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Top Ten: Greatest Lone Oscar Nods of the Past 20 Years

Glenn here with another look at one of my favourite bi-products of the Oscar season. They’re the nominations that we sometimes forget about (unless it’s Norbit – we all remember that one!), but which forever brand a movie as “Oscar nominated”. Sometimes they’re the result of one aspect of a film sucking up all the energy in the room, and sometimes they’re the result of a prickly film finding an appreciative consensus in one category. Oh sure, all of the films below probably deserve the sort of Oscar haul that will greet Les Mis, Lincoln, or Argo, but receiving just one makes for fun statistics and even more fun list making! Let’s count down the best films of the last 20 years to receive just one nomination* on Oscar morning, and take a look at the films of 2012 that could very well reap a similar fate in 37 days.

*We’re going to exclude films that competed only in the animated/foreign/documentary categories since the Academy assigns them a ghetto for reason.

serial killer films don't usually generate the multiple Oscar wins of Silence of the Lambs

Honourable Mentions: I couldn’t go further without mentioning Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (Best Makeup, 2000) and David Fincher’s Se7en (Best Editing, 1995) since these two audaciously constructed classics of the serial killer subgenre are such bold choices for the Academy in their respective categories. They make a particularly disturbing double feature, too. You’ll be disgusted at the world for weeks!

The Best Single Nominee Films of the Past Twenty Years

10. Monster (Lead Actress, 2003)
I’m most definitely on Team Nick Davis when it comes to this captivating portrayal of an unravelling American life. Told as if through hazy, overly orchestrated memory pieces, Patty Jenkins’ film about Aileen Wuornos arguably deserved more credit than just for Charlize Theron’s pulverising central portrayal. A makeup nomination was the least the Academy could have done.

And in 2012: Now that tsunami disaster drama The Impossible has been nixed from the visual effects category, surely its only strong shot at a nomination is for star Naomi Watts. Will the Academy recognise the desperate plight of a white woman in danger? Probably.

Nine more achievements and their possible mirrors this year are after the jump...

9. The New World (Cinematography, 2005)
Pop quiz, hotshot: How many of Terrence Malick’s five (released) films have been nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards? The correct answer is four (only his debut, Badlands, missed out). This nomination for Emmanuel Lubezki was a wonderfully deserved reward on nomination morning for a sadly misunderstood film.

And in 2012: Wally Pfister has received Oscar nominations for his last four collaborations with Christopher Nolan – including the lone nomination Batman Begins. Will he go another round or will apathy in franchise ender The Dark Knight Rises render his streak over? I say he deserves it for the 50 minutes of IMAX alone. 

8. Addams Family Values (Art Direction, 1993)
You either recognise Addams Family Values as one of the greatest films ever made, or you’re dead. Well done to this branch for recognising it when sequels of television adaptations are hardly the most highbrow of choices. (We previously discussed this nomination during Oscar Horrors.)

And in 2012: Consider for a moment that 2 of the 4 Alien films have been nominated for art direction, and Prometheus has a very literal 50/50 chance. Will the branch yet again recognise the space age habitats of the Weyland Corporation or are they sick of that god damned giant face that was featured on all of the promo material?

7. Drive (Sound Effects Editing, 2011)
The best film of last year (says me) was on the outlier of several categories, but had to settle for this. Hardly unwarranted, mind you. The creak of The Driver’s leather driving gloves; the cacophony of gunshots; the purr of a modified car. A truly inspired nomination.

And in 2012: Similarly, Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly is my #1 film of 2012 (so far!) and it, too, is a prickly beast of a movie. Despite many elements worthy of statues, it’s greatest chance of a nom (however much of a longshot) is repeating Drive’s sound editing citations thanks to its Earth shaking gunfire and bruising punches.


6. Heavenly Creatures (Original Screenplay, 1994)
Long before they went to Middle Earth (and, er, then went back another five times), Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh were earning the lone nomination for this stunning drama from New Zealand starring Kate Winslet and (The Film Experience’s) Melanie Lynskey. One of many instances of the writer’s branch coming to rescue of much acclaimed fare (see also the lone screenplay citations for Ghost World and Election)

And in 2012:  Not even on the radar until just recently, Ava DuVernay’s work on Middle of Nowhere may be rallying “must see” notices just at the right time. If the writer’s branch admires her story of breakout success thanks to good ol’ fashioned quality filmmaking then she could find herself alongside Haneke, Boal, and the Andersons (Wes and Paul Thomas).

5. Hoop Dreams (Editing, 1994)
Steve James’ much ballyhooed omission from the 1994 documentary list for Hoop Dreams was greeted with this silver lining. This mammoth near 3-hour undertaking was such a feat of editing skill that it took three nominees to do it. Still a masterful film all these years later.

And in 2012: Of all the branches, it remains the editors who are most enslaved to prestige and best picture nominees. Reluctant as they are to step out on their own, my own personal line-up includes such oddball fare as Argo, Miss Bala, Berberian Sound Studio, Café de Flore and The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. If only, yeah?  

4. Dancer in the Dark (Original Song, 2000)
“Academy Award nominated songwriter Lars von Trier.” It’s a befuddling statistic that I’m sure brings the crazy Dane a perverse sense of glee. Still, if ever a case was to made for the Academy’s oft-maligned original song category then this is it. The sole Oscar nomination for what is undoubtedly one of the most potent and brilliant musicals ever made. Another amazing lone song nominee? “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut!

And in 2012: If I could have just one Oscar wish this year it would be for Leos Carax’s Holy Motors to make an appearance in at least one of the two categories it has a fighting chance in. Whilst the makeup and hair styling category has so many strong contenders this year, “Who Were We” – performed in sequence with nostalgic sadness by Kylie Minogue – holds a strong chance in a category more likely to spring French left field oddities (remember Paris 36 and The Chorus?) than any other.

Also: How cute and awkward is Winona Ryder, here introducing Björk to the Oscar stage. Infamous swan dress and all.

3. Jackie Brown (Supporting Actor, 1997)
My favourite of all Tarantino’s films, this 1997 Christmas release came on the heals of a much-loved Best Picture nominee. Sound familiar? While the Golden Globes went with stars Pam Grier and Samuel L Jackson, the Academy saw fit to reward acting stalwart Robert Forster instead. I’ll take what I can get.

And in 2012: Whether he manages it or not, it’s sure going to be an interesting season to be Matthew McConaughey. Maybe if he gets nominated for enough things as Magic Mike’s thrusting ringleader we will all finally be able to spell his name without using google.

2. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Costume Design, 1994)
One can’t be reminded enough that once upon time the Academy gave a statue to a film about drag queens travelling through the Australian desert. The costume design Oscar went to a film with a dress made from flip-flops that cost a grand total of $7! That winner Lizzy Gardiner wore a dress made of American Express credit cards is just too delicious (pictured here with her co-winner, Tim Chappell).

And in 2012: As evidenced in other sole costume nominees Bright Star, Marie Antoinette, I Am Love, and Troy, this category isn’t afraid to nominate films less popular with the voters. The late Eiko Ishioka is, I suspect, a good chance for a nomination with her work on 2012’s other (and better) Snow White picture: Mirror Mirror. The statue should already have her name engraved on it if you ask me.

1. Mulholland Drive (Direction, 2001)
“This show is going to be long. But not as long as it took to explain Mulholland Drive!” joked Whoopi Goldberg in her opening monologue. The mere fact that David Lynch was nominated for the damned thing makes me forgive any gags made about its supposed labyrinthine qualities. That this masterpiece wasn’t nominated across the board makes me sad, but at least we got this far!

And in 2012: Until another Mulholland Drive comes along that can flummox the general voters as much as it can charm the directors, the “lone director” has gone to way of the dodo. Even if Amour wasn’t a best picture threat, I’d still say there’s little chance Michael Haneke would rank as his film’s sole nomination.

Agree? Disagree? Is there are single nomination you’re hoping beyond hope for? We all know Nathaniel’s, but Academy members are out there reading, so now’s your chance to convince them…

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Reader Comments (36)

I agree, Jackie Brown is my favorite Tarantino movie as well...it's just so smart and slick. Love everything about it and it holds up so well.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBia

It's hard to argue with your choices. The only thing I would change is to bump everything up a spot and put The Royal Tenenbaums screenplay nod at number 1.

So many great films found their only nomination in the screenplay category. Besides Tenenbaums there is In Bruges, In the Loop, Another Year, The Squid and the Whale and Before Sunset to name a few.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

I would find this list impossible to make. Many of the films I love the most manage to get one nod, if even that. Especially if you're into films carried by a performance without much else going on, as I do. Films with only one acting nod are really abundant and generally underrated.

What'd be interesting is to do a list of films that were expected to only get one nod but surprised with a second. Away from Her comes to mind as the best example of that. Also, The Iron Lady's well-deserved win for makeup.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHayden W

I'd definitely include Another Year for original screenplay!

This year I'm hoping Cloud Atlas can pull through the negative clout and get a nomination or two in Makeup or Visual Effects.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBennett

Trust me you guys, it was tough to choose which original screenplay nomination to go with! I initially wasn't intending on only choosing one film for each category, but it just kinda happened to fall into place that way. An entire list could be made from the writing branch's amazing lone nominations. Bless that branch, really.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Really cool post, my favorite one is actually Drive for sound editing, when I was reading the nominations I was like f*ck, f*ck, f*ck every category I read and no mention for Drive and then almost at the end (as usual sound editing is listed) Drive appears, its was PURE JOY!!

Talking about mirrors while watching Winona Ryder I couldn't help but thinking Kristen Stewart being cute and awkward presenting Florence + The Machine for best original song at the oscars

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChecko

I always thought United 93 was shafted that year. Even Paul Greengrass's nomination surprised many.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

What other nomination do you see Moonrise Kingdom getting? That has sole nominee written all over it.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

Amour could be nominated for Screenplay, too. The Original writing category doesn't seem to be so competitve this year.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

Ooh, I love Jackie Brown too! It could be my favorite Tarantino as well, but there are a few I still need to see. I really wish Pam Grier could've managed an Oscar nod ... she was definitely 6th place, though, considering she got not only the Golden Globe nod, but a SAG nod too.

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

I'd love to see Salma Hayek nominated for Savages...

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFernando Moss

AMOUR looks good for director, original screenplay and actress at the very least + probably picture since those three branches are all very big. And, of course, foreign language.

Arkaan, MOONRISE could go it alone in screenplay or it could really hit it big with a picture nominations and art direction, maybe? Who knows, it's a tricky one to pin down.

Peter, yes, I remember the murmer that happened when Greengrass was announces. Alas it received two nominations so not eligible

December 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Rabbit Hole - it made me like Nicole Kidman again (this Kidmaniac had a bit of a crisis of faith for a few years there). I don't remember being happier about a nomination than I was for hers, though that film deserved so much more.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterChris E

Bless you for reminding folks about "The Cell". So underrated...

The visual effects category has often had lone nominees for science fiction films with no chance of scoring elsewhere. I expect "Cloud Atlas" may get its sole nomination here, though it could also show up in art direction as well.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

I love Jackie Brown!
I love that commenters are sticking up for Cloud Atlas!
I love this post! [I'm now following Glenn on Twitter.]

Does anyone think Anna Karenina will get anything more than a single nom for Costume?

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Ugh, I wanna roll around in this post and take it out to dinner! So many wonderful citations! Not enough space on here to really say how I feel about each one AND there's about 15-20 other lone nods I could talk about at length as well.

When I feel like I've lost all hope in the utter lameness of the Oscars and how depressing they can turn into with their constant rewarding and nominating of middlebrow pandering mediocrity and being entirely too political sometimes, I always think about Priscilla Queen of the Desert winning Best Costume Design and it brings a smile to my face. Crazy-amazing in every way, entirely subversive and 100% deserving -- suffice to say it's one of my favorite wins ever from anything. And Lizzy Gardiner showed up in a credit card dress! Credit. Card. Dress. Cherry on top of sundae, I will gladly devour you. None of that would ever happen nowadays, I tell you.

(And, of course, BAFTA had to do them one better with their own reward of the costumes and throw in an equally deserving Best Make Up/Hair win to boot. Oh, yes.)

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First

Thanks guys for enjoying the list so much (and so San FranCinema for the Twitter follow - i apologise for the terrible tweets about being drunk or how awful people are!)

You guys haven't even seen the longlist! There were a lot of other contenders. As for visual effects (to which Cloud Atlas has a great shot as well as makeup, but the film isn't out in Australia until March so I haven't seen it) there were great contenders like "The Nightmare Before Christmas", which I discussed into the "Oscar Horrors" series in October. Unfortunately all ten (well, twelve) films I listed beat them.

Chris E, yes Kidders in Rabbit Hole is fabulous. Honestly not sure how that film missed in adapted screenplay. Alas, I think "Monster" is something truly special and unique. A horror movie in every sense of the word. Kidman's nomination, however, is divine.

Mark the First, isn't it a trip? A movie with a $7 flip flop dress winning an Oscar! BAFTA did great, too. I wish the Oscar youtube channel would put that very memorable category up on their channel. It was on Youtube once upon a time, but now it's gone and that's sad.

Fernando, the supporting actress category was nearly represented by Stockard Channing in "Six Degrees of Separation". Alas, I would have gone with Kidman for "The Paperboy". Hayek is definately fun in that sort of camp way, but not sure if it was enough for Oscar.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Stockard Channing was **NOT** a Supporting nominee, but a VERY DESERVING lone Lead Actress nominee, even though I'd argue the film should also have been nominated for Direction, Screenplay and Editing as well. It's one of the most successful theatrical adaptations ever.

And to me, Stockard's Ouisa Kitteredge is the 1993 Actress characterization who stays with me the most as the years go by.....

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian

My Big Fat Greek Wedding is my favorite film that fits your list. :)

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLalaland

Julie Christie--sole nominee for Afterglow.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

yes! totally agree on Mulholland drive, but where is Nicole Kidman for Rabbit Hole? or Mike Leigh for either Another year or Happy-go-lucky? Christopher Plummer in Beginners?

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereduardo

This is apropos of nothing, as I change subjects. But another great topic would be nominees for Best Picture that didn't get nods for Screenplay or Director. The year 1962 unbelievably had three--The Music Man, The Longest Day, and Mutiny On the Bounty. Other notables are Fanny, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Taxi Driver, and my personal fave--The Towering Inferno.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I do love the writers' branch: they gave a nod to John Sayles's "Lone Star," a really great pic.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterelzig

Glenn - Yeah, it would be pretty awesome to see a video clip of that moment again. That Oscar channel on youtube is so weird sometimes, they have so many interesting winners from their eight-decade history and only wanna upload the acting wins. I mean, I get it but what does it cost them to put up some other significant moments -- they own the archived rights to their own ceremony, after all. Blah.

I love that you started off by mentioning the Make-Up nod for The Cell tho. Ah-may-zing work there and I thought it completely should've won. I was blown away by the technical aspect of that movie when I first saw it and remember thinking, "How did this amazing, fully realized and entirely versatile make-up work lose?"

The New World's Cinematography nod was a great shout-out in general. One of the best photographed films of the '00s, easily. That movie should've been a killer Best Picture nominee but whatever.

Drive's Sound Effects Editing nod was such a bone-throwing case but incredibly deserving nonetheless. Another case of BAFTA getting something right and I remember that influencing me into thinking there was no way the Academy was gonna deny it some nods now. I imagine it was probably circling Editing, Sounds Mixing and Cinematography as well but alas.

I remember being really pissed at the time that Dancer in the Dark ONLY got that song nomination. Bjork wuz robbed! And then again when the song didn't win!

Ditto for Jackie Brown. I remember at the time, I was pretty young but even I knew that Pam Grier probably wasn't gonna get a chance like that again and she was so close and how awesome would that have been?! Still one of Samuel L Jackson's best performances too. Not to downplay Robert Forster, of course, who was fantastic in that role. In a perverse way, this now reminds me of the climax of For Your Consideration, when all the buzzy people were ignored in place of the unassuming supporting male turn who gets the surprise nod on nomination morning. Although I hardly think Pam Grier is Marilyn Hack, for the record. LOL

David Lynch's directing nod for Mulholland Drive is so interesting for so many ways but the most of which for me is that it's pretty much the last of its kind now. A rare bird that will only be spotted again if the Oscars start thinking for themselves more often and have more time to process all the films that they just saw in those rushed two months at the end of the year.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark The First


Shout-out to my favorite, and most recent, lone nominee (and WINNER!): Christopher Plummer for Supporting Actor in Beginners. Also, Jacki Weaver for Supporting Actress in Animal Kingdom. Both films which, by the way, SHOULD have also received screenplay nominations.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

CRAP! i forgot to mention another great one: Y tu mama tambien's nomination for original screenplay. And i love Talk to her, but come on, this should have won

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commentereduardo

Speaking of Priscilla, Terrence Stamp should have been nommed for Best Actor. He brought genuine pathos to that character.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

What about the slew of single nominations in 2006: Peter O'toole in Venus, Forest Whittaker in the Last king of Scotland, Will Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness, Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson.

What a great line up

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Gouveia

I would add two films from the 60s that I love: Two for the Road for best screenplay and Far from the Madding Crowd for best score

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

Gabriel, those two movies are masterpieces of cinema.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

A fine list, but I would have included the following:
- Robert Altman's lone director nod for Short Cuts. The movie definitely should have gotten nods in editing and adapted screenplay, if you ask me.
- In that same year the great Conrad Hall got a lone nod for one of my favourite movies of the nineties: Searching for Bobby Fischer. This film was seriously shafted in a lot of categories, especially adapted screenplay: of the two Steven Zailllian scripts in the conversation in 1993 Schindler's List was the inferior one by a mile
- Richard Farnsworth grabbing a nom for The Straight Story in 1999 was another great shout by the Academy.
- And how about Once winning best song with the movie's only nom? Still one of my favourite Oscar moments of the past decade!

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDieter

Dieter -- oh that moment still makes me tear up. One of the rare instances where I was like "WE NEED THIS CATEGORY!"

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Volver, Junebug, Jane Eyre, Another Year....

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Does anyone think Moonrise Kingdom could get nominated for best score as well as original screenplay? I think Desplat will be nominated for something this year.

December 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGabriel Oak

Gabriel, I suspect his MOONRISE score will be deemed ineligible given the film's reliance upon compositions by other musicians.

I'd like to point out the list is ultimately about the final product, not necessarily what it got nominated for. As great as "Another Year", or "The Straight Story", or "Short Cuts", or "Jane Eyre" or... or... or... these ten are my particular favourites. There are so many contenders that my longlist was, well, very long.

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Glenn -- I know those were yours! I just wanted to write down mine :)

December 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

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