En español | As the COVID-delayed Academy Awards finally arrive this Sunday (April 25 on ABC, 5 p.m. ET), it's time for folks to start grousing about what a “best picture” really means. These 11 Oscar winners — or 10, if you count the two Godfather flicks as one — provide some answers: Many were groundbreaking. Some were exquisite fun. Others exquisitely, necessarily wounding. All were influential, imprinting scenes and dialogue into our collective cultural noggin. And some have expanded who makes up that “collective” — whose stories exist in the American film canon. As you root for your favorite picture, look back on our super-curated top 10 “best pictures” ever made. And the winners (counting down from No. 10 to No. 1) are ...
10. The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
When director Jonathan Demme died, Jodie Foster — the star of his still-unnerving classic — called him a “champion of the soul.” It was that very compassion that made this story of FBI agent Clarice Starling's hunt for serial killer Buffalo Bill so much more than a horror flick. It remains the only one to win a best pic Oscar. Critics have likened it to a contemporary feminist fairy tale — grim but heroic, too. The kind you might watch while drinking a fine chianti, to paraphrase Clarice's tormentor — and, in many ways, mentor — Hannibal Lecter (an unforgettable Anthony Hopkins).
Watch it: The Silence of the Lambs, on Hulu
9. 12 Years a Slave (2013)
Director Steve McQueen's harrowing indictment of chattel slavery is just one of the reasons the American epic Gone With the Wind can no longer be on this list. Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, it tells the story of a free man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery in the South. The best movies have indelible scenes — some you may even wish you could unsee. Solomon's toes feeling for the hard ground as he nearly hangs in punishment is such a moment. The movie's artistry isn't easy, but as historian Henry Louis Gates described it, the film is “the most vivid and authentic portrayal of American slavery ever captured on screen."
Watch it: 12 Years a Slave, on Hulu
8. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
William Wyler directed this epic drama about three WWII veterans returning to their very different lives in a Midwest city. The film was among the first 25 movies listed on the Library of Congress’ Film Registry for its cultural and historical significance. Harold Russell won the best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Homer Parrish, a sailor who returns to his gal having lost his arms. The actor was also awarded an honorary Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance” in the film. Fredric March and Dana Andrews play his fellow vets, and Myrna Loy, Virginia Mayo, Teresa Wright and Cathy O'Donnell and are just as vital as the women on the home front.
Watch it: The Best Years of Our Lives, on Amazon Prime
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7. The Hurt Locker (2008)
Director Kathryn Bigelow had long proven deft with adrenaline-amped action (1991's Point Break, anyone?) but this story of an Army explosives disposal unit led by risk-keen Sgt. 1st Class William James (a phenomenal Jeremy Renner) metes out the unexpected, the startling and the wrenching with embedded authenticity. Still, it is the grace extended to James’ uneasy return home that gets at something fundamentally terrible about what we require of those who serve.
Watch it: The Hurt Locker, on YouTube
6. Moonlight (2016)
When Bonnie and Clyde (presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway) unintentionally robbed this drama of its best-picture moment at the Academy Awards ceremony, it was the sort of hideous gaffe that might forever overshadow a lesser film. But Barry Jenkins’ artful drama about the coming of age — and sexual awareness — of a young Black man growing up in an economically depressed Florida town is a hushed and durable masterpiece.
Watch it: Moonlight, on Netflix
5. Rebecca (1940)
Other Alfred Hitchcock films — Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Psycho — have long since trumped this romantic drama in critical acclaim. But this adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's blockbuster novel is the only Hitchcock film to garner Oscar's biggest honor. And the moody, Gothic mystery about a young, nervous wife a-jitter because of the mystery around her chilly, handsome hubby and his dead first wife remains terrifically haunting and influential.
Watch it: Rebecca, on YouTube
4. All About Eve (1950)
Long before Bette Davis utters the deathless line “Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night,” writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz's movie about Broadway doyenne Margo Channing and the titular ingenue (Anne Baxter) angling for her crown had already had audiences strapped in. It is one of the most biting — and successful — of the so-called “women's pictures.” Davis, Baxter, Celeste Holm and the marvelous Thelma Ritter were all Oscar nominees. And yes, Marilyn Monroe famously appears as the guest of a producer at the same turbulent soiree.
Watch it: All About Eve, on YouTube
3. Schindler's List (1993)
It is among the most compelling philosophical moments in cinema. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is trying to teach SS officer Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes) the power and value of forgiveness and mercy. Ever so briefly, the lesson holds. Then it doesn't. Steven Spielberg's epic about Schindler, a German industrialist, and Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), the Polish-Jewish accountant who helped him rescue 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust, continues to impart rending, necessary lessons of its own.
Watch it: Schindler's List, on Amazon Prime
2. Casablanca (1943)
The story of expat cafe owner Rick Blaine and Ilsa Lund, the lost (and married) love who walks into his “gin joint,” achieves a balance of romance and wartime intrigue like no other film. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman made the movie in the terrifying midst of the very war it depicts. Paul Henreid plays Victor Lazlo, a Czech resistance fighter and Ilsa's husband. “If we stop breathing, we'll die — if we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die,” Victor tells Rick. The problems of three little people definitely amounted to more than a hill of beans, but so much more is at stake than the right guy getting the girl. Casablanca endures because everyone onscreen — and on the set — embraced that truth.
1. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II (1972, 1974)
Frances Ford Coppola's twin garrotes-and-guns tours de force ride high on every Greatest of All Time film list. The original about Don Vito Corleone and his sons has been paid homage by no fewer than 12 other well-regarded films and shows — from Return of the Jedi to The Simpsons. Tony Soprano and his crew debated the film's verities. It introduced us to a young Al Pacino, who winks at that life-altering role in Oceans 13. Part II is arguably the best-wrought sequel of all time, with Robert De Niro as the young Vito. Between them, the two films share 20 Oscar nominations and nine wins. But what remains indelible is a list of words and phrases that plunge us again into a world of crime and hubris, loyalty and betrayal. Each is a Proustian mob madeleine — or a cannoli — calling forth scene after scene: horse head, massage table, “to the mattresses!”