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: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Best Visual Effects, 1992

  • Oscar winners: Hearts and Minds, Best Documentary, 1975

  • Oscar winners: The Silence of the Lambs, Best Picture, 1992

  • Oscar winners: Clint Eastwood, Best Director, 1993, Unforgiven

  • Oscar winners: Pulp Fiction, Best Original Screenplay, 1995

  • Oscar winners: Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress, 1940, Gone with the Wind

  • Oscar winners: The Godfather, Best Picture, 1973

  • Oscar winners: Marlon Brando, Best Actor, 1955, On the Waterfront

  • Oscar winners: Sunrise, Best Picture (Unique and Artistic Production), 1929

  • Oscar winners: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Best Visual Effects, 1969

Oscar winners: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Best Visual Effects, 1992

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Oscar winners: Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Best Visual Effects, 1992

Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Best Visual Effects, 1992

Think back to the first time you watched Robert Patrick's sleek killer robot slowly regenerate its metallic surfaces like molten steel. Did I actually see what I think I just saw? Groundbreaking doesn't begin to cover what T2's four-man visual-effects team—Gene Warren Jr., Robert Skotak, Stan Winston and Dennis Muren—managed to do in this sci-fi action behemoth; game-changing would be more accurate, as every blockbuster from Jurassic Park to the Lord of the Rings trilogy would adopt the film's CGI ber alles mentality. The Academy didn't just salute a crack team of FX experts, it also nodded to the future of digital filmmaking: a series of ones and zeroes bringing flights of fancy to life.—David Fear

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9
Oscar winners: Hearts and Minds, Best Documentary, 1975

Hearts and Minds, Best Documentary, 1975

One of the rare movies to openly criticize the Vietnam War while it was still going on, Peter Davis's look at the U.S.'s imperialist jaunt in Southeast Asia portrayed the military as morally unsound goons; its win signaled an acknowledgment that the antiwar movement had reached critical mass. A damning, defining vrit landmark, Hearts and Minds also underlined the era's generation gap at the Oscar ceremony itself: After Davis read a statement from the Viet Cong during his acceptance speech, presenter Frank Sinatra publicly distanced himself from the remarks. Privately, he allegedly offered to smash the director's face in.—David Fear

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8
Oscar winners: The Silence of the Lambs, Best Picture, 1992

The Silence of the Lambs, Best Picture, 1992

Everyone still talks about Anthony Hopkins's fava-beans-and-nice-chianti-loving serial killer, but the movie's influence went beyond its memorable bad guy. For once, a horror film was granted industry prestige (Silence swept the top five Oscar categories, the first film of any kind to do so since 1975's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), and its disturbing flourishes were relentlessly copied by imitators both good (Seven) and bad (8MM). Yet none of them—not even the sorry sequel, Hannibal—had the benefit of Jodie Foster, whose feminist-conscious performance as novice FBI agent Clarice Starling turned the damsel-in-distress role on its head.—Keith Uhlich

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7
Oscar winners: Clint Eastwood, Best Director, 1993, Unforgiven

Clint Eastwood, Best Director, 1993, Unforgiven

To most of his fans, Eastwood came to the 1993 Oscars ceremony the squinty-eyed star of many a prairie showdown and police beating. He left it, though, a bona fide artist: a reinvented Hollywood player who not only performed in, but helmed and produced a Western that stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of them. Eastwood, of course, had been directing since 1971. But with Unforgiven (based on a brilliant script by David Webb Peoples that the actor had hoarded for years until he felt old enough), his wisdom suddenly seemed fully developed. These days, Clint's a thinker, not a puncher.—Joshua Rothkopf

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6
Oscar winners: Pulp Fiction, Best Original Screenplay, 1995

Pulp Fiction, Best Original Screenplay, 1995

Even if Oscar voters weren't ready to dub the ne plus ultra of '90s hip-nihilist cinema the best picture of the year, they couldn't deny that Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary's formally daring script deserved a statuette. But while the duo's writing achievement was clearly revolutionary in every respect, their victory was also highly symbolic: By honoring this rhapsody to cheeseburgers and chatty killers, the Academy officially opened its arms to the maverick Sundance generation. Suddenly, an upstart Indiewood industry that had been operating on the fringes was deemed legit in the eyes of Hollywood.—David Fear

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5
Oscar winners: Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress, 1940, Gone with the Wind

Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress, 1940, Gone with the Wind

McDaniel famously said that she'd rather play a maid than be one. To look at her performance as Scarlett O'Hara's servant and confidante (the first Oscar to go to a person of color) is a discomfiting reminder that minority actors, in order to work consistently, often have to play stereotypes. Yet McDaniel supplied the role of Mammy with an innate dignity that helped her rise above the script's small-minded conventions. Indeed, in some scenes it's as if she were the true master of Tara, dominating it even in her lowly position through sheer will power and personality.—Keith Uhlich

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4
Oscar winners: The Godfather, Best Picture, 1973

The Godfather, Best Picture, 1973

Everyone has their favorite moments: "I believe in America." The horse's head, spilling gore all over a studio executive's silk sheets. Sonny's tollbooth bloodbath. Connie's wedding and the carnage-montage baptism. Francis Ford Coppola's towering statement on murderous family ties continues to have a hold on our pop-cultural consciousness (see The Sopranos). An old-school epic blockbuster made with New Hollywood chutzpah, this mob drama di tutti mob dramas passed the torch to a younger generation of film brats, birthing a second golden age in the process. It was an offer the Academy couldn't—and thankfully didn't—refuse.—David Fear

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3
Oscar winners: Marlon Brando, Best Actor, 1955, On the Waterfront

Marlon Brando, Best Actor, 1955, On the Waterfront

"I coulda been a contender!" cries Terry Malloy. Yet for the already-thrice-nominated actor who played him, the role finally turned Marlon Brando into a winner. The brooding star had revolutionized acting with A Streetcar Named Desire (1952), but his tough, tender take on Waterfront's working-class hero was something else entirely. Once the Bowery brute delicately handled Eva Marie Saint's glove, you could divide screen performances into two categories: before and after Brando. This Oscar win solidified his standing as the greatest actor of his generation—a reputation he'd try to live down for the rest of his career.—David Fear

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2
Oscar winners: Sunrise, Best Picture (Unique and Artistic Production), 1929

Sunrise, Best Picture (Unique and Artistic Production), 1929

Arguably the crowning achievement of the silent era, F.W. Murnau's poetic 1927 melodrama (subtitled A Song of Two Humans) pushed visual storytelling—surreal superimpositions, camera movements, expressionistic sets—to the next level. Though it technically shared Best Picture status with William Wellman's WWI drama Wings at the very first Oscar ceremony, Sunrise's singular recognition announced from the get-go that artistic merit, rather than box-office receipts (the film was a flop upon release), would be the benchmark for Best Picture winners. Whether the Academy has upheld that standard is questionable, but this early example of good taste proves that voters knew a groundbreaking masterpiece when they saw one.—David Fear

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Oscar winners: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Best Visual Effects, 1969

2001: A Space Odyssey, Best Visual Effects, 1969

Our consensus choice by a galaxy-wide margin, Stanley Kubrick's seismically influential special effects—landmark accomplishments in their field—were steered by an intelligence that spent years pursuing a vision of total realism. Kubrick sought out revered author Arthur C. Clarke for the ideas; he then helped pioneer (or indulge) processes like front projection and slit-scan animation, to painstakingly create sequences of eerie unearthliness. Miniature models took on epic gravity. A giant 30-ton human guinea-pig wheel, constructed to create the illusion of zero-G weightlessness, was built at a cost of a $750,000 (staggering in 1960s dollars). All of it was meant to stun audiences and expand minds. Mission accomplished, Stanley.—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