Many people assume that winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards is the ultimate validation for both cast and crew. Despite the recognition, not all winners are created equally – in terms of how they’ve aged, the competition they faced in a given year, and antiquated judging biases which has thankfully been rectified this year in categories for directing, acting, writing, and cinematography.

In a contemporary context, the top prize has become particularly intriguing and polarizing because of expanded media coverage and the advent of social media which has made the ceremony a worldwide phenomenon that can be critiqued in real-time.

Many winners will certainly remain etched in the minds of many for years to come. However, when examined as a cross-section – like say “Best Picture winners from the last 25 years” – it becomes clear that some movies rise above the others.

Here are all the Best Picture winners, ranked from best to worst, from the last 25 Academy Award ceremonies.

Schindler’s List

Year: 1993
Rotten Tomatoes: 97 percent

In a world devoid of all color, many will best remember the somber image of a little girl in a red coat in Steven Spielberg’s film about the Holocaust, Schindler’s List, because the point of focus – both for the titular character of Oskar Schindler, a Nazi, and we as the audience, understand that this child is but one of 6,000,000 Jews who will be massacred.

For us, we had the the benefit of history to understand the atrocities. But in the moment, Schindler finally sees things for what they are; setting him forth to change the outcome for 1,200 fateful souls.

Beginning with the 1959 movie, The Diary of Anne Frank, there have been 22 Oscar nominations in a variety of categories that have represented aspects of the Holocaust. 20 of these movies garnered at least one Academy Award – paced by Schindler’s List with 9 wins, Cabaret’s 6, The Pianist’s 3, and Judgment at Nuremberg’s 2.

While some may charge that a film focusing on the Holocaust is screaming to be noticed – especially at an award ceremony like the Academy Awards – Schindler’s List is an undeniable force. Not only is the dramatic irony palpable, but Schindler’s involvement in the War was relatively unknown to audiences.

For some, movies are about escapism. Schindler’s List proved that there are just some things you can’t look away from.

12 Years a Slave

Year: 2013
Rotten Tomatoes: 96 percent

12 Years a Slave contains a similar DNA as Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List by exposing the little known story of a man who was thrust into one of the ugliest moments in human history. But instead of Schindler and religious genocide, Solomon Northup saw his freedom taken when he was trafficked from New York City into pre-Civil War Southern slavery.

But what makes 12 Years a Slave so important – specifically for an American audience – was that this was our own bloody past. There was no saving grace that American forces would help liberate concentration camps. Instead, our own history of beatings, rapes, and murders were on full display through the point of view of a victim, not a morally-conflicted businessman like Oskar Schindler.

In both cases, both the literary source materials and films have become part of the curriculum in U.S. high schools. Surely this indicates the power of how cinema can help bridge the gap between what happened, how some chose to react, and how others didn’t.

Moonlight

Year: 2016
Rotten Tomatoes: 98 percent

We hold a certain place in our hearts for films with “coming-of-age” qualities bathed in the narratives. But often times, it’s but a snapshot of the adolescent moments that will ultimately inform a character later on, and the film often fades out long before the transition from childhood to adulthood.

In Moonlight, we finally get a complete picture of what it means to not only be a unique African American male as a child, but also as a teenager, and as an adult as well. There are certainly similarities amongst the narratives – like bullying and the impact of a family-less existence – but also an evolution as we experience the world pressing up against Chiron, and him being armed with the life skills to press back.

No Country for Old Men

Year: 2007
Rotten Tomatoes: 93 percent

The Coen Brothers are the rare auteurs who can seemingly bounce from one genre to the other without any trouble. But if there were a common thread amongst their filmography, it’s that they’re enamored with the idea of morally conflicted men getting in way over their heads.

While it remains a travesty that Fargo was snubbed in favor of The English Patient at the 69th Academy Awards, voters thankfully got it right with the Coen’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s, No Country for Old Men.

What makes the film particularly unique is the way they ratchet up the suspense between a would be opportunist, Llewelyn Moss, and psychopath, Anton Chigurgh, through the usage of something decidedly anti-Michael Bay; deafening silence.

With long passages sans dialogue and music, we’re left with nothing but the ambient noises which occur when someone is coming to kill you and dispose of your body without anyone knowing about it.

Skip Lievsay, the sound editor who has worked with the Coen brothers since their first feature, Blood Simple., said of the technique, “Suspense thrillers in Hollywood are traditionally done almost entirely with music. The idea here was to remove the safety net that lets the audience feel like they know what’s going to happen. I think it makes the movie much more suspenseful. You’re not guided by the score and so you lose that comfort zone.”

From the moment Moss makes the decision to venture into the site of a drug deal gone wrong and pilfer the money, we understand that things aren’t going to end well for him.

Unforgiven

Year: 1992
Rotten Tomatoes: 96 percent

The Western genre never get the full respect of cinema buffs because many feel the characters and situations are ripe with tropes and cliché. But perhaps that’s the real beauty of tales from the American Southwest; a time when lawlessness did in fact beget daring robberies, hardened law men, and a thirst for revenge which could only be satiated by picking up a gun for oneself.

As William Munny in Unforgiven, an aging outlaw, Clint Eastwood isn’t far removed from other Western characters he’s portrayed in the past like the Man with No Name and John McBurney. In all three, there is a self-awareness that it takes a bad man to deal with other bad men.

And there are plenty of unsavory – yet intriguing men – to choose from like characters inhabited by legends like Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris who make it feel less like good vs. evil, and more an ensemble of amoral porridge.

The Hurt Locker

Year: 2009
Rotten Tomatoes: 97 percent

Many films that focus on facets of war that get recognized at awards ceremonies rely on real events which occurred during conflicts that had the potential to dramatically change the world. Grandiose spectacles like the storming of the beaches at Normandy in Saving Private Ryan are etched into the minds of many – and rightfully so.

However, The Hurt Locker provided ample proof that singular heroic acts during justified conflicts weren’t the only war stories to merit further acclaim.

It’d be one thing if Jeremy Renner’s character, Staff Sgt. William James, was attempting to disarm a single bomb. But this isn’t that kind of story. Rather, risking his life and exposing himself to improvised explosives is a daily occurrence that he accepts with an easy-going inevitability as if taking a morning shit.

We the audience come to understand that he’s the best at what he does. But even the best pest exterminators get bit sometimes; leaving us to dread the moment when his courage and cockiness finally tears him apart.

The Departed

Year: 2006
Rotten Tomatoes: 91 percent

One has to give a lot of credit to the Hong Kong film in which The Departed is based, Infernal Affairs, whose brilliant and easily digestible premise – where a cop poses as a criminal and a criminal has infiltrated the police department – creates such a wonderful instance of dramatic irony.

But as like with most films, premises are director and actor dependent. Luckily, the marriage of Martin Scorsese – the unofficial mafia whisperer in modern cinema – alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Jack Nicholson, Matt Damon, Vera Farmiga, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, and Mark Wahlberg, builds upon the strength of the original film by injecting gritty realism, eliminating somber black-and-white flashbacks, and providing a grim bookend that doesn’t occur in the Hong Kong film.

Although the changes were few and far between, they were significant enough to avoid any backlash that The Departed was simply a whitewashed version of Infernal Affairs.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Year: 2003
Rotten Tomatoes: 94 percent

As previously mentioned, Academy voters often only bestow Best Picture winner on a film that fits into a box that can be adorned with ornate ribbon that indicates it touches on serious issues. In turn, the Best Picture winner is almost certainly not the most financially successful film in a given year.

More than likely, that honor goes to a film in the superhero genre or is an established intellectual property.

And then something strange happened in 2003. Not only was a fantasy film surprisingly nominated, but The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – the final film in the trilogy – took home top honors over traditional Oscar bait like The Pianist and The Hours.

Using what at the time was revolutionary motion capture capabilities to allow Andy Serkis to bring Gollum to life, Return of the King marked a key point in cinema where special effects-aided elements weren’t simply meant to be shiny objects to steer audiences away from weak story points.

Slumdog Millionaire

Year: 2008
Rotten Tomatoes: 92 percent

Much of the brilliance of Danny Boyle’s film, Slumdog Millionaire, relies on playing with the audiences expectations thanks to a clever narrative device where we are watching other people watch a person compete on an Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Since this person, Jamal, is seemingly a nobody from the slums of Juhu, his ability to answer the increasingly difficult questions make him not only a source of hope for many of the millions living in poverty in the country, but also arouses suspicion for the police who think he must be cheating.

Whereas expositional elements can often bog down a story, these questions allow Boyle to dip into Jamal’s past and put into context why his hardened upbringing is finally something that can propel him forward.

Titanic

Year: 1997
Rotten Tomatoes: 88 percent

James Cameron’s decision to tackle the events of the RMS Titanic’s sinking was both a gift and a curse. As one of the most well-known transportation tragedies ever, people all over the world understood that an unsinkable ship had done the unthinkable. However, because of this, Cameron couldn’t play with the inevitability of the ending and faced the monumental task of having to still make us feel something.

By injecting a fictional romance between Jack and Rose into the equation, audiences now had a number of questions that would still keep them on the edge’s of their seat; would they get together? could they stay together? and perhaps most importantly, would they both survive the deadliest peacetime maritime disaster in history?

Forrest Gump

Year: 1994
Rotten Tomatoes: 71 percent

Much in the same way that James Cameron used a fictional romance to explore a real occurrence, Robert Zemeckis ratcheted up this ploy twenty-fold for Forrest Gump; tackling school segregation in the deep South, moon landing, Watergate Scandal, Kennedy Assassination, and Vietnam War through the eyes of a person who one could deem both the luckiest and unluckiest man in the world.

It may be easy to put Forrest Gump in the “cute” box, but it’s hard to ignore Tom Hanks’ performance as the titular character. There’s no pretentiousness or “look at me” antics where you can tell he is fishing for an Academy Award. In fact, Hanks’ signature Southern drawl wasn’t something he created out of thin air. Rather, he reversed engineered the accent based on the real speech patterns of the actor who played the younger version of the character.

Forrest Gump is a reminder that every once in a while, it’s enjoyable to see the nice guy finish first. But better than The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction? Probably not.

The King’s Speech

Year: 2010
Rotten Tomatoes: 95 percent

For those with a speech impediment, the inability to properly express the thoughts if their minds can feel as damaging as any beast Hollywood could conjure up to wreak havoc on major cities across the world. For the average sufferer, this body/mind betrayal can make others question their intellect. But when you’re the King of England, George VI, the weight of his stammer brought with it the doubt of an entire nation.

Adding further complexity to The King’s Speech was just how George VI came to be the monarch. Imagine for a moment that for your entire life, you believed that because of the laws of succession, your brother would be King. And then almost overnight, it was you taking the Coronation – faced with the impending German threat – and unable to use the proper language to demonstrate a powerful and resolute demeanor.

As far as underdog stories goes, at least Rocky had two fists for his fight against Apollo Creed. George VI not only had to get the words out, but he had to deliver them with eloquence, confidence, and vigor.

Spotlight

Year: 2015
Rotten Tomatoes: 97 percent

In certain cases, the term “Best Picture” could and should be replaced by the phrase “Most Important Picture.” That isn’t to say that Spotlight is preachy or doesn’t provide an interesting story. Rather, it covered a topic – corruption in the Catholic church and a subsequent coverup – which needed to be understood by as a large a group as possible. Thus, the Best Picture designation helped expand upon the gospel of silence.

Spotlight once again feels particularly relevant in the wake of the various sexual scandals which have plagued numerous facets of Hollywood and once again awakened the powerlessness of victims when the monster themselves are often revered figures.

Even members of the Boston Globe team in which the movie is named for – all Boston natives with print journalism running through their veins – seemed initially hesitant to tackle an institution which was as Beantown as the Red Sox.

Driven by the desire to put an end to decades of abuse, Spotlight gave a larger platform to the excellent work done by journalists like Walter “Robby” Robinson, Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matty Carroll.

Birdman

Year: 2014
Rotten Tomatoes: 91 percent

The meta aspects of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s feature, Birdman, are quite apparent. Starring Michael Keaton as a down on his luck actor best known for playing the titular superhero 20 years earlier, he believes that a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” will kickstart his career.

What transpires is an esoteric meditation on fame, inner demons and redemption – all neatly packaged in a slick style of filmmaking which itself feels like a stage play that has the gumption to bring the narrative onto the actual streets of New York City.

There are certain films – regardless of genre – that stick to your innards like peanut butter when you’re done watching it. Maybe it’s because Birdman is a two-hour car accident; a person may want to look away when things get uncomfortable or weird, but there’s something shiny inside the wreckage that is also personal for the viewer.

Million Dollar Baby

Year: 2004
Rotten Tomatoes: 91 percent

In most instances, sports films have a predictable quality to them. Equal parts underdog story as they are about redemption, we more than likely see all the characters overcome the odds and win on a variety of stages.

From the outset, Million Dollar Baby isn’t a classic boxing film. While some may charge that it is simply a bait-and-switch when it comes the main character’s gender, Hilary Swank’s, Maggie, is built out in much more depth than other classic boxing characters like Rocky Balboa, James Braddock, or Micky Ward. Whereas the aforementioned men are flawed, Maggie is fractured. And there’s only one man who can make her whole again.

It’s that dramatic irony – build up a champ only to consider tearing it down – which hits you like a punch to the gut when the movie hits the third act and makes it unlike any sports film in history.

American Beauty

Year: 1999
Rotten Tomatoes: 88 percent

There are few opening monologues that establish a tone of a film as effectively as Kevin Spacey’s reveal, “My name is Lester Burnham. This is my neighborhood. This is my street. This is my life. I am 42 years old. In less than a year, I will be dead. Of course, I don’t know that yet, and in a way, I’m dead already.”

Not only is it bleak, but it’s a complete spoiler that the man you are going to slowly watch come out of his suburban slumber will be dead by the end of the film.

But that’s not the point of American Beauty. Rather, it’s the exploration that everything we’re taught as Americans – go to college, get a job, get married, have a kid – are built upon a foundation that erodes over time. And when placed in a vacuum where those aspects are actually making Lester Burnham unhappy, it sets up a scenario where the inevitability of dying young is not all that surprising.

A Beautiful Mind

Year: 2001
Rotten Tomatoes: 75 percent

Some of the greatest gifts bestowed upon a person often come at a price. In the case of John Forbes Nash Jr., he was perhaps the greatest mathematician to ever walk the hallways of Princeton. With his mind capable of seemingly anything in the field, he was also forced to battle the debilitating symptoms schizophrenia which turn a person’s greatest asset into a certifiable time bomb.

As Nash, Russel Crowe is able to achieve both a youthful arrogance, in which teachers referred to him as having received “two helpings of brain and a half-helping of heart,” and the later stage of the disease where paranoia threatens to derail all of the progress he made in his life. And while typical Hollywood aspects like makeup and costuming make the 47 year journey a visual reality, Crowe proved masterful at illustrating the internal journey; a sickening realization that life goes on.

Argo

Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 96 percent

As much as Hollywood wants to believe that their films have the ability to provoke change, at the end of the day, often they’re but small respites from everyday life. But in the case of the true story, Argo, Hollywood did indeed change the lives for six captured American diplomats who were being held hostage in Tehran by creating a faux scenario where operatives posed as an American film crew who wanted to use the Iranian terrain for a science fiction film.

While the plot seems implausible, the very fact that the C.I.A. attempted it reveals just how dire a situation the hostages found themselves in. Thus, the film does an admirable job playing up the instances where details seem “too stupid to be true,” while ratcheting up the more dramatic elements when the plan unravels and the Revolutionary Guards race to stop their plane from taking off.

Braveheart

Year: 1995
Rotten Tomatoes: 77 percent

Mel Gibson’s role as both director and star in Braveheart resulted in a bloody and historical look at William Wallace’s quest to gain Scottish independence from England. Whether it was the character’s blue war paint, or his memorable “Freedom” speech, many left the theaters amazed that they had never known about the legendary figure.

Perhaps the best reason for this is that the film took quite a few creative liberties when it came to Wallace’s life. While this certainly happens with anything historical – even when meticulous research is done – Braveheart is built upon mythology and situations that simply didn’t exist.

Even Gibson himself has admitted the historical shortcomings, saying, “Wallace wasn’t as nice as the character we saw up there, we romanticised him a bit. Actually he was a monster. He always smelled of smoke, he was always burning people’s villages down. He was like what the Vikings called a ‘berseker’.”

Academy voters unfortunately fell for the ruse, when another film built around true fact, Apollo 13, was also nominated for Best Picture that year.

Gladiator

Year: 2000
Rotten Tomatoes: 76 percent

Despite its period setting, Gladiator is actually anti-Oscar bait. It oozed with violence and machismo and was a smash hit at the box office – taking in over $450 million USD worldwide.

Ridley Scott is the rare filmmaker who can elevate the action genre into something that both the general public and critics can get behind. In this instance, that ability to make a popcorn film feel important seemed to have an impact on voters.

But as you evaluate the film even deeper, elements seem to fall apart. The plot seems rudimentary, the color seems drab and lifeless, the fight scenes seemed to be dripping with filmmaking techniques (slow motion, somber music) to make us sympathize with Russell Crowe’s Maximus, and classic ’80s action movie tropes occur where he is attacked one at a time.

Chicago

Year: 2002
Rotten Tomatoes: 86 percent

When Chicago won Best Picture at the 75th Academy Awards, the distinction was notable because it was the first musical to do so since 1968’s Oliver! after the genre endured a number of flops throughout the 1970s/1980s.

Focusing on two femme fatales (Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger), who were rightfully full of moxie, the entire film felt like the Broadway show in which it was based had been transported to the big screen.

Whereas La La Land was both a love letter and break up note to a city, Chicagoseemed more like a thank you card to the set designers.

The English Patient

Year: 1996
Rotten Tomatoes: 84 percent

The English Patient was such a cultural phenomenon when it was released that Seinfeld built it into an episode of the same name during its 8th season (joining Schindler’s List as Best Picture winner which serviced elements of the sitcom’s plot). But whereas seemingly everyone adored the film, Elaine absolutely hated it; thus leading to a failed relationship, the loss of her job, and a last ditch effort to keep her life in order by taking an excursion to Tunisia.

That seems to be the general consensus surrounding Anthony Minghell’s Sahara-rich romantic drama which starred Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. Either you got swept up in the dynamic between the two leads, or it simply hit you in the face like whipped sand.

Best Picture winners don’t need to be universally loved. But extreme vitriol – so much so that sitcom writers pick up on it – suggests that the film had it’s problems and falls short of a similar story, Casablanca, which achieved much more in a shorter amount of time.

The Artist

Year: 2011
Rotten Tomatoes: 96 percent

Needless to say, The Artist was a complete throwback to a time when dialogue wasn’t a necessity in cinema and harkens back to the inaugural Best Picture winner, Wings, which was also a silent-film.

As stange as it may sound, The Artist and The Revenant are spiritual ancestors of one another despite encompassing drastically different subject matter. But in both cases, it was the spectacle and novelty of the filmmaking and extreme circumstances that the actors were put under which completely outshined the substance of the plot.

And due to the novelty – which rightfully is a near-perfect homage to the era – the plot itself feels rudimentary when viewing it in a contemporary context. Thus, each attempt at a twist and turn adds more length to an already bloated 100 minute running time.

Shakespeare in Love

Year: 1998
Rotten Tomatoes: 92 percent

In one corner, you have an imaginary love story between William Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps which impacted the notable playwright’s approach to Romeo & Juliet. In the other corner, you have an equally imaginative World War II quest of a a squad of soldiers who survived the assault on Omaha Beach and in turn are given a thankless mission of finding one American soldier in a country flooded with G.I.’s.

Shakespeare in Love was pillow soft and digestible like consommé. Saving Private Ryan was hard to watch and vital like water. However, it was the lighter fair that took home Best Picture.

Despite the subject matter, Shakespeare in Love seemed to be a runaway train. Earlier in the night, Judy Dench won Best Supporting Actress after only appearing in the film for 8 minutes.

Many have speculated that these perceived upsets were due to the Oscar campaigning skills of now disgraced producer, Harvey Weinstein, who at the time was merely perceived as a bully. And much like he did with another film he produced that won Best Picture two years earlier, The English Patient, he managed to do the unlikely. One can’t help but view all the movies Weinstein produced in a different context knowing what he now know.

Crash

Year: 2005
Rotten Tomatoes: 75 percent

There hasn’t been as polarizing a Best Picture winner as when…no pun intended, Crash literally crashed the party and beat out other contenders like Brokeback Mountain, Munich, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Capote.

That isn’t to say that the racially-charged, multi-perspective narrative was bad, it just felt more like a popcorn thriller than a film worthy of the year’s top honor.

Writer/director, Paul Haggis, was self-aware enough during the conception of the Los Angeles-based drama to understand that the first 30-minutes of the film were steeped in racial stereotypes involving groups from the African-American, Latin American and Asian-American communities. But his intended goal was to make the audience numb by the tropes so that he could slyly begin to explore how biases are formed and ultimately how one pivotal moment can be experienced so differently.

But even Haggis himself doesn’t believe his film deserved to win. And this isn’t some, “ah shucks, I don’t believe it,” ruse. Rather, he knows he caught a break.

“Was it the best film of the year? I don’t think so,” he said. “There were great films that year. Good Night, and Good Luck – amazing film. Capote – terrific film. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, great film. And Spielberg’s Munich. I mean please, what a year.

For more movie news, check out our 10 favorite films from this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

  • Feature/Main Image: Paramount Pictures
Words by Alec Banks
Features Editor

Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based long-form writer with over a decade of experience covering fashion, music, sports, and culture.

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