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The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

This year’s TV revealed new characters and narrative landscapes that cumulatively push toward artistic expression and personal liberation.

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The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016
Photo: Netflix

Much like the interweaving two worlds of HBO’s Westworld, the ones who make the place and the place itself, 2016 advanced two visions of where television is heading. The year’s biggest populist debuts—Westworld, Stranger Things, and This Is Us, to name just three—borrowed frameworks and ideas from a host of familiar sources in a counterintuitive attempt to make something truly their own. Those three shows in particular seem to not-so-quietly want to be about every social injustice under the sun while also being a calculated entertainment, one that has no patience for the complexities of race, sexism, violence, nostalgia, fiscal well-being, and self-knowledge.

This is where the second vision comes in. Former web series like Insecure and High Maintenance found fascinating new pockets of story and behavior, given a bit more money to experiment with music, bigger names, and broader canvases, courtesy of HBO. The Girlfriend Experience allowed two sharp, unmerciful directors—Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz—to open up about the psychological undercurrents of female prostitution and gender roles in a strikingly nonjudgmental way. Shows like this, unafraid of contradictions and complicated scenarios, suggest the salad days of 1990s American independent film, where proven talents were given creative freedom and a little extra funding to further their idiosyncratic takes on the world at large.

Other shows on our list, from Easy to Horace and Pete, similarly fall under this rubric, but to lump them into just two groups—the cumbersome yet empty, and the small yet resonant—also works as a limitation. Where does one file the staggeringly funny and fearless Atlanta, Donald Glover’s hyper-relevant depiction of twentysomething livelihood in Georgia’s rap game? Did anyone think a series about a married team of Russian spies undermining the U.S. government would work, let alone become one of the greatest feats of modern political storytelling? Ten years ago, the pitch for Transparent would have likely caused network execs to hurry Jill Soloway out of the room. Hell, it probably still would at any place other than Amazon or Netflix.

As much as the big hits signal business as usual, television, like cinema, is still a wild frontier for people with big ideas and creative energy to spare, and 2016 revealed new characters and narrative landscapes that cumulatively push toward artistic expression and personal liberation. Chris Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

25.

To say that the strongest season of Orange Is the New Black to date ended on an over-determined note would be an understatement. Many gears were set into motion so that the death of one of the show’s most beloved characters could reverberate with the frustrations that drive the Black Lives Matter movement, and the process was one that felt as if it had been workshopped to death. The series was more confident, less manipulative, when exposing its characters’ public hang-ups and private strengths—attributes these individuals deploy toward either virtuous or nefarious ends. It also bloomed in its depiction of Lori Petty’s Lolly, empathetically observing the dimensions of her mental illness. Indeed, Orange Is the New Black proved itself to be more sublime than ever when focused on the micro, intuitively recognizing that even the little joys that prison life can bring to an inmate are deceptive, as they too hinge on a relinquishing of power. Ed Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

24.

After a night on the town, Yorkshire police sergeant Catherine Cawood’s (Sarah Lancashire) protégée, Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), drunkenly confesses that she believes God is just the best in all of us, and Catherine has more good in her than anyone else she knows. That sweet yet messily realistic scene (soon after her confession, Ann vomits) is typical of this series, whose genius lies in illustrating what it means to be a good person without being the least bit preachy. The acts of mercy Catherine is constantly engaged in are resolutely, sometimes even comically secular, like that night of drinking, which she orchestrated for Ann’s sake after noticing that the younger woman needed “cheering up.” But they’re often also wrenchingly difficult, like her battle to protect the grandson she’s raising from his psychopathic father, whose many crimes include having driven Catherine’s daughter to suicide. Her actions are always rooted in a profound moral clarity and loving acceptance of human weakness that’s inspirational without a hint of mawkishness. Elise Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

23.

Branching out from her excellent Awkward Black Girl web series, Issa Rae’s opaquely self-reflexive comedy is also one of the most quietly curious depictions of a Los Angeles that exists far from the film and music industries. Rae’s character works for a youth-outreach nonprofit called We Got Y’All, but she has dreams of becoming a rapper. Issa’s frustration with her job and the indecision that plagues her romantic relationship make the show’s title more direct than playful. Made up of images that are at once poised yet slightly off-kilter in their framing, Insecure suggests that the feelings of uselessness that can often come from working for a singular social good at once fuel and obfuscate creative desire. It’s the surreal, lacerating, and often very funny happenings of the day that give Issa’s detonations of imagination and physical energy meaning, and what makes the pockets of West Coast experience that Rae captures feel so melancholic and universal. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

22.

The best laid plans of the Belchers often go awry. But Bob’s Burgers is fixated on the resourcefulness that’s possible even in conflict, an ethos handily articulated when Louise tells Gene, “When life gives you moldy melons, you make moldy melonade.” In one episode, Tina insulted a teacher just so she could get detention and crush on a boy, and in the next, Gene and Louise felt that sabotaging the annual school play was a sensible way of getting a half day before Thanksgiving. Disappointment naturally ensued, and yet the Belcher children emerged from the ruin of their failed expectations with a richer understanding of themselves and the world around them. This is a series that has you smile at Bob securing for his children a cuddle session with an albino polar bear, then disarms you with a corker of a gut-buster, as when Louise looks at the bear and says, “I changed my mind about having kids. I’m going to have one, and feed it to this bear, because I love him so much.” Throughout every episode of Bob’s Burgers, the sentimental and the anarchic walk gloriously hand in hand. Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

21.

Like its title character, sweet-natured, straight-shooting romance novelist wannabe Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), Jane the Virgin has a lot more going on than a casual observer is likely to give it credit for. That it has roots in Latin American culture is just one of many refreshing and distinctive things about a series that gleefully explores and explodes stereotypes about female sexuality. This season, Jane finally lost her virginity in a scene that was wonderfully anticlimactic, as she learned that having sex isn’t synonymous with having orgasms—and that the importance of a woman’s virginity may be a tad overrated. The college degree Jane is pursing this season in creative writing and her telenovela-star father’s (Jaime Camil) attempts to break through to an American audience provide more outlets for the show’s running dialogue on how to write an entertaining yet truthful story, which winkingly refers to the melodramatic elements—including drug lords, love triangles, and long-lost twins—that help make Jane the Virgin’s undidactic messages go down so easily. Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

20.

At first, it was easy to doubt American Horror Story: Roanake for appearing content to simplistically treat our obsession with reality television as a horror unto itself. But then, around the moment the show ballsily announced that only one of its characters would be alive by the end of its compact 10-episode run, Roanake revealed itself to be reflecting back at us the basic desires of our consumerist culture. With each and every unceremonious death, we were foisted into a new and unexpected rabbit hole of fractured psyches and confronted with the ultimate horror of our thirst for commodification. And the show revealed the fake as the new real through the delirium of Ryan Murphy and company’s pop-camp aesthetic, itself a reflection of our increasingly performative everyday lives. Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

19.

In terms of being “in the know,” South Park set a high bar last year that one might have thought was insurmountable. But that was before it even seemed remotely possible that Donald J. Trump could become the leader of the free world. From one trenchant episode to the next, each one completed just before airtime so as to ensure maximum verisimilitude, writer-director Trey Parker drew elaborate links between, among other things, the improbable rise of Mr. Garrison’s presidential campaign, the WTF trolling of Denmark, and a gender war at South Park Elementary. In its uniquely perverse and anarchic way, the series plumbed the wreckage left by WikiLeaks, Gamergate, and the men’s rights movement to arrive at the most complete understanding yet of how our country, gripped by an anxiety-induced sense of nostalgia, could transform itself into Trumplandia. Gonzalez


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

18.

Joe Swanberg’s Easy is about sex even and especially when it doesn’t appear to be. Each episode offers a self-contained narrative about characters who live in the filmmaker’s home city of Chicago, wrestling with how obligation and class identity bleed into their interactions with their lovers. The series is organized around theme rather than a narrative arc, and that fact alone suggests a looseness, an openness, of which this age of television is in need. Contemporary prestige dramas—i.e. shows produced on newer cable stations or directly for streaming, targeting millennials, Gen-Xers, and media critics—have grown adept at merging the tropes of soap operas with the platitudes of history books with the higher, often impersonal production values of films released during Oscar season. What Swanberg brings to the medium is his sense of cinema as a self-critical gateway toward achieving an empathetic awareness of microscopic need. Chuck Bowen


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

17.

In which the unimpeachable comedic team of Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer continue to intimate and imitate the most “objectionable” traits of New York millennials. Where High Maintenance works more off the intimate city knowledge of Girls, Broad City continues to express an irrepressible dream of the city as the playground of the truly careless and possibly liberated. Early into the season, co-op culture got a proper comeuppance with some help from Melissa Leo, but Jacobson and Glazer criticized the lack of personal responsibility in society even more than the stereotypical white bohemian types that haunt co-op groceries. There were similar moments that took on the importance of brunching, sample sales, birthright trips to Israel, and insufferable day jobs in the five boroughs. The dream of New York is still alive for the duo, but exploring the embarrassments, bizarre detours, regrettable decisions, and wasted days that punctuate and disrupt that dream is just as important to them. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

16.

What makes The Night Of so powerful and painful to watch isn’t the immediacy of the night in question, but the slow-burning way in which things continue to go poorly for Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed) in the months leading up to his trial for manslaughter. We’re never shown what really happened in the time between Khan blacking out and waking up to find his one-night stand savagely murdered, but we’re given ample evidence of what follows: a soon-to-retire detective instructing the officers who initially arrested Khan on how to best testify against him, a prosecutor ignoring evidence that contradicts her closing statement, defense attorneys more interested in money or publicity than justice. The Night Of’s most affecting statement is Khan’s incrementally documented transformation from a seemingly mild-mannered student to a hardened thug; he may not have been a criminal before going to jail, but he’s certainly become one in order to survive. Aaron Riccio


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

15.

American Crime’s second season begins with a single line of audio from a 911 call. By omitting context, it forces viewers to question everyone’s potential guilt and possible victimhood, and reveals that they’re almost always wrong in their prejudgments. By consistently eschewing a straightforward narrative, using scenes of slam poetry and ballet to help convey complicated emotions, American Crime successfully shatters our preconceived biases. Such efforts make this series as ambitious and expansive as The Wire, focusing not on just a single crime, but the systemic crime created by racist and classist discriminations and the indifference of faculty and police. Riccio


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

14.

The penultimate season of Girls was one of the show’s strongest, as the creators behind this often comic, always insightful exploration of late adolescence in the early-21st century gained confidence and skills along with their characters. The backlash against the show’s last two seasons probably has a lot to do with the fact that the first couple got more than their share of hype, but it’s also at least partly a reflection of our discomfort with the whiny, hipster-Brooklyn white privilege and ludicrously elongated upper-middle-class American adolescences of the characters themselves—and of a strong streak of misogyny expressed by disgust at things like the gloriously human imperfection of Hannah’s (Lena Dunham) naked body. But Girls’s role as a Rorschach test for our feelings about so many hot-button issues shouldn’t obscure the fact that the show gets so much right, portraying its characters and the world they inhabit in loving, living detail and with a knowing wink. Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

13.

When the first waves of terror following the election of Donald J. Trump started to hit, one of the few voices I genuinely wanted to hear from was John Oliver. And of course, when he returned the Sunday after the election, he laid out the path to, at best, a horror show and, at worst, the beginnings of a true American autocracy, while also levying a healthy series of exasperated, furious one-liners. Those who accused Oliver of being incapable of connecting with the working class might be right, but it wasn’t like he wasn’t trying. The two episodes that preceded the “President-Elect Trump” episode tackled opioid addiction—tied to Big Pharma’s relaxed regulative authority—and multilevel marketing, where companies like Amway were revealed as predatory pyramid schemes that fiscally destroy desperate individuals. In his third season as Jon Stewart’s most influential successor, Oliver also took on Clinton, Guantanamo, Brexit, abortion, congressional fundraising, and more, delivering wise, uproarious, and relentlessly researched primers on increasingly timely subjects. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

12.

Voltaire once suggested that if God didn’t exist, we’d have to invent him. Black Mirror warns us of the cost of doing so, using technology as its omnipotent stand-in. Each episode introduces a new, seemingly innocuous gadget that’s wormed its way into the masses and then demonstrates its repercussions. We may not yet rate social interactions and people as we do products and services (“Nosedive”), and our augmented reality games may not yet be wholly immersive (“Playtest”), but the emphasis is, terrifyingly, on “yet.” By employing a different genre for each episode, from the procedural (“Hated in the Nation”) to the war drama (“Men Against Fire”), Black Mirror avoids repetition while still hammering home an overarching theme: It only takes a slight shift in context to change a tool’s use from good to bad. Riccio


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

11.

High Maintenance more than made good on its transition from the Internet to HBO. Its intimacy has been retained, and yet the narrative strands have grown more thoughtfully variable and distinct in their reflection of the adult rituals, wild yearning, and long-overdue release that power the denizens of New York City’s boroughs. In its six quick, emotionally resonant episodes, the series also revealed the neuroses, deep-seated fears, self-delusions, and artful exercises of oft-ignored New Yorkers, most resonantly in the interactions between Ben Sinclair’s nameless pot dealer and an actor pretending to be wrestling with masculinity and a nervous, extensively shy admirer, played with endless empathy by Michael Cyril Creighton. More than ever, the show’s tapestry of unexpected connections and backstories reach deeper into the quotidian experiences of city life. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

10.

Twenty-one years after the O.J. Simpson trial surfaced a racial divide that came as news to many white people, America is once again grappling with shocking evidence of that divide. Maybe that’s why this year brought us two excellent serialized tales of the trial, O.J.: Made in America and this case study of how justice can be warped by forces like fame, money, racism, and sexism. The People v. O.J. Simpson uses reenactments of key parts of the trial and behind-the-scenes dramatizations of Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), his “Dream Team” of defense attorneys, and his prosecutors to surface the central irony of his case: A man whose fame granted him special treatment by nearly everyone avoided conviction for a crime he almost certainly committed by claiming to have been framed by police who actually cut him extra slack. Examining those events through the lens of our slightly more progressive time allows us to see some things more clearly, including how shamefully Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and battered wife Nicole Simpson were mistreated. Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

9.

We got to know the Pfeffermans a little better this season as they learned more about themselves, making two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress on the parallel but separate quests for self-knowledge that make Transparent so addictive. A major focus of the season was on the difficulty of achieving true intimacy within sexual relationships, particularly if you don’t understand yourself well enough to know what you want. After alienating Vicki through typically selfish behavior, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) tried something entirely new by hooking up with a man, while her children all did the approach-avoidance dance with past and current lovers. The family turned more to religion for answers too, showing an increased interest in the temple and putting their own spin on rituals like the Seder in the season finale. They may not ever succeed, but the Pfeffermans are trying as hard as any family on TV to obey the Delphic dictum to “know thyself.” Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

8.

In its second season, Better Call Saul firmly established itself as a softer, nerdier, more moving and original counterpart to its source of inspiration, Breaking Bad. The latter never entirely divorced itself of macho fantasy, while Better Call Saul perceptively examines the torment of living as a symbolic artist in a world governed by corporate efficiency. Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) might be a shyster lawyer, but he’s a poet of the form, a flamboyant master of bullshit who can’t bring himself to play by the staid rules of his older and more respected brother, Chuck (Michael McKeen). All of the show’s ingeniously staged crime capers, perpetuated by Jimmy or his occasional partner-in-crime, Mike (Jonathan Banks), are rooted knowingly in a need for self-actualization as a remedy for loneliness. The trick of the American dream is that it’s always just a teensy bit out of sight, discernable only in the teasing horizon. Bowen


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

7.

Louis C.K. resists the insidious striving for faux-“reality” that governs so much popular art. Horace and Pete is defiantly artificial, calling attention to its own construction, which oxymoronically empowers the series to plumb emotional realms unreached by most television, rendering it vividly real. The wedding of TV-industry formalities with C.K.’s own obsessively verbose parables of tolerance and empathy cumulatively serves to interrogate the “rules” of anticipation and payoff that govern most TV shows, questioning the rules of social life by extension and implication, pinpointing the arbitrariness of much convention, highlighting the control over our own lives that we unquestioningly cede. C.K.’s freedom and confidence as an artist serve as a counterpoint to the constriction felt by his characters. Bowen


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

6.

There are countless songs about people who are “crazy in love,” but only Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is, well, crazy enough to actually live in the reality of such lyrics. Spot-on parodies of artists as diverse as the Spice Girls and R. Kelly help to cushion what’s often very dark material, from alcoholism to abortion. The show also makes everyday heartbreak a little more manageable, as when the memories of a bad breakup are brought to life by a pair of singing ghosts who, after breaking out the old soft shoe, bring a whole new meaning to “tapping that ass.” As in Sondheim’s best musicals, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s quick-witted lyrics manage to seamlessly mash together highbrow literary references with the kitsch of Sweet Valley High, all without ever missing a note. Take it from Rachel Bloom, the show’s creator and star: When life gives you lemons, make a spoof of Lemonade. Riccio


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

5.

A series of major fumbles and callous corporate maneuvers in Silicon Valley’s third season allows Mike Judge to consider the psychological tactics, egotistical behavior, and sheer absurdity that clash together at the impasse of business and technology. More than ever in the show’s run, the fight between creativity and commerce that the Pied Piper team witnesses reflects Judge’s own oft-public Hollywood troubles. The series continues to offer a variety of symbolic inventions and images that highlight the laughably bizarre means by which the tech industry attempts to replace organic ideas with clearly false, market-driven opportunism. Silicon Valley may end up being recognized as Judge’s magnum opus in this sense—a complicated, heartfelt, and intensely uproarious articulation of the struggle to freely realize one’s creative yearnings, whether in business, technology, or art. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

4.

Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz, two independent filmmakers overseeing a mainstream project for the first time in their careers, walk a tonal tightrope in The Girlfriend Experience. They clearly don’t wish to fall into the moralizing trap of judging Christine (Riley Keough), or pitying her, by providing a pat “explanation” for her attraction to the sex trade. Instead, they settle on an aura of erotic melancholia that plays to their own gifts for behavioral portraiture while honoring the broad tropes of the corporate sex thriller. Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film of the same name was unsatisfyingly vague about sex, more interested in the director’s characteristic explorations of the manifestations of capitalism. It was formally impressive but self-conscious, intellectualized, and ultimately uncomfortable with its premise; the series, on the other hand, dives into the sex, daring to locate Soderbergh’s capitalist themes between the sheets. Bowen


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

3.

Ah, Bojack. Will you ever learn how to get out of your own way? To tell you the truth, I kind of hope not, much as I want that for you, since the pleasure/pain of watching you stumble through life as a self-sabotaging depressive is so wincingly exquisite for its multitudes of meaning. Ending on that beautiful scene of Bojack watching mustangs run free and encompassing both the tragedy of Sarah Lynn’s death and the brilliant, almost word-free encapsulation of alienation and missed signals that was the “Fish Out of Water” episode, this season rode BoJack Horseman’s signature tone of psychologically acute surrealism to new emotional depths. Nakhnikian


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

2.

The idea of rigid political ideology as a sort of terminal disease simmered beneath the surface of every action in The Americans this season, the show’s finest to date. The path toward a self-determined identity seemed to be held at bay by notions of family and religion, which could be seen clearly in Paige’s (Holly Taylor) work at church and her budding romance with Matthew (Danny Flaherty), the son of F.B.I. Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). But not everyone can be saved from the tangles of belief and loyalty. William Crandall’s (Dylan Baker) final confession to Beeman reveals an ocean of regrets, from long-lost love to his real opinions about his government, and Baker gives each word an ample feeling of ache and an unmistakable fury. His final utterances offer a poignant, devastating climax to an eruptive season, where the impending end of the Cold War could be seen in nuanced, even eloquent, but never simple terms. Cabin


The 25 Best TV Shows of 2016

1.

Over the course of its extraordinary debut season, Donald Glover’s Atlanta evolved from a seriocomically wise slice of African-American life into a despairing and nearly free-associative satire of the most insidiously powerful commodity driving American society at large: an image that begets profit. Everyone in this series is pushing their contrived shtick, whether it’s Glover’s Ern, who enjoys his conception of himself as a sensitive intellectual too good for the violent life that feeds him, or Brian Tyree Smith’s unforgettable Paper Boi, a gangster who can’t entirely hide the vulnerability residing underneath his shopworn braggadocio. What Glover and his collaborators consistently locate is the existential desperation unifying all people below a certain economic equator. The characters are forever scrambling for the meme or connection that will allow them to join the club of the rarefied and the comfortable, who are also eventually revealed to be trapped in a strange and prefabricated reality, erected on foundations of classism, racism, sexism, and self-loathing. Bowen

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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked

Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.

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Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The Godfather, Schindler’s List, All About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of Africa, Around the World in 80 Days, The Greatest Show on Earth, Cimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: Gladiator, Braveheart, Chicago, Crash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

90. Crash (2005)

Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz

What Should Have Won: Munich


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

89. Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barry’s syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. “I had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,” says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streep’s accent. This is one of the actress’s busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusion—an overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africa’s biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if one’s brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Color Purple


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

88. Cimarron (1931)

As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard

What Should Have Won: The Front Page


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

87. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon character’s world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesn’t lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematician’s life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesn’t quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophrenia’s grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If it’s impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mind’s first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, that’s because the film’s comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poet’s Society, or the most earnest believers in a cliché I always wished had made it into Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding One’s Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez

What Should Have Won: Gosford Park


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

86. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)

In a fit of delusion, 90-year-old Jewish former schoolteacher Daisy Werthan (Jessica Tandy) reaches out for her black chauffeur, Hoke Colburn (Morgan Freeman), and professes that he’s her BFF. Until this point, Miss Daisy has been all sorts of mean, accusing him of stealing a 33-cent can of salmon and cruelly prohibiting him from seeing Martin Luther King speak at a dinner she’s attending. She can’t even let Hoke piss without complaining. That it takes the loss of her sanity for Miss Daisy to finally say something heartfelt to her decades-long caretaker is an irony completely lost on Driving Miss Daisy. This is because writer Alfred Uhry never clarifies why Hoke would accept Miss Daisy’s word as truth. At best, Hoke feels sorry for Miss Daisy’s deteriorating mental state; at worst, Stockholm syndrome keeps him in the orbit of someone who could only appreciate him when she wasn’t lucid. Either way, he’s stuck with her out of obligation, like a freed slave who stays on the plantation to help his master. The film never realizes its racial harmony is really racial subservience because it’s too busy patting itself on the back. And while one can’t really complain about the acting, nothing less than all-encompassing rage should break out whenever one considers that this won best picture while Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated. Driving Miss Daisy is the cinematic equivalent of an ally paying nothing but lip service. Odie Henderson

What Should Have Won: Born on the Fourth of July


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

85. Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibson’s panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the director’s career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick

What Should Have Won: Babe


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

84. The Artist (2011)

The idea of making a film about the American cinema between 1927 and 1933 seems as daunting a prospect as making a film about the entire cinema—in other words, the difference between conceiving the magnitude of a galaxy and the magnitude of the universe. You might as well make a 100-minute film about the Renaissance. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist neatly sidesteps this unsolvable dilemma by ignoring everything that’s fascinating and memorable about the era, focusing instead on a patchwork of general knowledge, so eroded of inconvenient facts that it doesn’t even qualify as a roman à clef. As an unthinking hodgepodge, the film at least has a distinct advantage over My Week with Marilyn, and that’s Hazanavicius’s competence as a shooter. Whereas Simon Curtis’s disaster makes the wrong impression almost immediately, with an opening “film within a film” that’s supposed to be a 1950s movie musical but looks more like a music video that Madonna would have rejected in the 1980s, Hazanavicius at least has sense enough to craft his “old movie” scenes to look like old movies. Scarcely a patch on what Guy Maddin can do on a bad day, but let’s say USA’s Psych decides to do a silent cinema-themed episode to complement their Hitchcock episode or their Telemundo episode. They would do well to call Hazanavicius first. Jaime N. Christley

What Should Have Won: The Tree of Life


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

83. The Broadway Melody (1930)

Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melody’s win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singin’ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the film’s every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: In Old Arizona


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

82. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Todd’s dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivens’s entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflas’s shameless mugging as Fogg’s lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaine’s Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the world’s entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, it’s three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparents’ attic. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: Friendly Persuasion


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

81. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully—or, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bard’s misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin

What Should Have Won: The Thin Red Line


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

80. Argo (2012)

There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley

What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

79. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Quiet Man


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

78. American Beauty (1999)

A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene

What Should Have Won: The Insider


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

77. The King’s Speech (2010)

Working from the British-royalty-biopic template perfected by Peter Morgan, The King’s Speech provides a cute, complication-free portrait of the Duke of York (Colin Firth), who would eventually become King George VI of England, and his difficulty overcoming a lifelong stammer. Opening in 1925 to the sight of George addressing a Wembley Stadium crowd with halting bits and pieces of words, Tom Hooper’s film proceeds to chart the future king’s failed efforts to deal with his problem through kooky speech therapist sessions (one has him stuff marbles in his mouth), all while his father, George V (Michael Gambon), lambastes his younger son—after one of the king’s famous, eloquent Christmas broadcasts via the newfangled radio—to just speak, “Dammit!” The film is sluggish and reductive, epitomized by both its eventual, one-dimensional conflation of George’s speech issues with the WWII effort and its glossed-over address of the radio’s role in transforming the ruler-ruled dynamic. Straining to elevate its real-life footnote of a tale into a meaningful fable about a man, and nation, “finding their voice,” The King’s Speech manages to spit out merely high-minded sitcom uplift. Nick Schager

What Should Have Won: The Social Network


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

76. Gladiator (2000)

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene

What Should Have Won: Traffic


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

75. Gandhi (1982)

No scene in Gandhi is as suggestive as Dennis Miller’s joke about the Mahatma reaching inner serenity by locking himself inside a closet and shouting “motherfucker” for one hour every day. Richard Attenborough’s polished, thoroughly safe—and, consequently, Oscar-garlanded—veneration of the great political and spiritual Indian leader has no room for contradiction, so here Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) is first seen at his assassination and subsequent funeral; the film may rewind to his earlier days, but it continues as one long embalming procedure. Gandhi was a dream project for the filmmaker for more than two decades, and it’s no surprise that it takes the shape of a hallowed pamphlet, wafting from one historical event to another—the early humiliation as a “coolie barrister,” the activism in South Africa, the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, the Dandi Salt March of 1930, the “Quit India” resolution—in a cloud of incense. Attenborough’s heartfelt admiration for the man’s philosophy of resistance through peace is indisputable, yet it’s expressed exclusively in conventional coffee-book epic tropes that render it a swollen underdog tale, with Gandhi as the exotic center of a huge, guest-star cast of Hollywood Yanks (Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen) lending liberal cred and old-pro Brits (Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard) supplying Imperial villainy. Fernando F. Croce

What Should Have Won: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

74. Chicago (2002)

Though Broadway babies have been breathlessly claiming movie musicals to be in the middle of “a comeback” for decades now, Chicago is the only one since Vietnam to actually earn the top Oscar. And certainly not for being the best of the bunch, as its triumph was likely a confluence of that perfect storm of the ongoing success of the hit Broadway revival (which, alongside Rent, gave the Great White Way its groove back), leftover enthusiasm from the heel-kicking maniacs titillated by Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge the prior year, and, yes, Harvey Weinstein. Directed ever so tastefully by Rob Marshall, Chicago’s biggest crime isn’t that it’s offensive. The problem is that it’s the opposite. The Kander-Ebb source material called for a surly, acerbic, acid-tongued talent who could tease out the grit and irony of the book’s criminals-as-celebrities environment—a Bob Fosse, not a Harold Prince. Most of Marshall’s musical numbers strip away setting and scenery in favor of a harsh spotlight shining through pools of dark, a handsome strategy but one which drives home the film’s own self-imposed nothingness. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Pianist


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

73. Forrest Gump (1994)

Over the course of a prolonged bus-stop conversation, Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks)—a man with an IQ of 75—recounts to various strangers how he helped spark the sexual revolution, fell in love with his childhood friend, Jenny (Hanna Hall as a child, later Robin Wright), exposed the Watergate scandal, earned the Medal of Honor, met three American presidents, ran coast to coast, and fathered Haley Joel Osment, among other accomplishments he’s also largely unaware of. Some of Forrest’s cameos throughout history push the limits of believability or taste (such as the bit involving John Lennon), but that’s certainly intentional, and the overarching silliness finds shelter in Robert Zemeckis’s assuredly optimistic, even self-deprecating sleight of hand. It’s impossible to imagine Forrest Gump having been absorbed by the culture wholesale without such conviction and affecting sincerity. Unfortunately, that merging of the real with the impossible is both pivotal to the film at a conceptual level and deeply problematic. If Forrest and Jenny’s respective paths through life are taken seriously as a reflection on society of the times, any conclusions drawn from their escapades—best represented by the scene of their walking together through Washington D.C. circa 1968, Forrest a decorated Vietnam veteran, Jenny a proud flower girl—reveal a facile understanding of the political turmoil those people experienced. One might prefer to just embrace the hokum and take it all in as if through Forrest’s eyes, though the film isn’t entirely conducive to this approach either, particularly with Jenny ultimately, almost despicably, being added to the film’s historical bullet points as an AIDS victim—a moment that lands with calculated velocity for maximum tissue dispensation. Humanick

What Should Have Won: Pulp Fiction


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

72. Chariots of Fire (1981)

In 1924, Harold Abrahams, a Lithuanian Jew born in London, and Eric Lidell, a Scottish Protestant born in China, were the two best runners England had to offer. Both in their mid-20s, the two young men were the chief talents that competed in track and field for Great Britain at the Paris Olympics. Despite the appearance that it’s a balanced account of the talent and determination of both Lidell (Ian Charleson) and Abrahams (Ben Cross), and to a lesser extent their teammates, Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire is practically a loving testament to the endurance of Protestantism over what’s here characterized as bitter Judaism. We’re allowed nary a view of what Abrahams’s heritage meant to him, good or bad, while Lidell, himself a missionary awaiting his return to China, is seen expounding wisdom at and around church. There’s something eerie about the way Lidell ties religion to physical domination and true power, but the tone of the film remains rigidly upbeat and determined. Hudson, working with the great cinematographer David Watkin, has crafted an exquisite glass house in which to witness this uneasy, irrefutably well-meaning, and quite physical drama. And yet it becomes increasingly hard to ignore the intonations of the screenplay as it goes along, and Hudson’s direction sags under the weight. The film does pay a bit of anti-fascist lip service by having Lidell nearly refuse to meet with the Prince of Wales, soon to be Hitler-sympathizer King Edward VIII, but it nevertheless preaches an unquestioning allegiance to some ostensibly perfect, all-important authority figure throughout, whether it’s in the service of God or the monarchy. Cabin

What Should Have Won: Atlantic City


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

71. Cavalcade (1933)

Frank Lloyd directed almost 85 feature films across his 40-year career. That Cavalcade was his 68th seems almost absurd, given that likely only silent-film scholars and dedicated critics could name a single film of his before that. Akin to other expensive studio productions during the late 1920s and early ‘30s, Cavalcade has significant pacing issues, exacerbated by a story that spans over three decades chronicling a London family’s dealing with, among other events, the onset of WWI. Its decidedly important themes are significantly watered down by Lloyd’s inability to make Noël Coward’s screenplay come across as anything other than a stagey series of overly dramatic exchanges. Dillard

What Should Have Won: I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

70. 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

69. 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

68. 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

67. 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

66. 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

65. 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

64. 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

63. 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

62. 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

61. 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


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

60. West Side Story (1961)

Pauline Kael famously had zero time for West Side Story, saying “it’s trying so hard to be great it isn’t even good,” and that “the bigger the leap the more, I suppose, the dancer is expressing—on the theory that America is a big, athletic country.” True, the merged sensibilities of co-directors Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise turned out a film that was both more overworked and more portentous than a musical about rival street gangs who work out their hostilities in dance offs ever should have been. And neither Natalie Wood, whose Puerto Rican accent flexes way beyond any dancer’s leap, nor Richard Beymer, sleepy and ineffectual as the former head of the Jets, clear much space around themselves as the romantic leads. Striving at every turn to transcend its genre rather than advance it, West Side Story nevertheless inherits a whole arsenal of strength from its source materials: Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s legendary Broadway score, Robbins’s mold-breaking choreography, and America’s dark, racist heart. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: The Hustler


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

59. The Sting (1973)

If you believe the urban legend, filmmakers have been fooling audiences since at least the Lumiere brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, a screening of which sent people scrambling from their seats as the moving image of a train steamed toward them on screen. The con at the core of George Roy Hill’s The Sting is a little more sophisticated than that: Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) enlists veteran grifter Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) to take down the brutal Irish gangster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), who murdered Hooker’s mentor. Benefiting much from circumstance and luck, Hooker and Gondorff conspire to open up a fake betting parlor in an effort to bleed Lonnegan dry, financially speaking. There are elaborate conversations, apparent double-crosses, and costume changes aplenty. (Woe unto anyone who doesn’t pay strict attention during the first half hour or so, as the stakes for the scam are briskly outlined.) When this caper first opened, plenty of jaws probably dropped during its denouement, though not necessarily because of the filmmakers’ audacity. The Scott Joplin-soundtracked shenanigans collapse under their own weight, particularly if given a moment’s thought beyond the final fade-out. The Sting looks gorgeous, yes, but it ultimately proves to be as empty as the vacant building housing that fake betting parlor. Preston Jones

What Should Have Won: Cries and Whispers


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

58. A Man for All Seasons (1966)

The staginess of A Man for All Seasons is evident in Fred Zinnemann’s direction, which uses slow zooms and roundtables of characters conversing to highlight the speech-laden screenplay, adapted from screenwriter Robert Bolt’s own stage play. Make particular note of the now famous scene in which Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield) lectures Roper (Colin Redgrave) on man’s laws versus god’s laws; the sequence is cut to elevate More’s words as wise, even saintly, ensuring that the film works best as a showcase of its actors’ considerable prowess at chewing scenery. Robert Shaw, Wendy Hiller, Orson Welles, and John Hurt all give memorable performances, but the film itself is nothing revelatory and slags for much of its two-hour runtime. Pauline Kael said “there’s more than a little of the school pageant” in its rhythms. There’s also too little visual distinction to make this more than a creaky recipe for the studio prestige picture. Dillard

What Should Have Won: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

57. The Sound of Music (1965)

For as empty an experience as The Sound of Music on film is, is it okay to admit that it’s Carmen compared to the stage incarnation? Every plot modification made by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest), every note of the enriched musical arrangements by Irwin Kostal, every coolly delivered, if still unimpeachably wholesome, line delivery by then Queen of the World Julie Andrews all combine to turn what was even then a creaky piece of manipulative flibbertigibbet into a reasonably agreeable way to pass the time with your older relatives, and even subtly reveals some of the play’s more unseemly undercurrents. This is, after all, the story of a man with seven children getting a very young, idealistic nun so hot and bothered she leaves the convent to be his female dear, who will respond to his every beck and call of “Do-Mi.” Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: Darling


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

56. Wings (1927)

Seen through the graph of the first Oscars, you can easily make heads or tails of the film’s strengths and weaknesses. In a pattern that would fade to oblivion after Gone with the Wind made the idea of a “sweep” not only possible but mandatory, the Oscars were given out like Cannes prizes, with films rarely taking more than a few statuettes, as if each award bestowed a just measure of validation. Wings won one of two “best movie” prizes, while the other (qualified as “Unique and Artistic Production”) was claimed by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, which has, by contrast, aged sublimely. Even though Oscar historians and statistic-heads generally put Wings on top, its prize is the more pedestrian-sounding “Best Picture, Production,” which is exactly right. It’s a producer’s triumph, an undeniably impressive marshaling of logistics, funds, and personnel, all at the service of an evening’s entertainment. More succinctly, it’s a philosophy of moviemaking and award-capturing that has never gone out of style. Christley

What Should Have Won: Seventh Heaven


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55. The Shape of Water (2017)

Though set in Baltimore in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water truly takes place in Movieland: that generic realm of borrowed fantasies where The Majestic and Amélie are also set. It’s been made with a level of craftsmanship that should be the envy of most filmmakers, but the impudent, unruly streak that so often gives del Toro’s films their pulse has been airbrushed away. Del Toro’s sentimental side takes over here, leaving the audience with a plot that fuses E.T. and Free Willy with a frustrated woman’s daydream of sexual salvation. Del Toro is aiming for critique via contrast, proffering a rosy vision of romantic acceptance that’s pointedly unpalatable to a real-life society governed by boundaries and biases. But such critique isn’t earned because del Toro isn’t willing to acknowledge uncertainty or emotional or moral fallibility on the part of his heroes, shifting all of humankind’s unsavory characteristics over to Strickland (Michael Shannon) and other American and Russian military personnel. Why doesn’t Elisa (Sally Hawkins), presumably romantically alone most of her life, feel terror once she’s found love? For all its conceits, themes, and symbols, The Shape of Water fails to impart a sense that its antique tropes have been adopted for a purpose. People, smitten with the film’s banalities, will claim that it has “heart.” But del Toro’s heart beats louder when he allows himself to play, dreaming his own dreams and respecting his heroes enough to sully them. Chuck Bowen

What Should Have Won: Phantom Thread


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54. Rocky (1976)

Blue-collar triumph reigns supreme in Rocky, a film that arguably created the sports movie clichés that have defined decades of American imitators, from Hoosiers to Rudy to We Are Marshall. Sylvester Stallone’s original formula, which follows a hungry young fighter in Philadelphia vying for his shot the heavyweight champion of the world, steals its use of streetwise dialogue and awkward passages of intimacy from other filmmakers, especially John Cassavetes, and molds it into a pandering crowd-pleaser. Rocky appeals to the dubious idea that human perseverance, particularly on the part of the underprivileged, is the solution to a society where momentary disadvantage is not so much baked into the culture as it is a matter of personal will. While other American filmmakers were pointing to the grimmer, systemic issues of media, racism, and political corruption, John G. Alvidsen is content to have his titular character quite literally wrap himself in the American flag. Dillard

What Should Have Won: Taxi Driver


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

53. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a fairy tale of upward mobility in which the indefatigable Jamal’s (Dev Patel) devotion to protecting and—after his self-interested older brother, Salim (Madhur Mittal), becomes a murderous gangster and turns traitor on his sibling—reuniting with Latika (Freida Pinto) is predicated on unwavering faith in love. That destiny favors the pure of heart who are disadvantaged and romantic is an unabashedly mushy concept, and yet Boyle’s direction is ecstatic, enthralled by the notion that kindness and generosity in the face of hardship have a way of paying dividends in the most unexpected, circuitous ways. Jamal faces down two gangsters, the police, and a dastardly game show host on his way to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’s 20-million rupee final question, an improbable path forged by an unwillingness to accept social standing as fixed that, eventually, unites him with the country of India at large. Schager

What Should Have Won: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

52. Oliver! (1968)

Based on Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Oliver! survived the transplant from Broadway to screen about as well as any movie from its era. And even for as hopelessly behind the times it seemed circa 1968, maybe part of its appeal was in reminding a populace battered by political unrest, bloody assassinations, racial strife, and endless war that, hey, at least we’re not putting boys who ask for more gruel up for sale out on the cold, soot-ridden streets. Or beating the women who try to help them to death. So if the material seems unduly grim for the milieu, at least it delivers a score of memorable songs fit for whistling past the graveyard, and a stockade of grimed-up urchins popping their knees to Onna White’s precocious choreography. No one would ever die claiming this as Carol Reed’s finest hour, but on its own terms, it’s a reasonably well-oiled machine of a musical, if vaguely terrifying throughout. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: A Lion in Winter


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51. Patton (1970)

George C. Scott is Patton. In a career-defining performance, Scott embodied the controversial U.S. general in ways that have been equaled but never surpassed in the history of American biopics. Scott gets all of Patton’s rage, self-pity, arrogance, doubts and seemingly every other human emotion across in discreet chunks and sometimes all at once, capturing the modern-day gentleman warrior’s quixotic bravura, self-love, and misanthropy in equal measure. The screenplay, co-written by Francis Ford Coppola, has Shakespearean overtones, from soliloquies delivered in iambic pentameter on the eternal nature of war to ruminations on the difference (or lack thereof) between acting and being. This formal complexity is matched by the sheer scale and power of the battle scenes, which capture the brutality and amorality of the battlefield and hold up better than most war films from the time. But Patton is also a strange work for its time, an essentially pro-war film released at the height of the Vietnam War that glorifies an egomaniacal general precisely for his disregard for humanitarian notions like the wellbeing of his soldiers. It also glosses over his deep and abiding racism, particularly his anti-Semitism, as well as his dangerous warmongering after WWII. This out-of-placeness gives the film an uncanny quality, its undeniable visceral power masking an ethically retrograde core. Oleg Ivanov

What Should Have Won: Five Easy Pieces


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

50. 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

49. 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

48. 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

47. 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

46. 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

45. 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

44. 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

43. 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

42. 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


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

41. Terms of Endearment (1983)

It would be inaccurate to call this three-hankie classic, maybe the finest defense for the portmanteau “dramedy” that’s ever graced American screens, artless. On a Film Comment podcast about films designed to make their audiences cry, Mark Harris sagely pinpointed how the James L. Brooks production’s very first major laugh—as a young Aurora Greenaway (Shirley MacLaine, flawlessly prickly) crawls into her baby daughter’s crib thinking she’s stopped breathing and isn’t satisfied until she’s made the infant cry—encapsulates the entire central relationship in a nutshell. Still, the reason Terms of Endearment truly works is that Brooks’s comparatively loose and easy style give his actors the opportunity to breathe unexpected moments of real-life experience into their roles. Compare it to something like Steel Magnolias—in which Dolly Parton robotically declares “laughter through tears is my favorite emotion”—to see just how deftly Brooks avoids formula and achieves Parton’s emotional Valhalla. Eric Henderson

What Should Have Won: Terms of Endearment


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

40. Marty (1955)

Played with heartbreaking vulnerability by Ernest Borgnine, Marty is the quintessential cinematic everyman, a lonely, insecure Bronx butcher resigned to bachelorhood but nevertheless secretly hoping to find a love of his own. When he meets the equally plain, lovelorn schoolteacher Clara (Betsy Blair), hope rises in Marty’s heart, only to be immediately quashed by the belittlement and criticism of those around him. In chronicling its proletarian protagonist’s struggle to find happiness, Marty shined a light on the regular people that went to the movies, reflecting their small hopes and dreams back to them with dignity and gritty humor. Borgnine channels the rough, primal energy that characterized his darker roles in earlier films into a measured performance of quiet despair and stoic solitude. There’s an underlying hint of self-loathing in his performance that gives the character an edge it might otherwise lack, endowing Marty with a moral grandeur worthy of Willy Loman and the other great, forlorn antiheroes of American tragedy. This small, humble character study, which also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, brought a naturalism to the American screen that helped pave the way for the unsentimental realism of the films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Ivanov

What Should Have Won: Marty


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

39. All the King’s Men (1949)

Pauline Kael once claimed that Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), the folksy tin-pot despot at the center of Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men, “might just make you feel better about the president you’ve got.” If only! In fact, Stark’s political graft, double-dealing, and sexual indiscretions all look a bit quaint in comparison to the shameless lies, bald-faced corruption, and vicious race-baiting of our current grafter in chief. But that doesn’t mean this pared-down adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel lacks for insight into the warped psychology of U.S. politics. On the contrary, the film remains a compelling and surprisingly ambivalent study of a uniquely American demagogue: a hayseed bootstrapper turned thuggish autocrat who bellows populist slogans at throngs of whooping yokels like a cracker-barrel Mussolini. Crawford’s thunderous performance brings Stark to life, but it’s Rossen’s direction—which draws influence from the murky cynicism of film noir and the refractive realism of Citizen Kane—that ultimately makes the character so gripping. Rather than resolving the contradictions of Stark’s character, Rossen prefers instead to gape at him with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. Keith Watson

What Should Have Won: A Letter to Three Wives


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38. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

In a near-prophetic artistic gesture, director Elia Kazan presages and diagnoses the cult of social-issue martyrdom in the cinema as wholly well meaning but ostensibly shallow and unwise; the Potsdam Agreement and Hirohito’s surrender were, as major world events, barely settling into the social mindset and history at the time of the film’s release. Arguably Kazan’s first major work, Gentleman’s Agreement resonates with outrage and anguish, but its overarching thematic stronghold is far more fascinated in the importance and dangers of masquerade, the dividing yet highly permeable lines between façade and identity. And yet, Kazan smartly evokes and defends the power of narrative to summon truths thought largely intangible, as Schuyler Green’s (Gregory Peck) article on anti-Semitism is ultimately widely regarded as watershed writing, a coincidental prognostication of the film’s tremendously positive reception. The director, who emigrated to America from Istanbul and was brought up in the Greek Orthodox faith, clearly offers Green as his proxy, making Gentleman’s Agreement something like a fictional but sincere articulation of its making, but the tone of anger that rumbles beneath this whip-smart drama unmistakably comes from someone who knows all too well what it’s like to not be welcomed into the club. Cabin

What Should Have Won: Crossfire


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37. From Here to Eternity (1953)

Set against a backdrop of a military base in Hawaii in the weeks prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, From Here to Eternity is about two men who die and two relationships that fall apart because three soldiers resist doing what would make their lives easier. The central cast of Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra showily perform their characters’ hatred for the paste that they try to fix with love or violence, sometimes both. Perhaps Director Fred Zinnemann himself gets a little too intoxicated with all the tragedy. The drama steadily grows into something just a little too big for the film’s meager narrative, sacrificing its coherence to the logic of the romances and passions on screen. But From Here to Eternity achieves its real intensity in the way it toys with and distorts its setting. Zinnemann’s bitter vision strips away the appeal of scenic Hawaii, turning it into a sinkhole, a place where passions swell but people quickly get stuck in place. Military life looks less like a model of personal discipline than a backwater of petty bureaucracy and personal abuse. In other words, Zinnemann frames the perfect setting for a story about self-destructive men and women yearning for a future with an ambiguous, probably impossible, promise of fulfillment. More than its iconic beach scene, then, the final moments summarize From Here to Eternity best: Reed and Kerr’s characters on a boat bound for the California, their dreams smashed to pieces. Whether life on the mainland will have more to offer them is anybody’s guess. Goldberg

What Should Have Won: From Here to Eternity


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

36. 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

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35. You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

Tony Kirby (Jimmy Stewart), the son of snobs, falls in love with Alice (Jean Arthur), the daughter of free-spirited artists. Their relationship forms the core of this subversive romantic-comedy epic (126 minutes!), but the film is much bigger than the two of them, touching also on schemes involving real estate and munitions monopolies. Robert Riskin’s screenplay, based on a Kaufman-Hart play, treads themes that would later dominate director Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life: the evil that bankers do, and the importance of having friends who’ll take up a collection for you (in this case, neighbors, to pay a legal fine). But the villainous Mr. Potter-type isn’t played by Lionel Barrymore; Edward Arnold takes the role, while Barrymore plays his foil, the eccentric Grandpa Vanderhof, embodying anti-capitalist ideals in his apathy for money and his emphases on happiness and fun. He lords over a sort of commune dominated by several generations of his family and a few stray creatives: The house has a dancer, playwright, inventor, vibraphonist, fireworks manufacturers and more, including minstrel-y servants whose depiction is racist. Otherwise, they’re a delightful ensemble, loveable kooks bantering wittily, scrambling through screwball scenarios. But the squeaky Arthur, as Vanderhof’s granddaughter, dominates. She and Stewart are adorable together, as they seem to genuinely relish one another. Her eyes can simultaneously express love and loneliness; in fact, that’s her resting face, open and giving while pulling you into its yearning darkness. She’s irresistible. Stewart

What Should Have Won: Grand Illusion


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

34. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Coming as The Deer Hunter did just three years after the fall of Saigon, it’s unsurprising that Michael Cimino’s film plays like history written in lightning. Indeed, this fine-grained epic about what war does to men—blue-collar souls shredded beyond recognition in the damp, bloody jungles of Southeast Asia—derives considerable power from its sense of urgency. Thanks to the work of a formidable cast that includes Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, and an Oscar-winning Christopher Walken, the film is greater than the sum of its parts—parts that have long been co-opted by popular culture, such as the harrowing Russian roulette scene. The steady accumulation of vivid details helps to give the film its cumulative power. It’s in the faces of a Russian Orthodox wedding’s attendees, in the grubbiness of the car that takes a group of men hunting, and it’s certainly in Steven Pushkov (John Savage) shrieking “Michael, there’s rats in here!” while stuck in a river (that Savage was actually screaming at Cimino, and not De Niro’s Michael, is beside the point). The 50-minute wedding sequence that opens the film is a masterful evocation of the home front as a kind of idyll, as well as a sharply detailed introduction to the group of soldiers who will go off to fight in a war that destroys their hearts and minds. Cimino’s film faced off against another Vietnam drama, Coming Home, at the Oscars and rightly prevailed on the big night, for this is a film that refuses to ever slip into the saccharine. Jones

What Should Have Won: An Unmarried Woman


All 90 Best Picture Oscar Winners Ranked

33. The Departed (2006)

With Michael Ballhaus’s coiled, constantly roving cinematography bringing a measure of unease to the underworld action, The Departed jumps out of the gate like a caged lion freed into the wild, delivering a rapid-fire primer on the congruent paths of state police academy trainees Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), an intelligent recruit desperate to reject his family’s criminal past, and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a careerist with political dreams and deep-seated ties to Costello. Sullivan is Costello’s mole in the police department and Costigan is the cop infiltrating Costello’s crew, and both are soon ordered to discover the other’s identity, a dueling-rats conceit William Monahan’s screenplay embellishes with trademark Martin Scorsese preoccupations: Catholicism, double lives, issues of honor, honesty, and deceit, and the bond shared between fathers and sons. Faithful to premise of Infernal Affairs, Scorsese’s adaptation nonetheless substitutes the original’s sleek, cool demeanor with a feverish, foul, funky energy that’s layered with a thin coating of sexual deviance (epitomized by Nicholson’s porn-theater dildo antics) and dysfunction (with Sullivan cast as the impotent son to Costello’s seriously virile papa). Deftly employing classic rock for clever commentary—never more so than with adjacent Nicholson and DiCaprio love scenes subtly linked by Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”—and swiftly crosscutting between multiple subplots, Scorsese’s film, for much of its 150 minutes, rocks violently, passionately, urgently. Schager

What Should Have Won: Letters from Iwo Jima


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32. 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


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31. Going My Way (1944)

In his BFI book on Boudu Saved from Drowning, Richard Boston argues that Groucho Marx could be seen as the author of his films, offering the following question as attempted evidence for his claim: “Without cheating, can you say off the top of your head who directed Duck Soup or any other Marx Brothers film?” Unfortunately for Boston, he’s asked cinephiles to name Leo McCarey, perhaps the most unique studio director of the 1930s. McCarey made better films than Going My Way, but few are as simultaneously warm and sharp, spinning its comedic yarn of two priests butting heads over their differences with an effortlessness that balances songs, visual gags, and dramatic conflict without forcing the film’s tone in one direction or another. In an era when Hollywood’s idea of fun involved navigating a maze of implied sexual interests and foregrounding vaudevillian performance styles, Going My Way remains among the most thoroughly accessible. Dillard

What Should Have Won: Double Indemnity


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30. Schindler’s List (1993)

This depiction of the wartime life of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German entrepreneur who opened factories to help the Nazi war effort in Poland, only to staff them with Jewish workers, remains Steven Spielberg’s most personal film, but for different reasons than ancestry. Oddly triangulated between Schindler’s relationship with his workers, most prominently his accountant, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), and the brutal Nazi commandant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes), the film allows Spielberg to study life in the ghetto, the concentration camps, and the Nazi aristocracy, but more potently dissects the limitations of fiscal success and artistic power, not to mention the valley that too often separates the personal and the logical. Spielberg has always aligned himself with the great and the burdened, and his connection with Schindler reveals a particular sadness in the director’s identity as a filmmaker. Spielberg’s indisputable talent has allowed him to put strong attention on domestic and international humanitarian issues while also crafting a number of hugely popular and successful entertainments, often utilizing the medium’s ability to preserve or recreate life and its philosophical promise of defying death to provide an optimist’s view of history. But that philosophical promise remains just that: a promise without a tangible reality. Schindler’s List is at once Spielberg’s doomed attempt to make good on that promise and a smart treatise on the essential impossibility of that promise. Cabin

What Should Have Won: The Piano


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29. 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


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28. 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

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27. 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


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26. 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


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25. 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


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24. 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


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23. 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


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22. 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


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21. 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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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


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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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Interview: Frank Grillo on Donnybrook and Being a Fighter for Life

The actor discusses his lifelong fascination with fighting, doing his own stunts, his experiences with violence, and more.

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Frank Grillo
Photo: IFC Films

Frank Grillo is absolutely relentless as a cold-hearted killer in writer-director Tim Sutton’s dystopic Donnybrook. A drug dealer, Chainsaw Angus is described—quite accurately—by one character as “the devil.” Angus dispatches anyone and everyone who gets in his way, and throughout the film, Grillo’s performance throbs like a raw nerve. His eyes may look vacant, but Angus is always calculating. He wears pitch-black clothes and stands too close to everyone, as if to make his menacing presence not just known but felt.

Donnybrook traces the path that Chainsaw takes to the Donnybrook, a bare-knuckle cage match with a $100,000 prize, alongside that of his true enemy, Jarhead Earl (Jamie Bell). The film is already unyielding in its depiction of an unwelcoming land in its early half, and it’s downright suffocating by the time its main characters get inside the ring to exorcise their demons.

In a recent conversation with Slant, Grillo talked about his lifelong fascination with fighting, doing his own stunts, his Netflix documentary series Fightworld, and more.

I’m curious to know if you’ve had any off-screen experience with cage fighting.

I have been involved in combat sports from a very early age. I wrestled, boxed, did jujitsu, Muay Thai. I’ve been fascinated and drawn to combat sports all my life, and I have a great respect for the people who do them. Which is why I did Fightworld. And it’s a huge part of why I’m involved in Donnybrook. I usually do my own stunts—except something like jumping off a building—but I do all my own fighting and the fight choreography as well.

I know from watching Fightworld that you’re a lifelong boxing enthusiast. What is the appeal of the “sweet science”?

People have misconceptions about fighting. Fighting is violent, but so is football, where 300-pound guys run into each other at great speed. Being repetitively hit by a man of that strength and size, it’s like getting hit by a car. It’s all how you look at violence. What amazes me, and it comes from my own experience, is to go one on one with someone in a cage, a ring, or on a mat; it’s you and the mental toughness you must have. As a boy, growing into a man, I’ve always been enamored by what it takes to be a warrior. That’s never gone away from me, and as I’ve gotten older, it’s increased. I love it. I love being hit and hitting people in a controlled environment. It’s like playing chess with your fist and feet.

There’s a line early on in Donnybrook where a character says, “How you fight is what counts.” How would you describe how you fight? I ask this because I thought about the line in Fightworld’s episode in Mexico: “You take a punch to land a punch.”

What happens is you’re most vulnerable as a fighter when you’re striking or landing a punch. That’s when your body’s open. You have to understand that you take a punch to give a punch. It’s a matter of how you place yourself and how you deliver it. It’s a setup. It’s me trying to put you in a position where you’re vulnerable, where I can land a punch, and impose my will. I can put you where you need to be, so I can be the most accurate [hitting you].

What is your personal style, or code, and how does it compare to Angus’s?

Angus, the way we portrayed him, he’s a brawler, an experienced barroom brawler, fighting to the death. I like to fight close, take shots, and feel the strength of the guy and grapple. I put a lot of myself into Angus, who is mean. Outside of the ring or cage, fighters are sweet and childlike. But there’s something that switches—and I’m trying to figure out what that is—that when they step in the ring, they become killers, and warriors. It’s amazing.

Angus is described by a character as “the devil.” He’s relentless. Where do you think his rage and anger comes from? What made him so damned evil?

When Tim and I talked, I said this needs to be about unapologetic anger, whether it’s focused on his sister or a stranger. I don’t want to judge or second guess the anger or violence, I just want to have it available all the time. There’s a scene that reveals his past and how Angus got the scar on his face, but Tim chose not to keep it in the movie. Angus was abused beyond the breaking point as a kid and that turned him sociopathic. It’s fun to play that. You don’t worry if the audience is going to like or not like you because you know they won’t like you.

I love how Angus is so imposing. He often gets too close to folks, invading their personal space, then makes them suffer. What decisions did you make in terms of how to play him? Your body language is particularly vivid.

That again was one of the things that I tried to portray. I love watching simian behavior. I’m enamored by silverback gorillas, and how they control the other gorillas. So, I watched how Angus imposed himself which is getting close to people and being unnerving and intimidating by his closeness. When you come inside someone’s space, their behavior changes completely.

I have to ask, given your impressive physique, how much weight training do you do? Do you have a diet or regimen I should follow?

I hate when actors in beautiful condition say they don’t have a regimen. I work hard, box every day for two hours in the morning, and I do strength and conditioning with a coach. I eat only paleo: meat and fish, nuts, and vegetables. I live a monkish life with food and training. I couldn’t live any other way. I am happy to be conditioned and in shape.

What are your thoughts about Donnybrook’s ideas about life and vulnerability?

This is a testament to Tim. When you play a bad guy and you don’t find the space to be vulnerable and find levity, you’re a one-dimensional cardboard cutout of a bad guy. The audience needs to be empathetic toward Angus at some point, so you open a window to vulnerability that he’s a feeling human being. At some point, something must have happened to the guy that there’s a little life left in him. Otherwise, he’s fake. Who gives a damn about a mustache-twirling villain? There’s nothing to connect to there. I need to do justice to Angus and have you feel bad for him—even if it’s only for a minute.

What are your personal experiences with violence?

I grew up in a tough place and have been in many fights in different circumstances. I’m not proud of it, but it was who I was. I grew up in an aggressive environment, with my family and my father. I was an aggressive person. Now I’m a father with three kids and married, so I worked stuff out. It’s not hard for me to go to those places and also be vulnerable. My children haven’t experienced anything negative from me or their mother, so I’ve broken the chain.

Donnybrook is an art film. I’ve been tracking you since your early soap opera roles, modelling gigs, and episodic TV. Then you became an action film actor, making Hollywood and Chinese blockbusters. Now you’re headlining and producing indie films like Wheelman. What are your thoughts on this path?

I have kind of followed a trajectory that’s opened a lot of doors for me. I took things that I thought I could do a good job in. Now, partnering with Joe Carnahan, I’m making Boss Level with Mel Gibson. Next is Once Upon a Time in Staten Island, with Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale. In the next few years, people will see me in a new light. Six films I’ve done are departures for me. I just made a western set in Oklahoma in 1865. People are asking me to work with them because they know I have versatility.

Angus has, shall we say, a funny definition of success. How do you define your success? Has it been a fight?

It started with Warrior. More and more filmmakers wanted to work with me after that. Now I have a production company and I have three movies coming out this year. It’s all accumulation, and people trust me to come in. They called me to play this guy in 1865 in Oklahoma! I’m an Italian guy from New York who plays action roles, but they say they saw my edge. It’s all shits and giggles to me. I’m having a ball. I feel blessed every day. I’m not looking to be super-famous. I love doing this kind of work. Hopefully, it will continue.

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Interview: Director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on Never Look Away

The filmmaker discusses his relationship to art, the influence of Elia Kazan on his work, and consulting with Gerhard Richter.

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Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on the set of Never Look Away
Photo: Nadja Klier/Sony Pictures Classics

In 2010, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck followed up his Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, about Stasi officers monitoring the lives of East Berliners, with the big-budget Hollywood production The Tourist. The film, a light-hearted romantic thriller starring Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, did well at the box office but was ravaged by critics. As a jovial von Donnersmarck told me late last year: “If you’re a critic and you went to a restaurant and you were in the mood for steak and you got even the best tiramisu in the world, you’re probably going to say, ‘That’s not what I ordered.’ But I hadn’t been taking orders.”

Now, the German filmmaker has served up something a little closer in spirit to The Lives of Others. His latest, Never Look Away, is a three-hour epic that spans three decades of German history as it tracks the life of a young German artist—Kurt Barnert (played as an adult by Tom Schilling)—who grows up in Dresden under the Nazis, comes of age under the East German communist regime, and eventually finds his artistic voice in West German Düsseldorf.

When von Donnersmarck was in New York to promote Never Look Away last year ahead of its Oscar-qualifying run, we spoke about his relationship to art, the influence of filmmaker Elia Kazan on his work, and the connections between Kurt Bannert and the man’s real-life counterpart, celebrated German visual artist Gerhard Richter.

What is it about Gerhard Richter’s life that inspired you to make Never Look Away?

I was looking to make a movie about human creativity. I’m always struggling to find a positive way to look at life and all the terrible things that happen to all of us. I think that art can help us with that challenge. One of the reasons that we find art so enjoyable—be it a great movie or a great painting—is because it shows us that life is worth living. Those songs about pain and suffering and heartbreak—why is that still something we really like to hear? It’s because we see that someone has been able to take joy in the feelings associated with this somehow.

At first, I was looking for a way of telling this through opera. I had this idea of a composer whose whole life is terrible: full of heartbreak, rejection, financial hardship, and all that. And then he goes home and turns it all into these beautiful arias and you find everything transcended on the big stage and in that beautiful way that operas are done. I thought it would be very interesting to juxtapose that, but I didn’t find a story there.

Then I found one element from the life of Gerhard Richter. It was a really a very difficult life. There was the tragedy of his aunt being murdered by the Nazis, and he had done a beautiful painting of this woman holding him as a little child before she was killed. But what is now known—what the investigative journalist Jürgen Schreiber only uncovered in the early 2000s—is that the father of the woman Richter ended up marrying was one of the perpetrators of the Nazis’ so-called euthanasia program. I thought this was an interesting starting point for a movie: to tie together the tragedy of his youth and childhood—losing his aunt and experiencing the destruction of his home town—with his positive future, namely finding a woman he loves. Somehow it’s inextricably linked through the relationship with her father. I thought I could build a story that’s truthful and explore these issues.

You’ve said that you were influenced by something from director Elia Kazan.

I read his autobiography about five times, because I think it’s the best book about filmmaking. I even thought for a while about turning it into a film or series, because it’s so rich in terms of what he lived through. In the book, Kazan talks about his collaboration with artistic geniuses like Marlon Brando, Arthur Miller, and Tennessee Williams. He says that he feels that their artistic talent is the scab that’s formed over the wounds that life has given them. I think it’s a beautiful analogy because you can stretch it pretty far. If the wound is still open you can’t create art. If the scab is over a big wound, you can create great art. And if the wound opens up again, due to some great trauma, you aren’t going to be able to create any more.

I think that if we look at life in the right way we can, at any given moment, use everything that ever happened to us—both positive and negative—to be our best selves in that moment. And in art that becomes especially visible. So, I thought it was interesting to take on [as a subject] an artist who’d experienced the bombing of his home city and the death of countless friends and who transcended that trauma by doing beautiful paintings of bombers and and by having the aunt who was murdered gloriously memorialized in a beautiful picture of her holding him as a child. It’s fascinating. I think with every trauma that we experience we can decide to lay down and crumble, or we can decide to overcome it and make something of it.

Kurt is taken as a young boy to see the Nazi “Degenerate Art” exhibition by his aunt. Did you think it important to recreate the art works that were destroyed?

Those paintings only exist today as little black-and-white photos, so I thought that if we worked with the artists’ archives and put substantial effort and money into recreating those paintings exactly as they were, or as close to what we imagine they were, there would be a kind of triumph there—as if the Nazis hadn’t really destroyed them.

Is it true that your own interest in art was also sparked at an early age?

I remember my very first art exhibit in Berlin. I had lived in New York until I was eight. My father was an executive with Lufthansa Airlines; we were actually among the first people to live on Roosevelt Island after it was no longer called Welfare Island. So, when we moved to Berlin, my mother took my brother and me to this contemporary art exhibit called “Zeitgeist.” It was art from all over the world, but mainly from America and Germany. As I child, I hadn’t been really exposed to contemporary art, so it was kind of shocking to see, for instance, that Joseph Beuys had done this giant heap of clay in the entranceway. That was art. It was kind of wild. This was 1982, and the building where the exhibition was held still had substantial war damage, and the Berlin Wall was right next to it—and suddenly it was really interesting to see that the German artists were being shown next to American ones like Andy Warhol and Frank Stella. I wouldn’t say that I loved [all of] the art there, but I thought about it and was amazed by it. I think a lot of modern art is about shifting your perspective on something. In a way, I think that’s almost a definition of what a work of art today is. Does it change your way of seeing the world a little bit? That’s what this did for me.

Did you consciously choose to show how ordinary people’s lives get caught up in the polarizing ideologies of their times?

I thought an interesting way to explore that would be through art. The Nazis had a very clear idea as to what they wanted their art to look like. Then came the communists, whose goal was to have a completely different kind of art. But from today’s perspective, sometimes it’s hard to know what was communist art and what was Nazi art because it’s so similar. I think if any government has an idea of what art is supposed to be like, art is already lost. I thought it was interesting to show this artist who the Nazis and the communists tried to shape and who is now in the West and can do whatever he wants. But it’s hard to shake all that off. Then he comes to the realization that the only way [to find his own truth] is to look deep, deep within and work from the inside out. I always like stories where you have an intimate personal story in the foreground and the whole thing is mirrored on a political level in the background. I think Germany underwent something similar. It’s a country that created such unimaginable horrors and it had to somehow redefine itself—to truly and completely change.

Just as the Stasi perpetrators in The Lives of Others disappear into society after the Berlin Wall comes down, the former Nazi SS doctor in Never Look Away survives the succeeding political regimes unscathed.

Yes. Gerhard Richter’s father-in-law died in 1988 in his 90s. He was a very respected doctor who had never been brought to justice. Unfortunately, that’s the sad historical truth. A lot of people aren’t punished for their crimes. But if we focus on that we’d go crazy. If we focus on friendship and tolerance and love and truth, that’s its own reward. If our enemies focus on domination, wealth and power and all that, in a way their lives will be quite poor. It’s one of those things that we have to train ourselves toward: looking at the world so that we don’t get so incredibly disappointed and frustrated and upset with the injustice of it all.

Did you consult with Richter on this film?

I wrote to him and said I had an idea for a film and I’d like to use elements from his life and that it would help me to get more details from him. He was game for that and we spent many weeks together. I talked to him a lot. He let me record countless hours of conversation and we went to places from his youth and childhood in Dresden. I don’t think he would have told me all the things he did if I had been writing a biography, or making a biopic. He knew that I was using his life as inspiration for my own story. That’s kind of how he works himself. He’d do a painting—like the one he did of Jackie Kennedy after her husband was murdered—and he would put his own thoughts and feelings into it. He won’t exactly do a translation of that photo. I read him the script just so he wouldn’t be surprised by anything, but he said he emotionally didn’t feel up to watching it. I understand that a little bit. I’d probably feel the same way if something was made about my life. Either it’s too far away from my life or it’s too close, and both would be painful. So maybe the film is made for everyone except him!

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