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: The Exorcist, Best Sound, 1974

  • Oscar winners: Martin Scorsese, Best Director, 2007, The Departed

  • Oscar winners: "Theme from Shaft," Best Song, 1972, Shaft

  • Oscar winners: Wuthering Heights, Best Cinematography, 1940

  • Oscar winners: Batman, Best Art Direction, 1990

  • Oscar winners: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Best Visual Effects, 1989

  • Oscar winners: Robert De Niro, Best Actor, 1981, Raging Bull

  • Oscar winners: Sunset Blvd., Best Story and Screenplay, 1951

  • Oscar winners: Apocalypse Now, Best Sound, 1980

  • Oscar winners: La Strada, Best Foreign Language Film, 1957

Oscar winners: The Exorcist, Best Sound, 1974

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Oscar winners: The Exorcist, Best Sound, 1974

The Exorcist, Best Sound, 1974

The creativity that went into this picture is scary: First came the vocal talents of sprightly Mercedes McCambridge as the voice of the demon—treated, slowed, reversed. Then came Gonzalo Gavira, the recordist behind the trippy El Topo, who utilized mushy eggs and a plucked comb to create the sounds of head-spinning terror.—Joshua Rothkopf

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29
Oscar winners: Martin Scorsese, Best Director, 2007, The Departed

Martin Scorsese, Best Director, 2007, The Departed

The collective sigh heard around the globe was deafening: Finally. And while Scorsese's most devoted fans could cite several other instances (Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ, etc.) when the director's leadership was more revolutionary, this effort was astonishing, a punchy return to form.—Joshua Rothkopf

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28
Oscar winners: "Theme from Shaft," Best Song, 1972, Shaft

"Theme from Shaft," Best Song, 1972, Shaft

You can thank Isaac Hayes and his funky, wah-chicka-wah "Theme from Shaft" for breaking the stranglehold that Broadway-style show tunes and Tin Pan Alley standards had on the category. Suddenly, rock and soul had a real shot. And Hayes's sexy basso profundo purr makes this song one bad mutha...(shut your mouth)!—David Fear

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27
Oscar winners: Wuthering Heights, Best Cinematography, 1940

Wuthering Heights, Best Cinematography, 1940

Gregg Toland had already been experimenting with deep-focus cinematography prior to this, but his adaptation of Emily Bront's classic novel is where he starts to put some of those theories into practice. It's a trick of the light that he'd soon refine in a modest little movie called Citizen Kane.—David Fear

26
Oscar winners: Batman, Best Art Direction, 1990

Batman, Best Art Direction, 1990

Here is a Gotham City to haunt you: Its towering spires, rain-slicked streets and smoky back alleys are clearly sprung from a feverish mind (and a tortured one: Anton Furst committed suicide two years after the film's release). The gloomy yet vital aesthetic proved influential for years to come.—Keith Uhlich

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25
Oscar winners: Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Best Visual Effects, 1989

Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Best Visual Effects, 1989

All the Na'vis of today can be traced back to a manic, bow-tie-wearing bunny trading wisecracks with Bob Hoskins. Cartoon characters and human beings interact so convincingly in Roger Rabbit that the Academy had to take notice, in turn spurring a rekindled interest in old-school animation.—Keith Uhlich

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24
Oscar winners: Robert De Niro, Best Actor, 1981, Raging Bull

Robert De Niro, Best Actor, 1981, Raging Bull

De Niro himself was the prime mover on the project, intrigued by the animalistic nature of boxer Jake LaMotta. Martin Scorsese declined at first, but eventually came around to the idea, reinvigorated. His collaborator was prepared: De Niro gained more than 60 pounds and turned in the Method performance of a lifetime.—Joshua Rothkopf

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23
Oscar winners: Sunset Blvd., Best Story and Screenplay, 1951

Sunset Blvd., Best Story and Screenplay, 1951

Let's give a loving, Norma Desmond--worthy close-up to the script of the ultimate Hollywood metamovie. We laugh at the faded starlet's declaration, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." But her rejection still cuts deep. There'd be no Mulholland Drive without Billy Wilder & Co.'s acid example.—Keith Uhlich

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22
Oscar winners: Apocalypse Now, Best Sound, 1980

Apocalypse Now, Best Sound, 1980

From the helicopter chop of a ceiling fan to the enveloping mayhem of an attack on a Vietnamese village, Walter Murch's revolutionary use of layered, ambient noise changed the way movies could speak. Because of Murch and his crew, what you heard suddenly became as important as what you saw.—David Fear

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21
Oscar winners: La Strada, Best Foreign Language Film, 1957

La Strada, Best Foreign Language Film, 1957

The Academy inaugurated its official (as opposed to merely honorary) foreign-film award with one of vintage Italian cinema's best. Federico Fellini's circus-performer tragedy helped turn on countless Americans to the joys of reading subtitles, and significantly broadened the domestic audience for non-English-language movies. Molto grazie, Oscars.—David Fear

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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