My Year at the Oscars - Academy Award Best Picture Winners Ranked Pt. 4


If you're new to My Year at the Oscars, in 2014 I decided to watch every Best Picture winner in a single year and then rank them.  In the first three parts, I ranked film #87 to film #36.  Today, we are going from #35 to #21. Next step -- the top 20 Best Picture winners.

These are all amazing films and we have definitely reached the point where any of these could have, and maybe should have, been considered Top 20 films, but for some reason there was another film that was more of a masterpiece than these. 

Pt. 4: #35 - #21

Next week will be the final post in this series.  Part 5 will be the top 20 (Friday 2/19/16). 

#35: Gladiator

Director: Ridley Scott
Release Date: May 1st, 2000 (Los Angeles); May 5th, 2000 (U.S.)
Ceremony: 73rd
Wins: 5 (Best Picture; Best Actor - Russell Crowe; Best Visual Effects; Best Costume Design; Best Sound Mixing)
Nominations: 12 (Best Director; Best Supporting Actor - Joaquin Phoenix; Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score; Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography)
Other Nominees: Chocolat; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Erin Brockovich; Traffic

If you remade Ben-Hur but left out the Christian forgiveness, you might end up with something like Gladiator.  In what might be the most epic revenge tale ever told, Ridley Scott directs an all out war between Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix.  Some may look back on this as a questionable winner, but underneath all of the violence, there is some real passion and storytelling going on (albeit relatively historically inaccurate).  The pacing of this movie is one of the most incredible aspects, and I've heard that Ridley Scott insisted on the battle scenes being practiced or choreographed with a metronome in mind.  That kind of brilliance is what makes this movie move along seamlessly, from what dialogue there is down to the coliseum brawls.  It does not get the Commodus thumbs down.  

#34: The Apartment

Director: Billy Wilder
Release Date: June 15th, 1960
Ceremony: 33rd
Wins: 5 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Writing - Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Art Decoration - Set Decoration, Black-and-White)
Nominations: 10 (Best Actor - Jack Lemmon; Best Actress - Shirley MacLaine; Best Supporting Actor - Jack Kruschen; Best Sound Recording; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White)
Other Nominees: Elmer Gantry; Sons and Lovers; The Alamo; The Sundowners

After Some Like it Hot was left high and dry in the year of Ben-Hur, Billy Wilder came right back with The Apartment.  It is hard to imagine a comedy with so many outrageous and occasionally cringe-worthy situations winning in this day and age, but it sure is refreshing to know that at some point they could.  What puts it over the top is how well Jack Lemmon can switch from being a goofball to being incredibly serious, just like the film itself does.  Right down to Shirley MacLaine's classic ending line, this movie consistently delivers funny and heartfelt dramedy with an ease rarely felt in the history of cinema.  

#33: The French Connection

Director: William Friedkin
Release Date: October 9th, 1971
Ceremony: 44th
Wins: 5 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Gene Hackman; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Film Editing)
Nominations: 8 (Best Supporting Actor - Roy Scheider; Best Sound Mixing; Best Cinematography)
Other Nominees: A Clockwork Orange; Fiddler on the Roof; The Last Picture Show; Nicholas and Alexandra

The French Connection is a perfect example of what a smart thriller should be.  People tend to remember it for the car-chase scene, which in all fairness, is certainly a worthwhile reason as nearly every subsequent car chase in film history borrows from this one. But the lasting legacy should come down to how realistically raw and gritty this detective drama is. William Friedkin leads a stellar cast in the type of small-budget movie we all want to win but rarely does.  You will be on the edge of your seat so frequently that by the end you might forget what the back of a chair feels like.  Prepare yourself to become so engrossed in the case that you may just care more about what happens than Gene Hackman's character seems to in this Oscar winning performance. 

#32: Gandhi

Director: Richard Attenborough
Release Date: November 30th, 1982 (New Delhi);  December 3rd, 1982 (U.K.); December 8th, 1982 (U.S.)
Ceremony: 55th
Wins: 8 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Ben Kingsley; Best Writing, Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design)
Nominations: 11 (Best Original Score; Best Sound Mixing; Best Makeup)
Other Nominees: E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial; Missing; Tootsie; The Verdict

As I've mentioned before, the 1980's were a time when lengthy historical biopics reigned supreme, and all of them should have used Gandhi as a blueprint.  Then again, not all of them had Ben Kingsley in what is arguably one of the all time best acting performances in cinematic history.  This movie is a very straightforward retelling of Gandhi's life, but it is so well-made on every level that it becomes a cinematic masterpiece.  It certainly doesn't hurt that the film had such a great story to tell, but there is a feeling of scope and importance here, as if the director wanted to match the man's impact on the world with a movie that had an impact to the cinematic world.  Moving from the very start, you'll need three hours worth of focus but in the end, this film's reward is certainly worth it.  

#31: All Quiet on the Western Front

Director: Lewis Milestone
Release Date: August 24th, 1930
Ceremony: 3rd
Wins: 2 (Best Picture; Best Director)
Nominations: 4 (Best Writing; Best Cinematography)
Other Nominees: The Big House; Disraeli; The Divorcee; The Love Parade

All Quiet on the Western Front was truly an artistic marvel considering when it was made, and it holds up against any other war film that has been made since.  It shifts the focus from the battlefield, despite incredible tracking shots across the trenches and intense battle scenes, to the psychology of war.  The opening scene in the classroom is as powerful as any, but what was most impressive to me was how much importance the director was able to convey with a simple pair of boots changing hands.  There are outstanding cinematic accounts of other wars, but this film coming out barely over a decade after it's conclusion will forever be the defining film of World War I.

#30: The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Release Date: September 4th, 2008 (Venice); June 26th, 2009 (U.S.)
Ceremony: 82nd
Wins: 6 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing)
Nominations: 9 (Best Actor - Jeremy Renner; Best Original Score; Best Cinematography)
Other Nominees: Avatar; The Blind Side; District 9; An Education; Inglorious Basterds; Precious; A Serious Man; Up; Up in the Air

The best war movies don't shy away from battle but give you a chance to have an in depth look into the mentality of the character's themselves, and The Hurt Locker is no exception.  What makes it such an interesting film is the fact that it is able to convey elaborate details about these characters while still on the battlefield.  Very few scenes stray away from the war itself yet it still manages to provide depth and development even in the tensest of moments.  It feels like Bigelow adapted the way a war movie was made to match the way war is now fought.  There are rarely gung ho soldiers running around guns blazing, instead they are replaced by drawn out tactical sniper battles and sweat-inducing bomb diffusing scenes.  It lacks the final big battle so typical in movies and ends relatively unceremoniously.  While it has since gained a reputation as being somewhat inaccurate, as a movie itself I find it to be excellent and tense from start to finish.  

#29: Unforgiven

Director: Clint Eastwood
Release Date: August 3rd, 1992 (Los Angeles); August 7th, 1992 (U.S.)
Ceremony: 65th
Wins: 4 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actor - Gene Hackman; Best Film Editing)
Nominations: 9 (Best Actor - Clint Eastwood; Best Original Screenplay; Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography; Best Sound Mixing)
Other Nominees: A Few Good Men; Howards End; Scent of a Woman; The Crying Game

Who would guess that one of the all-time classic Westerns would come out in the early 90's?  Unforgiven is Clint Eastwood at the top of his game, as a director and as an actor.  Eastwood the actor, while fantastic, is actually overshadowed in this one by a superb supporting cast including Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman and a confusingly brief appearance by Richard Harris.  The movie is consistently enthralling throughout, but it is easy to feel every action and line of dialogue becoming building blocks to an explosive ending.  Without any spoilers, said ending certainly does not disappoint, and once you pick your jaw up off of the floor you might just be ready to rewind and watch it again.  Whether you're a fan of Westerns or just a fan of good movies, this is one that you absolutely can not afford to miss. 

#28: The Sound of Music

Director: Robert Wise
Release Date: March 2nd, 1965 (U.S.); March 29th, 1965 (U.K.)
Ceremony: 38th
Wins: 5 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Music, Scoring of Music - Adaptation or Treatment; Best Film Editing; Best Sound Mixing)
Nominations: 10 (Best Actress - Julie Andrews; Best Supporting Actress - Peggy Wood; Best Art Direction, Color; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Costume Design, Color)
Other Nominees: Doctor Zhivago; Darling; A Thousand Clowns; Ship of Fools

The Sound of Music is such a classic movie and musical that it is almost hard to separate it from its stand alone legacy and look at it in a collection of films such as this.  It has so engrained itself into popular culture over the past 50 years that most of us born since its release can quote large chunks of it, from the songs to dialog.  Whether you're more of a "My Favorite Things" person or an "Edelweiss" type, there is something in this movie that everyone can enjoy.  Beneath the memorable songs and visually stunning set pieces and scenery, the story is extraordinary, allowing for the film that is so remembered for filling its viewers with joy to also touch their hearts.  There is a reason it is such a classic.  

#27: You Can't Take it With You

Director: Frank Capra
Release Date: August 23rd, 1938 (International Press Previews); September 1st, 1938 (N.Y.C.)
Ceremony: 11th
Wins: 2 (Best Picture; Best Director)
Nominations: 7 (Best Screenplay; Best Supporting Actress - Spring Byington; Best Cinematography; Best Sound Recording; Best Film Editing)
Other Nominees: The Adventure of Robin Hood; Alexander's Ragtime Band; Boys Town; The Citadel; Four Daughters; Grand Illusion; Jezebel; Pygmalion; Test Pilot

You Can't Take it With You is one of the rare, truly feel-good movies to win the big prize.  Beyond that, the comedy holds up 70 years later, thanks in part to the cast but mostly because of how truly outlandish the characters are.  Focusing on a man from a family of snobs marrying into a family full of eccentric and borderline insane relatives, it is a classic story of seemingly incompatible groups surprisingly getting along.  So what makes it any different than your average early-Hollywood romantic comedy? While being based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play certainly helped, Capra's eye for direction and getting the best performance out of an actor even in the silliest of roles is what makes this an early comedy masterpiece.  

#26: The Sting

Director: George Roy Hill
Release Date: December 25th, 1973
Ceremony: 46th
Wins: 7 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Writing, Original Screenplay; Best Music, Scoring Original Song Score and/or Adaptation; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing; Best Art Direction - Set Decoration)
Nominations: 10 (Best Actor - Robert Redford; Best Cinematography; Best Sound Mixing)
Other Nominees: American Graffiti; Cries and Whispers; The Exorcist; A Touch of Class

If it is your first time watching The Sting and their complicated con doesn't fully make sense to you, don't worry, it will by the end.  As the winner in between The Godfathers, this film is unfortunately frequently forgotten.  Paul Newman and Robert Redford make a great duo and their chemistry throughout provides a plethora of laughs, as well as some moments of suspense and intrigue.  Making the plot confusing works well in the directors favor, as the elements of mystery provide a perfect pacing for the ultimate con-film.  A dynamite soundtrack underneath doesn't hurt either.  The 70's sure were a great time to be making movies. 

#25: The Grand Hotel

Director: Edmund Goulding
Release Date: April 12th, 1932
Ceremony: 5th
Wins: 1 (Best Picture)
Nominations: 1 (ALL WINS)
Other Nominees: Arrowsmith; Bad Girl; The Champ; Five Star Final; One Hour With You; Shanghai Express; The Smiling Lieutenant

If you've ever seen a film where a bunch of seemingly unrelated characters existing in one place have lives that intersect, this scenario has come to be referred to as the "Grand Hotel Theme".  As the only winner of Best Picture without any other nominations, this movie has a generally lukewarm legacy, with mixed contemporary reviews.  Personally, I think that it is one of the best of the early winners.  All of the superstar actors play interesting characters that manage to connect in the most creative of ways.  Perhaps it is being able to draw on all of these different characters, but the dialog is very well-written throughout as the film trots along at a nice pace right up to the fantastic ending line.  It is one of the most artistic early winners and I highly recommend giving it a shot if you like character studies.

#24: Argo

Director: Ben Affleck
Release Date: August 31st, 2012 (Telluride Film Festival); October 12th, 2012 (U.S.)
Ceremony: 85th
Wins: 3 (Best Picture; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Film Editing)
Nominations: 7 (Best Supporting Actor - Alan Arkin; Best Original Score; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing)
Other Nominees: Amour; Beasts of the Southern Wild; Django Unchained; Les Misérables; Life of Pi; Lincoln; Silver Linings Playbook; Zero Dark Thirty

Filmmaking has a lot of elements to it, but in the end a lot of it comes down to how good the story is that you have to tell, and no that is not stolen from a celebrity introduction to the screenplay category (at least not to my knowledge).  Argo is not the greatest film ever made, but it is one of the most interesting and unbelievable stories ever told.  This movie does a great job of combining occasionally hilarious jabs at Hollywood and filmmaking as a whole with intense suspense.  Seriously, every time I see this movie I'm still nervous by the end, even knowing what is going to happen.  That is a telltale sign of an amazing thriller.  A lot of this comes down to the film editing, and this has some of the best work I've ever seen in that category, seamlessly jumping between the multiple storylines at a pace that makes the whole film fly by.

#23: Annie Hall

Director: Woody Allen
Release Date: April 20th, 1977
Ceremony: 50th
Wins: 4 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress - Diane Keaton; Best Original Screenplay)
Nominations: 5 (Best Actor - Woody Allen)
Other Nominees: The Goodbye Girl; Julia; Star Wars; The Turning Point

Woody Allen managed to create a small, simple and personal comedy in 1977 that beat the first Star Wars film at the peak of it's critical acclaim.  As a lifelong Star Wars fan, even I can't be too mad at Annie Hall. It is actually that great of a movie and easily in the conversation for the best comedy of all time.  Woody Allen's films frequently center on his own neurotic persona, which can easily become overwhelming, but there is enough balance to overcome that thanks in part to the outstanding Diane Keaton.  It is a film of layers, filled with emotional depth but surrounded by quippy one-liners and unforgettable iconic scenes that have become standards of comedy.  It doesn't matter if you have seen every other Woody Allen movie and didn't enjoy them, this transcends his style and comedy as a whole and is a can't miss movie. 

#22: The Best Years of Our Lives

Director: William Wyler
Release Date: November 21st, 1946
Ceremony: 19th
Wins: 7 (9) (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actor - Fredric March; Best Supporting Actor - Harold Russell; Best Writing - Screenplay; Best Music - Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture; Best Film Editing; HONORARY AWARD: "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance" to Harold Russell; MEMORIAL AWARD: to Samuel Goldwyn)
Nominations: 8 (Best Sound Recording)
Other Nominees: Henry V; It's a Wonderful Life; The Razor's Edge; The Yearling

The Best Years of Our Lives was released only a year after World War II and I can't even begin to imagine how powerful of a movie it must have been then.  Even to this day it is a cinematic portrayal of life after war that so many other films have tried to emulate and not even come close.  Harold Russell may well be the most impressive part of this movie, winning two Oscars (supporting and honorary) for his only ever film role.  I love movies where people's lives continually cross and this does such an excellent job of allowing the three returning soldiers, who didn't know each other until a plane ride home, to become vastly important to each other.  If you want to see some of the most outstanding acting performances the first twenty years of the Academy has to offer, look no further than this essential film. 

#21: The Departed

Director: Martin Scorsese
Release Date: September 26th, 2006 (N.Y.C. Premiere); October 6th, 2006 (U.S.)
Ceremony: 79th
Wins: 4 (Best Picture; Best Director; Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay; Best Film Editing)
Nominations: 5 (Best Supporting Actor - Mark Wahlberg)
Other Nominees: Babel; Letters from Iwo Jima; Little Miss Sunshine; The Queen

This film isn't even Martin Scorsese's greatest film, yet here The Departed is in 2006, winning him his first Best Picture recognition.  The previous statement is to take nothing away from this fantastic film but more to recognize what a legendary director Scorsese is, one that I hope receives another few wins before he is done making movies. First of all, this film has a remarkable story with enough twists and turns to make you dizzy.  Each character you are alternately rooting for and against at some point.  The dialog is highly quotable (depending on your social circle's tolerance of profanity) and delivered by mostly Academy unrecognized but utterly outstanding acting performances.  The subtle motifs in this movie, such as the "X"'s marking the characters before they die, are something that only a director as brilliant as Scorsese could have pulled off.  If you like mystery, action, mobsters or Boston, do yourself a favor and watch one of the many films in a long list that could be considered Martin's masterpieces.  

Part 5 (#20-1) will be coming next Friday, 2/19/16

List so far:
87 - The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
86 - Cimarron (1931)
85 - The Broadway Melody (1929)
84 - Dances With Wolves (1990)
83 - Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
82 - Cavalcade (1934)
81 - Crash (2005)
80 - Out of Africa (1985)
79 - The Lost Weekend (1945)
78 - How Green Was My Valley (1941)
77 - Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
76 - Ordinary People (1980)
75 - Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
74 - Terms of Endearment (1983)
73 - The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
72 - A Man for All Seasons (1966)
71 - The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
70 - Braveheart (1995)
69 - Going My Way (1944)
68 - Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)
67 - Oliver! (1968)
66 - Million Dollar Baby (2004)
65 - Chariots of Fire (1981)
64 - Hamlet (1948)
63 - 12 Years A Slave (2013)
62 - The Last Emperor (1987)
61 - Mrs. Miniver (1942)
60 - Tom Jones (1963)
59 - Rain Man (1988)
58 - The King's Speech (2010)
57 - Chicago (2002)
56 - Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
55 - All the King's Men (1949)
54 - A Beautiful Mind (2001)
53 - Midnight Cowboy (1969)
52 - Ben-Hur (1959)
51 - Shakespeare in Love (1998)
50. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
49. Rocky (1976)
48. Gigi (1958)
47. West Side Story (1961)
46. Wings (1927)
45. The English Patient (1996)
44. The Artist (2011)
43. American Beauty (1999)
42. Forrest Gump (1994)
41. From Here to Eternity (1953)
40. An American in Paris (1951)
39. Marty (1955)
38. Titanic (1997)
37. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
36. Platoon (1986)
35. Gladiator (2000)
34. The Apartment (1960)
33. The French Connection (1971)
32. Gandhi (1982)
31. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
30. The Hurt Locker (2009)
29. Unforgiven (1992)
28. The Sound of Music (1965)
27. You Can't Take it With You (1938)
26. The Sting (1973)
25. Grand Hotel (1932)
24. Argo (2012)
23. Annie Hall (1977)
22. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
21. The Departed (2006)


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