Some Oscar Best Picture winners have been obvious shoo-ins, but others left us scratching our heads. Where do your favourite films place on our list celebrating 92 years of the Academy Awards?
10. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Based on the 1962 Ken Kesey novel of the same name, Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tells the classic underdog story with equal servings of pathos and comedy. As mental hospital patient Randall McMurphy, Jack Nicholson embodies a rebel fighting against the system—in this case, the taciturn Nurse Ratched (superbly played by Louise Fletcher). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest holds as much cultural weight now as it did on its first release. It remains a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of institutions and unchecked power.
9. On the Waterfront (1954)
Marlon Brando changed film acting forever with his portrayal of boxer-turned-longshoreman Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s magnum opus, On the Waterfront. A tale of failed dreams and social responsibility, On the Waterfront charts Terry’s crisis of faith in the urban decay of Hoboken, New Jersey. Does he choose the dark side, filled with corrupt union bosses and murderous thugs, or the side of the light, represented by the sister of the man whose death he holds himself responsible for? Terry Mallow is American cinema’s quintessential fallen angel.
8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
It’s no wonder Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs swept the “Big Five” categories at the Oscars, and became an instant cultural touchstone. By the time serial killer Buffalo Bill gets his comeuppance, Anthony Hopkins’ Dr. Hannibal Lecter had become cinema’s most fascinating monster, Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling its most inspiring hero, and chianti the wine of choice for psychopaths everywhere. The high point of The Silence of the Lambs, an impromptu therapy session that reveals the significance of the film’s title, remains one of the most haunting scenes in American movies.
7. Gone with the Wind (1939)
Some filmgoers argue Gone with the Wind is symbolic of a bygone era in both Hollywood and American history. The film’s contemporary detractors point to its romanticized portrayal of the Old South as a way to discredit its artistic merit, and that’s a shame. Truth be told, there’s much to admire and enjoy in Victor Fleming’s four-hour epic: the majestic sweep of time covered by the narrative, the sumptuous costumes, the production design, Max Steiner’s stirring score, the Technicolor photography and the film’s refreshingly cynical depiction of love. Oh, and three little-known actors named Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland, all at the top of their games.
6. The Apartment (1960)
With The Apartment, director Billy Wilder hits the sweet spot between tragedy and comedy. Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a lonely office drone who loans his apartment out to his company’s philandering executives. As Miss Kubelik, a sweet but impressionable elevator operator, Shirley MacLaine plays the perfect foil to Lemmon’s high-wire act of a performance. It’s impossible not to root for The Apartment’s two broken heroes, even as they make one morally questionable decision after another. The film’s final line is pure romantic bliss.
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5. Annie Hall (1977)
Arguably the funniest film ever to win Best Picture, Annie Hall remains the archetypal Woody Allen movie. The comedian-turned-auteur utilizes every trick in the book—timeline jumps, split screens, breaking the fourth wall, subtitles to convey inner thoughts, animation—to depict the bumpy relationship between two idiosyncratic New Yorkers. Who else but Allen and Diane Keaton can make a silly scene about cooking lobsters feel poignant, or a brief moment on a park bench feel like true love? Every romantic comedy made since 1977 owes a debt to Annie Hall.
4. The Godfather Part II (1974)
Is The Godfather Part II superior to The Godfather? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter: the two films exist in tandem, each breathing a deeper meaning into the other. In this sequel, director Francis Ford Coppola broadens the story of the Corleone crime family: how Michael plans to hold sway over the criminal underworlds of Nevada and Cuba, and how his father, Vito, first settled in New York at the turn of the 20th century. Al Pacino and Talia Shire have never been better. The result, a distinctly American tale of fathers, sons and sins, is a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.
3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean’s semi-fictional take on the Middle East campaign during the First World War is the very definition of epic: sprawling desert landscapes, stunning 70mm cinematography, battle sequences, glorious music and one of the best-written screenplays in film history. But Lawrence of Arabia would mean nothing without the beating heart at its centre. As T.E. Lawrence, Peter O’Toole brought to life cinema’s most complicated hero: by turns intelligent, compassionate, sadistic, egomaniacal and sexually ambiguous. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
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2. Casablanca (1943)
The first time Sam plays “As Time Goes By…” A bar full of expatriates and refugees singing “La Marseillaise…” Humphrey Bogart’s Rick and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa dancing to “Perfidia…” Captain Renault instructing his henchmen to round up the usual suspects… Everyone has their own favourite Casablanca moment, but one thing is certain: each one feels just right. The wonderfully intricate screenplay, stellar performances from Hollywood’s top character actors, and Michael Curtiz’s fluid directing style make Casablanca a landmark love story that feels as fresh and exciting on the 100th viewing as it does on the first.
1. The Godfather (1972)
What is left to say about The Godfather that hasn’t already been said? Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark film launched hundreds of imitators, but has yet to be equalled. There’s not a single misstep in its almost three-hour running time, thanks to a brilliant screenplay by Coppola and the book’s author, Mario Puzo, innovative cinematography by Gordon Willis, and what’s possibly the greatest cast ever assembled for a movie. No film captures the immigrant experience and the dark underbelly of the American Dream better than The Godfather.