Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked

Every Oscar Best Picture Winner, Ranked



Consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives.


It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The GodfatherSchindler’s ListAll About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of AfricaAround the World in 80 DaysThe Greatest Show on EarthCimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: GladiatorBraveheartChicagoCrash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.

Crash

92. Crash (2005)

Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz
What Should Have WonMunich

Cimarron

91. Cimarron (1931)

As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard

It’s a rare type of cinephile who wasn’t introduced to the idea of film as more than just idle entertainment by the ritual of the Academy Awards. And it’s an even rarer type of cinephile who didn’t soon thereafter vehemently reject the Oscar as the ultimate barometer of a film’s artistic worth. Those of us who started off with The GodfatherSchindler’s ListAll About Eve, or Casablanca all eventually got around to Out of AfricaAround the World in 80 DaysThe Greatest Show on EarthCimarron, and Cavalcade. First loves being first loves, we still find ourselves regressing if for only one night a year, succumbing to the allure of instant canonization even as it comes in the form of repeated slap-in-the-face reminders of Oscar’s bracing wrongness: GladiatorBraveheartChicagoCrash. In that sense, consider this project part cathartic exorcism and part sheepish capitulation to the role the Oscars have played in our lives. If we had to sit through every one of these movies, the least you can allow us is the chance to show you our scars. Eric Henderson
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 26, 2018.

Crash

92. Crash (2005)

Crash is set in Archie Bunker’s world, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone’s speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. “I can’t talk to you right now, Ma,” says Don Cheadle’s cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. “I’m fucking a white woman.” “Holy shit,” another character exclaims. “We ran over a Chinaman!” “I can’t look at you,” Matt Dillon’s cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle’s character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, “without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job.” Dyno-miiiiiiite! Paul Haggis’s depiction of a world where everyone’s thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it’s untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn’t a racist for fear of being ostracized by one’s peers. Matt Zoller Seitz
What Should Have WonMunich

Cimarron

91. Cimarron (1931)

As pre-code spectacles go, Cimarron is something of a big-budget exercise in experimentation, though not in the sense that it actually produces anything innovative. Director Wesley Ruggles helms a script spanning 40 years to create what’s meant to be eye-catching spectacle; the film’s story, which spans 1889 to 1929 in Oklahoma, begins with a restaging of the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, a sequence that uses 47 cameras to cover some 40 acres of land. From there, heavily theatrical acting styles and overwritten dialogue define most scenes, as Yancey (Richard Dix) and his family try to turn Osage County, Oklahoma into a tenable place to live. Certainly, if only for the fact that it was an early sound western, Cimarron would have been a new audio-visual experience for audiences at the time. Today, and not least because of its racist characterizations, it’s little more than an eye and ear sore. Clayton Dillard
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What Should Have WonThe Front Page

Out of Africa

90. Out of Africa (1985)

Out of Africa is the worst of the bloated, self-important best picture-winning pseudo-epics. It attempts to merge the sweeping visuals of Lawrence of Arabia with a Gone with the Wind-style story. But director Sydney Pollack is neither David Lean nor David O. Selznick, with the interminable result shellacked to the highest of glosses by John Barry’s syrupy score. Out of Africa depicts Danish writer Isak Dinesen’s (Meryl Streep) time growing coffee in Kenya. “I had a fahhhhhrm in Ahhh-frica,” says Dinesen seven times in the first scene, highlighting the aural act of violence that is Streep’s accent. This is one of the actress’s busiest performances, a full-tilt deployment of her entire arsenal of tics; a scene where Dinesen fends off a hungry lion with a whip sees the actress chewing as much scenery as the animal. Meanwhile, Robert Redford coasts by on his looks and Klaus Maria Brandauer smirks like a syphilitic Cheshire Cat. Whenever Pollack gets visually stuck, he cuts to a sea of dark brown African faces staring at the screen in confusion—an overused, racially suspect punchline. Out of Africa’s biggest sin is that it immediately evaporates from memory, as if one’s brain were committing a mercy killing. Odie Henderson
What Should Have WonThe Color Purple

A Beautiful Mind

89. A Beautiful Mind (2001)

If the cartoonists at Hanna-Barbera wanted to quickly convey the extent of a cartoon character’s world travels, they might cut from a shot of, say, Huckleberry Hound walking before the Eiffel Tower to a shot of the pooch prancing before Big Ben. In A Beautiful Mind, a film that doesn’t lack for the laziest of short cuts, a young John Nash (Russell Crowe) sits at his desk while special effects morph the exterior of a Princeton dormitory to accentuate the changing seasons: leaves drop, snow gathers and melt, birds chirp. Throughout the film, such hacky artistry is in service not for bringing us closer to the reality of the mathematician’s life, but for implicating us in a circus act. Imagine, for a second, the fascinating possibilities of having simply shown Nash talking to dead air for the duration of the film. Doesn’t quite sound like a potential Oscar winner, and so Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman decided to articulate schizophrenia’s grip on the mind with a bunch of swirling digital numbers and cutesy imaginary encounters. The film is, through and through, quintessentially cornball. If it’s impossible in retrospect to believe that A Beautiful Mind’s first half is supposed to depict the world as hallucinated by a master mathematician, that’s because the film’s comprehension of mental duress is fundamentally jejune, the stuff of shock tactics as imagined by connoisseurs of Dead Poet’s Society, or the most earnest believers in a cliché I always wished had made it into Roger Ebert’s Bigger Little Movie Glossary: Crying While Sliding One’s Back Against a Door. Ed Gonzalez
What Should Have WonGosford Park

Braveheart

88. Braveheart (1995)

Braveheart substitutes polished aesthetics, quotable speeches, and superficially bravura camerawork for a genuine examination of historical legend, while its would-be woozy romance remains trapped beneath the weight of both its unmerited running time and overly orchestrated sense of tragedy. Never have the Dark Ages appeared so plasticine and manicured as they do through Mel Gibson’s panoramic lens, nor has any single image of the director’s career been more encapsulating than that of William Wallace, the 13th-century warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England, his limbs outstretched in a Christ pose just before his final gutting. In this final moment of masochistic glory, Gibson and Wallace become one, a man of fire and passion ready to kick your ass into complacency. Rob Humanick

What Should Have WonBabe

The Broadway Melody

87. The Broadway Melody (1930)

Philosophically speaking, Sunrise was the first film to win the award associated with the qualities we now associate with the best picture category, in a year in which the industry tossed The Jazz Singer an honorary award rather than make the field of silents compete against it. In its second year, Oscar embraced the future with both hands, and thanks to The Broadway Melody’s win we have a case study for how technical innovations are occasionally anathema to artistic expression. Exactly the sort of clunky apparatus that Singin’ in the Rain decades later gently mocked, the film’s every shot announces itself as the result of a compromise made to sync image with sound, with neither of them being done any particular justice. A deluge of movie musicals would soon flourish thanks to the advent of sound: Gold Diggers of 1933, Love Me Tonight, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, all of them as dizzyingly innovative and effortlessly entertaining as the shallow, melodramatic The Broadway Melody is frozen. Eric Henderson

What Should Have WonIn Old Arizona

Around the World in 80 Days

86. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)

Oscar has awarded expansive tedium more often than not, but even by those pitiful standards, Around the World in 80 Days is a specialized case. Adapting a Jules Verne novel but framing the entire proceedings as a reactionary pre-Space Age paean to days gone by, producer-impresario Mike Todd’s dick-swinging epic is regressive in every conceivable way. From David Nivens’s entitled superciliousness as Phileas Fogg to Cantinflas’s shameless mugging as Fogg’s lackey manservant, Passepartout, from their rescue of Shirley MacLaine’s Indian princess (admittedly less cringeworthy than, say, Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed but still rough to watch) to a William S. Hart-era Wild West shootout between white folks and whooping Native Americans, the entire enterprise distills the world’s entire history of cultural appropriation into an endless amusement-park ride. And even that would have some contemporary worth as an eye-popping reminder of shifting attitudes if it were at least watchable. But no, it’s three-plus hours of vacation slides you found in your grandparents’ attic. Eric Henderson

What Should Have WonFriendly Persuasion

Shakespeare in Love

85. Shakespeare in Love (1998)

As is true of a great deal of the films that have been adorned with the best picture Oscar in the past two decades, John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love is a thunderous mediocrity, a beautifully costumed and designed mess, as ultimately amiable as it is nonsensical. The greatest voice the theater has ever seen, the author of an unequaled canon that serves as inspiration for nearly all narrative works in the modern age, William Shakespeare is here portrayed by Joseph Fiennes as an egotistical cad—a loathsome, unrepentant scoundrel and bum who’s capable of uttering “Damn, I’m good!” after finishing the first act of a play he’s weeks late on. Indeed, the screen’s contempt for its chief architects remains as potent and unyielding as it is largely thoughtless and despicable. Hollywood has never been very comfortable, or perhaps capable of, depicting great writers successfully—or, for that matter, taking their struggles seriously and their triumphs sincerely. As Shakespeare in Love unfolds, the penning of Romeo and Juliet is seen as near-accidental, spurred by the Bard’s misguided lust for a costume girl. And yet, as the film proceeds through its weedy narrative, focused mainly on the romance between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the first production of Romeo and Juliet, the unenviable task of believing that Shakespeare was a genius of tremendous insight and imagination, despite the production’s eager insistence that he was simply a jealous coward stricken with luck, becomes an exhausting exercise of imagination. Chris Cabin

What Should Have WonThe Thin Red Line

Gladiator

84. Gladiator (2000)

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw a string of duds almost inexplicably become critical and awards darlings, suggesting that mainstream cinema culture was undergoing some kind of intellectual regression. And with the release of Gladiator at the start of the millennium, it didn’t appear as if such deterioration was going to slow down any time soon. Directed by Sir Ridley Scott on depressing autopilot, the film displays none of the technically nimble artistry of such classics as Alien and Blade Runner. The overstuffed production meanders through knotty character dilemmas and rote attempts at Shaekepearean esoterica in as bland a manner possible. All the better to elevate Russell Crowe’s Maximus to the level of the grandiose, and in the most suspect and laughable of ways. The man is a walking vacuum of personality who the film believes to contain multitudes, and the kicker is how Gladiator, with Maximus taking a moral stand against the brutal culture of ancient Rome and his befriending of an African slave, is viewed through the lens of modern political correctness. In the film’s key scene, a gruesome gladiator battle, Maximus righteously screams, “Are you not entertained?!” But the presentation of the scene is as unironic as a crowd-pleasing ESPN highlight reel, or a pep rally pretending at moral conviction. Wes Greene

What Should Have WonTraffic

The Greatest Shot on Earth

83. The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

As far as tributes to vagrancy and animal abuse go, mid-century American cinema has done worse. But even taking into account Hollywood’s then-emerging neo-gigantism, it’s shocking how much effort The Greatest Show on Earth goes into missing the forest for the trees. Cecil B. DeMille, then regarded as Hollywood’s undisputedly great showman, setting his sights on the big top spectacle of P.T. Barnum ought to have been the ultimate “best of both worlds” proposition. But the allowances modern audiences still grant to DeMille’s products of their time—crediting his ability to sustain momentum through grandiose running times, or his balanced eye for scope—lay down and die in the face of this monstrosity, alternately leaden and corny and neither in the right moment. In the same sense that James Stewart’s mysterious clown never removes his makeup, anyone exposed to this film today will spend 152 minutes with Emmett Kelly’s expression frozen on their own face. Eric Henderson

What Should Have WonThe Quiet Man

American Beauty

82. American Beauty (1999)

A black comedy with a curious opinion of its characters’ repellent behaviors, Sam Mendes’s American Beauty is also tone-deaf in its belief that the struggle is real for white, wealthy suburbanites. The Burnham clan and their neighbors aren’t so much people as they are often offensive caricatures that exist only to service screenwriter Alan Ball’s anti-conformist message-mongering. American Beauty’s most famous scene, in which Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) explains to Jane Burnham (Thora Birch) that a plastic bag floating in the wind is the most beautiful thing in the world, is emblematic of the jejune self-aggrandizement that, like Ball’s litany of leaden ironies, abounds throughout the film and works to dubiously sentimentalize the characters’ pathologies. Indeed, this is a film that sees only beauty and nobility in transgression, as in Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham, after yearning to bed his teenage daughter’s friend (Mena Suvari), retreating to his corner upon learning that the girl is a virgin. One walks away from American Beauty believing that if its makers could blow themselves, they would. Greene
What Should Have WonThe Insider

Argo

81. Argo (2012)

There seems to be a general, taken-for-granted assumption in criticism—or film culture more broadly—that the most unassuming films manage to index complex political and social truths if only by virtue of their unpretentiousness and eagerness to entertain. So it seems fair enough to assume that such cheery popcorn flicks could prove equally insidious in their inconspicuousness. Argo feels like such a film: well-acted, competently directed, and sufficiently entertaining, yet all the more troubling as a result of its breezy pleasures. The problems emerge early, with the history of Iran in the 20th century and especially the events leading to the hostage crisis of 1979 laid out in detailed storyboards. In doing so, Argo effectively—and, perhaps, self-consciously—passes the buck of fealty to the operations of cinema. But regardless of whether or not Ben Affleck’s tone-setting meta-gesture—which winkingly acknowledges that this is the film version of a “declassified true story” (as the film was obnoxiously marketed)—is intentional, it’s undoubtedly irresponsible, even cowardly—a cheap escape hatch for Argo and Affleck to tuck-roll through any time questions of the film’s veracity come to bear. The film is a wet dream of buccaneering American foreign-policy intervention, attempting to absolve its responsibilities for accuracy (or even decency) in its slight, simple story of Affleck’s all-American hero whose pluck and gallantry would be for naught were he not also a repentant dad, eager to return home to his half-estranged son. John Semley
What Should Have Won: Zero Dark Thirty

The Artist

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10. Unforgiven (1992)

Mythologies haunt Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Set primarily in 1880 and 1881 along a trail between Wyoming and Kansas, the elder characters of the film talk of their violent pasts while younger men eagerly listen, waiting to prove themselves. David Webb Peoples’s screenplay resembles a series of nesting one-scene plays, a few of which end in moments of violence that shatter the younger generation’s illusions of the masculine grandeur of killing. At times, Eastwood goes out of his way to emphasize the pitiful and demoralizing chaos of murder, particularly when one of the film’s villains is shot to death in an outhouse, his eyes alive with unforgettable terror. Twenty-five years after Unforgiven’s initial release, it’s still distinctive to watch an American revenge film in which violence is accorded this sort of awful and surreal weight. Looking to the notorious William Munny (Eastwood) for comfort after his initiation into murder, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) says that the killing doesn’t feel real, evincing a poetically human response to atrocity that’s unusual for genre cinema. Eastwood and Peoples often juxtapose legendary killers, the protagonists and primary antagonists of the film, with outsiders, supporting characters such as the Schofield Kid and the writer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who blithely echo our own distanced and worshipful embrace of violence in pop art, as a transmitted energy that’s divorced of the ramifications of the destruction it simulates. Bowen
What Should Have WonUnforgiven

On the Waterfront

9. On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront remains an incredibly stirring and relevant melodrama. Director Elia Kazan conjured an illusion of docudrama spontaneity with his on-location shooting that allows him to stage images with psychological symbolism and religious metaphor with relative subtlety. Beyond the famous crucifixion imagery, there’s also the generally cramped sense that characterizes many of the domestic and street sequences. You’re allowed to feel and see the figurative and literal cages that confine the exploited and poverty-stricken characters as they make their way to the docks as well as to their shoebox apartments and bars as the endless winter wind beats against their faces, which bracingly contrast with the open, free-floating moments Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) shares with his would-be lover, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Brando’s brilliance resided in his ability to elevate universal, elemental yearning to the level of myth; he voices what many people may find to be inexpressible, and Kazan and cinematographer Boris Kaufman’s staging renders that myth as earthbound as it’s ever going to be. On the Waterfront is a Hollywood fantasy with an unusually distinct atmosphere of disenfranchised frustration that remains contemporary, which is to say that it fulfills an audience member’s daydream of grandeur while fulfilling his or her desire to see a film that speaks directly to their experience. (Mean Streets, RockyRaging Bull, and many others are unthinkable without this film.) Kazan’s ultimate gift may have been his pomposity: He read a gangster story and said, “This is my story, this is our story.” Bowen
What Should Have WonOn the Waterfront

The Silence of the Lambs

8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

With The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme made an honest to goodness horror film, one that’s “respectable,” by marrying the gloom and hyper-articulate Britishness of a Hammer Films production with the contemplated restraint of something “serious.” Nothing in Demme’s eclectic oeuvre suggested he was the filmmaker to adapt Thomas Harris’s clinically dour novel, yet the filmmaker, fresh off Married to the Mob, turned the lugubrious story of a cannibalistic psychiatrist and a serial killer who flenses hefty women and makes suits of their skin into a love story tinctured with notions of queerness. In his less than 20 minutes of screen time, Anthony Hopkins dines on scenery decadently, as if enjoying a fine meal, though the film ultimately belongs to Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, a neophyte and outsider (recall her standing a full head below the wall of men clad in red shirts in the elevator). It’s a film whose genre identity is muddled, two kinds of aesthetic/thematic work conflated, not unlike the flamboyant and sybarite Hannibal Lecter, with his dexterous sense of smell and penchant for the fine arts, left to rot in a dungeon-like cell adorned with drawings of Florence, done from memory. “Memories are all I have.” He’s one of the scariest cinematic villains because his penchant for violence is disguised by rarefied tastes. Where Michael Myers disappears into the night at the end of Halloween, the sound of his breathing filling the silence, Lector disappears into the blighting of day, as Clarice’s voice echoes, “Dr. Lector, Dr. Lector, Dr. Lector…” He’s now with her forever. Cwik


What Should Have WonThe Silence of the Lambs

Rebecca

7. Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca is cloaked in a respectability for which it’s yet to be entirely forgiven. The film taught Hitchcock a key lesson in dissonance and contrast, as the Selznick-ian glamour of the sets and actors heightens our awareness of what’s not being directly mentioned: the erotic suppression that drives the narrative. In his early British thrillers, Hitchcock used German expressionist tricks to conjure notions of evil and dread. After Rebecca, Hitchcock would infuse such dread in bourgeoisie comedies of manners, occasionally springing formalist tricks to highlight key emotional shifts. Films such as Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie refract their obsessions through a central triangle or rectangle, though Rebecca never achieves that focus. However, the film remains a key illustration of Hitchcock’s gift for fashioning emotional architecture. Every room in Manderley, a hall of mirrors of sexual resentment and taboo carnality, thrums with menace and longing that’s baked into bric-a-brac that tells many tales. It’s a pivotal work in the evolution of an artist’s poetry of sickness. Bowen


Unforgiven

10. Unforgiven (1992)

Mythologies haunt Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Set primarily in 1880 and 1881 along a trail between Wyoming and Kansas, the elder characters of the film talk of their violent pasts while younger men eagerly listen, waiting to prove themselves. David Webb Peoples’s screenplay resembles a series of nesting one-scene plays, a few of which end in moments of violence that shatter the younger generation’s illusions of the masculine grandeur of killing. At times, Eastwood goes out of his way to emphasize the pitiful and demoralizing chaos of murder, particularly when one of the film’s villains is shot to death in an outhouse, his eyes alive with unforgettable terror. Twenty-five years after Unforgiven’s initial release, it’s still distinctive to watch an American revenge film in which violence is accorded this sort of awful and surreal weight. Looking to the notorious William Munny (Eastwood) for comfort after his initiation into murder, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) says that the killing doesn’t feel real, evincing a poetically human response to atrocity that’s unusual for genre cinema. Eastwood and Peoples often juxtapose legendary killers, the protagonists and primary antagonists of the film, with outsiders, supporting characters such as the Schofield Kid and the writer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who blithely echo our own distanced and worshipful embrace of violence in pop art, as a transmitted energy that’s divorced of the ramifications of the destruction it simulates. Bowen
What Should Have WonUnforgiven

On the Waterfront

9. On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront remains an incredibly stirring and relevant melodrama. Director Elia Kazan conjured an illusion of docudrama spontaneity with his on-location shooting that allows him to stage images with psychological symbolism and religious metaphor with relative subtlety. Beyond the famous crucifixion imagery, there’s also the generally cramped sense that characterizes many of the domestic and street sequences. You’re allowed to feel and see the figurative and literal cages that confine the exploited and poverty-stricken characters as they make their way to the docks as well as to their shoebox apartments and bars as the endless winter wind beats against their faces, which bracingly contrast with the open, free-floating moments Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) shares with his would-be lover, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Brando’s brilliance resided in his ability to elevate universal, elemental yearning to the level of myth; he voices what many people may find to be inexpressible, and Kazan and cinematographer Boris Kaufman’s staging renders that myth as earthbound as it’s ever going to be. On the Waterfront is a Hollywood fantasy with an unusually distinct atmosphere of disenfranchised frustration that remains contemporary, which is to say that it fulfills an audience member’s daydream of grandeur while fulfilling his or her desire to see a film that speaks directly to their experience. (Mean Streets, RockyRaging Bull, and many others are unthinkable without this film.) Kazan’s ultimate gift may have been his pomposity: He read a gangster story and said, “This is my story, this is our story.” Bowen
What Should Have WonOn the Waterfront

The Silence of the Lambs

8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

With The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme made an honest to goodness horror film, one that’s “respectable,” by marrying the gloom and hyper-articulate Britishness of a Hammer Films production with the contemplated restraint of something “serious.” Nothing in Demme’s eclectic oeuvre suggested he was the filmmaker to adapt Thomas Harris’s clinically dour novel, yet the filmmaker, fresh off Married to the Mob, turned the lugubrious story of a cannibalistic psychiatrist and a serial killer who flenses hefty women and makes suits of their skin into a love story tinctured with notions of queerness. In his less than 20 minutes of screen time, Anthony Hopkins dines on scenery decadently, as if enjoying a fine meal, though the film ultimately belongs to Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, a neophyte and outsider (recall her standing a full head below the wall of men clad in red shirts in the elevator). It’s a film whose genre identity is muddled, two kinds of aesthetic/thematic work conflated, not unlike the flamboyant and sybarite Hannibal Lecter, with his dexterous sense of smell and penchant for the fine arts, left to rot in a dungeon-like cell adorned with drawings of Florence, done from memory. “Memories are all I have.” He’s one of the scariest cinematic villains because his penchant for violence is disguised by rarefied tastes. Where Michael Myers disappears into the night at the end of Halloween, the sound of his breathing filling the silence, Lector disappears into the blighting of day, as Clarice’s voice echoes, “Dr. Lector, Dr. Lector, Dr. Lector…” He’s now with her forever. Cwik
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What Should Have WonThe Silence of the Lambs

Rebecca

7. Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca is cloaked in a respectability for which it’s yet to be entirely forgiven. The film taught Hitchcock a key lesson in dissonance and contrast, as the Selznick-ian glamour of the sets and actors heightens our awareness of what’s not being directly mentioned: the erotic suppression that drives the narrative. In his early British thrillers, Hitchcock used German expressionist tricks to conjure notions of evil and dread. After Rebecca, Hitchcock would infuse such dread in bourgeoisie comedies of manners, occasionally springing formalist tricks to highlight key emotional shifts. Films such as Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie refract their obsessions through a central triangle or rectangle, though Rebecca never achieves that focus. However, the film remains a key illustration of Hitchcock’s gift for fashioning emotional architecture. Every room in Manderley, a hall of mirrors of sexual resentment and taboo carnality, thrums with menace and longing that’s baked into bric-a-brac that tells many tales. It’s a pivotal work in the evolution of an artist’s poetry of sickness. Bowen
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What Should Have WonRebecca

The Godfather

6. The Godfather (1972)

From the opening zoom, as deliberate and controlled as an experienced killer, to that final closed door and all that it insinuates, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is the most restrained of epics—a story of family and murder, loyalty and betrayal, all shrouded in Gordon Willis’s chiaroscuro shadows. It’s an operatic mix of artistic resolution and pulpy entertainment, probably the greatest example of a film being “better than the book.” In the scene when Clemenza (Richard Castellano) is taking a leak as his consort shoots a snitch inside a nearby car, undulating beige reeds take up half of the frame as the Statue of Liberty looms small in the background. Behold the immaculate but unfussy precision of the composition, and, after the gun shots fade, the cut to a smiling Clemenza as he zips up. It’s a meticulously constructed scene, and it’s known for Clemenza’s insouciant (and improvised) uttering of “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” The film is, by this point, a ubiquitous cultural presence, its dialogue and visual moments ingrained in the cinematic lexicon, but this familiarity has done little to dull its power. Cwik

What Should Have WonThe Godfather

Annie Hall

5. Annie Hall (1977)

The protraction of Annie Hall’s first act is absolutely necessary, because by the time the introductions are over, so are Annie (Diane Keaton) and Alvy (Woody Allen)—a brilliantly spring-loaded narrative trap that’s abetted by the fact that Annie’s very first scene isn’t cute or la-de-da at all, but of a woman chomping at the bit of an unhappy relationship, fully immersed in the therapy her partner talked her into in the first place. She’s snuck into the film, in a way, but Woody/Alvy keep the jokes coming, and the narrative doubles back to paint the picture of their once-happy courtship—another in a subset of false beginnings. The one-liners, still gut-busting after 40 years, paint over the Annie/Alvy fissures until there’s nothing left to do but face facts, and even then, there’s the line about the dead shark, the confrontation with the L.A. cop, Tony Roberts’s hilarious sun mask, etc. The timeline of the couple’s relationship is illuminated in a non-linear, blackout-sketch style, creating a collage effect, in which the causality-based explanation of their split dissipates: Scenes from a Marriage scrambled by a variety program of ceaseless experimentation. Christley

What Should Have WonAnnie Hall

The Godfather Part II

4. The Godfather Part II (1974)

Vito (Robert De Niro) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) lead lives that exist in a bog of moral ambiguity. From Gordon Willis’s crepuscular lighting to Ninoa Rota’s funereal score, The Godfather Part II seems to flow from the earlier film. Francis Ford Coppola’s dissolves carry us, like a parent holding a sleeping child, from scenes of a young Vito trying to make ends meet to an increasingly vindictive Michael; Coppola draws parallels and dichotomies between these two men and the way they approach business and the way they treat their families. The careful pairing of past and present shows, with startling diligence given the sordid material, how Vito’s use of violence possesses a kind of Sicilian honor that Michael, face consumed by shadow, gradually loses. Four decades later, the film remains an anomaly, a sequel that matches (some say surpasses) its predecessor, an Oscar-winning epic that found ubiquitous pop-culture appeal and made bank at the box office. Coppola and his coterie of editors cut the film lyrically and sinuously, weaving into the narrative themes of capitalism, family, love, and betrayal, conjuring visual metaphors from the chiaroscuro lighting and sepia-toned compositions. The two tales of men—one good but capable of bad, the other good but made craven and unrepentant—plumbs the unfathomable depths in the dark heart of humanity, the cruelties skulking in that darkness. Cwik

What Should Have WonThe Godfather Part II

How Green Was My Valley

3. How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Though the Morgans’ various serialized stories (told in mini-bildungsroman form through a much older Huw’s narration) sometimes betray How Green Was My Valley’s origins as a novel, they’re held together by the connecting thread that unites those two basic plot threads. The two things that give men their sense of purpose—God and work—both come home to roost in the place that gives women theirs, and if the dysfunction of the former invariably leads to the dismantlement of the latter (each of the Morgan sons sets sail for America or wherever else they can find work), it’s the institution of home that allows everyone to soldier on through strife in the male-dominated arenas. A square message, to be sure, especially since John Ford’s uncompromising The Grapes of Wrath didn’t even allow the pitiable Joads a home at all. But beneath the unobjectionable veneer of nostalgia and the too-pleasant anonymity of those salt-of-the-earth types, Ford’s social conscience convinces. It would be hard to miss given how often he has the camera positioned low enough to look up to his subjects. Eric Henderson

What Should Have WonHow Green Was My Valley

The Best Years of Our Lives

2. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was the film Americans knew they needed, but likely few realized how badly they also wanted it. As has happened with other films in that position before and since, its achievements seemed to take on a force-of-nature patina; it was the highest-grossing film since Gone with the Wind and missed tying that epic’s then-record number of Oscar wins by just one trophy. A prime example of American middlebrow writ on an epic scale in service of universalizing its themes and messages, the film follows three veterans who, having returned home after spending years in the life-or-death panic of World War II, now find themselves all chasing oblivion. If The Best Years of Our Lives emerges as a more contemporary-seeing film than almost anything else to which its ingredients could compare, it’s because of how frankly it wrestles with the burden of patriotism. The nation’s problems are right there in plain sight, just as clear as cinematographer Gregg Toland’s typically precise deep-focus shots. Eric Henderson


Unforgiven

10. Unforgiven (1992)

Mythologies haunt Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Set primarily in 1880 and 1881 along a trail between Wyoming and Kansas, the elder characters of the film talk of their violent pasts while younger men eagerly listen, waiting to prove themselves. David Webb Peoples’s screenplay resembles a series of nesting one-scene plays, a few of which end in moments of violence that shatter the younger generation’s illusions of the masculine grandeur of killing. At times, Eastwood goes out of his way to emphasize the pitiful and demoralizing chaos of murder, particularly when one of the film’s villains is shot to death in an outhouse, his eyes alive with unforgettable terror. Twenty-five years after Unforgiven’s initial release, it’s still distinctive to watch an American revenge film in which violence is accorded this sort of awful and surreal weight. Looking to the notorious William Munny (Eastwood) for comfort after his initiation into murder, the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) says that the killing doesn’t feel real, evincing a poetically human response to atrocity that’s unusual for genre cinema. Eastwood and Peoples often juxtapose legendary killers, the protagonists and primary antagonists of the film, with outsiders, supporting characters such as the Schofield Kid and the writer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek), who blithely echo our own distanced and worshipful embrace of violence in pop art, as a transmitted energy that’s divorced of the ramifications of the destruction it simulates. Bowen
What Should Have WonUnforgiven

On the Waterfront

9. On the Waterfront (1954)

On the Waterfront remains an incredibly stirring and relevant melodrama. Director Elia Kazan conjured an illusion of docudrama spontaneity with his on-location shooting that allows him to stage images with psychological symbolism and religious metaphor with relative subtlety. Beyond the famous crucifixion imagery, there’s also the generally cramped sense that characterizes many of the domestic and street sequences. You’re allowed to feel and see the figurative and literal cages that confine the exploited and poverty-stricken characters as they make their way to the docks as well as to their shoebox apartments and bars as the endless winter wind beats against their faces, which bracingly contrast with the open, free-floating moments Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) shares with his would-be lover, Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Brando’s brilliance resided in his ability to elevate universal, elemental yearning to the level of myth; he voices what many people may find to be inexpressible, and Kazan and cinematographer Boris Kaufman’s staging renders that myth as earthbound as it’s ever going to be. On the Waterfront is a Hollywood fantasy with an unusually distinct atmosphere of disenfranchised frustration that remains contemporary, which is to say that it fulfills an audience member’s daydream of grandeur while fulfilling his or her desire to see a film that speaks directly to their experience. (Mean Streets, RockyRaging Bull, and many others are unthinkable without this film.) Kazan’s ultimate gift may have been his pomposity: He read a gangster story and said, “This is my story, this is our story.” Bowen
What Should Have WonOn the Waterfront

The Silence of the Lambs

8. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

With The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme made an honest to goodness horror film, one that’s “respectable,” by marrying the gloom and hyper-articulate Britishness of a Hammer Films production with the contemplated restraint of something “serious.” Nothing in Demme’s eclectic oeuvre suggested he was the filmmaker to adapt Thomas Harris’s clinically dour novel, yet the filmmaker, fresh off Married to the Mob, turned the lugubrious story of a cannibalistic psychiatrist and a serial killer who flenses hefty women and makes suits of their skin into a love story tinctured with notions of queerness. In his less than 20 minutes of screen time, Anthony Hopkins dines on scenery decadently, as if enjoying a fine meal, though the film ultimately belongs to Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, a neophyte and outsider (recall her standing a full head below the wall of men clad in red shirts in the elevator). It’s a film whose genre identity is muddled, two kinds of aesthetic/thematic work conflated, not unlike the flamboyant and sybarite Hannibal Lecter, with his dexterous sense of smell and penchant for the fine arts, left to rot in a dungeon-like cell adorned with drawings of Florence, done from memory. “Memories are all I have.” He’s one of the scariest cinematic villains because his penchant for violence is disguised by rarefied tastes. Where Michael Myers disappears into the night at the end of Halloween, the sound of his breathing filling the silence, Lector disappears into the blighting of day, as Clarice’s voice echoes, “Dr. Lector, Dr. Lector, Dr. Lector…” He’s now with her forever. Cwik
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What Should Have WonThe Silence of the Lambs

Rebecca

7. Rebecca (1940)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca is cloaked in a respectability for which it’s yet to be entirely forgiven. The film taught Hitchcock a key lesson in dissonance and contrast, as the Selznick-ian glamour of the sets and actors heightens our awareness of what’s not being directly mentioned: the erotic suppression that drives the narrative. In his early British thrillers, Hitchcock used German expressionist tricks to conjure notions of evil and dread. After Rebecca, Hitchcock would infuse such dread in bourgeoisie comedies of manners, occasionally springing formalist tricks to highlight key emotional shifts. Films such as Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie refract their obsessions through a central triangle or rectangle, though Rebecca never achieves that focus. However, the film remains a key illustration of Hitchcock’s gift for fashioning emotional architecture. Every room in Manderley, a hall of mirrors of sexual resentment and taboo carnality, thrums with menace and longing that’s baked into bric-a-brac that tells many tales. It’s a pivotal work in the evolution of an artist’s poetry of sickness. Bowen
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What Should Have WonRebecca

The Godfather

6. The Godfather (1972)

From the opening zoom, as deliberate and controlled as an experienced killer, to that final closed door and all that it insinuates, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather is the most restrained of epics—a story of family and murder, loyalty and betrayal, all shrouded in Gordon Willis’s chiaroscuro shadows. It’s an operatic mix of artistic resolution and pulpy entertainment, probably the greatest example of a film being “better than the book.” In the scene when Clemenza (Richard Castellano) is taking a leak as his consort shoots a snitch inside a nearby car, undulating beige reeds take up half of the frame as the Statue of Liberty looms small in the background. Behold the immaculate but unfussy precision of the composition, and, after the gun shots fade, the cut to a smiling Clemenza as he zips up. It’s a meticulously constructed scene, and it’s known for Clemenza’s insouciant (and improvised) uttering of “Leave the gun, take the cannoli.” The film is, by this point, a ubiquitous cultural presence, its dialogue and visual moments ingrained in the cinematic lexicon, but this familiarity has done little to dull its power. Cwik
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What Should Have WonThe Godfather

Annie Hall

5. Annie Hall (1977)

The protraction of Annie Hall’s first act is absolutely necessary, because by the time the introductions are over, so are Annie (Diane Keaton) and Alvy (Woody Allen)—a brilliantly spring-loaded narrative trap that’s abetted by the fact that Annie’s very first scene isn’t cute or la-de-da at all, but of a woman chomping at the bit of an unhappy relationship, fully immersed in the therapy her partner talked her into in the first place. She’s snuck into the film, in a way, but Woody/Alvy keep the jokes coming, and the narrative doubles back to paint the picture of their once-happy courtship—another in a subset of false beginnings. The one-liners, still gut-busting after 40 years, paint over the Annie/Alvy fissures until there’s nothing left to do but face facts, and even then, there’s the line about the dead shark, the confrontation with the L.A. cop, Tony Roberts’s hilarious sun mask, etc. The timeline of the couple’s relationship is illuminated in a non-linear, blackout-sketch style, creating a collage effect, in which the causality-based explanation of their split dissipates: Scenes from a Marriage scrambled by a variety program of ceaseless experimentation. Christley
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What Should Have WonAnnie Hall

The Godfather Part II

4. The Godfather Part II (1974)

Vito (Robert De Niro) and Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) lead lives that exist in a bog of moral ambiguity. From Gordon Willis’s crepuscular lighting to Ninoa Rota’s funereal score, The Godfather Part II seems to flow from the earlier film. Francis Ford Coppola’s dissolves carry us, like a parent holding a sleeping child, from scenes of a young Vito trying to make ends meet to an increasingly vindictive Michael; Coppola draws parallels and dichotomies between these two men and the way they approach business and the way they treat their families. The careful pairing of past and present shows, with startling diligence given the sordid material, how Vito’s use of violence possesses a kind of Sicilian honor that Michael, face consumed by shadow, gradually loses. Four decades later, the film remains an anomaly, a sequel that matches (some say surpasses) its predecessor, an Oscar-winning epic that found ubiquitous pop-culture appeal and made bank at the box office. Coppola and his coterie of editors cut the film lyrically and sinuously, weaving into the narrative themes of capitalism, family, love, and betrayal, conjuring visual metaphors from the chiaroscuro lighting and sepia-toned compositions. The two tales of men—one good but capable of bad, the other good but made craven and unrepentant—plumbs the unfathomable depths in the dark heart of humanity, the cruelties skulking in that darkness. Cwik
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What Should Have WonThe Godfather Part II

How Green Was My Valley

3. How Green Was My Valley (1941)

Though the Morgans’ various serialized stories (told in mini-bildungsroman form through a much older Huw’s narration) sometimes betray How Green Was My Valley’s origins as a novel, they’re held together by the connecting thread that unites those two basic plot threads. The two things that give men their sense of purpose—God and work—both come home to roost in the place that gives women theirs, and if the dysfunction of the former invariably leads to the dismantlement of the latter (each of the Morgan sons sets sail for America or wherever else they can find work), it’s the institution of home that allows everyone to soldier on through strife in the male-dominated arenas. A square message, to be sure, especially since John Ford’s uncompromising The Grapes of Wrath didn’t even allow the pitiable Joads a home at all. But beneath the unobjectionable veneer of nostalgia and the too-pleasant anonymity of those salt-of-the-earth types, Ford’s social conscience convinces. It would be hard to miss given how often he has the camera positioned low enough to look up to his subjects. Eric Henderson
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What Should Have WonHow Green Was My Valley

The Best Years of Our Lives

2. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was the film Americans knew they needed, but likely few realized how badly they also wanted it. As has happened with other films in that position before and since, its achievements seemed to take on a force-of-nature patina; it was the highest-grossing film since Gone with the Wind and missed tying that epic’s then-record number of Oscar wins by just one trophy. A prime example of American middlebrow writ on an epic scale in service of universalizing its themes and messages, the film follows three veterans who, having returned home after spending years in the life-or-death panic of World War II, now find themselves all chasing oblivion. If The Best Years of Our Lives emerges as a more contemporary-seeing film than almost anything else to which its ingredients could compare, it’s because of how frankly it wrestles with the burden of patriotism. The nation’s problems are right there in plain sight, just as clear as cinematographer Gregg Toland’s typically precise deep-focus shots. Eric Henderson
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What Should Have WonThe Best Years of Our Lives

All About Eve

1. All About Eve (1950)

The depth of All About Eve’s social rancor is virtually unparalleled in classic film. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s effervescent cynicism is as observant as Billy Wilder’s, but while the latter views human nature as a set of perpetually losing odds one must wager against regardless, the former understands the essence of relationships as a constantly shifting compromise of ego. The film is a sour exploration of the raw deal offered to both sexes by gender roles, and how we strive to regain that lost ground through interpersonal viciousness. What makes Mankiewicz’s approach gently revolutionary is the female leads’ reluctance to sit back and passively transform from objects of desire into (bluntly) mothers or wives. Even Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), whose transparent deception is still the film’s least interesting aspect, sees her attractiveness as the means to an end: It’s power, not sex, that she wants. The film’s climax, where Eve’s web unravels around her throat, and its cyclical epilogue may put her and Margo Channing (Bette Davis) back in their place with far-fetched ferocity. But Mankiewicz grants them their dreams with surprisingly little patriarchal compromise: Margo escapes the stage’s unforgiving clutches, and Eve wins success at what is, really, a nominal social fee. The refreshing implication is not that women need men to succeed, but that both sexes may need one another to keep their respective evils in check. Joseph Jon Lanthier

What Should Have WonAll About Eve

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