The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) was formed in the 1920s at the behest of Louis B. Mayer, the controversial leader of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). He was searching for a way to improve studio relations with union organizers. The idea behind the “Academy” was to create a joint association to unite all members of the Hollywood film industry -actors, directors, writers, technicians, and producers. His goal was to establish an elite club that would bring together industry representatives to celebrate the film industry’s accomplishments.
The first banquet came together in 1927 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles. The first honorary membership into the new academy was bestowed upon Thomas Edison. Douglas Fairbanks was elected as the first President of the Academy. The first meritocratic awards were presented at a ceremony for the Academy in 1927-1928. Each year, the awards ceremony is held sometime between January and February, though unfortunately the ceremony has become something of an overly indulgent spectacle in recent years.
The “Best Picture” Award is the crown jewel of the Academy Awards. During the first year there were essentially two “Best Picture” awards – one for “Outstanding Picture” and one for “Unique and Artistic Picture.” The latter was forever dropped, and throughout the 1930s the title of the award was changed to “Outstanding Production” then to “Outstanding Motion Picture” then to “Best Motion Picture,” and finally to “Best Picture” -the title we hold today. The following is my list of the Best Picture winners, with my progress tracked:
Director: William A. Wellman. Wings is the first winner of the award for Best Picture from the Academy. The film stars Clara Bow and a young Gary Cooper. It tells the story of two young adversaries who both are sent to fight in World War I, while both are in love with the same girl back home. It is a terrific film filled with death-defying aerial stunts.
Runners Up: The Racket, 7th Heaven
*Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) *Winner of Best Unique and Artistic Picture (only awarded in 1927/1928)
Director: F.W. Murnau. Sunrise is yet another silent masterpiece from F.W. Murnau. It won an award at the first Academy Awards ceremony for “Best Unique and Artistic Picture,” an award that has only been given once (the “Best Picture” award has been credited to Wings for the year 1927-1928). Sunrise paints a beautiful picture of an unhappy married couple in a rural European community. The unnamed husband is tempted by a loose woman, and he fails in an attempt to kill his wife so they both flee to the city where he begs for forgiveness. In the end, and they reconcile and return home. He kills the other woman just as the sun rises.
The Broadway Melody (1929)
Director: Harry Beaumont. The Broadway Melody won the second award for Best Picture from the Academy in Hollywood, and it was also the first “talkie” to win the award. The film tells the story of two poor sisters who travel to New York City looking for a career on Broadway. One sister becomes a great success. The film trails their parallel stories, jealousies, and ultimate redemption.
Runners Up: Alibi, Hollywood Revue, In Old Arizona, The Patriot
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Director: Lewis Milestone. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s popular 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front is an incredible anti-war movie. It begins in an optimistic German town as young boys are sent off to war, but they soon discover the horrors of the trenches, and Paul, the protagonist, tries to return home but realizes he cannot return to his former life. Instead, he returns to the trenches where he is killed by a French sniper. A butterfly gently lands on his hand as the film closes. We see rows of silently marching soldiers -many of them young boys- at the end of the movie. All Quiet on the Western Front won Best Picture for the 1929-1930 time period. It is one of the greatest war films of all time.
Runners Up: The Big House, Disraeli, The Divorcee, The Love Parade
Director: Wesley Ruggles. Somehow, Cimarron won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The screenplay is based on Edna Ferber’s popular novel about a young couple during the Oklahoma land rush who start a muckraking newspaper. Edna Ferber is, of course, the popular American author who won the Pulitzer for her novel, So Big.
Runners Up: East Lynne, The Front Page, Skippy, Trader Horn
Grand Hotel (1932)
Director: Edmund Goulding. Winner of Best Picture, Grand Hotel boasts an all-star cast including Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore. The film follows the intertwined and overlapping stories of a variety of characters residing in the “Grand Hotel” in Berlin.
Director: Frank Lloyd. Cavalcade is a biopic about a British family living in post-Victorian England as they face various trials, especially the Boer Wars. It is a good film, albeit long and somewhat dreary. It is a curious choice as the winner of Best Picture for the 1932-1933 time period.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Director: Frank Capra. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert star in this classic film about an heiress who tries to elope with her lover, despite her father’s misgivings. Along the way, she encounters a former newspaper writer and they go on an adventure together before eventually falling in love. It is a simple and charming comedy-romance film.
Runners Up: The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Cleopatra, Flirtation Walk, The Gay Divorcee, Here Comes the Navy, The House of Rothschild, Imitation of Life, One Night of Love, The Thin Man, Viva Villa!, The White Parade
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Director: Frank Lloyd. Winner of Best Picture, Mutiny on the Bounty tells the swashbuckling tale of a mutiny aboard a British royal navy vessel during the late 18th century. It is a retelling of true events, with Charles Laughton playing the tyrannical Captain Bligh of the H.M.S. Bounty, and Clark Gable, playing his mutinous counterpart.
Runners Up: Alice Adams, Broadway Melody of 1936, Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Les Misérables, Naughty Marietta, Ruggles of Red Gap, Top Hat
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Director: Hunt Stromberg. Starring Myrna Loy and William Powell in one of their 14 films together, The Great Ziegfield represents the height of Golden Age Hollywood luxury. It is a three hour musical about Flo Ziegfield and his popular Broadway dancers.
The Life of Emile Zola (1937)
Director: William Dieterle. The Life of Emile Zola is the remarkable, yet dry and lengthy biographical film about Émile Zola, the great French writer and critic. Paul Muni, of Scarface (1932) and The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) fame, delivers a terrific performance as the lead. However, otherwise the film is mostly forgettable.
Runners Up: The Awful Truth, Captains Courageous, Dead End, The Good Earth, In Old Chicago, Lost Horizon, One Hundred Men and a Girl, Stage Door, A Star Is Born
You Can’t Take It With You (1938)
Director: Frank Capra. Frank Capra was the king of the Academy Awards in the 1930s – winning Best Director for his films It Happened One Night in 1934, and Mr. Deeds Goes To Town in 1936, and then Best Picture You Can’t Take It With You in 1938. You Can’t Take It With You is a delightfully charming comedy film starring Lionel Barrymore, Jean Arthur, and Jimmy Stewart. It tells the story of a blossoming romance between a stuffy businessman’s son, and his lover, the daughter of an eccentric but altruistic retiree. Set against the backdrop of a pending real estate deal, chaos ensues when the two worlds collide,
Gone With The Wind (1939)
Director: Victor Fleming. Gone with the Wind is a tale of nostalgia for a time that has literally “gone with the wind.” The film, now controversial in our day, is the biggest epic blockbuster of all time. It swept the Academy Awards in 1939, a year known for quite possibly being the greatest year in Hollywood history. Starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, the film offers a massively tragic tale of romance, war, and the decline of a once prominent Southern Plantation family.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s brilliant Oscar-winning film was based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel of the same name. Rebecca is filmed as a hazy, atmospheric, and ominous mystery story about a traumatized young woman (Joan Fontaine), and the psychological ghosts that haunt her new life as she marries a wealthy aristocratic widower, Mr. Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier). She moves to his coastal English estate only to find that the memory of his late wife, Rebecca, still haunts his life.
Runners Up: All This, and Heaven Too, Foreign Correspondent, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Dictator, Kitty Foyle, The Letter, The Long Voyage Home, Our Town, The Philadelphia Story
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
Director: John Ford. Based on the popular 1939 novel of the same name, How Green Was My Valley is the beautiful and nostalgic story of the Morgans, a hardworking and humble Welsh family in a coal mining town during the late 19th century. The story is episodic and takes us through the innocent early days of the town, until changes at the coal mine force a decline in the town as well as the Morgan family. How Green Was My Valley rather infamously beat out Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon for Best Picture in 1941.
Runners Up: Blossoms in the Dust, Citizen Kane, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Hold Back the Dawn, The Little Foxes, The Maltese Falcon, One Foot in Heaven, Sergeant York, Suspicion
Outstanding Motion Picture (1942): Mrs. Minivar (1942)
Release Date: June 4, 1942
Director: William Wyler
Mrs. Miniver is often remembered as a remarkable Allied propaganda movie released during World War II (in fact, Goebbels once praised its propagandist appeal in the ways it incites hatred toward Germany). Mrs. Miniver was a critical success, and it has had a particularly lasting legacy in England. It won six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Mrs. Miniver is a domestic, upper middle-class English drama that follows the trials of one family during the advent of World War II.
Runners Up: The Invaders, Kings Row, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Pied Piper, The Pride of the Yankees, Random Harvest, The Talk of the Town, Wake Island, Yankee Doodle Dandy
Director: Michael Curtiz. Casablanca is one of the greatest films of all time. It has sometimes been called one of the great American propaganda films of the 20th century. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and others, Casablanca depicts the impossibility of neutrality during the Second World War. Rick Blaine, the owner of a bar in Casablanca, acquires transit papers to escape Morocco when suddenly his long-lost love, Ilsa Lund, unexpectedly arrives in his bar one night with her revolutionary husband. She requests the transit papers from Rick to escape, and Rick must choose between saving himself, or his one-time lover. Casablanca is an incredible film about love, war, and heroism.
Runners Up: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, In Which We Serve, Madame Curie, The More the Merrier, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Song of Bernadette, Watch on the Rhine
Going My Way (1944)
Runners Up: Double Indemnity, Gaslight, Since You Went Away, Wilson
The Lost Weekend (1945)
Runners Up: Anchors Aweigh, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Mildred Pierce, Spellbound
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Runners Up: Henry V, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Razor’s Edge, The Yearling
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
Runners Up: The Bishop’s Wife, Crossfire, Great Expectations, Miracle on 34th Street
Runners Up: Johnny Belinda, The Red Shoes, The Snake Pit, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
All the King’s Men (1949)
Runners Up: Battleground, The Heiress, A Letter to Three Wives, Twelve O’Clock High
All About Eve (1950)
Runners Up: Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride, King Solomon’s Mines, Sunset Boulevard
An American in Paris (1951)
Runners Up: Decision Before Dawn, A Place in the Sun, Quo Vadis, A Streetcar Named Desire
The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
Runners Up: High Noon, Ivanhoe, Moulin Rouge, The Quiet Man
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Runners Up: Julius Caesar, The Robe, Roman Holiday, Shane
On The Waterfront (1954)
Runners Up: The Caine Mutiny, The Country Girl, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Three Coins in the Fountain
Runners Up: Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Mister Roberts, Picnic, The Rose Tattoo
Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
Runners Up: Friendly Persuasion, Giant, The King and I, The Ten Commandments
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Runners Up: 12 Angry Men, Peyton Place, Sayonara, Witness for the Prosecution
Runners Up: Auntie Mame, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, Separate Tables
Runners Up: Anatomy of a Murder, The Diary of Anne Frank, The Nun’s Story, Room at the Top
The Apartment (1960)
Runners Up: The Alamo, Elmer Gantry, Sons and Lovers, The Sundowners
West Side Story (1961)
Runners Up: Fanny, The Guns of Navarone, The Hustler, Judgment at Nuremberg
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Runners Up: The Longest Day, The Music Man, Mutiny on the Bounty, To Kill a Mockingbird
Tom Jones (1963)
Runners Up: America America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, Lilies of the Field
My Fair Lady (1964)
Runners Up: Becket, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Mary Poppins, Zorba the Greek
The Sound Of Music (1965)
Runners Up: Darling, Doctor Zhivago, Ship of Fools, A Thousand Clowns
A Man For All Seasons (1966)
Runners Up: Alfie, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, The Sand Pebbles, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Runners Up: Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Runners Up: Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter, Rachel, Rachel, Romeo and Juliet
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Runners Up: Anne of the Thousand Days, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hello, Dolly!, Z
Runners Up: Airport, Five Easy Pieces, Love Story, MASH
The French Connection (1971)
Runners Up: A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, The Last Picture Show, Nicholas and Alexandra
The Godfather (1972)
Runners Up: Cabaret, Deliverance, The Emigrants, Sounder
The Sting (1973)
Runners Up: American Graffiti, Cries and Whispers, The Exorcist, A Touch of Class
The Godfather Part II (1974)
Runners Up: Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1974)
Runners Up: Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville
Director: John G. Avildsen. Rocky began as a low budget movie, based on an idea by Sylvester Stallone. He wrote the script in three and half days after watching a Muhammad Ali fight. Much like the story of Rocky, the film itself had a unique rise from obscurity to become one of the most recognizable sports films of all time. Sylvester Stallone plays the down-on-his-luck, working class “Italian Stallion” from the streets of Philadelphia who is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fight the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers). Somehow, this film won Best Picture. The plot of the whole film is one long tired cliché, the dialogue is odd and difficult to understand. Sadly, Rocky is a greatly over-rated film.
Runners Up: All the President’s Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver
Annie Hall (1977)
Director: Woody Allen. Annie Hall is Woody Allen’s magnum opus. It tells the story of the neurotic yet charming Alvy Singer (Woody Allen). He is a somewhat successful stage comedian who develops a romantic relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The film is brilliantly told through a series of flashbacks and rule-breaking gags that make Annie Hall a wonderful film.
Runners Up: The Goodbye Girl, Julia, Star Wars, The Turning Point
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Runners Up: Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman
Kramer vs. Kramer (1978)
Runners Up: All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now, Breaking Away, Norma Rae
Ordinary People (1980)
Runners Up: Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Elephant Man, Raging Bull, Tess
Chariots of Fire (1981)
Runners Up: Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Reds
Runners Up: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Missing, Tootsie, The Verdict
Terms of Endearment (1983)
Runners Up: The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff, Tender Mercies
Best Picture (1984): Amadeus (1984)
Director: Miloš Forman. Amadeus has been a long-time favorite. The film was adapted from the stage play of the same name. The film tells the story of a fictional conspiracy theory in which an envious Italian composer named Antonio Salieri tries to end the life and career of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a brilliant young composer who has taken Vienna by storm.
Runners Up: The Killing Fields, A Passage to India, Places in the Heart, A Soldier’s Story
Out of Africa (1985)
Runners Up: The Color Purple, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Prizzi’s Honor, Witness
Runners Up: Children of a Lesser God, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Mission, A Room with a View
The Last Emperor (1987)
Runners Up: Broadcast News, Fatal Attraction, Hope and Glory, Moonstruck
Rain Man (1988)
Runners Up: The Accidental Tourist, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning, Working Girl
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
Runners Up: Born on the Fourth of July, Dead Poets Society, Field of Dreams, My Left Foot
Dances with Wolves (1990)
Runners Up: Awakenings, Ghost, The Godfather Part III, Goodfellas
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Runners Up: Beauty and the Beast, Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides
Runners Up: The Crying Game, A Few Good Men, Howards End, Scent of a Woman
Best Picture (1993): Schindler’s List (1993)
Release Date: November 30, 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Studio: Universal Pictures
Schindler’s List is a beautiful but harrowing and sobering holocaust film shot almost entirely in black and white. The story is based on the true account of Oskar Schindler, a factory businessman and member of the Nazi party who wound up saving over a thousand Polish Jews during the Holocaust. Schindler is played by Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes plays the somewhat unbelievably brutal and sadistic Nazi S.S. Officer, Amon Göth, and Ben Kingsley plays Schindler’s friend and accountant, Itzhak Stern.
Runners Up: The Fugitive, In the Name of the Father, The Piano, The Remains of the Day
Forrest Gump (1994)
Runners Up: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Pulp Fiction, Quiz Show, The Shawshank Redemption
Runners Up: Apollo 13, Babe, The Postman (Il Postino), Sense and Sensibility
The English Patient (1996)
Runners Up: Fargo, Jerry Maguire, Secrets & Lies, Shine
Runners Up: As Good as It Gets, The Full Monty, Good Will Hunting, L.A. Confidential
Shakespeare in Love (1998)
Runners Up: Elizabeth, Life Is Beautiful, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line
Best Picture (1999): American Beauty (1999)
Director: Sam Mendes. Kevin Spacey plays a suburban husband who has something of a midlife crisis while his career-obsessed realtor wife grows dissatisfied, and his awkward daughter cannot stand him. The film is a jaded portrayal of middle-class America.
Runners Up: The Cider House Rules, The Green Mile, The Insider, The Sixth Sense
Best Picture (2000): Gladiator (2000)
Director: Ridley Scott. Gladiator is the modern warrior-revenge epic film. Russell Crowe stars in his finest performance as the Spaniard-Roman general, Maximus Decimus Meridius, alongside Joaquin Phoenix who plays the pale and greedy son of Marcus Aurelius, Commodus. The film leads us through the disgrace of Commodus as he is sold into slavery and becomes a gladiator where he wins the favor of the Roman public.
Runners Up: Chocolat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Erin Brockovich, Traffic
Best Picture (2001): A Beautiful Mind (2001)
Director: Ron Howard. The film tells the story of the genius, John Nash (Russell Crowe), as he rises from Princeton University in the 1940s developing unique mathematical theories of governance, to his work at MIT and eventually becoming a code cracker at the Pentagon. The parallel story in the film is about Nash’s particular struggle with mental illness.
Runners Up: Gosford Park, In the Bedroom, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, Moulin Rouge!
Runners Up: Gangs of New York, The Hours, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Pianist
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Runners Up: Lost in Translation, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Mystic River, Seabiscuit
Best Picture (2004): Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Release Date: December 15, 2004
Director: Clint Eastwood
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
The story for Million Dollar Baby is somewhat predictable (with a tragic twist at the end) about a rising female boxer named Maggie Fitzgerald (played by Hillary Swank) as she secures an aging coach (played by Clint Eastwood). It is narrated by Morgan Freeman.
Runners Up: The Aviator, Finding Neverland, Ray, Sideways
Runners Up: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich
The Departed (2006)
Runners Up: Babel, Letters from Iwo Jima, Little Miss Sunshine, The Queen
No Country for Old Men (2007)
Runners Up: Atonement, Juno, Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood
Best Picture (2008): Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Director: Danny Boyle. Slumdog Millionaire is the explosive introduction of modern Indian culture and Bollywood-styled films onto the international cinematic stage. It tells the story of Jamal, played by Dev Patel, a kid from the slums of India as he becomes a contestant on India’s version of the popular television game show, “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” He successfully answers every questions correctly, as they all correspond ironically to various moments throughout his life.
Runners Up: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader
The Hurt Locker (2009)
Runners Up: Avatar, The Blind Side, District 9, An Education, Inglourious Basterds, Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, A Serious Man, Up, Up in the Air
Best Picture (2010): The King’s Speech (2010)
Director: Tom Hooper. The film tells the story of the soon-to-be King George VI or “Bertie” (Colin Firth) prior to his kingship, as he struggles with a speech impediment -namely stuttering. He goes to visit Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) who plays classical music for him through headphones, while he successfully completes Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. Despite some minor historical inaccuracies, The King’s Speech is a personal favorite film from the 2010s.
Best Picture (2011): The Artist (2011)
Director: Michel Hazanavicius. The Artist is a French, modern silent film. It takes place in the late 1920s as an aging silent film star in Hollywood loses his appeal during the advent of “talkies,” while a rising young star (his lover) gains popularity. The story was written as a love letter to the cinematic art, drawing on inspiration from Hitchcock, Lang, Lubistch, Murnau, and Wilder. The film is at once fun and silly, as well as tragic and beautiful. We only hear sound about halfway through the film when the main character cannot speak, but he hears his glass set down on the table, and he appears confused. The scene is extraordinary. It is a remarkable film, though it has been criticized as being “oscar-bait” and is bit self-indulgent and melodramatic.
Director: Ben Affleck. Argo is the unique and amusing thriller film based on the story of Tony Mendez, a CIA operative during the 1980s. The story of the film is based on a true story of CIA operatives infiltrating Iran during the hostage crisis in the late 1980s as they go undercover as film-makers for a science fiction movie called “Argo” which they claim to be shooting in Tehran. It is an entertaining film, yet somehow it won the Oscar for Best Picture.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
Runners Up: American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Her, Nebraska, Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street
Best Picture (2014): Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)
Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Birdman is a modern surrealist, experimental, and deeply psychological exploration into the mind of a washed up actor in New York City. The film is edited to appear as if shot in a single shot, to give it a blurred, dream-like quality. I did not care for this film, not being a fan of the surrealist style.
Director: Barry Jenkins. Moonlight is a warped bildungsroman film told in three separate parts about a young black boy and his extraordinary struggles through adolescence and adulthood.
Runners Up: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea
The Shape of Water (2017)
Green Book (2018)
Runners Up: Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Roma, A Star Is Born, Vice