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: Sabrina, Best Costumes, 1955

  • Oscar winners: Chariots of Fire, Best Original Score, 1982

  • Oscar winners: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Best Costume Design, 1993

  • Oscar winners: "Flowers and Trees," Best Animated Short Film, 1932

  • Oscar winners: Humphrey Bogart, Best Actor, 1952, The African Queen

  • Oscar winners: Linda Hunt, Best Supporting Actress, 1984, The Year of Living Dangerously

  • Oscar winners: "Lose Yourself," Best Song, 2003, 8 Mile

  • Oscar winners: The French Connection, Best Editing, 1972

  • Oscar winners: Days of Heaven, Best Cinematography, 1979

  • Oscar winners: Alien, Best Visual Effects, 1980

Oscar winners: Sabrina, Best Costumes, 1955

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Oscar winners: Sabrina, Best Costumes, 1955

Sabrina, Best Costumes, 1955

Sometimes the bond between performer and designer is so intimate, it becomes a signature in itself. So it went with Audrey Hepburn and Hubert de Givenchy, whose playful outfits became the star's wardrobe onscreen and off for decades. Hollywood's Edith Head collected this Oscar in name only.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Oscar winners: Chariots of Fire, Best Original Score, 1982

Chariots of Fire, Best Original Score, 1982

If you felt exhilarated by those Olympic hopefuls running on the beach, that's because of Vangelis's pulsing electronic music, an audacious choice for a period piece. The Greek composer's stirring main theme still triggers recognition in sports reels and parodies; his synths modernized the field.—Joshua Rothkopf

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Oscar winners: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Best Costume Design, 1993

Bram Stoker's Dracula, Best Costume Design, 1993

Clothes make the man (and the monster): The exotic capes and headpieces that Eiko Ishioka designed for Francis Ford Coppola's operatic horror film were a singular achievement, so eye-catching that you couldn't help but be dazzled and seduced.—Keith Uhlich

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37
Oscar winners: "Flowers and Trees," Best Animated Short Film, 1932

"Flowers and Trees," Best Animated Short Film, 1932

This Walt Disney short about a magical forest come to life was the first commercially released entertainment produced in three-strip Technicolor (it was also the first Oscar-winning cartoon), and it's an imaginative beauty. Uncle Walt's exclusive contract with the lab meant that other animators were forced to work with inferior processes for years.—Keith Uhlich

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Oscar winners: Humphrey Bogart, Best Actor, 1952, The African Queen

Humphrey Bogart, Best Actor, 1952, The African Queen

Charlie Allnut is one of Bogart's defining roles: an aging, gin-swilling riverboat captain (a precursor to world-weary old men like Unforgiven's William Munny) and a crusty recluse trying to avoid the world. Ultimately, he's forced to deal with it.—Keith Uhlich

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Oscar winners: Linda Hunt, Best Supporting Actress, 1984, The Year of Living Dangerously

Linda Hunt, Best Supporting Actress, 1984, The Year of Living Dangerously

And Russell Crowe thought Gladiator was hard. Try performing across genders (and, let's not forget, races). The character of Billy Kwan is Chinese; he's also Australian and a dwarf. Hunt, a New Jersey--born stage actress, did a total transformation and tore eyeballs away from the then-sizzling Mel Gibson.—Joshua Rothkopf

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34
Oscar winners: "Lose Yourself," Best Song, 2003, 8 Mile

"Lose Yourself," Best Song, 2003, 8 Mile

Eminem was so convinced that his best-selling rap anthem wouldn't win, he didn't even show up to the ceremony (a rumor persists that he was sleeping). Still, who could blame him? A hip-hop track had never even been nominated before, much less been victorious. Chalk it up to an increasingly youthful Academy with excellent taste.—Joshua Rothkopf

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33
Oscar winners: The French Connection, Best Editing, 1972

The French Connection, Best Editing, 1972

Oscar has a huge crush on car chases—Bullitt (1968) netted a golden statuette for some scary San Francisco speeding. But Gerald B. Greenberg seriously upped the ante with his cutting of this gritty police drama, one that shapes skittish rhythms and anxieties out of pure craft. A genius achievement.—Joshua Rothkopf

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32
Oscar winners: Days of Heaven, Best Cinematography, 1979

Days of Heaven, Best Cinematography, 1979

At a certain time of evening, the light turns pink and hazy; It's called the magic hour, but Cuban cinematographer Nstor Almendros knew it lasted for only half that long. Working with director Terrence Malick (and second shooter Haskell Wexler), Almendros's pace was slow, but the results were heartrending.—Joshua Rothkopf

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31
Oscar winners: Alien, Best Visual Effects, 1980

Alien, Best Visual Effects, 1980

It's the most sickening moment in all of cinema: a Freudian reversal in which a male astronaut (the courageous John Hurt) finds himself splayed across a table giving violent, bloody birth to a different species. Out of his chest burst a franchise, for which we can tip our hats to futuristic Swiss sculptor H.R. Giger.—Joshua Rothkopf

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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