6. Widows (Steve McQueen)
Featuring one of the biggest directors in the business (Steve McQueen, director of Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave), a screenplay by the massively successful Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Objects), and a deeply intersectional feminist message, Widows had all the ingredients of a classic Oscar bait film.
The only difference was that this was a genre film (albeit a deeply subversive one), all centring around a big heist. Curiously, the marketers actually promoting the movie leaned more into genre tropes with their posters than the film’s Oscar potential, leading it to be a complete box office flop.
Made to be a complex statement on the state of America today, tackling everything from gun ownership, to racial divides, to gentrification, to corruption, Widows is a brilliant and weighty film that’s bait-y elements shouldn’t really have got it in the way of success. Nonetheless, despite brilliant performances from Viola Davis and Daniel Kaluuya respectively, the film didn’t receive a single nomination.
7. Girl (Lukas Dhont)
With transgender stories featuring more and more in the media, they have become ripe potential for Oscar bait. While there are some excellent films made with the perspective of trans people in mind that actually cast trans folk in the main role such as A Fantastic Woman and Tangerine, weak cisgender portrayals have focused on the misery of trans people’s existence while illuminating none of trans people’s inner strength. First there was The Danish Woman, which won Alicia Vikander an Oscar, then there was Girl, directed by Belgian Lukas Dhont.
This film is particularly egregious, and has been described as transgender trauma porn — one scene seeing the main character cut off their penis as a means to truly “become” a woman. It was well lauded — even winning The Queer Palm at Cannes — until trans people actually saw it and drew attention to its problematic elements and how they made for poor and potentially dangerous storytelling.
Despite a Golden Globe nomination, the critical noise surrounding its portrayal of trans people and the casting of a cisgender actor in the main role nixed its chances of a Best Foreign Language nomination come the Oscars. Hopefully, thanks to the (righteous) uproar, Girl will be the last of its kind.
8. The Happy Prince (Rupert Everett)
Rupert Everett is a great actor but his first time directing left a lot to be desired. The narrative for The Happy Prince was perfect Oscar bait. Here was an openly gay actor playing one of the most famous gay men in history: Oscar Wilde.
While his performance was very good, the choice of timeline — focusing on the writer’s final days wasting away in France and Italy — felt particularly mean, horrendous flashbacks used to just drill in how sad Wilde’s final days were. While the way he was treated by the authorities at the time is worthy of re-examination, The Happy Prince was simply too miserable to really connect with anyone.
None of the joie de vivre of Wilde’s life is conveyed here, with little of the wit and much less of the poetry. Instead it was just another classic tale of why being gay is just so sad at a time when voters prefer a variety of diverse and interesting stories about the gay experience. Upon its premiere at the Berlinale the film was quickly forgotten. It’s for the best.
9. On the Basis of Sex (Mimi Leder)
It’s one thing to lionise a dead figure. An even smarter ploy is to lionise someone who is very close to death. On The Basis of Sex, telling the story of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s journey to become a U.S Supreme Court Judge, fit that category perfectly, especially considering that she is still working there at the age of 85, and for some represents the last line of resistance from the executive whims of President Trump.
A massively beloved woman, an adaptation of her story is the very definition of classic Oscar winning material. Just consider that a documentary tackling the same topic, RBG, was nominated for a Best Documentary award.
With the likeable Felicity Jones — who was also in The Theory of Everything, which also lionised someone very old — in the main role, it’s a feel good, explicitly feminist film. Despite relatively positive reviews, the film didn’t connect with Oscar voters, not even for Best Actress. Perhaps this wasn’t so much to do with the film’s bait-y qualities, but simply how stacked the race has been this year. She may be the go-to biopic actress for a long time yet.
10. Peterloo (Mike Leigh)
Mike Leigh is one of the UK’s most beloved directors. Films such as Secrets and Lies, Naked and Topsy-Turvy represent the very best of what British cinema can do. With his last film, Mr Turner, which expanded his gaze by looking into Britain’s most famous painter, he achieved a fair amount of Oscar success, garnering four nominations. His follow up Peterloo was tipped to be a masterpiece, to do for the UK (illuminate the darkest parts of history) what 12 Years a Slave did for the USA.
Based on the real massacre in the early 19th century in Manchester, it was an epic, extensively researched film that connected massively with critics. Given that it’s a touchy (and sad) subject matter, a part of history the UK doesn’t want to talk about, and lots of innocent people are killed, it qualifies as an Oscar-bait film. Sadly it made few waves outside of England.