Originally published January 16, 2016.
After months spent batting around names as gilded as Theron and DiCaprio, Hollywood released its 2016 Oscar nominations on January 14. The present, pressing matter of who should win on February 28 and why, I leave to the pundits in the mainstream media. They've made Oscar season something of a horse race (case in point), and they've made me a pundit on the past.
For with Oscar season comes that inevitable nostalgia for older Oscar-winning fare. In fact, last January I began to sort out the best Oscar-winning performances of the past. This year I’m asking the same question but of Best Picture winners: which would I re-award or, say, re-Oscar because they simply can’t be beat? Here are five in chronological order, and why they could be golden to you, too.
1. Ordinary People (1980) | DVD
Oscar: 1981 Best Picture
Reason to Re-Oscar: Mary Tyler Moore plays the icy matriarch of a suburban Chicago family broken by tragedy. The Jarretts’ favored first son is dead, taken by a boat accident that spared their second son (Timothy Hutton, also re-Oscar-worthy). Drowning in survivor’s guilt, Hutton's Conrad is suicidal in the face of his aloof mom and affectionate dad (Donald Sutherland). The family’s reckoning with loss, pain and each other culminates in a quiet, extraordinary scene between mother and father that lays bare not just what they did, but who they are as parents and as people.
2. The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | DVD, Blu-ray
Oscar: 1992 Best Picture
Reason to Re-Oscar: Is it a thriller, a horror, a drama or a romance? Jonathan Demme's film defies easy categorization, just like the caged cannibal at its center. Forensic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) once ate a man's liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti, yet he ultimately helps FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) hunt down a serial killer. The movie's investigative passages teem with dread and suspense, but it's the four lengthy interrogation scenes between Lecter and Starling that transfix you. Those facial close-ups in which the two characters speak directly to the camera (when speaking to each other) hold a mirror to both the virtuous and depraved elements of society who live among us, some caged, some not.
- Based On: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (Books, eBook, Downloadable and Streaming Audiobooks)
3. Titanic (1997) | DVD, Blu-ray
Oscar: 1998 Best Picture
Reason to Re-Oscar: Eleven Oscars and nearly twenty years later, James Cameron's tale of young love made ageless by disaster has not lost its luster. I happen to think it never will. As epics go, Titanic is simple and earnest in its storytelling, but it's scaled to accommodate every outpouring of emotion among actors and audience, lovers and haters, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) alike.
- Based On: The sinking of the RMS Titanic, April 15, 1912 (Books, eBook, DVDs, Blu-ray)
4. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | DVD, Blu-ray
Oscar: 2004 Best Picture
Reason to Re-Oscar: For all the majesty with which Peter Jackson adapted J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth panorama, King is simply the one among three cinematic masterworks that takes our heroes home again. Tolkien called home the Shire and heroes Hobbits. Jackson conjured a vision of Tolkien's world that resonates with our own at a time when an evil eye is ever watchful of ways to terrorize good people. The point is to see, however impossible it seems, darkness can be defeated.
- Based on: The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien (Books, eBooks, Downloadable and Streaming Audiobooks)
5. Million Dollar Baby (2004) | DVD, Blu-ray
Oscar: 2005 Best Picture
Reason to Re-Oscar: Clint Eastwood crafted a boxing tale that follows the sports-flick formula in which the eager underdog becomes triumphant topdog – at first. Rural waitress Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) throws her lot behind L.A. boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (played with measured warmth by Eastwood himself). Frankie refuses to train Maggie, then relents. Maggie doesn't doubt her ability for a second, but her winning jabs and hooks in the ring are hardly the point. In the final act the story makes a breathtaking turn, sending you headlong into what it means to fight for your life. More than just a tearjerker, Million Dollar Baby is a sucker punch to the soul.
- Based on: Rope Burns: Stories From the Corner by F.X. Toole (Book)