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


Mrs. Miniver (1942)

Although not one of William Wyler’s most accomplished films, Mrs. Miniver is by all means a fine Hollywood product, wringing compelling, if increasingly overwrought, drama from its homefront story of a British family broken apart by World War II. The film’s first third is especially lively as it explores the superficial interests of Kay (Greer Garson), who spends her days purchasing hats and other accoutrements that, she worries, will upset her more frugal husband, Clem (Walter Pidgeon). Once the war hits, however, Mrs. Miniver drops much of its class concerns for a more typical wartime narrative of potential loss and recovery, exploiting the time in which it’s made as much as it explores said time. A concluding scene featuring a refrain of “Onward Christian Soldiers” finally places the film within the realm of spiffily made propaganda, capping a story that’s by turns endearing and noxious. Dillard

What Should Have Won: The Magnificent Ambersons

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

In retrospect, Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy feels almost anomalous: a Hollywood franchise that actually ended. Its crowning achievement is bloated, yes, but an honorable bow out to a surprisingly emotional series (The Return of the King’s award could double as an honor to all three films). Sure, there’s something obnoxiously grandiose about the trilogy’s final film: the onslaught of epic this-is-it-folks final speeches and its attempts to cram every last world-building detail in (what do orcs do when they’re not plundering?) under the three-and-a-half-hour mark are nothing if not the sign of a director who wanted too much. But, all qualifiers aside, The Return of the King is an admirable achievement of large-scale fantasy that has hardly been repeated since. Jackson effectively translates the book’s themes of friendship and the fallibility of humanity in the face of power to the screen, and with a moral conviction that’s atypical of most blockbusters. His maximalist approach and attention to detail brings Tolkien’s notoriously sprawling cosmos to life, making Middle-earth feel expansive and lived in. Good, evil, magic, fellowship, beasts, men, orcs, dwarves, elves, love, heroism: It all comes to a head—again and again—in the final battle for this mystic land. Goldberg

What Should Have Won: Mystic River

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Spotlight (2015)

Spotlight is a complex film about moving past clannish parochial designations, one which ends up assigning the burden of guilt upon an entire populace for looking the other way, none of them quite aware of the scale of the problem they were avoiding. In tackling this mass culpability, the film also confronts the degradation of individuality which also occurs as communities stretch past their traditional limits and out into the ethereal fabric of the internet, as city papers become assets of global conglomerates, and local flavor turns into a surface characteristic rather than an essential quality of a place. But the biggest downside to this approach is that, burdened with the telling of this expansive story, the film devotes too much time delivering information to establish a convincing visual foundation for its account, aside from a few ominous shots of church structures literally looming over everything. Full of reserved tracking shots and walk-and-talk exposition dumps, Spotlight seems submissively constructed around the contours of its voluminous dialogue, a feat of informational cinema that’s equally thrilling and overwhelming. Jesse Cataldo

What Should Have Won: Mad Max: Fury Road

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

One of the most expensive productions of its day, Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty is a lavish, action-packed spectacle, full of exotic locales, authentically historic ships, and rip-roaring high-seas adventure. But the source of its enduring appeal is much simpler: the thrillingly bitter rivalry between Charles Laughton’s imperious Captain Bligh and Clark Gable’s cocksure Lieutenant Christian. Their antagonism is, in part, a clash of competing forms of masculinity, with Bligh’s preening, affected pomposity facing off against Christian’s virile, earthy swagger. While Christian gets his rocks off with a pretty Tahitian girl after a year at sea, Bligh remains hopelessly repressed throughout, perhaps sublimating his erotic urges into the sadistic punishments he metes out to the ship’s crew. (All those whippings start to seem pretty kinky after a while.) Lloyd’s sturdy but impersonal direction is ultimately more focused on meeting the production’s considerable technical challenges than in teasing out all of this psychosexual subtext, but he never loses sight of the fact that this is, at heart, a story about men in conflict. Perhaps it’s a fitting epilogue then that the film’s three male leads (Laughton, Gable, and Franchot Tone) were all nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, and all of them lost. Watson

What Should Have Won: The Informer

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


12 Years a Slave (2013)

Steve McQueen, as is his wont, is largely content to craft images and sounds that strongly convey atmosphere and evoke great horrors but are less visualizations of human feeling than artistic posturing. Take 12 Years a Slave’s opening shot, an artfully framed overhead of a plate containing a drab piece of meat and bread and a few blackberries whose juices the educated Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who’s warned to feign illiteracy for the sake of his survival, will use to craft a letter to potential saviors back in New York. McQueen only implies Solomon’s realization of how he can repurpose the blackberry juice as ink, transfixing us instead with the beauty with which the juice circles around the plate as Solomon tilts it from side to side. This manner of giving primacy to the fastidiously composed image over human emotion is repeated when Solomon, after his intentions have come to light, burns the letter he’s written, the embers of the flame suggesting a vast universe’s dying stars. It’s an impossibly gorgeous image, poetic in its implications, though it isn’t preferable to the one that was meticulously left off screen: the dissolving of hope from Solomon’s face. Gonzalez

What Should Have Won: Her

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Titanic (1997)

So The Onion headline wryly read, “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg.” Agreed. As Kate Winslet’s own Freud-referencing character snips, Titanic is epic cinema’s grandest erection, and when James Cameron’s near-scale model set of the towering hulk of steel that was, at the time, the largest ship in the world severs down the middle, it then becomes the most vulgar representation of castration to ever cause millions of heartwarmed teenage girls to choke sobs into their fists. It’s a ready-made sarcophagus for everything that’s vulgar in mainstream cinema. Titanic both embodies and validates the excess that is its own subject. And it’s arguably the most artlessly touching disaster movie of all. No, really. Time and a number of equally irony-free blockbusters in the interim (including Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and the entire Lord of the Rings weep-cycle) have dulled its impact somewhat, but Titanic was Cameron’s strike against technophiliac hyper-masculinity in adventure features and a splashing, pre-millennial introduction to a premonitory brand of earnest, new-age spectacle. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: L.A. Confidential

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

This meandering, misleadingly titled film wants to be both a dramatization of the Dreyfus Affair and the biography of an artist whose career added up to much more than his involvement in that infamous scandal. It opens with Zola (Paul Muni) and his friend Cézanne (Vladimir Sokoloff) practically acting out the beginning of La Bohème: starving in a Paris garret, burning a manuscript for warmth while avoiding the landlord. The scene is conspicuously artificial, an ill-considered aesthetic choice by director William Dieterle for the life story of a celebrated naturalist, both in his muckraking journalism and social-realist novels. The screenplay scrambles through biopic backstory, traveling, in just two or three reels, all the way up to the 1894 case of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (Joseph Schildkraut), convicted of treason on flimsy evidence because of widespread anti-Semitism—though the film never acknowledges such bigotry. Instead, The Life of Emile Zola depicts the case as a rousing but generic injustice, shaking Zola from elder-statesman complacency. The writer’s rediscovered optimism and outrage (“J’accuse”!) feel designed to stir up old-fashioned American values, such as justice and benevolence. The film argues, with varying success, that such ideals persisted because of the works of men such as Zola, even if we’ve forgotten them. Henry Stewart

What Should Have Won: The Awful Truth

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


In the Heat of the Night (1967)

Despite the tense cutting of Hal Ashby’s Oscar-winning editing, the murder mystery that anchors In the Heat of the Night is its least interesting aspect. The real suspense comes not from who killed a prominent white man in Mississippi, but from whether Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) can deal with being less skilled than Philadelphia’s suave, urbanite detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier). Gillespie outranks Tibbs on the police force and, in society’s eyes, on the basis of skin color. But he knows he’s outmatched and so does Virgil. Whether In the Heat of the Night was the first studio film to explicitly present an African-American character as better than his white counterpart is debatable. What’s not up for debate is how the film enjoys rubbing that notion in, especially in the scene where Tibbs violates the unspoken rules of centuries of white supremacy by slapping the hell out of the most powerful man in town. In the Heat of the Night avoids the usual message-picture trappings by ending on an unsentimental, ambiguous note. One senses that it sees its main characters’ begrudging mutual respect for each other as an exception to the rules of race-based interaction rather than a change to be celebrated. Odie Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Graduate

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Hamlet (1948)

Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare films generally lack personality, because the actor-director’s guiding interest is one of fidelity to the source texts. Case in point, Hamlet restricts action, blocking, and dialogue to conventional setups that allow the play itself to take center stage. In 1948, this approach made a certain amount of functional sense: These films were a means to allow those who lived outside of major metropolitan areas the chance to see the works performed in the dominant medium of the time. Viewed today, Olivier’s conservative visual choices prove frustrating and undemanding, from the basic continuity editing during the fog-filled opening to the pedestrian framing of Hamlet’s death. See Orson Welles’s Macbeth, also released in 1948, instead for its elaborate set design and overpowering depth of field—a decidedly more cinematic adaptation of the Bard for the silver screen. Dillard

What Should Have Won: The Red Shoes

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Ordinary People (1980)

Suicide and depression are topics often handled clumsily in films, used as a symbol, a metaphor, a lazy narrative device (think of Tom Ford’s A Single Man, the shiny, bastardized adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel, which turns the ethereal depiction of a flawed man in mourning into a cliché gay martyr), or else with inane sentimentality (the beloved Shawshank Redemption). It makes life, innately fugacious, feel like a device, a means. Robert Redford’s Ordinary People is one of the few “prestige” pictures that treats suicide, and the longing for death that depression inspires, with earnestness. It makes mental illness seem, so to speak, normal, not a shameful affliction. There’s progress, setbacks, self-doubt—flaws and follies of humans are, in a way, not dissimilar to those of a film, and in its imperfection, Ordinary People plumbs a depth other mainstream films rarely do. If Redford occasionally slips into derivation with his camerawork (he’s never really developed his own style behind the camera), he at least commits to the cathartic uncertainty of love, of its inevitable end, in the film’s final moments. Greg Cwik

What Should Have Won: Raging Bull