Oscar’s 10 Best “Best Picture” Winners

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Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve done a fair amount of second-guessing with regards to the Academy Awards — revisiting the worst films they’ve nominated, the best films they didn’t nominate, and the great filmmakers they ignored. But, in all fairness, the little gold guy sometimes manages to hand over the statue to the film that most deserves it. So, in the interest of hoping for the best come Sunday night, join us for a look back at ten times when Oscar got it right.

It Happened One Night (1934)

The Academy’s reluctance to recognize film comedy was not quite in place at the time of their seventh annual awards; not only did they nominate the elegant comedy/mystery The Thin Man and the Fred-and-Ginger musical The Gay Divorcee for Best Picture, but they gave the big award to Frank Capra’s road comedy/romance, It Happened One Night. They also recognized it for Best Actor, and Best Actress, and Best Director, and Best Screenplay — all five of the categories it was nominated for. It was, in fact, the first film to sweep the so-called “Big Five” (and only the third to date to pull off that neat little trick). And for good reason — this screwball masterpiece is fast, funny, charming, and utterly unforgettable.

Casablanca (1943)

Well, duh. One of Hollywood’s most beloved and iconic motion pictures, Michael Curtiz’s wartime romantic drama won Best Picture (in addition to Best Director and Best Screenplay) at the 16th annual Academy Awards, beating out Sam Wood’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, and seven other competitors. (Although it is worth noting that Bogart somehow lost the Best Actor trophy to Paul Lukas. Who? Exactly.) It’s hard to find a flaw in this one — Bogie and Bergman are one of the finest couples in all of screen history, the supporting cast is superb, and that ending… well, plenty of others have said it better than we could. “Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar,” writes Roger Ebert. “It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it.”

All About Eve (1950)

1950 was a tough year in the Best Picture category — and a surprisingly funny one, with four of the five nominated films (Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride, Sunset Blvd., All About Eve, and King Solomon’s Mines) sporting, at the very least, comic overtones. But the statue went to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Eve, which racked up an astonishing 14 nominations (a record that stood until Titanic matched it in 1997). It won a total of six, including two for writer/director Mankiewicz, who crafted a sharp-edged and darkly comic take on the backstage melodrama. Surprisingly, though, neither Bette Davis nor Anne Baxter won their Best Actress prize; they lost (along with Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.) to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday.

The Apartment (1960)

Billy Wilder dominated the writing and directing nominations throughout the ’50s, but after winning the Best Screenplay prize for Sunset Blvd., he kept going home empty-handed. However, he pulled a hat trick with his 1960 effort The Apartment, winning Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (plus two technical awards). Evenly and nimbly gliding from farce to romance to dead-serious drama (and back again), The Apartment is sophisticated even by today’s standards; few films have managed to navigate such swift changes in tone and tell such a compellingly adult story — and Wilder makes it look easy.

The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974)

It’s not often that audiences and critics can get together on the same movie — that an unqualified masterpiece is also a box-office smash. But The Godfather was one of those films — and, two years later, Francis Ford Coppola made a sequel that somehow did the same thing again. The Godfather is one of the bellwether films; as with The Birth of A Nation and Citizen Kane before it, it was as a culmination of what cinema was at that moment — where it had come from and what it could be. When it was released in 1972, The Godfather was part of the first flood of what became a golden age of American film, and it was one of the films that pointed the way for that movement. With every frame, it seems to shout, “Look what we’re capable of.” It is classical narrative filmmaking at its absolute finest; it draws us in from its opening words (“I believe in America”), and for 175 minutes, it does not take a wrong step. It won Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

When he made Part II, Coppola didn’t merely replicate the formula of the original film and give audiences more of the same; he crafted a complex combination of prequel and sequel, jamming its three-and-a-half hours with a dizzyingly complicated plot and a character arc that pushed its protagonist from the criminal mastermind of the first film to a soulless monster. It was a brave, bold act of anti-commercial filmmaking, eschewing the clean, classical narrative of the first film for a potentially alienating experimental story structure and daring us to root for a main character stripped of his every last redeeming quality. And he pulled it off — The Godfather Part II the first sequel in history to win the Best Picture prize (only one other film has done so since, 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). It won five other awards as well out of its 11 nominations.

Annie Hall (1977)

Before Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s movies had been rapid-fire joke-fests, much in the style of his boyhood heroes Bob Hope and the Marx Brothers. With this introspective, surprisingly refined effort, Allen established himself as an honest-to-goodness filmmaker, experimenting with construction, form, and a bittersweet tone, all the while redefining the American romantic comedy (they’re still basically doing remakes of this one) and getting giant laughs on top of that. Diane Keaton’s titular character became an icon; Allen became a first-class director who has often equaled but never topped this, his masterpiece.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Jonathan Demme’s coldly engaging serial killer thriller has become such a part of the pop culture lexicon (and the character of Hannibal Lecter has been so thoroughly worn out) that it’s easy to forget just how truly frightening and skillful The Silence of the Lambs was — it not only swept the “Big Five,” but remains one of the few true horror films to receive any Academy recognition whatsoever. Demme’s direction is pitch-perfect, the performances are spot-on, and the last 15 minutes had us about as scared as we’ve ever been in a movie theater.

American Beauty (1999)

Of all the films on this list, this is the one we’re anticipating the most angry comments on. Sam Mendes’s seriocomic mediation on suburban ennui has inexplicably become a whipping boy in the years since it won five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography). We’re not sure why; it’s a bitingly funny and whip-smart picture, and Kevin Spacey turns in perhaps his finest performance to date. Those who find it cold, contrived, or detached weren’t paying attention. Its closing passages are deeply moving and ultimately heartbreaking.

The Departed (2006)

Nobody got the shaft from the Academy like Martin Scorsese, who lost both Best Picture and Best Director to actors-turned-first-time-filmmakers Robert Redford in 1980 (Ordinary People over Raging Bull) and Kevin Costner in 1990 (Dances with Wolves over GoodFellas). By the 2000s, there was a real sense of injustice that one of our greatest living filmmakers had never won the Best Director prize. He was nominated five times without winning, even while making Oscar-friendly films in the classic storyteller mode, like Gangs of New York and The Aviator. So it was something of a surprise that he finally won the big prize — and saw his film do the same — for The Departed, a “back to his roots” effort that was the kind of movie he did best: a tough, brutal, emotionally wrenching crime potboiler with a healthy dose of black comedy and Catholic guilt. Brash and skillful, thoughtful and endlessly entertaining, its Best Picture victory was a welcome win for one of Hollywood’s few true artists.

Do you agree with our list? Which Best Picture winners still give you a thrill?