The Filmhounds team voted for their 10 Best Ever Academy Awards Best Picture winners
On May 16th, 1929 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, a private function was held to celebrate the best films of the previous two years. Wings became the inaugural winner of the Outstanding Picture, a title which would develop into the most celebrated and iconised award in the world of film – The Academy Award for Best Picture.
Following that pivotal night, there have 92 Best Pictures, all of which have been scrutinised and cross-examined for generations. Film-buffs globally rarely fixate on a topic more frequently than their preferred Oscar nominees. Whether it contains their favourite movie star, resonates with them personally or because they would prefer another film not to win, opinions remain unbending and borderline pontifical.
Fortunately, the team at Filmhounds were able to put aside their differences and vote for the greatest Best Picture winners in history. Of the 42 films put forward, we narrowed them down to 10 all-time greats. Some of the following are definitely expected and such a list would not be complete without them, but some may well surprise you. All we can say is, we hope you enjoy reading about why we love these Best Pictures so much.
Gladiator tells us what we do in life echoes in eternity. It’s an often-quoted and remembered line, yet it occurs right at the film’s start with no emphasis or fanfare. Russell Crowe’s Maximus says it to encourage his troops before battle; he says it as he does every other great line the script offers him, as if it genuinely will echo eternally. Such is the power of Ridley Scott’s only best picture winner, with what feels like effortless poise, every single scene is memorable and impactful. From the minute Maximus is enslaved all the way to his courageous final battle, we are totally absorbed.
It’s not hard to say why either. The story is an empathetic one, as all the truly great stories are. Maximus is a man wronged, his family murdered, and he himself enslaved to a life of fighting to the death. After this, with each hurdle thrown at Maximus, more viewers join his cause, begging him to somehow best the cruel emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), who imprisoned him, and this passion is all solidified in one classic moment.
Just over an hour into Gladiator that Maximus yells the film’s most famous line, “Are you not entertained?”, and it remains one of cinema’s greatest rhetorical questions, because it’s when everything clicks. It’s the moment you know that a film audience will remember forever. In the great battles which follow, as Hans Zimmer’s inspiring score chimes and Crowe’s shining sword sings, you catch yourself in Rome fighting the great fight, for just an instant, you’re echoing in eternity.
The greatest victory of Rocky is not his mammoth bout against Apollo Creed – which he loses incidentally – but rather its success at the Academy Awards. Sylvester Stallone couldn’t get the film made, a tiny little sports drama about a lug-head who wanted to prove himself able to go the distance wasn’t the commercial property it is now (with seven sequels, and a box office bigger than Balboa’s left arm). Stallone was dirt poor writing it, he even sold his dog to make ends meet, but through all the trials and tribulations Stallone, and his resolve not to sell the script if he couldn’t star, won out. On Oscar night Rocky was up for ten awards. Its sound and original song, along with two for Stallone – one for writing, one for Leading Actor. His co-stars Talia Shire, Burt Young and Burgess Meredith were all nominated too.
Ultimately it walked away with three. Its editing – perhaps best shown in the brutal final fight, its steady direction from John G. Avildsen and the film itself walked away honoured. It’s hard not to root for Stallone standing at the podium grinning ear-to-ear as his script became the film lauded as the best of the year’s films, and it showed. The film was about triumph, not of awards glory, but of personal ambition, proving you can do it when no one else thinks you can. Rocky loses the fight, and Stallone lost the awards, and yet here we are, forty-five years and seven sequels later, perhaps the happiest ending is Stallone used his pay check to buy back his beloved dog.
8. The Departed
Raging Bull. Goodfellas. Gangs of New York. The Aviator. Four of the Martin Scorsese films nominated for Best Picture, all of which lost. It seemed Scorsese was forever to be the bridesmaid at the Academy Awards. That is, until 2006, when he finally won the statue for directing The Departed and the film took the top honour as well. It has often been claimed the film’s success was an atonement for Scorsese being passed over on many other occasions, a belief that is frankly absurd. The Departed, the only remake ever to win Best Picture, is terrific cinema, a high-wire thriller full of heart-pumping, simmering paranoia and containing the themes that have dominated Scorsese’s output throughout his career – the importance of loyalty, the concept of family, the search for identity and the danger of desire. The camera work is expressive and fluid, the soundtrack has the usual Scorsese pop songs, and the editing is gloriously pristine. It contains a truly outstanding cast list- Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon (who has never been better), Mark Wahlberg (in the film that got him properly noticed), Jack Nicholson, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Ray Winstone and Vera Farmiga. The Departed stands as a true companion piece to the earlier works Scorsese brought to the screen, albeit one that comes from a director in his maturity, presenting a film that’s not only nerve-shredding and visceral, but also reflective and mournful. It is peak Scorsese working in his wheelhouse. It’s mature, stylish filmmaking in an era where the importance of the director seems to have completely diminished.
7. No Country For Old Men
The Coen Brothers’ are rare filmmakers in that they are able to create long lasting cult characters and stories while also not making similar films or genre specific. Experiencing a lag in positive critical and audience response to their films since 2001, after the release of O Brother Where Art Thou, their next few films just didn’t seem to make a mark at the box office. Then, in 2007 they directed No Country for Old Men, adapted from the novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy, which was a match made in cinematic heaven. Attracted to the project, after being given the novel the Coens felt akin to the subverting genre of the story and how it played with conventions, which is exactly what the Coens are known for.
Combining a Western crime thriller with a neo noir tone is what set this film apart when it was released in cinemas. From strength of the story, the ominous Anton Chigurh going down in history as one of the greatest film characters and of course a prime spot at Cannes cemented the Coens being back at the forefront of cinema. The film not only brought a whole new audience who may not have been around or old enough to enjoy and appreciate their earlier films, No Country for Old Men was a turning point. Despite the film’s success critically, it is actually one of the lowest grossing Oscar winning films in the Best Picture category. Sometimes, you just need a great story and two filmmakers who know how to create a film no one expected.
6. Schindler’s List
From 1993 comes master storyteller Steven Spielberg’s deeply personal account of the Holocaust and Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist who managed to save the lives of over a thousand Jews during World War II by employing them in his munition factories. Filmed in black and white and weighing in at just over three hours, there’s an intimate documentary feel to the narrative. The subject matter isn’t shied away from resulting in an often uncomfortably immersive experience. Horrifying and compelling in equal measure, there are sequences that will stay with you forever; the Kraków Ghetto liquidation, desperate children taking horrific steps to hide from the Nazis, snow that turns out to be far from pure and, of course, the girl in the red coat.
Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Embeth Davidtz put in superb turns, but it’s Ralph Fiennes as malevolent SS Officer Amon Göth that will be remembered. Arguably his finest performance, it’s hard to comprehend that the Academy opted to give the Best Supporting Actor Oscar to Tommy Lee Jones for The Fugitive instead of Fiennes. Behind the camera, the cinematography brings a sense of timelessness to the period whilst there also features a hauntingly melancholic score from John Williams. His main theme, performed by violinist Itzhak Perlman, a mournful lament that lingers and exudes emotion.
Unflinching in its brutality, Schindler’s List is quite possibly Spielberg’s greatest achievement as a filmmaker. Essential viewing for anyone with an interest in cinema or history, it proves that hope can be found in the darkest of places.
5. The Godfather 2
Following the huge success of 1972’s The Godfather, now heralded as one of the finest films of all time, Francis Ford Coppola was tasked with following this up with 1974’s Part II. Amazingly enough both films won the Best Picture Oscar and a share of acting gongs between them. Part II picks up in the aftermath of the death of Vito Corleone with Michael now fully running the Corleone family and the focus is predominantly on his descent into the sort of character he vilified at the beginning of the first film. We see his relationships with his family, particularly Kay and his brother Fredo crumble as he becomes more and more ruthless.
Michael’s descent into darkness is married with the story of Vito’s rise to power in the 1920s-30s with Robert De Niro winning the Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of the young Vito with the vast majority of his scenes in Italian. The scale of Part II is hard not to admire, drawing from aspects of Mario Puzo’s novel that the first film didn’t manage to with Puzo himself at hand on Screenplay duty. It is a slow film in many ways but this gives us to time to take stock of both the storylines at hand and the two time periods are balanced to perfection with De Niro and Pacino absolutely excelling in their respective roles. Whether or not this is better than the first film is a topic of debate but the two certainly stand as separate entities while forming one overarching story.
4. The Silence of the Lambs
Jonathan Demme’s classic thriller is not an underrated film by any stretch. However, when talking about how good it is, many people’s first thoughts is to immediately praise Anthony Hopkins’ performance as Hannibal Lecter. He rightfully won an Oscar for his iconic portrayal. Though Hopkins’ critical acclaim is obviously warranted, it sells the film he’s in short. After all, there are several fairly average films that have good performances in them. To make a brilliant film, EVERYTHING has to be perfectly crafted, not just one performance.
Jodie Foster is a fantastic lead. She perfectly encapsulates a young woman fighting a dark past and present to achieve greatness in a man’s world. Ted Levine brings us an overwhelmingly disturbing antagonist. Buffalo Bill is a very atypical villain who brings a unique twist on our collective idea of a serial killer.
What really makes it one of the greatest thrillers of all time is its directing. Every scene, Demme is making sure you are as uncomfortable and tense as possible. He revels in his use of close ups and point of view shots that put you right in the shoes of Clarice Starling through this roller coaster of a detective drama. Whenever Dr. Lecter stares intensely into the camera, you can feel him peering into your soul.
The Silence of the Lambs is a masterwork of tension and is one of the most deserving films to have ever won Best Picture.
Sunday, February 9th, 2020 was a historic day. It was the day that Parasite became the first film not in the English language to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It won countless other awards including Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2019 but it was the Oscar Best Picture win that really elevated Parasite’s success to a new level.
Its popularity grew and grew as more people around the world took on writer/director Bong Joon-Ho’s words of wisdom: “once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Parasite is one of those films that’s best to go into completely blind, the less you know about the plot the better.
It manages to blend so many different genres- comedy, thriller, drama, horror, mystery- and it subverts our expectations to become a film full of surprises with an ending that really packs a punch. It’s a film that truly succeeds in being not just entertaining, but smart and intelligent and one of the most nerve-racking movie watching experiences you will ever have.
Even on multiple re-watches Parasite holds up and, in fact, it even gets better. There are so many small details and little bits of foreshadowing planted throughout the film that show up when you watch it again, highlighting just how genius and well-crafted Bong Joon-Ho’s film is, cementing its place as the best film of the year and one of the greatest Best Picture winners in the Academy’s history.
2. The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola didn’t want to make a Mafia movie. When an adaptation of Mario Puzo’s hit novel The Godfather was being developed, Paramount wanted to ensure a certain level of authenticity by appointing an Italian American filmmaker. Many names were considered, from Sergio Leone, to Peter Bogdanovich, before Coppola was offered the chance. Surely an offer he couldn’t refuse, right? Well, wrong. Coppola, believing the novel to be a bit too sleazy for his sensibilities, was keen to turn it down. But after his last film The Rain People under performed, he was at a point where he couldn’t really turn down a job. It’s a good thing he didn’t either, as cinema would have been robbed of one of the finest films of the 20th Century, and Cabaret probably would have won Best Picture at the 45th Academy Awards.
Coppola’s take on Puzo’s crime saga elevates the material beyond being simply another Mafia story. With its rich collection of characters inhabited by some of the greatest actors of their generation, The Godfather becomes an epic tale not just of the Corleone family, but of the American Dream itself, and the often corrupting nature the chase for that dream can have on those violently pursuing it. Seeing Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone begin his descent into darkness is played with a delicate sense of tragedy, powered by sequences that remain a marvel of editing and perspective, from the fateful shooting at the restaurant to the montage of Christening executions. It remains one of Coppola’s finest feats of filmmaking, and has aged like a fine wine from the Coppola vineyard. Thank God he accepted the offer.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
And the Oscar goes to… The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Given the incredible history of the Academy Awards, as well as the remarkable list of past winners, it may seem surprising that the third instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out on top, yet in many ways it was also the only possible choice.
The 76th Academy Awards ceremony proved to be a huge moment not just in Oscars history but in movie history. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King took the largest sweep in Oscars history, winning all eleven of its nominations on the night, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and many more. In doing so the picture also tied the record for the most Oscar wins for a single movie, tied only with Ben-Hur and Titanic, two films that did not even make it on to our list. Alongside such accolades the film was also one of the first ever films to break the one billion dollar mark at the box office. The success of The Return of the King simply cannot be denied. So, in the same way that J.R.R. Tolkien’s fingerprints can be seen to this very day on any and all pieces of media within the Fantasy genre, the impact of The Lord of the Rings trilogy can still be felt twenty years on from the first movie.
Creating an adaptation of any work is no easy feat. This itself can be shown through the previous failed attempts to adapt The Lord of the Rings to screen. In the same way that adapting work to screen is not easy, nor is making a successful sequel. The likes of American Psycho 2, S. Darko and Exorcist 2: The Heretic will show you that. Even more so, it has been proven difficult to tie up a trilogy well, The Godfather Part III being perhaps the worst case of this. So, for Peter Jackson to have successfully created a trilogy which does all three masterfully is a fantastic achievement, and in many ways The Return of the King is the trilogy’s magnum opus.
The film’s placing as the final chapter of the story does mean that much of the movie’s impact from a story point of view is lost on viewers who are yet to see the first two films. However, the sheer spectacle of Return of the King is enough to keep any viewer entertained. As for those who have seen the first two movies, The Return of the King works as a beautiful culmination to the previously interwoven stories of the first six hours of the story.
The Lord of the Rings follows Frodo’s journey to destroy the one ring, all the while Aragorn must unite the people of Middle Earth and fulfil his destiny to become King of Gondor in order to defeat Sauron’s army. Although the key focus is on Frodo and Aragorn the trilogy also follows the journeys of so many other characters such as Samwise Gamgee, Legolas, Gimli and Gandalf amongst many others.
Although the trilogy itself is only nine hours in runtime, the story itself takes place over a 13 month period. The effect to show this visually is perhaps one of The Return of the King’s greatest achievements. Although the trilogy was shot back to back, the use of makeup, VFX, production and costume design are all used to show the direct effect that the journey has had on these characters. All of which is made further more impressive when revisiting the earlier films and noting just how drastic the changes are. The colour palette slowly building to darker tones, the characters physically ageing in front of our very eyes. The Lord of the Rings is very much a piece of visual storytelling and it is precisely these striking visuals that invest the audience not only into the story, but into the world. Middle Earth was brought to life by Peter Jackson, so much so that the audience practically feel as though they are living in it. That sense is made no more important than in The Return of the King, the chapter in which this world that the viewer is so invested in hangs by a thread.
The stakes are high and in more than one aspect. The focus is on the destruction of the one ring and the battle for middle earth, yet so many stories that have been intricately interwoven over the previous six hours of the trilogy culminate in The Return of the King. The story of Gollum, Arwen’s choice between immortality or Aragorn, Eowyn’s desire to become a warrior, the friendships of Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin and Legolas and Gimli and many more. So many stories playing out on screen, yet they never halt the film’s pacing. A testament to the utterly perfect screenplay of The Return of the King, using every second of its two hundred and one minute screen time to meticulously craft an exhilarating and beautiful end to one of cinema’s finest sagas.
With The Return of the King every tool of the trade that is cinema is used to its greatest effect. Brought together as one and perfectly orchestrated by Peter Jackson in order to craft a gorgeous story of love, hope and of course…Fellowship.
The Academy Awards strive to crown the greatest achievements in all aspects of film and there is no greater representation of that than The Return of the King. If after twenty years you still haven’t seen The Return of the King, stop what you are doing right this second and watch the entire trilogy.