From Cats to The Goldfinch: Oscarbait movies the Academy shunned in 2020

Motherless Brooklyn

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Given a splashy premiere at the Telluride film festival, one of the most discerning of all the fall festivals, early word suggested that Motherless Brooklyn could return Edward Norton to the Academy’s good graces. But the three-time nominee’s long-gestating passion project (a starry adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning noir) was ultimately more of a vanity project, complete with a mannered, almost parodic Norton central performance. It wasn’t a complete disaster but it felt like the kind of competent Miramax prestige pic that would have been pushed in 2003 and forgotten about by 2004.

Richard Jewell


Clint Eastwood has developed an impressive habit of sneaking into the awards race at the last minute, dropping films late in the day, often speedily made yet always finely crafted. It’s a strategy that’s paid off on a number of occasions – Million Dollar Baby, American Sniper – but last year, the sterling credentials of awards-friendly fact-based drama Richard Jewell weren’t enough to make a mark. The film, which tells the story of the security guard falsely accused of planting a bomb at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, received solid reviews but also faced controversy over its inaccurate portrayal of a female journalist, alleging she swapped sex for tips. Audiences responded with apathy and the film gave Eastwood one of his worst-ever openings. As Jewell’s mother, Bates scored a supporting actress nomination at the Golden Globes and the Oscars but it’s a poor showing for a film that was aiming for so much more.

Just Mercy


When the fact-based legal drama Just Mercy premiered at last year’s Toronto film festival, complaints about its by-the-numbers storytelling were outweighed by both the film’s undeniable emotive power and praise for Jamie Foxx’s turn as a man wrongly accused of murder. He was seen as an instant lock for best supporting actor but as we edged closer to awards season, the film, and Foxx, started to lose steam. He picked up a Screen Actors Guild nomination but was shut out elsewhere and the film’s late release strategy meant that for many, it was unfairly buried underneath contenders with a more distinctive edge.


Rushed by the director Tom Hooper in order to meet an Oscar-friendly release date, Cats was unleashed in such a shoddy state that a tweaked cut was shipped to cinemas just days after it went wide. Quite why Universal thought a plotless musical populated by nonsensically named CG monstrosities would appeal to voters is a mystery but the reception for the film was so bad that the studio removed it from its “for your consideration” roster soon after it tanked. Even Taylor Swift’s original, but forgettable, song couldn’t claw its way into this week’s list of nominees. The lessons should hopefully be clear: not every well-known IP should be resurrected, Tom Hooper can’t be trusted and, most importantly, don’t fuck with Cats.

Dark Waters


Like Just Mercy, Dark Waters took an aggravating real-life legal case and turned it into an involving, sturdy film – and like Just Mercy, it also failed to make a convincing enough argument for inclusion to Academy voters. A muted thriller about a staggering case of corporate negligence, it acted as more of a call to action than a fully formed movie, with the director Todd Haynes and stars Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway mostly coasting. It’s the kind of story that viewers have become more accustomed to finding on Netflix and its underwhelming box office suggests that the small screen might be where similarly plotted stories belong in the future.

The Aeronauts

Reuniting the stars of The Theory of Everything, Oscar-winning Eddie Redmayne and Oscar-nominated Felicity Jones, the ambitious period adventure The Aeronauts was sold on the strange assertion that audiences would care about seeing the pair together again. But while the Stephen Hawking biopic made an impact upon release, it’s not a film that’s stuck in the years since and Amazon’s ballooning semi-biopic was deflating for a number of reasons. A restrained release – the film was originally set to be on Imax yet ultimately in most territories reserved to streaming only – and polite, if unenthused, reviews meant that it couldn’t work as either a mass market effects extravaganza or an awards-friendly critical darling.

The Goldfinch

On paper, so much suggested that a prestigious adaptation of The Goldfinch would be a natural fit for the Oscars, from the award-winning cast (Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Sarah Paulson) to the Pulitzer prize-winning source material from Donna Tartt to a director whose last film, Brooklyn, was feted by the Academy. But when it came to the film itself, based on what’s been called unfilmable source material, Warner Bros granted it a token Toronto film festival premiere just days before it crash-landed into cinemas with one of the year’s worst openings and some of the season’s most hateful reviews.

Dolemite Is My Name


One of the many surprise snubs from this week’s Oscar nominations was the exclusion of the blaxploitation biopic Dolemite Is My Name. At this stage of the season, most hadn’t predicted it to figure in the best picture race but Eddie Murphy, who had been figuring heavily in the circuit, was seen as a strong contender for best actor. It’s a disappointment with a number of possible explanations: an unusually stacked category, some ill will toward Murphy for prior behaviour and also a refusal from some Academy members to take comedians seriously (Adam Sandler’s career-best turn in Uncut Gems was also left out in the cold).