When this year's Oscar nominations were announced last month, all of the expected contenders and hit films were represented, with 'The King's Speech,' 'Black Swan,' 'The Social Network,' 'True Grit,' 'Toy Story 3' and 'Inception' each earning Best Picture nods.
But among those Goliaths was one movie that even many Oscar watchers had probably never seen: 'Winter's Bone,' an indie drama that has made a scant $6 million since its release last summer -- and which now, thanks to its four Academy Awards nominations, has suddenly lept from obscurity to gain instant nationwide attention.
Which got us thinking: what other deserving films has Oscar helped turn the spotlight on with unexpected nominations? Here's our list of some of the movies that might have remained forgotten but are now famous thanks to the Academy Awards:
'City of God' was little more than an afterthought for most Oscar watchers heading into the 2004 Academy Awards; after all, despite strong reviews, the Brasilian production was still a foreign language film, essentially, that mainstream America had hardly heard of. But four nominations, including Best Director for Fernando Meirelles, changed that in an instant for a movie that has since been hailed as one of the greatest of all time.
'Il Postino' is another foreign effort that received little attention until Oscar got his gold hands on it. But when the Academy saw fit to bestow five nominations on the Italian movie, in 1996, movie fans were treated not just to a great film -- among its accolades were nods for Best Picture and Best Director -- but also to the heartbreaking story of Best Actor nominee Massimo Troisi, who put off heart surgery in order to complete the film and died of a heart attack just a few hours after shooting the final scene.
'Once' was one of those little personal, arthouse films that didn't seem to have a chance at the kind of international fame and fortune that big studio releases receive. Then the Academy Awards presented stars Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová the 2007 Oscar for Best Original Song for their duet 'Falling Slowly.' Since then, the film has become recognized as one of the great romantic films of the past decade. To this day, we still listen to the soundtrack.
'Spirited Away' was undoubtedly the most successful and well-known movies on our list prior to enjoying Oscar recognition; after all, the 2001 animated feature broke the Japanese box office record previously held by 'Titanic.' But winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar was still a shock considering the category was considered to a lock for the stateside mega-hit 'Ice Age.' Suddenly, an entire continent was wondering just what all the fuss regarding 'Spirited Away' was about -- a buzz level that has continued for the work of director Hayao Miyazaki to this day.
'Slumdog Millionaire' is the ultimate underdog story -- and we're not talking about the movie's onscreen plot, but rather its offscreen drama. Just how unlikely was 'Slumdog Millionaire's' rise from unknown indie to eight-time Oscar winner in 2008? In the month leading up to its premiere, Warner Bors. was seriously considering a straight-to-DVD release. The decision to put the film in theaters after all paid off thanks to the Academy Awards; 'Slumdog Millionaire' jumped to number-one worldwide following its surprising string of victories.
'Crash' wasn't really expected to win the Academy Award for Best Picture back in 2006; 'Brokeback Mountain' had topped almost every critic's list and was the talk of Tinseltown -- and Everytown, USA. But that changed in an instant when 'Crash' became just the third movie to ever win Best Picture after not even being nominated at the Golden Globes; the ensemble drama's shocking victory turned it from a back page afterthought to a front page headliner overnight.
'The Pianist' seemed to have everything going against it when it was released in 2002: a pariah for a director (Roman Polanski), an unknown for a lead (Adrian Brody) and a morose subject (the Holocaust) that had the few weary filmgoers who had heard of it say "meh." Funny how seven Oscar nominations and three victories -- including shock wins in Best Actor and Best Director -- can change things. Out of nowhere, America had a new acting superstar in Brody, Polanski was back in Hollywood's good graces and 'The Pianist' was a household name.
'Life Is Beautiful' was one of the more prominent films to come out of Europe in 1998, which for your average American film fan is kind of like praising the best player in minor league baseball. But when Roberto Benigni became one of the few people in history to win a Best Actor award for a foreign film, everyone in the world instantly learned that 'Life is Beautiful' had made it to the big leagues.
'Chocolat' was a bit ahead of the curve when it arrived in 2000; while Johnny Depp was respected, he was viewed as more of a quirky cult figure than a true Hollywood leading man. And he might have gone on like that for the rest of his career if not for the massive media buzz that came along with 'Chocolat's' five surprising Oscar nominations. Curious crowds came for the Best Picture, Best Actress (Juliette Binoche) and Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench) nominees -- but they left singing the praises Depp, setting everything since in motion. Thanks, Oscar.
'The Hurt Locker' needs no introduction, but then again, that's why it closes out our list. After all, how many people would have bet that a war drama that earned barely $15 million would dominate last year's Oscars when the highest-grossing film in American history, 'Avatar,' was up for the same awards? But that's just what happened in one of the most surprising Oscars of all time, as 'The Hurt Locker' became the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner in modern history. And instead of a critically acclaimed footnote, it's now one of the best-known films in the last few years.
And that's the power of Oscar.
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