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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 2nd March 2018 > Breaking Rank

Breaking Rank

All 90 Academy Award best picture winners, from worst to best. Our highly subjective (and therefore indisputable) list

HIGH, LOW+EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN

@daciampaglia

MOVIES

MONDADORI PORTFOLIO/GETTY;
MARK MAKELA/GETTY

Illustration by ALEXFINE

THE #METOO RECKONING At 76, this feminist warrior is just getting started.

IF YOU WANT TO FEEL AND ABOUT THE ACADEMY Awards, rank every best picture winner since the statuettes made their debut in a 15-minute ceremony on May 16, 1929. There are some truly excellent films on the list, but too many are painfully mediocre.

We all know the dubious reasons dubious movies are crowned the year’s best: the lowest of lowstakes politics, the academy making up for past snubs, Hollywood’s aversion to risk, the industry deciding to solve a social ill, Harvey Weinstein. But understanding the forces at work on Oscar night doesn’t help heal the heartbreak and frustration the awards can cause. The record will always show that stone-cold 1976 classics Network and All the President’s Men were beaten by Rocky. And then there’s the historic injustice of Hollywood’s greatest musical, Singin’ in the Rain, being ignored for a best picture nomination in 1952.

Don’t get us wrong: Rocky is as enormously fun as it was more than 40 years ago. But the best picture Oscar was designed to award excellence, not just an ability to thrill the masses. Sometimes both are accomplished (just watch any of the films in our Top 10), and, occasionally, a film wins that is simply superb and not a blockbuster. (Yay, Moonlight!)

The rankings below are highly subjective: One person’s Terms of Endearment is another’s Gladiator. A lot of respectful debate occurred, and compromises were made. But at a certain point, we have to concede that comparisons become apples and oranges. How, for example, do you weigh the spectacle of Ben-Hur against a tough little war film like The Hurt Locker? So we created criteria for our decisions: Was there ambition? Did the film change the way movies were made? Is every part of it (casting, acting, cinematography, script, design, etc.) of high quality? Does it feel dated? Did it beat better films?

The best picture for 2017 will be revealed at the end of the 90th Academy Awards on March 4, the result of the combined votes of the academy’s 7,258 members. In anticipation of the event, here is our ranked list of every best picture winner. Even if you disagree— and you will—enjoy this dip into Hollywood history.

90 Crash 2005

Hollywood solves racism! Crash, an intelligence-insulting afterschool special masquerading as a gritty film, is not only the lousiest best picture winner ever—it’s American moviemaking at its worst: heavy-handed and without a shred of nuance. WHAT IT BEAT Ang Lee’s heartbreaking Brokeback Mountain was the favorite and should have won. But every other nominee that year—Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich and Capote—was better than Crash.

89 Cimarron 1930–31

Critically lauded for its “super filmmaking” when it opened, the pre-code, Depression-era epic is now rightfully considered one of Oscar’s most undeserving, thanks to racist caricatures, lazy pacing and indiscriminate storytelling. WHAT IT BEAT The whip-smart comedy The Front Page, as well as East Lynne, Skippy and The Trader Horn. TRIVIA Five years into the awards, it was the first film to receive a nod in every eligible category (the only other to do so: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?); it won in three.

88 Broadway Melody 1928–29

The top-grossing picture of 1929, and the first all-talking musical, was pure escapism (the Depression began later that year), but there’s little about the melodramatic acting, directing or dialogue to recommend it today. The earliest example of the academy’s abiding infatuation with big box-office hits. WHAT IT BEATAlibi, The Patriot, In Old Arizona, The Hollywood Revue of 1929.

87 Cavalcade 1932–33

Adapted from a 1931 play by Noël Coward, the pre-code epic, praised at the time for its elegance and restraint, now feels mawkish and trite. WHAT IT BEAT The best film nominees increased to 10 in 1931, and most here have aged better: 42nd Street, A Farewell to Arms, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Lady for a Day, Little Women, She Done Him Wrong, Smilin’ Through, State Fair, The Private Life of Henry VIII.

DREAMWORKS SKG/GETTY

86 THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH 1952

It’s bad enough that Cecil B. DeMille’s bloated ode to the circus beat High Noon and The Quiet Man. The more egregious slight is what the academy snubbed in the best picture category. WHAT IT BEAT Certified classics like High Noon and The Quiet Man, as well as Ivanhoe and Moulin Rouge. SNUBBED Hollywood’s best musical, Singin’ in the Rain! TRIVIATime magazine had the most apt review, calling it a “mammoth merger of two masters of malarkey for the masses: P.T. Barnum and Cecil B. DeMille.” Many saw the win as a belated reward for DeMille, whose pioneering work was produced pre-awards. But director Stanley Kramer probably came closer to the truth, alleging that the win was political: The McCarthy hearings were in full swing, DeMille was a conservative Republican, and High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman would soon be blacklisted.

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