I want you to cast your mind back to 2008. In 2008, Christopher Nolan’s Batman flick The Dark Knight was released in theaters, and audiences around the world kind of lost their heads over it. It made millions, and became one of the highest-grossing films of all time. In addition to being a popular success, it was also a critical darling, well-loved by many reviewers and hailed as an intelligent approach to comic book material. Some critics have even said that 2008 was the crest of the superhero movement in this country, and that more recent Marvel hits are mere ripples of the grandness that was The Dark Knight (well, and also Iron Man, which also came out that year), even in spite of their superior box office and comparable critical acclaim.
Was The Dark Knight nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture? Of course not. Because comic book movies, action films, and broadly appealing genre pictures just aren’t given that kind of award. The Academy tends to nominate a very particular kind of film, you see. We all kind of know this from experience. The Oscars are, we perhaps sadly intuit, devoted to costume dramas, historical epics, period pieces, or very serious essays on some current political issue. If it’s all three, then you’re a shoo-in for a Best Picture Nominee. The films that were up for Best Picture in 2008 were Slumdog Millionaire (which was pretty good), Frost/Nixon (which I enjoyed rather a lot), Milk (pretty excellent), The Reader (a turgid snore), and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (baffling and off-putting).
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
The outcry over the absence of The Dark Knight was particularly noisy, if you’ll recall. Many, many geek-themed websites (and that’s just about every website these days, isn’t it?) ranted about how The Academy was “out of touch” with mainstream audiences if they actively chose to nominate a middling-but-technically-impressive film like Benjamin Button over a widespread darling like The Dark Knight (conveniently forgetting the recent win of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King over some truly excellent competitors, but that’s a different point altogether). In response to the outcry, The Academy chose to expand the number of nominees to ten the following year. With ten nominees, many felt, popular films would perhaps finally be nominated. And indeed, in 2009, we saw big-budget, effects-driven genre films make the cut finally. In addition to Avatar, we can also call films like District 9 and Up as Best Picture Nominees. In 2010, the trend continued with the nomination of films like Inception and Toy Story 3. And what won over those box office hits? The King’s Speech. The outcry remained. Why nominate ten films if you’re just going to throw an Oscar at the usual kind of film anyway?
Well, because some of those prestige pictures are actually great movies, it turns out. Looking back over the nominees from the last few years, I’m looking at some really excellent movies. The last three years have seen nominations for The Tree of Life, Winter’s Bone, The Social Network, Black Swan, Hugo and Midnight in Paris, all of which I would consider four-star movies, and some of which I declared the best films of their respective years (I was pretty ecstatic about The Tree of Life). Barely-remembered films like, say, An Education, and embarrassingly treacly films like The Help and The Blind Side, well, we’ll just have to let those slide.
A theory I’ve been kicking around recently has been a promotion of the cinematic idea that a film’s popularity may have nothing to do with its quality. This means, mostly, that just because a film is small and obscure doesn’t mean it can’t be amazing. And just because a film is amazingly popular doesn’t mean a smaller film isn’t better. No doubt The Avengers and/or The Dark Knight Rises will be nominated for Best Picture this year. Sincere doubt that either will win. I would love to see a nomination for Prometheus, but I think I may be the only one there.
On the most recent episode of The B-Movies Podcast, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani and I reviewed Lincoln, an Oscar Bait film if ever there was one. It has everything going for it. 1) It’s a period piece. 2) It’s about a real-life hero. 3) It’s politically salient, in that it’s about a political issue. 4) It features an excellent performance by a well-regarded actor. 5) It’s made by a hugely popular and well-loved director. So it’s easy for most audiences to turn their noses up at a film like this, resenting its impeccable pedigree. There’s no way any film, however good or bad, that features Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Abraham Lincoln could not be nominated for Best Picture. Luckily, Lincoln is one of the best films of the year. It eschews sentimentality for an intense political drama and a salient character study. I honestly wouldn’t mind if Lincoln won the Oscar for Best Picture, which it very well might.
So to rush to the defense of the high-profile studio prestige pictures (and yes, it is an odd task), here are a few obvious Oscar Bait films from recent years that were, well, actually great films. Just to remind you: Just because a film is Oscar Bait doesn’t mean it’s not an excellent film. So here are some ringers (Best Picture nominees all) that anyone could sit and watch and be moved by any day of the week, any time of the year, Oscar buzz be dipped.
The Shawshank Redemption
In 1994, Frank Darabont’s small box office bomb The Shawshank Redemption was considered by many to be a generic Hollywood weepie. For one, it had the word “Redemption” right in the friggin’ title. For another, it took place in a prison, making for a hothouse drama that could only guarantee actorly showcases from pretty well-known actors like Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. I recall with some clarity the attitudes toward this film when it was nominated for Best Picture, and how people scoffed at its bland mainstream appeal, especially given that it was up against a groundbreaking and violent film like Pulp Fiction (never mind that both films eventually lost to the sentimental audience darling Forrest Gump). Eventually, however, The Shawshank Redemption found an audience on home video, and it is now considered by many to be one of the best films of the 1990s. More than one of my friends admits that it’s their favorite. It is currently the #1 film (yes, the #1 film) on the IMDb Top 250 poll (which, to remind you, skews populist), right above The Godfather.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
You bet it was Oscar Bait. 2003 saw the release of Peter Weir’s adaptation of Patrick O’Brien’s celebrated nautical novels detailing the life and misadventures of Capt. Jack Aubrey and his prim friend Dr. Stephen Maturin. Master and Commander was a period piece, was made by a well-known director, and featured Academy Award winner Russell Crowe in the lead role. It featured sea-bound battles between Napoleonic warships, a spectacle not seen in Hollywood since the glory days of Mutiny on the Bounty. It’s also, without hyperbole, one of my favorite movies. Yes, you may have noticed that I’ve brought it up several times on The B-Movies Podcast in the past. The calming, naturalistic, and clear-eyed depiction of ship-bound living will tap into the imaginations of anyone who has ever secretly harvested sailing fantasies, and will even be exhilarating to non-initiates. It’s bold, impeccably made, and uses SFX and music to the best of their abilities. It’s a careful character study, a gentle drama, and a carefully accurate look at maritime living. If you haven’t seen this film then you’re actually missing out.
There was a joke on a late-‘90s episode of South Park that all independent movies are the same: they’re all about gay cowboys eating pudding. Ang Lee’s 2005 indie flick Brokeback Mountain excised the pudding, but was very much about gay cowboys. Jake Gyllenhaal and the late Heath Ledger played a pair of definitely-not-queer ranchers of the 1960s who find themselves romantically and sexually drawn to one another when out on the range. The film then follows their years-long relationship, which becomes one of the most pained and believable romances I’ve seen in any film. It was a hot-button film at the time, and thanks to the South Park gag, was often joked about. Indeed, the word “Brokeback” became a kind of buzzword for “homosexual” in popular media; I believe there was an extended joke in Scary Movie 4 that alluded to it. Watching it again, I find it to be a heartbreaking story full of actual emotional torture. It’s really great.
A political hot-button picture if ever there was one, Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK lost the Best Picture bid to The Silence of the Lambs, which, let’s face it , was actually far more deserving. But I think many may forget the impact that the notoriously preachy, Academy-baiting, and long-running period drama. Stone, in a mere 189 minutes (or 204, if you saw the director’s cut) not only details the confusing minutiae of President Kennedy’s infamous murder, but seems to capture the confusing, chaotic social miasma that the nation was feeling at the time. Many critics lambasted Stone for having the conceit to solve JFK’s murder himself, but I think, more than that, he was attempting to meaningfully sift through all the confusing details that cropped up at the time, and display them in a cogent fashion. He was after the truth, of course, but he also acknowledged that the truth is ever-increasingly slippery in this case. Despite its length, JFK is an awesome drama and a taut thriller. It’s great Oscar Bait.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
If you find me skipping down the streets of Los Angeles singing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” it’s not because Christmas is around the corner. It’s because Oscar season has begun, and the Oscars (as objectively meaningless as they actually are in picking out the best films of the year), are my Super Bowl. It gets everyone talking about movies, and focusing on quality over box office numbers for a change. I get a kick out of the Academy Awards, making predictions (which I’m actually pretty good at, usually) and keeping track of precedents in order to make those predictions. One of the most commonly observed traditions at the Academy Awards is that the film with the most nominations tends to win Best Picture. It’s not 100%, but it is the norm, and it’s not a coincidence.
No, Academy members don’t just say, “I think I’ll vote for whatever has the most nominations.” The Academy, as you may be aware, is comprised of members of the motion picture community across many disciplines, including directors, actors, writers, composers, editors, cinematographers, costume designers, sound designers, visual effects artists and on and on and on. Each branch of the Academy nominates their peers for each individual category, except for Best Picture, because everyone gets to submit their picks for that. In other words, the nominees for “Best Production Design” are selected by actual production designers. The nominees for “Best Director” are selected by actual directors. Those nominees can sometimes have glaring omissions, but at least they’re being chosen by people who actually know what they’re talking about, and have a genuine appreciation for the craftsmanship being honored.
Why does this matter? Because if a film has the most nominations in a given year, that means it has the support and respect of the most members of The Academy. It stands to reason that if a certain film is a shining example of a craft you know well, you’re more likely to be fond of it than another film that perhaps isn’t. I myself have a degree in screenwriting, and find that when I review a film I tend to zero in on story structure and character development. If I had a background in editing, then pacing might be more of my focus. If I was a voting member of the Academy – which, dear God, do I fantasize about – and a “Best Picture” contender didn’t have a very good screenplay, it probably wouldn’t get my vote at the end of the year.
Which brings me, after that lengthy set up, to “Oscar Bait.” These are films that, as Witney described, tend to focus on socially relevant issues and showcase the various disciplines that The Academy rewards at the end of the year. Was The King’s Speech better than The Social Network? I’d say “no,” but I can understand why artisans with a background in costume and production design, for example, might have a greater appreciation for its period piece craftsmanship. This can lead to certain stodgy, old-fashioned examples of “Oscar Bait” getting honored above films that are more, for lack of a better expression, than the sum of their parts. And this in turn can lead to resentment towards “Oscar Bait,” which are sometimes accused of pandering to The Academy’s preoccupations and distracting attention away from films that may not dazzle in every single category, but ultimately amount to one of the best films of a given year regardless.
But like Witney, I have observed that just because a film is Oscar Bait does not mean that it is necessarily bad, or even less deserving of accolades than other, smaller productions. Some are, but many – like the films I’ve listed below – are actually wonderful movies that earned their Best Picture nominations for more than their production values and whatever high profile talent may have been attached. Here are my five favorite Oscar Bait movies of the last few decades (that Witney hasn’t already mentioned, at least; Master and Commander is one of my favorites too).
All the President’s Men
Too soon? Only three years after the Watergate Scandal, Hollywood whipped out an adaptation of the non-fiction book All the President’s Men, written by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who blew the lid off the monumental White House cover up. The story was still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the country was still reeling from the after effects. It could have been a pandering cash-in on recent headlines, but instead turned out to be one of the best films of the 1970s, an understated (by today’s standards) and realistic account of serious journalists doing their job and gradually realizing the world-changing extent of their findings. Starring Academy Award-winners and nominees Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, and Jason Robards, and future nominees Jane Alexander and Hal Holbrook, All the President’s Men remains one of the best examples of topical filmmaking by never preaching to the audience. It won four Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for Best Picture (it lost to Rocky).
Costumes! History! Classical music! One of my favorite films! Amadeus was the first motion picture I saw in a theater, and holds up just as well today. It’s not a biography of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, played here by Tom Hulce, it’s a biography of Antonio Salieri, a contemporary of Mozart’s who was more popular at the time but has since fallen into relative obscurity (until, of course, the release of Amadeus, the play and film). Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham, has enough talent to appreciate Mozart’s genius, but spends his life sabotaging the musical wunderkind out of malevolent spite. Though considered historically inaccurate, director Milos Forman and screenwriter Peter Shaffer (adapting his own play) use the medium of the costume drama to explore dark corners of the artistic mindset and the sick, twisted humor of a God who grants immortality to a buffoonish, womanizing drunkard – that would be Mozart – while only granting upon his more devoted servant, Salieri, the ability to recognize his own failings. Fantastic filmmaking, bolstered by stunning orchestrations of Mozart’s timeless work and a production full of spectacular costumes and production design. Amadeus won eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham, besting his co-star Hulce, who was also nominated in the same category.
Cigarettes are bad for you. You know it, I know it, and the cigarette manufacturers sure as hell know it. Director Michael Mann (Heat) probably knew he was delving into Oscar Bait territory with The Insider, a film about a Big Tobacco whistleblower (Russell Crowe) risking his career – and possibly even his life – to expose the truth on the television newscast “60 Minutes.” But Mann doesn’t film The Insider like a classical message movie. With a murky palette and complex performances by Al Pacino, playing a producer for the news program, and Christopher Plummer as famed newsman Mike Wallace, Mann’s film feels as hardboiled as they come, which probably hurt its chances at the Academy Awards. Though nominated for seven Oscars, the topical drama was completely snubbed at the ceremony itself, losing Best Picture and Best Actor to American Beauty, and failing to even earn a nomination for Christopher Plummer, who was at the time considered a shoe-in for a Best Supporting Actor nod.
I have a soft spot for films about the Golden Age of Hollywood, and The Aviator is one of the greats. Martin Scorsese’s biographical film about Howard Hughes, one of the wealthiest people in the world, starred Leonardo DiCaprio – who looks very little like the real Hughes – and focused on the billionaire’s obsession with aviation (hence the title), the handful of motion pictures he produced and, most powerfully, his lifelong battle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The Aviator is one of the most accurate portrayals of the affliction thus far, placing the audience effectively in the mindset of a figure ruled by unhealthy, often delusional patterns of behavior and an overwhelming hypochondria. Martin Scorsese – himself something of a film nut (to put it mildly) – takes what appears to be a giddy thrill at capturing the luster of classic Hollywood on modern celluloid, depicting the various eras of Hughes’ producing career in the color timing that would have been available at the time, like the unmistakably sickly greens of Technicolor. The Aviator swept the technical awards at the Oscars, but ultimately lost Best Picture and Best Director to the unexpected underdog Million Dollar Baby.
There Will Be Blood
Paul Thomas Anderson went from “promising young director” to art house royalty with There Will Be Blood, a hard-hitting historical drama starring Oscar mainstay Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview, a morally ambiguous oil baron who enters into a longstanding feud with a young local preacher, played by Paul Dano, who wants to exploit Plainview’s business to expand his church and followers. Though a period piece full of impressive costume design and art direction, There Will Be Blood doesn’t play like the typical Oscar bait: Anderson’s film puts a magnifying lens up to the ugliest aspects of American capitalism, and the punishing truths found inside the souls of “great” men. Though nominated for eight Academy Awards, There Will Be Blood took home only two: Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis and Best Cinematography for Robert Elswit. Curiously, it lost Best Picture to a similarly dark and morally complex motion picture, The Coen Bros.’ No Country for Old Men.