THE LISTS: The top 10 Best Picture winners of all time

Posted by · 10:30 am · September 22nd, 2009

Clint Eastwood in UnforgivenWith the Oscar season officially here it seemed only logical to dedicate an installment of The Lists to the little golden guy.  And as we push forward past the fests and into the thick of it, I figured the best idea would be a broad assessment of the Academy’s chosen best through the years, a bone of contention for a great many, as you read in this space and in the comments section year in and year out.

But I must say, putting this list together was a joy.  The percentage of times I think the Academy has gotten it “right” is quite low, of course, but when I skimmed the cream of the crop I was left with, I felt, a wonderful collective representative of the finest of American cinema.

Of course, that should itself be seen as damning the organization with faint praise.  After all, the Academy has failed to recognize a great many foreign classics with its top prize.  And by a great many I mean any.

The most celebrated decade in cinema, the 1970s, has three representatives on the collective, each of them at the very top.  The 1990s and 1980s came in right behind with two to show for themselves, while the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s each had one entry.

I’d say that’s a pretty decent cross-section.

It goes without saying a list like this is incredibly subjective, but I’d be very curious to hear the readership’s thoughts on 82 years of this award, so when you rattle through my list, be sure to offer up your own in the comments section.  We have a diverse group here so I’m sure there will be a number of unique takes.

Tom Berenger in Platoon10. “Platoon” (Oliver Stone, 1986)
Oliver Stone’s iconic war account harnessed the truth of Vietnam in a way no other depiction of the Southeast Asia conflict has.  No, I wasn’t in the shit, but it seems every Vietnam vet I’ve come across has acknowledged some connection to the film.  Beyond that, however, “Platoon” was a detail-driven personal account, one that eschewed a sense of the war’s place in history in favor of the finer strokes of individual impact.  That’s not to say the director wasn’t working on vibrant, artistic levels.  The overall result, however, is one of the finest war films ever made and certainly the best war film to win the Oscar for Best Picture.

Schindler's List9. “Schindler’s List” (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
You had to hand it to Steven Spielberg in 1993.  At the height of his faculties as a filmmaker, he was changing the boundaries of the form during the night with “Jurassic Park” in post-production while heading out in the day to film “Schindler’s List,” a film that would define his maturity as a director and sweep the film awards circuit handily.  A magnum opus that ultimately still falls prey to the director’s penchant for sentiment over substance, the film is nevertheless a refined piece of filmmaking that revealed deeper artistic fissures in the man.  Of course the Academy was going to take note.

Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy8. “Midnight Cowboy” (John Schlesinger, 1969)
The first (and only) X-rated film to win Best Picture, John Schlesinger’s 1969 tale of a pair of lost souls in the Big Apple is one of my very favorite films.  Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman delivered performances in “Midnight Cowboy” that probably deserved the lead actor Oscar in tandem (John Wayne eventually won for lesser work in “True Grit”), but Waldo Salt’s adaptation is a beauty to behold.  At once tender and bleak, it provided a landscape for the performers and the filmmakers to put forth a new brand of cinema, one that would become the famed “new American cinema” for a decade to come.

Tom Hulce in Amadeus7. “Amadeus” (Milos Forman, 1984)
Upon the release of Milos Forman’s “Amadeus” in September of 1984, Roger Ebert wrote that the film was a collection of “scenes so carefully constructed, unfolding with such delight, that they play as perfect compositions of words.”  One would be hard-pressed to put it better.  This is the way the film hit me when I first saw it as a film-obsessed youth, the precision of the piece, and of course, the brilliant back-and-forth of the film’s featured actors.  Much like Hoffman and Voight in “Midnight Cowboy,” Tom Hulce and F. Murray Abraham deserved the lead actor Oscar in tandem.  Abraham nabbed it, so I won’t complain.

Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca6. “Casablanca” (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
What more could possibly be written about Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca” that hasn’t found itself in print and re-analyzed over and over again at this point?  The film defined a moment and, in many ways, it defined the cinematic love story.  It launched Humphrey Bogart’s movie star era.  It rolled out a cast of characters impeccably rendered and incredibly empathetic across the board.  And the film exhibits a timeless quality that is breathtaking when compared with other efforts of its day.  Above all, for the purposes of this piece, of course, it is one of those moments when the Academy just nailed it.

(from left) Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night5. “It Happened One Night” (Frank Capra, 1934)
Frank Capra’s 1934 Best Picture winner isn’t likely to pop up on too many feminist assessments of the Academy’s top picks over the last 82 years, but for me, “It Happened One Night” represents the kind of assured romantic comedy that has all but vanished from the industry.  Clark Gable played up his movie star persona to a T while Claudette Colbert’s role fit the actress like a glove.  The film featured the kind of concept that would be ruined today, a simple yarn about ulterior motives yielding unlikely romance.  It is also representative of a modest sort of filmmaking that rarely finds Best Picture recognition anymore.

Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven4. “Unforgiven” (Clint Eastwood, 1992)
Clint Eastwood sat on David Webb Peoples’s “The William Munny Killings” for a decade before he finally dusted the script off and went to work.  The result was western revisionism with purpose, every trope of the genre re-ordered and, therefore, reconsidered.  The sheriff as villain, the cocksure upstart as coward, the celebrity gunslinger as incompetent, the hero as has-been — this was brazen filmmaking.  To say it became an instant classic in the genre is an understatement.  Eastwood may dance with Oscar frequently today, but never with the relevance he did with “Unforgiven.”

(from left) Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall3. “Annie Hall” (Woody Allen, 1977)
Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” is one of the finest films ever made.  One would hope at this stage that such a statement wouldn’t be considered hyperbolic, but truthfully, Allen married the absurd with sophistication like never before and, in all likelihood, like he never will again.  The film was a unique piece of work that found the right comedic rhythms, yes, but it was also an effective, deeply moving portrait of a failed relationship, exploring the ideas that come with that more thoroughly than perhaps any film before or since.  That the Academy happened to be on board remains, for me, something of a surprise.

Robert De Niro in The Godfater Part II2. “The Godfather Part II” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)
Again, countless words have been written about films like “The Godfather Part II.”  It would probably be a bit presumptuous to think I could add much more to the conversation in a modest graph, but the film was and remains a milestone in American cinema.  Featuring an array of performances rightly heralded from here to eternity, the film, for me, finds its brilliance in a structure that serves as a striking thematic commentary.  It is therefore something of a screenwriting clinic, to say nothing of the profound visual choices Coppola made as a director.  What more can be said?

James Caan and Marlon Brando in The Godfather1. “The Godfather” (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)
This debate has been brought up in this space before, but yes, I consider the original installment of Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the American dream to be the finer film, as it predictably owns a spot on my list of the top 10 films of all time.  Given that Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret” was clearly hot on the film’s heels at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion in March of 1973, it’s worth pointing out how fortunate it is that “The Godfather” was even eligible to be considered for a list such as this, but it made it out of there with the Best Picture Oscar in hand, and as a result, the answer, for me, is a no-brainer.

And there we have it.  What does your list of the top 10 Best Picture winners of all time look like?  Have your say in the comments section below!

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107 responses so far

  • 1 12-01-2009 at 6:06 pm

    Taran says... said...

    I’d say:

    10- Platoon
    9- Kramer Vs. Kramer
    8- Midnight Cowboy
    7- The Deer Hunter
    6- Forrest Gump
    5- Titanic
    4- Rain Man
    3- The Godfather: Part 2
    2- The Godfather
    1- Rocky

    They shouldn’t have won:

    5- Gladiator (Greath movie… but not a Best Picture deserving one)
    4- Crash (Brokeback Mountain should have won)
    3- Dances with Wolves (a good, but a boring movie!!!! Goodfellas or Godfather: Part 3 should have won)
    2- Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (BORING, BORING, BORING!!!!)

    And the worst Best Picture winner EVER:

    1- The Departed (any movies that were nominated that year, and a lot of un-nominated movies, were by far better!!!! I can’t believe that it is the first Scorsese’s work that was really welcome by Academy!)

  • 2 12-01-2009 at 6:12 pm

    Taran says... said...

    I forgot No Country for Old Men! What a stupid movie… what a really bad choice for the Best Picture Academy Award!!!!! I think the Oscar didn’t go for the movie, but for thanks Coen Brothers for their Lifetime work!

  • 3 12-03-2009 at 5:37 pm

    Jeff said...

    I’ve seen only about 30 so here are all ones i’ve seen in the order I like them:

    1. “Forrest Gump” -5/5 (I love Shawshank but this is my favorite movie. Amazing in every aspect)
    2. “On the Waterfront”-5/5 (Second favorite movie ever. Marlon Brando is stunning, as is Karl Malden and Eva Marie Saint)
    3. “Million Dollar Baby” -5/5
    4. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo‘s Nest”-5/5
    5. “American Beauty” -5/5 (What is WITH Hatred for this masterpiece?!)
    6. “Gone With the Wind” -5/5
    7. “A Beautiful Mind”-5/5
    8. “Titanic” -5/5 (I also don’t understand the hatred for this. Some crappish dialog, get over it! It is no worse than dialog in West Side Story which people revere!)
    9. “All About Eve”-5/5
    10. “Casablanca”-5/5 (I’ve only seen once and I was tired, so upon repeated viewings I may change the rankings to make this higher)
    11. “Terms of Endearment”-5/5
    12. “Crash” -5/5 (I don’t understand all the hatred, I love this movie. Also some excellent scenes)
    13. “Unforgiven”5/5
    14. “Slumdog Millionaire” -5/5
    15. “Ordinary People” -5/5
    16. “Rain Man”-5/5
    17. “Kramer Vs. Kramer” -5/5
    18. “It Happened One Night” -5/5
    19. “The French Connection”-5/5
    20. “West Side Story”-4/5
    21. “Annie Hall”-4/5
    22. “All Quiet on the Western Front”-5/5
    23. “The Apartment”-5/5
    24. “Shakespeare In Love”-3/5 (Overrated much?…)
    25. “Driving Miss Daisy”-3/5
    26. “Chicago” 3/5
    27. “Braveheart”-2/5
    28. “Chariots Of Fire”-1/5

  • 4 6-07-2010 at 1:26 pm

    Buck Mama said...

    I’ve seen thirty-four BP Winners so these are my favorite out of what I’ve seen.

    1. “Forrest Gump”
    2. “On the Waterferfront
    3. ‘The Godfather”
    4. “The Godfather Part 2”
    5. “Gone With the Wind”
    6. “Million Dollar Baby”
    7. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”
    8. “American Beauty”
    9. “Casablanca” (I’ve seen it only once, and, like Jeff, I was very sleepy)
    10. “All About Eve”

    This list will probably change when re-watch some best Picture winners and what not.
    “A Beautiful Mind”
    ‘The Departed”
    “Terms of Endearment”
    “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”

    And I haven’t seen: Silence of the Lambs, Amadeus, Platoon, Midnight Cowboy, Schindler’s list, Lawreence of Arabia

  • 5 2-01-2011 at 10:55 am

    Mike Meyers said...

    10. The Sting
    09. Rocky
    08. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
    07. Amadeus
    06. American Beauty
    05. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
    04. Ben-Hur
    03. The Godfather
    02. Schindler’s List
    01. Forrest Gump

    Runner Ups:
    Godfather II
    The Departed
    The Silence of the Lambs

  • 6 1-17-2015 at 11:38 pm

    crovie said...

    top 10 best picture winner ever:
    1. gone with the wind
    2. the lord of the rings: the return of the king
    3. ben-hur
    4. the godfather
    5. one flew over the cuckoo’s nest
    6. lawrence of arabia
    7. it happened one night
    8. schindler’s list
    9. the silence of the lambs
    10. casablanca

    top 10 shouldn’t have won oscar
    1. annie hall
    2. a beautiful mind
    3. ordinary people
    4. chichago
    5. greatest show on earth
    6. the broadway melody
    7. dance with wolves
    8. gladiator
    9. crash
    10. braveheart

  • 7 2-10-2015 at 2:13 am

    riska said...

    LOTR not in the top 10???? DUH……