The 87 Best Pictures: Ranked

Top 20: #11-15

15. The English Patient (1996) - Dir. Anthony Minghella
Also won: Director (Minghella), Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche), Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Mixing
It has historically one of my least popular opinions that one of the very best winners of all-time is this one, The English Patient. Sandwiched in between Braveheart and Titanic, many lump it in with both as yet another long, long film that didn’t deserve to win. And yes, while it has the length of both and the sweeping romance of the latter, The English Patient is something else entirely. Strictly as a directorial achievement, Anthony Minghella may have achieved the impossible in making the film, with its interwoven storylines, make any sense at all, and beyond that, the bigger achievement is how powerful the end result is. Juliette Binoche, in her famously surprising Oscar-winning role, is superb as a WWII nurse caring for a badly burned man, the English Patient of the title; she shares her storyline with Naveen Andrews and Willem Dafoe, also both great. Simultaneously, the English Patient, played by Ralph Fiennes, recounts his adulterous love affair with the wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) of a fellow in his desert exploration group (Colin Firth). The cast is star-studded, of course, but they are all used to perfection, giving gorgeous performances. The romance between Fiennes and Scott Thomas is one of the most sizzling ones ever filmed. Shamefully misunderstood nowadays (thanks in part to a certain Seinfeld episode), The English Patient is a beautiful, haunting epic, rich with secrets and poetry.
Of the nominees, I would have voted: This year hurts, because while English Patient is one of the most richly deserving winners ever, I would actually vote for two(!) other nominees before it. Second place would go to Mike Leigh’s stunning Secrets & Lies, and first has to go to the Coens’ Fargo.

14. All About Eve (1950) - Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Also won: Director (Mankiewicz), Supporting Actor (George Sanders), Adapted Screenplay, Costume Design, Sound Mixing
In 1950, Academy voters were given the choice between two frontrunners for Best Picture: the first, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a dark, absurd tale of a deluded, aging silent film star; the second, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, a sardonic story about an aging Broadway diva. The first cast the West Coast entertainment capital, Hollywood, in a bad light. The second cast the East Coast entertainment capital, Broadway, in a bad light. Naturally, they picked the second. Famously bitchy, All About Eve boasts a magnificent script with some of the greatest lines, maybe ever, and a gangbusters ensemble, including Thelma Ritter, the luminous Celeste Holm, the enigmatic Anne Baxter, the iconic George Sanders, and the rarely better Bette Davis. The words fly around with glee, but behind the zingers and cattiness, the film actually manages to make some poignant statements about being a woman and growing older. It’s a tremendous accomplishment.
Of the nominees, I would have voted: Unfortunately, I lean towards Sunset Boulevard this year.

13. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) - Dir. William Wyler
Also won: Director (Wyler), Actor (Fredric March), Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Screenplay, Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Recording, Honorary Award (Harold Russell), Memorial Award (Samuel Goldwyn)
“I don’t care if it doesn’t make a nickel. I just want every man, woman, and child in America to see it.” Thus spoke Samuel Goldwyn, the producer of The Best Years of Our Lives, the ambitious 1946 masterpiece. Telling three stories at once of three different men returning home from World War II, it follows their readjustments back into everyday life. The story is sobering, and watching the three men (Fredric March, Harold Russell, and Dana Andrews) go about their lives is heartbreaking and powerful. Just shy of three hours, The Best Years is intimately epic, showcasing amazing depth in its characters. A huge part of its success is undeniably William Wyler’s direction as well as Robert Sherwood’s deeply human screenplay, but the ensemble is nothing to scoff at here. March won his second Oscar for this, and he is devastatingly good. Russell, who had never before acted and was a real veteran who had lost both his hands in the war, is achingly genuine in his performance. Additionally, Andrews, Myna Loy, Teresa Wright, and Virginia Mayo are all terrific. It’s long, it’s mundane, but it’s powerful like few other films are. And there’s something to be said about such a direct, honest film about postwar adjustments being made in 1946. 
Of the nominees, I would have voted: Again, I have to pick an alternate, but that doesn’t this movie’s greatness. My vote would go to It’s a Wonderful Life.

12. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) - Dir. Peter Jackson
Also won: Director (Jackson), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, Makeup, Original Score, Original Song, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects
The first, and still the only, fantasy film to win Best Picture, the final installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a singularly epic achievement. The movie has legions upon legions of characters, all miraculously well-fleshed out, and its visual effects and production value, groundbreaking twelve years ago, have become iconic spectacle now. The film swept the 2003 ceremony, winning every single award it was nominated for (only Gigi and The Last Emperor have done the same), and broke genre barriers in the process. Action-packed, masterfully directed, and wildly emotionally resonant, The Return of the King succeeds in nearly every way. Of course, there is the issue with too many endings, but prolonging the credits only makes the final image that much more powerful. Incredible stuff. 
Of the nominees, I would have voted: Yeesh, again. As much as I love The Return of the King, I have to give it to Lost in Translation this year. 

11. The Godfather, Part II (1974) - Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
Also won: Director (Coppola), Supporting Actor (Robert De Niro), Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Original Score
There are many who argue that The Godfather, Part II is superior to the original. I remain unconvinced. It’s unquestionably a great, great film, but much of its power lies in the embellishments or further developments of this cast of characters we’ve come to know. That said, it does have one notable leg up on its predecessor: its scope. The first film was content to tell its one story and tell it extremely well. Part II challenges that by exploring the primary story, the continuing saga of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and his family, but by also exploring the adolescence of Vito, Michael’s father. Played by Robert De Niro, in his first Oscar-winning role, the young Vito scenes show the American Dream in action, cementing the Godfather series as one of the great accomplishments of American cinema. The cast is on fire in every frame, and includes such heavyweights as Diane Keaton, Talia Shire, Michael V. Gazzo, John Cazale, and Lee Strasberg. It may not be better than the first film, but The Godfather, Part II is an astonishing accomplishment in every aspect. 
Of the nominees, I would have voted: The Godfather, Part II

Top Ten is next!

(1-5) (6-10) (11-15) (16-20) (21-30) (31-40) (41-50) (51-60) (61-70) (71-80) (81-87)