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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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The Bridge On The River Kwai

15. "The Bridge On The River Kwai" (1957)
There've been plenty of WWII movies in Oscar contention, but few with the power or texture of David Lean's "The Bridge On The River Kwai." A near-definitive look at Japanese POW camps, digging into questions of heroism and honor while being thoroughly entertaining throughout, it's barely aged a day, in part thanks to the tremendous performances by Alec Guinness and William Holden, among others.


14. "The French Connection" (1971)
The small miracle of '70s classic “The French Connection” is how ordinary it ought to be, and isn’t. It’s a fairly standard cop thriller plot, but played with such grit and realism by Gene Hackman and directed with such an eye for action and seedy violence by William Friedkin, that it simply transcends its story. Exactly the sort of movie we usually bemoan not winning, only this time, it did.


13. "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930)
Only the third-ever Best Picture winner, Lewis Milestone's adaptation of the best-selling WWI novel remains one of the most powerful anti-war statements ever put on screen, and a film years ahead of its time. Told from the German side, it's a bleak picture with combat scenes that still impress, and it's shot through with memories of a conflict that still left scars. It says something about its power that it was banned in Germany under the Nazis, who understood the power of its pacificist sentiments.


12. "All About Eve" (1950)
Oscar voters love movies about performers and actors, and none have made the impact of "All About Eve," which was nominated for 14 Oscars, more than any other movie (since matched only by "Titanic"). Joseph L. Mankiewicz's story about the rivalry between aging Broadway star Bette Davis and ambitious upstart Anne Baxter remains an acerbic and bitchy delight, one of the best-ever inside-baseball pictures, and the home of Davis' most seminal work.


11. "It Happened One Night" (1934)
Frank Capra’s joyous screwball Big-5 winner (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay) is one of the ultimate Golden Age of Hollywood charmers in which a wry worldly journalist (Clark Gable) gets lumbered with a fleeing socialite (Claudette Colbert) on the promise of an exclusive... and guess what happens? The jokes come thick and fast, but it’s the chemistry that the lead pair rustle up effortlessly that makes even its creakiest corners sing.


10. "West Side Story" (1961)
The question of whether "West Side Story" is the best musical ever made is debatable, but in the absence of "Cabaret" or "Singin' In The Rain," it's certainly the best one to ever win an Oscar. The Romeo and Juliet-retelling marks a pile-up of an alarming amount of talent, including Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, Ernest Lehman and Natalie Wood, and most are at the top of their game here—from classic songs to the dance sequences (among cinema's best), this is magic throughout.


9. "On The Waterfront" (1954)
Director Elia Kazan’s brilliant film about dockworker corruption and unionization may have had real-life allegorical aims, but no context is needed to be blown away by it to this day. The defining slim-Brando performance, the film is sad and angry and desperate all at the same time, as a man struggles to fulfill his better nature in spite of himself. And in the business with Eva Marie Saint's glove, it contains one of the greatest moments of improvised screen acting of all time.


8. "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" (1975)
Hitting at the counter-cultural peak of the 1970s, and rightly winning out in maybe the single toughest Best Picture competition ever ("Jaws," "Nashville," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Barry Lyndon" were the other nominees), Milos Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel is still a wonder. Jack Nicholson's best performance provides the pivot point for one of cinema's greatest ensembles, and Forman balances a difficult meld of tones pitch-perfectly.


7. "The Apartment" (1960)
“Shut up and deal,” is one of our favorite last lines ever, but the story goes it was a placeholder until Billy Wilder and partner I.A.L. Diamond could think of something better, but they "settled" for it anyway. Which should give you a good idea of the level we’re working at here, with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine also both elevating the already-terrific material. Wilder was well known for his snappy comedies but it’s the undertow tug of other emotions, of sadness and loneliness and tentative hope, that makes “The Apartment” stand out even in his filmography.

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6. "Schindler's List" (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic is an astonishingly powerful film, which, yes, focuses not on the 6 million who died but the 600 who didn’t, to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick’s reported jab, but it doesn’t shrink from placing acts of heroism against a larger backdrop of unthinkable cruelty (brilliantly personified by a breakthrough Ralph Fiennes) nor from showing the limits and the hardships of individual decency (embodied by a career-best Liam Neeson). There are missteps, like the red coat moment, and the overly "dramatically constructed" shower scene, but they are easily overlooked in what is overall a passionate, sincere and consummately well-made film about a horror so enormous it could paralyze a lesser filmmaker.

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


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