With The 95th Academy Awards this Sunday, we put together 10 of our favorite Best Picture winners of the last 50 years.
Looking back over the last half century, we were pleasantly surprised at how many truly great and now classic films made it up to the podium to collect their golden statuette. We were also reminded of a few and perhaps best forgotten duds, but whose counting. Besides, with all that glory, glamour and history, the Oscars are bound to occasionally screw the pooch; in hindsight, we’d bet the Academy (and probably Steven Soderbergh) wouldn’t mind stepping into a time machine to cry recount on at least a few of their choices. All in all though, some truly solid winners— making it all the more difficult to whittle it down to just 10.
10 titles in 50 years meant some in-house feuding was involved in the making of the list before you. Platoon: too on-the-nose or simply one of the best war movies ever made? Gladiator: classic or summer blockbuster masquerading as a prestige picture? Could we possibly include both Godfather 1 and 2? And what of politically divisive fare such as, say, Annie Hall, inarguably still a truly great film, and yet… Or Dances with Wolves? White folk playing Native Americans didn’t exactly age well (not to mention, PC concerns aside, had the audacity to beat out Goodfellas). And what of The Hurt Locker? It certainly deserves at least a mention for being the only film directed by a woman—up until Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland in 2021—to win Best Picture (the fact that Kathryn Bigelow beat out her ex—the self-appointed King of the World himself—that same year, despite his blockbuster to end all blockbusters, certainly was a fun fact to reminisce on).
For better or worse, we somehow managed and here it is: our top 10 winners, and certainly all are titles worthy of a revisit. Here’s hoping the next 50 brings us more iconic mobsters, gamblers, psychos, musical geniuses, war epics, historical epics, dysfunctional families, survivors and ideally, at least a few surprises—not to mention, more women behind the camera.
THE GODFATHER (1972)
Do we really need to discuss this? Very possibly the best American film this side of Citizen Kane. A film that—when taken with its sequel (which also won Best Picture)—is not only about family and the mob, but also encompasses immigration, greed, capitalism, racism, and American values and culture. A film that is Shakespearean in its scope.
Milos Forman’s sublime retelling of the Mozart / Salieri myth, based on the hit play by Peter Shaffer, is one of those epics that’s actually fun to watch. Filled with drama, tension, irony, and a hell of a lot of humor—not to mention the music—there is never a dull moment in the nearly three-hour running time. Its brilliant script, which, while keeping one foot in historical fact, is clearly a highly fictional account of Salieri’s envy and psychological war against Mozart. By throwing out the usual biographical tropes that bog down so many films, Amadeus is able to become a truly enticing drama with an unreliable narrator at its center. The costumes, photography, locations and sets are exquisite. But none of this would have worked if not for the astounding performance given by F. Murray Abraham.
After a string of flops, Eastwood—both as actor and director here—went back to the genre that first made him a star, resulting in possibly the greatest western this side of The Wild Bunch, and certainly the greatest picture of his career. The perfomances alone—Hackman, Freeman, Harris. Yet what makes Unforgiven so special is that, while on paper it’s about hired guns avenging a prostitute, in reality it’s about the end of the western. Not the end of the west, mind you. That’s what The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West are about. No. This is about the end of the western as a cinematic genre. A discarding of the myths, whilst still playing off the very legends and iconography that are actively being shown to be false. It manages to simultaneously make fun of gunslingers and their ridiculous claims of winning a quick draw in a saloon, while ending with one of the all-time great saloon gunfights ever filmed. While Eastwood plays into his persona full tilt and gives the audience what they want, he also reminds us that, “it’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” He is himself, therefore, the unforgiven.
SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
Horror is a genre that rarely if ever wins prestigious awards. Jaws and The Exorcist both lost. And Psycho wasn’t even nominated! But horror finally had its day at the Oscars when Johnathan Demme’s film about a young FBI agent tracking down a serial killer swept all the major categories (for only the third time in Oscar history). Since then, through sequels, parodies and TV shows, the character of Hannibal Lecter has become such a part of pop culture that he’s been turned into a super monster with bad jokes—not that different from Freddy Kruger. It’s therefore hard to remember now just how unnerving and downright scary Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal was back in 1991. Add to that Jodie Foster’s startlingly brilliant performance, and you’re left with one of the best police-procedurals ever committed to celluloid.
SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)
If ever there was a year that belonged to one man, it was 1993 and Steven Spielberg. After the poorly received stumbling blocks of Always and the very bloated Hook, it would’ve been easy to write off the director—like so many of his generation—as having had his time in the sun. The ‘70s were long gone and now even the ‘80s were over. So Spielberg said hold my beer and went off and made Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List in the same year. He kicked everybody’s ass at the box-office (even himself, knocking his own film E.T off the top spot for biggest film of all time), then dominated at the Oscars—finally winning for Best Director and Best Picture, which he really should’ve received long before. Shot in stark black and white, and discarding his usual reliance on storyboards, Spielberg’s three-hour epic about the Schindler Jews and the holocaust is a marvel to behold and has, to date, some of the best filmmaking sequences ever made. It also boasts incredible performances from Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, and particularly Ralph Fiennes in his career-making turn.
THE STING (1973)
Paul Newman and Robert Redford only made two movies together, and yet the pairing was so strong that “Redford and Newman” became part of film vernacular. It practically describes the buddy subgenre. While they may have first paired up in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their truly great collaboration was in this unofficial follow up. The plot is great all on its own, with its various twists and a great villain played by Robert Shaw. But what makes this so enjoyable is the sheer fun one has hanging out with these two legends. When they walk off together at the end, we can’t wait until they team up again. The tragedy is, they never did.
12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
12 Years a Slave, based upon the memoirs of Solomon Northup, shook the world, and the world of cinema, to its core. Slavery has been depicted in films since the silent era, and had more recently been central to the plots of both Lincoln and Django Unchained. But never had a film been as visceral and uncompromising in its willingness to lay bare the horrors and realities of slavery, nor as unflinching in its ability to demolish Hollywood’s glossy myths and overly sympathetic past portrayals of the subject. The film is masterfully directed by Steve McQueen, with a score of great performances throughout, led by the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor with heartbreaking dignity and grace, and a truly rare breakthrough from Lupita Nyong’o that shot right to the hearts of audiences—and Academy members.
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007)
It’s hard to think of more different directors from Clint Eastwood than the Coen Brothers, with their emphasis on style and masterful dialogue. And yet, in the 21st Century the Coens marched right into Eastwood’s territory churning out three westerns, which also happen to be the best westerns of the last quarter century. While True Grit and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs are indisputably westerns in every way whatsoever, No Country For Old Men is also a western (sorry naysayers). A neo-Western to be sure, but a Western nonetheless. And it is sublime. Taken from the Cormac McCarthy novel, and dare we say improving upon it, No Country For Old Men is a nail-biting tale about aging, morality, greed, and the very essence of evil personified (in a truly terrifying Oscar-winning performance by Javier Bardem), disguised as a thriller.
Vietnam war movies had been done before. Some, like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, had even won Academy Awards. But while those films focused on the aftermath of the war for returning veterans, Platoon was about what it was really like to have been there—not as an allegory for some greater, more meaningful theme, such as the surreal journey of Apocalypse Now, but what it was really like, down in the shit, warts and all. What differentiates Platoon from other Vietnam films is that writer-director Oliver Stone, having actually served and been wounded in Vietnam, was was able to bring authority and personal experience vividly to life and onto the screen in a way audiences had never seen.
The first film to ever win both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture (and the Palme d’Or!), Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite really has to be seen to be believed. Saying anything about it might give away the joys, humor, terrors and surprises it holds in store for you. Suffice to say that there has never been a Best Picture winner like it, and that it deals with the issues of class struggle, the wealth gap and servitude in a new and very clever way. The issues brought up were important back in pre-Covid 2019. Post-pandemic, with inflation and the energy crises, Parasite is more relevant than ever before.