It’s awards season and the Internet is chock full of websites about movies predicting Oscar nominations and awards winners, or talking about previous winners. While my own Oscar predictions will be up later this week, there’s plenty of Oscar history to talk about. This is the first part of a series in which I’ll be examining the best winners from particular categories at the Academy Awards. Plenty of others lists on the Internet like to rank the “Worst” of particular categories like the Worst Best Picture winners, or similar lists for Best Actor and so on. However, we like to stay positive here at The Reel Life and so our focus is here is going to be on the “Best” of a particular award. The first is going to be the Top 20 Greatest Best Picture Winners here, including some honorable mentions, that is going to be followed by others later in the week. Films on this list are ranked based on how well they have stood the test of time, becoming essential parts of film history and that are widely considered as being among the top award best winners, if not some of the best films ever made. Without further ado, here are some Honorable Mentions:
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
In 1931 All Quiet on the Western Front became the first film to win both the Oscar for Outstanding Production, the precursor for Best Picture, as well as Best Director for Lewis Milestone. The film has all of the elements of a modern winner: based off of a well known novel by Erich Maria Remarque and starring movie stars Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim, the film has become a classic of the 1930’s and stood the test of time better than most films of its era. A smaller war film by modern standards, the film has still become a part of America’s cinematic legacy and was put in the National Film Registry in its second year ever in 1990.
The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
Both a modern awards winner and a major blockbuster, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was the last film of one of the greatest film trilogies and often ranks among the best of the fantasy adventure genre. Not only did it win big at the box office, the film also won a record-tying eleven Oscars at the 2004 ceremony, including Best Picture and Best Director for Peter Jackson. The film features an all-star cast including Elijah Wood and Ian McKellen, and manages to tell a great story, feature fantastic battle sequences, and neatly wraps up the trilogy. The film remains popular eleven years later thanks to its attention to detail that transcends computer-generated effects, and has achieved a major following.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
One of the most well-crafted and deserving winners in recent years, No Country for Old Men shows no sign of aging thanks to excellent performances across the board from the likes of Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson, and Kelly Macdonald. In addition to the acting, the film is perfectly directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen and is surprisingly taut for a Best Picture winner. The film rapidly achieved critical and commercial success upon release for the elements mentioned above as well as technical perfection and has pervasive themes that are likely to continue to appeal to future audiences. It may take a few more years however before it becomes apparent that its one of the big awards best winners.
Just like its titular character, Rocky is a major awards-winner, taking home Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing at the 1977 Oscar ceremony. Written and starring Sylvester Stallone in the movie that made him a star, the film has since become a classic, even if it isn’t the perfect movie. Nonetheless it beat one of the category’s best years to win Oscar gold, including Taxi Driver, Network, and All the President’s Men. Although it has spawned some less-than-stellar sequels, the film and its Art Museum Steps sequence have been thoroughly ingrained into our collective memory. Rocky continues to find its audience forty years after proving itself as the movie that could go the distance.
West Side Story (1961)
Based off of the classic stage musical by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents, West Side Story bounded onto the screen in 1961 starring Natalie Wood, Rita Moreno, Richard Beymer, and George Chakiris. Featuring timeless songs like “America” and “Maria,” the film has become one of our best musicals and continues to dazzle audiences even fifty-five years after it dazzled the Academy and won ten Oscars. Despite making its mark on American culture, however, the film hasn’t aged well in a few areas, especially Natalie Wood’s laughably bad Hispanic accent. Modern critics have also criticized the film’s saccharine nature considering its source material. Nonetheless the film has always managed to find its audience and will continue to do so for years to come.
The Top 20
20) 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Making it to the top of a very competitive year that included recent hits like Gravity and American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave stands apart thanks to its overall quality in every respect and was able to clinch the Best Picture Oscar, as well as Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film deserves every award that it won, and although it’s a very recent winner has already been hailed by critics as among the best of the young century. And it’s hard to disagree considering 12 Years a Slave tells the heart-wrenching story of Solomon Northrup, a freeman who was tricked and lost his freedom, who through sheer strength of will and hope is able to achieve his freedom. The film is similar to Schindler’s List in that it navigates a deplorable era by focusing in on one individual’s story of survival and not sparing any of the despicable details of the period. The film features an Oscar-nominated performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an Oscar-winning one by breakout star Lupita Nyong’o, and remains a glorious vision of director Steve McQueen.
19) Patton (1970)
Franklin J. Schaffner’s unflinching portrait of one of America’s most controversial war heroes is also one of America’s best war films. Patton was written by a young Francis Ford Coppola and delves into every detail of George S. Patton’s career in World War II from the Battle of Kasserine Pass to his slapping of a soldier, to the final push into the German heartland in 1945. Intelligently-made and starring an Oscar-winning performance from George C. Scott as Patton, as well Karl Malden as General Omar Bradley and a slew of other stars at the time, the film is more than deserving of all of the praise that it received. Notable for the opening speech in front of an American flag, the film won seven Oscars, and remains a classic in about every respect.
18) The Deer Hunter (1978)
As you’re going to see, the Best Picture winners in the 1970’s include quite a streak of wonderful winners, not the least of which is Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter. Cimino won Best Director for the film, which also won Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing. The Deer Hunter is one of the peaks of the New Hollywood era of filmmaking and stars Robert De Niro, Walken, Meryl Streep, and John Cazale in a story of love and loss in the midst and aftermath of the Vietnam War. A grueling three hours long, the film manages to make every second feel engrossing and purposeful, which not every lengthy Best Picture winner can say. Infamous for its Russian roulette scene, the film’s legacy has declined slightly because of Cimino’s next film, the disastrous Heaven’s Gate. Nonetheless the film is very deserving of its awards even with its modern detractors.
17) In the Heat of the Night (1967)
As exhibited by the book Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris, In the Heat of the Night won in what would eventually become a decisive year in American film history. Nominated alongside Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, all of which have since become classics, as well as the more traditional musical Doctor Dolittle, the film manages to stand out as especially deserving in a very competitive year. While there were many films that year willing to deal with race relations, In the Heat of the Night did so in addition to winning five other Oscars including Best Actor for Rod Steiger, and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film produced sequels and even a TV series, but nothing can match Norman Jewison’s direction, Stirling Silliphant’s writing, and especially the interplay between Steiger and Sidney Poitier in his role as Virgil Tibbs. Selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2002, the film remains a notable all-timer.
16) It Happened One Night (1934)
I swear that I did not deliberately put the two titles with “night” in them next to each other on purpose, rather it is because are worthy of their accolades. It Happened One Night follows the romance that flourishes between a pampered socialite played by Claudette Colbert and a journalist played by Clark Gable. Directed by Frank Capra and not restricted by Code era nonsense, It Happened One Night became the first film to win the Big Five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Robert Riskin’s script. Although many including Colbert, Gable, and Columbia Pictures were prepared for the film to underwhelm, audiences and filmmakers fell in love with It Happened One Night and have continued to ever since. If nothing else it at least boosted undershirt sales for a few months thanks to Clark Gable.
15) The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Talk about surprises, nobody thought that a horror film that came out in February of 1991 would make it to the Oscar finish line, and yet The Silence of the Lambs not only pulled it off but won the Big Five and has maintained its quality twenty-five years later. Starring career-making performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, the film performed exceptionally well at the box office, became a critical favorite, and spawned plenty of copycat performances of Hopkins’ terrifying Hannibal Lecter. Quotes like “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” and that unmistakable slurping sound have made his character, as well as Foster’s, iconic of their era and of the film. Still considered a classic of the 1990’s the film has only suffered in light of its portrayal of Buffalo Bill in the eyes of LGBT activists, but besides this remains just about perfect in every way.
14) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Based on the novel Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was one of the first Best Picture-winner post-World War II, and for good reason. Like the best post-war dramas that have won the award, it deals with the horrifying psychological and physical effects of veterans readjusting to civilian life. Starring the likes of Myrna Loy, Frederic March, Dana Andrews, and many more, the film was nominated for eight Oscars, winning seven: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for March, Best Supporting Actor for Harold Russell, Best Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Score. In addition to this, Russell won an Honorary Award for his portrayal of a man who lost both of his hands in the war because the Academy didn’t think that he would win. Their folly was soon proven as Russell’s performances ranks among the Best Supporting Actor category’s best, and the film itself has stood the test of time, preserved in the first year ever of the National Film Registry.
13) All About Eve (1950)
Even if you think you don’t know All About Eve, trust me, you’ve seen parts of it thanks to its immortal line “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” Starring a career-making performance by Bette Davis, as well as Anne Baxter and George Sanders, the film held the record for most nominations ever, at 14, until Titanic in 1997. Adapted by writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a short story, the film follows Davis as Margo Channing, an aging Broadway star whose life and career is threatened by the up-and-coming Eve Harrington, played by Anne Baxter. Beloved by critics and audiences, the film went on to win six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor for Sanders, as well as Sound Mixing and Costume Design. The film continues to top lists of the best films of the 1950’s, as well as being among the top award’s best winners.
12) Schindler’s List (1993)
Harrowing and unflinching in its portrayal of the horrors of the Holocaust, Schindler’s List became a turning point in Steven Spielberg’s career, winning him a long-awaited Best Director Oscar and the film remains among the best of his storied career. Adapted from the novel Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally, and starring a star-making turn by Liam Neeson, as well as Ralph Fiennes, Ben Kingsley, and Caroline Goodall, any praise I can offer for the film’s acting stands second to its technical aspects that make the film so excellent. The decision to film the movie in black-and-white to avoid glorifying images of the Holocaust, as well as John Williams’ pitch-perfect score are part of the reason that the film was embraced by everyone in 1993, critics and audiences alike, and then by Academy voters. Schindler’s List went on to win seven Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Score, Editing, Cinematography, and Art Direction. Not exactly high on rewatch value, the film remains pertinent in its subject matter and how it deals with it, and among the best ever made.
11) Annie Hall (1977)
We’re really starting to get into the heavy-hitters here. About as complete of a 180 as I can make from Schindler’s List is this story of two upper-class New Yorkers and their blossoming and then declining romance. Written, directed, and starring Woody Allen as Alvy Singer and Diane Keaton in her most iconic role as Annie Hall, the film marked a major turning point in Allen’s career, transitioning him from his more comedic early films to his more serious and character-based later work. Iconic among the romantic comedy genre, chock full of laughs after all of these years, and endlessly quotable, Annie Hall surprised even its producers by winning Best Picture, Director, Actress, and Original Screenplay at the 50th Academy Awards in 1978. Keaton and her off-kilter sense of humor remains endlessly charming, and the film continues to endear itself to a new generation of movie audiences.
10) Amadeus (1984)
One of two Best Picture-winners directed by Miloš Forman, Amadeus is based off of Peter Shaffer’s play of the same name, which Shaffer himself adapted for the screen. Starring a stellar performance by F. Murray Abraham as Mozart’s rival Antonio Salieri and not afraid to shirk historical accuracy for style and storytelling, Amadeus waltzed its way into film history with eight Oscar wins in 1985. Also starring Tom Hulce in an Oscar-nominated performance as Mozart, the film is technical perfection in its production design, cinematography, use of classical music, and so much more. Although it doesn’t have many memorable quotes, Amadeus makes it on this list due to its sheer scale and quality, and even in its extended three-hour version remains engrossing and excellent in every manner.
9) The Apartment (1960)
Ahead of its time and surprisingly dark for a film that won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment is one of the big award’s best winners for a few reasons. The Apartment stars two of the best performances that didn’t win Oscars in Jack Lemmon’s Oscar-nominated performance as insurance office worker C. C. Baxter and Shirley MacLaine as his crush and elevator operator Fran Kubelik. The film also stars Fred MacMurray as Baxter and Kubelik’s boss, who becomes one of a number of corporate officers who use Baxter’s apartment for their many affairs while leaving Baxter literally out in the cold night after night, which he willingly does in a misguided attempt to climb the corporate ladder. At many points hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking, The Apartment is notable for its deep dive into the lives of its romantic leads and its ending line “Shut up and deal.” The film was nominated for ten Oscars and won five: Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, and Art Direction. A very worthy film, Best Picture-wise.
8) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
The first of Miloš Forman’s Best Picture winners, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest came to Forman by way of Michael Douglas, whose father Kirk had starred in a Broadway play based off of Ken Kesey’s novel and had purchased the rights to a film adaptation. The film slightly edges out its cohort Amadeus thanks to two career-best performances by Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher as Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. Cuckoo’s Nest was a massive box office success upon its release and received huge acclaim from critics and audiences thanks to its perfectly-timed anti-establishment message. The third movie on this list that won the Big Five, McMurphy and Ratched have since become some of the most famous cinematic heroes and villains in American history. Few films are as representative of their era as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and its excellent writing, directing, and acting have allowed it to stand the test of time.
7) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Based on Pierre Boulle’s bestselling novel about a group of British POW’s who are forced to build a bridge for their Japanese captors, The Bridge on the River Kwai was directed by David Lean, who like Forman directed two Best Picture-winning films. The film was a major financial success, and praised by audiences and critics alike, The Bridge on the River Kwai was declared an instant classic upon its release. The film took its acclaim straight to the bank, winning seven Oscars on eight nominations including Best Picture, Director, Actor for Alec Guinness, Adapted Screenplay, Score, Editing, and Cinematography. Since then The Bridge on the River Kwai has become a cinema classic for its story of perseverance and honor in the face of danger and famous for its scene of the British POW’s whistling the Colonel Bogey march. The Bridge on the River Kwai transcends its time and continues to dazzle audiences to this day.
6) Gone with the Wind (1939)
A classic among classics, Gone with the Wind won Best Picture in perhaps the category’s most competitive year, nominated alongside Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, and The Wizard of Oz, all of which have since gone on to become classics. Adapted from the classic novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, and directed by Wizard of Oz director Victor Fleming, the film remains the highest-grossing film of all time adjusted for inflation. A staggering four hours long in its original run time, Gone with the Wind stars legendary performances by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, telling a story of romance and survival set to the backdrop of the American Civil War. Somewhat controversial for its depiction of African-American slaves, Gone with the Wind has remained a classic known for its excellence, indelible quotes like “Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn” and consistently ranks among the best films ever made.
5) On the Waterfront (1954)
On the Waterfront is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning piece of journalism about mob influence on the New York City waterfronts and was adapted for the screen with a script by Budd Schulberg and directed by legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan. The film stars one of the Best Actor award’s best winners ever with Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, and became an instant classic up its release. On the Waterfront was nominated for twelve Oscars at the 1955 ceremony, winning eight including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Supporting Actress for all-time great Eva Marie Saint, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. The film also received three separate Best Supporting Actor nominations for Lee J. Cobb, Karl Malden, and Rod Steiger, proving the overall quality of its acting, as well as excellence in every other category. Leonard Bernstein, the legendary New York composer was also nominated for Best Score, and helps round out one of the best films ever made, and one of the greatest to have ever won Best Picture.
4) The Godfather Part II (1974)
The first sequel to Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece, The Godfather Part II is a masterpiece in its own right, portraying the rise of Michael Corleone concurrently with the rise of his father Vito in the mob world forty years earlier. Both storylines are thrilling and engrossing thanks to one of the greatest cinematic casts ever assembled including Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall, Lee Strasberg, John Cazale, Talia Shire, and Michael V. Gazzo. The crew that made the first Godfather film a technical masterpiece return here, especially cinematographer Gordon Willis, who proves his worth even more here. The Godfather Part II is one of the few sequels to have ever won Best Picture, but thanks to its excellence the film remains one of the awards top winners and it stands out in a category that included classics like Chinatown and Coppola’s own The Conversation. The film won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, Best Supporting Actor for De Niro, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, and Score. There’s a reason that The Godfather Part II is considered one of the few films that may be better than the original, The Godfather Part II transcends its time and remains a classic Best Picture winner.
3) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The second Best Picture winner by British director David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia tells the true-life story of British World War I hero T. E. Lawrence who lead the Arabs in revolt against the late Ottoman Empire. The film stars a breakout performance by Peter O’Toole that began his streak as the best actor ever to not win the Best Actor Oscar, and he proves his worth here in bringing Lawrence to the screen as larger than life. Also starring Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, and Omar Sharif, the film also has two major stars behind the screen in composer Maurice Jarre who wrote the film’s haunting theme, and cinematographer F. A. Young who portrays Lawrence’s rise against the harsh backdrop of the desert. Although its run time stands at almost four hours, not a second on screen is wasted in examining Lawrence’s creation as a historical figure and is widely regarded as a masterpiece for good reason. The film went on to win seven Oscars, and is consistently ranked among the best films ever made.
2) Casablanca (1943)
It’s interesting that a film that was originally developed to be World War II propaganda has gone on to become one of the best films ever made. Originally expected to be a disappointment, the film under-performed at the box office before going on to achieve its present status. Directed by Michael Curtiz and starring exemplary turns by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, almost every scene in Casablanca is iconic, as are many of its lines like “We’ll always have Paris,” “Here’s looking at you kid,” and “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.'” Masterfully edited and shot, the film is an epic romance set to the backdrop of World War II Morocco, a neutral territory where the low-lifes of the world mix with its best spies in a morally-tainted melting pot. The film opened to warm reviews, only winning three Oscars at the 16th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. However, it has since grown into a cultural icon and is often regarded as among the best films of the 1940’s and the best films ever made.
1) The Godfather (1972)
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather almost needs no explanation for its quality and prestige. The Godfather is adapted from Mario Puzo’s novel of the same name, saving much of Vito’s story for the sequel, and focusing on a war between the Five Families that control the underground mobster world of 1950’s New York City. The film stars Marlon Brando in his iconic role as Don Vito Corleone, as well Al Pacino as his son Michael, James Caan as his intended heir Sonny, as well as Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale, and Talia Shire, the film’s cast is among the finest, if not the best, ever assembled. The film broke box office records, earning near-unanimous critical acclaim in its day and to the present. Iconic for its characters, its music by Nino Rita, its cinematography by Gordon Willis, and its writing by Puzo and Coppola, it might surprise you to learn that the film only earned three Oscars at the 45th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay, losing much to Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Every second of the film oozes its charisma and it remains necessary watching, ranking among the greatest films ever made in any time or place.
Disagree with any of the rankings above or think that there’s a movie that I left off of this list? Feel free to comment below and discuss it!