Fox Searchlight Pictures

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked
All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

80

Argo (2012)

There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley

What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

79

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

78

American Beauty (1999)

A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene

What Should Have Won: The Insider

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

77

The King’s Speech (2010)

Working from the British-royalty-biopic template perfected by Peter Morgan, The King’s Speech provides a cute, complication-free portrait of the Duke of York (Colin Firth), who would eventually become King George VI of England, and his difficulty overcoming a lifelong stammer. Opening in 1925 to the sight of George addressing a Wembley Stadium crowd with halting bits and pieces of words, Tom Hooper’s film proceeds to chart the future king’s failed efforts to deal with his problem through kooky speech therapist sessions (one has him stuff marbles in his mouth), all while his father, George V (Michael Gambon), lambastes his younger son—after one of the king’s famous, eloquent Christmas broadcasts via the newfangled radio—to just speak, “Dammit!” The film is sluggish and reductive, epitomized by both its eventual, one-dimensional conflation of George’s speech issues with the WWII effort and its glossed-over address of the radio’s role in transforming the ruler-ruled dynamic. Straining to elevate its real-life footnote of a tale into a meaningful fable about a man, and nation, “finding their voice,” The King’s Speech manages to spit out merely high-minded sitcom uplift. Nick Schager

What Should Have Won: The Social Network

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

76

Gladiator (2000)

The ’80s and ’90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene

What Should Have Won: Traffic

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

75

Gandhi (1982)

No scene in Gandhi is as suggestive as Dennis Miller’s joke about the Mahatma reaching inner serenity by locking himself inside a closet and shouting “motherfucker” for one hour every day. Richard Attenborough’s polished, thoroughly safe—and, consequently, Oscar-garlanded—veneration of the great political and spiritual Indian leader has no room for contradiction, so here Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) is first seen at his assassination and subsequent funeral; the film may rewind to his earlier days, but it continues as one long embalming procedure. Gandhi was a dream project for the filmmaker for more than two decades, and it’s no surprise that it takes the shape of a hallowed pamphlet, wafting from one historical event to another—the early humiliation as a “coolie barrister,” the activism in South Africa, the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, the Dandi Salt March of 1930, the “Quit India” resolution—in a cloud of incense. Attenborough’s heartfelt admiration for the man’s philosophy of resistance through peace is indisputable, yet it’s expressed exclusively in conventional coffee-book epic tropes that render it a swollen underdog tale, with Gandhi as the exotic center of a huge, guest-star cast of Hollywood Yanks (Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen) lending liberal cred and old-pro Brits (Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard) supplying Imperial villainy. Fernando F. Croce

What Should Have Won: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

74

Chicago (2002)

Though Broadway babies have been breathlessly claiming movie musicals to be in the middle of “a comeback” for decades now, Chicago is the only one since Vietnam to actually earn the top Oscar. And certainly not for being the best of the bunch, as its triumph was likely a confluence of that perfect storm of the ongoing success of the hit Broadway revival (which, alongside Rent, gave the Great White Way its groove back), leftover enthusiasm from the heel-kicking maniacs titillated by Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge the prior year, and, yes, Harvey Weinstein. Directed ever so tastefully by Rob Marshall, Chicago’s biggest crime isn’t that it’s offensive. The problem is that it’s the opposite. The Kander-Ebb source material called for a surly, acerbic, acid-tongued talent who could tease out the grit and irony of the book’s criminals-as-celebrities environment—a Bob Fosse, not a Harold Prince. Most of Marshall’s musical numbers strip away setting and scenery in favor of a harsh spotlight shining through pools of dark, a handsome strategy but one which drives home the film’s own self-imposed nothingness. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Pianist

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

73

Forrest Gump (1994)

Over the course of a prolonged bus-stop conversation, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks)—a man with an IQ of 75—recounts to various strangers how he helped spark the sexual revolution, fell in love with his childhood friend, Jenny (Hanna Hall as a child, later Robin Wright), exposed the Watergate scandal, earned the Medal of Honor, met three American presidents, ran coast to coast, and fathered Haley Joel Osment, among other accomplishments he’s also largely unaware of. Some of Forrest’s cameos throughout history push the limits of believability or taste (such as the bit involving John Lennon), but that’s certainly intentional, and the overarching silliness finds shelter in Robert Zemeckis’s assuredly optimistic, even self-deprecating sleight of hand. It’s impossible to imagine Forrest Gump having been absorbed by the culture wholesale without such conviction and affecting sincerity. Unfortunately, that merging of the real with the impossible is both pivotal to the film at a conceptual level and deeply problematic. If Forrest and Jenny’s respective paths through life are taken seriously as a reflection on society of the times, any conclusions drawn from their escapades—best represented by the scene of their walking together through Washington D.C. circa 1968, Forrest a decorated Vietnam veteran, Jenny a proud flower girl—reveal a facile understanding of the political turmoil those people experienced. One might prefer to just embrace the hokum and take it all in as if through Forrest’s eyes, though the film isn’t entirely conducive to this approach either, particularly with Jenny ultimately, almost despicably, being added to the film’s historical bullet points as an AIDS victim—a moment that lands with calculated velocity for maximum tissue dispensation. Humanick

What Should Have Won: Pulp Fiction

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

72

Chariots of Fire (1981)

In 1924, Harold Abrahams, a Lithuanian Jew born in London, and Eric Lidell, a Scottish Protestant born in China, were the two best runners England had to offer. Both in their mid-20s, the two young men were the chief talents that competed in track and field for Great Britain at the Paris Olympics. Despite the appearance that it’s a balanced account of the talent and determination of both Lidell (Ian Charleson) and Abrahams (Ben Cross), and to a lesser extent their teammates, Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire is practically a loving testament to the endurance of Protestantism over what’s here characterized as bitter Judaism. We’re allowed nary a view of what Abrahams’s heritage meant to him, good or bad, while Lidell, himself a missionary awaiting his return to China, is seen expounding wisdom at and around church. There’s something eerie about the way Lidell ties religion to physical domination and true power, but the tone of the film remains rigidly upbeat and determined. Hudson, working with the great cinematographer David Watkin, has crafted an exquisite glass house in which to witness this uneasy, irrefutably well-meaning, and quite physical drama. And yet it becomes increasingly hard to ignore the intonations of the screenplay as it goes along, and Hudson’s direction sags under the weight. The film does pay a bit of anti-fascist lip service by having Lidell nearly refuse to meet with the Prince of Wales, soon to be Hitler-sympathizer King Edward VIII, but it nevertheless preaches an unquestioning allegiance to some ostensibly perfect, all-important authority figure throughout, whether it’s in the service of God or the monarchy. Cabin

What Should Have Won: Atlantic City

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

71

Cavalcade (1933)

Frank Lloyd directed almost 85 feature films across his 40-year career. That Cavalcade was his 68th seems almost absurd, given that likely only silent-film scholars and dedicated critics could name a single film of his before that. Akin to other expensive studio productions during the late 1920s and early ’30s, Cavalcade has significant pacing issues, exacerbated by a story that spans over three decades chronicling a London family’s dealing with, among other events, the onset of WWI. Its decidedly important themes are significantly watered down by Lloyd’s inability to make Noël Coward’s screenplay come across as anything other than a stagey series of overly dramatic exchanges. Dillard

What Should Have Won: I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang

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