Fox Searchlight Pictures

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

20

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia works best not in the moments when director David Lean is aiming to overwhelm with bright, busy frames bustling with activity, but when he’s crafting more subtle effects. For a grand epic, much of the film’s running time is actually dedicated to stark, minimalist sequences of wandering through the desert. In that respect, Lawrence of Arabia belongs as much to a very different continuity of films, from John Ford’s 3 Godfathers to Werner Herzog’s Fata Morgana or Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, all films where the mystical and isolating quality of the desert plays a very important role. Lean crafts many minimal, forbidding sequences dominated by Rothkoesque simple landscapes, with two colors separated from one another by a horizontal line—pale blue on top and white on the bottom, often with the black specks of camels trotting across the sand. Images like that define Lawrence of Arabia. Sure, there are plenty of more traditional epic moments: big battle scenes and rousing speeches and military parades and big trains of soldiers winding through the desert. But the film is even more striking when it’s not trying to be big, when it’s working on a smaller scale within its huge canvas. Ed Howard

What Should Have Won: Lawrence of Arabia

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

19

It Happened One Night (1934)

When It Happened One Night hit theaters, it was middle-class men and women who fully embraced the film. And Frank Capra clearly revels in the faces, mannerisms, and talents of the less fortunate, as in a late sequence where Peter Warne (Clark Gable) waves not only to the conductor, but the homeless man riding on the top of the train and a boxcar full of other bums. At another point, a trio of random bus passengers, commoners trying to go home or get away from it, provides impromptu entertainment for their fellow travelers by singing. The common folk that Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin present here are, at heart, entertainers both good and bad, people who use storytelling and performance as a way to grapple with bad luck and anxious existence. Taken in all at once, they create a wild pulse of society and community in Capra’s exquisite comedy, of the unknown abilities and wisdoms that the person next to you in traffic carries around, sometimes without even knowing it. On their own, these moments summon everyday passions and expressions that remain quiet until fortuitously called upon, revealing the unexpected dividends of chance. Cabin

What Should Have Won: It Happened One Night

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

18

Platoon (1986)

Platoon is a lacerating eulogy for America’s militaristic ideal. Standing in not only for director Oliver Stone, but for those who were lucky or rich enough to garner a deferment, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) walks off a plane in the opening scene and essentially comes into contact with two presaged variations of himself: a black body bag being hauled onto one plane, and a hardened, defeated veteran getting on another. Those two images become lodged in Taylor’s mind as he begins his tour of duty with the 35th Infantry Regiment, led by Lieutenant Wolfe (Mark Moses) but essentially run by the opposing forces of Staff Sergeant Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe). Opposing parallels abound in Stone’s film, from a bunker filled with hash-smoking, Motown-loving grunts to a den of poker-playing, Budweiser-chugging, Confederate-flag-hanging privates, but they all trickle down from the free-thinking humanist ideals of Elias and the let-God-sort-them-out “reality” of Barnes, making Barnes’s eventual fragging of Elias a fascinating turning point for Taylor. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert challenged François Truffaut’s claim that war films are essentially flawed because all war films inherently depict war as “fun” at some point. In truth, the war film only shares that universal flaw of narrative cinema, which is that we are merely experiencing a depiction, and thus, in Platoon, as in all great war films, we are witnessing the depiction of a most staggering atrocity and are thankfully protected from the full emotional weight of the actual atrocity. Still, surfacing from the onslaught of Stone’s film, one can feel a shedding of a certain innocence and taste a bitter wisdom that only great films, no matter their chosen genre, can pass on. Cabin

What Should Have Won: Platoon

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

17

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy waves the flag of New Hollywood cinema high. It takes the promise of a youthful, even dangerous American cinema offered by Bonnie & Clyde in 1967 and runs with it, assembling method acting, colorful characters, and experimental formal technique into a new form of studio picture with one eye on the counterculture, the other on commercial accessibility. Director John Schlesinger, whose previous films were seminal works that helped establish the tone of British New Wave cinema, approaches Waldo Salt’s screenplay as a hybrid formation pitched between the worlds of Warhol and Hollywood. The perceived promiscuity of the fading ’60s is one of the film’s core themes, with scenes set at drug-fueled parties, inside decrepit NYC apartments, and on bustling streets, all of which gives insight into both the psychology of a generation and, more to the point, the rambunctious inclinations of those filmmakers that would come to comprise a new dawn of studio filmmaking. Dillard

What Should Have Won: Midnight Cowboy

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

16

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

The story of a woman who becomes a boxing sensation after winning the affections of her would-be manager, Million Dollar Baby casts Hilary Swank as the David to Clint Eastwood’s Goliath. Told with the kind of lyrical stoicism and rough-hewn sentimentality that suggests a gravel-voiced grandfather recounting war stories while chugging jiggers of scotch, the film envisions an elegiac boulevard of broken dreams where characters drown in the spiritual anemia of noir shadows. It’s across a very wide gender and cultural divide that Maggie Fitzgerald (Swank), a 31-year-old waitress who “grew up knowing she was trash,” appeals to the crotchety Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), a man whose failure as a father is hauntingly mirrored in his failures as a coach. Unlike any boxing film before it, Million Dollar Baby gets down to the existential nitty-gritty of the sport; of course, it should come as no surprise that Eastwood, whose films are directed and cut like great jazz pieces, reveres movement the way he does, evoking every physical step Swank makes inside the ring as the dance of a wandering soul. The filmmaker, who similarly observes the wear and tear his characters take to the flesh in the same way they suffer inside, evokes life as a journey of shared consciousness. By film’s end, Frank, referred to as a “fucking pagan” by a local priest, finds his holy spirit and negotiates God under his own terms, performing a final act of contrition so powerful and serene you can almost see his soul being set at ease during the film’s melancholic final shot. Truly, this is a man that has successfully rolled with life’s punches. Gonzalez

What Should Have Won: Million Dollar Baby

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

15

Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight captures an awful texture of human nature with an unusual degree of understanding: that the more we need something, the less others are inclined to give it to us. The lonely are often guaranteed to remain so, as others can smell this loneliness, greeting it with contemptuous disgust. Throughout the film, sex and kinship are treated as secrets among other people, bonding rituals that Chiron has been decisively and unfairly denied, as he’s been relegated to an asexual and solitary plane with his socially indoctrinated self-hatred. This is why the use of three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) to play one character proves so resonant. No matter who Chiron becomes, people can discern his core and brutally reject him until he preemptively rejects himself, finding comfort in echoes of the past, such as how his adult bed reminds him of the sheets in the guest room at Juan’s (Mahershala Ali) house. Reinventing himself as a drug dealer, in a nod to Juan, Chiron remains at his core a haunted, stunted virgin. Moonlight is so profoundly moving because Jenkins refuses to condescend to Chiron’s misery with glibness, and this beautiful relentlessness scans as artistic reverence. Bowen

What Should Have Won: Manchester by the Sea

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

14

The Hurt Locker (2009)

As a political text deliberately limited to a grunt’s view of the Iraq War circa 2004, The Hurt Locker is neither recruiting pamphlet nor antiwar tract. Nevertheless, glimpses of the conflict can’t help but burn through the project’s professed neutrality. What other moment in recent cinema, after all, more piercingly captures the mutual horror of people in the area (occupying forces as well as resistance fighters) than the scene in which Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner) frantically scrambles to remove the time bomb that’s been strapped to a distraught Iraqi? In a flash, as the two men exchange desperate looks and the explosive ticks away, the dismay of people forced together and trying to deal with an impossible situation is forcefully laid out. Just as evocative is a later moment when, uneasily back home with his estranged family, William suddenly freezes before a wall of supermarket cereal boxes. For the “good warrior,” the variety of civilian decision turns out to be more disorientating than the grim single-mindedness of combat. Only a harrowing and subversive work like Hurt Locker could envision the protagonist’s closing appearance in the “kill zone” as both a daredevil’s personal triumph and a dead man’s walk. Croce

What Should Have Won: The Hurt Locker

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

13

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Few war films can match Lewis Milestone’s technically and artistically groundbreaking All Quiet on the Western Front for relentless despair or elemental fury—both on and off the battlefield. Through both the refreshingly unsubtle rendering of its anti-war themes and a pre-Searchers doorway motif that suggests that we view these events as if from naïve, domesticated eyes, the film eschews the typically visceral nature of on-screen action, instead supplanting it with a sickening monotony that borders on nauseating, the camera often down in the dirt and mud with the men and every thunderous explosion as shuddering and final as the last. All Quiet on the Western Front may well feature the most ambitious sound design of the early talkies, and while early mixing equipment was technically primitive compared to what moviegoers have experienced for the past decades, such limitations add immeasurably to the artistic fabric of this film; the rawness of the audio eradicates any lingering notion that war is romantic or exciting, and at times suggests the very battered eardrums of those engaged in combat. Humanick

What Should Have Won: All Quiet on the Western Front

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

12

No Country for Old Men (2007)

No Country for Old Men laments with confused, terrified resignation the dawn of a new, more insane age—or, as one cop puts it, “the dismal tide.” Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is the story’s nominal good-guy detective, attempting to figure out the who, what, where, when, and why of Vietnam vet Llewelyn Moss’s (Josh Brolin) disappearance and the carnage wrought by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), but he’s really just a street sweeper, left to clean up the mess left in these two younger men’s wakes. Joel and Ethan Coen’s concise, efficient script proficiently captures Cormac McCarthy’s melancholic view of old-young disparities, whether it be Ed Tom’s utilization of horses to scour the desolate desert for clues, or his bafflement at the callous disregard for the dead (and propriety) shown by a guy transporting corpses to the morgue. Meanwhile, their economical, decidedly un-flashy direction (mimicking McCarthy’s writing, and aided by longtime collaborator Roger Deakins’s beautifully severe cinematography) repeatedly conveys narrative undercurrents in entrancingly subtle ways, such that the plethora of animal carcasses, instances of man-versus-beast violence, and Ed Tom’s yarn about a slaughterhouse mishap coalesce into a chilling portrait of anarchic interspecies warfare. Brusque exchanges and austere violence are the story’s stock in trade, with both elements so downbeat and harsh that they occasionally veer close to absurdity, thereby providing the Coens with opportunities to wryly alleviate the oppressive despair and viciousness that hovers over the proceedings in the same way that the enormous western landscape and its weighty silence hang over its human inhabitants. As Ed Tom says in reference to a particularly grim anecdote, “I laugh sometimes. ’Bout the only thing you can do.” Schager

What Should Have Won: No Country for Old Men

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

11

The French Connection (1971)

More than four decades after its initial release, William Friedkin’s Oscar-sweeper remains an electrifying achievement, drawing its high-voltage forward momentum from the collision of semi-documentary procedural, with its based-on-real-events verisimilitude, and downbeat rogue-cop revisionism. Shooting in actual locations wherever possible, and availing themselves of the featherweight handheld cameras that enabled the development of the Direct Cinema movement, Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman put the grit into “gritty authenticity.” But that’s only half the equation. Ernest Tidyman’s script tweaks buddy-cop stereotypes by compelling the audience to identify with a bigoted and obsessive loose cannon whose actions grow increasingly questionable, and subverts the tidy moral resolution demanded by genre convention, reflecting a darker, more ambivalent worldview, simultaneously hearkening back to the post-WWII high tide of film noir and resonant with Vietnam-era anxieties and tensions. Budd Wilkins

What Should Have Won: The Last Picture Show

Previous

Next