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15 Best Oscars Lineups of All Time

Looking back at the Academy Awards’ most rock-solid ‘Murderers’ Row’ nominee rosters

Best Oscars Line-up

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Arguing about the Academy Awards is as much an American passion as watching the movies they honor, and there’s not a single film fanatic out there that won’t argue about why X should not have won over Y, or moan over how their personal pick for the year’s real Best Picture (or Actor, or Actress, or … ) of the year wasn’t even able to score a nomination. We still get into knock-down, drag-out fights over Dances With Wolves winning over GoodFellas back in 1991. For real.

But some years, Oscar gets it very, very right. We’ve gone through nine decades of history and selected the finest “Murderers’ Row” lineups of nominees for each of the six major categories — Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor. Consider this the Oscar for Best Oscars.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

CHINATOWN, Jack Nicholson, 1975

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Best Picture, 1974

Chinatown, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II (winner), Lenny, The Towering Inferno

The first three films on this list weren't merely contenders for the best film of the year; they're on any reasonable list of the best films ever made. That two of them, The Conversation and The Godfather Part II, were both made by Francis Ford Coppola is a Beatles/Bowie/Wu-Tang miracle of genius-level productivity. Chinatown is, well … it's Chinatown, Jake. And don't overlook Lenny, an uncompromising portrait of a the uncompromising comedian Lenny Bruce featuring memorable work from director Bob Fosse and star Dustin Hoffman. Only The Towering Inferno is left to demonstrate that even in one of Hollywood's most creatively fertile periods, nothing succeeds like excess.

Best Picture WInners; 10 Surprises; Oscars

JAWS, 1975

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Best Picture, 1975

Barry Lyndon, Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Nashville, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (winner)

We looked hard. We really did. But pound for pound, film for film, we couldn't come up with a stronger Best Picture slate than this one. That's five stone classics from five essential directors. Elsewhere you have career-highlight-reel work from Al Pacino, John Cazale, Jack Nicholson, and Louise Fletcher, among others. And while Jaws may have marked the dawn of the blockbuster era, don't hold that against it — it's still as smart, subtle, and scary as any box-office smash has ever been. If you wanna beat this lineup, you're gonna need a bigger boat.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

TAXI DRIVER, Robert De Niro, 1976

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Best Actor, 1976

Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver), Peter Finch (Network – winner), Giancarlo Giannini (Seven Beauties), William Holden (Network), Sylvester Stallone (Rocky)

"You talkin' to me?" "Adriaaaaaan!" "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" If your standard is catchphrase quality, this is the best Best Actor lineup by a longshot. But all the nominees did nuanced, worthy work, in a variety of styles. You had your lions in winter (Finch and Holden), your physical sculptures (De Niro and Stallone), your edge-of-sanity prophets of doom (Finch and De Niro). Even Giannini, the least famous of the five here in the States, blazed trails with a rare foreign-language acting nod for an even rarer woman-directed film (Lina Wertmüller became the first woman nominated for Best Director that year).

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

ON GOLDEN POND, Katharine Hepburn, 1981.

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Best Actress, 1981

Katharine Hepburn (On Golden Pond – winner), Diane Keaton (Reds), Marsha Mason (Only When I Laugh), Susan Sarandon (Atlantic City), Meryl Streep (The French Lieutenant's Woman)

Talk about the passing of the torch. 1981 saw Katharine Hepburn earn the last of her 12 Best Actress Oscar nominations, and her fourth and final win (more than any other actress), just as Meryl Streep captured the first of her 15 (and counting!) nods. Sandwiched between these two for-the-ages actors were vital talents Mason, Keaton, and Sarandon, who've been nominated for Best Actress four, four, and five times respectively themselves. Golden Pond indeed.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

Glory (1989) Directed by Edward Zwick Shown: Denzel Washington

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Best Supporting Actor, 1989

Danny Aiello (Do the Right Thing), Dan Aykroyd (Driving Miss Daisy), Marlon Brando (A Dry White Season), Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors), Denzel Washington (Glory – winner)

Icon-in-the-making Denzel Washington winning his first Academy Award (this was his second nomination). Actors of a certain age Danny Aiello and Martin Landau handing in searing performances in arguably the best movies from two of the best directors New York ever produced. (Feel free to slap an asterisk on Woody Allen, of course.) Throw in a nod for SNL veteran Aykroyd and star-turned-supernova Brando and you have one of the widest-ranging slates in Oscar history.

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

THE GRIFTERS, Annette Bening, 1990. ©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

Everett Collection

Best Supporting Actress, 1990

Annette Bening (The Grifters), Lorraine Bracco (GoodFellas), Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost – winner), Diane Ladd (Wild at Heart), Mary McDonnell (Dances With Wolves)

Between Bening's con woman, Bracco's mob wife, and Ladd's wicked witch, the roles involved in this year's Best Supporting Actress slate top the "characters you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley" competition. While they laid it all on the line in films involving criminality that ranged from the sordid to the surreal, Goldberg gave up her defining performance as a Patrick Swayze – possessed medium (no, really!), while McDonnell made an impression despite the limitations of the inexplicably acclaimed Kevin Costner epic Dances With Wolves. (Chalk it up to experience that paved the way for Battlestar Galactica's President Laura Roslin and you're good to go.)

Oscar; All Star Categories; Line-up

CAPOTE, Bob Balaban, Bruce Greenwood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, 2005, © Sony Pictures Classics/courtesy Everett Collection

Everett Collection

Best Actor, 2005

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote – winner), Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck)

It's impossible to look at this year's Best Actor slate and not wonder what might have been. Hoffman and Ledger are now lost to us, and for a while it seemed like Howard and Phoenix might have been headed that way as well, though by very different paths. Here, each of them turned in top-notch work (though Hoffman and Phoenix would hurdle over that high bar together in The Master a few years later), leaving the always watchable Strathairn to play straight-man to a top-notch tortured-artist quartet.

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