This post was originally pitched around the release of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's cinematic ode to that one They Might Be Giants album, and how its arrival heralds the unofficial beginning of Oscar-bait season. But Les Miserables shot that peg in the head, so to speak, and one-upped Lincoln with its musical misery trailer.
Either way: for the next few months, movie studios are going to pay millions of dollars, on top of the hundreds of millions they've already spent, to convince us and Academy voters that their films are subjectively better than other studios' films. It's depressing, really, but hey, *lights cigar* it's Oscars season, baby. No matter how good they might be, both Les Mis and Lincoln look like they were made solely to win awards, as if no one at any point asked, "Does the world really need another Abraham Lincoln film?" No, it does not.
With all that in mind, here are 10 of cinema's most obnoxious tropes that you see in Oscar-bait film after Oscar-bait film, with two entries dedicated solely to the most shameless award-whore movies in recent history. And neither is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Yeah, they're that flagrant.
White man's burden
The only thing tougher than being black? Being white. You must take pity on the underprivileged non-Coldplay fans of the world, because if you don't, they're going to die in either a gang shootout or drug deal gone bad. There are no other options, and both involve guns pointed sideways.
Takes-no-sh*t suburban matriarch demands dim inner-city youth act more like her. Lots of pointing ensues. (The Blind Side)
ALL HAIL THE FLOATING HEAD OF SEAN CONNERY. Also, an easy way to spot a "white's man burden" film is to see if any promotional images feature the white guy in a suit and the black guy in "street" clothes. (Finding Forrester)
Octavia Spencer has the greatest "white people, right?" face ever. (The Help)
Related to "white man's burden," the "magical negro" is a black man (or sometimes Whoopi Goldberg) who exists only to assist and fix the struggles of the Caucasian protagonist. Coined by Spike Lee in reference to...
I was so stoked for The Legend of Bagger Vance when it came out. Will Smith was one of my favorite actors (obviously Independence Day, Men in Black, and Enemy of the State were and remain awesome, but 13-year-old me even liked Wild Wild West), and Charlize Theron was mighty purty. Despite the sleepy-sounding synopsis — "A down-and-out golfer attempts to recover his game and his life with help from a mystical caddy" — it never crossed my mind that Bagger would be offensively awful. I haven't accepted a black man's advice since.
Should have gotten Jazz instead. (The Family Man)
The Green Mile isn't as terrible as Bagger Vance and The Family Man, but if there was a "magical negro" exhibit in the Movie Trope Museum (located in the back alley behind Denny's), this image would be its Mona Lisa.
To quote TV Tropes, "the Inspirationally Disadvantaged Person superficially appears weak or downtrodden, but has hidden reserves of strength which often results in An Aesop."
To quote Kirk Lazarus, "Everybody knows you never go full retard."
Nightmare fuel. (I Am Sam)
If Forrest's hairstyle ever becomes ironically cool, we are doomed. (Forrest Gump)
Note how not only is "Charly" written in crayon, but also with a backwards "r." That's full retard. Not to be outdone, Precious gave its credit sequence backwards Rs and misspellings.
I'm giving Radio its own page because it was an inspirational, based on a true story Disney movie set in the past about a black mentally handicapped man who couldn't read, yet constantly defied the expectations of the white folks in his town, including Academy Award-nominee Ed Harris. It was shameless in its cry for Academy attention, even more-so than I Am Sam (amusingly, if you Google Image search "radio cuba gooding jr," the related option is "i am sam"). Yet despite Radio having its legs wide open for Oscar, as if to invite him to fill a void, the film was shut out. But we'll never forget you, arms-spread-wide Cuba Gooding Jr. in a shopping cart.
Horses, just horses
More than any other animal trope, the "man/woman and his/her horse" story is the most popular come awards-season. Why is that? Are dogs too goofy looking? Cats too prissy? Why not naked mole rats? They're the horses of the underground. Judging by the pictures below, I'm going to guess it's because an actor or actress can look stoically into a horse's eyes. Can't do that with a naked mole rat.
"You and me/We used to be together..." (War Horse)
Pictured: Horse (L), Tobey Maguire (R) (Seabiscuit)
Years later, Chloë Grace Moretz filed a restraining order against that horse. He knows what he did. (The Horse Whisperer)
Comical amount of former-Oscar winners/well-respected actors in one film
As if to scream, "WE'RE IMPORTANT. LOOK AT ALL THESE CELEBRITIES WE'VE GATHERED." More often than not, though, this leads to jumbled scripts that attempt to replicate Robert Altman's chaotic atmosphere, but end up trying to please everyone — and satisfy no one.
Anthony Hopkins, Sharon Stone, Laurence Fishburne, Demi Moore, William H. Macy, etc. (Bobby)
Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, etc. (All the King's Men)
Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson, Penélope Cruz, etc. (Nine)
Oscar-nominated example: Crash.
Oh god, Charlize, why?
The key to a woman winning an Oscar: turn yourself into an uggo, by Hollywood standards, at least.
Charlize Theron in Monster
Jessica Biel in Home of the Brave
Mariah Carey in Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire: Electric Boogaloo
Oscar-nominated example: Halle Berry in Monster's Ball.
New song, old work
Let's say you've run all out of ideas for new movies, but you still need to make one because the world as we know it would simply crumble if the McCallister family in Fartstink, Missouri, couldn't spend $50 at the local cinema. What do you do? You steal, I mean, adapt one from an existing source, like, say, a Broadway musical. But you also want an Oscar. Preexisting songs are exempt from the Academy Award for Best Original Song category, so to get around that rule, you keep the source material, but also add in an extra showstopper of a number, which is almost guaranteed to be nominated and terrible. Meh. Fartstink money > quality.
"You Must Love Me" by Madonna from Evita
"Cinema Italiano" by Kate Hudson from Nine
"Learn to be Lonely" by Minnie Driver from The Phantom of the Opera
Oscar-nominated example: "I Move On" from Chicago.
But the key isn't just to make a Holocaust movie — it's to make a Holocaust movie...with kids. It's an easy sentimental grab, and Academy voters are infamous for not recognizing when they're being pandered to. All they see is the twinkle in the eyes of the little sprite on-screen, not the comical dollar signs in the eyes of shameless producers who are thinking, Holocaust + Kids = Awards = $$$. It's ironic, really.
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
Life is Beautiful
Jakob the Liar
Oscar-nominated example: Life Is Beautiful.
Everything in The Reader
Seriously, this is the worst successful Oscar-bait film of all-time. Hey, remember when The Reader, in all its Holocaust-y, illiterate, white person staring vacantly at nothing, melodramatic, unrelentingly grim glory was nominated for Best Picture over The Dark Knight, WALL-E, The Fall, and Synecdoche, New York? That happened. Even the prospect of seeing Kate Winslet naked isn't worth it. In summation: