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The 25 best Oscar-winning movies you should watch before you die

15. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (2003)

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

There was no way the Academy could ignore Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy. A visually-adventurous tale of Hobbits, Elves, Orcs and – above all – the true strength of friendship, it was a travesty that the previous two movies didn't scoop up awards.

With an A-list cast, attention to detail, and respect towards the source novels, The Return of the Kings benefitted from voters who realised, third time around, just how groundbreaking this trilogy was. 

14. It Happened One Night (1934)

(Image credit: Columbia Pictures)

It Happened One Night was a trailblazer, paving the way for the modern romantic comedy as we now know it. Before Frank Capra's screwball caper, there were no amusing scenarios for when couples first meet in movies or scenes where characters dissect their heartbreak with their friends.

All of that stems from the story of Claudette Colbert's hoity heiress, who finds herself torn between two suitors, and goes for the least likely option. It Happened One Night took the conventions of the post-Depression era, when women were in pursuit of financial security, and twisted them into something fresh.

13. Midnight Cowboy (1969)

(Image credit: United Artists)

"I'm walking here!" yells Dustin Hoffman's scam artist as a New York City cab nearly mows him down. It's a scene that's so iconic it almost overshadows the movie itself, which is worth noting because Hoffman improvised the line. John Schlesinger's ease for letting his drifter picture go wherever his leads liked is part of what makes it feel so natural.

The story follows Jon Voight's Joe Buck. After leaving Texas for the bright lights of the big city, he turns tricks to make a living and, along the way, befriends Ratso (Hoffman). The first X-rated movie to ever win Best Picture. By today's ratings, it would be an NC-17 – the UK equivalent of an 18.

12. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

(Image credit: United Artists)

Miles Forman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel is a classic for a reason. In possibly his best performance, Jack Nicholson plays Randle McMurphy, a wise-cracking con artist who talks his way into a mental institution to forgo a harsher prison term. He rages against the machine that's run by the evil Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) and befriends all sorts of folks inside, including a pre-Doc Brown Christopher Lloyd. 

It'll uplift your soul and break your heart in equal measure, and the fact that it's so good at doing both justifies every award that's been thrown at One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. 

11. Gone With the Wind (1939)

(Image credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

A grand, majestic picture that walked away with eight Oscars, Gone With the Wind remains a cornerstone of cinema. That this lush melodramatic tale of romance and injustice during the American Civil War even made it to the big screen remains a mini-miracle.

The movie was beset with problems right throughout its lengthy production, from the hundreds of actresses who tested for the part of Scarlett O'Hara to the sheer quantity of directors who came and went. Adapted from Margaret Mitchell's novel, it's still the most successful movie in box office history when adjusted for inflation.

10. Schindler's List (1993)

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Steven Spielberg's has made dozens of palatable blockbusters out of dozens of mismatched topics. Aliens, spies, and robots – you name it, Spielberg's probably made a movie about it. For Schindler's List, the filmmaker tackles a more serious subject than normal, crafting an evocative, powerful movie based on a historical event that saw 6 million Jews senselessly murdered.

Despite garnering negative attention while making the movie, Spielberg nevertheless chose to focus his movie on the 600 people who survived the Holocaust thanks to Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson). It's unashamedly a Spielbergian take on things, putting the spotlight on the decency of man even in our darkest hours.

9. The Apartment (1960)

(Image credit: United Artists)

Well-known at the time for screwball comedies, Billy Wilder tried something new with The Apartment. It became an instant game-changer – a pioneering example of what Hollywood could get away with.

Jack Lemmon stars as Baxter, an insurance agent who lets his office pals use his apartment to entertain their mistresses, all the while struggling to find love himself. that is, of course, until he meets Shirley Maclaine's whip-smart elevator operator, Fran. It's her performance that's the real turning point. She's full of biting wit and self-deprecating one-liners, yet still brings an edge of darkness to Baxter's humdrum life.

8. The French Connection (1971)

(Image credit: Fox)

Dom Toretto's crew have got nothing on the petrolhead prowess of Gene Hackman in The French Connection. As Detective Jimmy Doyle he might pursue justice behind the safety of a badge, but there's nothing remotely by-the-book about his swaggering determination.

Tasked with bringing down a ring of heroin smugglers in New York City, he embarks on one of the best car chases ever filmed. The unrelenting demands of director William Friedkin saw a large portion of the city's subway shut down for the scene, in which Hackman's cop hurtles around the streets in his Pontiac to pursue his train-bound target.

7. Annie Hall (1977)

(Image credit: United Artists)

One of Woody Allen's best romantic comedies saw the director turn away from the weird, oddball pictures he was making and dive into something more mainstream. Casting Diane Keaton as the title character was a masterstroke. Carefree and cool, and with trend-setting fashion sense, she's the perfect antidote to Allen's neurotic Alvy Singer.

Their funniest moment happens while they discuss their next date, as a series of captions appear to illustrate the differences between what we say and what we mean. While he wasn't the first director to break the fourth wall, he's the one who wrung the most laughs from its possibilities.

6. The Godfather (1972)

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Based on Mario Puzo's novel, The Godfather gave birth to the modern mobster movie. Its influence over the entire gangster genre spilled out into real life, with New York City's crime lords taking their cues from the Corleone family. 

So much from the movie has been lifted into pop culture via spoofs and parodies: the horse head in the bed, the mutterings of Marlon Brando's wiseguy, and that sweet piece of improvised dialogue, "Leave the gun. Take the cannoli." It's perhaps no wonder that many people regard the movie as perhaps the best movie of all time.

Turn to Page 3 for more of the best Oscar-winning movies

Gem is GR+'s west coast entertainment news reporter. She’s a bit obsessed with all things Aliens and Terminator.