With The Blind Side hitting DVD this week and Oscar season officially behind us it still seems surprising to me that the movie earned a Best Picture nomination and we'll now have to put the words "Academy Award-winning actress" in front of Sandra Bullock's name. That last one's REALLY going to take some getting used to. I say none of this as an insult to the film, which I enjoyed for what it was and gave a positive review to, despite (or maybe because of) its obvious goofiness and unapologetic sincerity.
It's success got me thinking about other similar movies released over the years and whether they'd have legitimate shot at a Best Picture nod in a larger field of ten nominees. And if you think I'm referring only to schmaltzy, overly-sentimental mainstream fluff that shamelessly pull at the heartstrings you'd be correct. Even though it's probably going to come off this way at times, I'm not trying to mock the films listed below or anyone who enjoys them. I actually respect what these were trying to do and wouldn't spend my time writing on them if I felt they were completely worthless. While I appreciate some a lot more than others there's no denying that we NEED them and I think one of the main reasons I favorably responded to The Blind Side is because we just don't get enough of these kinds of pictures any more. No one has the guts. Delivering an effective (or even entertainingly ineffective) mainstream audience-pleaser is quickly becoming a lost art.
The films below evoke the style and approach of The Blind Side, but don't necessarily have to be about sports (though a few are). The many detractors of Bullock's movie can at least take solace in the fact that most of these choices are inferior to it, proving the Academy was capable of far worse. But what they all have in common is that the spirit of The Blind Side lives in each of them, whether it's in the performances, the themes covered, its style, or the critical/commercial response. I've ranked them not according to quality, but their level of "BLINDSIDEDNESS" and the chances it had of the Academy actually nominating it. The most important rule: If I can say with a straight face it deserved a Best Picture nomination then it doesn't belong on this list.
10. Remember The Titans (2000)
The only football-themed movie to make the cut. Rudy's legitimately moving and widely considered a sports classic so that's out. There's We Are Marshall, but that actually approached its tragic topic with sincerity, and aside from McConaughey's awful performance (which wouldn't have received awards consideration even as a joke), there isn't anything the slightest bit goofy about it. Hardly a "feel-good" experience. But 2000's Remember The Titans is a different story. We have a charismatic and respected Oscar-winning star (Denzel Washington), mixed reviews upon release, strong box office, the issue of racism watered down for public consumption by Walt Disney studios and huge creative liberties taken with "true events." You couldn't mix better ingredients for a Blind Side style Best Picture nominee in the kitchen.
9. Miracle (2003)
Recently I noticed my Netflix queue listed Miracle as having a VERY LONG WAIT. I suppose you could chalk up its recent popularity to the Olympic fever but if it's okay with you I'd like to attribute at least some of that surge to the success of The Blind Side. The movie tells the against-all-odds story of the USA Men's hockey team, led by University of Minnesota head coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), that went on to win gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics. It doesn't get more inspiring than this, and once again (following the Bullock trend) we have a mainstream star slipping into the role of a life-changing mentor. The movie's even called MIRACLE for crying out loud. Just imagine if it were released this past year right before Olympic season. Oscar sweep. All joking aside, I was a big fan of the film when I first saw it years ago and that's coming from someone who doesn't care for hockey at all.
8. Up Close and Personal (1996)
With its simple, melodramatic storytelling The Blind Side is really a throwback to Hollywood's golden age. So what could possibly make a better companion piece than Jon Avnet's classic old school Hollywood romance Up Close and Personal, starring screen icons Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford? Besides boasting one of the silliest titles ever, the script puts The Blind Side's pretentious naming of characters to shame. Forget about "Coach Cotton" and "Miss Sue." Meet news director WARREN JUSTICE and rookie reporter SALLY "TALLY" ATWATER. If this were released last year chances are Pfeiffer would have been preparing her acceptance speech since her fluffy character is VERY LOOSELY based on real-life news anchor Jessica Savitch, minus the drug abuse, suicide attempts and her death at age 36 in a car accident. The script's fudging of the facts makes The Blind Side look like a hard-hitting docudrama. As for its behind the scenes depiction of the TV news industry--- Network or Broadcast News this definitely isn't. Did you know that this did actually receive an Academy Award nomination? Granted it was for Celine Dion's original song, but hey, it still counts. Don't claim to be a fan of unintentional comedy until you've seen it.
7. The Rookie (2002)
Before making The Blind Side, director John Lee Hancock was practicing the art of pulling audience heartstrings with this inspiring baseball drama about middle-aged high school teacher and coach Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) who gets a second shot at the Majors. This was actually the beginning of a big career turn around for Quaid, whose own comeback mirrored that of the protagonist he was portraying. After this, he went on to carve out a nice niche for himself again and if the film were released last year it's easy to believe he would have enjoyed the same success Bullock did, perhaps even resulting in an Oscar nomination or win. He's just as well-liked and considerably more talented as an actor. Instead we got G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It was just a matter of timing. Substitute baseball for football and insert Quaid for Bullock and here's your tenth Best Picture nominee.
6. Mr. Holland's Opus (1995)
Maybe the only film on this list that at least equals The Blind Side in terms of quality, if not surpassing it. I have so much affection for this movie (which I actually saw in the theater when it was released) that I'm actually going to refrain from making jokes about it. Very well received critically AND making big bank at the box office, it earned well deserved Best Actor nomination for Richard Dreyfuss as music composer turned teacher Glenn Holland. And if I remember correctly it did come dangerously close to scoring a Best Picture nod. It isn't difficult to see why Academy members would be tripping all over themselves to nominate it. Harkening back to classic inspirational teacher dramas like Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Dead Poets Society the movie is sappy, overly-sentimental, shamelessly manipulative and belonging to a genre I usually detest, yet I still really enjoyed it. Like The Blind Side, it's so earnest and upfront about its intentions you almost have no choice but to go along for the ride.
5. Pay It Forward (2000)
Speaking of inspiring educators, who can ever forget Kevin Spacey's turn as disfigured social studies teacher Eugene Simonet? Most movies on this list attempt (sometimes laughably) to tackle serious causes but this dares to take things even further with a seventh grader's homework assignment to "change the world." It is has not one but THREE Oscar nominated actors (Spacey, Haley Joel Osment and Helen Hunt), two of whom are previous winners, and shares The Blind Side's message of altruism on an even larger, more ambitious scale. Helen Hunt, who at this time was one of the most well-liked, bankable actresses in the business, treads the same Erin Brokovich style ground Bullock would later with her performance as a feisty, alcoholic single mom. Bullock even stole her wardrobe. Bonus points for having one of those tragically uplifting Hollywood endings the Academy loves. Released in October, 2000 it's yet another film that suffered from being released at the wrong time. A year too early to be exact. It's an uneven but unapologetically sincere film the public wasn't ready for then, but would warmly embrace now.
4. Jakob The Liar (1999)
The Academy just loves nominating films about the Holocaust. Just ask Steven Spielberg and Kate Winslet. Why anyone would want to see this tragic, depressing topic covered in movies over and over again is something I'll never fully understand. Maybe that's why Hollywood constantly feels the need to wrap it up in a nice bow for us so we're not too traumatized. Because if there's one thing producers like more than seeing this painful chapter of history unnecessarily re-enacted it's being told that it really wasn't as bad as we all thought. And if a movie can undeservedly wring tears AND a few smiles out of the audience by casting a popular movie star like Robin Williams (going dramatic but not TOO dramatic) in the title role then that's even better. Those who accused The Blind Side of trivializing a serious topic should watch this film to see an actual example of a film shamelessly exploiting a serious situation for entertainment purposes. The good news: Both critics and audiences saw through the B.S. and made sure it flopped. If they didn't it probably would have been nominated for Best Picture.
3. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
It wouldn't be off the mark to call Will Smith the male equivalent of Sandra Bullock in terms of likability and drawing power. This movie is his Blind Side. Not only is it his most popular film, it represents what's been his best acting work date and continues the trend of big movie stars stretching just enough dramatically, but not veering too far from the kinds of roles they're best known for. Say what you want about how cloying and manipulative the screenplay is, but this was the perfect part for him that brought out all his best qualities as an actor. Based on the inspiring true story (seeing a trend here?), Smith plays Chris Gardner, a homeless man who fought the odds and overcame adversity to eventually become a successful stockbroker. What this shares most with Bullock's film is its honest sincerity. It's not trying to be a hard-hitting expose on the trials and tribulations of the homeless or the difficulty of single fatherhood. It's an entertaining movie with the biggest movie star on the planet that knows how to push all the right buttons to get the desired emotional response from the audience. But it's all well earned and it plays fair. It's just too bad Smith squandered all the goodwill he built up with this picture by having his son Jaden star in a remake of The Karate Kid.
2. Patch Adams (1998)
The far less offensive Robin Williams entry on this list. And you thought The Blind Side caused a critical and commercial split when it was released. This dramedy about a doctor who's inspired by his own problems to help others was a huge audience hit when it was released in December of '98, even earning Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor despite widespread critical scorn. While I haven't read a single review of this movie in any publication or web site over 2 stars, I've also never talked to any casual moviegoers who didn't love the film and find it inspiring.Williams as an actor is a curious case study. He can mug and annoy incessantly in most comedies but is capable of great work when handed strong dramatic material. What's so bizarre about this picture is that it doesn't really fit into either of those categories. But it does have actual children with cancer, Williams dressed as a clown and one of the silliest courtroom scenes you'll ever see in a movie. It's interesting to note that the real Patch Adams criticized the actor for not donating any of his 21 million dollar salary to his hospital (a valid point if true) and called the film a "simplistic" version of his life. Something tells me he probably wouldn't have liked The Blind Side.
1. I Am Sam (2001)
The definitive Hollywood message movie that earned a Best Actor nomination for Sean Penn and was famously mocked in 2008's action comedy Tropic Thunder. Even though everyone was always aware of it, only when this was released did we all finally acknowledge that the quickest way to an Oscar nod (and probable win) was to play a character with a developmental disability. Dustin Hoffman and Tom Hanks started the trend and Penn picks up right where they left off here. His performance as mentally retarded, Beatles-obsessed Sam Dawson, who works at Starbucks and fights to retain custody of his daughter, is actually more convincing than it got credit for as most critics' frustration with the film's screenplay were all unfairly taken out on him.
Like The Blind Side, it's a sugary, feel-good experience that not so subtly preaches the idea that everyone deserves a fair chance and there's no calling greater than helping others less fortunate. Yet again, the saintly do-gooder is Michelle Pfeiffer (assuming the Bullock role), as an emotionally distant lawyer who takes on Sam's custody battle for free. As if that's not enough, producers even went out of their way to cast Dakota Fanning (at the height of a her child star precociousness) as Sam's six-year-old daugher Lucy. The only thing missing is that it isn't exaggerated from a true story, but it sure seems like it could have been. Oh, and great soundtrack. Penn and Fanning would go on to thrive despite the critical thrashing this took, with Penn even collecting a couple of Oscars for significantly more restrained and respected performances in Mystic River and Milk. But it's just more fun pretending he won for this.