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'(500) Days of Summer,' 'Bright Star,' 'Where the Wild Things Are': What went wrong?

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Over the last few months I’ve noticed several movies repeatedly popping up in your comments to my OscarWatch posts. Three of those films — (500) Days of Summer, Bright Star, and Where the Wild Things Are — were all but left out of this week’s Academy Award nominations announcement despite mostly positive reviews and strong cult followings. So let’s look at each of these entries and figure out how they went from possible awards bait to eventual also-rans.

(500) DAYS OF SUMMER

The quirky summer comedy was one of the breakouts from Sundance, along with Precious and An Education. It scored three major Spirit Award nominations and two big Golden Globe nods, for Best Comedy and Best Actor in a Comedy, but lost both, even though some prognosticators (like myself) thought it had a shot at the Best Comedy trophy. While it was always a dark horse for one of the ten Best Picture slots, its adorable script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber was considered a top contender for Best Original Screenplay, even earning a Writers Guild nomination alongside A Serious Man and The Hurt Locker. But The Messenger stole its Oscar slot. The fault doesn’t lie with the campaign: Even after Fox Searchlight focused its attention on its late addition, Crazy Heart, it still did right by (500) Days in terms of For Your Consideration ads and industry events. But at the end of the day, the Academy is still an older voting body, and likely didn’t fall for the film’s bittersweet tone as much as all of us fans did.

BRIGHT STAR

When it premiered at Cannes, Jane Campion’s period drama was widely considered a return to form for the filmmaker as well as a star-making vehicle for lead actress Abbie Cornish. So why did it only end up with one nomination, for Best Costume Design? In my mind, it was a question of timing and resources. Once the film then played at Toronto, it had several other strong female-driven films to contend with, most notably An Education. And while Cornish dutifully did her PR rounds (including a lovely interview with yours truly), no one could possibly compete with the charm offensive that was the captivating Carey Mulligan. It didn’t help that Bright Star was released relatively early in the season, in September; after a so-so box office showing, many people soon forgot about the film. Plus, Bright Star‘s fledgling distributor, Apparition, then put out The Young Victoria, another costume drama with a solid lead female turn, in December, all but shunting Star to the sidelines.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

Spike Jonze scored a Best Director nod ten years ago for Being John Malkovich. And his unorthodox adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book started strong, earning a decent $77 million at the domestic box office and landing on the National Board of Review’s top 10. Then it basically disappeared from the awards universe. My hunch is that, as with (500) Days, the stodgier members of the Academy didn’t cotton to the film’s woodsy look, which belied its steep production cost. (If a movie is going to cost a lot of dough, they want to see the money more explicitly on the screen.) Also complicating matters was the Academy’s decision to disqualify Karen O and Carter Burwell’s music from Best Score consideration; many observers believe it was because it was the work of two composers working separately rather than as one team. The moral of the story: If Jonze wants to do his trippy, bizarro thing, the Oscars want it to be for grown-ups.

Image credit: Wild Things: Matt Nettheim; Summer: Chuck Zlotnick

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