Critic’s Picks: Todd McCarthy’s Favorite Best Picture Oscar Winners

7:30 AM 3/1/2018

by Todd McCarthy

THR's chief film critic selects the 10 best winners of the Academy's top prize.

'Casablanca,' 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'Schindler's List'
'Casablanca,' 'Lawrence of Arabia' and 'Schindler's List'
Photofest (All)

There have now been 90 years of Oscar winners and losers and, along with them, 90 years of cheers for deserving victors as well as 90 years of jeers for imposters that snuck into the winner's circle. Some best picture winners still retain their status as all-time classics that people today still watch and love — Casablanca, All About Eve, Lawrence of Arabia, the two Godfathers, among others — while there are those that either haven't been seen by anyone in decades (for good reason) — Cimarron, Cavalcade, The Great Ziegfeld, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days — or are almost instantly perceived through the next morning's hangover as "What were they thinking?" choices, including such toe-stubbers as Oliver!, Driving Miss Daisy, Chicago and Crash.

I've been watching the annual spectacle since I was nine years old and have more often come away disappointed (and sometimes royally pissed off) by the winners than satisfied. Sometimes the Academy has gone through periods of preferring "entertainments" over deep-dish dramas, while at others the show has simply felt like insiders patting fellow members of the Hollywood club on the back. There have been sympathy votes for ailing artists and comeback kids, prizes for people who should have won the year before and get make-up trophies instead. And sometimes Hollywood wants to demonstrate that it's "grown up" and does so by embracing serious, small and/or socially conscious films, sometimes misguidedly so; we're in one of those periods right now. And then there have been years when everyone was just out to lunch.

I've seen all the winners, from 1927-28, when William Wellman's robustly entertaining World War I flying drama Wings won the award for "production" and F. W Murnau's visually sublime Sunrise took a parallel award for "artistic quality of production," to Barry Jenkins' most recently victorious Moonlight, one of the smallest-scale and most atypical best picture winners in awards annals.

Following are my ten favorite all-time best picture Oscar winners — none, I'm only mildly surprised to say, have been made in the last 24 years. They are listed chronologically.

I'm not including Sunrise here because Wings has almost always been considered the actual best picture winner, with the "arty" (and very influential) Sunrise having been relegated to a special category that was abandoned after the Academy Awards' first year. The 1930s was one of the greatest decades for Hollywood moviemaking and many films from that period rank as all-time favorites. Unfortunately, the Academy did a very good job of ignoring Hollywood's best creations from the first full decade of sound pictures, honoring instead "distinguished" literary adaptations and biopics instead of snappy romantic comedies and deep-dish melodramas. Therefore, there are no 1930s Oscar winners on my all-time list because the best films from that decade were very rarely even nominated.

For the list of my ten least favorite all-time best picture Oscar winners, click here.

  • 1. 'Casablanca'

    1942

    Warner Bros. Pictures/Photofest

    Time goes by, but this wartime classic about a cynical nightclub operator roused to love and patriotic engagement has lost none of its romantic appeal (boosted by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) and remains Exhibit A of the virtues of the studio system.

  • 2. 'The Best Years of Our Lives'

    1946

    RKO Radio Pictures/Photofest

    Long considered an official classic consigned to the history books, William Wyler's account of the personal toll of WWII on returning soldiers and their families still packs an emotional wallop and is being justifiably rediscovered and returned to its position as an American classic.

  • 3. 'The Apartment'

    1960

    United Artists/Photofest

    Billy Wilder's take on life and love in the mid-century Manhattan corporate world (without which Mad Men could never have existed) achieves an astonishing balance of humor, romantic angst and brash knowingness — not least, from today's perspective, in its acute presentation of women's limited options, and great vulnerability, in that culture.

  • 4. 'West Side Story'

    1961

    United Artists/Photofest

    I will never get this film out of my system and I don't want to. How does Steven Spielberg, who has announced a sequel, intend to even approach the brilliance of the Jerome Robbins-staged musical numbers? Impossible. Sure, the Tony and Maria stuff is pretty slow and sappy, and the scenes with the cops and shop owner are embarrassing, but the overture, the opening aerial views of New York and the initial running and dancing through the streets rank with my favorite stretches of cinema anywhere, anytime.

  • 5. 'Lawrence of Arabia'

    1962

    United Artists/Photofest

    David Lean's masterpiece has decidedly stood the test of time, having won over generations of new admirers more assuredly than any other pre-1970s film; even more than with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence in 70mm has been a virtually guaranteed sell-out at revival screenings for decades now. This is the film that permanently hooked me on cinema from the first time I saw it, and I've watched it in theaters once every seven years ever since.

  • 6. 'The Godfather'

    1972

    Paramount Pictures/Photofest

    When it came out, this deliberately paced gangster melodrama astonished by pulling off the high-low game, that of applying the most masterly style and technique to a low-down potboiler crime story and making it emerge as something akin to Shakespeare. It remains an enthralling and irresistible experience, a total immersion in a particular world that's great to visit, even if you wouldn't want to live there.

  • 7. 'The Godfather: Part II'

    1974

    Paramount Pictures/Photofest

    And then the unthinkable happened, a sequel arguably better, and certainly more ambitious, than the original — a monumental saga bridging two fascinating time periods and told with unsurpassable confidence. From Francis Coppola and his crew on through the entire cast, everyone here was working at the peak of their powers on material that's become an intrinsic part of the American narrative.

  • 8. 'Annie Hall'

    1977

    United Artists/Photofest

    Others may feel compelled to automatically downgrade or disregard Woody Allen's accomplishments at the moment. But on repeated viewings, this remains probably the freshest, funniest and most emotionally nuanced romantic comedy since the form's golden days, a flow of laughs, piquant moments and heartfelt romanticism undercut with a rueful awareness of the temporality of most relationships.

  • 9. 'Unforgiven'

    1992

    Warner Bros./Photofest

    I saw this again two months ago and, damn, is it great. One of the true emblematic and definitive Westerns, it's an unsparing view of morality, mortality and fate, and Clint Eastwood's confidently deliberate pacing maximizes the story's potential as a sorrowful meditation on humankind's deeply flawed nature. And the four main performances — Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman and Richard Harris — are sensationally good.

  • 10. 'Schindler's List'

    1993

    Universal/Photofest

    A recent second viewing of Steven Spielberg's first Oscar winner also proved rewarding, as the dramatic power and integrity of the storytelling fully match the impulses that drove the director to take on the project in the first place. Steve Zaillian's script also asserts itself as a triumph of blending the personal with the historical. But that little girl in red still takes me right out of the movie!