Introducing: The Best Picture History Project

Academy Awards Presentations Photo

The Best Picture History Project started as an inexpensive date night idea. We decided to watch every Academy Award Best Picture winner in order. It quickly turned into an entirely new understanding of America, her history, and her people’s priorities and culture shifts throughout the years.

I’ve studied American history my entire life and have always been fascinated by the swings of “pop” culture and populism as they intersect politics, racial tension, and war. Watching each (Oscar®) Academy Award Best Picture Winner in order, beginning with the 1928 movie, ‘Wings’, brought a whole new breadth of insight and curiosities brought by the American cinematic portfolio.

In 2015, my husband and I had three small children at home, and not a lot of disposable income. One night, we were talking about movies and one of us – I can’t remember who – mentioned they’d always wanted to watch all of the Best Picture Oscar® Winning films. This was the beginning of the golden age of streaming – Netflix or HBO had almost every Best Picture winner in the library, and our local library had all of them available to borrow for free. We decided this would be a thing we would do.

Best Picture History Project: The Rules

We set rules, because we are complete and total weirdos. I have no other reason as to why these rules were set, but they were, and they made the entire process both more fun and less fun.

Rule #1: No phones or handheld devices allowed. All attention had to be placed on the movie.

Rule #2: All Best Picture winners must be watched in order, starting with the first winner in 1928,

Rule #3: No watching new Best Picture winners until we’ve caught up. The only way to see a Best Picture Winner is to watch it before it is even nominated. Because we have small children, we have not watched many movies in the last 20 years that aren’t animated. As such, we have not seen any Academy Award Best Picture Winners since 2013’s 12 Years a Slave; a movie I had watched because the corresponding book was a book I had read several times.

Rule #4: If the movie is based off of a book, I have to read the book first. This rule is made by me for me – my husband has no interest in reading some of these old books and, after some of them, I don’t blame him. As books are such a huge part of my life, this rule enhances the overall experience and my enjoyment of the films.

To date, we have made it all the way to 1987. That means that we have not seen nor can we see any Oscar® Best Picture winners that came after this until we finally reach their place in the order – even if we have already seen them! My goal with this post is to list the Best Picture Winners, and then add one by one the Film and details, linked back to this post, along with the relevant history. Why did this picture win over the others? What was going on in American Life at the time that made this film the chosen?

Winning films speak to times of cultural rebellion, propaganda, and changing attitudes towards material excess. The films of the late 20’s reflected the sexual promiscuity of the Roaring 20’s – shocking given the huge backslides American society took after the Great Depression and World War II. In the 1930’s, films of great Broadway dance shows like The Great Ziegfeld (1936) are brought to the masses through theatre, something modern audiences may find overdone or boring but must have been absolutely breathtaking at the cinema to rural Americans at the time.

Some movies stand out more than others, but the experience in total has brought context to the changing culture of America in the 20th century. Some films brought to light some experiences of my grandparents and parents that I had yet to fully realize, such as the wonders of Technicolor movies or the uncertainty and fear leading up to the Vietnam War and the draft. The change in attitudes between 1945 and 1965 are illuminated through the films made and chosen by the Academy as the best overall work.

I certainly hope that, as I get through the movies week by week, that you’ll watch some of these films and enjoy them as much as I have. Except for Hamlet (1948). I didn’t enjoy that at all. I loved watching and listening to Lawrence Olivier, the clear inspiration for Cary Elwes’ Westley in the Princess Bride, but that’s all I loved about it.

Many of the following movies can be streamed from Amazon:

Movies to Stream on Amazon

Academy Award Best Picture Winners

1928 – Wings

1929 – The Broadway Melody

1930 – All Quiet on the Western Front

1931 – Cimarron

1932 – Grand Hotel

1933 – Cavalcade

1934 – It Happened One Night

1935 – Mutiny on the Bounty

1936 – The Great Ziegfeld

1937 – The Life of Emile Zola

1938 – You Can’t Take it With You

1939 – Gone With the Wind

1940 – Rebecca

1941 – How Green Was my Valley

1942 – Mrs. Miniver

1943 – Casablanca

1944 – Going My Way

1945 – The Lost Weekend

1946 – The Best Years of Our Lives

1947 – Gentleman’s Agreement

1948 – Hamlet

1949 – All the King’s Men

1950 – All About Eve

1951 – An American in Paris

1952 – The Greatest Show on Earth

1953 – From Here to Eternity

1954 – On the Waterfront

1955 – Marty

1956 – Around the World in 80 Days

1957 – The Bridge on River Kwai

1958 – Gigi

1959 – Ben-Hur

1960 – The Apartment

1961 – West Side Story

1962 – Lawrence of Arabia

1963 – Tom Jones

1964 – My Fair Lady

1965 – The Sound of Music

1966 – A Man For All Seasons

1967 – In the Heat of the Night

1968 – Oliver!

1969 – Midnight Cowboy

1970 – Patton

1971 – The French Connection

1972 – The Godfather

1973 – The Sting

1974 – The Godfather, Part 2

1975 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

1976 – Rocky

1977 – Annie Hall

1978 – The Deer Hunter

1979 – Kramer vs. Kramer

1980 – Ordinary People

1981 – Chariots of Fire

1982 – Gandhi

1983 – Terms of Endearment

1984 – Amadeus

1985 – Out of Africa

1986 – Platoon

1987 – The Last Emporer

1988 – Rain Man

1989 – Driving Miss Daisy

1990 – Dances With Wolves

1991 – The Silence of the Lambs

1992 – Unforgiven

1993 – Schindler’s List

1994 – Forrest Gump

1995 – Braveheart

1996 – The English Patient

1997 – Titanic

1998 – Shakespeare in Love

1999 – American Beauty

2000 – Gladiator

2001 – A Beautiful Mind

2002 – Chicago

2003 – The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

2004 – Million Dollar Baby

2005 – Crash

2006 – The Departed

2007 – No Country For Old Men

2008 – Slumdog Millionaire

2009 – The Hurt Locker

2010 – The King’s Speech

2011 – The Artist

2012 – Argo

2013 – 12 Years a Slave

2014 – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

2015 – Spotlight

2016 – Moonlight

2017 – The Shape of Water

2018 – Green Book

2019 – Parasite

2020 – Nomadland

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