Ranking the Oscars: The 10 Greatest Best Picture Winners of All Time

After wrapping up my quest of watching all 88 Best Picture winners in the history of the Academy Awards, some have asked me what my favorites were, and damn, is that hard. I procrastinated by first writing about my top 10 least favorite, because really, there’s nothing more fun than trashing things and lighting them on fire.

Choosing a top 10 here is a nearly impossible feat that will probably make me look like an asshole. If I was Noah’s Arc-ing these impressive strokes of genius, I’d probably fail by indecision and we’d all be dead. DEAD. Seconds before publishing this, I still want to scrap the entire thing and re-write it. (My eternal apologies to Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind <333 – a personal favorite I just couldn’t justify adding.)

Here goes nothing. You can yell at me about how wrong I am in the comments.

10. Platoon (1986)

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I have done an ungodly amount of complaining (to my cats) about war films throughout this marathon and that’s probably because a hefty chunk of the 203 hours spent watching these movies was dominated by war. The crème de la crème? Oliver Stone’s Platoon, a Vietnam war film so fraught with the horrifying realities of the late 60’s that it bleeds off the screen and sinks in deep. Stone made the war palpable, displaying how it actually affected men on the ground—morally, physically, mentally—as we watch the story of one platoon unfold in the trenches, and turn against itself. Tom Berenger’s Staff Sergeant Barnes is driven to insanity, Charlie Sheen’s Private Taylor is plagued with moral ambiguity, and Willem Dafoe steals the show like the man always does. This is the Academy’s choice war flick that stays with you the most, and that’s saying a lot considering The Deer Hunter‘s jarring Russian roulette scene.

9. Amadeus (1984)

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Miloš Forman’s fictionalized biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was nominated for 53 total awards the year of its release and took 40 of them to the bank, with good reason. Based on a play of the same name, the film follows Antonio Salieri (played by the incomparable F. Murray Abraham, aka, the dude from Homeland), as he struggles to deal with the success of his brilliant, yet juvenile contemporary, Mozart (Tom Hulce). Salieri’s jealousy grows to an almost Fatal Attraction-like obsession, as he devises a plan to kill Mozart and pass off one of his Requiems as his own. With a run-time of 161 minutes, it requires a bit of a commitment, but the film’s pacing, extravagant costume design and jaunt into the world of Classical music delivers ten-fold. Abraham meets his match in Hulce, whose cackling laughter and silly gallivanting is a treat to watch, as Salieri’s screw turns tighter by the second.

8. The Sound of Music (1965)

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It’s impossible not to include Maria and the von Trapp kids on this list. The Sound of Music is by far the best musical of all time, let alone out of the Best Pics, and its influence on the genre is legendary. Julie Andrews sings and floats like an angel high in those Austrian mountains (and by high, I mean as if someone slipped some happy pills in her tea.) Thanks to its length, kids of all ages can enjoy the film—just turn it off for them right before the Nazi’s show up and want everyone dead. It’s the musical equivalent of letting the kiddos think that Old Yeller lived happily ever after instead of being shot in the head. The choreography, the cinematography, the filming locations…it’s an all-around masterpiece of a production even if musicals aren’t your bag.

7. It Happened One Night (1934)

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Frank Capra. Clark Gable. Need we say more? It Happened One Night was the first movie to win the all five of the big ones: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay. This feat wasn’t matched until One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest in 1975, and again in 1991 with The Silence of the Lambs. Claudette Colbert plays an heiress who eloped with her beau against her father’s wishes. She cuts town to meet up with the new hubs only to find Gable’s Peter Warne, a roguish reporter who agrees to help her escape if she gives him exclusive rights to her story. This turns into a rom-com of sorts (because who can ignore that sexy ‘stache?), but the film also has some of the earliest elements of screwball comedy. Colbert is commanding on screen and holds her own against the pre-Gone with the Wind Gable, not to mention the scene where she shows some major leg action in order to hitch a ride—a big deal for 1934. It’s a classic deserving of any Best Of list.

6. The Godfather Part II (1974)

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Part II destroys Part I. Robert De Niro is at the top of his game. It’s a sequel and a prequel. That cast! What can be said about this movie that hasn’t already been written a million times. Any list that doesn’t have a Godfather film is null and void, as cliché as that is.

5. From Here to Eternity (1953)

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Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra play three soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the months preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor. If that premise isn’t total Oscar bait, I don’t know what is. The three leads are just as captivating on screen as you’d imagine, with one sleeping with the Captain’s wife in between their various bouts of gentleman’s clubs and boozing. Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed play the two romantic leads, and having such strong actresses to play against brings out the best in Lancaster and Clift. Each character’s individual drama undulates leading up to Japan’s attack, but we get to gawk at the glorious Oahu in the meantime. It’s a gripping drama with some much needed comedic relief at hands of Sinatra. And don’t forget the iconic beach scene at Halona Cove. Not many films can top it.

4. Ben-Hur (1959)

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Ben-Hur had the largest budget ($15.175 million) and the largest sets of any film produced in its time. After watching the three and a half hour movie, it shows. Charlton Heston gives one of the best and most dignified performances of his career, the story is full of all sorts of honor and actual Jesus makes a cameo, but wait…that chariot race! The set for the film’s climactic spanned nearly 18 acres, cost $1 million, and took over a thousand workers over a year to prepare the surrounding terrain for filming, which took over five weeks for the race scene alone. The fact that this scene was done in 1959 is astonishing, cementing its legendary status. It’s long AF, but worth it.

3. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

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Being a horror buff, there’s no question that the one Best Picture winner that’s about a cannibal slides into the Top 3 slot. The beauty of Lambs is not only its grim and grotesque content, but the fact that Jonathan Demme’s horror-thriller constantly plays with your mind. A young Jodie Foster plays Clarice Starling, a young FBI trainee hunting down a serial killer named Buffalo Bill…and she needs the help of an incarcerated flesh-eating Hannibal Lecter to get inside the mind of the killer. Every single piece of dialogue between Foster and Anthony Hopkins is a beautiful tête–à–tête, ping-ponging back and forth as Hannibal infects Starling’s mind in order to make her think like a true agent (“Quid pro quo…”). And Hopkins eyes during these scenes? Ice cold. His psychotic death stares light the screen on fire.

2. Gladiator (2000)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is one of the greatest revenge stories ever told. The film follows General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), a man whose family is murdered at the hands of the evil throne-usurping Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Maximus is kidnapped by a slaver and sent to Africa, only to rise in the gladiatorial ranks, earn his way back to Rome, win over the acclaim of the murder-hungry spectating crowds, and avenge his family’s deaths. Like a motherfucking badass. Phoenix kills as the slimy, cutthroat villain, Commodus, who is such a d-bag he offs his own father after dad tells him he’s unfit to rule. There is so much to like about Gladiator that someone should write a book about it solely to fanboy.

1. All About Eve (1950)

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I don’t think I’ll soon forget my very first experience with Bette Davis, which was no less than religious. While there are certainly larger productions in this list and among the victors, Davis floored me. She plays Margo Channing, a well respected, but aging star of the stage. Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an ambitious protégé, leeches on to Channing’s life, threatening her career, relationships, and perhaps most importantly to Channing, her spot in the limelight. Watching Baxter spar with Davis was drama to the max, and for its time, one of the first peeks behind the Broadway curtain. Davis, as an actress, was quite a character herself (an aside worth reading into, should you be so inclined), which adds to the film’s allure. This movie is tied for earning the most Academy Award nominations—14. The others? Titanic and this year’s nominee, La La Land. The acting is fierce, the sets are glamorous and the story is savage. There are plenty of reasons to be all about All About Eve.

Which ones are your favorite? Let’s talk about movies forever. 

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