The five best Academy Award winners for Best Picture

Ray Milland plays alcoholic Don Birnam in the 1945 film The Lost Weekend, directed by Billy Wilder.

There are so many Best Picture winners, but these just happen to be the very best.

The 91st Academy Awards are almost upon us and talk of this year’s Best Picture winner has invaded many a discussion. It looks like this year could see a foreign language film secure the coveted award for the first time in Oscars history. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma certainly deserves to win and would perhaps be one of the very best films to earn the award.

Ahead of this month’s celebrations, I took it upon myself to reflect back upon a wealth of winners. Historically, Best Picture has been a hallmark of quality and yet it often seems to have gone to the wrong film. Of course, it’s all personal. However, it has to be said that Best Picture is consistently the most disappointing category in terms of winners, at least from my personal experience. There have been so many great films nominated but when reflecting back there are so few times that the film I’d like to have won actually did. These films, however, are excellent:

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)

A film which is often considered one of the greatest American movies of all time. Additionally, the screenplay is heralded as one of the most exquisite ever crafted and it is in fact pretty perfect. Over the decades, Casablanca has endured an eternal legacy which only proves to grow with every passing year.

It’s an absolute pleasure every time and arguably strengthens on repeat viewings. Humphrey Bogart provided quintessential performances in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, but Rick Blaine will always be his most beloved, iconic character. This is the film that many cite when prompted to consider where it all began; to pinpoint when their love of cinema became clear. It’s no mystery as to why this continues to be the case.

The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945)

Billy Wilder is without a doubt one of the all-time great filmmakers and has directed such masterpieces as Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. The Lost Weekend is one of his greatest achievements, offering audiences a timeless portrait of addiction. At the time, the film’s uncompromised portrayal of a man grappling with alcoholism was even starker than it appears today.

Yet, even today, the film remains particularly harrowing. Wilder’s direction, along with his and Charles Brackett’s script - adapted from Charles R. Jackson’s novel - make for a devastating, affecting tale of despair which holds up incredibly well. Ray Milland’s central performance is remarkable and actually won him the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. It actually won four that year; Best Picture, Actor, Director and Screenplay. It deserved all of them.

The narrative is made up of countless powerful moments, all dizzily stitched together to place us uncomfortably within the confines of Don Birnam’s tortured headspace. As far as Best Picture winners go, The Lost Weekend is perhaps the best. 

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

My favourite Francis Ford Coppola film would have to be the absolutely unforgettable Apocalypse Now, closely followed by the often overlooked Rumble Fish. However, perhaps no film within the organised crime genre is as expertly crafted as The Godfather.

Although against popular opinion, I have always found the first film vastly superior to the second - although I am completely in agreement that the third doesn’t even belong in the conversation. Coppola’s 1972 epic boasts such an accomplished ensemble who absolutely demand every shred of attention you can muster across the film’s lengthy runtime. Its importance will never be doubted and its influence across modern cinema cannot be underestimated. In short, The Godfather still demands our utmost respect.

Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

At the time, Steven Spielberg was the master of the Hollywood blockbuster. For him to follow up Jurassic Park with one of the most important, necessary film productions in cinema history is astounding.

There had been documentaries like Night and Fog and Shoah which provided a disturbing and illuminating insight into the atrocities of the Holocaust. Their importance should never be underestimated and neither should that of Schindler’s List. Sure, there were fantastic documentaries available that dealt with the subject but for Spielberg to deal with it in such a way as to engage and educate general audiences is admirable. There are so many unflinching moments presented, all of them imperative.

Spielberg’s masterpiece is not just a terrific film, it’s essential.

No Country for Old Men (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2007)

Few modern filmmakers’ have earned the respect of their audience and fellow contemporaries in the way that the Coen brothers have. With such great works as The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, Burn After Reading and more under their belts, we tend to approach their projects with great expectations. No Country for Old Men is a film that refused to simply meet them but raise and challenge them considerably.

Although I adore The Big Lebowski, their 2008 masterpiece may be the duo’s best feature to date. It’s a defiant film which outright rejects the rules of Hollywood filmmaking; instead, the Coen’s manipulate their audiences knowledge of cinema to shock us. The film boasts moments of excruciating tension and yet it refuses them at the narrative’s key moments. It operates as a terrific film but also a fascinating deconstruction of cinema itself. 

Of all the Best Picture winners, these are the five that truly stick out. They are phenomenal pieces of work with such a wide appeal - exactly what Best Picture has grown to be associated with. If Roma wins this year, my list will certainly have to be revised.

In other news, is Bond 25 in trouble?

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