The 50 most-deserving Oscar winners of all time

Movies, actors, directors, soundtracks: one list to rule them all.

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  • Oscar winners: Click to the next image to see our 50 most-deserving Oscar winners of all time

  • Oscar winners: The Third Man, Best Cinematography, 1951

  • Oscar winners: Joel and Ethan Coen, Best Directors, 2008, No Country for Old Men

  • Oscar winners: The Sting, Best Song Score, 1974

  • Oscar winners: George Arliss, Best Actor, 1930, Disraeli

  • Oscar winners: The Omen, Best Original Score, 1977

  • Oscar winners: Diane Keaton, Best Actress, 1978, Annie Hall

  • Oscar winners: The Virgin Spring, Best Foreign Language Film, 1961

  • Oscar winners: All That Jazz, Best Editing, 1980

  • Oscar winners: Barry Lyndon, Best Cinematography, 1976

  • Oscar winners: Katharine Hepburn, Best Actress, 1982, On Golden Pond

Oscar winners: Click to the next image to see our 50 most-deserving Oscar winners of all time


Trust us, every year we hear the whining, and we sympathize: How could such an ass-terpiece win an Oscar? And of all possible human beings, why was that actor or director allowed to ramble endlessly at the podium? Rather than wallow in misery, though, we thought we'd gather the 50 instances when, unequivocally, the Academy got it right. And rank them. Did we forget your favorite? Of course we did. Tell us.

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50
Oscar winners: The Third Man, Best Cinematography, 1951

The Third Man, Best Cinematography, 1951

Carol Reed's 1949 noir boasts a svelte Orson Welles playing a man of mystery, along with a killer zither score. But it's Robert Krasker's luscious black-and-white imagery that truly sets the tone: a nightmarish Vienna of canted angles, dark shadows and romantic fog.—Joshua Rothkopf

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49
Oscar winners: Joel and Ethan Coen, Best Directors, 2008, No Country for Old Men

Joel and Ethan Coen, Best Directors, 2008, No Country for Old Men

Having wowed audiences with their signature sense of black humor and borderline misanthropy for 20 years, the Coens finally nudged their way into the winners' circle with this stellar adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's pulp-existentialist novel. It's about time these guys were recognized, friendo.—David Fear

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48
Oscar winners: The Sting, Best Song Score, 1974

The Sting, Best Song Score, 1974

Never mind the fact that Scott Joplin's rags weren't even popular during the 1930s when this comic caper is set—they somehow made perfect sense. A popular craze was born: "The Entertainer" reached the Billboard top five, and Marvin Hamlisch was responsible for millions of unhappy piano lessons.—Joshua Rothkopf

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47
Oscar winners: George Arliss, Best Actor, 1930, Disraeli

George Arliss, Best Actor, 1930, Disraeli

Arliss's to-the-rafters performance suffers from a certain stiffness, as does most of this earnest biopic about the groundbreaking British prime minister. But the Oscar win signaled the first time a portrayal of a real-life figure nabbed a gold guy—a lesson would-be award-winners have taken to heart ever since.—David Fear

46
Oscar winners: The Omen, Best Original Score, 1977

The Omen, Best Original Score, 1977

What sticks out most in this Antichrist-among-us horror flick is Jerry Goldsmith's memorable score, bowing deep to Bernard Herrmann with its insistent gothic hysteria: chanting choirs, shrieking violins, booming drums. It will scare you. And so will the nasty decapitation scene.—Keith Uhlich

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45
Oscar winners: Diane Keaton, Best Actress, 1978, Annie Hall

Diane Keaton, Best Actress, 1978, Annie Hall

"La-di-da," offers an adorable Keaton, instantly giving the world an icon of NYC semisophistication that's never been eclipsed. The "Annie Hall look"—blazers and ties on women—affected culture profoundly, as did Keaton's relaxed air. Her ease makes sense: She was born Diane Hall and the role was pretty much herself.—Joshua Rothkopf

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44
Oscar winners: The Virgin Spring, Best Foreign Language Film, 1961

The Virgin Spring, Best Foreign Language Film, 1961

Ingmar Bergman's superb medieval morality tale took the prize and cemented the Swedish master's stateside reputation. Its influence would be felt most prominently—and rather bizarrely—at the grindhouse: Wes Craven adapted the revenge story to contemporary America and called it The Last House on the Left.—Keith Uhlich

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43
Oscar winners: All That Jazz, Best Editing, 1980

All That Jazz, Best Editing, 1980

Musical numbers burst beyond the limitations of the stage—and gloriously so—in Bob Fosse's semiautobiographical triumph, edited by Alan Heim. The dances are cut together irregularly, though never incoherently; every discontinuous beat takes us deeper inside the tormented soul of our hero, choreographer Joe Gideon.—Keith Uhlich

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42
Oscar winners: Barry Lyndon, Best Cinematography, 1976

Barry Lyndon, Best Cinematography, 1976

For their stately costume drama, director Stanley Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott procured three of NASA's Zeiss lenses (developed for moon landings), enabling them to film certain sequences by candlelight. The results? Luminous. Inspired by the example, future filmmakers like James Cameron pushed the boundaries of technology.—Keith Uhlich

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41
Oscar winners: Katharine Hepburn, Best Actress, 1982, On Golden Pond

Katharine Hepburn, Best Actress, 1982, On Golden Pond

It wasn't so much the grande dame's win here that makes this particular coup so extraordinary—though her feisty delivery of "You old poop!" still makes us giggle. Rather, it's that this was her fourth Best Actress Oscar, a record that Meryl Streep and Hilary Swank are still trying to match.—David Fear

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  1. 50–41
  2. 40–31
  3. 30–21
  4. 20–11
  5. 10–1

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8 comments
J___T
J___T

Today, it's something of a given that Hollywood stars of 40 years ago—the 1970s—are not only still around, and not only still working, but still getting the chance to do some of the best work of their careers and earning nominations and wins for that work. Think Robert Redford, Woody Allen, Maggie Smith, Robert De Niro, Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, Julie Christie, Meryl Streep, Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook. Then there are those who were perhaps not as widely acclaimed for their star turns then but have grown into their own and receive such accolades for current work. Think Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, Jeff Bridges, Sally Field, Nick Nolte, Alan Arkin. In 1981, it simply didn't happen with regularity for anyone—particularly in this business a lead actress—who had been a bona fide movie star 40 years earlier to get a lead role in a major film, and be honored for doing among the best work of their careers. Katharine Hepburn's win was notable for more than merely setting a record that still stands today. It was a triumph for an actress who had staged her first major comeback 40 years earlier, with The Philadelphia Story. Credit goes to Oscar voters that year for recognizing similarly long-running stars in Hepburn's co-star Henry Fonda winning Best Actor and John Gielgud winning Best Supporting Actor. Throw in Supporting Actress winner Maureen Stapleton and nominees Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Ian Holm and Joan Hackett, and you probably have not only the oldest average age of acting winners but oldest average age of nominees that year. Say what you will about an Academy who skewed older or had more staid sensibilities in earlier eras, but you’d be wrong. You have to go back over a decade, to 1968 and 1969, to find another Best Actress win for a female star of the '40s—Hepburn herself, both years (Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and The Lion In Winter). In fact, other than Hepburn, the only major stars of the early 1940s to win Best Actress Oscars SINCE the 1940s were Vivien Leigh in 1951 (Streetcar Named Desire—over Hepburn's nomination for The African Queen) and Ingrid Bergman in 1957 (Anastasia—over Hepburn's nomination for The Rainmaker). It’s easy enough to glom the celebrated women of a certain era together—Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman, etc.—and think of them as both enjoying careers that spanned half a century or more, and being celebrated throughout that period as the grande dames they were. But Katharine Hepburn’s twelve nominations and four wins over the course of forty-eight years—all for Best Actress, mind you (winning both the first, in 1934, and the last, in 1982)—put her in a class by herself. The estimable Meryl Streep has half the Best Actress wins that Hepburn does; will she still be winning lead roles and Best Actress Oscars at the dawn of the 2030s? I wouldn’t put it past her, but until then, Hepburn’s singular achievement in movie stardom stands alone.

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David
David

I don't generally put much stock in these lists. My usual reaction is, "Yeah, but what about _________ ? But this list caught many of my favorites. I was particularly pleased by the inclusion of Jaws for best score--sadly, the only Oscar it won. It also deserved best script, cinematography and picture in my opinion. But that's for another list.

John John
John John

#32 Nestor Almendros was a Spanish Cinematographer (not Cuban), he moved to Cuba at the age of 18.

Wags
Wags

Noticed an absence of more recent films. There are plenty that deserve to be on this list for Visual Effects (Avatar, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, What Dreams May Come). Or some Best Actor/Actress Awards for Micky Rourke in The Wrestler, Colin Firth for The King's Speech, Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood or Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, Best Supporting maybe. 8 1/2 and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon for Best Foreign Language

Roberto
Roberto

The most deserved Oscar in my opinion is Meryl Streep for Sophie's choice, and I didn't see it among your list