Look, I get it. The Oscar for Best Picture has gone to some lousy movies (though fewer than you'd think), and it's gone to some really mediocre ones (roughly about the number that you'd think). The number of all-time classics that have been awarded the big prize is vanishingly small. You could count them on both hands and maybe a foot if you were being generous.
Indeed, the movies that didn't win Best Picture are almost uniformly more famous than those that did. And yet if you watch all 87 winners (so far), you'll find some diamonds in the rough here and there. I don't claim to believe that every movie below is one of the best movies ever made, nor do I really think they're the "10 best Best Picture winners" or anything like that. They're just movies that, more often than not, I find out people haven't seen, and I think they're well worth checking out, alongside the established classics like the Godfathers and Casablanca.
Rebecca: For the most part, the super-early Best Picture winners have either rightfully become all-time classics, like It Happened One Night or All Quiet on the Western Front, or have mostly passed into deserved obscurity. (Please do not watch Cimarron.) But this one is a little underseen, despite being sorta well-known as the only winner directed by Alfred Hitchcock and an adaptation of a semi-famous novel. (Hitchcock lost Best Director.) It's a fun Gothic romance, with some solid performances and some great, eerie imagery.
Going My Way: Yes, the sequel (the similarly nominated Bells of St. Mary's) is better, but there's a definite charm to this film about Bing Crosby as a priest who wants to shake a staid, conventional parish up. It's easy to forget that religious ideas we think of as staid and conventional used to be quite radical, and Going My Way is a great reminder of that, if nothing else.
The Best Years of Our Lives: If you haven't seen this gorgeous film about soldiers coming home from World War II, which is pictured above, go and watch it right now. You won't be disappointed. It's one of my favorite films ever made and a definite contender for "best Best Picture winner." Despite that, people seem to have rarely seen it. So go. See it!
Ben-Hur: I'm sort of stretching the conceit of this list to include this one. It's definitely a giant hunk of cheese, and it's going to try the patience of a lot of viewers. But I find something irresistible about its sheer movieness, and I think home video (where you can watch it over several days) improves it somewhat. Nevertheless, if you're going to avoid one film from this list, this is probably the one.
A Man for All Seasons: Because so many British prestige pictures like this one won over the Academy, it's easy to miss that this is a really great example of the form. It's definitely creaky and stagy, but it's a surprisingly gripping watch for a movie about internal church politics during the reign of King Henry VIII. If you liked Wolf Hall, this mines some of the same territory.
The Sting: Because this comes between the two Godfather winners, I sometimes find that people just skip over it if they're watching the winners of the '70s (probably the best overall decade for Picture winners -- only the '40s really come close). But it's worth checking out all the same. It's the rare Big Entertainment to win the Oscar in that decade, and it's spectacularly fun to watch. Bonus points for Newman and Redford at the peaks of their respective powers.
The Deer Hunter: I have gotten into so many arguments about this movie. On the one hand, I can't defend some of its worst qualities -- like its not-so-vague racism, and some of its more meandering sections. But there's a heft to this movie that really works for me, especially in the contrast between home and Vietnam that lives at the film's center. Its reputation might have been hurt (no, definitely was hurt) by director Michael Cimino's career implosion.
Ordinary People: There are a bunch of movies kinda like this one in the '70s and '80s that tend to get written off as boring Best Picture winners, often because they beat some more established classic of the cinema and were about the domestic travails of, well, ordinary people. And, look, Raging Bull is a better movie than this one, but it doesn't invalidate that this is an often beautiful examination of upper class American social mores, with some brilliant performances. (Also in this vein: Terms of Endearment.)
Amadeus: Another costume drama that tends to be written off by those who haven't seen it. But it's a rich, compelling experience, and its performances by F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce are fantastic. It's particularly sharp on the nature of genius, even if much of its commentary on Mozart is factually inaccurate or whatever. If nothing else, it's a sumptuous treat to look at.
Million Dollar Baby: I think this movie is increasingly written off as a weaker winner in a decade of pretty solid winners (give or take a couple of really bad ones). This is a mistake! This is a really good movie, with a solid, human core, and, okay, that terrible scene with Margo Martindale. Maybe just fast-forward past that one.
Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.
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