Fox Searchlight Pictures

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

10

Unforgiven (1992)

Mythologies haunt Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Set primarily in 1880 and 1881 along a trail between Wyoming and Kansas, the elder characters of the film talk of their violent pasts while younger men eagerly listen, waiting to prove themselves. David Webb Peoples’s screenplay resembles a series of nesting one-scene plays, a few of which end in moments of violence that shatter the younger generation’s illusions of the masculine grandeur of killing. At times, Eastwood goes out of his way to emphasize the pitiful and demoralizing chaos of murder, particularly when one of the film’s villains is shot to death in an outhouse, his eyes alive with unforgettable terror. Twenty-five years after Unforgiven’s initial release, it’s still distinctive to watch an American revenge film in which violence is accorded this sort of awful and surreal weight. Looking to the notorious William Munny (Eastwood) for comfort after his initiation into murder, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) says that the killing doesn’t feel real, evincing a poetically human response to atrocity that’s unusual for genre cinema. Eastwood and Peoples often juxtapose legendary killers, the protagonists and primary antagonists of the film, with outsiders, supporting characters such as the Schofield Kid and the writer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who blithely echo our own distanced and worshipful embrace of violence in pop art, as a transmitted energy that’s divorced of the ramifications of the destruction it simulates. Bowen

What Should Have Won: Unforgiven

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

9

On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront remains an incredibly stirring and relevant melodrama. Director Elia Kazan conjured an illusion of docudrama spontaneity with his on-location shooting that allows him to stage images with psychological symbolism and religious metaphor with relative subtlety. Beyond the famous crucifixion imagery, there’s also the generally cramped sense that characterizes many of the domestic and street sequences. You’re allowed to feel and see the figurative and literal cages that confine the exploited and poverty-stricken characters as they make their way to the docks as well as to their shoebox apartments and bars as the endless winter wind beats against their faces, which bracingly contrast with the open, free-floating moments Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) shares with his would-be lover, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Brando’s brilliance resided in his ability to elevate universal, elemental yearning to the level of myth; he voices what many people may find to be inexpressible, and Kazan and cinematographer Boris Kaufman’s staging renders that myth as earthbound as it’s ever going to be. On the Waterfront is a Hollywood fantasy with an unusually distinct atmosphere of disenfranchised frustration that remains contemporary, which is to say that it fulfills an audience member’s daydream of grandeur while fulfilling his or her desire to see a film that speaks directly to their experience. (Mean Streets, Rocky, Raging Bull, and many others are unthinkable without this film.) Kazan’s ultimate gift may have been his pomposity: He read a gangster story and said, “This is my story, this is our story.” Bowen

What Should Have Won: On the Waterfront

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

8

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

With The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme made an honest to goodness horror film, one that’s “respectable,” by marrying the gloom and hyper-articulate Britishness of a Hammer Films production with the contemplated restraint of something “serious.” Nothing in Demme’s eclectic oeuvre suggested he was the filmmaker to adapt Thomas Harris’s clinically dour novel, yet the filmmaker, fresh off Married to the Mob, turned the lugubrious story of a cannibalistic psychiatrist and a serial killer who flenses hefty women and makes suits of their skin into a love story tinctured with notions of queerness. In his less than 20 minutes of screen time, Anthony Hopkins dines on scenery decadently, as if enjoying a fine meal, though the film ultimately belongs to Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, a neophyte and outsider (recall her standing a full head below the wall of men clad in red shirts in the elevator). It’s a film whose genre identity is muddled, two kinds of aesthetic/thematic work conflated, not unlike the flamboyant and sybarite Hannibal Lecter, with his dexterous sense of smell and penchant for the fine arts, left to rot in a dungeon-like cell adorned with drawings of Florence, done from memory. “Memories are all I have.” He’s one of the scariest cinematic villains because his penchant for violence is disguised by rarefied tastes. Where Michael Myers disappears into the night at the end of Halloween, the sound of his breathing filling the silence, Lector disappears into the blighting of day, as Clarice’s voice echoes, “Dr. Lector, Dr. Lector, Dr. Lector…” He’s now with her forever. Cwik

What Should Have Won: The Silence of the Lambs

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

7

Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca is cloaked in a respectability for which it’s yet to be entirely forgiven. The film taught Hitchcock a key lesson in dissonance and contrast, as the Selznick-ian glamour of the sets and actors heightens our awareness of what’s not being directly mentioned: the erotic suppression that drives the narrative. In his early British thrillers, Hitchcock used German expressionist tricks to conjure notions of evil and dread. After Rebecca, Hitchcock would infuse such dread in bourgeoisie comedies of manners, occasionally springing formalist tricks to highlight key emotional shifts. Films such as Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie refract their obsessions through a central triangle or rectangle, though Rebecca never achieves that focus. However, the film remains a key illustration of Hitchcock’s gift for fashioning emotional architecture. Every room in Manderley, a hall of mirrors of sexual resentment and taboo carnality, thrums with menace and longing that’s baked into bric-a-brac that tells many tales. It’s a pivotal work in the evolution of an artist’s poetry of sickness. Bowen

What Should Have Won: Rebecca

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

6

The Godfather (1972)

From the opening zoom, as deliberate and controlled as an experienced killer, to that final closed door and all that it insinuates, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is the most restrained of epics—a story of family and murder, loyalty and betrayal, all shrouded in Gordon Willis’s chiaroscuro shadows. It’s an operatic mix of artistic resolution and pulpy entertainment, probably the greatest example of a film being “better than the book.” In the scene when Clemenza (Richard Castellano) is taking a leak as his consort shoots a snitch inside a nearby car, undulating beige reeds take up half of the frame as the Statue of Liberty looms small in the background. Behold the immaculate but unfussy precision of the composition, and, after the gun shots fade, the cut to a smiling Clemenza as he zips up. It’s a meticulously constructed scene, and it’s known for Clemenza’s insouciant (and improvised) uttering of “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” The film is, by this point, a ubiquitous cultural presence, its dialogue and visual moments ingrained in the cinematic lexicon, but this familiarity has done little to dull its power. Cwik

What Should Have Won: The Godfather

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

5

Annie Hall (1977)

The protraction of Annie Hall’s first act is absolutely necessary, because by the time the introductions are over, so are Annie (Diane Keaton) and Alvy (Woody Allen)—a brilliantly spring-loaded narrative trap that’s abetted by the fact that Annie’s very first scene isn’t cute or la-de-da at all, but of a woman chomping at the bit of an unhappy relationship, fully immersed in the therapy her partner talked her into in the first place. She’s snuck into the film, in a way, but Woody/Alvy keep the jokes coming, and the narrative doubles back to paint the picture of their once-happy courtship—another in a subset of false beginnings. The one-liners, still gut-busting after 40 years, paint over the Annie/Alvy fissures until there’s nothing left to do but face facts, and even then, there’s the line about the dead shark, the confrontation with the L.A. cop, Tony Roberts’s hilarious sun mask, etc. The timeline of the couple’s relationship is illuminated in a non-linear, blackout-sketch style, creating a collage effect, in which the causality-based explanation of their split dissipates: Scenes from a Marriage scrambled by a variety program of ceaseless experimentation. Christley

What Should Have Won: Annie Hall

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

4

The Godfather Part II (1974)

Vito (Robert De Niro) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) lead lives that exist in a bog of moral ambiguity. From Gordon Willis’s crepuscular lighting to Ninoa Rota’s funereal score, The Godfather Part II seems to flow from the earlier film. Francis Ford Coppola’s dissolves carry us, like a parent holding a sleeping child, from scenes of a young Vito trying to make ends meet to an increasingly vindictive Michael; Coppola draws parallels and dichotomies between these two men and the way they approach business and the way they treat their families. The careful pairing of past and present shows, with startling diligence given the sordid material, how Vito’s use of violence possesses a kind of Sicilian honor that Michael, face consumed by shadow, gradually loses. Four decades later, the film remains an anomaly, a sequel that matches (some say surpasses) its predecessor, an Oscar-winning epic that found ubiquitous pop-culture appeal and made bank at the box office. Coppola and his coterie of editors cut the film lyrically and sinuously, weaving into the narrative themes of capitalism, family, love, and betrayal, conjuring visual metaphors from the chiaroscuro lighting and sepia-toned compositions. The two tales of men—one good but capable of bad, the other good but made craven and unrepentant—plumbs the unfathomable depths in the dark heart of humanity, the cruelties skulking in that darkness. Cwik

What Should Have Won: The Godfather Part II

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

3

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Though the Morgans’ various serialized stories (told in mini-bildungsroman form through a much older Huw’s narration) sometimes betray How Green Was My Valley’s origins as a novel, they’re held together by the connecting thread that unites those two basic plot threads. The two things that give men their sense of purpose—God and work—both come home to roost in the place that gives women theirs, and if the dysfunction of the former invariably leads to the dismantlement of the latter (each of the Morgan sons sets sail for America or wherever else they can find work), it’s the institution of home that allows everyone to soldier on through strife in the male-dominated arenas. A square message, to be sure, especially since John Ford’s uncompromising The Grapes of Wrath didn’t even allow the pitiable Joads a home at all. But beneath the unobjectionable veneer of nostalgia and the too-pleasant anonymity of those salt-of-the-earth types, Ford’s social conscience convinces. It would be hard to miss given how often he has the camera positioned low enough to look up to his subjects. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: How Green Was My Valley

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

2

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was the film Americans knew they needed, but likely few realized how badly they also wanted it. As has happened with other films in that position before and since, its achievements seemed to take on a force-of-nature patina; it was the highest-grossing film since Gone with the Wind and missed tying that epic’s then-record number of Oscar wins by just one trophy. A prime example of American middlebrow writ on an epic scale in service of universalizing its themes and messages, the film follows three veterans who, having returned home after spending years in the life-or-death panic of World War II, now find themselves all chasing oblivion. If The Best Years of Our Lives emerges as a more contemporary-seeing film than almost anything else to which its ingredients could compare, it’s because of how frankly it wrestles with the burden of patriotism. The nation’s problems are right there in plain sight, just as clear as cinematographer Gregg Toland’s typically precise deep-focus shots. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Best Years of Our Lives

All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

1

All About Eve (1950)

The depth of All About Eve’s social rancor is virtually unparalleled in classic film. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s effervescent cynicism is as observant as Billy Wilder’s, but while the latter views human nature as a set of perpetually losing odds one must wager against regardless, the former understands the essence of relationships as a constantly shifting compromise of ego. The film is a sour exploration of the raw deal offered to both sexes by gender roles, and how we strive to regain that lost ground through interpersonal viciousness. What makes Mankiewicz’s approach gently revolutionary is the female leads’ reluctance to sit back and passively transform from objects of desire into (bluntly) mothers or wives. Even Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), whose transparent deception is still the film’s least interesting aspect, sees her attractiveness as the means to an end: It’s power, not sex, that she wants. The film’s climax, where Eve’s web unravels around her throat, and its cyclical epilogue may put her and Margo Channing (Bette Davis) back in their place with far-fetched ferocity. But Mankiewicz grants them their dreams with surprisingly little patriarchal compromise: Margo escapes the stage’s unforgiving clutches, and Eve wins success at what is, really, a nominal social fee. The refreshing implication is not that women need men to succeed, but that both sexes may need one another to keep their respective evils in check. Joseph Jon Lanthier

What Should Have Won: All About Eve

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