From the podium to the bargain bin.
When we remember Oscar winners, more often than not, we talk about the big surprises. Whether it is much maligned winners like Crash and Titanic, long overdue victories like No Country For Old Men, or rewarded risk taking like The Hurt Locker, the best Academy memories are the ones that catch us off guard. More often than not, however, the Academy tends to reward safe movies that won’t stand the test of time, but make everyone feel good about themselves in the moment. A compelling story, a savvy campaign, the right cast, or simply feeling like an Oscar movie can earn a statue more often than actual cinematic innovation. So, before you get too heated when you’re movie loses this weekend (and if your movie isn’t The Revenant, I have some bad news for you), take comfort in the fact that an Oscar doesn’t equal cinematic immortality. Here are
The King’s Speech, Best Picture 2010
There has always been a certain kind of movie that the Oscars gravitate towards. It is usually a drama. It is usually a period pice. It usually feels important. In recent years, these movies have come to us in the form of European set period dramas about men dealing with a societal taboo. While The Danish Girl and The Imitation Game at least deal with big social issues (gender identity and homosexuality respectively), The King’s Speech takes on that hot button topic of … speech impediments. With the customary weight of a period drama, but without the social importance, The King’s Speech is sure to get lost in the seemingly endless pile of “Oscar Movies” that win awards but rarely make their way into Netflix queues.
The Blindside, Best Actress (Sandra Bullock) 2009
The Academy is known for giving out lifetime achievement awards instead of acting awards, and this is definitely one of those times. While Bullock has done interesting work throughout her career, and is as big a star as Hollywood has to offer, it’s hard to imagine even your grandmother rewatching The Blindside. Using feel good Christian schmaltz to tell the story of an above average football player doesn’t feel like the formula for a classic. While sports movies like Field of Dreams and Bull Durham have a shelf life that stretches generations, The Blind Side has roughly the long term staying power of Air Bud. IMO.
Erin Brockovich, Best Actress (Julia Roberts) 2000
It’s been argued that Sandra Bullock launched her career taking films written for Julie Roberts that America’s Sweetheart couldn’t do. Though that may not be true, Bullock definitely modeled her Academy Award run on Roberts’ combination of a feel good story and the sense that she’s put in the work. Instead of adopting a future football player, Brockovich goes after an evil utility company, but they might as well be the same movie because you’re never going to watch either of them again.
Slumdog Millionaire, Best Picture 2008
A feel good movie is not always a good movie. The Academy often makes this mistake, as was the case with Slumdog Millionaire. At the time, Slumdog Millionaire got extra points for being diverse. But, there is a difference between a diverse cast and diverse storytelling. There is something to be said for a film with Indian lead, but with director Danny Boyle at the helm, the film feels about as typically Hollywood as can be. When compared to a current foreign film entrant like Mustang, the diversity this film offers feels somewhere between forced and disingenuous. While Hollywood could pat themselves on the back at the time, just a few years later, the film feels like a step in the right direction rather than much of an achievement.
The Constant Gardener, Best Supporting Actress (Rachel Weisz) 2005
Perennially, Best Supporting Actress tends to be one of the most interesting categories. Recent winners Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Mo’Nique (Precious), and Melissa Leo (The Fighter) gave some of the most memorable performances in recent years. One of the few forgettable films to score a Best Supporting Actress win is The Constant Gardner. With a title that feels like it might have been made up as a joke on 30Rock in yet another Oscar bait movie about British people and yet another Oscar bait movie starring Ralph Fiennes, as soon as you remember this movie you start confusing it with others.
The Great Gatsby, Costume Design (Catherine Martin) / Production Design (Beverly Dunn) 2013
From time to time, there are such impressive achievements in costume design or production design that a movie doesn’t have to be particularly good to earn an Academy Award. Though The Great Gatsby was a huge disappointment in critical terms (48% on Rotten Tomatoes), the A-List names involved caught the Academy’s attention for awards consideration. Anna Karenina (2012), Alice in Wonderland (2010), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), and Sleepy Hollow (1999) have all received recognition for their technical achievements despite being weak films overall.
Syriana, Best Supporting Actor (George Clooney) 2005
Petroleum politics isn’t the sexiest subject matter, and as we get newer issue films like The Big Short and Spotlight, older entrants like Syriana will fade from our collective memory. Despite a cast anchored by Clooney and Matt Damon, and bolstered by some of our greatest character actors like Amanda Peet and Tim Blake Nelson, Syriana an examination of the oil industry isn’t a big enough issue to make its way into the American cinematic pantheon.
Happy Feet, Best Animated Feature 2006
The animation game has always been dominated by Disney and Pixar, and it seems that it always will be. From time to time, the odd charmer like Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit or Rango sneak in for the win. With so few animated movies produced, if Pixar misses and no quirky breakouts get financed, there can be a dearth of options for Academy voters. In 2006, Happy Feet beat out Cars and Monster House in one of the most forgettable Oscar races of all time. Director George Miller likely doesn’t mind though, as he directed one of this years critically adored nominees, Mad Max: Fury Road.
Crazy Heart, Best Actor (Jeff Bridges) 2009
Though this was a solid film, and Bridges gave a notable performance, its hard to imagine Crazy Heart standing the test of time. There are more than enough redemption melodramas in American cinema to fill a really depressing bookshelf, and this one is essentially a sneaky remake of a prior award winner. Robert Duvall took home best actor honors in 1983 for Tender Mercies, which is also the story of an alcoholic country singer who finds redemption in the arms of a strong younger woman. As this film adds little to the original, in retrospect, this movie feels like little more than an Oscar grab, even if it was a convincing one. It’s hard to begrudge The Dude his Oscar, but most of us will probably watch Big Lebowski a half-dozen times before watching Crazy Heart again.