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The 50 most-deserving Oscar winners of all time

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

Written by
Keith Uhlich
Joshua Rothkopf
David Fear
Matthew Singer

To the victor goes the spoils – and to the losers goes the social media outrage. That’s effectively how the Oscars operate. As the actual telecast honours the year’s standout cinematic performances, viewers jump on Twitter to express righteous anger over just how wrong the voters got it. It makes sense: the Academy has screwed up often enough that you almost expect it to happen half the time. Every once in a while, though, the Academy gets it spot-on – and those instances deserve recognition. Here are 50 times when they nailed the bullseye.


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'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

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


'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

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


'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

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


'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


'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


'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

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

'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

'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


'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

"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


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

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


"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

'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


'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 Nestor 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

'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

'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

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


"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

'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


'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

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


'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

  • Film
  • Horror

Horror has always received short shrift from the Academy, and the last person anyone might have pegged to finally elevate its standing is one half of Comedy Central’s Dave Chappelle stand-ins. But Get Out was too big a leftfield phenomenon for even out-of-touch Oscar voters to ignore, and Peele’s truly original script – equal parts hilarious and horrifying – felt particularly resonant in the direct aftermath of the 2016 election. ‘I would’ve voted for Obama a third time if I could’ became a meme jabbing at insincere liberals, while the entire concept of the Sunken Place seemed to describe America in the early days of the Trump era.—Matthew Singer 


'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

'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

'Purple Rain', Best Song Score, 1985

If we’re honest, the success of Purple Rain is roughly 90 percent about the music; it’s certainly not because of Prince’s acting chops. But it’s not just that the music is mind-blowingly great, which it is. It’s that the music is so great it elevates the movie – which, outside of the face-melting concert footage, is fairly silly – to an era-defining classic just by being in it. Honestly, if the Academy has gotten this one wrong, they might as well have just shut the whole operation down. We’re still mad that Morris Day and Jerome got snubbed in the acting categories, though. –Matthew Singer

'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


'The Red Shoes', Best Art Direction, 1949

If the 2009 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

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


'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

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


"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

Heath Ledger, Best Supporting Actor, 2009, 'The Dark Knight'
  • Film
  • Action and adventure

A cynic – or rather, a huge asshole – might argue that dying is the best thing Ledger could have done for his Oscar prospects. In truth, it’s hard to think of a performance from the last decade that looms larger in the public imagination. Subsequent takes on the Joker made the character into, well, a joke, but Ledger’s turn ranks with the best villains in cinema history: a lip-smacking menace without a cause who, for all his cartoonish malevolence, still feels frighteningly real.—Matthew Singer


'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

'An American Werewolf in London', Best Makeup, 1982

Prior to 1982, the Oscars only honoured make-up artists with special lifetime achievement awards. The Academy picked a damn good year to inaugurate the official category: Rick Baker’s skin-stretching, hair-raising depiction of David Naughton’s lupine transformation is still one of the most visceral and grotesquely realistic things ever put on screen. But don’t overlook the design of Griffin Dunne as Naughton’s undead, rapidly decaying buddy – an achievement in its own right. –Matthew Singer  

'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

'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


'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

  • Film
  • Drama

All night Bong Joon-ho looked like he knew that he’d gotten away with something. The South Korean director had already managed to Trojan-horse a searing anti-capitalist critique to a worldwide audience inside a genuinely thrilling, genre-blurred piece of entertainment. Now here he was, collecting statuettes and standing ovations from a room full of rich, oblivious Hollywood elites. Parasite’s Best Picture win was historic – the first non-English film to earn the award – and it deserves inclusion on this list for that reason alone. But it’s that sly act of subterfuge that gave the moment an extra layer of sublimity.—Matthew Singer   


'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

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


'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. 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

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


'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

'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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