With the Academy Awards set to take place in just a few weeks, it seems as though everyone is rushing to see all of the nominated movies prior to the big night. Some years, one epic picture is a shoe-in, whereas other years the Best Picture Oscar is up for grabs. Take 1939, for example. That was a tough year to compete for Best Picture. Gone with the Wind ended up taking home the prize, but it was up against The Wizard of Oz and Of Mice and Men! What a year. (And we can’t forget about last year, when everyone thought that La La Land would win, and it was even erroneously announced, only to have the powerful drama Moonlight emerge as the real winner.)
Competition in any given year can be pretty tough, but what if the films had to compete across years? Who would the nominees even be? And which film would take home the whole enchilada?
In looking at the Best Picture winners over the last 40 years, I have compiled a list of what are arguably the top 10 films. See if you agree.
10. Spotlight, 2015
While this particular film wasn’t as flashy as some of the others on this list, it had a couple of very strong things going for it. The writing was solid, the acting was exceptional, and the subject was incredibly important. The story brought to light the rampant sexual abuse that has taken place in the Catholic Church, something that a lot of people weren’t even aware of before.
9. Dances With Wolves, 1990
This epic film was shot long before CGI was an option — which means that the buffalo chase scene (which involved 3500 buffalo running at full speed) needed to actually happen. Furthermore, it captures the energy of the Wild West and features a love story, making it appealing to most audience members. The portrayal of the daily life of the Sioux tribe in the film was praised by the tribe itself — as it accurately depicted day-to-day life. In all, the film is beautifully shot, well-written, and went so far as to have the Native American actors speak in the Lakota dialect as opposed to English with an accent.
8. Terms of Endearment, 1983
Yes, the movie that brings everyone to tears. This one basically swept the Oscars the year it was nominated, earning trophies not only for Best Picture, but also for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress (for Shirley MacLaine) and Best Supporting Actor (for Jack Nicholson). This one was greater than the sum of its (great) parts, and could bring out the ugly crying in virtually anyone who watched it.
7. Million Dollar Baby, 2004
Aside from the fact that this film brings two cinematic greats to the screen in Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman, and throws in the seamless performance of Hilary Swank, we have a movie that just doesn’t go the way we think it will. We have our underdog, a scrappy female fighter who finds success in boxing. But just as we fall in love with her — and her father-daughter relationship with Eastwood — she goes and gets sucker-punched in the ring. She ends up becoming paralyzed from the neck down and ultimately loses her will to live (after losing her leg). Ugh. This one punches the audience in the gut, and we love that about it.
6. Forrest Gump, 1994
Of course Forrest himself is a character who is incredibly lovable, and we can quote something from practically every scene in this movie. But even beyond all that, it is important to remember where filmmaking was when this was released in 1994. They showed Tom Hanks interacting with celebrities and world figures from decades ago in footage that we have all otherwise seen. It was quite the feat at the time, to splice Gump into historical moments. That might be why it is arguably one of the best films of the last 40 years. That, and the “box of chocolates” line. Obvi.
5. Braveheart, 1995
So this one got a lot of flack for not being 100 percent historically accurate, but whoever said that epic films needed to be? This has an incredible story that is beautifully told and expertly shot. While it can be pretty graphic (and, let’s be honest, completely gross) at times, the characters are compelling, and the theme is one that can definitely hit home. And admit it, you can’t help but cry out “They may take away our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” when you think of this movie.
4. Gladiator, 2000
This film proved to be much more accurate than Braveheart was, and it totally sucked us into ancient Roman times. Thanks to its careful use of CGI technology, we get epic battle scenes (chock full of tigers to boot) and incredible action sequences. But one thing that is necessary for a film to be truly great is for the performances of its cast to be top-notch — and you get that here. In this film we have, hands-down, the best performance of Russell Crowe’s career, as well as career-defining performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, and Djimon Hounsou.
3. The Hurt Locker, 2009
Here is another film that took a few, ahem, liberties with the story. If you ask veterans, they can point out dozens of things that don’t quite ring true about this. But the truth of the matter is that this movie takes you on an adrenaline-ridden roller coaster ride. You find yourself holding your breath for long periods of time. It’s an experience, and it gives us civilians a glimpse into the realities of war, even if it is a little inaccurate.
2. The Silence of the Lambs, 1991
This film is chilling. It stays with you for far too long after it’s over and comes back to haunt your dreams. The performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins are unmatched (in fact, they both won Oscars for their roles), and the screenplay (which also won) is woven together like a beautiful tapestry. Your heart aches for the killer’s victims, it beats at double time for Clarice’s encounters with Buffalo Bill, and it is completely won over by a charming and dangerous serial killer. This is a work of art, plain and simple.
1. Schindler’s List, 1993
Aside from the fact that this film is expertly crafted — from its outstanding cinematography to its stellar acting — Schindler’s List tells one of humanity’s most deplorable stories beautifully. It is important, both as a piece of art and as a storytelling tool, as it is a way for future generations to learn about a dark moment of human existence. It took home 12 Academy Awards. It is dramatic and terrifying and completely heart-wrenching. And it is the best movie of the last 40 years.