A friend was shocked to learn, about ten years ago, that I hadn’t seen all of the Academy’s Best Picture winners. Like the IMDb 250, it’s a benchmark of quantitative substance to many but means absolutely nothing to me. I’m not here to gripe about snubs or give tiresome arguments about who should have really won. I’m the sort of rare pretentious populist who not only thinks the Academy was correct in selecting Annie Hall over Star Wars, but also thinks Rocky is better than Taxi Driver.
No, my beef with the Academy isn’t that a group of insiders rarely pick the best movie of any given year (by my count, this has happened once ever; odds so poor it must indicate we’re simply not judging the same merits), it is that the barometer by which they judge is rarely film for the sake of film. This is not the same as films about film (which they love), or films which emulate an air of prestige (something they love even more).
Only this year have I seen every Best Picture winner and, trust me, the last few films I begrudgingly got to like a tattered honey-do list I’d correctly judged sight unseen. These aren’t all great films. Hell, I’d only call about two-thirds of them decent, but that’s not really a fair point. The first Academy Awards, held in 1929, might indicate why this is.
That year, two different “Best Picture” awards were handed out, though neither was called such. The first award went to box-office hit Wings which won the award intended to honor “the most outstanding motion picture considering all elements that contribute to a picture’s greatness.” The second award, given to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans, honored “the most artistic, unique and/or original motion picture without reference to cost or magnitude.” This states, in no uncertain terms, that artistry, uniqueness of vision, and originality apart from box-office success or in-house production are not really considered “elements that contribute to a picture’s greatness.”
Both of these films find their way onto my rankings, and we will see where my metric and the Academy’s might not jibe. The more I see these films (as the fact I continue to follow the awards every year might indicate) the more I understand how the intention to honor films which make statements about the human condition get confused with films that make statements about the industry’s condition. Film has, from its inception, been relegated to the kiddie table at the banquet of the Seven Arts despite incorporating all seven into its recipe. The Academy would do well to honor its medium’s fluidity rather than continuing to fall into the trap of dressing up in big sister’s clothes, failing to recognize it reached maturity long ago.
On rare, inspired evenings, it’s done this at least a dozen times. Bear with this doggedly unabridged list which is more cultural pastiche than cinematic milestone. These titles are by no means essential viewing. Many would not be remembered were it not for the catch-22 of the Academy both handing out these awards and, worse, by the template the Academy has created which suggests these are the type of films deserving of them. A toast to when the snake doesn’t eat its own tail!
88. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Opie goes for gold in this graceless remake of The Life of Emile Zola in which our hero, rather than risking imprisonment in the name of justice, endangers his family in the prison of self-denial and mental illness. He wins the Nobel, the film wins Best Picture. Sorry Emile, there is no justice.
87. Crash (2005)
A left-handed, self-congratulatory social message picture in which its Black characters are still carjackers and its Persian characters, the victims of post-9/11 racial profiling and hate crimes, become terrorists who shoot children at point blank range. No dice.
86. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
In consecutive years of America’s pre-Rodney King, post-Reagan dog-whistle politics, Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” wins Song and Record of the Year at the Grammys and Driving Miss Daisy wins the Best Picture Oscar. COINCIDENCE?
85. Dances with Wolves (1990)
The last bastion of the Academy’s identity crisis throughout the ‘80s which understood enough to know our mythologies were being rewritten to incorporate historically misrepresented voices but still only knew how to tell this story as a White fantasy. See also: Out of Africa.
|Surprised Danny Boyle didn't order a tornado of Holi powder|
84. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Fast food “poverty porn” which elects for cultural appropriation as the world’s second-most populous nation wins the lottery and pulls of a “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” dance number. Some days America puffs its chest and says the days of White culture accessorizing brown people as props without criticism are numbered. Other days Slumdog Millionaire wins Best Picture.
83. Forrest Gump (1994)
The Jungian nightmare cycle contained within one of the most complex cultural decades of America’s young history is glossed over at a third-grade level. Stupid is, indeed.
82. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
The only true character in this piece is its hot button issue. Everyone else is window dressing.
81. Chariots of Fire (1981)
The Best Picture winners of the early ‘80s oscillated between funereal kitchen-sink melodramas and maudlin pablum. The result might have been zero sum, but it doesn’t make me want to pick sides. This film, belonging in the latter category, manages to be both skeletal and self-absorbed. My main takeaway is hearing its theme played on lite-rock radio in my mom’s minivan alongside Ambrosia and Christopher Cross. While this certainly isn’t cool, it’s not a knock in and of itself, it just serves as a reminder that dopaminergic and dopey have the same source.
80. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Hollywood had an identity problem in the 1950s. With the new threat of in-home rival television, Hollywood doubled down on strange gimmicks rather than innovating its medium. This is the same era that gave us CinemaScope and 3D glasses. The movies got physically bigger, but were narratively stodgy and rooted in escapism. The theory is America’s collective mindset was so jarred after the atrocities of World War II, Hollywood tried banking on conservative, pre-sold ideas.
Few movies pretend to be as big, as gaudy, and as escapist as a film which literally titles itself “The Greatest Show on Earth.” It isn’t, of course, but its selection by the Academy says a lot about an industry which always seems miles behind when it faces crisis.
79. Cavalcade (1933)
Generations before the coined phrase “first world problems,” Cavalcade is, at the very least, consistent in keeping its abundant exploitation of real world tragedy in the background.
78. Out of Africa (1985)
“Where is, according to the film’s own underrepresentation, the place where Africans must live?”
77. The English Patient (1996)
I promise I did not set this up on purpose, but this film perfectly marries my beef with the previous two films on the list.
76. Chicago (2002)
This is one of those films that isn’t bad, per se, but will forever be canonized because of its Academy selection while it would have otherwise been forgotten. As well-intentioned, fumbling teenagers brushing up on film history download this into their brain (or however film will be consumed) in another hundred years, this one will seem a real anomaly. Outside of blaming ill-placed classicism, I’m not sure how to account for it.
75. Titanic (1997)
If Chicago is the Academy’s balk at ill-placed classicism, Titanic is its homerun. It combines the sensationalist— even barbaric— amusements of early cinema with the stodgy, pre-sold conservative larger-than-life cinema of the 1950s. More than anything, it was an attraction, and, what’s more, became the highest grossing film of all time. What is not for the Academy to love?
74. Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
Another ‘50s “epic” that promises the cinema of attractions and delivers flat, safe, and tone-deaf direction instead.
73. Terms of Endearment (1983)
I used to make a big deal about Kramer vs. Kramer being the #1 movie in America on the day I was born and how I hated it as if a born contrarian. But that’s not really fair. I don’t hate Kramer vs. Kramer, but, after seeing it usher in an era of prestigious human condition flicks that the academy loved (it was followed by Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment all in a four year span), I do find it strange that the post-war melodramas were never offered Academy accreditation until Roe v. Wade.
72. Rain Man (1988)
This is the kind of pap served up to launch a well-respected director into Oscar immortality by virtue of a pandering cartoon character. Worse, there is something genuinely interesting untapped here that streams “could have been.” Worse yet, despite my fandom, it’s a bottom three Tom Cruise performance.
71. Gladiator (2000)
A least-common denominator Ben-Hur from a director who, like James Cameron and Peter Jackson, is lauded for creating the wrong kind of film world. All CG, no heart.
|Strangely, one of the film's more subtle moments|
70. The Sound of Music (1965)
Would this be a lesser movie if the entire last act and Nazi subplot were removed completely? Would anyone love it less if it were a mere 130 minutes? I’m always astounded that, for such a one-woman show, the rest of the screen is sure stuffed with unlikable, droll characters.
69. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
In my ideal alternate universe, Kevin Williamson penned Shakespeare in Love. I never cared that it beat Saving Private Ryan. It doesn’t bother me that it has the weight of a blown dandelion. 1998 was a big year for self-referentiality, but I can tell you I’ve watched the entire series of “Dawson’s Creek” twice since I’ve thought to revisit this.
68. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
A film that attempts to vilify Hollywood’s franchise inclination and eat its cake too, lecturing a one-dimensional critic in a film the critical establishment’s herd mentality deemed critic-proof. If the critic’s job is to trace culture’s de Broglie-Bohm theory, expressing what is objective in our souls about the arts, it also must expose pretention and find poetic words for the ineffable. Birdman or (as its awful title suggests) turns out to be quite effable. Eff Birdman.
67. A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Apropos that this ranks back-to-back with Birdman: Pauline Kael wrote, “perhaps people think A Man for All Seasons is so great because unlike the usual movie which is aimed at 12-year-olds, it’s aimed at 12-year-old intellectuals and idealists.” I don’t think this is what Werner Herzog meant when he claimed film was the language of the illiterate but, given the choice between the two, the older I get the more I’ll take the regular 12-year-old movie, thank you.
66. Cimarron (1931)
Cimarron is in a strange position of being hated where it would have otherwise been merely forgotten. I imagine many who name it as one of the least-deserving Best Picture winners haven’t seen a ton of 1931 films. Audiences weren’t sure if sound pictures were anything more than a gimmick and artistry took a back seat as the industry’s top directors experienced a rough learning curve in both cinematic language and technology.
It is probably more than coincidence that the Academy Awards were ushered in at the same time as the sound era: major studios tightened their grip on the types of movies being produced as well as how and where they would be shown. The Academy started giving themselves awards as a way to legitimize their monopoly which ensured their top product would be seen.
That Cimarron—dated though it is—remains watchable in the 21st century is nearly an endorsement.
65. The Last Emperor (1987)
I mean, this thing is O.K. Yes, it’s overlong. Yes, it is another in the Academy’s ugly tendency to honor exotified travelogues. Yes, it is unquestioningly Oscar bait but it does so without pandering. That it doesn’t strike my purview as resonant probably speaks more about its genre than its craft. See also: Gandhi.
64. Ordinary People (1980)
Makes Terms of Endearment look like a student film by comparison, but proof that Hollywood’s harrowing, painfully translucent domestic dramas were European knock-offs.
63. Braveheart (1995)
You know how in The Sound of Music the nuns bitch and bitch about how Maria won’t stop singing, but they do so almost exclusively in song? That’s how I feel about Braveheart’s message that the brain eludes the need for the battlefield. Lip service no one in their audiences bite.
62. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
A film which shares more with Crash than anyone would like to admit: a message picture one could call “preaching to the choir” if there were enough seats for every viewer in the choir. It’s a film about slavery in the sense that we all perfunctorily agree it was bad. Perfectly adequate but lacking sustenance.
61. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Perhaps my biggest surprise in constructing this list was learning The Great Ziegfeld—a musical produced near sound film’s infancy—is 179 minutes long. I know I love William Powell more than the next guy, but that my fondness for this film has overlooked its impossible-on-paper runtime is as ringing an endorsement as imaginable.
|Bonus trivia: every Indian citizen is actually an extra in the film|
60. Gandhi (1982)
Stuffy, sure. And that runtime is a lot to overlook. But perhaps what bothers me most about Gandhi is, for a biopic about a man who marked his life with unpretentiousness, it sure paints each humble stroke with deliberate weight.
59. The Artist (2011)
I love to see a 21st-Century romantic-comedy win Best Picture. It’s just a shame that its only means for doing so are to appeal to heavy-handed, self-reflexive gimmick.
58. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
This is a fine film with noble intentions that just looks like it’s trying a little too hard.
57. Wings (1927)
The biggest issue I have with this film is it being the benchmark people measure silent film against simply because it is an Oscar winner. Silent was a rapidly advancing poetic language the film industry pumped the brakes on for the sake of industry. The era of the same industry saw these awards created for similar pursuits. Wings is a decent spectacle film, but no one ever described it as poetic.
56. The King’s Speech (2010)
A film of great actors sitting in great rooms interacting with great dialogue. It’s Firth’s showcase picture and a lobbed softball for director Hooper who treats the material without condescension. The period is openly nostalgic for the Miramax pictures of the ‘90s.
55. The Deer Hunter (1978)
My beef with Schindler’s List is that it creates sympathy for the wrong side while marginalizing history’s true victims. The Deer Hunter is guilty of the same thing but adds opportunism to its list of offenses. That Francis Ford Coppola met Cimino at his hotel room in December 1978 to concede, “you beat me, baby” is enough to want to put Apocalypse Now back under the microscope.
54. Ben-Hur (1959)
What better way to cap a decade of stodgy, escapist, conservative prestige films than with a three-and-a-half hour sword-and-sandals flick that set the record for most-ever Oscar wins?
53. All the King’s Men (1949)
It’s rarely a good idea to define something by lack, but, all cards on the table here, I don’t remember this movie well at all. I know I saw it about eleven years ago during an era in which I consumed an awful lot of TCM. Its lack of impression on me leads me to believe it was morally obvious in a self-serious, Frank Capra kinda way. My IMDb vote tells me I liked it (I originally gave it a 7/10. This score still holds water considering its rank in my overall bell-curve), but I should probably revisit this even if it seems like a poor man’s Citizen Kane.
52. Oliver! (1968)
Despite my adverse reaction to non-Little Rascals children mugging for the camera, the fact that I often find Dickens haughty and tedious, and that much of Oliver!’s direction feels like a Carol Reed puppet was behind the camera, I like much of Oliver! In spite of myself. It has an undeniable, clunky charm and is the kind of movie I’m excited to share with my daughter in a few years.
51. The Lost Weekend (1945)
In the pantheon of Billy Wilder movies, this is bottom half. It is like All the King’s Men in that it borders on melodrama in its obvious morality play.
50. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The Return of the King winning Best Picture is the Oscar equivalent of Neil Portnow’s annual Grammy speech about how the Internet is scary: a franchise-achievement award for a group of films that pulled over $3 billion in box office (despite it being given to the weakest installment) at a time when we still had to watch the “you wouldn’t steal a car” PSA in front of major studio DVDs.
49. The Sting (1973)
The Sting feels like the last hurrah of classic Hollywood before the new school took over by the middle of the decade. Newman and Redford have charisma, but it feels crusty, inconsequential and a pretender when held up against the classics it’s often paired with.
48. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
In light of the #OscarsSoWhite movement and what it means for Hollywood’s representation of race, class and gender, it is telling that this progressive domestic drama essentially demonizes the mother at the end of second-wave feminism.
47. Tom Jones (1963)
This feels like a sanitized Pier Paolo Pasolini movie told through face-value formal language of the French New Wave. Somehow, that’s not exactly an endorsement. I love an irreverent comedy winning Best Picture, I’m just not sure Tom Jones is the one I’m ready to get behind.
46. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
The struggle is real for a film connoisseur to not presume older movies are classic, better movies by age alone. That remakes aren’t verboten on principle. That formal and thematic innovation doesn’t trump other quantifiable metrics in measuring a film’s value. It is with some pride that I discovered the top seven movies on this list are each from different decades, but I still finding myself making excuses treating The Great Ziegfeld like a guilty pleasure. Fortunately, Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty requires no apologies: its action and drama are timeless.