Since the very first Oscars ceremony in 1929, the Academy Award for Best Picture has been one of the most sought after awards in the film industry. While there have been numerous controversies surrounding the award – from certain genres and foreign language films being underrepresented, to the mix-up earlier this year with Faye Dunaway announcing the wrong nominee as the winner – there are many Best Picture winners that are for sure worth a watch. These are my personal Top 5 Best Picture winners.
1. Rebecca (1940)
The only Hitchcock directed film to ever win Best Picture, Rebecca is a thriller/mystery based on the classic novel by Daphne Du Maurier. Joan Fontaine plays a young, shy woman who falls for the charms of the wealthy and charismatic widow, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) after meeting him in Monte Carlo. They quickly marry and move to his estate, Manderley, back in England. Joan Fontaine’s character – who is known only as ‘the second Mrs de Winter’ struggles to settle into life in her new home, which is filled with constant reminders and possessions of Rebecca, Maxim’s first wife. The film follows the second Mrs de Winter’s desperate attempt to fill Rebecca’s place as she deals with the coldness she receives from the Manderley staff, and comes to terms with the fact that Maxim is still in love with his first wife.
This was the first film that Alfred Hitchcock made in the United States, after a long and already successful career in Britain. You can definitely see differences between Rebecca compared to his British productions, and it is interesting to see the true classic Hitchcock formula begin to develop. It was also produced by the legendary David O. Selznick – they later went on to work on Spellbound and The Paradine Case together.
I love the way we are unaware of the second Mrs de Winter’s first name, as well as never seeing Rebecca on screen, only hearing of her. This gives the viewer a sense of feeling lost and confused, much as Joan Fontaine’s character feels for a majority of the film. Rebecca has all the elements of classic suspense and twists and turns that you would expect from a Hitchcock picture, keeping you guessing and not knowing who to trust until the very end.
2. The Godfather (1972) and the Godfather Part II (1974)
I want both of these to be on the list, but I feel like they don’t need separate posts so I’m sort of cheating and putting them both into one point. The Godfather and it’s sequel, which tell the story of the fictional crime family the Corleones, are widely regarded as some of the best films of all time, and probably the first thing that come to mind for a lot of people when they hear the word ‘classic’.
The Godfather focuses on Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), showing his hesitance to take over his father’s role as a powerful mafia boss and his complicated relationships with both his family members and his girlfriend Kaye (Diane Keaton). Al Pacino’s acting is subtle yet brilliant, compared to his overacting in some of his later films. It also features an iconic performance by Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone, who famously rejected his Best Actor award for this film, as a protest against the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood.
The Godfather Part II is one of the rare sequels which I prefer to the first film, and was the first sequel to ever win the Best Picture award. The plot continues the story of Michael Corleone, who has adjusted to life as Don of the mafia. It also gives us insight to the back story of a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) and his rise to power. The combination of the two plots is very effective and growth of the characters and the comparison between father and son.
Both pictures are directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and in my opinion they are some of the few films that could truly be rated 10/10. Everything from the acting, to the score, to the cinematography, to the screenplay is practically perfect, and although these are long films (over three hours long each), every minute counts and comes together to produce two truly flawless films.
3. All About Eve (1950)
All About Eve has a fairly simple plot, and is very character driven. Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, a Broadway actress whose life starts to take a turn for the worse when she becomes acquainted with Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter). Eve is a young woman who is a fan of Margo, and becomes her understudy. Margo soon starts to suspect that Eve is trying to steal her career and interfere with her relationships, but Eve plays the innocent, adoring young fan so well that Margo’s friend Karen assures her she is just being paranoid. Another Best Picture that keeps the viewers guessing – is Eve truly innocent, or does she really have an ulterior motive to insinuating herself into Margo’s life?
Bette Davis is fantastic in dramatic roles, and All About Eve is no exception. George Sanders and Celeste Holm give great supporting performances, and we also see an early appearance from Marilyn Monroe in one of her first major film roles.
The film shows a reality that is still very relevant to today’s entertainment industry – that holding onto your career can be difficult for aging women, as there will always be someone prettier, younger and just as talented as you to take your place.
4. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Only three films have ever won all five of the major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Actress) – It Happened One Night, The Silence of the Lambs, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While I enjoy all of these films, I do think that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the most deserving of all five awards.
The film is set in a mental institution and features one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances, playing the main character Randle McMurphy, who has been transferred to the institution from prison. This is another film which puts a focus on the characters and their stories. We meet many interesting characters in the institution, in particular Chief – a Native American patient who everyone believes is deaf and mute, but later develops a sort of friendship with McMurphy. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an odd mix of humour and heart-wrenching moments, but it works perfectly. Although McMurphy is clearly not a good person, it is quite easy to sympathise with him and some of his actions.
Louise Fletcher gives an incredible performance as Nurse Ratched – acting is more than just reading lines from a script, and she is a perfect example of this. Nurse Ratched consistently appears on lists of the greatest film villains. While a lot of villains are outright insane and prone to emotional outbursts, Nurse Ratched is cold, calculating and always in control. Fletcher’s portrayal is definitely one of the highlights of this film.
5. Casablanca (1942)
Casablanca is universally loved for a reason. You don’t have to be a fan of romance to enjoy this – though it is a romantic drama, it isn’t over the top and is also a story of loneliness, heartache and sacrifice. Set during World War II, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is a cynical, guarded man who owns a nightclub in Casablanca, Morocco. Many of his patrons are refugees who are looking to travel to the United States, which has still remained neutral at this time during the war. Rick’s ex lover, Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) makes an appearance at his club, and we are shown their story through a series of flashbacks. It is clear that they are still in love, and we see the heartbreak they have both suffered when they were forced to be seperated.
I think a lot of the time when a person is used to modern films, they watch a classic and find it cliché, without realising that the film itself is why those clichés exist. Casablanca definitely fits into this category, and when you watch it for the first time you will recognise a large amount of quotes and references from other media that you maybe didn’t even know the original source of.
An impressive amount of character development fits into the 102 minute run time, showing how Rick’s past has turned him into such a jaded person, as well as Isla’s struggle to make a decision between staying in Casablanca with Rick, or leaving for America with her new husband. The screenplay is beautifully written, and Bogart and Bergman have great on screen chemistry.