This week, I've checked out two Best Picture nominees from 1984, The Killing Fields and Amadeus, which took home the Oscar. Both films were excellent, and they inspired me to pick my favorite winners of the top prize at the Academy Awards. There were so many great contenders for this list that I'm certain some classics were missed. Here are a few clarifications before I get to my choices. There were several films that I saw years ago but didn't remember well enough to consider. Therefore, I excluded Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, and Oliver!. With those options removed, I considered 43 Best Picture winners for this list. There are still many films that I haven't seen, especially from the Oscars' early years. Now that I've provided these important clarifications, let's get to the picks!
Honorable Mentions: No Country for Old Men (2007) and The Apartment (1960)
During recent years, the Oscars have frequently rewarded films that seem intriguing on first glance but don't hold up to the test of time. Prominent examples include Crash, Million Dollar Baby, A Beautiful Mind, and American Beauty. An exception was 2007, which featured the battle of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood and the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men. Although you could argue that the wrong film won (I would not), the power of the Coens' vision is undeniable. This unpredictable movie paints a bleak picture of humanity while offering an entertaining ride. On a different spectrum is Billy Wilder's wonderful The Apartment, which provides a biting look at romance and the corporate world in 1960. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine are at their witty best, and Fred MacMurray gives a surprising performance as the unscrupulous boss.
5. Platoon (1986)
One of the best war films and Oliver Stone's strongest picture, Platoon offers a convincing look at the horrors of war through the eyes of a naive young soldier. Charlie Sheen, Willem Defoe, and Tom Berenger all do their best work as the lead characters positioned in a triangle based on their differing approaches. Berenger's Barnes and Defoe's Elias stand at opposite poles idealistically and clash while the young group struggles to deal with the insane environment. We observe this perspective from the eyes of Sheen's Chris Taylor as he evolves from a green newbie to a hardened killer. Stone's personal connection to Vietnam brings an intimate perspective to the story and makes it a stunning film.
4. All About Eve (1950)
This biting look at the stage world from Joseph Mankiewicz remains one of the most telling looks at the world of show business. The dialogue remains as sharp as even more than 60 years after its original release. Anyone who disregards old movies needs to check out All About Eve. Betty Davis commands the screen as Margo, a stage actress facing the threat of a newcomer who will do anything to take her spot. Making a bad name for critics everywhere is George Sanders as Addison Dewitt, a nasty guy whose willing to do just about anything to get ahead. This movie depicts a world filled with characters like him, who have few scruples while trying to gain an edge over the current stars.
3. Annie Hall (1977)
This pick begins the obvious portion of the list. Woody Allen has cornered the market on neurotic characters over the years, and his best example is Alvy Singer from Annie Hall. His bumpy romance with Diane Keaton's charming title character says plenty about romance along with the laughs. While some of his later films show Allen reaching, his writing and directing remains confident throughout this movie. My favorite scenes break the fourth wall, with the best having Marshall McLuhan appear as himself to berate a pompous guy. It's a classic comedy that feels effortless and continues to charm with each repeat viewing.
2. The Godfather (1972)
There are certain films that have such a grand reputation that the actual movie could never live up to the hype. The two prime examples are Citizen Kane and The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola's 1972 epic transcends its genre and provides a stunning look at family, violence, and power. Marlon Brando's unconventional performance as Vito Corleone is the story's heart and separates it from the many imitators, even its excellent sequel. It shows Coppola at the height of his creative powers and includes memorable performances from the entire cast, even the smallest roles.
1. Casablanca (1942)
There are those rare genre movies that should be forgettable but seem destined to become great films. The pieces fit together so perfectly that no brilliant planning could ever predict the success. I could write several thousand words describing the reasons why I love Casablanca. I don't want to bore you, so I'll just stick to a few high points. First of all, the dialogue is filled with classic lines (Here's looking at you kid, I came to Casablanca for the waters, round up the usual suspects, etc.) that never feel dated. Second, the casting is superb, from Bogart and Bergman to character actors like Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. Finally, the romance works because it's underplayed yet still has tremendous power. It's one of my favorite movies and completely deserves its Oscar win.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list below in the comments section. You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them. There's a new one every Friday that relates to that week's posts.