The Academy Awards turn 90 this year, making the show just three years older than Clint Eastwood (if you can believe it). Like Eastwood, the prestigious awards ceremony has pretty much seen it all by now. Over the course of decades, the Oscar has been handed out to an X-rated movie (Midnight Cowboy), three actors who didn’t speak a word throughout their respective films, and once to a man actually named Oscar...Hammerstein II that is. Oh, and did we mention the time a naked man ran across the stage flashing a peace sign?
This year’s ceremony should be a memorable one. We’re predicting a healthy amount of jokes around Hollywood scandals and more than a few political jabs. Meanwhile, the Best Picture Award is completely up in the air. Will Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water walk away with best in show? Or will a movie like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird or Jordan Peele’s Get Out pull off a surprise upset? There's only one true way to find out...
Odds are, you weren’t watching the Oscars the year you were born. And if you were, there’s a pretty solid chance you don’t remember it. Hence, you might be curious as to what film took home the top prize—Best Picture—that very same year. Well, Stacker’s here to satiate your curiosity. We’ve compiled the list of Best Picture winners going all the way back to the first ceremony. Call it a trip down memory lane and a great way to catch up on some bona fide classics at the same time. Also, please be aware that the date listed for each entry is the year the film was released, meaning the movie wasn’t actually awarded Best Picture until the following year (or in some early instances, the year after that).
Among the few successful actresses to transition from silent films to “talkies” was screen legend Clara Bow, who was still giving viewers the silent treatment in Wings, the first Best Picture Winner of all time. In the film, two WWI fighter pilots from different economic backgrounds square off over the same girl. One must imagine those pilots had more important things to worry about at the time.
In The Broadway Melody, two vaudevillian performers (who also happen to be sisters) head off to Broadway in pursuit of acting dreams, only to get waysided by romantic endeavors. This film was the first with sound to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, though a silent version was also released for all the movie theaters not yet equipped for audio.
Here’s a film so surprisingly violent it could make Tarantino blush. Indeed, All Quiet on the Western Front is a harrowing portrayal of WWI atrocity, as seen through the eyes of German soldiers. The movie was so controversial in Germany during the ’30s that resentful Nazis would routinely attack theaters using stink bombs and rats. As such, the film wasn’t properly screened in Germany until 1956.
A newspaper editor and his wife move to an Oklahoma boom town toward the end of the 19th century in 1931’s Cimarron. Among the film’s more notable scenes is a massive land rush, which required 5,000 extras, 28 cameramen, 6 still photographers and 27 camera assistants.
According to at least one guest at Berlin’s luxurious Grand Hotel, “Nothing ever happens...” However, this film of the same name would kindly disagree. The 1932 Best Picture winner features all sorts of romance and drama between the various people staying at the prestigious hotel. Starring big names like John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo, the movie was a hot seller right out of the gate, so much so that theaters charged a whopping $1.50 per ticket for the road-show, an exorbitant amount back then.
The decades-long story of two parallel families—one upper class and one working class—takes center stage in Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade. It’s all set against a backdrop of unforgettable events like World War I and the sinking of the Titanic. In fact, the film’s initial release date purposefully coincided with the 21st anniversary of the Titanic’s fateful journey.
Filmmaker Frank Capra deftly helmed It Happened One Night, about a spoiled heiress who runs away from her family, falling in with an undercover newspaper reporter in search of a hot story. After filming was completed, actress Claudette Colbert told a friend that she’d just finished working on “the worst picture I’ve ever made.” That very same picture would go on to sweep all five main categories at the Academy Awards.
It’s crew vs. captain on the HMS Bounty in 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty. One crew member refuses to partake in the uprising, but that doesn’t prevent him from being singled out and therefore forced to defend himself. The movie features no less than three unforgettable performances, making it the first and only film to receive three Best Actor nominations at the Oscars, winning none of them.
Released in 1936, The Great Ziegfeld chronicles the extravagant saga of its titular character, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., who amassed and lost vast fortunes as the producer of epic stage revues. This was the first biopic to take home the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Fresh on the heels of The Great Ziegfeld came The Life of Emile Zola, i.e. the second biopic to win Best Picture. It tells the story of an outspoken French writer who puts everything on the line to defend a falsely accused military captain. This was also the first film to ever receive 10 Academy Award nominations.
Frank Capra’s second (and final) Best Picture winner was also his first collaboration with actor James Stewart. In You Can’t Take It With You, Stewart—the scion of a wealthy business owner—falls in love with a secretary from the other side of the tracks. When the two families meet, a class war ensues, as do all sorts of memorable comedy, drama, and romance.
Based on the sweeping historical novel—about the struggles of an eccentric woman during the Civil War era—1939’s Gone With the Wind is accordingly a cinematic spectacle like no other. Expectations were so high on this one that when it premiered in Atlanta, the governor declared it a state holiday, with ticket prices soaring to 40 times over their normal rate. Similarly epic was the film’s runtime just under four hours, making Gone With the Wind the longest Best Picture winner in history. And if you think movies can't make time fly, then you haven’t seen this movie.
Alfred Hitchcock made his big Hollywood debut with 1940’s Rebecca, which garnered the iconic director his first and only Best Picture trophy. The film is about a woman who moves in with her new husband, only to discover that the shadow of his dead wife still looms large over both the household and the people therein. Behind the scenes, Hitchcock frequently clashed with producer David O. Selznick, going as far as banning Selznick from the set during shooting.
Just how good is John Ford’s 1941 How Green Was My Valley? Well, good enough to win Best Picture over Citizen Kane for starters. History has surely been kinder to the Orson Welles' classic, but Ford’s effort nevertheless remains a poignant, moving film about a working-class family in a Welsh mining town. Fun fact: This is Jeopardy host Alex Trebek’s all-time favorite film.
It’s life during (WWII) wartime in 1942’s Mrs. Miniver, with actress Greer Garson playing the title role. The harrowing, intentionally propagandic film was directed by William Wyler, a German-born Jew who wanted the US to get involved in the war. Wyler was in fact so committed to the cause that he joined the US army shortly after filming, returning from the experience to claim his movie had if anything been too mild in its depiction.
Humphrey Bogart stars as an expatriate club owner who helps refugees secure passage to America out of Morocco in Casablanca. The classic film is among the finest ever made, thanks primarily to impeccable performances and a screenplay overloaded with catchy dialogue. Speaking of that legendary script, it was later passed around under a different name in the 1980s, with most of the unwitting professional readers chastising it for having “too much dialog” and “not enough sex”. To those readers’ credit, the script would have definitely felt supremely dated when stacked against the cinematic norms of the time.
In Going My Way, a priest played by Bing Crosby helps revive a rundown church in a poor neighborhood using the magic of song and dance. The film marked the first time a Best Picture winner also took home the trophy for Best Song. This is additionally the only movie to ever have an actor (Barry Fitzgerald) receive simultaneous nominations for Best Actor and Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Based on a harrowing novel, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend centers on an alcoholic in the midst of what very well might be his final bender. In addition to receiving Best Picture, the movie also garnered a Best Actor win for Ray Milland. Upon accepting the Oscar, Milland walked on stage, said nothing, and walked off.
In The Best Years of Our Lives, three soldiers return from WWII and find it nearly impossible to reintegrate into society. The film is yet another anti-war classic directed by William Wyler, who strived for authenticity, going as far as demanding all wardrobe be purchased off the rack and worn by each actor before shooting even began.
Elia Kazan directed Gentleman’s Agreement, about a man who goes undercover as a Jew in order to experience anti-semitism firsthand. The serialized novel upon which the movie was based was inspired by real-life events, where a Mississippi senator stood before Congress and spewed a number of bigoted remarks to rapturous applause.
It’s no secret that the title role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet—about a young prince avenging his father’s death—is among the juiciest and most desired in the history of acting. Perhaps that’s why Laurence Olivier decided to direct this adaptation, thereby casting himself as the tragic figure. In return for his efforts, the picture received no less than four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.
Larger-than-life figure Huey Long was reportedly the inspiration behind All the King’s Men, about an ambitious politician who gets corrupted on his way up (and down) the ladder. In order to reap more and more power, the film’s main character consistently yields to populist appeal. Sound familiar?
Speaking of climbing the ladder and stepping on all sorts of heads along the way, 1950’s All About Eve follows a ruthless actress who finagles her way onto the stage by manipulating a theater company. The film features a bevy of female talent, and currently holds the title for the most female acting Oscar nominations in a single film.
Everyone’s in love and they feel like singing and dancing about it in 1951’s An American in Paris. The movie stars Gene Kelly as a struggling American painter who gets into all sorts of trouble while staying in the world’s most romantic city. Capping off the musical is a 17-minute song and dance number that took a month to film and cost the studio half a million dollars.
In The Greatest Show on Earth, director Cecil B. Demille puts circus performers in the spotlight, layering various subplots underneath the overarching spectacle. Many of the movie’s scenes were filmed at the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circus, as well as the Hippodrome Parade, where the actors performed alongside authentic circus performers.
An army private finds love and conflict at a Hawaiian military base in From Here to Eternity. The movie endures primarily thanks to a famous kissing scene on the beach between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, a scene made all the more realistic by the fact that the two were romantically involved at the time.
Before he was stunning audiences as the godfather, screen legend Marlon Brando played a down-on-his-luck longshoreman battling union corruption in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. Brando would later confess to being disappointed in his performance. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences felt otherwise, awarding him Best Actor at the Oscars.
Tightly made on a shoestring budget, 1955’s Marty is about a jaded male butcher and equally jaded female teacher who decide to give love one last chance. Along with Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, this film remains one of just two movies to win both the Palme D’Or prize at Cannes and Best Picture at the Oscars.
Delighted with the possibilities of modern (at the time) transportation, a 19th-century English gentleman wagers he can traverse the entire globe in just 80 days in the fittingly named Around the World in Eighty Days. Production on the film was as wide-reaching as the plot itself, breaking numerous records for its time. By the time shooting was complete, the cast and crew had traveled no less than 4 million miles, having worked with just under 70,000 extras in 13 different countries.
Directed by David Lean, The Bridge on the River Kwai is about British POWs who are forced to build a bridge, which nearby allies plan to blow up. The film is a testosterone-charged affair, featuring brilliant performances from actors like Alec Guinness and William Holden. As usual, David Lean was meticulous and determined in his execution, once traveling 150 miles just to capture the perfect sunset.
A popular Broadway musical gets the Hollywood treatment in 1958’s Gigi, about a wealthy playboy who develops feelings for his young courtesan in training. To celebrate the film winning nine Oscars, all of MGM’s telephone operators were instructed to answer calls with the greeting, “Hello, M-Gigi-M,” the day after the ceremony.
The subject of Ben-Hur is Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince who seeks revenge on his Roman betrayers at the turn of the first century. Starring Charlton Heston in the lead role, the film almost single-handedly raised the bar on what a Hollywood blockbuster could look like. Nowhere is that more obvious than during the movie’s climactic chariot race scene, which required shooting 263 feet of film for every one foot actually used.
Another classic from Billy Wilder, The Apartment is about an accountant who loans his bachelor pad out to various executives in his company, so that they might safely engage in extramarital trysts. Things get complicated when one of those trysts involves a girl that the protagonist has been pining after. In addition to its Best Picture win, the movie frequently appears on all sorts of “greatest movies” lists and even nabbed the No. 1 spot in Film4’s 50 Movies to See Before You Die.
Hollywood musicals don’t get much better than 1961’s West Side Story, with a stack of 10 Oscars to prove it (the most for any musical). The spectacular film—about two lovers from rivaling New York City gangs—updated Romeo & Juliet for a young and wildly receptive audience. The songs in this one are so good, they’ll stick with you for years.
Arguably David Lean’s finest achievement, Lawrence of Arabia tells the true story of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who led an Arab uprising against the Turks during WWI. Peter O’Toole played the lead and learned to ride a camel for the part. In a strange case of art imitating life, O’Toole was thrown from his camel and nearly killed shooting a battle scene in which the real T.E. Lawrence was likewise nearly killed.
Albert Finney plays Tom Jones in the 1963 movie of the same name, about an irrepressible adventurer who’s certainly no slouch with the ladies. This was reportedly the last movie JFK watched before he was assassinated. One must wonder if the famously libidinous president saw a little bit of himself in the main character.
Long before 1999’s She’s All That (which you may or may not remember) came the far more reputable My Fair Lady, about a conceited professor who bets he can transform a lowly flower girl into a member of high society. During filming, actor Rex Harrison wore a microphone in his necktie that would occasionally pick up transmissions from passing police cars.
Fresh on the heels of her performance in the smash hit Mary Poppins, screen legend Julie Andrews appeared in the equally sensational The Sound of Music. In the film, she plays Maria, a former nun left in charge of seven unruly children. Never short on ambition or talent, Andrews learned to play guitar exclusively for the role.
1966’s A Man for All Seasons revolves around the story of Thomas More, a Catholic lawyer who refuses to acknowledge the divorce of King Henry VIII. This is one among just four productions to win both Best Play at the Tonys and Best Picture at the Oscars.
A dedicated African American detective squares off against racist locals while investigating a murder in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night. The movie takes place in Mississippi, but most of the filming was done in Illinois due to lingering racial tensions down south. To keep their breath from showing in the cold Illinois air, actors would suck down ice chips and then spit them out right before Director Norman Jewison yelled, “Action.”
Based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, 1968’s Oliver! follows the adventures of an escaped orphan who—with the help of a mentor—learns to pick pockets in order to survive. A young Mark Lester played the title character, who had difficulty crying on demand during a specific musical number. To compensate, the crew would cut onions right next to his eyes, thereby unleashing the waterworks.
By today’s standards, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy would hardly be considered controversial, but at the time of its release, the movie caused quite a stir, earning an “X” rating from the MPAA. That makes the film—about a small-town hustler who moves to the big city—the only “X” rated film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. In 1971, Midnight Cowboy’s rating was changed to “R,” even though nothing in the movie had been altered.
Written by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970’s Patton details the exploits of a famous military general (whose name you can guess) during WWII. In addition to Best Picture, the film also garnered a Best Actor win for lead actor George C. Scott, who refused to accept it on the grounds that the Oscars were a “two-hour meat parade.”
It’s two NYC cops vs. a ring of drug smugglers in 1971’s The French Connection. The film was directed by William Friedkin, who would eventually follow it up with The Exorcist two years later. Among the movie’s most iconic moments is an extended car chase sequence, which even includes an unscripted crash.
The Best Picture to which all other Best Pictures aspire, 1972’s The Godfather might single-handedly justify the existence of awards ceremonies altogether. Accordingly, the movie is nothing short of cinematic perfection. Adapted from the novel by Mario Puzo (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Francis Ford Coppola’s exploration of the Corleone crime family remains as vital today as it was upon its debut. To think, Paramount Studios reportedly tried to replace Coppola numerous times during shooting. Had the studio prevailed, movie history simply wouldn’t be the same.
In 1973’s The Sting, a con man enlists the help of a fellow hustler in order to get revenge on a crime boss who killed his friend. The premise might sound heavy, but the film stays notably light on its feet, offering quick-witted dialogue and no shortage of good old ragtime piano music.
Nowadays, most sequels are formula-bound retreads merely capitalizing on the box office success of a predecessor, which only makes The Godfather II that much better in retrospect. The film alternates between the ongoing saga of Michael Corleone and the story of his father’s ascension to power decades earlier. In order to play a young Vito Corleone, Robert De Niro not only learned to speak Sicilian, but actually moved to Sicily and lived there for three months.
In the long run, the year 1975 might belong to Spielberg’s Jaws, but it was Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest that took home all that Oscar gold. Adapted from the best-selling novel, the movie tells the story of a criminal who pleads insanity and gets sent to a mental institution, where he tries to organize an uprising against an oppressive nurse. Starring Jack Nicholson in the lead role, the film swept at the Oscars, winning not just Best Picture, but Best Actor, Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director and Best Screenplay as well. The only other movies to achieve such a feat were 1934’s It Happened One Night and 1991’s Silence of the Lambs.
Who wouldn’t want to be born the year Rocky won Best Picture at the Oscars? Written by and starring a then-unknown Sylvester Stallone, the inspirational film tells the story of a struggling boxer who gets his shot at a major fight. Proving just how invested he was in the cause, Stallone literally flattened his knuckles during a scene where Rocky punches hanging meat carcasses.
Woody Allen was already a popular comedian and filmmaker by the time he made Annie Hall, but the movie elevated his name and his craft into the annals of cinematic history for good (present day scandals notwithstanding). In the movie, Allen’s character is a neurotic comedian who falls in love with Annie, a kooky girl from the midwest played by Diane Keaton. Having more or less designed the outfits she wore in the film, Keaton ended up sparking a short-lived fashion craze in the late ’70s.
The first Best Picture winner centered around the Vietnam War, The Deer Hunter tells the story of small-town friends whose lives are changed dramatically by their wartime experiences. The cast is overflowing with talent to say the least, with stars like Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken and John Cazale all turning in unforgettable performances. Sadly, John Cazale (who was Meryl Streep’s partner at the time) would pass away from cancer soon after shooting wrapped.
Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play two divorced parents fighting over custody of their son in 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. A handful of the film’s most iconic scenes were unscripted, including one where Hoffman’s character throws a glass of wine against the wall, genuinely terrifying Streep at the time.
Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People tells the story of two well-heeled parents whose lives are uprooted by the sudden death of their oldest son. Redford originally wanted fellow actor Richard Dreyfuss to star, and called him to discuss. Dreyfuss answered the phone and said, “I can’t talk to you right now, I’m having a nervous breakdown,” and then hung up. Suffice to say, the role went to another actor (Donald Sutherland).
Two British track stars of different religious persuasions square off in Chariots of Fire, which takes place in 1924. The film is notable not just for winning Best Picture, but also for nabbing Best Original Music Score. Indeed, composer Vangelis’ theme music still resonates to this day.
History’s foremost pacifist gets his own biopic in 1982’s Gandhi. Ben Kingsley played the lead role, doing everything from dieting to practicing Yoga to living in India to ensure he got the part right. Should you watch the epic film, see if you can spot a young Daniel Day-Lewis playing a South African boy with a cruel tongue.
If you like brilliant comedy and drama in equal measure, look no further than Terms of Endearment from The Simpsons producer James L. Brooks. The movie stars Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine as a mother and daughter duo who aren’t always on the same page. It’s hard to describe the film without talking about the ending, and it’s hard to talk about the ending without ruining the film. All we can say is: Should you put this one on, make sure you have a box of tissues close by.
It’s the story of Mozart as told by his bitter rival in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus. The movie won Best Picture at the Oscars, but not without a minor flub. Specifically, a 71-year old Sir Laurence Olivier took the stage, opened the envelope and announced the winner outright, completely forgetting to announce the other contenders. Of course, that’s nothing compared to 2017’s Moonlight fiasco.
In 1985’s Out of Africa, a Danish baroness played by Meryl Streep falls in love with a big game hunter played by Robert Redford. Between the two lead roles and the premise itself, this is the kind of dramatic movie that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. Most of the film (about 70 percent) was shot on location in Africa.
Filmmaker Oliver Stone infuses a harrowing personal experience with plenty of artistic license in 1986’s Platoon, which he wrote and directed. The movie deals with a young soldier at odds with both his squad and himself during the Vietnam War. Among the film’s stars is a young Charlie Sheen, who claims he would have fallen out of a helicopter if actor Keith David hadn’t pulled him back in. Of course, if we counted all the times that Charlie Sheen almost died but didn’t, it would probably make for its own separate list.
Directed by Italy’s Bernardo Bertolucci, The Last Emperor chronicles the rise and fall of Pu-Yi, China’s last official emperor (hence the title). The movie takes us behind the walls of China’s famous Forbidden City, which apparently provided an excellent soundproof environment during shooting. Not counting movies that had their ratings later changed, this is the first PG-13 film to win Best Picture at the Oscars.
Dustin Hoffman portrays autistic savant Raymond Babbitt in 1988’s Rain Man, which co-stars Tom Cruise as Raymond’s brother. Hoffman was originally slated to play Cruise’s role, but switched gears after seeing a blind savant with cerebral palsy named Leslie Lemke play concertos on piano by ear. Meanwhile, a scene where Hoffman’s character regurgitates plane crash statistics was conspicuously removed from most airline versions.
At age 81, Jessica Tandy became the oldest woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress. The movie was 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy, where Tandy plays an elderly Jewish woman who forms an unlikely bond with her African American driver (played by Morgan Freeman). This is one of just four films to win Best Picture without being nominated for Best Director.
If you’re watching Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas for the 10th time and asking yourself why it didn’t win Best Picture, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves is your answer. The movie stars Costner as a Civil War Lieutenant assigned to a remote outpost, where he befriends wolves and Native Americans. To get a buffalo to charge during a key scene, the crew lured the animal in with his favorite treat: a pile of Oreo cookies.
Adapted from Thomas Harris’ brilliant novel, The Silence of the Lambs is about a novice FBI Agent who seeks help from a homicidal psychiatrist in order to catch a killer. That psychiatrist, of course, is none other than Dr. Hannibal Lecter, one of the most iconic villains in movie history. Actor Anthony Hopkins drew from various influences in order to perfect the role. For instance, he came upon the menacing voice by combining the voices of Truman Capote and Katharine Hepburn.
Clint Eastwood hops back in the saddle for one last ride in 1992’s Unforgiven, about an ex-gunslinger who pursues a bounty with help from two peers. Not content to merely play the lead role and direct the film, Eastwood also wrote the main theme music. This remains one of only three Westerns to win Best Picture.
As a champion of both blockbusters and children’s movies, Steven Spielberg caught Hollywood by surprise when he announced plans to direct a film about a man who helps save 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. That film was Schindler’s List, and studio executives were originally against the idea of making it, preferring that Spielberg stick to mainstream fare and happy endings. Time has certainly proven those executives wrong.
Hollywood is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re gonna get. In 1994, audiences got Forrest Gump, about an intellectually impaired man with a heart of gold and a story for every event or occasion. The film is a non-stop buffet of memorable characters, scenes and lines. One of the movie’s most notable characters is Bubba, a military friend with a disposition similar to Gump’s. Dave Chappelle was offered the role, but he turned it down because he thought the movie would tank, a decision he would later regret.
Mel Gibson’s second directorial effort (not counting an obscure documentary), Braveheart is about a Scottish rebel who leads an uprising against British rule. A slew of extras were used in the film, and apparently some of them forgot to discard their sunglasses and watches, prompting reshoots.
A WWII plane crash victim recalls romance and intrigue in 1996’s The English Patient. The movie clocks in at a lengthy 162 minutes, which is actually way shorter than director Anthony Minghella intended. He shaved 88 minutes off the original cut.
History’s most epic boat disaster made for one of Hollywood’s most epic moviegoing experiences in James Cameron’s Titanic. With its $200 million budget, Titanic cost more to film than building the actual Titanic (which reportedly cost about $150 million in today’s dollars). Suffice to say, the investment paid off in spades. In fact, the movie was so popular upon its initial run that Paramount had to send replacement reels to theaters, as the existing reels had worn out.
Famous playwright William Shakespeare is short on cash and out of ideas until he meets the lovely Viola, who becomes the inspiration behind Romeo and Juliet in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. According to legend, lead actress Gwyneth Paltrow took the script off friend Winona Ryder’s desk and then auditioned for the part behind Rider’s back. Suffice to say, the two haven’t been friends since.
1999’s American Beauty explores the dark side of suburbia, featuring a sexually confused Bible thumper, a cheating housewife and a middle-aged father swooning over an underage girl. Screenwriter Alan Ball’s original idea came to him after hearing about Amy Fisher, aka “The Long Island Lolita,” who shot the wife of her lover.
In the spirit of epic movies like Ben-Hur and Spartacus came Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. The massively popular “sword and sandals” movie finds Russell Crowe playing Roman General Maximus, who seeks revenge on the emperor that betrayed him. To say Crowe gave the role his all would be an understatement. Among the injuries he endured while filming were a broken foot bone, a cracked hip bone, some popped bicep tendons, a gash to the face and the loss of feeling in his right forefinger.
After physically battling tigers and warriors in 2000’s Gladiator, Russell Crowe dealt with a different kind of struggle in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind, when he played mentally troubled mathematician John Nash. Specifically, the Ron Howard film chronicles Nash’s descent into schizophrenic madness as a genius professor and government cryptographer. While the movie reportedly plays loose with a number of the facts, it does stay somewhat true to the math, putting Nash’s actual equations up on the chalkboard during a teaching scene.
By 2002, the big Hollywood musical was mostly a relic of the past, but that didn’t stop Chicago from reigning supreme at the box office and awards shows. Telling the story of two murderesses who pursue fame in order to get off death row, the Broadway adaptation was a song and dance extravaganza to say the least, with every cast member firmly committed to his or her role. In fact, Richard Gere spent three months learning to tap dance, for a scene that took only half a day to shoot.
The final installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of Rings trilogy, 2003’s The Return of the King finds the forces of good and evil fighting over the dominion of Middle-earth. Meanwhile, hobbits Frodo and Sam struggle to destroy a ring of unimaginable power. The blockbuster movie was an indisputable smash hit in every sense of the concept, bringing whole new meaning to the word “sweep” by winning 11 Oscars out of 11 nominations. That also gives it the highest perfect score in Academy Award history.
What starts as a somewhat traditional sports film slowly evolves into one of cinema’s most heart-wrenching dramas in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. The movie finds Eastwood himself playing a highly regarded boxing trainer, who reluctantly agrees to train an ambitious female boxer. This is one of only two boxing movies to win Best Picture (the other being Rocky).
The intersecting lives of various races and ethnicities in Los Angeles lay the groundwork for Paul Haggis’ Crash, which took home the top prize in 2004. Loaded with talent and made on a modest budget of $6 million, the movie caused some controversy after winning Best Picture over the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain. In response to the win, author Annie Proulx (who wrote the short story upon which Brokeback Mountain was based) delivered a scathing Guardian article against the Academy’s decision.
Martin Scorsese had already dreamed up some of cinema’s greatest achievements by the time he made The Departed, which (unjustly) remains his only Best Picture win to date. Taking place in Boston, the film tells the story of two undercover operatives on opposite sides of the law during an investigation into the Irish mob. The movie was a remake of a Chinese action flick called Infernal Affairs, which Scorsese purposely avoided watching until shooting was wrapped.
Leave it to the Coen Brothers to do award-winning justice to Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men, about a man who chances upon a suitcase full of drug money and then finds himself in the crosshairs of a psychopathic killer. The film takes place in Texas in 1980, and one of the characters makes reference to dope dealers killing a federal judge the year before. As it turns out, this was a real event, and the judge’s killer was actor Woody Harrelson’s father.
To prove he didn’t cheat on India’s version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, a Mumbai boy explains his harrowing story of survival in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Not only is this is the first Best Picture winner since 1928 that was not shot on Kodak film, but it’s also the first Best Cinematography winner to be shot primarily in digital.
In Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, we follow a fearless bomb squad maverick as he dismantles explosives during the Iraq War. It’s a film that subsists almost entirely on tension, whereas every moment might be the hero’s last. In spite of its taut execution, audiences didn’t exactly flock to the theaters, and this film remains the lowest grossing Best Picture winner since box office receipts were regularly counted, when adjusted for inflation.
The story of King George VI—who had to overcome a speech impediment before properly ascending to the throne—provides the subject matter for 2010’s The King’s Speech. Colin Firth plays the lead role and his Oscar win for Best Actor kicked off a brief string of Academy Awards going to actors or actresses playing famous politicians. Specifically, Meryl Streep won the following year for playing Margaret Thatcher and Daniel Day-Lewis won the year after that for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln.
As incredible as it sounds, 1927’s Wings (which takes the first spot on this list) was the only silent film to win Best Picture all the way up until 2012, when The Artist took home the top prize. The latter entry is in many ways about the silent-era itself, featuring a movie star and dancer in late 1920s and early 1930s, whose lives are uprooted by the introduction of “talkies.”
A group of CIA agents take the guise of a Hollywood production team in order to rescue American hostages in 2012’s Argo. The film saw actor Ben Affleck taking on directing duties for the third time, while also playing one of the leads. In order to create a stronger sense of time and place, Affleck gave the film an intentionally grainy look, modeling the aesthetic after 1970s political thrillers.
From director Steve McQueen came 12 Years a Slave, about a free man in the North who’s abducted and sold into southern slavery during the 1800s. McQueen pulls no punches in his depiction of southern injustice, and the movie accordingly features copious amounts of physical and emotional cruelty. In an ode to authenticity, McQueen used the same tree during a lynching scene that was once used for actual lynching. Flanking the tree are the real graves of murdered slaves.
Perhaps drawing from personal experience, Michael Keaton plays a former superhero looking to revitalize his acting career in 2014’s Birdman. It’s the first Best Picture winner to be shot entirely in digital. Such newfound freedom allowed director Alejandro G. Iñárritu to get downright experimental during filming, famously making the film look as though it was shot in one long take (which it almost was).
Investigative journalism commonly makes for high brow Hollywood fare, but rarely takes home Best Picture at the Oscars. Changing that trend was 2015’s Spotlight, about a group of Boston Globe reporters who expose a widespread pedophilia scandal going on within the local Catholic Archdiocese. Many of the actual reporters depicted in the film were on hand to help, and furthermore duly impressed with their on-screen counterparts. Reporter Walter Robinson (played by Michael Keaton in the film) is quoted as saying, “My persona has been hijacked. If Michael Keaton robbed a bank, the police would quickly have me in handcuffs.”
If you were born the year Moonlight won Best Picture at the Oscars, we’d first and foremost like to commend you on your super advanced reading skills. Very impressive. As you may or may not recall, the poignant film explores the story of a gay, African American boy growing up in Miami over three separate time periods. And for those wondering who to blame for the outrageous flub at the Oscars—where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announced the wrong Best Picture winner—it was two accountants at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Suffice to say, those accountants have not been invited back to the 2018 ceremony.