Oscars 2024

The Oscars’ 10 greatest Best Picture winners, from Casablanca to Parasite

The Independent's Geoffrey Macnab chooses the best films to have ever won Hollywood's most prestigious award

Friday 08 March 2024 11:39 GMT
Clockwise from top right: Lawrence of Arabia, The Apartment, The Godfather Part II, The Best Years of our Lives
Clockwise from top right: Lawrence of Arabia, The Apartment, The Godfather Part II, The Best Years of our Lives (Columbia/Paramount)

Look over the list of Best Picture winners over the years and you realise that almost every film selected is still in circulation.

William Wellman’s Wings, the very first winner in 1927, is readily available on DVD and Blu-Ray, as are such other early winners as Cimarron and Broadway Melody.

Most of the other Best Picture winners are titles that any film lover will recognise instantly. The blind spots are obvious. The Academy never chooses foreign language titles. In recent years, it has shunned comedies.

The Shape of Water may have won in 2018, but voters are generally wary about genre pictures. You don’t see many sci-fi or martial arts titles on the list.

There is a growing divide between what wins at the Oscars and what makes the money at the box office. Even so, the Best Picture Oscar remains one of the most reliable bellwethers for films that will have an afterlife.

Find our list of the 10 best films to have ever won the trophy below.

10. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

William Wyler’s film about three veterans coming home at the end of the war still has a huge emotional kick. They’re from different classes and backgrounds but struggle terribly to readjust to civilian life. Some accuse the film of being pious and self-righteous but it deals frankly and very movingly with both the soldiers’ problems and those of their families and friends in understanding them. It won its Best Picture Oscar in the year in which It’s a Wonderful Life was also nominated.

9. An American in Paris (1951)

The best MGM musicals showed extraordinary artistry. This is one of the greatest. It’s not just the choreography or Gene Kelly’s wildly energetic performance as the aspiring artist in postwar Paris but the use of colour and sound. The ballet sequence at the end of the film stands alongside that in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes as a perfect example of filmmaking in which every element balances perfectly.

8. Casablanca (1942)

Producer Hal Wallis at Warner Bros had a knack for overseeing films that were both mainstream and had a social conscience. Not only did Casablanca have Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains, but it also dealt with refugees, betrayal and wartime politics. The script by Julius and Philip G Epstein provided lines of dialogue about gin joints, rounding up the usual suspects and playing “As Time Goes By” that are still quoted today. Few other Best Picture winners are as engrained in the public consciousness as Casablanca.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in ‘Casablanca’ (Warner BrosPictures )

7. On the Waterfront (1954)

Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront can be read as the director’s attempt at justifying his own craven behaviour, naming names in front of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities, during the communist witch hunts. Its politics are complicated and contradictory. It is also magnificently acted. Marlon Brando gives arguably his greatest performance of all as Terry Molloy, the dockworker and pigeon fancier who could have been a contender in life and in the boxing ring if only his brother had stood by him when he needed him most.

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6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Easy to dismiss as a jingoistic widescreen epic, David Lean’s film about TE Lawrence makes astonishing viewing seen in 70mm. It also offers a probing and subtle portrayal of Lawrence (Peter O’Toole), the masochist who is both the quintessential English hero and the quintessential English outsider.

Peter O’Toole in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (AP)

5. All About Eve (1950)

Joseph L Mankiewicz’s drama about a young actress on the make and the established star whose career she wants to usurp boasts some of the most caustic dialogue in any Hollywood Best Picture winner. The brilliance of Bette Davis as the star and of Anne Baxter as the seemingly ingenuous but utterly ruthless young pretender is matched by George Sanders’ wonderfully acidic performance as the theatre critic, Addison DeWitt.

4. The Godfather Part II (1974)

Still the greatest sequel in Hollywood history, this film emulated its predecessor The Godfather, in winning the best picture Oscar and out-stripped it in the brilliance of its craftsmanship and performances. Everything here, from Gordon Willis’s cinematography to the parallel stories of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone as the crime family boss in the late Fifties and Robert De Niro as his father Vito many years before, works near perfectly. The rival Best Picture nominees in 1974 included Lenny, Chinatown and The Conversation (also directed by Francis Ford Coppola). All would have been worthy winners in other years.

3. Unforgiven (1992)

The western was considered an anachronism and so was Clint Eastwood himself when Eastwood made his blood soaked masterpiece. Eastwood played Will Munny, first encountered as a farmer and family man. Gradually, we learn about his past as a gunman. “I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another, and I’m here to kill you, Little Bill,” he tells old rival Gene Hackman. This brutal and elegiac film was always a shoo-in for its Oscar.

2. Parasite (2019)

The first non-English language film to win a Best Picture Oscar was significant on many different levels. Bong Joon Ho’s South Korean satire about class, wealth and family life turns in its latter stages into something close to a horror picture – and genre movies rarely win Academy Awards. This was a Cannes Palme D’Or winner, and festival favourites, loved by high-minded critics, seldom enjoy mainstream crossover success.

Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Parasite’ was the first non-English language film to win Best Picture (Neon Pictures)

In years gone by, Parasite might have crept on to the “international/foreign language” nominations without being in the running for the major prizes. Its success suggested a new, more outward looking and inclusive approach from the AMPAS voters. It helped, too, of course that it made such enjoyable viewing. Funny, caustic and macabre by turns, it got under audiences’ skins wherever it was shown.

1. The Apartment (1960)

Only Billy Wilder could have made a romantic comedy based around infidelity, drudgery and office politics and turned it into a film as delightful as this. Academy voters are sometimes accused of self-righteousness and prudery, but thankfully that didn’t stop them giving the Best Picture Oscar to The Apartment.

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