With the 89th Academy Awards ceremony right around the corner, it’s a great time to reflect upon the storied history of this prestigious ceremony. Thankfully, I’m in a great position to do that, having recently finished watching every winner of the Academy’s top prize, the coveted Best Picture.
The history behind this award alone is enough to fill volumes, and it certainly doesn’t come without controversy. For every Godfather, there’s a baffling winner like Tom Jones or The Broadway Melody, films that may have had something to say in their time, but by today’s standards seem woefully inadequate. Then there’s the good films that nonetheless remain divisive choices. How Green Was My Valley over Citizen Kane? Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction? Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas? The King’s Speech over The Social Network?
Despite some headscratchers, it should come as no surprise that the Best Picture statue counts among its members some of the finest films ever made. I’m here to share what I think are the very best of the best. These are not necessarily the most iconic winners, or the “best” by snooty critic standards (although I think most of them are). They’re simply my favorite. So please, enjoy and for heaven’s sake, disagree. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be any fun.
10. On the Waterfront (1954)
There are few performances more iconic that Marlon Brando’s blistering portrayal of Terry Malloy, a down-on-his luck former boxer turned longshoreman who risks his job and safety to protest his corrupt union bosses. Even the casual moviegoer can probably recite the famous “I coulda been a contender” speech, whether they’ve seen the film or not. Thankfully, the film surrounding Brando is equally top notch, filled with typically sensational direction from Elia Kazan and a potent and powerful message of perseverance in the face of persecution. The film has certainly stood the test of time, and it doesn’t seem set to go out of style anytime soon. It is currently ranked 19th on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films of all time.
9. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The conclusion to Peter Jackson’s fantasy epic broke the mold in more ways than one. It was the first fantasy film to take home the top prize. And, like Lawrence of Arabia before it, it redefined the default when people think of the quintessential Hollywood epic. Some would say that the Academy’s overwhelmingly lavish praise of the film (it took home a whopping 11 statues) was a way to honor the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, if that’s the case, at least they saved the accolades for one of the finest franchises ever put to screen. What’s not to love about Tolkien’s timeless tale? Jackson, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, crafted a near-perfect adaptation, with pitch-perfect casting choices and some of the finest battles sequences ever put to film. Even better, ROTK never lost the emotional core of the story, the friendship between hobbits Sam and Frodo. Both tragic and stirring, heartbreaking yet hopeful, gigantic and yet, at times, painfully intimate, this was truly an epic for the ages.
8. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
One of the finest war films ever made doesn’t contain a single battle sequence. William Wyler’s timely drama deals instead with the aftermath of soldiers returning home from war. The film follows three soldiers as they return from the war and attempt to re-adjust to civilian life. But each faces their own particular struggles, from Homer’s (Harold Russel, in an Oscar-winning role) insecurity over his battlefield deformity to Fred’s (Dana Andrews) difficulty in holding down a job. This is an intimate, often painful yet ultimately hopeful tale. Bring the tissues, because it’s a weepie in the best sense of the word. Even in its more melodramatic moments, it earns every emotion. The Best Years of our Lives is pretty much perfect, and a fine example of Hollywood message making done right.
7. Unforgiven (1992)
Who would have thought that Clint Eastwood’s deconstruction of the western genre that made him famous would end up being his finest? Unforgiven earns major accolades as we see in retired gunslinger Bill Munny (played by Eastwood) what kind of man the actor’s earlier roles may have turned out to be. Rarely has the audience felt more guilty watching a western—the violence is brutal, the emotions pained, and the ramifications of revenge given their full weight. Not since The Searchers has a western so painfully pulled the audience into its world of greed, corruption and men who think they’re above the law. Throw in a fantastic villain (played by Gene Hackman) and a sensitive companion (Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan) and you have a classic that manages to be a gripping genre piece while throwing away so much of what made the classical western what it was. It’s truly unforgettable.
6. Schindler’s List (1993)
No top Best Picture list would be complete without Steven Spielberg’s tour-de-force, an iconic film about one of the worst things to ever happen in the history of humanity. Making a holocaust film is no easy task, and the normally fanciful Spielberg faced much skepticism as to whether he could pull off a story with so much weight. But pull it off he did, to uniformly spectacular results. The black-and-white cinematography is striking, as is the haunting and brutal imagery. This is a tough film to watch, but one that dares you to look away. It’s also one of the most “important” films to ever win Best Picture, but don’t let that turn you off from just how good it is. At the center is Oskar Schindler, and Liam Neeson plays him with an enviable amount of heart and depth. Schindler’s transformation from willing Nazi accomplice to active resistor and eventual saver of thousands of Jews is the emotional crux of the film, and Neeson doesn’t miss a beat. Schindler’s List is a great tragedy about a great tragedy, but it restores hope in the resiliency of the human spirit and the capacity for goodness in the midst of history’s great evil. An absolutely essential film.
5. The Deer Hunter (1978)
For a time, I considered Michael Cimino’s brilliant examination of soldiers coming home from Vietnam to be my favorite war film. It’s still up there. In terms of films that deal directly with the Vietnam conflict, The Deer Hunter was the first and, in my mind, the best (with all respect to Apocalypse Now, which somehow lost the top prize to Kramer vs. Kramer one year later). Like The Best Years of Our Lives before it, the film deals painfully and intimately with the ramifications of the war on those returning home, as well as the loved ones waiting for them. This is a much darker film, dealing explicitly with the terrifying depths man can sink to when he no longer knows anything but violence. Christopher Walken represents this theme in one of the great tragic roles, but the film is filled with a who’s-who of acting greats in their early days, including Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep and John Cazale. The film is probably best known for it’s “Russian roulette” sequence, but even in its quieter moments, it remains gripping and essential.
4. Gone with the Wind (1939)
One of the most lavish and iconic films in Hollywood history, Gone with the Wind took home the top prize in what is often considered Hollywood’s greatest year. It beat out legendary films like The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights. Watching the film today, it doesn’t take too long to realize why it rose above such advanced pedigree. It’s the absolute crowning jewel of the Hollywood studio system, one that pushed the boundaries of what we though was possible in film, from its gorgeous color cinematography to its epic Civil War setting and four-hour run time, not to mention its (for the time) gasp-worthy swear.
Equally iconic are the performances, from Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh’s portrayal as on-again off-again lovers to Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal as Mammy the house servant. McDaniel won an Oscar for the role, being the first black woman to win best supporting actress and showing an early sign of the Academy’s occasional clear-headedness in pushing the boundaries of diversity in film. Gone with the Wind set the standard for the grand Hollywood epic, and, almost 70 years later, it still hasn’t been beaten.
3. The Godfather (1972)/The Godfather Part II (1974)
Normally, it would be easy to pick The Godfather for this list, but, surprisingly, its sequel also took home the top prize two years later. Because this is my list and I can do what I want, they’re both getting the mention here. Not since Gone with the Wind had a film so enraptured audiences and critics, and, since its release, The Godfather has arguably surpassed even that legendary film (it ranks 2nd on AFI’s top 100, just behind Citizen Kane; Part II ranks 32nd). It’s so easy to see why Francis Ford Coppola’s sweeping crime epic pulled a two-fer—both films share the same panache for grand scope, perfect structure, iconic moments and some of the finest performances ever put to film. From Marlon Brando’s legendary role as Don Corleone to Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall (not to mention Robert DeNiro in part II), every performances is flawless.
There’s not much to say about these films that hasn’t already been said. They’re perfect, and no film has quite matched their pure craftsmanship since. Every mob film since lives in their long shadows.
2. Casablanca (1942)
The greatest romance ever put to screen, Casablanca has arguably the most memorable dialogue in movie history (even if people still misquote the “Play it Again, Sam” line). The Morocco-circa-WWII-set classic is also a profoundly successful genre mashup, mixing classic Hollywood romance with war and mystery/thriller trappings. Certainly, the stark black-and-white cinematography and unforgettable performances from Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Berman help to solidify this as an undisputed classic. But what truly cements it for me is the screenplay, perhaps the finest ever written (with the possible exception of my number one choice). Despite the fame of its many classic lines, the dialogue never exactly calls attention to itself. It’s memorable simply by being really damn good. This is essential viewing for anyone with a pulse.
1. Amadeus (1984)
Anyone who knows me well would expect this film to occupy my top slot. Not only my favorite Best Picture, it is perhaps my favorite film of all time (certainly a solid top 5). Peter Shaffer’s adaptation of his stage play about the artistic rivalry between Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) has been the envy of screenwriters everywhere for more than 30 years. How can one script pack in so much depth, so much emotion, so many thought-provoking themes about the nature of artistic expression? It’s beyond comprehension, and to watch the film is to be in pure awe of its sheer brilliance.
Sure, Amadeus plays fast and loose with the facts of history, but it was never meant to be a historical biopic. Instead, Shaffer and director Milos Forman use historical figures as a jumping-off point for a far more fascinating exploration of the nature of the relationship between God and man. Salieri is the traditional good boy, one who prays with devotion and follows all of the rules in hopes that God may touch him with artistic genius. He’s the classic legalist, expecting and (eventually) demanding that God reward his good behavior with earthly success.
As Salieri’s foil, Mozart is the man gifted, seemingly from birth, with brilliance, touched by the hand of God. Mozart’s genius is surely unmerited—he’s a hedonistic blaggard, a foul-mouthed, immature and petulant child, which of course enrages Salieri all the more. Why would God grant such a gift to one so undeserving? These questions and themes are given more thoughtful consideration here than in any other film I’ve seen, and the result is breathtaking.
The script’s brilliance is bolstered by the potent performances, including Abraham’s Oscar-winning turn as Salieri. It’s a savage and tragic character study, as a devout man slowly but quite deliberately turns into a vengeful monster. And Hulce’s work as Mozart is much more nuanced than it initially appears. Perhaps, for a good chunk of the film, the audience actually sides with Salieri. But, as Mozart begins to reveal shades to his character, we actually see that he perhaps doesn’t quite deserve Salieri’s vengeful wrath.
Naturally, the music only elevates the film even further. It’s some of the best ever written, and seeing it performed on screen is nothing short of a revelation. Amadeus is a gift to the world of cinema, and one I will never tire of watching. It is, in my opinion, the best Best Picture.
Runners-up: It was a tough job narrowing my list down to 10. These are the next 10, in no particular order, which would get my vote:
The Sound of Music
My Fair Lady
West Side Story
Lawrence of Arabia
All About Eve
12 Years a Slave
It Happened One Night
In the Heat of the Night