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Every Best Picture Oscar Winner Ranked Best To Worst

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist February 25, 2014 at 3:48PM

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.
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A Man For All Seasons

55. "A Man For All Seasons" (1966)
A sincere and prestigious mounting of the Robert Bolt play about the staunchly Catholic Sir Thomas More’s refusal to recognize King Henry VIII’s divorce, it’s every bit as stately as that description sounds, and every bit as dull. Paul Scofield reprises his theatrical role as Moore, and Orson Welles and John Hurt lift things in supporting roles, but Fred Zinnemann’s game direction can’t overcome the verbosity and heaviness of the film’s stage origins.

54. "Million Dollar Baby" (2004)
The Academy’s love for Clint Eastwood knows few limits, as evidenced by the 4-major-Oscar sweep for this extremely familiar-feeling underdog boxing story. That the boxer was a woman (Hilary Swank, getting her second Best Actress Oscar) was really the only unusual element to an admittedly solid, well-made drama, barring the sucker punch ending.

53. "Shakespeare In Love" (1998)
Much-denigrated after the fact when it beat "Saving Private Ryan" to the gold (especially after a bitter and bad-tempered Oscar campaign), "Shakespeare In Love" has aged reasonably well. It's hardly an all-time classic, but it's an enjoyable and moving upmarket rom-com, with a cast having a ball, and a sparkling script from Tom Stoppard.

52. "Ben Hur" (1959)
The most epic of all the epics (it's the longest Best Picture winner ever, beating 'Return Of The King' by ten minutes, and ties that film and "Titanic" for most ever Oscar-wins), "Ben Hur" remains a real wow on the big screen even now. It's overlong and preachy, and Charlton Heston is a bit ropey as the title character, but remains a staggering achievement, with some of the finest action sequences in the history of the medium.

51. "Mrs. Miniver" (1942)
Overshadowed a bit these days by some of its contemporaries, William Wyler's WWII melodrama, about the life of a well-to-do British woman in the early years of the war, is old-fashioned and unabashed in its role as propaganda. But it's well-executed, stirring, and has a great lead performance from Greer Garson (whose own six-minute acceptance speech remains the longest in Oscar history).

50. "The Sting" (1973)
A slick, thoroughly enjoyable, totally empty period con-caper re-teaming "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford as grifters taking on Robert Shaw's hoodlum. Breezy and fun, with great chemistry between the stars, but so lightweight you fear a gust of wind might blow it off the screen.

49. "Slumdog Millionaire" (2008)
Danny Boyle
's unexpected smash has its problems, we'll acknowledge, mainly in its scripting and the very occasional whiff of poverty porn. But it's hard to think of a recent Best Picture winner that's as bright and vibrant as this one, so full of energy and invention. We'd seen crowd-pleasers win Best Picture before, but never one that looked or sounded like "Slumdog Millionaire."  

48. "Ordinary People" (1980)
Robert Redford
, proving early how much time the Academy has for actors-turned-directors, won Best Director as well as Best Picture for this unassuming but very well-performed drama detailing the slow disintegration of a family in the wake of the death of a son. Among several notable elements is Timothy Hutton’s performance that should have launched him to much greater heights of stardom than he subsequently achieved.

47. "Gandhi" (1982)
Richard Attenborough
's ambitious three-hour epic telling of the legendary Indian political figure makes a decent run at chronicling the story of Gandhi's life, but doesn't do much beyond that. It's a rather shallow and personality-free take, afraid to ever take much of a viewpoint on anything. Still, it's impressive in the broad strokes, and in the occasional effective little scene too.

46. "Argo" (2012)
Facing the inevitable Best Picture backlash even before it won, we still stand beside the grown-up entertainment of Ben Affleck's "Argo." Sure, it tinkers with the truth a bit, and the director isn't the strongest choice in the lead, but it's genuinely, knuckle-gnawingly tense, and has a deep bench of supporting players, with fine work from everyone from Bryan Cranston to Scoot McNairy.

45. "The Departed" (2006)
A bit of a comic-book trifle when compared to Martin Scorsese's best work, with a couple of whopping misjudgements (god, that final shot...), but when "The Departed" works, it really works. Most notably in William Monahan's hilariously profane script, a couple of cracking suspense sequences, and a fantastic, perplexingly undervalued Matt Damon performance at the center.

44. "The Artist" (2011)
While the Michel Hazanavicius film seems on the surface to have been a challenge for the Academy, being in black and white and silent, it’s still a very escapist film with not a huge amount of substance there once you take away the gimmicks of its presentation. Affectionate and perkily performed (Jean Dujardin got the Oscar, but we fell most for Bérénice Bejo), it still doesn’t feel like one for the ages.

43. "Rain Man" (1988)
Two and a half decades later, what really stands out about this solid Barry Levinson film is not the much-parodied Best Actor-winning Dustin Hoffman performance, that became an early byword for goosing a character’s disability or an affliction to an Oscar, but just how good Tom Cruise is, in the less obvious role as the conflicted brother.

42. "Titanic" (1997)
A phenomenon the likes of which hadn't been seen for decades, "Titanic" understandably attracts a lot of backlash today. But if you can separate yourself from the hype, the fact remains that it works, dammit. Sure, it's broad-strokes storytelling, but compare it to copycats like "Pearl Harbor" and "Australia" and you can see that James Cameron is someone who actually knows how to do this kind of old-fashioned melodrama and make it click with audiences. And he's got eleven Oscars and two billion dollars to prove it.

41. "Rocky" (1976)
We’re fans of Sylvester Stallone’s essential boxing flick, but the familiarity of the format which it helped define has gotten to the point now where some of its lustre has faded. The sequels became broader and more, well “Eye of the Tiger”-y, but the original still feels heartfelt: it’s not subtle, but it is energetic, emotive filmmaking.


This article is related to: Features, Awards, Academy Awards, Oscars, Feature


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