Better than the Oscars 2018: Ranking the Best Picture Winners, and Who Should Have Won

You can follow this link to vote in a poll on which Best Picture winners are the greatest of all time, and to give your opinion on the Oscars ceremony as well.

Caring about the Oscars—really caring, the way I did ten years ago—is silly. No one seriously pretends that the Academy Awards are given out based on merit alone, for we know that there are a thousand flaws in the Academy Awards. Something like seventy-five percent of the Academy is male, and that’s probably a historically low percentage. They give the awards out within months of the movies coming out rather than waiting years to see how they age. There is intense politicking behind the scenes. (One Harvey Weinstein was arguably the most effective prodder of them all.) Winning Academy Awards has never guaranteed that the movie will be remembered as exceptional, nor will it guarantee that a movie will be remembered at all. Out of the ninety movies that won Best Picture, maybe half of them exist so people can make a face and say “[Great movie] lost to [actual winner]?” How Green Was My Valley has become better known as the movie that topped Citizen Kane for Best Picture than it is remembered as, y’know, a movie.

There are other institutions to turn to instead of the Academy Awards for American movies, too. There are yearly critics’ awards, and BAFTA, and the Golden Globes, and more that I’m sure I’ve forgotten about. (For perspective, there’s always the long view taken by the voters contributing to the Sight and Sound poll, although you have to wait ten years in between doses of perspective.) All the same, there’s no evidence that the BAFTAs or, heaven help us, the Golden Globes, have a clue either. And the Academy Awards have shown in recent years that they respond to some level of criticism. I think if La La Land and Moonlight had been released fifteen years ago, La La Land would have obliterated Moonlight in virtually every category. Instead, La La Land merely took home the largest number of statuettes from what we believe is an electorate which was unprecedentedly diverse; Moonlight won, albeit in hilarious and unforgettable fashion, and perhaps that was a kind of change. One hopes so, because for better or worse the Academy Awards are the last word on “good movies” for a great number of Americans. Even if only a few million of us genuinely care about this sort of thing, there are many millions more who know that “Oscar” means “good.”

Last year, I wrote up my top 100 American films and, a little cheekily, called it “Better than AFI’s Top 100.” That project was born of my interaction with the 1998 AFI list when I was young, and the way it showed me that more movies existed than Disney and Star Wars. This year, I’m affectionately taking aim at the awards that fascinated me as a teenager. Say what you will about the Oscars, but there’s something about them which fascinates us. Maybe it’s the glamour…maybe it’s the implied canonicity…probably it’s the belief that we can fix them.

Because the Oscars are more about who doesn’t win and who should have won than who actually picked up the hardware, I have decided to take this project a step further than just ranking ninety movies. I went back into the Best Picture nominees, watched what I could, and decided to put that up against the actual winners. What you’ll see within each post, then, is not just Best Picture rankings, but the movie that should have won Best Picture at that ceremony. (To simplify this exercise, I have not remade each slate of Best Picture nominees. In other words, Best Picture for 1958 should have gone to Vertigo, but because it wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, you won’t read about it during this series.) For some years, it will be chalk; for many others, I’ve chosen a replacement Best Picture, and I’ll do my best to explain my reasoning in either event.

When I refer to a movie, I’ll refer to the year of its release and not to the year the ceremony was held; similarly, I’ll try to stick to the number of the Oscar ceremony rather than the year it was held.

[UPDATE: Since the completion of this list, Green Book won Best Picture at the 91st Academy Awards. Without reranking all of the movies here, I would put Green Book in the high-60s, and would argue that Roma should have won instead.]

[MORE UPDATE: By the grace of God, Parasite won Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards. As of February 2020, I’d slot it in at six, with the hilarious caveat that I would have taken The Irishman instead by the smallest of margins.]

[EVEN MORE UPDATE: Nomadland won Best Picture at the 93rd Academy Awards. As of April 2021, I’d place it in the low 60s, and from the nominees, the film I would have called for is Minari.]

[HEY, AN UPDATE: CODA won Best Picture at the 94th Academy Awards. As of March 2022, that’s going in the low 70s and Licorice Pizza should have won.]

The rankings are below, and carry links to the original posts. Movies which should have won are listed below the winners. If the right movie won, I indicate that it did in the best March Madness fashion (“chalk”):


  • 1 – Lawrence of Arabia, 35th Academy Awards
    • Chalk


  • 2 – Casablanca, 16th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 3 – The Godfather, 45th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 4 – The Apartment, 33rd Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 5 – The Godfather Part II, 47th Academy Awards
    • Chalk


  • 6 – Gone with the Wind, 12th Academy Awards
    • Chalk (but just barely!)
  • 7 – No Country for Old Men, 80th Academy Awards
    • There Will Be Blood
  • 8 – Amadeus, 57th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 9 – The Best Years of Our Lives, 19th Academy Awards
    • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • 10 – 12 Years a Slave, 86th Academy Awards
    • Chalk


  • 11 – The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, 76th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 12 – All Quiet on the Western Front, 3rd Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 13 – The Bridge on the River Kwai, 30th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 14 – Annie Hall, 50th Academy Awards
    • Star Wars
  • 15 – On the Waterfront, 27th Academy Awards
    • Chalk


  • 16 – Marty, 28th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 17 – The English Patient, 69th Academy Awards
    • Fargo
  • 18 – All About Eve, 23rd Academy Awards
    • Sunset Boulevard
  • 19 – The Last Emperor, 60th Academy Awards
    • Broadcast News
  • 20 – Rebecca, 13th Academy Awards
    • The Grapes of Wrath


  • 21 – Rocky, 49th Academy Awards
    • Taxi Driver
  • 22 – An American in Paris, 24th Academy Award
    • A Streetcar Named Desire
  • 23 – Patton, 43rd Academy Awards
    • Five Easy Pieces
  • 24 – The Deer Hunter, 51st Academy Awards
    • Coming Home
  • 25 – A Man for All Seasons, 39th Academy Awards
    • Chalk


  • 26 – The French Connection, 44th Academy Awards
    • The Last Picture Show
  • 27 – Schindler’s List, 66th Academy Awards
    • The Piano
  • 28 – It Happened One Night, 7th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 29 – Chariots of Fire, 54th Academy Awards
    • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • 30 – From Here to Eternity, 26th Academy Awards
    • Shane


  • 31 – Moonlight, 89th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 32 – Slumdog Millionaire, 81st Academy Awards
    • Milk
  • 33 – Unforgiven, 65th Academy Awards
    • Howards End
  • 34 – One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 48th Academy Awards
    • Nashville
  • 35 – My Fair Lady, 37th Academy Awards
    • Dr. Strangelove


  • 36 – Spotlight, 88th Academy Awards
    • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • 37 – Gandhi, 55th Academy Awards
    • Missing
  • 38 – The Hurt Locker, 82nd Academy Awards
    • A Serious Man
  • 39 – The Silence of the Lambs, 64th Academy Awards
    • Beauty and the Beast
  • 40 – The Sting, 46th Academy Awards
    • Cries and Whispers


  • 41 – Mutiny on the Bounty, 8th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 42 – Platoon, 59th Academy Awards
    • The Mission
  • 43 – The Lost Weekend, 18th Academy Awards
    • Mildred Pierce
  • 44 – The Sound of Music, 38th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 45 – In the Heat of the Night, 40th Academy Awards
    • Bonnie and Clyde


  • 46 – Hamlet, 21st Academy Awards
    • The Red Shoes
  • 47 – All the King’s Men, 22nd Academy Awards
    • A Letter to Three Wives
  • 48 – Titanic, 70th Academy Awards
    • The Full Monty
  • 49 – Terms of Endearment, 56th Academy Awards
    • The Right Stuff
  • 50 – Dances with Wolves, 63rd Academy Awards
    • Goodfellas


  • 51 – Oliver!, 41st Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 52 – Mrs. Miniver, 15th Academy Awards
    • The Magnificent Ambersons
  • 53 – Tom Jones, 36th Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 54 – Ben-Hur, 32nd Academy Awards
    • Anatomy of a Murder
  • 55 – How Green Was My Valley, 14th Academy Awards
    • Citizen Kane


  • 56 – The Departed, 79th Academy Awards
    • Babel
  • 57 – Chicago, 75th Academy Awards
    • The Pianist
  • 58 – Midnight Cowboy, 42nd Academy Awards
    • Z
  • 59 – Wings, 1st Academy Awards
    • Chalk
  • 60 – Shakespeare in Love, 71st Academy Awards
    • The Thin Red Line


  • 61 – West Side Story, 34th Academy Awards
    • The Guns of Navarone
  • 62 – Grand Hotel, 5th Academy Awards
    • Shanghai Express
  • 63 – Birdman, or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, 87th Academy Awards
    • Boyhood
  • 64 – The Shape of Water, 90th Academy Awards
    • Phantom Thread
  • 65 – The Life of Emile Zola, 10th Academy Awards
    • The Awful Truth


  • 66 – Gigi, 31st Academy Awards
    • Separate Tables
  • 67 – A Beautiful Mind, 74th Academy Awards
    • Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
  • 68 – Rain Man, 61st Academy Awards
    • Dangerous Liaisons
  • 69 – Gladiator, 73rd Academy Awards
    • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • 70 – The Great Ziegfeld, 9th Academy Awards
    • Dodsworth


  • 71 – Gentleman’s Agreement, 20th Academy Awards
    • Great Expectations
  • 72 – Kramer vs. Kramer, 52nd Academy Awards
    • Apocalypse Now
  • 73 – Braveheart, 68th Academy Awards
    • Apollo 13
  • 74 – You Can’t Take It with You, 11th Academy Awards
    • Grand Illusion
  • 75 – Around the World in 80 Days, 29th Academy Awards
    • Giant


  • 76 – Forrest Gump, 67th Academy Awards
    • Pulp Fiction
  • 77 – The King’s Speech, 83rd Academy Awards
    • The Social Network
  • 78 – Million Dollar Baby, 77th Academy Awards
    • The Aviator
  • 79 – Out of Africa, 58th Academy Awards
    • Witness
  • 80 – The Broadway Melody, 2nd Academy Awards
    • Alibi


  • 81 – Driving Miss Daisy, 62nd Academy Awards
    • My Left Foot
  • 82 – Ordinary People, 53rd Academy Awards
    • Raging Bull
  • 83 – Cavalcade, 6th Academy Awards
    • The Private Life of Henry VIII
  • 84 – Going My Way, 17th Academy Awards
    • Double Indemnity
  • 85 – Cimarron, 4th Academy Awards
    • The Front Page


  • 86 – The Greatest Show on Earth, 25th Academy Awards
    • High Noon
  • 87 – American Beauty, 72nd Academy Awards
    • The Insider
  • 88 – Argo, 85th Academy Awards
    • Amour
  • 89 – The Artist, 84th Academy Awards
    • The Tree of Life
  • 90 – Crash, 78th Academy Awards
    • Brokeback Mountain

Screenshot (549)

24 thoughts on “Better than the Oscars 2018: Ranking the Best Picture Winners, and Who Should Have Won

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