1. The Silence Of The Lambs (1991)
Terror lingers. For proof, look to the 64th Academy Awards, which found normally (and notoriously) forgetful Oscar voters thinking back fondly on a nightmarish thriller that had opened more than a year earlier. The Silence Of The Lambs, which hit theaters on February 14, 1991, holds one of the earliest calendar-year release dates of any Best Picture winner. The antithesis, in some respects, of the typical Oscar movie, it beat out a crop of more “respectable” nominees—Oliver Stone’s JFK, Bugsy, The Prince Of Tides, and Disney’s animated Beauty And The Beast—all of which opened in the award-friendly months of November and December. That’s probably because, more so than its competition, Silence was a phenomenon: Bolstered by strong word-of-mouth and glowing reviews, the film topped the box office for five consecutive weeks. Orion then released it on VHS in October—just in time for Halloween and for award voters to give it a second, closer look. When the big night finally arrived, Silence did more than just take the top prize; it became only the third film in Oscar history to sweep the five major awards, earning additional statuettes for Best Director (Jonathan Demme), Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins), Best Actress (Jodie Foster), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally). To date, it’s also the only horror movie to win Best Picture. That’s not too shabby for an airport-fiction adaptation released in the frozen multiplex wasteland of February.
2. Mrs. Miniver (1942)
It’s unclear when “prestige season” became a Hollywood tradition, but it doesn’t extend to 1942, when all but one of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture were released from March to August. Premiering in New York on June 4, Mrs. Miniver offers a series of vignettes following an upper-middle-class English family through World War II. With its climactic scene featuring a lengthy sermon about how war isn’t just fought by soldiers but by the whole nation, Mrs. Miniver was, in the words of director and self-described “warmonger” William Wyler, “obviously a propaganda film.” FDR and Winston Churchill praised its rousing spirit (“more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions,” said Winnie), and moviegoers made it one of the highest-grossing films of the year. The National Board Of Review counted it among 1942’s 10 best movies, and later it received 12 Oscar nominations, the most of the year, including a record-setting five for acting. Wartime passions ultimately won Mrs. Miniver six Oscars, including Best Picture, director, actress (Greer Garson, who still holds the Oscar record for longest acceptance speech, at seven minutes), supporting actress, and screenplay.
3. Casablanca (1943)
1943’s best picture was, famously, a fluke; it was a product of Hollywood’s studio system, and during production, there was no sense of grooming Casablanca to become one of the most beloved films of all time. In contrast to the film itself, the story of Casablanca’s production is utterly unromantic—it’s about how the sausage-grinding Warner Bros. studio process ended up fine-tuning a masterpiece. Given that it didn’t expect acclaim, the film was slated for a spring release, but to capitalize on the Allied invasion of North Africa, the studio moved the première up six months and opened it wide in late January 1943. It takes massive staying power to stay in voters’ minds in the pre-screener era, but Casablanca managed, in part because it was riding hard on the wave of American sentiment against Nazi Germany and a shared sense of trying to combat evil. Wartime film releases have their own logic and strategy; it’s bizarre to conceive of trying to work films around military movements, but the success of Casablanca owes a great deal to serendipitous timing.
4. The Godfather (1972)
The Godfather, generally considered one of the greatest films of all time, was a money gig for director Francis Ford Coppola. Paramount studio chief Robert Evans thought it important to have a director of Italian descent helm Mario Puzo’s mafia bestseller, but Coppola considered himself an independent filmmaker with ambitions to work exclusively on his own original material. He only agreed to sully his hands with it in order to save his fledgling production company, American Zoetrope. Paramount brass proceeded to fight Coppola over every major decision he made, from retaining the period setting of the novel to the casting of Marlon Brando and Al Pacino to the dark look of Gordon Willis’ cinematography. The film was scheduled to open at Christmas, but Evans fought to push the opening back until spring to force Coppola to do another edit (and lengthen the film), a delay that set off alarms in the industry. The film’s phenomenal commercial success and classic status validated Coppola’s (and to an extent, Evans’) choices and represent the apotheosis of the kind of “personal” filmmaking Coppola had championed, a movie that perhaps could only have been made during that brief window between the collapse of the old studio system and the pre-packaged blockbuster era. But Coppola, who has repeatedly described its making as the worst working experience of his life, considers it a “studio” film that took him off his true path.
5. The Hurt Locker (2009)
After it won best picture (and provided the first female Best Director winner), it was hard to remember how skittish studios were about The Hurt Locker. Even after it generated significant buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival, no one was eager to jump on board with another potential flop about the Iraq War. But The Hurt Locker wasn’t a “message” movie like In The Valley Of Elah or Lions For Lambs; it was more of an action film, so instead of debuting during fall prestige season, Summit released The Hurt Locker on June 26, 2009 (the same weekend as Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen) in a scant four theaters in New York and L.A. By the end of July, that had grown to 535, and by September, The Hurt Locker had become one of the most profitable “specialty films” of the year. When the Gotham Independent Film Awards nominated it for best feature, best ensemble cast, and breakthrough actor (it won the first two), it was the beginning of accolades that would continue until the Oscar ceremony on March 7, 2010, when it defeated massive hits like Avatar and The Blind Side for Best Picture.
6. Crash (2005)
More than a few jaws hit the floor—or crashed into it, if you want to be cute—when Jack Nicholson announced that the Academy was giving Best Picture not to the widely presumed winner, Brokeback Mountain, but to Paul Haggis’ Crash. It was one of the biggest surprises in Oscar history; while a few prognosticators had quietly voiced their gut feeling that the divisive race drama had a shot, few seemed confident enough to put their money on it. And why should they have? A slowly growing sleeper that opened in the dog days of May, Crash got little love from the big Oscar precursors. (It wasn’t even up for the Golden Globe.) A surprise Best Cast win at the SAG awards was the first major sign, ignored by many, that the tide was turning in the film’s favor. Today, it has become almost conventional wisdom that Crash was a deliberate spoiler—the alternative “liberal” pick for a voting bloc that wasn’t comfortable giving its highest honor to a movie about two men in love. But the last laugh belongs to Ang Lee: While his trumped frontrunner has achieved a modern-classic designation, Crash has faced an enduring backlash, with Film Comment naming it the worst Best Picture winner of all time last year.
7. It Happened One Night (1934)
1934 was the year that the Academy standardized its timeline qualifications, decreeing that all nominated films must be released between January 1 and December 31 of the calendar year. It kicked off this new, enduring policy by handing Best Picture to a movie whose February release date just barely put it in the running. Like The Silence Of The Lambs—another February winner—and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Frank Capra’s charming, screwball road movie It Happened One Night swept the five major Oscar categories. Its victory is impressive for several reasons, beginning with its early opening—this was long before the days of awards screeners, so voters didn’t have a home-video copy to refresh their memories. Furthermore, It Happened One Night was a romantic comedy, which had never won the top prize, and it was competing against a whopping 11 other nominees. But there’s no disputing the film’s staying power; had Columbia dropped it on New Year’s Day of 1934, there’s still a good chance that AMPAS members would have a hard time remembering a movie they loved more.
8. Patton (1970)
In 1970, 20th Century Fox was still hurting financially from the twin commercial disasters of 1967’s Doctor Dolittle and 1968’s Julie Andrews musical Star! Having lost more than $36 million the previous year, in 1970 Fox was thinking of moving forward by renaming itself 21st Century Fox and releasing three extremely expensive event movies. At $12 million, Patton was less costly than Hello, Dolly! ($25 million) or Tora! Tora! Tora! ($25 million), and the three films were released several months apart, presumably not to step on each other’s toes. Patton went first in April and became a hit by playing both sides of the aisle: Counter-culturally minded viewers found its presentation of Patton’s over-the-top speeches and self-regard satiric, while hawks found it stirringly old-school. (Nixon famously loved the film, watching it the night before ordering the bombing of Cambodia.) At the Oscars, Patton triumphed over two massively popular successes with no critical credibility (Airport and Love Story), as well as the more overtly youth-rebellion-minded Five Easy Pieces and M*A*S*H. Seizing opportunity where it found it, in 1971 Fox re-released M*A*S*H and Patton as a counterintuitive but strangely logical double-feature.
9. Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1969 was the year of independent youth-culture hits like Easy Rider, which the studio heads found inexplicable, and expensive big-studio disasters like Paint Your Wagon. But it was also the year that John Wayne, the living embodiment of the old system, gave the performance that won him his only Academy Award, for True Grit. Though Midnight Cowboy may very well have been the best of the films nominated for Best Picture, in its cultural context, it also seems like a compromise candidate. (Opening on May 26, it was also the only nominee released before October of 1969.) In its scabrous, sometimes hysterical view of America, and with its two young stars (Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight) playing a couple of low-level street hustlers, it’s certainly less escapist and more “relevant” than Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid and Hello, Dolly! But the tenderness at the heart of the picture, in the relationship between Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo, also gave older, conservative audiences something they were unlikely to get from the foreign-language political thriller Z—even if Buck and Ratso are coded gay lovers. Midnight Cowboy has the distinction of being the only X-rated movie ever to win Best Picture, but it was made during that brief period when major studios were willing to release X-rated movies, which only signified the films were for adults only, not pornographic. Two years later, the film was resubmitted to the MPAA and reclassified as an “R” with no changes made.
10. Braveheart (1995)
Prior to winning Best Picture and Best Director for Braveheart, Mel Gibson had directed only one other film, the 1993 melodrama The Man Without A Face. He had, however, starred in a trio of highly successful Lethal Weapon films, so when he approached longtime home Warner Bros. with his passion project, the studio wanted another Lethal Weapon in return for an investment in Braveheart. Gibson balked, but didn’t fare a lot better elsewhere. Paramount only agreed to make it if it had a partner (Fox), but Gibson still had to pinch pennies—even after the studios forced him to star in it. Paramount opened the film in 2,000 theaters on Memorial Day weekend of 1995, where it was thoroughly trounced by Casper (which also opened that weekend) and Die Hard: With A Vengeance, which opened the week prior. By its eighth week, it was in only 700 theaters, but buzz from the film’s opening in the UK that September prompted Paramount to rerelease it in theaters Stateside. By the end of the year, Gibson had a Golden Globe nomination for Best Director, and Braveheart would be on its way to besting films like Apollo 13 and Babe at the Oscars.
11. Annie Hall (1977)
Maybe the funniest film ever to win Best Picture, Annie Hall must have looked like a dead serious choice compared to its nearest competition, a zippy little movie called Star Wars. Both were spring releases, with Woody Allen’s bittersweet romantic comedy opening in April of 1977, while George Lucas’ space opera followed four weeks later. The latter, then cinema’s all-time biggest hit, was favored to win, but the Academy had other viable options, too. The autumn dramas Julia and The Turning Point tied each other for the year’s highest nomination count (11 nods each), while another rom-com, the Neil Simon-scripted The Goodbye Girl, picked up the Golden Globe for Best Musical/Comedy. But Annie Hall beat them all, earning Allen screenwriting and directing Oscars, too—though the eccentric auteur, having apparently decided he’d rather not be a part of a club that would have him as a member, was a no-show at the ceremony. Despite numerous nominations and a couple wins since, he’s only attended once.
12. The Apartment (1960)
The Apartment’s Best Picture win at the 33rd Academy Awards was marked by multiple distinctions: Until Schindler’s List in 1993, Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy—about an office drone (Jack Lemmon) who lends out his flat for his boss’ extramarital affairs—was the last black-and-white film to take the top prize. And with the exception of Annie Hall and another late-coming throwback, The Artist, The Apartment is one of the only comedic Best Picture winners of the past 50 years. Plenty of emotional turmoil and corporate satire roils beneath the film’s screwball surface, but it remains remarkable that such a relatively honest, simple summer film beat blown-out epics like The Sundowners and The Alamo—both released during prestige season—in the Best Picture race. Additionally remarkable are the 10 nominations it carried into the Oscar ceremonies, the most for a year that also saw the release of Spartacus and Psycho—the latter of which premièred the same weekend as The Apartment, two masterpieces made in a fading format that eventually went head-to-head for Best Director honors. (Wilder handed Alfred Hitchcock his last of five defeats in that category.)
13. Marty (1955)
Like its eponymous every-dude hero, Marty was born an underdog. Released in April of 1955, and based on a teleplay that aired just a couple years earlier, the film was certainly not standard Academy Awards material. It was small and unglamorous, an intimate tale of romance between ordinary people, and a far cry from the lavish spectacles (An American In Paris, The Greatest Show On Earth, Around The World in 80 Days) that dominated the Best Picture category in the ’50s. But Marty struck a chord—with critics, who showered it with praise, and with audiences, who helped it recoup its $350,000 budget fivefold. AMPAS took notice, recreating the film’s triumph-of-the-loser trajectory on Oscar night, when it won not just the big one, but also Best Director for Delbert Mann, Best Actor for Ernest Borgnine, and a career-boosting screenplay prize for Paddy Chayefsky. At 90 minutes, Marty remains the shortest Best Picture winner on the books—and maybe the most modest, too.
14. Going My Way (1944)
Released in March 1944, 16 months before the end of World War II, the musical melodrama Going My Way certified its star, Bing Crosby, as the biggest box-office draw of the decade, establishing the image of Der Bingle in a clerical collar as the nexus point where unchallenging, affirmative religious feeling met upbeat “family entertainment.” At the last Academy Awards ceremony held before the end of the war, the film won in seven categories, including Best Actor (Crosby), Supporting Actor (Barry Fitzgerald, who, weirdly, was also nominated for Best Actor), Director (Leo McCarey), and Original Song (“Swinging On A Star”). In the process, it ran roughshod over some movies that most people would probably rate high above it today, in particular Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (for Best Picture), Otto Preminger’s Laura (nominated for Best Director), and Clifford Odets’ poetically doomy None But The Lonely Heart (which earned Cary Grant a Best Actor nomination). That any riff-raff was nominated is especially surprising, considering 1945 was the first year the Academy narrowed Best Picture nominees from 10 to five. Cracks were beginning to show in the mask of unrelentingly patriotic good cheer that American pop culture assumed during the war years, and what came through were the exciting, paranoid tensions and self-destructive sexual urges that would define the film-noir era. The Academy couldn’t deny that stuff existed, but it damn sure knew which side it was on.
15. Gigi (1958)
After successfully bringing My Fair Lady to Broadway in 1956, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe had numerous opportunities, but only one of them had an interest in transitioning from stage to screen. Tempted by producer Arthur Freed, Lerner decided to take a shot at writing a screenplay for Gigi, an adaptation of the novel by Colette, and eventually wooed Loewe into joining him by suggesting that they write the score in Paris. When Gigi opened on May 15, 1958, it proved to be an instant crowd-pleaser (not so much with critics), and that carried over to the Oscars, where the frothy musical beat the risqué Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and racially minded The Defiant Ones. Of the five nominees, only Gigi opened outside of prestige season, but it took home a record-setting nine Oscars at the ceremony.
16. The Sound Of Music (1965)
David Lean won Best Director for two consecutive films, The Bridge On The River Kwai in 1957 and Lawrence Of Arabia in 1962, so his epic romance Doctor Zhivago seemed like the film to beat in 1965, despite mixed reviews. It earned 10 nominations going into the 38th Academy Awards, but so did another tepidly reviewed film by an Oscar-winning director, The Sound Of Music. Robert Wise, who won his first Oscar for West Side Story, had taken over directing duties for William Wyler—who won Best Director for another off-season Best Picture, Mrs. Miniver—because Wyler had another project, The Collector, and never cared for the film’s story. Neither did critics, at least initially, when The Sound Of Music opened on March 2, 1965. The film would become a massive success, and bail out 20th Century Fox from its Cleopatra fiasco, earning Wise another Best Director among The Sound Of Music’s five Oscars—which Doctor Zhivago matched. The Collector went zero-for-three in its nominations.
17. Gladiator (2000)
Summer blockbusters rarely win Best Picture, perhaps because voters rationalize that making a killing at the box-office is reward enough. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator is the exception. Released the first weekend of May, otherwise known as the unofficial kickoff of event-movie season, the film is prototypically rousing popcorn entertainment. But it’s also popcorn entertainment with a pedigree: Both Scott and star Russell Crowe were previous Oscar nominees, and the supporting cast is populated by respectable British-bred actors, including Oliver Reed and Richard Harris. Plus, the precedent had already been set for giving the prize to a sword-and-sandal flick, what with Ben-Hur winning 11 Oscars five decades earlier. Ultimately, given that the other nominees were a foreign-language film (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), two Steven Soderbergh movies (Traffic and Erin Brockovich), and a forgettable trifle (Chocolat), it’s perhaps not surprising that AMPAS threw its weight behind an old-fashioned, action-adventure yarn. Anyway, snobbish voters could just think of it as an “epic,” not a “blockbuster,” and sleep easy.
18. Rebecca (1940)
Producer David O. Selznick’s unmitigated smash Gone With The Wind won the Academy Award for 1939’s Best Picture. Aiming for back-to back Oscars, Selznick decided to tackle Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film the next year. An adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, Rebecca tells the story of a woman who fears her enigmatic husband still holds a torch for his first wife, who died under mysterious circumstances. The gothic film featured Joan Fontaine at her mousiest, as the nameless second wife pining for Laurence Olivier, basically playing a sulky Heathcliff again. Although the movie was released in April 1940, Selznick “repremiered” Rebecca during awards season in a theater on Hollywood Boulevard (which he had the governor rename “Rebecca Boulevard” for the day). The renewed momentum won the producer his Oscar bookends, beating John Ford’s Grapes Of Wrath and Charlie Chaplin’s first all-sound film, The Great Dictator. Hitchcock would become the perennial Academy oversight: None of his other films ever won Best Picture, and he never won Best Director, receiving instead the shoddy consolation of an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968. His terse “Thank you… very much” is one of the shortest acceptance speeches in Oscar history.
19. The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Loose-limbed musicals in which high-stepping dancers and high-spirited comedians show off their best moves are among the enduring glories from the first decade of talking pictures, but those movies weren’t likely to win Academy Awards; it was a rare honor for a movie like Top Hat or 42nd Street even to receive Best Picture nominations, let alone linger in the minds of Academy voters for the 11 months between Ziegfeld’s April 1936 release and the Oscar ceremony the following March. Although technically a musical, The Great Ziegfeld is also a self-serious biopic about the trials and tribulations of a recently deceased Great Man (played by William Powell) that runs more than three hours. It also snagged a Best Actress prize for MGM’s resident tragedienne, Luise Rainer, confirming that it won big on Oscar night just for the way it threw its ample weight around—in terms of sheer Oscar-bait pretentiousness, it makes such fellow nominees as A Tale Of Two Cities and Romeo And Juliet look like The Three Stooges Meet Hercules. (Its only real competition was Warner Bros.’ The Story Of Louis Pasteur, starring its resident tragedian, Paul Muni; Oscar made amends to Warners the next year by giving it up for The Life Of Emile Zola.) The movie is practically unwatchable today, and ranks low in the hearts of most William Powell fans, who are more likely to treasure his performances in such screwball classics as My Man Godfrey and the Thin Man movies.
20. Forrest Gump (1994)
1994 saw the release of The Shawshank Redemption, The Lion King, and Pulp Fiction, but Forrest Gump was the controversial and unlikely pick for the Academy’s best picture of the year. Controversial, because it inspired the scorn of many mainstream critics, including Pauline Kael and Anthony Lane; unlikely, because apparently the studio thought it had an unconventional romantic comedy on its hands. Forrest Gump was released on a Wednesday after the usually lucrative July 4 weekend, probably to move away from a crowded July 1 Friday that saw the release of five forgettable summer flicks: The Shadow, Blown Away, I Love Trouble, Baby’s Day Out, and Little Big League. Shawshank and Pulp Fiction released in the fall to contend for Oscars; Forrest Gump released in the summer to be a crowd-pleasing hit. It went up against The Lion King (June 24) and took that film’s top box-office ranking, then spent the rest of the summer hovering at or near the top. Forrest Gump made its way as an audience-favorite first; the Academy followed suit after seeing (and maybe feeling) the resonance of the nostalgic baby boomer romance.
21. On The Waterfront (1954)
After naming names of his left-leaning colleagues before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, director Elia Kazan created a rift between himself and some of the industry that would last for decades. (When he received an honorary Academy Award in 1999, many members of the audience pointedly refused to applaud.) But Kazan’s first film after his HUAC testimony proved to be one of the most profound and best-received efforts of his entire career. Although released on July 28, 1954, On The Waterfront was perhaps the most prestige-attracting film that earned Best Picture nominations that year, which included the “mirthful girl-stealing musical” Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and the romance melodrama Three Coins In The Fountain. By comparison, On The Waterfront looked fantastically gritty in its depiction of the violence and corruption in the longshoreman community. Even with the memory of Kazan’s testimony still fresh in the minds of many, the merits of On The Waterfront were too strong to be ignored, earning the film 12 Academy Award nominations and eight wins, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Marlon Brando, and Best Director.
22. The Greatest Show On Earth (1952)
Cecil B. DeMille’s circus picture The Greatest Show On Earth wasn’t just released in the first half of 1952. Paramount premièred it on January 10 in New York, leaving it plenty of time to be forgotten come Oscar season. (It opened in L.A. the following month and rolled out to the rest of the country that May.) With all that time in theaters, The Greatest Show On Earth became the highest-grossing film of the year at a time when it was common for Best Picture winners to rule the box office as well. Adjusted for inflation, it stands today in the top 60 domestically highest-grossing movies ever, above Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge Of The Sith and The Passion Of The Christ. After winning Golden Globes for picture, director, and cinematography, the movie only received five Oscar nominations. Rivals The Quiet Man and Moulin Rouge tied at seven each, but DeMille went home with best picture, anyway. When it comes to Oscars, bigger is sometimes better.