10 of the Greatest ‘Best’ Picture Winners

For 88 years, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has awarded a Best Picture winner. Out of them all, some have aged better than others. “Wings” took home the first Best Picture Oscar and has held up incredibly well. Clara Bow is still lovely, the aerial action was decades ahead of its time. Sadly, others from the era have not aged well at all. “Cimarron” is kind of dull and “The Broadway Melody” has some singing and not much else going on.  Boiling it down to just ten films was difficult, so many near misses could be on my list if I were to do this again next year. Or next month. “The Sound of Music” always makes me smile. “Patton” will always have a place in my heart because my Dad loved it more than any other movie. “Argo” was just a great ride.” “Braveheart” was what a sweeping epic should be. “From Here to Eternity” is also a film I could watch on a loop.

The quest to see every Best Picture winner began in 1985, and some were hard to track down. Turner Classic Movies and Kensington Video were two reliable sources. Repeated trips to the movie theater was a required part of this quest too. I know, life is hard when you watch movies and write about them with a modicum, however small, of authority.  Keep in mind, my opinion is no more valid than anyone else, but I did the leg work, so I get to spout off. Here’s my 10 Best Best Picture winners of all time. At least for this week they are. Things are subject to change.

The Godfather (1972)


What it beat for Best Picture: Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, Sounder

There are classic movies, movies about gangsters, movies that are epic, then there is “The Godfather.” Directed by Francis Ford Coppola with a sure hand and amazing cinematography, “The Godfather” is one of the ten best films ever by any measure. It is a film that is gorgeous to look at and filled with a tale of Michael (Al Pacino, before he got old and strange. Here, he is brilliant.), the son of the Mafia Don dragged into the world of crime that his dad had tried to keep him out of all these years. For some reason that baffles me to this day, Bob Fosse won Best Director for “Cabaret” even though the clear winner was Coppola.

Casablanca (1943)

humphrey bogart, claude rains, paul henried & ingrid bergman - casablanca 1943

What it beat for Best Picture: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, Madame Curie, The More the Merrier,The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette, Watch on the Rhine

There are few movies that make me stop what I’m doing and pay attention, “Casablanca” is one of them. War has broken out all over the globe and the desperate folks in Casablanca still have a chance to get out if luck smiles on them before the Nazis take over. It never does. There are many who consider “Casablanca” the ultimate American studio film. All I know is Michael Curtiz was never this good a director before or since. Early in the production, Ronald Reagan was rumored to be the studio’s choice to portray Rick Blaine, they settled on Humphrey Bogart.  Bogart and Ingrid Bergman apparently wanted out of the film, fearing it to be too wordy and poorly written and the situations ridiculous. Even if Rick’s Cafe was one of the few new sets built for the film, it looks original. Due to the outbreak of World War II, the rest were all recycled from other Warner Brothers productions.  Wartime restrictions on building supplies forced the production to be creative. It worked and this film won Best Picture because it turned out to be the best picture any studio made in a long time.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)


What it beat for Best Picture: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”  beat out “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Jaws,” for Best Picture in a crowded field of nominees that have all held up over the decades.  Adapted from Ken Kesey’s 1962 book, Cuckoo’s Nest is all about rebellion and identity. It’s also the struggle between two personalities locked in a cold war. While the rest of the film is amazingly well done, it is the scenes of intellectual battles between Jack Nicholson’s Randall P. McMurphy vs. Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched which give this film weight and nuance.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)


What it beat for Best Picture: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides

Any time you have two actors at the top of their game, pushing each other to be better, you have something fun to watch.  Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster took home Best Actor and Best Actress trophies and deservedly so. Jonathan Demme won Best Director. “The Silence of the Lambs” was far and away the best picture, and it wasn’t even close. It is still the only thriller ever to win Best Picture, which is a story for another day. But win it did.

Foster is amazing as Clarice Starling, a hard-working F.B.I. trainee rushed into service to enlist the assistance of Hopkin’s (equally brilliant) Hannibal Lecter in capturing the disturbing serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine).  Every scene is note perfect. Every line of dialogue pushes the story forward and the sense of impending trouble never lets up. Movies should always be this eerie and fun.

Schindler’s List (1993)

Schindler's List

What it beat for Best Picture: The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, The Remains of the Day

“Schindler’s List” is one emotionally exhausting movie. Yes, right now you’re thinking “thank you, Captain Obvious,” but it is both emotional and exhausting in a very thought-provoking way. Critics line up to call this one of the most important movies of the 20th century, and they’re right. It’s very difficult to make a film about the Holocaust that is not emotional. Many of those that came before “Schindler’s List” were much less subtle, and far less well-made. It’s a stunning technical and visual achievement for Steven Spielberg. Not coincidentally, it’s yielded Spielberg his Best Picture Oscar. There’s also Liam Neeson, who gives the movie its humanity. Ralph Fiennes as ultra bad guy Amon Goeth is what takes that humanity away. In the end, you’re left with a film about a man who tried to save as many people as he possibly could in what may be the most indefensible movement in the history of mankind.

Rocky (1976)

Rocky 1

What it beat for Best Picture: All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver

If you say the sequels all failed to live up to the original, I will agree with you. If you say that “Taxi Driver” or “All the President’s Men” should have won as much, if not more than “Rocky,” I won’t argue. But I will point out that since the beginning, movies almost always have shown the triumph of the everyday person faced with insurmountable odds and delivering escapism from the mundane, if only for an hour and a half. “Rocky” is one of those movies in that grand tradition. It also mirrored Sylvester Stallone’s life up to that point.

Faced with eviction, struggling actor Stallone writes a screenplay about an unknown who gets a shot at the title, and loses the fight but wins something much bigger. He knew he was onto something good and he held out selling the screenplay until he could star in his creation. There aren’t a lot of times you can say the words Stallone and classic film in the same sentence with a straight face. Happily, this is one of those times.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)


What it beat for Best Picture: The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Love Parade

Based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, “All Quiet On The Western Front” is obviously anti-war and director Lewis Milestone makes no bones about that fact. It was still early in the talkie era, but it holds up well to modern eyes. Like “Das Boot” did for World War II German submariners, this film makes World War I German soldiers sympathetic. It’s also a sad, brutal and pitiless view made all too real. I originally saw this late at night on TV as a kid and was creeped out by the violence. The version I saw on TCM around 2005 looked amazing, especially for a 75 year-old film.

On the Waterfront (1954)

On The Waterfront 1

What it beat for Best Picture: The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Coins in the Fountain

“On the Waterfront” is essentially a flawless movie. You will have to to look past  Elia Kazan using it as a bully pulpit to justify naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee. That is a tall order, but it was a very different time in America. That does not forgive the lives ruined and the good names smeared all for the sake of ridding the country of phantom Communists, but it is a great piece of cinema and it is by far Marlon Brando’s best performance. There’s also amazing performances from Eva Marie Saint, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb.

Midnight Cowboy (1969)


What it beat for Best Picture: Anne of the Thousand Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hello, Dolly!, Z

The only X-Rated film to ever take home Best Picture is the bold “Midnight Cowboy.” A tawdry and bold story of prostitution, same-sex relationships and gay male prostitution. All of that raises hairs on the back of necks today. It was unheard of in 1969. The pair of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight is a rare combination of two very different actors that work remarkably together. Their dramatic physical differences make every scene visually off-putting and engrossing. Parts of the film have aged badly, but for a view of New York city from the gutter, it’s still worthy.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years A Slave

What it beat for Best Picture: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street

Some films try like Hell to make you feel something and don’t quite get the point across.  “Wolf of Wall Street” was also nominated for Best Picture in 2013, but failed to elicit any emotion out of me other than, “I paid $10 to see this?” Other films try to make a political point and fall short or beat you over the head with a polemic. “12 Years A Slave” succeeded where other films it was up against failed.

The true story of violinist, father, and husband-turned-slave Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), it is a heart-breaking inside look at slavery in America. Ejiofor captures every emotion on the spectrum and they wear on his face. Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey is an amazing example of an actor nailing a role beyond what was written on the page. Director Steve McQueen had a quality script to work with and a story that needed to be told. He did the material justice and ended up with a film that doesn’t just capture the horrors of slavery through the eyes of an innocent free man forced into bondage. He makes you wonder how humanity could have ever been so cruel.

Author: Barry Benintende

Barry has spent his entire adult life watching movies, listening to music and finding people gullible enough to pay him to do so. As the former Executive Editor of the La Jolla Light, Editor of the South County Mail, Managing Editor of D-Town, Founder and Editor of sQ Magazine, Managing Editor of Kulture Deluxe, and Music Critic for San Diego Newsline, you would figure his writing would not be so epically dull. He has also written for the San Diego Reader, the Daily Californian, the Marshfield Mail, Cinemanian and too many other papers and magazines that have been consigned to the dustbin of history. A happily-married father of two sons and a daughter, Barry has an unhealthy addiction to his hometown San Diego Padres and the devotion of his feisty Westie, Adie. Buy him a cup of coffee and he can spend an evening regaling you with worthless music or baseball trivia. Buy him two and you’ll never get rid of him.

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