As the Academy Awards celebrate a milestone 90th anniversary, the legacy of the best picture award is set to enter a new era. But how many of the previous 89 best picture winners are we still watching today? And what are the movies that Oscar voters missed? (Surely “Singin’ in the Rain” won an Oscar, right? Not so fast.)
Since one of the most enjoyable parts of any Oscar season is the healthy debate these awards provoke, The Times’ film critics and reporters offer up their personal favorites among the academy’s chosen best pictures, as well as picks for the voters’ biggest oversight.
What best picture Oscar winner is your favorite?
Tre’vell Anderson: As someone black and queer, films about my experience never seem to be uplifted by the industry at large. Then came “Moonlight” last year, and though envelopegate forever altered that moment, for Barry Jenkins and his cast and its fans, a win is a win.
Geoff Berkshire: Of the Oscar winners in the modern era, “Moonlight” is the one that already feels eternal … but it’s less than two years old. So I’ll go for something that has both withstood the test of time, and remains a movie I’d happily watch again right now. That doesn’t describe many best picture winners, but it does describe “Casablanca.”
Justin Chang: Only one film on my all-time top 10 list has won the Oscar for best picture, and it's “The Godfather: Part II.” Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 masterpiece can of course hardly be considered in isolation from its equally great, Oscar-winning 1972 predecessor. But for me, it’s this sublime second chapter in which the epochal tragedy of the Corleone family truly comes together.
Amy Kaufman: It might not be the highbrow choice but, “Titanic.” I was 11 when James Cameron's film came out, and it was the first time I'd seen an epic, sweeping romance on the big screen and felt the possibility of what adult life had in store for me. (Sadly, no guy has offered to teach me how to hock a loogie or sacrificed his piece of driftwood for me yet à la Leo DiCaprio.)
Mark Olsen: I’d have to say “Moonlight.” By the gentle, insistent power of its emotions, craft, grace and artistry, that movie upends so much of what I have over the years learned to think of as an Oscar movie. For as much as I want to think the Oscars are corny and the winners don’t much matter, “Moonlight” made me realize just how much they do mean to me and that I really do care.
Josh Rottenberg: It’s not the greatest movie to ever win the top prize, but I have a nostalgic attachment to “Amadeus.” I was 12 when it came out and it was the first best picture winner I can clearly remember seeing in the theater. I recently rewatched it for the first time in years with my teenage daughter and was pleasantly surprised at how well it holds up.
Kenneth Turan: Of all the movies in all the theaters in all the world, how did I end up with "Casablanca" as my favorite Oscar best picture winner? Isn't it incumbent on me as a critic to come up with something less accessible, more obscure? But how could I resist a film where humor, idealism, cynicism, espionage melodramatics, the elevating power of love and even deadly gunplay all play a part — a whole season of films crammed into a single 102-minute package.
Glenn Whipp: Over 89 years, the academy has rewarded around a dozen indisputable classics and might well add to the list in coming years. But my favorite will always be "The Godfather." I took my teenagers to see it in theaters last year. Because a man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man. And, yes, we had cannoli afterward.
Jen Yamato: Near … far … wherever I am, I believe that the heart does go on. No other best picture winner has ever left as indelible a mark on my hopeless romantic heart or my heavy-rotation karaoke song list as “Titanic” (shout out Celine!) even if we all know there was room enough on that floating debris for Jack. I, for one, will never let go.
What movie should have won best picture but didn’t?
Anderson: It’s a travesty that Queen Angela Bassett doesn’t have an Oscar. With that being said, 1993’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” in which Bassett and Laurence Fishburne chronicle the rise of Tina and Ike Turner deserved all the awards. (It was only nominated for its lead actors.)
Berkshire: Independent cinema is so entrenched at the Oscars it’s easy to forget that academy voters took an awfully long time to warm up to smaller films. In the process they overlooked a lot of maverick classics, including but not limited to David Lynch’s masterpiece of suburban hell: “Blue Velvet.” (The winner instead in 1987? Oliver Stone’s worthy “Platoon,” which — funny enough — also topped that year’s Independent Spirit awards.)
Chang: I could easily choose an all-time favorite like “Vertigo” and “Rio Bravo,” that mystifyingly weren’t even nominated for best picture. But I’ll bang the drum for one that was: Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” a magnum opus that seems to compress all the contradictions of existence — the intimate and the cosmic, the sublime and the ridiculous, the fleeting and the eternal — into two hours and 19 minutes.
Kaufman: I'm gonna go old-school on this and say that "The Wizard of Oz" was robbed in 1939. Nearly eight decades later, I'm still upset that "Gone With the Wind" stole it from Dorothy and company.
Olsen: It wasn’t even nominated for best picture, but I would say “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That movie just feels so monumental, an enormous marshaling of vast resources, skill and visionary imagination, that it deserved recognition for the totality of its undertaking and achievement. (And I say that without even needing to bag on “Oliver!” which did win the award that year.)
Rottenberg: I’m tempted to say Robert Altman’s “Nashville” because it’s probably my all-time favorite movie, but it lost to another great film, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest," so it’s hard to gripe too much about that. So I’ll go with “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which has been blowing minds for 50 years but, absurdly, wasn’t even nominated for best picture.
Turan: Celebrated today by critics and audiences alike, "Singin' In the Rain" got but two Oscar nominations on its original release and won nothing. With the exuberance and joy of performance as one of its themes, it's the most beloved example of the Hollywood musical, the real tinsel underneath all the fake stuff.
Whipp: Pink Floyd laser shows were a thing during my teen years, but my favorite mind-altering experience was heading over to the revival theater showing "2001: A Space Odyssey." For one thing, you didn't need to be stoned to have your mind blown. Stanley Kubrick took care of that with images and ideas that transcended a certain space opera that was popular at the time. Years later, I found out “2001” wasn’t even nominated for best picture. You know what won that year? "Oliver!" Consider yourself ... ashamed, academy.
Yamato: “Citizen Kane” was nominated but didn’t win the Oscar for best picture. Neither did “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which at least turned up in directing and screenplay categories. But at the 25th Academy Awards, held in 1953, “Singin’ in the Rain,” Hollywood’s most iconic — and cleverly entertaining — movie musical only mustered two nods from the film academy.