16 Oscar-bait movies that were snubbed by the Academy
(L-R) Jake Gyllenhall in Zodiac, Chris Hemsworth in Rush and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate.
It may be true that nobody ever sets out to make a bad movie. But they certainly go in looking for love.
Every awards season, starting at Sundance, Cannes or the Toronto International Film Festival, depending on which calendar you follow, we encounter the words, “For Your Consideration.”
It tells us that the producers of the film consider it Oscar-calibre. The studio may even be contractually obligated to promote it that way as a sop to some big Hollywood egos.
And every awards season is littered with the bones of delusion. This year saw a few of these, including Angelina Jolie’s directorial effort Unbroken – pushed as a heart-swelling tribute to the human spirit, and snubbed by the Golden Globes, SAG, Director’s Guild and Oscars.
Another worth mentioning this year: The Judge, the Robert Downey Jr. movie that opened this year’s Toronto festival to much head-scratching. Tepid reviews and meager box office led to one Oscar nom, a best-supporting actor spot for Robert Duvall (which many consider a retirement gift).
Here are some other films of recent vintage that saw big coming-out parties rewarded with scant acclaim. Some deserved the snub and some definitely didn’t.
HEREAFTER (2010): The Oscar snub of director Clint Eastwood for the otherwise nomination-drenched American Sniper isn’t new. This Eastwood-directed film, with Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard ruminating on death and mortality, began with a stunning 10 minutes amid the 2004 tsunami, and then slowed to a crawl. One of the year’s most critically-anticipated films ended up garnering a visual effects Oscar nomination and that was it.
J. EDGAR (2011): An even bigger Eastwood snub, with zero Oscar nominations. Going in, Leonardo DiCaprio playing the corrupt FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover, seemed like no-brainer awards fodder. Then people saw the movie.
RUSH (2013): Take Ron Howard, no stranger to Oscar night, working with a script by Peter Morgan (The Queen), with terrific performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl as James Hunt and Niki Lauda, and you’ve got arguably the best racing movie ever. Still mind-boggling that it was ignored at awards season.
BELOVED (1998): Oprah Winfrey starring in a slavery-themed movie with Danny Glover, based on a book by Toni Morrison, and with a full-Oprah press blitz. It got her on the cover of Time magazine. But only the Chicago Film Critics Association (her hometown) gave it any love – a supporting actress award for Kimberly Elise.
IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH (2007): After tackling racism-in-L.A. in Crash and winning the Best Picture Oscar, Canada’s Paul Haggis decided to do an oblique take on the Iraq War with this tale of a father (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to reconstruct his soldier-son’s death via retrieved cellphone videos. A slow-moving “war movie” impressed neither fans nor critics.
BOBBY (2006): Director Emilio Estevez tried to do a Robert Altman with this star-studded ensemble piece about the goings-on at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel the day of RFK’s assassination. Anthony Hopkins, Demi Moore, Sharon Stone, Laurence Fishburne, Helen Hunt, Ashton Kutcher, Shia LaBeouf and Lindsay Lohan created a dramatic scrum I quite liked. But awards-wise, the movie was dead in the water.
THE IDES OF MARCH (2011): Apparently - as with the ignored Monuments Men this year - there’s a limit to how much Hollywood will indulge its love of all things Clooney. George Clooney directed himself (and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling) in a half-baked election thriller he co-wrote. Voters nominated him for a writing Oscar, but otherwise cleared their throats and awkwardly looked the other way.
INTO THE WILD (2007): The Academy’s message to Sean Penn, “We love your acting, not crazy about your directing.” The movie, starring Emile Hirsch, was the real-life story of Christopher McCandless, a young dreamer who gave away all his money, and ill-advisedly hitchhiked to Alaska to live in the wild. The American Film Institute Awards named it Movie of the Year. The Academy pretended it didn’t exist.
MALCOLM X (1992): Denzel got the usual Oscar nomination he gets for everything, but Spike Lee (who campaigned to take this movie away from Norman Jewison) was ignored. Spike has yet to be nominated, and this was probably his best chance.
MEN OF HONOR (2000): Oscar™ winner Robert De Niro! Oscar™ winner Cuba Gooding Jr.! In the inspiring story of the first African American (and first amputee) U.S. Navy diver! The Oscar math said it had to win something. But in the immortal words of Barbie, math is hard.
AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007): Ridley Scott directs Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in the true story of drug kingpin Frank Lucas. Oh c’mon, there’s got to be an Oscar nom in there somewhere. And there was, for supporting actress Ruby Dee, who has since passed away. Otherwise nada.
ZODIAC (2007): Along with Rush, probably the best movie on this list. David Fincher’s take on the unsolved Bay area Zodiac killings from the ‘60s/’70s was Jake Gyllenhaal’s breakout dramatic performance (opposite Robert Downey Jr.). Critics’ groups nominated it for best film, but the major awards wouldn’t give it a sniff.
THE FIFTH ESTATE (2013): The Benedict Cumberbatch fans were out on the street in force at the Toronto Film Festival when they trotted out this biopic of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Cumberbatch wasn’t a bad Assange, but the movie was a mess. Daniel Bruhl (Rush) performed well here too, but was ignored twice in the same year. Worst thing about the movie bombing: Assange probably thinks it was his doing.
PROMISED LAND (2012): Matt Damon starred and co-wrote this Gus Van Sant movie about a gas company sales exec who sees the light about how fracking is poisoning a small town. They loved it at the Berlin Film Festival, but Hollywood voters didn’t want to go anywhere near the can of worms an anti-fracking drama would open up.
KING KONG (2005): Peter Jackson proved – with 11 Oscars for the third Lord Of The Rings movie – that you can go big and go to the Oscars too. Hubris said, “Why can’t I do it with a giant ape for a leading man?” His Kong was an overlong spectacle with some great moments, but it failed to attract a big enough audience or enough critical respect for awards traction.
GANGSTER SQUAD (2013): I can’t think of a movie in recent years that disappointed as much as this ‘40s noir film with Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin. Positioned for a September release - in time for awards season - its release date was pushed to January because of the Aurora shootings (it featured a shooting in a movie theatre). The finished product turned out to be badly written and so broadly directed as to seem a spoof. The trailer won an award though.