TOP 10 Best Picture Winners of All Time
Updated: Feb 12, 2018
March 4th will mark the 90th Annual Academy Awards.
Of course, the big award of the night that we look most forward to is the Academy Award for Best Picture. Sometimes the Academy gets it right, sometimes we can’t help but scratch our heads at the name in the envelope.
With this being the 90th year of the Oscars ceremony, I’ve decided to highlight the Top 10 recipients of the Academy Award for Best Picture.
With nearly a century of winners to pick from, this was not an easy list to make. But through personal cinematic study of motion pictures from all decades and genres, I’ve managed to compile a list of my Top 10 Best Picture winners.
Some of these films have made a referential landmark in cinematic history while others have developed a reputation of beating out what some may consider to be far superior films. Nonetheless, here are my Top 10 films that received the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Schindler's List (1993)
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Up against: The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, The Remains of the Day
Based on the story of Oskar Schindler who helped save the lives of over 1,200 Jewish people during the Holocaust, Schindler’s List is a graphic retelling of one of the most horrific events in history and with Steven Spielberg’s touch, it has become one of the most talked about films of all time. The first few moments of the film are in color, then as soon as the candle in the beginning burns out, the smoke clears, and everything becomes black and white, representing the beginning and the darkness of such an unsettling era. Many elements of symbolism are projected into the film and generate a universal tone of sadness. Schindler’s List is not a movie I watch often due to its high level of emotional nature, but it is a cinematic opus in filmmaking. Schindler’s List won a total of 7 Academy Awards, including Steven Spielberg’s first award for Best Director.
Directed by James Cameron
Up against: As Good as It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential
I know I am going to get a lot of backlash for putting James Cameron’s 1997 box office hit Titanic in this list. But so be it, I think this film is a masterpiece. But many others have not been so kind to this movie over the years. Titanic has been criticized for what many consider to be a flawed script, subpar acting, and an overly applauded film. And you know what, I am often open to a difference of opinion when it comes to film but there is no way I can watch Titanic and not view it as the Gone with the Wind of my generation. The film in itself is so moving in it’s tragic narrative and throwing in a romantic storyline adds to the connection the audience makes with the film. I think that over the years Titanic has suffered from what many movies that get numerous accolades during awards season suffer from, which is a purposeful dislike from movie goers, so they can say that they are the significant few that didn’t like what everyone else applauded. But frankly, they are just being petty. Titanic is a masterpiece and I will always appreciate Cameron’s work on this film.
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Up against: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, In Which We Serve, Madame Curie, The More the Merrier, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette, Watch on the Rhine
What is there to say about this film that hasn’t already been said? It is one of the most iconic and culturally referenced films in cinema. This romantic-drama set during World War II contains every element of Old Hollywood filmmaking in the most stylish of ways. Like most major hit films, no one expected Casablanca to develop the highly applauded reputation it did. Released in November of 1942, many filmgoers think that Casablanca won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1942, when actually, The Academy did not acknowledge the film until the following awards season due to film not being released nationally until January of 1943. Along with the Best Picture award, Casablanca won Oscars for Best Director (Michael Curtiz) and Best Screenplay. But regardless of the awards, Casablanca has become a staple for all that is significant in motion pictures.
On the Waterfront (1954)
Directed by Elia Kazan
Up against: The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Coins in the Fountain
On the Waterfront is a film that was made at the right time and it is a testament to honest filmmaking thanks to the direction of Elia Kazan and the incredible ensemble cast of Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, and Eva Marie Saint. Brando plays Terry Malloy, an ex-boxer who now works as a longshoreman. When a fellow worker is murdered, Terry faces a dilemma as to whether he should protect the status of his union boss Johnny Friendly who is connected to the mob or testify against him. Marlon Brando delivers his first Oscar-winning performance and what many consider to be the best of his career. This film is full of referential ideals as it dives into the subjects of crime, social status, and fighting for justice.
The Godfather (1972)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Up against: Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, Sounder
Based on Mario Puzo’s novel about a mafia family, The Godfather was groundbreaking at the time of its release and is considered by many critics to be one of the greatest films ever made. When Paramount acquired the rights to Puzo’s novel, they set out to find a Director of Italian descent to add to the authenticity of the film’s characters. Francis Ford Coppola was chosen to direct and set out to really follow the core elements of the novel and reflect them onto the big screen. By doing this, viewers were exposed to what would be considered an artistic achievement in filmmaking. Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone is a performance that has become iconic in pop culture. The Godfather forever changed the way cinema portrayed gangster and crime films on the big screen. If it wasn’t for the new standard of film that Coppola created with The Godfather, films like Goodfellas and Casino may have never existed.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Directed by Victor Fleming
Up against: Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights
1939 is widely regarded as the greatest year in filmmaking. Every one of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture have been certified as cinematic masterpieces. But in a year full of quintessential classics, one film stood out as being highly praised worldwide from the time of its release all the way to today where it is still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. Based on Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel of the same name, Gone with the Wind depicts the before and after effects of the Civil War using the South as a backdrop. In this film, we are introduced to Scarlett O’Hara, one of cinema’s most iconic characters played brilliantly by Vivien Leigh. With nearly a 240-minute running time, it is one of the longest films to win Best Picture and it was also the first color film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Gone with the Wind won 7 other Academy Awards including Best Director for Victor Fleming (who also directed The Wizard of Oz that same year), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel, and Best Actress for Vivien Leigh. Despite being made in 1939, Gone with the Wind has aged beautifully and is constantly referenced in pop culture to this day.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Directed by Michael Cimino
Up against: Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman
The 1970s was packed with motion pictures revolving around the Vietnam war. So what makes Michael Cimino’s epic 3-hour drama about three Pennsylvania steelworkers that fight in the Vietnam war such a standout amongst the rest? For one thing, we see a story about a group of friends come full circle. The film starts out with a trio of pals who go to bars, go hunting, and exalt their excitement over fighting for their country. It isn’t until an hour into the film where we see them undergo the actual traumatization of the Vietnam war. Then in the film's third act, we see the effects that this experience has had on not only the soldiers but their friends and loved ones. The Deer Hunter contains some of the most well-acted scenes in cinema, specifically the scene involving Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken as they are forced to play Russian Roulette while being imprisoned. This cast also includes Meryl Streep in her second feature film role and John Cazale in his final starring role. Along with Best Picture, The Deer Hunter took home Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Sound, and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Christopher Walken.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Up against: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides
What a game changer Jonathan Demme’s 1991 thriller was for cinema! Prior to the release of The Silence of the Lambs, the horror genre was generally excluded from acknowledgement at the Academy Awards. But with it’s haunting characters, enriched screenplay, and iconic moments, there was no way this film could be ignored, and it forever changed the way we look at the psychology of a character in film. I don’t view The Silence of the Lambs as a horror film whatsoever. For me, it is a visual psychoanalysis of what goes on in the head of a killer. And we also analyze the emotional stability of our protagonist. Along with a brilliant screenplay, The Silence of the Lambs has a unique approach to the way it is filmed. Throughout the movie, we see each character filtered through an intensified close up. This takes the viewer's perception of the film to a new level. Through these visual close ups, we are able to get a deeper look at each characters' intrigue, desire, vulnerability, and fear. The Silence of the Lambs took home every major Academy Award including Best Picture, Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), Best Director (Jonathan Demme), and Best Adapted Screenplay, making it the first “horror” film to receive such accolades.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Up against: Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno
One of the few instances in cinema where a sequel was deemed to be superior to the original, The Godfather Part II came out at the right time. The iconic work of the original film was still fresh on everyone’s minds. Francis Ford Coppola returned to direct and author Mario Puzo returned to write the screenplay. In this sequel, we see two different storylines go back and forth throughout. One, set in the early 1900s, depicts Vito Corleone’s journey from Sicily to America and establishing himself as the head of the Corleone family. The other is set in the 1950s and follows Michael Corleone, now the Don of the Corleone family and living up to his father’s standards of business practices. In this film, we learn more about the characters and like the original, it is brilliantly written, the cinematography is lavish, and the acting is top-notch. I constantly go back and forth between which film is better, Part I or Part II, but regardless, both films have left a huge imprint in masterful filmmaking.
All About Eve (1950)
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Up against: Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride, King Solomon’s Mines, Sunset Boulevard
This is filmmaking at its finest. This is golden age Hollywood. With a compelling story that could be played on the big screen today, All About Eve is about fame, ambition, deception, and just how far someone will go to reach the top. Bette Davis gives her greatest work in this film as Margo Channing, a famous Broadway star who has just reached the age of 40 and is beginning to doubt her appeal as an actress. She hires an assistant who considers herself to be Margo’s biggest fan, the very young and "innocent" Eve Harrington. As the film progresses, Eve, in the most cunning of ways, climbs her way through Margo’s social circle and becomes Broadway’s newest sensation. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed and wrote the screenplay for All About Eve, puts together a shining example of what filmmaking was like at one point. The dialogue between the characters is so effective that it seems like they are working on adrenaline and not reciting lines from a script. There is no action in this film. There doesn’t need to be. The tension is all in the words, the stares. All About Eve received the most Academy Award nominations for a film with a total of 14 nominations. It is currently tied with Titanic (1997) and La La Land (2016). The film won six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Recording, and Best Supporting Actor for George Sanders. All About Eve stands as one of the greatest achievements in cinematic history.