The road to the Oscars 2017 is heating up, with the likes of La La Land, Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight and Fences all vying for several of the big prizes, promising some closely fought categories when the nominations are announced at the end of January.
But for every artistic triumph getting worthwhile praise, there’s more than a handful of films that class as nothing more than Oscar bait; movies that from their very conception seemed geared to manipulate Academy members into voting for them rather trying to do anything of real artistic worth. Thankfully, it doesn't always work. The past year’s brought with it a whole host of movies vying to be part of the awards discussion that have stumbled somewhere along the way; here’s fifteen you can put good money on not getting a nomination.
For this list, we’re classing Oscar-bait as a movie that was clearly created with some focus on entering the awards discussion and hyped early on as a contender, but (normally due to not being very good, although that’s not always the story) have fallen short. Films that have entered the race unexpectedly - Deadpool and Sausage Party among them - don't count, as nobody in their right minds would claim they were made to win awards. These are 15 Oscar Bait Movies That Will Not Even Be Nominated.
15 The Founder
Early in 2016, The Founder looked to The Weinstein Company’s big awards play. The story of McDonald’s franchiser Ray Kroc is intrinsically about the clash between small and big business that boasts strong shades of Americana – perfect Oscar elements - had John Lee Hancock at the helm and, crucially, starred Michael Keaton. The actor was at the helm of the past two Best Picture winners – Spotlight and Birdman – yet missed out on Acting recognition (to Leonardo DiCaprio and Eddie Redmayne respectively). There's a strong narrative that sees him "deserving it."
However, after a lot of chatter early on, the almost disappeared from discussion overnight - months before release nobody (not even TWC) seemed that interested anymore. Not too surprising – Hancock is no Tom McCarthy or Alejandro G. Iñárritu, and by all accounts everything in the film was sanitized too much, so it was unlikely to break through.
Lion has replaced The Founder as Harvey Weinstein's big play, and while that has shades of Oscar bait to it, it’s overall been much more fondly received.
14 The Birth of a Nation
There was a lengthy period in 2016 where it looked like Nate Parker could single-handedly bag four Oscars in one night. He wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Birth of a Nation, the biopic of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner, which was met with standing ovations at Sundance, where it won the Audience and Jury top prizes. With such weight behind it, Parker went through the first half of the year as the man to beat.
However, things soon changed. In an attempt to circumvent a scandal, Parker addressed the charges of rape made against him in 1999 while at Penn State University, for which he was acquitted. Instead of getting the issue of the way, however, this story haunted the film throughout its cinema release. Now its chances are all but gone.
That said, the initial potential may have been an illusion anyway. One of the those Sundance standing ovations came before the film even screened; perhaps it was its message of racial equality (crucially at the height of the #OscarSoWhite controversy), rather than filmmaking, that stood out. Indeed, the film itself is rather plain – a generic period piece that twists the truth for its own agenda rather than a landmark work.
Robert Zemekis has serious Oscar pedigree thanks to Forrest Gump and Cast Away (and legendary status thanks to Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit), so any new movie that isn’t a mo-cap experiment will enter the Oscar discussion by default. All that considered, though, Allied felt like it was courting those descriptions more than Flight or The Walk – it had two acting megastars at its core (former Oscar winner Marion Cotillard and nominee Brad Pitt) and told a World War II spy story about love, complete with a Casablanca channelling first act.
On the one hand, it’s good that Zemekis is out of the uncanny valley and trying to make live-action movies again. On the other, he still doesn’t seem to have a lock on what he’s going for. Allied is a bit all over the place in terms of its storytelling, which makes an unpredictable thriller, but ultimately unsatisfying drama experience. And there’s plenty of not-up-to-snuff CGI to pull you out of the action.
The film has plenty of gloss, but not enough substance, so never really entered the race despite the lauded creatives involved.
12 Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
It’d be very easy to blame Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk's critical, box office and subsequent awards failure on technological problems. Following on from his Oscar-winning 3D experimentation with Life of Pi, Ang Lee chose to tinker with the frame-rate of cinema and release a movie intended to be viewed in an eye-ball melting 120 fps (that’s over twice as many frames per second than the much criticised high frame rate The Hobbit).
By all accounts more doesn’t mean better, with those seeing the film in its immense form giving it a firm thumbs down, although that’s not the root of the problem – due to the complexity of the tech involved it could only be screened in a handful of cinemas in 120 fps, instead going wide in the standard 24 fps. And in the cold, classic style, there was defense for a rather simple, basic non-chronological war drama.
Ang Lee has two Directing Oscars, but has never made a film that won the big prize – Brokeback Mountain incredulously lost out to Crash and Life of Pi was more fairly beaten by Argo – and Billy Lynn was early on pipped to be the one to break the curse, but it’s sunk harder than 5 movies worth of film canisters.
11 Live By Night
The last time Ben Affleck was in the Oscar discussion was in 2012, when his Best Directing snub for Argo dominated headlines and no doubt helped pave the way to that film’s Best Picture win (bagging the director-actor a statue for producing). It was cited as the start of a comeback, but since then it’s been a rocky road, with turns in Runner, Runner, The Accountant and, of course, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice the subject of scathing reviews.
Still, that was his acting. As Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo showed he was much more than that, putting a lot of hype (and hopes) on Live By Night, his prohibition gangster drama. When the film got a very awards-friendly Christmas Day limited release slot, it seemed like Affleck was gearing up for another Oscar race.
However, the reviews have been poor, finding the whole thing rather vain, and its limited opening struggled to draw in audiences against the likes of Rogue One. It goes wide on January 13th, so there’s potential it could make a late dash for some award appreciation, but doing so with very little pre-existing positivity would be unlikely.
Sci-fi is typically a taboo word at the Oscars, but the past few years have seen things lighten up a bit; Gravity swept the 2013 awards, bagging a host of technical along with Best Director for Alfonso Cuaron (on top of noms for Picture and Actress), while The Martian got recognised in seven categories.
On paper, Passengers would have been the next in line; its script featured on the 2007 Black List, it comes from previous directing nominee Morten Tyldum (for The Imitation Game) and stars the two of the biggest young stars in Hollywood (one of whom is already an Oscar darling).
However, it just isn’t the smart, cerebral film that’s needed – Passengers has ideas, but it doesn’t know how to explore them, and the third act has clearly been altered as the result of studio meddling. Instead, the sci-fi film that make break through this year is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, which could be in the running for Picture, Actress and Script if things go well.
9 The Sea of Trees
When Matthew McConaughey won the Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club it was stated as the peak of McConaissance, the actor’s return to the top and escape from rom-com purgatory (it certainly helped that True Detective’s incredible first season was playing out at the same time). The past year saw three films starring the actor that seemed to be attempting to climb higher and court similar success, but each failed to varying degrees.
By far the biggest was The Sea of Trees, the story of a widower attempting to commit suicide in the eponymous Japanese forest. It was – despite its heavy subject matter - director Gus van Sant’s most commercially accessible film in years, and had plenty of focal McConaughey scenes that could, on paper, bag him a second nom.
However, the film’s premiere at Cannes 2015 did not go to plan – it was panned across the board, sitting on a 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating for a good year, which made Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate, who had just bought the rights, to sit on the film (skipping last year’s awards) before passing it over to A24, who instigated a much smaller VOD release in 2016, a move that pulled it from even being a contender.
Did it deserve all the hate? Well, there’s no denying that McConaughey does his best (he owns the cry face), but, yeah, it’s pretty bad.
8 Free State of Jones
The next 2016 film from McConaughey felt more traditionally Oscar-y. Free State of Jones charts the story of Newt Knight, a Confederate deserter who forms his own “free state” (guess the name) and fights against racial persecution. It didn’t have the most awards-friendly release date, coming in the late-summer drought, but that core conceit, along with its marketing, suggested something aimed directly at bagging an acting nom.
The failure for this one is less dramatic than The Sea of Trees – it's not a disaster, it just isn’t all that great. McConaughey himself is again good, but provides nothing strong enough to overpower the incredibly scattershot way what should be an interesting story is (there’s a bizarre framing device involving a 1960s trial that attempts to rush the ideals of Loving). It didn’t have enough critical clout to mount a good campaign on and came out too early to coast along the discussion, so this is probably the last we've heard of this one.
And we close out the Matthew McConaughey portion of this list with Gold, which is still yet to get its wide release, but managed to just squeeze into the race by playing in the very last days of 2016 in the requisite theatres. There’s playing the system and then there’s this; the Weinsteins are clearly hoping for some award love to boost those box office receipts.
They’re probably going to be left wanting, however. Early buzz is middling personified, with the few reviews out there saying - what else - that McConaughey is fine as a 1980s prospector, but the film itself is nothing inspired. Contrast this to The Big Short, which played a similar trick last year, but had immense hype to power it and made over $100 million.
What makes the lack of chatter for this one so disappointing is that it’s the big screen return of director Steven Gaghan after an over ten year absence (his last film was Syriana, which won George Clooney his Oscar.
In retrospect, a mainstream drama about Edward Snowden and his leaking of key NSA documents was always going to be a hard commercial sell, but for a while it looked geared to be part of the Oscar discussion.
Snowden was originally meant to be making a play for awards last year, but its release date kept being pushed back – from December 2015 to May 2016 to, finally, September. Although delays typically speak of production issues, here it sounds more like the studio attempting to position it for the 2017 awards race; it was offered an In Competition spot at Cannes, but Open Road Films turned it down in favour of the more Oscar-friendly Toronto.
That release muddling doesn’t have seem to have worked though. Unlike other films on this list (as well as recent works from director Michael Mann), this one’s not exactly a dud, but it’s failed to connect in any meaningful way – everything is good, but outside of making you suspicious of your webcam, there’s no lasting impact in the same way as Citizenfour (which won Best Documentary in 2015).
5 The Light Between Oceans
It probably wouldn’t have helped The Light Between Oceans' awards chances that Alicia Vikander won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress last year – the breakout star already has an Academy Award, so there’s less urge to honour her again - but it didn't have enough of an impact for that even become a factor.
When the film about a couple taking a shipwrecked baby as their own, only to discover the real mother years later premiered as Venice, the reviews were decidedly mixed. Festival hype isn’t the be all and end all for a movie – look at how Carol, adored in Cannes, failed to get noticed outside of the acting categories last year – but it requires a solid release and well-ran campaign.
Oceans didn't have that and, to make things worse, director Derek Cianfrance's wife, Shannon Plumb, wrote a scathing open letter lambasting the negative (or, rather, middling) reviews, which made the film look less like an interesting, if not perfect drama and more something with delusions of mastery.
4 Queen Of Katwe
Disney had a banner year in 2016. When every other studio was lumbered with resounding disappointments, they released the likes of Captain America: Civil War, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Jungle Book and Zootopia, which broke box office records (five of the ten highest grossing films coming from the Mouse House) and earned mass critical praise. Those films and their enviable stats hide the other side of Disney's year, however; films like The BFG bombed hard, and intended critical darlings stumbled.
Take Queen of Katwe, an ESPN production following a chess champion from the Ugandan slums to the World Chess Olympiad. Starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo, it certainly had pedigree, yet as an overall package fell rather flat. Disney presumably knew this because, despite its prestige air, they only gave the film a limited release, opting to push it more on home video.
This is definitely somewhere where Disney can up their game; they rarely produce serious Oscar contenders (Saving Mr Banks was a notorious snub a few years ago) and while in other years Katwe would have been a hot potential contender, in a shifting industry the film just wasn't remarkable to make a dint.
3 Patriot’s Day
Patriot’s Day is, based on Rotten Tomatoes at least, the best-received film on this list – it has a 79% rating (92% when filtering Top Critics) and is Certified Fresh. That’s not too far off some films we’re expecting to be contenders. And yet, in spite of that, it doesn’t look like it’ll crack through.
The obvious problem seems to be in the handling of the Boston Marathon bombings; it falls into the trap of creating fictional elements and introducing contrivances to make the story more cinematic, which is campaign poison. Although it may be a handling one on behalf of the studio – there doesn’t seem to have been much of a concerted campaign for it at all, and little in the way of pre-release buzz (it went for the “Christmas limited, January wide release", but hasn't quite stuck it).
There could have been potential for it tapping into a similar category of awards voters as American Sniper a few years ago, but with Hacksaw Ridge offering a much stronger real-world, go-America film, it doesn’t even have that going for it.
2 Rules Don’t Apply
In writer-director-star Warren Beatty’s eyes, Rules Don’t Apply was going to be big; it was his return to directing and acting in almost two decades and paid off a lifelong fascination with Howard Hughes. And from an Oscar standpoint, the core elements are definitely there – it’s about the industry and America’s golden years, told through the eyes of two young stars (one of whom fortuitously was cast as Han Solo after filming completed).
If everything had come together and the film worked, there’s more than enough fodder for the awards press, but instead it was released DoA; it made less than $4 billion off a $25 million budget and was met with a resounding shrug by critics – not a disastrous passion project, just a rather bland one. In retrospect, that it wasn’t all that should have been obvious by its protracted development – at one point Paramount flat-out dropped the film, and it took almost three years to go from rolling cameras to release.
1 Collateral Beauty
Bless Will Smith. Ever since the flat-out failure of After Earth (why he chose to team up with M. Night Shyamalan is beyond us), he’s been trying to diversify his career, picking less all-round good guys and more complex films, but every time misses the mark. This is most pronounced in his attempts at Oscar glory – Concussion was fine enough, but not a worthy competitor, and this year he appeared in one of the most fascinatingly bad films in years.
Collateral Beauty is Oscar bait personified. It boasts a massive cast of acclaimed actors telling an ostensibly heart-warming story, yet misses all subtlety and can’t grasp the comfort of its privilege bubble (just look at how sanitised and clean New York City looks). Of course, movies like that get nominated all the time (and don’t even need to be well-regarded – see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in 2012), but David Frankel’s film so overwhelmingly misses the mark it can’t be redeemed.