Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searches, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Shame — the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.
The Film: Rush, the true-life tale of Formula One drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda and their odd-couple rivalry, which burned up the Formula One world during the ’70s and to this day remains one of the great moments in Formula One history.
Why It Wasn’t Nominated: Formula What? The Academy doesn’t pay much attention to movies about sports that aren’t boxing, and Rush had a particularly difficult hill to climb, since the average voter probably doesn’t know about this very European story. Star Daniel Bruhl’s turn as the icy bucktoothed Lauda was a physical transformation comparable to past winners like Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln or Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote, but since Bruhl is a lesser-known actor playing a barely-known true-life person, he didn’t get the typical biopic bump.
Rush was directed by Ron Howard, who has a solid Oscar track record with his true-life docudramas. He won Best Director for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind and was nominated again for 2008’s journalistic duel Frost/Nixon; he was also infamously not nominated for Apollo 13, the mid-’90s crowdpleaser which complete Howard’s career reboot as a Serious Filmmaker. Howard reunited with his Frost/Nixon screenwriter Peter Morgan, also nominated for 2006’s The Queen. But unlike his earlier biopics, Rush lacked the sort of obvious Big Important Quality that the Academy usually prefers. The faceoff between a couple racecar drivers in the ’70s lacks the thematic weight of, say, a disgraced President or a schizophrenic Nobel laureate.
For all the above reasons, Rush also didn’t do very well at the box office, earning a mere $26 million domestically. The advertising largely pitched it as Chris Hemsworth’s post-Thor coming out party, but Bruhl’s role is actually much showier. And even though the two men are quite clearly co-stars, Bruhl was pitched as the Supporting Actor, a decision which earned several nominations from Critics Societies and the Golden Globes, but which also had the effect of further muddying the waters for the movie.
There’s a neither-fish-nor-fowl sense to Rush as a whole: It’s a film starring two opposing protagonists who aren’t particularly sympathetic, set in a world most Americans don’t care about, and many of its most climactic moments are presented as quiet epiphanies, not awards-friendly big speeches. It’s a cerebral movie about thrill junkies, a rhapsody for a pair of high-functioning jerks. In a great year for Serious Movies, Rush just fell through the cracks.
Why History Will Remember It Better Than Philomena: Because in an era when the whole species of Sports Movies is practically extinct, Rush is a sport movie done right. The decision to turn the film into a double biopic forces the audience to constantly shift their allegiances. Hemsworth imbues Hunt with all his Asgardian charisma, but he also shows the darker edges of the playboy lifestyle: You’re painfully aware that Hunt’s golden-boy hedonism starts to look a little bit like an instinct towards self-destruction. Meanwhile, Bruhl finds a deep reserve of humanity behind Lauda’s cold-fish exterior. Like a great work of sports journalism, Rush doesn’t deify its characters: It presents them as flesh-and-blood humans, which makes their near-transcendent automotive feats all the more impressive.
Also, the film looks great. Ascendant cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle has done fascinatingly varied work for Euro-auteurs Danny Boyle and Lars Von Trier (including a win for Slumdog Millionaire), and turned 2012’s underrated Dredd into a neon-grunge visual wonder. Since Rush doesn’t look anything like Ron Howard’s other movies, you get the vibe that the director encouraged Mantle to go wild, and the result is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, a film that soaks in bright ’70s colors and the gun-metal gray of the racetrack. (Howard, ever the savvy Hollywood player, knows a star when he sees one: Mantle is also shooting his next movie, In the Heart of the Sea.)
Morgan’s script took some liberties with the Hunt/Lauda tale: The real-life rivalry was decidedly less intense. But that’s just another reason why Rush will live on. Howard takes the two drivers into a realm of myth. Lauda is the workaholic autodidact who knows exactly how much he’s willing to risk; Hunt is the impulsive loose cannon an intuitive skill set whose main advantage is his willingness to risk everything. More than a few people have seen something biographical in Rush, with Lauda as the onscreen version of old pro Howard’s efficient company-man style and Hunt standing in for all the flashier filmmakers who shine bright enough to burn out.
Rush is a good story told well, a film that defies sports-movie tropes and digs deep into the brilliance and madness that motivates professional athletes. And it proves that there’s more to Chris Hemsworth than Thor and the Huntsman. Also: Turns out Formula One is pretty awesome. Way to go, Europe!