Was 2009 the Worst Year of the Decade for Oscar-Bait Season? It Only Feels That Way

This year’s Oscar film season looked so promising a few months ago when all we had were trailers and magazine movie previews, touting the hallowed source materials and the dancing all-stars and the very, very important real-life figures brought to life by very, very important actors. And one by one these buzzworthy films opened up to critical indifference/rage. The Lovely Bones seemed mind-blowing before anyone saw it: When they did, Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, speaking for most critics, said it “bears little resemblance to the book in either tone or complexity.” The Road: So important! So chilling! And upon the premiere: “A long, slow slog.” (J. Hoberman, Village Voice.) And Amelia, well, it crashed or sank, depending on the theory. Nobody seems excited about anything but the eye-bugging Avatar, and it made us wonder: Could this have been the worst Oscar season of the decade?

As hard as it is to believe — especially right after a screening of Nine — it wasn’t. Using Rotten Tomatoes, the movie-review site that measures the percentage of positive notices earned per picture, we averaged the score of every major Oscar hopeful that came out from October through December (the main Oscar-bait season) for every year of the aughts. (We defined “Oscar hopeful” as any serious film that arrived with either rampant festival buzz, a major studio push, and/or at least one major star.) With this math, we discovered that 2009’s awards-grubbers have averaged about 70 percent positive reviews (ranging from Fantastic Mr. Fox, which topped the list at 93 percent, down to Nine, with a mere 37 percent), which ranks the year in sixth place for the decade. Sixth!

Turns out, we really should have been grumbling back in 2006, which placed last in the aughts, with a 62 percent average. Any points scored by The Departed, Children of Men, and The Queen (which all rated in the 90-plus percentile) were undone by The Good German, A Good Year, The Good Shepherd, Bobby, and Running With Scissors (all scoring below 60 percent). Hopefully that will make you feel better, though it will not make The Lovely Bones any better.

Here are the averages for each year, in descending order, along with some of the highs and lows.

2002: 82.2%
Solaris: 65%
8 Mile: 74%
Gangs of New York: 76%
The Pianist: 95%
Catch Me if You Can: 96%
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: 96%

2000: 73.1%
The Legend of Bagger Vance: 43%
Men of Honor: 42%
What Women Want: 52%
Cast Away: 89%
Traffic: 92%
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: 97%

2008: 72.2%
Blindness: 41%
Australia: 54%
W.: 60%
Slumdog Millionaire: 93%
Milk: 94%
The Wrestler: 98%

2004: 72.1%
Alexander: 16%
The Phantom of the Opera: 33%
Spanglish: 52%
Vera Drake: 92%
Hotel Rwanda: 92%
Sideways: 97%

2003: 70.8%
Mona Lisa Smile: 35%
Sylvia: 36%
The Human Stain: 41%
In America: 89%
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: 94%
Lost in Translation: 95%

2009: 69.7%
Amelia: 21%
Nine: 37%
The Lovely Bones: 40%
The Messenger: 90%
Precious: 91%
Fantastic Mr. Fox: 93%

2005: 69.6%
Memoirs of a Geisha: 35%
Bee Season: 42%
Casanova: 43%
King Kong: 83%
Pride & Prejudice: 85%
Brokeback Mountain: 86%

2007: 68.4%
Love in the Time of Cholera: 27%
Lions for Lambs: 27%
Elizabeth: The Golden Age: 34%
Juno: 93%
Gone Baby Gone: 94%
No Country for Old Men: 94%

2001: 67.9%
Charlotte Gray: 32%
I Am Sam: 34%
The Majestic: 41%
Gosford Park: 86%
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring: 92%
In the Bedroom: 94%

2006: 62.1%
Factory Girl: 18%
A Good Year: 25%
The Good German: 32%
The Departed: 92%
Children of Men: 92%
The Queen: 97%

Was 2009 the Worst Year of the Decade for Oscar-Bait Season? It Only Feels That Way