There is a very real chance that in a little over two weeks time, either The Big Short or Spotlight is going to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. With big wins at the SAG Awards and PGA Awards to back this up, it seems likely that Oscar glory will follow for one of them.
Personally, I don’t think either of them deserves the kudos they are getting. To consider them as the best films released in the last 12 months is laughable. They might be decent, well-crafted films, with solid direction and great casts, but that doesn’t make them great cinema. Look at their fellow nominees, The Revenant, Room and Mad Max: Fury Road. Visceral, gut-wrenching, emotional, character driven and inspiring cinema. In comparison, The Big Short and Spotlight are the absolute epitome of Oscar Bait.
If you are unsure if the film you are watching is an Oscar Bait film, you can use this simple fool-proof checklist: Was the film released between October and February? Does the film have a star-studded ensemble cast? Is the film based on an award winning book, an inspiring true story or a depressing chapter in human history?
If you answered yes to two or maybe all three, then the chances are you are watching some lovely, delicious, wriggling Oscar Bait. Yum.
Glibness aside, this is very much the norm at this time of year. The main awards categories are always filled out with well meaning, prestige pictures looking for a box office boost. But what about when these films start winning the big awards. Let’s take a look at five times the Academy got it so very, very wrong.
When was it released: 6th May 2004
What’s it about: the institutionalised and endemic racism in the greater Los Angeles area.
Who’s in it: Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Terence Howard, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe.
What did it beat: Brokeback Mountain
Oscar-Bait rating: 6/10. Released early in the year, so probably wasn’t intended as an awards movie. Nonetheless, the starry cast and weighty themes appealed to the Academy enough for them to overlook how dull and pretentious it really is, and snub the far superior Brokeback Mountain in the process.
2. A Beautiful Mind
When was it released: 4th January 2002
What’s it about: the true story of John Nash, a code-breaking mathematician who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Also based on a Pulitzer nominated book.
Who’s in it: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris, Paul Bettany
What did it beat: Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Oscar-Bait rating: 9/10. Ticks every box and then some. One of the safest choices the Academy ever made. Also one of the most egregious. This is a prime example of a prestige awards film – lush cinematography, exquisite production design and big performances. However, up against the film that not only legitimised fantasy cinema but also redefined the landscape of the modern blockbuster, it pales in comparison. Fellowship of the Ring should be winning this every time.
3. Shakespeare in Love
When was it released: 8th January 1999
What’s it about: the love affair that inspired the Bard’s most famous tragedy.
Who’s in it: Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench
What did it beat: Saving Private Ryan
Oscar-Bait rating: 8/10. The Oscars do love a historical costume drama don’t they? And no historical drama has quite the same stature as Shakespeare. This revisionist tale of how Romeo and Juliet was written is enjoyable fluff, and very re-watchable. But how this could beat Saving Private Ryan remains an absolute mystery.
4. The King’s Speech
When was it released: 25th December 2010
What’s it about: the story of a British Monarch’s impromptu ascension to the throne, and the speech therapist who helped him overcome his stammer.
Who’s in it: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham-Carter
What did it beat: Toy Story 3 & Inception
Oscar-Bait rating: 10/10. Now I like “The King’s Speech” a great deal. It’s a lovely film with terrific performances. But it’s also a gigantic, dirty bucket of Oscar Bait. So much so, that it didn’t just beat one or two more deserving films, it beat FOUR great films – The Social Network, True Grit, Black Swan & 127 Hours – and TWO modern day masterpieces, in Toy Story 3 and Inception. History will remember Colin Firth’s outstanding performance, but the best film of 2010 will always be Toy Story 3.
5. Forrest Gump
When was it released: 6th July 1994
What’s it about: the entire second half of 20th century American history seen through the eyes of a slow-witted man.
Who’s in it: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Sally Field, Gary Sinise, Mykelti Williamson
What did it beat: Pulp Fiction & The Shawshank Redemption
Oscar-Bait rating: 9/10. Had this been released in January, it would have had so much Oscar Bait, it could have opened it’s own chain of Oscar bait shops and used the profits to start a successful shrimping company. However, it loses a point for being a summer movie. That being said, its gentle and inoffensive handling of major 20th century events – Vietman, racism, drugs, Aids, JFK, Watergate – made this very popular with voters. So popular in fact, they overlooked Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption, two of the greatest films of the last 25 years. Nowadays, Shawshank is widely considered to be one of the top five films of all time. But hey, life is like a box of chocolates….apparently.
So there you have it – five times that films went fishing for awards and took home the big prize. Will the same happen this year, or will artistic merit triumph over dull, well-meaning tosh? You’ll have to tune in on Sunday 28th February 2016 to find out.
The 88th Annual Academy Awards takes place on Sunday 28th February 2016 and will be broadcast in the UK on Sky Movies.