1. Bobby (2006)
For all the complaints made about the Academy Awards, they remain the highest honor a film can achieve. Picking up an Oscar not only ensures that the winning films will have a longer life and find more viewers, it boosts the career of everyone who walks off the stage with a gold statuette. In other words, there are reasons to want an Oscar beyond the satisfaction of receiving an award for a job well done. Maybe that’s why some films seem a little too eager to assume Oscar-friendly shapes. Some offer somber adaptations of important literary works. Others give actors a chance to act to the fullest of their abilities for extended periods of time. Still others take on events that have shaped our times. A prime example of the lattermost, the Emilio Estevez-directed Bobby takes place in a single day at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel. But it’s not just any day: It’s the day of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, and the film brings in a once-in-a-lifetime—if rather bizarre—cast that includes Nick Cannon, Harry Belafonte, Christian Slater, Ashton Kutcher, William H. Macy, Lindsay Lohan, and Shia LaBeouf to portray a cross-section of 1968 America. The film is Altman-esque in form but not in depth, filled with thin characters and easy period references. It met with indifference from audiences and Oscar alike, in spite of earning a couple of Golden Globe nominations.
2. Nine (2009)
A hit in another medium can seem like just the thing to catch fire with audiences as well as Oscar voters. If that hit doubles as a study of the filmmaking process, rich with opportunities to talk about the magic and misery of movies, hey, all the better. Hence, Nine, an adaptation of the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit Broadway hit from 1982, which was itself an adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, a self-reflexive, semi-autobiographical film about a director suffering from creative paralysis. Although the film boasts a cast that includes Daniel Day-Lewis, it faced two insurmountable problems: 1) Any director would have trouble approaching Fellini’s stylistic flair, and Rob Marshall proved particularly ill-suited to the task, opting just to plant the camera indifferently, roll film, and then cut it all to ribbons in the editing room. 2) Nine’s songs just aren’t that good in the first place. Picked as a lock for multiple awards by Oscar prognosticators, it racked up a handful of nominations (most prominently Penélope Cruz for Best Supporting Actress and the undistinguished new Yeston song “Take It All”), but ended up a little-seen, less-loved also-ran.
3. The Shipping News (2001)
Somewhere along the line, probably around The Cider House Rules, Swedish director Lasse Hallström became the go-to director for self-consciously prestigious, awards-seeking fall movies, usually released by Miramax. And somewhere around The Shipping News, that career niche must have started to feel like a trap. Where Cider House is a best-case scenario, a prestige picture where any calculation gets swallowed up by the deeply affecting drama, The Shipping News comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. A dull adaptation of E. Annie Proulx’s Pulitzer-winning novel rendered sentimental to the point where the book’s fans hardly recognized it, the 2001 film features a heavyweight cast of actors familiar with awards and nominations (Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore, Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett) slogging their way through dreary Newfoundland. If anyone expected to win any awards as hazard pay, however, they were left disappointed: Although the Golden Globes coughed up a couple of nominations, nobody else paid it much mind.
4. The Life Of David Gale (2003)
A sparking, unpredictable character actor, Kevin Spacey never quite recovered from the shock of winning a Best Actor Oscar for American Beauty. He spent the next few years trying to chase down another Oscar, never more blatantly than with The Life Of David Gale. A Big Important Movie about a Big Important Topic, Gale casts Spacey as a death-row prisoner who offers a tell-all story to a reporter played by Kate Winslet. The ironies begin with the fact that Spacey’s character was a well-known death-penalty opponent prior to his imprisonment. But they don’t end—or get any less cheap from—there, as further revelations involving leukemia and a faked sexual assault force the film to perform double duty as a message movie and a sleazy shocker. Alan Parker’s usual slick directorial touches only make matters worse. Originally scheduled for an awards-season run during the fall of 2002, it disappeared from the schedule and quietly resurfaced the following February, to the acclaim of virtually no one.
5. Albert Nobbs (2011)
Though Glenn Close was nominated in the Best Actress category for her portrayal of an Irishwoman passing as a male butler (and Janet McTeer earned a Supporting Actress nod as another cross-dresser), Albert Nobbs limped its way out of the festival circuit and never gained any box-office or awards traction beyond the perfunctory recognition for Close’s stunt-y performance. And “perfunctory” is the best way to describe it. Few critics were enthusiastic about the movie or Close, but it’s hard not to acknowledge that she’s doing something, with her cropped hair and blank expression and gravelly voice. Close isn’t the least bit convincing as a man, but she is convincing as the kind of oddball that other people would leave alone. Close also co-wrote and produced Albert Nobbs (after playing the title character onstage in the ’80s), so this is clearly the performance she wanted to give. It’s also the kind of performance that makes awards voters with four slots already filled say, “And, oh I dunno… Glenn Close, I guess.”
6. J. Edgar (2011)
Clint Eastwood is a good director. Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for 2008’s Milk) is a good screenwriter. Leonardo DiCaprio is often a good actor. And tyrannical FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is a fascinating subject—from his persecution of those he considered “enemies” to his close, possibly homosexual relationship with his right-hand man Clyde Tolson. By all rights, J. Edgar should’ve been a nomination-generating machine—and truth be told, it’s a mostly okay, occasionally inspired film. But because the film’s flashback structure requires DiCaprio to spend large chunks of the movie in bad old-age makeup—on top of his broad Hoover-ian accent—J. Edgar seemed more like an elegantly filmed high-school play than the serious survey of American history it was meant to be. Eastwood’s been an Academy favorite for decades, but J. Edgar was left dangling.
7. Amelia (2009)
Proving that Oscar prognostication is an inexact science at best, when it was announced that double Oscar-winner Hilary Swank would be starring in a movie about legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, most speculators went ahead and inked Swank in as a lock for a nomination. But who would’ve guessed that the usually reliable director Mira Nair would come down with a crippling case of biopic-itis with Amelia, making a gorgeous-looking but doggedly remedial period picture? Swank did at least resemble Earhart, but she had a hard time actually acting with her exaggerated accent—matched by Richard Gere’s as Earhart’s publisher/spouse George Putnam—and Amelia’s dumbed-down approach to the complicated heroine proved too weak for even the oft-forgiving Academy to excuse.
8. I Am Sam (2001)
“Ask Sean Penn, 2001. I Am Sam, remember? Went full retard, went home empty-handed.” In that crass but true speech in Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr.’s character accentuates one of the many problems with I Am Sam, a film in which Sean Penn plays a mentally challenged man whose daughter is taken away from him. Adversity! But the story itself is so mawkish and sentimental that it was pretty much impossible to like. The Oscar bait almost worked: In spite of the film’s largely negative reception, Penn was nominated for Best Actor. His performance was actually very good—too good, Patton Oswalt once noted—but it’s such a difficult thing to tackle, and presented in such a rosy way, that it was doomed to fail.
9. Reservation Road (2007)
Director Terry George was riding high after the unexpected Oscar success of Hotel Rwanda, his account of how a hotel manager made a difference in the midst of a genocide. The film received acting nominations for stars Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo, and George and his co-writers received a nomination for the script. For his follow-up project, he chose an adaptation of John Burnham Schwartz’s acclaimed novel Reservation Road, the script for which he co-wrote with Schwartz. A family melodrama and thriller, the film revolved around two families drawn together when the father of one strikes and kills the son of the other with his car. Starring two Oscar winners in Jennifer Connelly and Mira Sorvino, as well as an Oscar nominee in Joaquin Phoenix, and the always-terrific Mark Ruffalo, the film spent most of 2006 riding high on prognosticators’ prediction charts. Then the film was yanked from its 2006 release date, and it disappeared without a trace, finally resurfacing in October of 2007 to terrible reviews and nonexistent box office. The convoluted twists and turns of the novel didn’t work nearly as well on screen, and George’s career took a near-fatal hit.
10. The Painted Veil (2006)
One could populate an entire list of this sort with Naomi Watts vehicles that failed to attract significant Oscar attention. The adventurous actress likes to pick risky material with a certain sheen of Oscar-primed quality, but it blows up in her face as often as not. (See also: Fair Game.) John Curran’s The Painted Veil, however, is a handsome, stately epic, beautifully shot in China. Given the film’s acclaimed source material (a W. Somerset Maugham novel), all-star cast (Watts, Edward Norton, and Liev Schreiber), and Oscar-friendly story about a woman who cheats on her husband, then learns to love him again in the midst of a cholera outbreak, it’s a bit surprising the Academy completely ignored The Painted Veil. Blame for that probably lies with the studio that released the film, which could have milked it for a technical nomination or two, but also with the fact that it falls just short of greatness. It’s a handsomely made, occasionally moving film, but it never overcomes its own lugubriousness to be truly impressive. Not that that’s stopped the Oscars before…
11. The Majestic (2001)
When The Majestic came out in 2001, it practically had “Oscar” posted all over its old-timey single-screen movie palace marquee. Consider all the Academy-friendly elements at play: It’s directed by Frank Darabont, who was hot off two serious Stephen King adaptations, The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, that were embraced but unrewarded. It stars Jim Carrey, a rubber-faced comedian stretching into a dramatic role, which mainly involves trading his myriad wacky expressions for a single, pinched one. It bathes an iconic/generic small town in ’50s America in a golden, nostalgic hue. It celebrates the movies themselves, in the form of a movie palace that closed after the war took 60 of the town’s brave young men and reopens as a tribute to the country’s enduring spirit. And it takes on an important chapter in history, in this case the ’50s anti-Communist paranoia and the Hollywood blacklist. All in all, The Majestic is something Frank Capra would theoretically have been proud to make, an unabashed slice of Americana. Only Capra would have made it less of a dour, lifeless, soppy dud.
12. Finding Forrester (2000)
There have been times during his eclectic career when Gus Van Sant seems to have felt the need to prove himself as a craftsman in order to keep making the odd little movies at the heart of his oeuvre. There was some of that journeyman Van Sant in Good Will Hunting, his impeccable rendering of conventional material, but that film was like Wavelength compared to 2000’s Finding Forrester, a paternalistic feel-good drama about a teenage African-American writing prodigy (Rob Brown) given a boost by a cranky, reclusive Pulitzer-winner (Sean Connery). Van Sant gets all the funky, flavorful scene-setting done in a great opening rap sequence, then settles into a series of predictable developments where racial assumptions are upended, the cranky author comes around (“You’re the man now, dog!”), and both characters proceed to take the stuffing out of an arrogant private-school professor, played by F. Murray Abraham. It’s probably no coincidence that Van Sant did an immediate career about-face after Finding Forrester, kicking off his Béla Tarr-inspired “Death Trilogy” the next year with Gerry.
13. All The King’s Men (2006)
How could 2006’s All The King’s Men go this wrong? Director Steven Zaillian, an accomplished screenwriter (Schindler’s List) and a capable filmmaker (Searching For Bobby Fischer, A Civil Action), had two excellent sources to draw from: Robert Penn Warren’s classic 1946 political novel, about a corrupted idealist in Louisiana, modeled on Huey Long; and a first-rate 1949 adaptation by Robert Rossen, starring Broderick Crawford as the larger-than-life Long figure. Zaillian cast Sean Penn in the Crawford role, a sound move—at least before Penn gave that cartoonish Deep South accent a whirl—and filled out the other parts with big-time actors like Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, and Mark Ruffalo. But All The King’s Men languished on the shelf for a full year before premièring at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the experience of watching the leaden catastrophe is like trying to ingest a dozen baked potatoes in one sitting. It sits there like a big, formless, starchy lump.
14. The Lovely Bones (2009)
When Alice Sebold’s breakthrough novel was still in galley form, Morvern Callar director Lynne Ramsay snapped up the rights, determined to turn Sebold’s book into a bruisingly unsentimental fantasy about a young girl who’s raped and murdered and looks down on her family—and her killer—from heaven. But a not-so-funny thing happened to Ramsay en route to adapting the book: It became an unlikely sensation, which immediately vaulted the scale and popular appeal of the project beyond what Ramsay had anticipated. Enter Peter Jackson, who had just made the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and seemed either disinclined or incapable of treating The Lovely Bones with the intimacy it deserved. Instead, he fretted for months over what heaven should look like, eventually settling for a fantasy world that looks sprung from the cover of an Ursula K. Le Guin paperback, and played up the early-’70s trappings to garish effect. What’s missing is the heart of the novel, which lies in the wrenching spectacle of a young girl who’s trying to come to terms with what happened to her while watching helplessly as her family falls to pieces.
15. Memoirs Of A Geisha (2005)
There’s empty pageantry, and then there’s Memoirs Of A Geisha, Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Arthur Golden’s bestseller, which is like a Far East variant on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade: beautiful floats drifting down Middlebrow Avenue. Marshall casts three Chinese actresses (Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh) to play Japanese geishas in broken English, just the first indication of the generalized Orientalism that infects the whole production. Golden’s story has the superficial sweep of characters transformed by history, with World War II as the dividing point between a life of servitude for these geishas and the uncertainty that comes when that tradition ends. It’s an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama, with illicit love affairs and tragic betrayals, but even the soap-opera elements are stifled by a fetishistic emphasis on ornate costumes, stunning backdrops, and other period bric-a-brac. That it won Oscars for Art Direction, Cinematography, and Production Design without so much as a nomination in any of the non-technical categories says it all.
16. Pay It Forward (2000)
On paper, Pay It Forward must have looked like surefire Oscar bait. It united two recent Academy Award winners—Kevin Spacey (again) and Helen Hunt—and a nominee (Haley Joel Osment) in a heartwarming story about selflessness, a saintly child whose generosity sparks a movement, and the usual horseshit about the dignity of the human spirit. Spacey even played a physically disfigured teacher! The only way Pay It Forward could have been more Oscar-friendly would have been if it had taken place entirely in a concentration camp. Alas, critics and audiences alike rightly laughed the maudlin, manipulative, and melodramatic Pay It Forward right out of awards consideration, and the film became a glib punchline about noble intentions gone amusingly awry instead of a revered Oscar winner.
17. The Phantom Of The Opera (2004)
As attested by the nine Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) scored by the disastrous flop 1967 adaptation of Doctor Doolittle, musicals don’t necessarily have to be good in order to get Oscar nominations. They just have to be big. Joel Schumacher’s phenomenally misguided 2004 adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s venerable rock-opera The Phantom Of The Opera was big all right, but it missed its cultural window by at least a decade and alienated fans of the original play by casting beefy Gerard Butler in the title role instead of Michael Crawford, the theater veteran who made it famous. Scathing reviews didn’t help the tardy adaptation’s cause, and Phantom Of The Opera was a failure with both audiences and Academy Award voters, who may not have the most highbrow taste but at least were discriminating enough to pass on this clattering camp. The Phantom Of The Opera was handsomely mounted, sure, but then so are taxidermists’ animals.