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


The Last Emperor (1987)

Language is only one factor in The Last Emperor's negotiation of East and West. That struggle is embedded in Bernardo Bertolucci's exoticizing gaze, which never fails to relish the details of palace customs, such as a turtle swimming in a bowl of soup or a dance by Tibetan lamas. It isn't Bertolucci's goal to get us acclimated to our surroundings; at times, the Forbidden City is shot like a busily designed sci-fi/fantasy set, turning foreign style into gaudy artifice. But this is a film that makes a case for the exoticizing gaze as a mode native to the movie camera, and for exoticism as a natural interest of the cinema, insofar as the act of filmmaking is tied to the creation of spectacle. In its position in the chronology of film history (predating Zhang Yimou's Ju Dou, the first mainland Chinese film to be nominated for a foreign-language Oscar), there's no way for The Last Emperor to dissociate from notions of the “exotic.” But the perspective from which it regards the Forbidden City seems accurate not only to the way foreigners would view it, but also to the way Chinese people are encouraged to view their own history—as a tourist attraction or amusement park—in the wake of headlong modernization. Andrew Chan

What Should Have Won: Hope and Glory

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Grand Hotel (1932)

Why make a film with both John and Lionel Barrymore, to say nothing of Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, when you could make two films separately with each of them and, presumably, make double your money? This was the company line that Irving Thalberg found himself at odds with when he decided to cast all four (and more) in his adaptation of William A. Drake's Broadway smash Grand Hotel. Thalberg's revelation was one of decadence, allowing the audience to luxuriate in those monumental visages all at once, but the film only works because director Edmund Goulding gives his spaces the same power and art-deco glamour as his performers. Garbo and Crawford are patiently unveiled, as they should be, but the director frontloads the film with his male stars and their various plotlines in immediate and immediately engaging montage, only to further introduce the pulp of the film's expertly weaved narrative with a bravura lobby sequence that makes stunning use of overhead crane shooting by famed DP William H. Daniels. Cabin

What Should Have Won: Shanghai Express

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Gone with the Wind (1939)

For generations, Gone with the Wind wasn't merely the grandest movie from Hollywood's Golden Age. It represented the entire concept of “the movies” incarnate. But even that achievement wouldn't have sustained its prominence in pop culture for this long alone. (After all, how many proletariat still talk about The Big Parade?) David O. Selznick's recreation of the antebellum South and its demise in the Civil War serves primarily as the epic backdrop for author Margaret Mitchell's indomitable belle Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), and just as Scarlett manages to get under everyone's skin throughout the film's four-hour running time, so too has the film itself managed to pick away at the scabs of America's own dark history. Never before nor since has there been a problematic text of this magnitude. Gone with the Wind is a self-sustaining force for critical exploration, a virulently racist monument, an ahead-of-its-time feminist triumph, and a hell of a great story. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: Stagecoach

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Not as biting as the disavowal of the immediate family in Bob Rafelson's masterpiece Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest allows R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) a sense of family and companionship during the latter half of the film, a devoted sense of feeling that inevitably leads to his downfall. And the emotional devastation of the ending remains potent more than 40 years after the film's initial release. There's so much charisma and charm to the film that the breakneck denouement can't help but punch you in the gut. As the gargantuan Native American Chief (Will Sampson) finally “tries” and succeeds to lift the granite water dispenser, thrusting it out the window and escaping into the wilderness, the full impact of McMurphy's presence as a cause for change comes into focus. Seeing that energy, that lust for life in someone else, becomes the film's greatest joy, and watching it drain out of Nicholson's character its greatest tragedy. When such a spark becomes labeled insane, or queer, or unnatural, the true definition of crazy becomes a socially accepted cure. Glenn Heath Jr.

What Should Have Won: Nashville

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Amadeus (1984)

As A.O. Scott once noted, “Cinematic biographies of the famous are not documentaries. They are allegories: narrative vessels into which meanings and morals are packed like raisins in an oatmeal cookie; modern, secular equivalents of medieval lives of the saints; cautionary tales and beacons of aspiration.” Perhaps no film better exemplifies this principle than Milos Forman's Amadeus, which takes a reed-thin historical rumor about the supposed rivalry between composers Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) and inflates it into a mythopoetic morality play about creativity, genius, and professional jealousy. Featuring spectacular stagings of some of Mozart's best-loved operas, the film luxuriates in the details of its cartoonishly decadent recreation of 18th-century Vienna: the flamboyant parties, lavish interiors, and outrageous Marie-Antoinette-meets-Billy-Idol wigs. But Forman never lets the grandeur overshadow the tragedy at the film's heart: the anguish of a man whose passion to create beautiful music vastly outstrips his talent. Watson

What Should Have Won: Amadeus

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


Casablanca (1942)

There are, of course, the close-ups when Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) see each other for the first time as Sam plays “As Time Goes By,” but there's also the furtive glance they throw at one another for an instant, before their eyes flicker back to the table, as they sit chatting about precedents being broken with Victor and Renaud. Those are the times that Casablanca resonates not only as a great example of the films being made during the studio era, but also as a reminder of moments we've had ourselves. It's a movie that inspires nostalgia. Casablanca is about striving for something meaningful. It's also a tale of sacrifice in the name of greater good, set in a mysterious world of shadows, booze, cigarette smoke, and memories. The love story at the center of the film allows its heroes to tap into something special within their selves, and if they lost it in Paris, somehow they got it back in Casablanca. The film is all of those things at once, but it's also about these people, these faces, and all the little moments between them. It reminds me that when we're in relationships, we learn more about who we are reflected in other people, and when we go to the movies, the great ones can do the same thing. Jeremiah Kipp

What Should Have Won: The Ox-Bow Incident

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

For all of its visual grandeur, technical sophistication, and rousing action, David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai is fundamentally a character study about the way that normal behavior becomes insanity in wartime. Colonels Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) and Nicholson (Alec Guinness) are both professionals merely trying to do their duties to the best of their abilities. Saito, the Japanese commander of a POW camp, sees nothing wrong in using torture and other acts that violate the Geneva Convention to accomplish his assigned task: building a bridge over the eponymous river. The British Nicholson, a career soldier, pushes his own men to the breaking point to build the bridge in order to prove the superiority of the English, even though the bridge will ultimately aid in the Japanese war effort. The side plot involving U.S. Commander Shears (William Holden) is forgettable, and Lean whitewashes the brutality of the Japanese and the inhumanity of the POWs' working conditions, but the strange dance of opposition and cooperation between Saito and Nicholson makes for one of cinema's oddest and most compelling relationships. Countless films have proposed that war is madness, but few have so effectively demonstrated that such folly is the inevitable result of simply doing one's patriotic duty. Ivanov

What Should Have Won: 12 Angry Men

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


An American in Paris (1951)

Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris features starving artists living that imaginary ideal Parisian life of constant song, dance, and antics. Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), an ex-GI with aspirations to paint, stayed in the city after the war and is now torn between two love interests: Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), a young girl who works at a perfume shop, and Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy heiress who could really help his career. The musical is best remembered for its extravagant finale: the “American in Paris” ballet set to the George Gershwin orchestral work that gave the film its name. The 17-minute coda of abstract storytelling through music, dance, and cinematography is radical, transforming ballet-stage content into sophisticated cinema, employing a huge ensemble on a soundstage larger than any dance theater could reasonably accommodate. But the film's strongest scene comes earlier: the musical performance of “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” set on the banks of the Seine. Though each has another love interest, Jerry and Lise fall for each other here not through words (though Kelly sings), but through movement, as they're drawn toward each other and push each other away on a misty purple evening. The magic of the real Paris is distilled into a few elementals: stone, water, and starlight. The lovers seem to dance in the shadow of Notre Dame, below a backlot Pont de l'Archevêché, but you can't quite make out those landmarks, because the emphasis here isn't on the extravagant, such as that church's gothic architecture, but on simpler, more basic things. Kelly and Caron hold their hands behind their backs, as if to control their sexual urges, moving in unison but apart until they can't take it anymore. The dancers fold into a kiss, their bodies curling into each other. It's not dazzling like the final scene, but it's no less extraordinary. Stewart

What Should Have Won: A Streetcar Named Desire

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


The Apartment (1960)

What's really changed about office life in New York City since 1960? I started working in an office in 1987 and I saw guys just like C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon). They were all yuppied up, like Charlie Sheen in Wall Street, but they were still brownnosers hoping to make their bones and live the regal New York City lives of their jet-setting evil managers. Billy Wilder showed that the best way to get ahead is to let your boss use your apartment to get head. Like King Vidor before him and Mike Judge after him, Wilder showed how the climb up the corporate ladder can be filled with soul-sapping broken rungs. Except Wilder, like Sidney Lumet, makes New York City a character in his films. You sense that Baxter believes if he can make it here, he can make it anywhere, even if it means having to sleep in a bed with wet spots he didn't coax out of their owners. Wilder also proves, as films like The Pawnbroker, The Lost Weekend, and Manhattan did, that the Big Apple looks better in black and white. Odie Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Apartment

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked


The Lost Weekend (1945)

Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend is a clammy, noirish expedition into the darkest depths of alcoholism. Based on Charles R. Jackson's semi-autobiographical novel, the film traces failed writer Don Birnham's (Ray Milland) inexorable four-day bender, from the first soothing tipple to the final agonizing withdrawals. With tartly sardonic dialogue courtesy of Wilder and his long-time writing partner Charles Brackett, the film captures the desperation and despair of a man who keeps returning to the bottle even though he knows it's destroying him. Filming on the streets of New York and in Bellevue Hospital's alcoholic ward, Wilder presents Don's addiction with an unsettling verisimilitude, culminating in the film's most legendary sequence: a nightmarishly vivid bout of the DTs. But no mere social document, The Lost Weekend is also a powerful existentialist parable worthy of Albert Camus—a bleak and brutal confrontation with the absurdity of existence that uses Don's cycle of addiction as a metaphor for humankind's search for meaning. After spending the entire film asking only where his next drink will come from, Don finally finds himself cut off, sober, and forced to face a much deeper question: What do I have to live for? Watson

What Should Have Won: The Lost Weekend