Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Blackfish—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. Before the ceremony, 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: Top Five is the rare romantic comedy that actually remembered to be funny. Written, directed, and starring Chris Rock, the movie’s plot and subtext are a little like Birdman—but with an ending that doesn’t make you want to kill yourself. Rock plays Andre Allen, a comedian who became a Hollywood movie star via a series of ridiculous action comedies about a crime-fighting bear. Now he’s trying for respectability—and on the day that his serious slave epic, Uprize, opens in theaters, he spends the day with a savvy New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) who just wants to know, “How come you’re not funny anymore?”
Why it wasn’t nominated: The Academy doesn’t have the best sense of humor, and it’s extremely rare for it to recognize a true comedy. When Top Five debuted at the Toronto Film Festival, however, rave reviews comparing the film to Woody Allen’s best work inflated hopes that Rock might have a hit on his hands—one the Academy couldn’t ignore. But after a decent opening weekend, Top Five failed to live up to expectations at the box office; it grossed only $25.3 million. And if audiences don’t show up for a comedy and make it a sensation, the Academy has cover to ignore it.
Top Five was also R-rated, with a fair dose of raunchy humor. (You might have heard about the Tabasco-sauce scene, or the hardcore sequence with Cedric the Entertainer at the hotel.) Those were some of the movie’s funniest moments—but it’s easy to imagine the slightly-older (and much whiter) Academy membership watching parts of Top Five and flinching. Top Five also doesn’t “feel” like an Oscar movie, and the cast’s comedy credentials don’t typically overlap with the Oscar’s tastes. Which is a shame—for the Academy.
In hindsight, releasing Top Five right before Christmas may have been a misstep. Paramount obviously thought the film-festival buzz could deliver a few nominations, especially for Best Screenplay. But the movie may have fared better—financially and with voters—if it had opened outside of the prime awards-season window, when the industry is obsessed with more serious Oscar fare. Top Five may have had less competition in February, and thus received a wider release. (It never played in more than 1,500 theaters.) A 2015 release, obviously, would’ve disqualified Top Five from this year’s Oscars, but it could’ve been one of the early frontrunners for next year.
Why history will remember it better than the Academy did: Pound for pound, joke for joke, Top Five is one of the funniest movies of the decade. It’s stuffed to the brim with hilarious people who each get to showcase their chops, going toe-to-toe with one another like they’re exchanging quips at 3 a.m. at the Comedy Cellar. The scenes in Andre’s old neighborhood—with Tracy Morgan, Leslie Jones, J.B. Smoove, et al—would’ve shattered a comedy Richter scale, and the last-act scene at the strip club, featuring Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, and Whoopi Goldberg, topped everything that came before it—no small feat.
Top Five is also extremely intelligent and self-aware, representing a remarkable leap forward creatively for its filmmaker. Rock clearly recalibrated his goals and ambitions after both starring in the Tony-nominated Broadway play The Motherf**ker With the Hat and taking low-risk roles in disposable movies like Grown Ups 2 and What to Expect When You’re Expecting. His previous directorial efforts weren’t exactly Hammy the Bear (his last time behind the camera was in 2007’s I Think I Love My Wife), but they also didn’t aspire to be the classic films that Rock has long admired, from Allen’s rom-coms to Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Top Five is Rock holding nothing back, bringing his stand-up’s ferocious comic storytelling to a film for the first time.
No doubt Top Five will find a wider audience on home video, but it will be interesting to see how it will be regarded in the future. A lot of that will depend on what Rock does next. Is Top Five the beginning of a new creative chapter for him as a filmmaker? Or is it a blip—one that dissipates quickly, in part because of Oscar’s indifference? Either way, it’s a hilarious—and ultimately sweet—comedy with an all-star team of comics who represent the genre’s past, present, and future.