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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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Dances With Wolves

40. "Dances With Wolves" (1990)
There was a fair amount of debate over this one, but we’re somewhat going to swim against the tide of revisionist opinion by suggesting that Kevin Costner’s epic western deserves its top 40 spot and is more than the vanity project detractors now see it as (those would come later). A meticulous, thoroughly researched, elegiac movie, it’s old-fashioned in a good way, though maybe too cautiously PC to have as much bite as it could.


39. "Terms Of Endearment" (1983)
Sentimental and occasionally overwrought though it might be, James L. Brooks' movie is also a tremendously entertaining, engagingly performed ‘80s take on the women’s picture that gifts Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger with two exceptional roles as a spiky mother and daughter. Jack Nicholson is a further treat, for once adding color to the background rather than dominating proceedings.

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38. "You Can't Take It With You" (1938)
There's probably an argument to be made that, when compared to "It Happened One Night" or "It's A Wonderful Life," "You Can't Take It With You" is rather minor Capra. But minor Capra is major anyone else when it comes to this kind of comedy, and his adaptation of Kaufman and Hart's stage play, which sees Jimmy Stewart's real estate magnate woo Jean Arthur, despite his snooty family and her eccentric one, is a delight, not least in the pairing of its leads, who are on top form here.


37. "Mutiny On The Bounty" (1935)
The best film based on this famous story by quite some distance, what is essentially a parable about clashing leadership styles is given real dramatic heft by Frank Lloyd, who also directed “Cavalcade” (no. 76), and by pretty definitive portrayals of Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian by Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, respectively.


36. "From Here To Eternity" (1953)
As a performance showcase, this Fred Zinnemann melodrama about the romantic and professional entanglements of a group of U.S. Army servicemen stationed in Honolulu just prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, still shines — Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine and Montgomery Clift in particular. But its claim to icon status lies mainly in one deliriously romantic scene as Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr enjoy an extra-marital clinch in the nighttime surf.


35. "Patton" (1970)
Spectacular 70mm WWII biopic of the legendary general, dominated by a titanic performance by George C. Scott. Caught a little awkwardly between Franklin J. Schaffner's Old Hollywood and writer Francis Ford Coppola's New, but compulsively watchable all the same.


34. "An American In Paris" (1951)
Gene Kelly’s dazzling and still surprisingly weird musical may stumble whenever it’s required to do anything as rote as plotting, but the dance numbers here are the real point, and not just the window dressing. From its exaggerated painterly Paris to the 13-minute climactic ballet to the Gershwin music it’s all set to, this is the average musical, concentrated.


33. "In The Heat Of The Night" (1967)
The winner of one of the most heated and controversial years in Oscar history might not have had the same legacy as "The Graduate" and "Bonnie & Clyde" did, but it's a damn fine film nevertheless. Sidney Poitier's big-city cop and Rod Steiger's bigoted police chief team for a Mississippi murder investigation, and it's atmospheric, textured stuff that transcends its genre trappings.


32. "The English Patient" (1996)
Harvey Weinstein's first massive Oscar success has come to represent a certain kind of Lasse Hallström-esque middlebrow effort in retrospect, but a rewatch suggests that's a bit unfair. This one is thrilling, romantic and more than anything a cracking story, beautifully told by Anthony Minghella, who keeps it just this side of melodrama, but still bursting with feeling. The kind of film that they say they don't make anymore.


31. "Wings" (1927)
Silent era “It Girl” Clara Bow is the nominal star of this film which has the distinction of being the first Best Picture winner ever, but it’s the still-impressive aerial photography of WWI dogfights that are the centerpieces now. Director William Wellman and fourth-billed star Gary Cooper would go on to make the transition to talkies more smoothly than Bow, but this does also provide a taste of what made her one of the biggest stars of her day.


30. "Marty" (1955)
Even now, "Marty" feels like an unlikely Best Picture winner—it's a low-key romance between people who don't look like movie stars, adapted from a TV drama that aired only two years earlier. But the film—one of only two to win both Best Picture and the Palme d'Or—was deserving. Sure, director Delbert Mann was a bit of a journeyman, but Paddy Chayefsky's magnificent script, and the performances by Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair, more than make up for it. Here’s producer Burt Lancaster to tell you about it:


29. "My Fair Lady" (1964)
A frothy, totally irresistible George Cukor musical with a never lovelier Audrey Hepburn (who admittedly is not hugely convincing as a cockney waif, and had her singing voice dubbed) and the irascible, exasperated Rex Harrison as her svengali, the film still breezes past our radar for the dodgy patriarchalism and classism of its premise with its lavishly costumed, hummable charm.


28. "Unforgiven" (1992)
Fascinating for the grim deconstruction of a myth of the American West that he’d been influential in creating, Clint Eastwood’s “final western” is a flawed film, but even its flaws speak to its ambition. While there are a few too many characters, and a few unexplored avenues that the film even at over two hours doesn’t have time to develop, what’s there is still pretty choice, with Eastwood himself bringing an appropriately broken, end-of-days feel to his role.


27. "Gladiator" (2000)
Relaunching the Hollywood swords ‘n’ sandals genre, Ridley Scott’s Ancient Rome-set epic also provided the defining role for Russell Crowe’s muscular, masculine appeal and brought him his first Best Actor Oscar (he’d been nominated the year before and would be again the year after). It’s a relatively straightforward story of a man’s rise to heroism to avenge his family, but elevated by the sheer scale of the endeavor, and by Crowe’s intense performance.


26. "The Last Emperor" (1987)
The lavish stateliness of this Bernardo Bertolucci film about the end of the last Chinese imperial dynasty may be unfashionable now, and at 2 hours 40 minutes it does require an investment of time, but the spectacle alone often saves the day. Even when the man is lost amid the trappings, the trappings (it was the first film ever permitted to shoot inside the magnificent Forbidden City) are worth it.


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


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