Awards season is currently in full swing. Campaigns are brewing like politics and every producer in Hollywood is hoping that voters will take notice of their hard work. The Best Picture award is supposedly the biggest honor a film can get. It means voters looked at all of the key elements, such as direction, editing, and story, and decided that they were the best out of all the films that came out that year.
As stated in last week’s article, 13 Worst Movies to Win Best Picture at the Oscars, some movies were less than deserving of that honor. However, there were instances where the Academy really got it right. Those films went on to become classics, taught at universities, and enjoyed by anyone watching it. Whether they were shoe-ins or surprises, they are terrific picks that are still worth watching regardless.
Here are the 15 Best Movies to Win Best Picture at the Oscars.
15. No Country For Old Men (2007)
There were two opposing sides for the Academy Awards in 2008; one side was cheering for There Will Be Blood to win and the other side was for No Country for Old Men. Surprisingly, the Coen Brothers were able to win. A contemplation on American greed, the Coen brothers were able to turn the Cormac McCarthy novel into Oscar material, something that is not easy to do.
The cat and mouse thriller takes place in 1980s Texas after a drug deal gone awry. It involves the hunt for two million dollars by three different men — each with very different motives. The biggest standout is, by far, Javier Bardem. He plays Anton Chigurh, the human embodiment of Death, who sports one of the most recognizable haircuts in cinema history. He beautifully pulls off the sociopathic and psychotic look, especially when he’s blowing up a pharmacy. Surprisingly, Tommy Lee Jones wasn’t nominated for his role as Ed Tom Bell, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it was also one of his best roles.
14. Rebecca (1940)
Part of the reason why Rebecca is such a big deal is because it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s only winning picture (even though he didn’t get a Best Director award for himself). This film is full of some many haunting elements, from the acting to set design. Producer David O. Selznick poured his heart out into this film, similar to his efforts on Gone with the Wind. The ambiance takes advantage of the black and white aesthetics to create a gloomy, gothic feel, similar to Jane Eyre.
The thriller works on a deep psychological level, using dialogue and objects in substitute of a real ghost. We never see who Rebecca is, but through Maxim De Winter and Mrs Danvers, it feels like we knew her as well. This is frequently called one of Hitchcock’s masterpieces and so far, no one has jumped to argue that.
13. Casablanca (1942)
There’s a reason why Casablanca is so highly regarded. With a mixture of war and romance, Casablanca is considered the epitome of “classic Hollywood.” What more can you ask for than Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman dominating every frame as cinema’s classic couple? Deep down, it’s a simple love story but the political landscape makes it all the more complex. It illustrates loss, sacrifice, and a fine line between morals and ethics in World War II.
The script is full of the famous lines we know and love, but would they be as iconic without Bogart? Could we hear “here’s looking at you kid” the same if it were Cary Grant or Clark Gable speaking?
12. It Happened One Night (1934)
Comedy ages worse than drama, but there is no doubt that It Happened One Night is still one of the cutest films ever made. Regarded as the first “slapstick comedy,” It Happened One Night is an adorable “boy meets girl” encounter. Claudette Colbert plays Ellie, a spoiled heiress who runs away from her family. She runs into Peter (Clark Gable), a journalist looking for his next story, and the two of them go on an eventful road trip to New York.
Frank Capra creates a heartwarming story about two very different people, with Gable and Colbert making our hearts melt as the 30s’ cutest movie couple. It’s a surprise that this film got as far as it did with the development troubles it had (apparently, Colbert had been very difficult to work with). It didn’t do well at first in the box office, but by Oscar season, it was the first film to get all five major Academy Awards (a feat that wouldn’t be matched until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
What it beat: The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, The Gay Divorcee, Here Comes the Navy, The House of Rothschild, Imitation of Life, One Night of Love, The Thin Man, Viva Villa!, The White Parade
11. The Deer Hunter (1978)
After almost 40 years, The Deer Hunter remains one of the most fascinating films about the Vietnam War. Besides the war, it focuses a good amount on the working class and industrial life. The first third of the film takes place at a wedding between a group of close friends. All their character traits are established and distinct from each other. Mike (Robert De Niro) is the unofficial leader of the group, Steven (John Savage) is kind, and Nick (Christopher Walken) is quiet and contemplative. When the war hits, their world comes crashing down and they try their hardest to survive.
The film became very controversial because of its scenes of Russien roulette in Vietnam. They were all done in real circumstances with real rats and mosquitoes. De Niro even requested for a live cartridge to be put in the revolver at one point. The sequence was heavily criticized by critics who called it contrived and unrealistic since there were no records indicating Russian roulette occurred during that time. Nevertheless, it’s a haunting, emotionally draining masterpiece that has held up remarkably well over the past forty years.
10. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
When awards season was in full swing, there was a worry going around that 12 Years a Slave would be snubbed because voters would find it too difficult to sit through. Was watching a group of Jewish people getting gunned down by Nazis in Schnindler’s List too much to sit through? Was it too uncomfortable to watch an openly gay politician be gunned down by a colleague in Milk? The answer is probably yes, but the phrase “too difficult” was being thrown around so lightly then.
12 Years a Slave is a very difficult film to watch, but it’s one of those films that needs to be seen. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery. During his horrific journey, he is met with evil, but also with kindness. There are many gut-wrenching scenes, such as one in which Solomon is forced to stand on his toes while being hanged, as his vicious owner (Michael Fassbender) mercilessly whips his best friend (Lupita Nyong’o). Steve McQueen didn’t leave anything out while in the director’s chair and, quite frankly, it’s a good thing he didn’t.
9. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
On the outside, Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) looks like a defeated nurse who has to deal with the mentally ill all day. But according to the patients of the mental institution, she is cold, calculating, and constantly going head to head with R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson). To some, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest may be a flawed film because it takes mental illness too lightly. But that’s not really what the film is trying to focus on; instead, it shines light on conformism and the closed system. Nurse Ratched is like the corrupt government and McMurphy is the civilian trying to fight the establishment that has been put into place without any problems.
While there are definitely fun, rebellious scenes such as the big party in which the inmates get to let loose, it ends with the system winning overall. And watching the path to that defeat is what makes this film so intense.
8. The French Connection (1971)
When someone asks what the best car chase in movie history is, The French Connection should come to mind. While it may not seem like much now, that intense scene has quite the history behind it. It was done entirely on location without the proper permits and even resulted in the stunt driver accidentally crashing into an actual person’s car.
The film is loosely based on the true story, but is fictionalized to tell the story of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) trying to bust a heroin smuggling operation. However, Popeye is not a hero. He’s just a racist cop who just happens to be our protagonist. Even though he’s not technically considered “dirty,” he still uses questionable methods to get the information he wants and doesn’t feel remorse when it all blows up in his face, costing someone else’s life. It’s a really great character study and one of Hackman’s most memorable roles.
7. Gone With the Wind (1939)
In this day and age, Gone With the Wind needs to be watched with an open mind. Despite the underlying sexism and racism, Gone With the Wind is a classic with a ton of history behind it. It was the first color film to win the Oscar for Best Picture and also featured Hattie McDaniel — the first African American to be nominated and win an Academy Award. The film was a monstrous production, and took many years to get made.
Producer David O. Selznick delayed the production until Clark Gable could commit to playing Rhett Butler, and over 1,400 women were interviewed for the role of Scarlett. It was worth all of the trouble. The film is an epic following Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) during the Civil War. The Union has taken everything from her and her lover, Ashley, is set to marry his placid cousin. After a number of unsuccessful marriages and unrequited love, she marries Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).
By the end of the four hour endeavor, you feel like you are a part of this dysfunctional family. There’s no one to necessarily cheer for, but you fall in love with them regardless.
6. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
With the exception of The Godfather, it’s very rare for a sequel to do as well as its predecessor. And for a third film to do just as well is even rarer. However, Peter Jackson defied all the odds with the astounding epic, The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King. Genre films have never been the popular pick at the Oscars. Even though they usually sweep up the visual effects, The Return of the King is the only fantasy film to be nominated and win Best Picture.
In fact, they did a clean sweep in 2004 by taking home 11 Oscars that night (tying with Ben Hur and Titanic). Some say that Jackson only won that night was to make up for the lack of awards on the previous two films; but in reality, the film isn’t just a film. The enormous sets, detailed costumes, and the beautiful shots coupled with the impressive use of CGI created such a unique experience. By the end of the film, it felt like we were actually saying goodbye to these characters we’ve been with for three films.
5. Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Silence of the Lambs is proof that blood and gore isn’t needed to make a terrifying film. The thriller is strictly driven by dialogue and character development. Just listening to Hannibal Lector (Anthony Hopkins) and Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) speak creates discomforting images in the mind. The fact that professionals have studied Lector’s personality profile shows how iconic he has become, despite only being in the film for 15 minutes. The most interesting part of that fact is that there is no way to truly profile him. The writers keep his personality up to interpretation. A famous example is the classic scene in which Lector nonchalantly describes how he ate a census taker that tried to test him “with fava beans and a good chianti.” A simple slurping sound tells the audience everything they need to know about his character.
And we cannot forget about the leading lady, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). Clarice became a huge feminist hit as soon as she came on screen. Working in a male-dominated workforce, she starts as a naive FBI trainee. By the end of the film, she goes through a huge transformation in her job and herself — something that female viewers really identified with.
4. The Sting (1973)
We’ve all seen gangster films before, but none that were quite as glamorous as The Sting. Unfortunately, The Sting is frequently forgotten, as it came in between the two Godfather films. Paul Newman and Robert Redford play a pair of con artists. In order to avenge the death of his friend, Johnny Hooker (Redford) teams with Henry Gondorff (Newman) to conjure the ultimate scam to ruin Irish mobster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).
The Sting takes a somewhat complex plot and makes it fun to watch. Combining comedy and crime, the movie brilliantly takes these characters and makes it almost impossible to tell whether they are lying or not. The use of ragtime music coupled with the pleasant aesthetic makes it a particularly stylish film.
3. Schindler’s List (1993)
When Steven Spielberg is brought up, people always mention Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. While his action movies are always top notch, his take on the human soul is always raw and real. Arguably, Schindler’s List is the best film to tackle one of humanity’s darkest chapters, the Holocaust. Much of the film is set within a concentration camp, and Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German businessman, makes it his task to save as many of the inhabitants as possible from their fate at the hands of a sadistic guard (Ralph Fiennes). Spielberg is the master of stirring nearly every emotion through this film. Aesthetically, this film tells the audience a gut-wrenching story.
The film is in black and white with a bits of color sprinkled throughout, such as the red coat on a little girl who is glimpsed briefly in the Krakow ghetto. You desperately hope that the little girl survives at the end because she is the only person that stands out. But even though her life was tragically cut short, the final scene shows hope when the real survivors go to honor Oskar Schindler at his grave. If that doesn’t make you tear up, nothing else will.
2. The Godfather Part II (1974)
The first ever sequel to win the Best Picture Award, The Godfather Part II is a very rare achievement. There’s really no way to compare the first and second Godfather without making someone upset. They’re both fantastic films that parallel two different men leading the same family.
What’s so fascinating about The Godfather Part II is that it serves as both a sequel and a prequel. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is the same man we left off with: a monster who is trying to make his family great again. And then we see Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) as a young man just starting out — similar to Michael in the first film. De Niro and Pacino were in their best roles and the film even got De Niroan Oscar as well.
1. The Godfather (1972)
By all definitions, The Godfather is a perfect movie. The story, acting, and editing are all top notch. The movie encapsulates family ties and how the head of the family tries to keep them together despite pressure from other rival families. Al Pacino is Michael Corleone, who goes from the hesitant youngest son to one of the most powerful mafia Dons in the United States.
Watching that transition is fascinating, and it’s also paired with great scenes such as the car bombing or the heart-to-heart with his father (Marlon Brando). Coppola’s direction is showcased in the baptism scene. It’s a disturbing parallel that illustrates Michael’s descent into Hell in the house of God. Unfortunately, Pacino was snubbed for Best Supporting Actor, but at least Brando got the well-deserved award for Best Actor.
What it beat: Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, Sounder
What other great films have the Oscars awarded? Let us know in the comments!