In the Academy Awards history there has now been 91 Best Picture winners, not all of them are as deserving as others, but that’s a list for another day. Academy missteps aside, there have been so many films that have won the award that not only deserved it but now standout as some of the greatest films of all time. Now that the 2019 nominations are out it seems appropriate to take a look back at some great films that won the prestigious award.
The Godfather (1972)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola | Runtime: 2h 55mins | Drama, Crime
The ageing mob boss Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) gives power of his empire, and family, to his reluctant son Michael Corleone (Al Pacino).
The 1973 Academy Award for Best Picture really only belonged to one of two films, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret or Coppola’s The Godfather. While Bob Fosse took home the award for Best Director, it was eventually Coppola’s mafia masterpiece that won the biggest award of the night. There was really only one winner because – although Cabaret was great – The Godfather has transcended any kind of comparison, simply put, this is an iconic piece of cinema that is at the top of the list in craft and entertainment. Even today, nothing has quite beat the flawless direction Coppola provides, it’s subtle in its craftsmanship and gives us two of the greatest performances of all time.
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Director: Francis Ford Coppola | Runtime: 3h 22mins | Drama, Crime
Following the events of The Godfather, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) continues to control and keep a grasp on both family and empire. Meanwhile, Don Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) tries to find his way in 1920s New York.
Even though Coppola’s first mafia epic won Best Picture, it wasn’t until two years later he won his Best Director Oscar for the sequel. In a year where three of the five nominees can be considered among the greatest films of all time (Chinatown, The Conversation) it speaks volumes for the quality of this sequel. Not only is it the first sequel to ever win, it’s also widely considered the best sequel ever. Coppola’s direction is yet again flawless, with two stories flowing simultaneously, both as good as each other, you could argue this is better than the first. Simply put, this is yet another masterclass by Coppola in direction, writing and atmosphere, showing just how dominant he was in the 1970s.
3. Casablanca (1942)
Director: Michael Curtiz | Runtime: 1h 42mins | Drama, Romance
In the midst of World War II, Rick (Humphrey Bogart), a cynical American runs a bar in Morocco. When an old flame comes back into his life with a wanted husband, Rick must help them escape the Nazi’s.
The 1944 Oscars saw 10 films nominated for Best Picture, and despite being a relatively strong list at the time, there hasn’t been any film quite as timeless as Casablanca. It’s iconic lines and two staggering performances are widely what it’s known for, but Casablanca is one of the bleaker films of it’s generation. Scene after scene gets the emotional levity down to a tee, especially the scenes involving German soldiers, but it’s Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s never-to-be relationship that really wins as well. Being grounded and flawless, as well as harbouring the classic charm that comes with classic Hollywood, this film finds itself way above any in it’s year and probably the entire 20th Century.
4. Amadeus (1984)
Director: Milos Forman | Runtime: 2h 40mins | Drama, Music, Biography
An epic following Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (Tom Hulse) rise and inevitable immortalisation as an artist, all told by fellow composer and bitter rival Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham).
The 1985 Academy Awards is another example of one film really standing out as the years most obvious masterpiece. Although Amadeus is surrounded by great films of the year (see The Killing Fields), there is no doubt which film stands out, and still does to this day. It hits every intended note, grasping the over-the-top flamboyance of its time, using it’s visuals and it’s sound to flow like the genius of the film’s characters, but one of the best aspects of Forman’s epic is how well he presents Antonio Salieri. Both the raw hatred he feels, but in particular, the final scenes capture Salieri’s realisation of Mozarts genius. As Sarlieri looks on perplexed at Mozart, you can really feel the power of both Abraham’s performance and the film itself.
5. Schindler’s List (1993)
Director: Steven Spielberg | Runtime: 3h 15mins | Drama, War, Biography
The true story of Oscar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German business owner who saved hundreds of Jewish lives from Nazi Occupied Poland, by putting them to work in his factories.
Although Spielberg’s versatility had already been well established, 1993 really was the year that proved that he is one of the greats. Jurassic Park is a milestone in special effects, and rightly so won a number of technical awards at the 1994 Academy Awards, but it was Spielberg’s 3 hour WWII epic that came out with the big award. Spielberg’s direction effortlessly captures loss of innocence, and the harsh realities of war-torn Poland, which is no easy feat considering the importance of his subject matter. While a few scenes have become cinematic masterclasses the whole film, from beginning to end, is breathtaking. Schindler’s List holds nothing back, using the stunning cinematography to grasp at the reality of it’s setting, and seemingly being heartbreaking and breathtaking at the same time.
6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Director: David Lean | Runtime: 3h 48mins | Adventure, Biography
The story of T. E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), who led an army across the desert to fight against the Turks in World War I.
David Lean’s widescreen masterpiece won the Best Picture award in 1963, and unlike a lot of the films on this list, it was up against another classic in To Kill A Mockingbird. While Robert Mulligan’s courtroom drama is one that still has poignancy in today’s world, it’s Lean’s epic that has a much more cinematic presence in history. Running over 3 and a half hours, Lean uses every second of his run time to parallel the harshness of his environment, both in conditions and in war, all while being lead by yet another iconic performance by one of the all time greats, Peter O’Toole. Every corner that this epic reaches is magnificent, but it also in all it’s grandeur it never forgets who’s story it is telling.
7. All About Eve (1950)
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz | Runtime: 2h 18mins | Drama
Margot Channing (Bette Davis), an ageing stage actress’ life, and social circle, is interrupted by a young and manipulative girl named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter).
Joseph L. Mankiewicz became one of only four men to win back-to-back Best Director Oscars for All About Eve, in a well deserving year in the Academy Awards. Although the majority of this list is sprawling epics, All About Eve is a refreshing change, being an absolute masterclass in both performance and writing. The Noir-esque script is a wonderful example of power play between two characters, one that has not been done quite as well since (arguably 2018’s The Favourite is a close second). While Anne Baxter gets the manipulation of innocence perfectly, it’s Bette Davis who dominates every single scene with her bravado and sheer presence, if you are struggling to find a reason to watch this classic, let it be for two world class performances.
8. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)
Director: Peter Jackson | Runtime: 3h 21mins | Adventure, Action, Fantasy
The final film in The Lord of the Rings Trilogy continues where the second left off, as Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) travels to Mordor to finally destroy the one ring. Meanwhile, Aragon (Viggo Mortensen), Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and more continue to fight for Middle Earth.
Along with it’s two previous films, Return of the King gained multiple Oscar nominations, but it was the final film in the trilogy that won the biggest award. Being one of only two films to win 11 awards, it cannot be understate how important Peter Jackson’s trilogy has become to the cinematic landscape. Although some may turn their noses up due to it’s dedicated following, The Lord of the Rings is a testament to action direction, special effects and storytelling with longevity. Arguably every film deserved the Best Picture award, but you can find poetry in the fact the finale was the eventual winner. Also, in a world dedicated to honouring films with strong messages, it can be quite nice to see a genre piece win.
9. Gone With the Wind (1939)
Director: Viktor Fleming | Runtime: 3h 48mins | Drama, Romance
In Civil War America, a manipulative woman (Vivien Leigh) falls from the graces of her rich family, and reluctantly turns to a roguish gentleman (Clark Gable) to help her out during the fall of the South.
The final epic to appear on this list is Viktor Fleming’s Southern American classic. Despite the Academy Awards history being littered with plenty of epics, Gone With the Wind is relatively unique in the way it is presented. Acting more of an experience in Civil War America, it deals with family, love, the horrors of war and more importantly the persistence of the human race to survive. Particular scenes do come to mind when you’re thinking of true greatness (Scarlett walking over the injured bodies suffered by the war), but Gone With the Wind, from beginning to end, is consistently beautiful. The direction is sublime, the pacing is perfect and the relationship between Scarlett and Rhett is iconic.
10. No Country For Old Men (2007)
Director: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen | Runtime: 2h 2mins | Crime, Drama, Thriller
When a hunter (Josh Brolin) stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong, he takes the money and runs. Unfortunately for him, a psychotic and merciless killer (Javier Bardem) goes after him.
This is probably the most anti-Oscar film on this list, which arguably makes it’s win more impressive. There were only two films deserving of the award come award season, as Paul Thomas Anderson managed to create yet another masterpiece with There Will Be Blood, but it was the Coen’s cat and mouse chase film that eventually picked up the award. Every scene can be dissected for its brilliance, as the Coen’s use their talents to subvert the audience expectation, challenging the way we watch a film while also keeping the tone in check. This is the Coen’s at their very best, creating tension like no other and bringing out a century defining performance from Javier Bardem.