The most prestigious honor in cinema is the Academy Award. An impressive showing at the Oscars is a major boon for any film, often adding tens of millions of dollars to its box-office haul and cementing its place in history as an Oscar-winning movie.
Because of this, many films are written and produced with Oscars in mind. These are called “Oscar bait.” While many of these films succeed in bringing home the gold, many of them fail. At the same time, there have been examples through the years when unconventional, non-Oscar oriented films clean up on Oscar night.
10 Oscar Bait: Amelia
Nothing says “Oscar bait” like a period biopic of a historically significant person. 2009’s Amelia cast Oscar winner Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart, the pilot who disappeared in 1937 while attempting a flight around the world.
Despite a strong ensemble cast including Richard Gere and Ewan McGregor and a subject that seemed ripe for awards consideration, Amelia was a massive flop, both critically and at the box office. It grossed just over $19 million worldwide, recouping less than half of its budget. it holds a dismal 20% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and of course, garnered zero Oscar nominations.
9 Non-Oscar Bait: Parasite
It explores themes of class disparities in ways that few American films dare, it is unflinchingly violent and at times relentlessly bleak. It’s also darkly funny. This is usually the last kind of film to garner serious Oscar consideration, but it was so undeniably well executed in every respect that it racked up major awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay.
8 Oscar Bait: Collateral Beauty
2016’s tear-jerker Collateral Beauty stars Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Kate Winslet, and Helen Mirren. Between those five actors alone are 18 Academy Award nominations, and so it’s clear that Collateral Beauty had high hopes for Oscar glory.
The film was universally panned by critics, who found its high-minded fantasy concept unintentionally funnier than it was profound. Fortunately, the star power involved was enough to make the film a modest financial success, but it still fell well short of its lofty aspirations as an awards contender.
7 Non-Oscar Bait: Moonlight
Whereas 2016’s Collateral Beauty fell flat, the big winner that year was Moonlight, a low budget indie based on unpublished play and featuring no big-name actors. Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor, catapulting him to the Hollywood A-list. The film itself shocked the Oscar night by upsetting the frontrunner, La La Land, to win Best Picture of the Year.
Moonlight is the kind of intimate and poetic coming of age story that is all-too-rarely made, much less considered for major awards. It’s a deserving winner.
6 Oscar Bait: All The King’s Men
2006’s All the King’s Men is the ultimate Oscar bait movie. It’s a remake of the 1949 film that itself won Best Picture. It’s written and directed by Steven Zaillian, who at the time was a three-time nominee who won in 1993 for his Schindler’s List screenplay. It stars Sean Penn, Jude Law, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, James Gandolfini, and Patricia Clarkson. What could go wrong?
The answer: apparently, everything. The film is too generic to be politically insightful and too scatterbrained to be dramatically compelling. As great as its cast is on paper, their over-the-top performances and unconvincing Louisiana accents not only failed to compensate for the film’s numerous other flaws, they actually made this one all the more difficult to sit through.
5 Non-Oscar Bait: Slumdog Millionaire
It’s hard to think of a time when an independent film caught fire the way 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire came seemingly out of nowhere and took awards season by storm. Director Danny Boyle was a successful genre director at the time, but not considered an Oscar contender by any means.
Slumdog Millionaire is a visceral, energetic, and unabashedly contemporary tour de force of a film that beat out more traditional Oscar-oriented films like Milk, The Reader, and Frost/Nixon to win Best Picture at the 2009 Oscars.
4 Oscar Bait: Men, Women, And Children
After the successes of Juno and Up in the Air, director Jason Reitman was one of Hollywood’s hottest young directors. His 2014 dramedy Men, Women, and Children about the effect of internet culture on three suburban families, missed the mark in all kinds of ways.
Reitman’s directorial touch is heavy-handed and overbearing. Adam Sandler is cast against type in a role he just wasn’t right for. The scene writing doesn’t translate well from the novel upon which it was based. A would-be Oscar contender, Men, Women, and Children ended up an awkward mess of a movie.
3 Non-Oscar Bait: The Silence Of The Lambs
Because it’s so widely regarded as a classic 30 years after its release, it’s easy to forget how much The Silence of the Lambs defies conventional Oscar-bait classification. It’s a horror film about a cannibal who helps an FBI agent hunt down a serial killer. To this day, it’s the only film of its genre to win Best Picture.
Not only did it take the evening’s top prize, it became just the third film ever, and the last film to this day, to sweep the “Big Five” categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay.
2 Oscar Bait: The Monuments Men
Director George Clooney and his writing/producing partner Grant Heslov earned significant Oscar attention for their excellent 2005 drama Good Night, and Good Luck. They reprised their respective duties in 2014’s The Monuments Men. It’s a World War II film about a group of Allied forces on a mission to recover invaluable artwork from Nazi thieves before they’re destroyed.
On paper, this was a surefire contender. It’s a war film with an all-star cast and production team. It fell flat with critics and audiences, however. The first sign of trouble came when its release was delayed from October of 2013, peak Oscar-movie season, to February of the following year, when studios often roll out their lesser movies.
1 Non-Oscar Bait: Annie Hall
1977 saw the release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. It was a true game-changer, and a marvel of modern moviemaking. Epic and revolutionary as it was, it garnered much Oscar attention, including, of course, a Best Picture nomination.
The big winner that year, however, was Annie Hall, a much smaller film by writer-director Woody Allen. It’s an inventive film in its own right, experimenting with various cinematic devices by characters breaking the fourth wall and talking directly to the camera, and using subtitles to illustrate their interior monologue running underneath their spoken lines. It’s not the type of film known for attracting Oscar gold, but it took home four statues, including Best Picture of the Year.