The Oscar nominations have just been announced, which means our long annual awards-season debate surrounding who should win, who might surprise us, and who got snubbed is just getting started. In anticipation of that mother of all awards ceremonies, let’s take an appreciative look back at some of the greatest films in Hollywood history that didn’t receive a single Oscar nomination — a list that, as you’ll see, includes more than a few timeless classics. No envelope, please… it’s time for Total Recall!
In a filmography studded with cult classics, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski might be the cultiest — which is to say that when it arrived in theaters, it landed with nowhere near the impact you might suspect today. In spite of a top-notch cast that included Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as well as an eminently quotable screenplay whose storyline amiably loped between (often equally surreal) moments of comedy and drama, Lebowski eked out less than $20 million during its theatrical run, and although critics were generally kind, they weren’t exactly falling all over themselves to proclaim its everlasting virtues. The Coens had the last laugh in the long run, however — Oscars are nice, but how many movies have inspired their own religion?
When Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless arrived in 1960, there was no way for critics to know they were witnessing one of the most influential works in all of cinema — as well as the arrival of one of the medium’s greatest auteurs. But everyone who saw it — including more than two million French filmgoers — knew they were watching something bold and new, and among cineastes, it was recognized as part of the emerging French New Wave. How it came up empty with the Academy is up for debate, but there’s no arguing its lasting impact; among directors as well as critics, Breathless is regularly cited on lists of the all-time greatest films.
The Oscars are traditionally fairly dismissive of comedies, and the list of classic laughers that deserved a nod from the Academy is long — but Bringing Up Baby, starring Cary Grant as an uptight zoologist and Katharine Hepburn as the ditz who turns his life upside down, belongs at or near the top. Critics were generally enthusiastic about Grant and Hepburn’s second big-screen pairing, but the audience’s response was decidedly mixed; despite strong receipts in a handful of locations, Baby landed with a thud in many parts of the country, and was only ultimately saved from the cultural dustbin thanks to a second life granted by television screenings more than a decade after it slunk out of theaters.
One of a handful of thrillers to make such stylishly effective use of its Los Angeles locations that the city is virtually a character unto itself, Michael Mann’s Heat might be hands down the sleekest cops-and-robbers suspense flick of the ’90s — which is really saying something, considering Mann had to weave a tangled web of plotlines involving a crowded, marquee-topping ensemble that included Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. Alas, not even the combined might of two of Hollywood’s greatest thespians could earn this classic heist picture any attention from the Academy. Mann’s next release, 1999’s The Insider, made up for lost opportunities with an impressive seven nominations — none of which, sadly, it won.
Like comedy, horror hasn’t always found the warmest reception at the Academy, and a horror movie adapted from a bestseller by Stephen King — who hasn’t always been a critics’ darling himself — probably never stood a prayer of receiving Oscars recognition. On the other hand, the big-screen version of King’s The Shining boasted a stellar pedigree, both onscreen and behind the cameras; with Jack Nicholson starring opposite Shelley Duvall and Stanley Kubrick directing, this terrifying descent into snowbound madness could easily have earned a nomination or three. Alas, it came up empty, forever depriving Nicholson the opportunity to stroll up to the podium and shout, “Heeeeeeeeeeeeere’s Oscar!”
David O. Russell’s movies have piled up a number of Oscar nominations and wins over the years, and it’d be hard to argue he’s been unfairly ignored by the Academy. Still, looking back, it’s a little surprising to note that Russell’s Three Kings didn’t pick up a single nomination. A critical and commercial hit, this pitch-black satire of modern warfare and global American politics is the rare message movie that works as pure entertainment — and it found Russell employing a few nifty visual tricks, too. Any or all of the above might have been good for awards consideration; alas, Russell would have to content himself with the awards-season attention he’d generate in later years with movies like The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle.