Top 5 Best Picture Winners

Jack Lemmon in The Apartment

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!

Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men

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.

Willem Defoe in Platoon

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.

Betty Davis in All About Eve

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.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Annie Hall

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.

Marlon Brando in The Godfather

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.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

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.


  1. That top 5 would make a fantastic weekender!!

    I must admit I haven't seen them all but that is not much of a surprise with my rubbish watching habits

  2. Love your top 2, the others I haven't seen yet... Amadeus was much better than I had thought too, though it was weird sometimes.

  3. Mette, you really can't go wrong with any of these, plus some others that just fell short. Amadeus surprised me because I had expected more of a stuffy costume drama (there was some of that). It was a lot more interesting than just a lavish show. Thanks!

  4. Don't hate me but I haven't seen any of these [gasp!] Well I've seen parts of The Godfather as my brothers loved it, but the one I've been meaning to see is Casablanca!

  5. It's cool. I've only seen about half the Best Picture winners, and there are so many older films that I've missed. I would say that you can't really go wrong with any of these movies.

  6. I'm very surprised The Apartment only got an honorable mention - one of the greatest films ever made for me. That it is beaten by four of the five films doesn't surprise me - some truly fantastic films but I wouldn't say Platoon merits being ahead of The Apartment, there are better Vietnam war films and Best Picture winners.

  7. Dan, I kept flipping things around with my list. At one point, The Apartment was in the #4 spot in front of All About Eve, and Platoon was in the honorable mention. The top three were pretty much set, but I kept changing my mind on the others. I can't really argue with putting The Apartment higher, plus a lot of other picks that didn't make my list could apply. I've seen a good amount of the winners but not them all, and a lot of great movies didn't even win. So it was a tricky list for sure. Thanks!

  8. I've still not seen Cavalcade, The Great Ziegfeld, How Green Was My Valley, and Hamlet. I've seen all the others, although like you some were many years ago.

    Off the top of my head, my Top 5 would be:

    1. Lawrence of Arabia
    2. Schindler's List
    3. Casablanca
    4. On the Waterfront
    5. Shakespeare in Love

    Honorable Mentions: All Quiet on the Western Front and The Silence of the Lambs

  9. I don't see Crash anywhere, this must be an unintentional omission ;p

    But on a serious note, great list although I probably wouldn't have Annie Hall or Platoon that high on my own.

  10. Chip - I've seen Lawrence of Arabia, but it's one of those that I don't remember well enough to include. On the Waterfront got chopped near the end and almost made it. I would disagree on Shakespeare in Love. I enjoyed it, so I'm not saying it's a bad film. It has a witty, fun screenplay. For me, however, it wouldn't be near the top of Best Picture winners.

    Castor - You know Crash was SO close, as it's such a "deep" movie. (: I figured Platoon would get a few objections, and it hung around the edge. The more I thought about it, however, I do consider it one of the most effective war films, especially concerning Vietnam. The other big Vietnam film, Apocalypse Now, didn't win Best Picture.


  11. Another Casablanca fan I see, I recently posted an in-depth review of it!

    Scrolling through the best picture winners,
    Schindler's List is in my top 5. So is One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

    I think Deer Hunter is more powerful than Platoon, its so subjective though from person to person.

  12. I'll have to check out that Casablanca review. I definitely enjoyed both Cuckoo's Nest and Schindler's List. They were in the tier right below my picks. It's so tough to say on the Deer Hunter vs. Platoon debate. I watched Platoon in high school during a film class, and I wonder if that made it different than some of the others for me. Either way, it's a really close choice.

  13. A few years ago I made it may goal to watch every Best Picture winner, and after doing that, it is damn hard to pick a top five. My number one, though, would be The Deer Hunter. That movie just kills me.

    Great post!

  14. Alex, like many of the options, it's hard to really argue with The Deer Hunter being up there. That's impressive that you've caught all the Best Picture winners. I did a similar thing with Roger Ebert's Great Movies book a few years ago. There were some tough ones to get through, but others were great surprises. Thanks!


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