Fifty million Twitter timelines can't be wrong: Award shows effing it up is half the reason we watch in the first place. But when an art form's top honors are actually bestowed on the most deserving recipients, it's like getting a thrilling glimpse into a world where quality, or at least Hollywood's version thereof, trumps commerce. With the 85th Academy Awards on their way, we're opening the envelope and honoring some of the best Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress winners below. Whether acknowledging a star in the making, conferring a capstone on a legendary career, or bucking tradition for an achievement that couldn't be ignored, these are a dozen examples of Oscar going where he belonged.—Sean T. Collins
Hollywood as we know it wouldn't be Hollywood as we know it without a handful of foundational films. Casablanca is one of them, and unlike several others (Citizen Kane and The Wizard of Oz come to mind, though Oz lost to the equally influential Gone With the Wind), it won the big prize. As integral to our culture's conception of romance as Romeo & Juliet, it pulls off the neat trick of being simultaneously cynical about love's long-term prospects and passionate about giving it a shot anyway. And, of course, it's endlessly (mis)quotable.
Part one won too, but degree of difficulty matters. The victory of Francis Ford Coppola's second mafia masterpiece marked a number of Oscar milestones: First sequel to win. First and only time that both the original and the sequel won. Beat out not only one of the other great '70s new-wave Hollywood crime classics, Roman Polanski's neo-noir Chinatown, but another near-flawless Coppola film from that same year, the prescient conspiracy thriller The Conversation. All for an ambitious prequel/sequel mash-up that's both deeper and darker than its predecessor.
Oscar is steeped in tradition, and "no horror movies allowed" is up there with tuxedos and awkward musical numbers. To this day the only fright film to take the top honor, Silence was a controversial pick, but a worthy one—a stealthily feminist fable about the relentlessness of the male gaze, in which an indelible female hero squares off against a killer who hates the women he "covets" so much he skins and wears them as part of a grotesque, homophobic ritualized routine. (Note, however, that many critics situated the homophobia with the movie, not the killer.) It's a meaty enough dish that Anthony Hopkins' for-the-ages villainy as Hannibal Lecter is more or less just gravy.
Was this a consolation prize for the greatest living American director? Well, yeah. So what? Dude got stiffed on Raging Bull and Goodfellas, and wasn't even nominated the year Taxi Driver had its shot at Best Picture. Would you rather him go to his grave unhonored, like Stanley Kubrick? Better for Marty to finally get his gold for this surprisingly strange movie, with its ferociously angry performances from DiCaprio, Damon, and Wahlberg and its virtual symphony of people getting shot in the head, than for a baggy Oscar-bait period piece.
Like Scorsese, the Coen Brothers could probably consider this mid-'00s Oscar a make-good, in this case for Joel's Fargo defeat. But No Country is a bona fide career pinnacle. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel, it hit thriller beats the Bros hadn't attempted since their harrowing debut Blood Simple. And as in many of their movies, it combined tremendous empathy for its hapless, hunted main character with ruthless fatalism about his fate in a way they had yet to surpass. (Until A Serious Man. And Inside Llewyn Davis. And…)
Though superstar actresses like megatalent Meryl Streep have long been a selling point for the Academy Awards, women have toiled thanklessly on the other side of the camera for decades. Only four women have ever received a Best Director nomination, and Bigelow's the only one to win. Deservedly so: If The Hurt Locker's blend of crackling suspense and war weariness are anyone's individual achievement, it's Bigelow's, an outgrowth of her long-standing knack for combining genre entertainment with hauntingly damaged characters. (Bodhi, anyone?)
Was there ever any doubt? Brando created the title character of this movie like James Brown and his band created funk, or like God separated form from void: There was nothing like it before he did it, and after he did it, it became impossible to imagine a world without it. The jowls, the mumble, the tears over Sonny, the giggles with his grandson, the old-world charm, the effortless command of legions of suit-wearing killers: iconic.
I'd say this is arguably the all-time greatest performance by an actor, but forget "arguably"—I'm arguing it now. A marvelous athlete, a wife-beating monster, a loathsome has-been, a tragic figure of absolutely crushing sadness: In De Niro's hands, boxer Jake LaMotta was all these things and more. His total physical transformation from peak-physical-condition prizefighter to obese drunk set the standard for actor commitment. (Christian Bale took what De Niro did for this movie and made a career out of it.) Dazzlingly showy and utterly sincere, like the movies ought to be.
Now that De Niro primarily plays parts into which he can slip with all the difficulty of a well-worn bathrobe, Day-Lewis stands as his heir, and in carrying Paul Thomas Anderson's oil-greed epic he made his own case for greatness. Daniel Plainview's not so much a man as he is a grasping hand, always reaching for more and striking those who oppose him; Day-Lewis made this 21st-century Charles Foster Kane a wild-eyed combination of mania and memes. He deserved the Oscar for the voice alone.
With a name like a Simpsons character, a rural-cop gig that involves negotiating the competing demands of morning sickness and people who put people in woodchippers, and a voice like—well, frankly, we'd never heard a voice like that in the movies before—Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson made for unlikely Oscar bait. She won because she ably embodied the idea her frequent collaborators the Coen Brothers were trying to get across: It's easy to be awful to each other, so it's hugely important to be decent instead. "And it's a beautiful day."
We'll start with the embarrassing historical fact: No other African American has won the Best Actress trophy. And there's an argument about how the Academy genuinely rewards black victimhood that needs to be made, too. None of that should take away from Berry's achievement in this role, uncomfortably raw with grief and lust and the countless damages of a life lived in accommodation of the unreasonable demands made on it by an unjust and uncaring world.
A star is born. When she's not busy holding down one of the biggest action-movie franchises of all time or turning red-carpet footage into a self-effacing stand-up comedy routine, newly minted megastar Jennifer Lawrence excels in serio-comic roles like the world-weary young widow whose symbiotic relationship with a bipolar Bradley Cooper helps nurse them both back to some semblance of mental health. Oscar loves a good coronation.