11 Academy Award Best Picture Winners That Still Hold Up
These films that took home the top prize at the Oscars have only gotten better with age.
Every savvy movie fan knows that not all Best Picture winners are created equal. After all, we live in a world where Green Book, Crash, and Driving Miss Daisy were awarded the same honor as On the Waterfront, The French Connection, and Spotlight. Winning an Oscar doesn’t guarantee that a film will pass the test of time—or that it was the right call in the first place! But there are some Academy Award winners that will never get old. In that spirit, we went back through 90 years of Oscar choices to find the 11 Best Picture films that wow just as much today as they did when we first saw them.
It Happened One Night (1934)
There isn’t a rom-com couple that doesn’t owe a debt of gratitude to Frank Capra’s 1934 screwball comedy It Happened One Night and its central bickering pair, Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) and Peter Warne (Clark Gable). While the story isn’t as robust as the plots of the modern movies it inspired, It Happened One Night still shines due to the crackling chemistry between the runaway heiress and the reporter who negotiates an exclusive on her story. It swept the five major Academy Award categories (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Adapted Screenplay), though Colbert was so convinced she wasn’t in the running that she scheduled a train trip for the night of the ceremony and was rushed to the theater from the station, accepting her trophy in her two-piece traveling suit.
Like a fine wine, Casablanca only improves with age. The 1942 romantic drama, about an American expat (Humphrey Bogart) colliding with his lost love (Ingrid Bergman) against the backdrop of the Second World War, claimed its rightful place in the culture after its release. The film took home three of the eight Academy Awards for which it was nominated (the others for Michael Cudlitz’s direction and the screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch). It’s been remixed and quoted and referenced in almost every way you can imagine, but nothing compares to watching Ilsa stroll into Rick’s gin joint and upend his life all over again.
All About Eve (1950)
Perhaps one of the best backstage dramas ever written, 1950’s All About Eve centers on an aging star (Bette Davis) who doesn’t know what she’s in for when she employs a young fan (Anne Baxter) who begins to take over aspects of her life. The classic was ahead of its time in its portrayal of the cruelty the industry shows to older female performers—see Margo Channing’s palpable fear of becoming irrelevant—while also being wickedly funny and self-aware. There were enough meaty female parts in All About Eve that it also garnered Oscar nominations for four actresses in its cast, though unfortunately they canceled each other out. But in addition to Best Picture, the film picked up four other statues, including Best Direction and Best Costume Design.
An American in Paris (1951)
An American in Paris is a candy-colored dream of a musical featuring Gene Kelly at the height (and I mean that literally—the man could leap) of his powers, plus a George and Ira Gershwin score. Kelly plays an American veteran trying to make it as a painter in post-war Paris, who falls in love with the sophisticated (and otherwise spoken for) Lise (Leslie Caron, perfect in every way). While the film’s dream ballet finale gets most of the attention, it features several other magical musical numbers, such as Kelly teaching English to a group of French children by singing and tapping to “I Got Rhythm.” It took home six Oscars at the 1952 ceremony after receiving eight total nominations.
The Apartment (1960)
Dark, funny, and thoughtful, The Apartment makes an excellent case for filmmaker Billy Wilder’s enduring influence. In this 1960 film, he comes at sexual politics and toxic masculinity through Jack Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter, a nice enough guy who lends his city apartment out to philandering executives in order to curry favor and angle for a promotion. He only comes to understand the consequences of his actions when he falls in love with elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who’s been mistreated and thrown over by C.C.’s cruel boss. Though Lemmon and MacLaine’s humane and touching performances were passed over, The Apartment took home five Oscars, all told.
In The Heat of the Night (1967)
If all you can remember of this 1967 crime drama is its most famous line—“They call me Mister Tibbs!”—then it’s time to revisit it. Sidney Poitier stars as a Philadelphia detective who begins to assist in a Mississippi murder investigation after first being racially profiled and accused of the same crime. Rod Steiger took the Best Actor Oscar for playing the white police chief who’s initially wary of working with Tibbs in this bold indictment of racism and resistance to social progress. Because of its unflinching nature, In the Heat of the Night still packs a wallop, making it a worthy Best Picture winner.
The Godfather Part II (1974)
According to the DVD commentary, Al Pacino hated the initial script for the sequel to 1972's The Godfather, and refused to show up to film until it was changed. Marlon Brando, who also starred in the first film, was supposed to make a cameo but dropped out at the last minute. Despite these and other production snags, The Godfather Part II is the gold standard of sequels, digging into the past of its central character and gifting moviegoers with even more catchphrases to pull out whenever they dine at an Italian restaurant. It won six Academy Awards in 1975, including a Supporting Actor nod for relative newcomer Robert De Niro.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
The Silence of the Lambs proved that the horrific could still be prestigious, adapting Thomas Harris’ novel about a young FBI agent who consults with a convicted killer while trying to catch another into a sharp, well-acted thriller. The plot hinges on so many unspeakable acts, yet The Silence of the Lambs is endlessly watchable, thanks to skilled direction and top-of-the-line performances by Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins. No other film adaptation of a Hannibal Lecter novel could match its acclaim (which included five Academy Awards), though love for the short-lived TV series Hannibal did come close.
Schindler's List (1993)
Steven Spielberg’s black-and-white Holocaust drama is not an easy watch, but that’s what makes it essential viewing. Liam Neeson stars as the real-life Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during the genocide. Shot in Poland near actual concentration camps, Schindler’s List was a departure for the director, who used handheld cameras and forewent storyboards to give it a more realistic look. The Academy recognized the effort by handing the film seven Oscars in 1994, including trophies for Spielberg’s direction and John Williams’ score.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Though the other two installments were nominated, the Academy waited until the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy to grant its highest honor. And 2003’s The Return of the King is an epic finale indeed, showing Jackson pulling out all the stops as the Hobbits near Mount Doom and the battle for Middle Earth continues. The fact that its massive battle sequences and imaginative effects make it a visual feast don’t detract from the emotional power of the film, which is guaranteed to make both J.R.R. Tolkien fans and newbies shed a tear. Because of its technical and narrative excellence, the final LOTR film took all 11 categories in which it was nominated, tying it with Ben-Hur and Titanic for the record of most wins.
In 2017, La La Land briefly held up Moonlight’s Best Picture crowning following the Oscar snafu heard ‘round the world, but after a few minutes of confusion, matters were righted. Barry Jenkins’ poetic coming-of-age drama was (finally) named the winner, and rightfully so. With dreamlike visuals and urgent, affecting performances by its ensemble cast, Moonlight follows its hero Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) from childhood to adulthood across three vignettes. The film deals with themes of black masculinity, sexuality, addiction, and surviving abuse, while celebrating and prioritizing moments of love, self-respect, and connection. If you’re not left with goosebumps after the final scene, check your pulse.