It’s an Oscars season unlike any other. Usually, around this time, we would be finalizing our Best Picture winners predictions and eagerly awaiting the imminent ceremony. This year, we have to wait until April to see what movies we watched at home by necessity will take home the gold.
But once you’ve run out of 2021 Oscars contenders to watch, something you can do to pass the time until April 28 is stream some past Oscars Best Picture winners. The major streaming services – Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and HBO Max – have a pretty good selection of library films between — from victors of yesteryear (the earliest Best Picture winner currently available on a subscription streaming service is “Mutiny on the Bounty”) to recent recipients, like last year’s winner, “Parasite.” It’s unfortunately nowhere near a complete collection, but it will give you some great options for movies to revisit (or watch for the first time, we don’t judge).
Amazon Prime Video
“Marty”: Delbert Mann’s simple and sweet romantic drama won Best Picture in 1955. It’s an intimate story about a regular guy (Ernest Borgnine, an unlikely leading man more than a decade before unlikely leading men became a thing) falling for an ordinary gal (Betsy Blair, whose placid surface allows rich interiority to shine out through her eyes). It’s a lovely little movie. It also won Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay for Paddy Chayefsky’s realist script, which he adapted from his own teleplay that originally aired as an episode of “The Philco Television Playhouse.”
“Ordinary People”: Robert Redford’s directorial debut won Best Picture for 1980, along with Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Timothy Hutton (though his performance as traumatized teenager Conrad Jarrett should have been submitted as lead, not supporting). It’s a finely crafted, intimately observed domestic drama about a family falling apart after the accidental death of its golden boy elder son. Mary Tyler Moore earned a Best Actress nomination for her career-altering performance as perception-obsessed matriarch Beth Jarrett and Donald Sutherland should have been nominated for his heartbreaking performance as her stressed-out husband Calvin. Judd Hirsch was also nominated for his supporting performance as Calvin’s therapist Tyrone Berger.
“Out of Africa”: The epic romance “Out of Africa” was a big box office hit in 1985, which helped it win seven Oscars at the 58th Academy Awards. Producer and director Sydney Pollack personally picked up two trophies, Best Picture and Best Director, while the film also won Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound. Meryl Streep earned a Best Actress nomination but did not win for her performance as Danish memoirist Karen Blixen, despite doing one of her showiest accents.
“Rain Man”: “Rain Man” was the highest-grossing film of 1988, a milestone it would not achieve if it were made in the present superhero-dominated era. But it would surely contend for Best Picture any time, which it won at the 61st Academy Awards. Barry Levinson’s road dramedy about an ethically dubious businessman (Tom Cruise) reconnecting with his autistic savant brother (Dustin Hoffman) won three other Oscars, for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Actor for Hoffman’s memorable performance.
“The Hurt Locker”: Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping Iraq War thriller won Best Picture for 2009, along with five other awards: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing. The film is an absolutely relentless exercise in suspense, with every element working together to create a visceral you-are-there experience, from Jeremy Renner’s unpredictable performance as adrenaline-addicted bomb disposal specialist SFC William James to Mark Boal’s stripped-down script to the shaky handheld camerawork and fast-paced editing. Bigelow is still the only woman to win Best Director or direct a Best Picture winner.
“Mutiny on the Bounty”: Hollywood’s biggest hit of 1935 won Best Picture at the 8th Academy Awards. And that’s the only award it won. It’s the last film to win the top award and no other category. (“The Broadway Melody” and “Grand Hotel” had previously achieved the curious distinction, though a couple of others only won two.) It also prompted one of the Academy Awards’ most significant rule changes. Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, and Franchot Tone were all nominated for Best Actor, a logjam that led to the creation of the Best Supporting category the following year. The movie itself remains an entertaining swashbuckler with one of Cary Grant’s most charismatic performances.
“Gone With the Wind”: Adjusted for inflation, this would be the highest-grossing film of all time; Avengers: Endgame sold less than half as many tickets domestically. Director Victor Fleming and producer David O. Selznick’s epic romance set in Civil War and Reconstruction-era Georgia is one of, if not the defining artifact of the peak of Hollywood’s Golden Age — though its nostalgic sympathy for slave owners is so odious that it now streams on HBO Max with an introduction from Jacqueline Stewart, a scholar of African-Americans in film, providing it with historical context. It won eight Oscars in 1939, including Best Picture.
“Casablanca”: The 1942 Best Picture winner is almost 80 years old, and it’s going to be a movie people watch for another 80 years. The unforgettable tale of star-crossed romance and hard-bitten bravery against the backdrop of World War II (written, filmed, and released in the months after America entered the war) also won Best Director for Michael Curtiz and Best Screenplay for twin screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, who wrote what is pound for pound the probably most quotable screenplay ever. Leonard Maltin called “Casablanca” “the best Hollywood movie of all time,” and he would know.
“Hamlet”: The only pure Shakespeare adaptation to win Best Picture (“West Side Story” doesn’t count, and “Shakespeare in Love” definitely doesn’t), Laurence Olivier’s distinguished version of the play won that award, Best Actor, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design in 1948. It was the first non-American film to win Best Picture, and the first of a handful of British films to take the top award.
“Tom Jones”: This peculiar picaresque comedy was the 1963 Best Picture winner, and stars the late, great Albert Finney as the titular bawdy boy who has fourth-wall-breaking amorous adventures in jolly old England. It also won Best Director for Tony Richardson, Best Adapted Screenplay for John Osborne (the film is loosely based on “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling,” which was published in 1749 and is one of the earliest books to be considered a novel), and Best Score. It was nominated for 10 in total, and lost all five of its acting nominations, which hasn’t happened since.
“Midnight Cowboy”: The 1969 Best Picture winner is an important winner in Oscar history, marking a transition from the traditional studio films that typically dominated the Oscars (and mostly still do) to the burgeoning New Hollywood era. The gritty drama about poverty, loneliness, prostitution, and friendship was the first X-rated movie to win Best Picture, a rating it received due to what the MPAA deemed its “homosexual frame of reference.” It was re-rated R in 1971, the rating it retains today, and inspired a revision of the MPAA’s rating system. It also won Best Director for John Schlesinger and Best Adapted Screenplay for Waldo Salt.
“Rocky”: Sylvester Stallone’s immortal inspirational sports drama is arguably the most successful movie ever — if you think about it in a certain way. It cost less than a million dollars to make and grossed $225 million (over a billion adjusted for inflation). It spawned a franchise with seven(!) sequels. It won three Oscars in 1976, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. And it did it all from a starting point of semi-obscurity; at that point, Stallone was best known for a well-received supporting role in “The Lords of Flatbush,” and then he was nominated for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay. He’s been a star ever since. It’s hard to think of another film that had as much cultural impact from such a modest origin. (Arrives March 6)
“The Last Emperor”: Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic biopic of Puyi, the complex and tragic emblem of the end of China’s imperial history, won all nine awards it was up for in 1987, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay and technical awards for its magnificent production design, costume design, cinematography, and score from Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne (who’s just an Emmy away from an EGOT), and Cong Su. The film was famously the first Western production to film in the Forbidden City palace complex in Beijing, and it makes tremendous use of the opportunity. It’s one of the most aesthetically beautiful Best Picture winners. (Expires March 31)
“Driving Miss Daisy”: This lightweight dramedy directed by Bruce Beresford won four Oscars in 1989: Best Picture, Best Actress for Jessica Tandy, Best Adapted Screenplay for Alfred Uhry (who also won a Pulitzer for the play on which the film is based), and Best Makeup. It’s notable as the last movie rated PG to win the top prize (everything since has been PG-13 or R) and one of the only films to ever win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination. In a curious coincidence, the most recent film to achieve that dubious distinction is “Green Book,” a movie with a very similar premise.
“Unforgiven”: Clint Eastwood’s 1992 revisionist Western won four Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor for Gene Hackman, and Best Film Editing – out of nine nominations. The film, which tells the story of a retired outlaw named William Munny (Eastwood), who’s haunted by the cruelty and brutality of his past, but comes out of retirement because he needs to make some money. It’s one of three Westerns to win Best Picture (the others are 1931’s “Cimarron” and 1990’s “Dances WIth Wolves.” Westerns were big at the Oscars in the early ‘90s.)
“The English Patient”: Yet another epic romance Best Picture winner, this one picked up a total of nine awards in 1996, including Best Director for Anthony Minghella, Best Supporting Actress for Juliette Binoche, and Best Original Dramatic Score (it’s one of four movies to win that category during the brief period in which Dramatic and Musical or Comedy scores were split). The legendary Walter Murch won Oscars for Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing, an unprecedented feat that still has not been duplicated. The film stars Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas as adventurers in North Africa who have a passionate, doomed love affair.
“American Beauty”: Released in 1999, the 2000 Best Picture winner’s most lasting contribution to pop culture is its notorious plastic bag scene. The suburban ennui dramedy won four other Oscars, Best Director for Sam Mendes; Best Actor for now-disgraced star Kevin Spacey, Best Original Screenplay for Alan Ball, and Best Cinematography for the legendary lensman Conrad Hall, his second of three Oscars.
“The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”: The Best Picture win for the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novels is considered to be a cumulative win for Jackson’s trilogy. That being said, “The Return of the King” is a worthy Best Picture winner on its own merits. It won all 11 Oscars for which it was nominated for in 2003, which is the record for most trophies won in a sweep and tied for most Oscars for a single film with “Ben-Hur” and “Titanic.” The full list is – deep breath – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, Best Visual Effects, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Make-up, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Film Editing.
“Million Dollar Baby”: This boxing drama that (spoiler alert) turns into a euthanasia drama is the second Clint Eastwood film to win Best Picture, after “Unforgiven.” Eastwood won Best Director and was nominated for Best Actor, while Hilary Swank took home her second Best Actress Oscar and Morgan Freeman won Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris, the film’s narrator. In his acceptance speech, Eastwood said “I’m just lucky to be here. Lucky to be still working. And I watched Sidney Lumet out there, who is 80, and I figure, I’m just a kid. I’ve got a lot of stuff to do yet.” He gave that speech in 2005, and Eastwood is still working at 90.
“No Country for Old Men”: The Joel and Ethan Coen neo-Western prevailed in one of the most distinguished Best Picture classes ever (even the most Oscar-bait movie nominated for 2007, “Atonement,” was excellent). Joel and Ethan also shared Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay wins for their adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s grim novel about fate and money in ‘80s West Texas. They’re in a rare class of filmmakers who’ve won three Oscars for the same film. They were also nominated for editing under their pseudonym, Roderick Jaynes. Javier Bardem won Best Supporting Actor for his terrifying performance as blank-faced hitman Anton Chigurh.
“The King’s Speech”: “The King’s Speech” is one of the most British films to ever be crowned Best Picture. The 2010 winner tells the story of King George VI (Colin Firth) overcoming his stammer with the help of his speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffery Rush), while dealing with national and family crises, which, when you’re the king, are one and the same. It’s a well-made period piece that also won statues for director Tom Hooper, actors Firth and Rush, and writer David Seidler.
“Argo”: Ben Affleck’s affable piece of CIA propaganda was the Best Picture winner for 2012. Chris Terrio also won Best Adapted Screenplay for borrowing make-up artist John Chambers’ line “Argo f— yourself,” and William Goldenberg won Best Film Editing, out of a total of seven nominations. Of particular note is what it wasn’t nominated for, Best Director for Ben Affleck, a snub that prompted Bradley Cooper to declare “Ben Affleck got robbed.” (Cooper himself had a similar experience a few years later, when “A Star Is Born” was nominated for Best Picture but he wasn’t for Best Director.) The film is an entertaining caper thriller that’s not-so-secretly a celebration of showbiz.
“West Side Story”: The great critic Pauline Kael called it “frenzied hokum,” but Oscar voters loved it; the film adaptation of the immortal musical won 10 Oscars out of 11 nominations in 1961, one of the best wins-to-noms ratios in Academy Awards history. It’s one of the best musicals ever made, with unforgettable music and choreography, beautiful colors, and excellent performances (Rita Moreno and George Chakaris both won in the supporting categories). It’s also the Best Picture winner with the greatest number of cast members who went on to be series regulars on “Twin Peaks” (Richard Beymer and Russ Tamblyn).
“12 Years a Slave”: The opposite of “Gone With the Wind.” Steve McQueen’s gut-punching drama about a freeborn Black man from New York named Solomon Northup (the devastating Chiwetel Ejiofor) who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana won Best Picture in 2013, along with Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley and Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong’o in her feature film debut. McQueen lost Best Director to Alfonso Cuarón for “Gravity” in a Best Picture/Best Director split that was relatively rare at the time but has become increasingly common the years since.
“The Shape of Water”: Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy won four awards in 2017: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score, out of a leading 13 nominations. It’s a big-hearted creature feature with great performances by the ensemble, including SFX makeup acting specialist Doug Jones as the “Amphibian Man.” “The Shape of Water” is one of only two fantasy films to win Best Picture, and del Toro wanted other filmmakers to be inspired by that. “Everyone that is dreaming of a parable, of using genre or fantasy to tell the stories about the things that are real in the world today, you can do it,” he said in his Best Picture acceptance speech. “This is a door; kick it open and come in.”
“Parasite”: Last year’s Best Picture winner made history as the first film not in English to win the top prize, a milestone in the Academy’s recognition of world cinema. (It also won Best International Feature.) Best Director and Best Original Screenplay winner Bong Joon-ho celebrated his film’s wins by shouting out Martin Scorsese and making his Oscars kiss, as we all hopefully would if we were in that situation. “Parasite” is a taut, entertaining thriller that over the course of its lifetime will probably join “The Godfather” and “The Departed” among the ranks of the most rewatchable Best Picture winners.
“Platoon”: Oliver Stone’s harrowing Vietnam War drama was nominated for eight Oscars in 1986 and won four – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, and Best Film Editing. The film is inspired by writer-director Stone’s own experiences as a Yale dropout who volunteered for the Army and served as an infantryman in Vietnam. The film helped launch the careers of Charlie Sheen, Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, and Willem Dafoe, the latter of whom was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the film, along with Tom Berenger, who played his rival sergeant. The performances and the “war is hell” setpieces are unforgettable.
“Dances with Wolves”: Kevin Costner was the man in 1990. His epic Western grossed $424 million on a $22 million budget and won seven Oscars, including two for him personally, Best Picture and Best Director. He was also nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Jeremy Irons for Reversal of Fortune. “Dances with Wolves” is mostly talked about in Oscar history now as the movie that unjustly beat “Goodfellas” in Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, but its cultural legacy is actually very strong. It revitalized the Western genre for several years (not that Westerns have ever really gone away). The Costner-starring “Yellowstone,” one of TV’s most popular current shows, wouldn’t exist without it.
“The Departed”: In 2006, this crime classic finally won Martin Scorsese the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director that had eluded him to this point in his career. (He’s since gotten three more nominations for each, but no wins.) It’s (arguably) not even one of his five best movies, but it’s still a kinetic thriller packed to the kelly green gills with great performances and quotable lines courtesy of screenwriter William Monahan, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for the film. It won one more, too, for Best Editing. Like all of Scorsese’s gangster movies, it’s long, violent, and impossible to not get completely sucked into.
“The Artist”: When 2011’s “The Artist” won Best Picture, it became the first (mostly) silent film to win the top Oscar since “Wings” won at the very first Academy Awards in 1927. Michel Hazanavicius’ unlikely crowd-pleaser resurrects the bygone silent form to irrepressibly charming effect, thanks, especially, to Jean Dujardin’s impressive performance. It won four other awards – Best Director, Best Actor, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Score – out of 10 nominations. “The Artist”’s current reputation is paradoxical. It’s regarded as too slight to be a worthy Best Picture winner, which makes it appear like it’s not as good as it actually is as a delightful piece of technically accomplished entertainment.
“Spotlight”: “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy’s based-on-a-true-story drama about a team of Boston Globe journalists investigating child sexual abuse and coverup in the local Catholic archdiocese, won the top award in 2015. It’s one of the least stylized films to ever win Best Picture, as McCarthy opts for an appropriately journalistic presentation that’s no less impactful for its restraint. It’s a powerful, gracefully acted story about one of the world’s most distressing scandals. “Spotlight” also won Best Original Screenplay, and is the first film since “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1952 to win only one other Oscar besides Best Picture, though it received a total of six nominations.
“Moonlight”: “Moonlight” won Best Picture at the 2016 ceremony in the most shocking upset in Oscars history, in a moment that still feels like it couldn’t really have happened. But there’s a reason “Moonlight” prevailed over the heavily favored “La La Land”: Barry Jenkins‘ yearning drama is one of the best films to ever win the top prize. In addition to Best Picture, “Moonlight” won two other Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, and was nominated for eight in total.
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