This weekend, after months of frantic build-up, prognostication and guesswork, the 86th Academy Awards will take place. Of course, the main event will be awarding Best Picture (or, as the category was referred to back in the day, Outstanding Picture), and no matter who takes the prize, the winner joins a roster of films that veer from solid-gold classics to what-on-earth-were-the-Academy-thinking, and everything in between.
With Sunday's Oscars fast approaching, we're ranking every one of the 85 Academy Award Best/Outstanding Picture winners to date, from the very worst to the very best. It's been an involved, highly unscientific procedure mostly involving a lot of shouting and throwing objects in the Playlist office, but we've arrived at a ranking that we think is something close to definitive. Today, you can check out the first part, from number 85 to number 41, and check back tomorrow for the rest. The .01% of our readership who thinks we’ve got this absolutely right, and the 99.99% who’ll inevitably think we’re insanely wrong on every possible level, are welcome to chime in in the comments section below.
85. "The Greatest Show On Earth" (1952)
A spectacular (not least when it comes to the impressive train crash sequence) but inert and insubstantial three-hour Cecil B. DeMille circus drama. Soapier than an all-day "Days Of Our Lives" marathon, and not all that much better acted, with the possible exception of Jimmy Stewart's tragic clown.
84. “The Broadway Melody” (1929)
The first talkie to win Best Picture, and the first musical, has its place in the history books, but even the most determined Oscar completist will find it hard to power through the creaky acting, dull staging and toxic sexual politics being passed off as frothy fun here. Much less spectacular than the other MGM musicals that followed. (Trivia: there was also a version that was Technicolor in parts that has apparently been lost.)
83. "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989)
The first film since 1932 to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination, this mild-mannered drama about the friendship between an elderly Jewish lady and her black chauffeur is well-acted and well-meaning, but rightly became a byword for the Academy picking the bland over the brilliant. It beat "Born On The Fourth Of July," "My Left Foot," "Field Of Dreams" and "Dead Poets Society" that year.
82. "Going My Way" (1944)
The the story of a pioneering young priest being billeted to a troubled parish and the first film to feature Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley character (the other being the superior “The Bells of Saint Mary’s”), your liking for this picture will depend on your tolerance for sentimentality channeled through a Catholic prism and sprinkled with crooning. To add insult, it beat out “Double Indemnity” to the Oscar.
81. "Crash" (2005)
In which Paul Haggis, creator of mountie-out-of-water drama "Due South," explains that Racism Is Bad, but We're All Just People Deep Down Inside. Sentimental, crude, and stuffed with coincidence, it rightly took a lot of heat for beating favorite "Brokeback Mountain," but it would belong in the Hall Of Shame in any year.
80. "Cimarron" (1931)
Irene Dunne’s debut performance is typically endearing, but most everything else falls flat now, in what was the first Western to take Best Picture (and would remain so for almost 60 years until “Dances With Wolves”). Remade with just as much a lack of luster in 1960, the 1931 version is blighted by leaden scripting and lead Richard Dix’s overacting. The opening Oklahoma land rush scene is still exciting, though.
79. "Out Of Africa" (1985)
A turgid colonial romance, this misfire from Sydney Pollack somehow proved to be an Oscar behemoth. It's hard to work out which is worse: Meryl Streep's mangled vowels, or that it's a movie about Africa that couldn't remotely care about Africans.
78. "Around The World In 80 Days' (1956)
David Niven stars as Phileas Fogg in this lavish boondoggle of a Jules Verne adaptation which has arguably more interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes than anything that actually made it onto the screen, especially involving impresario producer Michael Todd’s wheeling and dealing to get location approval and the involvement of a massive cast of cameo stars including Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Frank Sinatra and Edward R. Murrow.
77. "Forrest Gump" (1994)
Tom Hanks' dim-witted would-be-Zelig takes a sanitized, fairly reactionary tour of the second half of the 20th century in Robert Zemeckis' Capra-aping blockbuster epic. It's occasionally technically inventive, and Hanks is winning, but the film's mostly glib and patronizing.
76. "Cavalcade" (1933)
Based on the Noel Coward play, a large pinch of the salt of historical context is needed to appreciate this dated soap opera now. Detailing three decades of the lives, loves and tragedies of an upper-class London family and their servants, it’s all so terribly terrible, and occasionally unintentionally funny, such as when a central pair are discovered to have been chatting about their future aboard the Titanic.
75. "A Beautiful Mind" (2001)
Takes the remarkable true story of paranoid schizophrenic Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, and sands all the edges off until it feels like so much movie bullshit. Worth watching for Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly, but Russell Crowe feels fatally miscast.
74. "The Life Of Emile Zola" (1937)
An early pioneer of the Oscar biopic, the film takes fascinating subject matter (French writer Emile Zola, and his involvement in the Dreyfus affair) and makes the dullest possible version of that story. It's hampered by the studio's refusal to engage with anti-Semitism—the word 'Jew' is never used—though Paul Muni is very good in title role.
73. "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936)
A lavish musical biopic of theatrical impresario Flo Ziegfeld (of the Ziegfeld Follies), this wows in the spectacular song-and-dance sequences, but drags every time the music stops. At three hours long, that leaves about two that are entirely disposable, except for a terrific turn by Best Actress winner Luise Rainer in the first half.
72. "American Beauty" (1999)
A victim, perhaps, of its own overhyping, Sam Mendes’ film is by no means bad, it’s just hard to remember now quite what—aside from Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening’s caustically toxic performances and a terrific, often overlooked Chris Cooper—we all collectively lost our shit over.
71. "Hamlet" (1948)
A handsomely shot but unimaginatively stagy Shakespeare adaptation (the only one to win Best Picture to date), hurt by severe cuts to bring it down to two-and-a-half hours. Director/star Laurence Olivier is a wonder, but few of his co-stars command the screen in the same way.