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by Jason F. Koenigsberg
Boy am I glad I waited until after the Oscars last week to write this article. With Green Book winning Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards it has sent the internet on fire with volatile hatred towards the film. In my review, I stated how it was similar to previous Best Picture Winners Driving Miss Daisy (1989) and Crash (2005), but I must say despite popular opinion regarding those movies I actually liked both Driving Miss Daisy and Crash. Did they deserve to win the Best Picture Academy Award? Probably not, but they are very far from the worst films to ever win the Academy’s most prestigious honor. People often ask me what I think are the Best films to ever win Best Picture, and what are the worst. So it took me a while but I finally compiled a list of what I feel are The 20 Best of the Best Picture Oscar winners. I also formulated the ten worst films the Academy decided to honor as Best Picture, as well as five films that deserve special recognition for subverting Academy expectations and going against the norm. Bear in mind I have not seen all 91 Best Picture Oscar winners. I have not seen Cimarron (1931), Cavalcade (1933) or The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), but I am willing to bet that you have not either. Also, despite the fact that I have been very critical of the Academy I do enjoy some of the Best Picture winners that the masses have deemed a miscalculation by the Academy voters. I really like How Green Was My Valley (1941), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), and Chariots of Fire (1981) along with the aforementioned Driving Miss Daisy and Crash just to name a few. I am not saying those films deserved to win Best Picture over some of their fellow nominees, but they are all valuable pictures with merit that deserve to be seen and cherished just maybe not as much as some other films from their respective years. Even some of the films I consider the Best of the Best Picture winners are not necessarily the best films of their respective year such as Rocky and Annie Hall probably should not have won over Network and Star Wars respectively, although it is extremely tough to compare those films.
So without any further ado, here are Pan and Slam’s Best Academy Award Winners for Best Picture
20. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
A harrowing look at the American institution of slavery and the horrors it produced for centuries. 12 Years a Slave could have had a happy ending but does not let the audience off easy, which makes it one of the best winners of all time.
19. The Sound of Music (1965)
The best of the big screen musicals of all time. Deals with serious and important moments in history simultaneously with fancy-free songs better than any other motion picture ever made.
18. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
One of the greatest epic films of all time and also one of the most unconventional, not a typical hero worship film anchored by a terrific performance from a young Peter O’Toole.
17. Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
A great war film from a previous generation, it is one of the best movies of its era. Along with Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean established how to direct a historical epic and all other filmmakers have followed the groundwork he created here.
16. On the Waterfront (1954)
Elia Kazan at his finest. Along with top performances from Marlon Brando (who won his first Best Actor Oscar for this), Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Eva Marie Saint. On the Waterfront remains a classic.
15. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Great movie… but more on this later.
14. The French Connection (1971)
Great movie that represented the Academy accepting the New Age of Hollywood that would dominate the 1970s with young actor Gene Hackman winning Best Actor and still up and coming filmmaker William Friedkin winning Best Director. The French Connection still holds up today as one of the best action-cop dramas of all time with one of the best car chases ever caught on celluloid. The on-location filming in New York City made it even more authentic and the ending is a bit of a mindblower for those expecting simple closure.
13. Annie Hall (1977)
The year Annie Hall beat Star Wars for Best Picture is still considered an upset, but that is how amazing movies were in 1977. Both of those movies are two of the best films ever made and even though no science fiction-fantasy film would win Best Picture until the next century, very few 90-minute comedies have won Best Picture. Annie Hall broke the trend and not only is it arguably Woody Allen’s best film it is the quintessential romantic comedy. All others that have come since have taken something from Annie Hall.
12. Moonlight (2016)
A low budget movie about a poor black kid who is gay that managed to conjure up emotions from Academy voters… that should say it all right there. More on this below.
11. Rocky (1976)
The ultimate American underdog story and the greatest sports film ever made. Academy voters like a triumphant feeling at the end of their movies and Rocky is the greatest example of that Best Picture triumph. It topped modern classics such as Taxi Driver, Network and All the President’s Men. Those films may be better on technical levels, but none of them packed the emotional punch and the heart of Rocky.
10. The Hurt Locker (2009)
The best war film of the 21st century is also the best war film about the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and the mentality of the hero soldier that puts his life on the front line every day the way most Americans go to work and sit in an office. The few scenes with him home spending time with his family speak volumes.
9. Platoon (1986)
The best war film to win Best Picture about our father’s generation and the war they were sent off to fight. Oliver Stone used his personal experience to write and direct a personal war film that captured the horrors of combat in the jungle as well as the best film to capture the US crimes against humanity in Vietnam. Award-worthy performances from Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe also help.
8. Unforgiven (1992)
The best revisionist western of all time. Only Clint Eastwood could have starred and directed Unforgiven and it remains his career-crowning achievement despite directing and winning other Academy Awards including another Best Picture winner.
7. Rebecca (1940)
Hitchcock’s first American film for super-producer David O. Selznick was a movie of compromises, but those compromises somehow still managed to create a masterpiece. One of the most haunting, unsettling and gothic romances ever made, it also served as an inspiration for many moments in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane which would be released the following year.
6. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Jack Nicholson’s best performance and that is saying a lot, in one of the best films of the 1970s and that is saying a hell of a lot. One of only three films to win the ‘Big 5’ Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay, and it is the best of them all.
5. All About Eve (1950)
Possibly the best screenplay ever written with some of the finest performances ever caught on film, All About Eve set the gold standard for what a movie about showbusiness tries to be. Very few have come close to capturing what All About Eve created.
4. Schindler’s List (1993)
Spielberg’s finest hour and the moment he went from Hollywood’s Wonder Kid grew up from making fantasy pictures that captured childhood emotions to serious films that haunt and educate. Spielberg proved that he can be the best at both and when he does violence it feels important and for a greater cause. Schindler’s List is not only one of the best movies ever made, but one of the most important.
3. Casablanca (1943)
The greatest propaganda movie of all time and one that captured how different countries around the world felt about getting involved in World War II. It set the Hollywood rule of never violating the sanctity of marriage and remains the best tragic romance movie ever made.
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Absolutely the best sequel of all time and many could argue that The Godfather Part II is the best movie of all time. Following the life of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and paralleling his life with his father Vito’s (Robert De Niro) rise to power. This movie captures the immigrant experience and New York City in a way no other film has, therefore it captures American history and life in a way that needs to be seen.
1. The Godfather (1972)
The Best film to ever win Best Picture, there is a reason that The Godfather may be the stock answer to this question. It pretty much is a perfect movie in every way and changed cinema around the world forever.
And now, the worst films the Academy has dubbed Best Picture honors. Some of these films are indeed dubious and none of them deserve the praise or credit especially the Academy’s highest honor. Some of the titles listed below may come as a surprise to you.
10. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Maybe this was a great film for its time showing the trenches of World War I, but today it is just boring.
9. Oliver! (1968)
Carol Reed should have won Best Picture and Director honors for some of his earlier films. Winning for Oliver! is just a joke and the fact that it bested films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Producers makes it a very unfunny joke.
8. Ben-Hur (1959)
One of the biggest motion picture epics of all time represents all of the excesses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Ben-Hur is long, repetitive and dull. Sure the chariot race scene is great, but it is surrounded by excruciating long hours of tedious filler.
7. West Side Story (1961)
I guess I just do not get the big great MGM musicals. This is Romeo and Juliet done silly. I could never get into it as a kid and do not like it as an adult now.
6. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
A cold and sterile by the numbers biopic of an anti-semetic schizophrenic written by a Jew. That pretty much sums up A Beautiful Mind, at the height of Russell Crowe’s powers he helped Ron Howard win his sole Best Director Oscar. So many better choices that year.
5. Ordinary People (1980)
The late ’70s and early ’80s the Academy members loved sentimental family dramas. None were more unbearable to sit through than Ordinary People. This won Redford his only Academy Award for his directorial debut and features a tremendous performance from the always overlooked Donald Sutherland. But this movie is the worst of the family torn apart by tragedy cliches.
4. Green Book (2018)
I was onto something with my review of Green Book back in November. The acting is great I cannot take that away from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali and they elevate the insipid script. But this movie is so patronizing even less subtle than Driving Miss Daisy and Crash. The scenes with the lucky rock, the two scenes involving the police, the white man teaching the black man how to eat fried chicken and every time the dumb white guy has to show up and save the rich, smart black guy will make your eyes roll. The most patronizing after school special for an excuse that won Best Picture.
3. Rain Man (1988)
I wrote a whole article about how this movie sent went the wrong message about having an autistic brother. It made me wish I had my own autistic brother to help me win millions in Vegas, Regardless Tom Cruise had the harder role than Dustin Hoffman. Such a great movie in some ways and such an offensive movie in other ways.
2. Out of Africa (1985)
AAAAAAAAHHHHH so boring! AAAAAHHHHH So miserable to sit through. Everyone involved has made much better films.
1. The English Patient (1996)
Miramax’s first Best Picture win is one of the worst films to ever receive the Academy Awards top prize. Overlong, overdramatic, extremely boring and just plain dreadful. The fact that this pathetic excuse for a prestige epic won Best Picture over Fargo is one of the Academy’s biggest blunders of the past 25 years. It’s nine Academy Awards out of twelve nominations robbed so many more worthy films of honor and recognition. The one positive to come out of The English Patient is a great Seinfeld joke about Elaine and her disdain for the film. I am with Elaine on this one.
You may have noticed a trend with the Academy’s choices for Best Picture, both the good and the bad can mostly fall into a lot of the same categories. Many are historical epics, or at the very least based on a true story. A lot of them contain lush production value, have long run times and contain a moment of triumph near the end that audiences can take away with them when they leave the theater and feel good about themselves and the characters and events they just watched. Well, these five Best Picture winners certainly do not contain any of that, and if they do, they subvert the audience expectations and explore elements and emotions not usually honored by the Academy Awards.
Here are Five Best Picture winners that went against the grain. Five times the Academy dared to be different and reward exceptional films that are not usually what matches the voter’s preferences.
The 5 Most Unconventional Best Picture Winners (with explanations)
5. The Shape of Water (2017)
Why is this so unconventional? It is about a love affair between a woman and a fish-man/monster. It contains fish sex. Yes, you read that right. The Shape of Water is beautifully shot and masterfully directed by Guillermo del Toro with award-worthy performances from its entire cast. But this is not your grandmother’s story of Beauty and the Beast. This is a very violent, and unconventional tale of lovers being torn apart. Featuring graphic violence, sex, and nudity, The Shape of Water managed to get away with a lot and still miraculously captured the Academy’s heart and win Best Picture.
4. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Coen Bros. adaptation of Corman McCarthy’s novel is one of the boldest narratives to win the Best Picture Oscar. No other Best Picture winner subverts audience expectations especially with its subtle ending as much as No Country for Old Men. Looking back it is very hard to believe that this won Best Picture in 2007 which was a very strong year for motion pictures with Joel and Ethan Coen winning Best Director(s), Adapted Screenplay, as well. A very brave and unconventional choice for Academy members.
3. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The second sequel to win the coveted Best Picture, the only part 3 to win Best Picture and the only genre picture of the science-fiction/fantasy to take home the Academy’s top prize. It won on a clean sweep that night, winning 11 for 11 in all categories it was nominated in. Obviously, this was meant as a way to reward Peter Jackson’s work on the entire trilogy that he started with Fellowship of the Ring in 2001. It beat out some much more traditional and terrific Oscar fare such as Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, and Jim Sheridan’s In America. Any other year those might have been front runners and cleaned up but 2003 was reserved for the Hobbits to finally get on stage and celebrate their years of hard work in creating an astounding visual trilogy for the ages.
2. Moonlight (2016)
Even three years later after it was released I still cannot believe this movie was made, let alone captured so many hearts of audiences all over. Moonlight is one of if not the most personal Best Picture winner the Academy has ever honored. A little independent movie with zero star power about a homosexual African-American boy growing up in a broken home in an urban neighborhood managed to break through every obstacle on its way to becoming the biggest upset in Academy Award history when it beat La La Land for Best Picture, and the infamous way it was announced will go down in history for the Academy Awards. The best empathy generator of the decade and one of the unlikeliest Best Picture winners of all time.
1. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
By today’s standards, Midnight Cowboy is probably seen as a great film of its era that helped usher in the new Hollywood renaissance of the 1970s. It has big-name actors Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight along with an established director John Schlesinger at the helm. But at the time, Midnight Cowboy was rated X and to this day it remains and will always be the only X-rated motion picture to ever win Best Picture. By today’s standards it is a rather mild R, but back then this was one very controversial choice, especially when Carol Reed’s adaptation of the family-friendly musical Oliver! won the year before. Perhaps it was backlash for the Oscar voters picking such a saccharine choice the year prior, but Midnight Cowboy is an exceptional film and deserved to win Best Picture. The equivalent today would be an unrated film winning Best Picture since the NC-17 rating is hardly ever used. The last time the Academy remotely honored a movie released unrated was Ellen Burstyn’s Best Actress nomination for Requiem for a Dream (2000). The likelihood of that film earning any other accolades from the Academy back then or now is very much a fantasy.