Behold! Awards season is upon us.
For the unaware, a film’s release date is predetermined for a reason. January through February are generally considered a studios’ dumping ground – the movies they don’t screen for critics, have shelved for years or just can’t find a way to properly market usually come out during the early months when Christmas is over and the cold weather makes going to the theatres unappealing.
Beginning toward the end of March, the blockbusters start pouring in. These are your tentpole franchise films, your Marvels, your tried and true Michael Bay actioneers that are guaranteed to flood the box office. There’s a brief interlude for, if there are any, prestige horror films and/or Saw sequels around October, which leads right into Oscar season. The winter and holiday months tout a studio’s most accomplished work – supposedly. These are the films they intend to buy out full-page ads out for in the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards.
That’s not to say there are backfires; films that studios banked on being Oscar gold being ignored or, worse, lambasted upon release. One only needs to look at the weak reception of The Birth of A Nation, a film that roared through festivals as one of the year’s best, to witness such a misfire in action. Such disasters have been known to cost studio heads their jobs, or filmmakers lengthy stretches in director jail. The film industry, like any other, speaks to the Gods of money, and the following misfires are just a small sampling of the most embarrassing attempts at grabbing some of that sweet, golden credibility.
Luc Besson was never an Oscar contender. Prior to hitting the U.S. with your college roommate’s favourite movie Leon: The Professional, he pumped out similar action fare in his native France such as the wildly popular Nikita. Now he toils behind the scenes of the Taken franchise, soon to be a cancelled television series.
His one attempt to be grandiose (beyond the costume design of The Fifth Element) was the Milla Jovovich-led biopic of Joan of Arc. Model-turned-actress Jovovich, who spends most of her time looking cool holding guns in the Resident Evil series (and on her off days defending her husband’s terrible Resident Evil movies), was no one’s idea of a leading lady in a period epic. The results proved disastrous – a silly, overwrought melodrama that earned more Golden Raspberries than Oscars.
13. Pay It Forward
If ever there has been a more cloying, manipulative Oscar wannabe, it has fierce competition in Mimi Leder’s adaptation of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel. Forward tries to hard to make its audience cry; it has a cult following due to its laughability. It follows cherub-faced Hayley Joel Osment (whitewashed from the novel) as his Jesus-like child teaches the world to help each other, while simultaneously hooking up his mom (Helen Hunt) with his burn-scarred teacher (Kevin Spacey, whose scars are only on the outside, damnit!).
By the end, as swells of K.D. Lang-esque music flows over an absurd climax, the audience feels legitimately insulted.
Pulp Fiction may have re-invigorated John Travolta‘s 70s cool for a new generation, but his film choices post-Tarantino read more like a sappy stepdad’s list of favourites. The less-cool late-period Travolta kicked off with Phenomenon, in which Barbarino is struck with a mysterious blinding light that grants him psychic abilities.
Spoiler alert: it’s just a brain tumor. The melodrama that unfolds after the film’s big, lame reveal is some of the most painfully sentimental of the late 90s. Travolta’s performance, while Blockbuster Entertainment Award-worthy, is so “aw shucks” small town it causes plenty of eye rolls.
11. The Iron Lady
Another in the long list of “Meryl Streep acted in something, time to start the engraving” films, this biopic of 80s Prime Minister/English Ayn Rand Margaret Thatcher plays like most biopic: a handful of scenes supposedly giving us an inside glimpse of the character’s inner turmoil surrounded by re-enactments of their most public moments.
Elvis Costello once wrote of Thatcher that, upon her death, he’d tramp the dirt down on her grave (he got his chance in 2013). The film did the old bat no favours, with critics calling it bland and self-important. Whatever humanity there was to be found, however, Streep played it out beyond caricature, receiving her third Oscar.
10. Cinderella Man
Americans sure love their inspirational sports movies. Rocky, Rudy, Friday Night Lights; there’s something about coming up against insurmountable odds and striking back that speaks to the heart and soul of the country.
So it’s confounding that Cinderella Man, Ron Howard‘s chronicle of the life of boxer James J. Braddock, flopped so significantly both in theatres and at the awards shows. Beyond nominations for make up and editing, Paul Giamatti‘s Best Supporting Actor nomination (the Giamatti special) was the only of note. Perhaps the workmanlike script from hatchetman Akiva Goldsman (who previously teamed with Howard for A Beautiful Mind) and the depression-era setting left audiences cold.
9. The Shipping News
After the success of The Cider House Rules, Swedish director Lasse Halstrom was the guy you called for you small scale, richly detailed human drama – or movie where the hot chick dies. He followed up his Princes of Maine, his Gods of New England hit with another small, personal, prestigious awards-seeking film, headlined by Kevin Spacey, Julianne Moore and Judi Dench.
8. The Human Stain
Some things just play better as novels. This adaptation of Phillip Roth’s acclaimed novel toys with race and creed relations in the bitter environs of academia. It got the Anthony Hopkins seal of approval, leading a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Gary Sinise and Ed Harris.
There was no question of Stain‘s pedigree leading into awards season. Unless, of course, you read the book. At which point, you’d do a spit take reading the cast list in Variety and blurt out, “Anthony Hopkins is going to be the black guy?!?”
7. The Majestic
Frank Darabont got his start writing the best of the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels (part 3) and the surprisingly good re-imagining of The Blob. For years, he had been trying to adapt works of one of his favourite authors, Stephen King, before finally securing the rights to King’s novella Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption. The film was a huge hit, leading to a string of King adaptations from directors who suddenly realized that the writer didn’t just do horror.
Darabont’s misguided, muddled love letter to cinema stars Jim Carrey as a recently blacklisted screenwriter in 1950s Hollywood. After an accident, he awakens in a small town with amnesia where he is mistaken for a war hero.
It was an attempt to pay tribute to filmmakers of old, particularly Frank Capra – whose films were often unabashedly sentimental about the country – and Preston Sturges, whose Sullivan in Sullivan’s Travels found himself on life changing journeys through small town Americana. But by the time The Majestic was made, politics in film had become a lot more confusing. It didn’t play well with audiences, but Darabont’s film was a noble attempt to recreate rose-coloured glasses.
6. All The King’s Men
Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was first adapted to a Best Picture win in 1949. Loosely based on the rise of sleazy Louisiana politician Huey Long (nicknamed Kingfish, and also the basis for the classic Randy Newman album Good Old Boys), the novel and film follows a young fly-on-the-wall journalist as the governor goes from man of the people to swimming in corruption.
The remake should have worked perfectly, released during the Bush administration (a character similar in the sense that you’d like to have a beer with him) and scripted and directed by Oscar winning screenwriter Steven Zallian (Schindler’s List, The Night Of) and top-loaded with a cast featuring Sean Penn, Jude Law, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Jackie Earle Haley and Anthony Hopkins.
5. Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
When Randy Newman won his Oscar for Best Original Song for Monsters Inc., he one-offedly remarked that no one had made four consecutively great pictures, except for Pixar and Peter Weir. Weir, an Australian who began his career with the cult classic The Cars That Ate Paris and moved into the art house with Picnic at Hanging Rock, moved to the U.S. with the insanely overrated Witness in 1985.
Master and Commander wanted to play like an old swashbuckler with grander ambitions. While often gorgeous to look at, the end result is a bit of a bore, with Commander Russell Crowe and first mate Paul Bettany wandering unexplored territory for much of the screen time. It received several nominations (including best picture, despite being projected as a longshot), but didn’t perform well at the box office. The film’s major, potentially fatal flaw is its ending, a blatant set-up for a sequel that would fit better as an end credits tag in a Pirates of the Caribbean film.
4. The Life of David Gale
There’s no shortage of Oscar contenders that are considered “Issue Films.” 12 Years A Slave spoke to the horrors of history and the blood still on America’s hands. Spotlight aimed its indignation at the scandals of the Catholic church. Birdman expressed the indignity of Michael Keaton no longer being Batman.
And Alan Parker’s The Life of David Gale was determined to display the injustices of the death penalty. An honourable feat, to be sure. So it’s a shame Parker and company decided to play the film as an ineffectual thriller with a supremely stupid twist as opposed to a genuine attempt to explore the issue. Parker was no stranger to making issue films, directing Mississippi Burning decades earlier. His blunder with Gale flabbergasted critics and audiences alike.
The Estevez family has a long, storied history with fictional portrayals of the Kennedy clan. Martin Sheen, the patriarch, played both Bobby and John F. before taking his own fictitious office as Jed Bartlett in The West Wing. His son, Mighty Ducks star turned director Emilio, shot for the skies when he wrote and directed Bobby. The film is a ensemble piece, featuring vignettes at the Ambassador hotel on the day of RFK’s assassination.
Like a lot of blatantly obvious filmmakers, Estevez makes the cardinal sin of setting a movie in the 60s, then making sure you know its the 60s by using “The Sound of Silence” and other decade signifiers. Though nominated for a Golden Globe (i.e. the award you get when the Hollywood Foreign Press wants to drink with you), the Academy looked on it as we all did: a ham-fisted attempt to say something serious.
2. J. Edgar
Biopics seem to come up on this list a lot and with good reason: oftentimes, they’re inspired, filled with recognizably terrific performances. However, when they go wrong, their mechanics under the hood are painfully visible. J. Edgar is one such example.
With a script from Milk writer Dustin Lance Black, Clint Eastwood‘s biopic of the controversial head of the FBI for life J. Edgar Hoover was bound to explore his more…ahem…personal fetishes. His corruption, zest for justice at any cost and creepy obsession with the Kennedy family would surely be covered, but his cross-dressing and potential gay relationship with his right hand man was bound to come up in any respectable work. And with this kind of pedigree, the Academy may as well have pelted the cast and crew with awards.
Unfortunately, one-take Eastwood took to an awkward flashback structure, leaving star Leonardo DiCaprio in terrible old man make-up for large chunks of the film.
1. I Am Sam
The film that inspired the memorable (too memorable) joke in Tropic Thunder about never going “full r***rd” in search of Oscar gold, I Am Sam finds a mentally challenged but supposedly lovable Sean Penn seeking custody of his daughter. And hey, Penn is quite good – playing the role with an almost grating amount of sincerity. He received a nomination, but nothing else. In fairness, he didn’t have a lot to work with. The script is so sentimental and maudlin it makes the even the most well-adjusted want to desecrate teddy bears everywhere.
Even scoring it entirely with Beatles songs couldn’t make the damn thing likable.
Sources: IMDB, AVClub, Wikipedia