Every Oscar Best Picture Winner Ranked, From Worst to Best
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 95 years of the Academy Awards?
94. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Did Academy voters give director Cecil B. DeMille the night’s biggest prize because they felt bad he hadn’t won any Oscars up to that point? Maybe. Is this Charlton Heston and James Stewart-led melodrama nothing more than a two-hour advertisement for circuses with a few plot lines thrown in? It sure feels that way. Is The Greatest Show on Earth the worst film to ever win Best Picture? Definitely.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: High Noon
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93. Crash (2005)
Perhaps writer-director Paul Haggis really believed he was onto something with Crash, which examines racial tensions in Los Angeles from the perspectives of a Black detective, a Latino locksmith, a Persian storeowner and a white district attorney, among others. The film’s thesis—everyone is a little prejudiced—is true enough; it’s just too bad the message is delivered by glaring stereotypes (read: “characters”) through a series of laughably contrived scenarios. Matt Dillon’s nasty turn as a racist cop and Mark Isham’s evocative score are Crash‘s only bright spots.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Brokeback Mountain
92. The Broadway Melody (1928-1929)
The Broadway Melody is important for three things: it was the first sound film to win Best Picture, it was Hollywood’s first all-talking musical, and it once featured a Technicolor sequence, sparking an industry-wide interest in colour. Historical importance aside, this story of two sisters trying to make it on Broadway is both dull and dated.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Broadway Melody
91. Cimarron (1930-1931)
The pre-Hays Code Cimarron was the first Western to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Set during the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, Cimarron is impressive for its epic budget and scope. Unfortunately for modern viewers, however, there’s not much in terms of drama here.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Front Page
90. The Artist (2011)
Before his monumental fall from grace, Harvey Weinstein could turn utterly forgettable films into Oscar gold. Exhibit A: The Artist. This French throwback to American silent cinema was never supposed to be huge—its director, Michel Hazanavicius, and stars, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, all previously collaborated on two modest spy film parodies in France. But when Weinstein bought The Artist’s distribution rights and launched an Oscar campaign, it was game over for Academy voters, who (in 2011, at any rate) seemed to have a soft spot for mediocrity.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Tree of Life
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89. Cavalcade (1932-1933)
Like Cimarron before it, Cavalcade feels more like the answer to an Oscar trivia question than a film. Adapted from the Noël Coward play of the same title, it stars Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook as an upper-class couple who, along with their children and servants, experience several Earth-shattering events in the early 1900s. It’s all handsomely staged, but Cavalcade is ultimately hollow.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: 42nd Street
88. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Around the World in 80 Days, Michael Anderson’s adaptation of Jules Verne’s beloved novel, is one of the best examples of ’50s Hollywood pomp: 140 sets, 69,000 extras, 75,000 costumes and more than 40 celebrity cameos. The result? Profoundly empty fun.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Ten Commandments
87. Argo (2012)
Argo is not a terrible film—this true story of CIA agents attempting to smuggle American diplomats out of Tehran manages some suspenseful moments. But its real problem—other than the fact that it gives virtually no credit to Canada’s part in the real-life mission—is that it’s so painfully average. We do have Argo to thank for Ben Affleck’s late-career resurgence, however—for better or worse.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Zero Dark Thirty
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86. Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, the decades-spanning Driving Miss Daisy tells the story of a wealthy Jewish widow (Jessica Tandy) and her Black driver (Morgan Freeman); the pair form an unlikely bond during a period of dramatic social change. Driving Miss Daisy has the uncanny ability to tug on the heartstrings; it also makes for incredibly naive entertainment.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Dead Poets Society
85. Green Book (2018)
In this mawkish tribute to friendship and racial tolerance, Italian bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) becomes the chauffeur for Black pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) during his 1962 concert tour of the Deep South. Unfortunately, Green Book is far more interested in Vallelonga’s redemption than Shirley’s suffering, forcing Shirley to take a backseat in his own true story. Green Book may be a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, but it’s equally as vapid.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: A Star Is Born
84. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
A mildly entertaining biopic of the famous Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell), whose theatrical revues, the Ziegfeld Follies, ran from 1907 to 1931. Myrna Loy is memorable as his wife, Billie Burke, as is Luise Rainer in a role that won her an Academy Award. Unfortunately, gloss and glitter don’t equate Best Picture.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Mr. Deeds Go to Town
83. Out of Africa (1985)
Even Meryl Streep and Robert Redford can’t save Sydney Pollack’s superficial Out of Africa, based on the acclaimed memoir of the same name. It might have seemed impossible to make a film about a woman’s adventures and revelations in Kenya boring, but Out of Africa manages to do just that. At least the East African landscapes are gorgeous…
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Witness
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82. The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Good news: a plot line from the film—the real-life jailing of Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish descent, on bogus treason charges—is one of Hollywood’s first attempts to address anti-Semitism. Bad news: The Life of Emile Zola would be much better if it were The Life of Alfred Dreyfus instead.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Awful Truth
81. The Shape of Water (2017)
In Guillermo del Toro’s throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a mute cleaning lady (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a humanoid amphibian at a top-secret research facility. While The Shape of Water is indeed a technical marvel, its exploration of weighty themes—Cold War politics, sexual identity, disability—is awfully simplistic. It’s nice to see weird films like The Shape of Water win big at the Oscars, but a weirder love story deserved the golden statue more…
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Phantom Thread
80. American Beauty (1999)
In the wake of allegations against Kevin Spacey, it may be difficult to watch American Beauty. But this tale of an ad exec’s infatuation with his teen daughter’s best friend was always uncomfortable—that screenwriter Alan Ball excuses his character’s unlawful desires by making sure to tell the audience the best friend is promiscuous doesn’t help matters. Other aspects of American Beauty haven’t aged well either, although Annette Bening’s performance remains a revelation.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Sixth Sense
79. Dances with Wolves (1990)
Kevin Costner was America’s Sweetheart when he directed, produced and starred in Dances with Wolves, which tells the story of a Union army lieutenant who befriends Sioux Indians on the frontier. While credited with revitalizing the then-tired Western genre and boasting stellar performances from Mary McDonnell and Graham Greene, Dances with Wolves is perhaps the most famous example of Hollywood’s “white saviour” trope. And it’s yet another case of a merely OK movie beating out an all-time classic for the coveted Best Picture.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: GoodFellas
78. A Beautiful Mind (2001)
It’s easy to see what made audiences and Academy voters fall in love with A Beautiful Mind back in 2001—Russell Crowe, for starters, was on top of the world, and it’s really fun to watch really smart people doing really smart things. Still, it’s hard to accept A Beautiful Mind’s deeply formulaic take on mathematician John Forbes Nash’s struggle with schizophrenia, despite a few strong performances.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: In the Bedroom
77. Oliver! (1968)
“Please sir, I want some more.” Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist is so famous a novel, even those who haven’t read it are familiar with the tale of a plucky orphan who falls in league with a ragtag bunch of London pickpockets. Still, even a master filmmaker like Carol Reed can’t save this song-and-dance schlock. You’d better love the songs, because that’s pretty much all there is to Oliver!.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Lion in Winter
76. Rain Man (1988)
The best thing about Rain Man is its poster. This overlong, I-guess-it’s-supposed-to-be-inspirational story of a yuppie car dealer (Tom Cruise) who goes on a road trip with his autistic savant brother (Dustin Hoffman) won big at the 61st Academy Awards. Rain Man‘s biggest cultural impact? It popularized the misconception that card counting is illegal in the U.S. Hoffman’s career peaked with Rain Man, but fortunately, Cruise (who played the more difficult role of the two) would go on to do bigger, better and more mature things.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Dangerous Liaisons
75. Going My Way (1944)
Bing Crosby stars as Father Chuck O’Malley, a happy-go-lucky priest who takes over a rundown parish, attempts to please the cantankerous Father Fitzgibbon, and organizes a choir for a local gang of troubled youths. Director Leo McCarey’s film is often delightful, but its saccharine sentimentality can be too much for some.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Double Indemnity
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74. Gigi (1958)
Vincente Minnelli directed this Parisian musical about a wealthy playboy (Louis Jourdan) who falls in love with the titular courtesan (Leslie Caron) against a backdrop of Lerner and Loewe tunes. Gigi commits a cinematic cardinal sin: it’s forgettable. In its favour, the stunning location filming will likely have you looking up the next flights to Paris.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
73. Braveheart (1995)
Big on spectacle but lacking in emotional depth or complexity, Braveheart was Mel Gibson’s directorial “I have arrived” moment. His take on legendary warrior William Wallace, who led the wars of Scottish independence against the British, played a huge role in bringing Wallace’s legend to the mainstream. While an impressive technical effort, Braveheart is a wildly uneven movie.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Sense and Sensibility
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72. The King’s Speech (2010)
Ah, another Weinstein picture… Are you noticing a pattern? Held together by memorable performances and exquisite attention to period detail, this retelling of the relationship between the stammering King George VI and his speech therapist is an ode to the pleasures of good old-fashioned storytelling. There’s nothing wrong with giving Best Picture to crowd-pleasers like The King’s Speech—it just so happens that voters overlooked the best biopic of the decade…
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Social Network
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71. The Sting (1973)
George Roy Hill’s The Sting made $160 million at the box office; adjusted for inflation, that’s a whopping $800 million! It’s certainly not hard to understand what drew audiences to this comedy caper about two con artists trying to outsmart a mob boss. What’s less understandable is how the charms of Paul Newman and Robert Redford beat out the stiff competition. Also nominated that year were The Exorcist, a horror landmark; Cries and Whispers, an international arthouse classic; and American Graffiti, the movie that put George Lucas on the map.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Exorcist
70. Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Never mind the fact that Shakespeare in Love beat out two of the greatest war films ever made for Hollywood’s most prized statue—it wasn’t even the best Elizabethan drama nominated that year! Sure, the whimsical romance between the Bard of Avon and the fictitious Viola de Lesseps is lovely to watch, and its approach in adapting Shakespeare to the big screen is inventive, but Best Picture of 1998 it certainly is not.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Saving Private Ryan
69. You Can’t Take It with You (1938)
Frank Capra was on a roll when he directed You Can’t Take It With You, an adaptation of a successful Broadway play and the first film to have a director’s name preceding the title. Unfortunately, its mixture of light and dark subject matter feels like a warm-up for Capra’s real masterpiece, It’s A Wonderful Life.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Grand Illusion
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68. Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Clark Gable stars as Fletcher Christian, first mate of the HMS Bounty, who leads a mutiny against the psychotic Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton) after he causes the death of the ship’s doctor. Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty was a box office smash, helped solidify Gable’s star in Hollywood, and is perhaps the best adaptation of this oft-told tale.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Top Hat
67. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
Gregory Peck stars a journalist who poses as a Jew to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism, eventually experiencing racism firsthand in forms both overt and subtle. An early example of the “issue” movies that the Academy often favours to this day, Gentleman’s Agreement escapes potential pitfalls by making a few sharp insights on bigotry.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Great Expectations
66. Chicago (2002)
Rob Marshall is synonymous with larger-than-life stories and exciting choreography. In his feature film debut (another Weinstein production), Marshall gathered Hollywood’s top actors (Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere) to retell the story of a chorus dancer who murders her lover and achieves nationwide notoriety. Its lampooning of the American justice system and celebrity culture is entertaining, but it was facing better competition at the 75th Academy Awards.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Pianist
65. My Fair Lady (1964)
Four musicals won Best Picture during the 1960s, and George Cukor’s My Fair Lady is the second-weakest of the bunch. It’s worth watching for the always-lovely Audrey Hepburn and the lavish costumes, but song-and-dance shouldn’t have trumped the greatest satirical film of the decade—and maybe of all time.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Dr. Strangelove
64. Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep (who inexplicably won in the Best Supporting Actress category for a role that was essentially a lead) play a couple who go through a painful separation, leaving Hoffman’s character to pick up the pieces. Writer-director Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer is credited with helping change public opinion on gender roles. While culturally significant, it also happened to steal the Best Picture trophy from one of the greatest achievements in film history…
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Apocalypse Now
63. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Chariots of Fire follows two runners competing in the 1924 Paris Olympics: a Christian Scotsman (Ian Charleson) and an English Jew (Ben Cross), the latter facing anti-Semitism. The Academy Awards have long been criticized for awarding self-congratulatory and inoffensive films, and this checks both of those boxes. How many people would remember Chariots of Fire four decades later if not for its Vangelis soundtrack?
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Raiders of the Lost Ark
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62. Wings (1927-1928)
Two WWI pilots compete for the affections of a nurse in Wings, the very first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. The film plays surprisingly well when seen today… If you’re watching it for the spectacular dogfights and not for the overwrought love triangle, that is. But just as Wings helped sustain the superstardom of Twenties “it-girl” Clara Bow, it also helped launch the career of Gary Cooper, who appears in a small role.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: 7th Heaven
61. Grand Hotel (1931-1932)
The lives of a jewel thief (John Barrymore), a Russian ballerina (Greta Garbo) and a stenographer (Joan Crawford) intersect in comic, but ultimately unconvincing ways in this Irving Thalberg production. And that’s just a third of the characters in the film! Grand Hotel‘s main claim to fame? An iconic line delivered by Garbo: “I want to be alone.”
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Shanghai Express
60. An American in Paris (1951)
The lack of narrative discipline in this Vincente Minnelli musical is overshadowed by a lavish, 17-minute ballet sequence featuring Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly. An American in Paris, however, is neither Kelly nor Minnelli’s best musical, and when it comes down to it, a melodrama starring a guy named Brando was more deserving of Best Picture…
What Should Have Won Best Picture: A Streetcar Named Desire
59. The English Patient (1996)
In the Seinfeld episode “The English Patient,” which aired 11 days before The English Patient won Best Picture, Elaine’s hatred of the film alienates everyone around her. Granted, The English Patient is easier to admire than it is to actually like, but it sure doesn’t deserve to be loathed either. Anthony Minghella’s box office smash—featuring beautiful landscapes and strong turns by Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche—is a throwback to the sweeping romances of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Fargo
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58. Marty (1955)
Running just 94 minutes, Delbert Mann’s Marty is still the shortest film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture—and possibly one of the least orthodox choices for the night’s biggest prize. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, this modest tale of a good-natured but loveless butcher (Ernest Borgnine) and the shy schoolteacher he falls for (Betsy Blair) is one of the more moving examples of kitchen-sink realism.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Marty
57. Birdman (2014)
Arguably the most divisive Best Picture winner of the 2010s, Birdman wants to be seen as capital-A “Art”—and sometimes even succeeds. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s tale of a washed-up actor trying to regain his artistic credibility on Broadway is jam-packed with so many narrative and technical oddities that it’s surprising it was a frontrunner for Best Picture at all. An equally groundbreaking film was also nominated that year, but Academy voters were won over by Birdman‘s showiness. At least we have it to thank for reviving Michael Keaton’s career.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Boyhood
56. CODA (2021)
Unfairly maligned on the evening of the 94th Academy Awards as a major upset—and by some rather nasty individuals as nothing more than a “diversity win”—CODA’s biggest crime is that it’s simply too conventional to hoist up Hollywood’s biggest prize. But for every predictable genre trope it wears on its sleeve, this crowd-pleasing, tear-inducing coming-of-age tale about singing prodigy Ruby (a phenomenal Emilia Jones) and her working-class deaf family (Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant) also boasts what seem like remnants from a greater, riskier film. (Particularly inspired is a key sequence two-thirds into CODA, when writer-director Sian Heder drops us into the mind of Kotsur’s gruff patriarch in the most affecting of ways.)
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Drive My Car
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55. Hamlet (1948)
Using the original text, Laurence Olivier’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is essentially a filmed play. Olivier, however, would make up for his lack of visual inventiveness with a performance that stands as one of the most iconic in film history.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
54. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Almost destined for a direct-to-video release, the unlikely success of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire mirrors that of its protagonist, 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel). As a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Malik revisits the most formative moments of his life to find the answer to each question—all while trying to win back his childhood love (Freida Pinto). This rags-to-riches romance shouldn’t work, and yet it often does. The frenetic imagery, soundtrack and narrative make Slumdog Millionaire a 50s-style Hollywood romance for the multicultural, tech-obsessed 21st century.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
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53. Gandhi (1982)
It’s no secret that Academy voters love biopics: these character-driven period pieces tend to be lavish productions that are, with some notable exceptions, fairly entertaining too. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is a true biopic in every sense of the word, bringing the story of Indian political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi to life in exceptional detail. It’s a testament to Sir Ben Kingsley’s towering performance as Gandhi that more than 30 years later, it’s still his most famous role. Watch out for a short appearance by a young Daniel Day-Lewis as one of the South African goons who hurl racist vitriol at Gandhi.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
52. Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Winner of six Oscars, William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver is widely credited with increasing American support for WWII. In fact, Winston Churchill reportedly said it was more important to the war effort than an entire fleet of battleships. Starring Greta Garson and Walter Pidgeon, Mrs. Miniver depicts the experiences of a middle-class English family during the war. Audiences may have loved it back in 1942, but it really is just teary-eyed propaganda masquerading as art.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Magnificent Ambersons
51. Forrest Gump (1994)
Forrest Gump will be remembered for many things: it was 1994’s highest-grossing film, the movie that convinced America Tom Hanks is a “real” actor, and the inspiration for the silly Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant chain. It feels more artificial than ever before, but Forrest Gump is also endlessly quotable and re-watchable—and nostalgic to a fault. Slow-witted but idealistic, Forrest Gump is the American hero almost everyone has a soft spot for, whether they like to admit it or not.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Shawshank Redemption
50. Nomadland (2020)
At once epic and intimate, Nomadland is a total immersion in the fiercely independent, achingly beautiful and often bleak lives of America’s van dwellers. Reeling from the death of her husband and suddenly out of a job, Fern (Frances McDormand) decides to pack up her belongings and hit the road. As Fern bounces from one seasonal gig to another, director Chloé Zhao—like her cinematic hero Terrence Malick—contrasts the country’s stunning natural landscapes with her character’s inner turmoil. McDormand won her third Best Actress Oscar for her role, but Nomadland also belongs to the film’s amateur actors, many of whom play fictionalized versions of themselves.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Nomadland
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49. All the King’s Men (1949)
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men details the rise and fall of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a politician modelled after Louisiana governor Huey Long. Stark wins the loyalty of his voters by lowering the poverty level and improving the school system, but as discovered by a local journalist, he’s just as corrupt and power-hungry as his predecessors. All the King’s Men is required viewing in this age of demagoguery. (Do yourself a favour and avoid the 2006 Sean Penn-starring remake.)
What Should Have Won Best Picture: All the King’s Men
48. From Here to Eternity (1953)
Following the lives of three U.S. Army soldiers (Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift and Frank Sinatra) in the lead-up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, there’s a palpable sense of doom that pervades Fred Zinnemann’s smash hit. Every moment and conversation is given added weight because the audience knows exactly what’s coming. From Here to Eternity’s surprisingly frank depiction of sex and infidelity also anticipates the sexual revolution of the Sixties.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Roman Holiday
47. Ordinary People (1980)
When the eldest son of an upper-middle-class family dies in a sailing accident, his father (Donald Sutherland), mother (Mary Tyler Moore) and troubled younger brother (Timothy Hutton, in an Academy Award-winning performance) are sent into a tailspin. Ordinary People, Robert Redford’s directorial debut, is memorable for its powerful portrayal of grief and loss, and Moore is fantastic as the complex matriarch. But to award Ordinary People over what many consider the best film of the decade remains a controversial decision.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Raging Bull
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46. A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Although he won an Academy Award for his performance, Paul Scofield’s turn as Sir Thomas More remains underrated. It’s his seemingly effortless delivery that brings Fred Zinnemann’s biographical drama to life, helped by glorious Technicolor cinematography and a remarkable screenplay by Robert Bolt. Truly a neglected gem among Best Picture winners.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
45. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Directed by Norman Jewison, In the Heat of the Night stars Sidney Poitier as Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs, who must solve a murder case with Sheriff Gillespie (Rod Steiger), the bigoted lawman of Sparta, Mississippi. The anti-racist stance of In the Heat of the Night was a hit with Academy voters, and its “odd couple” approach to the cop genre was an inspiration for many action movies to follow. It just so happens that another American film captured the zeitgeist even better…
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Graduate
44. Ben-Hur (1959)
Its spectacular chariot scene is justifiably famous, but there’s more to Ben-Hur than gigantic sets and thousands of extras. Over the course of a whopping 212 minutes, director William Wyler and screenwriter Karl Tunberg follow the trials and tribulations of wealthy merchant Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), culminating in an encounter with Jesus Christ himself. Even more fascinating is Judah’s sexually ambiguous relationship with childhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd).
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Anatomy of a Murder
43. Spotlight (2015)
Starring Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight tells the true story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that uncovered decades of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Along with All the President’s Men and Broadcast News, Spotlight is the one of the definitive films about journalism.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Mad Max: Fury Road
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42. Rocky (1976)
Sylvester Stallone received Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay nods for his tale of a washed-up boxer who gets a shot at the world heavyweight championship—and better yet, at love, with a shy pet shop cashier (Talia Shire). The film’s most famous moments—chief among them, its training montage—have become sports movie clichés; neither does it help that its sequels almost turned the character of Rocky Balboa into a laughing stock. Still, the original movie is a winner, even if (SPOILERS!) he does lose at the end.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Taxi Driver
41. Titanic (1997)
Titanic tempers James Cameron’s strengths as a director with his serious limitations as a writer—for every spectacular action scene, there are two cheesy lines of dialogue. Still, the sheer scope of the film remains exhilarating, and the chemistry between Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio is a joy to watch. It’s a pity, as Titanic could have been greater with a proper writer.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: L.A. Confidential
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40. The Last Emperor (1987)
A decades-spanning character study of Emperor Pu Yi, The Last Emperor is perhaps the most unlikely Best Picture winner. Featuring an international cast and astonishing craftsmanship in recreating Qing Dynasty China, this epic was up against the more popular Fatal Attraction and Moonstruck. It was admirable for Academy voters to choose artistry over popularity, though—from the vantage point of 2023, The Last Emperor feels like a win for world cinema.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Broadcast News
39. Terms of Endearment (1983)
Condensing 30 years of family history into 132 minutes is no small feat. Leave it to James L. Brooks and his all-star cast (Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Jeff Daniels and John Lithgow) to convincingly bring to life the story of a warring mother and daughter, and the men in their lives. The film follows its own episodic style, until one plot twist that earns the film its legendary status as one of the most famous tearjerkers of all time.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Right Stuff
38. Patton (1970)
Other than its radical opening scene—George C. Scott as George S. Patton delivering a rousing speech in front of a giant American flag—Patton is your conventional biopic. What makes it truly stand out are its astonishing lead performance and thoughtful screenplay, the latter providing insights into many of the WWII general’s most famous gaffes (including a real-life incident when he smacked a shell-shocked soldier).
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Five Easy Pieces
37. Tom Jones (1963)
Half social satire and half picaresque comedy, the film follows a fatherless country boy (Albert Finney, in a breakthrough performance) on his hilarious misadventures, all while trying to win the affection of his beloved Sophie Western (Susannah York).
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Tom Jones
36. Platoon (1986)
“Death? What y’all know about death?” asks Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) to a room full of young, pot-smoking soldiers, the scars on his face more evident than ever before. Oliver Stone’s Platoon is really about the loss of innocence—of both its protagonist, Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), and an entire generation. And like most Vietnam War films, Platoon refuses to give easy answers, choosing instead to look back on American involvement in Vietnam with confusion and remorse.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Hannah and Her Sisters
35. The Sound of Music (1965)
Released at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, The Sound of Music is one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. Audiences all over the world fell in love with Maria (Julie Andrews), Captain Georg (Christopher Plummer) and the seven von Trapp children. Handsomely shot, expertly edited and written to appeal to both adults and children, The Sound of Music is a crowd-pleasing blockbuster done right. Not convinced it’s withstood the test of time? Just try not to hum along the next time you hear a rendition of “My Favourite Things.”
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Sound of Music
34. The Hurt Locker (2009)
“The rush of a battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug,” says a title card before Kathryn Bigelow’s gritty film about an Iraq War Explosive Ordnance Team. The Hurt Locker’s narrative structure—it consists mostly of vignettes, and there are virtually no character arcs—made it a radical choice for Best Picture. By depicting the same situations over and over again, The Hurt Locker achieves an unbearable sense of tension for much of its running time.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Inglourious Basterds
33. Gladiator (2000)
Sword-and-sandal epics were out of touch at the tail end of the ’90s—then Gladiator happened. Ridley Scott’s epic tale of revenge in Ancient Rome launched a wave of copycat historical dramas, but none could match Gladiator’s emotional impact. Case in point: when Russell Crowe’s enslaved former general, Maximus, takes off his mask and reveals his identity to Joaquin Phoenix’s baddie emperor in front of a packed coliseum, it instantly became a quintessential “Hell yeah!” moment in cinema. Gladiator is big-budget Hollywood filmmaking done right.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
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32. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Is there a more iconic film about destitution than Midnight Cowboy? John Schlesinger’s two-hour bummer of a movie follows the unlikely friendship between greasy con artist Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) and sex worker Joe Buck (Jon Voight). Every scene is drenched with cold sweats, and the death of the Swinging Sixties hangs like a dark cloud. Midnight Cowboy shone a spotlight on the dark underbelly of America that audiences seldom saw in 1969.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Midnight Cowboy
31. Rebecca (1940)
Based on the 1938 novel by Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca was Alfred Hitchcock’s introduction to Hollywood. In this gothic tale, a young woman (Joan Fontaine) marries a wealthy widower, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), and moves into his large mansion. She soon learns that the memory of Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca, still lingers in the minds of her new husband and his deranged housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Great Dictator
30. How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Director John Ford examines the passage of time in How Green Was My Valley, one of his most humane and surprising dramas. Spanning five decades, the film tells the epic story of the Morgans, a Welsh mining family who struggle to survive as values once deemed important slowly change or disappear completely. While How Green Was My Valley infamously beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture, it’s a grand achievement in its own right.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Citizen Kane
29. The Deer Hunter (1978)
Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral. It tells the story of three friends (Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage) who enlist to fight in Vietnam. The film’s sometimes bitter portrayal of the Vietnamese and an extended sequence in which American soldiers are forced to play Russian roulette with their captors remain controversial. But few films better capture the irrational nature of war and its soul-crushing aftermath.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Deer Hunter
28. The Lost Weekend (1945)
One of Hollywood’s earliest depictions of alcoholism, Ray Milland stars as an alcoholic writer who, in an attempt to break his dependency, has been confined to his apartment for the weekend. Written and directed by Billy Wilder, memorably intense moments abound, including one sequence in which Milland frantically scours his apartment for a bottle.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Mildred Pierce
27. The Departed (2006)
People who bring up Martin Scorsese’s bad luck with the Oscars are doing a disservice to The Departed. Handing Best Picture to his Boston gangland epic wasn’t a last ditch effort to right previous wrongs: it was a no-brainer. No other mainstream movie in 2006 was as unapologetically thrilling and hilarious as The Departed. Like Jack Nicholson’s crazed mob boss Frank Costello throwing handfuls of cocaine to the accompaniment of a Gaetano Donizetti opera, The Departed elevates low lives to high art.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Departed
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26. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Peter Jackson’s ill-fated decision to expand J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit into three overlong films makes The Return of the King feel even more special. The only way to conclude a trilogy that revolutionized visual effects and book-to-film adaptations was to go big. Got room for one battle scene? Let’s make it three. Have time to watch one grand finale? Let’s film four endings and show them all. Few films will ever be this unapologetically over-the-top—and genuinely moving—again.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
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25. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
12 Years a Slave makes for often brutal viewing, but it’s hard to look away. That’s because director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the memoir by Solomon Northup—a free-born African American who was drugged, kidnapped and sold as a slave in New Orleans—is too riveting a narrative to ignore. 12 Years a Slave also introduced the world to Lupita Nyong’o, in one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Her
24. West Side Story (1961)
Featuring Natalie Wood’s most memorable performance and some of the most inventive choreography ever captured on celluloid, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s West Side Story is a superb film on style alone. But by incorporating themes like race, crime and social class, West Side Story immediately raised the bar for musicals and Shakespeare adaptations for decades to come.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: West Side Story
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23. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
The Bridge on the River Kwai is the first David Lean film to make our countdown, but it won’t be the last. Set in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Burma during WWII, this adaptation tells the story of captured Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) who, when tasked with constructing a bridge over the titular river, plays psychological tug of war with the commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Exploring themes of honour, class and race, The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the most thrilling epics to ever come out of Hollywood.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: 12 Angry Men
22. Gone with the Wind (1939)
Gone with the Wind‘s modern detractors often point to its troublingly romanticized portrayal of the Old South. But truth be told, there’s still much to admire and enjoy in Victor Fleming’s four-hour epic: the majestic sweep of time, the sumptuous costumes, the production design, Max Steiner’s stirring score, the Technicolor photography and the film’s unusually cynical view of love. Oh, and Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland, all at the top of their games.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Wizard of Oz
21. Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Is Million Dollar Baby one of the most depressing films ever made? Yes. Is Million Dollar Baby Oscar-fodder masquerading as a gritty sports drama? No. Clint Eastwood, Hilary Swank and Morgan Freeman imbue their desperate characters with such humanity, it’s easy to forget you’re watching a movie at all. Eastwood’s back-to-basics approach to storytelling is equally impressive—if he had walked away from filmmaking after this, it would’ve been one heck of a farewell.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Million Dollar Baby
20. Parasite (2019)
The financial and critical success of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite—it grossed over $250 million worldwide and became the first non-English language film to win Best Picture—feels like a watershed moment for world cinema. Fortunately, it couldn’t have happened to a more timely movie. Bong’s razor-sharp critique of economic inequality in South Korea, in which the impoverished Kim family devise a series of schemes in order to work for the wealthy Park family, is fiendishly entertaining and wildly unpredictable. Parasite‘s greatest strength? It smartly doesn’t place either family on a moral pedestal.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Parasite
19. All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-1930)
One of the greatest anti-war films ever made, Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front has dated incredibly well. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel of the same name, the 1930 Best Picture winner tells the story of Paul Bäumer, a German student who finds himself on the front lines of WWI. The film’s violent battle scenes are clinical and merciless, and its message doesn’t pull any punches.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: All Quiet on the Western Front
18. No Country for Old Men (2007)
The Coen Brothers have made funnier films (Raising Arizona), darker films (Barton Fink) and more emotional films (Inside Llewyn Davis), but No Country for Old Men is the closest to perfection the duo will likely ever achieve. Their “neo-noir western” acts like a greatest hits of all of their obsessions and quirks: a simple deal gone bad, an everyman facing impossible odds, a seemingly unstoppable villain, and profundity wrapped in hilarious nonsense. No Country for Old Men has dated nicely; just don’t expect it to get any more cheerful.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: There Will Be Blood
17. Moonlight (2016)
Groundbreaking in subject matter and intimate in form, Moonlight is a shining example of what contemporary film can be. Barry Jenkins’s sophomore feature is set in Miami and follows the Black and gay Chiron at three stages: elementary school, high school and adulthood. His dreams and desires are always front and centre. Moonlight’s specificity speaks volumes to males everywhere: to men of colour, to gay men, or to men who simply hide their true selves from the world.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Moonlight
16. Amadeus (1984)
If Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wanted to make a film about himself, it would probably look something like this Best Picture winner. Lavish, rebellious, funny and tragic, Milos Forman’s film about a young Mozart (Tom Hulce) and the man most envious of his genius, the composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham, who won the Best Actor Award for his role), is surely one of the most audacious films ever made about music and the creative process.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Amadeus
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15. It Happened One Night (1934)
Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night tells the story of a spoiled heiress (Claudette Colbert) who bolts from her own marriage and falls for a broke reporter (Clark Gable) as they travel cross-country. In true romantic comedy fashion, their relationship is initiated by an innocent bit of blackmail. Filled with irresistible chemistry, hilarious dialogue and a few eyebrow-raising moments, It Happened One Night is the kind of film that reminds viewers why they fell in love with the movies in the first place.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: It Happened One Night
14. Schindler’s List (1993)
Steven Spielberg had made historical, adult-oriented stories before, but this black-and-white drama, which tells the tale of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist and Nazi Party member who saved more than 1,000 Polish Jews during the Holocaust, still caught most audiences and critics off guard. As a technician, Spielberg has never been better: his command of performances, cinematography, production design and multiple tonal shifts is astounding. The result is a landmark depiction of one of the darkest chapters in European history.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Schindler’s List
13. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Based on the 1962 Ken Kesey novel of the same name, this New Hollywood classic is an 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 (Louise Fletcher). It remains a powerful cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked power.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Barry Lyndon
12. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
What happens when the heroes of the battlefield, the air and the sea return home only to feel as though they’ve outlived their usefulness? William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives picks up right after the end of WWII, and tells the powerful story of three veterans who return to their hometowns and discover that civilian life will never be the same again. The main cast—Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Frederic March and Dana Andrews—is as good as it gets.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: It’s a Wonderful Life
11. 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.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Silence of the Lambs
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10. Unforgiven (1992)
Clint Eastwood turned the Western upside down with 1992’s Unforgiven. When a group of prostitutes put up a bounty for two violent men, reformed outlaw William Munny (Eastwood) travels with his old friend (Morgan Freeman) and an eager young gunslinger to collect. The town’s brutal sheriff (Gene Hackman), meanwhile, makes it his mission to stop them. Unforgiven is a meditative film about the aftermath of violence, the consequences of myth-building, and what really happens when the bad guys are the only ones left standing after a gunfight.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Unforgiven
9. All About Eve (1950)
Nominated for a whopping 14 Academy Awards (it won six), All About Eve grants audiences an inside look at the backstage dramas of Broadway. After aging star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) takes aspiring actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) under her wing, she soon learns that the seemingly naïve young woman has her own devious plans. Like its fellow Best Picture nominee, Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve explores the narcissism and deceit that comes with wanting to be a celebrity, and is absolutely jam-packed with famous one-liners.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Sunset Boulevard
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8. 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. 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.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: On the Waterfront
7. The French Connection (1971)
In a decade filled with movies about mobsters and vigilantes, this film about a drug smuggling operation and the cops (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider) who vow to stop it might be the most nihilistic of them all. Much has been made about The French Connection’s famous car chase sequence, but the film’s real strength is director William Friedkin’s devotion to realism: foot chases, bar raids and late-night stakeouts are all momentous. In the world of The French Connection, tailing a suspect is just as dangerous as getting into a shootout.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The French Connection
6. 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.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Annie Hall
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5. 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.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Godfather Part II
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4. 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.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Apartment
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3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
David Lean’s 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.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Lawrence of Arabia
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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.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: Casablanca
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.
What Should Have Won Best Picture: The Godfather
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