Well, it sounded nice in theory. Truth is, for every American Beauty or Chicago that manages to capture the attention of critics, audiences and Academy members, there are always those big-budget tickets that end up surprising everyone by their failure to communicate.
Here are five of the most high-profile busts from recent years, movies that drew the wrath of most critics, tanked at the box office, and received no love from Oscar except maybe for a solitary technical bid. But here's the caveat: I enjoyed every film on this list and was as perplexed as their backers when they flopped. So if you're looking for a video or DVD rental and need a suggestion outside the norm... well, I can guarantee you won't be seeing these titles pushed on many other lists.
ANGELA'S ASHES (1999). During the first half-hour of this adaptation of Frank McCourt's Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, we're treated to three infant deaths, two characters barfing their brains out, the sight of a soiled diaper, a couple of guys urinating into a jug that serves as the family lavatory, and living quarters so unsanitary that even cockroaches balk before entering. Yes, even quote-whore Jeffrey Lyons wasn't shameless enough to tag this one "A Nonstop Laugh Riot!" But for those who don't mind wallowing in the mire, the movie works as an inspiring tale about a strong-willed boy determined to overcome debilitating circumstances that threaten to mentally and emotionally cripple him at every turn. The lad represents Frank McCourt himself (played at various stages during his youth by three different actors), and the film centers on his days in Limerick, Ireland, living with his struggling mom (Emily Watson), his drunken dad (Robert Carlyle) and a whole passel of siblings. As the undependable father, Carlyle doesn't make much of an impression, which in a weird way is exactly what's needed for his role as the invisible man in the McCourt household; as the hard-working mother, Watson isn't required to do much more than deal with life's wild pitches, but she acutely nails the shell-shocked perseverance of a woman who's constantly trying to climb out of a bottomless pit even as others continue shoveling dirt on top of her. If there's a flaw, it's that the film's studied look (even the mud is lovingly shot) often keeps our emotions at arm's length.
BELOVED (1998). Jonathan Demme is credited as the director of this filmic version of Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, yet it was Oprah Winfrey who developed the project over a 10-year period. She stars as Sethe, a runaway slave trying to make a life for herself and her daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise, currently in The Manchurian Candidate) in their small home just outside of Cincinnati. Working hard to excise the ghosts (both literally and figuratively) from her past, she receives a temporary reprieve with the arrival of a family friend (Danny Glover). But when a mysterious young woman known only as Beloved (superb Thandie Newton) appears on the scene, the entire household gets turned upside down and startling secrets begin to tumble out. Numerous weak reviews never allowed this to gain any momentum, though considering moviegoers greeted its opening weekend by flocking to see Bride of Chucky instead probably hints that it was a losing battle anyway. Unwinding with all the fevered sweatiness of a nightmare, the movie gets under the skin and remains there for days. Ultimately, Beloved the movie mirrors Beloved the character: cryptic, exhausting, and worthy of our attention.
THE FOUR FEATHERS (2002). A.E.W. Mason's century-old novel has never been too far removed from the minds of moviemakers, as witnessed by the fact that it's been filmed on seven separate occasions. This 21st century model is a satisfactory heir to the throne, a visually robust retelling that nevertheless lost over $60 million for its studio. Unfolding during the late 19th century, the film stars Heath Ledger as Harry Feversham, a well-liked British soldier who's set to marry the charming Ethne (Kate Hudson). But when his regiment is suddenly called to active duty in the Sudan, Harry decides to resign rather than go fight on foreign soil. Because of his action, he's sent four feathers (marks of cowardice) from some of those closest to him; tortured by this turn of events, he musters up all his courage and sets out determined to redeem himself in the eyes of his friends. Mason's novel and the earlier screen versions were largely celebrations of honor and heroism, of that stiff British upper lip turning into a sneer at those who would trifle with the almighty Empire. But director Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) isn't having any of that: He clearly respects his young soldiers even if he doesn't support their cause.
THE HUMAN STAIN (2003). This adaptation of Philip Roth's novel was released on DVD and video only a few weeks ago, so it should still be languishing in the New Releases section of your favorite rental store. It's an affecting picture in its own right, almost subdued in the manner in which it tackles its myriad issues of race, loss, identity, and the lengths to which one man will reinvent himself to succeed in America. Set during that period when the country was focused on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, the movie traces the downward spiral of college professor Coleman Silk (Anthony Hopkins) after an innocent classroom comment is misinterpreted as a racial slur in a time of rampant political correctness. Suddenly without a career or a family, Coleman passes the days alternating between dwelling on secrets buried in his past and engaging in a tentative relationship with a complex woman (Nicole Kidman) who paints herself as the ultimate in trailer park trash. Ed Harris' intensity as Kidman's crazed ex-husband is unsettling, and Gary Sinise makes Coleman pal Nathan Zuckerman a reassuring narrator. Yet it's the two leads who dominate: Hopkins hasn't been this interesting in years, while Kidman's amazing (and largely underrated) portrayal ranks as one of the best of her career.
MAN ON THE MOON (1999). While this biopic of controversial comedian Andy Kaufman derives much of its power from Milos Forman's off-the-wall direction and a socko script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it's Jim Carrey's mesmerizing performance that provides the piece with a lightning charge. This is no mere act of mimicry: Carrey seems to be channeling the very spirit of Kaufman (who died of lung cancer in 1984), and his uncanny impersonation fuels the film's theme that a man's life and his art can be so intertwined it would be foolish to even try to establish any boundaries between the two. Kaufman arguably had more detractors than supporters, but the beauty of the movie is how it passionately convinces us that, as demonstrated through Kaufman's unpredictable stage acts, show business is at its boldest and brightest when it's pushing that tattered envelope; the point is made most forcefully via Kaufman's alter ego Tony Clifton, the repulsive lounge singer who represents the pitch-black id of the entertainment industry. To be sure, the picture has its faults -- it does a poor job of establishing any sort of time frame, and Courtney Love's role as Kaufman's girlfriend is superfluous -- but they pale compared to the unfettered imagination running wild through the rest of this outrageous film.