The Academy Awards are intended to honor the best films, filmmakers, and cinematic achievements of the prior year, but when it comes to certain categories, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t always give credit where it’s due.
That’s been particularly true in one of our favorite categories, Best Visual Effects. It took until 1977 for the Academy Awards to establish a category for honoring the year’s best visual effects, and even after that point, some films that seemed deserving of the honor still missed out.
As part of our annual, weeklong celebration of visual effects artistry in films, here are 10examples of films and franchises that probably deserved an Oscar in the Best Visual Effects category, but didn’t get one.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, and frequently cited as one of the most influential movies of the Golden Age of Hollywood, King Kong didn’t receive a single Academy Award nomination. It wasn’t for lack of trying, either. RKO Studios’ head of production, David O. Selznick, famously petitioned the Academy Awards committee to nominate animator Willis O’Brien for the film’s groundbreaking visual effects, but the Academy declined.
The big-screen adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s children’s story is one of the most popular films of all time, blending a charming fantasy adventure with innovative visual effects (for the time) to carry audiences along on Dorothy Gale’s wild journey through the magical land of Oz. Sure, it was up against another iconic film, Gone With The Wind, in the catch-all Best Special Effects category, but neither of those films took home the Oscar that year. The award ended up going to director Clarence Brown’s The Rains Came, a film set in India that features some impressive rain and earthquake sequences, but nothing to rival the visual legacy of The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind.
William Friedkin’s terrifying film about a Jesuit priest battling a demon who’s taken control of a 12-year-old girl features some of the most visually stunning — and disturbing — sequences in the history of the horror genre, but those groundbreaking effects failed to earn an Oscar nomination from the Academy Awards committee. Despite making The Exorcist the first horror movie to earn a Best Picture nomination, the Academy decided not to include an award for visual effects in the ceremony that year, leaving that particular honor conspicuously absent from the legacy of The Exorcist.
Steven Spielberg’s alien-encounter drama changed the game for visual effects with a long list of innovative techniques that influenced filmmakers for several generations, and it did so with a visual effects budget that rivaled the full production costs of major movies at the time. So why didn’t it win an Oscar in the first year the ceremony featured the Best Visual Effects category? Sadly, it had the unfortunate luck of competing against an even more groundbreaking movie: Star Wars. In any other year, Close Encounters would have easily taken home that particular award, but when it comes to visual effects, few films match the achievement of Star Wars.
When Ridley Scott set out to create the film that would go on to become one of the most seminal sci-fi features ever made, his effects team made use of various techniques that had their origins in the aforementioned Close Encounters of the Third Kind and pushed visual effects magic to the very limits of what could be done. Unfortunately, Blade Runner met a similar Oscars fate as Close Encounters, and lost in the Best Visual Effects category to Steven Spielberg’s friendly alien adventure E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Both films went on to be considered among the best sci-fi films of all time, but given how influential Blade Runner was on sci-fi and cyberpunk projects in the following decades, it’s hard to believe its visual effects were passed over.
It might seem hard to believe, but in 1990, the Academy actually declined to nominate any films at all in the Best Visual Effects category, despite films including Back to the Future Part III, Dick Tracy, Ghost, and Total Recall hitting theaters. In fact, only Total Recall made it to the second stage of consideration for an Oscar nomination by the Academy, but Paul Verhoeven’s over-the-top sci-fi adventure never moved past that stage and had to settle for a “Special Achievement” award instead of an actual Academy Award in the Best Visual Effects category. Anyone who’s seen Total Recall knows how memorable the film’s visual effects were — from the “costume” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character wears to the techniques used to bring Mars and its inhabitants to life on the screen. And yet, those amazing effects failed to win over the Academy.
You just can’t compete with talking animals. That’s the hard lesson learned by Ron Howard’s visual effects team after the true-story space drama lost to talking-pig adventure Babe at the 68th Academy Awards ceremony. While the visual effects in Babe were revolutionary and informed many of the talking-animal films of the following years, it’s difficult to dismiss the visual achievements of Howard’s re-creation of the aborted 1970 Apollo 13 lunar mission. The film simulated zero-gravity drama flawlessly, blending actual weightless performances from the cast with more grounded (literally) moments using a level of detail that made audiences believe Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton really were stranded in space.
One of the recurring debates around the Academy Awards in recent years has involved the Academy’s reluctance to recognize the work of actors in films that rely heavily on performance-capture technology. Celebrated actor Andy Serkis is at the center of this debate, having portrayed a wide range of nonhuman characters in some of Hollywood’s biggest franchises of the last 20 years. His talents — and those of his tremendous supporting cast — were on full display in the trilogy of Planet of the Apes films, which had him portray Caesar the ape across all three films. He imparted a depth of emotion and resonance in the character that made Caesar as compelling as any human element in the trilogy. The visual effects techniques that made it possible for Serkis’ performance to be successfully translated to Caesar pushed the boundaries of filmmaking technology and artistry beyond anything we’d seen before, and firmly established performance-capture technology as another valuable tool for filmmakers. That the films were denied even a single Oscar is one of the more egregious shortcomings of the Academy Awards in recent years.
Only the second fully animated film to be nominated in the Best Visual effects category, Laika Studios’ stop-motion fantasy Kubo and the Two Strings is a feat of both cinematic beauty and filmmaking artistry. As beautiful as it is painstakingly detailed, the film about a young boy’s fantastic journey across feudal Japan expertly blends classic stop-motion animation with modern visual effects and raised the bar for both elements to new, stunning heights. Its failure to bring home an Oscar likely has as much to do with the Academy’s resistance to nontraditional films as the competition it faced: Jon Favreau’s outstanding remake of The Jungle Book, which also broke new ground for visual effects. Still, there’s never been another film quite like Kubo.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has received plenty of Oscar nominations over the years, but it has yet to take home a single trophy in the Best Visual Effects category. If any entry in the franchise is deserving of such an honor, it’s Endgame, the culmination of the entire MCU to date and the most complicated of all the films up to this point. From the facial rendering technology that gave “Smart Hulk” and Thanos an amazing level of emotional depth to the software that made the film’s final, massive battle possible with hundreds of individually recognizable characters, Endgame is a superheroic achievement in visual effects worthy of being the first Marvel movie to win a visual effects Oscar. Unfortunately, even the might of the entire MCU wasn’t enough to overcome Sam Mendes’ innovative use of visual effects that made war drama 1917 look like it was filmed in one, continuous shot.
The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony will be held Sunday, April 25.
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