The 95th Academy Awards were a historic year for Oscar. Directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All At Once became the first movie to win six above-the-line categories – Picture, Director, Screenplay, and three acting awards. No other film has ever achieved such a feat. This significant accomplishment led to a disruption in the Twitterverse, as knee-jerk reactions from many of EEAAO’s advocates began declaring the movie to be one of the ten or twenty best Best Picture winners of all time.
While an enormous fan of the film (it was my #2 from 2022), to that I say slow your roll. Everything Everywhere All At Once is a brilliant and imaginative film. One that is certainly outside the typical wheelhouse for Academy voters. It is diverse, unique, and visionary, to say the least. But does it really hold up to some of the greatest films ever made? That is the question I began asking myself after a tidal wave of strong, emotional reactions that many tweeters and film critics had following the memorable Oscar night (most of whom have likely never seen most of the past Best Picture winners and the past nominees they were up against). This is an era where people reliably display strong emotional reactions to events that are more intense than the discernable significance of said event might warrant. To make matters worse,
I know, I sound old. I also know that in my youth I made many declarations regarding film that made me look inexperienced and untraveled. It’s kind of a passing of the torch, I suppose.
Since its inception, the Academy Awards have been a celebration of the exceptional accomplishments in the world of cinema. Spanning nearly a century, the Academy archives are full of cinematic masterpieces. Almost all of these films defined their era, while some have transcended generations and continued to resonate with audiences. Taking on the task of ranking the Best Picture winners is both a stimulating and formidable proposition. It was a pleasure to revisit the eclectic and distinguished anthology of films.
From grandiose and awe-inspiring epics to profound and visceral character studies, each Best Picture winner brings its own appeal, artistic vision, and legacy to the history of AMPAS – and to us, the viewer.
Of course, as with any form of ranking, the list is subjective. The notion of “best” is certainly shifting and open to each individual’s taste, experience, and point of view. I’d love to hear your passionate debates about which titles I have ranked too high or what I have placed too low, so feel free to play along throughout the series with your own rankings.
To answer where I would rank the film in the pantheon of Best Picture winners, I first had to determine what the necessary ingredients are to determine such a list. For me, there are two major components to consider:
- How great is the movie? – This is obviously the most important aspect to ranking a film on such a list. How well does its legacy hold up? What is the cultural impact of the film? How strong are the rest of its innards – the acting, the writing, the way its shot, edited, etc? While this represents to large majority of how I compiled my list, I also felt it was important to consider…
- What movies did it beat? – While a film may be good – or great – it doesn’t always mean it deserves to win. When looking back at Oscar history, there are several examples where a significantly lesser film won. For the purposes of this list, I feel that should weigh in on where the film ranks as a winner.
We know that some Best Picture winners are naturally better than others. Whether the film has stood the test of time, has become unwatchable, or has long been forgotten, each of these 95 films was once considered the vanguard of cinema at one point or another. Let’s not forget that as we kick off this cinematic odyssey. We are here to explore the history of these exceptional films and celebrate the wonderful capacity for imagination, inventiveness, and ingenuity that has created such an enduring impression on the history and fabric of cinema.
95. Cimarron (1930/1931)
Summary: Some of the early winners can be pretty rough to sit through. Between an artistic form that was just getting off the ground and an industry without much moral structure (pre-Hays Code), Cimarron tops the list for me as the least best Best Picture winner of all-time. For its time, Cimarron had a huge budget (1.4 million) and filled an impressive scope (the film spans over 40 years), but that is all overshadowed by some pretty atrocious racial and anti-Semitic stereotypes. This was the first Western to win the big prize, and the last to do so for 60 years. Dances With Wolves would end that streak, with Unforgiven following two years later. This is a tough watch, so be prepared.
What it beat: East Lynne, The Front Page, Skippy, Trader Horn
Hindsight’s a bitch: While not nominated for Best Picture, there are quite a few films from 1931 that – in hindsight – stand out as much longer-lasting options. Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece – City Lights – stands at the top of that list. Horror classics Frankenstein and Dracula were groundbreaking genre films from 1931. James Cagney’s gangster flick, The Public Enemy, Fritz Lang’s mystery/thriller, M, and King Vidor’s sports/drama, The Champ, would all have been better options as well.
94. The Broadway Melody (1928/1929)
Summary: The Broadway Melody is considered the first modern movie musical. Another dated film that is hard for many present-day viewers to sit through, Melody is a bloated, silly vaudevillian act that is hard to believe was anything more than song and dance entertainment at a time where talkies were still new and exciting. At one time, it featured a Technicolor sequence that might have deemed it to be innovative. But this is a dull experience and not one that holds up well at all.
What it beat: Alibi, Fox, Hollywood Revue, The Patriot
Hindsight’s a bitch: Silent icons Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd ruled the day. While they delivered countless entertainment for the masses, it is Maria Falconetti’s performance in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc that escalates their film above any other in 1928/1929.
93. Cavalcade (1932/1933)
Summary: Based on a Noel Coward play, Cavalcade covers one wealthy family’s perspective of the changing of the century. Spanning over 40 years from the late 1800s through the mid-thirties, Cavalcade is a tad mawkish and sentimental. It’s a time capsule covering several historic events (the Boer War, Queen Victoria’s funeral, the sinking of the Titanic, World War I, etc.), depicting how an upper-class family responded to the changing times. It remains a tad fruitless and humdrum, and is heavy on the dramatization of the passing of time.
What it beat: A Farewell to Arms, 42nd Street, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Lady for a Day, Little Women, The Private Life of Henry VIII, She Done Him Wrong, Smilin’ Through, State Fair
Hindsight’s a bitch: Plenty of horror classics once again get swept under the red carpet in favor of melodrama. Freaks, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man are still enthusiastically discussed in film circles today. Comedy legends The Marx Brothers (Duck Soup), and Mae West (She Done Him Wrong) released their best films in this window of time. The best film of this year was King Kong, which has often been imitated but never duplicated in the 90 years since.
92. Crash (2005)
Summary: Paul Haggis’ film will likely be best remembered for beating Brokeback Mountain. Aside from what it beat (every other nominee would have been a better choice), Crash is a bit too on the nose as it addresses racial tensions without much subtlety. The score, cinematography, and acting are all pretty outstanding, but it isn’t enough to save the tone-deaf Crash from feeling extremely contrived and overbearing.
What it beat: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich
Hindsight’s a bitch: Brokeback Mountain was right there. Oscar voters just weren’t ready.
91. The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)
Summary: Pre-pubescent Steven Spielberg might have loved Cecil B. DeMille’s huge-scale circus spectacle (as evidenced in last year’s The Fabelmans), but Greatest Show is often cited as the worst Best Picture winner ever. The win was, perhaps, a reconciliation for passing on the silent-era titan’s earlier work. DeMille was as big as the pictures he made – the ringleader of the Hollywood circus, if you will – so a win here might have helped erase the fact that he had no Oscars up to this time.
What it beat: High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, The Quiet Man
Hindsight’s a bitch: High Noon is arguably the greatest Western of all time and would have made an exceptional winner. But to not only pass on Singin’ in the Rain for the win, let alone a Best Picture nomination? That’s just madness.
90. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Summary: Another elongated, swollen film, somehow both frantic and plodding, with more cameos than substance, 80 Days is an extravaganza with little to do other than entertain. But it knows that and isn’t really trying to be anything else. The fact that it goes on for three hours is a counterpoint to its purpose. Tons of sets, stars, extras, costumes…
What it beat: Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I, The Ten Commandments
Hindsight’s a bitch: What a year for Westerns and epic flicks. While George Stevens’ Giant is both of those things, it would be hard to pass on John Ford’s masterpiece, The Searchers.
89. Out of Africa (1985)
Summary: On the merits of score and cinematography, Out of Africa would be one of the greatest Best Picture winners ever. Unfortunately, there needs to be a lot more to a film than just a beautiful John Barry theme. Who would have thought a film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford could be this boring? As far as romance goes, Out of Africa runs the full gamut of archetypal themes. While it often induces a yawn, it is gorgeous to look at. Things could be worse.
What it beat: The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor, Witness
Hindsight’s a bitch: Unfortunately, any of the other four nominees would have been a better choice. Comedies like Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, Clue, Goonies, and Fletch never stood a chance with the Academy. Spielberg’s Color Purple probably deserved the prize the most, despite going 0-11 on Oscar night.
88. The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Summary: How does one make a film about Emile Zola’s life without a single mention of anti-Semitism? Ask Jack Warner, who famously had the word “Jew” removed from the script entirely. When it sticks to the Dreyfus Affair, Emile Zola is a film worth noting. It just takes too long to get there, beating around the bush of fascism while sidestepping the spreading threat of Nazism that was growing larger in real life. Nevertheless, the film was celebrated and became one of the early biopics to win Best Picture.
What it beat: The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Dead End, The Good Earth, In Old Chicago, Lost Horizon, One Hundred Men and a Girl (but no cup?), Stage Door, A Star Is Born
Hindsight’s a bitch: I’ve always admired Victor Fleming’s Captains Courageous, a high seas adventure starring the great Spencer Tracy. It would have been a pretty inspired choice if the Academy had gone with Walt Disney’s groundbreaking film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, a film that many still view as the crown jewel in the Disney library.
87. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Summary: For whatever reason, it is hard for me to separate The Life of Emile Zola from The Great Ziegfeld, despite having almost nothing to do with each other. It must have something to do with the fact that they are back-to-back Best Picture-winning biopics and that I found them both to be fine, if not mundane, films that don’t really get remembered. Another nearly 3-hour movie with big set pieces and over a thousand people employed for the film, The Great Ziegfeld is far too long for a musical romp. It was, in fact, the longest American film ever made at the time of its release. William Powell and Myrna Loy (both whom I love in The Thin Man series) keep the film from being a total loss.
What it beat: Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities, Three Smart Girls
Hindsight’s a bitch: Ziegfeld is a fine choice, though it’s pretty obvious that Chaplin’s Modern Times and Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds have both outlasted the victor.
86. Gigi (1958)
Summary: As good as the Lerner and Loewe music is, and as much as I love Leslie Caron, Louis Jordan, and Maurice Chevalier, it’s hard to argue that Gigi doesn’t border on ephebophilia. Look no further than the film’s best song, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” if you have any doubt. Nobody captures Parisian romantic musicals quite like Vincente Minnelli did, so if you can get past the huge gap in age differences (she’s only 16), there is a lot of charm and beauty in the film.
What it beat: Auntie Mame, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, Separate Tables
Hindsight’s a bitch: Vertigo is arguably Alfred Hitchcock’s best film and it is a crime that he failed to win Best Director for his masterpiece, let alone earn a nomination for the best film of the year. Vertigo has gone on to top Sight & Sound’s list as the greatest film of all time.
85. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Summary: Some Best Picture winners have not aged well. That is to be expected as cultures change over nearly a century. But when a movie isn’t that good in the first place, beats many films that were better, AND it doesn’t age well? That can be a recipe for disaster. Time (and #filmtwitter) has not been kind to Driving Miss Daisy. It’s one thing to say a film like Gone with the Wind has issues. We are talking about a film made 3 decades before the Civil Rights era. But 50 years later, and a couple decades past the advancements brought on by the movements in the 1960s, its hard not to grimace at some of the racial politics in Driving Miss Daisy. Naïve and self-satisfied, the film contrives the emotions rather than earns them. While I love Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman, the latter’s performance feels a tad cringey. It’s even more sardonic that Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing came out the same year.
What it beat: Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot
Hindsight’s a bitch: Another example where ANY of the other nominees would have been a much better option. Field of Dreams is my favorite of the group, and (along with Do the Right Thing) would have made for a fine winner. If I had to choose, Cinema Paradiso – which won the Foreign Language Oscar that year – would have been the perfect choice for Best Picture.
84. Going My Way (1944)
Summary: A perfectly fine feel-good film that came out in the midst of World War II, Going My Way is a sweet movie about a youthful priest (Bing Crosby) trying to bring change to a rundown, antiquated church (led by Barry Fitzgerald).
What it beat: Double Indemnity, Gaslight, Since You Went Away, Wilson
Hindsight’s a bitch: Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, Double Indemnity, would have been an all-time selection for Best Picture. Going My Way was as sweet as Indemnity was sexy, but doesn’t hold a candle to one of the greatest screenplays ever written.
83. Green Book (2018)
Summary: See Driving Miss Daisy above. While not nearly as problematic, Green Book still might come off as a vehicle for white guilt. An enjoyable buddy flick with strong performances from Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, it’s a shame the plot ends up being so passé – as well intentioned and entertaining as it is. Even more ironic is that like Driving Miss Daisy, a Spike Lee joint also dropped that year.
What it beat: Black Panther, BlackKklansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Roma, A Star Is Born, Vice
Hindsight’s a bitch: I think many folks – especially in filmtwitter – would tell you that Roma was the easy choice here. But not so fast! Damien Chazelle’s retelling of the 1969 moon landing, First Man, is a film I expect to age like fine wine.
82. CODA (2021)
Summary: There isn’t a single bad thing for me to say about CODA, one of the sweetest little films to ever win Best Picture. It’s a simple, moving film with great performances. I wonder how time will treat CODA, as its simplicity might be the thing that keeps it from being well-remembered fifty years from now. Or even ten.
What it beat: Belfast, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, West Side Story
Hindsight’s a bitch: Kenneth Branagh’s film, Belfast, will always own my heart. I wouldn’t be surprised if The Power of the Dog or Dune ends up being the most remembered film of the lot.
81. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Summary: When I think of the phrase “Oscar bait,” an expression I’m honestly not fond of, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind is the first movie I always think of. The second I saw it I knew it would be a Best Picture winner. So did many others, I’m sure.
What it beat: Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge
Hindsight’s a bitch: A Beautiful Mind is a fine film. It is exactly the kind of movie that used to win Best Picture with ease. I would have loved to see Moulin Rouge or The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring take the prize. Mulholland Drive and Blackhawk Down are other films that have stuck with me longer than Ron Howard’s Oscar-winner.
80. Oliver! (1968)
Summary: Oliver! brought an end to musicals winning Best Picture on a regular basis. In it’s first 41 years, the Academy awarded nine musicals the coveted prize, then went on a 34-year drought. Chicago broke that streak in 2002, and is still the only musical in the past 55 years to be a Best Picture winner. Oliver! is a fine and entertaining family favorite filled with fantastic musical numbers.
What it beat: Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter, Rachel, Rachel, Romeo and Juliet
Hindsight’s a bitch: How 2001: A Space Odyssey slipped through the Academy’s fingers only speaks to the bias against science fiction pre-2000s. Fifty-five years later, Kubrick’s masterstroke remains one of the five best films ever made.
79. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Summary: Chariots of Fire is the definitive British prestige film. From it’s inspirational themes of overcoming prejudice to the determined performances from Ben Cross and Ian Charleson, it’s easy to see how this would have moved audiences and voters alike. The opening scene, thanks in large part to Vangelis’ immortal score, is cinematic beauty in the highest form.
What it beat: Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds
Hindsight’s a bitch: It’s still a little shocking that Warren Beatty’s biopic (Reds) lost the Oscar to the sports flick. Blame Vangelis, I suppose. Raiders of the Lost Ark is the clear champ from 1981.
78. The Artist (2011)
Summary: Hollywood recognizing a movie about movies? You don’t say! The Artist, as cute and charming as it was when it came out, falls into the severely niche category a decade later. While I enjoy The Artist, I blame the power of Harvey Weinstein for this one. It’s an ambitious film, for sure, and I wish I loved it the way so many others do. Sometimes the Oscars can ruin a film for you. As much as I try not to let that happen, I fear that’s the case for me here.
What it beat: The Descendants, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Help, Hugo, Midnight in Paris, Moneyball, The Tree of Life, War Horse
Hindsight’s a bitch: Terrence Malick’s singular and pragmatic Tree of Life is one of the most beautiful films ever made.
77. Tom Jones (1963)
Summary: A social satire, Tom Jones is another film – like The Artist – that I have never been able to fully embrace. British humor can be a tough sell at times, and some of the jokes might be lost on a generation or two later. I do love Albert Finney in the role, and give marks to the Academy for an otherwise unorthodox choice.
What it beat: America America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, Lilies of the Field
Hindsight’s a bitch: There are a lot of great options from 1963 that were not nominated for Best Picture. John Sturges’ The Great Escape, Martin Ritt’s Hud, and Stanley Donen’s Charade are a few of my favorite from 1963. But Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds would have been a terrific choice if they had any interest in awarding any of Hitch’s thrillers.
76. You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Summary: There are so many great Frank Capra films. While this one might not be towards the top (or anywhere near it) it is a perfect and wholesome representation of the late 30s screwball comedy. Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur are a pair of fireworks in this one. For that alone, it remains worth a watch.
What it beat: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Boys Town, The Citadel, Four Daughters, Grand Illusion, Jezebel, Pygmalion, Test Pilot
Hindsight’s a bitch: Some great options here. The sophisticated cinephile will look to see Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion listed as the deserving winner. Good thing I am an artless commentator. Give me Boys Town – the Father Flanagan biopic starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney – for sentimental reasons.
That wraps up part one in the series. Six of the twelve winners prior to 1940 have shown up already. This speaks to the Academy and film industry still trying to figure things out in its infancy. It only gets better from here, folks. Stay tuned!