What is the purpose of the Oscars? An annual celebration of the stars, films and filmmakers of Hollywood? A coronation ceremony for the entertainers society has grown to worship? Or a chance for one of those celebrities to preach their activism on the stage which has been intensified over a controversial new president?
How the Oscars should be seen, and are at their most genuine, is when the Academy crowns the great achievement in acting, writing and filmmaking of the year, in which their selection will live on in immortality with that prestigious award placed next to it.
The only problem with that? The Academy rarely gets that right, especially for Best Picture.
Think about all the Best Pictures in the past, and look at the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Films of all time which was originally made in 1998 and renewed in 2007. On the 1998 list only 31 of the top 100 won the award for Best Picture that year. Out of 68 Oscars Winners for Best Picture during that time less than half made the cut. The 2007 version meanwhile? 26 movies on that list won Best Picture, just over a quarter of the list.
And the Number 1 movie ranked on both versions of the list? Orson Welle’s groundbreaking directorial debut Citizen Kane, which received hardly any praise from the Academy in part due to the film’s accusations of being based off newspaper tycoon’s William Randolph Hearst’s life. (The same Hearst whose granddaughter Lydia is now married to nerd icon and Talking Dead host Chris Hardwick). The Best Picture winner of 1941 meanwhile was a little known movie called How Green Was My Valley, which did not make the cut on either list.
So with all that in mind, this list below shows the occasions when the Academy did in fact get it right and crowned a film worthy of living on through the ages, timeless no matter how old it is. These are the 25 Best Picture winners that you must see in your lifetime.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Still, the most effective way to get a ride
Filmmaker Frank Capra is better known for timeless classics like It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but the film that launched him into stardom was this romantic comedy about a wealthy runaway bride on the run with a clever reporter trying to cover the event. While people today dismiss romantic comedies as cheap and farcical, It Happened One Night was remarkably charming and witty for its time and appealed to the common folk going through The Great Depression. It also launched the career of the biggest Hollywood star of the 1930s, Clark Gable, who’ll also star on the next film on this list.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
It may seem insensitive to the purpose of the Civil War and have a few racist stereotypes, but nearly eight decades later Gone with the Wind remains the standard of a sweeping epic. The directing, cinematography, costumes, score, and acting were years ahead of its time. The film is four hours long and even has an intermission but it remains one of the most successful films of all time. With the removal of inflation, this movie is still the highest grossing film of all-time and won ten academy awards. Yet despite all of its remarkable achievements, Gone with the Wind isn’t even the most popular film to come out the year 1939, as there was a small little fantasy film called The Wizard of Oz that was released that year too.
Best breakup line of all-time.
It didn’t have the budget and spectacle of Gone with the Wind, but Casablanca is considered a better and more romantic film because of its iconic dialogue and memorably complex characters. It’s also an important film for its time because it’s a World War II film that was made while the United States were fighting in World War II, and the outcome of the war was still unknown. Hollywood legend Humphrey Bogart’s most famous role as Rick Blaine, a bar owner in war torn Casablanca, is a first neutral about the war and is only out for himself. But when his old lover Ilsa Lund (the beautiful Ingrid Bergman) and her holocaust-surviving husband arrive in need of his help for the war, he contemplates on what to do. Keep the woman he loves in Casablanca for himself, or do what’s best for the cause? In the end he does the right thing and makes the sacrifice for his country, making him one of the great heroes in film history.
All About Eve (1950)
The narrative of this film was parodied in an episode of The Simpsons, but All About Eve should still be seen as one of the great movies of the 1950s. The basic plot of this story is the rise of unknown actress Eve Baxter into Hollywood fame, and the jealousy of her peer played by legendary actress Bette Davis, it’s also where she speaks this great line:
The Fast and The Furious tagline
On the Waterfront (1954)
“I coulda had class! I coulda been a contender!”
Acting icon Marlon Brando reached the apex of his illustrious career with this classic about a former boxer’s struggles in his local town. Disappointed in his failure to become successful and trying to find happiness in his small town.
The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
Twenty years before he donned the Jedi robes and portrayed an iconic performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Sir Alec Guinness gave an Oscar winning performance in this World War II epic. Director David Lean showcases a group of British soldiers put into a Japanese POW camp in Indochina during the war and their quest for survival.
Ben Hur (1959)
A poor remake of this film came out last year, but don’t let that fool you. The 1959 version (which was also a remake of the classic during the silent era) is one of the great epics in cinema history. Charlton Heston (a decade before yelling at the statue of liberty in Planet of the Apes) won the Academy Award for playing the titular character in best performance of his career. The highlight of the film was the incredibly shot chariot race near the end.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
If you thought Gone with the Wind and Ben Hur were the apex of epic filmmaking, then watch the indescribable Lawrence of Arabia. While it has some Arab characters played by white British actors and literally no speaking roles for women, it is still an incredibly well-made adventure story of one of the most fascinating people of the twentieth century, T.E. Lawrence. Wonderful cinematography, landscapes, performances and score, Lawrence of Arabia displays a fascinating part of history with the Ottoman Empire during the First World War which isn’t talked about as much as it should.
The Godfather (1972)
If you’re a movie fan, you’ve already seen The Godfather. If you haven’t yet, you will be once you do. You may not be a member of the Corleone family, but by the time it’s over you’ll feel like one. The definitive gangster film for all-time, The Godfather chronicles the family saga of the Corleone family after World War II, and the passing of the torch from the iconic Vito Corleone to his son Michael.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
The Kiss of Death
If you’re annoyed by how many sequels are made nowadays, you have The Godfather Part II to blame because this sequel to The Godfather is the undisputed greatest sequel ever made (slightly above The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight.) In fact this is not only a sequel to The Godfather about Michael Corleone’s time as the head of his family mafia, but tells the origin story of his father’s rise to power. The man who has the huge shoes of Marlin Brando to fill in playing the younger version of The Godfather was a small-known actor with only a couple of starring roles to his credit, Robert De Niro. Going back and forth from the past to the present we see the duality of Vito creating his family empire and his son tainting it by being forced to do what he never once thought of: eliminating his weak brother Fredo for betraying the family business. In many ways The Godfather Part II is the second part of a two act tragedy, until The Godfather Part III came out in 1990.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
One flew east, one flew west, one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
This line inspired the title of the film based off of Ken Kesey’s great novel. This adaption is different in that the giant Native American isn’t the narrator of the film, but still stays true in looking into the mental issues and dysfunction of a mental hospital. It’s both shockingly hilarious and equally heartbreaking by the end of the movie, and Jack Nicholson gives the best performance of his career as the new patient Randle McMurphy, who does an incredible job at convincing the audience that he’s receiving electro shock therapy. Amongst this fantastic cast is Doc Brown himself Christopher Lloyd and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Danny Devito, who even parodied his role in the movie on the show decades later.
Da da da daaa da da da daa daaaaaa
As someone who lives 40 minutes from Philly, this film has a special place in my heart. This movie was a small independent film written by its star Sylvester Stallone and was inspired after watching a boxing match between Muhammad Ali and obscure fighter Chuck Wepner. Ali being Ali, won the fight, but Wepner went all 15 rounds with The Greatest, showing remarkable strength as a heavy underdog. This boxing match was put onto screen between the undisputed champion Apollo Creed and the local boxer Rocky Balboa. Like Wepner/Ali, the favorite was the winner, but the underdog went the distance and impressed the nation. There may be no such thing as a moral victory, but the end of the first Rocky was as close of a moral victory as there could be. The underdog story of Rocky even reflected the outcome of the Oscars, as it beat out timeless and provocative classics such as Taxi Driver, Network and All The President’s Men to win the award for Best Picture. There are also several sequels to Rocky which shadow compared to the original, I recommend watching them but skipping 4 and 5.
Annie Hall (1977)
Any independent filmmakers who like making romantic comedies about hip white people that don’t work out in the end have Woody Allen to thank for their careers. Annie Hall created that genre as the most successful film of Woody Allen’s long catalogue. The hilarious dialogue between Allen and Diane Keaton playing the couple about modern day thoughts on relationships and existential questions on life is brilliant and genuine. This small film was so good that it beat out the original Star Wars to win Best Picture at the Oscars, which Woody Allen never attends.
The G.O.A.T. doing his thing.
Although it is mainly a fictionalized account of his life and death, Amadeus is the definitive film about the most celebrated musician of all-time: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Yet this is not told from the perspective of the genius composer, but from fellow composer turned rival Antonio Salieri. Salieri dedicated his life into becoming a great composer through hard work and discipline, when all of the sudden a wild and disrespectful young man named Mozart comes around and blows him away with what he believes is the music of God. Full of jealously, Salieri is determined to take down Mozart, and whether he is responsible for his actual death is unknown. In real life it is a fact that he did not kill Mozart and wasn’t jealous of him, unfortunately tainting the legacy of a great composer in Salieri.
Vietnam veteran and controversial filmmaker Oliver Stone became a major deal in Hollywood with Platoon, one of the great and most realistic depictions of the Vietnam War. In the starring role is Charlie Sheen (yes, that Charlie Sheen) as a new soldier in Vietnam who signed up to join and experiences the chaos and confusion in the jungles of ‘Nam. While Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket may be more psychological and experimental in depicting the war, Platoon is more accurate and realistic in portraying the terrible experience.
The Silence of The Lambs (1991)
The only true “Horror” movie to win Best Picture, The Silence of The Lambs transcends from horror into a psychological thriller showcasing the depths of insanity in its two main villains. The one who is already incarcerated, Hannibal Lector, and the one who is loose and endangering people, Buffalo Bill. Both killers take a toll on the troubled FBI agent Clarice Starling, whose status as a young woman has her being constantly surveilled by older men (notice how many first person perspective shots have men staring at her.) To this point her biggest ally is Lector because the only way to get to a killer is to think like a killer.
Some say The Western is a dead genre, but in 1992 one of the greatest westerns ever made won the award for Best Picture in Unforgiven. Directed and starring Western icon Clint Eastwood, it shows a gritty and dark look at a retired thief and killer going back to one last go-around. Reluctant to return to his dark past, the authorities and outlaws who threaten him force him into the point of no return. The great line from the movie: “It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it, killin’ a man. You take everything he’s got…and all he’s ever gonna have.”
Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s only Best Picture winning film is not only the greatest Holocaust film ever made but one of the most powerful and emotionally moving pictures of all time. The movie is the true story of Oscar Schindler, a German businessman and member of the Nazi party, standing up to the injustice and insanity of the Third Reich by using his resources to save over 1100 Jews from certain death. Even though he would have been fine and financially better if he let everything be as is, the goodness and humanity inside drove him to make the sacrifices to save over one thousand lives. This movie holds a powerful theme and story that applies to all people for all time.
American Beauty (1999)
Before he was everyone’s preferred corrupt President on House of Cards, Kevin Spacey gave arguably the best performance of his career as a disenchanted family man in American Beauty. Playwright Sam Mendes directorial debut may seem like a simple story about the deconstruction of suburban American life, but the performances, dialogue, characters, editing, music, and mise-en-scene (what’s shown on the screen) is as good as it has ever been in cinema history.
The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King (2003)
Yes, my fellow geeks, everyone’s favorite movie, the one they actually saw the day it came out, and camped out to go see, and saw again, actually went all the way to not only win best picture but swept the Oscars going 11 for 11!
While the third installment of most trilogies fall flat and underwhelm after epic first and second films, The Return of The King managed to top the action and spectacle of the first two epic films.
In essence the massive prizes this third film was basically awarding Peter Jackson and company for the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Departed (2006)
The funny thing is that The Departed might not be one of Martin Scorsese’s five best films, yet it was the one that finally got him his long overdue Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director after three decades of masterful filmmaking, and all he had to do was take his gangster flicks from New York to Boston. Even if some say this movie was given its awards to appease Scorsese, it was still worthy of winning thanks to its intriguing plot and fantastic cast.
Little known is the fact that this crime drama was based off a Japanese film series called Internal Affairs. You can see the Japanese cultural themes translated into American gangster ones as honor and loyalty constantly come into question.
The Artist (2011)
In an era where CGI and visual effects have gone to levels we could never imagine (and to a point where it’s become too much) a black-and-white silent film managed to win multiple Oscars in 2011 including Best Picture. The story of The Artist is a simple: the movie industry changes to a new era from silent to sound, and the old silent film star is left behind and wants the old days back. Even with no lines or color, this film is as enjoyable as any action/fantasy film made today with great music, dance choreography, and acting that can only rely facial expressions to show emotion.
Before Ben Affleck was casted as Batman he was crowned as one of Hollywood’s finest filmmakers with his third film Argo. The film is both a thriller about the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis and the remarkable story about an agent’s efforts to smuggle them back home by going to Iran to make a fake science fiction film. As dramatic and intense this movie is, it also has hilarious dialogue and brilliantly performances by Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Since 12 Years a Slave was released there have been many slavery films made, but none come close to the power and horror of this film. In this movie is the true story of a free black man wrongfully taken to become a slave a face the cruel and inhumane acts of his sadistic master. While also confronting those who know slavery is wrong, but won’t do anything to stop it, which could be even worse. As dark a film this is, his escape from slavery and return home is a relief, but the horrors of what happened before can never be forgotten.
Incredible long one-shot moments, phenomenal performances, and a great take on the “washed-up Hollywood star trying to rejuvenate his career” story; Birdman is a fun and intense drama on the flaws of the entertainment industry.