If you want to feel bad about the Academy Awards, rank every best picture winner since the statuettes made their debut in a 15-minute ceremony on May 16, 1929. There are some truly excellent films on the list, but too many are painfully mediocre.
We all know the dubious reasons dubious movies are crowned the year’s best: the lowest of low- takes politics, the academy making up for past snubs, Hollywood’s aversion to risk, the industry deciding to solve a social ill, Harvey Weinstein. But understanding the forces at work on Oscar night doesn’t help heal the heartbreak and frustration the awards can cause. The record will always show that stone-cold 1976 classics Network and All the President’s Men were beaten by Rocky. And then there’s the historic injustice of Hollywood’s greatest musical, Singin’ in the Rain, being ignored for a best picture nomination in 1952.
Don’t get us wrong: Rocky is as enormously fun as it was more than 40 years ago. But the best picture Oscar was designed to award excellence, not just an ability to thrill the masses. Sometimes both are accomplished (just watch any of the films in our Top 10), and, occasionally, a film wins that is simply superb and not a blockbuster. (Yay, Moonlight!)
The rankings below are highly subjective: One person’s Terms of Endearment is another’s Gladiator. A lot of respectful debate occurred, and compromises were made. But at a certain point, we have to concede that comparisons become apples and oranges. How, for example, do you weigh the spectacle of Ben-Hur against a tough little war film like The Hurt Locker? So we created criteria for our decisions: Was there ambition? Did the film change the way movies were made? Is every part of it (casting, acting, cinematography, script, design, etc.) of high quality? Did it age well? Did it beat better films?
The best picture of 2017 will be revealed at the end of the 90th Academy Awards on March 4, the result of the combined votes of the academy’s 7,258 members. In anticipation of the event, here is our ranked list of every best picture winner. Even if you disagree—and you will—enjoy this dip into Hollywood history.