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: Purple Rain, Best Song Score, 1985

  • Oscar winners: Black Narcissus, Best Cinematography, 1948

  • Oscar winners: Chinatown, Best Original Screenplay, 1975

  • Oscar winners: The Red Shoes, Best Art Direction, 1949

  • Oscar winners: Joan Crawford, Best Actress, 1946, Mildred Pierce

  • Oscar winners: Jaws, Best Original Score, 1976

  • Oscar winners: Walter Huston, Best Supporting Actor, 1949, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

  • Oscar winners: "Over the Rainbow," Best Song, 1940, The Wizard of Oz

  • Oscar winners: Casablanca, Best Picture, 1944

  • Oscar winners: An American Werewolf in London, Best Makeup, 1982

Oscar winners: Purple Rain, Best Song Score, 1985

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Oscar winners: Purple Rain, Best Song Score, 1985

Purple Rain, Best Song Score, 1985

The image of Academy voters getting down to Prince's "Darling Nikki" is a strange one indeed. But it only demonstrates the influence of the High Priest of Pop, whose inimitable music and mesmerizing performance style made us feel like we were glimpsing the future.—Keith Uhlich

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Oscar winners: Black Narcissus, Best Cinematography, 1948

Black Narcissus, Best Cinematography, 1948

In Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's classic, a group of British nuns set up shop in a windy Himalayan palace; Jack Cardiff's searing Technicolor imagery helps to project their torments of the flesh. It's cinematography as psychology—particularly inspiring to next-gen American filmmakers like Martin Scorsese.—Keith Uhlich

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18
Oscar winners: Chinatown, Best Original Screenplay, 1975

Chinatown, Best Original Screenplay, 1975

If we wanted to pinpoint the apex of Hollywood's 1970s ambition, it would be Robert Towne's dazzling script for this neonoir, still a model for aspiring writers. Diving deep into the actual history of Los Angeles's land grabs, Towne also supplied romance, nostalgia and Jack Nicholson's finest hour.—Joshua Rothkopf

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17
Oscar winners: The Red Shoes, Best Art Direction, 1949

The Red Shoes, Best Art Direction, 1949

If the recent restoration of this ballet classic proves nothing else, it's that the movie's dynamic art-direction duo—Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson—knew how to use vivid color and creative sets for maximum impact. Look at that cobbler's shop! The velvet green interior of that coach! Those titular pieces of footwear!—David Fear

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16
Oscar winners: Joan Crawford, Best Actress, 1946, Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford, Best Actress, 1946, Mildred Pierce

Already a box-office draw for a decade, Crawford lunged into a screen test for director Michael Curtiz, who initially wanted nothing to do with her. Out of that audition, Crawford seized melodrama's finest role, one that greatly expanded the psychological range expected of actors.—Joshua Rothkopf

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15
Oscar winners: Jaws, Best Original Score, 1976

Jaws, Best Original Score, 1976

How do you convince audiences that a mechanical shark is the real, man-eating deal? Get John Williams to compose an iconic theme that makes the omnipresent threat more frightening than the attack itself. Betcha can't step into the ocean without looking for a fin on the horizon.—Keith Uhlich

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14
Oscar winners: Walter Huston, Best Supporting Actor, 1949, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Walter Huston, Best Supporting Actor, 1949, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Talk about a great Father's Day present: John Huston, wunderkind director of The Maltese Falcon, decided to cast his legendary dad as a grubby prospector in this 1948 thriller. Out of their collaboration came Oscar gold for Pops (as well as Best Director and Best Screenplay wins for Sonny).—Joshua Rothkopf

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13
Oscar winners: "Over the Rainbow," Best Song, 1940, The Wizard of Oz

"Over the Rainbow," Best Song, 1940, The Wizard of Oz

She sings wistfully, staring off toward an unseen horizon. Her dog looks too. And in less than three minutes of screen time, the whole of adolescent dreaminess is delivered to your wet eyes. Judy Garland never eclipsed this song performance, nor would she have to—it's the definition of a magic spell.—Joshua Rothkopf

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12
Oscar winners: Casablanca, Best Picture, 1944

Casablanca, Best Picture, 1944

This ode to resistance and romance is a great example of what the studio system could accomplish at full mast: peerless dialogue ("Round up the usual suspects"), perfectly cast character actors and a movie-star pairing that made you believe the problems of two people did amount to a hill of beans.—David Fear

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11
Oscar winners: An American Werewolf in London, Best Makeup, 1982

An American Werewolf in London, Best Makeup, 1982

No computer effects here, geeklings: Rick Baker's wizardly application of sprouting hair, lengthening paws and chomping jaws on actor David Naughton is the key accomplishment of the latex-happy field of monster making (a sadly shrinking one). The entire Best Makeup Oscar category was created to honor this film.—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