This story first ran in 2019 and has been updated to reflect Nomadland’s Oscar win.
Every year starting in late August and ending sometime around late February — well, except in this pandemic-scarred year — Hollywood is consumed with winning an eight-and-a-half-pound gold trophy. Even in a world overrun with awards shows, the Oscars remain the grandest prize, and a Best Picture victory cements filmmakers and actors’ place in history. It also means that, for the rest of time, a lot of people will complain that your movie wasn’t that great and should have lost to some other movie they felt was eminently more deserving.
It’s very easy to second-guess the Academy on its Best Picture picks, but while putting together our ranking of every winner, we decided that, all in all, there aren’t that many terrible choices. Sure, mediocrity rules the roost, but for the most part this list is littered with good movies — sometimes very good, occasionally incredible, but largely good-enough movies. That becomes a Best Picture winner’s cross to bear — the fact that a particular film won’t stand up over time, and may actually look pretty terrible in retrospect — but, honestly, we’re pretty sure most Oscar recipients don’t much mind what the rest of us think. After all, they have an Academy Award, and we don’t.
So here it is: our ranking of all 93 Best Picture winners. You’ll probably disagree with us. That’s what the Academy Awards are all about.
93. The Broadway Melody (1928)
Widely considered the first real “Hollywood musical,” to be honest, that’s just about the only thing going for it. Its clichés, silliness, and abundant amount of cheese might have seemed somehow new in 1928 — though we doubt even that — but it’s difficult to sit through today. Its only real appeal at the time (look, there’s dancing and singing … in a movie!) has, uh, lost a considerable amount of its novelty today. We’re not even sure it would make a list of the top 200 musicals of all time. Think of it sort of like basketball before they replaced the peach baskets with actual hoops.
92. Cimarron (1930)
The poster looks like a book cover with Fabio on the front, and all told, we might have liked that theoretical bodice ripper more than this. We’ll try not to play Problematic Cop with this list, but it’s impossible not to note how truly ugly some of the Native American stereotypes are in this film. (Even worse, the movie thinks it’s on the good side!) Somehow, this was the last Western to win Best Picture until Dances With Wolves. Fair to say the Academy missed a few over those 60 years.
91. Crash (2005)
What the “Crash sucks” crowd rarely acknowledges about Paul Haggis’s lament about racial disharmony in Los Angeles is that, on a technical level, it’s pretty impressive. J. Michael Muro’s cinematography is quite beautiful, and Mark Isham’s score can be effective. And there are good performances in this ensemble drama, including Don Cheadle as a weary detective and Michael Peña as a hardworking father. But the confidence and craftsmanship invested in Crash are, ultimately, the problem, because the infuriatingly contrived screenplay and hushed seriousness conspire to produce a risible portrait of complex social issues reduced to glib plot points. The expertness of the disastrous execution remains astonishing.
90. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
If it feels almost churlish to have this magnificently mounted, absurdly extravagant movie musical — with William Powell, Myrna Loy, and even Fanny Brice as herself — this low on this list to you, trust us: You haven’t tried to sit through it. The costumes look great, and you admire how much effort was put into the whole thing, but hoo boy, at nearly three hours, this thing is a near-impossible sit. What might have seemed epic at the time is mindlessly bloated today; you’ll find yourself verrry sleepy.
89. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
The penultimate film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, who died in 1959 at the age of 77, The Greatest Show on Earth is spectacle with a capital-S. It’s also cheesy with a capital-C. This is the movie where Jimmy Stewart plays a clown with a dark past. (Bob Hope and Bing Crosby both provide cameos, and a pre-superstar Charlton Heston is mildly magnetic as the man trying to keep this circus afloat financially.) This is also the movie where DeMille recruited actual members of Ringling Bros. to give this ensemble drama authenticity. Not surprisingly, the king of blunt showmanship loved the circus. “There are 20 languages spoken under that big top,” he once said. “Like a League of Nations in operation.” The movie is not very good, but the trailer sure is.
88. The Artist (2011)
French filmmaker Michel Hazanavicius had collaborated with actor Jean Dujardin on a pair of goofy, slight James Bond spoofs before they teamed up for this far more ambitious and romantic salute to the silent era. A creamy confection and little more, The Artist reaffirmed the power of movies, the resilience of love, and plenty of other musty clichés, all of which were shot in yummy black-and-white and delivered with Dujardin’s coy, self-mocking charm. Eh.
87. Cavalcade (1932)
This adaptation of Noël Coward’s play is more mawkish and sentimental than Coward would have liked, which allowed him to have the experience that so many playwrights would have after him: Hollywood mucking up their work, but hey, the checks still cash. This takes place over 40 years, which is right in the strike zone of Oscars ever since, but the makeup hadn’t quite made the leap yet. This is very classy and straightforward and rather dull and defanged.
86. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
When you go through this many movies from this many years, you have to forgive a certain amount of historical ugliness; not all eras are as tuned into cultural sensitivity as ours, for better or worse. But it’s easier to forgive 1939 than it is, say, 1989, and this Bruce Beresford drama feels dipped in amber and toned in sepia. Its insistence on being “old-fashioned” gave the illusion of some sort of permanence, and its affectations haven’t aged particularly well over the last 30 years. Even the Morgan Freeman performance feels dated now, a glimpse of what he’d do much better later than anything particularly uniquely crafted. Also, never forget that this film got Dan Aykroyd a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
85. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
What a damp, dull slog A Beautiful Mind is. Based on the life of John Nash, a genius mathematician overcome by paranoid schizophrenia, Ron Howard’s movie is precious to a fault, despite Russell Crowe’s attempts to bring grit and authenticity to the role. A Beautiful Mind tries its best to dramatize Nash’s mental deterioration, which allows Howard to engage in some paranoid-thriller filmmaking, but the sogginess of the inspirational storytelling makes this the epitome of the prestige-picture, awards-bait drama.
84. Wings (1927)
The first-ever Best Picture winner — and the only silent film to ever win, unless you’re counting The Artist, and you really shouldn’t count The Artist. Wings’ flying sequences, revolutionary at the time, still hold up today: It was shot on an Air Force base in San Antonio, and while it’s not, say, Dunkirk, its realism still gets you. The movie itself is still a bit clunky, and the love story a bit overheated — it reportedly got Howard Hughes angry just talking about it — though if the fact that it’s the first Best Picture winner ever didn’t secure its place in film lore, the fact that Gary Cooper and Clara Bow had an affair on set certainly would.
83. Dances With Wolves (1990)
Forever known now as “The Movie That Beat Goodfellas,” Dances With Wolves aches with good intentions. Kevin Costner, practically America’s golden child after Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, wanted to make a film about the plight of Native Americans, a worthy subject. What we got was an overlong Western in which a disenfranchised Civil War soldier learns how to feel by hanging out with indigenous people. Dances With Wolves was the template for so many Oscar contenders — the white man playing the hero for a marginalized community — and the best you can say about it now is that Costner at least tries to be humble and earnest in his aims. The worst you can say is that it begot The Postman — oh, and that Goodfellas got robbed.
82. Green Book (2018)
In the past several years, the Academy has worked hard to expand its membership, inviting more women and people of color to give its voting body a broader, more inclusive makeup. And while the 91st Oscars will be remembered as a ceremony that honored diversity in many categories, it will also be forever known as the year when Green Book won. A benign salute to tolerance and racial unity, the film features a genuinely lovely performance from Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley, a deft black pianist who, in the early 1960s, hires an Italian bouncer (Viggo Mortensen) to be his driver and muscle as he does a concert tour across the Deep South. The big, goofy sweetness that director and cowriter Peter Farrelly reliably provided alongside his brother Bobby in gross-out classics like There’s Something About Mary is here wielded as a blunt, reassuring instrument, arguing that, no matter our racial divisions, we can all learn to get along, apparently while sharing a bucket of fried chicken and a hearty chuckle. It’s a nice sentiment but also an antiquated, naïve one, and Green Book’s win suggests that, no matter how much progress the Academy has made, there remains a weakness within the group for the kind of predictable, simplistically feel-good pabulum that this movie lays on thickly. You can’t deny the sincerity of the filmmakers’ intention, but you sure as hell can wonder why they’re so willing to act as if the very real ills they’re chronicling are quarantined to a nostalgic past. Green Book is based on a true story, but it doesn’t feel very real.
81. The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Much has been written about the film’s wishy-washiness with how it dealt with Fascism and anti-Semitism — the movie seems to nod in awareness of the growing Nazi Party without ever tackling it head-on — but the real issue is that it even bothers being about Emile Zola at all. The movie should probably just be entirely about the Dreyfus Affair, which led Zola to write his famous “J’accuse” letter, but instead we get a sleepy half an hour of building up Zola’s biography before getting into the meat of it. The Dreyfus Affair would have probably been a better movie, and would have forced some more difficult choices that would age better today.
80. Oliver! (1968)
Oliver! isn’t that bad, we suppose. Ron Moody is the perfect Fagin — Peter Sellers and Dick Van Dyke turned down the part — and the movie has a big, cheerful vibe. (It just wants to be vast, accessible entertainment for all ages.) There is often not enough credit given to supersized productions like this that are able to achieve exactly what they set out to achieve. But none of that really matters. What really matters is that Oliver! somehow beat 2001: A Space Odyssey for Best Picture, and, thus, that’s all anyone will ever remember about this movie, until the end of time. As well they should.
79. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
In films like Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle has often focused on humanity’s darker tendencies. Big surprise that, for his Oscar triumph, he found a little room for hope. Slumdog Millionaire stars Dev Patel as Jamal, a poor teen in Mumbai who, on the verge of winning the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, has to explain how he knows so much. Jamal’s explanation comes in the form of a series of flashbacks, which focus on his love for Latika (Freida Pinto), a fellow street kid. Boyle wields his usual bag of eye-popping cinematic tricks for this feel-good story, the soundtrack’s electric, and the leads’ chemistry is palpable. But we’ll confess that we prefer Boyle when he’s ornerier.
78. American Beauty (1999)
Overrated at the time — when it comes to dysfunctional-family comedy-dramas, we’ll take The Ice Storm — American Beauty is now probably properly rated. It’s a perfectly solid, overly ponderous slab of suburban misery peddling profundity it doesn’t possess. And yet, the film has a pretty expert ensemble — Kevin Spacey won the Oscar, but Annette Bening was even more deserving — and Conrad Hall’s photography captures all the shiny surfaces that contrast with the characters’ anguished inner worlds. Take American Beauty as seriously as it takes itself and you’ll be disappointed. If anything, it now feels like a decent pilot for a peak-TV series you may or may not stick with over a season.
77. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Whether you prefer this to any of the other adaptations of the 1932 novel may depend on how much you buy Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian — we prefer Charles Laughton as Bligh, and Marlon Brando as Fletcher, now that you mention it — but this was a massive hit at the time. It feels studiously literal to the text, which makes some sense considering that the book had only come out two years earlier, but a little too restrained. Still, it’s Mutiny on the Bounty, you know? You can’t go too wrong. The film also played a special role in Oscars history: It received three nominations for Best Actor, which led to the creation of the Best Supporting Actor category the next year.
76. Braveheart (1995)
Who says Oscar movies don’t come out during the summer? Mel Gibson’s three-hour popcorn period war film depicts how William Wallace (Gibson) rallied the Scottish people against the English in the 13th century. Gibson had previously directed one other movie, the saccharine The Man Without a Face, but Braveheart was the sort of film he was born to make: It’s a big, violent, rousing, unsubtle spectacle, and it paved the way for Apocalypto, Hacksaw Ridge, and, in a sense, The Passion of the Christ. On one level, it’s easy to admire Braveheart’s chest-beating, rah-rah gusto. On another … Gibson’s mania for bloodshed is so overpowering that it’s numbing, and when he tones things down for palace intrigue and political strategizing, the movie is deadly dull.
75. Argo (2012)
The crown jewel of the Ben Affleck renaissance — the Benaissance? — Argo is old-fashioned studio filmmaking that blends suspense, drama, a touch of comedy, and a too-good-to-be-true real story. It’s also a historical exaggeration that fudges facts and amplifies moments, casting Affleck’s Tony Mendez as a grizzled CIA hero who teams up with Hollywood to rescue American hostages in Iran. Argo basically dares you to grouse about its inaccuracies and crackerjack entertainment — it’s too busy hitting every button on your pleasure center to care. Argo is a fun time and totally disposable — exactly the sort of likable thriller that would be much fonder recalled if it hadn’t won Best Picture.
74. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
If you ever wanted the earliest example of Oscar bait, look no further than Gentleman’s Agreement, a Very Serious Issue Movie in which Gregory Peck plays a journalist who poses as a Jew to write about anti-Semitism. The movie is clunky and awkward today, but its heart is always in the right, well-meaning place, even if it strains itself often with all its back-patting. It still feels sort of daring for 1947, and for good reason: Its existence got director Elia Kazan hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
73. Out of Africa (1985)
This is a film the term “handsomely mounted” was invented for. Beautiful movie stars (Robert Redford and Meryl Streep), big epic score (which won an Oscar for John Barry), gorgeous African plains for sweeping panoramic shots, and a love story in which someone dies and someone else carries them in their heart for the rest of their life. It’s all a bit much, but you could do a lot worse, all told. We bet it made your mom cry.
72. The King’s Speech (2010)
To our mind, director Tom Hooper has made precisely one great film: the little-seen 2009 true-life soccer drama The Damned United. Since then, he’s only gone on to greater acclaim, even if his movies have grown far less interesting. The King’s Speech is the apex of that trend: This eminently likable story, about a stuttering king (Colin Firth) and the speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) who helps him, hits every inspirational beat and has a patina of class to it. But the movie never busts out of its tame, slightly cheeky straitjacket, and the smoothness of its execution can be a bit cozy at times. Still, it’s impossible to deny the unlikely chemistry between these two mismatched men.
71. A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Pauline Kael said the film had “a little of the school pageant in the rhythm of the movie,” and as usual, she was absolutely not wrong: This feels so suited-up and serious and formal that it rarely gives anyone any room to breathe. Today, it feels a little like Replacement Level British Costume Drama — which is not to say it doesn’t have its moments, mostly coming from Paul Scofield, who also won Best Actor, as the principled Sir Thomas More. Still, you respect the effort that went into A Man for All Seasons more than you love it.
70. Gandhi (1982)
The years haven’t necessarily been kind to Gandhi’s reputation, and that can sometimes affect how you watch this film 35 years later, but Ben Kingsley’s performance remains as still, calm, and riveting as it was then. Richard Attenborough was never a particularly inspired director, but he could put one foot in front of the other; this is sturdily constructed, a highly conventional biopic done unusually well. But it’s Kingsley, who was mostly unknown until he won an Oscar for this role and would never be anything resembling unknown again, who makes this thing sing.
69. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Is it possible for a movie to win Best Picture simply for one song? Chariots of Fire may have been an impossibly British, stiff-upper-lip story of two long-distance runners battling anti-Semitism, but it’s Vangelis’s immortal score that not only holds up today but shot the movie into the stratosphere when it came out. To this day, there isn’t a runner on the planet who hasn’t hummed that song to him or herself when coming down the final stretch. This is a basic, well-done sports film, but the song made it into something epic.
68. Rain Man (1988)
Because Dustin Hoffman was so lauded for his role as autistic savant Raymond, it’s become fashionable to point out that, you see, the really great performance in Rain Man is actually Tom Cruise’s, who plays a soulless SOB who befriends his estranged brother in order to get his hands on their dead father’s estate. All we’ll say is that it’s remarkable to watch Rain Man now and see how Cruise was beginning to become more comfortable in merging his cocky Top Gun persona with his serious-actor side. As for the movie, well, it’s warm and sentimental in that inoffensive, vaguely inspirational kind of way that often leads to Oscar glory.
67. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
The “hard-hitting” aspect of Norman Jewison’s race-in-the-South drama feels a little less powerful today, if just because it feels a little removed, even performative: This is a movie that wants to show you the horrors of racism, but it doesn’t necessary feel them. But in the lead role, Sidney Poitier certainly does, and he rises above its faults as a figure of dignity and strength. This topic would be tackled a lot better in the years to come.
66. Forrest Gump (1994)
Cockeyed parable about life in America since World War II? An insufferably reactionary and conservative view of the counterculture? A movie that made millions and millions of viewers bawl their eyes out? Whatever your take on Forrest Gump, Robert Zemeckis’s wistful drama is not unlike a lot of his films, offering big crowd-pleasing moments alongside some obvious, naïve commentary. The film celebrates naïvety in the form of Forrest Gump, whom Tom Hanks plays as a sweet, decent simpleton unable to process the fact that he’s constantly intersecting with important political and cultural moments throughout his life. (The Watergate break-in? Forrest was the guy who called it in to the cops!) Soft and sentimental, Forrest Gump was, happily, out in the world before social media. If it were released now, we’d never stop arguing about it.
65. You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
No one will ever confuse this with Frank Capra’s best film — or maybe even one of his ten best? — but it nonetheless won him the final of his three Oscars. This is still sort of baseline Capra, with Jimmy Stewart in a role he’d be better at in later Capra films — but it’s still, you know, Jimmy Stewart. The movie is perfectly pleasant and charming without being transcendently so, and watching it, you’ll want to go watch another, better Capra film. But even lesser Capra from this era is better than just about anything else you might be watching.
64. Gigi (1958)
It’s so plainly modeled after the then-popular Broadway musical My Fair Lady — it’s referenced right there on the poster — that it can feel almost like homage, or even fan-fiction at times. But, like My Fair Lady, it’s still a blast, even if not quite as much of a blast. Paris has perhaps never looked as great as Vincente Minnelli makes it look, and the movie’s good spirit is difficult to resist. It’s minor, but giddy minor.
63. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
The movie is so famously overstuffed that it even finds a place for Buster Keaton for a few stray seconds. This is the sort of hellzapoppin’ entertainment that hasn’t aged that well … but you still think maybe things would be a little better today if we had a little bit more like it. Around the World in 80 Days has a bullfighting scene with 10,000 extras in it, and it’s maybe only the third or fourth biggest scene in the film. It’s over-the-top, busting-out-at-the-seams entertainment, but we’ll take it; you can’t hate a movie that goes for broke.
62. Going My Way (1944)
One of the best Bing Crosby musicals, it still feels a little slight today, a happy bauble that will put a pep in your step, even if it’s a bit empty. Crosby might not even give the best performance here: That would be Barry Fitzgerald, who won Best Supporting Actor for playing Father Fitzgibbon. He’s so good, in fact, that he was also nominated for Best Actor, which he lost to Crosby. (They’d change the rules so that didn’t happen again.)
61. Grand Hotel (1932)
The only film ever to win Best Picture without being nominated in any other category, that might be because every movie star from the era is in it, from John (and Lionel!) Barrymore to Joan Crawford to Jean Hersholt to Wallace Beery to Greta Garbo, who utters her famous “I want to be alone” line. The movie’s worth it for Garbo alone, though its episodic nature gives the film a natural ceiling.
60. The Sound of Music (1965)
Total malarkey, and you probably know every word to every song anyway. Robert Wise expertly guided this adaption of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, putting aside the darker elements of the true story for a rousing sing-along. Julie Andrews sells The Sound of Music with her effervescent performance, and the wooden, awkward bits around her are, now, almost endearing — a kitschy self-own acknowledging the unreality of the whole operation. It’s very easy to mock this movie. It’s very, very hard to get those damn tunes out of your head.
59. Gladiator (2000)
Russell Crowe showed what star power could do in his Oscar-winning role as Maximus, a general who is stripped of everything and must fight in the gladiatorial ring, vowing vengeance on Joaquin Phoenix’s spoiled, snarling Commodus. Ridley Scott gave Gladiator the kind of scope and muscularity appropriate for a swords-and-sandals epic, and Crowe’s rugged decency made for an inspiring underdog. It would have been very easy for Gladiator to be another dumb summer spectacle. But Scott and his budding star gave it soul.
58. The Shape of Water (2017)
“If I told you about her, what would I say?” Sally Hawkins had essayed a series of terrific performances — everything from Happy-Go-Lucky to Blue Jasmine — before signing up for Guillermo del Toro’s period fantasy/romance about a mute woman and the sea creature she comes to love. Elisa isn’t her greatest creation, but the modest loveliness that’s at the core of Hawkins’ appeal is crucial to making us fall for this shy, good-hearted character. The Shape of Water has the limitations that many of Del Toro’s movies suffer from: It’s too awed by its own precious, magical spell. Still, for a director who loves genre films, he manages to warp several together here in order to craft a valentine to old-school moviemaking that’s its own beguiling monster.
57. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Yes, yes, it shouldn’t have beaten Saving Private Ryan: To many, that Harvey Weinstein and Miramax were able to campaign themselves to a Best Picture win over Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece was proof both that Oscar campaigns had gone too far, and that Harvey Weinstein was a terrible person. (We turned out to have a lot to learn on both counts.) But taken for what it is, this is a charming little superhero origin story in which the hero is Shakespeare. Tom Stoppard co-wrote the script and has such affection for Shakespeare that the film is chock-full of in-jokes for Bard aficionados. As the years have gone along, many have forgotten that the film is actually quite funny and not nearly as self-serious as its tagline (“Love is the only inspiration”) and reputation might imply. It’s a good little movie! It’s just not Saving Private Ryan.
56. The Sting (1973)
Hollywood has often mythologized its own past, and that’s especially true of this very entertaining and completely paper-thin heist film. Director George Roy Hill (who had previously worked with stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) didn’t just want to set The Sting in the 1930s — he wanted it to feel like a movie made during that time — so we’re presented with a nostalgic romp in which two hustlers get vengeance on a gangster (Robert Shaw) that’s high on knowing winks to the audience. The Sting is fun but also “fun,” constantly hoping you appreciate its myriad homages to yesteryear. The Marvin Hamlisch score (adapting Scott Joplin tunes) is still great, though.
55. Chicago (2002)
The film that launched the revival of the Hollywood musical, Chicago was based on the Tony-winning Broadway show about people’s insatiable thirst for scandal and sensation. (Bob Fosse’s production was bested in just about every category by an even more iconic show, A Chorus Line.) Rob Marshall’s big-screen version is an unapologetic litany of razzle-dazzle set pieces paired with brassy tunes and big performances. The damn thing works because the damn thing works, barreling over you without a concern for subtlety or restraint.
54. Patton (1970)
Biopics are often thought of as cradle-to-grave highlight reels of iconic individuals. Patton spans only a couple of years, but they’re significant ones in the life of General George S. Patton (George C. Scott), who will lead American troops to glory near the end of World War II, despite some recent failed military operations. Scott is magnificent in the role, but this is no simple rah-rah portrait of a true American hero. There’s patriotism in Patton, for sure, but there’s also a bit of wariness regarding what, exactly, makes a hero. And Patton’s memorable opening speech hints at the film’s hesitancy about turning men into myths. With each passing year, the general’s proud proclamation that “that’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war: The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans” feels more and more bitterly ironic.
53. The English Patient (1996)
For a generation, Anthony Minghella’s grand romantic tragedy has been reduced to a punch line thanks to a really funny Seinfeld episode in which Elaine can’t stand the film — and can’t stand that everyone else loves it. The culture has largely accepted Elaine’s position, mocking The English Patient’s proudly old-school period classiness. And yet, this movie is enormously affecting, capturing Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas at their most beautiful as star-crossed lovers playing out their fate in the African desert. It’s the kind of movie Elaine would loathe: It’s earnest and square, prizing nobility and decency above all else. But any non-cynic can’t help but be swept up in its doomed ardor.
52. The Hurt Locker (2009)
The first major war film of the “shock and awe” era allowed director Kathryn Bigelow to take her fascination with male bonding and pour it into a cautionary tale about a conflict with no end — not that Jeremy Renner’s Staff Sergeant William James would particularly mind if he never had to go home. The Hurt Locker doesn’t exactly break new ground, but the intensity, immediacy, and timeliness of the material spoke to an audience trying to come to terms with the lasting legacy of Operation Enduring Freedom and “Mission Accomplished.” Maybe not a magnificent war film but one that serves as a marker for what was consuming Hollywood at the time.
51. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
The trivia footnote about Midnight Cowboy — that it’s the only X-rated film to ever win Best Picture — says more about the weirdness of the ratings board at the time than the film itself, but Midnight Cowboy is still pretty edgy for an Oscar winner. The grittiness has faded as the years have gone on, but the focus on the two timeless, defeated characters at its center is still powerful and sad and rare: You care about these two dirtbags, in spite of it all. The characters linger, even if the New York of the film no longer does.
50. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
It would be easy at the time to have read Unforgiven as Clint Eastwood’s swan song — a terse career capper for a filmmaker in his 60s. Except Eastwood kept making films — really good films. Million Dollar Baby epitomized the spare emotionality of his later work, following a trailer-park-trash boxer (Hilary Swank) who trains with an aged grump (Eastwood), both of them finding redemption as she rises up the ranks. If you’ve seen any boxing movie, then you’ve seen Million Dollar Baby, except not exactly: Eastwood focuses on the specificity of these characters, creating a world of people who feel left behind and struggling with unappealing choices. The film succumbs to saccharine, but for the most part the tears it wrings are earned.
49. Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
We know this movie has many detractors — many, many detractors — but we still admire the pure chutzpah of Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s mad vision, a stupidly ambitious and self-righteous and pretentious and sort of wonderful story of an aging artist (Michael Keaton, returning to where he belonged all along) pouring his soul into one loopy, doomed project. The movie is an actor’s paradise — has Edward Norton ever been this light on his feet and fun? — and we’ve grown to appreciate rather than resent its excesses. We’re still onboard. Haters to the back.
48. Ordinary People (1980)
The first of two times that a Serious Movie From a Serious Actor Making His Directorial Debut would beat a Martin Scorsese masterpiece, this one is a lot better than Dances With Wolves. Robert Redford deliberately dialed everything way back in his first film and showed a directorial skill, and restraint, that surprised many; it turned out that the matinee star had a depth to him behind the camera as well. The ending is still stunning, nearly 40 years later; this is a movie of raw emotions, from start to finish.
47. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Perfectly in tune with its cultural moment, Kramer vs. Kramer joined a national conversation about divorce and the changing nature of families all the way to a Best Picture Oscar; it’s definitely the movie that all the families of The Ice Storm were having Very Serious Conversations about at their key parties. But it’s unfair to limit the film to its point in history: The film is fair and smart and unwaveringly mature to all parties involved, and it’s well-acted across the board, most notably by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, who overcame Hoffman’s reported boorishness on set to win her first Oscar.
46. Spotlight (2015)
All the President’s Men didn’t win Best Picture, but this newspaper drama, about the Boston Globe’s attempt to uncover the Catholic Church’s child-abuse cover-up, was a surprise victor, defeating the far showier The Revenant. Tom McCarthy’s film is a salute to dogged determination, as the paper’s Spotlight investigative team tracks down leads and tries to get people to go on the record. But it’s also a tribute to muted performances (well, aside from certain Mark Ruffalo scenes) and unfussy writing — of letting a fascinating, gripping story essentially tell itself. Of all the fine actors in Spotlight, Rachel McAdams is the one to whom we keep returning. What she does in this film is so straightforward that it’s easy to overlook, but the relentlessness of her character’s pursuit of the truth is downright inspiring — and it garnered McAdams her first Oscar nomination.
45. Terms of Endearment (1983)
James L. Brooks was a master of television thanks to his work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi. Then he turned his attention to movies, and the first film he directed won five Academy Awards (including three for himself). Based on the Larry McMurtry book, Terms of Endearment is a tearjerker, but it’s the rare film from that genre in which the term isn’t a pejorative. Brooks masterfully inspires emotion in this mother-daughter tale, as Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger play characters whose eternal friction belies a bond neither can fully articulate. People die, people fall in love, hard truths are spoken, and all the while Terms of Endearment carries itself with such grace that it’s hard to fault the emotional manipulation. (And now we’ll add that we still prefer Brooks’s next film, the incomparable Broadcast News.)
44. Rocky (1976)
When film scholars romanticize American cinema of the 1970s, they’ll usually cite Jaws or Star Wars as the blockbuster that killed Hollywood’s newfound risk-taking instinct. Weirdly, Rocky never gets mentioned. Sure, this Sylvester Stallone vehicle was never as big a hit as those other films, but the film’s proudly by-the-numbers approach has become a staple for screenwriting classes in how to tell a hero’s journey, complete with predictable obstacles and emotional through lines. That’s not very generous to this scrappy sports movie, whose genuine feeling can’t be discounted. And yet, Rocky is the sort of rousing Oscar winner that, in retrospect, has plenty of holes and weak stretches. They’re harder to see in the moment, though: Stallone’s regular-guy boxer was so winning you just wanted to root him on.
43. Platoon (1986)
No, really, there once was a time when Oliver Stone’s films weren’t so aggressively anxious and frothing that they couldn’t be quietly devastating. Platoon was ripped from his experiences in Vietnam, offering a grunt’s-eye perspective on war that the 1970s titans like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now didn’t quite match. Charlie Sheen plays a soldier whose loyalty is divided between Tom Berenger’s caustic Barnes and Willem Dafoe’s kindly Elias. “War changes a man” is Platoon’s not-so-fresh insight, but Stone’s anguish over what he and his friends experienced in combat gives the movie its sorrow and pain.
42. All the King’s Men (1949)
Think about how history might have been different if John Wayne, who had been offered the part of Willie Stark (the up-from-nothing country lawyer who ends up becoming as corrupt a politician as the people he railed against and despised), had accepted it. (He turned it down because he found it “unpatriotic,” which, as with many thoughts Wayne had about politics, was debatable.) The Pulitzer-winning classic novel gets a lavish, emotional treatment here, and while it still feels a little stagy at time, it’s surprisingly raw for a big Hollywood film of the time. It not only holds up … it holds up a ton better than the Sean Penn remake from 2006. Amusingly, Mercedes McCambridge, who won Best Supporting Actress for playing Stark’s loyal assistant Sadie in her film debut, would star in The Exorcist 24 years later … as the voice of the demon.
41. Ben-Hur (1959)
There had been earlier films about Judah Ben-Hur, but William Wyler’s version, starring Charlton Heston, remains the most enduring. (Timur Bekmambetov’s 2016 remake can pound sand.) At about three-and-a-half hours, Ben-Hur is probably best remembered for its chariot-race sequence, but there’s a lot of film before that — including some of its finest moments, as we follow Judah (Heston) as he is betrayed by his old friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) and forced to become a galley slave. (If you haven’t seen Ben-Hur but have seen Gladiator, the latter film basically swiped the former’s plotline.) Heston’s square-jawed nobility was rarely better exploited — not even a cameo from Jesus near the end can overshadow his magisterial heroism.
40. Marty (1955)
Based off Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplay — which featured Rod Steiger as Marty and Nancy Marchand (Livia Soprano) as Clara — Marty was considered, initially, as a little too “television” for the movies. (Yep, that conversation has been going on for a long time.) But the love story it tells is so basic and simple and wonderful that it transcends whatever medium you’d put it in, with deeply lovely performances from Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair. This is the sort of quiet, charming love story that everyone says they’re going to make but never actually do. It’ll put a sweet smile on your face still today.
39. Tom Jones (1963)
It’s rather strange that Tom Jones won Best Picture. It’s bawdy and loud and unconventional and satirical and even a little postmodern: It seemed to foretell the cultural upheaval that was coming in the rest of the decade while still having its feet firmly planted in its time and place. It features a truly wonderful Albert Finney performance, though it’s a little bit long and wears out its welcome a little by the end. But all told: We should probably talk about Tom Jones more today than we do.
38. How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Like Oliver!, this film will forever be known less for its Best Picture win and more for the film it unjustly defeated, a small movie called Citizen Kane. (Supposedly, extras from this film voted in blocs to deny Citizen Kane its expected win.) That’s a shame, because it’s pretty great in its own right, a big working-class drama from John Ford about a Welsh family beset by tragedy and the loss of everything they cared about. It’s not as good as Citizen Kane, but most movies aren’t. It still packs a wallop. It is also famously Clint Eastwood’s favorite film of all time.
37. Rebecca (1940)
As bizarre as it is that this is the Alfred Hitchcock movie that won Best Picture, it’s still a great example of classic Hollywood sheen, a terrific story terrifically told … even if its teller would go on to do far better (and less Oscar-y) things. In the annals of Hitchcock history, this is probably most notable for being his first foray into Hollywood filmmaking. The lessons he learned from it led to the greatest of careers … and it somehow started with an Oscar.
36. The Lost Weekend (1944)
If nothing else, The Lost Weekend earns its place in cinematic history for the shot of our hero staggering drunkenly through the night as neon signs flash around him, letting us know how many places he’s been and how his night is rapidly regressing. (Heck, that shot still works today on Better Call Saul.) We don’t know if we’d consider this Billy Wilder’s best film — this and The Apartment both earned Best Picture — and an argument could be made that this is a happier ending for our hero than maybe he deserves … but seriously, what a lunatic run Billy Wilder went on for two decades, right?
35. Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Your classic “family story during wartime” drama, this one derives considerable power from taking place right in the middle of the conflict: It’s a family drama unfolding as World War II is descending on England, and how it affects an otherwise apolitical, perfectly contented mother (Greer Garson). The movie was being filmed right as the war was ramping up, and as the United States became less neutral, Mrs. Miniver was rewritten in a way that made the film better propaganda and, in fact, better cinema.
34. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
It seems strange to pick one movie out of this trilogy as particularly different than the other ones: Peter Jackson’s insane achievement has always felt like one long nine-plus-hour movie split into three parts. But The Return of the King still might be our favorite chapter, the one that best combines Jackson’s massive canvas with some of his splatter-film roots: There are moments in this that are so primal and thunderous that they appear as if from a nightmare. The postscript with the hobbits is still dull, but everything else in this still knocks you over.
33. Titanic (1997)
A new generation’s Gone With the Wind, Titanic is as mighty and unwieldy as the boat it’s named after. Here lies the tale of Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet), mismatched young people on a date with destiny, dreamed up by James Cameron, a filmmaker more associated with smart action films than epic tragic romances. It’s hard now to explain what a big deal Titanic was — how it seemed doomed to failure and then, inexplicably, became a global sensation, as if Cameron single-handedly willed its greatness into existence. The movie exposed Cameron’s weaknesses as a screenwriter — ouf, some of that dialogue — while forever burnishing his reputation as a master of big-screen drama.
32. An American in Paris (1951)
Although not even the best musical of the 1950s — Singin’ in the Rain came out a year later — Vincente Minnelli’s kaleidoscopic love story about an aspiring painter (Gene Kelly) in love with his pal’s girlfriend (Leslie Caron) remains a classic. An American in Paris has the exact same problem that lots of musicals possess: Sure, the song-and-dance numbers are terrific, but the story stuff in between isn’t nearly as radiant. Thankfully, the musical bits are really, really great, and there are a lot of them, with the film incorporating Gershwin tunes to marvelous effect. The 17-minute ballet sequence is still tops — although, yes, Kelly was even better in Singin’ in the Rain.
31. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Ranking Coen brothers films is a fraught exercise on its own, but for this list, we’ll respectfully suggest that No Country for Old Men is a movie for folks who don’t necessarily love Joel and Ethan’s work. For superfans, who are probably drawn to one of their more obscure or odd films, this adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel has always felt like a really good but somewhat familiar riff on past Coen themes. A crime gone wrong. A closely observed regional American ecosystem. The mystery of evil. Shocking violence and even more shocking humor. No Country for Old Men was the Coens marshaling their forces to do what they do best, crafting arguably their most unnerving monster in Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh. The film’s ending remains hauntingly elliptical. And we’re still terrified of cattle guns.
30. The Last Emperor (1987)
It still feels impossible that The Last Emperor exists at all: The first film ever to be allowed to film in Beijing’s Forbidden City, it is a breathtaking opportunity that Bernardo Bertolucci absolutely does not squander. The film is both grand and personal, the story of a child, a man, and a nation of billions. The movie has aged well because it’s not really a political movie at all: By focusing on the specific details of Puyi’s life, it makes the story universal no matter where you are from. It’s quite an investment for a viewer to make, but it pays off extravagantly.
29. The Departed (2006)
You wouldn’t find very many people who would call this anything close to Martin Scorsese’s best film, even though it is the one that finally got him his Oscar. But man, it remains compulsively watchable today: Scorsese just sort of casually, like it’s nothing, putting together a relentlessly entertaining spectacle that still touches on some of the primary themes of his entire career. You would have rather given him an Oscar for Raging Bull or Goodfellas, sure. But it’s sort of fitting that he got it for this one, a movie you will never turn off when it’s on cable for the rest of your life.
28. Annie Hall (1977)
Whatever your thoughts on Woody Allen in the year 2021 (or the year 2011, or the year 2001, or on and on), it is undeniable that Annie Hall captured a specific moment in American comedy and culture that continues to have a firm hold on us still today. Allen’s achievement with Annie Hall — somewhat accidental; remember, this was originally conceived as a murder mystery before being salvaged in the editing room — was to make a bittersweet romantic comedy about a neurotic New Yorker and a cheerful, confused shiksa feel completely universal: We’ve all had relationships that both inspire us to make up new words for love and make us feel like we’ve got a dead shark on our hands. It is impossible to overstate how much Annie Hall rewrote American comedy and romance … for better and for worse.
27. Nomadland (2020)
With only her third feature, writer-director Chloé Zhao has already established a track record for crafting intimate, empathetic films that focus on small-scale lives, which she turns into rich portraits of everyday Americans. Befitting an awards front-runner, Nomadland had to endure its share of backlash — principally, accusations that it romanticized the nomad culture it depicted or was soft on Amazon, one of the employers of Frances McDormand’s drifting, grieving Fern. To our mind, both criticisms were off base simply because they lacked the generosity that Zhao’s film displays in abundance — they dismissively misread her openhearted, nuanced drama as somehow being blind to the challenges of the gig economy. It’s easy to simplify Nomadland as a “not all who wander are lost” paean to the open road, but we see it more as a study in the transient nature of existence itself — and how some of us fight against it, whereas others embrace that uncertainty. Fern finds fellow travelers in Nomadland, but she is her own spirit, seeking something that might not be out there. Her story is heartbreaking in its unresolved nature, but Fern doesn’t want your pity. She’ll know where she’s going when she gets there.
26. All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
How important and powerful was the original All Quiet on the Western Front? Joseph Goebbels ordered his Brownshirts to set off stink bombs and mice in theaters showing the film. The movie isn’t necessarily all that cinematically unconventional, but it still packs a punch today … and even seems all the more newly relevant. There have been better, more powerful antiwar films. But they’re all still a bit in this film’s shadow.
25. West Side Story (1961)
Both helplessly dated and also eternally young, West Side Story had the genius idea of taking Romeo and Juliet and turning it into a musical about greaser gangs fighting in the streets of New York City in the 1950s. The movie happily embraces both cheese and melodrama, and it’s so light on its feet that you end up having such a good time that you don’t realize you’re watching a tragedy. Still a shining example of just how much a great musical can do.
24. Hamlet (1948)
It’s not like Laurence Olivier was going to do his definitive Hamlet and the Academy wasn’t going to give him an Oscar for it. Every actor’s Hamlet is theirs and theirs alone, and Olivier’s is big and hammy and searing and often quite devastating. Critics lambasted Olivier at the time for cutting big chunks of the play and focusing on himself and his (rather Oedipal for 1948) relationship with his mother. But watching Olivier in this movie, why would you want him to concentrate on anything else? Kenneth Branagh’s version might be the most “definitive” Hamlet, but this is the most powerful.
23. Unforgiven (1992)
The script was written in the 1970s by David Webb Peoples, who wanted to say something about violence’s corrosive consequences. It sat unmade for years, as Clint Eastwood pursued other films. Then, he returned to the screenplay, deciding the time was right to look back at his own legacy of playing stoic Western heroes. He was right. Unforgiven recasts the genre as a pitiless, almost pathologically unromantic realm populated by twits hoping to make their name and aged gunslingers who have to make peace with their bad pasts. Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris play characters carved out of granite — monuments of a bygone era that maybe should be swept aside by civility and industrialization. Eastwood looked back in anger, which probably explains why Unforgiven’s ending feels so bitter.
22. 12 Years A Slave (2013)
It’s possible no film on this list has more inspired the reaction “Great movie — I don’t ever want to see it again” as much as Steve McQueen’s brutal look at American slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon, a free northern black man in the 1840s who, through terrible circumstances, finds himself sold into slavery in the South. 12 Years a Slave is a rolling nightmare, refusing to let viewers off the hook or give them the comfort that a few “good whites” will come save the day. McQueen’s previous films, Hunger and Shame, were about spiritual desolation, but 12 Years a Slave topped them in terms of depicting the cruelty of human beings and the limits of what one soul can take.
21. Parasite (2019)
In the giddy rush of Parasite’s historic accomplishment — the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture — it’s important to remember that, in many other ways, Bong Joon Ho’s gem feels so different from the movies that usually win the big prize. A dark thriller, a social satire, a story with extreme violence, slapstick jokes, and a gut-punch emotional ending: Not only does Parasite not fit the typical Best Picture template, on paper it seems like the kind of weird, twisty genre fare that the Academy outright ignores. But the reason why Parasite triumphed is the reason why it’s so great: The movie is so fiendishly clever, vital, and fun that its electric ingenuity was impossible to deny. Bong made a film about South Korea’s class system that, wouldn’t you know it, echoes across nationalities. (Little surprise that there’s already talk of an English-language TV adaptation happening over at HBO.) Never making it clear who the “parasites” of the title are — maybe the scheming lower-class Kim family, maybe the complacent well-heeled Park clan — Parasite created a very recognizable, surprisingly sympathetic reality in which everyone is seeking something better, convinced that their actual life isn’t as great as the one they could still achieve. Praised for its “timely” message, Parasite may in fact end up being timeless: a biting commentary on the eternal chronic dissatisfaction that defines the human condition.
20. From Here to Eternity (1953)
Love and tragedy collide — as they often do in Best Picture winners — in this adaptation of the popular James Jones novel about a group of characters, mostly soldiers, who live in Hawaii in 1941. Burt Lancaster’s officer is having an affair with his captain’s wife (Deborah Kerr). Frank Sinatra’s Private Angelo Maggio is at odds with Ernest Borgnine’s bullying sergeant. And, of course, the Japanese are about to strike a certain naval base, propelling the United States into World War II. Fred Zinnemann’s compelling drama is very much of a piece with other 1950s studio pictures that emphasized realism and grounded performances, and the cast is superb throughout. (We didn’t even mention Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed, whose characters are part of another of From Here to Eternity’s complicated love stories.) That kiss on the beach between Lancaster and Kerr you undoubtedly remember — the rest of the film, although not as iconic, is superbly drawn and tersely bittersweet.
19. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
While not as much of the countercultural anger of Ken Kesey’s novel made it into the screen adaptation, as a basic story of the good guys banding together to beat the bad guy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is still rousing, spirited entertainment. This was Jack Nicholson in full blossom as he transitioned from the dangerous indie actor into the all-time movie star he’d become; will it be this or The Shining that we most remember him for? He’s forever the audience surrogate, the guy who we all wish we could be, fighting our fights for us, even losing for us when he has to.
18. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Early in his distinguished career, David Lean was known simply as a smart, economical director of fluent Noël Coward and Charles Dickens adaptations. Then he shifted gears for this epic, a war film about the building (and, eventually, the destruction) of a strategically important bridge. Alec Guinness is terrific as Nicholson, a British officer who leads his men to defy their Japanese captors, only to take such satisfaction in the construction of this bridge that he ultimately stands in opposition to the Allied soldiers who arrive to obliterate it. The Bridge on the River Kwai has a thorny message about loyalty and duty that’s wrapped in a rugged, articulate adventure film. Rarely has one man’s misplaced sense of pride blown up so spectacularly in cinema.
17. My Fair Lady (1964)
Audrey Hepburn didn’t sing her own songs (they were dubbed later by Marni Nixon, much to Hepburn’s chagrin), and it was quite the scandal when the movie came out; it’s the reason Hepburn herself wasn’t nominated for Best Actress. That’s a travesty, of course, because Hepburn is the delightful, spirited, even steely center of this most wonderful of musicals, a rousing crowd-pleaser that also happens to have a lot to say about class and station and love … and isn’t afraid to leave us with an uncertain ending. This was one of the most expensive movies ever made at the time, and while you can see it, it never overwhelms; you always feel like you’re right there with Eliza and ole ‘enry ‘iggins the whole time. It still sings, and lasts, today.
16. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
When “greatest war movie” lists are published, the rankings tend to favor films about combat. (A few of those are on this Oscar-winner list.) But arguably no movie better depicted the aftermath of war — the reality of what it’s like to come home — than The Best Years of Our Lives, which tells of three servicemen returning from World War II to their small town. They’re heroes who fought in a noble conflict against a clear-cut enemy — there was none of the moral murkiness that greeted America’s latest global conflicts — and, yet, they discover that they can’t acclimate to civilian life. (One of them, played by Harold Russell, lost both hands and now has mechanical hooks.) The film’s simple, sympathetic decency lends it powerful authenticity — Russell in real life lost his hands while in the Army — that articulated the trauma of PTSD before it was widely understood.
15. The French Connection (1971)
Amusingly, William Friedkin didn’t want Gene Hackman to play Popeye Doyle; at one point, he even preferred to cast Jimmy Breslin, of all people, and only didn’t because Breslin, as it turned out, wasn’t much of an actor. Hackman was of course perfect as the driven but dangerous, racist and erratic cop, a man who doesn’t try to get the bad guys out of any sort of moral obligation; he just does it to try to keep his dissolving life together, and because he must. The ultimate flawed protagonist, he wins, but at what cost to the rest of us? And lord, these chase scenes: At times, the film feels almost like a documentary of what New York was like at this particular moment in its history. Ignore the sequel. But watch this again, and over and over.
14. The Deer Hunter (1978)
The movie that made Michael Cimino’s career — which would be permanently derailed by his follow-up, Heaven’s Gate — The Deer Hunter aspires to be a Great American Novel–style overview of the Vietnam War, giving us a group of regular guys (and a few ladies) as they gather for a wedding, only to then thrust us into the madness of combat. It’s possible to both object to the film’s callous portrayal of the Viet Cong and be deeply moved by the way that our boys were shattered by their experience Over There. The Deer Hunter makes no apologies for the fact that it’s obsessed with masculinity — how war tests men, builds their character but also wrecks them — but it’s performed with incredible tenderness and delicacy. Christopher Walken won Best Supporting Actor for his role as a doomed buddy of Robert De Niro’s far more grounded Mike, but Meryl Streep is probably the film’s secret weapon. She cries because the men can’t.
13. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
“I’m going to send you a book. See what you think of it. It’s called Silence of the Lambs.” That’s how Jonathan Demme recalled a conversation with Orion head Mike Medavoy, who thought he would be right to adapt the Thomas Harris novel about a young FBI agent matching wits with a cannibalistic serial killer in order to catch another serial killer. The closest the Academy has come to rewarding an outright horror film — although it’s probably closer to being a thriller — The Silence of the Lambs is, above all else, a wonderfully scripted and acted mystery, with every plot point and performance falling perfectly into place. It made Anthony Hopkins a superstar and Hannibal Lecter one of cinema’s greatest dark masterminds. And in the age of #MeToo, the film’s clear-eyed portrait of female harassment and empowerment feels thrillingly vital again.
12. The Apartment (1960)
Arguably, Sunset Boulevard or Some Like It Hot (or Double Indemnity) is more revered, but The Apartment might be Billy Wilder’s most complete film, a pitch-perfect melding of comedy, romance, drama, and pathos that still speaks eloquently to the ineffable malaise of modern life. Jack Lemmon plays Bud, a white-collar drone who lends out his apartment to his bosses for their extramarital affairs. Shirley MacLaine is Fran, an elevator operator who’s sleeping with Bud’s superior Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), even though Bud has feelings for her. A sophisticated New York love story about depression and the corporate world, The Apartment might be slightly less funny than Wilder’s other high-water marks, but it swoons with wistful longing. Wilder’s films had plenty of great last lines — The Apartment’s isn’t as famous as, say, Some Like It Hot’s — but it’s as guardedly hopeful as the rest of the movie.
11. Moonlight (2016)
We’re only a couple of years removed from the shocks — first of the movie’s emotional power and, later, its surprise victory at the Oscars — so we confess that we’re still not sure quite where Moonlight stacks up against other Best Picture winners. Directed and co-written by Barry Jenkins (whose only other feature was the superb, modest romance Medicine for Melancholy), Moonlight hums with immediacy and heart, telling the story of a young gay man during three crucial periods in his life, drafting different actors for each era. The rawness of Moonlight’s pain and the thrill of its redemptive power are undiminished. For so many of us, the film felt like a precious, fragile jewel in need of protecting from the outside world. But we all underestimated Moonlight: The world was ready for it, and happy to embrace it.
10. Amadeus (1984)
Lots of big names wanted to play Antonio Salieri, the popular-for-his-time composer that was the plum role in Peter Shaffer’s award-winning play. And yet director Miloš Forman went with F. Murray Abraham, a working actor who was far from a star. Forman’s instinct paid off: Abraham was just anonymous enough that a viewer brought no knowledge of his previous work into the film. Abraham gave us a Salieri both blessed and cursed to appreciate Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s genius far more acutely than any living soul. Male competition, the divine mystery of creative brilliance, the fickleness of popularity: All play a part in Amadeus, although that shouldn’t discount how funny this film is, too. Tom Hulce and Abraham weren’t close during shooting — Abraham insisted on staying away from his co-star to mimic the characters’ contentious relationship. In later years, they’ve become friends, linked by an exceptional movie that’s far wittier than your typical costume drama.
9. Gone With the Wind (1939)
Raise all the rightful objections you have about this film’s racism, length, or soap-opera-y story. Unfortunately, they are forever fused with its greatness, a relic of a less-progressive Hollywood that’s trying its best to craft a romantic, sweeping spectacle like nothing ever seen before. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh will forever be a lot of people’s model for perfect, unrequited love, and the movie’s rich colors and spare-no-expense costume and production design remain the Academy’s Platonic ideal of sumptuousness. Sure, the narrative is creaky, and its attitudes are not exactly modern. And yet, it’s hard not to be a bit awed by Gone With the Wind’s swagger. To love it is to be in love with a kind of long-gone Hollywood studio picture. If anything, that fact gives the film extra poignancy.
8. It Happened One Night (1934)
The rare romantic comedy to win Oscar’s big prize, It Happened One Night now stands as a gentle reminder to those who would dismiss Frank Capra as “merely” a filmmaker of earnest, sentimental pictures like It’s a Wonderful Life or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Go into this adaptation of a Samuel Hopkins Adams short story with that impression and you’ll be blown away by how sexy, sophisticated, and witty this love story is. Peter (Clark Gable) is a crusty, unemployed journalist. Ellie (Claudette Colbert) is a spoiled heiress on the run to avoid being wed to a real jerk. They meet-cute and then go on a road trip together to New York, with plenty of sparks flying along the way. This is what grown-up sexuality used to look like in movies, and the two leads remain deeply, delightfully effervescent.
7. Schindler’s List (1993)
The film that finally ended the debate concerning whether Steven Spielberg could make “serious” movies, Schindler’s List found the world’s most beloved director confronting evil in a more concrete way than he ever had before — not even in The Color Purple or Empire of the Sun. Using handheld cameras and eschewing the swooping shots that defined his career, Spielberg gave us a Holocaust full of ugliness and chaos, of average people turned into monsters. Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler isn’t a fascinatingly complex character — he’s not so much unknowable as he is a bit impenetrable — but Schindler’s List doesn’t really need a protagonist. A landscape of suffering and cruelty permeates the film, and that’s where its power lies.
6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
We will say up front that we’re with the camp of people who think the first half of Lawrence of Arabia is basically perfect — and that the second half is more muddled. Still, David Lean’s absorbing, ambivalent portrait of T.E. Lawrence is one of those handful of films that genuinely feels titanic — whatever its flaws, it’s a mighty epic. Peter O’Toole was 30 when Lawrence came out, and for the rest of his career he might as well have been Lawrence, the inexperienced, brash, adventure-seeking young man who finds his calling by traveling out to the desert, remaking himself as a British folk hero who led the Arabs against the Turks. Legitimately, they don’t make films like this anymore.
5. On the Waterfront (1954)
It’s very possible to enjoy Elia Kazan’s stripped-down drama on its own considerable merits. A fleet of good performances, a focused emotional wallop, a tale about a decent man (Marlon Brando) who stands up to corruption: On the Waterfront is undeniably moving and visceral. What complicates the film is Kazan’s later acknowledgment that Budd Schulberg’s screenplay was an opportunity to justify his decision to name names to the House Committee on Un-American Activities a few years prior — an action that left him reviled in many segments of Hollywood for the rest of his life. (In his memoir, Kazan wrote, “On the Waterfront was my own story; every day I worked on that film, I was telling the world where I stood and my critics to go fuck themselves.”) That a film so virtuous could be twisted into a defense of betraying colleagues may be hard to stomach, but it also adds to On the Waterfront’s hypnotic power. This is a film driven by moral anger, and that rage cuts through every scene. You can question Kazan’s justification, but you can’t deny the force of his anger.
4. The Godfather: Part II (1974)
The original “But the sequel’s actually better” argument starter, The Godfather: Part II expanded the scope of the 1972 Oscar winner, cutting between Vito’s life as a young man (played by Robert De Niro) and Michael (Al Pacino) as he begins to understand the full implications of what his new role in the family requires. Part II’s depth surpasses the first film’s, giving us a greater sense of the inevitability of corruption in any initially promising enterprise. Being successful in America, according to Part II, inherently means becoming the bad guy, and Francis Ford Coppola mourns that fact, abetted by arguably Pacino’s finest, most sorrowful performance as a man who sells every bit of his soul to maintain his power. Among its many other attributes, Part II might be the most accomplished prequel of all time, showing us the roots of the Corleones’ ambition and ethical shortcomings — which, really, are two ways of saying the same thing.
3. All About Eve (1950)
Filmmaker Joseph L. Mankiewicz once described his movies as “a continuing comment on the manners and mores of contemporary society in general and the male-female relationship in particular.” Which meant they were also darkly, piercingly funny. Inspired by a Mary Orr story, which had been based on an anecdote relayed to Orr about a particularly ambitious aspiring actress, All About Eve is a wellspring of razor-sharp dialogue and despicable human behavior, telling the story of Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), a massive fan of Broadway giant Margo Channing (Bette Davis) who, slowly but surely, usurps her stardom. A takedown of ego, theater, actors, writers, vanity, and other deadly sins, All About Eve puts the dagger in with such elegance — and then does it again and again.
2. The Godfather (1972)
Now almost more of a myth than a movie, this adaptation of Mario Puzo’s best seller tends to surprise new viewers by how pulpy and popcorn-y it is. That’s not a knock: What often gets overlooked in the rush to canonize The Godfather is its pure entertainment value, how it was able to wed serious themes to terrifically violent sequences, melding a potboiler narrative to a grand vision of American ambition. By this point, there’s no need to rehash its difficult production: What matters is what’s on the screen, a tale of how a wayward son (Al Pacino) discovers that his mild refutations of his family’s dark business are ultimately just talk. Among its many treasures — Gordon Willis’s impossibly shadowy cinematography chief among them — The Godfather may be the definitive portrait of how easily corruptible people can be, how we try to reject our destiny yet keep getting sucked into fate’s vortex. The look on Diane Keaton’s face at the film’s end was a symbol of innocence forever shattered. No one could look at movies, the mob, or America the same afterward.
1. Casablanca (1943)
No one, not least of all its cast, thought much of Casablanca when it was made. It was 1 of 18 different movies that Humphrey Bogart made in the first half of that decade, and it was rushed to theaters to capitalize on events in World War II. While critics praised it, audiences mostly yawned. That Casablanca would become perhaps the most beloved Hollywood movie ever seems inevitable now, because it has everything: the backdrop of war; the biggest movie stars in the world at their absolute peak; a doomed love story; countless shady characters by some timeless supporting actors; an endless supply of immortal quotes; and, of course, our Rick and Ilsa at the center, two of the three people whose problems don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. You close your eyes and that perfect ending plays out in memory. Every movie is trying to be Casablanca, in one way or another. But only one was.