The Most Embarrassing Oscar Bait Of The Millennium


Ah, December. There's a crispness in the air, lights hanging from the trees, and a noticeable uptick in saccharine, cliched, self-important movies vying for your attention.

Over the past few decades, Oscar baiting has become an industry unto itself, with "serious" Hollywood films hiring publicists, lining up for November/December release dates, and taking aim at the statue that has been known to make movie careers.

Of course, with so many swings comes a lot of woeful misses. (Hey, even a non-sentient body like the Academy can sniff out a suitor coming on too strong.) Here are twelve films that had their sights set on Oscar glory only to go home (mostly) empty handed.


Why it Looked like a Contender: Coming off of the massive critical and box-office success of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "King Kong," Peter Jackson's take on Alice Sebold's best-seller "The Lovely Bones" was an Oscar favorite before it was even put into production. A cast that included three past Oscar nominees (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, and Susan Sarandon) only heightened awards season expectations.

Why it Wasn't: Jackson, per usual, delivered some stunning visuals. However, the movie, which somehow eeked out a PG-13 rating despite its disturbing source material, may have been, as Walt White would say, a half-measure. Jackson attempted to offset the inherent darkness of the story, about a teenager's murder, with some awkward attempts at humor that came off as misplaced. In the end, Sebold's dark, moving story might have just been better left to the page.

2. NINE (2009)

Why it Looked like a Contender: You can usually pencil Daniel Day-Lewis' name in for an Oscar nod any time he shows up on screen. Take Lewis, combined with director Rob Marshall, who swept the 2003 Oscars with his first musical adaptation, "Chicago," a cast that included five (!) past Oscar-winning ladies, and an adaptation of TONY Award-winning musical based on Fellini's "8 1/2," and you have what appears to amount to the ultimate Oscar movie.

Why It Wasn't: "Nine" received some obligatory nominations that come with the territory when Hollywood churns out a decently budgeted musical (Costume Design, Original Song, and Art Direction among them). However, the movie was a critical and box-office failure that was criticized for lackluster songs, a disappointing performance from D-Day, and an overly slick and stylized look. Above all, it offered nothing the Fellini original or the Broadway show did not.

3. THE MAJESTIC (2001)

Why it Looked like a Contender: Following Jim Carrey's snub for his excellent work in "The Truman Show," "The Majestic" was the public's second dose of serious Jim Carrey. Director Frank Darabont was already two for two as a critical darling, turning two Stephen King adaptations ("The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile") into beloved movies. Also, the plot is centered around McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist -- never underestimate Hollywood's tendency towards self-love.

Why It Wasn't: "Majestic" was overly-sappy and reeked of try-too-hard-ism. Although some critics felt Carrey did a fine acting job with the script at hand, the material was so saccharine it could rot the teeth out of even the most dewy-eyed optimists among us. On nomination announcement day, the movie came up completely empty handed.

4. PAY IT FORWARD (2000)

Why it Looked like a Contender: Back in 2000, it was hard to imagine a more Oscar-ready cast than Kevin Spacey, fresh off of his win for American Beauty, Helen Hunt in her first big role since winning for "As Good As it Gets," and wunderkind Haley Joel Osment coming off of "The Sixth Sense." Also, "Forward" possessed the type of self-importance and melodrama that Oscar occasionally eats up in spades.

Why It Wasn't: With Kevin Spacey as a physically-disfigured-yet-kind-and-inspirational social studies teacher, Helen Hunt as a troubled alcoholic, and an ending that included (spoiler?) the maudlin death of the movie's lovable leading kid, "Forward" was too much of a self-important cheese fest even for the members of the Academy.


Why it Looked like a Contender: Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise and Robert Redford pulling double acting/directing duty, and a plot synopsis that reads "Injuries sustained by two Army ranger behind enemy lines in Afghanistan set off a sequence of events involving a congressman, a journalist and a professor." If that doesn't scream Oscar bait, nothing does.

Why It Wasn't: "Lions" tipped it's anit-war hand too strongly, focusing on wordy lectures that added nothing new or weighty to America's Middle East foreign policy dialogue. And although the Academy certainly likes a healthy dose of idealistic liberalism, it usually likes it served with at least a small side-dish of moral complexity. There was none to speak of here.

6. J. EDGAR (2011)

Why it Looked like a Contender: By 2011, Clint Eastwood had cooled down from the surefire Best Picture nominee status he had enjoyed since the mid noughties. Still, a biopic of J Edgar Hoover - one of the most compelling personalities in American history - starring Leonardo DiCaprio with a script by Dustin Lance Black coming off his win for "Milk" seemed like a pretty sure bet for awards season love.

Why It Wasn't: Hoover proved too enigmatic a character for even Eastwood to get his considerable hands around. While the movie tries to do everything - Hoover's controversial professional life, his much-debated personal life, and both his earlier and later years - it never truly does anything well. Critics derided Black's script as painfully melodramatic, Eastwood's storytelling as by-the-numbers, and in the end the powerhouse team didn't score a single nod.

7. SEVEN POUNDS (2008)

Why it Looked like a Contender: The crazy charismatic Will Smith tends to get the Academy's attention every time he takes on a role outside of Blockbuster season, Oscar loves "we're all connected" movies, and with a December release, the studio clearly to appeared to be eyeing the awards circuit. Plus, director Gabriele Muccino and Smith had garnered some Academy love with their previous collaboration, "Pursuit of Happyness."

Why It Wasn't: "Seven Pounds"' plot -- about a man who decides to donate all of his organs after he's responsible for the death of seven people in a car accident -- was intended to be touching, we think, but came off as bizarre and morbid. The execution wasn't much better. Today, "Pounds" may be best remembered for A.O. Scott's gem of a review where, among other things, he calls the movie one of the most "transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made." Tell us what you really think, A.O.

8. ALL THE KING'S MEN (2006)

Why it Looked like a Contender: While remakes generally aren't the Academy's favorite kind of movie to reward, a political thriller with a cast that included Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, and Kate Winslet seemed like a good bet. Plus, the adaptation was written and directed by Steven Zaillian, who had previously been nominated for writing "Awakenings" and "Gangs of New York," and had won for adapting "Schindler's List."

Why It Wasn't: Despite the talent attached, no one seemed to like this overwrought, dull adaptation which in its opening weekend in wide release took in a putrid $3.8 million in its opening weekend -- clobbered by "Jackass Number Two" at $28 million -- and scored a putrid 11% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. Zaillian compared the experience of this films release to getting hit by a truck -- which probably counts as at least a little more exciting than this snoozer.

9. AUSTRALIA (2008)

Why it Looked like a Contender: Directed by Baz Luhrmann with Academy favorite Nicole Kidman, and Hugh Jackman starring in his most serious role yet, this overlong sprawling romance set in a foreign land during World War II was just the kind of self-love-y throwback to older movies that Oscar usually embraces (See: "The Artist").

Why It Wasn't: Like most Luhrmann movies, "Australia" got high marks for its visual beauty, landing it's sole nod for Costume Design. However, Baz didn't really know how to handle his enormous runtime and budget, tangling several plots together over nearly three hours -- none of them particularly compelling, and almost all of them riddled with cliches.

10. THE SOLOIST (2009)

Why it Looked like a Contender: Robert Downey Jr. coming off his huge "Iron Man" comeback and his surprise nod for "Tropic Thunder" teaming up with past winner and two time nominee Jamie Foxx, looked to be a formidable combo. Also, Oscar tends to love movies dealing with mental illness and music, and this sits smack in the middle of the venn diagram.

Why It Wasn't: Quite simply, it was a good, not great movie, and ended up with its release date pushed back to the movie purgatory of April. Despite solid performances, the deliberate and predictable plot, writing, and direction never moved beyond the meatiness of the source material, which just about the most Oscar-ready story since someone decided to make a period piece about a royal with a speech impediment.


Why it Looked like a Contender: With Robert Redford behind the camera, a white hot cast of emerging movie stars, including Charlize Theron, Matt Damon, and Will Smith taking a shot at serious, and Jack Lemmon in his final role, "Bagger" was a good bet for some Oscar love in 2000, especially considering its November release date. Plus, the story, about a down-and-out World War I vet haunted by his memories but triumphing over his demons through golf, was the kind of feel-good fare the Academy tends to get behind.

Why It Wasn't: On the line between cliche and wildly original, the Academy tends to aim right in the middle. However, "Bagger" took a full one wood swing at almost every cliche in the book. Plus, the movie's uncomfortable use of the "magical negro" archetype and its lightweight handling of of race issues turned a lot of folks off.

12. AMELIA (2009)

Why it Looked like a Contender: A biopic centered on one of America's most inspiring and tragic figures, starring two-time winner Hilary Swank in the coveted leading role was Oscar bait through and through. Also "Amelia" had a female director -- Indian-born Mira Nair -- at a time when the Academy was way overdue to give female filmmakers some love. (That year, the very deserving Kathryn Bigelow would grab the first ever female director win for "The Hurt Locker").

Why It Wasn't: "Amelia" never delves deep beyond the surface, revealing no more truths about Earhert than you probably learned in an hour during high school history class. The movie also suffered from a painfully dull script that no doubt helped contribute to Swank's wooden, surprisingly lifeless performance.