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The Oscars are notorious for not getting it right.
That’s the reputation you earn when you don’t reward “Citizen Kane” best picture, or when “Crash” topples “Brokeback Mountain,” or when “Dances with Wolves” nabs the big prize.
But there are also plenty of times that the Academy got it right.
In truth, there’s no way of knowing whether a film will have staying power through the years. But sometimes, voters make truly great and interesting choices.
Here are the 12 greatest best-picture winners of all time:
The stereotype of an Oscar movie is an overlong, stale, historical biopic. “Amadeus” could have been just that, but instead it turns the whole formula on its head. It brings 1700s Austria to life by making it feel just as alive as the present day.
Portraying a rivalry that might not ever have existed and turning one of history’s greatest composers into a spoiled, giggling buffoon who might have been a genius by accident, the film says so much more about the past than any buttoned-up, historically accurate film could.
No movie can get the past completely right — that’s both the power and the danger of the medium. The great thing about “Amadeus” is that it acknowledges that almost immediately by letting Salieri tell somebody else’s story. And the fact that it works so well is a true stroke of genius.
After years of snubs, Steven Spielberg rightfully won his first Oscar for “Schindler’s List,” based on the true story of a German businessman who saved hundreds of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
It is truly incredible to see the way Spielberg handles the difficult subject matter. He spares none of the awful details and yet finds a ray of light during a horrible time period. This is quite simply essential viewing.
“The Silence of the Lambs” is notable for two big reasons.
First off, it’s the only horror film to win best picture. The character of Hannibal Lecter himself is bigger than just one film, but “The Silence of the Lambs” delivers the goods. This is the perfect horror movie for the Academy, as it is one that relies less on gore (though it is there) and more so on mounting dread. If a horror movie was going to win the big prize, it was going to be the one with the most likable cannibal of all time.
Secondly, it was released on February 14, 1991, basically a full year before the actual Oscar ceremony. So it proved that awards aren’t just for that stretch of movies released during the last two weeks of every year.
“The Apartment” doesn’t get the love it deserves. This story of a man (Jack Lemmon) who lets executives at his company use his apartment for affairs is both of its time and well ahead of it.
Billy Wilder’s comedic masterpiece (he made many) is much racier than anything else released during Hays Code-era Hollywood. Imagine if “Mad Men” had actually been made during the 1960s, and you have “The Apartment.”
Legend has it that author Ken Kesey hated the big-screen adaptation of his beloved novel so much that he refused to watch it. He didn’t know what he was missing.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has a wonderful sense of 1970s recklessness to it. This is the kind of movie in which the hero (Jack Nicholson) is a criminal and the villain (Louise Fletcher) is a nurse. It is a poster child for a different era of filmmaking that still endures in flashes today.
When they can, Oscar voters love making a statement, and “On the Waterfront” sneakily says something about 1950s Communist blacklisting. But not all politically charged movies deserve to win. Even without the context, “On the Waterfront” is a timeless tale of courage and betrayal.
Marlon Brando’s performance as boxer turned dockworker turned revolutionary Terry Malloy is a force of nature. From the way he gently plays with Edie’s (Eva Marie Saint) glove to the powerhouse “I could’ve been a contender” speech, this is a performance that is bigger than any movie.
Comedies are frequently overlooked and underappreciated by Academy voters. That is only one reason to embrace Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall.”
The way it employs animation, narration, and breaking the fourth wall remain brilliant and inventive to this day. Plus, no other romantic comedy has topped this movie’s insight into relationships.
Let’s put it this way: “Annie Hall” beat the original “Star Wars” for best picture, and nobody seems to have a problem with that.
“No Country for Old Men” faced some serious competition in the race for best picture (“There Will Be Blood,” “Juno,” “Atonement,” “Michael Clayton”), but it still managed to triumph. While it might not have been the absolute best movie of the year, it is still a masterful thriller, and it was the best movie to take home the big prize in ages.
It’s also one of the most unconventional Oscar winners of all time. With barely any musical score, it’s incredibly tense and quiet, and it’s devoid of the conventional emotional moments that make up most Oscar winners. Plus, its status as a classic has only risen since being crowned the winner, marking a turning point for directors Joel and Ethan Coen.
Over three hours long with both an overture and an intermission, “Lawrence of Arabia” is a type of movie that barely gets made anymore (with rare exceptions like “The Hateful Eight“). While many epics from this period now look dated and feel stale, “Lawrence of Arabia” is still as fresh and stunning today as it was when it was first released.
From a match turning into a sunrise to a man appearing out of a mirage to a spectacular train crash, you can thank “Lawrence of Arabia” for some of the most indelible images ever created on film.
Shockingly, “Casablanca” was nothing special when it was first released. It got good reviews and pulled in solid box-office numbers. It’s funny how legacies work.
“Casablanca” is now one of the most enduring films of all time. And for good reason. “Casablanca” is one of the most artfully made works of entertainment ever. The central romance between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is beautiful because instead of a happy ending, it concludes with sacrifice.
If you haven’t seen “Casablanca,” you know the ending as well as every other moment that’s replayed on TV. But you don’t really know “Casablanca” unless you actually watch the whole thing. Over 70 years later, it still holds up.
It’s no stretch to say that “The Godfather: Part II” is the best sequel of all time. Instead of imitating the beats of the original, it both continues and enriches the story.
Watching Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) descent into pure evil is both compelling and haunting. But the real reason to love “Part II” is the flashing back to young Vito Corleone, a performance that would win the then-unknown Rober De Niro his first Oscar. Combined with the original, “Part II” proves that this family saga is one of the greatest American stories ever told.
When I think about “The Godfather,” I think about movies as a whole. This is just one unforgettable scene after another, and it’s one of the rare cases in which the Academy acknowledged that at the exact right time.
This tale of an Italian-American crime family never exhausts a single part of its long running time. It’s the kind of movie you can enter at any point and still feel enthralled. It has more than its share of great performances (Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan). Not every truly classic film goes home with best picture, but it would’ve been a crime if the Corleone family didn’t walk home with the statue that night.
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