The Top 20 “Best Picture” Movies of All Time

Films and television shows are quintessential parts of American culture. They are a reflection of society — or more accurately, a snapshot of the attitudes that were most prevalent during their creation. If you were to examine the moving pictures from any era, you would see distinctive touches and inclusions that were the norm of the time. Filmmaking has been designated more of an art than anything else. After all, a movie is merely a message contained in a visual, much like any painting or sculpture. Due to this societal tendency to respect directors, producers, and writers as artists, many ways of recognizing the best of the best have come about.

The Golden Globes, for example, are bestowed upon the best actors, actresses, directors, producers, writers and musicians by members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Saturn Awards honor the top creations in the categories of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. The Emmys are reserved for television stars, and is the television equivalent of the Grammy Award for music. However, the most prevalent and famous award ceremony in the entertainment industry is the Academy Awards. These are given to honor the best in the filmmaking industry as decided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They are most commonly known by the nickname for the awards — the Oscars.

The highest distinction a film can be bestowed at this ceremony is the Academy Award for “Best Picture”. This is only given out once a year, so less than 100 films have ever been granted this title. As we prepare for the next Academy Awards (which will take place in March 2018), let’s take a look back at some of the best films of all time. Without further ado, here are the Top Twenty Films Named “Best Picture” at the Academy Awards.


This classic film, directed by and starring the famous Mel Gibson, is one of the best war films of all time. Gibson plays the role of William Wallace, a historical 13th-century Scotsman who led the resistance in the First War of Scottish Independence. The film is inspired by the epic poem, The Actes and DEidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace by Blind Harry. Braveheart was recognized at the 68th Academy Awards in 1996. Alongside the “Best Picture” win, it also won Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Makeup, and Best Sound Editing. Plus, the film was nominated for five more awards. This is a testament to the wonderful work that Mel Gibson and his team did on this film.


This film was released in 1942, right at the beginning of the Second World War. The wartime influences are clear, as the film stars an American expatriate who makes a difficult choice between love and rescuing a valuable member of the Czech Resistance. It stars some of the biggest celebrities of the time — including Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid. Casablanca was one of the best romantic dramas of all time. It was released quite late in 1942, but despite this was included in the 14th Academy Awards. It broke many people’s expectations, as it went on to win Best Picture. Other Oscars associated with this film include Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Godfather

Based on the best-selling novel by Mario Puzo, The Godfather marked its place in history as the quintessential crime film. The story covers ten years, chronicling the exploits of the Corleone family. Its main focus is on Michael Corleone’s metamorphosis from black sheep to mafia boss. This film is widely regarded as one of the best films ever created — particularly when examining those films released in this particular genre. It was even honored with a spot in the U.S. National Film Registry due to being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. It took home the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. This film is often called the second-greatest film of all time, right behind Citizen Kane.


Clint Eastwood is one of the best actors in contemporary cinema. He plays a starring role in Unforgiven, a 1992 anti-Western that revolves around an old-school outlaw who takes one last job. It was Eastwood’s last western, and he worked alongside Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, and Richard Harris.  Unforgiven was widely critically-acclaimed, and was the third Western to win Best Picture (after Cimarron and Dances with Wolves). It also took home Best Director for Clint Eastwood, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and Best Film Editing for Joel Cox (editor). It has also been added to the National Film Registry, being deemed a significant piece of American art by the Library of Congress.


This film is a fictionalized rendition of the life of famous classical composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. His music plays a central role in the movie, which follows the feud between Mozart and the Italian composer Antonio Salieri. The film was well-liked, and received many positive reviews. This film was nominated for an insane amount of awards — 53 — and received 40 of them. This included eight Academy Awards (Best Picture included), four BAFTA Awards, four Golden Globes, and a DGA (Director’s Guild of America) award. It is also the newest film that has had more than one nominee in the Best Actor category. In addition, the American Film Institute included Amadeus on its list of 100 Years… 100 Movies.

Forrest Gump

This 1994 classic is one of the best dramas ever written. Based on the 1986 novel of the same name, the film follows Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks), a slow-thinking but kindly, good-natured Alabama man. He plays witness to some of the biggest events of the 20th century — including the Little Rock integration and the Vietnam War. He even started the world-famous Bubba Gump Shrimp Company alongside his friend. Forrest Gump was an inspiration to people everywhere — not to mention a commercial success. The film was praised for its use of “found footage” visual effects to put Hanks into historical situations. At the 1995 Academy Awards, Forrest Gump took home six Academy Awards — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Hanks), Best Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth), Best Visual Effects, and Best Film Editing. It was nominated for other rewards as well (including Golden Globes and People’s Choice Awards).

Gone with the Wind

One of the most legendary films is 1939’s Gone With the Wind. Based on the novel by Margaret Mitchell, this epic historic romance follows Scarlett O’Hara, a plantation owner’s daughter. She gets herself into a lot of romantic and controversial moments. The most famous moment was the use of the word “damn”, which was not common at the time. It even caused the Production Code Administration to amend the Production Code to explicit ban the words “hell” and “damn”. At the 12th Academy Awards, Gone with the Wind received the recognition it deserved. It ended up taking home ten awards — eight of them were competitive, whereas the other two were honorary — including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress. The latter was awarded to Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to ever win an Academy Award.

The Silence of the Lambs

In 1991, horror audiences were amazed with the macabre film The Silence of the Lambs. This movie tells the tale of Clarice Starling, an FBI trainee. He seeks the advice of Dr. Lecter — an imprisoned psychiatrist-turned-cannibalistic-serial-killer — to track down another killer called Buffalo Bill. The movie made more than ten times what it was budgeted for, and thus was a commercial success. This film won five Academy Awards, and was the third to win each of the top five categories (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay). Plus, it still holds its title as the only horror film to ever win Best Picture. Only two other films have been nominated — The Exoricist and Jaws.

Schindler’s List

Shot on sight in Poland, this period drama focuses on the Schindlerjuden — a group of Jews who were saved from Nazi persecution by a German businessman named Oskar Schindler. Directed by Steven Spielberg, Schindler’s List won critical acclaim for its poignant story and creative art direction. It was shot mostly in black and white, and was almost documentary-like in the way it was filmed. Color was used to accent certain objects and people. The film is often considered one of the best ever made, and was even nominated for twelve Academy Awards (and won seven). It won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Score. It was also nominated for many other awards, and has been preserved in the Library of Congress. It was ranked 8th on American Film Institutes’ list of the 100 Best American Films of All Time.

Lawrence of Arabia

Another older film on our list, Lawrence of Arabia was released in 1962 and is based on the life of T.E. Lawrence — a key player in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War One. This film is considered one of the best ever made, and its influence on films that followed it are still evident to this day (more than 60 years after it was made). Lawrence of Arabia achieved many honors after its release in 1962. It was nominated for ten Oscars, and won seven — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. It also took home a top Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture in the Drama category. In addition, Lawrence of Arabia was honored with the BAFTA awards for Best Film and Outstanding British Film.

The Sting

When you think of caper films, The Sting might be one of the first to come to mind. The film is about two grifters who con a mob boss, and was inspired by real-life conmen Fred and Charley Gondorff. The main characters were loosely based on how these two are portrayed in The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. It was also notable for its use of ragtime music, especially Scott Joplins “The Entertainer”. It caused a resurgence in the popularity of this kind of composition. At the 46th Academy Awards, The Sting achieved a lot of success. It was nominated for ten Oscars, and ended up taking home seven of them. Among the awards won were Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. This film is one of those that will always be remembered as pushing the limits of the caper film genre.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

This film is often included on lists of the best films ever made. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1975 drama, based on a 1962 novel of the same name. It has significant comedy elements, and features Jack Nicholson in the starring role. It revolves around chronic criminal Randle McMurphy as he serves a short sentence in an institution for the mentally ill. The cast of characters — including Billy Bibbit, Charlie Cheswick, and Chief — is legendary, and the story was wrought with an innate sense of irony and humor. This film was the second to win the five major Academy Awards, and was the first to do so since 1934. It took home Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay as well as myriad Golden Globe and Bafta Awards. It has been included in the Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” film.

American Beauty

This film is a 1999 drama starring Kevin Spacey. It revolves around Spacey’s character, Lester Burnham. He is a 42-year-old advertising professional who becomes infatuated with a teenage girl who happens to be his daughter’s best friend. It played out as a satire of the American middle class, giving particular attention to themes of sexuality, beauty, redemption, and self-liberation. The film achieved a lot of success upon release, even though it was originally written as a play. It grossed over twenty times what was spent to create it, and was honored with many awards and honors. At the 72nd Academy Awards, American Beauty took home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. The film was widely-renowned for its excellent direction, writing, and acting.

The Deer Hunter

One of the most famous films about the Vietnam War is The Deer Hunter. Released in 1978, this film explored the realities of war through the eyes of three Russian-American steelworkers. It is famous for its controversial depiction of Russian roulette — a “game” involving a revolver. The cylinder is loaded with one bullet, given a spin, and then pointed at one’s own head and discharged. They eventually use a high-stakes game of this to escape their captors at a Vietnamese prison camp. The film went over the initial budget, but ended up making it all back after its excellent release. It was also honored with five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor. This film also brought Meryl Streep her first Academy Award nomination. It has been inducted into the Library of Congress, and was named the 53rd greatest movie of all time by the American Film Institute.

A Beautiful Mind

A Beautiful Mind is a revolutionary film based on the life of John Nash, Nobel Prize winner for Economics. It is based on a book of the same name by Sylvia Nasar (which was incidentally nominated for a Pulitzer Prize). The film stars Russell Crowe as Nash, and focuses on his development of paranoid schizophrenia and its affects on his wife and friends. The film was released in 2001, and shortly thereafter won four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress. It also was nominated for a few other awards. This movie is quite memorable, and will always be an integral part of American cinematic history.

The Apartment

Another commonly-seen title on lists of the greatest American films ever made, The Apartment came out in 1960 and instantly made its mark as a top romantic comedy. Directed by Billy Wilder, the movie focuses on CC Baxter. He is a clerk who lets his bosses use his apartment to cheat on their wives, hoping to gain a promotion. It was a bit controversial at the time, but overcame it easily to win critical renown at its release. The Apartment was nominated for ten Oscars at the 33rd Academy Awards. It ended up taking home Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It also inspired a 1968 musical called Promises, Promises. The Library of Congress has also deemed this film worthy of preservation in the National Film Registry.

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien is solely responsible for the creation of the entire genre of high fantasy. It has also been adopted to film, as seen in 2003’s Return of the King (directed by Peter Jackson). It is the third movie in the film adaptation of the original trilogy, and was the second film to ever gross $1 billion in the box office. This film was nominated for eleven Oscars at the 76th Academy Awards, and managed to take home very single one. This set records for the biggest sweep at the Academy Awards. Plus, it was the very first high fantasy film to take home Best Picture — and it remains the sole winner of this award in this genre. It also is tied with Ben Hur and Titanic for largest number of Academy Awards won.


Gladiator is a turn-of-the-century historical drama that was released in 2000. It stars Russel Crowe as general Maximus Decimus Meridius, who is reduced to slavery after his ruler, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, is usurped by his son. He then fights his way up through the ranks of the arena, culminating in vengeance for the deaths of his family and his emperor. This film was mostly-responsible for the renewed public interest in ancient Greek and Roman culture, which brought us television such as Rome, and films like 300. It also made a lot of money at the box office, and was honored at the 73rd Academy Awards. It took home Best Picture, Best Actor, and three other awards that year.

All About Eve

Another older film, this classic was first released in 1950. It was inspired by the short story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Marry Orr (though this was not shown in the credits). Bette Davis plays in the starring role as Margo Channing, an aging Broadway star. Anne Baxter also has a role as Eve Harrington, a young woman who ends up getting involved in Channing’s life and messing with her career and relationships. This film was critically-acclaimed, receiving fourteen nominations at the Academy Awards. Notably, this is the only film in the history of the Oscars that had four female acting nominations. It took home six Oscars, including Best Picture. This movie was also preserved in the National Film Registry.

The Departed

Another gangster movie that makes our list is The Departed. This film came out in 2006, and was directed by Martin Scorsese. It is a remake of a film from Hong Kong called Infernal Affairs. Starring Jack Nicholson and Matt Damon in the leading roles, this film focused on the conflicts between the FBI and the Irish Mob. It is interesting to note that the main characters are loose homages to Whitey Bulger and John Connolly (a famous criminal and his corrupt FBI handler). The Departed took home a few awards after its release. Most notably, it brought back four Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Film Editing) from the 79th Academy Awards. As far as crime films go, this one is up there with the rest of the greats. It will not be forgotten anytime soon.

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