Fox Searchlight Pictures

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


Birdman (2014)

There’s one truly revelatory sequence in Birdman, and you’ve seen it in the trailer: Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a has-been Hollywood star mounting a Broadway play as his comeback vehicle, is visited on the street by the film’s costumed title character, a superhero Riggan once played and now hears and sees in hallucinations. Like Gollum as employed by, say, Marvel Studios, Birdman feeds his portrayer lines about how viewers just want action and destruction, not arty stuff like “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the Raymond Carver short story that Riggan is adapting, directing, and starring in on stage. In a few invigorating moments, Birdman illustrates his point, causing explosions, helicopters, and a giant avian robot to materialize, in a spectacle that, per the film’s ambiguous magical realism, hundreds of screaming New Yorkers may or may not actually be seeing. On the most visceral level, this scene is a simple depiction of how bracingly impactful special effects can be when used sparingly, as opposed to being a movie’s primary draw. But more importantly, it’s the one moment that viewers are allowed to feel for themselves the Hollywood skewering that Birdman constantly spoon-feeds like strained bananas. R. Kurt Osenlund

What Should Have Won: The Grand Budapest Hotel

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man’s cross-country odyssey—as shared by Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) and his autistic brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman)—strains for the profound and complex sense of Americana that is Jonathan Demme’s usual thematic obsession. But Barry Levinson is a more isolated filmmaker; take the director out of his Baltimore hometown and he’s way out of his limited depths. This is apparent from the film’s opening, where Levinson bisects a smoggy Los Angeles background with a shiny red sports car, ironically scoring the scene to the Belle Stars’s “Iko Iko.” It’s the L.A. parallel to Something Wild’s New York skyline montage, but it packs none of that sequence’s seething, dangerous wonder, settling instead for an obvious comment about materialism and an unexploited joke: introducing quintessentially American pretty boy Cruise as a hood-ornament reflection. The banality continues for two hours plus, but it’s surprisingly less torturous than one might fear. The best that can be said of Hoffman’s Oscar-lauded performance is that it’s consistent, an actor’s equivalent to watchable white noise. Cruise is, of course, the exact opposite, a Danny Zuko-like high school jock mistakenly cast in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, bugging his eyes and gesticulating with fervid abandon. Rain Man’s own Abbott & Costello metaphor goes a long way toward explaining the casting intent, though it also adds a dimension to the pop-culture-laden humor that masks the film’s superficiality. Keith Uhlich

What Should Have Won: Dangerous Liaisons

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Dances with Wolves (1990)

Despite its empathy and respect for Native Americans, Dances with Wolves has very little going for it besides its admittedly majestic trappings. Working with cinematographer Dean Semler on location throughout the American West, director Kevin Costner captures a dizzying array of gorgeous panoramic compositions that situate tiny silhouettes of humans amid expansive stretches of green fields and blue skies. What the first-time director doesn’t do, however, is infuse these images with any thematic weight or import; they are, in the end, just pretty landscape shots. Unlike legendary western directors John Ford or Sergio Leone, Costner doesn’t intend for these snapshots of sprawling vistas to symbolize much of anything (here, they’re just transitional devices or mere filler material), and thus the size and scale of the film, though quite immense, seems to shrink before our eyes in terms of emotional resonance. It’s a laudable adventure that neither redefines nor simply mimics the genre’s storied conventions, a sturdy, mildly stirring revisionist cinematic portrayal of the American West as a place where manifest destiny meant not only modernity’s expansion, but also ancient cultures’ decimation. Schager

What Should Have Won: Goodfellas

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Many were shocked to recently learn that Dustin Hoffman slapped co-star Meryl Streep on the set of Kramer vs. Kramer. Hoffman’s reputation as an actor who relies heavily on the crutch of ridiculous head games to reach some sort of emotional truth has been around as long as his Marathon Man co-star Laurence Olivier threw him the most magnificent shade: “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?” But the fundamental disrespect for women embodied within what Hoffman thought was a helping hand isn’t absent from the film itself. At the start of Kramer vs. Kramer, Streep’s Joanna Kramer leaves her husband and son in order to find herself, and the film bends over backward to show that it’s actually Hoffman’s Ted Kramer who is doing all the finding within himself, as he first awkwardly then whole-heartedly embraces his role as a single parent. And when Joanna comes back into the picture, her dramatic function is solely to serve as antagonist to the newly enlightened Ted. The world having outgrown the film’s pedagogic function, all that’s left really is soap operatics and courtroom melodrama. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: All That Jazz

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Tom Jones (1963)

No matter how many of Tom Jones’s tricks have become lingua franca clichés over the years, British cinema in the early ’60s needed the film to happen. Following years of Shakespeare adaptations, gothic Hammer horror, and kitchen-sink realism, something needed to shake the cobwebs loose. And at the time, Tony Richardson’s loose-limbed adaptation of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, like Laugh-In would soon be for American TV audiences, was that much-needed breath of fresh, irreverent air. But have you watched an episode of Laugh-In lately? Tom Jones still radiates verve but now also plays like one unfunny joke after another. And while the gags come via some of the best talents Britain had to offer, it’s not difficult to trace an angry-young-man through line from the misadventures of Albert Finney’s rake to the misanthropic yuks raised by Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: America, America

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


My Fair Lady (1964)

My Fair Lady hasn’t aged well. But then again, maybe the hit musical was never so fresh in the first place. One could start with its repulsive premise: The reason poor people are poor is that rich people don’t like the way they talk. And then there’s the film’s rampant sexism, which might have been a satirical take on male chauvinism but is instead made into a kind of running in-joke. Rex Harrison plays the woman-hater par excellence, Henry Higgins, a phonetics expert and the only-too-delighted mentor to Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle, a lower class flower girl with a braying Cockney accent. Over the course of the film she gains the “loverly” speech and vocabulary of the upper class, and with it the promise of independence and security, only to return to Higgins’s beck and call—a lamentable “happy ending” and a notable departure in the musical from George Bernard Shaw’s original play, Pygmalion. Finally, there’s the film’s sheer bloatedness. Director George Cukor doesn’t so much adapt the Broadway musical as transplant it to the screen. The result is a rambling, decadent extravaganza that’s so stagey it even requires an entr’acte. There’s something to be said for the glamorous dresses and memorable songs, but looking back on the film now the film it seems, more than anything, like a grandiloquent ball of gas from a desperate Old Hollywood. Peter Goldberg

What Should Have Won: Dr. Strangelove

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


The English Patient (1996)

It’s not overstating it to say that The English Patient strives to enter the prestige picture hall of fame; it contains most of the perceived hallmarks of a best picture winner, from the sweeping, picturesque setting, to an impressive host of “serious” actors, to award-winning source material. Yet the central issue with the film’s sensibilities, as conveniently (and famously) pointed out by Elaine (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) in an episode of Seinfeld, is that Minghella’s direction of the sex scenes between László (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine (Kristen Scott Thomas) exists to promote a palatable idea of sensuality that conforms to middlebrow sensibilities of adventure (my words, not Elaine’s). That Elaine would prefer to instead see Sack Lunch, a dopey comedy about a shrunken family stuck inside of a paper bag, scans as a fair, though still vicious dig at The English Patient’s sanitized and self-serious depiction of carnal appetites. Dillard

What Should Have Won: Fargo

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Although it stars William Powell and Myrna Loy, who in 1934’s The Thin Man made one of screwball cinema’s most sardonic pairings, The Great Ziegfeld doesn’t have even half the zip and pizazz of the duo’s former starring vehicle. Worse still, the Robert Z. Leonard-directed film is merely a product of its time, stretched to over three hours to highlight the newest sound technology available on the MGM lot, with a ho-hum sequence featuring the song “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” chewing up nearly 10 minutes of screen time. Made just after the Production Code went into full effect, everything from the dance numbers to the quip-heavy dialogue in between feels toned down, sexless, and unremarkable. It’s the sort of ’30s musical that’s bound to leave viewers wandering to themselves: Where’s Maurice Chevalier when you need him? Dillard

What Should Have Won: Dodsworth

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Ben-Hur (1959)

Although Ben-Hur inaugurated at least a decade’s worth of widescreen epics in Hollywood, influence should be kept distinct from quality. Watching the film, one sees its budget on display in production design, costumes, and special effects, and yet the biblical story remains dormant, stodgy and familiar rather than lively and strange. Scale takes precedent over feeling and intimacy, with the central chariot race being a prime example of an impressively mounted set piece whose thrill wears off as quickly as a roller-coaster ride. Much like those biblical epics made by Cecil B. DeMille from the silent era to 1956’s The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur feels too manufactured to put Christians in theater seats. And Heston, who arguably never gave a good performance, doesn’t act so much as frown and furrow his brow throughout the picture. His ever-constipated look sums up Ben-Hur, which ranks among the most ill-fitting efforts in the last two decades of director William Wyler’s career. Dillard

What Should Have Won: Anatomy of a Murder

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Gigi (1958)

The second of Vincente Minnelli’s films to win the best picture trophy at the Academy Awards, Gigi also earned the virtuoso filmmaker an Oscar for his direction. But it’s better to view that triumph as a career achievement award, since this musical feels so uneven when compared to Minnelli’s other legendary efforts in the genre: The unmemorable songs succeed only at bringing a plodding quality to the musical sequences, and the performers (with the exception of Leslie Caron as the titular heroine) all seem ambivalent, almost at a loss as to how to execute the material. This musical romance, based on a 1944 novella of the same name by Colette, is slow and exudes a stifling sense of the familiar throughout. But this being a Minnelli production, it should come as no shock that it has style to burn. The art direction and costumes are, perhaps, gaudily overbearing, but this only helps to contribute to an oneiric mood of suspended reality that, by way of the elaborately conceived long-take camerawork, empathetically regards the life of a woman dreaming to escape the stifling patriarchal structures of her social world. Greene

What Should Have Won: The Defiant Ones