The Best of the Best Picture Winners

    Perhaps you’re like me, and when the Oscar nominees for Best Picture are announced you try and watch them all before the big night. Sure, the winner is usually more based in Hollywood politics and zeitgeist rather than which film is actually the greatest or most important film to be released in that year. Citizen Kane (often hailed as the greatest film of all time) lost to How Green Was My Valley (have you heard of this film?…me neither) and Vertigo (thought of as Alfred Hitchcock’s best film) wasn’t even nominated for best picture.

    All that to say, this doesn’t mean there aren’t some awesome films to have won the distinction.

    I want to preface this by saying, I’m not some snooty film critic; I’m a cinephile with a lot of strong opinions and a platform to shout them from. So, when you read the headline “best of the best”…what I’m saying is “these are my favourite films that happen to have won best picture.” Many of which I like not only because of the quality of filmmaking on display, but what they spoke to me when I watched them.

    Here are my top 15 Oscar Winners for Best Picture, what are your favourites?

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    15
    Chicago (2002)

    “In this town, murder's a form of entertainment.”

    This is probably a controversial choice. There are a lot of great musicals that won the Oscar for best picture: "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music" both immediately come to mind. However, while many will disagree, I think "Chicago" is not only a great musical, but a great film, and one of the few stage musical adaptations which took full advantage of the medium.

    Often musicals numbers are filmed simply, with actors singing and dancing in a wide shot with no visual flourish. While this element is still present here, director Rob Marshall uses Roxie’s (Renee Zellweger) dream of performing on stage to set every musical number in both reality and her imagination, intercutting between the two. This creates a clever juxtaposition of reality and outlandish stage performances, furthering the theme of turning the truth into a show in a unique way that would be impossible to accomplish on a stage.

    More than the excellent performances and choreography on display here, what truly elevates this film above its musical cohorts is it has something important to say about culture and what we value. With tongue firmly in cheek, this film shows a culture caring more about fame and a good story, rather than objective morality and truth.

    It was relevant when it was released, and remains relevant to this day.

    14
    Amadeus (1984)

    “Mediocrities everywhere... I absolve you!”

    If you’ve seen "Amadeus," then you know it’s easy to identify with Salieri; we’ve all had a Mozart in our lives who don’t even seem to try and are better than you at everything. We’ve all felt like we have been scorned by God or the universe in favour of another, and wondered why. Ultimately, Salieri comes to a dark conclusion, but the journey is worth it.

    The production design and cinematography alone make this film worth watching. Using all natural lighting is all the rage now thanks to DP's (Director of Photography) like Emmanuel Lubezki (who won the “Best Achievement in Cinematography” Oscar THREE YEARS IN A ROW) who have popularised it. However, this film used all natural lighting before it was cool, and the result is stunning; drawing you into the world of Salieri and Mozart and helping it feel that much more visually grounded in the period.

    While some might be put off by the strange tone and ungodly length; for the faithful it’s a challenging and unforgettable watch.

    13
    Gone With the Wind (1939)

    “If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again.”

    It might be because I grew up on this film, but there’s something about this movie that sticks with me. Perhaps its the plucky determination of its self-absorbed heroine, or the unforgettable visuals of the horrors of war that create the visceral backdrop for this film. Whatever it may be, however you may feel about it, you cannot deny this film has left its mark on film history and pop culture.

    Ahead of its time in many ways: it featured a strong woman in a lead role, and while its portrayal of African-Americans has been greatly criticized in recent years…actual African-Americans had roles in this film (not white people in makeup) and Hattie McDaniel won an Oscar for her portrayal of “Mammy,” becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award in acting. Just for some context; at the time, segregation was still a thing in many parts of America.

    There’s a lot to love here, and if you’ve yet to watch this sweeping epic, there’s no time like the present.

    12
    It Happened One Night (1934)

    “I'll stop a car, and I won't use my thumb.”

    Frank Capra is without a doubt my favorite film director. His films ("You Can't Take It With You," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "It's a Wonderful Life," etc.) are often accused of being "Capra-corn" or overly sentimental. Even if they objectively are, I don't mind it one bit. It's refreshing to watch a film that's not cynical, particular one by such high caliber filmmakers and actors.

    Filmed in four weeks and with two actors that did not want to be there, no one thought this film was going to be a success. The lead actress, Claudette Colbert, was quoted saying to her friends after filming that she just got done with the worst movie she'd ever made. It wasn't until she was on stage with her Oscar for Best Actress that she grudgingly thanked Frank Capra for giving her the role in the film. It went on to win 5 Oscars and is one of the earliest romantic comedies, and still one of the best.

    It's a feel good movie that delivers on every level.

    11
    All About Eve (1950)

    “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”

    If for no other reason, this film is here because of the fantastic performances and incredible script. Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, and Celeste Holm give some of their career best work here. They exist as fully alive and fleshed out characters in the cutthroat world of theatre, as one ageing star (Bette Davis) is slowly being replaced by her younger counterpart (Anne Baxter).

    This film is the personification of everything that was great about films from this time. While it feels more like a play than a film, the writing is so intelligent and meaningful, with performances so memorably, it hardly matters. Modern films rarely match the wit and charm on display here, or the depth and commentary therein.

    This should be on the top of your watchlist.

    10
    Silence of the Lambs (1991)

    “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

    Honestly, one of the largest reasons Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film is on this list is because it’s the only horror/thriller to ever win best picture. While several great films in this genre have been created ("Alien," "Aliens," "The Exorcist," etc) they hardly ever receive Oscar nominations and almost never a win.

    "Silence of the Lambs" is a welcome anomaly. From the understated score, clever editing, and surprising chemistry between its two leads (Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins). It’s not only a great thriller, with some legitimate scares, but also a meaningful piece on women in the workforce and dealing with the problem of evil within culture and ourselves.

    It’s not for the faint of heart, but a must for film fans.

    9
    12 Years a Slave (2013)

    “I don't want to survive. I want to live.”

    When I first watched this film, I didn’t get what the big deal was. Sure it was visual perfection, well-written, and beautifully acted, but it didn’t have the x-factor I always look for in films.

    As I was writing a feature film, the director said he wanted the film to feel like "12 Years A Slave" in style and tone. So I rewatched it.

    What I found was an important film about human value and the ever relevant truth of who we are and what that should mean.

    It should also be noted that Steve McQueen is a genius level visual storyteller and filmmaker. After watching his more experimental early work (Hunger, Shame) I knew that whenever he made a palatable film, it would win Oscars. Case in point.

    Another tough watch, but needed.

    8
    The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

    “You know, I had a dream. I dreamt I was home. I've had that same dream hundreds of times before. This time, I wanted to find out if it's really true. Am I really home?”

    If there was any film that was ahead of its time, it’s this one. In stark contrast to the other war films of the time that were basically American propaganda, this film was unafraid to examine the impact that war has on culture and veterans.

    Rather than focusing on the war itself, the story centres around three veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell) coming home from war and struggling to cope in a life they’re now aliens to. To add a layer of realism to the film, director William Wyler cast an actual war veteran with a disability (Harold Russell) to portray war hero Homer Parrish in the film.

    It’s raw and beautiful, bolstered by thoughtful cinematography and a script that manages to feel authentic and universal.

    7
    Casablanca (1942)

    “If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.”

    It’s amazing that this film made over 70 years ago is still talked about and is as relevant and engaging as ever. What was packaged as a run-of-the-mill film noir, a popular genre of the time, is one of the few pieces within the genre that fulfilled it and transcended it.

    I was sitting around with my family having a casual chat about cinema (as we do) this Christmas, and this film came up. My sister stated, “If this movie had the happy, Hollywood ending we wouldn’t still be talking about this film today. It’s Rick’s sacrifice that makes it stand out.”

    Noirs aren’t necessarily known for their happy endings; they tend to end in tragedy (i.e."Chinatown," "Double Indemnity," etc.). However, I would argue that this film does not end tragically. Having Rick choose to sacrifice his love for Ilsa for the greater good wasn’t a tragic choice. It proved his character has grown beyond self-interest. While it’s not necessarily the Hollywood ending either where everything magically works out, it did end in a way that was best.

    Though many would point to Ingrid Bergman’s performance, the noir inspired visuals, the now classic soundtrack, and tight script, I would tend to agree with my sister. It’s the ending that really sets it apart.

    6
    The Apartment (1960)

    “Shut up and deal…”

    Romantic comedies; another genre that rarely receives any Oscar love while having several deserving entries ("When Harry Met Sally," "Silver Linings Playbook," "Bringing Up Baby," and "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" to name a few).

    The greatest within the genre that has won the top honour on Oscar night goes to writer/director Billy Wilder’s classic (though "It Happened One Night" is a close second). Wilder’s films always have brilliant scripts ("Sunset Boulevard" anyone?) and the last lines of his films tend to be perfect and iconic, and this film is no exception.

    I love every one of his films I’ve seen, and wish every single one of them received the awards attention that this one did.

    5
    Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

    “Gravity doesn't even apply to you. Wait till you see the faces of those who thought we were finished.”

    This will probably be another controversial pick, and I honestly get the hate; it’s a pretty weird movie. However, the reason why I love this film so much is because of what it meant to me personally. Riggan Thomson, former action film star, is trying to become a serious actor…but really he’s trying to become “great” in the eyes of the world. Acting is the vehicle he chooses to meet that end.

    When I watched this film, I was wrestling with why I was doing what I was doing. Was it all vanity and glorification of self? Watching Riggan soar high above everyone else helped me realise what I was actually doing; I was isolating myself and wanting to become a god rather than accept my own weakness and join the human race. It was a profound moment in my life, and this film will always have a special place in my heart as a result.

    Other than that, check out the top notch performances, particularly Michael Keaton and Edward Norton both satiring themselves, and the fluid camera work of Emmanuel Lubezki (one of his three Oscars was earned here).

    With only sixteen visible cuts, this is quite a unique film… with an even stranger ending. Be sure to watch it with others; enjoy and discuss.

    4
    Ben-Hur (1959)

    “Your eyes are full of hate, forty-one. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength.”

    As a person of faith myself, I appreciate a great film that processes faith in a profound manner. "Ben-Hur" is my favourite Best Picture winner that does just that.
    Many faith based films these days seem to care less about the craft of filmmaking or storytelling and look more like shameless pieces of right wing propaganda. It’s a real crime, especially considering great pieces of cinema like this include faith elements without beating its audience over the head with it.

    Director William Wyler wisely kept the focus of the story on Judah Ben-Hur and his tale of vengeance, rather than overindulging on the story of Christ in the periphery.

    Spirituality aside, this is a great epic in its own right; the chariot race itself makes the film worth watching.

    3
    Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

    “When somebody asks me a question, I tell them the answer.”

    From my perspective this is a perfect film. I love literally everything about this film; the editing, the soundtrack, the visual style, the writing, the acting. Everything works together so cohesively in this film, which separately don’t seem to go together: A modern day fairy tale set in India. M.I.A. on the soundtrack. Danny Boyle’s frenetic, chaotic style playing out a script with a sticky sweet center.

    It shouldn’t work… but it does.

    This is a film I’m supremely jealous I didn’t make myself, and hope mainstream Hollywood continues to make films like this. I love that it gives Asian actors and filmmakers a chance to show their talent and gain some much needed recognition.

    2
    American Beauty (1999)

    “Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”

    For whatever reason I was scared to watch this film for quite a long time. I steered clear of it, and thought people were weird when they mentioned in discussion that they loved the film. It wasn’t until I was forced to watch it for a film training course that I understood why.

    This is the ultimate film highlighting the isolation and claustrophobia of suburban America, and the overwhelming sense of meaninglessness which we can all feel. Director Sam Mendes tried revisiting these themes in his 2008 film "Revolutionary Road" but without much impact.

    Surprisingly funny and heartfelt, this is a film that haunts me in the best possible way. it pushes us to be more honest, more loving, and to stop and see the beauty that is all around.

    1
    Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

    “There is nothing in the desert and no man needs nothing.”

    Here it is! The best of the Best Picture winners according to me.

    This is quite a unique entry into the “cinematic epic” genre. The cinematography is absolutely incredible in this film; everything from lens choice, to use of lighting, to camera movement is telling the story of this average-ish (he’s rich) man who comes to think he’s a god, only to discover in the end he’s only a man.

    What grounds this film (like the previous two epics on this list) is director David Lean’s focus on the central character of his tale in the midst of the epic events, rather than over emphasising the spectacle. It’s a rather personal character piece about a lost young man finding his place in the world and taking a stand to change it, masquerading as a war epic.

    I cannot say enough good things about this film. Watch it now and watch again and again.

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    • Brenden Bell

      Screenwriter, Editor, Blogger, and Visual Content Manager

      Brenden Bell is a screenwriter, video producer, editor, teacher, and Visual Content Manager with The Initiative Production Company. He loves eating ice cream, everything nerdy/dorky, thinking too much, and dogs (mostly just the big ones, but he’s open-minded)

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