 was an amazingly deep year at the movies. Ask around and you’ll get a wide variety of answers on what the best film of the year was. You’ll hear some pretty convincing arguments in favor of movies like Get Out, Lady Bird, Dunkirk, I Tonya, and Phantom Thread, and that strong list doesn’t even include what was pretty clearly the Best Picture runner-up Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. We also still haven’t gotten to my two favorite films of that year. Sean Baker’s enormously haunting slice of life The Florida Project deserves more attention for its beauty and tragedy and hopefully its continuing presence on streaming services will help this happen. The long term masterpiece of 2017 however, is Pixar’s amazingly gorgeous and heart rending family fantasy Coco. In a year full of movies that will likely survive for decades, this one stands out.
37 – The Sound of Music (1965)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Score, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing
There’s good reason The Sound of Music is such a stalwart favorite for so many people. Only its opening minutes encapsulate a lot of it, combining beautiful photography of the Austrian countryside, the wonderful melody of the title song, and the sublime Julie Andrews. I will make a small complaint about the mildly jarring effect caused by flip-flopping between traditional Broadway style songs and diegetic musical performances. Also, just about every song in the second act is a reprise. On the positive side, there’s nothing like the efficient groove that scenes are able to acquire when they’ve been played in front of live audiences a couple thousand times, and the film’s cast appears to have benefitted from the work their theatrical predecessors did.
Better Choice?: 1965 wasn’t a particularly strong year overall in movies, but I will suggest The Pawnbroker. Still, The Sound of Music is a pretty good choice given its competition.
36 – Ordinary People (1980)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay
Sometimes the priority I put on writing and acting over visuals and other elements of film craft put me at odds with a lot of the tastemakers among cinephiles. My eyes like looking at pretty things just as much as anybody, but it’s ideas that tickle my brain and genuine behavior that moves my heart. On these scores, Robert Redford’s film version of Ordinary People excels, featuring an insightful and subtle storyline populated with the kind of people most of us know. Timothy Hutton and Donald Sutherland are each particularly both natural and exacting in their work as the son and father of a family in quiet crisis.
Better Choice?: The argument you will often hear is in favor of Martin Scorsese’s brutal boxing biopic Raging Bull, but I’m not the one who’s going to be making that argument. While I could easily see Scorsese winning in the Best Director category, I have consistently found on repeated viewings that my response to it as a story is…meh. If a film is going to be this aggressively unpleasant then it had better either be really entertaining or have something fascinating to say. I don’t find that Raging Bull does either of those things for me.
Although I’m relatively satisfied with Ordinary People as a Best Picture winner, if you really pinned me down on the films of 1980 I’d have to once again gesture in the direction of Stanley Kubrick. This time I’d be pointing out the brilliance of his visual storytelling, and creation of mood. He teamed with Diane Johnson to adapt a Stephen King story into a film about abuse that works on more than just a surface level but remains entertaining on that surface level. Put simply, The Shining does everything Raging Bull gets praised for…but better.
35 – The Lost Weekend (1945)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay
I’m going to make the argument here that context is king when sitting down for a viewing of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s adaptation of The Lost Weekend. First, remind yourself that most audiences had never seen alcoholism treated seriously and with any nuance when this film premiered in 1945. Secondly, you might want to do a personal inventory on whether or not you have ever been close to a real alcoholic. How close? Were you the brother or the girlfriend who repeatedly tried to redirect him? Or were you the unwitting accomplice who didn’t have to deal with him when he got home?
I will readily admit that The Lost Weekend might seem a little antiquated in its approach to the subject at times, but I will also argue that it delivers its story and character so effectively that in the end I was fully on board. It might be instructive to notice that our central character begins the film as an impressively verbose and even charming guy. As the story progresses, even though he’s our guide through its events, his language so often fails him and even goes missing. The screenplay here is a real achievement.
Better Choice?: While I’m more likely to re-watch The Picture of Dorian Gray or Disney’s The Three Caballeros, neither one seems to me like a good replacement for the more than worthy The Lost Weekend.
34 – Platoon (1986)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Film Editing
I put off seeing Platoon for a long time, assuming I would find it overrated, tedious, and self-congratulatory like some of Oliver Stone’s other films. I was definitely also avoiding it because I was more than a little bored by the constant stream of Vietnam war narratives I felt we were bombarded with during my teens. Why did I need to see this one when I’d already been practically forced to endure so many others?
Well, mea culpa here guys. Platoon is a remarkably well constructed and honestly delivered story that addresses serious topics without languishing outside of what makes a movie dramatically compelling. The characters are uniquely written and acted, helping to bring the audience along on their journey rather than holding them at arm’s length. This one was a rather pleasant surprise.
Better Choice?: Although I’m not annoyed by Platoon‘s Best Picture win, I don’t think there’s any doubt that David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is the superior piece of film art. I get why Lynch is not to some people’s taste and why Blue Velvet in particular might be hard to watch. Still, when a movie haunts and titillates and disgusts with such amazing creative ferocity I have a hard time deferring to something more comfortable.
33 – The Godfather Part II (1974)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Dramatic Score, Best art Direction
The cinematic skills on display in Francis Ford Coppola’s follow up to his masterpiece The Godfather are unassailably great. We get presented with great costume design, great overall production design, excellent photography and editing. We also are treated to an amazing achievement in film acting just on a level of difficulty from Robert De Niro. There are memorable moments here that surely stick in the mind.
All that said, I personally find that the whole is not quite the sum of its parts. I’m not sure what it is that Godfather Part II is saying that its predecessor didn’t already say. Was anybody surprised that Michael turned out to be a garbage human being? I sure wasn’t. That was the natural conclusion of his character arc in the first movie to my mind, and what made that movie have the tragic underpinnings that helped elevate it.
Better Choice?: Two different big name directors had career years in 1974. Coppola not only won for The Godfather Part II, but also got a lot of well deserved attention for his fascinating mystery thriller The Conversation. Obviously, these are the kind of films the Academy is more likely to honor.
I’m going to instead argue in favor of the comedic mastery of Mel Brooks’ Universal monster spoof Young Frankenstein, even above his notorious laugh machine Blazing Saddles of the same year. Young Frankenstein is not only very funny, but also is a painstakingly successful recreation of the looks and mood of those early horror films. It features excellent overall production design and John Morris’ fantastically effective and emotional musical score. Even more impressively, the wacky comedy displays a deep understanding of the underlying tragedy of the stories it is lampooning. Yes, I’m choosing Young Frankenstein over The Godfather Part II.
32 – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography
Davis Lean’s inspection of duty and stubbornness in the face of tyranny and insanity succeeds not just on top level technical grounds, but because its story invites repeated consideration and discussion. When a film can do both of these, that is indeed an achievement. I personally feel like we spend a little too much time away from the camp in the second half of the movie, which breaks some of the tension it has done so well in establishing. Even 10 minutes in cuts might have benefitted the film’s overall pace and eventual impact, but I’m not lodging huge criticisms here at a film that clearly has so much to recommend in it.
Better Choice?: 1957 is the year that my very favorite film, Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men was released. While it features a different sort of stalwartness in the face of huge odds, I’d argue it’s the sort we are in perilous need of at the moment. Although this is a very different film in scale, the quality of its cinematography and phenomenally tight script will likely make it a longstanding darling among fans of classic cinema. I certainly understand the Academy’s leaning towards something more epic, but there’s no way I’m choosing something else.
31 – Kramer vs Kramer (1979)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay
Better Choice?: Among traditional Oscar type films? No.
Apocalypse Now can bite me.
On the other hand, if you are willing to accept great films from less traditionally awards-bait genres, there are two great ones from 1979. Ridley Scott’s horror sci-fi Alien sports top level production design and visual effects in a very effective slow burn creep fest supported by a high quality cast. My own top choice would be the genius level comedy spread throughout Monty Python’s spoof of religious groupthink Life of Brian. Considering the unlikely nature of either getting many votes, I’m reasonably happy with Kramer vs Kramer‘s victory.
30 – Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture
How much does a man owe to his nation or his company before he stands up for his fellow? At what point does dishonesty and wickedness in an organization break for him whatever compact he has made with it? With that trust broken, does he burn down all association, or does he try to reform it?
Frank Lloyd’s arresting take on the famous mutiny aboard an English ship doesn’t offer easy answers to these questions, but it does a phenomenal job of forcing its audience to consider them nonetheless. This is all done while maintaining a strong forward story momentum, well drawn characterizations, and exciting seafaring sequences. The photography, production design, and editing all pitch in handily in creating a more than worthy Best Picture winner.
Better Choice?: None that I’ve seen. While the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera and the Astaire/Rogers vehicle Top Hat are both among the best of their types, neither outstrips Mutiny on the Bounty to the degree that I would replace it.
29 – Patton (1970)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing
Here is a Best Picture winner built primarily on the forcefully iconic performance of a respected actor who seemed built for the role in question. The fact that George C Scott could sell this performance so effectively after essentially lampooning this same kind of character just six years earlier in Dr Strangelove is a true reflection of his power and versatility as a performer. The film’s producers lent him a hand by populating the cast with strong complementary actors like Karl Malden, Edward Binns, and Lawrence Dobkin and providing the vigorous and nimble cinematography of Fred J Koenekamp. Top it all off with Jerry Goldsmith’s rousing and haunted score and you’ve got the sort of film that earns the right to insist upon itself a little.
Better Choice?: There will certainly be those who will argue in favor of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, but my most recent viewing of it left me scratching my head. It turns out the television show was far superior. The film is populated by a bunch of self-satisfied abusive jerks who aren’t nearly as funny as they think they are, but are somehow supposed to be the heroes of the story. You want an Altman film? try The Player, or Gosford Park, or Short Cuts. In this case, Patton is a more than worthy victor.
28 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, Best Art Direction, Best Makeup, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was a cultural phenomenon that was actually really fantastically made pretty much from the top down. While there are some individual choices made over the course of the sprawling epic that weren’t perfect, it’s hard to argue that the entire project wasn’t an enormous cinematic achievement. Our collective love for these films didn’t ebb a bit until Jackson and company tarnished them with the facepalm inducing Hobbit series. I’m personally having a really hard time pretending those movies never happened. At some point I’ll succeed and Return of the King and its predecessors will recapture my heart.
Better Choice?: Not really, but I will always treat Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation as if it won Best Picture.
27 – From Here to Eternity (1953)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound Recording, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing
Is the above scene featuring Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr as iconic now as it was when I was growing up? Somewhere along the line I get the feeling that pop culture as a whole lost contact with it. I mean, it’s just a scene of pretty people kissing on the beach as the waves crash over them. I guess it’s nothing that special…except it’s exactly the sort of image that film can capture that touches a basic part of us. Obviously, the easy interpretation is that Warden and Karen are as heedless of the encroaching waves as they are of the possible consequences of their affair. The fact that this is the most indelible image from a movie about members of the military in Hawaii in the days leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor could also be emblematic of their blissful ignorance of what is to come.
The looming attack hangs over the entirety of From Here to Eternity as a large cast of characters simmers and boils in anticipation of…what? They don’t always seem entirely sure. But the constant pricks of conflict and tension continue to drive the film in a way that makes its two hour runtime fly past.
Better Choice?: Nah. Roman Holiday and Shane are both very good, but neither seems like an appropriate Best Picture winner over From Here to Eternity.
26 – Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography
It’s just human nature. People like to see people like themselves. So it’s no surprise that Hollywood has found itself throwing praise at movies about actors at times. Of course these are also usually pretty good movies. Because, as we also hear, you should write what you know.
If the idea is to investigate issues of the identity of self and ego like director Alejandro Iñárritu has said, then an actor as your central character seems like a natural. Michael Keaton was also a pretty great choice to provide a guy who could be both relatable and self-obsessed. His regular guy persona feeds into the character’s claims at wanting to do the honest work of a stage production…even though he might not be up to the challenge. Like this past year’s 1917, the camera of Birdman follows Keaton and his castmates through a series of long takes, which approximate for us some of the experience of live theatre. Floods of words and ideas cascade from the script while its characters act out its points about how their selfish obsessions are both propelling and hindering them. I don’t know about anybody else, but I find it to be a lot of fun.
Better Choice?: Plenty of people will stump for Richard Linklater’s experimental lifetime production of Boyhood or the nesting doll Wes Anderson period comedy The Grand Budapest Hotel, and they will have good arguments. Birdman was always my favorite of the bunch, though.
25 – It Happened One Night (1934)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay
If one of the elements you’re looking for in a big time Best Picture winner is its influence on the industry as a whole, then It Happened One Night has to be way up there. Director Frank Capra teamed with screenwriter Robert Riskin, and stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert to create what turned out to be the blueprint for romantic comedies for decades to come.
Although the movie wasn’t immediately a huge hit, once it went to second run theaters word of mouth spread and it became very popular indeed, particularly in smaller markets. Clark Gable’s appearance in one scene without an undershirt is said to have caught on and hurt the sale of them nationwide. The Academy’s voters appear to have realized they had something here, because contrary to popular prediction at the time, they ended up lavishing each of the top 5 awards on the film. Colbert was so convinced she wouldn’t win that she’d planned a vacation to start that day and had to be pulled off a train before it departed.
24 – Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing
If you’ve ever seen Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen then you probably know why it was such a sensation both with critics and at the box office. The amazingly impressive photography that David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young created for the film is practically overwhelming at that size. You may be able to guess at it even if you’re watching on your phone. This was also the big coming out party that made Peter O’Toole a major movie star for the next couple of decades. He would end up collecting eight Oscar nominations in the Best actor category, but none would be as iconic as this one.
Better Choice?: Maybe not a better choice overall considering the overwhelming technical achievements of Lean and company, but I would typically decide to watch the film version of To Kill A Mockingbird given my druthers. The story and characters are more relatable and the themes are more meaningful. In most other years it probably would have won easily.
23 – 12 Years A Slave (2013)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay
It’s nice when an “important” film is also really good. The source material that director Steve McQueen and his team were working from was certainly powerful, and they managed to build something both nuanced and purposeful out of it. The story is well assisted by strong work all around, not just from its cast, but also through excellent production design and cinematography. Just like with Schindler’s List (which we’ll talk about a little later), the topic of this film is something that has been twisted in order to keep some people more comfortable. I personally don’t understand what’s so hard about saying that people who I never even knew did something terrible, but that’s just me. 12 Years A Slave actually allows for some shades of grey in its narrative where they aren’t even necessary.
Better Choice?: McQueen’s film is definitely worthy of its win, and it tastes like the kind of movie that the Oscars have historically been meant to honor. It has clear heroes and villains and a story about overcoming hardship. I must admit however, that there are a couple of subtler bits of storytelling about personal weakness that have been on repeat in my head constantly over the past seven years. Both boast poetic and funny scripts and feature unique qualities that stand out above most other films.
Oscar Isaac’s criminally underrated performance of both the title character and the movie’s perfectly curated songs help make the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis a sneaky classic that the Academy barely noticed.
Even better is the last feature film Spike Jonze has made to this date, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with the artificial intelligence of his home computer’s operating system. Her is set in a very near future and includes some of the most spotlessly considered production design I have ever encountered in a film. Meanwhile, its inspection of the meaning of self is intelligent, funny, and moving. This is a masterpiece of modern cinema.
22 – Chicago (2002)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Film Editing
Sometimes all a movie has to be is lively, fun to look at, and have a little dash of smarts in it. That formula surely seems to apply to 2002 Best Picture winner Chicago. I’ve seen plenty of criticisms of it that seem to suggest that it isn’t serious enough or isn’t revolutionary enough or even that it promotes immorality. Mostly these are criticisms from people who appear to have had a dog in the fight for one reason or another. Or maybe it’s just people who generally don’t like musicals. Whatever it is, none of these arguments have been very convincing to me. I have found Chicago to be imminently re-watchable in a way that none of the other Best Picture nominees of the year are in isolation.
Better Choice?: Obviously, I’m perfectly happy with Chicago, but if you forced me to go a little deeper into 2002 you’d find still another Spike Jonze movie that is smarter and funnier than anything else that came out that year. Adaptation was such a unique and interesting project that there was genuine confusion over whether it should be nominated in the Original or Adapted Screenplay category. It also features a career best performance from the sadly degraded filmography of Nicolas Cage.
21 – Terms of Endearment (1983)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay
Ever since Billy Wilder stopped making movies back in the early ’80s, film fans have been looking for an heir apparent, and one applicant has definitely been James L Brooks. His ability to consistently produce stories stuffed with both humor and pathos inside largely realistic contexts made him a huge favorite in many quarters (if only I had critical thinking and a VCR back in 1984). Unfortunately, Brooks’ feature film output has been inconsistent, with high water marks like Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets pleasing the fans Terms of Endearment had won him, but most everything else being considered a disappointment.
As far as Terms of Endearment itself goes, its mix of comedy and tragedy played out by an immensely talented and charismatic cast made it a slam dunk with the Academy. It’s also fair to point out that it spans decades in just two hours which I have already given a general thumbs down to in most cases here, but apparently the Academy loves. That aside, when you give Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, and Jeff Daniels good dialogue to say? I’m going to be on board.
Better Choice?: Every human on the planet has seen A Christmas Story at least five times and I will argue that’s because it’s genuinely great. I will stop short of insisting that means it should replace Terms of Endearment as the 1983 Best Picture winner though.
(of course it wouldn’t make me mad exactly)
20 – All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director
Although some of the writing here is a little antiquated by today’s standards, the anti-war message is well and plainly delivered. The production design is astoundingly enormous and detailed and Arthur Edeson’s photography rivals the best of what we saw in Wings just a few years ago. The camera moves in and out of doors and windows and the editing is done to great impact. Based on the top-selling German novel (which actually translates to “Nothing New in the West”), the story follows a class of young German men who join the war effort enthusiastically, but learn quickly that the glory they imagine is a cruel pipe dream. All Quiet on the Western Front closes on a famous sequence that you may not realize has its origin here. Wait for it, because it’s a heart breaker.
19 – The King’s Speech (2010)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay
This is one that I have some real bias about. I’m a little bit of an Anglophile. I like period pieces. I enjoy both Geoffrey Rush and Colin Firth a lot. Also, I’m a speech-language pathologist. This movie was practically made to appeal to me. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s not also really good. The voting members of the Academy certainly thought so, and how could any of us know that Tom Hooper would inflict Cats on us?
Better Choice?: Well, the Monday morning quarterbacks of the internet have generally agreed that David Fincher’s The Social Network was probably the more cinematically literate and era indicative film, and I really love the bonkers body horror of Black Swan.
Who are we kidding though? This is my list. The King’s Speech stays.
18 – Rebecca (1940)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Cinematography
Alfred Hitchcock’s filmed adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s popular novel was strictly made to be as faithful to the source material as possible. Not because that’s how Hitch wanted it, but because producer David O Selznick demanded it (one detail about the central death had to be changed because of the damned Hays code, but I guess you can’t have everything).
This wasn’t a small budget production, but it still appears that Hitchcock was focusing a high percentage of his effort on a few key scenes. He could afford to. He had a cast full of relative unknowns who were ready to break out. Judith Anderson and George Sanders were each cast to perfection, with Anderson nominated for her role as the intimidating Mrs Danvers. Even so, the whole film could have lagged and died on the vine if not for the entirely engaging work done by a young Joan Fontaine. She is completely believable as a relative innocent whose experiences change her over the course of the story.
Even more key to the impression left by the film as a whole are its last two minutes. After a set of very talky scenes appear to have wrapped up the plot nicely, we’re treated to a striking finale. I won’t spoil it for you here, but it’s the kind of cinematic electricity that Hitchcock would become famous for.
Better Choice?: As much as I adore Rebecca, it’s hard not to think that either The Grapes of Wrath or The Philadelphia Story would be a more apt selection long term. Considering that John Ford took home Best Director and its more timely subject matter, I’m going to err towards the Steinbeck adaptation featuring a wonderful early Henry Fonda role. The Grapes of Wrath seems like a pretty good counter-punch to the previous year’s Gone with the Wind, too.
17 – The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay
On my most recent viewing of Jonathan Demme’s filmed adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, what stood out to me most were the moments in which he was putting the audience in Clarice’s shoes by way of camera placement. We are often shown what Clarice is seeing from either her eye line or an approximation of it. Other times we get shots of Clarice that emphasize her small stature or her status as a woman among men. This is most pronounced of course, during the climactic scene in Buffalo Bill’s house when we switch suddenly between her point of view to Bill’s when he dons his night vision goggles.
Buffalo Bill appears to be based on a variety of real life serial killers, including the notorious Ed Gein, Gary Heidnik, and Ted Bundy. Like Gein, Bill skins his female victims and is creating a suit from the skin (unlike Gein, this suit does not appear to be meant to specifically recreate his own mother). Unfortunately, because of some script cuts and a bit of carelessness, this is easily interpreted as critical of the LGBT or specifically the trans community.
A single early line from Hannibal Lecter dismisses Bill’s possible trans identity, but a second scene with a specialist in the area was left out, and as the saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words.” A more memorable scene in which Bill dances while wearing a wig and applying makeup comes later in the film and could easily be seen to belie the earlier assertion from Lecter. The plain facts are that trans individuals are far more likely to be victims of homicide than the perpetrators. As much as we can value the positive feminist message present in an excellent film like this, we can continue to reconsider some of its other elements, and this is one of those. When it comes to Bill’s violence and mutilations, I’d rather notice that he has Nazi paraphernalia sitting around his house.
Better Choice?: This is a really close one. I’m more than satisfied with a great film like Silence of the Lambs as 1991’s Best Picture winner. On the other hand, if I had my own chance to vote I would undoubtedly select the timeless family classic Beauty & the Beast. It would be entirely possible in the larger context of the awards that year, to hand each of the four other Oscars Lambs won to it while also further honoring one of the true jewels of the Disney company.
16 – West Side Story (1961)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Scoring of a Musical, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing
As much as I clearly enjoy stage and screen musicals, it’s often for the pure pleasure and admirable craftsmanship they display. Give me something well structured and lively, with some snappy tunes, a few good jokes and maybe something romantic to warm the heart and I’m all in. While West Side Story certainly includes all of this, it also adds an electric contemporary energy that pulses through its entirety. It’s both a bold artistic expression that features blaring colors and dance sequences and a street level piece of dramatic tension.
I won’t defend Richard Beymer being perhaps a little too clean cut or that both he and Natalie Wood’s vocals were dubbed in by more accomplished singers. In the context of the film, I don’t find the dubbing distracting, and its other strengths more than make up for these perceived issues. What always grabs me so hard is how gleefully and seamlessly the musical integrates its traditional and contemporary elements while remaining so exciting and accessible to modern audiences. It’s no wonder West Side Story‘s songs became standards in pop, theatre, and jazz communities.
Better Choice?: There’s not much else from 1961 to truly compete with West Side Story. Some of the more prominent candidates would be dramas like The Hustler or Judgement at Nuremberg or the often underrated animation of 101 Dalmatians. While I appreciate plenty of what each of those movies offers, I don’t see any of them as having both the artistic excellence and the long term broad significance of West Side Story. This one can stand.
15 – Unforgiven (1992)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Film Editing
Considering how dominant the western was throughout several decades of American filmmaking, it’s a little surprising that there are only three Best Picture winners that can truly be assigned to that genre. 1931’s Cimarron is almost at the very bottom of this list, and 1990’s Dances with Wolves inhabits that messy middle ground. 1939’s wonderful Stagecoach was simply drowned out by other great movies. The politics surrounding High Noon appear to have sunk its chances back in 1952.
The demystification of typical western romanticism of the classic era did not originate with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, but it’s surely an indispensable place to go in your navigation of the genre. Its characters are constantly shaping their own legacies through idealized versions of the stories of their lives, especially in the interactions with the one man they know can spread these lies. Then we see the reality and brutality these men live in and how small they really are.
Better Choice?: I was very tempted to represent Robert Altman here with his sharp Hollywood satire The Player, and I certainly wouldn’t argue with anybody who did. In the end I decided to feature this as a hallmark of both Eastwood and westerns in general.
14 – Parasite (2019)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best International Film
Recency bias is a real thing. Does Parasite really belong in this rarefied company? Part of the point of this whole exercise is to reveal how a film can gain or lose esteem as the years pass. This can happen as we have more time to dissect them and find their flaws and hidden strengths or it can be the result of changes in society that change how we receive previously offhand elements.
As of the middle of 2020, last year’s Oscar champ seems to be dealing with relatively timeless themes, does not appear to lean too hard on its twists for its power, and surely represents top level film technique and craft. But who knows what the future holds? Parasite could even move up.
Better Choice?: 2019 was a top-heavy year in film, and I have absolutely no doubt that several of its movies will remain favorites for years to come. I personally look forward to rewatching Knives Out, Marriage Story, 1917, Jojo Rabbit, The Farewell, Little Women, and Avengers: Endgame for the rest of my life. Maybe one of them will distinguish itself above the others by 20 years from now. For now I’m perfectly happy with Parasite‘s place here.
13 – An American in Paris (1951)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Story and Screenplay, Best Scoring of a Musical, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design
Vincente Minelli’s 1951 musical romance/ballet is an amazingly complete display of sonic and visual art, with simply astounding excellence in its overall production design. It stars an appealing central performance from Gene Kelly (who picked up an honorary Oscar for his work), and the camera consistently really knows what it’s doing. Although the story and sexual politics are pretty simplistic and old fashioned by now, An American in Paris isn’t shooting for intellectual subtlety, but instead for emotional expression, and it works brilliantly on that level.
Better Choice?: As much as I enjoy and respect An American in Paris, I’m not sure it is as emblematic of a moment of change and revolution in dramatic storytelling that Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire is. This is the movie that not only made Marlon Brando a star and won the rest of the cast acting Oscars, but it was central to the popularization of technique acting that was already in full swing. Variations on this technique are the dominant approach among modern actors.
12 – Spotlight (2015)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay
As part of my preparation for writing this part of this article, I looked up director Tom McCarthy’s resume on IMDb. It turns out he has four times as many credits as an actor than he does as a director. I can’t say I was surprised based on the kind of work going on throughout Spotlight.
Yeah, we’ve got guys like Keaton and Ruffalo and Slattery more than pulling their weight, but that’s just the start. In smaller roles Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup are remarkable. And those are just the people who your average movie fan has heard of. Right down the line, the subtle enormity of humanity on display in performance after performance is staggering.
Directing a film is a huge job. There are so many moving parts. You have to worry about how to best capture your story in every little detail, using your cameras, using sound, through editing, and all of the design disciplines. Is there going to be music? How much and where? Sometimes the role of a director in putting their actors in the best position to succeed goes unappreciated. Could be because for even experienced people it can be a hard skill to quantify. Well, whatever that skill is…McCarthy had it in spades on Spotlight.
Better Choice?: I love Mad Max: Fury Road…but NO.
11 – Annie Hall (1977)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in a long term relationship, you’re going to end up changing one another. It doesn’t have to be intentional. It’s just the natural result of spending that much time with a single person. With Alvy Singer though, it appears to be a sort of compulsion. He can’t seem to wait to take someone he already likes a lot and fill them with his own intellectual ephemera and hang ups. Then when they actually grow, which is what he claimed to want all along, he responds with insecurity and attempts to lock them into the hermetically sealed routine of his own ideal. The fact that he’s right about a lot of stuff that doesn’t matter much only serves to distract the audience from his destructive behavior.
It doesn’t sound like a funny movie when I put it that way, but it’s positively stuffed with gags and punchlines the way you know a Catskills comedian would. More than forty years later though, it still elicits laughs.
Better Choice?: For what seems like forever, the argument about the 1977 Oscars was between Woody Allen and Star Wars. Unfortunately, both brands have seen much better days. Heck, it’s almost impossible now to even see the version of Star Wars that was being voted on back then. Meanwhile, Diane Keaton’s performance here has stayed great. I guess I’ll stick with Annie Hall.
10 – Casablanca (1943)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay
So far, I’ve been aware of ranking a number of these films higher than many other people would, but this is one of just a few that I feel like I’m putting a little lower than popular opinion would generally dictate (the others being Gone with the Wind and Lawrence of Arabia). Most lists like this that I see generally have Michael Curtiz’ classic in their top 3. Maybe that seems like a pretty small dip at just seven slots, but I guess I feel like once your expectations are that high, a dip like this might be mildly alarming to some fans.
So why am I less enthusiastic than most about Casablanca? Well, it comes down to Bogart’s performance as it is linked to his overall persona. Bogie does an excellent job in his scenes set in Casablanca as the cynical good guy with a broken heart. I’ve also seen him play exciting, sexy romance well in other films. But for whatever reason, the idealized romance we’re presented with in the film’s flashbacks to Paris simply don’t read as genuinely for me. I get the appeal of both of these people, but I’m just not convinced by their love in these flashbacks. So, when Rick says they’ll “always have Paris,” I kind of lose a bit of the stakes in the scene, shrug, and stay on board with her going with Laszlo.
Better Choice?: Although I’ll probably rewatch The Ox-Bow Incident more often over my lifetime, I’m okay with Casablanca retaining its win here.
9 – Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay
Midnight Cowboy is notoriously the one film in Academy history to take home Best Picture while sporting the dreaded X rating. If you look at a copy of the film in the store now though, it will probably show an R rating. That says as much about the history of the MPAA’s ratings system as it does about changing social mores and the actual content of Midnight Cowboy. By the time the ratings board had responded to the appropriation of the X rating by the porn industry with the new NC-17, older movies like Midnight Cowboy had already slipped back into the land of “R.” Not that this is the kind of flick you should necessarily be recommending to your grandma.
Jonn Voight and Dustin Hoffman are both seedy, funny, and pitiful as denizens of the sordid streets of late 1960s Manhattan. Neither character even pretends at true virtue, and we see them both commit crimes of desperation, dishonesty, and anger. The trick the film plays so masterfully though, is in making the audience care for them anyway and hope that they might escape the circumstances that drive them to these acts. Their friendship sneaks up on us and we find ourselves invested in their last-ditch flight to a better life.
Better Choice?: I’m sure plenty of people would push for Easy Rider or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but I personally don’t think either one comes close to the weight, character, and experimentalism that Midnight Cowboy exemplifies.
8 – All About Eve (1950)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Costume Design
Star Bette Davis had a unique history with the Academy Awards, and her own offscreen conflicts with studios, directors, and co-stars made her role in All About Eve appear as a meta comment. This, of course, made the film that much juicier.
After an initially tepid career, Davis had finally found her niche with a celebrated performance as a manipulative and vicious woman in 1934’s Of Human Bondage. To many people’s consternation, she didn’t receive a nomination for the performance. In fact, the response was so aghast that the Academy announced that voters would be allowed a write-in selection, the only time in the Academy’s history that such a measure was ever taken. While this didn’t lead to a win for Davis, just a year later she was given what she called a “consolation prize” for her role in Dangerous.
At some point following this win, Davis began claiming that she had instigated the “Oscar” nickname for the golden statuette because she thought the little man’s buttocks looked like those of her husband at the time (whose middle name was Oscar). This claim doesn’t seem to hold water though, because there are uses of the nickname found in publications directly leading up to the ceremony of her victory. The official Academy version of the story is similar, but is ascribed to their librarian at the time and doesn’t involve anyone’s posterior.
Despite a contentious court case in which she tried to sue her way out of her studio contract, Davis quickly became the biggest actress at the box office for several years. She continued playing rebellious characters, and all indications are that she had gained her reputation for being “difficult to work with” honestly…at least on occasion. A second Best Actress win followed for 1938’s Jezebel and only boosted this career trajectory. After being made the first female president of the Academy she bucked against any suggestion that it was a figurehead title and was quickly shown the door. Davis clashed with directors and became notorious for accusing co-stars of trying to upstage her. After the tragic death of her second husband in 1943 her behavior on set became more erratic (gee, I wonder why?), which gained lots of play publicly.
This was still the general impression of her when she joined the cast of All About Eve. A few years without a hit had also been part of why she had not initially been offered the role. Only an injury to Claudette Colbert had led to Davis being brought on for what she called the best script she had ever read. In contrast to her reputation, directorJoseph L. Mankiewiczreported that she was both spotlessly prepared and a delight on set. So, of course she lost the Oscar to delightful newcomer Judy Holliday.
Better Choice?: This is another really close one, but I’m going to have to favor Billy Wilder’s own take on an aging starlet, Sunset Boulevard for its more macabre tone and stylish use of the camera.
7 – Shakespeare In Love (1998)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Musical or Comedy Score, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design
Here’s another example of a movie whose victory at the Oscars has actually resulted in hurting its esteem in many corners. If Shakespeare In Love had won in just six of the seven categories it took home statuettes for, we wouldn’t be inundated every year with film bro whining about how much they hate it. The truth is that it’s actually really really good.
Better Choice?: No. Shakespeare In Love is better than the other Best Picture nominees from that year.
6 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay
Take a story that has already proven itself to be powerful and energetic and funny and tragic. Then hand one of the most charismatic actors of his generation a role in it that he was practically born to play. Then surround that guy with a crowd of the most interesting character actors you’ve ever seen…and a secret weapon of a female lead. It only figures that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest would turn out to be an all-time classic.
Jack Nicholson had been flirting with Oscar glory for a particularly strong half decade since his breakout performance in Easy Rider, grabbing four nominations in six years before finally getting the perfect part as Randall McMurphy. The charming but irresponsible type was right up Jack’s alley as it was, but this version possibly did the best job of injecting uncertainty over his culpability in the events that transpire. Is Randall a hero or a heel…or both? An exclusive reading may be tempting at first flush, but the more you inspect this story and allow your perspective to shift, the more it becomes impossible to take a binary approach to it.
Better Choice?: Both Jaws and Dog Day Afternoon are exciting, well made, and well acted 1975 films that have become big favorites for many cinephiles. I don’t see either one as literary or multi-faceted as Cuckoo’s Nest, though. The Academy appears to have made the right choice here.
5 – Schindler’s List (1993)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing
I guess I was a little naive when I first went to see Schindler’s List in the movie theater. When a friend later asked me how I liked it I made a mild complaint about the color scene at the end showing people putting stones on the real Schindler’s grave. My feeling was that the point of the film had been effectively made, and this scene was unnecessarily extending a movie that was already more than three hours long. That was the day I learned that Holocaust deniers exist.
Six months after his blockbuster dinosaur adventure Jurassic Park hit theaters, Steven Spielberg gifted us with a beautiful and horrible story about one corner of the Holocaust. If you haven’t seen it recently, I’m here to remind you that it’s not homework to watch. Spielberg’s natural inclination for effective storytelling keeps the film’s pace appropriate as each scene includes important information, dramatic events, and sometimes even humor. Janusz Kaminski’s beautiful black and white photography and John Williams’ amazing score support the story’s strong and emotional construction. This isn’t a film that is just leaning on the importance of its subject matter. This is a great film on its own merits.
4 – Amadeus (1984)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Makeup
Much like with Schindler’s List, it’s easy to see why folks who have never seen Amadeus might make the assumption that it will be like homework. Powdered wigs and ruffles and classical music; how do we overcome all of these stumbling blocks to make a movie compelling and relatable? Well heck, everyone understands jealousy and rivalry. And hey, a little sex and general debauchery rarely results in a bored audience.
Writer Peter Schaffer draws you in a little with a mystery as told by a man in a madhouse, and then he really springs his trap when he introduces the creator of all of that famous boring music. Instead of a serious and austere paragon, this guy is a giggling pervert of a schoolboy whose girlfriend’s tits are practically falling out as they crawl around on the floor. That’s when he establishes the central conflict of the story. It’s not about a battle of the bands. It is instead a tension between a self-serious mediocrity and a ridiculous genius. The real master stroke is that Schaffer makes the mediocrity our protagonist.
Better Choice?: …and the second best movie of 1984 is about a group of musicians who are ridiculous mediocrities called This is Spinal Tap.
3 – The Godfather (1972)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay
What can I possibly say about The Godfather that hasn’t already been said a million times over?
Well, let’s inspect the curious fact that it only won three Oscars back in March of 1973. How exactly did that happen to one of the most critically acclaimed films of all time? I’ll cover each category it was nominated in, but didn’t win.
Best Director- Outside of the Best Picture category, the big winner that night was actually Cabaret, which was directed by the already legendary Bob Fosse. In retrospect, some of the directorial choices in Cabaret are a little dated, but this was clearly a case of a well-respected guy getting the nod for a well-liked film. Cabaret is on the AFI top 100 list, after all.
Best Supporting Actor- This one is easy. Godfather split the vote with three (count ’em three!) nominees in this category. Caan, Pacino, and Duvall were all worthy, but with every one of them crowding up the place, Cabaret struck again with a win for Joel Grey. If this race was run today, the studio would put all of its weight behind Pacino, creating a much closer competition with Grey.
Best Dramatic Score- The Godfather likely would have won in this category, but its nomination was rescinded after it was discovered that Nino Rota had used parts of a previous score of his to create the iconic music of The Godfather.
Best Costume Design- Likely only a Godfather sweep would have gotten it a win in this category. The work of Anna Hill Johnstone was strong (our costuming analyst Allison, points out how Michael’s costuming changes over the course of the film), but Anthony Powell certainly appears to have been worthy of the Oscar for the colorful and detailed period designs he did for Travels with My Aunt.
Best Sound- Cabaret won here, and that makes a certain amount of sense because well-made music will often get the rubber stamp in a unified sound category, which is what they had in 1972.
Best Film Editing- Here is one where the voting trends of the Academy result in a questionable outcome. The editing in Cabaret is probably more noticeable and there are probably more edits per minute in that film. Traditionally this has been derisively called the “Most Editing” category because that’s what it seems to award at times. I would argue that The Godfather‘s more judicious editing is actually more skillful.
So what are we seeing here? Well, it looks like The Godfather might have won two or three more categories under different circumstances. That said, it’s pretty easy to explain each loss. None of them looks entirely unexpected or dumbfounding, even in hindsight.
Better Choice?: No. Cabaret is really good in spots, but much less perfect throughout in comparison to The Godfather.
2 – On the Waterfront (1954)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing
While A Streetcar named Desire was the electric introduction of Marlon Brando as a hugely influential performer a few years prior, 1954’s On the Waterfront was the artistic highpoint of his work with director Elia Kazan. The intensified naturalism of not only his work, but of supporting players like Karl Malden, Lee J Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint is gentle and pained and two-fisted in turns.
Much has been made of the real life circumstances that led to the creation of On the Waterfront, but a person doesn’t need to know anything about that to connect with feelings of anger and sorrow and betrayal. The various organizations around us that push and pull and cajole and try to get us to sell out our principles by little inches every day surely deserve to have our fingers pointed back at them consistently. Everyone around us tells us how it is and that we shouldn’t question what we’ve been told all of our lives. If we just go along then we’ll be in the in group instead of in that nasty out group. Well maybe that in group isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, yeah?
Everybody can relate to that.
Better Choice?: 1954 was a pretty strong year in film, with appealing flicks like A Star is Born with Judy Garland, Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and Billy Wilder’s Sabrina hitting theaters. I don’t see any of those movies outstripping the power and legacy of On the Waterfront, though.
1 – The Apartment (1960)
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing
Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is often noted as among the very best screenplays ever written, and you’ll hear no disagreement from me on this point. Wilder and screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond absolutely fill their seemingly simple love story with cascades of clever set ups and payoffs. These don’t only function as jokes, but also as twists or plot points which say something about their characters and drive the overall story forward.
One by one, when we witness the events of the second and third acts we can look back and see how they were hinted at earlier in the story. We even get the opportunity to figure out what’s going to happen before the characters do (an opportunity Wilder himself believed was particularly powerful and satisfying for the audience). Practically everything we’re told or shown somehow links in with information we’ve been previously given or with events we’re going to see later. What makes The Apartment so extraordinary is the elegance, humor, and character detail with which this is done. Every viewing is just so satisfying.
Better Choice?: Without a doubt, the one film from 1960 that could challenge The Apartment would be Hitchcock’s masterpiece of pulp horror, Psycho. Bernard Herrmann’s nerve rattling score, Anthony Perkins’ indelible performance, and the technical mastery of the iconic shower scene place it near the top of my own list of best films ever. It’s a shame that both of these films can’t be Best Picture winners, but I guess that’s sort of the function of something like the AFI top 100 list. I’m sticking with another of my very favorite movies, The Apartment.
Okay, so that is that.
What are the takeaways here? Well, if you look in detail at which Best Picture winners I have rated highly and refused to replace and which films I have chosen to replace others with you’ll probably see some patterns.
While I’ve maintained plenty of the traditional Oscar bait type films in my own rankings and retentions, I have also tried to include a few examples from genres that are less frequently honored by the Academy. For example, I added or retained:
Foreign Films – 6 (there is only 1 currently)
Horror Films – 5 (again, just 1)
Animated Films – 3 1/2 (there were none before)
While comedy is a tough designation to truly put a pin in, my own changes would name Eight clear comedies as Best Picture winners, whereas there are currently only Four Best Picture winners that I would call clear comedies.
You’ll also notice my preference for some specific filmmakers.
Billy Wilder, who has directed three Best Picture winners, would have directed Five
Sidney Lumet and Stanley Kubrick, who have no Best Picture winning films, would have Three
Spike Lee, who has no Best Picture winning films, would have Two
Ang Lee, who has two Best Director wins, but no associated Best Pictures, would have Three
Spike Jonze, who has not been a part of any Best Picture wins, would be a part of Three
Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, and Woody Allen would now each be directors of Two Best Pictures
Charlie Chaplin, Joel Coen, and Terry Gilliam would now be the directors of Best Picture winners
Maybe you have noticed another pattern that I’m not mentioning here. Please feel free to point it out to me in the comments section along with any of your own thoughts on the overall subject!
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