The Oscars have always been more of an interesting cultural touchpoint than an actual measure of quality. The stories surrounding the film industry's most prestigious awards ceremony are often just as much about the films that didn't win (Goodfellas) or were snubbed altogether (2001: A Space Odyssey). Serious film fans have long since realized that the Academy Awards aren't something you can take too seriously and that the film that wins Best Picture may not actually be the best film released that year.
And yet there's no denying that some pretty incredible films have walked away with Oscar gold.
We went through nearly a century of Oscar history and whittled out the films that time has forgotten, the winners that people now roll their eyes at and the good-but-not-good-enough productions to arrive at the 20 greatest Best Picture winners of all time. Some fairly incredible films didn't make the cut, but in the grand scheme of things, here are the times that the Oscars truly got it right.
What more needs to be said about 'Titanic' that hasn't already been said a thousand times? James Cameron's romantic epic is still one of the most popular and successful films of all time and it continues to hold up today. As technically impressive as it was back in 1997, time has only managed to lend it more luster, as young stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have gone on to become two of the most respected actors in the world.
Sure, the film has its fair share of cheesy moments and missteps, but few productions offer this scale and ambition. This is a love story at heart, but it's a HUGE love story that pushes what's possible to put on film to the breaking point. This is old school Hollywood filmmaking reinvented for the age of computers.
'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King'
To truly appreciate how insane 'The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King's massive awards sweep really was, you've got to know a thing or two about Oscar history. In a nutshell, the Academy has a thing about not awarding genre films the big prizes. So how did the final chapter of a tale about hobbits and orcs and elves and trolls take home Best Picture?
We could say something about how Peter Jackson's trilogy of masterpieces opened the door to fantasy cinema in ways never before seen and made this subject matter accessible to normal people, but we'll just say because it's just a straight-up terrific movie that's aged beautifully in the years since its release.
'All Quiet on the Western Front'
In 1930, cinema was attempting to relocate its footing as an art form, with directors, actors and writers all struggling to make the transition to "talkies." This means that the earliest years of the Oscars are hit and miss, with the big prizes going to films that have not stood up over the years. The biggest exception is Lewis Milestone's 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' which remains as powerful and harrowing as the day it was made.
One of the most devastating anti-war stories ever made, the film's depiction of World War I and the men who fought and died in the trenches is heartbreaking stuff, a reminder that an entire generation had their souls blackened by a conflict that, in retrospect, seems so pointless. Other Best Picture winners would explore the futility of war, but 'All Quiet on the Western Front' set the template for this kind of story and time has only made it ring all the more true.
'The Silence of the Lambs'
Like fantasy and science fiction, the Academy has given the horror genre the cold shoulder time and time again, with one huge, notable exception.
1991's 'The Silence of the Lambs' swept all of the major awards despite being about a psychotic cannibal assisting a rookie FBI agent as she tracks down a skin-wearing serial killer. Chalk it up to Jodie Foster's quietly powerful lead performance and Anthony Hopkins' career-defining Hannibal Lecter. Chalk it up to director Jonathan Demme taking sordid material and transforming it into a compelling procedural that has more in line with '70s dramas than splatter films. To rewatch 'The Silence of the Lambs' is to be reminded just how strange it is that it won so many awards, but there are few films as deserving of such accolades.
'All About Eve' is a film about ruthless people stabbing each other in the back and doing whatever it takes to get ahead. But, the setting isn't a war or a criminal empire: it's the world of New York City theater. Bette Davis' Margo Channing and Anne Baxter's Eve Harrington are two of cinema's greatest rivals, the veteran actress who dominates the stage and the young ingenue who plans to dethrone her.
It's not a subtle film (the final scenes play with the grace of a sledgehammer), but it sure is a witty and wildly entertaining one, telling a sad and often heartbreaking story with quotable dialogue and tremendous performances. 'All About Eve' feels very much of its time, a production that feels like it's entirely about good actors knocking a terrific script right out of the park. There's no flash or wild hook, just good old fashioned substance.
'Gone With the Wind' is so wildly entertaining and impressively made that it's easy to overlook many of its more troubling aspects. The film's whitewashing of the Civil War and southern slavery is nothing short of abominable and its depiction of black characters is, uh, just plain racist.
However, when viewed with historical bias and context in mind, Victor Fleming's romantic epic is stirring stuff, a technical achievement that backs up its filmmaking with passion and compelling drama. Few heroines have been as complicated as Vivien Leigh's Scarlett O'Hara and her riches-to-rags-to-riches story has the grandeur of a novel. A three-hour film has to earn its length, and 'Gone With the Wind' does so effortlessly, filling every scene with soapy melodrama, compelling actors and astonishing setpieces.
Joel and Ethan Coen's 'No Country For Old Men' may be the oddest film to ever take home Best Picture at the Academy Awards. A bleak, black-hearted journey into criminal hell-on-earth, this is a movie that takes no prisoners and goes out of its way to shatter expectations, putting its characters and the audience in compromised, unsettling situations and forcing them to deal with the fact that nothing happens as expected.
Much has been written about 'No Country For Old Men's' third act and for good reason: it may be some of the bleakest filmmaking of all time. Being modern masters that they are, the Coens transform this bleakness into an initially accessible cat-and-mouse thriller (where that cat is Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning turn as Anton Chigurh) before deliberately robbing the film of a traditionally satisfying pay-off and forcing you to consider why you go to the movies for in the first place. Like we said: how the heck did this thing get away with winning Best Picture?
'70s cinema is defined by its antiheroes and few of them are as influential or powerful as Gene Hackman's Detective "Popeye" Doyle in 'The French Connection.' One of the greatest cop movies ever made, William Friedkin's masterpiece is as filthy as they come, a movie whose immediacy is more than enough compensation for the fact that every single character in the movie is a crook or a scumbag. 'The French Connection' is all the proof you need that a movie can be great without any truly likable characters and it's Exhibit A in the "Gene Hackman May Be One of the Greatest Actors of All Time" case. It may be set firmly in its own decade, but this is a film that hasn't aged a day.
'Patton' is a deceptively complex film disguised as a very simple one. On the surface, it's a celebration of a war-mongering general whose thirst for blood was only matched by his unsurpassed skill for winning every fight he started.
Under the surface, it's a portrait of man whose single talent (annihilating his enemies) makes him a great tool in times of crisis and a liability in every civilized moment. George C. Scott's lead performance is legendary for a reason and the great actor manages to capture both sides of General Patton: the brilliant, angry tactician and the frightened wreck who knows he's useless the moment a treaty is signed.
The controversy surrounding the life choices of director Elia Kazan have forever cast a shadow over 'On the Waterfront,' which is his best film and easily one of the best American movies ever made. Although the film's subtext takes on all kinds of new meanings when you view it through the Red Scare and Kazan's naming names during the Hollywood blacklist, every beat of the story holds up powerfully on its own.
Anchored around Marlon Brando's career-defining performance, the film tells a unique American tale of corruption, broken dreams, standing up for what you believe (even when you probably shouldn't) and finding a glimmer of hope, even when it only exists at the end of a very long and very dark tunnel. Not to mention the fact that this is the movie that lets us say "I coulda been a contender!" when we need to get mock-dramatic in front of our friends.
Watch 'Rocky' again. Don't watch the increasingly bombastic sequels. Don't think about Sylvester Stallone's later evolution into musclebound action star. Just watch, remember and cherish the first film, which is one of the most hopeful, inspiring and moving films ever made.
Before he fought Mr. T, Rocky Balboa was a low-key guy, a low-rent criminal enforcer who was too nice to actually do his job. Before he defeated Communism through boxing, Rocky was only concerned with "going the distance," because trying and failing is about as noble as you can get. 'Rocky' is a small, beautiful and moving movie about outcasts refusing to give up and pulling themselves out of the muck. Sports movies just don't get much better than this.
Woody Allen may crank out a movie a year, but he's still never topped 'Annie Hall.' Infamous for defeating 'Star Wars' at the 1977 Academy Awards (and rightfully so), Allen's hilarious and brutally honest dissection of relationships is the best romantic comedy ever made and the purest example of Allen as a filmmaker and comedian.
Allen does his usual (and effective) schtick in his lead role, but Diane Keaton's award-winning turn as the title character is not only wonderful, but a deconstruction of the "manic pixie dream girl" trope decades before it even existed. Quotable and insightful, absurd and matter-of-fact, surreal and all-too-real, 'Annie Hall' is a flat-out masterpiece.
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'
Before he began to engage in self-parody with virtually every performance, few actors were as effortlessly powerful as Jack Nicholson. In 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' he gives one of cinema's all-time-greatest performances, lending what could have been schmaltzy, a sharp bite and a ton of nerve. Surrounded by an ensemble of amazing character actors, Nicholson's transformation from seedy criminal to small-time mental institution revolutionary is powerful stuff.
Director Milos Forman (who is no stranger to directing incredible films) is remarkably unobtrusive behind the camera, holding back and letting his performers and their script do their thing. 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest is a remarkable movie, but what's most remarkable is just how easy everyone makes it look.
Steven Spielberg's greatest talent as a filmmaker has always been his ability to craft incredible, accessible entertainment. What makes 'Schindler's List' such a unique film is that it represents him taking a huge left turn away from his usual, populist strengths while still infusing the material with those strengths.
That means 'Schindler's List' is a heartbreaking, devastating and soul-tarnishing examination of the Holocaust ... while simultaneously being as compelling, accessible and ultimately as uplifting as any film with Spielberg's name on it. It's a best-of-both-worlds combination that only someone as talented as The Beard could pull off. This is a heavy, upsetting and educational film, but it's not a slog. It's never homework. It's just stirring filmmaking from a modern master.
Almost a decade after sweeping the Oscars with 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' director Milos Forman swept them again with 'Amadeus.' As sweeping and ornate as his previous big winner is small and contained, Forman's masterpiece may be the greatest film about envy and jealousy ever made.
Based on Peter Shaffer's play, the film fictionalizes the relationship between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri, depicting the former as 18th century Vienna's equivalent to a rock star and the latter as a mediocre composer whose hatred of Mozart is only matched by his love of his music. In two leading roles, Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham (who took home the Best Actor trophy) are so good that you can't help but despair that they never got material this great again. Even more despairing is the thought that only a filmmaker of Forman's talents could make a three-hour period epic about rival composers so enthralling. It's simply impossible to imagine 'Amadeus' getting made today.
Of course 'Casablanca' is here. After all, it's one of the best movies ever made. This often-imitated, never equaled film may be the greatest romance ever projected in theaters, with it's final message of "do your duty, even when it hurts" resonating powerfully in every decade.
Every time you watch 'Casablanca,' you know that Humphrey Bogart's effortlessly cool Rick won't (and can't) end up with Ingrid Bergman's Ilsa, but every viewing makes you hope that something, anything, will change. Despite the constant heartbreak, there's a reason we keep coming back to 'Casablanca.' It's the stirring feeling we get when everyone sings "La Marseillaise." It's the way that every single line of dialogue is quotable. It's that final airport goodbye, where love gets measured against patriotism and we're left wondering which one really is more important. Whatta' movie.
You simply don't talk about American filmmaking without talking about 'The Godfather,' which may very well be the best film ever made about the American dream. The quintessential story of honor (and lack thereof) among crooks, Francis Ford Coppola's epic masterwork offers a compelling glimpse into a world that's simultaneously real and unreal.
It's a world that looks so much like our own: family get-togethers, weddings, business negotiations, working hard to preserve the future of your family and so on. But, all of this is happening in a business where one wrong move gets you the sharp end of a knife or both barrels of a shotgun. The constant cohabitation of the violent and the peaceful, the mundane and the horrifying, elevates 'The Godfather' above genre schlock and into high art. It's untouchable...
...except for 'The Godfather Part II,' which tops it. This sequel not only extends and further complicates the story of the surviving Corleone family members, it also acts as a prequel, flashing back to events that took place decades before the first film.
As the actions of Al Pacino's Michael stray further from the example set by his deceased father, those flashbacks force us to compare father and son, to see how one criminal measures up to another in every way. Young Vito (Robert De Niro) is a crook, but he's a respectful family man who is viewed as a vital part of his community. Michael's struggle for his soul in the rest of the film takes on a new immediacy as we watch him make every mistake that his father so deftly avoided. This is masterful storytelling that's just as vital 40 years after its release.
Few filmmakers churned out great film after great film quite like Billy Wilder, but 'The Apartment' may very well be his greatest achievement. Although very low key by the standards of the Oscars, this very funny, very sad little movie has the emotional impact of a movie ten times its budget and scope.
Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine give career-best performances as one of cinema's greatest will-they-or-won't-they duos, but the circumstances of their romance and their final scene is intentionally ambiguous, letting viewers choose to read the entire film as a sweet romantic comedy or a cynical tragedy. Like their onscreen relationship, the film's screenplay starts off very simple (a man lets his bosses use his apartment for romantic trysts to gain their favor) before taking unexpected turn after unexpected turn, plunging the characters into circumstances both hilarious and tragic.
'The Apartment' is a bittersweet movie that never loses sight of its characters' humanity. It's a testament to the lonely, the romantic and the troubled and it may be one of the most humane movies ever made.
'Lawrence of Arabia' is a perfect film that showcases everything that cinema is capable of pulling off. One of the biggest films ever made, it's an enthralling adventure and war epic full of action and set pieces that boggle the mind with their complexity and scale.
And yet, it's also so small and intimate, spending just as much time and energy delving into Peter O'Toole's fascinating T.E. Lawrence and what makes him tick. Watching this immersive, gorgeously shot, impeccably acted movie may be the fastest four hours you'll ever experience. No film has ever been more worthy of being named "Best Picture."